Two Empty Thrones – First 3 Chapters

PROLOGUE: THE CATACLYSM

Even the darkness was broken. A flickering light from the large fires over the hill cast looming shadows. The fires were large and getting closer. Faustas leaned over the table, one hand leaning on its cool surface, the other twisting his mustache. He knew it was a sign of nervousness, but there was no one watching. Somehow twisting it made his insides feel less twisted. His thoughts betrayed him, flicking to his wife and son, safe in the castle. He took a deep breath and fought the guilty urge to run out into the shadowy hills to fight. He could at least throw some waterspouts over the hill, something to actually help.

“You are helping,” a familiar voice rumbled in his head. Although it was only in his mind, the voice somehow had an echoing effect he would swear his ears were hearing. Without taking his eyes from the map, he shook his head.

“You know what I mean,” he said, quieter than a whisper. He knew he didn’t have to actually say anything, but it felt more like a real conversation this way. Like he wasn’t so alone. “You at least can be doing something, anything, rather than having to sit here, safe.”

“You are no coward, and we need you safe. Well, we really just need your strategic creativity safe, being used where it does the most good.” The gentle joking turned serious again. “Besides, despite your kingly powers, out here, you would be just another mu.”

There was an explosion, and Faustas flicked his head up to look out of the tiny opening in the cave. The fires on the other side of the hill leaped forward, cresting the hill. The area became brighter, but the shadows stayed, and seemed to grow darker and more numerous. Faustas shook his head. This battle was going poorly, and he couldn’t figure out why. Time to scrap this plan, he thought.

He spun to grab a couple of blank maps from a wall shelf, images and possibilities swirling in rapid succession over them. He rolled the maps out, overlaying ghostly markings in rapid succession. “There!” he murmured, holding on one arrangement. “If that unit drops back while these two slide there, these will fall in… Yes! That’s it.”

“See,” the voice in his head interrupted to make its point.

“Maybe you are right,” Faustas chuckled. He briefly turned his attention to his maps, expanding and double-checking details. He then reached out with his mind to thank his friend and general of the Guidant armies and issue new orders.

And got nothing.

He frowned for a moment, reaching out again. If anything happened to Daerren, he didn’t know what he would do. But with sinking certainty, he knew something terrible had happened. In desperation, he tried calling to the trees.

Shockingly, there was nothing there either. A small noise in the cave made him spin around. Six figures stood behind him against the unbroken rock wall. Long robes covered them from head to toe and hid their faces in shadow. Four wore maroon, one bright red, the last black. Faustas started, hesitating for the briefest of moments, distracted by the energy of the figure in black. Then, with a roar, Faustus threw his hands wide, flames leaping from his fingers toward the stacks of papers and maps in the small cave.

But he was too late. The four figures in maroon robes had their hands up before Faustas. His flames were absorbed into nothingness before they could touch anything. He tried to create an energy bubble, but he couldn’t even start before a pain shot inside his head from his temple to his eye. He blindly staggered, wondering how, why. Another burst of pain hit him from the other side and he fell to the floor in a heap. More pain shot around in his head and he couldn’t help but cry out. An energy bubble appeared around him, and he reflexively tried to throw up a counter. Still reeling, he was too late. The counter just ricocheted inside the bubble in which he was trapped, striking him in the leg. Powerful as it was, he barely felt it compared to the pain in his head.

“Scepter of Kings…” he tried to croak out, but the pain in his head increased and his call was cut off by someone screaming in pain. He realized after a few seconds it was his own voice. He lost track of time and himself in the waves of pain that rolled over him.

When the pain ebbed to barely tolerable, he stood, difficult now that he was trapped in a prison bubble. He dimly saw the one figure in blood red robes in the center of the front of the cave. The cloaked figure’s hands were raised, and the whole front of the cave was gone, lying in rubble. This one must be human and male, hurtling Fire, Water, and Earth, everything in great gouts down the hill. How long has he been doing that? Once-proud trees had transformed into torches or stumps. Faustas’s mind flickered over the few male humans who had that much power. The cloaked figure turned around, and Faustas finally was able to see his face in the now-bright firelight.

“You,” Faustus whispered, falling down to his knees in a different kind of pain. His thoughts echoed, Joslachar, my trusted Right Hand!

Joslachar smiled. “No, you actually. I had evidence you were the Rogue traitor we had suspected, and not Idris. I confronted you. You put up quite a struggle and tried to destroy the evidence before you finally fled from me and my loyal men here. I tried to stop you, but I was unsuccessful.”

Faustas looked back, confused, and saw one of the maroon-robed figures busy stuffing his precious plans into empty packs. Another maroon robe replaced them with a set from the full packs they had brought. The figure in black stood apart, watching from the shadows.

“The hardest part was finding one of your offensives to subvert,” Joslachar continued. Faustas turned back as he started talking again. “Idris put up quite a fight before he lost his mind, and we could use him to reveal this one.”

“Idris wasn’t a traitor…” The steady pain faded to the background as Faustas’s emotions reacted to the information. Joy and pain exploded with the confirmation that his Left Hand had been loyal, but tortured until he’d cracked. Fury and resolve overwhelmed him at the betrayal by the one he’d never suspected! “You’re keeping me alive for…” Faustas said, stalling and starting to plan.

“Oh, we will kill you eventually, just not here and not now. We have a use for you. Besides, we thought you might have a few secrets that you didn’t write down.”

“I’ll never talk.”

“That’s what I thought, but, well, who am I to argue with the Conclave of Controllers?” The eyes that were locked on Faustas were confident, even taunting, at the mention of the oppressive faction against the Gathering of Guidants. So Joslachar is one of them! Little clues, easily ignored in the past, now made sense. Faustas’s mind spun itself free of the pain, and the pieces fell into place. He understood the horrible actions of this traitor and, more frighteningly, knew where they led. But oh, the shame! To be deceived so easily, so thoroughly! I am a fool! He tested the limits of his prison and was met with blinding pain again.

When he regained his thoughts and sight, he saw Joslachar smirking. “Oh, awake, finally?” Joslachar shook his head. “I knew I was more powerful than you! I should have challenged you for the crown. Now, I will just get it uncontested, and you will never know for sure I am your better. Perhaps I should let you out…”

The figure in black stepped forward, cutting Joslachar off without a word. The motion let Faustas get a glimpse of the face under the hood, and he was shocked again. I must get out and tell the others! The treachery here could destroy the world! His mind leaped to a desperate, but simple, plan.

“Listen, Jossy, you know I never…”

Joslachar whirled and screamed, “Don’t call me that! My name is Joslachar! I will hear you scream my name for mercy!”

Faustas was ready for the blinding pain and, just before it came, he launched his attack at the prison bubble that held him. Through the pain he could feel it weakening.

The figure in black chuckled, obviously female but oddly coarse. “He’s almost out,” she said. “Stop being manipulated and let’s get on with it.”

Faustas’s pain decreased as Joslachar regained control of himself. Faustas gave up on his attack. Through blurry eyes, he looked over and saw the last files and maps had been transferred, and the maroon-robed figures stepped back. They raised their hands and, with a mutter, tiny tongues of flames licked at the room, scorching, but not destroying, the fake plans and maps, as short bursts of Air tossed furniture around.

The whole group stepped outside, Faustas floating along helplessly in his bubble.

“Time for you to go,” Joslachar said, raising his hand.

Out of time, Faustas screamed in desperation. He fought the increasing pain, using it, turning his screams into commands of pure Power. He thought of his wife and son, drawing strength from his love for them. Magic energies swirled around him, trapped dangerously in his bubble, and his mind narrowed in focus to a point. Part of him was aware of Joslachar’s eyes widening in surprise, growling something, trying to control him.

The figure in black shook her head and raised her hands. She was directly interfering!

Faustas fought harder, his thoughts diving desperately into forgotten corners. Anything, he screamed in his mind, anything to be free of this prison! Die or burn out if I must, but I must warn the others!

 

* * *

 

Daerren was thrown by an explosion. He lay there, stunned more by the realization the energy blast had come from behind them. A brief thought that perhaps the blasts were being thrown over him was dismissed, as he would have seen them as they came in. He twisted and managed to dive into the ground before being thrown again. He swam through the earth to where his second-in-command was supposed to be, but both he and his human mu companion were dead. How?

No time to think. Daerren dove into the earth again just as bolts of Fire and Water raced toward him. The ground shook with his rage. How could the enemy know their exact position?

He swam further this time, emerging at each of his command leaders’ positions. At the next pair he visited, he barely rose to the level of the surface before being forced back underground. He knew they were fighting hard, but the enemy had already split his forces.

At the next stop, Daerren rose out of the ground and saw his friends lying there, dead from a blast from behind, enemy troops all around him. Overcome, he roared.

The enemy turned as one. Daerren’s eyes glinted, mirroring the firelight reflecting off the humans’ spears. He stomped one foot, and a wave of Earth rippled all around him, a circle of earthquake. Enemy troops tried to regain their footing as he ran through them, slashing at their thighs. Scale and metal tore like wet leaves under his claws. None would die, but they would have to retreat to reach aid. Even now, he would not, could not, kill. He was a blur as he raced through them and shrugged off the few weakened strikes from weapons and energy, pain dulled by his anger. When the mini-quake ended, twenty enemies lay on the ground, bleeding and moaning, and another twenty were being called to assist them.

Only seconds had passed. Daerren dove again.

He swam furiously around, emerging at his other command stations. Some were lucky, avoiding serious injury by the blasts from behind. They couldn’t work effectively, trying to defend from both the front and the rear, but they had held their own. He worked with each of them, ignoring the draining passage of time, coordinating the retreat.

When the battle was stabilized, Daerren’s exhaustion fell on him like an avalanche. His mind still whirled, though, and as he thought through the pieces, looking up the hill, he finally realized from where the attack must have come. The secret cave. He froze, overwhelmed with the impossibility. If the enemy killed his friend, the movement would be devastated!

He dove, swimming up to the top-secret cave he had crafted. Emerging just outside, he was shocked at the sight. The seclusion was trampled, the bunker destroyed utterly. Troops sifted through the rubble of the cave, while two of his commanders questioned a figure in a black robe just outside. Where is my advisor and confidant? He rushed forward, stopped immediately by one of his commanders. Daerren tried to brush by but was held back.

“He’s gone, sir,” the commander said.

“What do you mean, gone?” Daerren snapped.

The commander looked him in the eye. “According to the report, he portaled away. Several eyewitnesses are being questioned right now.”

Daerren stood stone still.

“But they all confirm he was the one attacking our troops, sir.”

“Impossible!” Daerren roared.

The commander blanched and took a step back, words tumbling out of his mouth. “Solbright saw it with her own eyes! She was working with Faustas’s Right Hand to investigate the other human traitor, but she said all the evidence kept leading to Faustas! And the papers, which he tried to destroy before he fled, showed he was setting up the Guidants for a major loss. I hate to say it, but the Conclave was right! He was one of the Rogues, sir! I saw the evidence myself! Today’s disaster was just a first step. If it wasn’t for Solbright and Joslachar’s surprise confrontation, who knows what could have happened?”

Daerren’s face fell. Can it be true? He had never believed the saying that you couldn’t trust a human…

The commander tried to complete his report. “The evidence is pretty convincing, sir. Of course, we are starting a full investigation…”

Daerren lost the rest. My friend! Oh, Faustas, you’re a traitor! He slumped to the ground, confused to the point of pain. He knew only defeat.<p></p>

CHAPTER 1: TREE WARNING

Haylwen, Cadarn, the twins, and Nacia sat in a circle in the open grassy area where they usually met for martial arts practice. They used it for everything now. Today they were practicing sign language. It was quiet, only occasionally broken by a few words, if Cadarn asked a question.

Haylwen took a break and leaned back against the large oak behind her. Surrounded by the trees, the magical trees that somehow kept them safe from the monsters that chased them, she relaxed, hearing the birds and breeze through the leaves above her. Without trying, almost by reflex, she felt the energy of magic. She had been reading and practicing so much, the light leaped to her inner sight without effort. She could see clearly the light surrounding her, and her own bright and strong inner ball of light sitting in her chest.

She let her ball of internal energy grow and felt a tug. For a moment, she felt there were other places in her body where energy would form! She excitedly wondered if they might let her do more with magic. Does Cadarn or my father know? Maybe one of the books? She didn’t wait to ask.

She found one at her throat, touched another really big one at her head. Maybe it was more than one? She focused. Ok, there was the first one in my chest, one in my belly, and at least another one below that. She compared them and felt lines, strings maybe, connecting them. Haylwen suddenly realized they weren’t balls, but were more like pools of energy, with streams flowing back and forth between the pools. She looked at their pulsing movement, growing and shrinking. In another exciting realization, she saw them as tide pools being fed by the ocean of light all around her. They’re all connected!

Then she felt another one, a bigger one, just out of reach beyond her head. She imagined her top pool sending a little stream toward where she felt this other pool. She strained, but it slipped away. She relaxed, and it came closer. She let the stream wander its own way, which just happened to be toward the bigger pool. They touched.

Suddenly, she was swept along in a river. Her little stream grew in an instant, swallowing her in a flash flood. Terror twisted her stomach, but before she could even open her eyes, she stopped. She blinked. Or, at least, she thought she did. Am I awake or dreaming? Or finally gone completely crazy?

She stood on a small island, surrounded by a stream. The stream’s giggles whispered around her as it danced along its rocky bed. Other islands surrounded hers, with swift streams making their way along them, a network of water and earth. Each island had a single tree on it. Her island had a tall oak, and she could swear it was the same one she had been leaning against. She took the several steps to the water’s edge and looked into the rapidly moving water. Though it was running quickly, the water was so clear she could see sparkling stones on the bottom.

“Welcome!” a voice said from behind her.

Haylwen spun and saw an old man standing there, his arms crossed, smiling through his beard. His hair was long, dark brown, and snarled, but in such a pattern as to seem intentional. He wore a long robe of coarse fabric, shaded in browns. His eyes were amazingly bright green and shone in contrast against his brown skin. He stood right where the oak had been, the great tree that was now gone.

“Again we felt. You come.” He spoke so slowly, Haylwen initially thought of saying something during the pauses after his sentences. “Welcome. Haylwen. Quickling child.” She eventually figured out his sentences were all one.

Haylwen didn’t mind waiting, as there was so much going on in her…what she felt coming in from around her. She felt as if she were immersed in energy, in magic. Everything had a background shimmer, as if she could see the energy of the air reflecting and bouncing off the energy of the land and water. The energy carried a chorus of music, perfectly harmonious together, though each was a full symphony by itself. Haylwen caught a part of the tune, a catchy, simple melody that sounded familiar. She was barely aware of a tiny note of wrongness that was somewhere close, but Haylwen lost it in the wonder.

When the old man had not spoken for some time, Haylwen replied, “Where am I?”

He gave a breezy laugh. “You are. Where you were. And still are.”

“Huh? Um, let’s start over. How do you know my name?”

The old man blinked, shook his head slowly. Haylwen felt herself slow down, or everything else speed up, as the old man muttered something about time and quicklings. Either way, suddenly his speech didn’t seem slow.

He said, “You told me your name.” He didn’t seem to be kidding.

Haylwen tried again. “Who are you?”

“I am who I was.” He looked briefly confused, then brightened. “But, of course! For the you-now this is the first.” He made an odd sort of bow, a swaying from the waist. “I am Barandarus, the youngest of the elders, the speaker for the grove.”

A flash made Haylwen look around. On the other islands, where the other trees had stood, now stood men and women, wearing similarly-styled robes. They silently watched.

Haylwen tried again. “What is this place?” She tried not to think she was just hallucinating. A dream, that’s all.

Again, the breezy laugh, which seemed to echo as it spread among the other people. “This is no place, quickling. This is the energy of the grove. You might even call it the mind of the grove,” he said, looking around. “Your energy, my energy,” he continued, waving his hand at the others, “hers and his and hers, all of their energy, vibrating in resonance, in concert. Energy, mind, all as one.”

“Why did you bring me here?”

He shook his head, still smiling. “We do not bring. The way was there, the door to open, and you brought. Why did you bring you here?” After a pause, he continued with a wink. “Perhaps it is guidance you seek from the grove?”

Was that a hint? “What sort of guidance might I want?”

The old man smiled and gave another of his wavy bows. “You told us, or will tell us, this would be the way, but still.” He smiled with a slow head shake. “Curious quicklings, so full of energy, without perspective.” He stood a bit differently. “You said to be sure I will tell you three.” He held up one finger. “One. Remember Rivenwake.”

Haylwen’s eyes widened. Remember Rivenwake? She echoed it in her mind, memories flashing past. Her one real-life meeting with him was a blur of embarrassed stammering as she’d tried to seem normal in the face of his fathomless eyes and too-cute face. Or, could he be talking about her dream of him, running from a horde of assassins and her first kiss, heart-pounding nightmare and romantic fantasy all in one? She couldn’t forget him, despite all her trying.

A thrumming started, and Barandarus blinked. “Nothing save trouble,” he muttered. He flicked a second finger up. “Two. Find Faustas.”

Why did that name sound familiar…? Oh! The mustachioed king from her book on the history of magic! Find Faustas the Traitor?

“He’s dead!” Haylwen blurted.

Barandarus shook his head. “Of course not. Though, it has been a while, even for us.”

A moan interrupted. Low and quiet, like someone in the distance was injured. Barandarus winced and then grimaced as more moans joined, changing voices, coming closer. He shook his head, eyes unfocused. A scream broke his look, and he fixed his gaze on her intently.

“Child, there is damage come to the grove,” he said with energy beyond the volume of his words, “and darkness carried in it. We feel it comes for you. We will do what we can, but they were invited, in a way. You are needed to protect yourselves, ourselves. Go, please go.”

Looking in Barandarus’ eyes, Haylwen could feel his pain. For a second, she knew him, trusted him. She felt a pulling, as if someone had opened a door on a storm.

“Wait, what is the third?” she blurted, fighting the pulling sensation.

“Clearing come. Now go!” Barandarus shouted.

Haylwen let herself slide into the opening, back along the same way she’d come. She blinked and was back in the clearing, sitting just as she had been. She jumped up, the others watching her curiously.

“What’s up, Hayl?” Cadarn asked.

“There is damage and darkness coming to the grove,” she shot out. She blushed slightly, trying not to notice Cadarn’s look. “We should get back to the house.”

She quickly grabbed her pack and went to the edge of the clearing to stand looking toward the main house. The others were slowly gathering their things, except for Oakren. He had grabbed all his things, stepped up almost in front of her, and made a few gestures in sign language. Haylwen shook her head, not understanding. He was deaf, but she felt dumb.

Nacia was leading the others out, and Oakren gestured to her and then Haylwen.

“What?” Nacia said. “You want me to say what? You heard the trees and want to talk to them next time?”

Haylwen looked sharply at Oakren, surprised. Oakren nodded to himself and smiled. He made a few more gestures.

Nacia sighed. “He says he wants you to bring him next time.” She shook her head and said under her breath, “I know he has a crush on you, but honestly.”

Haylwen heard a crash, the distant sound of breaking wood. She started walking, and then heard the sound of a chainsaw. She picked up the pace. Nacia was gesturing to the twins, who looked confused, then angry. They started running, sprinting past Haylwen. By the time Haylwen got to the farmhouse, the boys were standing next to Feabee on the porch, the three of them looking like thunderclouds.

Nacia ran over to stand with her mother, Topaz, just inside the door. They looked so much alike, one just an older version of the other, a mirror through time. Haylwen drifted to stand by her parents off to the side, while Cadarn stood by himself to the side of the porch. Everyone was looking down the path, to where the sounds of crashing branches and large motors were gradually coming closer. Feabee made an occasional gesture to the twins to let them know what the rest were hearing.

Haylwen blanched at a particularly loud crash, wincing. Her father looked at her questioningly. “They are trying to help, and it is hurting them,” Haylwen whispered. Her father held his questioning look for a moment. His eyes popped wide and suddenly narrowed as he heard what she’d said. He looked into the forest briefly and then turned and started to say something to Haylwen.

He was drowned out as a large, olive-green truck crashed through the last of the branches, leaves and twigs caught in its grille and hanging from the roof rack. It looked like some savage beast, a destroyer of trees. It revved its engine and then growled its way up the slope to stop halfway up. It backed off the dirt road onto the grass as a shiny black SUV quietly rolled out from the mangled tunnel of trees. After the SUV passed it, the truck threw itself in a roaring spin that threw chunks of green and mud behind it to block the road out. It sat there, engine still growling. The smell of diesel rolled up to the house.

The SUV pulled off the road and drove across the rolling lawn, leaving crushed grass in its wake. It stopped with the passenger side at the very edge of the farmhouse porch. The passenger door opened and a tall man in a charcoal suit stepped out, directly onto the porch.

With his blond hair chopped short, it took Haylwen a moment to recognize him. “Mr. Johansen,” she whispered, clutching her father and sliding behind him. Her ex-principal was here? A wave of fear washed over her, carrying memories of when he had grabbed her—the feel of his hands on her neck, the chemical smell of his car as he’d stuffed her in.

“You have nothing to fear from him,” her father said in a quiet, but stern, voice, tension rolling off of him.

Haylwen’s mother, Crystyn, leaned over, turning to look Haylwen in the eye. “He will never touch you again, I promise.” Crystyn stood, taking a couple of firm steps to stand a bit ahead of Haylwen and her father. Abrennin twitched away as Crystyn moved past him, like he had gotten a shock. He gave her a brief look of surprise and confusion, but she wasn’t paying attention.

“May I help you?” Feabee said. “You realize this is private property.”

Mr. Johansen took a step toward Feabee, a reddish hue seeping from him. Haylwen’s guts clenched. He was going to use magic to hurt Feabee!

Abrennin whispered something and then choked. Haylwen’s stomach twisted more, realizing what her father’s choking meant. With me and Cadarn here, our parents’ Oath is in effect. Mom and Dad can’t use magic. Her parents might protect her from a physical attack, but what about a magical one?

Feabee shot Abrennin a wide-eyed look and he nodded once. She blinked, then her jaw muscles jumped as a green glow slipped around her. Haylwen squeezed her father’s hand, a question. He smiled thinly and squeezed back. Of course, Feabee could use magic!

“I have information that you are willfully transgressing against federal law,” Mr. Johansen said. Haylwen gave a little gasp as a red arc shot from Mr. Johansen, a striking snake, to bounce off Feabee’s green shield. “You are harboring fugitives, aiding and abetting criminals.” Another red snake slithered along the ground, trying to work its way under Feabee’s shield.

Feabee shook her head with a smile.

“You think truancy laws are less important than any other?” Mr. Johansen said loudly, standing a bit taller. “We must make sure the children of society are safe.”

“My paperwork is in order and has not expired,” she said.

“Perhaps, but it only lists three students,” he sneered.

Haylwen looked over to Cadarn, sharing the look of guilt and fear that this was about them. Haylwen felt her fear twist into anger. Feabee, Nacia, and the twins were going to get in trouble because of her! She looked up at her father, who just held her hand and shook his head slightly.

“Actually, I submitted updated paperwork, which was received two days ago,” Feabee replied.

“And I was sent to confirm the information was accurate. We have the right to do an inspection for classes equal to, or larger than, five,” he said.

“There is no such law,” Feabee retorted, eyes narrowing.

“Law? Oh, I guess you didn’t see the express invitation to an inspection on the forms you completed?” he sneered. His red bubble pulsed. Several snakes struck as he said, “The forms you signed authorized the right of inspection with acceptance. We must make sure there is actual learning, to prevent child neglect.”

Feabee threw apologetic looks at Haylwen’s parents. “Invitation? I didn’t see…” Her green shield was weakening under the repeated attacks.

“You understand that the neglect laws include all students, correct?” The red intensified, and the attacking snakes grew in number. “Under the child abuse and neglect statutes, we have the authority to take all of the children into custody immediately,” Mr. Johansen said.

Haylwen watched as the green glow started to show tiny spots of black, gaps in the shield. Two more red snakes quickly shot out from Mr. Johansen, squirming against the black spots, trying to force their way in. Feabee looked resigned, trapped. Haylwen felt her father try to say something, but he tensed and choked.

“You have no authority here.” Haylwen gave a small gasp, hearing her mother’s voice with such power. “You will take your polluting trucks and leave immediately.” Crystyn stalked across the porch to stand ahead and to the side of Feabee, making Mr. Johansen shift to face her. Haylwen glanced up at her father, who was breathing easier. His face was an odd combination of confused and proud.

Mr. Johansen looked over Crystyn’s head, following where she had come from to see Haylwen and Abrennin standing there. He gave a little smirk, a twisted look of revenge.

“Ah, Mrs. Rightad. I see where your vandalizing daughter gets it.” Several thick red snakes slowly approached her mother. “If I leave, it will be with your truant children…”

A white glow erupted around Haylwen’s mother. Haylwen squinted, slightly blinded as the white glow around her mother flared even brighter, engulfing the snakes, obliterating them.

“You will leave with nothing,” her mother said in a tone that sent shivers down Haylwen’s spine. Her mother had locked eyes with Mr. Johansen. Though he was at least a foot taller, he seemed to shrink with each passing moment, while Haylwen’s mother seemed to grow. The white glow increased in intensity and size, washing like waves against the receding red of Mr. Johansen. “If you ever come close to either of my children again—”

“I did nothing, I have witnesses,” Mr. Johansen interrupted, momentarily straightening, the red pushing against the waves.

The white flared again, and Mr. Johansen took a step back. He had only the slightest hint of red around him now, flickering.

“You have nothing to withstand a mother protecting her child,” Haylwen heard her mother say, as another blinding flare of white pulsed out. Mr. Johansen took another step back, stumbling, withering even more under her fierce gaze.

Crystyn pointed her finger toward the SUV as another pulse of the white light washed over Mr. Johansen. “You and your agent’s invitations are revoked!” Haylwen’s mother nudged Feabee, who nodded once.

Mr. Johansen slid backward down the stairs, banging into the SUV, scrambling to open the door and get inside before being sucked away. He slammed the door closed, and the SUV’s idling engine roared, tires spitting grass and dirt in every direction. Everyone was pelted, but Haylwen noticed not a fleck hit her mother.

The SUV bounced down the hill as the olive-green truck tore out of the way. The black SUV disappeared into the tunnel as the truck spun around, engine roaring, tires clawing the ground, making a new set of wounds in the grassy field. A cold shiver crawled up Haylwen’s legs, tightening around her throat, as she looked at the ruined lawn. Even after the smell of exhaust had drifted away, the wounds were mocking proof they weren’t safe. It was only a matter of time.

CHAPTER 2:  SPIRITED CHILD

Haylwen slept later than usual. A nightmare had woken her up and kept her awake for hours. Cadarn’s moans showed he was battling his own nightmares, but she had little sympathy in the middle of the night. She felt like she had just fallen back asleep when something hit her head and woke her again.

Cadarn glared at her, his arm cocked back to throw another pillow. “Quiet!”

“What?” she said.

“You kept me up all night with your whining,” he grumped.

“You were whimpering yourself,” she retorted.

He stormed off to the bathroom, muttering that he didn’t whimper.

She tried to get back to sleep, but after what seemed a forever of trying, she finally dragged herself out of bed. She still had to wait at the bathroom door for Cadarn. When he finally came out, he sneered at her as they passed each other.

When she was done, she saw him at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping on the argument drifting up from below.

“Mom and Dad?” she asked Cadarn.

“Who else?” he grumped.

“Are they arguing about—?” she started to ask.

“They’re arguing about toast,” he snapped, and stalked off to their bedroom, closing the door firmly.

Haylwen hesitated. Feeling like it was her fault they were arguing, she slunk downstairs. Somehow it made sense that, if they were mad at her, she wanted to be the one they yelled at.

“I’m sorry,” she started as she entered the kitchen.

“Sorry about what?” her mother snapped. “You didn’t burn the toast.”

“Don’t snap at her,” her father said. He took a breath, raising his hands in a gesture of peace to counter her mother’s glare. “I know…we’re all a bit edgy after yesterday. Your mother and I were up for some time talking to Feabee and Topaz. They agreed to go to the museum with the other kids this morning.” He turned to Haylwen. “I figure it’s a fine time for another…ah… lesson.” He motioned Haylwen to follow and walked toward the door. He looked over his shoulder at her mother. “Get Cadarn up for a lesson, too. Hayl and I will go far enough into the forest so we don’t interfere with each other’s Oath.”

Haylwen grabbed two pieces of toast with peanut butter, grumbling at the burnt corners. She hurried to catch her father as he stomped down the hill. She caught him as he stopped just inside the mangled tunnel the trucks had come through yesterday. He stood in front of a particularly large tree, staring at a ragged stump of a large branch pointing toward the road. Haylwen looked away from the half-hacked, half-ripped-off limb.

Her father shook his head, muttering, and faced her. “So, there is not much you can do when there is this much damage, other than clean up the cut.” He motioned angrily to the ragged end sticking out from the tree. “You can use a regular saw, or”—his eyes flashed—“you can use magic.” He gave his head a little shake and took a deep breath.

He pointed to the branch. “You want to leave the least amount of the inner wood exposed to the air, to the bugs. If you take a string of Earth, and rim it in just a little Fire—”

“What?” Haylwen interrupted, confused. In her reading, she’d imagined Fire was red, but didn’t want to use whatever Mr. Johansen had been using. That felt wrong. “Do I have to use red energy?”

Her father smiled, shaking his head at himself. “I forget how little you know sometimes.” He took a few steps across the road, directly opposite the tree, motioning for Haylwen to follow. He kept talking as he did. “Energy is within you. People argue about how many kinds. Tradition says there are three: Fire, Water, and Earth. I usually talk about five—Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. Some say there are seven, or thirteen. There are even some who argue there are an infinite number. Regardless, each kind of energy has different properties. Spirit, for example, has the property of life, of becoming. Earth is grounding and supporting.”

Haylwen said nothing. What her father had just told her cleared up a lot of little questions she’d had after reading. She battled wanting to know more with feeling stupid for asking any more. He squatted down next to where a large tree made a ridge of loose dirt between two of its roots. He motioned for her to come down next to him.

Once she was next to him, he scooped up a handful of dirt. He motioned for her to do the same, which she did, a bit skeptically.

“Squeeze it, feel the temperature, the consistency. Smell it,” he said, taking a sniff and smiling.

Haylwen took a cautious sniff, scrunching her face. Smelled like…dirt.

“Do you smell the potential? How plants can use that to grow?” He waved his other hand to the lush undergrowth, up to the trees. “Smell again.”

Haylwen took another sniff, trying to let go of the voice that was telling her this was stupid, that the dirt stunk, that it was making her unclean. She smelled again, closed her eyes, and tried to smell it like a plant, like a tree. She felt a connection, a release, and smelled the moisture, the slight sharpness that suddenly reminded her of when her mother made bread from scratch. The dough had to rise, her mother said, and it had an earthy smell to it.

She opened her eyes and looked at the dirt again, a bit more appreciatively. She squeezed it and then gave it a little shake, loosening it up.

“Exactly,” her father said. “It is different when it is compacted like that. The plants have to fight against it, go around it.”

“What about rocks?” Haylwen asked, picking up one the size of her fist.

“Ah, exactly! That is also Earth,” he said, “but concentrated. Like the difference between mist and an ocean, leaves and a tree trunk.”

“So, is Earth the brown color?” she asked.

He took a moment to answer. “The colors you see with the energies are not the substance of the energy, but the intent, feeling, or motivation of the magic user.” Haylwen blinked. He smiled and continued. “You can use magic of Earth and Fire, and it may look to you like red because the mu is feeling angry, or intending to use energy to force something.”

“The moo?” she said.

He laughed. “Magic User. M-U. Mu. The magic user, the mu, uses the energy that has the particular properties to accomplish the task. Regardless of the energy used, however, the vibrational spectrum is interpreted by those with the Sight, or with a Necklace of Vision, like you have, as from the mind of the user.”

Haylwen was trying to understand. “So, I can see what the other person is thinking, not what energy they are using?”

Her father nodded. “But, once you get more accustomed to it, you will be able to sense, to feel, what kind of energy someone is using.” He motioned to the tree branch. “To make a clean cut, we need the absorptive property of Earth, and to seal it, we want to use the searing property of Fire.”

Haylwen remembered healing the branch that Oakren was on and put it together with Barandarus. She said, “And Spirit too, right?”

Haylwen saw her father smile, shaking his head, when he suddenly stopped. “Yesterday you said they were protecting us,” her father said slowly.

She nodded.

“What did you mean, they?”

Haylwen could sense her father’s unease and was tempted to lie, to say she’d just guessed. She stood and felt a little dizzy. She found herself leaning against the tree, closing her eyes, and putting a hand on its trunk. She could sense the path to the place she’d talked to Barandarus. Her head cleared.

She opened her eyes and saw her father had an odd look on his face. “You think you can hear trees talking to you,” he said.

She nodded, feeling scared and alone. Of course, her father would know what the history books had said about Faustas the Traitor. They said he did what he did because of “magical psychosis,” and hearing trees talk was a sign. What would he do if I said I actually met one and he had twinkling green eyes? Find Faustas, yeah right. At least my subconscious used the hallucination to tell me where to find out I was going crazy.

Her father gave her a smile and stepped over to give her a pat on the shoulder. “Trees can’t talk. They’re not really alive, in that way.” He forced a smile down at her.

Haylwen pretended to smile.

He stepped back and said, “Just like before, you center yourself and call the energy forth. The kotodama, I mean, command word, is Teasg.”

“How do I know what energy I am calling?” she asked.

“Remember the smell, the feel of the dirt? Each one will have a different sense to you, will feel completely separate. Could you ever imagine confusing a handful of dirt with a handful of air?”

Haylwen shook her head, but was skeptical.

Her father smiled. “Which is why I will show you. Try to concentrate on sensing the Earth, the dirt, if you will. Ignore the colors you see and reach for the energy you feel.”

He closed his eyes, and Haylwen could see a glow surround him. She tried to smell dirt, to feel the cool sponginess. Her father reached up toward the branch, and Haylwen saw a greenish-brown ball appear in his hand and then stretch to a flat bar of color. The bar had red streaks in it that Haylwen didn’t like.

But what do I know?

The bar jumped to extend from his hand to wrap around the ragged end of the stump of branch. After a moment, a little wisp of smoke came from the end of the branch, and Haylwen heard a moan. It might have only been in her imagination, but she cringed. Before she could say anything, her father pulled back his hand, the bar disappearing.

“You didn’t use Spirit, did you?” Haylwen surprised herself. She was furious! “I told you to use Spirit and you didn’t. Is that the way you would heal a person?” As soon as the words blurted out, she regretted them. If I am going to be crazy, I have to control it at least!

Her father looked shocked. “No, I didn’t use Spirit.” His face lost the calm look and his eyebrows came down over his eyes like a cloud covering the sun. “How dare you question me! Just because you have some fancy magic items doesn’t make you—” He stopped mid-sentence and blinked a few times. “Sorry, sweetie, I don’t know where that came from.” He looked at her and blinked again. “And your necklace wouldn’t have told you whether or not I used Spirit. Did you sense the energies?” His eyes had the sparkle back, the clouds breaking up a bit and letting the sun shine through.

“No, I could just tell the tree wasn’t being healed right.” The anger had completely slipped into feeling ashamed. Yelling at her father, that really was crazy. She really didn’t deserve the magic items and certainly didn’t know enough to criticize her father. She wasn’t even a good daughter, to talk to him like that.

“You are right, I wasn’t trying to heal the tree, not like an animal, more, well, just seal the wood, I guess.” He looked at the tree, then at Haylwen again. “The limb is cut, sealed the way it should be, see?”

Haylwen looked, and where the ragged branch end had been was a clean stump with a darker, weathered-looking edge. She nodded, thinking it looked like an amputation.

He pointed to a much smaller branch with a ragged edge. It was a few feet closer to the ground, just about at eye level for Haylwen. “Here, you try it.”

“Um, I think—”

Her father interrupted. “It’s fine, your mother and I got permission for all of us to use magic here. Go ahead. You have to learn.”

Haylwen trembled. What if I do it wrong? Then she was mad, knowing her father was trying to prove that she wasn’t a magic user. I’ll show him, she thought, I’ve already healed one tree branch with Oakren hanging off it!

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, looking for the sphere of energy inside her. She couldn’t find any. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter, tried to flex something to look deeper, but there was nothing. She tried again, felt herself reaching out for the trees, then felt something rush by the back of her head. She spun her head, still with her eyes closed, and caught a glimpse of glowing red, like Mr. Johansen’s snakes, out of the corner of her eye. She lost her balance and opened her eyes quickly enough to catch herself before she fell.

“You okay, sweetie?” her father asked.

Haylwen nodded, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes again. She looked around, wondering if she’d imagined it. The spheres of light were there, swirling through all the colors, almost faster than she could identify them. She now saw the whole set of them, stacked on top of one another, pulsing with the light that surrounded her. Without thinking of it consciously, she started humming the tune from Barandarus, from the tree-mind. She thought of healing the tree, the doubt of being able to do it lost in the swirling colors. The swirls settled into a greenish yellow, each sphere in the column a slightly different shade. She briefly considered trying to make a bar like her father had, but it didn’t seem right.

She opened her eyes and looked at the branch, imagining it like an injury. She reached her hand out, pushing the image of a healed branch toward the tree. She watched as her sphere of color gently wrapped itself around the end of the branch. She half noticed she was humming a birdsong-like tune while she worked. She heard a distant sigh, a release of tension. She let go, and the yellow disappeared. The branch didn’t look like her father’s; it didn’t really look like she’d done anything. Maybe the cut edges were a little smoother? Yes, it definitely looked less ragged.

“It’s okay, sweetie, it was a good try.” Her father put a hand on her shoulder, and she turned to face him.

There was that red flash again, just at the corner of her vision! She lost it when her father kept talking.

“It’s a good lesson,” he said. “The energies are all equal in power, but their powers are different. Spirit just isn’t tough enough to cut wood, not hot enough to sear it closed. It would be like trying to saw a log with water instead of metal. You could do it, but it would be much, much harder. Here, watch me.” He took his eyes from her face, stepping to the side to look at the branch. Before he could do more, his eyes popped, staring.

Haylwen spun to look at the branch. Where the ragged stump had been was a whole branch: bark, a sharply tapered end, even a few small leaves at the tip. It looked like a healthy, normal branch, just a bit oddly shaped.

Her father looked at her. The look flashed through surprise as Haylwen saw another flicker of red, followed by nothing. His face shifted for a moment—was that fear? Haylwen felt ashamed again, like she had done something forbidden.

“That was…interesting.” Her father’s mouth was smiling, but his eyes were blank. It was the face he put on for company.

“Sorry,” she whispered.

He took a deep breath and gave his head a little shake. He stooped to be directly at her eye level. “No. You didn’t do anything wrong—you did something, well, impossible. Just because it is…not how I did it, not how it is ‘supposed’ to be done, doesn’t mean it is wrong.” He pointed at the branch and then at the one he’d seared. “Which branch looks healthier?” He shook his head again. “In fact, why don’t you teach me how to do that!”

Haylwen saw his smile didn’t reach his eyes. She gave him a forced smile in return.

The sudden sound of a roaring flame, immediately followed by screaming, stopped them short. They ran out of the woods to the smell of smoke and the sound of yelling.