Note: Dark Wind was a finalist in the Young Adult Fantasy Contest, sponsored by the Writers League of Texas. Enjoy!
“Yield your weapons,” the sentry orders in bored tones.
He’s sitting on a mead barrel, his shoulders propped against the gaily painted side of a bowtop wagon. He’s not much older than my own 17 years, but his talent for levitation magic is enviable. Without moving his hands, he’s juggling transparent globes of mage fire, which crackle and flash with prismatic streaks of color in the night.
*Aw, you could beat that two-bit conjuror,* Nonesuch quips inside my head.
Nonesuch is my Animal Guardian. He’s hiding inside the hood of the ratty wool cloak that I…uh, intend to return before dawn. The garment reeks of garlic, which means, I reek of garlic. And I’m not too thrilled about the rash the rag gave me, either. I can’t help but wonder if Cook put an itching spell on the wretched thing to punish thieves.
*You said you didn’t want to be recognized at the Andari camp,* Nonesuch reminds me.
*No, I said I don’t want to attractnotice at the Andari camp. Any Horse Charmer with a nose is going to notice a walking wall of she-garlic.*
*Only if that Horse Charmer’s sober,* Nonesuch says cheerfully. *At this hour, Torr will be as drunk as a fish.*
To point out that fish don’t drink would be moot. With Nonesuch, I have to pick my battles. When I needed to fashion a festival mask in a hurry, my cheeky mockingbird went “scrounging.” That means Nonesuch stole three owl feathers from our temple’s sacred altar; a talon’s worth of goose down from my Proctor’s pillow; a bedraggled peacock plume from the hat of some poor, snoring fellow; and a dash of luminescence, which he conned from some very gullible firefly. After I tied this avian eyesore behind my head, Nonesuch proudly proclaimed me “spooky-looking.”
But then, Nonesuch is deathly afraid of owls.
“Hey, woman, are you deaf?” the sentry demands, making the fire globes circle so fast, they’re starting to hum.
For levitation spells, a mage needs an ample supply of Aether magic. Every sentient being possesses some Aether—it’s the stuff that makes souls shine—but my talent isn’t remarkable. When the Mother Goddess Aeld doled out magic to Her children, She loaded me with Wind Power. The only way I can circle 20 globes of mage fire around my head is to blast them with hot air. Maybe that’s why I’m tempted to retort, “Hey, Worms-for-Brains. Do I look like a blood-crazed assassin?”
But I manage to rein in my tongue. After all, I’m pretending to be a scullery maid. A servant would be meek. Obedient.
*Good luck passing for that,* Nonesuch quips.
The sentry rouses himself from his juggling and glares at me. Apparently, I’ve taken too long to produce weapons of mass destruction.
“Hand over your festival token,” he snaps.
Artist’s rendering of mage fire.
His globes whoosh closer, hovering over my head for his inspection. I grimace as neon rainbows shatter the starlight. Despite the tranquility of this daisy pasture, I know the nomadic Andari have concealed a caravan of merrymakers here. The sentry’s wagon is a portal, but I can’t access it any more—not since my older sister, Brisa, kicked the chieftain’s son from her bed. Brisa is no longer welcome at the Andari camp, which means I’m no longer welcome at the Andari camp.
In other words, I can’t show the sentry my honorary pass into Darkfest because my birth name, Raevyn el Ren Dawn, is stamped on the token.
Smiling through clenched teeth, I dig into the greasy, left pocket of Cook’s cloak for her General Entry pass. It’s the real reason I borrowed this rag.
“You got anything to declare?” the sentry demands, peering next at my less-than-auspicious chest.
Nonesuch ruffles his feathers in indignation.
*I’ll answer that,* I warn. The Andari are called the Wind People. Their mages can translate the communications of any flying creature. Needless to say, I don’t dare let Nonesuch improvise a new verse for his Insult Song.
“No, sir,” I answer dutifully.
“Knife? Buzz staff? Broach?”
*Ooh, tough guy,* Nonesuch taunts. *Fears he’ll meet his death by cameo.*
I cough to hide laughter and shake my head.
The sentry frowns with suspicion. Who can blame him? My Darkfest costume consists of Cook’s horrid cloak, Nonesuch’s bizarre bird mask, and the plainest white nightdress I own.
When I received Crimson’s telepathic entreaty to come and rescue her (apparently, Torr finally carried out his threat to lock the 19-year-old hothead in his wagon,) I was huddled in bed, studying for my AvaStar history exam. I couldn’t very well teleport from my dormitory, dressed in a yellow Wind Robe and slippers. My ritual attire would have announced to the entire Andari camp that I’m a Novice in the mystical Order of the Daughters of Aeld (or Aeldoras, as we’re commonly called.)
That’s why I’m wearing these ridiculous, boat-sized snow-boots—which, by the way, look like a pair of beavers, gnawing at my ankles. But surely the sentry has seen worse costumes. Even the poorest bumpkin attends Darkfest in disguise.
I do my best to appear oblivious as he makes the secret, arcane gesture that scans me for metals, poisons, and other threats. I feel his essence probing mine, like tiny gusts of a cool breeze. Fortunately, psi is governed by Wind magic. I may be hopeless at hiding my feelings, but I do know how to shield my thoughts.
*Ha! He missed me!* Nonesuch crows. *And I’m your greatest weapon!*
The sentry grunts. Apparently, I’ve passed inspection.
Artist’s rendering of an Andari wagon.
Suddenly, the pastoral peace explodes with the clamor of drums, tambourines, and raucous laughter. A spiraling light appears on the wagon’s mural, and the painted revelers come to life. I recognize the portal.
Tugging my hood lower over my hastily braided, black hair, I pass through the gateway. It morphs into an arbor of levitating garlands, and I’m delighted by the fragrance of white jasmine and scarlet poppies. But the floral scent soon gives way to the pungent aromas of smoldering pine, roasting venison, and the woodsy-sweet seduction herb, pokesmoke.
My blood rushes with a peculiar foreboding. I blame it on the weed, although I have to confess, I am a bit worried that my Proctor will discover her shredded pillow—or worse, my empty bed, since curfew has passed.
I trace the loudest, most enthusiastic whooping to the stage, where scantily clad ribbon dancers are weaving rainbows from silk. Globes of mage fire flicker over the clearing, casting appealing shades of rose or gold over Andari craftsmen. They’re peddling the most exotic wares: “living” sterling, which twists into torcs or necklaces on command; holographic gryphon toys that can actually fly; muck-repelling boots that never need to be buffed; and crystal flutes that funnel wind into song. But the busiest vendors, by far, are pouring ginger mead and spud ale.
As if on cue, I spy a drunken group of Trombellies, guzzling their beloved “potato juice.” The furry, troll-like cave dwellers rarely mingle with Surface Folk. But the Andari are renowned for their cunning diplomacy and boundless hospitality—at least, to their allies. Humans and Trombellies are always welcome at the caravan, along with any Crystal Elf, who might deign to visit the camp to purchase a pony. Whenever Crystelfin mages aren’t around to protest, Frost Titans and Sea Changelings are also entertained by the nomads.
As for manbeasts, the Andari view the Ru’ar with the same revulsion that is universally reserved for pestilence, which is too bad. But I hear the Andari chieftain has just cause for his hatred.
Hugging the cloak over my nightdress, I push through a throng of tittering females. No doubt they’ve flocked to gawk at the bare-chested selirros, who are scheduled to dance the seductive Saber Spin at middark.
*Uh-oh. It’s Azurro,* Nonesuch hisses when he spies Brisa’s ex-lover. *And look! He’s pawing that dark-elf hussy, Nocturne!*
Air whistles past my lips. Azurro, who’s better known as the Thunderer, swore on the name of the immortal Wind King that he wasn’t having an affair with Nocturne! Of course, that was three days ago, before Brisa called him a “bumptious blowhard.”
*Where are they?* I ask Nonesuch.
I duck behind a stack of empty mead barrels. Half-hidden faces, with crooked teeth and lurid masks, parade past with sloshing tankards. Most of the locals don’t even bother to wear gloves to hide the stain of marriage bands on their hands. For the Commonborn, the purpose of Darkfest is to attract a forbidden lover for the night—preferably, an Andari selirro or selirra.
However, the Andari’s purpose is to line their pockets. That’s why the outrageously flirtatious nomads wear no masks. I assume I’ll have no trouble spying Azurro’s pale blond head, towering above the Commonborn..
I assume wrong.
*Are they kissing?* I ask Nonesuch.
He makes a disgusted sound. *Any second now…*
My heart hurts. Stupid, I know. Why should I care if Azurro’s bopping out the brains of my sister’s arch rival?
*Let me at ‘im!* Nonesuch cries. *I’ll peck out his eyes!*
*Nobody’s pecking out Azurro’s eyes, Nonesuch.*
*Can I poop on his head?*
*Don’t be silly!* I scold, even though the idea tempts me. *You know Aeldoras are forbidden to harm a child of the Mother.*
*But Azurro dumped Brisa!*
*No, Brisa dumped him.*
*That’s not what the hawk says.*
I sigh. Gossip from my sister’s Animal Guardian is moot. The longer I bicker with Nonesuch, the longer I delay my promise to rescue Crimson.
*Nonesuch, we’re on a secret mission, remember? In and out.*
*Oh, yeah. Hmm.*
He’s thinking. That always worries me.
*I know!* he says brightly. *Whip up an illusion spell. Turn me into something wicked, stealthy, and pink.”
*Sure! Vesper would never suspect pink.*
Vesper is the pipistrelle bat that acts as Nocturne’s Animal Guardian—and yes, Nonesuch has a point. No Aeldora travels without her Guardian. That means Vesper is roosting somewhere amidst the tent poles, stage banners, and cooking smoke.
*You know very well that Vesper can sniff out magic a mile away,* I tell him sternly. *Maybe even two miles.*
*Aw, one teensy, weensy sparkle spell can’t hurt. This whole caravan reeks of magic.*
I roll my eyes. Nothing pleases Nonesuch more than glowing tail feathers. *Get serious.*
*You just want me to get eaten by an owl,* he grumbles.
*Yeah? Well, a spanking ought to put a pink sparkle on your—*
*Raevyn?* Crimson’s deep, smoky voice reverberates through my skull. *Are you going to break me out of this crap hole, or what?*
*I said I would, didn’t I?*
*Like when? Next year?*
I toss him a withering glare. *Where are you, Crimson?*
*I told you. Torr’s wagon.*
*A fat lot of help that is. Do you know how many wagons there are in this caravan?*
*I knew I should have sent for Nonesuch. He’s no sissy.*
He clucks proudly.
*Is that you, Mighty Midge?*
*I can’t understand him,* Crimson says irritably. *How come I can’t understand him?*
*Cause I haven’t had two stinking seconds to open a psi link for him yet!*
*Well, get on with it, Puff.*
I grind my teeth. Crimson knows I hate it when she calls me Puff. But I do open the telepathic channel because … well, she’s my best friend.
*My darling,* she croons. *Have you come to rescue me from the mean old Elf?*
*Torr is only one-quarter Elf,* I remind her.
*Yeah? Well, that makes him three-quarters jerk!*
Nonesuch snickers again.
*All right, Crimson, let’s focus. Nonesuch and I will try to sneak past the barrier. Any suggestions?*
*Don’t get zapped.*
*I was hoping for a password.*
*Right. Like I know how Azurro thinks. Why else would I send for you?*
*Because you don’t have any other friends.*
*True.* She chuckles. The sound is reminiscent of a rumbling volcano. *Okay, try this: Thunder booms; thunder knells; thunder makes my dinky swell.*
I snort with laughter—and promptly attract the interest of some smelly swineherd. When he ogles me below the belt, I choke back disgust and hurry on.
*You said you didn’t know how Azurro thinks,* I tease Crimson about her spell-rhyme.
*Yeah, well, he is Torr’s best friend. Blood Brother. Whatever,* she adds irritably. *Sleaze dogs. That’s what they both are. We’re better off without them.*
I hide my amusement. Crimson would probably lop off my ears if I dared to suggest that she has a crush on her handsome, green-eyed guardian.
The crowd is thinning. I’ve reached the end of the vending area. Ahead of me looms the barrier, which guards the Andari’s private living quarters. To the innocent, the barrier is a canvas backdrop that depicts a tranquil herd of mage ponies, grazing in a daisy field. Every now and then, the ponies flick their ears or swish their tails. Puffy white clouds chug across an azure sky.
To evil-doers—like thieves—the barrier becomes the equivalent of holographic fly paper. Once a miscreant gets stuck inside the mural, he’s chased endlessly around the field by vindictive mage ponies, who sling real, butt-zapping thunderbolts at him from the Gray Gems on their foreheads. A day or two later, Azurro might finally relent and free the sobbing thief—for a price.
*Hey!* Nonesuch pokes his head out of my hood. *What’s wrong with the painting? The ponies look pooped.*
I edge closer.
Sure enough, the scene is frozen. No chugging clouds. No swishing tails. No daisies, blowing in the wind.
My earlier sense of foreboding creeps back.
*What?* Crimson demands. *What’s wrong?*
*The hologram isn’t working. I think Azurro forgot to activate the warding spell.*
*Big surprise. He had the usual distraction for dinner. I could hear his mattress creaking all the way from here. Well? Don’t just stand there. Crash the gate and bust me out of here!*
Can it really be that simple?
Just to be safe, I find a stick and poke the canvas. No ponies raise their heads. No daisies morph into raging honey bees.
I shrug and toss aside the stick. I guess I got lucky.
With the barrier deactivated, there’s nothing to prevent me from crawling under the canvas—or to stop my Guardian from winging over it.
Nonesuch, Raevyn’s Animal Guardian.
*Nonesuch to the rescue!* he crows.
I can hear Crimson, chuckling in my head.
*Hurry, my valiant knight!*
Honestly. Sometimes I think I should rent them a room.
Crimson doesn’t have her own Animal Guardian because she isn’t an Aeldora. Or more precisely, because she prefers steel.
Climbing to my feet, I brush the worst of the dew-drenched grasses from my nightdress. Then I pause to inspect my surroundings.
At least 50 hulking wagons and their twin chimneys loom over me, making it hard to see further than 10 yards in any direction. As usual, the vehicles are parked in a haphazard manner. I’ve often wondered if the Andari deliberately form a labyrinth at their campsites, or if their carefree spirits simply despise straight lines. In any event, I could be stumbling around this maze of wheel ruts and horse droppings until dayglow.
*A little help?* I call impatiently.
*Gad, Puff. Who’s rescuing who?*
*Shut up and do something.*
For once in her life, Crimson cooperates. A red glow materializes over the south side of the caravan. Apparently, Torr’s wagon is going to be a hike. I sigh with resignation and raise my hem above a poop pile.
*Follow me, Boss!* Nonesuch calls helpfully.
I see him wheel beneath the stars. He was assigned to protect me by the Mother Goddess, so he’s not an ordinary mockingbird. He can see in the dark; he can exist solely on seeds and berries; and he can translate any language known to fairy, beast, or man. Plus, his sonic scream can drop a charging Frost Titan in its tracks. Not too shabby for a two-ounce songbird.
I trudge around several corners and zigzag through a virtual minefield of cooking pits. Finally, I arrive at my destination. I can see Crimson’s auburn head through a brightly lit windowpane. I’m pretty sure my jaw drops.
*Merciful Mother! What happened to your hair?*
Crimson sneers. *Torr said I couldn’t cut it, so I burned it off!*
She spreads her arms, spinning to display her handiwork. What’s left of her glorious, waist-length mane is ragged and blackened by smoke. Through the stringy remains, I glimpse patches of pale blue scalp and delicately pointed ears, legacies from her Frost Titan heritage.
*It’s hideous, right?* She flashes her snaggle-toothed grin and belches like a foghorn.
*Uh… Were you trying for hideous?* I counter warily.
*Damned straight. No man tells me what to do with my body.*
I raise my eyebrows. At 7 feet, 8 inches, Rhedd “Crimson” Islund towers over most males outside her native Frigidonia. Add to her goddesslike stature the strength of a battering ram, the reflexes of a viper, and the fire-power of a volcano, and you may be inclined to wonder whether dragons really are extinct.
In other words, the only male on the planet, who has the balls to discipline the brawling rabble-rouser, is her very distant cousin, Torrid Fireon—who, by the way, is 15 inches shorter than his ward.
*Crimson, you have a drinking problem.*
*No, I have a guardian problem! Torr drives me to drink!*
Nonesuch alights on the windowsill and clucks sympathetically.
*See?* Crimson says. *Nonesuch understands.*
*No, Nonesuch thinks you’re hiding sunflower seeds in your pockets.*
*You mean she isn’t?* he whispers to me.
I shake my head. *You two deserve each other. That’s all I’m saying.*
I circle the wagon to inspect Torr’s spellcraft. Ripples of energy, pulse from the door.
And the walls.
And the floor.
And the roof.
He wove a thorough web of wards, all right. And considering that his greatest talent is Fire, I suspect that every possession in Torr’s wagon is flame-retardant—to defend against drunken hiccups and nightmare duels. No wonder Crimson couldn’t torch anything except her hair!
*Have you tried any counter spells?* I ask.
She folds her arms across her leather chest armor. *I don’t need counter spells,* she says loftily. *I need steel.*
*In other words, Fire Magic didn’t work.*
Her face reddens. *I can still hack my way out of here!*
*Except that Torr took—*
*Stole,* she snaps.
*Uh … right.* I don’t dare laugh. *Torr stole your sword. After you passed out from the ginger mead.*
*Listen here, Wind Wuss. If I’d wanted my mother, I would have raised the dead.*
*That’s the trouble when you’re a one-spell wonder, Sparky. Fire can’t summon ghosts.*
*I don’t see you huffing and puffing and blowing the door down.*
*That’s because Wind Powers prefer diplomacy.*
*You mean, Wind Powers prefer talking. Hurry up and do something. I’m not getting any younger.*
*Or nicer, apparently.*
I reach for the door handle. It starts to writhe and morph, sprouting horns and a snout.
*Dragon charm,* Crimson warns, peering through the window shutter. *Big surprise, huh?*
I back away, and the smoke dissipates. The glowing eyes fade. The handle turns into a handle again.
*Torr gets zero points for originality,* I agree. *But Water counters Fire.*
*Don’t you dare! You know I’m allergic.*
Nonsense. Crimson pretends to have a water allergy so she can guzzle ginger mead.
*What about a Stone Spell?* she says. *You could summon woodrot to eat a hole through the door.*
*Sure. Invite a plague. Raze a forest. That’ll get me kicked out of the Aeldoras for sure.*
*What? You can’t control your Stone Power yet?*
*I thought you were almost ready for your Novice Trials.*
*That’s complicated too.*
Crimson rolls her eyes. *Politics. Hem-kissing. Thank the stars I didn’t get tricked into serving some dried up old hag-queen.*
*Shh!* I glance anxiously around me. She’s referring to my Aeldoran sponsor, a Human sorceress named Spiral Dancer, who represents Aether on the ruling council of queens. *Her spider spies are everywhere. You want one to hear?*
*Worse things could happen.*
Not really. But I played along. *Like what?*
*I could starve in here!*
Good ol’, Crimson. Always thinking about her stomach.
*Like me!* Nonesuch says brightly.
Truer words were never spoken.
I close my eyes and feel into Torr’s magic. I’m hoping I can stir the air in the wagon. Create a mini cyclone. Blow out the windows.
Of course, Torr thought of that too.
*I told you he was a jerk,* Crimson says.
*I could try an Aether Spell.*
*You suck at Aether.*
*Tough audience,* I counter dryly and roll up my sleeves.
*Uh…* Crimson looks nervous. *Couldn’t Nonesuch just give a little scream?*
*There’s no such thing as a little sonic scream. Besides, I need practice for my Novice Trials.*
*So I’m a laboratory experiment now?*
I ignore her dig and close my eyes. I feel down, down, down into the center of my Being. I’m hunting for some elusive spark of…something. My sister, Brisa, describes Aether as clouds of shimmering light, mixed with fairy chimes. Spiral Dancer (who’s supposed to be the greatest oracle in the world,) describes Aether as, “Everything and Nothing.”
Needless to say, none of this advice helps.
To me, Aether has no color. No sound. No temperature. The best way I can describe Aether is speed. Or more precisely, the ever-quickening, ever-spiraling race into oblivion. Frankly, Aether terrifies me. The only reason I keep daring to scratch at the door of the Void is because…well, an Aeldora must command all five Wild Magicks if she’s to serve as an ambassador for the high queen.
*Quit distracting me.* I can hear Crimson pacing the wagon like a caged tiger. I hate that I’m starting to sweat. To shake. I’m out of my element, and it’s starting to show.
*Hello? Raevyn? I’m still locked up in here!*
*I am trying to focus.*
*You have the patience of a gnat!*
A low rumble of mirth shatters my straining concentration.
“Why, if it isn’t the loveliest Raevyn in the world,” croons a voice like melted chocolate. “And there’s my good friend, Nonesuch.”
Crimson sputters something vile. A gust of heat warms my spine, and I realize that a Fire Mage is closing a portal behind me.
Crap! It’s Torr!
Panting, I turn to face him. That’s when I notice that Nonesuch is sitting on Torr’s freckled palm and is happily devouring sunflower seeds. No wonder Crimson is livid.
*Stop that!* I hiss, directing my Guardian to a more neutral perch.
Torr grins. He’s wearing his Saber Spin costume: thigh-high boots, blousy pantaloons, and an emerald-and-gold tunic, artfully slashed to show his well-muscled torso. His shoulder-length hair is dressed in the Andari style: the left side is auburn, and the right side is black, adorned with a slender braid. An ornamental scabbard, encrusted with rubies and topaz, is belted at his waist. The buckle morphs with his mood. Right now, it’s a winking dragon.
When he cocks his head to inspect my costume, I glimpse his ears—not quite as pointy as his Crystelfin great-grandfather’s—and the tiny gold firedrake that pierces his right lobe. All Mageborn use some portion of their magical reserves to appear youthful, so I’m not sure of Torr’s age. He looks 30, but he’s probably closer to 300.
As mages go, Andari selirros aren’t supposed to be as powerful as fully initiated Aeldoras. Thanks to some ancient war that enraged the Mother Goddess, selirros are the last Human males in the world, who can still eke out a spell. However, Torr’s fencing skills are legendary.
“Uh… Hi, Torr. What are you doing here?”
“I live here.”
I want to slap my forehead.
Instead, I force a smile.
I’m one of the few Wind Powers in the Aeldoran Sisterhood who isn’t admired for diplomacy. Brisa likes to remind me that an emissary of the high queen must learn to mind her tongue. Brisa should know. She’s constantly teleporting off on some mission for the royal court. I get so angry when Brisa abandons me to my studies. She’s supposed to be my Maven, the mentor who prepares me for my Novice Trials. But as far as Brisa’s concerned, the high queen comes first.
I wonder what Brisa would say if Torr caught her red-handed, trying to break her best friend out of jail…
“Torr,” I begin in my most reasonable voice, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding. You see, Crimson thinks you forgot she was napping here.”
“She thinks you locked her in your wagon—to keep her safe,” I add hastily, “but now that she’s awake, she feels like a prisoner.”
He looks amused.
I try a different approach.
“Torr, you hurt Crimson’s feelings when you made that crack about her hair.”
“You mean, when I said it was as lovely as a rose at dawn, and that something so beautiful shouldn’t be cut?”
Embarrassment heats my neck. “Really? That’s what you said?”
He lavishes a bone-melting smile on me.
*Aeld’s blood,* Crimson growls. *Why don’t you just bop him where he stands? Or better yet, send for Azurro and make it a threesome. They share everything else.*
*You know you want to!* Crimson bellows inside my head.
I ignore her flare of jealousy and force another smile for Torr. “I’m sorry. I guess I got confused. You know how Crimson talks when she’s hungry. Poor darling. I don’t think she’s eaten since midday.”
“That’s because she torched a hank of venison. Turned it completely to ash.”
“Did she tell you that?”
Meanwhile, Crimson is yelling, “I hate you, Torrid Fireon!” at the top of her lungs and flinging fireballs inside the wagon. They crash into the dragon carving on the bed; the riding boots on the trunk; the humidor on the table; the hunting trophies on the walls. Nothing gets singed. Nothing falls over. The axles don’t even creak.
“That’s one powerful warding spell,” I muse.
“You’re too kind.” He folds his arms across his chest. “By the way, Raevyn, the barrier was deactivated. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“N-no.” I frown. “I found it that way.”
“And you didn’t think to raise an alarm?*
“Well, I figured Azurro was back here with…” Oops. Can’t very well say his harem of sluts, now can I? “I mean, I figured Azurro got busy entertaining. And forgot the barrier.”
“Brisa didn’t tell you the password? To spy on Azurro?”
“Of course not! My sister would never put her Andari friends at risk.”
We lock stares, and my heart sinks. Torr thinks I’m lying. But then, who can blame him? I’ve been lying for Crimson since he materialized behind me.
*Psst. Hey, Boss!*
*What is it, Nonesuch?* I can see him crabstepping nervously across the roof of a neighboring wagon.
*Something’s watching us. Over there. Behind that chimney.*
*You do realize there are at least two chimneys on every wag—*
*Fangs!* he cries anxiously.
*Okay, buddy. Breathe. Owls don’t have fangs. Is it Vesper?*
*Much bigger!* Nonesuch spreads his wings and takes a leap. *Red eyes! It has scary red—oomph!*
Something slams him back down to the roof. Our psi link is severed.
“Let me out!” Crimson is yelling as she pounds her fists on the window. “I told you something freaky followed me here, Torr! I told you—LOOK OUT!”
Artist’s rendering of a manbeast.
Something with pointed ears and gleaming fangs is springing off the wagon. I glimpse steel as a shaggy body hurls toward me.
“Manbeast!” Torr shouts, shoving me aside to intercept my attacker.
They collide in a tumult of flame, fur, and swords. I’m frozen in shock as they wrestle—Torr cursing, the beast snarling—but I recall vaguely from my history class that Ru’ar are immune to most magicks. At least, that’s true of First Generation manbeasts, who were spawned by Crystelfin magic during the AvaStar Wars.
A predatory growl rumbles to my right.
Merciful Mother! There’s another one?
Something skitters away from Torr. It slides across the ground and gleams in the starlight.
“My sword!” Crimson cries, and suddenly she’s free.
Usually, her magic explodes through her fists. Tonight, her whole body is limned in flames! I’ve never seen any mage channel Fire the way Crimson is right now! But she doesn’t seem to notice. She doesn’t seem to care as she races the second manbeast for the sword. When she swoops for the hilt, the blade ignites, becoming a torch. A strange glyph blazes to life over her heart. It looks ancient, even older than Crystelfin runes. I’ve never seen that symbol on my best friend’s chest!
The manbeast snarls and backs away. By the light of the sword, I see furry hands, opposable thumbs, a bushy tail. The tail is jutting from Andari pantaloons. My mind reels as I realize this Wolf—this shapeshifter—has been posing as a selirro!
“Get out of here, Crimson! Teleport!” Torr shouts.
To my horror, I see that he’s pinned. Manbeasts are supposed to be ten-times stronger than a Human or a Crystal Elf. Torr’s magical defenses are barely keeping the Wolf’s fangs off his throat.
I have to do something. I’m not a warrior. I’m not even a full-fledged Aeldora. But I am Wind.
“Norte, defend!” I shout.
An icy blast of air shrieks out of the north. Torr’s attacker slams into a wagon. And doesn’t move.
Mother Night, did I kill the thing?
“Woof, woof!” Crimson is taunting the second Wolf. “C’mon, flea bait. What are you waiting for? You want a piece of me? Come and get it, you stinkin’ sack of mutant scats!”
Torr wheezes. He struggles to his knees. *No one…must see Crimson,* he pants in my head. *Teleport her…out of camp…before someone comes!*
His tunic is soaked in blood. I battle nausea and hurry to his side. *But—*
His voice roars through my brain. If Crimson sounds like a volcano, then Torr sounds like an exploding sun. I recoil. That’s when I notice the first Wolf has disappeared.
Dear gods, where did it go?
Crimson is laughing. Leaves and clots of dirt start to whirl around her boots. Lightning cracks a cloudless sky. I recognize a Wind spell.
I have seconds, less than seconds, before the Thunderer arrives to avenge his wounded Blood Brother—who’s now sagging, unconscious, in my arms. I’m frightened. I’m confused. My Aether is too weak for a simple spell-chant; I have to touch Crimson if I’m going to teleport her somewhere.
However, Crimson is on fire.
“Teleport!” I shout at her.
She sobers when she sees her guardian, crumpled at my knees. “Torr! Is he—?”
The Wolf lunges. She dodges, and a pair of portals appear.
“Hey!” Crimson protests as she tumbles into the sunny one.
The Wolf falls into a snow storm.
I blink, and the portals clap closed. Crimson didn’t work those spells. So who did?
I notice the clots of dirt, hanging in the air. A spear of lightning has paused, just inches from the ground. The stars are still. The sky is windless.
Someone has stopped Time!
Suddenly, I spy movement. A troop of spiders is crawling beside each claw mark on Torr’s chest. Wherever a spider steps, a bloody gash magically heals.
*A storm is brewing,* advises a wispy, frail voice in my head. *The kind that wreaks havoc in its path.*
My eyes fill with tears. The Spider Sorceress really has been watching over me.
*Majesty, it was horrible! Did you see? Nonesuch—*
*—Is feeling much better now. Take a look.*
Hope blooms in my chest. I hurry to the wagon where I last saw him and climb the ladder to the roof. I am greeted by a furry little bat, circled by spider sentinels. Vesper squeaks. Of course, I can’t understand a word she says; she’s not my Animal Guardian. But one thing is clear: Vesper has been keeping Nonesuch warm, under her wing.
*You’ll never guess!* he greets me groggily. *I saw a wolf wearing pants!*
I blink back tears and cradle him to my cheek. *You were very brave.*
*I was?* He snuggles closer. *I thought I was dreaming…*
*Now then,* says Spiral Dancer. *It is well past curfew for Novices and their Guardians.*
I wince at the reminder. I’m worried that I’ve broken a much more serious rule than curfew. *Majesty, I think…I think I killed—*
*Nonsense. The manbeast is perfectly safe, where he belongs. As you should be.*
In awe, I watch as the Aether queen opens a portal to my bedroom. Spiral Dancer’s sanctum is located thousands of leagues from the Andari camp. Nevertheless, she can sense danger, pause time, perform healings, and open portals halfway around the world…simultaneously. But what really boggles the mind is that Spiral Dancer is considered the weakest of the five, Aeldoran queens!
I pause on the throbbing threshold that separates the wagon from Temple Luminae. I notice that Vesper’s not moving. Azurro is still frozen somewhere in the midst of his teleportation spell. Torr will probably be healed by the time the Thunderer is allowed to arrive.
*I don’t understand, Majesty,* I venture uneasily. *Why was Torr so insistent on preventing Crimson from being seen? Even by Azurro? And what was that symbol, burning on her chest?*
*It would be wise to forget such questions, child.*
*Forget? But why…?*
With a start, I wake in my sparsely furnished dormitory. Rays of light poke past the shutters; I feel the warmth of the sun on my face and a lumpy mattress at my back. I see Nonesuch, his beak tucked beneath his wing. He’s perched on my headboard, which bears a fanciful image of Mistral, Fairy King of the Four Winds.
I scan for signs of my forbidden Darkfest adventure. I see no mask, no cloak, no muddy snowboots. The floorboards remain scrupulously swept and clean. If I was trudging through daisies and manure piles last night, surely I would have tracked something into the room.
But everything looks precisely as I left it. My history book lies face down on the quilt, marking the chapter on the AvaStar Wars. My door is bolted, and my yellow, rune-embroidered ritual robe is waiting for me on a hook by the washstand.
I breathe a sigh of relief. So I was dreaming that I broke curfew, stole Cook’s cloak, and sneaked into the Andari camp so Crimson and I could watch Torr dance the Saber Spin!
Shaking my head, I toss aside the quilt. That’s when I notice my tattered nightgown and its muddy hem.
Uh-oh. I’m in so much trouble!
Meet the Author
Adrienne deWolfe yearns to write Young Adult Fantasy. She was working toward that happy goal, when her computer blew up, scaring the snot out of her cat. The irritating machine then got stolen from the repair shop—along with 450 pages of her first fantasy manuscript.(Tsk, tsk. Some people will do anything to avoid writing.) The good news? Adrienne’s back! And now she’s writing Dark Wind, the first book in her Guardians of Aeld Series. When she’s not writing fantasy, Adrienne’s writing bestselling Romances or coaching up-and-coming authors. Learn more about her coaching program at WriteRomanceNovelsThatSell.com