Sorry, being back to school is keeping me really busy right now! Hopefully, I’ll adjust to my new normal soon. My plan is to resume episodes in two weeks (September 19th). Thanks for your patience!
The Heartwood Chronicles
Amber's out of work and down on her luck, far from home and trapped in a dead-end town. She's this close to working at Stunning Spells, a magical sweatshop that churns out generic spells.
But then she runs into a group of the strongest mages she's ever seen. Accidentally caught up in their mission, Amber's given the chance of a lifetime--and a place to finally belong.
The HEARTWOOD CHRONICLES updates every other Thursday.
List of Story Arcs in chronological order:
Amber glanced, narrow-eyed against the stinging of the wind, towards the pedestal where Heartwood’s crystal still rested in place. While Troi’s occupying Aivaan, can I get it and run? Lisette had said to use their best judgment.
“Don’t even think about it,” warned Naia. Despite the way her hair blew this way and that, she looked calm, comfortable even. “My magic may be wiped out for now, but I’m still a crescent moon in raikiji. I don’t mind taking you on any time.” Utterly self-confident, her look dared Amber to test her.
Amber subsided. She didn’t know what raikiji was, but it sounded very martial and painful to anyone on the receiving end of it. And dim though Naia’s suns might be, she could still pack a greater punch than Amber with her magic.
I need to be sneakier. Amber kept her eyes on Aivaan and Troi, both hovering mid-air, without seeing them. Instead, she focused her mage sight on the pattern as it danced and quivered under the onslaught of the wind mages’ battle. Strands clustered thick and clotted near the pedestal; Aivaan had left a nasty explosion spell ringed around the Heartwood crystal. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated one, but a mage in a hurry might overlook it, only to receive a nasty shock that blacked out his pearl.
Amber peeled away the spell, layer by layer, smoothing out the pattern around it, dissipating its energy harmlessly into the surrounding air. She wished she could’ve turned it back onto Aivaan or funneled it to Troi, but she didn’t have the skills for it. Yet. Not with the pattern in that state of flux.
The pattern around the air ninjas broke apart, whipped around, swirled and reformed. The strands flashed blue and grey and silver; a crackle rolled across the rock. Troi darted around his brother, but Aivaan’s stormsword flashed in lightning-bright arcs. Even from her safer spot, Amber felt the pressure of those strokes, could hardly believe that Troi was able to even deflect a single one.
Troi was weakening. His air magic was no longer quick and sure, but ragged, desperate. Aivaan made a complicated move with his sword. With a shriek, winds raced towards Troi.
Naia bounded to her feet with a cry, “Don’t… Aivaan… fool!” Her words were snatched from her lips, tossed and scattered across the scoured rock. Amber hid her face against her knees as a storm of dust and grit blasted into her, her braid whipping behind her.
Pressure held her down, a greasy feeling coated her skin. The pattern threads, flapping so randomly before, now bunched together, formed currents of a grey so pale it was almost white.
Each current was blade-sharp and lightning-electric.
They arrowed into Troi. Naia gave a shriek, angry and wordless. Amber dared to look up, flinching against both magic and storm.
Troi threw himself to one side, bringing up the sword in front of him, the knife darting out in one quicksilver minnow movement. Several spells missed him, others deflected off the blade, yet another tangled upon the knife. Only a few hit, but he staggered under their attack, falling to his knees on the ground.
His suns throbbed in colors of distress, losing shape and speed. Amber could almost hear the cry of his strained, stretched magic, wordless and anguished, echoing through the pattern.
Slowly, Troi got to his feet.
His hair was disheveled, his face grimy, his clothes in disarray, his pearl as grey as Naia’s. Only his eyes, like dark holes torn in a paper mask, showed grim and determined.
Aivaan looked on, still hovering, expressionless, as his spells arced off in all directions.
Naia yelled, “What are you trying to do—kill him? You’re going too far, Aivaan!”
“Stay. Out. Of this, Naia!” Troi yelled back, voice hoarse. For a moment, pain twisted his features, then he took a hold of himself. He threw his head up and back in an arrogant gesture too familiar to Amber, and faced his brother.
It was obviously familiar to Aivaan as well. Something glinted deep in his eyes. His suns twisted, became blurs. Once again the pattern shifted, ominous.
Amber started to scramble up. “Troi, watch out…!”
Howling, the cyclone of air around Aivaan’s sword blasted towards Troi. Amber saw him start to get his weapons up, saw him begin a defensive spell, then a rush of dark air enveloped the Heartwood mage. Winds buffeted Amber from behind, screaming in glee as they encircled Troi. Amber closed her eyes, her ears full of roaring, her face burning with cold, her body battered. Her mist cloak twisted around her, its meager spells flaring erratically, trying to protect her.
I don’t think I can hold on much longer.
And then it stopped.
The winds dropped. The lash of air against her body disappeared. The roaring in her ears became a rushing silence.
Amber, braced against something that was no longer there, stumbled and nearly fell.
She opened her eyes to a bright world, washed clean in the morning light. The sky was a delicate robin’s egg blue, cloudless save for a few wispy feathers of white.
Amber gaped, then realized that a grumble still tickled the edge of her hearing and vibrations still thrummed through her body.
Where Troi had stood was now a tight-packed dome of air, racing around and around in a tight, cutting circle. Amber couldn’t make out Troi at all within the darkness of debris and rushing wind that trapped him. With a creeping sense of failure, she realized that she couldn’t undo the spell at all—looping, self-sustaining, it had no ends to grab hold of, and reaching into those winds with her bare senses would only cut her into ribbons. She didn’t think even Troi could manipulate those speeding winds.
Naia, her hair wind-blown, glared at Troi’s brother. “Aivaan,” she began.
“I will let him out when we’ve won,” said Aivaan, sheathing his sword. His expressionless gaze slid over Amber. “Take care of her.” And with that, he whisked a swirl of air around himself, lifted off, and headed for the destination rock.
Naia put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes at his retreating figure. “Irekai men,” she commented to Amber, “they’re all the same. I feel sorry for their womenfolk.”
The only person Amber was feeling sorry for right now was herself. She eyed the pedestal, the crystal so close. Could she turn herself invisible, slip over to it, grab it and get away? In open daylight with Naia focused on stopping her?
I have to try, at least. For better or worse, I’m a Heartwood mage now.
Naia eyed her thoughtfully. “You’re planning something, Ravin girl. I’m sure you’re very nice and all, but I have to stop you. And tickling isn’t going to work this time!” Her suns, Amber noticed gloomily, had brightened.
Blasted sun mages and their quick recovery! Did Naia just drink in a rejuvenating lungful or two of air to get her magic powers back up?
Let’s try an illusion, then trap her hands. Even as Amber activated the spell on her mist cloak, she knew it was a very, very long shot.
Amber shifted slightly sideways, sliding between pattern threads. The bright morning air dimmed as she sank deeper into the pattern, feeling that blur in her soul as her illusion spell multiplied copies of herself. Then she moved, and the ghosts moved with her, flying off in different directions, pale and insubstantial in the hard, gold glint of sunlight.
“Interesting.” Naia cocked her head, gaze flickering from one darting copy to another. “But I still see you.” Magic swelled around the Kaidan girl’s hand. Amber threw something sticky and panicked at her, but it was washed away by Naia’s power.
Caught halfway to the crystal, Amber thought, Sorry, guys. I did my best, but it should’ve been someone else with you!
A shudder ran through the pattern. There was a crack, like the breaking of an egg. Naia whipped around in the direction of the disturbance, her eyes widening, her hands raised to ward off, a spell sluggishly taking shape around them.
Too late. Wind slammed into the girl, lifted her up, threw her down like a rag doll. Amber froze, appalled, but of course, Naia was a sun mage. She said a small, “Ow,” sat up, and looked reproachfully at Troi. Her pearl was jet-black and the pattern jangled around it so hard, Amber didn’t need mage senses to make out what it was saying.
Naia had just been knocked out of the tournament.
Troi stood in the open, breathing hard, looking royally vexed. Myriad cuts covered his face and hands, her shirt was shredded and his pants frayed at the hems. He held his sword and knife with the tips pointed down, but Amber didn’t doubt he’d be able to bring them up in a flash.
“I am,” he said through gritted teeth to Naia, “so sick of your stubbornness.”
Amber blinked at this unexpected response. So did Naia.
“What were you doing there, weakly grabbing at air currents, when there’s a whole lot of water down below in this valley?” Troi made a sharp, stabbing gesture with the knife in the direction of “down below.”
Naia said meekly, “I’m a wind mage.”
“Who always had an affinity with water!” Troi snarled. “You wouldn’t be scurrying around, doing Aivaan’s bidding if you’d just play to your own strengths for once. And by that, I don’t mean your incessant talking!”
With that, Troi swept towards the pedestal—his suns were surprisingly recovered—and grabbed the crystal off it.
You’re welcome, Amber thought in a small, internal voice. Now was not the time to explain about the defused spell to an enraged Troi. He was holding it in, but his eyes were dark with anger, his nostrils flared, white around his mouth. Every movement was savage with suppressed violence.
A flash of light caught Amber’s attention. Tilting her head up, she squinted as a figure, dark at its core but haloed with brightness, wheeled across the sky, landed atop a neighboring rock. Another figure, this one more like a haze of smoke, darted after it, came to a hovering stop above the formation.
Lisette and Doua.
Troi threw a swift glance at the tableau. “I’m going after Aivaan. Go help her, Amber!”
Before Amber could even form a response, a curl of air snatched her up and practically threw her across the space. Amber caught a glimpse of a shimmering expanse of water below, then rock loomed up, too sudden, too hard, too close to the edge. She fell, skinning knees and palms.
Almost instantly, the hairs on the back of her neck raised. A murderous intent filled the pattern, a soft, slow swell of it that made it hard to breathe, as if someone held her face into a pillow. Lisette, still defiant but damaged, was collapsed on the ground in a heap of shining metal, one wing bent at a bad angle. Above her, Doua, her face shadowed by her hat, gathered a spell in her hands, a delicate but dangerously-edged blade.
Aivaan had power, but Doua’s swiftness and control were extraordinary. The pattern itself seemed to open the way for her.
Help her, he said, Amber thought despairingly, her body already moving as Doua unleashed her air-crafted weapons. This is the only thing I can think of!
She hurled herself in front of Lisette, throwing her arms around the other girl, covering them both with the mist cloak.
Doua’s spell hit.
Amber’s mist cloak caught the worst of it. The spells within it disintegrated in a flash, the weave of it thrummed but held. A hundred stabbing points slammed into Amber’s back, driving her into Lisette with a pained gasp. It felt as if thousands of needles of cold air jammed down her lungs and arrowed into her arteries. Suddenly without breath, Amber couldn’t cry out at all, only shudder and squirm.
The agony was intense, but brief.
By the time her breath returned, the pain was fading to an afterimage. It still hurt, lying deep in her quivering muscles, but Amber found she could bear it.
A jangling at the edge of her hearing signaled that she, too, was out of the tournament.
Amber couldn’t bring herself to mind too much.
Lisette grabbed Amber’s shoulders and shook her. “Amber. Amber! Are you all right?”
“Careful… head!” gasped Amber. Her neck was stiff and the movement made her head bobble in an alarming way, as if it would snap off any moment.
Lisette dropped her hands, her blue eyes dark with emotion, her black hair falling in sticky strands around her face. There were tears in her voice as she said, “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did.” Amber’s brows snapped together. She glared at the other girl. “I’m not a combat mage—you are. Troi got beaten up by his own brother, but he’s still pushing through. You do the same, Lisette!”
The wild, hurt look in Lisette’s eyes vanished. A ghost of a smile flickered across her face. “I will.” Something whitish gleamed as she took it out of her pocket—the crystal. “I have it, at least.”
“Then go win.”
The two girls’ eyes met in a rare moment of unified purpose. Then both looked up at Doua, still and straight in the air. Not a single stray current from the winds that cradled her reached Amber and Lisette.
No emotion showed on the bottom crescent of her face. Her arms were folded, hands tucked into her sleeve. Amber couldn’t quite tell, but she thought the Kaidan girl had depleted much of her magic in that one attack. Otherwise, she and Lisette would probably have been sliced up by now.
Wait a minute! Did she just try to seriously maim—even kill—us? Amber’s mouth dropped open as she replayed the last few minutes.
“You may try all you wish,” said Doua, precise as ever, “but I will not let you off this rock.”
Lisette struggled to her feet, her shining wings bent and dented behind her. “Amber, move away and close your eyes.”
Amber obeyed, backing off, keeping a wary eye on the edge of the formation to her right.
Lisette closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath. Her suns came alive, her damaged wings lifted. Light danced over the metal, striking gleams of warm gold and bronze. Both wings straightened, one swept long and whole. The other remained slightly crooked, whimpering a small protest as Lisette’s magic caressed it.
“Can you fly?” Doua went on in her monotone. “I think not.”
Lisette said nothing, her fierce concentration turned inwards. A glow surrounded her, growing ever more intense. Amber screwed her eyes closed, turned her head away.
“Do not think…” Doua began.
And then came the flare.
The inside of Amber’s eyelids turned reddish, warmth pressed into her cheeks. Her eyes stung with tears. She heard Doua gave a small, wordless cry, and then the shivering clash of Lisette’s wings as she leapt into the air.
Amber counted three heartbeats, then opened her watering eyes. The morning swam hazily around her, and for a moment, she was so light-headed and off-balance, she thought she might fall over.
Lisette was gone, swooping in a blaze of light between two taller rocks, vanishing behind them. The sight of her, so free and bright and glad, made Amber whoop and laugh.
Nearby Doua tumbled through the air, almost crashing. At the last moment, she pulled up, her feet nearly skimming the ground. She arrowed past Amber in a surge of air, so close that Amber could’ve reached out and touched her sleeve.
In that instant, Doua turned her head, locked gazes with Amber. Her dark eyes were cold and pitiless, like a shark’s. And then she was whipping past, and the winds trailing behind her hooked around Amber’s knees. Amber stumbled and one heel found crumbling rock, the other empty air.
She teetered on the edge, thinking, This is why I put spells in my mist cloak.
And then remembered, They’re all gone now.
A wind nudged her, in just the right place.
Or the wrong one.
Author’s Note: Okay, I just had a too-long panicked moment where I thought I had lost most of this episode! Turns out I had opened my backup copy instead of the one I worked on this evening. Whew! The thought of rewriting about 2700 words was a shocker, especially after I hit my stride at the coffee shop. I could tell I was getting into the groove, because I almost put my laptop on my knees and tried to swivel around in a (nonexistent) rolling chair, which is what I do at home in my study when I get into the zone. Oops! Can’t really do that in public.
One question I’ve been meaning to ask (before I go backup my work): Who is your favorite character in Heartwood so far? Email me back or reply in the comments and let me know!
About a week later, most of Heartwood, it seemed, had ended up in the Shattered Valley.
Cradled between two long rocky arms, the narrow valley lived up to its name. Loose stones spread across the mouth, larger boulders among them. Deeper in, spires of rock thrust up from the valley bottom. The place was shrouded in shadows, still untouched by the weak morning light.
Amber stood upon the flat top of a rock formation the size of a kickball playing field and shivered in the cold, thin air. The currents in this place favored the Torou mages, being odd and unpredictable. Down on the valley floor, a wind moaned. The hair at the back of Amber’s neck rose. It sounded too much like a gigantic beast shifting in its sleep. She leaned against the silfyl next to her for comfort as much as warmth.
A mixed group of mages and silfyl gathered atop the rock. Lisette, Troi, and Kael all looked tough and competent, seemingly unaffected by the landscape that so unnerved Amber. Their suns, however, burned hotter than usual. Was it battle-readiness or a physical response to the bleak environment?
Whatever it was, Amber didn’t have it. She was cold and grey, sick to her stomach and regretting her promise to Master Zoya.
Who was not even here. Mistress Blunkett had accompanied their team this morning. Her hair was misbehaving worse than usual; pulled by the wind from her messy ponytail, it stuck up around her head like a spiky reddish halo. She was not, however, in her customary sportwear, and the whistle around her neck was missing. She looked incomplete.
Amber dragged her attention away from Mistress Blunkett’s appearance and tried to focus on her words.
“And here’s the map of the area…” Rocks rolled around the Mistress’s feet, rearranging themselves. Three turned bright blue, one became a vibrant red, one a violent purple.
“We’re here.” Mistress Blunkett tapped the red rock with her foot. “Each of the crystals is on a blue formation, and the end point is the purple rock. The first team to collect and bring all three of their crystals to the end point wins. Any questions?”
Lisette asked, “Have the Masters of either school placed any spells to make this run a little more interesting?”
Wind blew Mistress Blunkett’s hair into her mouth. She swiped it away, shook her head. “No. It’s up to your opponents to outrun you—or stop you. Be on your guard.”
“Can the Torou group destroy our crystals if they get to them first? Or can we destroy theirs?” Troi’s look was hard.
“That’s against the rules.” Mistress Blunkett smiled, a crescent of malice on her usually open and jolly face. “You cannot directly affect the other team’s crystals.”
“Also”—Mistress Blunkett tapped a milky-white stone pinned to Kael’s tunic—“these crystals will darken as you take damage. When they turn black, you’re out of the competition.” Amber touched her own, the stone smooth under her fingers. A complex knot of runes nestled within its pearly shell. It pinpricked when her senses grazed it.
“What’s the plan?” Lisette turned to the boys. “Break up and each go after a crystal? Can we get there faster than the Torou mages?”
“You and I could, maybe,” said Troi.
“I’m better off taking on and eliminating the competition,” said Kael. “Starting with that kid, Pod.”
Amber shivered, remembering Pod’s the ability to deprive the air of movement. Of cold and darkness and the pattern withering as it drained of vitality. Perhaps Kael was right. His magic was all heat and motion. He’d be a good foil to Pod.
“Of the two we know, Doua and Pod, the boy’s the more troublesome,” said Troi. “Okay, Kael, you’ve got him.”
“Who are the other two?” wondered Amber. “Do you know?”
Troi shook his head. “They weren’t on the participants’ list. Well, neither were we. The journeyman’s division is run differently.”
“Doesn’t seem right,” muttered Amber. She peered over her shoulder, eyes squinting against a sudden sharp glint of morning sunlight. Tiny black figures moved across rock formations—the younger students had already begun.
Tai was among them. He had astonished the Masters by buckling down and successfully passing the Magical Ethics exam in one short week.
Master Zoya was also at the starting point, along with the urbane, ever-smiling Shai Daan. Amber was glad she didn’t have to greet him this time. She’d skulked behind the other students while he announced the beginning of the tournament.
The Headmaster was back at Heartwood. According to the other students, he didn’t leave the place much.
To her left was a tall outcrop. The Torou team was hidden from view behind it. Their magic was a distant smear to her senses, fuzzy and distorted. She couldn’t make out any individuals.
“What about Amber?” Lisette looked over at her.
“She can come with me,” said Kael, with the easy assurance of someone who loved a good fight and assumed everyone else did, too.
“No.” Mistress Blunkett shook her head. “Amber will go with Troi, as Cinbar said.”
Kael and Lisette looked at Amber, then at Troi. His expression could be best described as resigned. “That’s right. Amber can’t do what she’s supposed to back here. Or can you?”
He doesn’t have to look so hopeful about the possibility, Amber thought sourly.
The pattern in this area was strange, parts of it dense and buried deep in the rock while the rest stretched sparse and thin and unanchored in the cold air. Yet it skewed, as if something deeper in the valley pulled it closer.
“No,” Amber admitted. She’d sent ghosts ahead of her, loose and light knots of spellwork, but without knowing what to look for, they’d dispersed in all directions. Some had reached the ends of pattern threads, flapping in the air, and disintegrated. Others had followed the pattern deep into stone and become stuck. The few that returned had given her no clear information, only confused impressions of dark humps half-submerged in sheets of darker water; rays of distilled light piercing cool, shadowy chambers; a green scent, sharp and strangely familiar; thick knots in the pattern that she couldn’t tell were mage-made or natural.
She had to go deeper, see for herself, refine her search.
“There you go, then.” Dismissing the issue of Amber, Mistress Blunkett checked her cryst. “Less than five minutes to start. Prepare yourselves.”
“I’m going here.” Lisette pointed at the blue rock farthest away from their position. “Kael, you follow behind for backup, if needed. Otherwise, go for this middle rock here. Troi and Amber, you’ll be slower than us, so take the nearest crystal.”
Troi jerked his chin downward, face expressionless. Amber smoothed down the fabric of her mist cloak, familiar spells tingling against her palm, and nodded.
“If we want to win, we have to keep pressing forward,” Lisette went on. “We may have to leave people behind. Use your best judgment everyone.” Somehow, without meaning to, the four of them had gathered around the map of rocks in a loose circle, Mistress Blunkett standing apart with the silfyl and staring at her cryst.
“Two minutes,” she announced.
Amber looked down at the map and made a quick impression of it in the weave of her mist cloak. A number of ready-made spells glowed within it.
She hoped they would be enough.
Kael walked over to the edge of the rock and flexed his knees, suns slowly spinning to life. Lisette closed her eyes, light haloing around her. Troi stood moodily with his arms folded, but he, too, was preparing his magic.
His sword and knife were sheathed at his side. Amber felt them come alert, in that weird way magical artifacts had. Alive-but-not-yet-alive. Strong lines of single-minded purpose.
For these weapons, it was to serve their master even if they broke.
Amber clutched fistfuls of her mist cloak and drew the pattern close to her in sleek lines. Her stomach fluttered.
“And go!” The command was loud, sharp.
The contestants’ pearls flared. Lisette’s metal wings snapped open as she leapt into the air. Light flashed along them as she rose higher, wheeled, banked hard, shot across the sky. Kael launched himself into the void, rebounded off the tall outcrop, and landed on a smaller formation. He raced to its edge.
Winds, cold and biting hard, streamed around Amber. “Let’s go,” Troi said, and air swept her up and flung her into the fray.
The trip was short—too short. The spell Amber had practiced with Troi and Master Cinbar, a sort of silken net that reduced drag, worked well. She was practically blown all the way to the nearest crystal pickup.
Two figures were already there.
A wave of air burst over Amber and Troi, breaking them apart. It slapped into Amber’s side, sending her spiraling away into the sky, leaving her breathless. Patterns in her mist cloak burned bright, slowing and stabilizing, just as Troi’s air magic grabbed her once more and dumped her onto the rock. The impact jarred her knees. Amber grimaced.
Troi’s landing was far more elegant, his magic stretching out in whips all around him. They clashed with sheet after sheet of air, ripping the attacks to shreds.
“Naia,” he said. “Of course it would be you.”
“That’s my line. It’s just my bad luck to be dragged into the mess you created.” The girl wasn’t fooling around. Brow furrowed, lips pursed, Naia launched yet another attack, a broad bludgeon of moisture-laden air. The edge of it, heavy and silky, washed over Amber, standing well back from the duel.
“You really should go home,” commented Troi. “You’re overmatched, and you know it. How soon until you run out of power?” His air whips snaked out, always in the right place at the right time, deflecting Naia’s spells, darting through the gaps, striking at the girl.
A sheen of sweat covered her face. The pearl on her tunic had turned grayish.
“Isn’t your friend here going to help you? Or is he just waiting his turn?” Troi’s gaze shifted from Naia to the other air ninja.
He blanched. For a fraction of a second, his suns went still, his winds dropped. A smothering mass of air rolled towards him.
Amber lunged, grabbing the pattern she’d been reinforcing, throwing up a woven barrier.
It was good enough to withstand that one attack. The barrier disintegrated as energy coursed through it, but gusts of wind pufed out harmlessly in all directions.
Naia panted, a hand pressed to her side, her pearl as grey as her face.
Troi’s hand was clenched around his sword hilt, his gaze fixed unblinkingly at the unknown newcomer.
Amber sucked in a breath.
Troi was handsome, but this Kaidan man—older than they were by a couple of years—had the beauty of classical statues in white marble. No emotion showed on his chiseled face; his dark eyes held their secrets close. His open coat was long and wide-sleeved, in shades of blue shot through with silver thread, and a long sword hung on his belt. Behind the light shielding that most mages maintained at all times, he thrummed with an ocean depth of power.
Beside this demi-god, Troi looked young and frustrated and very human.
“Naia,” said the newcomer, his glance flickering from the girl to Troi. He spoke a question, but in Kaidan so Amber could not understand it.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Troi, harsh as a crow. “Brother.” He spat the word as if it were a curse.
Brother! Amber looked from one to the other, making out the resemblance.
Troi’s brother turned his back, a crystal in his hand. He spoke again to Naia, tone dismissive.
Naia cast a worried glance at Troi, whose eyes were fixed on his brother. Splotches of color appeared on his cheeks.
Don’t, Amber begged silently. Let’s just get the crystal and move on. There it was, still setting in place on the pedestal erected by the Masters. Let’s win this thing.
“Aivaan!” yelled Troi. “Don’t you ignore me like that.” His unsheathed sword flashed into his hand. A ribbon of magic curled around the blade as he launched himself at Aivaan, almost too fast for Amber could follow.
She didn’t see Aivaan make a move, but there he was, facing Troi, his own sword flickering out. The two blades met with an explosion of air that pushed Amber back a step. Naia swayed, but remained in place.
Aivaan called over to her in Kaidan. With a nod, Naia backed away towards the edge. Her suns, quicksilver and surprisingly delicate, rippled. She lifted her arms, and a great current of air began to move in a circle around the rock formation, trapping them in.
Troi unleashed a flurry of attacks on his brother. Aivaan deflected them all with an economy of movement that reminded Amber of Master Cinbar.
“Since when do you take orders from him, Naia?” Troi shouted. “Do you really enjoy being an Irekai minion? For the Protector’s sake, think for yourself sometimes!”
Naia said nothing, her face strained with more than just the effort of the spell. The conflict between brothers seemed to weigh heavily on her.
“And you!” continued Troi, hair and eyes wild, moving like a demon, wearing himself out, the stupid fool. “Are you all right with what the elders did to Grandfather?”
Aivaan’s sword gleamed a deep blue. An icy wind screamed as it arrowed right at Troi. Troi ripped out his knife, raising both weapons up to defend himself. The wind drove him back several steps.
Aivaan said, each word precise, “I am more our grandfather’s grandson than you ever were or will be.”
Air gathered around him, ruffling his air, flapping his coat. It swirled thickly around his blade, became a vortex of howling violence. It pulled at the air currents, dragging them into itself.
Troi breathed, “The Stormsword.” Awe filled his face, quickly followed by a grim, unwavering determination. He lifted his weapons in salute. “We still fight.”
“As you will, you fool,” said Aivaan. Did he sound a little tired?
A look of pain crossed over Naia’s face. Amber scanned the pattern of her spell, a twisting river of deep blue threads and deeper blue nodes. Fluid and flowing, it nonetheless held its shape better than the darting flicks of Troi’s magic.
She saw what it was doing. Keeping them in, yes, but that was only a side effect. Its main purpose, though, was to prevent the air within the battle sphere from escaping out into the thin valley atmosphere. As Aivaan commanded more and more wind to wrap itself, spinning and whining, around his blade, it was Naia who let it in through her barrier and kept it from rushing out again.
Now if I can only take her down…
Ignoring the twin cyclones of Troi and his brother as they clashed and whirled in steel, sparks, and storm, Amber probed the pattern around Naia. Her spell was far too strong for Amber to dismantle quickly, but the wind mage at the end of her rope. A little nudge in the right direction…
Tiny knotwork spells skittered up and down the air ninja, mischievous, impish. Alarm widened her eyes. For several moments, she held herself stiff, then her shoulders twitched, hunched in. Naia doubled up, half-laughing, half-sobbing. “Ow, make it stop! It tickles.”
Amber permitted herself a smile. They never see that coming. Naia squirmed, losing her grip on her spell. It wavered, losing form, shedding puffs of air. Amber helpfully twitched a few pattern threads, and the entire spell disintegrated.
A gale blasted across the top of the rock formation, sending Naia sprawling and Amber to her knees. There was a gleam of pale sky, then a twisting curtain of darkness descended upon them all. It grumbled and roared and shrieked in Amber’s ears, blasted grit and dust into her face. Wind buffeted and flapped and rushed, pushing her aside as it funneled and compacted around Aivaan’s sword.
Electricity and magic danced along the blade, its metal showing in gleams every now and again. Troi, face dead white and slightly sick, held up his own naked blades, ready to fight to the bitter end.
Uh oh, thought Amber, spitting out hair and blinking hard. The wind had dropped, leaving her feeling like one big bruise. Her ears ached with cold and silence, and all her muscles had turned to trembling jelly.
Naia sat up, hair and clothes disheveled. “Dummy,” she called out to Amber. “That spell keeps summoning and sucking up air. The atmosphere’s going to get really thin in this valley!”
“Yeah, but can he keep it under control?” Amber shot back. The pattern stretched thin around Aivaan and his sword, tense and trembling. “Even I know that air moves into a vacuum. He’ll really have to focus to keep in shape.”
Aivaan’s mouth thinned into a slash of a line. Troi sent a brief, tired smile in Amber’s direction, leaving her open-mouthed in surprise.
The brothers clashed again in spark-crackle and wind-whirl. A shower of rocky specks pattered over Amber. She skittered backwards near Naia. “I’ll just stay back here, I think.”
“Feel free.” Naia sat with her knees drawn up, hugging them to her chest. Her suns were dim and quiet. “That was a nasty trick there, by the way. Well done.”
“Thanks.” Eyes narrowed, Amber watched as Aivaan pushed Troi back, step by relentless step. A pit opened in her stomach. I think we’re going to lose this one.
Author’s Note: Whew! This monster episode clocked in at 3,000 words, and the Chronicles as a whole is now over 50,000 words with a lot of story left to go. By the way, I think I’m going to have a lot of fun writing Naia. Enjoy, and please leave feedback! I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂
Amber paged through the encyclopedia, stopping every now and again to scrutinize a sketch or skim through a section.
A stack of anatomy books lay on the table by her elbow. Last night’s work in the infirmary had highlighted her woeful lack of education on the subject. Since she had always believed pattern manipulation stopped at another person’s skin, Amber had never deeply studied the way it threaded through veins, fanned into muscles, pulsed with every beat of the heart.
Last night had defied, yet again, her presumptions about magic.
Her lack of knowledge had held her back. Afraid of accidentally harming Flavius, she’d done only the most rudimentary of magic, supporting Master Kristoff as his magic threaded and stitched the boy’s worst injuries.
I have to do better. I need to know more.
And so Amber had made her way to the library, currently presided over by a zealous underling in the Librarian’s absence. The Librarian—the way he pronounced the title always included the capitalization—was on a mission to hunt down rogue magical books.
Amber glanced up at the airy, light-filled chamber, wondering what the missing Librarian was like. So much of the bright spellwork in this place must be hers, each rune almost a music note, the whole string of them almost dancing across leather spines and pale wood. Scents lingered in the dry air—cedar, ink, and paper.
The library extended beyond this room, though. She felt the weight of those other, more dangerous books, tucked away in a honeycomb of cells. Despite their denseness, though, they didn’t drag on the pattern and give Amber a headache. The Librarian had done her job well.
Amber’s gaze swept over the other two occupants of the library. Sitting at another table, Tai was bent over a battered Magical Ethics textbook, brow furrowed in fierce concentration. Amber permitted herself a small grin.
At the main desk, Tomas raised his head from the book he’d been reading and gave Amber a suspicious glare. Gaunt and hard-eyed, hunched over in his shapeless black robe, he resembled a scraggly crow. His suns were inky blotches, splashes of power shining darkly. The occasional black stitchery that Amber noted in the library must be his spellwork.
She smiled at him, but Tomas’s eyebrows only twitched together in response. He gave a loud sniff and re-occupied himself with his book.
Amber was sure, though, that he still watched her. It wasn’t personal, she’d been told. The responsibility of running the library—or so went the common wisdom at Heartwood—weighed heavily on the assistant.
She returned to her own book, a reference volume that detailed the known flora and fauna of the continent. Kael’s words last night had piqued an uneasy curiosity in her. He really had, Ainsley assured her at breakfast, been raised by an indigenous people of the continent. Amber didn’t know much about them beyond what she’d read in breathlessly sensationalized penny dreadfuls. After collecting as many anatomy books as she could carry, Amber had pulled out this reference book.
The section on native sentient species was woefully thin. Amber stopped at a line drawing of a humanoid creature with harsh, almost avian features. The face was long and narrow, with sharply-defined bones and deep-set eyes. It was harder to tell with the shading, but the hair looked more like… feathers? Or were those scales?
Amber recalled the shell-like feathers in Kael’s hair. Eagerly, she turned to the description of the karth.
Not much was known about them. They appeared to be nomadic, but it was hinted they had settlements much deeper inland. They were friendly enough to humans in a remote sort of way. Like many species, they had melted back into the areas of wilder magic as humans colonized the coastal areas. It was assumed that their bodies had a greater tolerance for what was known as the Chaos—that swirling, ever-changing area of dangerous magic that blanketed most of the continent.
Amber nibbled at her thumbnail, deep in thought. Perhaps this explained why Kael was so strong, even my Heartwood sun mage standards, if he’d been living in the outer bands of the Chaos all his life.
What about his real family, though? How’d he end up with the karth?
I could just ask him.
Kael was easy to talk to. He’d opened the conversation in the first place. But how would she pick back up again, without looking like she was prying? So, Kael, I was thinking about what you said…
Amber rejected that conversational starter. She didn’t want to appear too eager to know his past—not after Flavius and Lisette and Troi and all the things they didn’t want to talk about.
Thank goodness I have a normal family.
The ones that are alive, anyway. Amber closed the encyclopedia with a final thud that made Tomas look up and frown.
She left that book on the table—Tomas has made it clear he didn’t trust anyone but himself to reshelve books properly—and scooped the anatomy volumes into her arms. Tomas checked them out with much sniffing and smoothing of pages and petting of spines. When he finally surrendered them to her, it was done reluctantly, as if he were forced to give up his own children.
“Have a nice day,” said Amber with a socially polite smile. Tomas bobbed his head in response. Tai in his corner hadn’t looked up at all during this time, so deeply was he entangled in the thorny tangle of magical ethics.
Amber left the library, her arms full of books. Within a few steps she realized she’d overestimated how much she could safely carry. The pile shifted precariously, and Amber stopped to wrap pattern threads around it.
Too late. The topmost volumes began sliding. Amber made an instinctive move with her chin and one arm to stop them falling. A hard corner bit into her jaw, a gap widened at the bottom of her hold. The pattern fluttered crazily as books crashed to the floor.
“Great, just great.” Amber muttered as she knelt down to gather books. She half-expected Tomas to appear in the corridor, waving his arms like great unkempt wings and pronouncing her unfit to check out library books.
Footsteps sounded behind Amber as she hoisted herself back up to her feet, this time securing her pile with magic.
Someone plopped a book down on the top of the pile. “You forgot this.”
“Um, thanks.” Amber leaned away from the man. He was a stranger, this Kaidan in a dark, expensive, Ravin-made business suit. She had never seen him before. Was he another one of the Masters?
The man smiled at her. His teeth were white, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. It was a charming smile, so why did it leave Amber cold?
Ah, that’s right. The smile didn’t reach his watchful dark eyes.
“Young lady,” he said, “perhaps you could direct me to the exit? I’m afraid I’m hopelessly lost in this warren.” He raised his shoulders in a slight, self-deprecating shrug.
Amber found the helplessness hard to believe. No one with that unconscious air of authority and the power behind those shielded suns could be stumped by a Heartwood corridor just meekly lying in place.
I can hardly say so, though. But I’d better not allow this guy to wander around here. “We’re not far from the lobby. If you’d follow me…?” Without waiting for an answer, she set a brisk pace lobby-wards. The Kaidan man, with his longer stride, easily kept pace with her. His skin was white and smooth, but there was a heaviness to his face. Despite the jet-black hair, she guessed he was older than he looked.
Amber rounded the last corner and opened her mouth to direct the man towards the lobby, now in sight at the end of the hallway.
Her books wobbled dangerously again. The Kaidan man steadied the pile, just as Amber hitched the heap up higher in her arms. His knuckles brushed against her chin, sending a tingle across her skin. Amber jerked her head back from that too-intimate touch.
“Careful,” said the man softly. The air darkened and wavered around him, as if infused with smoke. “Little girls like you shouldn’t take on more than they can handle.” His large, white hand still rested against the books, twin pinpoints of oily light flickered in his charcoal eyes.
Amber’s throat constricted. Implied violence hung thick in the air; almost she caught suns spin to life in dark, cyclonic twists. Like the Kaidan’s hand, the air pressed down on her, pinned her into place.
“Master Daan!” A voice, sharp and concerned, broke into the scene. Like a vapor, the menace dissipated, the aggression fled, the atmosphere snapped back into place. As the Kaidan man—the headmaster of Torou Academy—turned to Mistress Blunkett, Amber was tempted to believe she had just imagined the last couple of minutes.
“… so sorry for the mix-up… this way, please…” Mistress Blunkett fussed over Daan while the man flicked invisible lint off his immaculate sleeve.
“Not to worry, madam.” Daan favored the woman with another one of his suave, entirely fake smiles. He didn’t even look at Amber as he went off with the teacher. Mistress Blunkett, however, gave Amber a quick glance, her eyes flickering in a get-out-of-here gesture.
Mistress Blunkett, Amber realized, didn’t like the man—and was thoroughly rattled by him, too.
And so am I. Tension thrummed through her body. She was aware that her arms shook, and the nasty prickle across her jaw indicated he’d poked her with some sort of magic. The spell had completely disappeared, leaving no trace of its intent on the pattern.
I’m rattled, though Amber, and I’m angry! What does he mean by coming here? Is he trying to disable the competition? In such a ham-handed way?
No, Daan had something else in mind. Amber thought back to the last ten minutes or so. She sucked in an indignant breath.
And he made the books fall in the first place! Just so he could get close to me. The jerk! What is his game?
The cryst in her pocket chose this time to emit a series of chimes. Startled, Amber lost her hold on the anatomy texts entirely. Once more, books thudded to the floor. Amber pulled out the cryst. Red notifications crawled all over its surface.
“What?” she exclaimed out loud in the empty corridor. “Extra training sessions with Master Cinbar and Troi all week?”
With a grimace, she pressed the Accept button. Her intensive schedule would keep her too busy to ply Master Kristoff with all the questions she had.
Then, remembering the look in Daan’s eyes, his power and malice, her hands tightened around the cryst.
I need to get better. Quickly.
Because Torou has it in for me and that was probably the only warning I’m going to get.
Author’s Note: I meant to jump right into the tournament at the Shattered Valley–even started the episode there–but quickly realized I should have a transition scene to wrap up a few threads from earlier and set up the next act better. This is a shorter episode than normal and probably full of typos, for which I apologize in advance. I ran out of time to look it over.