A swift movement. A dark shape, low to the ground, flung itself at Pod, inhumanly fast. Pod’s expression changed to one of open-mouth surprised, and then was bowled over so hard, his feet and legs seemed to fly up.
The pressure on Amber’s body disappeared. Air rushed into her face; Amber gasped and spluttered and took long pulls of it.
Pod was on the ground, with some sort of animal growling and yipping and worrying at him. The boy had his hands around the creature’s neck, barely keeping the snapping, drooling jaws away from his face.
Pod’s suns flickered, sickly pale from shock. Amber sensed him trying to snatch the biting creature’s breath, but its fluid pattern, extending past its skin, wouldn’t be stilled, wouldn’t let Pod get a hold of it.
She knew that pattern. She’d spent hours leaning over it.
The creature was Flavius.
Amber didn’t waste any time wondering why he was here. Pod had almost wrestled him to the ground, and the younger boy was transforming back into a determined, but scared youngster.
She snatched up a likely looking pack (it was heavy and clanked). Just as Pod got on his knees, his suns back to full strength, she whacked him across the head with it.
The pack made contact with a sickening smack. Pod collapsed.
Pack dangling from her hand, Amber stared wild-eyed at Flavius, weakly lifting himself up on one elbow.
“You should be in the infirmary!” Amber glared at her erstwhile patient.
“Sorry.” The smaller boy hunched in on himself like a scolded puppy.
Flavius reprimanded, Amber dropped—okay, collapsed—onto her knees next to Pod, her stomach knotted up.
Please don’t be dead!
He still breathed. There was no blood that Amber could see. His suns were powered down, but not empty.
He was just out cold.
Thank the Sustainer I didn’t kill him. Amber sighed, then shifted her attention to Flavius, who watched her with a kind of hopeful wariness.
What a strange kid he was.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered.
Flavius shrugged. “Overheard Master Kristoff and the Headmaster talking about how they’d asked you to do something dangerous. Heard you were in the team to take on the Whispering Winds. Told Tai I wanted to watch, so he gave me a ride with him on his silfyl. Then I hid myself and followed you to make sure you didn’t get into any trouble. Couldn’t get to you in time when that wind mage knocked you off the rock, though.” His voice was gruff and he looked away, not meeting Amber’s eyes.
“Oh.” Amber was taken aback. “I… I didn’t notice you at all.”
“I’m good at hiding,” said Flavius simply.
“Why’d you do it, though?”
“You saved my life, didn’t you? I’m just returning the favor.”
“I…” I didn’t even like you much at the start, thought Amber with quick remorse. “Thank you. You… you’ve gotten better at managing your magic.” There was a controlled fluidity to his pattern now, instead of that horrible, pulsating flux.
Flavius lifted his left arm, which was still fur-covered and ended in a paw instead of a hand. “Not all the way better.”
A sizzling surge of magic made both of them turn their faces towards the tunnel. The hairs of the back of Amber’s neck rose up. Even the pattern seemed to lurch, almost dropping out from under her.
Flavius made a small sound, half-whimper, half-snarl.
“You stay here,” Amber said. “I’ve called for Kael and Lisette and the others. I’m going to take a look. If I’m not back here soon, or if trouble comes looking, you need to get out of here and wait for the others. All right?” She made her face as stern as she could.
Flavius’s pupils were very large, and his teeth were longer and more pointed than usual. His pattern whipped, almost like a cat lashing its tail, but it didn’t appear to be spiraling out of his control.
Amber jerked her chin down in response and slipped away to the tunnel, the swell of burgeoning magic drawing her in.
She had never encountered a spell as big as this. She had no idea what it did, only that it was enormous, expending vast amounts of power. It surged through the pattern, electrifying the threads. They swayed and writhed, stretched thin and taut, white-hot.
Amber didn’t dare touch them.
The tunnel was curved, but short, and spilled into a larger cavern.
Dozens of people, all mages, occupied it.
Amber hadn’t been able to make out their patterns in the sea of larger magic, whose source lay even further beyond.
Amber ducked back into the tunnel, but not before one of them tipped back her head and looked at Amber with eyes as cold and dark as a shark’s.
Invisible wires, sharp and thin and cold, grabbed Amber around the wrists and upper arms, her waist and legs. They pulled her forward, dragging her almost down to her knees. Chill breathed on her neck, whispered in her ears.
No fair, thought Amber, scrambling at the pattern, trying to pry the air-made wires loose. She can do that with her magic?
And now Doua was stalking towards her, still in her high platform shoes, her face shadowed by her hat, her hand moving to the hilt at her side, thrust into her sash.
A knife? She really means to kill me, doesn’t she? Unable to wrestle free from Doua’s control, Amber searched the pattern around the girl, trying to find something she could work with.
She didn’t think tickling spells would work on the girl.
Doua removed the wooden hilt from her sash—an empty handle with no blade. Her magic flicked, there was a sharp metallic cling and hiss, and a thin blade of air sprang from the hilt.
Amber braced herself.
And then the ceiling exploded.
Amber had seen this before.
Suns unshielding. Debris raining down. Combat mages plunging down, surrounded in vibrant colors of magic.
She threw up her hand to shield herself from falling rock and dust, but gusts of air swept them aside and flung them at the enemy mages. A blaze of light, and Lisette swooped down like a bird of prey, all shining wings and bright glow. Metal fans sliced through the air, aiming for Doua’s neck and torso.
The wind mage arced back, impossibly fluid. Lisette’s blades missed her by a hair’s breadth.
The kick didn’t.
Lisette swept the girl’s legs out from under her. Doua’s wind wires whipped back to her, leaving stinging trails across Amber’s skin. They rushed at Lisette, but the girl cut through them with her light-bladed fans.
“You all right?” Lisette called over her shoulder.
“I think so.” The words didn’t come out as confidently as Amber would’ve liked.
In the middle of the cavern, whip-like winds around two darkened figures showed Troi and Naia (why Naia? Amber wondered) creating havoc amongst the enemy mages.
And of course, there was Kael, happily punching his way through a group of mages who’d been stupid enough to charge him.
His golden eyes, full of a fierce light, caught Amber’s gaze. “Come on,” he called. “Let’s see what this magic is all about.”
Amber climbed to her feet, took a few shaky steps. Kael grabbed her hand, and they broke into a run, going down the path he had cleared. Spells came to life on one side, but were abruptly cut off with a yelp as Troi swept up two more mages into what looked like a miniature tornado. Naia had found water from who-knows-where, and encased another enemy’s head with a bubble full of it.
“Don’t kill him!” Amber called as she and Kael ran past.
She was sure Naia rolled her eyes. “Worry about yourself!” the Kaidan girl called.
“Will Lisette be okay?” Amber whispered breathlessly to Kael as they crossed the cavern to yet another tunnel, this one sparking with energy. “Fighting that Doua?”
“Troi’s there,” said Kael. “But we gotta see what’s going on here. And stop it, whatever it is.”
Amber nodded and together they plunged into the tunnel, magic running like static all over them.
No time for caution—and with Kael, it seemed like there was no need for it. They burst out of the tunnel and into an enormous cavern, far larger than the one preceding it. Light fell into it from above, illuminating an enormous lopsided fossilized tree, its roots gripping the upthrust rock it stood upon. The vast trunk ended abruptly, as if its canopy had been sliced clean off. Magical lightning crackled around it.
A sharp scent of dragonsbane came to Amber’s nose. Looking down, she saw the floor of the cavern was carpeted in the stuff, now bent and leaking underfoot.
This is it. The place my ghosts found.
Kael had stopped, his head tipped up to stare at the tree. “Amber,” he whispered, his eyes wide and his expression one she had never seen before—awe and excitement and maybe fear, “do you see what I see?”
Kael shook his head. “It’s not a tree, Amber.”
Amber stared at the thing, creeping realization leaving a chill down her spine. That pale trunk wasn’t made of petrified wood, but of bone. Those enormous roots weren’t roots at all, but…
“Talons?” Amber whispered. “It’s a giant… claw?”
“Look at it with your mage sight. What do you see?”
Amber twitched it on, then gasped. The world unbalanced around her.
The tree… claw… had no pattern. It was just a claw-shaped hole in the surrounding threads, dark and pulsating.
But not empty. No, not at all empty. Restless energy moved in that darkness… was the darkness… was a kind of dark magic Amber had never encountered before.
Its vast power raised prickles all over her skin. She felt herself tilting, as if to fall headfirst into it. There was nothing under her feet, at all, and no up or down or right or left…
Kael put an arm around her shoulders, steadying her. With a jerk, Amber switched off her mage sight and leaned, panting, against him. Her legs felt like jelly and shivers ran down her spine.
“How can it be?” she whispered. “It’s material… we can look at it, probably even touch it, but it’s all made of magic. There are no suns or threads in it at all!”
“Worry about that later. Our immediate problem are these.” Kael nodded towards the six large mirrors set in a ring around the pedestal, tilted up, facing the claw. Silver chains connected them together, magic crackling across the links. The mirror backs that Amber could see each had a different rune inscribed on them. Amber didn’t know what they were, couldn’t even recognize the style of them, but she could feel the magic of them.
And how they were skewing the pattern of the area inside the ring. Rotating the whole of it in an impossible way. Amber felt sick to see it.
The mirrors blazed, shot out beams of light, concentrating them on the claw. Amber, tearing up, turned her gaze away from the claw, caught sight of a figure hovering halfway up the cavern, watching from a distance.
An air ninja. Shai Daan?
“What’s going on, Amber?” asked Kael.
“I don’t know. That spell is changing the rotation of the pattern inside the ring, as if it it’s trying to tear it out of this geographical location altogether…” The ground vibrated underfoot, rocks crumbled down the cavern wall.
Amber, focused on the pattern despite the nausea in her stomach and the throb behind her eyes, gasped. “There’s… another pattern rising to meet it? Something that’s not from here, but elsewhere… And now the two are super-imposing on each other…?”
“I’ve heard enough,” said Kael. “It’s going to bring the whole place on our heads.” He ran for the nearest mirror. His suns blazed bright and hot, turning into infernos. He raised his fist and swung…
“No, wait!” Amber wailed just as the two patterns, the one within the ring and the one from who-knows-where, clicked together.
An explosive blast of air hurled Kael back from the mirror. A shimmer ran over the claw and the rock. For a fraction of a moment, Amber caught sight of some other place—all metal, smelling astringent, with tiny white-clothed figures.
The mirrors exploded in showers of glass. Links snapped. The two patterns flung apart. The one inside the ring snapped back into place; the other vanished back to where it had come from.
Inside the ring of broken mirrors and chains was an empty space.
The rock and the claw were gone.
Amber whispered, “Teleportation.”
Kael climbed to his feet, grim tension in every line of him. His gaze was turned upwards, to where Shai Daan still floated in the distance. His knees flexed, to jump.
More snapping in the pattern. All around the cavern spells triggered. Winds tore, howling, around the place. They knocked Amber back, right into somebody running in from the tunnel.
A steadying arm went around her waist, pale suns shone, and Naia swept a barrier of air in front of the two girls. Lisette and Troi rushed from behind them, both launching up, to where Shai Daan had been. A cloud of dust hung in the air; pebbles rained down upon the girls, bouncing off the barrier above them.
“I’ll say this for them,” said Naia, grimly. “They’re persistent. But it’s too late. Shai Daan’s too careful to not have several escape routes. He’s gone.”
Amber, gingerly feeling the pattern, could only agree.
Author’s Note: Our protagonists are finally getting an inkling about what they’re up against, and it’s bigger and more well-organized than anyone expected. Also, Flavius is a sweetheart. One more episode until the end of the arc!