Shai Daan was gone. So were Doua, who had escaped when the teleportation spell activated, and Pod, who had apparently come around while Flavius had run to check on his Heartwood peers. Amber couldn’t scold him for that oversight, not since he’d already gone an earful from Master Zoya about leaving the infirmary in the first place.
The wind mages had left behind their minions, hired thugs with basic magic whose main job had been to lug supplies into the outer caverns. Shai Daan had brought them in under the guise of setting up for the tournament—a clever ruse, Master Zoya admitted, though her compressed lips showed her exasperation. As the instigators of the last wave of Heartwood-Torou violence, Torou Academy had insisted on taking care of the logistics of the tournament, allowing Shai Daan free hand in the Shattered Valley. Master Zoya didn’t say it outright, but Amber had the impression her hands been tied by the bureaucracy of three political entities—Carradia, Kaidan, and the Serepentine Isles.
She was not amused to have Shai Daan waltz in under her nose and use the tournament to hide all the magic it had taken to break into this cavern and steal what she was convinced was a dragon claw.
A dragon claw.
Amber sat on a pile of rubble, her arms around her knees, turning that almost impossible thought in her mind. Dragons, creatures of frightening power of a mythic past, whose remains had never been found, whom some believed were mere stories.
The reality was so much scarier. If that one part of a dragon, that one no-longer-alive part could contain so much power…
She couldn’t even fathom the power of an actual, living dragon.
Some speculated that dragons still existed in the Chaos in the middle of the continent.
Amber hoped, devoutly, they were wrong.
Master Zoya soft-stepped next to Amber, and sat down cross-legged. Amber glanced at the woman; she had a smudge of dirt on her chin, hair had come out of her bun, but Master Zoya still exuded that controlled calm and competence.
Her eyes, however, were tired.
There’d been six rock snakes, by the end. Master Zoya had fought off two by herself, from what Jex and Mistress Blunkett said.
“Sorry,” said Amber.
Zoya looked at her, a slight frown between her brows. “What for?”
“For not finding this sooner. For letting them get away with this.” Amber gestured towards the place where the claw—the dragon claw—had been.
She had better get used to thinking of it as a dragon claw.
Zoya shook her head. “No, the fault is mine, for sending you unprepared. I thought it was a scouting mission, nothing more. I certainly did not expect you would find a dragon relic, not here of all places.”
“You’re not surprised,” said Amber, “that one exists.” She swallowed. “Are there… that many in the world?”
Zoya raised her brows. “Have you not heard of the formation of the Serepentine Isles?”
“I thought it was a myth!” Amber burst out. “It… an entire archipelago can’t be formed out a dead dragon.”
“Not all of it, no,” Zoya agreed. “But some of it certainly is.”
Amber stared at Zoya. The Master looked serious enough.
Zoya went on, casually. “I have touched what remains of its mind, once or twice.”
Amber recoiled. “It’s… still alive?”
“No, it’s dead all right. But dragons aren’t like us, whose souls leave our bodies when we die. They are their bodies, and when they die, they… take a while to fade away.” Zoya shook her head. “From what I gather—I don’t think anyone can be sure exactly what happens. The Serepentine Isles dragon is very dead; it won’t awaken and start flying around.”
Amber eyed the Master. “You mean there are dead dragons that just might do that?”
“Perhaps,” said Zoya. “There’s so much we don’t know. What did you make of that teleportation spell?”
She was changing the subject, but Amber was glad to let her. She didn’t relish the idea of dragons waking up.
Not that she wanted to dwell much on that spell, either. The memory of the pattern twisting made her stomach clench. “It… it shouldn’t be possible,” she began, then she shook her head. “No. I should stop saying that, shouldn’t I. Here everything is possible.”
“We do need to stretch our notions of what’s possible,” agreed Zoya, “but let’s not throw all the rules of nature and magic out. Everything I’ve seen on this continent is built upon those, once I take the time to learn and understand. You have a unique view of magic, which will help us understand how these spells are done. Talk to Kristoff about what you saw.”
“And that place you saw, just for that one moment?” Zoya asked.
“I can’t remember any more, sorry.” Amber had given Jex all the details she could remember, but it wasn’t much. Not enough to pinpoint a location.
“You are probably better off following a trail through the pattern,” Zoya mused.
Amber looked confused.
“A spell like that,” Zoya explained, “should leave a large trail. For a fraction of a moment, two places were in one, long enough to make an exchange. Then they repelled each other, like they should, like two poles of a magnet. The trail left behind by the other place—you could follow it, though it would lead you deeper in then you ever have been.”
Amber shuddered, thinking of all those spaces between threads and nodes. Not nothingness, like she’d thought, but depths she had not plumbed. Depths she didn’t know if she wanted to explore.
“You have your life ahead of you to grow in knowledge,” said Zoya gently. “There’s no need to rush.” She got up.
“But there is,” said Amber. “Rush, I mean.” She looked up at Zoya. “We don’t know what Shai Daan and his associates are up to, but it’s likely it’s not any good. And now they have a dragon claw.” Saying it out loud should help her come to terms with the reality.
Zoya sighed. “That’s true. And… I’m afraid that it’s likely that Shai Daan is linked to the artifact smuggling ring we broke up in Hopeswell.”
Amber’s hands spasmed. “What?”
“The boxes and packs in the outer cavern contained magical artifacts, most drained of their power. That’s what Shai Daan used to power this spell of his.” Zoya grimaced. “People are better sources of magic, but it’s easier to transport and store artifacts.”
“I see.” Was that why Shai Daan had stopped her in the corridor at Heartwood? Was he her mysterious former employer or was it someone else? How wide was this criminal network?
“I must speak to that Kaidan girl,” said Zoya. “Naia, is it?” She strode away, to where Naia sat forlornly by herself, in a shimmering cage made of runes. As a Torou-affililiated mage, she’d been politely but firmly put under a lock-spell. She could neither see nor hear what was going on outside it.
Troi was moodily going around the perimeter, kicking rocks. Supposedly he was looking for more of those nasty air-explosion spells, but Amber didn’t think that was all that was going on in his mind.
Those spells were his brother Aivaan’s work.
Aivaan, too, was missing. After defeating the rock snake, he’d returned to the Torou students and taken them all away. The air ninjas, students, teachers, and journeymen alike, were probably back on their island, which was Kaidan territory.
Despite the conflict between brothers, it must’ve still been a shock for Troi to discover his brother involved in some criminal enterprise.
Kael, on the other hand, had fallen asleep, sitting up against the wall. Amber shook her head, but the sun mage had worked hard. He’d been the only one, really, to win a complete victory over his Whispering Winds opponent.
Lisette plopped down beside Amber. “You’re all right, I see,” she commented.
“I’ll live. You?”
She shrugged. “So will I.”
“Thanks, by the way, from saving me from Doua, back there.”
Amber expected Lisette to say she was just repaying her debt, but the other girl surprised her. “You’re a Heartwood mage, aren’t you? You’re practically family.”
“Family?” Amber raised her eyebrows.
Lisette lay down in a sprawl. The light from above seemed to be concentrated on her… or else she was really good at finding a sunbeam. “Family,” she affirmed. “Kinda like that annoying great-aunt who knits ugly sweaters and fusses over dumb stuff all the time, but still family.”
“By the way,” said Lisette. “I didn’t have time to ask earlier, but any reason you were clutching that pack like a lifeline all throughout this cave system?”
Amber looked down at the pack next to her. It was the one she’d whacked Pod in the head with. She hadn’t realized she’d carried it with her through two tunnels and into two caverns until after all the dust had settled. “I forgot I had it.”
“What’s in it?”
“More drained magical artifacts, I suppose. Or maybe rocks.” Amber upended the pack and a jumble of items clattered onto the ground. Lisette turned over on her side and watched interestedly as Amber picked through combs, dishes, chunks of rocks, a ladle…
“Oh, this is cute.” Amber picked up a little cat statuette, made of some dark grey ceramic.
“Maybe Master Zoya will let you keep it,” Lisette suggested.
“Maybe. Look, she’s calling everyone over.” Amber slipped the statuette into a pocket and got up, dusting her clothes. Her mist cloak, she noted ruefully, was looking very shabby.
Lisette made a sound between a sigh and a groan and rolled to her feet. “What a day,” she commented.
“Come to think of it,” began Amber, “who won?”
Lisette’s mouth went sour. “I think it was Shai Daan. The jerk.”
“Agreed.” Exchanging grimaces, the two girls went over to where everyone else was gathering.
“So Shai Daan’s really gone?” asked Amber a week later, over supper.
Troi moodily stirred his soup. “Yeah. He was appointed to a governorship right before the tournament. His replacement at Torou came in a few days, so I’ve heard.”
“Darn,” said Kael. His appetite, Amber noted, was unaffected. He was on his third helping. “So I can’t waylay him the next time he comes into Carradia to buy tobacco.”
“How do you know he smokes?” Lisette wanted to know. “And he might have his own stash from Kaidan.”
“I made it my business to know,” said Kael, buttering a roll, then consuming it in two bites.
“I think I should point out to you,” said Amber, “not that I expect you all to pay the least attention to it, that it’s generally a bad idea to accost people in high power out in public.”
“Shai Daan has friends in high places, protecting him. Some of them are probably involved,” said Troi. Gloom had settled over him.
“Do you think the Kaidan government is behind this?” Lisette asked.
Troi’s shoulder twitched. “Parts of it, probably.” His mouth tightened.
“I know you want to fix this, but this isn’t the sort of situation you can go charging in, you and Kael,” began Lisette. “This requires planning.” A gleam had come into her blue eyes.
Amber scooted her chair back. “Annnd this is where I leave—”
“Too late,” said Kael. He pointed a spoon at the high table. “Looks like Master Zoya’s about to make a speech.”
Master Zoya was, indeed, standing. She hadn’t made any gesture for silence, but everyone went quiet anyway.
Zoya inclined her head. “I won’t deny that it’s been a trying time for Heartwood Academy recently,” she began, “and relations with Torou Academy are likely to be a bit strained for some time. Their new principal has assured me, though, that he intends to keep his students busy and focused on their own work. I expect Heartwood students to do the same.”
She paused and looked from face to face.
“I think we need to move on from the events of the last few weeks, and I have some good news to announce. We at Heartwood are a mixed bunch. Our teachers and students hail from all parts of the known world. I’m sure you will all welcome our latest student, who has come all the way from Kaidan. Naia Kentai, please stand up, so everyone can see you.”
Troi’s jaw dropped. “What??”
Naia popped up from across the crowded hall, dressed in Kaidan style, but in obviously Heartwood colors of red and black. She waved cheerily as everyone’s gaze turned to her. “Hello!” she sang out. “I’m looking forward to getting to know all of you. I’m sure we’ll get along famously!”
She grinned cheekily in Troi’s direction as she said this.
Her betrothed just sat there, horror written all over his face. Amber had dissolved into a fit of giggles, which she unsuccessfully tried to hide behind a napkin. Lisette was looking down, biting her lips, obviously trying not to laugh.
Kael just waved cheerily back at Naia.
“That’s not all,” continued Master Zoya. “We’re also pleased to add a new member to our staff, also from Kaidan. Please welcome Master Ilaan, who will, alongside Master Cinbar, work with our advanced students on combat and covert operations skills.”
A man with a shaved head, sleepy eyes, and very broad shoulders stood up beside Naia. He put his hands together, Kaidan-style, and bowed a greeting, then sat back down again.
Amber glanced at Troi.
His face had gone pale. “Him!” The word came out in a hiss.
Lisette gave him a worried look. “What is it, Troi?”
“He was… is… a spymaster for the Whispering Winds.” Troi got to his feet. “Master Zoya’s made a terrible mistake. I have to speak to her.”
Kael reached out and grabbed Troi’s arm. “Not now. Wait until dinner’s over.”
Troi’s entire body clenched, but then he nodded once and abruptly sat down, shoulders slumped, face in his hands.
Lisette nibbled her lip. Amber leaned to whisper to Kael, “Is everything going to be okay?”
“I trust Master Zoya,” he said simply.
Amber looked at Zoya, who had sat down again. Her dark eyes were fixed on Troi and a small frown creased her eyebrows.
She knows how he feels. What is she doing, bringing the enemy within the gates?
Talk had broken out amongst the students again, rising to the usual dull roar. Under it, rain pattered against the windows. And here was Naia, winding her way between tables, beaming, a tray in her hands.
“Looks like this one’s going to be another pain in the neck,” muttered Lisette.
“She was far nicer to me as an opponent than you were my first week,” Amber shot back.
Lisette grinned at Amber. “I’m so happy that you like her already. Maybe this time, you show the newbie around.” And with that, she moved, making a space for Naia to squeeze into.
“Welcome to Heartwood,” Lisette said, very sincerely. Amber’s jaw dropped at this unwonted niceness.
“Glad to have you!” said Kael.
“I’m not,” Troi muttered.
“Of course, you wouldn’t be.” Naia rolled her eyes.
“Why are you here anyway?” Troi demanded. “Are you still following me around?”
“Nope. You’re a hopeless case, after all,” said Naia. “I’m here for me.”
Troi’s brows drew together.
“You said it, didn’t you?” said Naia. “I’ve always had an affinity for water. I’m not going to learn what to do with it on Kaidan, but I can here. Seems to be the place for all kinds of oddballs and misfits.”
Everyone stared at her.
Naia’s eyes widened, and then she clapped her hand over her mouth again. “Argh, I swear I didn’t mean it the way it came out!”
Kael laughed. “You’ve got that right.”
Lisette said, putting her elbows on the table. “So, really engaged to Troi?”
“And,” added Amber, “I bet you know all sorts of embarrassing tales about him!”
“Yes, and yes!” said Naia. “Do you want to hear some?”
Troi groaned, and the others laughed. And as Naia launched into what turned out to be a cute story from her childhood, Amber thought that for one night, she could push away all thoughts of dragons and magical conspiracies and personal danger, and just enjoy the time she had with her friends.
Friends, huh? Somehow they had all, brooding Troi and prickly Lisette and exuberant Kael and even the newcomer Naia, become friends.
And this place, this Heartwood Academy, had become home.
Author’s Note: Dragons, huh? I didn’t intend to put dragons–or dragon parts–into the story, but they showed up anyway. Probably had something to do with the fact that I was watching Fairy Tail around the time I started writing this story, and dragons stuck in my head. I’m excited for Naia to join Amber & friends, though. Her bubbly personality is fun to write!
I hope you’re enjoying the Heartwood chronicles so far! Who’s your favorite character?
What happens next? Well, I have enough material to collect all the Heartwood episodes into a book. I’ve also planned a bonus short story introducing the Heartwood Librarian for the volume. Donors to the serial will get the e-book for free. If you’d like to donate, you can do so below: