The first thing Amber felt was the defensive spells on the outside going up in flames.
The second thing was the roof of the warehouse exploding in a shower of debris, leaving a gaping hole open to the sky.
The third thing was the mages—suns blazing—who came leaping through the hole.
Amber gaped as the first touched down on light feet, riding a wave of hot air. His magical nodes glowed hot and strong to her mage-sight. His magic was so powerful that he brought light with him, a glow that lit up the entire warehouse.
Another sun mage swirled down, and there were more hovering above the roof—two, no three.
The first mage straightened and grinned at Amber. “Oh, hey, look. It’s Blondie again.”
That wide grin and unruly hair. The feathers. The boy from the café.
Which means the other guy… Amber leaned to one side to see past him. Yep, lanky build, hands in pockets, bored expression, magical energy swirling around in mists of cold blue. And that would be Troi.
The first boy—Kael, Amber remembered—moved. Amber’s gaze snapped to the free-floating spell heading for his arm. “Watch out for-!”
Kael’s hand burst into flame. Amber cried out, “Drop to the floor. Roll!” She was already bundling her mist cloak, hurriedly impressing a fire-protection pattern into the folds.
“Wait, it’s fine. See, I’m doing this.” Kael shook his burning hand, and the flames—vanished. Soot spiraled to the floor, but his sleeve and arm were untouched.
He broke straight through the outside defensive spell. They all did, these sun mages, and survived. Amber’s eyes widened in awe. The thought was followed immediately by, Who are these people, and better yet, how can I slip away from them?
“Are you with the smugglers, too?” Troi said from behind Kael’s shoulder. Unspoken was, It figures.
“No, I’m not—Kael, watch out, there are all sorts of spells all over this—”
An alarm shrilled. Amber clapped her hands over her ears. Even Troi winced. Kael, hand still outstretched towards a large misshapen urn, said, very quietly, “Oops.”
A girl’s voice yelled down from the roof. “What’s going on down there, you two?”
“We’re just disabling these spells,” Troi called back.
“Well, can you do it quietly? We are trying to keep this somewhat covert, you know.”
Amber fought down a sudden bubble of hysterical laughter. Tripping a defense spell and blowing a hole in the roof counted as covert operations?
And then all around the edges of the warehouse, magical nodes flared into life.
“Uh, guys?” she said. “I don’t think we’re alone in here anymore.”
Instantly, both boys raised shields around themselves. Amber slipped on her mist cloak, feeling more vulnerable than ever. Sun magic made its users stronger, faster, more resilient. With their power, these boys were superhuman.
She, on the other hand, wasn’t.
Red-eyed constructs, heavy and ceramic, stomped into the center of the warehouse. Flickers of light gleamed over their rune-tattooed bodies. Their patterns, simple and strong, shone red. Only three nodes, but set in a strong triangular system.
“Don’t worry,” said Kael, already in a fighting stance. “Leave this to us. Watch out for yourself.”
Troi snorted, “She’ll need it. One hit and she’s dead.”
Yeah, I hate him.
Amber backed into a rack and smirked at them. “I’m not the one lit up like a pleasure-boat sign right now. Whatever these constructs are, they’ll be after you first. See you later, boys.”
They didn’t answer. Kael was already leaping for the first construct, movement savage and fast. Troi flicked lashes of cold air at another.
They can take care of themselves. Amber made her way carefully around another rack, keeping an eye out for other spells. Suns glowed and patterns disintegrated behind her. She heard a yell, a crash. A sudden spurt of flame threw her shadow, freakishly long, in front of her.
The lurid color also painted two more constructs, standing guard over the basement steps.
Amber looked into their dark pitiless eyes and decided not to push her luck. She backed up to the middle of the warehouse, where three constructs and innumerable crates were smashed to pieces. One of the racks was on fire.
“Kael,” shouted the unseen female from the roof. “What’d Master tell you about–?”
“It wasn’t me,” yelled Kael, aiming a punch at another construct’s torso, cracking the ceramic. “These guys are tough—and they shoot some nasty fire, too.”
“Much as I hate to say it,” began Troi as he stood over the fire. Air whooshed away from the flames and they went out. “It isn’t his fault this time. He really is trying to be careful.”
Amber winced as Kael kicked the construct’s thigh. The ceramic shattered, the construct tilted heavily to one side. Its nodes went into an alarming light show that could only mean, I’m about to blow and take you lot with me.
“Aim for its nodes, idiot!” she yelled. “Left shoulder, lower right torso and top of the head. Before it explodes!”
“Right!” Kael shouted back. Two quick blows and a kick later, and the construct collapsed into itself.
“What, you’re still here?” Troi drawled, eyebrows raised and arms folded.
“Constructs are at every entrance,” Amber told him. “Get busy knocking nodes or are you going to let your friend do all the work?”
Troi shrugged, but the energy around him changed, struck out in three dark whip-lashes. Another construct fell.
Kael had taken on yet another. Amber turned to the last construct. One of its nodes was out of configuration; the whole pattern flickered madly. When Kael hit the nodes, it didn’t shut down or collapse like the others did.
“The whole thing is unstable, Kael,” Amber called out, ducking behind crates. “We’d better—”
“Eh,” he said. “Let’s do this the good old-fashioned way.”
He punched right through its torso. Ceramic shards flew through the air.
“No, you idiot!” Amber shrieked as energy boiled all along the boy’s arm, engulfed him in sickly colors. Heat blasted her backward and, as she squeezed her eyes shut, she saw Troi armored in a roiling mass of dark air.
Great. My mist cloak isn’t going to save me from this. I’m going to die here because SOME idiot boy stuck his arm in a malfunctioning attack spell.
Silence. A blissful darkness. Amber unscrewed an eye. She was still alive, still unburned, all pieces attached and accounted for.
Slowly she stood up, expecting to see a pile of smoking ash where Kael had been.
Kael stood under the hole in the ceiling and waved up to someone. “All done down here,” he called. Troi, his barrier gone, lounged against the ugly urn. Spherical lights bobbed around the shelves, casting a soft silver gleam over the debris.
Kael looked around, saw Amber. “There you are. You shouldn’t really be here, you know.”
Amber started toward him. Rubble crunched under her feet. “How did you—how did you even survive that?” She peered at him, trying to see signs of great power in his face. All she saw was the same goofy guy she’d seen outside the cafe.
“Oh, that wasn’t so bad,” said Kael. “Come on, let’s get you out of here. Help me out, Troi.” Before Amber could protest, he grabbed her by the waist and threw her up in the air as if she were a doll. An updraft caught and flung her up towards the hole. Amber flailed and grabbed an edge as her cushion disappeared. Her legs dangled. A hand grabbed her by the arm and hauled her onto the roof and to her feet.
Amber looked into narrowed eyes above an embroidered scarf that covered her helper’s nose and mouth. The other girl wore a hood and gauntlets, and she had wings stretching out from her back.
“Who,” said the girl, “in blazes are you? And what are you doing with a ishari artifact?”
Amber looked down at her hand. She was still holding the pipe. “Oh. Well, as for that— I can explain, really.”
The girl just gave her a look. “You certainly will have to. No, not right now, dummy. Just give me the pipe and stay out of the way while we clean up.”
No one seemed at all interested in interrogating or even securing the wayward bystander. Amber sat on the ruined roof while the flying girl, Kael and Troi explored the warehouse. Apparently, they tripped spells, as the occasional curse or yelp indicated. Amber could’ve told them about those spells, but they didn’t ask and Amber didn’t mention it.
Instead, she lay back on the roof, stared up at stars distorted through a magical barrier. After all, they were sun mages. They could handle it.
There were two others in the party, dark figures whose only purpose seemed to be expending ludicrously large amounts of energy in maintaining a shield over the warehouse. Amber could’ve created a pattern that used a lot less magic, but then again—
They didn’t ask, and she didn’t mention it.
She felt completely drained. When she closed her eyes, all she saw was that flare of white light with that wretched boy inside it. Her stomach clenched. They’d all been a hair’s breadth from a particularly nasty end. Didn’t these people care at all?
Of course not. They were crazy-strong combat mages and they thrived on this kind of thing.
On the other hand, I still have my five hundred coppas. A ticket home is looking more and more promising. And she turned the deactivated locator spell in her hand and wondered if it was at all worth having it out with Waleem, or whether she should just put tonight’s events behind her.
That is, if she survived the sun mages.
After an hour of things being moved around, the flying girl rose up out of the warehouse and consulted with her two comrades on the roof. Within moments, the sun mages dropped their shield. The winged girl stalked over to Amber and scowled down at her. Amber looked back up, expressionless.
“It’s time to go,” said the girl. She walked to the edge of the roof and glared as Amber slowly got to her feet, smoothed out her hair, and straightened her clothes.
I can be annoying, too, thought Amber as she sauntered over to the girl.
The girl put a hard arm around Amber’s waist and pulled her tight against her side. “Hold on,” she bit out, and jumped.
This makes the second time tonight. Haven’t these people heard of personal space? Amber shut her eyes as the ground rose up and her stomach dropped. They landed, winged girl with cat-footed grace, Amber with a stumble.
Ugh, I can’t even balance properly any more. If I don’t get to sleep soon, I’ll be pinching cheeks and making jokes that no one else thinks are funny. I know how this goes.
The winged girl let Amber go, turned to face her. “You’ll be taken to our temporary base. You’ll wait there until Master Zoya can—are you even listening to me?” she snapped.
“Sure I am,” said Amber through a cracking yawn. Honesty compelled her to say, “Though it’s mostly in one ear and out the other, I’m afraid.”
She was sure the other girl sneered behind her mask. “That’s to be expected, considering all the empty space between them.”
For the second time that night, Amber stuck her tongue out at someone else.
“Puh-lease,” said the winged girl. She gestured, and an auto purred over to the pair, long and sleek. The girl opened the door and pushed Amber inside. “Just get her off my hands,” she called to the driver. “She’s Master Zoya’s problem now, not mine.”
Amber put her head back against the cushions, wincing as the sun mage slammed the door. My first auto ride—she yawned again—and I can’t even enjoy it.
Author’s Note: Amber’s mental commentary was fun to write, and more fun to re-read. I don’t normally write teenagers, but I enjoy letting my dramatic inner sixteen-year-old take the reins in this story. Any questions, thoughts, or comments?