Authors: Robin D Owens
Programming lines rolled across his screen.
Jenni stepped near him to look at the code on his monitor without him being aware, as he was so caught up in his own irritation. Orange symbols,
symbols, lit the screen along with regular white human programming lines and mathematical formulas. She nearly choked on her tongue.
These Folk were writing spells on the computer to draw magic into…into what?
She frowned. She knew this spell, but it was an old and slow and limping one when they needed a big, gliding one to…store electricity? A magical and electrical battery?
Snared by the problem and the knowledge that she could flick it and fix it, she slid into the waterman’s—the naiader’s—seat, stared at his strange keyboard, memorized it, nudged his fingers away. She moved to the middle of the poorly constructed line, erased the spell he was trying to write and encoded a spell she’d developed and recorded in her spellbook a while back…with a shorter, elegant twist that came to mind. Now this spell would do what they’d intended better than the one that had been on the screen.
There was a wet sucking of breath. “Damned djinn,” the guy muttered. “Whole project is fire, electricity, why did it have to be
Fluidity should be the key. Flexibility.” He squatted and bumped her hip with enough force that she had to stand or fall. He took his chair, brows down, staring at the screen. Then his fingers flew to the end of the spell as his mind engaged and he began writing code.
“I’m plenty flexible, and you’re welcome,” Jenni said.
He stuck out his lower lip. “Irritating.”
She studied the rest of the full-blooded Lightfolk in the computer room. They lounged, watching her, like a tableau of the beauty of the Folk.
There was the water naiader that she’d displaced, a Treefolk dryad with a tinge of green in her skin and her body encased in a black fake-leather catsuit, a dwarf with a heavy scowl and long beard that marked him as one of the older generations—what was he doing here? At the end was a small red fire sprite perched on the ledge of a monitor, wearing a merry grin. He-she winked at Jenni, but remained stationary.
“Jindesfarne, we did not bring you here for your computing skills,” Aric said coolly from the open doorway.
At the sight of him, Jenni felt a melting inside. That didn’t stop her hair from lifting in individual shafts as her aggravation transmuted into static electricity.
“Dampen spell!” The naiader flung his arms wide, scowled at Jenni, his face beading with drops of distress. “That’s why I hate djinn. Should know better than to release static electricity around all these computers.”
She did, but she wouldn’t apologize. “I’m excellent with computers, and I know a little something about business ergonomics, too.” She looked down at the computer counter. “This is a pitiful working space.”
The tree dryad perked up.
Aric’s brows lowered. The dwarfem receptionist, half his height but nearly as broad, joined him, tapping her foot.
“Everyone should have individual spaces,” Jenni said.
“Rounds and semiround rooms,” breathed the dryad.
Jenni cast her a sympathetic look. “Or cubes, and those of like elements grouped together, or those working on congruent inquiries—”
“Enough.” Aric glanced down at the receptionist. “Please note what Jindesfarne Mistweaver advised.”
A rock pad and a tiny chisel appeared in the dwarfem’s hands. She scritched on it, glaring at Jenni. “You’re keeping the Air King waiting,” she said, “and I’ll tell him a lot.” She showed red pointed teeth before marching back to her desk.
“Du-u-ude,” breathed the water naiader, his round eyes getting wider and more orblike, staring at her. He must be a baby…born in the last thirty years or so.
The palm-sized red fire sprite whizzed to Jenni, buried itself in her hair. “Ver-ry fun plac-s-s-se,” it hissed. “Glad to s-see you, Mis-stweaver energy balanc-ser. You s-smell
.” It nuzzled her head, nipped her ear, took off to prance along the top of watery guy’s monitor.
Aric prompted again, “Jindesfarne.”
“The light is all wrong, too, should be tailored to each element,” Jenni said.
There was a low murmur from the workers.
“Come, Jenni,” Aric said, holding out his hand.
Jenni didn’t want to leave these kindred spirits to talk to the Air King about a mission she didn’t want to do. But that was the price to save her brother. When she recalled Rothly caught in the mist because of the eight kings and queens, anger roiled through her. She tamped down her temper, but couldn’t stop one statement. “Sounds as if Air King Cloudsylph picked up the manner of an Eight fast,” she said. “He ascended to royal fifteen years ago, right?”
“You have no idea,” murmured the dryad like the whisper of new leaves in spring. “But the changes in the Lightfolk community have been incredible.” She beamed and her pewter eyebrow rings shone in the light.
Jenni nodded to the workers, waved a jaunty hand and strode to the doorway. When she reached him, Aric stepped away, then touched her elbow to indicate direction. His fingers were warm and steady.
They strolled by the receptionist dwarf, who was standing on her granite desk, hands on hips, mouth a straight line of disapproval.
The hallway they took was all glass, showing open offices that appeared to be occupied, obviously a set stage for any human clients. But the rooms wouldn’t fool a mortal for a minute. Jenni shook her head. Maybe the Lightfolk were finally beginning to try to live—work—side by side with humans, but they weren’t doing a very good job yet. They needed to consult the half mortals among them, those who’d lived among humans, integrated into their culture.
But not her.
The sooner she rescued her brother and finished her business with these Folk and got on with her own life, the better.
Aric was wise enough to say nothing as he ushered her into a glassy corner office that was all light and grace.
The Air King sat behind a large, pale green, art deco glass desk. He might not have learned how to handle subordinates in a business setting exactly right, but he had “intimidation” down well.
He was thin and elegant and fascinatingly beautiful. The elf, Air King Cloudsylph. One of the four kings. Her mouth dried.
She hadn’t been in the presence of a full elf for fifteen years, let alone a royal. His magic washed over her and her lips trembled at the sweetness of it, the way his energy brushed away the vestige of fear from the Darkfolk, the faintest weariness from the step into the gray mist.
She avoided eyes that she knew would be ice-blue, set in an unlined heart-shaped face with a deep widow’s peak of silver hair. His hair was manelike and flowed to his shoulders, covering his pointed ears.
He wore an exquisitely built suit of pale gray silk, a white linen shirt that was only slightly paler than his skin and a light blue tie. Everything in her shuddered—he was dressed as a human and mortal. Her world tipped.
Jenni reminded herself that they needed her.
His first words emphasized how much
needed the Lightfolk. “We have the best elemental healers on call to repair whatever trauma or physical problems that your brother might have endured in our service…his service to the Lightfolk and the Eight.”
Jenni hunkered into her balance. “So there are rewards for being injured in service for the Eight. I hadn’t noticed.”
The king’s gaze went cold. “The Eight issued formal thanks and paid a rich reward to the proper Mistweaver after the incident at the dimensional portal fifteen years ago.”
Jenni inclined her head. “To Rothly, and I suppose you mean that you tried to heal or help him.” She smiled as cold a smile as she could manage. “Yet I never sensed he was complete, as I would have.” She inhaled deeply. “When I checked on him in the mist this morning, he was still crippled.”
Since she couldn’t look the elf in his eyes without being caught by his glamour, she stared at the perfectly formed pale pink elven lips. “And you must not have rewarded him so well before, since he risked his life for a title of ‘Prince of the Lightfolk.’ You tempted a maimed man and sent him to die.”
The air went still and thin, too thin to breathe.
ARIC STEPPED NEXT TO HER, GRASPED HER
hand. Bonds she’d thought were ruptured between them—mental, emotional, magical—snapped back into full being.
Do not anger the king!
he warned her telepathically.
Sensations flamed through her with his touch. She couldn’t grasp Aric’s emotions, didn’t dare stop to consider them. He was right, she’d said something stupid, but she couldn’t take it back.
Aric continued his mental scolding.
It was the King of Water, the merman, who sent the dwarf to you and Rothly. The and Queen of Earth, the dwarves, approved. The older couples. They did not tell the Cloudsylphs or Emberdrakes.
Great, now she knew more about the Eight’s internal politics than she’d ever wanted, and was tangled in them like in seaweed.
“I will accept an apology for that,” the king said, each word a bullet of ice.
Jenni risked a fleeting glance in his eyes. They remained light, and she thought she’d seen a flash of pain. “Then what I said was not the truth. I apologize.”
“Questioning the actions of the Eight is not wise,” Cloudsylph said with absolutely no emotion in his voice.
Jenni felt all too human, all too vulnerable. A lifting of his finger could remove all the air from the room and she would die…except that Aric’s warm hand was wrapped around hers and he could live without air for a time, and could keep her alive.
She looked out the window at the city, gray-block buildings diminishing in size to the brown-yellow plains. “Yet you seem to think that the Eight need me.”
He tapped his fingertips together. Once. Jenni thought it was a mortal gesture he was trying to mimic. “As you need us to save your brother.”
Again her chest constricted, this time from emotion. She dragged in a breath, wet her lips. “Do I?”
The elf’s brows lifted in the faintest arch. “You may be able to find your brother, but will you be in time to save him? Your father told me once that staying in the interdimension decays the life force. Can you travel through the interdimension to him?”
Jenni figured the king knew the answer was no. Her lips were now cold and she didn’t want to use energy to raise her body temperature.
After a minute-long silence, the king continued. “I didn’t think so. And you can’t tell where he is, geographically?”
“I can’t pinpoint his location.” All she knew was that Rothly was to the northwest.
“We know he is in your ‘gray mist,’ but not where in the real world he stepped into it—geographically. It is my understanding that the closer you are to where he might be in this world, the easier it will be for you to bring him from the interdimension into reality. We sense he is not alone in the interdimension, but shadleeches feast on him, draining his magic.” The king’s fingers curled in a tiny flex. “Can you separate him from his pursuers and pull him out without bringing them, too?”
A shivery breath sifted through her. The elf’s phrasing sounded as if it had come directly from one of the Mistweaver family journals, one she’d thought had been personal. How many journals did they have transcriptions of? How many of the Mistweaver secrets did the Eight know? And how many of the Eight had read them?
“Your father was my friend,” Cloudsylph said.
Jenni didn’t remember that. Didn’t recall Cloudsylph being in their lives. He was of a royal line and the Mistweavers were “mongrels.”
“I can send warriors to protect you and him,” the king said.
“A little late for that.”
For the first time he showed anger. “I was not responsible for the deaths of your family. I fought and suffered. We all suffered.”
“But you survived, became a new royal and part of the Eight. All of the Eight survived and four of the old Eight got to transfer to another, richer dimension. My family paid for your survival and that portal with their lives. You did not save them.”
“You do not know all that occurred. You were not with your family when the Darkfolk attacked. Nor did you save them.”
Jenni went up in flames. Literally.
She let the heat of her fury burn her clothes away, flash her being into fire, then smoke. She shot through the air vent, melting the grate, hurtled out of the building. There was a snow-fat dark cloud in the sky and she grabbed energy from it, drew electricity around her and became a lightning bolt. She concentrated and snapped onto the ground—
—into an icy stairwell. A rectangular concrete hole in the alley six blocks from her home, a basement access to a business.
She collapsed into a heap, so completely drained she wouldn’t be able to move for hours.
She hadn’t been smart.
And she was naked.
And a shadleech separated itself from a brick building and fluttered close.
The gray magical being-scrap bent itself. Jenni’s human sight saw a large crow tilting its head and hopping toward her. Its claws scritched on the stairwell’s concrete. The thing came close enough that she smelled old bubblegum. She shuddered. It would take only a wisp of thought for that dark thing to call others…and the great Dark one, who would feast on her.
If she got a second chance, she would work on anger management. Work on growing beyond grief and guilt.
Another hop and the shadleech’s sharp beak pierced her wrist. Hurt! Like a nail had been driven into her, pinning her. Then she felt an awful tug, as if it drew magic from the very threads of her muscles, the marrow of her bones. She thrashed in pain, but still heard the thing’s clicking noise as if disappointed in the thin trickle of her magic.
She was cold, colder than she’d been in Cloudsylph’s office. Snow and ice coated her back and butt and legs…. Focus! Use the fear, the short adrenaline rush. She
to the earth below the concrete, to the air, for any magic. Earth energy, air, water from the ice. It began to snow.
Slowly magic coalesced inside her. The shadleech gurgled in pleasure. A race now. Could she use the magic before the shadleech drained it? She sent heat sizzling down her nerves, zapping the thing off, flung herself up to sit, stand, zombie-lurch to the stairs.
There was a door close, but no one in the basement. Another back business door was at the top of the stairs. People behind it.
“You filthy thing!” Hartha’s voice, thick with fury and loathing.
Jenni pitched forward, noodlelike arms barely breaking her fall. She cranked her head sideways, saw the brownie whipping the shadleech with her apron. It cringed, wisped to nothingness under the onslaught of earth magic, died.
“Humph.” Hartha dropped the apron, stamped on the very end of the string and the shadleech disintegrated. Snow fell faster. The browniefem flicked her fingers and glitter imbued the flakes falling on the apron with cleansing magic. Nothing would take harm from the once-cloth or the vanished shadleech.
Hartha turned and Jenni saw the survey of herself—her state of nakedness, skinned hands and knees, more-than-pale magically drained skin.
The brownie tsked, shook her head. “Translocated, did you? Those royal Lightfolk can rile a body fast.” The small woman hopped forward and grabbed Jenni’s thumbs. Then her head tilted back and her nostrils flared as she sniffed the air. Her eyes widened to huge orbs and her ears rolled against her head. “Must go. Something big and bad and
coming. We be safe in Mystic Circle.”
The great Dark one. Jenni hunched.
There was a brief moment of gritty blackness, then Jenni was falling down onto her very own bed in her pretty and
coral-colored room. She flailed and flopped over onto her back. An instant later Hartha had pulled a gold silk comforter over her…covering even her head. Chinook hopped on the bed, found Jenni’s stomach and curled her substantial self on her. The blessing of the cat’s heat and energy made Jenni moan.
She’d nearly died—mostly due to her own temper, but a Dark one was on her already and the mission hadn’t even begun.
“I will bring a strengthening tonic,” Hartha said in a no-nonsense tone.
Jenni huddled, fatalistically knowing that in this moment the power in the household had shifted to Hartha. Jenni was now a person on a deadly quest and Hartha was the stable person.
A busy-mind thought to keep Jenni from actually thinking hard about what she’d done—her out-of-control temper—and the consequences of her actions, both to herself and to Rothly. No one could save him from the interdimension but her. There could even be consequences to Aric.
No, Cloudsylph wouldn’t blame Aric for Jenni’s reaction. But that elven lord would know he’d won the skirmish with Jenni. He’d kept his control and she’d lost hers. He knew her weakness. Her guilt was one hell of a hot button.
Guilt was just one of her weaknesses. Right now she felt like she was a messy heap of nothing but weaknesses. Far too emotional. She grieved for her family and was eaten by guilt. She was angry at the Lightfolk for not protecting her family and for manipulating them in the first place. She was angry at Aric for choosing to save the Eight instead of rushing to her family and saving her brothers…his friends.
Then there was the Dark one. He—
—had killed her family. It had posted a shadleech in her neighborhood to watch for her. Another reason she would need the Lightfolk, and that was as bitter as the rest.
She’d suppressed so much anger and grief and guilt. Now the emotions burst through her as if her skin crackled then iced and split and all she was left with was emotion. Thought fled.
Jenni wept, then she slept.
She awoke in dim light, with the scent of a potion that still steamed, though Hartha must have left it hours ago. A sensing of the neighborhood atmosphere told her the sun had set and it was past rush hour. People were home from their jobs.
Testing her power and energy, she knew even with Hartha’s tea she didn’t have the strength to do anything more than small magics. Not tonight, not until tomorrow. And she’d need to be more skillful—go into the mist several more times—before she could save Rothly. Her stupidity had cost her time.
Curling into a ball, she thought of the shadleech attacks and whispered a prayer that Rothly stayed unconscious until she retrieved him.
She had the night to rest, to prepare for the missions, and couldn’t afford to lie about doing nothing. Struggling to an elbow, she realized Chinook snored gently beside her. Her old cat, a cat she’d gotten as a kitten a year after she’d moved into the house, was now her only family. A cat who was in indifferent health that Jenni would be leaving to brownies who didn’t particularly like cats.
All the gloppy sentimentality in her nature swamped her as she cuddled Chinook. “I love you. I’ll miss you.”
The cat spared a lick on Jenni’s hand then grunted and slipped from Jenni’s loose grasp to walk over to the table and investigate the drink. She made a disgusted noise then thunked to the floor and waddled from the room.
Chinook would be fine when Jenni left. The brownies would take care of her.
Jenni rubbed her face. She needed another shower, this time to rehydrate herself.
Stretching aching kinks from her body, she found a tiny amount of elemental energies had dribbled into her while she had slept. Too many earth particles—the brownies must have been concerned. After she drank Hartha’s potion, she was able to equalize her own small store of energy and discovered she was ravenous. Too much magic spent wastefully.
With a deep breath, she set down the mug, shifted her shoulders. Her house felt odd, the balance off—more air and tree…Aric was here.
She’d have to tell Aric about the Dark one.
As she stood under the shower, she let the atmosphere of her home envelop her. It was odd to
Aric in this place that she’d made her own. Obviously the brownies had let him in, and since he was her contact with the Eight—and between the choice of the Eight and Aric, she’d choose her ex-lover—it was efficient that he was there.
She dressed. Much as she’d like to avoid the home she’d grown up in, she would have to go to Northumberland to get more tea. She was hoping that Rothly had left notes about the mission. She cringed to think of him trying to practice his craft as a cripple.
Her childhood home would haunt her, she knew that. It would hurt.
Being with Aric there would hurt her more. They’d become lovers there. Every second would remind her of her guilt.
She took a big breath, and checked the tapestry bag with wooden handles. It was full of clothing from natural fibers—hemp, wool, cotton, even silk shirts and her two cashmere sweaters. For an instant she mourned her long red trench. Her own damn fault it was gone.
From her closet shelf, she pulled down a padded cloth backpack.
Nothing that was synthetic could pass through the trees on her journey with Aric. Odd and strange and sad all the little habits that came back from when they were a couple. It would only get worse.
So she just walked down the stairs and didn’t look back.
Aric was seated on the couch in the living room. Chinook was on his lap, purring. “Beautiful cat,” he said, stroking her.
“Yes, she is,” Jenni said. “And very loving.” Her mouth pruned. “Not very discriminating, though.”
Aric’s jaw flexed. He inhaled deeply, blinked. “This place is wonderful, Jenni, very powerful.”
Jenni swallowed as the compliment touched her, narrowed her eyes. “Don’t think of doing any great casting here.”
Aric gave Chinook a last stroke, then carefully placed her on the sofa beside him. “I wouldn’t, and you should know that. Are you going to snipe at me all the time we’re together on this mission?”
Jenni’s nostrils flared as she inhaled. “I
know you. You’ve changed. I have changed. And I don’t think that my anger is unreasonable. The Lightfolk sent my crippled brother on a mission he couldn’t hope to fulfill, just to manipulate me to save him, to be in their debt and do the mission myself.” Her voice still had the roughness of fear and sleep and tears.
Aric stared at her. The light was dim, the brownies only had a couple of glow globes going, so Jenni couldn’t make out the expression in his eyes.