Amir scurried through the rubicund gates—the Royal Guard pursuing him like the first fox of the season. He’d made it passed the first of four sets of archways—each waning in size as he drew closer to a small bit of freedom. Above each of the gates stood the filigree of a small prince. If Amir could make it through the last archway, to the last of the decorative sovereigns guiding the way, he’d be free. He continued to heave through the thick evening air, forcing too many labored breaths through exhausted lungs. Fatigue radiated through his thighs, but fatigue was better than death. He choked on a cough as he stumbled through the second gateway.
The raw ache of overstretched tendons wore on his calves, the pain forcing Amir to push harder still before he could push no longer. Sprinting toward the third gate, his foot caught on some careless bramble. He hit the hard surface of the castle trail face-first, catching a mouth full of alluvia. He spit the dirt from his teeth as he spun his head, trying to see which of his pursuers would have his flesh first. But he wasn’t surrounded. Not yet. Not far behind him, just beyond the second gate stood an old friend, a fellow farmer, catching a regal spear through his chest as he stood between Amir and the guards.
A friend gone in an instant. But that’s life. Amir dug his fingers into the earth, bits of blood seeping as his nails cracked, pulling himself forward in a mad frenzy. He cleared the third gate. A small contingent of relief rose from within as the fourth came into sight. He might make it. He shook his head—thoughts like that get you dead. The tumultuous thumping in his chest—thump thump, thump thump, thump thump—refused to cease as the gate drew ever closer, but not close enough. Springing forth with everything he had left, Amir leapt, diving through the fourth gate and rolling into a ditch just outside of the castle.
He whipped his head around, lying low and looking back toward the gate. It remained open, though no pursuers followed. They wouldn’t enter the Sticks by choice. A small sigh escaped Amir’s lips.
He gazed into the perpetual early-evening sky, lost for a moment in the never-ending sunset. Beyond the orange haze, the world above shone with shiny sparkles—perhaps millions upon millions of tiny lamps lighting the way for lost souls. Amir finally caught his breath. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small flask of brilliant citrine liquid. It wasn’t much, but it was all he managed to get.
Amir looked back through the gates, to his now forsaken second home. A bantam castle on the precipice of the rotting land. Its walls composed of glowing rust-colored aqueducts, its bastion standing at the crest of an old cliff overlooking the great sea. He could still feel its ephemeral pulse resonating within him as his eyes followed the vermillion lines gleaming in its towers. The Dominion of Dragonfire: Emarosa—the only refuge from the unknown terrors still lingering in the world.
And he was now a refugee.