Authors: Robin D Owens
But as the bubble rose farther and farther from the earth, large enough to encompass a compact car, her breath came shorter. Only the simplest prayer broke through her fearful anticipation. “Water, air, earth, fire, bring to me my heart’s desire.” A child’s charm, but she focused all her will, all her talent, on the bubble, minutely adjusting particles of magic to cling to it, to match all the energies within.
“Water, air, earth, fire, bring to me—”
Energies poured out, balanced with others, spread.
” The elf’s voice was a smack of lightning.
“For the Lightfolk!” The dwarf’s was a rock avalanche.
“For the dryads!” Aric boomed like a redwood falling.
“My heart’s…” Jenni whispered, awestruck at the colors, textures.
“PLEASE HELP ME!” cried Rothly, flinging his crippled arm to the sky.
Energies fell upon them and all Jenni’s senses were swamped in a psychedelic cloud. The only thing she was aware of was Aric’s sustaining hand and the dwarf’s twisted one. The strange atmosphere engulfed her for an eternity, sinking into her skin…cold, hot, purple, pink, salty, peach blossoms. Clogging her lungs.
Vision returned first. Blue, blue sky, white vapor, geysers and clouds.
” screamed a woman—a human.
Jenni’s gaze seemed fixed so she turned her head, saw a tour group staring openmouthed at them. Her own jaw slackened.
Then the atmosphere wavered as if heat waves encased them, and the dwarf pulled on their circle and they sank into the dry mudpot spring, then down and sideways and back into a large cave.
Their physical link broke and Jenni gasped, crumpling to the cavern floor. The damp rock smell filled her nostrils. Her cheek was squashed against the ground, she became aware of moaning…little sharp ones from herself, a mumbled groan from Aric and harsh sobbing breaths from Rothly.
HER BROTHER WAS ALIVE AND HERE IN THE
real world. Jenni craned to see him and her limbs flopped around. Feeling revived as they struck the floor, she yowled, thrashed again and crawled over to an unconscious Rothly. He was very thin, his skin pale with red marks. She put her hand on his forehead and it was damp with sweat under his lank, dark hair. Lines grooved his face.
Closing her eyes she
him. Still half human, half Lightfolk, but there was a swirling mixture of energies inside him that weren’t just quarter-elf, quarter-djinn.
The bubble magic continued to work on him.
She shuddered and fell back, looked at his arm. It didn’t seem as crippled, but she couldn’t really tell.
“He needs to go to the Earth Palace,” the elf said.
Jenni glanced up at the elf and stilled. His eyes were no longer indigo. They were the blue of Yellowstone sky, a blue he would have lost centuries ago. What did it mean? Hesitantly she stretched out her senses…and they
to him, scanned him in an instant and informed her that his magic was as strong as ever.
“What’s wrong?” the elf said.
The dwarf stumped over, set his hands on his hips and looked up. “Your eyes are lighter.”
The elf became a perfect statue. He scrutinized the dwarf. “And your fingers are straight.”
After a hard swallow, as he stared at his hands, the dwarf said, “Huh.” He shrugged, walked over to Rothly, picked him up and handed him to the elf. “Let’s go.”
Aric crossed to her and lifted her to her feet. She tried to dust off the grime of the cavern but ended up smearing it on her clothes.
A thunderous sound echoed and Jenni looked around, then realized many, rapid,
footsteps headed straight toward them.
“The Eight and their horde,” the dwarf grunted again. “Let’s get out of here before they find us.”
Lips curving in an elusive smile, the elf nodded. The dwarf grabbed Jenni’s elbow and Aric’s hand and once more there was darkness and humidity and dust and the feeling of rock closing around her lungs.
Then they were in a richly appointed room.
“This is Rothly’s,” Aric said.
By the time Jenni felt able to breathe again, the elf and dwarf were gone. She wobbled and Aric put his arm around her, steadied her as she walked to the door, pulled the heavy thing open and stuck her head out into the corridor. “I need a healer here!”
One of the women from the dorm squeaked and bumped against the wall, her tray of fine china rattling. “What are you doing here? How did you get here?”
Jenni just smiled. “Magic.”
The other scowled. “Plenty of that going around but elemental balancer or not, you’re still a halfling who can’t move through the earth like Lightfolk.” She went on with her task.
Rushed steps announced four healers, one from each element.
“Thank you for coming so quickly,” Aric said from behind Jenni, opening the door wide. “Jindesfarne, these are the healers assigned by the Eight. They are the very best.”
They’d already passed her and gone to a grubby Rothly, murmuring among themselves. Jenni slumped in exhaustion against the door. The bubble event had been wondrous, but draining—all that cycling of great and ancient dwarf-and-elf energy. She slid her gaze to Aric. He looked revved, healthily flushed.
His eyes sparkled as he caught her gaze. He pried her fingers from the door, sent her enough fizzing energy to have her tiptoed with tingles, then kissed the hollow of each palm.
A bubble just for five of us! A blessing. I prayed for help for the dryads against the shadleeches. I know it worked!
Jenni blinked heavy, gritty lids and couldn’t figure why he thought that. Didn’t have the optimism that infused him.
“Excuse us, Aric, Jindesfarne, but it is best if we tend to Rothly without any distraction,” the dwarfem earth healer said.
“The poor thing has been through a great ordeal,” the merfem said, stroking Rothly’s pale forehead, which was beaded with sweat, while the elffem air healer held his hand and whistled a low spell.
“Of course,” Aric replied. Picking Jenni up, he inclined his head to the healers.
The djinnfem fire healer rose from the large orange-yellow chair. Her skirts swished like hissing flames as she crossed to them and opened the door for them. With brows lowered, she scanned Jenni in Aric’s arms, pushing her lips in and out.
“Thank you,” Jenni said, trying to pretend Aric was a prop instead of a live, virile man. “I’ll be back to sit with my brother after I’ve cleaned up.”
“And eaten,” Aric said.
“Rothly needs to be clean—” Jenni began.
“He needs healing first,” the dwarfem said. “And I’m sure the Eight wish to speak to you.”
The humming, nearly threatening buzzing of magical atmosphere outside the room enveloped Jenni. Consequences of her actions zipped through her mind. The Eight had anticipated using that bubble magic, bending the creativity to their will.
Instead the wishes of five directed it: for good, for the Lightfolk, for the dryads, for Rothly. For Jenni’s heart’s desire? She didn’t even know what that was. But she’d taken something the Eight had figured would be theirs.
The djinnfem said, “You brought him out of that strange place
said you can go to?”
Sounded as if the woman meant
but Jenni kept her voice even. “Yes.”
The fire woman’s sniff was more like a hiss. She cast a glance at Rothly, her full lower lip curling. “He’s in terrible shape. Especially for a quarter-fire being.”
“His elven air nature was always foremost,” Jenni said.
“Maybe once,” the djinnfem said with scouring scorn.
Had Jenni seen Rothly twitch? He didn’t need any more negativity. “Humans have determined that unconscious people are aware of their surroundings and conversations. Please be more upbeat.”
A gurgling, steaming sound came from the djinnfem.
The earth and air and water healers had stood and were pattering their feet in place, ready to dance a spell.
Aric said, “We’re going now. We’ll return.”
But the fire healer got the last word just before the door closed. “Pray you brought back all of him.”
Jenni had never considered that. Usually it would be impossible to leave any part of Rothly in the interdimension, but if the shadleeches had torn his spirit… She stiffened in Aric’s arms, but forced her lips to curve and felt the wetness of blood as they cracked from the dryness of being too much in earth. “Until later, ladies.”
Before she’d finished, Aric was out the door and striding down to the dormitory.
“Don’t mind the fire healer, she’s a friend of Synicess.” He hesitated, his arms around Jenni tightened. “Synicess and I are no longer…together. She is angry.”
Another shock to leave Jenni’s head reeling. The Eight were after her hide, she suffered a gnawing ember of doubt that she might have left some of Rothly in the interdimension and Aric was now…free? Not free, he was the Eight’s man, but…unattached. She found herself gasping for air as her mind sparked with competing thoughts and fears.
One pressed against her lips and shot in words from her mouth. “We’re in trouble with the Eight.”
“Perhaps,” Aric said, but she still felt his optimism. Frowning, she thought back over the last couple of days. He seemed more lighthearted now than any time since they’d met.
Why are you so cheerful?
she asked mentally. Had it just been his relationship with Synicess depressing him? He was a guy, Jenni didn’t think so.
His green gaze focused on her face and tiny jolts breezed through her like a swirl of leaves. He replied,
Because I’ve had to rely on the Eight’s goodwill and my services to help the Treefolk, protect the dryads from the shadleeches. Now the bubble energy will bring something positive for them…all of them across the world.
You really believe that?
I felt the power of the magic—the elemental energies you balanced. It will make a difference to me and mine.
Jenni just shook her head.
A few minutes later he set her on her feet in front of the dormitory door.
I will see you in a half hour. We’ll eat.
He bowed and hurried away. Probably to check on the bubble magic somehow, talk with Etesian. She missed the solid comfort of his strong body. Bracing herself, she opened the door.
Twenty chattering voices stilled.
Jenni walked slowly through the room, but all was quiet except for her odd mud-encrusted footsteps and the small
as caked dirt and grime crumbled from her to hit the floor. Everyone watched her, but she was too physically tired and mentally upset to care. She stopped by her bed, stripped and went into the common shower in silence.
As the hot water pounded over her, she let the steam of the shower help her transition into the gray mist. She’d balanced this cavern earlier, there was plenty of ambient magic, all of the Eight remained on-site, and she’d been stepping into the interdimension often over the last day. Enough to give her a bit of energy to do what must be done.
She sent her senses in the direction where she’d rescued Rothly. Brightly colored energies hung in the mist in the distance, some were even spherical. The signature smears of cast-off energy from the old elf and dwarf showed.
Tentatively she quested for shadleeches, felt nothing. Not one was anywhere in the place between worlds. Could they only enter if there was something to eat? Some other physical presence? Or were they not interested in the place unless there
something to drain of magic?
No smidgen of Rothly remained in the mist, not even a bit of his blood. The fire healer had induced false fears. But how could Jenni have known—any of them have known—what might happen with the new shadleeches on the scene? Had Rothly studied anything about them before their attack on him? Had
known they could follow him into the other dimension?
Too much thinking. She stepped from the mist and flailed, not coming out at the same spot as she went in.
Screams erupted and she lit hard on her rear on the damn tiled floor. Other women were in the shower.
” one said.
“How did you
that?” said a second.
“She has a fricking invisibility spell!” one with the pointed ears of an elf said.
The women’s shrill voices bounced off the rock walls. Jenni struggled up, slipping and sliding and bracing an arm against a smooth wall until she stood. She shook her hair back and wiped her face so water didn’t drip into her eyes.
Standing tall and refraining from rubbing her aching butt, she said, “I am an elemental balancer and do much of my work in a different dimension.”
“Like the dryads’ greenhome?” asked a woman with a greenish tinge to her skin.
“Not that dimension, but something like. I’m sorry I chose a common area to do this, and I’m sorry I scared you.”
The wary expressions were fading. Jenni eyed them. The Eight had shown her what they considered her, a servant like these women. Rothly’s room was one for a Prince of the Lightfolk.
She raised her palms, gathering gazes, as others had come to stand in the wide doorway. “Since I work with elemental energies, I can tell you that you are
strong in magic.”
“We are halflings,” said a woman.
“You’re strong enough to make a good living with magic outside of this cavern.”
“Like you do?” someone sneered.
“I came here to save my brother, Rothly,” Jenni said flatly.
“Rothly,” more than one woman said, and some glanced at each other. Obviously Rothly had made an impression, but Jenni couldn’t tell what kind.
She went on. “And I
use magic in my own work with computers. I don’t know how long you have been here, but human technology and magic are merging enough that they can be used as one energy source.”
There were frowns and confused faces. Jenni gestured at the lights in the ceiling. “These lights are powered by magic spells that drain a little power from all in the cavern and from the cavern’s energies themselves. In the human world lights are powered mostly by electricity. The Lightfolk are beginning to integrate magic and electricity.”
“Eight Corp has its own generator in the bottom of that building in Denver,” a woman said. “I helped build it.”
There was a lopsided smile and a gleam in another’s eyes. “I wonder when the humans will deduce that places are going off the electrical grid.”
Another frowned. “And what they will do about it. Assassins—”
Jenni thought she had too vivid an imagination. “The Lightfolk are stronger than humans.”
“But we are fewer. The transition to meld—magic and technology—will have to be handled carefully or there could be a great economic crisis,” said another woman. She stepped to the threshold and reached for a towel from the stack there. “I’m good at financial management, I bet I could…” She hurried into the dorm.
Once again, Jenni glanced at each of those around her, meeting their eyes. “You are very strong. Think about your strengths, what you really want to do.”
The woman who’d spoken of assassins, short and squat with evident dwarven blood, said, “I like being here.”
“Then that’s your choice,” Jenni said. “And your vocation. Good.”
“Yah, and the Eight are looking for you.”
Jenni walked to the towels, dried herself vigorously. The steamy shower had helped her regain her energy. Still, all in all, she was more human than djinn—just like everyone else here. She entered the room to find women had congregated around two beds at the far end of the room. Ah,
was the status area.
Smiling, she went to her bed, suppressing a hitch in her stride from her sore backside. She wasn’t too surprised to see that her clothes and the mud drippings had vanished. Brownies.