Whee! Heartwood is back and this time, you will get episodes every Thursday until the arc is over! If you need to refresh your memory, check the series page for links to previous episodes. And now, back to the story:
“A dragon!” squeaked Amber, clutching Naia’s arm for support.
“No.” Naia shook her head. “It’s a great rock snake. But I’ve never seen one so big!”
The creature shook itself free, scattering stones. Its long serpentine body glimmering in the sun, it slithered into the valley, arrowing for the place where the younger mages fought.
Amber had barely time to register the reality of it, its hugeness rippling through the pattern, when another yank on her senses caught her attention.
To her left, near Troi and Aivaan, another formation exploded into rubble. Yet another rock snake, this one pale and marble, struggled out of the debris.
Naia hissed. “They’re everywhere.”
Amber focused on the pattern, caught the barest flick of swift and sharp-edged magic. Another snap, a net of hidden magic came free and slipped loose, and another rock snake swept the blunted end of its tail like a bludgeon across the valley floor. Water and stone burst into the air. The ground shook.
“Someone’s setting them off,” said Amber. She met Naia’s eyes and saw the same suspicion in them.
And under orders from Shai Daan.
Naia smacked a clenched fist into her palm and made an exasperated sound. A gust of water-flecked air made a quick circle around her and Amber.
“I’m going to help Aivaan and Troi,” she announced. “You help your other friends.” She jerked her head towards the right, where light and heat flickered around the dull gold of the third rock snake.
Lisette and Kael.
Naia didn’t wait around. Grabbing twists of air, she kicked off from the rock formation.
Right. She was still an air ninja.
Left alone, Amber hesitated. Lisette and Kael had their hands full up ahead. Down the valley were the younger students and the teachers of Heartwood and Touro.
Masters Zoya and Cinbar are down there, Amber reasoned. The kids will be all right. They don’t need me.
Kael and Lisette, though…
They were both tough, and Amber didn’t think she could help them much beyond cheering from the sidelines.
That left the one thing that was her job.
Find out what was in the Shattered Valley.
The pattern tugged at her, insistent. It caught her curiosity, tempting her with that scent of dragonsbane, a glimpse of a shadowy cavern and a great tree with massive roots clawing into the ground.
Inside her mind, Amber felt the key the memory moth had given her shift, just a little bit. Something unwrapped, a layer, as translucent as an onion skin. A sudden excitement flooded her body. Her mouth was dry and her heart hammered. Her feet ached; there was a phantom blister on her right heel from boots whose soles had worn far too thin.
Finally. After all this time, I’ve found it.
The thoughts were not her own, but it didn’t matter. The compulsion propelled her onward.
The edge of the rock formation was separated from the next by a gap of only a few feet. Amber ran for it without hesitation. Phantom adrenaline surged through her body as she soared across it, landed with only a slight wince at the jabbing pain in her foot.
Was this, Amber wondered, what it was like to be brave? Did people like Kael and Lisette feel this same rush of excitement that washed away all caution?
Her body moved in time with the memory. The far edge of this formation was broken into rubble; it sloped down to the valley floor. Amber picked her way nimbly from boulder to boulder, bounding without hesitation. Her own confidence exhilarated her.
And then she jumped onto a rock that had shifted in the time between past and present. She landed on the edge, arms windmilling, her body unbalanced.
All the hot excitement rushed out of her, replaced with icy alarm. Amber saved herself, scooted her feet firmly onto the rock. Her legs had turned to jelly. She put her hands on her knees and panted, both from that reckless dash and the shock of realizing just how perilously close she’d come to drowning in that memory.
No wonder the memory moth hadn’t just given it to her. The vividness and immediacy of it would’ve been overwhelming.
Frank, it had said. Frank, I’ve kept the faith.
Amber’s hands clenched around her knees.
Was it his memory she’d been caught up in? Had he been here, that distant, half-remembered shadowy figure from the past, the one she knew only in flashes and splinters of memory, the one who’d died when she was just a small child?
Had Franklin West been here?
Was she following in her father’s footsteps?
Amber straightened, shook her head.
Now was not the time to get lost in unanswered questions. She had a job to do. She had to let the memory guide her, not posses her.
Following both the pattern skew and the memory tug, Amber made her way more slowly down the slope of broken rock and to the valley floor.
An inch of water covered the ground. Amber squelched through it, the ooze grabbing her boots. The pull on her body was so strong she had to brace herself, or else she’d pitch forward onto her face.
Not so hard, please, she told that golden key in her head, and to her surprise, the tug eased. That memory from the past took on a greyish tinge and became translucent. She had to check it against both the present landscape and the feel of the pattern.
The pattern. It had brought her here, but to what? Its threads wound round and round the area, like a labyrinth, not bringing her straight to the point. Amber walked beside the base of one stone pillar, her fingers skimming its damp surface. It was dim and cold down here; every now and again, a shiver ran down her back.
The thinness of the pattern in this valley bothered her. There was not much of it in the air, and the one in the rocks was buried so deep. There were hardly any living creatures in the vicinity. The vibrations of mages fighting rock snakes was a distant throb; a deep silence was flung over the whole place.
Silence. Amber stopped, remembering the substance that wrapped around the magical artifacts in the Hopeswell warehouse, hiding it from her magical senses.
But the pattern was everywhere, wasn’t it? Even if covered in silence, it was still there, just buried deeper.
She’d just have to look harder for it.
Amber closed her eyes and let her mage sight take over. The darkness behind her eyelids lightened to an evening blue, pinpricked with small star-like nodes and glimmering white strands. They pattern molded itself onto the landscape. There, at her feet, was a wide band of moving threads and bobbing lights. That was the water. Around her were the geometric shapes of the rock formations, with deep wells of darkness inside their outlines.
Amber focused on those wells, holding onto the sharp green scent of dragonsbane. On top of her mage sight, she let her father’s memory unfold, letting the sights and sounds unroll around her, while she stayed still.
Memory and scent sharpened to one point, one place in the pattern. Amber grew deaf and blind to all else as she probed that dark space.
And out of the depths, rising up to meet her (or was she sinking to meet it?), was the pattern of a hiding spell, a tavern puzzle of a spell, with the key dangling from it. All she had to do was remove it from the surrounding spellwork and the entire thing would come undone, revealing the secret.
Amber smiled. The creator of the spell had sacrificed complexity for secretiveness. Now that it was revealed, it wouldn’t take long for someone who’d spent hours on visual-spatial puzzles to undo it.
She cast her senses around the spell. She simulated movements in her head. She wouldn’t touch the spell until she knew what the solution was. Her father’s memory at this point carried a promise of pain. Franklin West’s first exuberant encounter with this particular lock-and-key had resulted in hours of unconsciousness and a throbbing headache.
Amber didn’t have that time to lose.
I have it! I think.
Amber could feel her real palms become sweaty. She didn’t dare wipe them, though, in case the movement jolted her out of the world of the pattern. The lock-and-key spell wavered, tenuous, almost slippery.
If she lost her concentration, it would dive back into the depths. She didn’t know if she’d be able to fish it out again.
Slowly, carefully, Amber took up the key part. It was cool in her mind, a metallic silver line. She moved it through the lock-puzzles, twisting the key first this way, then that, then the other. The effort took more out of her then she’d expected, her mental grip trembling with nerves and exhaustion.
One more move. Don’t drop it now, Amber cautioned herself.
One last concentrated stream of magic, one last twist, one last move, and the key came apart from the puzzle with a final, satisfying click.
The lock-spell slid apart, smooth and silver, leaving a gap in the middle. The key dissolved into sparkles, then nothingness, tingling against her skin.
Amber opened her eyes.
There, ahead of her, was a crack in the base of the rock formation, where none had existed before.
She grinned, squelching eagerly towards it. Curiosity gripped her, pushing her on. It was her own, her own desire to discover, to find out, to know.
Maybe I’m more like him than I thought.
Amber paused at the entrance and looked over her shoulder. She could still sense the rock snakes in the pattern, all three—no, four of them. Doua had set off another while Amber was solving the puzzle-spell.
All this chaos of rock snake and bursts of magic was a perfect cover for whatever Shai Daan was up to. Everyone was preoccupied, and whatever magic he used could easily pass unnoticed as spells were slung around.
Still. Amber gathered up some strands of pattern, pressed her fingers into them. One, two, three, four, five spells hung like paper flags in her hands.
Wait for this long, she told them, then find.
They fluttered off her hands and slowly threaded down the pattern. They were fragile things at best, but they’d have to do. She couldn’t wait for help. Shai Daan might already be on his way out.
Amber plunged into the gap.
A narrow path inside the rock formation took Amber up in a lazy spiral that seemed to follow the outer walls of the formation. It was hot and close inside, but not completely dark. Grey suffused the tunnel, a lightening that came from one side of the path, as if the outer wall was translucent, not opaque. Amber was terribly curious about this strange one-directional light filtering, but she could not stop to puzzle it out.
Because an occasional breath of fresh air brought with it the sniff of dragonsbane. Her pulse quickened.
It was hard to tell, but Amber didn’t think this particular narrow path had been used in a while. No footsteps scuffed the packed earth ahead of her. Every now and again she came to a narrowed spot where she had to turn sideways to get through. Somehow she didn’t see Shai Daan doing this.
Probably, he had found another way to whatever lay inside. She wondered if his spells had been timed to match the rock snakes’ explosive entrance onto the battle field.
The spiral tightened as Amber went ever higher. Would it lead her to some vast central chamber?
Amber went around another bend. A muffled boom came from up ahead.
A draft, slightly cooler and tinged with herb, quested down the tunnel. Amber held her breath, but it puffed into her face and dissipated. She sensed no magic in it; it was just a stray current of air from some vented space ahead.
Amber crept down the last several feet of tunnel and peered out into a small cavern.
Now this looked like someone had been here, and recently. Footsteps and tracks covered the packed earth; packs and boxes were stacked against the wall. Two paths led into the space, one came from Amber’s left, the other led off to her right.
A crackle of magic emanated from the righthand side tunnel. It felt greasy and urgent on her skin.
What’s going on? Amber emerged from the tunnel, a cool, watery feeling washing over her as she exited. It felt a lot like that lock-and-key spell; she realized that she had opened both ends of the tunnel when she’d solved it.
And what if there had been someone else here to see a tunnel silently open up when she had?
The back of her neck prickled. Amber retreated, or tried to, as stormy suns of blue unshielded.
Pressure all around her body, clamping her in place. Amber squeaked, or tried to. Something snatched her breath away—and slowly sucked away the air around her. Everything went grey and still, pattern threads disintegrating and falling to the ground like snow.
Pod emerged from the twilight, regret written all over his face. “I’m sorry about this, I really am.” His words were distant and tinny, funneled to her ears through a barely-vibrating line of air particles. “You should’ve stayed away.”
Amber had no answer to this, even if she could’ve spoken. She was too busy trying to keep her bodily patterns from collapsing, an attempt she knew was ultimately futile. Her head was light, her vision dark-washed.
A distant part of her noticed that Pod’s pearl pin was all black.
Kael took him out after all. Good.
And then Amber wanted to laugh, hysterically, because why did she care about a stupid tournament when she was about to die and the last thing she would see was Pod’s sad, hang-dog face that seemed to be pleading for forgiveness?
Author’s Note: I divided the remainder of the arc into episodes, and there are only two more left after this one! I’m excited because now I can go back and make some edits. 🙂