All three mages wore masks. Lisette scanned the two in front, both of them men. One was short and wiry, dressed in leather and fur, face hidden behind a snarling wolf mask. Silver bands encircled his arms and legs, chains looped around his waist. The other was larger, bulkier, shouldering something that looked like a hand-held cannon. An electric hum emanated from him. His yellow mask leered at Lisette.
But the one at the back, a woman with loosely-bound dark hair, was clearly the leader. Her entire body was coated in a thick pearlescent substance that came up to her neck. She wore a half-mask over her eyes, a bronze thing fashioned like an eagle’s head, fierce and beautiful.
“Who are you?” Lisette demanded. “What do you want?” A taut energy filled her body, hot and bitter at the same time.
Something had happened to her in the caves, when she’d been bitten. She couldn’t worry about that now. Couldn’t worry about Naia and Amber. Couldn’t even worry about Micah. Not while facing down these unfriendly masked mages.
Under the beak of her mask, the woman’s lips curved into a smile. “So, this miserable village found a half-baked little mage girl to protect it. How truly pathetic.”
Jonquil strode past Lisette. Lisette put out a hand to stop the older woman, but Jonquil ignored it. Her mother faced down the mages, her arms folded and her gaze narrowed. “You are the mages who destroyed Misthollow and Bern’s Landing.”
Lisette drew in a breath. Both were nearby settlements.
The woman shrugged, dismissive. A ripple went down the thick substance covering her arm. “Their people got a little too nosy. You should’ve learned their lesson and kept to yourselves, but then you had to go and allow other mages into this area. And we can’t have that!”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Lisette demanded. “Who are you with? What are you doing out here?”
The woman wagged a finger at Lisette. “Tut-tut, dear. You don’t want to know. Then we’d really have to kill you.”
Wolf Mask snickered. “Why wait, Acidia?” He gestured with one hand, and Lisette jerked to the side as a silver arrow darted past her face from behind. The silver smacked into the man’s upraised arm, shivered into two blobs which curved into two bracelets.
Silver manipulator. Lisette’s gaze flickered to Yellow Mask. Lightning mage. Then to the woman named Acidia. I can guess what she is.
Jonquil said, “We may not be mages, but we don’t go down without a fight. You won’t find us that easy to beat.”
Lisette caught movement off to her side. Figures darted in the shadows of houses, flickered among trees.
They’d have magic-resistant arrows, tipped with suppression heads. But three mages would still be too strong, unless she could even the odds a bit.
That same energy still churned inside her, restless, demanding. Do it, do it, it seemed to say.
Sorry, Master Zoya, Lisette thought, even though you told me that spell isn’t ready yet. I have to try.
Lisette unloosened her magic. It flooded her entire body. Her toes and fingers tingled; she was suddenly light and untethered.
Lisette flung herself forward. Everything else slowed down; she caught the minute shift of Yellow Mask’s body, the slow movement of Wolf Face’s eyes behind his mask as she flashed past them, inhumanly fast.
A twist of her magic and Lisette slammed to a stop behind the woman, her bladed fan at Acidia’s pale throat. Pain flashed up her leg, stabbed into her torso. She grimaced. She hadn’t mastered that magic-induced super speed yet, but at least she wasn’t writhing in pain or bleeding from the inside.
Arrows flew from the shadows. Wolf Face’s silver bracelets broke apart into scatter shot; lightning crackle streamed off Yellow Mask. They stiffened with surprise. Lisette’s lips twitched into a grim smile.
Charmstone tipped the arrows. They attracted magic to them, drawing it out of the mages.
The next instant came the suppression arrows. The two mages ducked and weaved, but there were too many to dodge. One buried itself into Wolf Face’s calf, another dug into Yellow Mask’s shoulder. They yelped.
Held fast by Lisette, Acidia sucked in a gulp of air.
Lisette threw herself backward. An arc of liquid jetted from the woman’s body, clipped Lisette’s wrist, burning as it drew across the skin. Lisette hissed, then jumped into the air as another acidic whip swept where her knees would’ve been. Gold-black magic poured into her wings, leaving trails of soot in her veins.
Acidia tipped back her head. “You can fly, but you can’t escape.” The thick substance covering her body rippled again. Whips lashed at Lisette; she dodged and flew out of range. On the ground, the two men had recovered; even with the suppression burning ice-cold in their flesh, they sent magic all around them in an abundance of destruction. Silver bullets smashed through wooden doors and oiled-paper windows. Electricity danced upon roofs, blackening tiles.
Wulf had pulled Jonquil away from the scene, right up to the entrance of the meeting hall. Lisette sent a barrage of light darts—edged black—at the three mages. Acidia swept her arm, and a wave of viscous substance absorbed the darts. Droplets scattered across the grass, hissing as they landed.
Pain throbbed in Lisette’s neck. Her body felt heavier than she was accustomed to, and her muscles leaden and tired. Her super-speed spell had drained her almost dry. Light and dark magic warred inside her.
In the growing gloom, Lisette could no longer make out the enemy mages’ features. They were just sinister, dark figures with magic coming off them in waves, destroying the place she had grown up in.
Acidia flicked a tentacle across a wooden façade, scoring a deep line across the house that the village healer had lived in. Still did, if he hadn’t died. “You won’t be able to do anything, little girl,” she called. “This village is doomed.”
Jonquil stood at the entrance to the meeting hall, still stubbornly staying outside. Wulf was recognizable next to her, and that slighter figure had to be Olina. Every now and again, archers shot arrows at the mages, who brushed them off as if they were flies.
Anger bubbled up inside Lisette, buoying her for just a little longer. How dare they? The magic that rose up in response was all restless shadows, but she would take anything that would help her now…
Someone shouted from the trees, loud and alarmed, “Chaos! Chaos is here!”
Naia and Amber stayed on the bank for a long time after the mules had passed by. Long enough for the golden afternoon to shade to a greyish dusk, before they cautiously climbed down to the track. By mutual, silent understanding, they turned down the road, following the hoofprints, instead of the way the lone mage had gone.
The track slipped them down the mountains and into yet another hollow. The clouds rolled across the sun as they walked, and soon it was dripping again. Amber clutched her shredded cloak to herself and walked with her head bowed. She looked as wet and miserable as a half-drowned cat. Every now and again, she swallowed back a cough. The bruises on her face stood out lividly and the knuckles of the hand that held the cloak were very white.
Naia frowned. Amber was cold and exhausted. She needed rest, and soon. Naia found herself mentally explaining to an image of Kael how they’d let Amber get in such a bad state, and shook her head. No, she didn’t really want to do that.
Naia herself was in better shape, but then she had always liked the rain. Had always loved the water. While her peers had been tumbling around in air currents, Naia had preferred playing in a pool or going on a long, hard swim. She loved the feeling of being in water, of being light and buoyant the way she wasn’t in air. In the air, she always felt heavy, the air currents so slight and on the verge of slipping out of her magical grasp. A teacher had once described her magic as “ponderous”; even after all this time and the dedicated practice that made her a good air mage, a squirt of embarrassment ran through her at the memory.
Something to their left caught Naia’s eye. She stopped. “Look.” She pointed at a thread of a track running in that direction, through some trees. Despite the haze of rain, she made out the dark, damp side of a building. The mules’ hoofprints continued down the main track—they hadn’t turned off in that direction. Naia thought that was a good sign.
Amber raised her head and took on a listening sort of look. “I don’t sense anyone in that direction. It’s abandoned—I think.” She gave a little shake of the head. “I’m sorry. I can’t sense much right now. Everything’s a muddle.” The gesture seemed to be too much for her, for she stumbled and Naia took a firm hold of her arm.
“We need a place to rest for the night,” she said. “Somewhere dry.” She had to get Amber out of the rain. She had a fleeting wish she was a fire mage. Then she could’ve offered the other girl a chance to get warm.
Naia sighed, feeling useless. The sensation pressed on her, too familiar. She pushed it away. She would take care of things as they came. First, get the tired pattern mage into shelter.
Still holding on to Amber, she headed down the winding track. Water dripped from leaves overhead, pattering onto her bare head. Droplets ran across her scalp and down her neck. A rushing sigh filled the canopy overhead, the world seemed to hold its breath, the rain came down harder.
The girls broke into a stumbling run. The building Naia had seen before loomed ahead of them, but it was no good—it had lost half its roof, and huge holes gaped in its walls. There were other huts around, all in ruins and just as depressing. Naia’s heart sank. She would rather sleep under a tree than in any of them.
Wait. Naia’s eyes were drawn to a shape on the far edge of the settlement, washed with a weak light from a break in the cloud cover. It was small, but seemed whole, with a thatched roof, sturdy walls, and a covered porch.
There was a rocking chair on the porch, and someone sat in it.
A shiver of strangeness ran over Naia. An old woman knitting on the porch would’ve been a common sight in Carradia, but was out of place in this desolate settlement. And not only that, but the light-bathed house and the area surrounding it were completely dry.
No rain fell upon the roof.
Beside her, Amber coughed. Naia felt a tremble go through the pattern mage’s body. Her concern for the other girl won out over her wariness. The old woman might be a foe, she might be a friend. Naia wasn’t going to find out which one by hanging back.
She strode towards the house, towing Amber with her.
They broke through a curtain of rain and into the sphere of dryness. The old woman’s needles went on busily clicking. Her knitting was only a faint shimmer in her lap, and Naia caught a sense of magic, a deep magic that existed in a behind-everything-sort-of-way.
It was magic that was familiar in a strange, exhilarating way. Something inside Naia rose up in glad recognition, but she couldn’t think why or how.
And then the woman looked up. Her eyes were a glowing, vibrant blue, and Naia knew.
Amber said, soft and sighing, “Ohhhh.”
Naia caught the other girl before she fell to the ground, surprised by the sudden deadweight. She stood uncertainly, not knowing what to do. Should she lay Amber on the driest patch of ground? Or…
“Hey,” she called to the woman. “Can I put her on the porch?”
“You’d better bring her inside,” said the woman placidly. Her voice was murmuringly musical, like the susurrus of water. Her silver needles still flashed as she worked, though her bright gaze was on Naia’s face. “It’s warm and dry. Put her on the bed.”
Naia half-carried, half-dragged Amber up the steps and to the open doorway. The old woman bent her silver head over her knitting. It was still mostly invisible up close, made of clear, fluid strands.
Naia peeked into the house. It was only one room, with silvery wooden walls and whitish wooden boards. There was little furniture in it—one chair, one table, one chest. On the far side was a pallet, covered with a quilt in hues of blue. It added a homey touch to the room.
Naia brushed aside the quilt with her foot, and eased Amber onto the pallet. She tried to remove Amber’s cloak, but it was in such bad shape, she was afraid she would rip it. Besides, it was already dry and Amber’s clothes underneath it only a touch dampish. The pallet itself was warm, as if it was being heated in a way Naia couldn’t make out. She tucked the quilt around the pattern mage, and felt a far-off brush of magic. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought the quilting blocks flowed into each other, in constantly shifting blues. Waves of silver stitchery stood out across the quilt.
Naia looked down at Amber. The girl had stopped shivering and lay in relaxed sleep, the color returning to her face and her lips slightly parted. She seemed to be breathing fine, and her forehead, when Naia put the back of her hand on it, was cool.
Naia returned to the porch and asked, “Will she be all right? Should I fetch some water to bathe her face? I’ve never had anyone faint on me before.?”
“Oh, yes,” said the woman absently. “She had a trying day, and then a shock. It was kinder to put her to sleep. She will wake up much better rested.”
Naia turned over the implications in her head. “Are you going to put me to sleep?” she demanded.
“No. I want to talk to you.” Having said this, the woman seemed to be in no great hurry to continue. Her needles moved on, though slowly now, and her gaze was fixed upon the rain-blurred forest.
Naia decided, in a rush, that the woman meant her no harm. And even if she did… well, Naia wasn’t planning on borrowing trouble. Right now, both she and Amber were far better off than they had been ten minutes ago. She sat down on the top porch step and put her arms around her knees.
“I recognized your magic,” she remarked to the woman, not looking at her. Those bright eyes were intense. Even Ainsley’s purple eyes were easier to meet. “It’s the same as under the mountain.”
The woman nodded. “My bones rest there,” she said matter-of-factly.
What are you? Naia opened her mouth to say. At the last second, she changed it to, “What’s your name?”
“You can call me Argenta.”
Naia craned her neck to look at her. The woman’s hands rested on her lap, still for once. Something shifted into those blue eyes, not a quick flicker of a small darting thing, but the turning of a leviathan, a giant shadow falling across the land…
Naia blinked, and the woman’s eyes were eyes once more. Once again, she took up her knitting. It flowed across her hands and lap. The needles flashed. Naia smelled rain. The swell of water filled the air, as if a cloud had come visiting.
Across the clearing, the rain thinned.
Naia sat up. “It’s the rain,” she said. “You’re knitting the rain.”
“Indeed,” said Argenta.
There didn’t seem to be anymore to say. Naia had never heard of—never suspected—such a technique, but there was such as sense of rightness to it. It was right for Argenta to be sitting in her rocking chair, knitting rain.
“I wish I could do something with the rain,” said Naia. “Anything at all.” She sighed.
“Why can’t you?”
“Because it’s so slippery,” said Naia gloomily. “I try to hold it, and it slides right out of my grip. I try to cup water in my hands, and it falls through my fingers. I thought it would be easier than manipulating air—and it was at first—but now, I can’t seem to figure out how to control either. Every time I try, it goes awry.” She sketched gestures in the air with her hand and let out a frustrated sound.
“You had to work hard to control air,” said Argenta, stating not questioning. “It didn’t come easy to you.” Her blue gaze pierced Naia’s.
“No, but I got good at it. Not brilliant, not like Mahoe and Troi and others, but good. But to see me now, you’d think I was some hamfisted novice.” Tears pricked her eyes. Naia sniffed. “A ponderous blunderer.”
Argenta did some looping things with her barely-there yarn. The sky above was clearing rapidly, clouds dissolving into the blue.
After a while, Naia said in a tired way. “I always felt like my winds were on the verge of slipping out of control. I always had to fight them, to bend them to my will. Like I was bossing them around—no bullying them.” Her vision swam, but she raised her chin, inviting Argenta’s reprimand.
It didn’t come. Instead, “Water,” Argenta mused, “will fall or flow, no matter what. If you try to hold it tight, it’ll always slip your grasp. But you can guide it, direct it. You can create a channel. You can be a channel. If you’re willing to let go and let it carry you.” That unsettling gaze pierced Naia, seeming to peel back the layers of her mind.
Naia sucked in her breath. She opened her mouth, but Argenta shifted, leaning forward a little, her gaze on something in the distance. “It comes.”
Naia followed her look. The tall mountains in the distance were covered in thick fog, grey with lightning flickers of green and purple. She felt an electric crackle in the air, one that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. Within the fog was something blind, restless, devouring.
“What is it?” she whispered.
Argenta replied, “Chaos.”
Author’s Note: The rain-knitting woman, finally! I had this image of her since the beginning of the arc. I’m glad she could give Naia some advice about her water magic. Hope it’ll help her–especially with Chaos descending down the mountains!