Authors: Robin D Owens
Jenni turned her gaze on the older couples. Of those, the Earth King, the dwarfman, was the strongest. Instead of the short, thick body that his physical form wore, his power in the mist rose as a strong pillar of a thousand-faceted diamond, stretching beyond the floor into the earth and above the limits of the chamber’s ceiling. So many bright angles!
Secondary in power to him was the Water Queen, who’d just healed Aric. She looked like a column of deep blue water showing the froth of sea spume at the edges, with shiny shells occasionally revealed—bits of wisdom, or spells? Then came her lord, the Water King, a tall crested wave frozen at the point of falling, breaking everything in his path? Finally, the power of the Earth Queen stood as an image of the palest pink marble veined in rose, polished and beautiful.
Aric snapped at her mentally.
She ignored him, opened her mouth to test the balance of the elements around her. A little too much earth and, of all things, air. The Air King and Queen who had left fifteen years ago had been so strong that sheets of their power still lingered. Yet, had they stayed, their power would have begun to erode, diminishing them.
With a slight shifting of her feet, Jenni balanced the room, bringing in small sheets the size of bath towels of fire and water to equalize the energies in the room.
Beyond the room she sensed great layers of power she could draw upon to enrich the atmosphere and fuel any spells the Eight might wish to do.
mental exclamations from the throats of the powerful beings projecting from the real world to the interdimension. Sighing and straightening her shoulders, knowing she couldn’t count this brief trip to the interdimension as one of her practice sessions, she stepped from the mist and back into the room adorned with luxuries of centuries.
“—fascinating,” the Air Queen said.
“She is back,” the Earth King grumbled in the tones of a deep gong.
The Water King stared at Jenni, his face impassive, but she sensed his impatience and prejudice against her, mixed with a realization that she could be an asset if used well. She swallowed.
He arched a mobile green brow. “I had not realized that this chamber was out of balance in the least.” He shrugged, and droplets rolled down his bare arms and splashed on the heated floor where they dried in an instant. A corner of his mouth quirked, but Jenni still felt menace surrounding him. “Interesting.”
” fluted the voice of the Air Queen. She spread her arms. “I can feel a difference in my power, as if it was refined.”
“The elements are exactly balanced,” the Earth King said. His dark eyes glimmered above rough-hewn dwarven features and his creviced face. “How long have you…Mistweavers…had this talent?”
Jenni lifted her chin but didn’t stare him in the eyes. She’d lose herself under the ton of rock of his will. “Three generations. My grandfather, my father’s father, developed it. He was an elf of air, of the Zephyrosa family.”
The dwarfman grunted. “Disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”
“He got lost in the gray mist of the interdimension.” She wanted to add a snarky comment about them sending Rothly to face the same fate, but didn’t quite dare.
“Why did you Mistweavers hide this talent from us?”
Jenni’s turn to raise her brows. “I was sure that my father explained our powers to you.”
The Earth King made a short, choppy gesture. “Only fifteen years ago.” His voice deepened further.
“I—we—were always under the impression that half-breeds were not welcome to speak to you royals,” Jenni said. “There are plenty of half-Lightfolk half-humans with various powers.”
“But you can balance any area for us, enhance our power by bringing more.” The Queen of Fire leaned forward, her face broader, her features more sensual than Synicess’s. The Queen’s brilliant amber eyes fixed on Jenni. She felt the impact. “This is a great boon to us.”
Jenni continued, “We were also under the impression that claims of power of half-Lightfolk aren’t believed.”
They didn’t answer and the discussion didn’t continue. Not one soul had believed what the Mistweavers could do until they experienced it themselves.
“I don’t think we have thanked you personally for your effort in stabilizing the portal so our predecessors could leave for another world, and giving us more power to do the ritual to summon the portal…and to fight the Darkfolk. You have my thanks,” whispered the Fire King in a low rasp, like flames crackling on logs.
Jenni slid her glance across his face and got a shock. His eyes were tilted like her own, like her mother’s, and the color was the same, a light brown. She nearly stared too long, got caught in his glamour, but wrenched her gaze away, found she was panting a little.
“I am Cole Emberdrake. My mother is a Desertshimmer,” the Fire King said. “You can trace a lineage to her, too.”
Jenni reflexively dipped a curtsy. “Thank you for your kind words.” She forced a smile, lowered her head. “And thank you all for the funds you transferred to me.” Not that she’d wanted them—or even seen her bank balance yet.
“I am grateful, too,” the Fire Queen said with a sincere smile.
Jenni curtsied again to her.
“You made our task easier,” the Water Queen said.
Another dip of knees.
“But there were eight Mistweavers to do the elemental balancing for the portal,” the Earth King said. “Now there is only you for this bubble ritual. Can you do it?”
Jenni didn’t know what he was talking about and Aric moved restlessly beside her. She decided to answer blindly but with confidence. “Yes,” Jenni said. “I can.” She stared at each of their foreheads in turn. “If I get support of the Eight. If I am not attacked. If I only have to handle the elemental magics that only I can summon.” She bit off each word.
“You are still bitter about the portal contretemps.” The Water Queen leaned forward. “We were fighting for our lives, too.”
“And I and my crippled brother were controlling energies that eight summoned when seven were dead and dying and wounded. I, a half-breed. No one helped me then. No one.”
“We have thanked you and we have paid. What can we give you now?” the Water Queen murmured. She sounded soft and sympathetic, but Jenni thought that manner only covered ruthlessness.
“You can’t give me what I want. I want my family back. No one and nothing can do that for me.”
Aric made a strangled noise and settled into his balance as if hunkering down for a storm.
“We respect you and your gift,” the Water Queen said.
“Do you? All of you?” The old wound was breaking open again, pus escaping, poisoning her own breathing air. Jenni was tempted to step into the mist and gather strings of the elemental energies and yank them, disrupting this room…forcing the Eight to work a major ritual to restore it.
Tears boiled away in her ducts before they reached her eyes. Yes, she was still angry and bitter and hurt, hurt, hurt.
A thick wall of earth magic backed her up a step or two. She looked down to see the broad form of the Earth King, who’d stepped from his throne to stand before her.
THE EARTH KING GLANCED UP AT JENNI WITH
ancient, unfathomable knowledge in his eyes. She blinked as she met his dark brown eyes, realizing he was deliberately not snaring her. “You are very young,” he said, as if she were a child of two.
He held up a squat hand, palm facing her. “Match my earth magic with an equal amount of fire magic, child.” He reached up and linked his fingers with hers and she was hurled down, down, down to the depths of the Earth, where gems glittered like secrets, and streams of gold and silver and copper flowed in thick veins. She fought heavily to breathe.
Give me an equal measure of fire,
the Earth King commanded.
On a shaky breath, Jenni stepped partially into the mist, leaving her hand palm-against-palm with the king’s. She shouldn’t have been able to do that, be only a little into the mist, but even the greatest king could not go where she went. He was powerful enough to keep her hand in the real world.
It was easier to stare down at her feet, avoiding the diamond pillar so close to her. She slid her senses a trifle west, found Yellowstone’s fire. She understood its smell, taste, texture, density, then summoned the sheet of red-orange light. As she gauged the king’s power she drew more and more to her—to them, watching the fire power flare high.
The rest of the room was still balanced. Jenni wrapped the sheets around them, kept a small line to the magma so she could match the king’s earth power down to the last iota. With one last tune humming from her lips, she packed the layers of fire around the king, then stopped, fine-tuned, stepped from the gray mist. Yes! Her skills were coming back!
Her hand against the king’s burned with fire power, his cool, solid shape didn’t move. One…last…little…bit. There! And fire and earth were equal between them.
A bead of sweat rolled from his temple near his circlet to dribble down his cheek. His grin was red and pointed and fierce. He flung back his head and laughed, raised their linked hands until they hovered an inch from Jenni’s nose. “Well done! Dismiss it on three!”
Jenni flung herself back into the mist, counted down and sent the elemental magic back into the restless pool, then equalized everything again as the dwarf locked down his own power.
When she staggered a step from the grayness, Aric curled his fingers around her upper arm, steadied her. The sensation of his touch zinged through her. She was far too attracted to him. Once again he could become her doom if she allowed it. But her head was muzzy from the effort of manipulating the elemental energies even though fire was the easiest.
She blinked and saw the Earth King back on his throne, dwarven face rocklike and inscrutable. Realizing that her gaze was being drawn to his, she jerked her glance aside, though caught the movement as he inclined his head to her. “I am persuaded that the woman can handle the energies for our ritual. I accede that she will receive a royal title and a stipend—”
“I agree that she and her brother will be formally adopted and acknowledged as our children,” the Fire Queen said with serenity. “Rothly, as soon as he is rescued.” She sent a stare to the rest of the royals. “For his effort upon our behalf. Jindesfarne soon.”
Jenni flinched. She hadn’t thought the whole thing through. She didn’t mind a title, since it was important to Rothly and it would be a final vindication for her lost parents and siblings, but she hadn’t thought she’d have to be adopted! She didn’t want such strong ties with the Eight. She certainly didn’t want whatever responsibilities they might consider as going with the title. She didn’t need another mother.
Once again she knew all too well what she
want and only one thing that she did. She wanted her brother back and whole again. And she didn’t know what kind of miracle that might take.
But the first step was to save Rothly. Jenni swept her gaze across the royals. “I don’t know of the mission.” She rushed her words so the kings and queens wouldn’t blame Aric. “I didn’t want to know. It’s best if I concentrate on first saving my brother.”
Stares turned on Aric. “We were told you agreed to the mission,” the Air King, Cloudsylph, said.
“That’s true. I love my brother and I am as Mistweaver as he. If you forced a promise from him that Mistweavers would fulfill this mission of yours I am as bound to it as he.”
More seething silence that Jenni nipped before it burst into flame. “I don’t even know why he is here in Yellowstone.”
Cloudsylph tapped a finger on the arm of his throne, a frosty smile curving his lips. “So you didn’t listen to Aric just as you didn’t listen to me.”
He’d probably told everyone of her outburst.
“So listen now,” he said in a patient, lecturing tone that still fell on her ears like music, reminding her of her father. “Rarely, once every eon or so, a series of bubbles of pure magic erupts from this planet. The bubble holds within it a great magical creative force.”
The king blinked and the glow balls seemed to gather clouds around them. Dark clouds heavy with portent.
“A first bubble came and broke in an area controlled by one of the last great Dark ones.” King Cloudsylph’s lips folded into a grim line. “Thus those terrible shadleeches were born two years ago. Those things that eat magic and do nothing but harm.”
He met Jenni’s eyes and she wasn’t expecting his glance and froze under his glamour. She’d do
She could feel the layers and subtexts of his emotions. Anger twisted inside the king that he could not banish the shadleeches with magic, that he hadn’t found a way to fight and eradicate them.
Next to her, Aric thrummed with fierce emotion, too. She thought she heard the weeping of dying dryads in his memories as the trees and his kin were absorbed by the evil hive.
“We didn’t know such a bubble was coming or had broken until too late.” His eyes drilled into her. “Our scholars believe this series will consist of two more such bubbles, each coming exponentially faster and each exponentially greater. They are determining the locations. If we, the Eight, can be there when these bubbles pop, we can guide the creativity of such rich and powerful magic.”
Her ears were his, her entire body leaned toward him, but her mind was her own and she figured that the Eight planned on using this new, rich, magical event for their own purposes, as always.
“The second bubble should happen in the next week. We believe you, as an elemental balancer, can augment our power to create something new. Nor is the magic within the bubbles balanced. To maximize that energy, we need you.” He blinked slowly and Jenni was able to tear her gaze away. “You could be of great help to the Lightfolk community.”
She could speak now. She lifted her chin, pretending her insides weren’t quivering. “I’ve listened and now I know the mission. I’m more interested in my brother. What do you know of him?”
Cloudsylph’s nostrils flared as if he realized she had listened but not bought in to the undertaking.
“Rothly was offered noble status, briefed as you have been.” The Air King glanced at Aric. “We understand you found that he made preparations for the trip here—”
“We believe the next bubble will pop here.”
Cloudsylph raised his silver brows. “Magic has rules. The first bubble appeared and burst during a lightning storm. Underwater quakes, tectonic plate action…all are being studied to forecast the last two events.”
When Jenni said nothing, Cloudsylph continued, “Rothly took a plane from London to Denver, we provided him with a room here, then a limo to the outskirts of the park. We believe he went on a reconnaissance mission and got…lost in your interdimension.”
“He’s there,” Jenni said. Her palms were damp so she hid them in the folds of her gypsy skirt and wiped them. “And he stepped into the gray mist somewhere in Yellowstone.”
“We’ve sent our best trackers out today to pinpoint your brother’s location now that you are here,” the Fire King said. “We knew Rothly had thrown silver and salt at you, disowning you. Didn’t know you would help him.”
Jenni stared at them. Each of them in turn. Four had been rulers since most of the magical Lightfolk left more than a millennium ago. All were older than anyone she’d ever known. Had they lost all family ties? All feelings of family? But she didn’t really know how noble Lightfolk families worked. How close they were.
“I love my brother,” she choked out. She felt the weight of the Earth King’s gaze and it reminded her that he’d called her a child. Maybe she was, to them. “Halflings stick together,” she said softly.
There was an exchange of glances at that, as if she’d confirmed information the rulers could use. She stopped herself from rolling the tension in her shoulders away.
A slight cough came from the threshold of the chamber and Jenni turned to see an old friend of her father’s. The sight of him rolled through her in a tightness, from her belly to her chest, to her tear ducts. She hadn’t seen him for a long time. A month before that last, fatal mission.
He was all air elf, with a feathery cap of silver hair and pointed ears close to his head. There were no lines on his face, but his pale silvery-blue eyes held a wealth of sorrow when she met his gaze.
She was beginning to understand that she hadn’t been the only one to grieve for her family. She’d shut everyone out. But no one from the Lightfolk had ever contacted her to comfort, had they? Not her brothers’ girlfriends or her sisters’ fiancés.
“It’s good to see you, Jindesfarne,” Etesian said. “Aric.” Then the older elf turned and bowed to the Eight.
“We thank you for coming, and for your research,” the Water King said.
So courteous to someone who was full-blooded Lightfolk, and not Treefolk like Aric.
“Jindesfarne has agreed to help us,” the Earth King rumbled.
Etesian’s smile was more a grimace than anything else. His glance briefly met hers, then slid back to the Eight. “Have you located Rothly?” His whisper was so low that had she been mortal, Jenni wouldn’t have heard him.
The kings straightened in their thrones, drilled Etesian with glares. Jenni felt the streams of elemental power directed at him. He didn’t flinch, his ascetic face tautened into sternness. Silence reigned.
Etesian offered his hand to her and she took it, got a shock. He was still in the early days of his grief for the loss of his friend, her father, and the rest of her family. For him, in his near immortality, the time that had passed was far less, comparatively, than for her. Long-livedness could work both ways…the sense of time passing could be far longer or shorter than for humans.
They connected and mourned together for a moment, then broke contact at the same time.
When Etesian spoke his voice was crisp, and he directed his words to the Water Queen, who stared at him with sadness. “My calculations of the second bubble in the series of three—”
“The earth fart,” the Water King snorted.
The rest of the monarchs looked at him. He slouched in his chair. “What? Should I call it a belch instead?”
Appearing pained, the Water Queen twined her fingers with his, said, “It is a potential gift of magic, a force of creativity that we hope to influence for good.”
A quick and charming smile graced the Water King’s face. “Of course, heart of my heart…but my way is easier to say.”
“As I was informing you,” Etesian said, “I have a preliminary time for the second bubble to break. Very approximate, since we are not sure of the exact moment the first bubble came into existence, nor the exact exponential percentage of time, power, location and magic we are dealing with. As I stated before, I am more sure that it will take place here in Yellowstone than I am the precise time.”
All the royals leaned forward at that. Whatever other emotions they did or didn’t feel, they were excited about this. There was no sound in the room but the faint pulse of water against the glass aquarium wall.
Etesian continued, “I anticipate the middle…ah…burp will occur within an estimated two days.”
“What!” The Air Queen’s voice was nearly unmusical. She turned her head to look straight at Jenni. “We must prepare. Immediately.” She turned to the Earth Queen. “Have you crafted the dancing ritual?”
The dwarfem Queen of Earth’s lips thinned, her eyes darkened. “I have a draft.”
“Any idea how it will manifest?” asked the Water King. “A geyser?”
“An upsurge in the restless magma from the supervolcano,” said the Fire King.
“Steam, superheated air,” added the Air King.
“Any or all of those,” Etesian confirmed.
The Air King tapped his fingers. “Will it be an actual bubble? Take a spherical shape?”
Etesian nodded. “From reports of a millennium ago, it will be an orb full of a mixture of elemental energies, ready to be guided for a purpose.” He glanced at Jenni. “It’s unknown what measure of the four elements will be within it, but it is certain they won’t be in balance.”
“Thank you,” the Earth King said in a dismissive tone.
Instead of leaving, Etesian remained with Jenni and Aric. “I prefer to hear you brief Jindesfarne so that I can amend any of my calculations to include her, and, perhaps, Rothly.”
The Water King shifted as if uncomfortable in his throne but again none of the Eight kings and queens said anything. Suffering the consequences of their own behavior—sending Rothly to handle the bubble when he was crippled.
“The event is imminent, then,” the Air King said.
Etesian bowed in affirmation.
Jenni looked straight at the Air King’s beautiful forehead. “I am less interested in this event than I am in Rothly’s location and condition.” She continued coolly, “I will, of course, be there to draw additional sheets of elements from around the area as needed
I save my brother. When do you anticipate the report on his precise location?”
“The bubble must be our priority. We will free Rothly afterward,” the Water King said.
Jenni wiped her palms again, lifted her chin, shot out her hip. “You Eight like to move up timelines, don’t you? Change priorities for your own benefit and to hell with halflings? No.”