“Kael,” she murmured.
“I see them.” Kael let go of her, grabbed the opposite edge of the vent, and flung himself up and out amongst shadowy figures. His fist crashed against one of them, sending it to the ground. He lashed out again, but the other mages dodged out of the way. Their suns were dancing twists of a grey so pale it was almost white.
Air ninjas or no, Amber couldn’t just keep hanging on inside the vent opening. She quickly scrambled out and crouched.
“Well, well,” said one. “Did we just catch you in a midnight raid, Deadwood mages?”
“Oh, so you recognize me. I guess I have no more reason to not do this.” The suns in Kael’s hands unshielded, trailed heat and orange light as he lashed magic at the wind mages. They bounded out of the way, flying up to the sky. Their coordinated wind attack came down like a hammer.
Amber squeaked. Kael met the attack with an arc of his hand, deflecting much of it. Still the gusts blew Amber’s cloak behind her and rippled his coat.
The wind mages danced around them, keeping up a spinning wheel formation, a vortex of air that kept Kael and Amber boxed in. One or two of the five kept darting in with an attack on Kael—a flick of a wind-whip, short sharp bursts of air. Kael fended them off, but he was on the defensive, not moving his feet much at all.
Of course. He’s trying to protect me, not leave me open. Think, Amber, think. How can you help him?
The patterns of wind magic moved so fast, she could barely see them, much less grasp and manipulate them. Whenever she did try, they cut her mage senses like glass shards.
I can’t do my magic as quickly as this fight demands.
“We’re going to nail you to your school doors after we’re through,” yelled a wind mage. “Naked.”
“Just try it,” Kael invited.
“Should we not be provoking them any more than we already have?” pleaded Amber, but she could tell she’d already lost him to battle-fever. A wind mage swooped at him; Kael ducked, twisted and struck at the ninja sneaking behind him.
“You’re too slow—” sneered one, then gasped as Kael jumped past him and grabbed his buddy who was sneaking up behind him. Heat went off Kael in waves, and the air ninjas cried out and sprang back. The entire column of air wavered crazily as Kael threw the mage out of formation.
An opening appeared in front of Kael. For a moment, it looked like he was going to drive through, but he checked. His golden eyes glinted as he looked at Amber.
If it weren’t for me, he’d have gotten free.
“Shall—shall I call the masters?” one of the air mages quavered.
The mean one snorted. “We can handle this one by ourselves. The girl’s beyond useless—what is she, some kind of trophy girlfriend?”
Amber’s cheeks flamed. She twisted her hands in her cloak, forced her will upon the thick ropes of wind magic. It burned across her soul, and Amber clenched her teeth, hard. The column faltered once more, but the combined power of the air ninjas was too strong. She gave up, her breaths coming out hard. Kael was a golden smear in her vision, grappling with grey shadows.
Movement beyond the wind barrier caught her eye. Amber’s heart sank.
Oh no. Here’s another one of them.
Whips of cold air lashed against the roof top. Air ninjas tumbled out of position; stray gusts of air, both warm and cold, knocked Amber first one way, then another. The only one still standing was Kael, and even he had to brace his feet. Two air ninjas were flattened on the roof, two others clung to whatever they could get a hold on. One had gone right over the edge.
Amber hoped he wasn’t injured. How would she explain that to the Headmaster, or worse, Master Zoya?
A dark figure wrapped in air currents hovered above them all, hands in pockets. “You idiot sixth-year students. Don’t you know you’re supposed to watch your backs, too?”
“Come to join the party, Troi?” asked Kael amiably.
“No, I came to give you a thrashing, you numbskull.” Troi was audibly grinding his teeth. Amber’s eyes widened. She had never seen him lose his cool like that.
“Can it wait?” Air ninjas howled as they rushed at the pair, riding great howling bursts of wind. The sound grated in Amber’s ears.
Kael winced, but Troi seemed unaffected, lashing out with his whips. Air ninjas fell back again.
Mean Ninja yelled at Troi, “Stop hiding in your wind shield, barai! Face me with honor, if you still understand what that means.” He rocketed up, and his sword snick-ed out of its sheath.
Winds streamed away from Troi as he dropped several feet to meet his opponent. Mean Ninja snarled, and the two swirled around each other. Mean Ninja swung his sword, but Troi was never in its path.
The other air ninjas stared at the two, mouths agape. Kael took the opportunity to punch the one sneaking up behind Amber, then stood with his foot on the guy’s head, watching, arms folded.
Amber couldn’t follow the fight—it was just a ball of whirling air in the dark night, occasionally lit with blue flashes.
And then the maelstrom split in two, one half falling. The wind around the figure dissipated.
Mean Ninja crashed to the rooftop.
The other three air ninjas bunched together defensively. Troi descended, hands still in his pockets. He looked at Mean Ninja, prone on the stone. Then he glanced at the three still standing.
“It’s over.” His voice sent a chill through Amber. Air currents whirled around her body, lifted her up. “It’s time to go, you two.”
The journey back was rough, caught as Amber was in Troi’s ungentle winds and the force of his anger. The air snarled her hair, snatched away her breath, and stripped all the warmth from her skin.
His suns were white-hot flames.
The sea flashed by, a shifting, glittering carpet of night. Then they were over land and Heartwood’s buildings came up quickly. The winds swooped, dumped her on Heartwood’s grounds. Amber said unsteadily, “Troi, we…”
“Amber.” Kael looked and sounded relaxed, but his gaze never left Troi’s shadowed face. “Go back to bed.”
“What,” said Troi, “do you think you were playing at, Kael? Were you trying to create an international incident? What do you think would’ve happened if the Whispering Winds had been there?”
Magical energy built up around him again, crackling against Amber’s skin. “Troi…” she began again.
“Answer me, Kael!” Troi lashed out and a roiling wave whipped at Kael. Amber squeaked and hid behind the other boy.
Kael took the blow without flinching. He reached behind him, grasped Amber’s arm, and pushed her dorm-wards. “Go home, Amber.”
Amber looked from one to the other. Troi’s face all grim and shadowed, Kael’s odd eyes glowing with a light she couldn’t decipher. Violence trembled in the air. She realized she was more afraid now than she had been on the rooftop at Torou Academy.
There was only one thing left do. Amber backed away, and ran, slipping and sliding on wet grass, to her own room. Where she jumped into bed and pulled the covers over her head.
Boys need to settle things their own way, her mother had been wont to say placidly when her younger brothers got into a brawl and Amber had wanted to stop them.
That may be so, but when the boys are both powerful sun mages? Will they hold themselves back?
It wasn’t her problem. It took some mental struggle, but she shoved herself away from the pattern so she wouldn’t have to feel the battle she knew was happening out there.
Even so, sleep was a long time coming.
Amber heard the rumors all the way to breakfast.
“Did you hear about…?”
“… EPIC fight between Troi and Kael…”
“… a whole TREE was uprooted…”
“Kael burned down one of the sheds, too.”
“How much trouble do you think those two are in?
Amber slipped into place across from Lisette, who was eating a piece of toast and staring off into space. “Who won?” she asked bluntly.
Lisette slowly brought her gaze to Amber’s face. She studied it for a while. Then she shrugged. “Two sun mages fight. Most of the time, no one wins. The idiots.”
“Are they hurt?”
“Those two lumpheads? Of course not. It’d take a stone yuka to bring one of them down.”
“Will they be—expelled?” Amber hadn’t finished working her way through Heartwood’s Rules & Regulations guide. She’d skipped past the section on “magic duels,” convinced that it didn’t apply to her.
She hadn’t planned on getting into fights.
“Nah. Probably one of the masters will give them a dressing down, and it’ll all blow over.” Lisette looked closely at Amber. “You care that much?”
“They’re two of the four people I can say I know here. I wouldn’t want to lose half my friends so soon.”
Lisette crammed the last piece of toast in her mouth, then snagged two sticky buns for the run. “You need more friends,” she commented.
Lisette peered over her shoulder, eyebrows raised. “What?”
“Do people know”—Amber swallowed—“why they fought?”
Lisette took her time answering, her face expressionless. “It’ll come out soon enough, since another school is involved. They were called up to the Headmaster’s office this morning. But for what it’s worth, neither of them will out a companion. The masters aren’t dumb, though. You understand?” She cocked her head.
“Clearly.” Amber was relieved at how normally the word came out, given the tightness of her throat.
Amber saw both Kael and Troi later that day, but not together. A rather chastised-looking Kael was moving charred wood around in the distance as Amber took a short cut across the courtyard. She saw Troi as she crossed the lobby an hour later.
Troi was his old, bored-looking self. He didn’t acknowledge Amber, but as she passed, she noticed his dagger back at his belt.
And next to it was the long sword.
The contended humming from both artifacts made Amber smile.
Troi looked up, saw her, and scowled so ferociously that it not only froze Amber dead in her tracks, but also Ainsley who was walking next to her.
“Why did—why did he look at us that way?” Ainsley gasped.
“He hates me,” they both groaned simultaneously. They caught each other’s eye and giggled.
Something tight inside Amber had loosened. She felt lighter somehow.
You understand? Lisette’s words came back to her.
I do indeed. Kael and Troi protected me last night, but I need to take responsibility, too.
“Ainsley,” she said, “where can I find the Headmaster?”
Author’s Note: Ha, I heard the Cinema Sins guy say, “Roll credits” in my head when I wrote Whispering Winds this episode. Titular… things are mentioned. Is this the end of the Heartwood crew’s trouble with Torou Academy? Probably not!
If you’re enjoying the Heartwood Chronicles, please consider supporting the serial. Donors will get a copy of the e-book with my thanks. I’ll bundle the first three arcs into one volume once Whispering Winds Arc is all wrapped up.