In the buried archives of the Temple of Dust may lie the secret to defeating the Curse, a creature which seeks to destroy 16 year old Ria for the forbidden gifts she possesses. But it is from among the ranks of those who control the Curse where Ria will find her best chance of success. Only the Priestess Niri can save Ria from the forces that hunt her, if Niri doesn’t betray the girl first. Along with Ria comes Ty and his sister, Lavinia, both bound to defend Ria from the Church of Four Orders and Niri, if they must. However, Ty has been living a life less than honest and keeping it from his sister. To survive a journey that takes them across the breadth of their world, the four must learn to trust each other before pursuit from the Church and Ty’s troubled past find them.
Born of Water is book 1 in the Rise of the Fifth Order epic fantasy saga! Set in the fictional world of Myrrah, this fantasy adventure will take you to new lands to meet unique cultures such as the Kith and the desert tribe of the Ashanti. Join Ria as she struggles with a gift she does not want and threatens her life, Niri as she confronts the Church that has trained her and has taken away so much of her freedom, Lavinia as her vision of life is shattered in her need to protect her best friend and by the truth her brother keeps from her, and Ty as he faces the life he has left behind but seeks to pull him back.
Here is what people are saying about Born of Water!
“I read a lot of fantasy and I’d rate this as a great new author and a great new story! I can not WAIT for the next book and will check back often for it!” – Katy Reany 5 stars on Amazon
“I would recommend it to fantasy adventure fans, those who like a little romance, and anyone who is a fan of magic! I know I will read the next installment!” – W. Stuart 4 stars on Amazon
“I loved two battle scenes in particular. The battle at the Temple of Dust and the battle at the Temple of Wind. Fire versus water. Air versus Earth. Thrilling!” Futureboy 4 stars on Amazon
“I’m biased, because this is exactly my sort of book. But maybe that bias should make me more critical…but there is absolutely nothing to dislike about Born Of Water…We’re not simply reading about this quest…we’re there with them.” Stewart Bint 5 stars on Smashwords
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BORN OF WATER
The guards had not seen her. Yet, Niri’s back twitched under watchful eyes as she moved awkwardly through the throng-filled street. The summer solstice festival was rising to its height as the sun slowly dipped toward the Sea of Sarketh to the west. Niri was running out of time.
Frustration as much as fear stalled her already labored breathing. Sweat from the warm afternoon slid down between her breasts, soaking the white priestess robes she wore hidden underneath a plain gray traveler’s cloak. The heavy braid of her dark brown hair felt like a full sack against her damp back.
“Out of the way, girl!”
Niri dodged the team of four mammoth birds harnessed to a delicate chariot out of instinct. No one had called her merely a girl since she was nine. At her age of twenty-three, girl was a term used for disdain. Anger froze her feet. The jeweled and gilded wings of the birds brushed her face as they passed, she had stopped so close.
As the carriage rolled by, only the clothing of the occupant kept Niri from betraying that she was a Priestess from the Church of Four Orders and demanding an apology. The golden sun mask worn by a tall youth filled her vision, its appearance a mocking telltale of her failed duty at the day’s summit.
“May the blessings of the sun shine on you!”
Niri backed away from his innocent mockery. He didn’t know, couldn’t know, who she was or what she had failed to do and now must set right. But the reminder of what had led her to sneak out of the public complex brought a cold end to her heated frustration. Niri stumbled against the warm stucco wall of the nearest building. The archway of a recessed doorway offered a shadowed reprieve from the crowded street.
She could go back.
The thought offered a momentary comfort. It would be a relief to abandon her hasty search. But Niri knew that if she returned to the Temple of Solaire without the girl she’d seen at the noon ceremony, the price would be paid in her skin and blood. It was far better to sneak out into the streets of the solstice festival and hope to find the girl, or at least a name, something to take back to atone for her lack of attention and failure. No matter how impossible the task seemed.
One moment of indecision as she’d watched the golden-haired girl laugh with a dark-headed friend had been all it had taken to undo the order of Niri’s life. Potential had danced like a halo around the girl. Niri had no doubt that the girl – no, young woman, for surely she was near sixteen – was an Elemental like herself. The girl was meant for a life serving the Church of Four Orders as Niri did. But the girl had laughed in carefree gaiety. Niri didn’t want to be the one who took that away.
Attention lost to that fleeting wish and the ceremony had paused, waiting for her. She’d missed her cue. Panicked, Niri had jumped forward, speaking the blessing for good fishing, few storms, and rain for the orchards. It was not until halfway through that Niri had realized what she’d done. She’d forgotten the girl. The time to proclaim the young woman as having been chosen by the Goddess to serve in the Temple of Solaire had passed. As simply as that, Niri’s world unraveled.
She had only ever heard of one other Priestess who had failed in her duty. Her screams had echoed through the Temple for days and rung now in Niri’s ears. The Priestess who had come back to the Temple defiant that the boy-child could wait another year had never left the Temple again and walked slowly ever after, bent over like the aged as she tried to hide the scars on her face. The only kindness had been deafness so that she could not hear the lessons in duty given to initiates whenever the scarred Priestess shuffled past.
Niri fidgeted with the hem of her cloak. There was no other alternative. She had to find the girl. Niri closed her eyes, seeking focus and calm as she’d learned when an initiate.
Instead, the noise of the street fair surfaced an older memory.
“Green with gold for Odias and his House of vine keepers, and the lavender-blue is Myath, who is from a sailing House,” her father once told her, pointing out the different Houses by the colors and symbols on gowns and flags.
For a moment she was once again the young daughter of a city official, in a time before the Church had claimed her and taken away from her family. The voice of her father faded, but not the lesson. The disorderly swirl of gowns if the fair goers represented House colors and professions.
Niri searched her memory of the girl, finding hope at last. The girl had the pale skin common of the people along the northern Sea of Sarketh, sunshine-gold hair, and a plain olivine dress belted at a slim waist and tied at the shoulders. It told her little. This girl with potential that glowed in Niri’s eyes like an aurora was most likely from the farmland beyond the city. But the dark-haired friend who had shared a whispered laugh while the elders read the litany of the year, she had worn a satin dress of indigo blue with gold trim. She was from a sailing House, assuredly. She would live in Mirocyne.
As if the realization summoned the reality, a jolt of deepest blue flashing between fairgoers caught Niri’s eye. She dove into the crowd of people, chasing after the small page who scampered among market stalls and musicians like an air sprite. The sight of his cuff adorned with the same interlocking gold crenelations the girl’s friend had worn quickened Niri’s heart.
The pursuit took Niri further away from the heart of the city. The main piazza, the public complex housing the government buildings, and the wealthiest homes crowned a red cliff that towered over Mirocyne’s harbor. Lesser houses and businesses tumbled from the height toward the wharves, mostly along the steep main road. Red-tiled roofs mimicked the color of the arid soil, while the creamy stucco of the buildings defied the heat of the sun. The page’s path took him down a boulevard that, although stately, was not as wide as those nearest the public complex. The edge of the cliff was not so far away and the lowering sun cast slanted shadows across the street.
There was not much time left to find the girl. The festival would end at sunset on this, the longest day. Patrons would return to their homes to sleep off excesses during the short coolness of the night. Already the muted gray of Niri’s cloak blended with the shadows.
Haste had narrowed Niri’s vision to only the indigo shirt of the page weaving before her. Now, her glance found another splash of blue, then another. Niri stopped. Around her, suspended from balconies and worn on every person, were the blues and golds of a sailing House of moderate standing. Niri had found the family she was seeking. Now she just needed to find the girl.
Niri slipped along the edge of the thinning crowd scattered across the boulevard. The faces bore a familial resemblance to the girl’s friend: pale skin, blue eyes, dark hair.
They had to be there.
It took a few tense minutes more before Niri saw golden curls amidst the dark. The two girls stood together near the opening of a private courtyard, speaking to a dark-haired young man wearing the same deep blue tunic with gold trim as the page and dark-haired girl. Both young women seemed enchanted by the story he was telling. The cream-colored sailor’s pants he wore were a shade lighter than his skin. Which didn’t make sense.
The young man was of an age to have begun his profession, easily older than sixteen. Niri guessed he was closer to twenty. From the looks of the tunic and House, he was by all rights a young sailor. But his hands were smooth, not roughened from hauling ropes and hoisting sails. His skin was pale, not tanned from sun and salt. Long nimble fingers wrapped around a fine goblet, while keen eyes kept watch over his two companions.
A puzzle lay before her: a girl whose potential shone like a star, a young man who was not what he presented himself to be, and the dark-haired girl between the two. Elemental potential, Niri was trained to handle. But while the young man stood close, Niri hesitated to approach the young women.
The young man’s gaze scarcely left the face of the girl Niri sought. Cheeks flushed with wine below mirth-filled olive green eyes and flame-gold hair tousled by the wind, her beauty evoked summer fields brought to life. The dark-haired girl earned an occasional similarly devoted, but more protective glance, as the trio shared a private joke.
Niri considered asking someone on the street for a name of the House or of the girl, something to take back to the Church so that the young woman could be located again. But, the boy leaned forward and took the two goblets from the girls’ hands. As his back turned, Niri darted across the street, to finger the wares of a silk merchant. She shifted to stand as close to the two young women as she dared.
“Do you want to head in soon? We can dip our feet in the courtyard fountain.”
The dark-haired girl’s voice resonated like a well-tuned violin. She hovered at the entrance to the courtyard like a moth caught between the light of her friend and the safety of her family.
The other girl shook her head, the motion exaggerated by her humid curls as they brushed across bare shoulders. “I’m just too excited. Grandmother Sanoo had been so sure that I would be taken today. I’m just so thrilled it is over!” She reached out and grabbed her friend’s forearm.
“Go for a walk with me? I’ll never settle down if we go in now,” she pleaded, her voice dancing higher like a rising flute. She pulled her friend away from the security of the courtyard and into the emptying street.
“I don’t know. The festival is over. It will be true dark soon.” The House girl, obviously reluctant, was torn between her friend’s desires and the threat of darkness in the city.
Searching for something that would win her friend’s agreement, the girl with golden hair found the young man returning with freshly filled cups. “Your brother will go with us, Lavinia. Won’t you, Ty?”
Ty handed off the cups nonchalantly, nonplussed by the commotion between the two young women. “That is the last for the night, I’m afraid. Everyone is closing up. Now what is you are trying to get me into, Ria?” His deep alto was laced with warm amusement.
“She wants you to go for a walk with us. Ria says she is too giddy to be cooped up in the house with all the guests.” Lavinia said, no longer resisting the idea once her brother had reappeared. She calmly sipped her last goblet of wine, hardly looking like she was bothered by the idea of a night walk at all.
“Well, a bit of a walk it is, then!” Ty declared, stepping between the two women and giving them each a push forward. His hands lingered on Ria’s shoulders. Both girls giggled and skipped ahead, carefree as windblown seeds. Ty laughed as he stretched his long legs to keep up, the three looking like nothing more than childhood friends not yet ready to be adults.
Niri held back, no longer pretending to be interested in the silk. She had all she needed, really: the girl’s name, her friend’s, the House, and location. But Ria’s words stirred something within Niri. Someone knew that Ria had potential. Someone had known the Church would notice her. Such a thing was most uncommon; Niri had never heard of such foreknowledge outside the Temple’s walls before.
Niri took in the emptying streets, now more filled with shadow than sun. The evening air was cooler and brought with it the smells of the orange and almond orchards outside the city. Trellised flowers encasing colonnades and railings opened their buds into the kinder air. Not a single person around her wore the robes or a Priest or Priestess.
Niri’s heart quickened so that she could feel her pulse beating all the way to her wrists. She had not been alone, unchaperoned or without watchful eyes, since she had been nine. The idea of finding a way to speak to the girl was a thin covering for a sudden desire to walk just a little further without the Church knowing. Like a tamed demi-dragon who had slipped its leash and cuffs, Niri headed after the three youths.
Her cloak blended with the long shadows as Niri hung back in the nearly deserted streets. The three headed along the boulevard, away from the public quarter and wealthier houses. The direction suited Niri and she followed with a light step despite trying to be stealthy. Gaps between buildings opened to views of the sky and sea as the road hugged the edge of the hill before looping back to drop quickly to the lower city near the docks. A glimpse of the western sky showed just a faint smudge of light holding onto the day.
The sound of feet dancing on stairs which leapt from the main boulevard, down the cliff, and to the lower streets brought Niri over to a narrow alley between the buildings. She had lost sight of the three around the corner of the road, but had not worried that they might choose a route other than the relatively safe street.
Voices floated up, carried on the sea air, as the sound of footsteps disappeared.
“Come on, Ty! I want to see your boat,” Ria said, voice overflowing with laughter.
Higher on the stairs replied a reluctant Ty, “It is late, Ria. We should go back. The lower city is no place for unescorted young women.” He was only a few dozen steps below where Niri stood.
“You’d better hurry, then!” Lavinia shouted, voice faint as the fading light. They had to be near the bottom.
Ty cursed under his breath and started down the steps at a quick pace to catch his sister and her friend.
Reality bit deeper into Niri’s earlier childish joy of freedom. She glanced along the empty street. Darkness oozed from between buildings and from the mouth of every portico, as inescapable as the Church. It wasn’t just the two young women who needed to be worried. Niri was far from the safety of the public complex and barely recognizable as a Priestess from the Order of Water. She itched to touch water, hold water. The power of her blood thrummed through her veins, spurring a need that burned beyond desire.
Reflexively, she reached out with her mind and sensed immediately the sea beyond, its vastness a calm comfort to her nerves. Pulling in, she could feel the dampness in the air now that the sun had set. Moisture clung in a shimmering wall on the tiles of the street and the stucco of the buildings. The entire city was outlined in Niri’s mind by a thin line of water.
A wet world was alive around her, a sensation that Niri had never experienced before. Born as a Water Elemental, the Church had taught her to purify water, to bless it, and to call it for crops. But never to see the world, to sense it, like this. Niri realized the legacy of her birthright held far more potential than what she had been told. A little dazed but far less nervous, she slipped between the buildings and started down the stone steps, following the three.
Ty’s footsteps had nearly reached the bottom of the staircase. Niri hurried down the steps as quickly as she could in the fading light. But there was no sound of the three when she reached the last step located in the depth of the lower city. Niri paused between buildings, her chest heaving as she leaned against the cool, damp stone. She tried to hear over her ragged breaths and pounding heart.
A lighthearted laugh echoed oddly from her right, sounding like an exotic bird calling suddenly in the night. Niri moved quietly off in the same direction, hoping she would be able to find her way back to the steps and the public complex before dawn. The sense of stolen freedom was gone now, replaced by purpose underlain with worry. Her spate of disobedience needed to end soon.
Niri could sense the sea more than hear it a few blocks to her left, paralleling the street she walked along. Considering that this was the lower part of the city and of less standing than the houses located on the cliff top above, the street was broad and clean. Ahead, it widened out to a small square containing a pool of water held within a low granite wall.
The pool had no fountains or ornamentation beyond a softening of the worn lip on its stone base, but the import was clear. Water was sacred, feared and loved, this close to the docks and the sea. Through the widened common, Niri saw a flash of darkness against the dull gray stucco of the houses. The word “back”drifted to her before being lost amid the empty sounds of the night.
The three were heading toward the docks, the girls still wishing to see Ty’s ship. How he explained that he didn’t belong to one, as Niri was certain he didn’t, would be an interesting conversation to overhear.
The alleyways leading toward the harbor were narrow and dark and full of sea smells: salt and low tide, seaweed and fish. Niri barely noticed as she shortened the distance between the trio and herself, keeping easily to the shadows now in the darkened city. With any luck, when they stopped in confusion at Ty’s nonexistent boat, she would find a way of approaching and speaking to Ria.
At the intersection of the next street, Niri could see the girls hesitate as they peered ahead trying to find the way through the deepening night. Ty caught them at last, grabbing both of their arms in a quick lunge.
“We are going back. You aren’t children anymore and this is no place for the two of you.”
He was angry, his manner rough as he pulled the girls a step backwards. It frightened them, this sudden switch from innocent adventure to adult seriousness. Ria grabbed at Ty’s arm, pulling back while Lavinia tripped against her brother.
“You’re hurting me, Ty! Let me go!” Ria ordered. Only a lilt at the end betrayed her nervousness.
“That isn’t very nice, Tylee.” A low voice grated from the darkness.
Niri pushed herself deeper against the wall of the house she had stopped beside, hiding in the shadows of the colonnades while craning to see from where this new voice had come.
Ty stiffened, freezing in mid-reach to steady his sister. “I want you both to run. Get out of here and don’t stop until you get home. Don’t wait for me,” Ty whispered so low and fast that Niri could barely understand him. His pulse raced so quickly that for a moment Niri could sense the water in his blood pounding through his body, willing him to action. With deliberate slowness, he turned, peering into the darkness for the speaker.
Ria clutched her friend’s hand, ready to run. Lavinia looked toward her brother, unwilling to leave him behind. Balanced on the balls of his feet and looking for danger, Ty was the first to see the glint of the knife slicing through the air. He threw himself forward. His movement sent Lavinia a step closer to her brother and directly into the path of the hurled blade. Before Niri could shout a warning, the knife froze in midair. It hung arrested in motion as if it had struck home in an invisible wall.
The whole tableau paused: Lavinia reaching for her brother and realizing her fate; Ty losing his fighting form while the knife he had pulled from his belt fell toward the cobblestones as he reached for his sister; and Ria standing tall and unmoving, staring at the knife just inches away from her best friend’s head. But it was what no one else but Niri could see that held her spellbound. Power like lightning flowed toward Ria from the ground and air, amassing around her in a halo of potential.
The power emitted by Ria was immense, and, though flung instinctively to protect her friend, was held by a firm mind. The aura of energy did not waiver or dim as it swirled around Ria, a thin tendril reaching out to hold the knife aloft. With terrified awe, Niri dismissed the idea that Ria was simply an Elemental like herself. There was no combination of known skills that could do what she had done. Besides that, Niri could feel Ria’s connection to power outside of herself, unlike the internal blood skills of Elementals.
As Ty’s knife clattered to the street and his fingertips touched the outstretched hands of his sister, four men walked into view from the shadows. They stopped and stared at the three, talking swiftly with gestures most often in Ria’s direction. Unaware that the threat was not gone, Ria gave a slight tremble as the strings of magic dissipated into the night.
Niri’s surprise wore off as the men took another eager step forward toward the three youths. Lavinia stood wrapped in her brother’s embrace, while they both anxiously glanced between Ria and the approaching men.
Niri pulled at the water coating the buildings and stones of the road. She flung the moisture into the air creating an instant thick mist as confounding as day turned night. The sudden fog shielded the trio from the men, but the safety it brought was illusory. It would only take the men a moment to decide to wade through it and find their way across the intersection.
Is she were an Earth Elemental, Niri could have built a wall from the stones of the road. The wish flashed through Niri’s mind with an old ache. Water was a weak element to control, as she’d learned during her years in the Temple. Shoving the old shame away, she rushed forward to where the three stood still as rooted trees.
“This way, quickly!” she instructed.
Niri tossed back her cloak and herded the three ahead with open arms, feeling like a farm girl driving wayward geese. Overcome by what had occurred, the three obeyed the authority in her voice. She swept them forward down the street, knitting the mist behind into a thickness that confounded all senses. Without thinking, Niri wove through the streets and alleys, making a random pattern of turns that led them further away from the assailants.
At the mouth of a narrow alley, Niri paused. No footfalls sounded above the wash of waves. The mist lay still, undisturbed by anything trying to move through its blinding bulk. Now that the immediate threat the unknown posed was gone, Niri worried about the greater one coming.
“You have to leave,” Niri said as she looked skyward.
“What do you mean? We need to go home.” Ria spoke first, her chin tilting up as she recovered her composure.
Ty’s eyes narrowed as he looked Niri over where she stood with cloak open over her white robes. But it was Lavinia who recognized her first.
“You’re the Priestess from the ceremony.”
Concern chased by fear filled Lavinia’s face as she stepped toward Ria. Ria paled, crossing her arms tightly as she leaned away from Niri.
“No,” Ria moaned, tears welling in her eyes as she shied away. “I will not go with you. I’m not like you!”
“I’m not taking you to the Church, child. You are right. You aren’t an Elemental. You are not like me. And you need to leave now or it will mean your life.”
Lavinia and Ria clasped hands, seeking comfort in the other.
“You will not harm her!”
The anger in Ty’s voice pushed Niri back a step. Ty was ready for a new fight. But this time it was against her.
“It isn’t me she needs to fear,” Niri tried to explain.
“No, it is the Church, all of you!”
Lavinia glanced at her brother in surprise.
The assertion knocked Ty’s reckless anger back a fraction. Niri paused, fretting. Time was passing. She did not know how to make them understand quickly enough.
“What do you mean, I’m not like you?” Ria asked into the tense silence.
“I heard you speak earlier of being happy not to have been chosen today. You thought the Church would want you. Do you know what you just did?”
Dying hopes filled Ria’s eyes with tears. “I stopped the knife. I am an Elemental.”
Ria’s voice wavered, drawing out an ache in Niri she had thought long buried. Niri reached toward the girl. Ty stepped between them. Withdrawing her hand into her wide cuffs, Niri stared at the darkness and stones.
“There are worse things than being an Elemental. There is another gift, one of magic. It isn’t spoken of… the Church has outlawed it.”
“I don’t understand. I’m not an Elemental?” Ria asked, confused.
“The skills I contain are in my blood. I can only control water, and my ability cannot grow beyond the strength with which I was born. Magic is different. You tapped into the life force, the power of all living things. Your abilities are beyond… I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Ty snapped.
Niri stared him down, answering, “I don’t know because anyone who has ever used magic has been killed as soon as they were discovered.”
Lavinia and Ria gasped. Ty’s disbelief slowed him only for a second. He stepped forward.
“You will not…”
“Do you think I mean her any harm? With what?” Niri tossed open her cloak to show her plain priestess robes and unadorned belt holding no knife or bag. “I am not the one to fear. If I were, would I be chasing after the three of you at night, alone?” Niri slashed her hand between herself and Ty. She gestured toward Ria.
“You used magic, which isn’t allowed by the Church. You have unleashed the Curse, the Church’s way of tracking and dealing with those who use magic, and it is coming for you right now. You must leave tonight if you hope to survive until dawn.”
“I’m not leaving. I don’t want to leave. I want to go home to my family.” Ria said, leaning forward as if to be sick or faint.
“Are you certain?” Lavinia asked in desperation, glancing between Niri and Ty. “Are you sure she used magic and is not an Elemental? She could be strong Air and Earth combined, couldn’t she?” Lavinia asked, voice trailing off as she realized what she’d said. She was arguing that her friend was an Elemental, trying to convince a Priestess of this fact.
Niri looked from Lavinia to Ria. Studying the pale girl, Niri could only feel the draw to Ria like iron to a magnet. It was the same feeling she had to anyone with Elemental skills. She’d never met anyone with magic and didn’t know if the feeling would be different.
Ty saw her doubt and gave her a cold smile. “You can’t and we are going home.”
“Would you risk her life?” Niri challenged.
Lavinia held Ria’s hand, her other against Ria’s back where she stayed bent over, drawing shallow breaths. “Isn’t there anything else we can do? Some way to be sure?” Lavinia asked, cutting through the stalemate between Ty and Niri.
A thought occurred to Niri.
“There is some way you can tell, isn’t there?” Lavinia asked with relief. Ty hesitated.
“There is, but I need some basalt. There must be a shop down here in the lower city that sells… ingredients for homemade blessings?” Niri asked, trying not to cast judgment on something that she found herself in need of.
Ty replied, “Yes, I can take you to it. But I don’t think it will be open this late.”
“No, I cannot go. They will recognize me and no one must know I’ve left the public complex.” Niri spoke without thinking and then froze, wishing she could undo her words.
The three teenagers looked at her sharply. Ty sneered at her. “You snuck out.”
“But you don’t want anyone to know so that you can go back.” Ty asked, looking at her as if she were something distasteful.
“Yes,” Niri replied again, but the certainty died in her voice. She hadn’t thought of not going back.
“Then I will not trust you alone with Ria,” Ty replied.
It left only one option. All eyes turned to Lavinia. “But those men,” Lavinia stammered.
“They were after me, not you,” Ty said gruffly as he unbelted his sailor’s knife and put it around her waist. The knife along with the admission drained the blood from her face. The questions in her eyes resolved into one expression. With a look, Lavinia begged her brother not to make her do this.
“You know the store, right?” he asked without meeting her gaze.
Lavinia nodded stiffly. Niri thought for a moment she would cry, but she bit her lip and seemed to rally.
“Any basalt will do. Get it and meet us back at the pool near the bottom of the stairs. Do you think you can find it again?” Niri asked as they walked with her to the mouth of the alley.
Lavinia nodded. “Yes, if I don’t get lost in this fog.”
Niri gave her half a smile. “The fog won’t bother you.”
Lavinia’s mouth formed a small ‘O’ as Niri pulled back the mist to form an open tunnel. Ty glanced at Niri from the corner of his eye. With a push from her brother, Lavinia silently slipped down the street. Her slim figured clothed in the dark blue dress quickly disappeared in the darkness.
Niri waited a moment before closing the mist behind Lavinia. Ty made a gesture as if to stop her as his gaze looked after his vanished sister. The anger fell from his features, leaving him looking worn and tired.
Time passing tightened Niri’s spine like a bowstring. She reached out her mind into the mist and the city. The tiny fountain pulled on Niri’s awareness like a pebble compared to the weight of the sea nearby. With a shift of will, the mist parted.
“We should go to the pool and wait for her,” Niri said.
Ty glanced uneasily at her before he stepped forward, drawing Ria against his side, the side furthest from Niri.
Lavinia hesitated at the fountain’s edge. Niri, Ria, and Ty had hidden in the darkness of a colonnaded gallery, waiting. Realizing Lavinia had returned, Ria darted from Ty’s arms into the swirling mist of the courtyard before Ty could stop her. Ty followed after, glancing into the darkness of fog choked alleyways. As Niri approached, Lavinia held out her hand and dropped a small black lump into Niri’s palm.
“It is all they had. Is it big enough?”
Niri nodded, feeling the solid weight of the cool stone in her fingers. It was not the size but the rock itself that mattered.
“Wait here around the pool. You’ll be able to see and hear, but not be seen so do not worry.” Niri spoke while she slipped off her plain leather shoes and sat on the chipped granite edge.
“Wait.” Ty hissed. “What are you about to do?” Anger seethed around the words, barely restrained by Lavinia’s hand on his arm.
Niri paused. They hadn’t discussed what would happen, not during the walk to the pool or the wait for Lavinia. They had barely spoken. The unresolved issue of what Ria had done was paramount so that all else was left as unimportant. Now, Niri pondered how to explain.
“I’m going to speak to someone who will know what happened. He can tell us if Ria is in danger.”
“Do you trust him?” Ty asked, hostility reduced at the reminder of the risk to Ria’s life.
Niri held his gaze without wavering. She could not give him any reason to doubt her. “Yes, with my life.”
With a short hesitation, Ty stepped back. She guessed the thought that she might be about to betray them must have gone through all their minds. For a second, she had considered it. Niri could confess everything that had occurred. A part of her wanted to.
But if everything worked out, the three would be gone running from the Curse or Niri would have a new Elemental for the Church. Either way, she would soon be back to her chambers in the public complex. Tomorrow she would begin her jouney home to Solaire. It would all be over in a few hours on this, the shortest night.
Niri swung her feet, slipping them into the pool. The comfort was immediate. The water welcomed her, soothing the turbulent doubt and sense of time slipping away in its calming embrace. She was one with the water, a part of it, and it was a part of her.
When she reached the center of the fountain, she turned to the three. They stood shoulder to shoulder at the water’s edge, no longer spirited youths on an adventure. Instead, worry and questions separated them though they stood side by side.
All three gasped as Niri looked at them. She knew what had happened but had forgotten to warn them. Her brown eyes had changed to become the color of the sea under a bright sky, illuminated even in the darkness of night. The effect was startling. Caused by such a complete joining with her element, it was only the beginning of the strange things they were about to witness.
“Stay quiet, stay near. You won’t be seen, I promise.” Her voice now held undertones of waves, echoing as though part of Niri spoke from deep in the water. All three moved closer together and nodded as one, wide-eyed as children again.
The water surrounding her pulled at her consciousness. From where she knelt in the center, Niri focused herself, calling upon the years of training to continue with her task. With a thought, the liquid surface leapt up around her, forming a watery skin like a bubble. It began at the stone edge of the pool and rose to a few feet over her head. Within the protective sphere, Niri found it easier to concentrate.
Only a few of the Church were powerful enough to be able to use their gifts in such a way. Only a few had the control and ability to keep their thoughts steady. It was Niri’s guarantee to move up far in the Church, at least as far as she could as a Water Elemental. But what she was about to do had not been shown to her by the Church, but by someone she trusted and loved. Someone she desperately needed to talk to. He would have answers.
From deep within her, Niri sought out warmth. The coolness of the water in her chest changed to a deep heat slowly spreading down her arms and to her belly. She focused on a spot a few feet in front of her and above the water’s surface. Niri funneled her warmth into it, waiting for a connection with an element that was opposite of her own.
It didn’t take long. It was just a flicker of the imagination at first and then the spot Niri focused on began to glow a faint red like a candle’s last light before the wick faded into wax. The light brightened and became a sphere. All at once, a small flame hovered inches above the pool as a fire sprite accepted Niri’s invitation and came into being. It wavered and reached out, growing and twisting, sensing the safety and location. Then it grew to a tower of fire more than a foot high. It turned and seethed, coiling back on itself. Sensing Niri, it raised its head, opening its mouth in a silent roar. The tiny fire dragon stared up at Niri, claws outstretched as it looked around the small enclosure.
Fire dragon to Fire Elemental, the sprite would create a connection that Niri could not manage. The Order of Fire could always talk to one another through flame. It was a trick no other Order could master.
Niri offered the piece of basalt to the creature. It greedily reached out, grabbing the stone in its paws of perfectly formed fire and pulled it to its chest. Even as it admired its new possession, the rock changed. A deep red glow began to form in its center. The light spread until the entire stone shone, turning it back into the magma it had been.
Even as the rock changed, so did the shape of the dragon. The flaming image dispersed and became an incandescent haze that grew bigger until it was as large as Niri. At first the glowing form was a mirror image of herself sketched in an element opposing her own. Niri held Sinika’s name centered in her mind, waiting until he noticed the summoning in the flames near him in the Temple of Solaire.
A minute passed and nothing changed. Panic rose again in Niri’s chest. She had not considered the possibility that Sinika would not answer. Just as her thoughts wavered, the image of light altered once again, redefining itself into someone distinct. The person she sought. The anxiety dispersed as Niri gazed into Sinika’s eyes, formed in his element of fire.
The line of his mouth was hard. Niri had the impression her summons was not well timed. But the momentary rise of doubt disappeared with Sinika’s first words.
“Nirine, I’ve been worried.” His voice had a sibilant hiss coming from the throat of flame. “The Temple is in chaos. The High Council has been called together. We are to meet in the Chapel of Hope. I only have a few minutes.”
Niri leaned forward. “It was magic then? Not a powerful Elemental?”
Sinika’s image nodded. “Yes, the Curse has been released to find whatever caused this… manifestation.” Sinika’s aristocratic lips tasted the bitterness of the word.
Niri’s heart thundered in her chest. Her first guess had been right and they had wasted valuable time simply to confirm it. Ria’s life was in danger. Ria, who stood now only feet from the image of someone that Niri didn’t want to imagine would mean her harm. But Sinika was a High Priest, one of only twelve who guided the Church of Four Orders. Now Niri doubted if the information was worth the risk. Only the thin skin of water protected Ria from being seen by Sinika. She needed to be away, any way she and her friends could manage.
“Do you know what it was, Nirine? You are the closest member of the Church. What happened?” Even through the visage of fire, Sinika stared deeply into Niri’s eyes. She chafed at the delay.
“I cannot explain now, Sinika. I will be back to the Temple of Solaire in five days. I will tell you then.”
His focus shifted a bit to the side and beyond her before returning. “No, Nirine.” Sinika paused. He glanced away again as if he were checking to be sure no one else was near.
“You cannot come back. Don’t you see what this appears to be? The High Council knows magic was used in Mirocyne. The House Steward is an old Fire Priest. Once the Curse woke, they sent the House Steward to find you, but your rooms were deserted. He could only assume you had left. The High Council doesn’t know if you were a part of what happened, but considering the circumstances,” Sinika paused again.
The connection wavered, Sinika’s form fading. “Niri!” Sinika yelled as he would when he’d taught her the summons. Discipline cleared the fear eating her concentration and left her mind empty.
When she refocused on him, Sinika continued. “If you tell me what happened, what you know, I will speak to the Council for you. I am sure your punishment will not be so great, if you tell me now. Otherwise,” Sinika gave a tiny shake of his head. “I cannot bear to think what they will do to you, Niri.” His gaze was earnest in its worry. “They would tear you apart, feed you to the Curse instead. Nirine, you must tell me or they will kill you.”
She couldn’t think. “No, no, no…” The fiery image wavered again. Niri grasped onto the connection with violent effort. Sinika’s form solidified, appearing real.
He waited. It was too late to realize she had never considered what the impact of magic being used would have on the Church, that they would look for her, or even could contact someone in Mirocyne, and find her missing. Her life for the girl’s. That was what Sinka offered.
Tears flooding her eyes, Niri met Sinika’s gaze. The slightest smile touched his lips as she opened her mouth.
“No,” she said again.“No, I will not tell you what happened.”
Sinika stared at her. He blinked twice, his mouth moving to form a reply. Words failed before they reached his lips. Niri did not wait for him to recover.
“Do you know where the Curse is? Can you track it? How much time do we have?”
“Nirine, you cannot be serious. They will kill you. Do you understand? The Curse is coming now and will find you as assuredly as the magic user. I can do nothing to protect you.”
Anger caught her breath, surprising her with its sharpness. She had never dared retort to a higher member of the Church after her earliest lessons of the result. But Sinika was not an unknown superior and his presence was at her invitation. Mind crystal clear in her defiance, the water skin above her turned to ice.
“If you don’t want me dead this night by your hand as much as the High Council’s, then tell me where the Curse is, Sinika. I will not come back to Solaire to bring you a child to murder.”
Ria or Lavinia gasped from where the trio watched outside the icy shield. Though they could not be seen, the sound carried. Sinika’s eyes darted to the side. He rocked back on his heels, rejoining anger fading to something else as he regarded Niri. Stone-faced, he replied, “It took wing, so I would imagine it would be over Thornastal by now.”
Thornastal was only halfway. There was still time to escape.
The image of Sinika faded as Niri willed an end to the summoning. He reached out, nearly touching her with his hand of fire in an effort to keep her from breaking the fragile connection between them.
“You must hurry, Nirine, if you want to outrun the Church. There is a place I’ve heard of that may help you. Go to Karakastad and into the Temple of Dust. There is a library there where the old records were kept. You should be able to find documents on the making of the Curse. Hopefully, something to protect you. Take care of yourself, Nirine.”
“I will. Thank you, Sinika.” She paused. Saying goodbye wore away the numbness. If Sinika himself had stood there, she would have thrown herself against him and begged to return to Solaire. But he wasn’t and she’d said no. Niri willed an end to the summoning. The thin layer of ice and water shattered, clattering down around her.
Niri shoved aside the lost ache filling her. Ria had to hurry. The Curse was coming for her, the Church surely behind. Niri hurried to the edge of the pool where the three teenagers waited, expressions nervous.
Despite the drive she felt, it took Niri a moment to find her voice. “You must go,” she said to Ria. Panic filled the girl’s eyes.
“We must go,” Lavinia replied, placing a hand on Niri’s arm. Niri fought an urge to collapse against Lavinia as Ria had done an hour earlier.
“You cannot be serious. We can’t take her… she is a Priestess!” Ty’s anger was blacker than the night.
“No, she is not.” Lavinia said, calmly.
“Well, you aren’t going either! You will go home and…”
Lavinia’s expression took on some of the heat of her brother’s, but she did not need to answer. Ria yelped and reached for Lavinia before Ty could finish. He stared at the two girls and Niri. In the silence, the pressing of time closed in like the fog.
“I’ll find us a boat.” Ty hissed, turning on his heel and leaving. Without his fuming presence to tense herself against, Niri swayed on her feet.
Lavinia caught her shoulder, Ria took the other side. They stood together joined by fear and a need to flee.
“We have to find Ty.” Lavinia said, gaze searching the mist-shrouded courtyard.
Lavinia’s words spurred Niri to action. With gentle pressure, she pushed the girls forward.
“How… how do you know which way he went?” Ria asked, voice hoarse. She trembled under Niri’s hand.
“I feel where the mist has moved with his passing,” Niri answered.