The null-spells were rather good for being mass-made and generic. Still, as Amber hurried down corridors paneled in honey-colored wood, she tweaked hers to make absolutely certain that the green sludge upon the floor didn’t harden around her feet or that the cloud of evilly glinting forks lurking around the corner came within stabbing distance.
Lisette marched along, ignoring booby traps, surges of power, and distant screams. “This is the Great Hall,” she announced, throwing open a set of double doors. She strode rapidly through the empty chamber. Behind her, Amber had a confused impression of vast space, trestle tables, and weird-shaped objects lining the walls high overhead.
Then they were out through doors on the other side and into hallways that turned and rose and dipped, snake-like. The floor underfoot was of uneven stone now, with smooth-worn hollows and upthrust edges.
“Careful,” admonished Lisette as Amber tripped on one and caught herself, her palm scraping along the wall. Magic, deep buried, tingled against her skin. The pattern ran through the structure in skeins. Amber wanted to stop and explore it, to run her fingers through its enchanted fibers. But Lisette kept up a brisk pace and Amber had to keep up or be left behind.
Later, she promised herself. And, remembering she hadn’t committed to this place, she added, Maybe.
Lisette pointed to narrow stairs winding down into darkness. “Down here’s the armory—you need a permission slip to get in, though we keep our personal weapons with us at all time.” Amber didn’t need the warning; she could sense the sharp thorns and sharp edges of the spells around the place. Prickles ran up and down her spine.
Complex, delicate webbing of magic surrounded the next set of doors Lisette stopped at. She flung open one of the intricately carved leaves, revealing floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a light orb in the center of the ceiling. “This is the library, but it’s worth more than my life if I let you grub around here without the Librarian around.” Amber had barely a glimpse of rows upon rows of bound books before Lisette shut the door and continued on. Wistful regret wrenched at Amber as they clattered down a straight narrow stairway that stopped abruptly in front of an exterior door.
They spilled into the sunshine, Amber blinking in the brilliant light. The two crunched across a courtyard, Lisette pointing out, “Flower Gardens, Kitchen Gardens, Healing Gardens, Poison Garden, Experimental Gardens.” A heavenly aroma of roasting meat and fresh bread made Amber yearn towards it.
Lisette grabbed her by the collar. “We’re not going to go to the kitchens or else we’ll be stuck there for hours. The kitchen staff love novelty, and you’re the first new face we’ve had over here in months. Come along.”
She dragged Amber away, and then spent an inordinately long time detailing all the features of the school’s many and extensive training grounds. Amber’s eyes glazed over, but thankfully, Lisette headed back to the buildings before she fell asleep.
“Those low buildings you can see in opposite directions”—Amber’s head turned to the left and the right—“are the dormitories. Girls’ to the left, boys’ to the right. The Masters have some nice lodgings among those brick buildings down there.”
Then it was back inside another wing where Amber saw door after door of classrooms, practice rooms, still rooms and laboratories galore, all taking up the second and third floors.
A group of boys, no older than fourteen, ambushed them from a classroom, waving staves. Energy crackled all around Amber, and she hastily erected a barrier around herself.
“Null spells, numb skulls.” Lisette tapped the flower at her should. “Wouldn’t you be better off attacking Troi and Kael? Their hideout’s up in the attics near the northeast tower, and I know for a fact they haven’t discovered thet passageway that leads through the birdloft into it.”
The boys’ expressions went simultaneously blissful and devilish. Amber couldn’t decide if the effect was adorable or creepy.
“Thanks, Lisette!” said one, and the whole caboodle went charging the opposite way.
“Isn’t that unsporting of you, Lisette?” Amber ventured.
Lisette shrugged. “Those two nearly always win on Fools’ Day. I’m just making the competition more interesting. These stairs, here.” Lisette moved aside a wall-hanging and started up a winding staircase. Light slanted in from narrow arrow-slits in the wall.
“Here we are,” Lisette pressed her hand against the door at the top. It had no visible lock or handle, just hinges. The pattern within the wood shifted as the spell registered Lisette.
Oh, I could do that myself, she thought smugly.
The door swung open and they stepped out onto the roof.
A stiff breeze, smelling of pine and earth, blew Amber’s braid back in a waving banner. “What’s up here?” she shouted.
Lisette leaned against the parapet, beckoned Amber to join her. “Look!” she yelled.
To the east spread the town of Carradia. Beyond it was the wide curve of its harbor, populated with ships made absurdly small by the distance. Light rippled off waves in the open sea.
Farmland sprawled in a patchwork quilt to the south, fields and pastures divided by stone walls. Streams and irrigation channels threaded silver through new green and rich brown; a larger river wound like a ribbon towards the sea. Dark forests flooded the north and west; mountains rose like shattered teeth beyond them.
Once again, Amber felt that shivery feeling that was equal parts fear and excitement.
These are the Wild Lands. This is the place of Wild Magic.
Lisette’s eyes were fierce and far-seeing. A strange kind of watchful contentment was on her face, reminding Amber of a bird of prey. Her gaze fell on the wings over Lisette’s shoulder.
She’s a creature of high places and sharp light, of wings and winds. Whereas, me, I’m more like a chicken, content to roost in a comfortable place.
A sharp scent came to Amber’s nose. To the west, lines of magic whipped, went taut, then tugged. A small cry echoed inside Amber’s skull. She winced.
Lisette’s head turned in the same direction. Her eyes narrowed. “There’s something wrong—”
“Hey, Lisette.” Kael burst through the tower door, Troi at his heels. “What do you mean by–?” He came to a sudden stop, tense and listening. A light flared in his golden eyes. “Yuka.”
Lisette whirled. “We must—”
An alarm shrilled, screaming down her nerves. Amber jumped, her heart thudding against her ribcage.
“Masters are in a meeting,” Troi said, off-handedly.
“It’s only on yellow alert,” added Lisette, thoughtfully.
“We can take them on!” Kael leapt on top of the parapet. “Come on.” He held out his hand to Amber.
How can these sun mages stand the noise? Amber’s head was about to split. The din spread throughout the pattern, magical strands blurring and thrumming. Panic, broken-winged and bubbling, fluttered inside her chest. Amber clutched Kael’s hand, swallowed down the feeling.
“You all right?” His golden gaze was narrowed, intent.
Abruptly, the alarm cut off. Amber almost stumbled in her relief, then realized she was holding tightly onto a boy’s hand. Flushing, she clambered up beside Kael, but didn’t know how to break their hold without being completely awkward.
“I’m fine,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“Monsters from the forests, attacking the fields. They always grow crazier at planting time.” Lisette thrust her arms through the straps of her wings, sprang onto the ledge, and dove off.
“Look lively,” said Troi and leapt after her.
Kael grinned. “You’re lucky, Amber. We didn’t have a yuka attack for three months after I got here. Let’s go.”
Too late. He put an arm around her waist and jumped.
Author’s Note: Weird. I scheduled this episode… or so I thought. It just disappeared? Anyway, magical schools are fun to write. Amber may not always enjoy the goings-on at Heartwood, but I certainly enjoy writing them!
I have three episodes scheduled to finish out November. December episodes may be scarce, just realistically looking at my schedule and judging from my past performance, fyi!