Amber barely had time to brace herself for impact, much less throw together a shielding spell. Darkness lunged towards her face, sharp-edged and fanged.
Silver light, harsh and sudden, bloomed in the room. Amber squeezed her tearing eyes shut. A high-pitched screech reverberated in her skull. She clapped her hands to her aching ears.
It took Amber several moments to clear the light spots from her vision. The room darkened once more. Behind her, the creature in the cocoon, its energy spent in that one burst, hung quiet and exhausted. In front of her, its shadowy predator writhed on the floor and skittered under a tub.
Drat. It wasn’t dead.
Whatever it was.
“Thank you,” she whispered to the winged creature that had saved her. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
Her attacker under the tub was a dark blot in the pattern. She had hardly pinpointed it when it arrowed at her again, aiming for her feet.
Amber shook the pattern, sent it tumbling over into a corner.
Had she really heard it snap its teeth together as it missed her ankle by an inch?
No time to think. It was back.
Amber retreated, almost into the closet. Its teeth snagged the hem of her skirt. She kicked it away, the motion emphasized with a magical push. Material tore as the shadow scudded back, then caught itself, a puddle of darkness upon the floor.
Amber breathed hard. The shadow was a fraction of her size—it shouldn’t be so pernicious and hard to get rid of!
I need help. Her mind flipped through faces—not Lisette nor Troi, couldn’t bring Ainsley into this, definitely not Master Zoya, Jex had already been kind enough…
And what if this was a test? Shouldn’t she succeed or fail on her own merits?
No. There was more at stake than a passing grade. There was a helpless creature behind her. The shadow’s teeth would tear it to shred.
Her brain settled on Kael’s face, complete with grin. She didn’t like owing him, but still…
Swiftly, she imposed her memory of Kael on a stray wisp in the pattern. Find! she commanded and pushed it through the threads.
Memory was fast, quicksilver. The spell disappeared and Amber eyed the shadow, lying too quiescent on the floor.
Under tubs and in the corners, movement fluttered, darkness flowed.
This has to be a joke! Amber’s eyes widened.
The thing was trying to grow.
Not while I’m here! Amber poured power into parts of the pattern, holding them rigid. The threads became rods, crystallized into geometric shapes, keeping the shadow thing apart. Its dark myriad parts strained against the strangely heavy air. Amber nudged a rod here, shifted a surface there, trying to cage them one by one.
Her brain throbbed, her head threatened to split. Her mental grip on the pattern was slick with strain and panic; she was barely holding on as it was. Something snapped and several shadows slithered over to join the central part. It spiraled up into a column of darkness, gaining more edges. The sense of sharpness emanating from it increased, as if the contents of a hundred knife blocks had been consolidated into one burgeoning monster.
Amber gave up the losing battle, pulling all her senses back towards her. She gathered threads, leeched grey, around her in a kind of armor. Armor made of cobwebs, but at least it was something.
She raised her chin and said to the growing thing, “Bring it on.”
Shadows coalesced into a monstrous form. Wings bladed out from its back. Eyes gleamed red.
The roar echoed. Behind the monster, the air turned red and yellow and orange. A blast of heat nearly shriveled Amber’s eyeballs.
Fire engulfed the shadow creature. For a moment it was a black twist of agony, then it shivered into a million specks of ash.
The flames died down, but the light remained, incongruously yellow and cheerful.
“Hey.” Kael strolled across the laundry. “Got yourself into a spot of trouble, huh?”
Amber shut her mouth and eyed the blackened walls, singed sheets, and one half-melted tub.
“So have you,” she commented.
He looked around and groaned.
“And what’s worse…” Amber spun around and hurried to the closet. “You’ve near fried this poor thing!” Not only was the silver creature exhausted, it was now also dehydrated. She looked in dismay at its crumpled greyish wings and collapsed body.
Kael peered over her shoulder and let out a low whistle. “Wow. It’s a memory moth. The caterpillar must have made its way here last autumn.”
“We need water for it, quick.” Luckily this was the laundry. Amber hurried over to a faucet in the wall, scooping a bucket along the way. She had to twist hard, but plenty of water clanged into the bucket.
She placed the bucket on the closet floor.
“I don’t think immersing it is a good idea,” commented Kael.
She gave him her best do-you-think-I’m-an-idiot look? “If we can get the moisture in the air, it’ll help. Can you heat this so it turns into mist? Gently?”
He made a face at her, but squatted down willingly enough. After a bit, water bubbled and vapor rose into the air. Amber channeled the heat of it out of the closet, through the pattern, and into a far wall. Stone could handle it.
After some time, Kael rose and examined the moth. “It does look better.”
The creature waved its legs and flicked its wings. Amber thought it was grateful, maybe too much so. After all, Kael had nearly fried it.
He frowned. “It’s all tangled up, though. Reminds me of that Hopeswell bakery.”
Amber sighed. “I know. I’ll take care of it. Keep the light on.”
Working slowly, delicately, Amber unknotted, unraveled, and snipped away the last of Stunning Spells’ horribly clinging magic. Kael looked on interestedly over her shoulder.
“Your magic is amazing,” he said. “I knew you’d fit right in here. Did you sign the contract yet?”
“Contract?” Amber echoed. She struggled to put the bits and pieces of her interview with the Headmaster together. She had the nagging feeling that something important had faded from her memory.
Memory. Memory moth. She looked at the half-emerged creature, fully the length of her forearm, its wings lacy and shot with iridescent blue. A tenuous idea was beginning to form in her mind…
“Yes, contract!” Kael took her by the shoulders, turned her around, and gave her a gentle push towards the doorway. “I’ll keep an eye on the moth; you get yourself properly registered. Turn left, upstairs, then the second right. Go on.”
“But…” Amber began, then stopped when she caught his unwontedly stern expression. “All right, all right.” Propelled by Kael’s urgency, she hurried out of the laundry, her mind spinning with questions.
Have I even been offered a position here? Is it time-limited? What’s up with the underground levels of this place?
One thing is for sure: I’m going to need some answers!
Author’s Note: Happy New Year! Sorry this is a little late–I wrote most of this on Wednesday, but it was missing just a little something and it wasn’t until today that I figured out what. Memory moth, huh? I don’t know much about it yet, but it’s definitely Magical and Important. Actually the whole theme of remembering is becoming rather important in this story. I wonder how it’s going to play it over time!