I’m back! WITCHBLAZE released at the end of January, and now I have time to spare for finishing up this arc. Hooray!
The way out took Naia and Amber into a tunnel where they had to crawl on hands and knees in the close darkness. It widened at the exit, enough that Naia could stand up with hunched shoulders and bent head. She clawed apart the vines covering the hole, disturbing a cloud of midges.
Naia stumbled through the vegetation, emerging into…
After the dark roar of the river and the glowing silence of the lake, the bright sunshine and insectile drone felt as if they belonged to another world. Naia stood rooted to the spot, blinking like a daylight-stunned owl.
A hand pressed between her shoulders, and Naia moved aside for Amber. She smiled at the other girl. “Well, we made it out.”
Amber gave a slight, exhausted nod. She looked even worse in the daylight. A bruise was forming on the right side of her face, stretching from temple to jaw. Her lip was puffed up and scratches covered her other cheek.
“You look terrible,” said Naia, worried. Amber, she remembered, was rather fragile, more like an ordinary human than a mage. She’d forgotten about that.
“I got into a fight with a raging river.” Amber whispered. “I lost.” She limped over to sit on a nearby rock. She clutched the tatters of her damp cloak closer around herself and shivered.
“I’m sorry. I lost control,” said Naia. Her hands balled into fists. She’d been doing so well. Then all of a sudden, the raging current had gotten away from her, the water bridge had sunk, and Amber had stopped to help.
“We were attacked,” said Amber. “You couldn’t help that.” With a tiny grimace of pain, she closed her eyes. Her voice was raspy and tired, as if it, too, had lost a struggle with rock and water. “What happened to Lisette and Tamsin?”
“They were safely on the other side. They must’ve gotten away. All we need to do is meet up with them again.”
Amber made a soft sound, a ghost of a laugh. “How?”
Naia began, “Your ghosts—”
“Aren’t good for searching an entire forest, take too long, and are unreliable,” finished Amber. “Also, I have no magical energy left to speak of. I used it all up fighting the river.” Her words ended on a sigh. Her shoulders drooped.
“Then we’ll start by seeking shelter in one of the settlements in these mountains.”
“You mean ask the people who hate mages for help?”
“We won’t do any magic while we’re there,” said Naia stoutly.
Amber opened her eyes. “Naia, let’s face reality. We’re stuck out here with no supplies. We have no food—”
“We can eat berries and mushrooms.”
“Do you mean the poisonous ones or the hallucinogenic ones? Our clothes are wet and torn—”
“We’ll dry off in the sun.”
“And there are magical predators all over the place, along with one lightning mage who, last I checked, was aiming to kill us,” continued the relentless realist.
“We’ll just have to dodge them,” said Naia, “or fight them. What other choice do we have?”
For a moment, Amber stared. She laughed, then grimaced as the movement hurt her face. “I suppose you’re right.” She examined Naia with narrowed eyes. “Your suns are still misshapen, though.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll still fight if I’m cornered.”
“Well, if nothing else, you’re still a crescent moon in raikiji,” Amber pointed out. “That should help.”
Naia frowned at her. “How will flower-arranging help us now?”
The pattern mage’s eyes widened. She sat up very straight.
Naia remembered when she’d told Amber that, what she’d let Amber think. She said softly, “Oops.”
“You-you-you…,” spluttered Amber.
“Now, calm down,” Naia pleaded. “You were an enemy combatant, and—”
“You let me think you were a martial arts master!”
“I told you the truth! I can’t help it if you don’t anything about Kaidan culture! You should join my Cultural Appreciation Club. We covered raikiji just last meeting.”
“This is not the right time to be recruiting members, Naia!” Amber made a disgusted sound. “To think I was fooled by an expert in flower arranging.”
“Actually,” said Naia meekly, “crescent moon is the lowest rank. I’m terrible at flower arranging. I’m terrible at any feminine graces, really.” She bit her lip. She hadn’t meant to say the last part out loud.
Amber raised her eyebrows. “I don’t see that at all.”
Naia shrugged. “I’m about as far from the Kaidan ideal of an accomplished woman as you can imagine. I’m not exactly svelte and graceful, as you can see.” She gestured to herself. “I’m loud, I’m unrestrained, I have a black thumb. My paintings are blobs, and I sing about as well as a crow. The only thing I was good at was magic, and even now that’s gone.” Tears stung her eyes. She sniffed. “And I’m babbling on and on. I talk too much, I know. Everyone tells me that.” She pressed her lips together, determined to say no more.
Her words still hung in the air, heavy and awkward. Naia nearly groaned out loud. Why had she unloaded all this on Amber? They were on a mission, for goodness’s sake. She should be focused on that, on finding Lisette and Tamsin, not throwing herself a pity party.
Mahoe would’ve never lost control of her feelings like this. Mahoe would’ve never chattered on. Mahoe would never have a runny nose and never need to hunt through her tattered clothing for a handkerchief.
Naia tugged off a ripped part of her sleeve and blew her nose defiantly. She was not her beautiful, graceful, and accomplished older sister, and she would never be.
“Well, I admit I don’t know much about Kaidan culture, but I don’t think you need to change yourself when you’re fine the way you are,” said Amber finally. “You’re kind and you’re cheerful, and you’re good at organizing and bringing people together.” She grinned. “Lisette and I don’t always get on, you know. It’d be a lot more tense between us without you.”
“Yeah, sometimes you’re sour and uptight, and she’s abrasive and impatient.” Naia clapped her hand over her mouth in horror. “Oh, my wretched tongue!” Her words came out muffled.
“Sour and uptight, huh?” said Amber dryly. “Since you were so down on yourself earlier, I won’t return the compliment.” She got up. “Let’s go.”
“What? Where?” Naia looked around, as if expecting to see a newly opened pathway.
Amber pointed into the forest. “I scraped up enough magic to send out a ghost out while you were talking. It found people nearby. Let’s go check them out.”
The girls lay on their stomachs upon a bank, looking down at a bend in the road below. A train of mules passed slowly by, each animal laden with baskets and bundles. Naia couldn’t tell what was in any of them. She wondered if Amber could.
The pattern mage’s bony shoulder and hip pressed against her. Amber’s other hand gripped a fistful of her cloak. A ticklish feeling spread across the back of Naia’s neck. She assumed that was Amber’s magic, concealing the two of them.
Either that, or a spider was creep-crawling over her.
Naia tensed. She really hoped it was magic. Her shoulders twitched. Amber nudged her with a sharp elbow, and Naia forced herself to lie still.
A figure passed beneath them. Like all the other handlers, it was wrapped in a dark cloak, face covered with a cloth mask. Naia felt that soap-bubble-pop feeling against her skin that told her the people below were mages.
They were definitely not settlers or traders.
The mule stopped, halted by a tug on its halter. It dropped its head and began to graze on the short spiky grass at the side of the dusty trail.
A man prowled on the mule’s near side, a restless energy radiating from his compact, muscled frame. He was dressed in leather and fur, and a wolf’s mask covered his face. Silver bracelets encircled his wrists; silver chains looped around his waist. More silver studded his vest and pierced through his ears. Naia was surprised he didn’t jingle.
He took five swinging strides one way, made an abrupt turn. Five strides back, turn again. He repeated the movement over and over until Naia felt like screaming for him to stop. His impatience was palpable.
The mule—and indeed the entire forest—ignored Wolf’s tension. Dappled sunlight slanted onto beast and road. An insectile hum overlay the scene.
Wolf swung around mid-way through his walk, looking over the mule’s back, chin lifted up as if scenting the wind. “Oh, so you’re finally here, are you?” he called to someone out of Naia’s sight. His voice held a raspy snarl.
Another man walked into view, about the same height as Wolf, but slighter. The hood of his light-colored sweatshirt was up and his hands buried in its pockets. His head was bent, so Naia couldn’t make out his face and hair.
Wolf said, a sneer in his voice, “So you’re the new guy, huh.”
The other man ignored him, strolled around the mule’s head, and stopped. Naia dropped her chin so she could see better. The hair peeking out from beneath the newcomer’s hood was blond.
“Not the talkative type, are you,” said Wolf. “Well, you’re only here for one thing. Get to it, then.” He tugged the strap on the cloth-covered bundle upon the mule’s back.
The strap came undone, the cloth unrolled, Wolf shoved the mule’s burden.
A body tumbled into the road with a thud.
Naia bit down on her sharp intake of breath. Amber went rigid.
Both stared down at the hideously deformed face of a dead man.
Green scales covered the bulging left side of his face. His left eye was small and screwed up, his forehead a livid color. His jaw appeared to unhinged, and a long black tongue protruded from it. The left side of his body was misshapen, the arm elongated, blackened, and claw-tipped, the leg bent at an unnatural angle. His foot had torn through the boot; it, too, was covered in scales and topped with claws.
The newcomer squatted beside the corpse. “Where did he come from?” He had a cool, quiet voice. It reminded Naia of clear pools in Kaidan rock gardens.
Wolf grunted. “A surveyor from one of those bloody mining companies in Hampton. Mountains are crawling with them.”
Naia’s nostrils flared. Was the corpse below Stetson or Rey? What had happened to him?
What a horrible way to die. It could’ve been one of us, if we’d come earlier.
“You tried the serum on him,” the newcomer observed.
Wolf shrugged. “Why not? Poor sod wasn’t strong enough. Died partway through the transformation. Acidia was disappointed.”
“Why didn’t she clean it up herself?”
“No time. She’s got other things on her mind. You don’t really expect her to handle garbage disposal, do you?”
Outrage sparked inside Naia. How dare that awful man call another human being garbage? Her fingers clenched in soil and leaf litter. A wind stirred around her head. Amber pressed her elbow hard against Naia’s side. With a start, Naia dismissed the draught.
The newcomer did not deign a reply. He removed his hands, covered in black fingerless gloves, from his pockets. They made a stark contrast against his light jacket and faded-to-gray pants. His fingers were long and slender, like a musician’s.
The newcomer rested his fingertips lightly against the dead man’s forehead and bent his head. “Rest in peace,” he said.
A shiver ran over the corpse.
It broke apart into dust.
Naia stared as vapor and heat streamed up from the empty spot where the body had lain. Another moment, and the cloud-shimmer was gone. Warmth puffed against Naia’s cheeks; then, it, too dissipated.
Gone. He touched the man, and now he’s gone. It was a good thing she was lying down already because her legs had jellied. What kind of magic is this?
Even Wolf seemed taken aback by the newcomer’s power. He took an involuntary step backward, caught himself. “Looks like you’re the real deal, after all.” The sneer in his voice was half-hearted with a side of shaken.
The newcomer unfolded himself to his feet and glanced up at where Naia and Amber lay behind a screen of overhanging vines.
His hair was indeed blonde, and a grey bandana covered the lower part of his face. He looked to be a lot younger than Naia had thought, close to her own age.
His eyes held a reddish gleam.
Naia held herself very still, hoping that Amber’s spell hid their pale faces from view.
We should’ve smeared them with dirt.
The youth’s gaze scanned across the top of the bank, not lingering on where the Heartwood mages hid.
Then he turned and walked away, past the mule. “I’m going to the lab now.”
“You know where to find it?” Wolf called to his back.
The newcomer threw up his right hand in assent and strolled out of sight.
Wolf stared after him and rubbed his chin. “Weird guy,” he announced to the mule.
Author’s Note: I’ve been waiting over a decade to use the “So, you’re the new guy” line. It’s from a cut scene in Xenosaga, a video game I remember very little of. For whatever reason, that one line has been stuck in my head all these years. And now I get to use it! Also, villains are coming out of the woodwork. First Lightning Guy, now Wolf Mask, Disintegration Dude, and Acidia. Just what is going on in these woods?