Tamsin startled. Hot water slopped out of the pot she held, over her hand and into the fire. She yelped.
Amber shot upright and tried to stand and run at the same time. It didn’t work too well. The pattern mage tripped over her own cloak and landed on her face in the mud.
Lisette’s bladed fans were in her hands. Adrenalin rushed through her body, banished the vestiges of sleep. She scanned the camp for danger.
Naia sat up and beat at her coverings. “Get it off me!” she yelled. Something reddish scuttled out of her bedroll and crouched beside a nearby rock.
Lisette’s gaze fixed on it. Definitely a salamander, and a big one at that, the length of her forearm. But…
Tell me it isn’t a half et!
“It was in my bed! Right next to my face!” Naia shuddered. She thrust herself away from her bedroll as if it housed an army of unwanted critters. A gust of air sent a boot flying towards the salamander. It struck the nearby rock.
The salamander made an alarmed clicking noise.
“Shut up a moment,” Lisette ordered. “And don’t move.”
“Easy for you to say. No slimy creature was cuddling up with you,” Naia grumbled, but she stopped flailing.
The rust-red creature held its neck and tail out, stiff and rigid. Colors shifted in its skin and a throbbing noise emanated from its throat.
“Uh, Lisette?” Naia asked nervously. “Why’s it glowing like that?”
“It’s taking in magic very quickly,” said Amber from behind Lisette. “It’s probably going to explode all over the campsite.” She sounded resigned.
Naia gave a muffled yelp. “Lisette, it’s getting bigger!”
“Stop putting weird ideas into her head, Amber.” Lisette slowly bent down and picked up a nearby twig. “It’s not going to explode.”
“Oh? Then what’s it going to do?”
Lisette eased over to Naia, then past her, approaching the salamander from the side. This close, she could see the tell-tale thickening of its skin, the hint of ridges beginning on the crown of its blunt-snouted head. She glanced at its tail. At least that hadn’t begun to detach. If it had…
“It’s going to divide,” Lisette admitted. “When threatened, a half et drops its tail, which grows into another salamander and runs away. The remaining body transforms and becomes more aggressive.”
“Just great,” muttered Naia, while Amber demanded, “Just how much more aggressive?”
Lisette winced. “The ‘attack everything in sight and fight to the death’ kind of aggressive.”
“I’d have preferred the explosion.” Naia sighed. Tamsin, holding a cannister, her other hand hovering over the tab, said, “I have a strong trap spell in here. Move out of the way, girls.”
Lisette shook her head. “Let me try de-escalating this first.” She sank down on her heels and began humming, the tune leaping from memory to lips with barely a stop at conscious thought. The half et turned its head towards her, its black eyes glaring.
She reached with the twig of maple leaves. Still humming, she brushed the creature’s back, stroking it over and over again in time to her wordless song. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Naia edging away.
The salamander’s throaty sound changed, matching the rhythm of her humming and stroking.
It was almost a purr.
Slowly, its angry red color faded to old rust. Its thickened hide became skin again, moist and glistening. Its body grew visibly smaller, its neck and tail relaxed.
It looked at Lisette out of beady eyes, then scuttled away on its sticky feet, whisking through leaf litter.
She let out a deep sigh.
“Stinging plants, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and rampaging monsters.” Naia beat aside a creeper that was sneakily trying to wrap its tendrils around her hair. “Anything else we should know about this place?”
They were back on the trail and moving quickly, despite their aches. Even Amber was keeping up. No one wanted to spend a moment longer in the forest than necessary.
Well, except maybe Lisette. It was scary, really, how the old instincts had come seeping back.
She shrugged. “If you leave stuff alone, it’ll leave you be.”
“I didn’t invite that salamander to share my sleeping bag,” Naia pointed out.
“No, but you’ve been using magic rather freely,” said Lisette. “That’ll attract most of the critters around here.” Her mind tossed up a splinter of memory, a sharp warning: You can’t use magic here. It’ll kill us all. She pushed it back down, ignoring the painful jab in her heart.
“Everything here is soaking up magic one way or another,” Amber broke in. She tilted her head up, though there was nothing to see through the canopy overhead. “We’re very near the Chaos here, aren’t we?”
“It’s over the mountains,” said Lisette. “It breaks through sometimes.”
Chaos was the wild magic that spread across the interior of the continent. It was too strong, too destructive for people to live in. Chaos changed people if they were caught out in it. Lisette had seen what it could do to plants and animals. And this was the Spines, where so many species had adapted to the proximity of Chaos.
A Chaos Storm in Carradia or Hampton would lay waste to everything.
“This is one of the highest magic areas people are capable of living in year-around,” Tamsin put in. A braided cord unwound from around her arm and smacked away a palm-sized spider with hairy legs and bright red eyes. “All the native species have a high resistance to magical change. Even the people have developed it over the generations.” She nodded towards Lisette.
Naia shuddered. “Why would anyone choose to live here?”
“They didn’t have much choice,” said Tamsin. “The settlers here are descendants of Frejalanders who fled their island after Mt. Ekla erupted. You know about that?”
Naia nodded. “The Summerless Year a couple of centuries ago.”
“Right. The surviving Frejalanders had to leave or starve. Some dispersed among other islands. Many others came to the continent, but it was far more dangerous back then. Between the wild magic, hostile natives, inimical wildlife, and their lack of preparation, many of the colonies died out. Some pushed further west, hoping to find better living conditions and dug themselves into the Greyridge Mountains. They made it work, too.” Admiration laced Tamsin’s tone. “They’re a remarkable people.”
A knot tightened in Lisette’s stomach. It was one thing to discuss the flora and fauna of the area, quite another to hear this text book summation of her people’s history. Even this brief account rubbed her raw.
Didn’t Tamsin remember what the Frejalanders did to make life in the Spines work?
But she said nothing, could say nothing past the lump in her throat. Lisette strode on at the head of the group, the conversation still continuing behind her back.
“I’m surprised this place worked for them,” commented Amber. “It’s chockful of magic.”
“Yes, it is. Magic’s been soaking into the ground for centuries,” Tamsin went on. “There are metal and stone and gems that are permanently magically charged. One of the more fascinating rocks blocks magic entirely.”
Lisette felt the phantom bite of suppression on her wrists, stinging and ice cold. She wouldn’t have called it fascinating.
“With these, we could industrialize magic on a scale never seen before,” Tamsin went on enthusiastically. “My clients are interested in acquiring mineral rights in this area, once we navigate the legal complexities. It’s hard to know who owns what—some of the Frejalander villages have legally recognized holdings, but most of these mountains is under a mix of different laws and treaties. Of course, my clients want everything to be as above board as possible.” Her voice grew distant.
Lisette realized she had quickened her pace, driving her heels into the dirt with unnecessary vigor.
She had also acquired a companion. Amber was close beside her, panting, but keeping up.
“What is it?” Lisette snapped.
Amber took a gulp of breath. “Just wanted… a change of scenery. Tired… lagging… behind.” The girl’s face was flushed.
Kael would not be happy if she killed the pattern mage. Lisette slowed, wondering how Amber saw the forest. Its aliveness wrapped Lisette around like a familiar blanket, smelling of wet earth and leaf litter. Its magic lay against her skin, a hair’s breadth from sparking.
“Also… wanted to see… how you were…” Amber grimaced and the word came out on a gasp. “…doing.”
“I’m fine,” said Lisette. “I’m just not interested in the history lesson. I already know all I want to about Frejalanders.” She squinted at a break in the trees up ahead. “Look, we’re almost at the camp.” She called back to Tamsin and Naia. “Look lively, you two! We’re here.”
Naia crowed and the entire party pressed up to the bare shoulder of the mountain. There Tamsin found another trail, this one steep and rocky, descending into a quarry stripped bare of all vegetation. Rubble heaps and rickety huts dotted the floor, and occasionally, a mine entrance yawned black behind several boards nailed across it.
As the girls found level ground, Tamsin led the way to a trio of huts that looked newer than the rest. The greasy static of magical spells prickled against Lisette’s skin.
“Something’s wrong.” Amber’s eyes narrowed. “The pattern’s been broken here, and recently. Spells are flapping loose.”
Tamsin broke into a jog, Lisette close behind her, every sense straining for danger. They ran up to the biggest hut of the group, the place that was supposed to have meant shelter and safety.
Tamsin checked in the doorway.
The interior was in shambles. Broken furniture and dented pots covered the floor. Crumpled, mud-stained papers had been trampled underfoot. Glass shards glittered near one wall.
Tamsin gripped the rope hanging in loops from her belt. Her cryst snapped on with a crackle of energy. “Record,” she said, and a lurid red light painted the inside of the hut. She moved in, scanning the room.
“No one’s home,” Amber said. “I don’t see any suns.”
“Any live people, you mean,” corrected Naia. Amber didn’t answer.
They found no bodies, dead or alive. The hut was composed of only three rooms, a central living area and two sleeping chambers. One of the chambers had obviously been occupied—it was still full of clothes and male sweat. The other was clean and bare—meant for Tamsin, they surmised. Not far from the hut was the outhouse and another flimsy structure that turned out to be the showers. Naia sighed with regret when they left it and returned to the debris in the hut.
“Any chance they just live like pigs and have gone out for a bit?” Naia asked Tamsin.
“They do live like pigs, but they wouldn’t have left broken glass lying around.” Tamsin plucked a ceramic shard from the debris and turned it in her fingers. “No, someone got to Stetson and Ray.”
“Can you track them?” Lisette asked Amber.
She shook her head. “If I knew them, or the direction they might’ve been taken, maybe I could pick up a trace outside the quarry. But something blasted the pattern in here and there are no threads to grab onto for a trail.” She grimaced. “Kael might’ve been able to do it, perhaps. He uses other senses.”
“What got to them, though?” Naia wondered, straightening a chair. It leaned drunkenly on its broken leg. “Those Frejalanders?”
“Frejalanders don’t use magic.” Lisette turned away to poke into a corner that had already been explored.
“We’ve been respectful of the villagers’ boundaries,” said Tamsin. “It could have been a rival company though. Some of them play dirty.” She crouched near the wall and pried up a floor board. “Ah, they didn’t find the samples.” She pulled up a rack full of stoppered test tubes, each containing a sliver of rock and labeled in spiky handwriting. She set it in front of her and began pulling out the stoppers.
“Uh, Tamsin, is this really the right time to be conducting experiments?” Naia asked.
“Yes.” Tamsin’s face was tight and focused. “We won’t stay the night; we’re too exposed. But I can’t leave without making sure I confirm Stetson’s findings.” She pulled out a small opaque bottle from a pouch and swiftly put three droplets of silver liquid in each tube.
Two tubes steamed, one sample turned blue. No effect in the next three. But the one after, labelled CV…
Suspended in the thick liquid, what had looked like a piece of chalk now glowed like concentrated moonlight. Tamsin let out her breath, a smile of grim triumph curling her lips.
Amber spun towards the window. “Careful! It’s-!”
Magic surged around the hut. The air turned greasy, sparked electric. Lisette’s hair crackled and rose from her scalp.
There was no time to think, to plan, to create a defense.
“Get down!” Lisette yelled. Her wings snapped out, inviting. She braced her legs.
The roof blasted open and an electric bolt slammed into her.
Author’s Note: Poor Lisette, ouch! And here’s where the “easy” job goes off the rails. Also, I went Icelandic for the inspiration behind Lisette’s people, the Frejalanders. Lisette’s got a bit of a valkyrie vibe going on with her, so it fits her character. Next time, things continue to get worse!