Nils Chapman looked through the small window in the armored door at prisoner 89. The warden was once again away from the island and Chapman was happy to note that Karl Drury was gone as well. Chapman had spent the previous weeks trying to find out anything he could about the lone occupant of Schwarztogrube’s north wing. He didn’t know why, but he felt compelled to find out all he could about her. The prison didn’t have any open records and asking the warden would have invited dismissal, so he had quizzed the other guards and the south wing prisoners. From the former, he hadn’t gotten much—only that she was an extremely dangerous, extremely powerful magic-user. From one of the latter though he had gotten a name—Zurfina.
“Zurfina,” he called out. “Is that your name? Is that who you are?”
Slowly, very slowly, the head came up until he could see the two grey eyes peering from between the strands of dirty, blond hair like the eyes of a tiger looking out of the jungle—filled with hatred.
“Are you Zurfina?”
Slowly the fire in the eyes died, and the eyes turned glassy. Then the head dropped back down. Though he called to her several more times, prisoner 89 gave no more indication that she heard or understood. Eventually he gave up and made his way back to the south wing, so he didn’t hear the words that came from the cracked lips.
“One thousand nine hundred sixty-eight days. One thousand nine hundred sixty-eight days. One thousand nine …”
* * * * *
One thousand nine hundred sixty-eight days before, Zurfina the Magnificent had been moving through the throngs of people in Marcourt Station. She was not dressed as the other women in the station, or anywhere else in the United Kingdom of Greater Brechalon. High-heeled leather boots and leather pants matched the spiked leather collar around her neck and the fingerless black leather gloves on her hands. The black leather corset, worn as a shirt, left her white shoulders bare as it did the two-inch star tattoo above each breast. No one noticed the bizarrely clad figure though. Zurfina was a master of obfuscation. To everyone else at the station, she seemed nothing but a nondescript brunette in a brown dress with an appropriately large bustle. To almost everyone else.
Zurfina had her ticket on the B511 out of Brech to Flander on the southern coast, where she had already arranged to meet a boat that would take her to a ship bound for Mirsanna. There was no way that she could stay in Brechalon any longer. The government had refused to accept her independence. They would have her join the military or they would see her destroyed. They had already sent a dozen wizards and two sorcerers against her. But Zurfina was the greatest practitioner of sorcery in the Kingdom and was more than a match for any wizard.
A man in a brown suit stepped out from behind a pillar. To the other people in the station, he seemed nothing out of the ordinary, but to Zurfina he glowed bright yellow and was surrounded by a sparkling halo. She didn’t wait for him to cast a spell. She pointed her hand toward him and spat out an incantation.
“Intior uuthanum err.”
Immediately the man doubled over, wracked with uncontrollable cackling laughter. But before Zurfina could smile appreciatively, she was thrown from her feet as the world around her exploded in flames. She had been hit in the back by a fireball, and only the fact that she had previously shielded herself prevented her from becoming a human candle, as four or five innocent bystanders around her now did. Rolling to her feet and turning around, she found that she faced not one, but four wizards. The one who had evidently cast the fireball was preparing another spell, while the other three were casting their own. Her shield protected her from the lightning bolt, and the attempt to charm her, but one of the four magic missiles hit her, burning her shoulder as though it had been dipped in lava.
“Uuthanum uastus corakathum paj—Prestus Uuthanum.” Zurfina ducked into a side alcove as one of the wizards turned to stone and her own shield was replenished. Several more magical bolts struck the stone wall across from her, creating small burnt holes. Peering quickly around the corner, she saw the four wizards just where she left them, the three trying to use their petrified comrade as cover. Looking in the other direction, she saw that the wizard cursed with laughter had recovered and he had been joined by two more.
Seven wizards—well, six. That was a lot of magical firepower. But then Zurfina looked across the station platform. Directly opposite her was the open door of a train; not the B511, but a train bound for somewhere else. If she could reach it, she could get away. She glanced quickly around the corner again. The smell of burnt bodies mixed with thick black smoke in the air, but though there was plenty of the former, there was not enough of the latter for Zurfina’s taste.
“Uuthanum,” she said, and a thick fog began to fill the station platform.
“Maiius uuthanum nejor paj.” The three wizards to her right suddenly faced a dog the size of a draft horse, snarling and foaming at the mouth, and they felt their spells were better aimed at it than any blond sorceress.
Turning to her left, Zurfina cast another spell. “Uuthanum uastus carakathum nit.”
The cement that formed the other end of the platform turned to mud. The petrified wizard, deprived of his secure foundation toppled over onto one of his comrades, crushing him, while the other two struggled to pull themselves from the muck. Zurfina shot out of the alcove and ran toward the train. She had almost made it, when Wizard Bassington stepped into the open doorway in front of her.
She stopped right there in the open, unbalanced, unsure now whether to run left or right or back the way that she had come. She felt uncomfortably like an animal caught on the road in the headlamps of an oncoming steam carriage. Bassington didn’t move. He stared at her with his beady eyes. His eyes went wide though when Zurfina reached up to snatch something out of the air. Normal, non-magical people couldn’t see them, but he could—the glamours that orbited her head were spells cast earlier, awaiting the moment when she needed them.
She crushed the glamour and pointed her hand at the spot where Bassington stood, just as he dived away. The entryway where the wizard had been, and the passenger coaches on either side of him exploded, lifting much of the train up off the track as metal and wood shrapnel and human body parts flew in every direction. The flash knocked Zurfina herself back onto the cement and sent her sliding across the pavement and into the far wall. Before she could get up, she was hit with a dozen bolts of magical fire, some but not all of them deflected by her magic shield. It was a spell of weakening, followed by one of sleep though that finally dropped her head unconscious to the ground. The last thing she saw was Bassington’s hobnail boots walking toward her. That was one thousand nine hundred sixty-eight days ago.