My body tenses instinctively on the sixth step forward. Am I remembering the onset of fear subconsciously? I am not a kid anymore, I think angrily, and take another step forward.
My body was right.
I feel like I've fallen off the dock into an ocean of fear, enveloping me, overwhelming me, drowning me. I can still see; the lighter stone wall rises thirty paces in front of me in the darker rain-soaked night. Rage boils within me. I am not a kid anymore, my mind yells against the fear and I take another step.
The fear douses my rage like a bucket of water poured on a candle flame. This is worse than when I lay paralyzed under the attacking egg stalker.
But I am not helpless. I steel my mind and take another step forward. Then another.
I am gasping as though I am drowning. I hope the sound doesn't carry up to the top of the wall. I hope I don't scream like last time.
I take a deep breath. There is no threat here. There is no reason for the fear. I know that. It's not real, I tell myself.
I take another step. I was wrong. The fear is real. But it's not . . . normal fear. It's magical. Like a dragon aura, or the otherworldliness of a ghost. Knowing that doesn't seem to help, though. I can feel my mind unraveling around the edges, the fear eating away at my self-control.
I shuffle one foot forward. Half a step.
I can't go on. The fear is as intensely painful as a red-hot blade, as pervasive and relentless as the nightly rain, as corrosive as acid on my struggling will. I try to fight it with rage but I can't maintain the anger. Little spots of light and nothingness begin to dance on the corner of my vision, and then begin to multiply. I can't hold out anymore. Tears and sweat mix with rain on my cheeks. My mouth opens to scream.
Oh, hell no.
I take a step backwards.
The fear eases up, but just for an instant, and then renews its assault. I swear at it silently, but I can't regain enough control to move forward. I just can't do it.
I back out of the sea of fear one step at a time, head held high, jaw clenched. Four more steps, and I am clear. I lean back against the wall, breathing heavily. I stare balefully at the ruins.
"You may have beat me, you bastard," I snarl through labored breaths. "But you didn't break me."
Without the fear to kill it, my rage boils back. I punch at the stone wall with the side of my fist until it is battered raw and bloody. My legs start to buckle and I just want to slide down the wall and huddle on the ground. But I don't. I won't give the ruins that satisfaction. I lock my knees against the wall and lean into it, resting my cheek against it until I am cold. I straighten up. I feel like I've been in a street fight with half a dozen thugs.
"I will be back," I swear to the silent, unmoving remains of the Hall of Law before me. "Next time, I will get through the fear. Next time."
The air smells acrid, like the residue of magic, confirming what I figured out as I tried to beat it. The fear doesn't come from within me. It's not a natural instinctive reaction to a perceived danger. It is magical. It is an imposition on the mind of any who approaches the ruins. It is a ward. Being aware of its magical nature allowed me to take a few more steps than I otherwise would have been capable of, but it was not sufficient for me to breach the ward or overcome the fear it produced.
The ward is hiding something. And I am so angry at whoever put it there - whoever created the fear that denied me access and turned me impotent and almost sucked my sanity away into irrevocable madness - that I will do anything for revenge. Anything to break the ward.
Even if it means working voluntarily with Enturi.
That creepy, goddess-damned, bootlicking, backstabbing, pretty-boy sorcerer who is the bane of my professional life.
Because I saw what he did to that half-ogre. He scared it out of its wits with a touch. And if he can create fear, a fear strong enough to break through the dumb ferocity of an ogre, maybe he knows how to neutralize fear as well. Maybe he can get me through the ward.
Well, I am going to find out. Tomorrow night. And whatever is in that old Hall had better hope Enturi can't breach the ward. Because if he does, there will be Arq to pay.
As an enforcer for Jet, a petty elven crime boss, Arq has it better than most in Elftown, the prisoner of war slum of a human city. It's violent work, but it provides him with a little more money than he needs to survive, a little status, and a little free time.
When a prostitute under Jet's protection is brutally murdered, Jet sends Arq and a team of enforcers - including his creepy, ambitious rival; Jet's dangerously alluring girlfriend; and a chatty dwarf-of-all-trades - to find the killer and make an example of him. But when they uncover the dark reason for the murder, the delicate balance of power in Elftown begins to crumble.
To avenge a friend's murder, Arq must contend with betrayal, warring crime bosses, deadly monsters, underworld plots, and forbidden magic that, if discovered by the humans, will send a red tide of death through Elftown. His greatest challenges, though, will be grappling with his own bitter, violent nature, and trying to figure out what it means to be an elf in a place where the humans have taken away everything that makes life worth living for elvenkind.
Author: A. Harris Lanning
Cover Art: Xavier Ward