Trapped by the blood magic that tied him to his mother, Juraj knew escape was impossible. Elder Danek controlled Nadezda, their town, everyone he saw and touched.
But a forced engagement to a woman who loathed Juraj pushed him to run.
It wasn't enough to escape town. To save himself from magical enslavement, Juraj had to save the entire world, no matter what the cost may be.
He left the house, firmly closing the front door. There wasn't another soul on the road when Juraj leaped the fence and ran towards the tiny path up the back route to the Temple of the Spider Mountain. Instead of following that path, risking bringing Elder Danek down on his uncle and the other monks in the Temple, Juraj ran towards the Old Gate that stood at the very edge of his father's farthest field.
The stones for their fences had come from the tumbled down ruins of the many ancient buildings that had once stood where the fields now lay. Just last year they had dug up a beautiful mosaic floor covered with runes that Elder Danek had declared to be anathema. Juraj had done his best to memorize them all as he helped his brothers smash the floor into oblivion. They matched the runes on the gates, rearranged to form some different spell. He'd thought that the spell had been intended to keep the house that had once stood there warm, no matter what the weather was outside, but he'd never been able to test that knowledge. It wasn't safe to do so with Elder Danek around. There were so many bits of spells that he'd managed to learn over the years that he couldn't test.
Grandma had told him that spells were prayers to the Gods, ways to call upon their power and bring it down to the real world. Uncle Raj had scoffed at that when Juraj told him about it, even though he was a monk. He'd thought that the runes, knots and prayers were part of a lost code, a type of language from before the great wars. Each rune was like a letter and the little knots and symbols were like words. If he was right then the prayers were words and phrases from before the ancient wars that people had given new meanings to over the centuries until they had forgotten the true meanings of the runes and phrases. Every time Juraj had asked Uncle Raj about it he'd claimed that if only someone could find all the runes and symbols they'd be able to create magic that rivaled what the ancient Artificer Mages had created.
Juraj thought they were both right and both wrong. Prayers had a part to play, as did the lost code of the Artificer Mages, but so did your inherent gift, the sort of magic one inherited. He hadn't been able to test the concept with Elder Danek watching, but Juraj was pretty sure that if a mage channeled his power correctly, with the proper symbols and runes, a charm could be even more effective than the most powerful of regular spells. It went against all common wisdom, but Juraj was pretty sure that he was right. How else to explain the things that the Artificer Mages had created so long ago?
Like the ruined city, the stone arch of the Old Gate had been there for over a thousand years, or at least that's what Juraj's grandmother had said when he asked her. She'd smiled and told him tales of the legendary Artificer Mages who had created the Old Gates that linked nearly every part of the world. Unlike the New Gate in town, the Old Gates needed no mages to maintain them or special tickets to travel through them. If you had the right bloodline, all you did was go and trace the runes cut into the stones of the arch in the right order while praying to Inina and Haraldr that you were granted a gate to where you wanted to go. Not everyone could activate the Old Gates though, so most had to ride or walk to far-away places in generations past, unless they could convince someone with the gift to open the Gate for them.
No one used the Old Gate anymore. Three generations ago their family had been rich and powerful because people did use them. Their family had been strong in magic back then, well-educated and capable of opening the Gate for those who wanted to travel quickly. Juraj's cousins still lived close to the Old Gate on the far side of the Great Swamp a hundred miles away and near the gate on the far side of Spider Mountain.
His family's farmhouse stood where an old inn had once been. Grandma had laughed when Juraj asked her about it. She'd said that she remembered when it stood, how all the rich and powerful would come and stay there before taking the dangerous trek up through the Spider Forest to the Temple on the mountain where people came to get special blessings from Inina and Haraldr. People still came to talk to the Seer but they took the New Gate in town and followed the New Road that led to the safest path through the dangers of Spider Mountain.
It was when he started mentally reviewing all the dangers of Spider Mountain, from the spiders themselves to the dragons that lived in the swamp on the southern side of the mountain, that Juraj realized that Elder Danek's magic had started sucking gently against his mind.
"Quit it!" Juraj snapped at himself. "Thinking of the past will slow you down. You can't let him make your mind drift into memories, Juraj." He'd stopped running as he got closer to the Old Gate, had drifted so far into his memories of his beloved grandmother that he'd stopped to stare into space instead of making his escape. Juraj prayed for focus and strength, tapping forehead, stomach and heart with one closed fist before blowing hard on his hand three times. The quiet, gentle blood spell sapping his focus faded away. Juraj ran the last few hundred yards to the Old Gate.
Moss had grown over the runes, obscuring them since the last time he'd been out here. Juraj used a sharp rock from the side of the road to scrape the moss away. Behind him he could hear the sound of horses neighing, voices calling though they were too far away for him to recognize what was being said.
Time, he had no time. The farther away he got from Elder Danek the safer he should be. Maybe. Possibly. There was no guarantee, but Juraj had to believe it. If that didn't work then he would make more charms, find other things to do that let him block Elder Danek from his mind. No matter what it took he wouldn't be yet another blood-slave to Elder Danek. He wouldn't.
The sheer thought of being like Nadezda made his breath catch in his chest and his hands shake. He scraped more urgently at the moss, using his hands as well as the rock. Juraj had to get away. He had to. Even if he'd managed to hide under Elder Danek's nose all this time, he knew that any chance of his hiding was over now. Running this way was almost certainly going to be a death sentence but it would be so much quicker and more merciful than having Elder Danek suck his magic away and steal his body for whatever uses Danek wanted. Fleeing the village to anywhere else was the only thing he could do.
There couldn't be more blood slaves farther away. Elder Danek spent so much time managing their lives. He couldn't control people further away, out of sight and hand. Juraj wasn't sure if he was trying to convince himself that it was true or if he was just praying that he was right, but he had to believe it. Otherwise he'd give up and let Elder Danek take his body and soul.
That would be a waste of everything his grandmother and Uncle Raj had taught him. It would be a betrayal of the oath he'd made to Kennet, before his exile. He had promised Kennet he'd live free, no matter what, so that someday they could be together again even though they both knew it was impossible.
"Yes," Juraj sighed mentally as he uncovered the last of the runes. "Finally!"
He did the prayer for focus again to clear anything blocking his mind. The runes had a logic and structure Twelve years of studies of the old charms and hedge witchery that 'real' mages disdained had taught him what they meant and how they fit together. They matched the stories his grandmother had told, the old charms his uncle had given him to practice on when Juraj's magic woke, when he was so young that Elder Danek's dislike of small children protected him from notice.
Elder Danek's efforts to wipe out every opposing force in town, both magical and mundane, had started with enslaving or killing all mages in town who could do blood magic like him. At the same time, teaching of charms and hedge witchery had been strongly discouraged. That had been going on since Juraj's grandmother Louisa was a little girl, though laws and harsh punishments, disdain and special testing requirements for every mage to pass.
Every mage other than Blood Mages like Juraj. Peace and War and even Sex Mages were allowed but Blood Mages were outlawed. Hedge witches were outlawed, too, though the punishments for them were far more minor.
Juraj thought that it was to prevent people from doing exactly what Juraj was doing now, escaping through the little magics that only grew in strength over time and repetition. They were so tiny when initially cast that they were practically invisible to mage senses but their power grew over time like a sapling forcing its way through a brick path only to become a giant oak.
One by one, Juraj traced his fingers over the runes, praying with all his might as he mentally recited their names and purposes. The Old Gate began to glow. Behind him, Juraj heard Bohran and Kilian yelling. There were horses galloping closer at a breakneck pace. No time, he had no time yet but Juraj didn't have a destination and that was the last thing he needed to open the Gate. He needed to know where to go so that he could escape, could find help. Juraj shook his head, wracking his brains for someplace safe. Every second brought his father and brother's voices closer.
If he got the Old Gate working properly he could go to the Alliance. They were neutral but no, that would be stupid. He already knew that if he showed up without proper credentials he would be enslaved and have his personality wiped just like Kennet probably had. There were so many stories of how refugees from the war who fled into the Alliance were mind-wiped and sold as slaves. Juraj couldn't go there.
He could go to Edge in the south-east, though he didn't know how they would treat him. The stories of Edge were always full of corruption and sexual deviancy. They were officially neutral, too but no, no, that didn't make sense.
It was too far and he didn't speak Pensric. Going straight south to Rantore would be the height of stupidity given the war going on against the Empire. No Vorenic Empire citizen would be welcome, even if they were fleeing blood slavery.
Juraj knew that there was no way that he could open a gate all the way to the Tredaire Straight. He simply wasn't that strong. He was fairly certain that the non-human races living there would protect him. Probably. Maybe. Though they might throw him back across the Straight to be captured and killed. Besides Juraj couldn't talk to them either. He couldn't even puzzle out their writing the way he could with Pensric texts.
Going farther east to the Old Empire or farther still to the distant countries on the other continent was ridiculous, impossible given that there were no gates anywhere past the Old Empire's sunken continent.
Of course, going north wasn't likely to help much either with the bulk of the Empire between him and the Baronetcies, or the Wastes beyond them. Of all of them, the mages who wandered the Northern Wastes seemed like the best chance for him, even though he wouldn't be able to communicate with them either. He'd spent his whole life learning everything he could get his hands on and had never bothered to learn to speak another language. The sheer stupidity of that made him want to curse.
Juraj realized with a start that he was dithering again, Elder Danek pressing against his mind so that he wouldn't finish the gate in time. He ignored his family riding closer, drove them and all other concerns from his mind so that he could touch the last rune and picture going to the Baronetcies, maybe the Wastes beyond the mountains that lurked to the far north.
"As far away as I can go," Juraj prayed with all his might to the Gate, to all of the Gods including the non-human's main god Manisha, to whatever might hear him other than Elder Danek. "Grant me passage as far away from here as I can go!"
"Juraj!" Bohran bellowed.
Magic stirred in the Old Gate, responding as though it was a living being roused from long slumber. It felt like watching a swamp dragon slowly uncurl itself from the base of a tree, shaking out its frill and licking its lips before it turned to return to the murky water. But that wasn't accurate at all because swamp dragons weren't animals, despite their scaly hides and inability to speak. They were people, vastly alien people who looked on humans as food or maybe gnats in their environment.
No, it wasn't like anything Juraj had ever experienced before, like anything he had ever seen. The magic coiled through him as much as through the gate, pulling and tugging at him as it followed the direction of the runes and the form of the old stone arch. Red light flared from one rune, then orange from the next, followed by yellow, green, blue and indigo. It spread, filling Juraj with a sense of singing power and absolute majesty that drove Elder Danek from his mind for the moment.
Juraj gasped as something clicked into place in the Old Gate, like a lock clicking shut. No, not shut, open, it clicked open as though it had been sealed shut a long, long time ago. He knew it, felt it. It was part of him, part of his bloodline. This was what Grandmother Louisa had meant. The Old Gates weren't for everyone. You had to have the right blood and Juraj did, he did, he could escape and the Old Gates would help him.
The Old Gate suddenly blazed with light like streamers of rainbows swirling around the edges of the stone arch. Those streamers rippled and wove together to form a shimmering surface in the center of the Gate. It looked somewhat like a pond made of blazing light, only vertical and far more intimidating.
It was him but it wasn't. Juraj's heart beat so fast that he felt lightheaded. He'd done it, activated the Old Gate just like in Grandma's stories. Juraj thought it might be the first time the Old Gate had been used in two generations, possibly longer.
"Juraj, no!" Kilian yelled.
Juraj turned and looked at the two of them. They had just rounded the final bend and drove their horses straight at him. Both his father and his brother had desperately worried expressions but he would have bet his meager supply of money that they truly believed that they were riding to save him from doing something stupid. Juraj could see Elder Danek's magic glowing in their eyes. The horses they rode panted and rolled their eyes in fear, as if they were terrified of what was riding on them. They probably were.
Rather than answer them or give them time to ride up to grab him, Juraj stepped through the Gate. As he did it, he brushed his fingers over the set of runes on the right side of the Old Gate that meant 'scramble' or 'confusion'. If his grandmother was right then they shouldn't be able to follow him straight through and haul him back. A gate, once activated, was supposed to be easily reactivated. If Juraj could open it his brothers certainly could, possibly even his father.
As he slipped through the Gate the magic in it slid over his skin. It felt like a caress, like having someone who loved him slid their hands over his face and body before pushing him on his way. The magic tangled in his little protection charm for a moment but it was very brief. Juraj thought that it felt like the two spells looked at each other and then passed each other by.
Being transported took forever and no time at once. Juraj could have sworn that he hung in between the Gates for eons but at the same time he knew that the transition from one Gate to the next took only a second or two.
Once the curtain of light faded, Juraj found himself standing in a rainstorm at the foothills of the Baronetcies, right at the very edge of the Empire. He allowed himself to stare back at the Old Gate for a moment before looking around for the closest road.
Elder Danek's magic carried Nadezda's screams of agony into his mind, as clear as if he had been at home with her torture happing in front of him. Juraj wasn't safe yet from Elder Danek's magic. No matter how far away this Gate turned out to be it wasn't far enough. Juraj shuddered. He desperately hoped that he could find somewhere that was far enough to escape.