Amber glanced, narrow-eyed against the stinging of the wind, towards the pedestal where Heartwood’s crystal still rested in place. While Troi’s occupying Aivaan, can I get it and run? Lisette had said to use their best judgment.
“Don’t even think about it,” warned Naia. Despite the way her hair blew this way and that, she looked calm, comfortable even. “My magic may be wiped out for now, but I’m still a crescent moon in raikiji. I don’t mind taking you on any time.” Utterly self-confident, her look dared Amber to test her.
Amber subsided. She didn’t know what raikiji was, but it sounded very martial and painful to anyone on the receiving end of it. And dim though Naia’s suns might be, she could still pack a greater punch than Amber with her magic.
I need to be sneakier. Amber kept her eyes on Aivaan and Troi, both hovering mid-air, without seeing them. Instead, she focused her mage sight on the pattern as it danced and quivered under the onslaught of the wind mages’ battle. Strands clustered thick and clotted near the pedestal; Aivaan had left a nasty explosion spell ringed around the Heartwood crystal. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated one, but a mage in a hurry might overlook it, only to receive a nasty shock that blacked out his pearl.
Amber peeled away the spell, layer by layer, smoothing out the pattern around it, dissipating its energy harmlessly into the surrounding air. She wished she could’ve turned it back onto Aivaan or funneled it to Troi, but she didn’t have the skills for it. Yet. Not with the pattern in that state of flux.
The pattern around the air ninjas broke apart, whipped around, swirled and reformed. The strands flashed blue and grey and silver; a crackle rolled across the rock. Troi darted around his brother, but Aivaan’s stormsword flashed in lightning-bright arcs. Even from her safer spot, Amber felt the pressure of those strokes, could hardly believe that Troi was able to even deflect a single one.
Troi was weakening. His air magic was no longer quick and sure, but ragged, desperate. Aivaan made a complicated move with his sword. With a shriek, winds raced towards Troi.
Naia bounded to her feet with a cry, “Don’t… Aivaan… fool!” Her words were snatched from her lips, tossed and scattered across the scoured rock. Amber hid her face against her knees as a storm of dust and grit blasted into her, her braid whipping behind her.
Pressure held her down, a greasy feeling coated her skin. The pattern threads, flapping so randomly before, now bunched together, formed currents of a grey so pale it was almost white.
Each current was blade-sharp and lightning-electric.
They arrowed into Troi. Naia gave a shriek, angry and wordless. Amber dared to look up, flinching against both magic and storm.
Troi threw himself to one side, bringing up the sword in front of him, the knife darting out in one quicksilver minnow movement. Several spells missed him, others deflected off the blade, yet another tangled upon the knife. Only a few hit, but he staggered under their attack, falling to his knees on the ground.
His suns throbbed in colors of distress, losing shape and speed. Amber could almost hear the cry of his strained, stretched magic, wordless and anguished, echoing through the pattern.
Slowly, Troi got to his feet.
His hair was disheveled, his face grimy, his clothes in disarray, his pearl as grey as Naia’s. Only his eyes, like dark holes torn in a paper mask, showed grim and determined.
Aivaan looked on, still hovering, expressionless, as his spells arced off in all directions.
Naia yelled, “What are you trying to do—kill him? You’re going too far, Aivaan!”
“Stay. Out. Of this, Naia!” Troi yelled back, voice hoarse. For a moment, pain twisted his features, then he took a hold of himself. He threw his head up and back in an arrogant gesture too familiar to Amber, and faced his brother.
It was obviously familiar to Aivaan as well. Something glinted deep in his eyes. His suns twisted, became blurs. Once again the pattern shifted, ominous.
Amber started to scramble up. “Troi, watch out…!”
Howling, the cyclone of air around Aivaan’s sword blasted towards Troi. Amber saw him start to get his weapons up, saw him begin a defensive spell, then a rush of dark air enveloped the Heartwood mage. Winds buffeted Amber from behind, screaming in glee as they encircled Troi. Amber closed her eyes, her ears full of roaring, her face burning with cold, her body battered. Her mist cloak twisted around her, its meager spells flaring erratically, trying to protect her.
I don’t think I can hold on much longer.
And then it stopped.
The winds dropped. The lash of air against her body disappeared. The roaring in her ears became a rushing silence.
Amber, braced against something that was no longer there, stumbled and nearly fell.
She opened her eyes to a bright world, washed clean in the morning light. The sky was a delicate robin’s egg blue, cloudless save for a few wispy feathers of white.
Amber gaped, then realized that a grumble still tickled the edge of her hearing and vibrations still thrummed through her body.
Where Troi had stood was now a tight-packed dome of air, racing around and around in a tight, cutting circle. Amber couldn’t make out Troi at all within the darkness of debris and rushing wind that trapped him. With a creeping sense of failure, she realized that she couldn’t undo the spell at all—looping, self-sustaining, it had no ends to grab hold of, and reaching into those winds with her bare senses would only cut her into ribbons. She didn’t think even Troi could manipulate those speeding winds.
Naia, her hair wind-blown, glared at Troi’s brother. “Aivaan,” she began.
“I will let him out when we’ve won,” said Aivaan, sheathing his sword. His expressionless gaze slid over Amber. “Take care of her.” And with that, he whisked a swirl of air around himself, lifted off, and headed for the destination rock.
Naia put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes at his retreating figure. “Irekai men,” she commented to Amber, “they’re all the same. I feel sorry for their womenfolk.”
The only person Amber was feeling sorry for right now was herself. She eyed the pedestal, the crystal so close. Could she turn herself invisible, slip over to it, grab it and get away? In open daylight with Naia focused on stopping her?
I have to try, at least. For better or worse, I’m a Heartwood mage now.
Naia eyed her thoughtfully. “You’re planning something, Ravin girl. I’m sure you’re very nice and all, but I have to stop you. And tickling isn’t going to work this time!” Her suns, Amber noticed gloomily, had brightened.
Blasted sun mages and their quick recovery! Did Naia just drink in a rejuvenating lungful or two of air to get her magic powers back up?
Let’s try an illusion, then trap her hands. Even as Amber activated the spell on her mist cloak, she knew it was a very, very long shot.
Amber shifted slightly sideways, sliding between pattern threads. The bright morning air dimmed as she sank deeper into the pattern, feeling that blur in her soul as her illusion spell multiplied copies of herself. Then she moved, and the ghosts moved with her, flying off in different directions, pale and insubstantial in the hard, gold glint of sunlight.
“Interesting.” Naia cocked her head, gaze flickering from one darting copy to another. “But I still see you.” Magic swelled around the Kaidan girl’s hand. Amber threw something sticky and panicked at her, but it was washed away by Naia’s power.
Caught halfway to the crystal, Amber thought, Sorry, guys. I did my best, but it should’ve been someone else with you!
A shudder ran through the pattern. There was a crack, like the breaking of an egg. Naia whipped around in the direction of the disturbance, her eyes widening, her hands raised to ward off, a spell sluggishly taking shape around them.
Too late. Wind slammed into the girl, lifted her up, threw her down like a rag doll. Amber froze, appalled, but of course, Naia was a sun mage. She said a small, “Ow,” sat up, and looked reproachfully at Troi. Her pearl was jet-black and the pattern jangled around it so hard, Amber didn’t need mage senses to make out what it was saying.
Naia had just been knocked out of the tournament.
Troi stood in the open, breathing hard, looking royally vexed. Myriad cuts covered his face and hands, her shirt was shredded and his pants frayed at the hems. He held his sword and knife with the tips pointed down, but Amber didn’t doubt he’d be able to bring them up in a flash.
“I am,” he said through gritted teeth to Naia, “so sick of your stubbornness.”
Amber blinked at this unexpected response. So did Naia.
“What were you doing there, weakly grabbing at air currents, when there’s a whole lot of water down below in this valley?” Troi made a sharp, stabbing gesture with the knife in the direction of “down below.”
Naia said meekly, “I’m a wind mage.”
“Who always had an affinity with water!” Troi snarled. “You wouldn’t be scurrying around, doing Aivaan’s bidding if you’d just play to your own strengths for once. And by that, I don’t mean your incessant talking!”
With that, Troi swept towards the pedestal—his suns were surprisingly recovered—and grabbed the crystal off it.
You’re welcome, Amber thought in a small, internal voice. Now was not the time to explain about the defused spell to an enraged Troi. He was holding it in, but his eyes were dark with anger, his nostrils flared, white around his mouth. Every movement was savage with suppressed violence.
A flash of light caught Amber’s attention. Tilting her head up, she squinted as a figure, dark at its core but haloed with brightness, wheeled across the sky, landed atop a neighboring rock. Another figure, this one more like a haze of smoke, darted after it, came to a hovering stop above the formation.
Lisette and Doua.
Troi threw a swift glance at the tableau. “I’m going after Aivaan. Go help her, Amber!”
Before Amber could even form a response, a curl of air snatched her up and practically threw her across the space. Amber caught a glimpse of a shimmering expanse of water below, then rock loomed up, too sudden, too hard, too close to the edge. She fell, skinning knees and palms.
Almost instantly, the hairs on the back of her neck raised. A murderous intent filled the pattern, a soft, slow swell of it that made it hard to breathe, as if someone held her face into a pillow. Lisette, still defiant but damaged, was collapsed on the ground in a heap of shining metal, one wing bent at a bad angle. Above her, Doua, her face shadowed by her hat, gathered a spell in her hands, a delicate but dangerously-edged blade.
Aivaan had power, but Doua’s swiftness and control were extraordinary. The pattern itself seemed to open the way for her.
Help her, he said, Amber thought despairingly, her body already moving as Doua unleashed her air-crafted weapons. This is the only thing I can think of!
She hurled herself in front of Lisette, throwing her arms around the other girl, covering them both with the mist cloak.
Doua’s spell hit.
Amber’s mist cloak caught the worst of it. The spells within it disintegrated in a flash, the weave of it thrummed but held. A hundred stabbing points slammed into Amber’s back, driving her into Lisette with a pained gasp. It felt as if thousands of needles of cold air jammed down her lungs and arrowed into her arteries. Suddenly without breath, Amber couldn’t cry out at all, only shudder and squirm.
The agony was intense, but brief.
By the time her breath returned, the pain was fading to an afterimage. It still hurt, lying deep in her quivering muscles, but Amber found she could bear it.
A jangling at the edge of her hearing signaled that she, too, was out of the tournament.
Amber couldn’t bring herself to mind too much.
Lisette grabbed Amber’s shoulders and shook her. “Amber. Amber! Are you all right?”
“Careful… head!” gasped Amber. Her neck was stiff and the movement made her head bobble in an alarming way, as if it would snap off any moment.
Lisette dropped her hands, her blue eyes dark with emotion, her black hair falling in sticky strands around her face. There were tears in her voice as she said, “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did.” Amber’s brows snapped together. She glared at the other girl. “I’m not a combat mage—you are. Troi got beaten up by his own brother, but he’s still pushing through. You do the same, Lisette!”
The wild, hurt look in Lisette’s eyes vanished. A ghost of a smile flickered across her face. “I will.” Something whitish gleamed as she took it out of her pocket—the crystal. “I have it, at least.”
“Then go win.”
The two girls’ eyes met in a rare moment of unified purpose. Then both looked up at Doua, still and straight in the air. Not a single stray current from the winds that cradled her reached Amber and Lisette.
No emotion showed on the bottom crescent of her face. Her arms were folded, hands tucked into her sleeve. Amber couldn’t quite tell, but she thought the Kaidan girl had depleted much of her magic in that one attack. Otherwise, she and Lisette would probably have been sliced up by now.
Wait a minute! Did she just try to seriously maim—even kill—us? Amber’s mouth dropped open as she replayed the last few minutes.
“You may try all you wish,” said Doua, precise as ever, “but I will not let you off this rock.”
Lisette struggled to her feet, her shining wings bent and dented behind her. “Amber, move away and close your eyes.”
Amber obeyed, backing off, keeping a wary eye on the edge of the formation to her right.
Lisette closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath. Her suns came alive, her damaged wings lifted. Light danced over the metal, striking gleams of warm gold and bronze. Both wings straightened, one swept long and whole. The other remained slightly crooked, whimpering a small protest as Lisette’s magic caressed it.
“Can you fly?” Doua went on in her monotone. “I think not.”
Lisette said nothing, her fierce concentration turned inwards. A glow surrounded her, growing ever more intense. Amber screwed her eyes closed, turned her head away.
“Do not think…” Doua began.
And then came the flare.
The inside of Amber’s eyelids turned reddish, warmth pressed into her cheeks. Her eyes stung with tears. She heard Doua gave a small, wordless cry, and then the shivering clash of Lisette’s wings as she leapt into the air.
Amber counted three heartbeats, then opened her watering eyes. The morning swam hazily around her, and for a moment, she was so light-headed and off-balance, she thought she might fall over.
Lisette was gone, swooping in a blaze of light between two taller rocks, vanishing behind them. The sight of her, so free and bright and glad, made Amber whoop and laugh.
Nearby Doua tumbled through the air, almost crashing. At the last moment, she pulled up, her feet nearly skimming the ground. She arrowed past Amber in a surge of air, so close that Amber could’ve reached out and touched her sleeve.
In that instant, Doua turned her head, locked gazes with Amber. Her dark eyes were cold and pitiless, like a shark’s. And then she was whipping past, and the winds trailing behind her hooked around Amber’s knees. Amber stumbled and one heel found crumbling rock, the other empty air.
She teetered on the edge, thinking, This is why I put spells in my mist cloak.
And then remembered, They’re all gone now.
A wind nudged her, in just the right place.
Or the wrong one.
Author’s Note: Okay, I just had a too-long panicked moment where I thought I had lost most of this episode! Turns out I had opened my backup copy instead of the one I worked on this evening. Whew! The thought of rewriting about 2700 words was a shocker, especially after I hit my stride at the coffee shop. I could tell I was getting into the groove, because I almost put my laptop on my knees and tried to swivel around in a (nonexistent) rolling chair, which is what I do at home in my study when I get into the zone. Oops! Can’t really do that in public.
One question I’ve been meaning to ask (before I go backup my work): Who is your favorite character in Heartwood so far? Email me back or reply in the comments and let me know!