Hello, Heartwood readers! It’s been a while since my last update. I’ve been busy working on Book 3 of my Reflected City series, but I took some time out to work on a Heartwood story for you. This takes place right after where the e-book exclusive story ends BUT you do not need to have read that one to enjoy “Amber and the Odd Job.”
Now on to the story!
The client’s name was Wisteria Plumepuff, and she lived on the outskirts of Carradia. She’d reported a haunting at her house on—here Amber stopped reading the yellow form and exclaimed, “Kael, this was posted nine weeks ago!”
Kael, ambling beside her down a quiet lane overhung with willow branches, said, “Yeah. It was the oldest job. That’s why I took it. Did you want to look for the lost purse or handle the infestation of flour weevils instead?”
Amber shook her head. “It shouldn’t take this long for a Heartwood mage to attend to a request. I thought we were supposed to build goodwill with the people of Carradia. A much-delayed response isn’t going to help. Why aren’t the local jobs on the crysts?”
She was asking the wrong person. As far as she knew, Kael didn’t even know where his was.
He shrugged. “Probably because Ainsley’s at the front desk most of the time. She’s more of a pen and paper type. She very nearly didn’t let me take this in the first place. It broke up the symmetry of the butterfly pattern she’d created on the job board.”
Amber stared, momentarily speechless. Heartwood’s approach to administration, she’d learned over the weeks, was highly individual and often lackadaisical. She thought she was getting used to it.
Apparently not. Her orderly soul shriveled at the thought of organizing job requests by butterfly design. She took a deep breath.
“By the way,” Kael said, forestalling the tirade, “you look nice.”
Amber sighed. “That was a blatantly transparent attempt to change the subject,” she said, “but thank you.” She smoothed down the fabric of her new skirt, even though it was quite unwrinkled. Made of thick fabric in Heartwood red, it made her stand out more than she was used to. A white shirt, collared, buttoned-down and tucked in, and a fawn-colored jacket completed the ensemble. Her Heartwood badge was pinned on the jacket’s left breast pocket, indicating that she was on academy business.
Kael, too, wore a badge, though his look was more on the tousled and careless side. She almost envied him his casual ease. Had she overdone her own outfit? If only the skirt wasn’t so…so…red.
If it were less red, it would be pink, she reasoned. Still, the respectful greetings the Carradians had given her and Kael in town made her want to sink into the pavement with awkward embarrassment.
He belonged; she wasn’t so sure about herself.
“Amber, Amber.” Kael’s voice snapped her out of her reverie. From the exaggerated patience of his tone, he’d been trying to get her attention for a while.
Amber blinked. Kael stood by a broad track going off to the left. “What is it?” she asked.
“We’re here.” Kael pointed up the lane. A farmhouse sat atop a small rise, the sort of building you’d find inland on Ravin, whitewashed with blue shutters, pitched grey roofs, and a porch that wrapped around the house. The forest formed a looming crescent circle behind it.
Amber and Kael strolled up the track, lined with birches on both sides. Their slender white trunks were topped by a spring finery of young green.
A heavyset man, carrying a leather bag and wearing a purple vest, trudged down the track from the house. His head was down, chin tucked into his chest, oblivious to their presence.
Kael called out a greeting. The man looked up, thick eyebrows drawn together. His black eyes glared.
“Nice day, isn’t it?” said Kael cheerfully.
The man grunted something unintelligible and bulled past the Heartwood mages. Amber skittered out of the way, but his arm brushed against hers for an instant. She caught sight of his pattern, suns small but misshapen, twists of indigo. The small dirt-dispelling charm in her jacket snapped apart, smacking and flaring against her skin. She winced.
“You okay?” Kael asked.
“Yeah.” Amber rubbed her forearm, staring after the man. The pattern skewed slightly around him. The yellow lettering on the back of his jacket read STUNNING SPELLS. A jagged lightning bolt separated the words.
Stunning Spells strikes again.
“What was that magic?” Kael asked.
Amber grimaced. “Some sort of pattern disruption. The spell it unraveled in my jacket wasn’t robust to begin with.” The other spells in her clothes remained, though they vibrated indignantly. “I don’t think he knows he’s doing it, though.” There had been no intentionality in that small burst of magic.
“Hmm.” Kael looked at the retreating man, his gold eyes intense, his usually laughing face serious.
“He’s not strong enough to do much damage,” Amber said. “I think.” Sometimes Kael could be downright scary. “Let’s go.” She started towards the house again. After a moment, Kael followed.
The last thing Amber said before she knocked on the front door was, “Let me do the talking.” She rapped and stood back, wondering what a Wisteria Plumepuff would look like. She imagined a small, plump woman with wispy hair—probably purple.
She didn’t have long to wait. As the door was wrenched open, Amber put on a bright smile and nudged Kael to stop slouching.
The woman on the other side was tall, with dark hair in tortuous curls, a long, lugubrious face, and spectacles. She wore a deep purple dress with several necklaces of varying lengths. Ceramic pendants hung from each chain.
She peered shortsightedly and suspiciously at Amber. “Yes?”
“We’re from Heartwood Academy, ma’am.” Amber held out the job request. “We’re here to look into the haunting.”
“Oh.” The woman glanced down at the request, then back up at Amber and Kael. Her eyes behind the lenses were very blue. “You’re a bit late. The man from Stunning Spells came out a month ago to take care of it. He returned today to check up on the spell he installed. He left only a few minutes ago; you just missed him.”
And who knows what all he messed up in the meantime. “I’m sorry it took us so long to respond,” said Amber, “but could we take a look around, just to make sure everything’s all right?”
“It’s free of charge,” Kael added.
Amber’s smile froze.
Miss Plumepuff pushed her spectacles back on her nose and started doubtfully at them. “You are very young, both of you.” She sighed. “I suppose it can’t hurt. My studio’s been almost too hot recently.” She clumped onto the porch. Under the purple dress she wore sensible boots. “Come on then.”
Amber hung back as the woman descended the steps. “I was going to offer her a discount,” she hissed at Kael.
“You said to build goodwill,” he reminded her. “Besides, those goons at Stunning Spells almost killed a memory moth. Don’t you want to make sure they don’t mess something else up?”
He had a point. “Yeah, I do,” said Amber grimly.
Miss Plumepuff led them behind her house and down the short slope to a barn. The forest had crept close to the building. Amber caught sight of still-bare branches of maples and elms amongst the dark green firs.
Huh. That’s funny. The slope is south-facing. It should get a lot more sun.
Indeed, a cold aura surrounded the barn, the chill soaking through her light jacket. Amber shivered and folded her arms around herself.
Miss Plumepuff hauled one of the big barn doors open. “Come on in,” she called over her shoulder. “There’s plenty of room.”
Kael entered first, Amber crowding in behind him. A familiar jangle rang in her head.
She grimaced. Yet another malfunctioning spell.
Kael turned and gave her a questioning look. Amber activated one of the spells she wore, the one imprinted in her hair tie. It readjusted the pattern around her, sending the worst of the discordant vibrations around her. The noise in her head eased, and she gave him a small I’m-okay gesture.
“This is my studio,” Miss Plumepuff announced from the middle of the space, hands on her hips. Despite its openness, it was quite warm. Large windows let in the afternoon sunlight. “Try to be careful, please.”
“Wow.” Kael wandered over to a huge brick kiln on one side. “This is amazing.”
When Wisteria Plumepuff had mentioned studio, Amber had half-expected easels and canvases. It was, however, clear from the wheel, the kiln, the long tables and smell of clay that Miss Plumepuff was a potter.
Oh, and the long shelves crowded with pots and mugs and plates were a dead giveaway.
Highly breakable pots and mugs and plates. Amber darted a warning look at Kael, which he completely missed since he was still examining the kiln.
“Can you tell me about your…uh… haunting problem?” Amber asked.
The woman shuddered. “Oh, it was quite horrible. I felt something watching me, something with cold breath and malicious gaze. It was right there.” She pointed dramatically to a spot behind Amber.
Amber spun around, expecting to see an old blood stain, but that section of stone floor looked just the same as the rest.
“Did you see the… um… apparition?” she asked.
Miss Plumepuff shook her head. “Never. But it watched me, I’m sure of it, from there”—her finger moved to a closet—“and over there.” She pointed to a spot under a window sill covered in potted plants, still flowering.
Kael sauntered over to the sill and peered at the pots. They contained bell-shaped flowers of deep blue. “These are bitter blues, aren’t they?”
Miss Plumepuff beamed. “Yes. They’re my favorite flowers, but it’s hard to keep them blooming all winter long. One of my friends sent me this variety she’s grown in her hothouse…” Having pegged Kael as a fellow lover of flora, she launched into a monologue about hybrids, fertilizer, and soil composition.
Amber used this opportunity to track down Stunning Spells’ charm. It was near the kiln, wedged behind a stack of firewood. Amber peered at it with both her normal sight and her mage senses. A hollow ceramic sphere around a runic core, it had been painted purple and yellow. Clearly, Stunning Spells had updated their branding.
Myriad wires snaked out of the ceramic shell, their ends taped to the wall and floor. Pattern strands, pulsating red, bunched in cords around the wires. Heat came off in waves from the spell.
Amber grimaced. Of course. Stunning Spells had treated the symptoms, not the disease. Miss Plumepuff had complained about cold spots in her studio, so all Stunning Spells did was to get rid of them.
By pulling heat from the outside and dumping it inside the barn.
A lot of heat, judging from the thickness, color, and overall energy of the pattern around the spell.
Great, thought Amber unhappily. All this heat is just masking the cold spots. I’d have to unplug the spell, wait a few days for the pattern to normalize, then come back and investigate what might’ve caused them in the first place.
Somehow, given the way the woman had looked earlier, she doubted Miss Plumepuff would agree to that.
Amber made a This-isn’t-going-to-be-easy face at Kael from behind Miss Plumepuff. His gold eyes flickered in her direction; he gave a slight nod, and then deftly maneuvered their still-talking client to the door.
“Goodness me, here I am taking up all your time when you just wanted to look around.” Miss Plumepuff gave a girlish giggle. “Come up to the house when you’re done. I just baked some lemon cookies. Oh, and give the door a hard shove on your way out—it doesn’t shut all the way sometimes.”
As soon as Kael had shut the door—hard—behind Miss Plumepuff, Amber gave him the bad news. “No wonder the trees behind the barn haven’t leafed yet,” she finished unhappily. “The spell’s pulling a lot of heat from the surroundings. I’m surprised it hasn’t fizzled out or worse, started a fire already. Stunning Spells isn’t known for solid and safe workmanship.”
“They sent that guy here today.” Kael peered behind the potted bitter blues, then examined the glazed vases on a nearby shelf. Miss Plumepuff’s style ran to squat, odd-shaped, and brightly colored. “Would his magic twist the spell like this?”
Amber winced. “Yeah, probably. It was put near the kiln first, to draw excess heat from there. But someone with disruptive magic on even a small scale could mess up Stunning Spells’ shoddy work, no doubt about it. Now it’s pulling heat from outside and shows no sign of stopping until it overloads. Those people are a menace, I tell you.”
“Hmm.” Kael knelt down and looked into the gap under a closed cupboard.
Amber put her hands on her hips. “Kael, why’re you looking inside pots and under furniture?”
“Searching for a frost mouse.”
“A frost mouse. We get them around here sometimes.” Kael rose to his feet and gestured in the direction of the forest. “The bitter blues reminded me of them. Bitter blues expel their seeds when it gets cold in the fall. Frost mice like to eat them, so they’ll often hurry up the withering stage by making it colder around the plants.”
Amber’s eyes widened. “Oh! Miss Plumepuff did say she noticed cold spots near the window.” She frowned. “Just how big is a frost mouse, anyway?” She hadn’t signed up to battle giant rodents.
“Normal-sized for a mouse. It’d fit in my hand,” said Kael from under a table. “Hey, couldn’t you use your witchy sensing magic to find it? I bet you could.”
Amber was still thinking. “I’m assuming a frost mouse doesn’t have that much of a range. The bitter blues aren’t that big either; it wouldn’t take a lot of cold to speed up their seed dispersal process. But Stunning Spells’ magic is dumping a lot of heat into the studio. It should be boiling in here. So, the question is this: Just where is all that energy going?”
Kael emerged from under the table, his gaze fixed on a point above Amber’s head. “Uh, Amber? I think we’re about to find out.”
Amber spun, following his gaze up to the hayloft. Something large and sinuous—about the size of a dog—rustled in the straw.
Its pattern was a knotted mess. Thick cords of reddish energy clung to it.
Amber squeaked and hid behind Kael. The creature landed with a thump, a grunt, and a scrabble of paws. Its eyes gleamed red, its long snout opened to reveal needle-like teeth. Its sinuous body was a dark grey and a long, worm-like tail slithered behind it. Waves of chill emanated from its fur.
“How’s that a frost mouse?” Amber demanded. “It’s a giant ice rat!”
Drool dripped from the creature’s jaw, long trails of saliva that puddled on the floor. Ew!
“The spell must’ve changed it,” Kael said. “Look, it’s hurt.”
Indeed, the giant rodent appeared to be having a bad time of it. It scratched an eye with a paw, staggered off balance, nearly flopped onto one side.
It didn’t have the hang of moving the large body it currently occupied.
Well, that’s one good thing at least. Maybe capturing it won’t be so hard after all.
The rodent glared at the Heartwood mages. Its muscles bunched and gathered.
It leapt right at Kael.
Kael’s suns flared. He punched the creature in the face, his fist wrapped in heat-shimmer and fire-yellow.
The rodent sailed through the air and landed on its back, squealing and writhing. The thick pattern cords wrapped around it flared red and dug cruelly into the creature. Its pattern fluxed.
“Kael…” Amber warned.
The rodent rolled onto its paws, muscles rippling, fur sparking.
Is it just my imagination or did it just get larger?
The rodent opened its mouth. An icy blast—likely mixed with rat drool, gross—sent Amber staggering back a step. The temperature plummeted. Frost clung to Amber’s face and nipped her ears.
“Don’t use your magic!” Amber yelled as Kael moved in again. “Heat’s just going to make it bigger!”
“I got it.” Kael pounced on the rodent, trying to pin it to the ground. The creature fought back, writhing furiously, snapping at whatever part of Kael was nearest.
What if it’s carrying a disease? He could get infected and turn into a zombie! “Be careful!” she yelled. She tugged at the pattern strands dumping energy into the creature. But they were sunk deep into the rodent’s body and burned her mage senses. Amber hissed in pain. Even if she did manage to yank them out, she didn’t know what would happen.
Probably an explosion of rat all over Miss Plumepuff’s studio.
Amber didn’t relish the idea.
The rodent bucked and knocked Kael into a set of shelves. It tilted dangerously. Amber wrapped pattern threads around it, keeping the shelves from falling over.
The items upon it weren’t as lucky.
Clay vases and pots rained down on the combatants and smashed to pieces on the floor.
This couldn’t go on—she had to do something. Ice skimmed the surface of the table and crawled up the glass windows. The bitter blues, so bright a moment ago, withered, petals turning brown and shedding across the sill.
Yet another thing Miss Plumepuff’s going to hate us for.
Amber’s breath misted in front of her face as she scrambled over to the firewood. Heat wrapped around Stunning Spells’ charm. The colder it got, the more energy it drew from the outside and poured into the rat. The ceramic shell sizzled and jumped. Sparks exploded out of it, showering upon the split logs. Amber covered her face with her arm.
Fire and ice at the same time? Give me a break! Amber hastily coated the wood with a slick fire-proof pattern. Then she went back to wrestling with the threads that connected the spell to the enlarged frost mouse. The threads stung as slid and twisted in her mental grip.
“Amber,” Kael called with clenched-teeth calm, his hands around the rodent’s neck, keeping its snout away from himself. The writhing creature pushed Kael into a table covered with unglazed pots. Amber hurriedly stabilized the teetering ceramics, but a couple got away from her and crashed onto the ground. “Can’t you do something about this guy?”
“The stupid Stunning spell is sunk in too deep!” Amber snarled. “It burns to the touch and the rat keeps moving besides! This isn’t as easy as it looks, Kael!”
“Oh, you need it to stop moving?” Kael balled his hand into a fist and slammed it into the rat’s head.
The creature went boneless on the floor, a dazed look in its eyes. The cold waves it emanated ceased and Stunning Spells’ malfunctioning charm went from a sizzle to a menacing drone. The temperature in the studio slowly began to climb back up.
Amber surveyed the combatants, sprawled amongst pottery shards. “Good. Now take care of that thing.”
Kael and the rodent looked at her reproachfully.
“It’s not the frost mouse’s fault!” Kael pointed out. “It just had the bad luck to get caught in a badly-done spell. Frost mice are harmless, really. Can’t you do what you did with Flavius?”
“Flavius is a human being. This is a rat.”
“It’s a mouse,” Kael corrected. “Please?”
Really, it was ridiculous that both boy and rodent wore identical expressions of appeal. Amber sighed. “I’ll try. It’ll take a while though, and Miss Plumepuff might not be so forgiving when she sees this mess.” Trickles of melted water ran down the table legs.
“It’ll be best to take the mouse into the forest, anyway,” said Kael. “I’ll carry it.”
“You’d better. I’m not touching that.” Amber reached over to the troublesome spell that had caused their predicament in the first place. It was almost spent; when she poked it with a finger, the ceramic covering crumbled to dust. There was a brief flare of venom-green runes. Then they, too, dissipated. Amber broke off the connection to the frost mouse. The spell remnants still clung to the creature, but at least she’d cut off that nasty feedback loop.
“You should get out of here soon,” she told Kael. “I’d rather Miss Plumepuff not see the creature you’re trying to save. She might insist on killing it right here and now.
“And”—she looked around—“someone has to break the news to her—no pun intended. I suppose it’d better be me.”
Kael beamed, his expression warm and gold as the sun. “Thanks, Amber. I owe you one.”
“You’d better remember that,” she said, turning away so he wouldn’t see the answering twitch of a smile on her face. She really shouldn’t be feeling so light inside when he’d just talked her into playing doctor to a rodent, of all things.
“Everything going all right?” Hours later, Kael slipped back into the clearing and put something warm and woolen around Amber’s shoulders.
A coat. Amber snuggled gratefully into it. Bluish-silver rune lights cast a moon glow in the deepening twilight, but they held no warmth at all.
“Yep. In the end, all I had to do really was remove the nasty leftover bits of that spell. The frost mouse’s body wanted to return to its normal self. I made sure it didn’t revert too fast—that would’ve killed the creature, I think.”
“Thanks, Amber.” Kael sat down next to her and placed a basket in front of them. “I brought food.”
The basket was large enough to hold dinner for ten. Amber’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. She fairly snatched the sandwich Kael offered out of his hand.
“How’d it go with Miss Plumepuff?” Kael asked. “You didn’t say earlier.”
“Terrible. Even after I explained that it was all Stunning Spells’ fault, she still persisted in saying we were no better. I had to offer to pay damages—that ate up a chunk of my sign-in bonus.”
“You should’ve just let Heartwood deal with that.”
“Are you kidding? If there’s an official complaint against me, it’d affect my performance raises in the future! I can’t have that!” Amber waved her half-eaten sandwich for emphasis.
Kael laughed. “You worry about the weirdest things, you know.”
“It’s weird to me that you don’t,” Amber muttered.
“I didn’t have much to do with money growing up.” Kael shrugged. “It’s not like I need it. I get food and shelter at Heartwood. What else would I need besides clothes and shoes once in a while?”
“I guess we just have different ideas about money,” said Amber. “It’s not like I need a lot of it. I just like to know I have enough, in case.”
“In case what?”
“In case something unexpected happens.” Maybe Kael’s happy-go-lucky attitude had worked so far for him, but Amber knew the importance of a rainy day fund. She could still remember the strain in her mother’s face as she counted coppas, always too few, never enough. Those days of scarcity were long gone, but Amber had learned her lesson.
“That’s fair.” Rune lights sparked on the shell-feathers in Kael’s hair. “Tell you what, though. I was responsible for most of the damages and you’re doing me a favor with the frost mouse, so I’ll cover them all.”
“You sure?” Amber was skeptical. Given his propensities, she suspected he’d had to pay out a lot in damages over the years.
“Of course.” Kael looked over to where the frost mouse lay sleeping in a nest made of his red scarf. “Hey, he’s waking up.”
Sure enough, the frost mouse stirred and sat up. Amber had to admit its normal form was cute. It had silvery fur, soft and cold to the touch, delicate snowflake ears, and appealing dark grey eyes. Its tail and claws were a crystalline white.
Kael coaxed the creature onto his hand and produced a brown seed-pod. He tapped seeds in front of the mouse, who took one in its front paws, sat up, and nibbled happily.
Amber raised her eyebrows. “Seeds from Miss Plumepuff’s precious hybrids?”
“I only took a few pods,” said Kael. “She has plenty left to grow her next set of flowers. She wanted to make improvements, anyhow. She didn’t quite like what her friend gave her.”
He placed the mouse gently on the ground and scattered the rest of the seeds around it. They sat in silence, while Amber and the mouse ate. When Amber silently offered Kael a sandwich or cupcake, he refused with a smile and small wave of his hand.
Huh. I thought he was always hungry.
They cleaned up the picnic things after Amber had had her fill. It was full dark now, and an owl hooted overhead. The frost mouse froze, whiskers twitching, then darted into the shadows under a nearby bush. Kael wrapped his scarf around his neck and picked up the basket. Amber was pretty sure the coat was his, but it was too warm to give up. She thrust her arms through the sleeves and followed him out of the clearing. The rune lights twinkled into non-existence behind them, but Kael found a stick, covered it in orange and yellow light, and held it up like a torch.
“I’m surprised you didn’t keep the frost mouse,” Amber commented finally. “You really like animals, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but I couldn’t keep one,” said Kael. “Pets are a big responsibility, and I’m gone a lot. I can’t always take an animal with me, and it’s not fair to leave one behind and ask other people take care of it—why are you looking at me like that?”
“Well,” Amber tried, unsuccessfully, to smother a smile. “Kael, Responsible Non-Pet Owner is not a side I’ve seen before. It’s kind of cute.”
They were both silent.
Amber thought, Uh-oh, here it comes.
Kael began, “So, you think I’m—”
“I said,” Amber jumped in, “that side of you is cute. Cute like a frost mouse. It’s a totally different thing.”
“I do not appreciate that skeptical tone, Kael.”
“What? I was just agreeing with you.”
“But—” Amber sighed. “Never mind. You’re hopeless.”
“And amazing.” Kael grinned. “And, apparently, cute.”
Amber just rolled her eyes.
Author’s Note: I’m having way too much fun with Amber and Kael’s interactions. I’m thinking about writing and posting Heartwood flashfic while I’m still working on the other book, so if there are characters you want to see more of (especially interactions between them), let me know! Thanks for sticking with me so far.