Chapter 11 Air

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The city is quiet.

The last of the funerals is finishing. Mourners move through the city, passing others cleaning the destroyed homes.

Ari sits on the steps of the Great Hall, dark circles under her eyes. She plays with the silk bracelet on her hand. Her mother’s funeral took place early in the morning. Most of the city showed to pay their respects. Many who made the journey with Meah and Ime from the Bloodfall Arena to Kellahn gave speeches, but Ari doesn’t remember anything spoken.

Since the funeral ended she’s been wandering the city. She doesn’t want to go home. She doesn’t want to be alone in the house. She can’t face the emptiness, the coldness left behind.

A warm hand rests on Ari’s back as Lyrrel sits down on the steps. “Your friends are worried about you. I’d be lying if I said they were the only ones.”

Lowering her eyes to the ground, Ari doesn’t answer.

“Fleance and Mava say you can stay with them for however long you need. They’ve also volunteered to gather anything from your home.”

Ari stays silent.

Eyeing her with his violet eyes, Lyrrel rests his hands on his knees. “I have something for you…from your mother.”

“What is it?”

Taking her hands in his, Lyrrel turns Ari to look at him. “It’s a message you need to hear.” He places his hands on either side of her head. “Are you ready?”

Ari leans back from him, pulling her hands from his. “Can we do this inside?”

Raising a curious eyebrow, Lyrrel lowers his hands. “Why?”

“This city doesn’t feel safe anymore.” She stands and heads into the Great Hall.

Following, Lyrrel closes the doors behind him and meets her at the center of the Hall. The table for the council is bare, the chairs removed. No torches burn, but the afternoon sun fills the large room.

Sitting on top of the table, Ari watches Lyrrel as he moves close to her. He stares into her green eyes concern creating wrinkles on his forehead.

“Are you ready?”

Ari nods. Lyrrel places his hands on either side of her head and places his forehead on hers. Magic surrounds the two and Ari closes her eyes.

When she opens her eyes again, she’s standing at the top of the watchtower. Her mother is standing in front of her. Looking down, Ari sees she’s inside of Lyrrel, but instead of simply being an observer she can actually control him.

“Is this real?” Ari asks, but it’s Lyrrel’s voice speaking.

Meah steps forward and places a hand on Ari’s cheek. “The spirit of the forest who grants Lyrrel his magic has given me this time to speak with you. I know you have many questions and I know by the time Lyrrel shows you this I’ll already be dead. I have many things to tell you.”

“If you knew you were going to die, why didn’t you try to stop it or ask me for help?”

“Don’t try to understand, Ari. There are some things that no matter how much we want to change it can’t be. But we’re running out of time. The ones who attacked the city were sent by the Source of magic, or at least the thing claiming to be the Source. It means your father is getting close to finding it and it’s panicking.”

“So it killed you to try to stop dad? But we haven’t been able to communicate with dad for years.”

“There are some things pen and paper aren’t needed for. Your father will know something’s happened and he’ll find a way to learn what it was. But that’s not what I want to tell you. The Source also sent them to kill you. But I won’t let that happen. You have to leave Kellahn.”

Ari’s eyes widen. “Leave?”

Taking Ari’s hand, Meah places her bracelet in it. “You have to follow the trail your father left behind and find him.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The ones who attacked this city will keep coming back for you and as you are now you can’t fight them.”

“I took care of a few of them in the forest. I can handle it.”

Meah shakes her head and places a finger over Ari’s heart. “Your magic is blocked, Ari. I know you’ve felt it before. Your father and I don’t know how it came to be this way, but something is blocking your true magic. I’ve tried to find ways to release it, but only one has ever proven helpful.”

Ari’s vision blacks out and she panics thinking the vision is fading. Meah grabs her arm and Ari’s vision returns. “We’re already running out of time. Ari, in order to unlock your true magic you have to find masters of magic. They can teach you how to access your locked magic.”

“Masters of magic? What does that mean?”

“There are people who’ve unlocked their magic to such an extent it’s become more part of them than anything you or I could imagine. Kiphy Lakeen was one such master.”

“But he’s dead, he died two years ago.”

“Yes, but you knew him. You knew he was different than other magic users, you could feel it when you stood near him, couldn’t you?”

Ari remembers every encounter with the magic borrower she had felt something was different about him. It’d been as though magic was part of him in a way she could never understand. And yet, when he taught her first lessons of magic she remembers how her wind grew stronger as though being released or the first time.

“How am I supposed to find other masters?” Ari asks.

“Follow your father’s path.” Hesitating, Meah closes her eyes, fighting back tears. “These men who killed me, they won’t stop trying to kill you. They’ll follow you wherever you go. Be careful who you trust and stay strong.”

“You can still save yourself, mom. Then we can look for dad together,” Ari pleads, her own tears rolling down her cheeks.

Opening her eyes, Meah smiles and shakes her head. “No. This is how it must be. But don’t think I didn’t go down without a fight.” Her smile fills with a humor Ari remembers seeing on her father’s face in his portrait. “I love you, Ari. Be safe and free your magic.”

Ari wraps her arms around her mother. “I love you, mom.”

“And make sure you punch your father in the face for me. He’ll know why,” Meah whispers.

Ari laughs and squeezes tightly, afraid to let go, but when she opens her eyes, she’s back in the Great Hall.

Lyrrel leans back, releasing her head. His eyes are glowing blue and the expression on his face is strange.

“Lyrrel?” Ari asks.

He slowly shakes his head. “I am the forest spirit. I owe your mother a great debt and I shall repay it now.” Placing a hand on Ari’s head, a small surge of magic fills her.

“What did you do?”

“The block on your magic is too strong for any one being to release it, but with the last of my strength I’ve begun the process.”

“But I don’t feel any different.”

“The block on your magic is made up of many layers, each requiring a different method to break it. However, the first layer is the most powerful and requires the most strength to break. Kiphy Lakeen attempted to break it when you were young, but even he didn’t have the strength in his last years, but he’s made it easier for me. Now that it’s broken it should be easier for other master magic users to help you learn how to pull away each layer.” A worried expression fills Lyrrel’s face. “I must warn you though, now that I’ve broken the first layer some of your contained magic may begin leaking out.”

“Why was my magic contained to begin with? Who contained it?” Ari asks, standing quickly.

“There are many reasons to contain and block magic. From what I can sense, inside of you is a magic that could be used to protect or destroy. I imagine fear is what caused whomever or whatever blocked your magic to do it. As to the identity of the one who cast it, I can’t give you that answer.” Lyrrel’s eyes flash back to their usual violet before regaining the blue of magic. “My strength is fading.”

Taking Lyrrel by the arm, Ari’s eyes widen with concern. “You said you used the last of your strength…does that mean…?”

“I am dying. But with the added time your mother granted me those many years ago I’ve been able to flourish and assure the Seers who depend on me that their magic shall not fade with me.”

“There must be some way to help you,” Ari says, her voice shaking with sadness.

Lyrrel places a hand on Ari’s cheek. “You have your mother’s kindness and care for the life of others. But even she knew every thing must die at some point. This is my time and if I must die I choose to do it helping the child of one who helped me. Heed your mother’s words. Leave this city as soon as you can. Those who attacked are still lurking nearby, waiting for another chance to finish what they came to do.”

“Is it true? Did the Source send them?”

A sad smile forms on Lyrrel’s lips. “The thing that sent these men is as powerful as the Source, but the true Source doesn’t meddle in the affairs of men. Remember that.” Lyrrel’s eyes lose focus and fade from blue to violet before closing.

Feeling the Seer falling, Ari carefully lowers him to the ground. She checks him to make sure he’s still alive. When she feels his heart beating strongly she sits back on her heels, reviewing every thing she’s heard.

After a few moments Lyrrel’s eyes open and he sits up. “What happened? I can’t feel…something’s missing.” Placing a hand on his chest, Lyrrel concentrates and his eyes glow violet. “The spirit of the forest…is gone. But I can still use my magic.”

Ari stands, holding her hand out to help Lyrrel to his feet. “The spirit repaid a debt to my mother, but ended up using the last of its strength to do it. It said it used the life granted it by mother to spread itself to keep your people’s magic going.”

Taking her hand, Lyrrel’s eyes return to normal as he stands. “I’ll need to head back to my home to explain what happened to those there.” He stares at her. “What about you? What are you going to do, Ari?”

Turning away from him, Ari’s eyes travel to the windows of the hall. She gazes up at the sky. “I’m going to find my father.”

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Chapter 10 Air

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Even before they reach the edge of the forest, the smell of smoke and burning wood fills the air. There is another smell that sends both waves of relief and panic through the approaching group, the fresh smell of water.

Emerging from the forest, the three are only slowed for a moment when they see the black smoke rising from the city. They run through the streets, passing water mages still putting out dwindling fires.

The fighting is over.

Bodies lie in numerous places, but most of the people have survived. The wounded are being taken care of, but still fights among the people break out. Ari doesn’t care why or to find out the reason for the arguments filling the city. She only cares about reaching her mother.

They reach the edge of the canyon and Ari stops. Her eyes drift to the watchtower across the way, or at least where it should’ve been. It’s gone, destroyed during the attack. Feeling a sad tug in her chest, Ari swallows the pain and begins the descent into the canyon, followed in silence by Kemp and Crofton.

Lyrrel waits for them outside Ari’s home. His cloaks are torn, burned, and have bloodstains though it’s unclear whether it’s his blood or another’s. As Ari approaches his violet eyes raise to meet hers.

“I’m sorry.” He holds out his hand and Ari’s breath catches in her throat.

The silk bracelet her mother always wore is in his hand. Somehow, the silk has survived the attack, the colors representing the elemental powers of earth, sea, sky, and sun standing out against Lyrrel’s pale skin.

Ari takes the soft silk and stares into Lyrrel’s eyes. She passes him in silence, heading into the house. Crofton and Kemp attempt to follow, but Lyrrel stops them.

“Give her a moment.”

Passing through the shambles of the house, Ari’s eye search the once familiar hallways. Fire has burned most of the floor away, while water still drips from the ceiling from the attempt to stop the flames from spreading.

“Mom?” Ari’s voice is soft, childlike. She knows where her mother is, but she still spends time opening the doors to destroyed rooms. “Mom.”

She stops, her eyes spotting a portrait on the floor. The paint runs due to the water, but she can still make out her father’s grey eyes. His piercing stare is locked to the door leading out to the courtyard as though leading her to the inevitable.

She doesn’t want to go out there. She knows what she’ll find and she can’t face it. Her father’s gaze remains on the door. She wants to plead with him to make everything all right. She wants to plead with him to keep the door closed forever.

A gentle breeze brushes her hair from her face and Ari feels tears roll down her cheek. She opens the door and walks out into the courtyard.

The white tree is burned to black. The leaves falling from above remain green, creating a storm of life dying as they fall to the earth. The red on the ground is unnaturally bright. Blood shouldn’t be that red, Ari thinks.

She manages to take three steps forward before her legs can no longer hold her. She crawls to her mother’s body, still warm as though she could wake up at any moment, but Ari knows her mother, Meah, is gone.

“Mom.” She lifts her mother up and pulls her close, burying her face in her mother’s auburn hair. She feels the limpness in her mother’s body and the wetness of blood soaking into her clothing. Tears drip from her eyes onto Meah’s oddly peaceful face.

Ari feels Crofton and Kemp approaching and squeezes her mother tighter as they make it out to the courtyard. Both men freeze at the sight, but force themselves closer. Crofton places a hand on Ari’s shoulder, trying to comfort, but unsure of what to say.

Kemp seeing the blood staining Ari’s clothes tries to pull Meah away. Ari lowers her head and a gust of wind shoves both men away. Finally her cries reach her voice and Ari screams.

Crofton and Kemp step back. Lyrrel appears behind them and watches the scene silently, his eyes flashing blue for the briefest of moments.

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Chapter 9 Air

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The orange clouds fly past the white suns quickly, the blackness of the sky endless above. Birds fly high in the sky, moving slowly, each wing beat taking painstakingly long to move.

Ari sits up and sees the orange clouds moving quickly overhead are coming from the canyon below, rising fast. The sources of the clouds light the entire canyon, creating twisted shadows against the canyon walls.

Fires burn at the agonizingly slow speed as the birds flying above, but the clouds of smoke rising move as though sped up by an unearthly being. The bodies of those fleeing are covered in shadows, their screams silent.

Throughout the city large figures stand, towering above the buildings. Some hold the smaller bodies of people. Thin luminescent strings connect all of the giants to a solitary figure standing on top of one of the old watchtowers along the tops of the canyon. Two other figures stand on either side of the figure. One aims a bow made of fire at homes not yet set ablaze. An arrow made of white fire moves slowly towards a distant target.

A large gust of wind catches Ari and suddenly she’s standing before the doors of her home. The buildings around her home are ablaze, burning at the same slow pace as the rest of the city. Reaching forward, Ari’s fingers barely touch the wood of the door before a second gust thrusts her inside and out into the courtyard.

The white tree is now black, its leaves the color of blood. Even as several leaves fall to the ground it reminds Ari of blood dripping from a wound. Her eyes lower to the base of the tree.

Her mother stands with her back to Ari, facing the now black tree. Ari tries to go to her, but her legs are stuck. She glances down and sees the roots of the tree wrapping around her legs, keeping her still.

Looking at her mother’s back, Ari stretches her hand out in front of her, trying to reach Meah’s still figure. “Mom.” She says the word slowly, the sound ringing in the courtyard. She struggles against the roots now crushing her legs.

The sound of a weapon being drawn precedes Ari’s mother collapsing to the ground. Red leaves fall from the tree around her, giving the illusion of a pool of blood. Though the illusion is strengthened as blood, black in this strange world, rolls from Meah’s mouth and discolors her clothing where the blade stabbed her.

A figure clad in black, his face covered except for his white eyes, stands over Meah’s still body. His sword drips with black blood and his white eyes rise to meet Ari. In a flash, he stands directly in front of Ari. She tries to move away, but the roots are as solid as stone.

The figure raises a black hand and grabs Ari around her face, covering her mouth, but allowing her to breathe through her nose. Even so, she tries to scream. The white eyes staring at her burn with magic and she feels her own magic come alive.

The figure leans close to her, his breath cold on her skin, sending chills through her. “Mankind shall be cleansed of magic. It is the Source’s will.”

The figure raises the sword still dripping with Meah’s blood in front of Ari, ready to strike the killing blow. Ari releases her magic and wind erupts from her body, sending the figure flying back. The roots around her legs release her and Ari flies from the courtyard back out into the city.

Screaming, Ari is shaken from the vision by the force of her magic and by Crofton’s terrified shouts.

“Ari! What’s wrong? What happened?” His eyes are wide and he’s holding her up with the help of the stone bridge. “Ari, please talk to me.”

“The city…we have to get back. Something’s happened,” Ari says the words slowly, afraid to speak too loudly.

“What’s going on? What happened to you?”

Gathering her strength, Ari tears herself from Crofton’s grip. “I saw something horrible. We have to get back now.” She runs towards the city.

Without questioning her further, Crofton follows, sprinting to catch up with her. They fly through the forest, realizing that most of the birds and other animals have fallen oddly silent. Motioning to her right with the faintest of hand movements, Crofton draws his knives and nods.

Stopping suddenly, the two split. Ari leaps to the left while Crofton goes right. The earth where they’d been standing rises sharply and two arrows zip through the air where the two would’ve been thrown.

Ari throws a large gust of wind at their attackers, revealing them among the trees. Four magic users create a crescent shaped wall of bodies. Crofton manages to surprise the one closest to him and buries his knives in the man’s throat. The others try to attack him, but Ari creates a wall of leaves that disorients them.

The earth mage throws a large boulder at her, disrupting her magic as she tries to dodge. The boulder crashes through the trees, knocking the smaller ones over. Ari barely catches her footing as a second attacker sends a strange liquid flying at her. Instinctively she drops to the ground allowing the strange liquid to fly over her. It lands on a tree and the wood smokes as the acid quickly eats through it.

Crofton struggles with the third attacker, a mage who makes arrows appear from nothing. It makes his firing speed much faster and his aim is far higher than normal. Crofton manages to stay well covered behind the trees, but he can’t move close enough to attack.

A scream echoes through the forest as the earth mage collapses to the ground dead. A large axe is buried deep into his back. Confusion fills the other two attackers as a figure moves quickly through the trees towards them.

“What are you two waiting for? A larger distraction?” Kemp calls angrily.

Ari uses her wind to knock the acid mage to the ground. She encircles him in a cyclone of leaves and downed branches as she approaches, keeping him from using his acid unless he wants it to land on him.

Crofton throws one of his knives into the leg of the archer mage, as Kemp gets close enough to pull his sword and finish the man.

Reaching the downed earth mage, Ari retrieves Kemp’s axe and drops the cyclone around the acid mage. Dazed and confused, the mage turns as Ari swings the blade into his side. He screams and Crofton appears behind him to finish the job.

Kemp takes his axe back as his sword disappears. He releases the axe in the air and it fades away. “The city is under attack.”

Crofton stares at him in shock. “What?”

“How did you know to find us here?” Ari asks at the same moment.

“A man named Lyrrel found me just as the attacks began and told me exactly where to find you.”

“Is this what you meant?” Crofton asks Ari, turning to her.

Without answering, Ari explodes into a mad sprint towards the city. Kemp and Crofton have trouble keeping up with her as she releases her wind magic to boost her speed.

Flashes of the vision appear before her eyes, particularly her mother lying on the ground dead and she prays to the gods she isn’t too late.

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Chapter 8 Air

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“I see your parents didn’t scold you too much,” Ari says, smiling up at Crofton.

Crofton gently pets the bird’s head before sending it off into the forest. “Just the usual, ‘keep an eye on that girl or else she’ll get herself into trouble’. And your mother?”

“The usual, though a bit more on the dramatic side than usual.”

Sliding off the bridge, Crofton lands next to her. “Ah yes, the please behave even though I know you’re not really going to listen speech?”

Shrugging, Ari eyes the food. “Yeah, with a little added warning.”

“She knew about the second gang.”

“Yep.”

“Did you tell her about them or did she…?”

“I didn’t tell her so I can only assume she saw it or Lyrrel did and told her.”

“That’s good, though, isn’t it? She should know so she can let the council know. That gang really wanted to kill us, Ari.”

“But they didn’t.” Ari grabs the food and sits with her back against the stone of the bridge. “Besides, the council already knows about gangs like that. It’s not a secret people are becoming more afraid of magic users.”

Sitting next to her, Crofton shakes his head. “I don’t understand why. If someone were going to try to take over, wouldn’t it have already happened? Why the sudden fear now?”

“I don’t know.”

Crofton stares at Ari for a moment before taking the food from her. He opens the cloth to reveal a cake with berries. “My mom made this for us. She’s hoping it’ll convince us to stay out of trouble.” He hands her a small piece. “For a little while, at least.”

Smiling, Ari takes it and smells the sweet aroma. “If all it took was one of your mom’s cakes, I’d ask her to feed the whole city. Maybe then everything would calm down.” She takes a small bite and sighs. “It’s so good.”

They sit silently for a moment as they eat the cake. The sound of the stream fills the air with a cool, calmness. But Ari can feel Crofton’s uneasiness.

“My dad thinks there may be a potential uprising brewing.”

Ari turns her head quickly to look at him. “What? How would he know that?”

“He used to work in a caravan of slave traders that regularly had members try to take over. He says the way the people are talking reminds him of those days.” Crofton takes a bite of the cake before continuing. “He thinks there’s someone encouraging the dissent, rallying the non magic users and telling them lies about the magic users wanting to control them.”

“But none of that’s true. We haven’t done anything to make anyone even think that’s true.”

“Some don’t view it that way. There are still a lot of people who consider your mom and dad the rulers of this city, magic users and non magic users alike.”

“But they aren’t. They made it clear after the war they never wanted that. Hell, my father isn’t even here!”

“My dad says sometimes all it takes to start the seeds of fear and doubt is one word.” Shifting uncomfortably against the stone, Crofton locks his eyes onto the stream in front of them. “What do you think about that Kemp guy?”

Thrown off by the sudden change in question, Ari leans her head back to think. “We were lucky he showed up when he did. He probably saved our lives.”

Crofton stands, wiping his hands on his pants. “Yeah. You’re right.”

Eyeing him curiously, Ari finishes her piece of cake. “What are you thinking, Crofton?”

“Nothing. It’s just, there’s no doubt there’s been an influx of people coming to this city seeking help or a safe place, but…”

“But?”

“If magic is fading, why are there still so many new kinds of magic being discovered? Wouldn’t the very fact magic is weakening mean some of the lesser know magic would simply fade out completely?”

“Kemp said he was the last in his village that could use magic,” Ari points out.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You’re thinking too hard about it. Especially for a non magic user.” Ari stands and walks out from under the stone bridge. “Come on, let’s head back before our parents think we’ve gotten into more trouble.”

Ari starts walking forward when movement at the corner of her eyes catches her attention. She turns her head to see darkness racing towards her. Before she can react, the darkness fills her vision and she feels herself falling into nothing.

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Chapter 7 Air

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The wind blowing through the canyon moves Ari’s hair into her face. She ignores the tickling against her skin, staring after the group of Hoks circling the canyon. A few Hoks without owners fly below, using the air currents dancing through the canyon to make death-defying drops to hunt the fish in the river.

Climbing the stairs to the top of the canyon, Ari wonders what her mother wouldn’t tell her. Something else is going on, she could tell from the worry and fear in Meah’s eyes, but what was it? Did it have something to do with her father?

She stops at the top of the canyon and stands at the wall blocking the edge. Her eyes search the immense city below, tracing the bridges connecting the two sides, following the river until it disappears around a corner of rock. Eventually her eyes rise to stare at the distant mountains.

She grew up listening to her mother’s stories about her journey from her home in a distant forest valley to the Bloodfall Arena and eventually here to Kellahn. She’s visited Raspil when her mother has to visit with its ruler, Gaeren Banish, but still she wonders what else is beyond the lands she can see.

She wonders where her father is. Is he even still alive or trapped somewhere in need of help?

Shaking her head of thoughts of her father in danger, Ari turns her back to the canyon and catches sight of the tops of trees among the buildings. Taking a deep breath, she walks into the collection of buildings. She finds a pile of boxes against a building and quickly climbs up to the roof. Emerging into the fresh air, she holds her hands out at her sides, feeling the wind flow over her skin. She plays with it, allowing her magic to shape the wind into small cyclones in the palms of her hands.

Smiling, she breaks out into a run, using the wind to move her faster and to help with jumps from rooftop to rooftop. Those below glance up at her overhead, but most ignore her. The buildings end at the opening to an immense forest. That’s where Ari’s heading.

The forest, as many in the city claim through rumors, magically grew over the span of a few years. As forest go it wasn’t large, but it provided protection to many in the city and an escape for others. Its sudden appearance was credited to Ari’s parents, but even they couldn’t truly explain its origins.

Reaching the end of the buildings, Ari leaps from the final rooftop. She uses her magic to give her an additional boost to reach the first tree, landing on one of its thick branches. She still runs into the trunk a little harder than she intends and pauses to catch her breath.

Glancing behind her, Ari stares at the city she grew up in. From the forest it appears as a wall of stone and wood, the great canyon and the legendary city blocked from view. She remembers hearing stories from older citizens about what the city looked like before so many moved to it, the vast plains stretching for miles with only the old towers breaking up the skyline then the sudden appearance of the canyon as though the gods carved it themselves.

There are times when she wishes she’d been alive before the city’s expansion, but those were the times before the forest grew.

Leaping from the branch of the tree, Ari uses her wind to help her land softly on the hard ground. She heads further into the forest, away from the city.

The life of the forest surrounds her. Birds sing and fly overhead and the plants welcome the sunlight streaming through the breaks in the treetops. Ari follows the sound of running water until she finds a stream racing through the trees. She walks along the side of the stream watching the clear water and catching sight of small fish swimming.

Moving deeper into the forest, the stream widens and deepens, creating large pools where the ground has been swept away. A fallen tree creates a makeshift bridge over a particularly deep segment of the stream and Ari climbs onto it. She crosses to the other side of the stream and heads away from the flowing water.

She walks to the center of the forest where the tallest tree is located. It’s the same white tree that grows at her home, but older. The roots are so large they raise the tree from the earth, creating small hideaways for small animals to nest. Jumping onto the roots, Ari is able to find hand holds in the trunk and begins climbing.

She reaches a collection of thick branches tangled around each other to create a natural platform. Sitting with her back against the trunk of the tree, Ari takes a deep breath, closing her eyes.

She can feel the magic that created it pulsating through the tree trunk from the earth. The magic is a lifeline to the ones who made the forest. When she was younger, Ari tried to follow the line, but it continued beyond the forest out into the lands beyond. Whoever created the forest was long gone.

Still, Ari enjoys the feeling of the magic still feeding the trees around her. She wishes she could reach out and take the magic into her, but it remains its own. The owners, though no longer near the city, were powerful mages to continue feeding life into the forest from great distances.

Raising her hand in front of her, Ari concentrates. She feels the wind gather in her palm and her magic fill her blood. Flexing her palm, the gathered wind expands until it encircles the area around Ari and the tree. Breathing deeply, Ari senses everything around her, the wind acting as an extension of her. She can feel the movement of each leaf against the air and each insect moving on or inside the tree.

She sends the wind down to the ground below and senses a small animal emerging slowly from its den among the roots. Its shallow breaths join the air and Ari can hear the tiny heartbeat pounding quickly.

A sudden break in the wind breaks Ari’s concentration and her magic fades. She opens her eyes, but the familiar green of the leaves is tinted a strange blue and a small shadow sits in front of her. Blinking, the blue returns to green and the shadow disappears.

A bird lands on Ari’s leg and stares at her with one round eye. Attached to its leg is a flower tied with a long piece of grass. The bird tugs on Ari’s shorts before hopping down to a tree branch below. Ari sits up and stares down after the bird. It flies to another branch before looking up at her and chirping.

Smiling, Ari makes her way down the tree to the ground. The bird flies to another tree, perching on the lowest branch to wait for her. She follows and the bird leads her deeper into the forest.

Leading her to another stream, the bird flies quickly, dodging the trees easily. Ari is able to keep up with little trouble, already knowing where the bird is leading her. In the distance a natural stone bridge appears over the stream as it curves into a bank of hills. Beneath the bridge the stream narrows to allow one to stand beneath the bridge without having their feet submerged in the cool water.

The bird flies beneath the bridge, landing on top of a small pile of food wrapped in cloth. As Ari reaches the bird, it chirps happily. She holds her hand out so the small creature can hop onto her fingers. She removes the flower from its leg.

“Thank you,” she says to the bird.

It ruffles its feathers, scratching the area of its leg where the flower had been before flying up to the top of the bridge to the figure waiting patiently.

 

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Chapter 6 Air

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Ari and Crofton move quickly through the city. They pass citizens frozen as they watch the flock of birds pass overhead. The hoks disappear over the canyon walls, leaving behind a sense of dread felt throughout the canyon.

Arriving at Ari’s home, Ari and Crofton see Meah waiting for them outside. She smiles, but her eyes can’t hide her worry. Knowing something is wrong Ari slows her steps.

“We need to talk,” Meah says softly.

“I think she knows,” Crofton whispers quickly.

“Mom, whatever you’ve heard, they attacked us and we had to defend ourselves. I don’t just go looking for…” Ari’s words trail off as she sees the fearful expression on her mother’s face. “What’s wrong?”

Turning to Crofton, Meah smiles sadly. “Head home, Crofton. Your mother and father have something to say to you, as well.”

Worry filling him, Crofton nods his head and smiles at Ari, trying to comfort her. “I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah.” She waits until Crofton disappears around the corner before returning her attention to her mother. “What’s going on? I saw the Lito’s flying off with the other hoks.”

Opening the door, Meah motions for Ari to enter the house. They walk through the quiet halls in silence until they reach the courtyard. The tree at the center has grown much taller than the surrounding house, its branches gently scraping the roof. Its great roots have dislodged portions of the stone walkway around the base of the tree and continue to push their way through the earth.

Sitting beneath the tree, Meah pats the empty seat next to her. Ari doesn’t hesitate in sitting and watches her mother carefully, waiting for her to speak.

“I know about the gang who threatened to kill you and Crofton.” The words hang in the air.

Sighing with brief relief, Ari relaxes in her seat. “Mom, there wasn’t any—”

“Any real danger? Ari, any threat is dangerous. You need to be careful about showing off your magic.”

“I know, you and Lyrrel and Emeka and Crofton and even Crofton’s parents keep telling me, but it’s not hurting anybody.” She points at her mother. “And I only use it as a last resort.”

“What was the last resort today?”

Pausing, trying to think how she should respond, Ari looks to the ground. “I jumped off a cliff with Crofton to escape another gang I cheated out of money.”

“Ari,” Meah groans, rubbing the side of her head.

“They were cheating other people first! I was only making it a fair fight. Besides the gang that threatened Crofton and me didn’t know about that. They were on the other side of the canyon.”

“And that’s where jumping off a cliff came in I’m guessing?”

“Okay, I did use my magic to make sure we landed on one of the trolleys, but that’s all! I didn’t fly or anything.”

Taking her daughter’s hands in hers, Meah gives Ari a stern expression. “It’s a difficult time for magic users right now. We have to be careful how we use our gifts.”

“You tell me all the time about those who’re still afraid of magic users, but how can they be? Magic users saved them from the Blood King…you and dad saved everyone and refused to become rulers. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“It isn’t about that. The fear comes from feeling powerless against those who they feel could take control. They’re afraid of someone equally or more powerful and ruthless as the Blood King being born from a magic user and feeling those who don’t have magic should be enslaved.”

Jumping to her feet, Ari shakes her head in frustration. “So to prevent that they’ll do exactly that? Enslave or kill magic users? How is that any better?”

“Fear isn’t friend to logic. But that’s why we have to understand their fear and not feed it.”

“But magic is disappearing. How can they still be afraid?”

Meah stands and crosses to her daughter. She brushes a loose strand of brown hair from her face and smiles. “Some day they’ll understand, but until then we have to be careful.”

Ari pulls away from her mom. She’s tired of hiding her magic. It isn’t like it’s particularly powerful. The most she can do is knock someone away and it isn’t as though her magic is growing stronger either. Sometimes it even feels like something is holding her back.

“Why were the hoks flying?” Ari asks, remembering the sight from earlier.

Meah’s face became blank, keeping Ari from reading her mom’s thoughts. “One of the caravans has been killed. We think the culprits are hiding out on the outskirts of the city.”

“Seems a bit much to send the Lito’s out, doesn’t it?”

The look Meah gives Ari sends a chill down her spine. She sees her mother’s eyes grow distant, a look she recognizes. It’s the look Meah has when she’s deciding whether or not to say something.

Making a decision, Meah smiles. “It’s better to be over prepared than under.” Wrapping her arms around her daughter, Meah squeezes Ari tightly. “Promise me you won’t use your magic unless you absolutely have to.”

Returning the hug, Ari nods. “I promise.”

Pulling away, Meah places her hand on the side of Ari’s face. Her eyes search Ari’s face as though trying to drink in every detail. “Go on, Fleance and Mava have probably finished scolding Crofton.”

Hesitating a moment, Ari leaves the courtyard. She glances back once as the door closes behind her to see her mother waving to her.

Meah takes a deep breath. She touches her magic and tries to feel the connection long severed she once shared with Ime, hoping to feel one last twinge. A ghost of a feeling passes through her and she knows somehow he’s still alive.

Turning to the tree, she raises her eyes to the lowest branch and draws a hidden dagger from her clothing. The shadow in the tree watches patiently.

“I’ve been expecting you.”

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Chapter 5 Air

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Before the leader has time to shout orders, the man, Kemp, is already on the move. He knocks the feet out from those closest to him, sending them sprawling onto the ground. He slams his mace into their sides hard enough to cause injury, but not enough to cause life-threatening damage.

As the gang comes to life, they surround him, tightening their circle. Weapons fly through the air, but never seem able to hit Kemp. Instead, he uses his dagger to block as he swings his mace into the sides of his attackers. He kicks out at one member, throwing him into two of his comrades.

One gang member swings his club at Kemp’s head. Kemp easily blocks, but immediately realizes the man was a distraction. A second gang member thrusts his knife at Kemp, aiming for his left side, the side he holds the dagger. Kemp is unable to swing the mace effectively and opts to shove the first gang member back, using the force to also clear himself from the path of the second gang member’s knife.

As the knife passes harmlessly in front of him, Kemp brings his elbow down on the back of the second gang member’s head, knocking the man unconscious. The first gang member attempts another attack, but Kemp is ready for him and slams his mace into the man’s stomach. The man doubles over and Kemp brings his knee up to meet with the man’s chin. Blood pours from the man’s mouth as he nearly bites his tongue in half. He falls back, trying to stop the bleeding and get enough air into his lungs.

Members of the gang who haven’t fought yet, fall back. Several even run out of the alley, knowing they have no chance. The leader of the gang steps forward, grabbing a dropped club from the ground.

The leader swings the club at Kemp only to be blocked by Kemp’s dagger. Kemp attempts to swing his mace at the leader, but misses. The leader has a longer reach and, even though it’s only by a few inches, moves his body clear of the mace’s path. However, he thrusts his knife at Kemp simultaneously, catching Kemp off guard. The blade slices into his side, but he maneuvers his body with the blade, avoiding a deep cut.

Bringing the mace back in a less powerful swing, Kemp is able to hit the leader of the gang in the side. The blow isn’t as strong as his first swing and only manages to knock the leader off balance a little. He thrusts his knife again as well as bringing the club down harder at Kemp.

The force of the club forces Kemp to one knee and as he angles himself to avoid the knife, the leader kicks at his other leg. Kemp falls to the ground, his hands slamming into the earth as he catches himself.

Yelling with a mixture of triumph and rage, the leader raises his club and brings it down with all of his strength. There’s no time for Kemp to move out of the way.

A large gust of wind slams into the leader and sends him flying into the nearby wall. Stunned, but not unconscious, the leader tries to stand, but his vision goes in and out of focus.

A hand grabs Kemp and pulls him to his feet. He looks into the green eyes of the girl the gang had been attacking, her dark brown hair falling across her face. The other one, the blond boy with her, has already grabbed Kemp’s bag and waves to the two to move.

“Let’s go before they regroup,” the girl says leading Kemp out of the alley. She turns and raises her hand, creating a gust of wind that fills the alley with sand, creating a temporary smokescreen.

Kemp allows her to lead him for a short distance as he puts his mace and dagger away. The boy in front darts through the city with a knowledge only one who’s lived in it their entire life can. The girl continues to glance behind them, searching for any of the gang who may have followed.

They cross one of the many bridges connecting the sides of the canyon and finally come to a rest once they reach the other side. The boy’s led them to a large square. Vendors have their stalls set up and the smell of cooking food fills the air. The square is crowded enough to prevent anyone from openly attacking, but large enough the three can sit and chat without the fear of being overheard.

“What a rush! That was amazing how you took all of those bastards on at once!” the girl says excitedly, laughing loudly.

“We’re lucky you showed up when you did,” the blond boy says, handing Kemp his bag. His blue eyes study Kemp, cautiously. “Who are you exactly?”

Setting his bag next to him, Kemp leans on it and smiles. “Kemp Romijn. I arrived in this city yesterday. The building those guys kept hitting with their clubs was where I’d been sleeping. The owners were afraid to do anything, so I figured I’d step in and clear them out. Didn’t know they were mage haters.” Kemp eyes the girl. “Thanks for the help with your wind magic.”

“Like I was going to sit there and let him kill you.”

“Are you a mage, too?” Kemp asks the boy. The boy shakes his head. “Well, who are you two? I think it only fair I learn the names of the two people I rescued.”

“Ari,” the girl says quickly. She motions to the boy. “And this is Crofton.”

“What kind of magic were you using?” Crofton asks motioning his head to Kemp’s small black bag. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Untying his black bag, Kemp waves it in front of him. “Are you really curious?”

He tosses the bag to Crofton. He catches it and carefully opens it. Peering inside, his eyes widen.

Ari leans forward, trying to see into the bag. “What is it?”

“There’s nothing in here except a few coins. But where were those weapons coming from?”

Holding his hand out, Kemp grabs the air and pulls. A sword appears, being drawn out from nothing as though an invisible sheath was floating in the air. When the blade is halfway out, Kemp releases the hilt and the sword disappears.

“Amazing,” Ari gasps.

“The black bag is mainly for show so people aren’t as freaked out, but I can pull a weapon from anywhere.”

“Are you creating them from nothing?” Crofton asks, tossing Kemp’s bag back to him.

“Not exactly. All of the weapons are real. At some point I found them, bought them, or, a special few, made them. It’s kind of hard to explain. My magic allows me to carry them with me wherever I go by placing them in a different world until I need them. However, I’ve found there is a limit to the number I can, for lack of a better word, store in this other world.”

“What’s the limit?”

“Fifty.”

Ari whistles. “That’s still a lot of weapons. Can you go to wherever the weapons are being held?”

Shaking his head, Kemp ties his black bag to his belt. “I’ve tried, but no. I’ve heard of others with similar magic who are able to, but I’ve yet to find anyone.”

“What about where you’re from? None of them could?”

“I’m the last magic user in my village. That’s why I came here. I came to find someone who could help me grow my magic. This city is one of the last refuges for magic users.”

“That isn’t as true as it used to be,” Crofton says. “You saw for yourself, gangs like those are popping up all over the city. Though they haven’t actually started killing magic users.”

“Not outright,” Ari adds. “This city is large and there are thousands who live here. It’d be easy for someone to suddenly go missing.”

“It’s still better than what’s happening out in the rest of the world. Magic is nearly gone from some places.” Sitting up, Kemp looks around him. “I can feel the difference here. Magic still floats in the air.”

“This city hasn’t escaped what’s happening. Magic is fading from here, too. Some lose it over the years. For others they simply wake up one day and it’s gone. There’s a fear inside of every mage that it’ll happen to them.”

Bells ring from across the canyon, signaling high noon. Crofton stands, his eyes widening. “The hoks are flying.”

“What else is new?” Ari asks. She notices the surprised expression on his face and turns her attention to the sky. What she sees brings her to her feet. She steps closer to the edge of the square, watching the great birds.

Confused, Kemp joins the two standing and tries to see what they are surprised about. “What’s the deal with the birds? I thought there were always a few flying around here.”

“They’re flying in a defensive pattern through the canyon, waiting for anyone who still knows how to fly to join them.”

“Look who’s in the lead,” Crofton says.

“I see them,” Ari answers.

Kemp strains his eyes to make out the two flyers at the front of the group. They fly on the backs of two hoks with feathers the color of light blue and purple. One is a man and the other a woman and they guide their hoks with the skill of true masters.

“Who are they?”

“Calston and Bon Lito. They’re the best flyers in the city and in charge of aerial defense. If they’re gathering the other flyers…” Ari’s voice trails off.

“They only do that when something serious has happened.” Crofton turns to Ari. “We should find your mom. She might know what’s going on. It might have something to do with that gang.”

Snapping her head to glare at Crofton, Ari frowns. “We aren’t going to tell her about them. If we do she might panic and ban me from walking around alone again.”

“You’re mom’s a bit overprotective, huh?” Kemp asks, a laugh on his lips.

Crofton glares at him. “Her mom is Meah Flandine Gurek. She has every right to be protective.”

His eyes widening, Kemp stares at Ari in awe. “Wait, that means your father is Ime Gurek. As in, killer of the Blood King?”

Ari’s breath catches in her throat and she fights back the wave of sadness filling her. Sensing her sudden change, Crofton takes her hand in his. “Come on, we should go to your mom.”

Eyeing the two, Kemp realizes he said something wrong. “I’m sorry. I’ve heard so many stories about your father before and during the war I guess I forgot the ones after.”

“It’s fine.” Ari drew in a shaky breath, calming down. “Thank you for helping us, but we should be going.”

“Of course. I’ll see you around.”

Meeting his eyes, Ari’s cheeks flush and a smile plays at the corners of her mouth. Crofton refuses to meet Kemp’s eyes and instead leads Ari away. Watching them leave, Kemp grabs his bag and swings it onto his back. He stares at the back of Ari’s head a small smile forming on his lips.

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Chapter 4 Air

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“We should go, Ari,” Crofton says, leaning close to her ear. “You’re only making them angrier.”

Waving him away from her, Ari smiles at the man across from her. “You giving up already, Modi? I thought you said you were good at this?”

The man, Modi, snarls at her and slams coins down on the table. “One more round, all or nothing.”

“I don’t know. That doesn’t look like enough to be worth another round.” She motions to the small pile of money sitting on her side of the table.

Sneering, Modi slams his hand on the table. When he lifts it there’s a large gem beneath. “How about now?”

Eyeing the gem, Ari smiles. “Roll ‘em.”

Modi grabs three dice and hurls them onto the small table. As they come to a rest the small group gathered around makes surprising noises. He’s rolled two ones and a three. His snarl momentarily turns up into a smile.

“Beat it if you can, girl.”

Ari stares at the roll a moment longer before grabbing the three dice. She locks eyes with Modi and shakes the bone dice in her hand, the rattling sound overpowering the excited whispers around them. Crofton closes his eyes and groans, unable to watch.

Breathing deeply, Ari rolls the dice. As the dice tumble against the top of the table she releases a long sigh, keeping her eyes locked to Modi’s. The dice come to a stop and the crowd is shocked into silence.

Both Ari and Modi look down. Three singles. Impressed cheers erupt around them and Ari beams.

She grabs her winnings, standing as she does. “Guess you aren’t the best anymore, are you?”

Yelling angrily, Modi throws the table to the side, slamming it into bystanders. Ari and Crofton leap back as Modi draws a dagger. “YOU CHEATED!”

“Hear that, Crofton?” Ari eyes Crofton, signaling him with her fingers to get ready. He quickly grabs the gem and puts it in his bag. “The call of the sore loser isn’t as beautiful close up as they say.”

Modi lunges for the two, but Ari throws her hand in front of her. A gust of wind blows Modi back and she shoves Crofton through the crowd. “Time to go!”

“Get them!” Modi roars from behind.

Ari and Crofton run out of the alley and head down the street, followed closely by a group of Modi’s thugs. People quickly move out of their way, but the few who don’t are nearly knocked over.

“Damn it, Ari! You shouldn’t have antagonized him!” Crofton yells.

Laughing, Ari slams into him to make him turn. “You can’t honestly tell me that wasn’t exciting?”

“I’ll tell you what I think if we survive this.”

Trying to lose the gang behind them, the two head for a crowded market. Ari leaps over a table as Crofton slides beneath. They snake their way around stalls and spill things into the path of their pursuers. A second group of gang members blocks their exit from the market and they’re forced to head down an alley leading to a dead end.

Thinking quickly, they scale the walls, using windows and anything else they can grab to climb up. Reaching the roofs, they see the gang members following. Ari grabs Crofton and they leap from roof to roof, heading east.

The sun on her face and the excitement of the chase brings a wide smile to Ari’s face and she releases excited yells, catching the attention of people below. The shouts of the pursuers reach their ears and Crofton peeks behind. The gang members are getting closer.

“If you get me killed I’ll never forgive you,” he gasps.

Slamming her hand into his chest, they come to a stop before they run off the edge of the last roof. They’ve reached the last house before the canyon opening. The old city of Kellahn stretches out before them. The bridges crossing the canyon filled with the day’s crowds.

“Where you going to run now, girl?” a wheezing voice says from behind.

Ari and Crofton turn to see the gang blocking their only other way out. More are arriving, panting and gasping for air. Knives, swords, and clubs wave threateningly at them.

“What now?” Crofton says.

“We could fight them.” Ari laughs at Crofton’s expression. “I said could.”

Searching the rooftops for anything useful, Crofton spies Modi stomping his way towards them. “Shit, there’s your new friend.”

Ari turns and stares down into the canyon, until something catches her eye. She grabs Crofton’s arm, forcing him to look at her. “Do you trust me?”

“No.”

“Now’s the time to start.” Dragging him after her, she leaps from the roof into the canyon.

The gang, including Modi, who runs to the edge of the roof, stare in shock and disbelief. Crofton’s screams reach them as they watch the two fall.

Ari takes a deep breath and releases a larger gust of wind, slowing their fall enough that when a passing supply trolley moves directly beneath them, they land on it safely. The trolleys travel on wires connected to both sides of the canyon. It was a faster way to send things from one side to the other for those who could afford the cost.

As they reach the opposite side of the canyon, Ari leaps off the trolley. Crofton follows and the two head further into the city until they reach an alley close to the wall of the canyon.

They fall to the ground, gasping for air and Crofton glares at Ari. “You’re insane.”

Ari laughs. “I know.”

“Was it really worth it to piss off those guys?”

Pulling out the money she won, Ari hands half to him. “The game was rigged, Crofton. That’s why they kept getting angrier as I won.”

“Rigged?”

“One of Modi’s goons would use magic to mess with the dice. My magic was just stronger.”

Sighing, Crofton shakes his head. “I’ll have to take your word for it.”

Ari eyes him as she catches her breath. “Do you ever wish you could use magic?”

His eyes lock onto her face, wide with surprise. “I’ve already told you my answer to that question.”

“And now I’m asking you after being chased by a gang and jumping off a cliff.”

“No. I’ve never wished I could use magic.” He pulls out the gem and hands it to Ari. “Here, this is yours.”

Holding her hand up, Ari laughs softly. “It’s fake. Keep it if you want.”

A loud slam causes both to jump. They look towards the entrance of the alley. A group stands there, blocking the only way out of the alley. They each wear matching green cloths on their arms or legs. The largest of the group stands at the center, his green cloth covering his head. His eyes are locked on Ari and his expression is one of disgust.

Slowly standing, Ari and Crofton keep their eyes on the knives, pipes, and clubs in the hands of this new group.

“I haven’t ruined your rigged games, too, have I?” Ari asks, a nervous laugh in her voice.

The leader sneers at her. “You’re not welcome here, mage. You either, mage lover.” The group voices their agreement and a few of them slam their weapons against the surrounding buildings for emphasis.

“Excuse me?” Ari demands, stepping forward. Grabbing her arm, Crofton keeps her from moving too close to the gang.

“You mages walk around this city like you own it and the people who live here. We’re sick of it and we’re sick of you.” The leader pulls out a long knife and glares at Ari. “We’re going to take back this city by getting rid of all the mages and those who sympathize with them. Starting with you two.”

The gang closes in on Ari and Crofton, forcing them back to the wall of the canyon. Ari clenches her fists, feeling her magic gather slowly. A small breeze circles her, but Crofton suddenly tightens his grip on her arm.

“Don’t use your magic. It’s what they want,” he whispers quickly. He draws two knives from hidden sheaths and steps in front of Ari.

Realizing what he’s doing, Ari shoves her way to stand next to him. “I can fight without magic.” She pulls her own dagger from its sheath and the two stare at the approaching group.

“What the hell’s going on here?” a voice calls from amongst the gang. A man has appeared in the center of the gang, unnoticed by everyone. A large bag is slung over his shoulder and he glares at the gang with dark eyes. His black hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail, allowing several strands to fall forward. He doesn’t appear to have any weapons, but those standing around him still quickly move out of reach.

“Who the fuck are you?” one of the gang asks.

“Get out of here, mutt. This doesn’t concern you,” the leader says, turning towards the newcomer. He motions to his men to get rid of him.

Two members grab the man’s arms and try to shove him out of the alley. As soon as they grab him, he releases his bag and steps back quickly, pulling his arms together. The two members slam into each other, stunned. The man then grabs his bag before it hits the ground and swings it into their heads, sending them flying towards the building next to him. They hit the wall hard enough to create cracks before falling to the ground unconscious.

The man meets the leader’s eyes and throws his bag to the side. “I’m going to ask again. What the hell is going on here?”

The leader’s eyes flash to his unconscious men and back to the man. He tightens his grip on his knife. “You better rethink leaving, mutt. If you don’t, we’ll have to kill you, too.”

A fresh wave of anger passes through the man’s eyes and he looks from Ari and Crofton back to the gang surrounding him. He opens a small black bag on his belt and reaches inside. He pulls out a mace, the weapon seemingly appearing from nothing. The gang reacts with shocked noises and nervously eyes their leader.

“He’s a magic user,” Ari says under her breath. She stares at the black bag on his belt and wonders how his magic works.

The man aims the mace at the leader of the gang with one hand while pulling a dagger from the bag with his other hand. “My name isn’t mutt. It’s Kemp and I’d like to see you try to kill me, weakling.”

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Chapter 3 Air

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Lyrrel holds the blue crystal in his hands, holding them out to Meah. “Do you remember how to do this?”

Nodding her head, she places her hands on top, covering the crystal. Both close their eyes and concentrate. Warmth emanates from the crystal into their hands and up their arms. It fills their bodies and the sounds of the city below them fade into nothing. It’s replaced by the sound of grunts and wheels.

Opening her eyes, Meah finds herself in the body of one of the men from the caravan. However, she’s only an onlooker with no control over the man she inhabits.

The caravan is only one day out from Kellahn, still crossing the rough, dry land on the borders of Kellahn and Raspil. The sun is setting in front of the caravan, stretching the shadows of men, beast, and wagons into tall, disfigured forms of the owners.

One of the beasts pulling the wagon pulls roughly at its reins, its large eyes rolling wildly in its head. The other beast picks up on its companion’s movements and soon starts reacting the same.

“The groduns are spooked,” one of the men says.

“Probably saw a shadow from something scurrying on the ground. Nothing to worry about,” another man says.

The man Meah inhabits turns his head towards the spooked beasts and she hears his thoughts. Something else spooked them. Something larger.

The man lifts his head and scans the immediate areas around the caravan. The setting sun creates strange shadows on the landscape, providing many possible hiding places for an ambush.

“What’s the matter, Jeera?” a man asks, moving next to Meah.

“I think someone’s watching us,” Jeera says, placing his hand on the weapon on his side.

The man looks around, his hand moving to his own weapon. “I think you’re right. The air feels wrong.”

Even though she can’t control Jeera, Meah still senses what the men are feeling. She recognizes the strange air. Magic.

A sudden scream from behind halts the caravan and the men unsheathe their weapons and turn, but freeze when they see the cause.

“Help me!” one of the men cries as a terrifying giant lifts him in the air.

Its limbs are long and thin, connecting to a similarly thin-framed body. Flesh hangs from the bone, cracks bleeding dark blood. The head is large, hanging from a skeletal neck. The eyes are black holes, sucking in light from the setting sun. The mouth hangs open showing broken teeth and a long black tongue.

The fingers squeezing the man’s leg tighten, breaking bones and causing the man to cry out in pain. The low hanging head swivels to look at the crying man, the mouth opening wider. In one movement the man disappears into the gaping mouth and the broken teeth dig into his body. Pulling roughly, the man is torn in two. Blood falls to the ground and from the giant’s mouth. It swallows and the men see the lump representing their comrade make the thin neck bulge, sickeningly.

Jeera runs towards the giant, raising his blade. But a second giant, appearing from nothing, stops him. It grabs him, its longs fingers circling his torso like snakes, and lifts him from the ground. This giant’s head is too heavy for the neck and hangs upside down, connected to the body only by muscle and skin. Bones protrude from its side and arms where the skin is too thin.

The rest of the caravan comes to life. Two men grab the groduns and attempt to lead them away from the danger with the precious wagon of trade, while the rest run at the giants.

Jeera stabs his sword into the giant hand holding him. Black blood leaks from the wound, but the giant doesn’t appear to feel pain. Pulling the blade free, Jeera changes tactics, slicing his blade along the fingers. He’s able to cut away two fingers before the giant’s second hand grabs his arm and pulls. A loud pop precedes his arm being torn from him and Jeera screams.

The giant throws the separated arm to the ground and swipes at the men now cutting into its feet. The first giant slams its foot on one man, while trying to grab a second.

Two more giants appear in front of the caravan, stopping the escaping groduns and men. Jeera’s eyes go in and out of focus as the blood drains from his body. The giant lowers him to its hanging head. He stares into the dark holes where its eyes should’ve been before staring at the gaping mouth. The last thing he sees is the black tongue reaching for him as he’s placed into the dark hole.

As Jeera is eaten, Meah feels herself pulled from his body. She stares down at the sight in shock. The men are killed and their bodies eaten by the deformed giants. The groduns soon follow, their cries the last sounds heard. Once the caravan is completely consumed, the giants begin cleaning. The long black tongues lick up blood left on the ground and the giants disappear one by one.

One remains behind, grabbing the wagon with its long fingers. It turns its large head upwards, as though it can sense Meah above. She stares into its eyeholes and feels her blood turn to ice.

Then, as with the others, it disappears with the wagon.

Nothing is left behind. The caravan is gone.

 

*         *         *

 

Meah and Lyrrel return to the present and stare at each other. Lyrrel quickly places the blue crystal back into his pocket, sweat rolling down the sides of his face.

“Who did this?” Meah asks. Her hands shake and she holds them tightly together to stop them.

“I don’t know. The mage who cast it was too far to sense properly. But I do know bandits didn’t cause it.” Lyrrel stands, his expression filled with concern. “We have to tell the council immediately.”

Meah agrees and stands quickly, but a rush of blood to her head makes her vision black out. She reaches for Lyrrel and when her hand touches him, her vision explodes into light.

She stands at the top of a tall rock. The sky is dark, clouds appearing like fire cutting across the blackness. The tree from Meah’s courtyard stands tall above her, but the leaves are an ominous blue, bright against the surrounding darkness. The sun shines, but can’t break the blackness of the sky.

Turning, Meah sees the branches of the tree open wide to show a dark figure standing among the leaves. It carries a bloody sword and a head in its hands. Behind the figure a white shadow holds its arms out. Strings connect it to the figure and loud laughter rises. The white shadow moves an arm and the black figure leaps from the tree to stand before Meah. It towers over her, filling her vision.

The bloody sword rises above its head and the figure raises the head towards Meah. Seeing the face of the disembodied head, Meah screams as the bloody blade is brought down on her.

A bright blue light cuts into the world and Lyrrel’s hand pulls Meah from the vision. The strange landscape is gone and Meah returns to the top of the tower in Kellahn. She realizes her hand is still clutching Lyrrel’s arm, her nails digging into his skin. She quickly releases him, only to have him grab both of her arms.

“What did you see?” Lyrrel’s panicked voice draws Meah’s attention.

“I have to find Ari,” Meah whispers.

“What did you see?” Lyrrel asks again.

Meeting his eyes, Meah swallows the lump now in her throat. “Death.”

“Whose death?”

Meah hesitates. “I have to find Ari.”

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Chapter 2 Air

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The Great Hall is filled with chatter. A large map showing Kellahn and the surrounding countries covers the table placed at the center of the hall. Men and women sit around the table talking quickly to one another. Meah sits quietly, listening to the discussions, but wishes she could leave. She’s only there to represent one of the advisors who became ill the night before, Jada Boor.

It had been years since she’d been a true member of the council. Memories of her time on the council fill her thoughts as well as memories from the years before Kellahn shifted from a solitary ruler to a group of seven appointed advisors.

Today only six advisors were present. The seventh advisor was visiting Pilian Grout, one of Kellahn’s allies, in the southeast. There were troubles occurring along the border of his land, Akayana, and the neighboring land of Linbodi, ruled by Dardya Candok, the daughter of Aryd who used to be an ally of Kellahn until after the Blood War.

“Expansion of the river has slowed considerably with the approaching dry summer. Water levels have fallen too low for the water mages to effectively carve through the surrounding stone without depleting the river. Earth mages have volunteered their services, but that may lower the levels of the remaining water and disrupt the migration of the local fish. Their numbers are already dwindling from over fishing,” Calston Lito says. He looks to Altan Hogan, head of the council. “If we’re to continue the expansion of the city, it may need to wait until the rains return in the winter.”

“Why are we expanding the river anyway? If it’s meant to flow one way we can’t force it to go wherever we choose. Doing that will only dry it out further down the canyon, making it more difficult for those who live there,” Ringan Shell says.

“The expansion is to help prevent the rampant flooding that have been occurring during the monsoon seasons in the mountains. Unless you enjoy those living along the river’s edge losing their homes?” Bon Lito says.

“Better to have too much water than none at all.”

“We’ve already voted on the expansion. That isn’t in question at the moment,” Altan says, quieting the advisors. He rubs his temple, trying to think through all of the information. After a moment, he leans back in his chair, his graying hair falling back from his face. “Cease the expansion for the moment. Have the water mages focus on keeping the river flowing to keep those further in the canyon safely hydrated. Is that an agreeable solution for the present, Ringan?”

“Yes. But I would like to discuss the expansion further once the water levels return to normal.”

“Is that agreeable with you, Cal, Bon?”

Cal and Bon nod.

“Fine. Last on our list for the morning council is…” Altan checks the papers sitting before him, shuffling through several before holding up one. “A recent interruption in trade between Kellahn and Raspil. What does that mean? A recent interruption?”

An odd feeling tickles at the back of Meah’s mind.

Ringan raises his hand to speak. “One of our caravans went missing several weeks ago. Messengers claim to have passed the caravan heading in one direction, but when they returned the caravan neither passed them nor seemed to have reached its destination.”

“Are the messengers sure they didn’t simply miss the caravan?” Meah asks, the strange tickle changing into an itch.

“The report says they could follow the tracks of the caravan until a certain point. Then the tracks were gone as though the caravan simply vanished.”

“How can an entire caravan vanish like that?”

“It would appear mages are to blame,” Lyrrel says, reading from a separate report. “One of our seers happened to be accompanying the messenger and sensed the residuals of magic in the area the tracks ended.”

“What was the caravan carrying?” Meah asks Altan.

Altan shrugs. “If it was heading to Raspil, the usual trade; fish, vegetables, meat, and cloth.”

The itch at the back of Meah’s head grows larger. As though feeling the itch, Lyrrel places his hand on Meah’s arm. She looks at him, but his eyes are focused on Altan.

“Are there any known bandits along that trading route?”

“Several, but they’ve never made an entire caravan disappear.”

“Gaeren will be expecting the caravan. Has anyone sent him a message relaying the situation?” Cal asks.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Ringan snorts. “Of course. A messenger, along with an air mage for protection, has been sent to Raspil. A response should be returning in several days.”

“I assume the message includes the estimated time a second caravan will arrive?” Altan asks.

“Of course. But with the permission of the council, I’d like to send along a few mages as extra guard until we can discover the culprits.”

“All in favor?” Altan asks. All raise their hands. “Very well, we shall send three mages along with the next caravan. That finishes our morning council. We shall reconvene in three hours.”

With the meeting over for the morning, Meah turns to Lyrrel. “Something’s wrong.”

“I know. I sense there’s more to the caravan’s disappearance than simple bandit stealing. But there’s no need to create panic until we’re certain.” Lyrrel stands. “Would you like to accompany me on a walk outside?”

“Please, anything to be away from this room.”

As she stands, Meah eyes Altan. He struggles to stand, his age becoming apparent as a guard appears at his side to assist. Over twenty years ago, Meah had walked into this Great Hall and found Altan dead. She’d been able to bring him back, along with hundreds of others, with her Life Healing magic.

“Meah?” Lyrrel waits patiently for her, knowing she’s lost in her memories.

“Sorry. Let’s go,” Meah says, following Lyrrel outside.

The city is alive with movement. The people go about their daily routines, the lightheartedness in their voices filling the air with laughter. Those who pass Lyrrel and Meah greet them with bright smiles. The older citizens bow their heads with respect and gratefulness.

Few do more. Two people approach Meah and take her hands. Tears roll down their cheeks and they kiss her hands, thanking her for saving their lives. After taking several moments to calm them, Meah and Lyrrel are able to move on.

“There are still many who believe you and Ime should have become the next rulers of this city,” Lyrrel says.

“And we’ve explained time and time again why neither of us wanted that. Even Altan agreed there should be no single ruler of this city. The council was mainly his idea, remember?”

“I know that, but the people still need time to adjust to that idea.”

“Twenty years isn’t enough?”

The two walk onto one of the many bridges connecting the city’s two sides together. Overhead great birds called Hoks fly. A few bore riders, but the knowledge was dying out. The Hoks had migrated as the city grew and the only ones that remained behind were those who already had owners. There were still a few who bred the great birds, but with the growth of the city they were no longer needed.

“How many more things will be discussed at the council?” Meah asks.

“There is the discussion of how to deal with the rampant gangs forming above the canyon. Apparently, they’ve been growing in size the past few months. There’s also going to be discussion about what to do with the sudden influx of people from the lands to the north, beyond Whitner. More have been arriving than we have space for.” Lyrrel sighs. “Trades with lands beyond Bruelle have slowed considerably. Some blame bandits, some blame lack of resources, but the most blame is placed on us.”

“In other words, I shouldn’t be expecting an early release tonight?” Meah asks, her head spinning with everything.

“Afraid not.”

They reach the other side and head up. Reaching the top of the canyon, Meah’s eyes take in the newer parts of the city. The buildings are built higher with no canyon walls to stop them. Lines stretch across walkways for drying clothing. Children run around, playing. Older citizens sit on their doorsteps, enjoying the warm day.

Meah and Lyrrel reach a building hidden amongst the newer buildings. Its stones are bleached from the sun and smoothed from being weather beaten. The building used to be a watchtower back from when the city first came about. There were dozens more along both sides of the canyon, but this one held a special place in Meah’s heart. She’d spent many hours atop it and though some memories made her heart ache, she loved it.

It took them a while to reach the top, but once they did Lyrrel and Meah forgot their exhaustion when they saw the view. Even with the new buildings threatening to reach the watchtower’s height, the view is still breathtaking.

“How’s Ari doing? I heard she’s been spending a lot of her time up here above the canyon,” Lyrrel asks, sitting on a chair to catch his breath. “Emeka struggles to keep your daughter interested in her lessons. She’s caught her numerous times sneaking away during lunch breaks.”

“So I’ve heard. Ari spends a lot of time in the forest. Otherwise, I don’t know what that girl does. I’ve caught her up here more than once, staring at the mountains.”

“Perhaps she’s waiting for Ime.”

Walking to the edge of the tower, Meah’s eyes stare off at the mountains far to the southeast. “I think it’s more than that. I’ve seen it in her eyes when she thinks no one is looking. She wants to go after him.”

Lyrrel takes a deep breath and rubs his forehead. “And why is that a bad thing?”

“I never said it was a bad thing.”

“You’re thinking it.” Meah turns to face him. A playful smile is on his lips and he raises his eyebrows curiously. “I don’t need my magic to know that, Meah. It’s clear from your expression.”

Hesitating, Meah sits next to Lyrrel. “Something is blocking her magic.”

A brief moment of silence passes. Meah can see Lyrrel’s mind taking in what she means. His smile fades and he leans forward, close to her. “I’ve seen Ari use her magic. It’s true it’s unusually weak for her age, but that only proves to show what Ime and the others are doing is the right thing.”

“It isn’t the source blocking her, Lyrrel. Something else is, but I can’t see what it is. I’m afraid if she goes after Ime before freeing her magic it could be dangerous.”

“I understand your fear, but Ari is strong. She gets that from her parents.” Placing his hand on Meah’s shoulder, Lyrrel pulls a blue crystal from his pocket. “I believe whatever is blocking her magic is doing so for a greater purpose. Sometimes we must place our trust in things greater than us, as well as the unknowable.”

Placing her hand on Lyrrel’s hand, Meah smiles. “I’ll try.”

“Now then, shall we try exploring the disappearance of the caravan?” He holds up the blue crystal.

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