Fireblood (Whispers from Mirrowen #1) by Jeff Wheeler

The final embers of sunlight cooled against the pale sky, coloring the clouds orange and purple. From the north, massive thunderheads loomed—seemingly tranquil yet swollen and ribbed. It would rain within the hour. A humid breeze rustled the nest of brittle oak leaves, crackling and snapping as the invisible rush shook the branches and a hail of dead leaves came down, swirling like ashy flakes of snow. A penetrating bark reported somewhere in the distance within the maze of trees, and then the bark turned into a keening howl. The howling was joined by short fits of barking. Tyrus heard the sounds, tightened his grip on his cloak, and started to run again. If the storm did not break soon, he knew he was going to die.

Tyrus of Kenatos was not a small man. He was hardy and younger than the streaks of gray at the edge of his amber beard implied. Drenched with sweat, shivering with fever, and bleeding from claw gashes all over his body, he moved as quickly as he could manage without stumbling. In all likelihood, he was delirious, and he recognized the possibility that he was walking back toward the creatures that hunted him instead of away from them. Every twisted, stunted oak looked the same, covered with moss and black with disease. Mushroom spores abounded instead of grass or wytherweeds. Were they also affecting his mind? He had not dared to eat one, despite his ravenous hunger. The acorns would be poison as well. Everything in the Scourgelands was poisoned.

Tyrus was a fool. He had believed he was strong enough, wise enough, skilled enough to face the horrors past the northern borders and not only survive, but triumph. He had convinced himself—and others—that it was their destiny to destroy the murderous Plague that ravaged the lands every generation. How many cities had fallen victim to them? How many centuries had passed where once, twice, four times the culling had happened, dwindling the population of the races down to the few hunkering within fortresses and strongholds? It was his dream to end it at last, to banish the cursed Plague and stamp out its source, both root and branch, and end the vicious cycle of death and stagnation. His companions had trusted him. They had believed in his goal and shared in his vision. And with him, they had entered the Scourgelands only to find themselves caught in a maze of horrors, hunted and stalked and killed one by one. They had not even breached the inner core of the maze of trees. Nor had they seen the face of the enemy who commanded its precincts. But it had seen them, and its fury was incalculable.

The fetid air scorched Tyrus’s lungs as he ran. He was exhausted. It had been days since he had slept, days since he had tried to wander free of the maze of oak trees. South was impossible. East was impossible. West was impossible. Somehow, he kept getting turned around, and found himself moving closer to the inner core of the maze, instead of fleeing it. It did not matter how hard he tried to focus or concentrate. The woods had a way of tricking him, sending him back the way he had come. Back toward the death that hunted him in a thousand forms. Clenching his teeth, he shoved through the woods, struggling to stay ahead of the creatures hunting him. His strength faded. Madness threatened him. He almost welcomed it.

In his mind, he thought of his study, high within the Paracelsus Tower in Kenatos. A cup of honeyed tea in his hand, soothing a sore throat or warming him before bed. There were books to read—so many books to read. Books written by the Vaettir on plants and spirit-life. There were obscure tomes by the Cruithne on the proper construction of furnaces or the gemcraft that would trap a spirit and bind it to obey for ten years. Even more obscure, the writings of the Preachán on lurid trading or the gossip of kings and thrones in distant lands—of queens and killers and the diplomacy of poison. But his favorite works were the writings of a hundred generations of Paracelsus, each more cryptic and awe inspiring than the last. Another twenty-five years and he would still not have read them all, but he desperately wanted to. It was that desperation, in the end, that kept him moving, preventing him from collapsing in gibbering fear and accepting his approaching death.

Tyrus of Kenatos—one of the wise ones of the city. A Paracelsus without peer. He wanted to laugh with bitterness. He had matched his mind against the best the island city had produced and had never found anyone who could win an argument with him save the Arch-Rike. And yet Tyrus could say he had never lost an argument either. He had persuaded the Arch-Rike to let him go. It was almost worth accepting death instead of admitting how wrong he had been to venture into the Scourgelands. How foolish he had been. How unprepared he was to face the wicked beings permeating the maze of oak trees known as the Scourgelands. There was blood on his hands. So much blood. They had trusted him and he had failed them.

A snap from the side alerted him to danger. Already he started to summon power to defend himself. The fear was so sudden that he nearly abandoned the words that would tame it. He realized with horror how close he had been to unleashing it untamed—an act that would have resulted in irrevocable madness. Had not the Paracelsus writings warned of it? Discipline. Self-discipline. It was the only way to stay sane.