Ember and Kayla desperately want to be on their way in search of the keystones, and after Kayla is confronted by the Ne’Goi in an attempt to steal the sapphire flute, they decide to leave with or without Ezeker’s blessing.
Caught attempting to leave, Ezeker strikes a deal with the girls: take the remaining students safely home. After the disastrous battle in Karsholm, the mage academy is in near ruins. Headmaster Ezeker has no choice but to send the students away until the school can be repaired.
Unfortunately, leaving the mage academy does not end their problems. It seems the Ne’Goi Shadow Weavers are in search of the same Keystones Kayla and Ember seek, and it is only with the help of the shapeshifting Bendanatu and Phoenicia that they have any hope for success.
In finding the third keystone, The Emerald Wolf, Ember and Kayla gain a powerful ally against S’Kotos, but also form an unexpected and uneasy alliance with the one person they never thought would help them . . . C’Tan.
Darkness. A black so absolute it nearly drove Marda to insanity with its monotony and the stealing of her most used sense. Marda thought for days that C'Tan had blinded her somehow on the flight from Karsholm. There was no sense of time, no understanding of the days sliding by. She slept when she was tired and ate when food slid through the slot at the base of the door.
Ember’s mother moved slowly so as not to break herself on the cold, stone walls. She couldn’t help but wonder about C’Tan. A student of the fire magic, especially a disciple of S’Kotos, should have a warm home, comfortable or uncomfortable. But no. The dungeon was cold like the end of a crisp autumn day--the kind that requires thick blankets to keep the shivers away and smells of dusty leaves. Marda trembled, wrapping her arms around herself, partly for comfort, partly to chase away the cold.
The darkness was just one weapon in C’Tan’s arsenal, she knew. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that Marda was being punished for Jarin’s taking away their daughter, Ember. The Chosen One. Marda snorted. C’Tan had wanted the girl since Ember was a babe. S’Kotos had commanded it and Jarin had saved his wife and daughter at the sacrifice of his own life.
Marda leaned up against the cold wall and pressed against it, determined. Well, C’Tan could not have Ember. It wasn’t an option. Ember was the only chance the world had to destroy the darkness that came with S’Kotos and C’Tan.
Feeling around her, Marda found the sharpened stone that had cut her fingers too many times. She ignored the pain and began to scratch into the floor. Words, unseen and only felt, like braille for the blind, she continued her letter to Ember, ignoring the blood that slickened the stone and dripped onto the floor. It would only add power to her spell. Ember could not afford to give in to her emotions and try to save Marda. She had to complete her mission and retrieve the keystones. It was the only way they could be free.
She scratched the last word into the smooth rock and dropped the stone, her fingers trembling with pain and cold. She would wash her cuts if she had water, but had no idea the next time it would be given to her, so she wiped her hands on her shirt, ripped a strip of cloth from the bottom of her skirt, and when the pain began to ease, she reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out a half stone. It was small enough to fit into her palm, rough on the rounded side and smooth as glass on the flat.
Setting the stone flat side down on the floor near where she imagined the middle of her letter might be, she said the words that would get her letter to Ember, whispered them so that none would hear.
“Send,” she said in her softest voice.
And in an instant, the darkness was gone. Marda blinked, then winced as the light brightened, white at first, and then a rainbow of colors that took her ragged, bloody words and sucked them into itself before sending it to her daughter. She leaned back against the wall with a smile when the light faded away. It was done. Complete. She only hoped Ember could find the keystones before C’Tan or the Shadow Weavers. It was a race, and her daughter needed to be in the lead.
Marda bowed her head and drifted into the first relaxed sleep she’d had since C’Tan had kidnapped her. Peaceful Oblivion.
Kayla wiped a blackened arm across her brow, soot and sweat mixing to form a dark streak that ran from temple to temple. The room was hotter than Heldar, and despite two days effort, lava still leaked from the floor and walls. Not for the first time she wished she could walk through the wall and freeze the liquid rock at its source. It would be so much simpler than patching never-ending leaks of burning stone.
The lava pushed at her, its positive energy of fire affecting her negative magic of air. Opposites, they fought and pushed at each other, and thus far only Kayla and her flute were sensitive to it. Without being asked, Brant’s spirit turned air elemental dove into the wall and spread cold through the heated stone. Kayla called out to the group of teenagers who worked with her, students of the mage academy with nowhere to go. “Behn, Miek. To the left about three feet. Rachel, Aryana, Eden, to your right about half a foot. The surge will come between you. Are you ready?” The kids nodded, grim-faced as they waited the fiery blast.
The tension built until Kayla thought she might explode and then the wall blew outward in the exact spot she had predicted. Brant’s elemental form surged out behind it, still spinning cold air in his wake. The students thrust their hands into the stone and helped to break it up and cool it until only chunks of darkened rock remained. Kayla didn’t know how they did it. What kind of magic did they hold to be able to handle the heat the way they did? She hadn’t had time to ask. She’d barely had time to find a few hours’ sleep in the past few days.
She felt into the stone with the energy of the flute and was relieved to feel nothing new stirring. It didn’t mean it wouldn’t, but for the moment, this area was clear.
She straightened and looked at her group. They were strong, despite their age and she was pleased with them. She gave them a half smile—she didn’t have the energy for more than that—and put the flute in the leather bag at her hip. “That is it for now. We’re safe for the moment. Why don’t you go clean up and get some sleep while you can. I’ll wake you when we need you again. Thank you for your efforts.”
The boys nodded to her, solemn and exhausted, it looked. The girls smiled, also seeming exhausted and chattered as they made their way out of the room. Of course they were exhausted. So was Kayla. “And how about you, my friend,” Kayla asked Brant. “Are you as tired as the rest of us?”
Brant tipped his head and looked at her. “I don’t seem to tire like I once did. I’m growing stronger even in this elemental form.” Brant spun in the air, picking up bits of gravel that pinged Kayla and stung her skin.
“Well, I’m tired,” she said. “How about you rest for a while so I can sleep?” She held open the top of the bag in invitation, though she knew he didn’t need it.
He began to dive into the flute, when he looked over Kayla’s shoulder and stopped, then reversed himself and swirled like a living tornado at her side, but didn’t say a word. She turned slowly, afraid of what she might find behind her. C’Tan? A monster? One of the Shadow Weavers? But it was none of those, and she let loose a sigh of relief.
“Counselors,” she said, addressing the group of magi before her. “To what do I owe this honor?” Her voice was pleasant, but something niggled at her. She couldn’t place it, but somehow she knew that something was wrong.
The magi stared at her for a moment, then looked at each other and a man stepped forward. “Miss Kayla, would you please come with us?” His voice was a deep bass that resonated through Kayla’s bones.
“And where would you have me go?” she asked, the feeling of wrongness getting stronger, very similar to what she felt whenever she was around her grandfather.
“There is a meeting of the mage council and we need you there,” he said, but she could feel the lie.
“Why would I need to be with the mage council? I am not a member. I can do no magic.” She was stalling for time, hoping someone would come back and assist her. If this group truly were members of the mage council, they were traitors, just as Magnet and Seer had been. And if they were not members of the mage council . . . well, she hated to even think about what that might mean and who they could be.
A woman stepped out from the back of the group and gathered magic around her. The man turned to her, surprise apparent on his face. “She already knows,” the woman snarled. “We can’t afford to waste time. Get the flute.” The entire group gathered magic around them then. All colors of magic and different genders, but all of their magic was tinted with black streaks.
Kayla didn’t say a word, but pulled the flute out of its bag and placed it to her lips. The weavers surrounded her, each spaced out evenly so that all together the eight men and women stood as if points on a compass. That is when they began to chant and a heaviness filled the air. Something was coming. Something big and dangerous and Kayla and Brant were the only ones there to stop it. Two against eight, but those two had something the others did not: the power of a keystone.
Drawing in her breath, Kayla visualized a frozen dome over her, much like the one she’d used in battling Sarali’s brother, Jihong, then released her breath on a sound so pure the walls shook with it. The dome formed around her immediately, even sliding beneath her feet so that she was completely encased in crystal-like ice. The bell like effect of the tone gave her an idea, and she played the high note again, envisioning the walls trembling and the floor quivering as if an earthquake had struck just this one room. Most of the shadow weavers were on the floor before the sound tapered off and she started to play again. She sent out the cold that had frozen the path beneath the ocean. She sent it to the eight fake magi and farther—into the walls and the ground. She sent the cold as far as it could reach and continued to play, despite her own shivering.
Brant dove into the walls and encircled the group, adding to the disastrous tremors that shook them all. It got colder and colder until the shadow weavers got to their feet and tried to leap into the air and return to wherever it was they came from. But not this time. Kayla froze their feet to the ground. They weren’t going anywhere without taking half the cave with them. Instead of an escape they cried out and reached toward Kayla, their magic surging to attack her ice bubble, but it had no effect. She had a keystone and she was its guardian. No one would take it from her.
The anger built in her and surged outward in a concentric ring that froze the shadow weavers in place and penetrated the walls to a depth she couldn’t feel, and for the first time in two days the heat was gone. Everywhere. Her battle with the shadow weavers had sealed all the cracks and frozen the lava.
Slowly the ice bubble shed itself from around her and Brant came back to her side. Together they stared at the eight ice statues that had been men and women only minutes before. Kayla couldn’t believe their audacity, to stride right into the mage academy and attempt to take the flute from her. Again the anger built and Brant began to spin faster. In an instant, he leapt into motion, spinning in circles around her, cracks and snaps assaulted her ears until finally he stopped and all that was left of the eight were bits of fine ice floating in the air and gathering in the corners. Brant had decimated them. There was nothing left and nothing for her to do.
Nothing but go and speak to Ember. The attack was a sure sign it was time to leave.
Ember clamped her hands over her ears as Tiva screamed. She couldn’t fight the tears that streamed down her cheeks while seeing her brother’s pain. They may not share blood, but he was her brother nonetheless. His twin, Ren, seemed to be having much the same problem as he squeezed Tiva’s hand so hard his fingers turned white with the pressure.
The nurse peeled back more of the bandage covering Tiva’s face, chanting all the while and didn’t even flinch as another scream tore itself from the boy’s throat. It had been two days since the attack on Karsholm and the Mage Academy. Two days since Tiva had been shoved into the lava to be blinded and burned, but the healing that had taken place had been miraculous. Painful, but miraculous all the same. The burns on his face and hands still looked waxy and scarred, but he had gone from blackened to the bone on both hands and face, his lips gone and teeth forever bared, to almost normal in forty-eight hours. Another practical use for magic Ember had never seen.
Unfortunately there was no healing Tiva’s eyes. They had boiled in his skull and burst like okra seeds. There was nothing left to heal—just a bare nerve and empty sockets of bone. The healers were doing their best to bring flesh around to cover the eye socket and soothe the nerve, but every time they touched the bone around his sockets the pain was excruciating.
Thus the screaming. After several minutes of rough-voiced screams, Tiva passed out and the healers were finally able to work on the most painful parts of his skull.
The woman looked up at Ember, tears swimming in her eyes. She quickly looked back down as another healer, a man, entered the room to help her quickly change the bandages and use their magic to further desensitize the nerve before Tiva awakened. Their fingers were long and thin and moved quickly across his face. Ember cringed as they dipped into the hollows where his beautiful blue eyes once laid and completely burned away the nerve that protruded from the back of his eye socket. Ember couldn’t help but reach for her brother as Tiva’s back arched in a soundless scream before he once again met oblivion from the pain.
Once the nerve was gone, the healers rounded balls of clay and placed them in his eye sockets, adding some here, taking some there, until the balls fit perfectly. Once sized, they enfolded the clay in their hands, which began to glow with orange light, smoke coming out from between their fingers. After several moments of that, they rolled the clay balls in light sand, then once again heated them in their hands.
When they were finished and opened their hands, Ember gasped. What was brown clay had become a white globe, looking very much like an eye—minus the color and pupil. Another healer entered the room to take care of those details. Using a stone stamp, the man took up colored sand, much the color of Tiva’s true eyes, and pushing downward he embedded the sand into the white, creating colored glass, then did the same with black sand for the pupils.
Once the eyes were finished and cooled, the healer set them gently in Tiva’s eye sockets, then gestured for the other two healers to continue, and continue they did. Somehow, they took Tiva’s skin and stretched and molded it to created eyelids that almost looked natural, and as a final touch, lashes and eyebrows grew from his skin—something Ember never thought she would see again.
It was odd to see Tiva asleep or unconscious with his eyes open, but he was now whole. The female healer spoke. “The waxy texture of his skin will fade with time. If he wishes to have facial hair, that will require a separate healing. It would not be healthy for his skin to deal with it right now. Besides, he is still young. He has time for that. Our work is done. Now all that is left is for Mistress Vanine to teach him how to see, despite his blindness, and to use his other colors of magic.”
The healers began to back away, but Ember caught the woman by the hand. “Thank you,” she whispered. “You saved his sanity, if not his life. We can never repay you.”
The woman smiled, her eyes brimming once again. “Payment is neither needed nor desired. It is our calling to help those in need. Knowing we have made a difference is payment enough.” She squeezed Ember’s hand and let go, walking across the room and out the curtained doorway, just as Mistress Vanine stepped to the side and entered the room.
It was always strange seeing her in the caverns with her darkened glasses, moving as if she saw everything with the brightest of light, and Ember guessed that in her own way, she did. She just didn’t use her eyes to see. According to the healer, it was now her turn to take Tiva under her wing and teach him how to do the same. The orange teacher approached them and smiled.
“And how is my newest trainee doing?” she asked, putting her hands behind her back and rocking on her toes.
For some odd reason, Ember suddenly wondered if the woman was married. She knew so little about her, aside from the fact that she had known Ember’s father. Could she really trust her brother with this woman? She glanced at Ren, who gazed at his twin with a mixture of heartache and pride. It was he who answered. “He seems to be doing well, Mistress. He just had his optical nerve severed and artificial eyes created. He just needs to wake up for us to see how he feels. Last time he awoke he spent most of his time screaming,” he said with a bit of chagrin.
Mistress Vanine chuckled. “That is to be expected. If what I’ve seen of Tiva is any indicator of his gifts and determination, I’m sure he will make a fine pupil indeed.” She put her hand on Ren’s and seemed to look into his eyes, though Ember knew that was impossible. “He’s going to be fine, Ren. I promise you. He shall be fine.”
Feeling a bit left out, Ember left Ren and Mistress Vanine to their discussion and wait for Tiva’s awakening. She had other things that needed doing, including talking to her cousin Kayla as well as headmaster Ezeker.
Heading down the hall to her left, Ember made her way to her quarters, which had, miraculously, remained untouched by the lava that had ravished the caverns. Her clothes smelled of smoke and stone, but it was a small price to pay for her things remain intact. So many had lost everything and some even their lives. She was very aware of how lucky she was.
She stopped just inside the doorway to let her eyes adjust, unable to cast a magelight like so many others. She still had to depend on candles. Why such a simple spell eluded her, she didn’t understand.
Once she could make out the shape of hers and Lily’s beds, she went to her dresser and, fumbling a bit, found the candle in its brass stand. She may not be able to create a magelight, but she could make fire. With the touch of her finger, she brought the candle to life, then set the three legged candleholder back on her dresser. She took a few minutes to walk around the room and light the other candles. If Lily were here she could just cast a magelight and brighten the room as if they were outdoors in the sunlight, but the girl had been scarce lately. Ember knew little, but from what she’d heard from Lily, Ezeker and the council had been questioning her about her mother, C’Tan, and were using Lily to repair some of the damage done to the school.
Ember moved back to her bed and sat with a sigh, rubbing her hand over her face and tired eyes. All she wanted to do, really, was take a nap, but she knew if she did she’d never sleep that night, and she really did have things to do. Her eyes closed of their own volition for just a moment and Ember felt herself sag.
Shaking her head, she lay back and put her head on her pillow. What would an hour of sleep hurt? If she didn’t rest, she would be useless to everyone around her. It didn’t seem she had a choice. Her body demanded it.
With a sigh, she let her eyes remain shut and was about to drift off into sleep, when she heard voices outside her room. Two girls. One voice she knew well. Her room-mate and cousin on her father’s side, Lily. The other she knew almost as well though they’d known each other for only two days. The only other cousin she knew, this one from her mother’s side—Kayla, holder of The Sapphire Flute and one of the warriors from her dreams.
Unable to make out their words, Ember opened her eyes with a sigh and glanced at the ceiling, then froze.
Words. Many, many words were scribbled across her ceiling, looking almost scratched into the surface. All in handwriting she recognized.
“My dearest Ember,
“I do not know how many days it has been since C’Tan carried me away on her dragon, and I can only be thankful that she took me instead of you. I need to know that you are safe and not running off on a foolish errand to save me. I know that if it were you who had been taken, that would be the first thing on my mind, but if I had been given a chance such as you have, to bring the keystones here and do battle, even if it is on her terms, to assure your safety, that is the choice I would make, and so the one I would ask you to make.
“I know how difficult this must be for you, Ember, but please heed my wishes. I hate being held by her. I hate speaking to or seeing this woman who murdered your father, but so long as I know you are safe, I can endure.
“If anything does happen, as it sometimes will, more than anything I need you to know that I love you with all my heart. I always have and that will never change. Keep yourself safe—for my sake if you can’t do it for your own.
“If Paeder doesn’t know of my kidnapping, will you please be sure to tell him that I am well and safe and will return home to him soon. If I know you there are already plans in action to find the keystones and bring me home.
“I am proud of you, Ember Shandae. You have grown to become so much more than the woman I ever imagined you could be. Always remember that you can do anything, if you believe enough.
Ember read the message several times, until she could no longer see for the tears streaming down her face to wet her pillow. Kayla and Lily chose that moment to enter the room.
“Ember?” Lily asked, concern dripping from her voice like water from the hanging spikes in the back caves. “Are you all right?”
There was nothing she could say, so Ember pointed at the ceiling and both of her cousins craned their necks to read. Lily seemed sad and relieved at the same time. Kayla was harder to read, but she was the first to respond.
“From your mother?” she asked.
“And she wants you to do what C’Tan demanded and go find the keystones.” Kayla’s mouth pursed and she put her left hand on the bag carrying the sapphire flute. It seemed an unconscious gesture.
Ember sat up, nodding once more.
Kayla looked at Lily and something passed between them. Kayla then turned to Ember and squatted down so their heads were on the same level. “That makes this a lot easier, I think.” Again, she looked to Lily, then seeming slightly unsure of herself she told Ember about the Shadow Weavers and their attack on her, the mage academy, and the sapphire flute. When she had finished, Ember was lost for words but felt something pressing at her to take action.
Kayla didn’t mince any words after that. “Between your mother’s letter and the attack on the mage academy, I believe it is time to leave.”
Ember’s mind had difficulty grasping the words for a moment. “Leave? And go where?”
Lily spoke up for the first time. “In search of the remaining keystones and their guardians. You’ve told me of your dreams, Ember. We know what must happen in order for C’Tan to be destroyed and balance to return to Rasann. How can we do that when the mage council keeps us locked up, doing their bidding, and keeping us from the work the Guardians have given us to do?”
It was a good question and Ember was finally able to put a name to what pushed at her.
Kayla was right. It was time to go. She nodded to the girls, got up and started packing. “Okay, so we go, but we have to go tonight before we are caught. We aren’t doing anything illegal, but I know Aldarin and Uncle Ezzie and even DeMunth will do everything they can to keep me hidden and safe, no matter where my mum is or what I’m supposed to do. Just the three of us then?” she asked, finishing her packing and turning to the girls.
“For now,” Kayla answered, standing. She stretched her back and glanced at the ceiling once more. She was quiet for a long moment before speaking. “I need to see Sarali before we leave. We may be able to convince her to accompany us. She would be an asset to the group.” She looked at Ember and Lily, her eyes resigned and determined. “One hour, then?”
The girls nodded and Kayla left the room.