The new Heartwood arc begins! Enjoy.
Lisette ran in the dark, blundering through undergrowth and tripping over roots. A darker shape loomed suddenly in front of her; she veered, but not in time. Her shoulder clipped the tree trunk. Pain jolted through muscle and bone. Lisette gasped, and kept going.
Her shallow pants rasped in her burning lungs and filled her ears. Her muscles ached.
If only it wasn’t so dark! If only she could see!
Night smothered the forest. The sky above was layered with dark clouds, hiding moon and stars. It would storm soon—the scent of rain mingled with that of pine. Thunder growled in the distance.
Down on the forest floor, trees pressed their shadows upon Lisette’s tight shoulders. Nameless things rustled at the edge of her hearing.
They’d been keeping pace with her.
Lisette forced herself onward, fighting through clinging branches. Where was the village? Where was home? Desperately she scanned the unrelieved darkness for some hint of light.
Nearby, branches clattered together, went still. Dread crawled over Lisette’s skin. Fear was a hard, tight fist in her chest.
Something was stalking her. She felt its presence, clammy against her skin. A stirring of air brought its fetid breath to her nose.
A shape, darker than darkness, sprang towards her.
Fear turned to liquid, ran hot and molten through her body. With it flowed something else.
The bracelets upon her wrists snapped.
Light erupted, a white blaze exploding outwards. It caught the creature leaping for Lisette full in the face. She caught glimpses of green eyes, sharp-toothed snarl, smoke-textured body. The creature twisted mid-leap, fell to the side, whimpering. Trees, tall and stark, cast sharp, elongated shadows behind them. Eyes stared from within bushes—glowing green, yellow, red.
Lisette stumbled, her gaze sweeping down to where the ground dropped into darkness. Her foot slipped on damp grass.
The light vanished. The darkness rushed back. And, with a sharp, hopeless cry, Lisette plunged down the sheer drop into the unknown—
Lisette jerked awake, her stomach still clenched with bad memories. Her body had gone tight, rigid. Her fingers clutched grass, tearing it from the sod. Its scent was sharp in her nose.
No, no, no.
This wasn’t the forest. It wasn’t night time. She was no longer ten years old.
Lisette was behind the girl’s dormitory at Heartwood, and that memory was years past.
The present returned to her in bits and pieces. The rough weave of the rug under her stomach. The press of her cheek against grass. The sharp warmth of the sun against her bare back. The golden light of spring and the twitter of a distant bird.
That’s right. She’d come out here to soak up the sunlight. I must’ve fallen asleep. That was only a dream.
But why now, after all this time?
Lisette caught a damp scent and shifted her head. Amber had emerged from the back door, holding a basket against her hip. She walked over to the clothesline she’d put up for herself.
Oh, yeah. Lisette folded her arms and propped her chin upon them. She’s weird about her laundry.
Amber glanced over and raised her eyebrows. Here it comes, Lisette thought. “Uh, Lisette? You do realize you’re not, um, fully dressed, right?”
“Yes, Amber, I’m aware that I took off my shirt and pants,” said Lisette with exaggerated patience. She stretched her legs and wriggled her toes, enjoying the glide of light on her skin, the heaviness of it soaking into her suns. She hadn’t realized how depleted she’d been. Even all the third and fourth helpings she consumed couldn’t quite make up for the lack of real sunshine. “But I still have some clothes and a deflection spell on. If people are close enough to see anything, they shouldn’t be back here anyway.”
She gave Amber’s back a pointed glare.
“Shouldn’t be or won’t are two very different things.” Amber clipped a tunic to her clothesline. “Flavius wanted to carry this basket for me. I turned him down, but I could’ve said yes. Are you really okay with him seeing you like this?”
Lisette ignored the question. “He’s taken quite the shine to you. There’s no accounting for taste, is there?”
“I didn’t ask him to!” Amber spun around, her eyes narrowed in annoyance. “It’s all his own initiative—oh.” She saw Lisette’s grin and sighed. “Stop teasing—you’re as bad as Kael.” She turned back to her laundry.
“Kael is right,” Lisette called. “You are fun to wind up.”
Amber gave an exasperated scoff. Lisette chuckled. She’d found the pattern mage uptight and annoying at first, but Amber wasn’t a bad sort underneath all that rule-following primness. She had worked hard to help Flavius with his difficult shape-shifting magic, and Lisette didn’t question Amber’s courage, even if the pattern mage had a tendency to complain.
Yes, to her surprise, the new girl was fitting in just fine.
Actually, Amber wasn’t the new girl anymore, was she?
“Hey.” Lisette sat up cross-legged. Amber protested, “Lisette!” but Lisette’s mind was on something else. “How’s Troi’s girlfriend doing?”
“I think neither of them would appreciate you calling Naia Troi’s girlfriend.” Amber hung a skirt with unnecessary vigor. “And she’s doing quite fine, thanks. She already has two hundred friends on her cryst, joined five committees, and is leaning country dances on Tuesdays and card tricks on Thursdays.”
There was silence as Lisette digested all this. “Two hundred?” she asked finally.
“I didn’t think there were that many students at Heartwood,” Lisette went on.
Amber shrugged. “The staff have crysts, too. Including the pastry chef, the head cook, and the housekeeper. Naia’s friends with them all on her cryst.”
“Wow.” Lisette frowned. “What are the committees for?”
“Hmm, I don’t remember them all, but there’s one for the Midsummer Ball and another for the Heartwood-Carradia Goodwill Society. She also started a club called Kaidan Cultural Appreciation. Didn’t you get an invite?”
“Nah, I turned off all social notifications. I only want to hear from the people who want to actually talk to me.”
“And you’ve been gone a lot.” Amber tilted her head inquisitively. “Where’ve you been?”
“Are you being nosy again?” Lisette demanded.
“Unabashedly so.” Amber grinned. The mischievous look on her face was a far cry from her usual expression of guarded skepticism. She looked bright, even pretty.
Lisette found her own lips twitching into a smile. “I’m mostly running errands for Master Zoya, taking letters and parcels back and forth. Don’t ask me what’s in them, because I don’t know. But I’ve been up and down the coast from Blacktop to Hopeswell, so I think she’s gathering information and allies over the business in the Shattered Valley.” She rubbed the base of her neck, grimacing. She loved flying, but she’d been doing a lot of it recently.
Amber sobered up instantly. “I guess she wouldn’t tell us even if she found out anything.”
Lisette shrugged. “Master Zoya will tell us when Heartwood’s actually ready to do something about it. Until then just go on as normal.”
Amber sighed. She did a lot of that, Lisette thought. “Aren’t you at all curious?” Amber demanded.
“Yeah, but I’m not losing sleep over it.”
Amber huffed and stabbed a clothespin into another of her garments. “Oh, by the way, I heard a former Heartwood student’s back. Kitchen staff was quite worked up about it.”
Lisette stilled. “Who is it?”
“Hmm, I don’t quite remember.” Amber wrestled with a wet bedsheet, the last of her laundry. “Maybe something with a ‘T’? Tammi? Tamlin? Something like that?”
“It’s Tamsin.” Lisette lunged for her clothes, and wriggled into pants and shirt.
“Yeah, that sounds right. Friend of yours?”
Lisette laughed. “You could say that. She’s one of the very first Heartwood students!” She slung her metal wings over one shoulder and grabbed her shoes with one hand. “Hey, can you take this rug inside for me? It’s going to rain soon.”
Amber spluttered. “Wha-why? There’s not a cloud in the sky!”
“Trust me, I smell it. Thanks!” A light, happy feeling bubbled up inside Lisette as she waved and ran towards the main building, Amber’s protests soon left behind and forgotten.
Finally! Tamsin’s back!
Tamsin had indeed returned, but, Ainsley informed Lisette, she’d gone immediately to an appointment with Master Zoya.
Lisette’s shoulders drooped.
“Check your cryst,” Ainsley suggested helpfully. “Maybe she left a message.”
“I don’t know if Tamsin even kept hers,” Lisette muttered, but she pulled it out anyway. The crysts had been rather unreliable at first, and their communication spells still didn’t work long distance. They weren’t very useful outside of Carradia, so most sun mages left them at home when they went on jobs. Tamsin didn’t live at Heartwood anymore—she resided in Hampton, the largest city in the middle section of the coast.
But Tamsin had evidently kept hers, because a blue-edged message invited Lisette to join her in the main hall for lunch at—here Lisette checked the time. “Darn, I’m ten minutes late! Bye, Ainsley!” She hurried out of the lobby as Ainsley yelled, “Have fun!” to her back.
Lunch was always the least-attended of Heartwood meals, with the journeymen usually out on jobs and Masters eating at their desks. By the tail end of the lunch period, students were back in classes.
Lisette spotted Tamsin immediately, standing by the buffet table. Even without the sparse attendance in the dining hall, Tamsin stood out in a business suit of grey jacket, white blouse, and pencil skirt. Stockings and high heels completed her ensemble. Her red-brown hair was pulled into a sleek bun, the ruddy highlights shinier than Lisette remembered. Even Tamsin’s green eyes seemed brighter, and the freckles that had once speckled the tops of her cheeks were gone.
She looked grownup, professional, and quite unlike herself. Lisette stopped, suddenly shy of this almost stranger. The gulf between them was wider than the year since their last meeting.
Tamsin glanced up, saw Lisette, and a smile spread across her face. “Lisette!”
“Hey,” said Lisette, not moving.
“What’s the matter?” Tamsin asked. “Aren’t you going to give your big sis a hug?”
“I’d mess up your clothes.” Lisette nodded towards Tamsin’s immaculate jacket.
“Oh, don’t be silly.” Tamsin swept Lisette into an embrace. After a moment, Lisette returned it with a hard, fierce squeeze.
“Now come sit down and eat,” Tamsin invited. “Tell me what you’ve been up to all this time.”
In the end, Tamsin did most of the talking, clearly enthusiastic about her Hampton apartment and the perks of city life. “You should really come visit some time, Lisette! I’ll take you shopping—every girl needs a show-stopper outfit in her wardrobe. We can go see a show—not a play, but a musical, and…”
Lisette let Tamsin chatter on in this vein for a while. When the older mage paused for breath, she asked, “So, what do you do in Hampton, Tamsin?” She couldn’t picture Tamsin—or anyone, really—fighting yuka or traveling in that outfit. Most of the sun mages she knew were in high demand as bodyguards, monster hunters, or involved in massive defensive or construction spells, none of which could be comfortably done in business attire.
“I do survey work for businesses based in Hampton, mostly Kaidan and Ravinian ones. Honestly, I’m out on the frontier up to my elbows in muck about half the time. Makes me appreciate my gargantuan bath tub even more when I do get home.” Tamsin laughed.
“Are you traveling for work right now?” Lisette asked.
“I’m in between jobs. I had something to discuss with Master Zoya, so I decided to make a quick stop in Carradia.” Tamsin’s eyes narrowed in memory, and her lips tightened.
“Oh, things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. Master Zoya is just stubborn and old-fashioned, but it’s not a big deal really.” Tamsin shook off her dark mood. “Hey, I just thought of something. I’m off on my next job—why don’t you come along? I could use the help—and the company. The people I work for pay very well.” She leaned forward, eyes brightening. “Do say yes!”
A job with Tamsin? It had been ages since she’d spent time with the older mage. Lisette had been afraid that Tamsin still thought of her as the clingy tagalong child she’d been when she first came to Heartwood. It warmed her that Tamsin saw her as an equal. “I don’t have any other commitments, so yeah, I’m interested. Where’s the job?”
“Greyridge Mountains. In the Spines area.”
Lisette froze. Her mind stuttered. Had Tamsin just said the Spines?
Tamsin saw her expression and exhaled loudly. “Oh, Lisette. You can’t keep running away forever. You have to face it some time.”
“But…” Lisette’s thoughts were in splinters; she couldn’t come up with anything to say in the face of Tamsin’s pragmatism. The remnants of her earlier dream clung to her like glue.
She’s right. But still…so soon? Another voice in her mind argued, It’s been eight years. You’re not a child anymore. They have no hold over you.
“Besides,” Tamsin went on, “I was serious about roughing it. We’ll bring carry our own supplies—we won’t need to go into any of the settlements at all. It’ll do you good just to get used to the area again. Come on, Lisette.”
Lisette stirred her cooling soup unhappily. Tamsin was right. She couldn’t avoid the Spines for the rest of her life. Employers would laugh in her face if she refused jobs in that location in case she might run into someone she’d known. Tamsin was offering her a way to get over her irrational fears. She should take it.
“Lisette!” exclaimed a bright voice. Lisette looked up as Naia, beaming, bore down upon them, tray in hands. Amber, looking annoyed, was behind her. She grabbed Naia’s shoulder, staying the Kaidan mage. “They’re busy,” Amber hissed. “Don’t bother them.”
“It’s fine,” Lisette assured them. Right now, even an interruption by Miss Prim and Proper was welcome.
“You must be the new journeywomen.” Tamsin smiled. “Ainsley told me about you two: a Ravinian pattern mage and a Kaidan wind mage, right?”
“Yep. I’m Naia and she’s Amber.”
Amber hung back, wearing her usual guarded expression. She gave a noncommittal nod.
At least Naia made up for it with her puppy-like enthusiasm. “Are you really one of the very first Heartwood students?” she asked eagerly, as if Tamsin had stepped out of some mythical past.
Tamsin laughed. “I was here before there was even a Heartwood. And when they made the school official, I was third on the list—and only because they went by alphabetical order.”
“Wow,” Naia breathed.
Amber frowned. “You were here before Heartwood Academy formed? How’d that happen?”
“Oh, I was called,” said Tamsin with a wave. “Tell me about yourselves, girls. How do you like Heartwood? Have you gone on many missions yet?”
“I just got here.” Naia made a face. “I changed my magical style recently, and it’s not stable yet. I’ve just been practicing.” She let out a gusty sigh. “It’s kinda boring, actually.”
“I’ve done some stuff around town,” Amber confessed when Tamsin looked at her. “With Kael, usually. I didn’t really want to go to the mines with him when he asked, though.”
“I don’t blame you. Kael’s idea of a good time doesn’t match up with most people’s.”
“He’s all right,” said Amber.
“Tell you what,” announced Tamsin. “Lisette and I are going on a job. Why don’t the two of you tag along and see for yourself what a real Heartwood mission looks like?”
“Wait—” began Lisette, but Naia clapped her hands together. “Oooh, like a girls’ trip? It sounds fantastic!”
Amber looked at Lisette. “You okay with this?”
“I don’t mind if you come along,” Lisette said, “but I haven’t decided if I’m going or not.”
A faint frown appeared between Tamsin’s brows. Then she shrugged. “Well, I’m happy to take anyone who wants to go. Unfortunately, I can’t give you too much time to decide. I leave tomorrow morning.”
“What?” Lisette protested. “But you just got here!” We barely had time to talk!
“Sorry, Lisette, but I have to work to eat.” Tamsin’s expression was sympathetic.
Lisette’s hands clenched in her lap. “Then I guess I’ll come with you.”
“You sure?” Tamsin gave her a searching look.
“I’m sure.” Lisette nodded at Naia and Amber. “You can come, too, if you want.”
Naia cheered. Amber said dryly, “I thought we were already invited.”
“Draw up some chairs, girls,” Tamsin spoke briskly, but she looked pleased. “We need to plan.”
Author’s Note: New arc, new point of view, new character! I don’t have Lisette’s voice pinned down yet, but I hope it will become clearer to me as I go on. I’m excited about a girls’-only mission, too. What do you think so far? Let me know in the comments.