Idiot! But if I splat in the courtyard below, so will he. Wind rushed past Amber, squeezing the breath out of her. She screwed her eyes shut.
Suns winked into view under her, and then she was landing on something warm and solid and altogether alive. Amber fell to her knees, her fingers brushing against rough fur and clenching in long mane. An animal smell, pungent and golden, came to her nose.
Amber lifted her head. Huge golden cat body under her, huge golden cat head with large rounded ears in front of her. Feathered wings on either side beat through the air in vast sweeps.
Hurriedly, she sat up, her legs tucked awkwardly along one side of the beast to avoid its wings.
If she’d known riding was on the agenda, she wouldn’t have worn a skirt.
Kael, crouched behind her, yelled, “Isn’t this great?”
More of the cat-birds flew around them, each with one, two, or more students on its back. Far below, tiny black figures spilled onto the courtyard in front of the school, waving their arms.
“Slackers,” said Kael.
“Aren’t these—aren’t these flying cats yuka?” Amber shouted.
“They’re silfyls,” he shouted back. “We have a contract with them for transportation. They don’t count as yuka.”
So, there are monsters and there are monsters. That’s good to know.
The silfyl’s ears flickered. How much does it understand us?
They flew above the farmlands. A flock of vile-smelling, screeching birds rocketed towards them. Kael leaned forward and tapped the silfyl on the shoulder. It dropped, and Amber’s stomach with it.
The ground rushed up to meet them, alarmingly fast.
“Time to get off here, Amber,” Kael called. “You’ll be safer on the ground.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Ready?”
Amber gulped and prepared to jump. “I-I think so.” New grass lay in a carpet underneath. She was willing to be bet it wasn’t nearly cushioned enough.
Kael gave her a little push. “See you later!” Amber half-leaped, half-slid off the silfyl. “Bye!” he yelled.
A magical wind caught and slowed Amber long enough for her to throw together a simple buffer spell. Troi is being helpful? Would wonders never cease.
A gold streak to her right caught her attention. Kael and the silfyl, surging back up.
Amber landed less than gracefully, nearly falling onto her hands and knees. Recovering her footing, she looked around.
She was in a grove of apple trees, each draped in a lace of white blossoms, with stone-walled fields behind her. A stretch of stony, broken ground led to the forest ahead.
A bunch of monsters were currently charging across it.
Silfyls wheeled and dove all around them, dropping passengers. Amber saw Kael leap over the head of his silfyl, straight at a yuka that seemed to be made of stone. Heat shimmered off him in waves as he struck, sending the monster staggering backwards. Kael followed that up with a series of flaming punches and kicks.
And he wasn’t the only impressive one out there. Sun mages in the sky held off the reeking birds, Lisette darting silver-quick and silver-bright between them. She fought with a fan in each hand, spinning the sharp-edged steel weapons into blurs. Her attacks were taut and white, like drawn bow-strings, in Amber’s mage sight.
Troi floated in the air, wind whips lashing both birds and smaller land yuka. Two other boys worked together to freeze a yuka in its tracks. A girl ran in front of Amber, dragging a staff through the ground. She swung the staff like a croquet mallet, and a line of pebbles rained like missiles onto a group of chittering yuka that looked like demented monkeys.
I’ve never seen anything like this.
Everywhere she looked, sun mages—all young—fought yuka with a strength and skill that seemed to come straight out of story lore.
So this is what magic can be. Excitement stirred in Amber’s blood. I should help. She wove a pattern around the horde of demon monkeys, but a silver-blond boy and the earth-girl drove the pack back. She’d barely gotten started on one of the stone yuka when Kael smashed into it and Troi lashed the remaining rubble back into the air and into the birds.
Something shadowy and slick, like an oil spill, slithered past her. Amber twitched lines to trap it, but she was too slow. Turning her head, she saw it flitter into a group of yuka. Sun mages were already upon it.
Amber gritted her teeth. Do I even have a place here?
The mages’ suns were so bright, so beautiful. Amber stepped back, observing how the magical nodes were like constellations of stars, wheeling and turning together. Lines stretched between them.
There is something I can do. She set to work unsnarling a knot here, tightening some give there, smoothing out the pattern between the sun mages and the environment. She cut the yuka’s suns from the pattern, slowing them down, confusing their senses.
There. Now all the mages with a be a little faster, a little stronger. They might not notice what she’d done, but she’d cleaned up the pattern. She’d smoothed the way.
Kael dropped another yuka, turned his head, and gave Amber a thumbs-up.
Well, maybe someone noticed.
Perhaps I do have a place here, after all.
Author’s Note: Happy Thanksgiving to US folks! I kinda wish this episode was about food, but maybe a large cat-bird creature will do instead.