Amber snapped awake.
The light above her was slanted all wrong, had taken on the mellow honeyed hue of late afternoon.
But that wasn’t what had woken her. No.
There was a disturbance in the pattern, an intrusion. Amber readied a spell on her palm, pressed it into her cloak. The material rippled as she pushed herself up.
Leaves shook and wings beat as birds took flight. Magic flared.
Amber threw herself to the side. Dark whips sizzled through the air. Most missed her by mere inches—one fell against her cloak, was dissipated in an instant.
Amber scrambled to her feet, fled through the trees. The patterns around her shifted and rippled; she couldn’t stop to read them. She sensed the presence of another pursuing her, sensed the coil and lash of the dark energy, but she was helpless to do much more than duck and keep running. Each lash that fell upon her cloak tore at the pattern woven into it.
It wouldn’t protect her much longer.
Amber dodged behind a tree, hastily wove a shadow of herself. It wasn’t much, just a fleeing thing of braided hair and grey cloak, composed of shallow pants and rapid heartbeats. Her double bolted in the opposite direction. Amber dropped to her knees and hid in the undergrowth.
Think. Think! Fear didn’t bring clarity to her, just confusion. She couldn’t meet her pursuer head-on, but she could feint and hide and confuse. There were so many patterns all around her, rich and deep and magnificent.
Drat it. I’m a pattern mage! I should be able to use these to my advantage!
The other mage out there, a cluster of magical nodes in her sight, was no longer running, but prowling. Her shadow hadn’t fooled him for long—him, because there was something masculine about that energy of his, the way it bunched and moved, like some kind of muscular predator.
Amber ground her teeth in frustration. She saw his nodes, saw his pattern, saw the way he moved through the larger web of the forest, but she could do nothing to him directly. Pattern manipulation stopped at the skin. The higher-level the living creature, the harder to manipulate. As far as Amber knew, controlling another person’s pattern was impossible.
But she could control parts of the environment.
Amber made more shadows of herself, sent them skittering in different directions. She worked the patterns around her pursuer, bleeding small nodes of energy in trees and pools to power her traps. Bunch energy lines into an ugly thorny tangle here, stretch them to razor-edge thinness there. These bubbles would pop and zing when stepped on, and this funnel-shape would grab and suck.
Small booby traps meant only to harry, but that was all she had.
Amber wavered between her don’t-see-me spell and a protection one, then remembered the exploding construct last night, the lashing whips from earlier. Her skin prickled.
Definitely protection. These sun mages didn’t fool around. She didn’t want her charred remains to be a reminder of how fragile most people really were.
Amber stole out of her hiding place, keeping a wary eye on the sun-mage behind her. Her heart thudded madly and she wondered what her own pattern looked like right now. Fluxing with fear? Pale and sickly from her own cowardice?
I should’ve stayed home. They were right. I am not the adventurous type. She heard Rudi’s incredulous bark of laughter. Sis, going traveling for a year? You fuss over the state of train cushions and inn bedsheets—you’d go crazy if you had to endure those for a whole year! Amber’s mouth tightened as she ran across a clearing. Even so, I’ve got a confused sun mage blundering around behind me, stepping into thorns and mysterious patches of quicksand. And I can sense another town not far ahead this way. I can survive this. I will survive this.
Then she tripped over a trailing root. As she fell, Amber thought, Oh, lovely, just—
Suns flared to life in a sickly yellow cluster to her left as the enemy mage dropped his shielding. A barrage of energy, shaped as tiny flashing needles, sliced over her head. Amber ducked and rolled just as a lithe figure swung into the clearing.
He sneered at her. His mouth was thin and twisted cruelly. His eyes burned a violent sickly green. “Where are you running off to, girlie? You’re still on a job for the boss, and he don’t take kindly to people leaving him with unfinished business.”
Amber said, hoarsely, “If your boss wants his five hundred coppas, you can just take them and leave. I don’t want this job.”
“Sorry, girlie.” Needle Guy moved like a snake. “It’s too late to back out now. You’re a Finder and the boss won’t let you go that easily. If you come with me now, quiet-like, you won’t suffer much. If I have to drag you back by that hair of yours, you’ll feel the boss’s rage, all right.”
Amber’s fingers clenched in her cloak. “I don’t work for scum.”
This time she was ready. As Needle Guy’s suns flashed, she threw her arm over her face.
It was still close. Needles bit deep into the cloak, sent pinpricks of pain into Amber’s skin as her patterns unraveled. She forced them back together, but in the end, she had to scramble away from that deadly hail.
Needle Guy followed her. “That’s right. You keep fighting. I can do this all day.”
So he didn’t like to close in, did he? Just liked to stand back there and throw darts around, did he? Amber reached for the pattern under his feet, tore the strands apart right there.
A small hole opened under him, just enough to trip him. He fell on his rear while Amber retreated back to the trees, gathering bunches of pattern in front of her. Be shield, be shield!
She didn’t have time to do more than a rough job. Face reddened, the fair-haired sun mage scrambled to his feet, and yelled, “That does it. I ain’t going to go easy on you, girlie! I won’t stop until I hear you scream for mercy.”
He jabbed his hands out toward her. Needles shot out, impossibly fast. Amber bunched pattern strands in front of her, twisting them this way and that, trying desperately to shield herself. Darts tore apart the strands and ripped into her cloak. Patterns disintegrated all around Amber. The needles left red pinpricks of pain as they stung against her skin.
“Had enough?” yelled Needle Guy. “Because I have lots more right here.” He made a scooping motion with his hand and the twin suns in his wrists glowed brighter.
Backed up against a tree, panting, Amber knew she could do no more. There was no more slack in the pattern of this clearing to gather up and use as a shield and she didn’t have the strength to bend the remaining strands to her will. There were no conveniently-placed nodes to drain energy from, and her mist cloak was in shreds.
Maker, if I have to die today, at least let me do with dignity.
She straightened, lifted her chin, and stared into Needle Guy’s manic eyes and contorted face. He was high off his own energy, now manifesting itself in the normal world as two spheres of gold on his hands.
“Time’s up, girlie!” Needle Guy was wrapped in pulsing yellow. The energy resolved into thousands—no, millions—of darts, poised and waiting.
Author’s Note: Amber’s reprieve was short-lived! I wonder what her mysterious erstwhile employer wants from her (yep, I haven’t figured that out yet!). I’m having fun writing her magic, though!