It was Restday, and Amber was on her way home from chapel. Carradia boasted a large number of them, each worshipping a different Aspect of the One. Amber, like most Ravinians, had grown up worshipping the Sustainer, but the more she experienced the mainland, the more interested she was in the other Aspects.
The Chapel of the Sage was on the outskirts of Carradia, near the sea, and Amber, after being cooped up on the school grounds for far too long, took the opportunity to meander along a narrow path on the cliffs. Below hair, waves dissolves to foam on a ribbon of sandy beach. Seabirds arrowed through the sky, riding currents.
Amber let her magical senses skitter out, first one direction, then another, observing a tangle of plant roots here, the heaving of the sea there. Patterns danced and shone, and she was pleasantly surprised at how little effort it took to see them. The hours she’d spent training with Master Cinbar and laboring over the exercises Master Kristoff had left in his spiky scrawl were paying off. She was better able to filter information, able to step back from the complexity of pattern and the attraction of nodes, keep her senses on low alert all the time. For example, there were baby birds in a nest on that ledge, and a boat out at sea, and some people past the curve ahead—
Suns, sullen and red, intent on malice. They gathered around someone else, someone whose nodes flickered alarmingly, whose pattern pulsed in a way both strange and familiar. Jagged splinters drove into Amber’s head. She gasped and stopped, fingers pressed into her temples.
Sobbing words came to her snatches. “… please… no… leave me alone….”
Mocking laughter. “Deadwood scum.” “Weakling.” “Let’s see what they teach you at that low-brow school of yours.”
Torou Academy boys! And it sounded like they’d cornered a Heartwood student. Not just any student, but that unstable boy, the one she could not bring herself to like. Flavius.
For one second, Amber stood rooted to the path, on the brink of turning around. Excuses flashed through her head. I’m no hero… I’d be better off getting help rather than getting involved… I just don’t want to…
And then Flavius squealed and his pattern started to change. It tore, nodes swimming in a sea of flapping strands. Amber had never seen anything like that. She bolted down the path, took the curve in a scatter of stones.
A voice, high with incredulity. “What in Chaos…?”
Another, “This freak. He’s changing. Hold him down, quick.”
Amber stumbled down a small slope into a hollow, pebbles skittering under her sandals. Two Torou boys held Flavius down. The Heartwood boy’s clothes were torn, and he sported a black eye and a split lip. He writhed in his captors’ hold, muscles moving with an inhuman fluidity. A low growl emanated from his throat.
“You demonspawn,” cursed the third Torou boy, aiming a kick at Flavius’ head.
“No, don’t!” Amber called.
Flavius moved, so fast that he was just a blur. He threw the two Torou boys off him and fastened too-large jaws and saliva-drenched teeth around his attacker’s ankle.
The air ninja howled as he went down.
Flavius growled and shook the boy’s leg savagely. His back was hunched and heavily muscled. Too-large eyes rolled in a blotched and distorted face.
Amber stopped, horrified. Flavius’s pattern changed and reformed at a rate she’d never seen before. Transformation? That was the magic of evil magicians in folk tales and popular novels. She’d never thought that it was possible.
Like a beast, Flavius worried at the Torou boy’s foot. The other boys tried to drag him off, but Flavius wouldn’t let go. Lashes of air magic cut him, but he shook them off as if they were nothing. His face and back were covered in bleeding red lines.
Amber reached into the maelstrom of Flavius’ pattern—ouch, it hurt!—and pinched… hard. In his state of flux, it was easy to slip in—he seemed to have lost all control of his body. The pattern rippled grotesquely, and Amber’s stomach heaved in response.
Flavius snarled and dropped the boy’s leg.
Amber motioned vigorously at the three boys. “Get out of here.”
Flavius’s head turned toward her. There was no humanity, no intelligence in those eyes. He shuffled on his hands and feet, both of which melted into limbs that belonged to no animal Amber had ever seen.
He lunged, and Amber grabbed fistfuls of his pattern, gasping as if she’d just plunged her hands in acid.
The Torou boys stared at her, panting and white-faced. The boy on the ground let out a moan of pain.
“Well?” she yelped. “Quit standing around and get out of here.” They hauled the injured boy up between them and scrambled away. “Get help!” She yelled after them.
It was all she could do to hold Flavius in place. His pattern was slippery in her hands and he fought her hold fiercely. Amber could neither run away, nor could she beat him. All that was left was this awful stalemate.
Stupid, stupid! Amber berated herself. How in the world do you expect to get out of here, you two-coppa witch? Everything ached with the effort of keeping Flavius away from her. His panting breath was hot and heavy, and his drool smoked as it hit the ground. He strained against her magical hold, his pattern flashing with bloodlust.
And worse, it was hardening. His transformation was nearly complete; soon Amber would be thrown out of his fluid pattern entirely. She’d not be able to hold him then.
Can I disable him before then? Do I have the power?
Do I have it in me to kill him if it comes to that? Not that it would be easy. She didn’t have the massive amount of energy it would take to overwhelm a pattern and kill a person. Even though the sea was right there….
… If I can only channel…
Flavius took one slow step toward her, then another, moving as if in a bog. Sweat plastered Amber’s hair to the back of her neck and soaked her shirt. She squeezed her eyes shut, so as not to see that hideous face or those large teeth lunging for her neck, but she couldn’t shut out that all-wrong pattern pushing its way toward her.
I knew I shouldn’t have tried to be the hero.
And then she felt the electric brush of a powerful and familiar magic. Her eyelids flew open.
Kael bounded toward Flavius, calling over his shoulder, “Keep a hold of him, Amber!”
“I’m trying,” she said through clenched teeth. Flavius twisted, shot out of her grasp. Before she could shout a warning, Kael punched him. Twice. Hard.
Flavius dropped like a rock.
Kael knelt beside the deformed body. “Poor kid.”
Amber’s knees felt like jelly. She flopped ungracefully to the ground. “Just… what is he?”
Kael’s gaze flicked towards her, expression unreadable, before dropping back down to Flavius, whose pattern was already starting to reform. “Just a kid with a difficult kind of magic.”
“What kind of magic turns a person into a monster?” Amber demanded. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. It shouldn’t be possible.”
Again that golden-eyed flick, not cold like Troi’s or disapproving like Lisette’s, but uncomfortable nonetheless. “It’s the continent,” Kael pointed out. “Magic is different here.” He leaned over Flavius, rubbing the once-hands. His energy flowed over and into Flavius’ pattern, warm and strong, like concentrated sunshine. “Give me a hand here, Amber. You can see where his pattern’s gone wrong.”
“His pattern’s always been wrong,” said Amber bluntly. She limped over and stood behind Kael’s shoulder. The throbbing in Flavius’ pattern intensified her headache. “I’m not sure if I can do anything to help him. This is beyond my skill level.”
“Can you at least calm him down? His heartbeat’s erratic, so’s his breathing. Come on, Amber. Don’t just give up.”
Amber reached back into Flavius’ pattern, flinched as his magic burned her like a spray of acid. “It hurts.”
Kael took her hand in his. “Let me give you some—”
She pulled away, violently. “I told you—I can’t do it. Take him back to Heartwood and let someone in the infirmary look at him.” Flavius’ face was a melding of boy and beast. She retreated from the pair. “How’d this happen to him, anyway?”
“Born with it.”
Amber shivered. “What a horrible curse. Does this sort of thing happen here a lot?”
She felt, rather than saw, his shrug. “More than in the islands, at any rate. Does it bother you that much?”
“To see a human being turned into a beast like that? Of course it bothers me!”
“Is that what you see him as? A beast?” Kael lifted the unconscious boy into his arms and got to his feet.
“It’s not right. I pity him.”
“Sounds more like you’re revolted by him,” Kael commented, still in that calm, even tone.
“You may be used to this kind of thing, but I’m not,” said Amber stiffly. “There are some lines that just shouldn’t be blurred.”
“I see.” Again that quick golden glance. “All right, time for us to get back to Heartwood.”
Amber hung back as she followed Kael, watching her footing on the narrow, stony path.
A graceful swoop in the sky, and Lisette glided down to the ground and ran toward them. Her wings snapped shut behind her. “You found him, Kael!”
“Amber found him first.”
“Oh, Maker. Just look at him.” Lisette ground her teeth. “Did those Torou bastards do this?” She smacked her fist into the palm of her hand.
Kael didn’t reply, so Amber said, “Yes. They were roughing him up and I think that triggered—this.” She gestured towards the boy’s limp body.
“I’ll take him back.” Lisette laid a gentle hand on Flavius’ forehead. Amber had never seen the acerbic mage so sisterly and concerned. “Kael, you’d better see about backing up Troi. He’s gone to confront the Torou band’s ringleaders—Flavius is not the only student who was targeted today. They got Vane and Alyssa, too.”
Kael relinquished his burden. “Yeah, I can feel him. Not bothering to shield himself, is he?”
Amber widened her sensory net, then winced. Troi’s suns were dark cyclones of frigid anger.
“Make sure he doesn’t kill anyone, will you?” Lisette leapt into the air. Amber watched her become a dark dot in the sky, then disappear from sight.
“I suppose I should head back to Heartwood, too,” Amber said.
“No, you stick with me for now. We let our guard down and too many of the younger ones got hurt.”
“How is me going into a fight with you and Troi going to keep me safe?” Amber wanted to know.
“If you really want to go back to Heartwood, feel free to. I just thought you’d want to see this thing through.”
“By beating up on Torou Academy students?” Amber shook her head. “That’s not my style, thanks.”
Sun mages. Can’t understand why the rest of the normal world would prefer to stay out of their conflicts.
“Troi’s really… piling it on, isn’t he?” Wind tugged her braid, lashed it into her face.
“Yeah, let’s go make sure the idiot doesn’t go too far.” Kael took Amber’s wrist and pulled her along behind him. They ran down a path on to the beach, rounded cliffs, and came out upon a spit of land that jutted out into the sea. Magic-powered winds twisted all around, shrouding the dark figures of the air ninjas, whipping the sea into white-capped waves. They howled in her ears, buffeted her body, snatched away her breath. Amber’s braid unraveled into a writhing mess of strands, but she was too occupied with holding her skirt down to deal with it.
The wind tousled Kael’s hair and clothes, but he was not having nearly as many issues as Amber was. If she squinted, she could see a slight shimmer around him, a subtle shifting of the pattern as the wind currents bent around him.
Three more air ninjas dropped out of the sky and joined the fray. Troi was at its center, surrounded by an armor of whirling winds, cold and dry.
“Troi!” Amber yelled, but Kael put an arm in front of her and shook his head.
The air ninjas had nothing against Troi in his cold rage. His magic lashed them in coiled whips, plucking them out of the air and dashing them to the ground. No matter how many times they staggered to their feet or tried to dodge, his winds were there, shredding their clothes, slapping their faces, driving them onto their knees.
Amber winced, smelling blood in the pattern. She put her hand on Kael’s wrist. “Kael, please,” she whispered. “This is getting out of hand.”
He nodded, strode forward. Amber’s pattern senses shatter against the vortex of Troi’s angry unreason and called after him, “Kael, be careful!”
An air ninja reeled into Kael; Kael caught and thrust the boy behind him, out of the range of Troi’s relentless attacks. The Torou boy almost fell into Amber’s arms; she lowered him to the ground and distractedly began ripping long strips of her underskirt for his bleeding head.
The winds shifted as Kael blasted a hot wide path through the one-sided slaughter. His energy, hot and golden as the sun, shielded the beaten Torou boys. He came to stand in front of the maelstrom that was Troi wrapped in his storm wind armor.
“Out of the way, Kael.” Troi’s voice was cold, weirdly amplified.
“You’ve made your point, Troi. Time to stop this.”
“I made my point before. The lesson didn’t stick. This time I want them to know I’m serious. Out of the way, Kael.”
Kael folded his arms, as calm and as relaxed as if he were picnicking on the beach. “Nope.”
Troi made an angry sound. Dark grey whips fell upon Kael. The sun mage took them calmly on an upraised hand. Amber felt Troi’s attack bite deep, but Kael didn’t even flinch.
His friend’s non-reaction maddened Troi even more. He went after the other sun mage with a barrage of vicious long-range attacks. Kael took them all, deflecting some, letting others fall on him, keeping them off the Torou boys. Amber saw how his shielding ripped and tore, and she struggled to bunch the pattern into hardness around him. It was hard, with so much wind slipping out of control.
“You’ll have to do better than that, Troi,” called Kael with a laugh in his voice. “Come at me, then.” He gestured with his hands, a cocky bring-it-on beckoning of his hands.
Amber gasped as the magic around Troi shifted. His armor of wind became a weapon, a sledge hammer of energy that bore down upon Kael.
The idiot didn’t even try to dodge it. He took the impact, staggered, nearly dropped to his knees. He grinned at Troi, who’d dropped to the sand. “Now that’s more like it.”
“You fool,” said Troi, tiredly. The cold mask of his face had given way to something more akin to grief. He took a few steps, and Amber saw that he had not gotten off lightly, either. His shirt was in tatters, and small cuts covered his feet, hands, and face. He took a few steps, sagged.
Kael reached out, caught his shoulder, and shook him roughly. “Get a hold of yourself, Troi.”
“I got it.” Troi shoved Kael away.
Amber thought it was time to step in before this devolved into a scuffling match. Thankfully, the winds had lessened. She stepped forward, opening her mouth.
And then, suddenly, quietly, unnaturally, everything went still.
Author’s Note: Congrats for making it this far! This was a long episode and it looks like Heartwood is in an all-out war with Torou. Poor Flavius. I’ve been hinting all this while that continental magic is wild and weird, and I used him to show it. Amber doesn’t know what to make of it… it’s going to take her time to get used to what magic can look like here.
As always, I love feedback!