Amber snatched at the pattern threads around her, reacting faster than she’d ever thought.
The threads whipped through her seeking fingers, blowing out of reach.
Oh, Sustainer, I’m going to—
And then something thick and cool wrapped around her waist and legs, cradled her gently, slowed her fall. It thrummed with energy—Amber felt it vibrating through her bones.
She looked down and gasped.
Water leapt up from the valley bottoms in a kind of reverse waterfall, splitting into gushing tendrils that coiled up her legs and around her torso. The hiss of moving water replaced the sound of rushing air.
The main column of water, a white fountain that shed droplets like diamonds, rose higher. It lifted Amber up and up, finally depositing her on the formation she and Troi had fought Aivaan and Naia on.
Naia herself set on the very edge of it, her face scrunched up in fierce concentration, twisting and untwisting the fabric of her skirt. Her silver suns had turned so white they were nearly clear. Tiny rainbows gleamed in their hearts.
With a last heave, the water pushed Amber onto the rock. The main fountain, spent, fell the long, long way down into the valley with a distant crash. The watery ropes around Amber lost form, splattered, and drenched Amber from the waist down.
Naia grimaced. “How artless. That part needs work.”
Amber stared at her. Now that the sounds of wind and water had died, she could hear the rush of her own blood, the pounding of her own heart. Her legs had turned to wobbling jelly, and her hands and feet were cold and bloodless.
She’d nearly died and Naia was sitting here, critiquing her rescue effort?
Amber started to giggle. She laughed so hard, she couldn’t hold herself up. She collapsed onto the ground next to Naia, who looked at her with amused amazement. Amber drew her knees up to her chest.
It was then she realized that the laughter had given to tears.
Her shoulders heaving, Amber rested her forehead on her knees and wept.
Beside her, Naia shifted closer and patted Amber comfortingly on the shoulder.
The gesture brought Amber to herself. With a sniff and a gulp, she wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, then hunted through her pockets for a handkerchief. She blew her nose with a final, decided kind of sniff.
She was not the type to melt into a puddle, even if her day so far had been very trying. Thank goodness she hadn’t done this in front of her team mates. At least Naia she would never see again after this day.
The Kaidan girl’s eyes were full of sympathy, but for once she held her tongue.
“I’m all right now,” Amber reassured her. “It was just a momentary… weakness.”
Naia raised her eyebrows. “You nearly plummeted to your death. You can be forgiven for wanting a good howl after that. I would.”
Amber gave a watery chuckle.
“And,” Naia went on, eyes narrowed, squinting into the distance, “for what it’s worth, I’m sorry about what Doua did.”
“Ah… well, accidents happen sometimes,” Amber assured her.
Naia sniffed. “That was no accident. Not where Miss Perfect Control Doua is concerned. She may be a nasty piece of work sometimes, but her skill is the real deal. Unfortunately.” The Kaidan girl made a face.
Amber was silent, remembering that swell of murderousness around Doua. She hadn’t mistaken that, after all. “It’s only a game, after all,” she said out loud. “Why’s she so serious about it?”
“Because of Shai Daan, I expect.” Naia got to her feet. “Doua’s the daughter of one of his family retainers. The Shai clan must breed them for fanatical loyalty, if the stories from the Clan Wars era are to be believed. She takes Shai honor terribly seriously—more seriously than the family themselves, it seems. If Shai Daan expects her to win, she’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means taking out an opponent–permanently.” Naia dusted off her skirts with unnecessary vigor, head down, voice even, but the set of her mouth was angry.
Amber shivered. “She didn’t need to go that far. It’s not like I was any competition for her. She could’ve disabled me with a snap of her fingers.”
Naia straightened and considered her for a moment. “Probably,” she said. “Your magic is unusual, but it isn’t very strong.”
Amber had said as much herself, but it still stung coming from someone else. She twitched her shoulder in a half-shrug, but Naia widened her eyes and suddenly, sharply slapped her hands against her cheeks.
“Sorry!” The Kaidan girl exclaimed. “I said too much again! Ugh, things just slip out sometimes. I didn’t intend to put you down.” She looked ready to throw herself on the ground in apology.
“It’s fine,” Amber said hurriedly. “I know I’m not much good at combat. I have other skills.” She cringed as the last words slipped out of her mouth. No matter how nice Naia was, she was still an opponent. The last thing Amber needed was Naia thinking about why Heartwood had sent a weak battle mage into the tournament.
Maybe I should slap my cheeks!
Naia raised her eyebrows. “More secrets, huh? Don’t worry—I’m not interested in political machinations. I’m only here to make Troi see sense, but that was always going to be a long shot.” She sighed, and for a moment, she looked tired and dispirited. Then, shaking it off, she said briskly, “I’m Naia, by the way. I don’t expect Troi mentioned me.”
“Uh, you’re right about that.” Amber felt bad for the other girl. “I’m Amber.”
“You’re from Ravin, right?” Naia put her hands on her hips and surveyed Amber. “You don’t look like you’re in love with Troi, though.”
“Wha..?” Amber spluttered, heat rising in her cheeks. “I am most assuredly not!
“Good,” said Naia. Then, seeing Amber’s expression, she hastened to add, “Oh, it’s not on my account, though. He’s just a hard person to be around these past several years. Any girl foolish enough to give him her heart will find the experience painful.”
Amber blinked. “But aren’t you engaged to him?” It felt so odd, saying it out loud. She couldn’t really see the two as a couple.
Naia shrugged. “Yes, but it’s not a mushy-love thing, it’s a family-duty thing. As you can tell, Troi’s not big into family duty right now.” She peered into the distance. “I think the battles are still going on.”
Spells tugged and pulled at the pattern. Amber couldn’t stretch her magic senses very far yet, but that warm distant glow had to be Kael. And that writhing, angry blot of suns and magic all tangled together—Troi had caught up with Aivaan.
Behind them more magic vibrated through the pattern—the spellwork of younger Heartwood and Torou mages still fighting it out.
But none of those accounted for that odd skew Amber had noted, that permanent stretch and slope of the pattern.
There was something else deeper in this valley, something whose magical weight Amber couldn’t even fathom.
Naia was still turned towards the battles ahead of them, the ones they could not see. Amber didn’t know what she could sense, but the girl’s body was tense and alert. Despite what she had said earlier, she cared at least a little about the outcome.
And I have a job to do. In a way, her job had only just begun.
Naia turned to Amber, eyes sparking with mischief. “We’re both out of the tournament, but no one said we had to go back. Want to come with me and see how the others are doing?”
“Sure!” said Amber, relieved. She’d figure out a way to shake Naia off later—maybe take her to Troi and Aivaan’s battle and leave her there to sort out the brothers’ issues.
“Great! And” —Naia grinned, raising her hands. A watery bridge rose from the valley floor, arching from their rock to another—”I want to practice some more!”
“He didn’t used to be like this, you know,” said Naia as she and Amber traversed yet another stomach-twisting gap between formations. Amber swiftly wound pattern threads around the bundle of silver-grey water, holding it more firmly together, anchoring its ends into rock. The other girl’s bridge spell had improved exponentially, but Amber couldn’t entirely trust the new spell.
Not with the other girl chattering so much as she worked, her hands moving in empty and careless gestures. How in the world did Naia do magic this way?
And for someone who claimed that her engagement was only a “family duty thing,” Naia sure talked a lot about Troi.
“He used to be such a sweet, serious boy,” Naia went on over her shoulder as she led the way. “The perfect little gentleman, really. I thought I was sooo lucky back then.” She shook her head at her younger self’s delusions.
“What happened to him?” Surely with Naia freely giving up all this information, this didn’t really count as prying into Troi’s past, did it?
Naia shook her head. “His grandfather died.” She hesitated. “Well, it’s all the stuff that happened before his grandfather died.” She paused, then turned around to face Amber, her expression serious. Amber stopped, too.
The bridge undulated under their feet, bobbing gently. Aside from the occasional slosh of water and sigh of air, it was so very quiet. Amber’s ears strained the silence for even the smallest sounds.
“His grandfather went mad,” said Naia, voice low. “He called up a terrible storm and destroyed an entire island. People, houses, trees—all swept away. From what I heard the whole place—an island that had once held a thousand people—was scoured clean, left completely empty. Not even a scrap of clothing nor a stick of wood remained.”
Amber’s head whirled trying to imagine the magnitude of that disaster—and the magic required to produce it. “Why?” she whispered. “Why did he do it?”
Naia’s mouth went wry. She twitched her shoulder. “I told you he went mad, didn’t I? It happens, sometimes, with those of us who have strong suns. It’s not only Serepentine High Mages who suffer from insanity.”
“But…” began Amber, still wrestling with the idea of great magic breeding great madness. “The Serepentine mages fed their magic with twisted appetites. It’s not the same thing. Is it?”
Naia looked at her with sober kindness, as if trying to letting a young child down as gently as possible. “Most Ravinian magic is runic, yes? Perhaps that’s why. But it’s not unheard of for sun mages to suddenly snap. That’s why there are… procedures.”
Amber narrowed her eyes at the way Naia spoke the last word. “And what are those?”
“Mages who go mad have their suns removed and their magic scraped away.” Naia looked away. “It’s not painless.”
“Troi’s grandfather never recovered from the procedure,” Naia went on, tonelessly. “He lived, but he was just a husk of a man. He could barely recall his own family. His health was fragile; his mental capabilities reduced. A year later, he became sick and died.”
Naia shook her head. “He couldn’t accept it. Couldn’t accept that his beloved grandfather had done that terribly thing, couldn’t accept that the procedure was necessary. He blamed his parents, his uncles, all the Irekai elders for doing that to his grandfather. All this time, he’s seeking to make sense of it. Idiot.” Naia’s tone was weary, not heated. “The simple truth has been under his nose all the time.”
She turned and continued across her bridge. The waters within had darkened to match her mood, rushing in circular currents throughout. Amber’s feet squelched, leaving dimples on the water’s surface as she hurried after Naia.
Naia spoke again as they reached the other side of the bridge, Amber thankful for solid ground under her again. “Troi’s let this poison his mind too long. He despises everyone involved in the removal of his grandfather’s magic.” She shook her hands with vigor, as if scattering water. Her bridge shivered into droplets, rained into the valley below. “And most of all he hates the one who performed the procedure—Shai Daan himself.”
“So that’s why—” Amber exclaimed, then bit her lip.
“Exactly so.” Naia nodded. “Troi couldn’t stand to be a Torou under Shai Daan. He kept running to Heartwood.”
But Amber was thinking back to the beach, back to Troi’s words to the Kaidan girl. You have no idea what you’re talking about, and you don’t know what’s happened between me and Irekai.
What if the truth wasn’t as simple as Naia made it out to be? What if Troi did have other, better reasons to feel the way he did?
Suddenly, the pattern shuddered, flashed, snapped. Disoriented, Amber stumbled. A great shiver ran through the rock, as if it were suddenly coming alive. A noise rumbled in the girls’ ears.
Naia spun and faced the way they had come. “What in…?” she began.
A rock formation further down the valley cracked apart. Rocks cascaded down its sides. Out of the heaving mass of debris, a great snake-like head thrust itself upward. The sun gleamed on its bronze scales. Black and beady eyes stared blankly out into the world. The creature’s mouth opened in a soundless roar, revealing fangs.
Amber caught a whiff of something in the pattern. That scent again, bitter and green and familiar.
And this time she recognized it as it bloomed throughout the pattern, as if a spell had awakened.
That’s right! It’s dragonsbane.
Author’s Note: Sorry for the long hiatus! Fall’s the busiest time of the year for me with being back-to-school and I *always* end up thinking I can got a lot more done than I do. And, honestly, wrapping up this arc isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I have all–okay, most–of the pieces and I know the end I’m driving towards, but it hasn’t been coming together as well. I expect that I’ll end up reworking parts of this for the e-book release. If there are any rough places you struggled to get through or understand, PLEASE let me know! Part of the rationale in releasing this story in episodes is getting the feedback!
Heartwood updates will likely be sporadic, since I also need to work on my main writing project (Book 3 of THE REFLECTED CITY).