About a week later, most of Heartwood, it seemed, had ended up in the Shattered Valley.
Cradled between two long rocky arms, the narrow valley lived up to its name. Loose stones spread across the mouth, larger boulders among them. Deeper in, spires of rock thrust up from the valley bottom. The place was shrouded in shadows, still untouched by the weak morning light.
Amber stood upon the flat top of a rock formation the size of a kickball playing field and shivered in the cold, thin air. The currents in this place favored the Torou mages, being odd and unpredictable. Down on the valley floor, a wind moaned. The hair at the back of Amber’s neck rose. It sounded too much like a gigantic beast shifting in its sleep. She leaned against the silfyl next to her for comfort as much as warmth.
A mixed group of mages and silfyl gathered atop the rock. Lisette, Troi, and Kael all looked tough and competent, seemingly unaffected by the landscape that so unnerved Amber. Their suns, however, burned hotter than usual. Was it battle-readiness or a physical response to the bleak environment?
Whatever it was, Amber didn’t have it. She was cold and grey, sick to her stomach and regretting her promise to Master Zoya.
Who was not even here. Mistress Blunkett had accompanied their team this morning. Her hair was misbehaving worse than usual; pulled by the wind from her messy ponytail, it stuck up around her head like a spiky reddish halo. She was not, however, in her customary sportwear, and the whistle around her neck was missing. She looked incomplete.
Amber dragged her attention away from Mistress Blunkett’s appearance and tried to focus on her words.
“And here’s the map of the area…” Rocks rolled around the Mistress’s feet, rearranging themselves. Three turned bright blue, one became a vibrant red, one a violent purple.
“We’re here.” Mistress Blunkett tapped the red rock with her foot. “Each of the crystals is on a blue formation, and the end point is the purple rock. The first team to collect and bring all three of their crystals to the end point wins. Any questions?”
Lisette asked, “Have the Masters of either school placed any spells to make this run a little more interesting?”
Wind blew Mistress Blunkett’s hair into her mouth. She swiped it away, shook her head. “No. It’s up to your opponents to outrun you—or stop you. Be on your guard.”
“Can the Torou group destroy our crystals if they get to them first? Or can we destroy theirs?” Troi’s look was hard.
“That’s against the rules.” Mistress Blunkett smiled, a crescent of malice on her usually open and jolly face. “You cannot directly affect the other team’s crystals.”
“Also”—Mistress Blunkett tapped a milky-white stone pinned to Kael’s tunic—“these crystals will darken as you take damage. When they turn black, you’re out of the competition.” Amber touched her own, the stone smooth under her fingers. A complex knot of runes nestled within its pearly shell. It pinpricked when her senses grazed it.
“What’s the plan?” Lisette turned to the boys. “Break up and each go after a crystal? Can we get there faster than the Torou mages?”
“You and I could, maybe,” said Troi.
“I’m better off taking on and eliminating the competition,” said Kael. “Starting with that kid, Pod.”
Amber shivered, remembering Pod’s the ability to deprive the air of movement. Of cold and darkness and the pattern withering as it drained of vitality. Perhaps Kael was right. His magic was all heat and motion. He’d be a good foil to Pod.
“Of the two we know, Doua and Pod, the boy’s the more troublesome,” said Troi. “Okay, Kael, you’ve got him.”
“Who are the other two?” wondered Amber. “Do you know?”
Troi shook his head. “They weren’t on the participants’ list. Well, neither were we. The journeyman’s division is run differently.”
“Doesn’t seem right,” muttered Amber. She peered over her shoulder, eyes squinting against a sudden sharp glint of morning sunlight. Tiny black figures moved across rock formations—the younger students had already begun.
Tai was among them. He had astonished the Masters by buckling down and successfully passing the Magical Ethics exam in one short week.
Master Zoya was also at the starting point, along with the urbane, ever-smiling Shai Daan. Amber was glad she didn’t have to greet him this time. She’d skulked behind the other students while he announced the beginning of the tournament.
The Headmaster was back at Heartwood. According to the other students, he didn’t leave the place much.
To her left was a tall outcrop. The Torou team was hidden from view behind it. Their magic was a distant smear to her senses, fuzzy and distorted. She couldn’t make out any individuals.
“What about Amber?” Lisette looked over at her.
“She can come with me,” said Kael, with the easy assurance of someone who loved a good fight and assumed everyone else did, too.
“No.” Mistress Blunkett shook her head. “Amber will go with Troi, as Cinbar said.”
Kael and Lisette looked at Amber, then at Troi. His expression could be best described as resigned. “That’s right. Amber can’t do what she’s supposed to back here. Or can you?”
He doesn’t have to look so hopeful about the possibility, Amber thought sourly.
The pattern in this area was strange, parts of it dense and buried deep in the rock while the rest stretched sparse and thin and unanchored in the cold air. Yet it skewed, as if something deeper in the valley pulled it closer.
“No,” Amber admitted. She’d sent ghosts ahead of her, loose and light knots of spellwork, but without knowing what to look for, they’d dispersed in all directions. Some had reached the ends of pattern threads, flapping in the air, and disintegrated. Others had followed the pattern deep into stone and become stuck. The few that returned had given her no clear information, only confused impressions of dark humps half-submerged in sheets of darker water; rays of distilled light piercing cool, shadowy chambers; a green scent, sharp and strangely familiar; thick knots in the pattern that she couldn’t tell were mage-made or natural.
She had to go deeper, see for herself, refine her search.
“There you go, then.” Dismissing the issue of Amber, Mistress Blunkett checked her cryst. “Less than five minutes to start. Prepare yourselves.”
“I’m going here.” Lisette pointed at the blue rock farthest away from their position. “Kael, you follow behind for backup, if needed. Otherwise, go for this middle rock here. Troi and Amber, you’ll be slower than us, so take the nearest crystal.”
Troi jerked his chin downward, face expressionless. Amber smoothed down the fabric of her mist cloak, familiar spells tingling against her palm, and nodded.
“If we want to win, we have to keep pressing forward,” Lisette went on. “We may have to leave people behind. Use your best judgment everyone.” Somehow, without meaning to, the four of them had gathered around the map of rocks in a loose circle, Mistress Blunkett standing apart with the silfyl and staring at her cryst.
“Two minutes,” she announced.
Amber looked down at the map and made a quick impression of it in the weave of her mist cloak. A number of ready-made spells glowed within it.
She hoped they would be enough.
Kael walked over to the edge of the rock and flexed his knees, suns slowly spinning to life. Lisette closed her eyes, light haloing around her. Troi stood moodily with his arms folded, but he, too, was preparing his magic.
His sword and knife were sheathed at his side. Amber felt them come alert, in that weird way magical artifacts had. Alive-but-not-yet-alive. Strong lines of single-minded purpose.
For these weapons, it was to serve their master even if they broke.
Amber clutched fistfuls of her mist cloak and drew the pattern close to her in sleek lines. Her stomach fluttered.
“And go!” The command was loud, sharp.
The contestants’ pearls flared. Lisette’s metal wings snapped open as she leapt into the air. Light flashed along them as she rose higher, wheeled, banked hard, shot across the sky. Kael launched himself into the void, rebounded off the tall outcrop, and landed on a smaller formation. He raced to its edge.
Winds, cold and biting hard, streamed around Amber. “Let’s go,” Troi said, and air swept her up and flung her into the fray.
The trip was short—too short. The spell Amber had practiced with Troi and Master Cinbar, a sort of silken net that reduced drag, worked well. She was practically blown all the way to the nearest crystal pickup.
Two figures were already there.
A wave of air burst over Amber and Troi, breaking them apart. It slapped into Amber’s side, sending her spiraling away into the sky, leaving her breathless. Patterns in her mist cloak burned bright, slowing and stabilizing, just as Troi’s air magic grabbed her once more and dumped her onto the rock. The impact jarred her knees. Amber grimaced.
Troi’s landing was far more elegant, his magic stretching out in whips all around him. They clashed with sheet after sheet of air, ripping the attacks to shreds.
“Naia,” he said. “Of course it would be you.”
“That’s my line. It’s just my bad luck to be dragged into the mess you created.” The girl wasn’t fooling around. Brow furrowed, lips pursed, Naia launched yet another attack, a broad bludgeon of moisture-laden air. The edge of it, heavy and silky, washed over Amber, standing well back from the duel.
“You really should go home,” commented Troi. “You’re overmatched, and you know it. How soon until you run out of power?” His air whips snaked out, always in the right place at the right time, deflecting Naia’s spells, darting through the gaps, striking at the girl.
A sheen of sweat covered her face. The pearl on her tunic had turned grayish.
“Isn’t your friend here going to help you? Or is he just waiting his turn?” Troi’s gaze shifted from Naia to the other air ninja.
He blanched. For a fraction of a second, his suns went still, his winds dropped. A smothering mass of air rolled towards him.
Amber lunged, grabbing the pattern she’d been reinforcing, throwing up a woven barrier.
It was good enough to withstand that one attack. The barrier disintegrated as energy coursed through it, but gusts of wind pufed out harmlessly in all directions.
Naia panted, a hand pressed to her side, her pearl as grey as her face.
Troi’s hand was clenched around his sword hilt, his gaze fixed unblinkingly at the unknown newcomer.
Amber sucked in a breath.
Troi was handsome, but this Kaidan man—older than they were by a couple of years—had the beauty of classical statues in white marble. No emotion showed on his chiseled face; his dark eyes held their secrets close. His open coat was long and wide-sleeved, in shades of blue shot through with silver thread, and a long sword hung on his belt. Behind the light shielding that most mages maintained at all times, he thrummed with an ocean depth of power.
Beside this demi-god, Troi looked young and frustrated and very human.
“Naia,” said the newcomer, his glance flickering from the girl to Troi. He spoke a question, but in Kaidan so Amber could not understand it.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Troi, harsh as a crow. “Brother.” He spat the word as if it were a curse.
Brother! Amber looked from one to the other, making out the resemblance.
Troi’s brother turned his back, a crystal in his hand. He spoke again to Naia, tone dismissive.
Naia cast a worried glance at Troi, whose eyes were fixed on his brother. Splotches of color appeared on his cheeks.
Don’t, Amber begged silently. Let’s just get the crystal and move on. There it was, still setting in place on the pedestal erected by the Masters. Let’s win this thing.
“Aivaan!” yelled Troi. “Don’t you ignore me like that.” His unsheathed sword flashed into his hand. A ribbon of magic curled around the blade as he launched himself at Aivaan, almost too fast for Amber could follow.
She didn’t see Aivaan make a move, but there he was, facing Troi, his own sword flickering out. The two blades met with an explosion of air that pushed Amber back a step. Naia swayed, but remained in place.
Aivaan called over to her in Kaidan. With a nod, Naia backed away towards the edge. Her suns, quicksilver and surprisingly delicate, rippled. She lifted her arms, and a great current of air began to move in a circle around the rock formation, trapping them in.
Troi unleashed a flurry of attacks on his brother. Aivaan deflected them all with an economy of movement that reminded Amber of Master Cinbar.
“Since when do you take orders from him, Naia?” Troi shouted. “Do you really enjoy being an Irekai minion? For the Protector’s sake, think for yourself sometimes!”
Naia said nothing, her face strained with more than just the effort of the spell. The conflict between brothers seemed to weigh heavily on her.
“And you!” continued Troi, hair and eyes wild, moving like a demon, wearing himself out, the stupid fool. “Are you all right with what the elders did to Grandfather?”
Aivaan’s sword gleamed a deep blue. An icy wind screamed as it arrowed right at Troi. Troi ripped out his knife, raising both weapons up to defend himself. The wind drove him back several steps.
Aivaan said, each word precise, “I am more our grandfather’s grandson than you ever were or will be.”
Air gathered around him, ruffling his air, flapping his coat. It swirled thickly around his blade, became a vortex of howling violence. It pulled at the air currents, dragging them into itself.
Troi breathed, “The Stormsword.” Awe filled his face, quickly followed by a grim, unwavering determination. He lifted his weapons in salute. “We still fight.”
“As you will, you fool,” said Aivaan. Did he sound a little tired?
A look of pain crossed over Naia’s face. Amber scanned the pattern of her spell, a twisting river of deep blue threads and deeper blue nodes. Fluid and flowing, it nonetheless held its shape better than the darting flicks of Troi’s magic.
She saw what it was doing. Keeping them in, yes, but that was only a side effect. Its main purpose, though, was to prevent the air within the battle sphere from escaping out into the thin valley atmosphere. As Aivaan commanded more and more wind to wrap itself, spinning and whining, around his blade, it was Naia who let it in through her barrier and kept it from rushing out again.
Now if I can only take her down…
Ignoring the twin cyclones of Troi and his brother as they clashed and whirled in steel, sparks, and storm, Amber probed the pattern around Naia. Her spell was far too strong for Amber to dismantle quickly, but the wind mage at the end of her rope. A little nudge in the right direction…
Tiny knotwork spells skittered up and down the air ninja, mischievous, impish. Alarm widened her eyes. For several moments, she held herself stiff, then her shoulders twitched, hunched in. Naia doubled up, half-laughing, half-sobbing. “Ow, make it stop! It tickles.”
Amber permitted herself a smile. They never see that coming. Naia squirmed, losing her grip on her spell. It wavered, losing form, shedding puffs of air. Amber helpfully twitched a few pattern threads, and the entire spell disintegrated.
A gale blasted across the top of the rock formation, sending Naia sprawling and Amber to her knees. There was a gleam of pale sky, then a twisting curtain of darkness descended upon them all. It grumbled and roared and shrieked in Amber’s ears, blasted grit and dust into her face. Wind buffeted and flapped and rushed, pushing her aside as it funneled and compacted around Aivaan’s sword.
Electricity and magic danced along the blade, its metal showing in gleams every now and again. Troi, face dead white and slightly sick, held up his own naked blades, ready to fight to the bitter end.
Uh oh, thought Amber, spitting out hair and blinking hard. The wind had dropped, leaving her feeling like one big bruise. Her ears ached with cold and silence, and all her muscles had turned to trembling jelly.
Naia sat up, hair and clothes disheveled. “Dummy,” she called out to Amber. “That spell keeps summoning and sucking up air. The atmosphere’s going to get really thin in this valley!”
“Yeah, but can he keep it under control?” Amber shot back. The pattern stretched thin around Aivaan and his sword, tense and trembling. “Even I know that air moves into a vacuum. He’ll really have to focus to keep in shape.”
Aivaan’s mouth thinned into a slash of a line. Troi sent a brief, tired smile in Amber’s direction, leaving her open-mouthed in surprise.
The brothers clashed again in spark-crackle and wind-whirl. A shower of rocky specks pattered over Amber. She skittered backwards near Naia. “I’ll just stay back here, I think.”
“Feel free.” Naia sat with her knees drawn up, hugging them to her chest. Her suns were dim and quiet. “That was a nasty trick there, by the way. Well done.”
“Thanks.” Eyes narrowed, Amber watched as Aivaan pushed Troi back, step by relentless step. A pit opened in her stomach. I think we’re going to lose this one.
Author’s Note: Whew! This monster episode clocked in at 3,000 words, and the Chronicles as a whole is now over 50,000 words with a lot of story left to go. By the way, I think I’m going to have a lot of fun writing Naia. Enjoy, and please leave feedback! I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂