A short story set in the world of The Cloud Warrior Saga
Chasing the Wind
The sudden scream died off quickly, seared away like everything else in the dry land. Even the acrid wind felt stunted. Lifeless. Zephra thought it strange that the scream carried.
All around her ugly and spindly scrub trees struggled to grow, sharp needles pulling at clothing if she came to close. Some could even shoot their needles if she walked too heavily. Innocent looking brown grasses sprung up in clumps that she was careful to avoid. In Incendin, even those could be poisonous. The ever-present scorching sun burned her exposed skin so that Zephra had quickly learned to cover herself completely. Everything about the land was designed to kill.
She hated and feared the land almost as much as she feared those who lived here.
Zephra paused to take a slow drink from her waterskin as she considered the source of the scream. She had heard others since entering Incendin, each muted in the lifeless air smothering the land, but this was different. Closer. And more urgent.
Anything in Incendin could be a trap especially screams that sounded so human, so familiar. Still, the scream pulled on something within her, leaving her trembling and drawn toward it.
How many days had she already spent in the waste?
The heat made her mind blur and she lost track.
Eight? Ten? Maybe a dozen. Too long since a cool breeze touched her cheeks.
All Zephra wanted was to continue onward. If her map was right, she was nearly there. A day, maybe two, before she reached the outer edges of the gentle plains as they rolled toward the sea. This close to Doma she could almost smell the hint of salt on the air. Soon she would breathe easier, no longer inhaling the burning dusty stink of Incendin.
It was the promise of wind that compelled her forward, away from the stifling air of the waste. The promise that she would finally catch her wind.
It would have been simpler to sail around to Doma. Easier. But Tellander wouldnt let her. Not if she was to find her wind, master it as Tellander demanded. She heard his voice in her head like a taunt: Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. After what she had been through already, this had better be worthwhile.
A tall rocky prominence stretched into the sky not far from her, the only thing that grew in lands that the Mother clearly forgot. With the heat, the scream could be little more than her imagination. And would not be the first hallucination. Much better to keep her focus and reach Doma.
Then the scream came again, muted but closer.
The sound rang through her head, demanding her attention.
A mournful tone hung with it, searing her in a way the sun overhead could not. She shivered. When it ended abruptly, she shivered again.
She knew she should turn away. In these lands and without her shaping, she could do little more than a child.
That scream would not let her.
Not far in the distance, she spied a clump of ragged trees near the rock tower. A few wide brown needles, nearly the size of small leaves, coated thorny branches. At the university, Zephra had read that the Incendin flowers, blooming after the rare rain, had healing powers. In the week she had spent crawling across this blasted land, she had yet to see even a drop of moisture. And nothing suggestive of flowers. They were probably just as ugly as the rest of the tree.
The tower of rock stretched impossibly high the closer she came. Like a wide platform, it rose toward the sun, sides seemingly sheered from the ground. Smaller boulders looked flung from it, strewn to either side. Trees and the thick Incendin shrub kept an almost respectable distance from the base of rock. The sun seemed hotter as well, as if challenged by the tower.
Zephra ducked behind the trees, careful to stay away from their sharp nettles, as she moved toward the tower and listened. As a wind shaper, even this still dry air could not resist her sensing.
The soft sound of whimpering carried to her ears, drifting slowly around and through the rock. From more than one person, from the sounds of it. Zephra silently slipped the knife from her belt. The least she could do was see if anyone was injured.
She crawled through the trees until she reached the smooth stone. The surface was surprisingly cool. Zephra slid forward slowly to slip around the edge of the rock, staying in the shadows.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Three people, one of them a child, huddled near the base of the rock tower. Arm and legs were bound with thick rope and once brightly colored clothing that she recognized immediately was now dirty and torn.
Even from where she crouched, that much was unmistakable.
In the kingdoms, no one dared touch the landless Aeta. As traders, they traveled freely and favored none, having long ago vowed never to settle in any particular land. Such a violation of the ancient peace accords was nearly unimaginable.
If Zephra needed any reminder that she was no longer in the kingdoms, this was it.
She knew with certainty that it had been the childs scream that drew her. The other two stood protectively around her, as if shielding her from someone unseen. Zephra had a sudden urge to run forward and slice at their bindings, but held back. Without the wind, she could do little other than join them.
A sudden crackle of heat sizzled the air and burned away the remaining moisture from her lips. Heat haze shimmered up from the ground around the captive Aeta, distorting her view.
All three began screaming.
Zephras heart skipped a beat. She had felt such energy a few times before but hadnt expected to encounter anything like it here, deep in the Incendin waste.
She shifted to better hide herself. She was not equipped to face off with a fire shaper, especially one powerful enough that she felt it where she stood. Little would protect her here, not without any wind. The knife in her hand might as well be a knitting needle for all the good it would do.
Helplessness burned angrily within her. If only the wind would cooperate.
She leaned against the stone. It was rough, but surprisingly cool. The heated air of Incendin resisted her attempts at shaping, but would cooler air?
She pressed herself against the stone while taking slow breaths, steadying herself. Then she focused, trying to will the wind into a shaping. Never an easy task in the best of times, she prayed to the Great Mother that she could catch the wind.
A flicker. Barely more than a breath of air, but she grabbed at it hungrily.
At first it fought her, slippery as if a thing alive. She could beg and plead with it, but the wind needed her to control it. Sudden anger gave her power, purpose. She demanded command of the wind, twisting the air and thickening it. As she did, a softly swaying current formed around her.
Zephra clutched tightly to the wind. If she lost the connection, she was not certain she could regain it.
The shaping was not much, but might mask her presence long enough to observe the fire shaper. Observe was all she could hope to do. These lands were ideal for a fire shaper, a natural defense against water and wind shaping; Zephra suspect that the hot and lifeless air would challenge even Tellander.
Earth shaping was another matter. Not for the first time, she wished she had let Grethan come. Earth shapers were rarely helpless, him especially so. But this was a journey she had to take on her own. That much she knew. Though he had not liked that fact, at least Grethan had understood.
Zephra moved slowly around the rock, keeping a hand on the cool stone and staying within the shadows. Whatever veil she managed would surely fail once the sun destroyed the relative coolness of the shade. Even this might not be adequate.
As soon as she felt a swell of heat she stopped.
Still not all the way around the rock, she shifted her focus back to the air and increased the effort of her shaping. This much taxed her to the edges of her limits. Straining against the writhing struggle from the wind, she forced more of her will, her focus, into the shaping. Echoes of the scream reverberated softly in her mind, seeming to augment her strength.
Even then her control was imprecise.
She turned her attention back to the captured Aeta. The girl was missing.
Zephra felt an edge of panic. In that moment, her concentration drifted and subtle shifting of wind around her start to falter. Cursing herself, she steeled her focus. Little would hide her if it failed, and the fire shaper that had captured the Aeta would come after her.
Slowly she regained control. The soft breeze shifting around her felt warmer than before. The veil weaker.
She had another sudden fear, one that almost sent her back to the rock for cover. Could the fire shaper simply penetrate the haze?
Shaking away the fear, the compulsion to find the girl grew more urgent.
As she slipped farther around the rock, she looked for the girl. The heat haze rising from the ground made everything opaque. Only the bright colors of her clothing helped Zephra find the young Aeta.
She laid helpless, arms and legs stretched apart, her once brightly colored clothing tearing. Patches of burned skin already blistered. Raised welts, clearly shaper made, seemed to mix within the patches of burned flesh. The lower edge of her tattered shirt had shifted and more of the scorch marks worked across the flesh of her stomach. Only the girls face was hidden from her, tipped back and away.
The smell of charred flesh drifted to Zephra on shaped wind. Anger surged through her.
Only then did Zephra hear the screaming.
The girl wailed, her voice high pitched and haunting. The sound nearly penetrated the remainder of her focus. How had she not heard it before?
The young Aeta girl thrashed as much as she could against the bindings holding her splayed across the rock, but her legs and arms held fast. Only her head tossed violently.
A rod thin man stood facing the sun, arms spread out in supplication. Nothing covered the browned and leathery skin of his torso. Dark pants, a deep maroon that was nearly black, covered him from the waist down. His feet were bare and he flexed his toes into the hot ground. A shorn head twisted slowly from side-to-side, like a lizard sunning itself. A foul sulfurous odor radiated from him, hot and rank.
Zephra froze. Something about the shaper sent waves of fear through her.
She could not hold the veil much longer without roasting herself. Even now the air writhed, struggling to escape her grasp. Only then did she realize that a shimmering haze originated around the dark shaper, spreading out from his arms and swirling toward the Aeta girl.
Violent anger rose within her, pushing back her fear. Memories of a forgotten past tried to blow into her consciousness but Zephra pushed back, holding her focus. She did not know what the fire shaper did to the Aeta girl, but she could not simply watch it happen.
The screaming suddenly stopped.
Zephra was moving before she knew it. She slid forward, the hot air concealing any sound she made, and reached the other two Aeta first. Shifting the veil as she reached them, she quickly shaped a gag to keep them from making noise as she sliced through the bindings. She felt the veil sag and she forced more of her will into it, angrily holding it in place.
The rock. Far side, she whispered, knowing the shaped air would carry it to their ears.
The man glared at her and shook his head, pointing toward the girl. His face was youthful and strong. Something in his brown eyes was so like Grethan that she nearly lost her control again.
The woman grabbed her wrist, startling her with the urgent touch. Her fingers were moist and tingled. Hot wind carried a floral scent off her of lilacs and evergreen.
I will get her, Zephra promised.
The man shook his head.
Zephra did not have time or the energy to argue with him. She considered pushing him at the rock with a gust of wind and let the Great Mother protect him from injury.
Then the Aeta woman shook herself and nodded, grabbing the man and pulling him away. For her, he went without argument.
Zephra turned toward the shaper. His shaved head had turned a shade of bright red, the flesh itself seeming to glow like coals in a fire. The redness spread to his arms and exposed back, and suddenly his pants simply burned away in a flash. The shaper glowed like a torch.
The girl started screaming again.
It was a desperate sound. Heavy with pain and hopelessness. The sound pulled on her, compelling her forward.
Zephra did not know what sort of shaping this man did. She had never heard of a fire shaping where the shaper themselves glowed as this man did, but she feared he neared the completion of his shaping. Only her roiling anger protected her from the heat of it.
Without thinking, she shifted the shaping, sliding the veil into a wedge and knifed forward, letting herself be carried on the gust of hot wind. The blast hit the shaper at the same time as she reached the girl.
The fire shaper turned, his glowing face twisted in a snarl. Heat sizzled from him, blasting through the wall of wind she shaped.
Zephra spun, letting hot fingers of air carry her away from his shaping. Summoning all of her anger, she sent a gust of wind spinning toward the shaper as a distraction.
The bindings slashed away quickly. The girl looked at her with wide eyes.
Zephra expected fear but there was none. Instead she imagined that she saw recognition. She hoped the girl had the strength to walk; even as small as the girl appeared, Zephra was not nearly strong enough to carry her.
The girl is mine.
Zephra whipped her head around in time to see the shaper stepping through the twisting wind funnel. His voice hissed like steam. A surge of fear coursed through her with the realization that she was not strong enough to stop this shaper from taking the girl.
She tried reworking her shaping, willing the air to thicken and slow the fire shaper. The hot air did not obey.
Pushing the girl behind her, Zephra forced herself to look at the shaper, through the glow surrounding him. His features had changed, melting and morphing. No longer did he resemble a man. Sudden horror dawn on her as she realized the target of his shaping had not been the girl.
What did you do? she whispered.
The fire shaper only laughed, stepping closer. He waved his hand and a flash of heat surged toward her.
Zephra responded instinctively, creating a thick wall of air between her and the shaper. Even that barely protected her.
You delay the inevitable, little wind shaper, the creature said in a voice now gravely and raw. Give me the girl and I will let you live long enough to see the transformation.
The girl clutched tightly at her shirt. Dont let him have me, she begged.
Whatever this shaper did required the girl. Zephra could not let him have her.
The blast of hot air pushed closer, pressing against the wall she shaped. She felt her shaping bend and give. Soon it would fail.
She knew only one shaping that could help. Even in optimal conditions it was risky. Worse, were she strong enough, the air of Incendin would likely be too hot for her to survive. And there was no guarantee the girl would make it.
Then the shaper stepped through her buffer. Skin had cooled and thickened. Lips seemed to disappear and his once prominent cheeks pulled tight around his eyes. A long tongue snaked out as he smiled. Even the air around him smelled of heat and fire.
Zephra felt her skin burning.
Behind her, the girl screamed again.
There was no other option left.
Grasping the air, Zephra forced it into a wild torrent. Hot wind slapped at them and the mutated shaper chuckled dismissively, the sound deep and throaty.
Your wind will not harm me, little wind shaper, he said. Just give me the girl.
Youll have to catch her first, Zephra said.
She turned and clutched the girl tightly as she grabbed onto the whipping wind. Scorching air burned her throat, sucking the breath from her lungs. Zephra ignored the pain and pulled herself into the sky on the air. With the rest of her strength, she pushed wildly, letting anger and fear drive her shaping, throwing her as far as the shaping would carry them.
* * *
The ground met her with jarring impact.
Zephra had been unable to slow the descent, too weak to shape much of a cushion for landing. Whatever air remained in her lungs escaped in a grunt. As it did, the wind slipped from her in a whisper.
She lay unable to move for long moment. Blood filled her mouth, sliding across an injured tongue with its metallic taste. Everything seemed to hurt. Even her skin seemed tight and hot.
Such a shaping had been dangerous. Tellander would not have approved. Only the most skilled shapers even tried wind travel. She was certainly not the most skilled. And to carry another with her? The Great Mother herself must have protected them.
Her eyes opened in a snap. Where was the girl?
Nothing but stretches of brown waste surrounded her, the same as everywhere else in this blasted land. The only difference Zephra could tell was that the towering finger of rock was nowhere to be seen.
The sun beat on exposed flesh. She swallowed, again tasting her own blood as she licked her tongue over her dry mouth. Each breath seemed a struggle, as if her body rejected the hot Incendin air.
In spite of her misery, she felt an overwhelming need to find the girl.
Zephra wondered about the compulsion, the need to help the Aeta girl. Was it natural or something else?
Pain rolled through her as she moved, pushing away other thoughts. Zephra vomited suddenly, cursing herself as she did. No moisture could be wasted, not even the water needed to wash down the acid left in her throat.
A scraping sounded behind her and she spun, her back screaming as she did. A blast of nausea threatened to blow through her, but passed. Zephra pulled frantically on the wind to prepare a shaping. It did not answer.
Panic surged through her and her heart pounded.
On the rock, keeled over one of the clumps of grasses, lay the girl. She stirred, making the scraping noise she had heard, and moaned softly before falling still.
Zephra scrambled up the slope to the girl. She had a soft face and delicate features. Dirt smeared across her cheeks and her sun blonde hair was matted and dirty. The welts on her arms and stomach looked more painful up close. Blisters already formed along the edges, some which had certainly been damaged by the wind travel and wept openly.
A small scrub bush caught one of her arms and legs, the pointed needles poking into already raw and damaged skin. Zephra carefully pulled the girl away, fearful that it was one of the shooting types. A few thick needles stayed within her flesh and she plucked them out and threw them to the side, quickly wiping her hands on her pants.
She considered the girls injuries. The burns were extensive and appeared painful. Zephra had no way of knowing if she suffered any other injury as well. There was no telling what the shaper had done to her and the others before she arrived. The girl would need healing, preferably from a water shaper.
But she was in Incendin and no longer knew where in the waste she was. She had tried to guide them toward Doma, but how far were they from the border? Accurate wind travel was possible, just not for her.
The only hope for healing was Doma. Or returning to the kingdoms.
Zephra let her eyes drift as she looked at the burnt orange sky. Returning now would be to admit failure. And weakness. Too many already considered her weak by appearance alone. She did not need this failure to confirm those suspicions.
Zephra had always struggled against her size. Even the fire shaper had tried to use it against her. Growing up in Vette Ver along the coast of Doma, she had been too small to work the docks, too weak to help with the catch, and too stubborn to weave as her mother taught. When Tellander discovered her shaping talent and brought her to the university, she thought those days over. Instead, at the university, her size created new challenges.
Finding her wind was supposed to help, but even that seemed beyond her.
The girl moaned again.
Zephra stroked her hair and she settled slowly. The girl needed help she could not offer. She needed to get her to Doma, find her help. Even a simple healer would suffice. Doing so meant they had to walk and Zephra did not have the strength or the shaping capacity to carry her. That meant she must awaken.
The waterskin remained strapped to her back. Thankfully it had survived the encounter with the fire shaper and the wind travel. She unslung it and poured a few precious drops of water into the girls mouth, careful not to spill any. There was no telling when she might next find a source of water. She had to coax the girl to swallow.
They would need shade while the girl recovered. And food. More water would help, but at least her waterskin was mostly full. How much time could she spare? Surely the fire shaper would chase them.
You saved me.
Zephra jumped at the sound. The Aeta girls voice was weak and thin and she coughed as she spoke, bringing up pinkish saliva. Her pale eyes opened, flickering around from Zephra to the waste around them.
Where is the Mother? the girl asked, coughing again.
When the coughing subsided, Zephra poured a little more water into the girls mouth. I dont know where your mother is, she said. I dont even know where we are. I was lucky enough to save you.
Not my mother. Not luck either. The girl met her eyes. Unexpected wisdom and compassion shone from them.
Zephra could not pull away from the gaze. Her mind seemed to fail her suddenly. What is your name? she managed to ask.
The wiped an arm across her mouth. Lia. But thats not the question you want to ask.
Zephra swallowed. The bleeding had stopped and she found her mouth now dry. No, she agreed. And Im Zephra.
You are from the kingdoms.
Clearly the girl knew something about shapers. There had been no surprise from her by the sudden shaping. I am.
A long way from Ethea, she said. Her soft voice spoke the name of the capital city with a lilt, making the sound almost musical.
Zephra felt a rising anxiety. Had she misunderstood what had been taking place upon that rock? It is, she agreed.
You are from the university.
She took a small step back. Her heart fluttered a moment in her chest. Had the wind any life, she would have grabbed at it. And likely failed. Why were you captured? she asked. The words came out more forceful than she had intended.
Lia tilted her head, watching Zephra with an uncomfortable wisdom for a girl that appeared so young.
Of course, many thought her younger than she was too.
I am fortunate you traveled through the waste, Lia said. An unasked question drifted in the hot air.
To Doma, Zephra said. My home. She swallowed, but did not explain more. How to explain that she needed to catch the wind? That Tellander thought her unlikely to succeed in the kingdoms until she mastered her own wind? That she knew she had potential to be a powerful shaper but no consistency to be of any use? Even Grethan did not know her deepest fears.
Doma has a wonderful sea breeze, Lia said, her words soft.
Zephra froze. Had Lia known what she was thinking? Her heart flickered more rapidly and a tightness rose into her throat.
Then the girl blinked and Zephra felt her anxiety suddenly released. A tingling warmth washed through her. Lia watched, waiting for her next question. Why were you captured? she asked again. Who was that fire shaper? Where is your caravan?
Lia shifted and grimaced as she did. Im not sure I have many answers, she started. Another fit of coughing hit her and she pointed to the waterskin.
Zephra handed it over, feeling how light it suddenly felt. She considered holding it back, but pushed the thought away guiltily. Lia needed it more than she did.
Lia took a slow drink, steadying her breathing as the coughing abated. The shaper came across my caravan near the border of Doma. We rarely travel through Incendin, and then only along the outer edges. Never into the waste. Her voice grew stronger as she spoke. She took another sip of water before sitting up, moving slowly. He destroyed two of our wagons. Captured the Mother. Calin. Me. I dont know what happened to the rest of the caravan.
I rescued the other two first, Zephra said. She did not know if it mattered to the girl, but knowing others survived might help. Likely the rest of the caravan was destroyed. She knew little of the Aeta, but knew they traveled in family caravans. Fierce traders, they had no land of their own, relying instead on the generosity of their hosts. Incendin was not known for its hospitality, but what Lia described was almost more than Zephra could comprehend.
Zephra nodded. She wondered what happened to them after she freed them. Did they still live or had the shaper caught them? Why you? she asked, unable to get the image of the girl splayed across the rock out of her mind. What did the shaper want with you?
Lia shook her head. I dont know.
The words felt evasive, but Zephra let it go. There would be time to learn more later. Can you walk? she asked.
During the day? Lia asked.
Zephra nodded. Its safer than at night. Too many things can kill at night.
Lia surveyed the land before turning to look up at the sun. Seems much can kill in the day as well.
At least you can see them. Do you think you can walk? she asked again.
Lia flexed her legs and shrugged. Passing the waterskin back to Zephra, she held out her hands for help. Once standing, she took a few limping steps and nodded.
Zephra started off, turning occasionally as she walked to make sure that Lia still followed. Her initial stiffness seemed to fade and the slight limp eased the more they walked. She led them up a rocky slope, hoping for a higher vantage, anything to let her get her bearings. High enough and she might be able to see the finger of rock they had just escaped from. At least then Zephra would have a better idea of direction.
Lia did not question her, simply following as well as she could. Zephra led them on a slow path up the side of the rock. She moved slowly, pointing to small spiny shrubs and clumps of grasses. Lia followed her directions and avoided them diligently. In spite of her apparent injuries, she moved easily and did not struggle to keep up.
At the summit of the rocky prominence, Zephra stopped. Scanning the horizon, she saw nothing but the vast Incendin waste spread out before her: rock, twisted and spindly trees, ground covered with brush, and above it, a soft shimmering heat haze cast a soft distortion. Nothing seemed to move.
What are you looking for? Lia asked.
Zephra watched as the girl coughed once and spit out bloody phlegm. It sat atop the rock, pooling and congealing. Lia hid her pain well, she realized. The girl was obviously more injured than Zephra had suspected. Bearings, Zephra said.
Lia frowned and looked around. He chases us, she whispered. She spoke with a strange certainty.
How do you know?
Lia shook her head. I just do.
Can you tell where he is?
No. She coughed again. Close, I think.
Zephra feared she was right. She did not understand what the fire shaper had been doing, but felt the power behind his shaping. Somehow Lia had been a part of it, of that she was confident. She turned and looked out across the waste, staring through the haze. Taking a slow drink of water, she tried to force a shaping. For a moment there was a flutter, barely the softest tug of a breeze, then it slipped away in a sigh.
Now more than ever she needed to get to Doma. Lia needed a healer, but more than that, she needed to feel the cool ocean breeze as it washed across her face and whipped through her hair. She needed to smell the tang of the grasses and alden trees. She needed to command the wind.
Until then, she could not return to the kingdoms. Not until she no longer simply chased the wind.
She had no choice but to move. But where? The sun hid from view, only a hazy glow visible, so that she couldnt get her bearings. Distantly, she was almost aware of Ethea and the university. Closing her eyes, she turned away and started down the rock and deeper into the waste.
She offered a silent prayer that the Great Mother would guide her to Doma.
* * *
The night air remained hot. They sat leaning against a large rock and retained heat simmered off of it. Zephra would have preferred another resting spot for the night but she had learned early on to have an escape planned. These rocks provided some protection, but more than that, gave her a chance to climb away if attacked.
Near complete blackness enveloped them. Only a tiny sliver of moon gave off light. Even the stars seemed to have disappeared, hiding behind an opaque haze. Zephra remained on edge, straining her senses to hear any noises in the night. Nearby, small feet scurried across the rocky ground. She shifted her knife, pulling it from the sheath. Anything small could be food. An occasional howl echoed, but distant enough that she did not feel threatened. The air was otherwise silent.
Lia slept next to her. The girl had slipped away almost as soon as they had stopped. For whatever reason, Lia trusted her. They had spoken little as they moved through the hot sun, the girl seeming to understand the need to avoid wasting moisture on mere words. Zephra was glad she slept, wondering when her injuries would catch up to her.
There was no telling how far they were from Doma and healing. As the day progressed, she saw nothing other than continued expanse of the waste. Zephra began to wonder if Lia would even make it through the waste.
If she did, then what? Would she be able to find water shapers in Doma? Probably not along the border, and reaching deeper into Doma, making it as far as Falsheim, would take several days once she reached Doma. As far as she knew, the kingdoms were closer than Doma anyway. Would she abandon her journey to take Lia to the kingdoms?
Zephra did not want to consider the implication if she did. Tellander would learn that she failed in even reaching Doma. Never mind catching her wind. What then? Expulsion? Tellander had grown increasingly frustrated with her over the last year and Zephra had the distinct sense that this was his last attempt at getting through to her. Without a mentor, she could not stay at the university. She had no delusions that another wind shaper would take her on. Few enough bothered to teach. Fewer still offered to mentor a fledgling shaper, especially one as hard headed as she had proven to be. The university would see her returned to her home safely where a life of working the nets, finally mastering her mothers weave, awaited.
She swallowed, closing her eyes and letting her breath out in a frustrated sigh. Not back to the kingdoms, at least not until she proved herself worthy.
In spite of the risk, Zephra felt a deep drive to help this girl. Perhaps it was only a kinship with her. Zephra knew loss as well, though certainly nothing like the Aeta. But why did the idea of failing her get her heart to racing?
Another matter worried her more than Lias health. The fire shaper was out in the waste, looking for them. And angry with her. Clearly powerful, Zephra knew she could not overpower him. The only reason she had survived was because she had a shaping prepared. With the dead air of Incendin resisting every attempt at her shaping, their best hope was to outrun him. Even that might not be enough. In so many ways, these were his lands.
As she began to drift, she let her sensing stretch into the night. Distantly she heard quiet scratching of a desert mouse, the flap of wings somewhere high above, and even the coarse chirp of crikkas. All soothed her as she felt the pull of sleep.
Suddenly, she heard a soft shuffling nearby. Footsteps. Her heart hammering shook her to full alertness.
She sat up silently and listened, watching Lia for any movement that might give away their position. Lia slept soundly, back resting at an awkward angle against the rock. Her breathing was regular and soft. She considered waking her, but decided against it.
Slipping an arm around the girls waist, she hauled her up the rock. Lia barely moved, only shifting to nestle her head into Zephras side. At the top, she slid Lia down and let her rest on the uneven peak of the rock. She did not stir, sleeping like one already dead.
Zephra frowned at that. Could she be so far gone already?
The soft sound of footsteps was closer now.
Zephra slipped down the edge of the rock in the darkness. She had thought the fire shaper unlikely to move at night, preferring the heat of the sun, but what if she was wrong? The knife would do little against him in a fair fight, but could be of use if she managed to surprise him.
Darkness quickly engulfed her as she moved away from the base of the rock, slowly circling around toward the direction of the sound. The hint of light from the moon barely lit her way. She prayed to the Great Mother that she did not stumble.
She paused to listen again. The night fell silent around her, as if holding its breath. No sound came.
Zephra exhaled softly and turned. There, barely a dozen feet from her, lurked a figure shadowed against the rock.
Her heart thudded wildly. Was it the fire shaper? Why would he stand there, silent, almost as if listening for something?
She steadied herself and inched forward, letting her feet fall delicately. Only as she was almost upon the figure did she realize that shed missed something else.
There came a flurry of motion behind her and then a cool hand gripped her wrist. The darkened figure stepped away from the rock and moved toward her.
Zephra dropped to the ground and spun away.
Panic tore through her. She clawed at her focus, struggling to touch the wind, but it resisted her. She held the knife in front of her, hand shaking.
She frowned, recognizing the soft voice. Lia?
The girl stepped forward and touched her arm again. Cool fingers left a soft tingle on her skin and Zephra felt her body relax. This is Calin, she said, pointing to the other figure.
Zephra squinted, slowly recognizing the man from the attack earlier in the day. Where is the other? she asked. The woman?
She did not make it. Fur caught her. She delayed him long enough to let me escape, Calin said. His voice was hoarse and ragged.
Lia stepped away from Zephra and took Calins hand. I am the Mother now, she said.
I dont understand.
You are not Aeta.
Zephra stared at her. Lia seemed suddenly different. More composed, if possible. And then she coughed, fading back into the sick girl she had helped cross the waste all day.
Come, Mother. We must find the family. Calin stepped forward, trying to move between Lia and Zephra.
Even in the pale light, Zephra saw Lias concern. Not at night, Zephra said. And she needs a healer first. We will find your family only after she is well.
Calin spun on her. We must move at night! Fur hunts in the daylight! If she is caught again
Zephra drew up to her full height, still barely up to Calins chin. Then I will protect her.
Calin did not get the chance to respond. Lia placed a hand on his chest and pushed him back. He nodded respectfully to her but glared at Zephra. Zephra saved me, Calin. We must trust her to lead us to safety. Lia watched Zephra as she spoke.
The words caused a surge of emotion within Zephra. She would see Lia to safety. Whatever it took. Even if it meant returning to the kingdoms.
Where does she lead you, Mother? Calin asked. The heat from his voice had faded.
Doma, Zephra said. We travel to Doma.
Calin tilted his head and nodded once. You promise you mean the Mother no harm?
Zephra looked from him to Lia. Uncertainty about why he referred to her as the Mother was replaced by surprise that Calin thought her a threat. Few ever saw her that way. I promise.
You will lead her to safety?
I will do my best.
You will protect her? This last asked with renewed urgency.
Zephra looked at Lia and saw only a childs face. An injured one at that. I will protect her.
Calin watched her before sighing. Then he sagged to the ground in a heap.
* * *
Lia shook her awake with a trembling hand. We must go, she said.
Zephra blinked the sleep from her eyes, glancing at the burnt orange sky. The sun barely crested the horizon but hot air already pushed upon her with a suffocating touch. For a moment she smiled at the first breeze shed felt since shed been in Incendin. Then she realized that something about it seemed off.
The shaper nears, she said.
Lia nodded. To the east, she said, pointing weakly toward the rising sun.
Zephra faced the hot breath of air gusting out of the east. It was stale and forced, not the natural eddy she expected. Hotter than it should be as well. The air was not wind shaped, but shaped nonetheless. Few fire shapers had enough command or power to generate such wind.
Calin crouched at the base of the rock, eyes alert and roving the expanse of the waste with nervous energy. She was glad he was up; she didnt think she could drag him.
Lia coughed, spitting blood-tinged phlegm toward brown rock. The young Aeta appeared to have aged overnight, lines of worry now creased the corners of eyes that seemed even older than before.
You will find her healing, Shaper? Calin asked. The last was said as a title and with unexpected respect.
The girl shook just standing next to her. How could she walk? I will do what is needed, Zephra answered, forcing confidence into her words that she did not feel.
Not Doma. Lia nodded toward the east.
Zephra shook her head, looking east, feeling the hot breeze on her face. How had it grown warmer in such a short time? Not Doma, she agreed. Zephra blinked slowly, swiveling to look to the west, feeling the pull of Ethea, as if the city itself knew she would return. If the shaper comes from the east, there is only one other option. She hated that it came to this.
The kingdoms, Lia said.
Zephra nodded, her mind already spinning through how best to approach. The kingdoms were vast, each kingdom challenging in its own way. Though she had entered Incendin through Nara, Galen was likely closest. At least the winds there might welcome her. From there, she could escort Lia to Ethea and the university.
If she could cross the border. And if they lasted that long.
Can you walk? she asked.
Lia took a staggering step forward before falling. Calin was there in a flash, arms under her, cradling her, and then lifting her to his shoulder. Suddenly she looked so small.
I will carry the Mother, he said.
Are you sure?
Calin frowned at her, a hurt expression flashing across his face. I may not have your strength, Shaper, but I am strong enough. He turned and started toward the west, his back stiff.
Zephra stared after him, his words having triggered a memory of Grethan. A powerful earth shaper, but ever so humble. That may be his most endearing trait. Never one to boast of his abilities, she remembered the time she came across him in the training yard at university, shaping a huge boulder aside as if nothing.
That looks heavy, she had said.
Grethan had grunted and shrugged, shifting his feet to look at her but did not lose his concentration. Not like she would have. Just takes practice, he said. The bead of sweat at the corner of his brow gave away his effort.
I wish I had your focus, she had said. Or your strength.
Grethan had turned to her fully and let the shaping slip away gently, barely a rumble of earth. He slid over to her and she remembered the deep smell of him, earthy and sweet. Never doubt that you are strong enough, he had said.
That had been the day Zephra realized the depths of her feeling for Grethan. Though he probably remembered nothing of that day, she had hoped to master her own control before sharing those feeling with him. She still did.
Zephra shook her head, placing the memory away to think about later. If she survived Incendin and the shaper, she would think about Grethan again. Only then.
Calin led as they made their way across the waste, never faltering as he carried Lia, his steps sure-footed and careful to avoid the dangerous vegetation. Occasionally he would pause and turn to her, waiting for direction. Using a sense of the wind, Zephra traced it toward Ethea. The sense became more pronounced the longer they walked.
The day grew hotter around them and soon even the hard rock baked their feet as they walked. The air became stifling and unpleasant to breathe. She felt herself wilting, only the occasional drag on the waterskin kept her moving.
The vegetation around her seemed invigorated. Spiny brush stood taller than she remembered. The clumps of sharp weeds stabbed thorns into their feet and ankles if they stepped too close. The shooting nettles fired with the smallest of motion, sending their barbs farther than shed ever seen.
Zephra knew the heat not completely natural, but said nothing, simply awed by the sustained strength the shaper demonstrated.
Over time, Calin began to slow. Even he, solid as he was, could not move endlessly through the rising heat without stopping. Lia stirred occasionally only to cough. Bloody spittle dotted the corners of her mouth. Healing seemed a lifetime away.
I dont know how much more of the waste we have to travel, she said. They were the first words she had spoken in hours and her voice cracked, croaking out the sounds.
Calin grunted and turned. Dirt smeared his face and eyes wrinkled in concentration. How much longer could he maintain such dedication to Lia? What would happen to her when he failed?
She held the water skin to his lips and let him drink, careful to avoid losing any drops. After barely wetting his mouth, he nodded toward Lia. Zephra tipped open the girls mouth, letting water trickle into her throat. She swallowed instinctively.
We cannot outrun him, Calin said, his voice still strong.
Zephra shook her head. The wall of heat had pressed on them all morning, the gusts of painful air growing more powerful. Not like this.
Take her, then. Save the Mother.
Zephra frowned, unsure what he meant until realizing that he must have seen her shape the wind travel. Too dangerous. No controlling it, not for me at least. We could end up blown back to the center of the waste. She didnt tell him that she doubted that she could even catch the wind. Saving Lia had been simply a fluke.
Calin grunted, nodding as if slow to understand her words. Then we go on.
With that, he turned and continued west.
* * *
Zephra stopped suddenly when she saw the sudden swath of darkness in the distance where the ground fell precipitously away to a rocky canyon below. Any misstep would lead them tumbling down the rock toward the wide Fosa River winding through the canyon.
Calin lagged behind, reaching the ridge a few moments after her, panting with ragged breath. Hurry, he huffed, barely slowing as he moved past her.
Zephra frowned, wanting to pause and rest, knowing the waste was nearly behind them. The Fosa marked the western edge of the waste, leading into a craggy brush before finally receding into the heavy forest flanking the border between Incendin and the kingdoms. If she stood atop the peak long enough, she hoped she would finally feel a hint of cool air.
Then she looked back. The wall of heat that had pressed on them all afternoon seemed suddenly solid. Searing heat blasted at her face, sucking the breath from her lungs.
The shaper approached.
Zephra hurried over the ridge.
Calin found a winding path snaking its way across down the rock. He moved quickly, but his once straight back sagged under Lias continued weight. How much longer could he hold out?
Zephra slid more than stepped along the narrow path. At the bottom, Calin stood staring at one of the twisted thorny trees, a white blossom blooming from the end of a branch. It was surprisingly beautiful. He plucked the flower carefully, pinching it off with his fingers, and tucked it under Lias shirt. Then he hurried to the water and filled the waterskin, pouring the water onto Lias chest.
She wasnt sure if she was more surprised that the flowers actually existed or that Calin appeared to know about the healing properties. She didnt have a chance to see what happened next. The air shimmered with renewed heat.
A blackened figure stood atop the ridge. The fire shaper practically glowed.
She sensed the building energy and ran to push Calin forward. The water! she shouted, slamming into his back as they stumbled toward the Fosa.
Then she splashed into water impossibly warm. She swam, early years spent along the shores of Vette Ver in Doma making her strokes sure and strong. Calin flopped nearby and she swam to him. Taking Lia from him, hooking the girls arm around her neck, she pulled Lia toward the opposite shore.
A blast of heat struck the water, turning much of it to steam.
Zephra cursed. The wide river flowed slowly, barely any current at all and certainly not enough to pull them safely away from the shaper. Another such blast and they would burn. They needed to reach the other shore.
Before the second blast, she felt the shapers released energy. Dive! she hollered, ducking under the water and kicking. Calin seemed to understand and she saw him swimming near her, his strokes more sure and quick, his strength returning.
Lia writhed in her arms, coughing again. White petals from the flower fluttered out from under her shirt, pulled by a current she did not feel. Zephra cupped a hand over Lias mouth and nose to keep her from inhaling water before kicking her legs forward, gliding through the water. She felt the explosion as the blast struck.
Pale green shimmered in the water around her.
At first, she thought it little more than her imagination, but the colors seemed to swirl and move, as if alive, swarming from the loose petals toward Lia. In her arms, Lia was engulfed in color. Zephra kicked on, uncertain how much longer she could hold her breath and praying to the Great Mother she could reach the shore before the shaper could unleash another attack. The water cooled the farther she swam, invigorating her.
Lia suddenly spasmed.
With one last kick, Zephra flung herself up and out of the water, a brown grassy shore nearly in reach. Calin stood on the edge of the shore and reached into the water, pulling Lia from her arms. Water slid off the girl.
Zephra staggered out of the water and collapsed. Across the Fosa, the shaper stood, staring with malevolent eyes. Heat simmered from him, rising from the rock like a protective haze. Approaching the edge of the water, he hissed.
Return the girl to me and you may live. The fire shaper took a step toward the water. Steam rose around him, the water prevented his easy crossing.
Zephra felt the subtle shaping to the words, something else she had never heard of a fire shaper doing. A blast of heat rolled over the water, threatening to boil away the river.
Again she marveled at his strength. Only then did she make the connection.
The shaping he had worked on himself had strengthened him, bound him closer to fire, and turned him into something more than a simple fire shaper.
She looked over to where Calin cradled Lia. Miraculously the girl breathed. Her eyes even flickered, threatening to open. What was it about Lia that gave the shaper such power? Was there something about the Aeta that he sought?
What would happen were he to recapture her?
The idea frightened Zephra. If this one shaper could become so powerful, what would happen if others did the same?
No one would be safe. Not the Aeta. Not Doma. Not the kingdoms.
Zephras strength had returned. Perhaps it getting out of the hot sun or perhaps it was something about the water. Either way, she felt better than she had in days. A cool breeze blew over her like a soft welcoming breath.
The girl, little wind shaper. Now.
Zephra shook her head. Whatever else happened to her, it no longer mattered if she ever caught the wind so long as this shaper failed to capture Lia. She was a wind shaper, even if expelled from the university.
You will never have her, she said. She spoke softly, letting her words carry on the soft breeze. Know always that it was Zephra who stopped you.
Zephra smiled, grabbing at the wind. Somehow she knew she would catch it, no longer chasing. She formed a shaping, pressing against the fire shaper, strength for strength, summoning reserves she did not know she had. The sudden torrent of wind twisted into a funnel, sending water spinning toward the fire shaper.
Water steamed, and Zephra intensified her shaping, sending more and more water toward him. With one last surge of shaping, she sent a powerful gust across the Fosa, blasting with every ounce of her ability.
Water and rock smashed into the sheer stone face with a thunderous explosion.
Fatigue stole the remainder of her shaping from her. Zephra sagged to her knees, staring across the river, but saw no sign of the shaper. Whether destroyed or simply escaped, she didnt care.
She turned toward Calin and Lia.
Calin crouched with his arms around Lia, a look of amazed awe on his face.
Lias eyes were open, clearly healed. She wondered if it were the flower or something else about the water that had healed her. Or possibly both.
Lia watched her with eyes wiser than any girl should have. Zephra again wondered what secret she hid, what reason the fire shaper had such interest in her, before deciding it didnt matter. She was safe.
When Zephra stood, Calin pulled Lia to her feet as well. Come, she said. We near the kingdoms. Safety.
Lia smiled slightly, soft wind tickling her long hair. Not Doma?
Zephra thought about the way the wind played across her hair, pulling on her arms. The wind blowing out of the kingdoms, out of Galen, had a comfort to it. She shaped the wind, no longer feeling the need to chase it, and smiled. Not Doma, she said.
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