In silence, Naia watched Chaos roll off the distant mountainside. It didn’t pour and spread like a fog, but remained bunched. It swooped noiselessly over the forest and disappeared behind tree tops. Naia was glad it didn’t come near Argenta’s cabin. Even from afar it made her shiver.
Still Naia kept vigil, her eyes straining as gloom fell across the sky in folds. The quiet stretched. Glimmers awakened inside the walls and floors of the cabin and porch. They cast a soft silver light over the two of them. Argenta’s hands and knitting rested in her lap; she leaned forward a little, her eyes fixed unseeingly on the forest.
A distant shriek shattered the silence. Naia started. A nervous jolt ran through her body. Her heart pounded. In the distance, a dark shape, sinuous and winged, erupted from the canopy. It screamed again and darted towards the mountains.
“What was that?” Naia gasped.
Argenta took up her knitting again. “Some fool who thinks to master Chaos. She will pay for it, of course.” Her mouth set into a stern line.
Naia looked at her uncertainly. “Was that…a dragon?” She felt ludicrous saying the word out loud. Dragons belonged in fairy tales.
“No, child,” said Argenta gently. “Dragons are long gone, and you should be thankful for it. That was a creature shaped by Chaos. For a little while, she will be quick and powerful, but she will not survive long.”
Naia recalled the deformed corpse she and Amber had seen on the road, the talk of labs and serums. “Are people trying to manipulate Chaos?” Her eyes rounded. Chaos had kept humans from colonizing the mainland for centuries. Eventually, it had retreated enough for people to settle the eastern coast, but the vast, mysterious interior was entirely covered with the stuff. No one could survive the potent magic that existed there. That had been the realm of dragons.
“Of course,” said Argenta dryly. “That’s what people always do—for good or ill.” She cast off her stitches, then cocked her head. “Here come the others.”
An eerie howl rose from the forest. There was grief in it, and anger, and a kind of blind madness. A deeper cry followed it, this one shorter, not wavering on and on.
Naia blinked. She couldn’t be sure, but the second cry sounded like “Hooya.”
“Villages lie unprotected in the path of the Chaos-shaped,” said Argenta. “You must stop their rampage.”
Naia blinked again. “Me?” she squeaked. Argenta’s blue gaze slid to her face, and Naia added, “Uh, me, ma’am?”
Naia was speechless. How to tell the other woman—creature—whatever she was—that she had grossly overestimated Naia’s abilities?
Argenta’s mouth crooked with humor. “You will not go unaided, child.” She shook out her knitting. Something rectangular and almost-transparent billowed out, the fibers flowing in endless patterns, knots and whirls and loops that made Naia almost dizzy to look at them. Without thinking, she reached out and touched the fabric. It was cool and slightly wet against her palm. The kinetic energy of millions of raindrops ran across her skin.
Without thinking, Naia grasped the whole thing and slung it across her shoulders like a shawl. The prickle of rain at the edge of her hearing grew to a swift, furious pelting. The tamed power of a thunderstorm thrummed through the fabric. Yet, the shawl itself felt soft and light, halfway between mist and drizzle. It kissed the skin at the back of her neck, brushed across her hands and wrists.
Argenta gave a nod of approval. She sat up straight in her chair, a tiny white-haired woman with a soft white complexion. But her eyes had shaded from vibrant blue to slate-grey, like the surface of a lake churning before a thunderstorm. Almost, Naia could see the white foam flecking her irises.
Argenta raised her hand, the gesture imperious. “Now, go.”
Naia moved swiftly through the forest. Moonlight silvered trees and leaves. The sky above held light blue tints. It was amazing how well she could see.
Or perhaps it was the shawl’s doing. Naia herself wasn’t any more surefooted than normal, it was more like she could glide over root and stone and hollow without harm or stumbling. If the trees were thick in front of her, well, she could always find a gap to pour into.
It had to be Argenta’s magic overlaying her body, giving Naia the grace and assurance she had always lacked. This power was only borrowed, but Naia intended to savor every drop of it.
Crashing sounds came from up ahead. Branches snapped. The ground shuddered.
They weren’t being careful, but they had no need of it. Naia’s nose itched with an alien scent, pepper and metal and electricity.
Was this the smell of Chaos?
She glided into a clearing and came face to face with the first of the Chaos-shaped.
Her heart slammed into her ribs. Thoughts of flowing, power, strength ran away, draining out of her muscles.
The creature before her was man-shaped, at least, but there the resemblance ended. For one thing, he was big, fully eight to nine feet in height, and covered with dark fur. The bulk underneath the fur looked alarmingly muscled, his limbs like tree trunks.
A musty, wet-dog smell emanated from him.
He glowered at Naia from small reddish eyes. His mouth opened, revealing large, blunt teeth. Naia bet they were yellowed and disgusting.
He said, “Hooya!”
Naia reared back. “Seriously?” she said. “That really was the sound I heard?” She glared at the creature and put her hands on her hips. “It’s not very intimidating, you know. Surely you can do better.”
The creature made a sheepish movement, hunching his shoulders and tucking in his chin. “Hooya?” he queried, in quieter, more abashed tones.
“I suppose you’re pleased with yourself,” said Naia severely, “playing around with Chaos like that. Just look at the mess you’re in now. You have leaves in your hair, and that fur is going to be a nightmare is keep clean and untangled. It’ll be matted before night’s end, mark my words.”
The creature made a very small sound. “Hooya.”
Naia’s optimism began to reassert itself. Poor Hooya had made a poor choice, and he seemed to be sorry about it. Maybe she wouldn’t have to fight him. Maybe she could just bring him to Argenta and let her turn him back to human.
“Now, let’s not have any of this village-destroying nonsense,” she went on briskly. “You should come along with me. I know someone who can fix you up.” She hoped. “Of course, you’ll have to promise to be good from now on out. What do you say?”
She stretched out her hand.
Hooya’s head swung from side to side. “Hooya,” he said sadly.
Naia didn’t like his tone. It sounded entirely too much like, “I don’t like what I’m doing right now, but I have my orders and I’m in too deep to stop.”
She retracted her arm and gripped the shawl. Its protection spell came easily into her hand and control. She nudged it, and the shawl lengthened and molded itself to her body. The rushing power of water protected her, misty against her skin, fierce and roaring on the other side. When she waved her spell-gloved hand in front of her chest, she felt its kinetic rush, a brutal thing that would hurt any punch or kick that landed upon it.
With Argenta’s power she could take on the brute. “Bring it on,” she said, dropping into a fighting stance.
Hooya bunched his hands into meaty fists. Naia tensed, waiting for the attack.
It didn’t come.
Instead, Hooya planted his feet wide, flexed his arms, and grunted.
Lightning crackled around him. His fur stood up. His eyes glowed.
Oh no. Alarm flared through Naia. It’s the lightning guy. Her stomach churned. Memories flashed through her: Lisette standing tall, an arm stretched up; the dazzle and crackle of slamming electricity; Lisette falling to her knees; the scorched scent after.
She had only an eye-blink of time to ready herself. Hooya held up a fistful of lightning.
His fingers opened.
Water, Argenta whispered in her ear, will fall or flow, no matter what. You can guide it, direct it.
Create a channel.
Lightning hit water, and water swept all the charge, all the angry destructive energy of it, across Naia’s shoulders. The current flowed down her right arm and gathered at her hand.
She flung it out and the lightning bolt, magnified by Argenta’s power, arrowed straight into Hooya’s chest.
She caught the look of surprise on his face as it hit. The impact sent him flying backwards. He landed with a thud, a bounce, then lay still.
Naia didn’t need to go over to check on him. The scent of burning flesh and the impact crater in his chest told her everything. Even if it hadn’t, the black bubble of Chaos eating away at Hooya would’ve clued her in.
Her lips peeled back from her teeth. Bile scoured up her throat. It left a sick taste in her mouth. But she had no time to recover, because another dark shape bounded out of the forest. Snarling, it launched itself at her. Naia threw up her forearm to protect her face, and salivating jaws closed around her wrist. She caught a far too up-close view of mad yellow eyes, bloodstained muzzle, and canine teeth.
The wolf-thing yelped and darted backwards. The great grey head swung back and forth, lips wrinkled, long black tongue wiping its teeth.
“Didn’t fancy having your teeth knocked out by the force of a hundred waterfalls, did you?” said Naia, facing the Chaos-formed creature squarely.
A low whine emitted from his throat. The wolf-thing stood on two legs, short skinny arms hanging down at his side. Patches of leather and fur covered his hide, a bushy tail swiped behind him. Incongruously, silver ringed his throat like a collar.
“A walking wolf?” said Naia. “Now that is really disturbing.”
A growl rumbled in the creature’s chest. His ears went forward. Snapping sounds came from around him. Spikes rocketed through the air and hit Naia. Most of them deflected off the rain armor, but one clipped her cheek, drawing a stinging cut.
The mutter of the rain-spell had died to a soft hiss. It wouldn’t protect her much longer.
She half-turned and sent a wave of water behind her, knocking the silver bullets out of the air as they pelted towards her back. The water arced in a circle around her, clearing space, before wrapping whisperingly around her body.
Wolf raised his muzzle in a howl. His hide rippled, his fur bristled.
“Now what?” asked Naia, exasperated.
Silver burst in spikes from inside him, making him look like a porcupine. Myriad needles, sharp and silver, stained with blood and Chaos, stuck out all over him. He made a grunting sort of whine, half agony, half defiance.
The message was clear. He was going to take her down, no matter what the cost.
Looking at his eyes, Naia thought he was beyond all rational calculation.
Her body tensed, ready to brace.
No. That was the wrong move. Water parted. It flowed.
You couldn’t hit rain, could you? Naia relaxed her muscles, loosened her grip, opened her suns.
Argenta’s spell soaked into her. Like thirsty soil, her suns gulped it up.
A sudden lightness came over Naia. She felt buoyant, like she could shoot up in the sky, in a way that air magic had never been for her. With this, I can…
… be rain.
In the delicate dawn of the next morning, all pale gold and blush tints, the woman calling herself Argenta turned around in her chair.
The girl Amber stood in the doorway of the cabin, one hand on the jamb, leaning heavily for support. Her color looked better, though the bruises still stood out against her fair skin. Her eyes were clear and focused and narrowed in suspicion.
A skeptical one, thought Argenta, without surprise or disapproval. Well, soon she will see for herself.
“I know you,” said Amber abruptly. Her voice was still hoarse. “At least, I think I do.” Her gaze turned inwards, as her mind searched for something that was buried deep inside her, hidden from her grasp.
She wasn’t ready yet.
“You do,” said Argenta tranquilly. “But now is not the time for you to know it.”
Amber’s grip on the jamb tightened. “Where’s Naia?”
Argenta transferred her gaze back to the forest. “I’m bringing her back right now.”
A mist, no, a low cloud, drifted out from among the trees and hovered above the ground. Argenta raised her hand and made a twisting motion. “It’s time to return, child.”
The mist coalesced, shivered, withdrew.
And in its place, crouching on a damp patch of grass, was Naia. Her clothes were damp, her face pale, her eyes the color of rain.
Amber ran to her, bare feet thumping across the porch and down the steps. She bent over the Kaidan girl. Naia grabbed her sleeve, tugged her closer. “Amber,” she whispered, “I danced.” And then she began to laugh, long and loud and joyful.
Amber glared at Argenta. “What did you do to her?”
“Showed her the possibilities.” Argenta stood up, a small silver-haired woman with a graceful, erect carriage. “I think, my dear,” she said to Naia, “you will find things easier from now out. It will be a while, though—if ever—before you will be rain again.”
Naia sobered, dark color returning to her irises. Understanding flashed between the two of them. Amber looked on, biting her lip.
Argenta tilted her head in Amber’s direction. “Give my greetings to Viridius, when you see him. Farewell, children.”
The name tickled something in Amber’s memory. She began, “Who is–?” But Naia tugged at her cloak and demanded, “Help me up, Amber, so I can say goodbye properly. My legs are all wobbly.” In her exhilarated state, she was more likely to pull Amber down, and it took a few moments and a sharp comment or two before both girls were on their feet.
They turned to the cabin. Amber drew in a sharp breath.
Argenta no longer stood on the porch. And the porch itself and the cabin behind it were quietly dissolving to mist.
Author’s Note: Ooh, mysteries. What is Amber not ready to know? Who is Viridius? I’ve been wanting to tease these for a while. Along with the Red Dawn from last time, they’re part of the overarching plot of the Heartwood Chronicles. Also, writing magical fights is a stretching experience for me. Luckily I have lots of anime-watching to draw on, ha ha.
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