Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Free Fiction Monday! -- Grace Under Fire by Frog and Esther Jones

Yes, I'm late with Free Fiction Monday, but I have a fun one for you.  Today's sample is from Frog and Esther Jones' Grace Under Fire.


Chapter One: Grace
I hadn’t actually expected to be crammed into a small corner underneath Seattle’s Pier 57 pedestrian bypass with a plate of Smoked Halibut & Chips in one hand and an unruly fledgling spirit in the other.
I don’t dress for stealth. I wore a loose blouse and skirt in bright red and blue, plus silver bangles. I even had an electric blue head scarf over my perfectly ordinary brown hair. In hindsight, my “hiding place” only qualified because I am such a tiny person in the first place. I could smell the food in the shops just above me and hear the long row of sidewalk vendors haggling with their customers, much too close for comfort.
My original idea consisted of a quick and delicious lunch at the Salmon Cooker before heading to the Grove headquarters for a little extra research. Gotta love compound rune sets. I’d just paid and started down the pier toward the water. Today the sky shone uncharacteristically bright for late August. I loved it. Then a black-scaled bipedal Visitor about six inches tall with long pointed ears streaked past my feet to steal a potato wedge from a tame, unsuspecting seagull standing only about a foot and a half in front of—oh, eff me.
I scooped the spirit up on reflex, shoved him under the folds of my long blue jacket and made for the nearest hiding spot I could find. Which resulted in my current predicament, awkwardly crammed under the walkway. If anyone saw me with him, I would be well and truly screwed. I didn’t think anyone would mistake him for a pet. His thick-lidded blue eyes took up half his face. They held no white at all. His ears resembled large varnished bat wings. He clutched my thumb and forefinger in his little hands, already squirming to get free.
The best thing would be to banish him as quickly as possible, but I had to find out where he came from first. If I was lucky, his presence here meant a small hole had developed in the Weave somewhere nearby. If I was unlucky, someone had summoned him here and then set him loose to run amok on purpose. I hunkered down a little farther under the boardwalk, listening to a multitude of tourists’ footfalls clunking above.
“Do you and yours have business here? Were you invited?” I asked it. The tiny spirit looked at me curiously, cheeped, and stared intently at the plate in my other hand. Then back at me, then at the plate. This little guy appeared too young to have developed much sentience, or possibly only possessed animalistic intelligence to begin with. “You’re no help.” I sighed, grimacing.
As any first grader can recite, summoning is outlawed in the U.S., deemed to be the second greatest threat to homeland security after terrorism. President Herbert Hoover recognized its existence in 1930, then turned around and immediately outlawed it. Apparently, he blamed summoning practices for the Great Depression. A lot of natural disasters can be traced back to a sloppy, vindictive, or inexperienced summoner, but as far as I know the stock market crash isn’t ours. Now, if he’d alleged that a summoner caused the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927—that’s a whole other story.
Really, I suppose it doesn’t matter which disaster got us outlawed, but it’s always rubbed me the wrong way that the event used to outlaw our very existence is one time we didn’t do anything at all.
Yep, don’t mind me. Here I am, out in public, lots of curious tourists everywhere, and a baby Visitor in my lap. Perfect.
Even assuming I could get out of this without any kind of mishap, I would still get an earful back at Grove headquarters. This guy was small and weak enough—hell, he was non-verbal—that he couldn’t really get up to any serious mischief, but your average citizen wouldn’t know that. The little twerp could easily start a new tide of anti-summoner witch hunts if he kept running around out here.

Plus, like babies anywhere, eventually there would be something bigger and probably pretty pissed off coming to find him.
Fortunately, since I had been on my way to do research at the Grove, I had thrown some extra summoning supplies into the bottom of my cavernous shoulder bag. I usually don’t leave the house without a few basics, but it is essentially like walking around with a bag full of drug paraphernalia. I try not to have anything on me that would automatically get me detained by the police.
I put my plate down (out of the little guy’s reach, to his total chagrin) and rummaged until I came up with a book about the size of a paperback novel, with a blank, nondescript black cover. At first glance, most normal people assume you are carrying around a pocket-Bible or a journal. The latter is a little closer to the truth; the little book serves both as a kind of passport and summoner ID in the Grove system. It essentially identified me, and my rank, to other summoners, and gave me the basic knowledge to deal with random visitors like this one. Specifically, it had an index of known Visitors, their home Weaves, and any relevant pacts. Since I didn’t summon this scamp to begin with, I needed to look up the runes to his home Weave in order to send him home without hurting him. I could banish him outright in a jiffy, but it would hurt the little guy unnecessarily and I’d feel like a jackass. I doubted he’d come here on purpose. I fumbled through the book with my free hand while keeping a firm grip on my “little problem.”
“Concentrate,” I muttered to myself. Finally, I had the book open to what had to be the correct page indicating the runes to the little guy’s home Weave. I showed it the page. “See! This is what you’ll look like when you’re older. At some point you will grow into those ears. Lucky you.”
This summons would be tricky. Given his extreme youth, this spirit couldn’t give me a name to ground the summoning on. He looked barely hatched. I’d have to try to tie him back to his own realm and then switch him with something from there.
Fortunately, the Visitor’s pact with his realm allowed for an exchange of earth. Now the Sense we summoners use can’t create new matter or energy. It just brings something from point A to point B. Which means if I summoned sand from halfway across the world, or even just across the city, I’d better be very sure about the runes I had just used to bring it to me. Otherwise I could end up accidentally causing a catastrophe even bigger than whatever I’d tried to prevent. Like, say, accidentally breaching a flood control for starters. Not that I’m admitting to anything; I’m only thirty-two years old. But still, you get my point.
If this little guy had just slipped through a hole in the Weave he might have caused an imbalance already, which would mean that pushing him back through by force might cause a bigger tear. Of course, so would mommy-dearest forcing her way through to find him. I didn’t like my odds for getting caught by the Feds if I tried to smuggle him back to Grove headquarters either. And I wasn’t keen on what would happen after that—life in prison as a drugged vegetable. Minimum.
Really, the whole anti-summoner law is just ridiculous. If every summoner in the world suddenly stopped using their talent all at once, there’d be a lot more things going bump in the night, not less.
Besides, it’s not like anyone chooses to be a summoner. Either people are born with the innate ability to Sense—the ability to manipulate matter and energy, and through it the world around them—or they aren’t. Now, the Sense by itself isn’t very practical. Me, I only Sense things that are so close I’m almost touching them. That’s where the blood and futhark runes come in. Which, given people’s general squeamishness about blood, probably doesn’t endear us to the world at large, either. Blood, any blood, acts as a medium for the Sense, allowing it to extend through the runes beyond the summoner’s normal range. The runes give the Sense a target, or a roadmap about the summons’ intended effect. The more complex the rune phrase, the more sophisticated the summons. All rune-based summons have to include a source, a destination, and an intended effect. The runes used to accomplish that depend on what the summoner is up to.
I blew a few errant tendrils of hair from my eyes, squeezed them shut, and tried to consider my options.
The little spirit suddenly started emitting high-pitched cheeps, struggling in my grasp. “Stop that,” I snapped. “I’ll get you back home as quickly as possible, but you need to stay quiet or we’ll be in a world of hurt.” I started to give him a gentle squeeze to indicate my displeasure, but a series of gloating cheeps from down by my left foot interrupted me. With a feeling of inevitability, I slowly pivoted to look. Sure enough, three more little spirit ankle biters, identical to the first, were feasting on my plate of halibut and chips. They looked at the little guy trapped in my fist with glee while they stuffed their faces as fast as their little hands would move. I could just hear the undertone of playground taunting. I swear one of them even licked his fingers and did a little swagger. My little guy gave one last aggrieved cheep and fixed a pouting glare on me that clearly communicated he considered this all my fault. What a day.
So now there were four little Visitors. I made an educated guess that it meant there were even more out there right now, running blithely around the waterfront stuffing their tiny faces. To do any good, I needed to use a summoning that cast a mystical net for all spirits of this type, caught them, sent them back to their own Weave, and accounted for any original imbalance. If I could do that, the Grove could send out a team to look for the tear this evening, and keep anything else from coming through until it could be mended. The summoning would have an auto-leveling system in case there wasn’t an imbalance. Of course, without an imbalance the most likely explanation involved someone setting a mess of baby spirits loose in downtown Seattle for some unfathomable reason. Not a good sign.
No problem. This summoning was a piece of cake. A five-tier, alcoholic, mousse-filled, fondant frosted monstrosity of a cake. I drew in a deep breath and silently said a quick prayer that no tourists would take a wrong turn right this moment and discover my hiding place. Fortunately, these guys’ weakness showed easily because it matched my own. They couldn’t say no to delicious food.
I set my original offender down in the middle of the plate. All four of them were perfectly happy to sit there and chow down while I cut my finger. Using my blood, I drew the runes in a circle around them indicating that I wanted to summon all creatures matching these four from a—crap—ten-mile radius in any direction into the circle. With that done, I started on the second set of compound runes, which would trigger the next phase of the summoning after all the spirits had been summoned into the circle.
I could exchange earth of equal mass for each spirit to preserve balance and avoid further damage to the Weave, so that part came easily, but the potential of a prior hole and imbalance concerned me. I got down to some serious summoning calculus.
The farther away or the larger the object summoned, the more oomph your Sense has to exert to bring it back. You can mitigate how much juice you need with really complex and specific rune formations, which tends to be my favorite method of operation. I think of summoning as something akin to mathematical equations or chemical formulae. I put rune elements together that represent a specific solution or solid. My Sense doesn’t carry much oomph, and I’ve studied my ass off to make up for it. I probably have the most extensive knowledge of rune combos of anyone in the Grove. Even if my Sense does fall sadly short of the norm.
This summoning would flow out, and for each spirit, if it found an imbalance, it would mend and strengthen the Weave. If I found any giant holes that couldn’t be fixed immediately, I’d need to call for backup anyway, so I’d deal with that eventuality later.
To my great embarrassment, more than one person has called me a rune-prodigy for how quickly I appear to summon under pressure. What those people saw actually resulted from years and years of intense study. I’ve learned a multitude of possible rune combinations by heart. That perception also has help from the magnetic rune board I strap to my right arm. The runes are pre-drawn and raised from the tile so I can tell them by touch. I can usually line up the runes for all but the most complex summons in the space between breaths. Then I power them with blood and stretch my Sense through them like any other summoner. I don’t know why no one else has thought of having a board like me.

Or maybe they have, and it just doesn’t come up. I didn’t have the board today, since I’d planned on a day at the office. It’s all a much more stressful and slow process when you need to draw each rune perfectly by hand.
I finished up my third tier of compound runes and focused my Sense to power the summons.
For a fraction of a second the ring filled as full as a Tokyo subway with little spirits all cheeping at me reproachfully, and then they all vanished, replaced by a pile of rocks about four feet tall in a rough pyramid in front of me. A few rolled down from the top of the pile as it settled. Well, that didn’t bode well. If a small hole in the Weave existed, I couldn’t feel it. So how the hell had all those little spirits gotten in?
I risked one last cleanup summoning to send all those rocks out to the bottom of the bay. Then I dusted my hands off and headed back to headquarters. Somehow I just didn’t feel like eating fish anymore.
As I surfaced into the general throng, a familiar face ran up and sidled in next to me. She had blue eyes, red hair, and a temper to match. She was also the closest thing I had to a friend at the Grove headquarters.
“Hi, Amy,” I said. “I have to get over to the office. It’s been a hell of a day so far.”
“If you know you have to get over to the office, where have you been? They’ve been looking for you all day. Since we were planning some research this afternoon, I thought I’d come out and see if you were lounging around the waterfront before heading in. Which you were!” she finished accusingly.
 
“Wait, what? The office is already looking for me? Those guys haven’t been running around all day, have they? I’m pretty sure I took care of all of them, although we might need a cleanup team just to double-check.”
She squinted at me suspiciously. “I seriously hope you didn’t just call the Grove officials ‘those guys’ and act like you have this all under control. I really hate that they’re sending you. No matter how good your ranking is, this is just stupid.”
“Um, I think we have a miscommunication here. Let’s start over. Why is the Grove looking for me?”
Amy opened her eyes wide and stared at me. “You really don’t know?”

I shook my head. Her forehead wrinkled. Her lips turned down in a troubled frown. “I probably should let someone else tell you this, but it’s not fair if you just walk in there without knowing, either. Rumor is, the Spokane Grove has some serious problems. The council is being annoyingly close-lipped about it, but it sounds like something targeted and took out a whole bunch of summoners, even the very powerful ones. Several people have been asked to take in and provide housing for the folks who brought the news—and they’re barely more than kids. Probably just finished their apprenticeships.”
My feet just decided to stop moving. “Are you sure? Do they know what did it?”
“No. And...”

“And?” I prompted impatiently.

“They’ve transferred you there.”

Yep. Apparently Aisle 14 needed cleanup, and someone had just shoved the mop in my direction. It was turning out to be a bloody perfect day.

<> 

The Grove secretary looked like someone had been kicking her favorite puppy all day. Her face lit up with relief when she saw me, as if I was just the person to save little Fido. She also buzzed me right through to the inner offices, which is never a good sign. I took it as a sure indication the director was already waiting, and not very happy about it. It didn’t help my queasy stomach that the director’s office served as the principal’s office for the Grove—the only times you got called down were for kudos or smackin’s.

I felt pretty sure they hadn’t called me down to get a gold star.

I guessed someone had thrown me under a bus to save themselves. I wanted to get that person an I-really-loathe-you present. Something in line with ex-lax-laced brownies or a poison ivy plant. You know, something that just spoke to my appreciation.

It’s not like I could avoid walking in there, either. The Groves were established precisely because the laws against summoning are so harsh—and so are punishments for acting outside the Grove rules. All summoners must register and report to their local Grove to pass evaluation. We are a pretty tight-knit bunch; we keep to ourselves and keep ourselves under control. The Grove Councils from different cities work together to keep summoner-caused accidents and vigilante summoners under tight rein.

My Grove headquarters (at least the part that isn’t the library) is in a posh old hotel in downtown Seattle with the plush carpets your feet just sink into. Today it felt like I was walking through a swamp. I paused outside the polished mahogany door with its brass name plate that read, “Phineas Brandiole, Arboretum Director” to take a deep breath and compose my thoughts. As I raised my hand to knock, the door swung open, and I had to dodge to the side to keep from getting hit right between the eyes.

“You’re late,” a voice boomed inside.

I poked my head in the door and found the room full of people. Not only the director, but all the senior Grove officials. Perfect. I made my feet follow my head into the room, much as I’d have preferred not to.

“My apologies,” I said. “I stepped out early this morning, and didn’t realize you were trying to contact me. Nice to see you all. And, um, how can I help you?”

Director Brandiole motioned me to shut the door and take a seat in the one open chair. It was a red leather monstrosity with potted palms on either side, which made me feel even more like a sacrificial victim. I sat myself down gingerly and waited for someone to tell me exactly what was going on. The other three people in the room were all Grove bigwigs. The small office could barely hold all four of the people crammed in it; five if I included myself.

Mr. Brandiole cleared his throat and peered around the cramped room before turning to me. “You’ve probably heard we received news of grave import from our sister Grove in Spokane.” He paused, waiting for confirmation.

“I heard rumors, but they were non-specific as to the exact nature of the news.”

“Well, the official information isn’t as complete as we would wish, either. What we know is this: as of twenty-four hours ago, something invaded Grove headquarters, killing all of the Spokane Grove council and nearly all their registered summoners during an all-Grove meeting.” He waited for me to absorb the news, and I admit it, I was pole-axed. Not many things can actually take out a high-ranking summoner, let alone a whole group of them.

Annalisa Miller, Senior Grove historian, resumed the briefing. She wore a no-nonsense black pant suit that matched her plain features and tidy hair. “Currently there are one or two Spokane summoners who are only reported missing, as no body could be found, but it’s likely they have also been killed. The few summoners who are confirmed living were either not present when the attack occurred, or were incredibly low-ranking. Only one or two are any better than neophytes—”

Unable to wait any longer, Mr. Brandiole interrupted. “The Grove Cooperative Council has asked that we send immediate emergency aid to the Spokane Grove headquarters to evaluate and eliminate any current threats.” He paused and fixed me with a glower that made me want to squirm, but didn’t seem to want to proceed.

“So where do I come into all this? Surely this is something that requires only the best of our summoners. Not to belittle myself, but I’m still firmly in the middle of the pack.” I asked the question to make them spell it out, since I already had a nasty suspicion where this was headed. I was on the away team, and they were trying to pick out the folks who would be standing in front wearing a red shirt.

This time a thin balding man I vaguely recognized as the Grove Operations Coordinator spoke up. I scrambled to remember his name: something like Richard or Rickard? Anyway, his family name was Dewing.

“You may have noticed over the last few days we’ve had an increase in suspicious visitor activity in the Seattle area. There’s been a lot of pressure on our Weave, which requires us to send a lot more summoners out for maintenance and cleanup just to keep the status quo.”

“Now that you mention it, I did come across a bunch of mysterious little spirit hatchlings running loose down by the waterfront on the way in. I think I took care of them, but I’d recommend we send out a sweep-up team to check.”

“You illustrate my point excellently, then. Incidents just like that are happening with troubling frequency, and while we’re trying to pinpoint the cause of the instability, most of our manpower is already out repelling threats to Seattle. I can’t pull a full team off any of the tasks they’re currently assigned to.”

Mr. Dewing cleared his throat. For the first time in his speech he came off as a little awkward. I took that to mean I wouldn’t like what he said next.

“Our council has decided we must grant the Cooperative Council’s request, but it’s unlikely a large group would be effective at this point. Also, with the repeated Visitor incursions within city limits in the last few weeks, we have been advised against removing any of our current active teams from Seattle. In response to the concerns of all involved, we’ve selected you as our representative to go to Spokane and investigate the situation before we commit more resources.”

That was not the explanation I’d expected. What about my concerns?

“Wait, hold on here. Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You’re sending me—just me—to fight something that has already taken out a whole Grove council with all its senior members present, and burned it all the way down so only the apprentices are left? No offense, but that sounds like a horrible idea.”

Mr. Brandiole shifted in his chair and patted his large stomach. “You have been recommended to the council as someone who has a head on her shoulders and an adequate level of power,” he intoned in that ponderous voice.

I noticed he didn’t actually say I had “a good head on my shoulders” like you might expect, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. My voice deserted me. I didn’t think I acted like someone who loved to go on suicide missions. I thought of myself as more of a bookish type.

Ms. Miller apparently read my expression, and started back in more gently. “Assuming the situation is as described, anyone we send will be under intense scrutiny by the police as well as in a potentially dangerous environment. You have demonstrated in the past a very good mind for improvising. While the council has decided we politically cannot afford to decline the Spokane Grove’s request for aid, we do not wish to put our members’ lives in danger needlessly. Nor can we send someone who is already in a leadership role in this Grove, as the stakes are too high.” She sugarcoated it pretty well, but Mr. Brandiole interrupted her again.

“We chose you because you are least likely to attract government attention, while still having the most summoning experience,” he said bluntly.

You suck a little less than all the other people we considered, I translated silently. This guy didn’t get
the benefit of the doubt anymore, even if he did run the whole show. He was trying to get me killed!

“Assuming I take this suicide mission,” I said just as bluntly, “what are you expecting one mid-range summoner to do? I’m trying to believe that you wouldn’t send someone into a death trap just to appease your political obligations, but help me out here.”

The whole room looked like they would like to strangle me for calling them on their bullshit. Why can’t politicians anywhere just be on the up-and-up?

Little Ms. Miller threw up her hand in a calming gesture. “Your role will be to get to Spokane, assess the situation and submit a report to the council, who will then decide if any further action will be taken.”

“If you accept the transfer, we expect you to put your affairs in order and leave for Spokane by tomorrow.” Director Brandiole again. I decided I hated him, and if I lived through this, I’d move back to Kentucky. Also known as Moore family home territory. Go to the scene of a massacre with the perpetrator possibly still on the scene, and just...make a report. Yeah, right. Like anyone expected it to be that easy.

Mr. Brandiole, the rat-fink director, paused again as if expecting me to say something. I honestly couldn’t think of anything which wouldn’t literally send all the bridges in the vicinity up in smoke. An expression flashed over his face, barely more than a muscle tic, and I wondered if he could really be comfortable with telling someone they were expendable to their face. I hoped he had bad dreams tonight. I mean, what did he expect me to say?

“Yeah, I got this. No problem guys, easy peasy.” No one could have been more shocked than me when those words actually came out of my mouth. There was still time to backpedal—I waited hopefully for the good and bad angels to pop up on my shoulders and tell me the right thing to do, but nothing happened.

My mouth didn’t open itself back up to recant. I guessed that meant I would try to report on whatever big bad took out an entire Grove—while keeping out of the cops’ way—and oh yeah, keeping anything else from out of town from popping through Spokane’s Weave for a while. That shouldn’t be too hard for one gal to do by herself, right?

Now that I’d agreed, the director seemed almost gleeful. Like I’d already solved some big problem for him, which from his view maybe I had.

Ms. Miller broke the awkward silence. “Once you send your first report, we will be better able to prioritize which areas are most in need of aid and reallocate summoners as needed.”

That is, if you live long enough to report, I added for her pessimistically.

Well, if they were going to feed me to the wolves, I wanted to make sure I had all the artillery possible. “Fine. I’ve said I’ll do it. I’ll go and put my ass on the line for the Grove, but I have a list of tools I expect the Grove to provide me in return. Otherwise, no dice.”

Total bluff; I’d still go, but I needed to see if I could get some concessions out of them to improve my odds of survival. Access to the heavy weapons might be useful.

Director Brandiole assessed me for a moment. “Understood. Leave your list with the secretary. We’ll make sure you have it before you leave in the morning.”

“Good enough.” I stood up without waiting for other instructions and headed for the door. I stopped before exiting. “Catch you on the flip side.” In hindsight, probably an ill-omened quote, but what can you do?

Oh, well. It’s not like any of those fuddy-duddys would have watched that movie anyway.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Free Fiction Monday: Firedancer by S. A. Bolich



Each week, we're going to be offering samples of our books, where you can try before you buy.  If you're interested in purchasing the book, buy it at www.skywarriorbooks.com or Amazon.com for just $2.99, all e-book  formats.

Firedancer 
S. A. Bolich
Chapter 1
The Ancient
This fire was malicious.  Jetta felt it the instant she stepped through the door of the flaming houseplace.  Fear struck her like a raptor, draining her strength as if great claws had pierced all her veins and bled her life away.  Heat blasted the naked skin of her arms and legs; smoke stung her nose. Startled, she took a step sideways, and shied again from hot grit crunching under her bare feet.  She stopped just inside the door, heedless of the flames running up the lintel beside her, reaching hungrily for the carved ceiling. Her legs, her strong Dancer’s legs, suddenly felt like grass bent before a storm wind.  Shuddery cold swept through her, for all that the hot breath of the fire was in her face, a reek of charred wood and scorched stone that swept her straight back to a damp spring night laden with screams and the smell of destruction.
I can’t.  Not this time.  Not again.
Fire exploded from the wall on her left.  Jetta spun toward it, and shied back from the sight of white stone crawling with flame, paling rapidly from sullen red to eager gold.  Here was no tame hearth fire escaped from its bondage to take vengeance on its captors.  Only the deep fire, the heartfire of the world, the Old Man himself, could eat stone.
The Ancient was coming.
She retreated a step, shaken so badly that for an instant even her training deserted her.  All she saw was fire writhing in febrile, hungry curtains.  Like last time.  Reaching for her...like last time.  Out of control.  Like last time.
She stumbled back, flinching from flame curling hot fingers over her toes, and turned blindly for the door.  Two steps, and she would be free of fire forever.
A scream reached her, high and frightened, piercing the laughing roar of the fire like a thin-bladed knife.  She jumped, and all around her fire leaped back.  Jetta spun all the way around, instinct greater than fear rooting her in place.  The fire retreated, uncertain now.
Shame drove through Jetta’s fear.  She took a step—forward, not back.  Fire fled on the right.  On the left it feinted, a licking yellow coil as long as her arm reaching for her face.  She jerked her right hand up, palm out, in imperious demand.  The fire recoiled out of reach.  The smothering heat suddenly lessened as though winter had breathed on the flames.  Jetta laughed and stepped into the Dance.
Bare feet ground soot and ash underfoot; the flagstones cool now against her soles.  She shoved off from her right foot into a leap and spin, completely over a knee-high flame trying to sustain itself on bits of a charred chair.  Fear spun away with the turn; Jetta landed on smooth-polished stone and twirled on one foot, arms raised, exulting in the sudden cool rush of power swirling up through her from the ground under the pale stones laid over Earth Mother’s thick skin.  All at once the air tasted of damp earth and the green density of living forest.
She stamped an infant flame into non-existence, the smoke of its death curling impotently around her legs.  Step, step, turn, shoving more smoke out of her way, her arms stretching now toward the ceiling in mocking imitation of the enemy, now outward in the demanding arc that drew a line that flame could not cross.  Step, turn, step again, her feet grinding flame underfoot, forward into the teeth of avid death.  Fire leaped and roared around her, licking eagerly into the air that was its goal, its life, its escape from its prison in the earth.  Flame squeezed up through the joins of the stone floor and walls and raced eagerly toward exposed lintels and furniture and draperies sweeping into peril from window rods.  Jetta raised one bare arm, her dusky gold skin glistening in the uneven light, and shoved her palm toward the threatened ceiling.  Smoke parted in front of it; the fire that had been crawling into the irreplaceable Fornay carvings recoiled.  Step, turn, step, caught up in the ancient, soaring power of the Dance.
Another scream, fainter.  Jetta faltered.  Heat suddenly blasted at her; smoke tasted bitter on her tongue as the sustaining cocoon started to shred around her.  Malicious fire….
Memories of death, and pain, and screams, and a fire that laughed, a deep coughing roar as it consumed….
I am master!
Training and a lifetime’s conditioning shoved down the memories, forced phantom pain from her left arm, her leg.  Jetta clapped her hands and pirouetted in place, willing the barriers of the Dance back up around her.  Fighting rebellious little quivers deep in her gut, she looked closer at the flames running over the pallid stone, and saw that this was surface fire still, pale, but not yet the white heartfire no water could quench.  She heard no hissing pop of collapsing rock as flame consumed the air in the porous windstone.  This fire was malicious, aye, but as yet it was only the forerunner of the ancient fire that lived in the deepest core of the earth; it was not the foe itself that the Fire Clans had hunted since time began.  The yellow of these flames was well diluted with the base red that spoke of uncertainty.  This fire had not learned—yet—how to use its malice.
Jetta closed her eyes, drawing reassurance from the quicksilver feel of the Dance shivering like a lightning storm along her skin.  It all but shoved her straight up off the littered floor to defy the fire eye to eye where it roared over her head; she moved, a quick step and turn into the heart of it.  Time now was precious, before the fire learned to call its terrible parent.  Now, while a Third Rank master could still hold it alone, now while the Dance ran in her like a flood, the only flood that could tame heartfire.
She aimed for the door across the room, knowing where the screams had come from; she had run the halls of this place since she was a child.  She leaped a small flame chewing at the floor, spurning the blackening spot to plant both feet on solid stone beyond.  Flame spat at her; belatedly she remembered the meaning of the positions her body shaped without thought, and made a barrier of one leg stretched behind her, toe touching the littered floor, threatening the flames behind her even as she bent her arms into the open crescents that would trap flame into a tight, contained circle in front of her. The fire retreated instead, fleeing toward the walls.
Jetta smiled grimly and straightened.  Ruddy light reflected dully off the leather hip guard and breastpiece that were her only garments and played along skin turned a deeper gold by the light, catching red gleams from the silver promise bracelet around her right wrist.  Heat scorched up around her but did not touch her any more than the light burned her.  Smoke coiled around her, chains that did not know—yet—how to trap and bind a Firedancer.  It breathed jets of flame toward her but she spun away into the heart of it, fearless now, caught into the most ancient rhythm of her people.  The Dance pounded in her blood, driving out heat and fear, smoke and memory, quelling her awareness of malice and binding the infant hostility of this fire to her will.
She stepped into the third movement, sweeping almost to one knee, hands at face level and touching at the wrists, fingers spread to form a bowl.  With supreme arrogance Jetta filled it with fire torn from a licking tongue of flame that tried to curl over her head, and gazed through a shimmering crimson ball at its parent.  The fire shied back in confusion.  Jetta, cool as river water now, launched herself up and flung her hands wide, dispersing the flame to sparks.  Flames sank and scattered, leaving a clear path to the door.
Another step and leap, and she was across the great room and into the corridor beyond, reaching for the door of the nursery where old Minna had cuffed and applauded the stray brats roaming here as impartially as she had her own grandson Kori.  Jetta shoved the hot wood of the door aside with the heel of her hand.  Smoke and flame curled out of her way, exposing a small boy standing rigid in the center of a tiny clear space, short legs spread, guarding a smaller figure yet, who cowered and sobbed in abject fear.
Her screams, not his.  Nekka would never make a Dancer, but Tekkorin—there was a different matter.  He had the gift, right enough, and the fire had not yet taken his nerve.
Minna would approve this child.
The boy’s gaze found her through the smoke, childish blue and wide with fear in a small, grimy face.  Relief flooded his expression, but he did not lower his arms from their half-instinctive, half-trained barrier stance.
“Good, Tekko!” Jetta called.  “Stay as you are.  I have this now.”
With deliberate speed she danced, turn and turn again in a widening circle around the children.  The girl had stopped screaming and was watching her now, her eyes streaming tears from the smoke, her face red and running with sweat.  Tekkorin’s skin was as dry as Jetta’s, though he was gasping from heat as much as effort.  Jetta felt neither heat nor the acrid bite of smoke in her lungs.  The Dance sustained her, a weapon forged over eons to balance the hunger of the Ancient: Dancer against flame, builder against destroyer, order against chaos.  With each step the flames drew back, and everywhere her foot touched the fire died for an arm’s length around.  She began to sway, feet planted solidly on stone perilously warm underfoot.  Straining outward to the farthest extent of her arms, she shoved the fire farther and farther from the children.  With the flames in retreat she followed, stamping each foot down, the shock of it jolting power through every nerve, building and building until it felt as though it must flash out and consume fire and house and all.  Jetta held onto it, building the shell of protection around the children, forcing the fire back.  She moved on instinct and memory of this room, her head thrown back to eye the ceiling, spinning at every third step to prevent a bold rush.  In one round of the room the fire sank to half the height of the walls; in another the space was clear, dark where it had been full of burning light.
“Tekko, come!” Jetta called, her mind stretching beyond the wall to the fire in the hall, which was trying to launch a new assault.
Without a word Tekkorin snatched the girl up by one arm.  She came, stumbling but determined now that the way to the door was clear.  Jetta leaped into the doorway.  Fire had reclaimed the path she had forged to this spot, surprising her.  Flame was rarely so bold, to claim a Dancer’s footsteps.  But then she heard the roar, a deep vibration more felt than a sound in the ears, underlying the sharp crackle of the flames running up the walls.  Laughter.
“Jetta!”  It came out a frightened wail, terror from Tekkorin at last.  Truly the gift ran deep in him if he could sense the coming of the Ancient at his age.
Flames ran together in the center of the room, rearing up higher than her head.  Jetta hesitated, seeing a hysth forming beyond the swirl of black smoke and the strange thickening of the air lent by the Dance.  In a moment it would be living flame, able to understand its own malice—and do something with it.  She brought her hands up, clenching her fists to pull the flames into an impotent knot, but the hysth was faster.  It turned from hot red to pale gold in a breath, shading to white at its heart, working itself into a doorway for the Ancient lurking in the deeps.  Everywhere, stone groaned under the heat and began to hiss and crumble as the proud and perilous windstone gave up its air.  A section of ceiling fell from the far corner near the door, priceless carvings shattering apart into a chaos of blackened wood.  Anger exploded through Jetta, seeing something she loved taken forever by a thing without soul.
She leaped recklessly into the center of the great room, spinning as she went, so that her hands made the warding gesture of the Third Rank master’s Dance in a full circle before she landed lightly astride a small flame racing for the safety of the hysth.  But the hysth refused the smaller red flame and fled before her, leaving its younger brother to die in a curl of smoke.  The deep roar changed to a thinner crackle, its malice transmuting abruptly to fear.  The hysth wavered, faded from pale gold to red, and lost its nerve.  It retreated into the porous stone walls, dying to sparks and then to nothingness as Jetta’s dance drove it back to its spawning ground.  Abruptly the room was filled with smoke and nothing more, heavy amid an acrid stink of scorched stone and blackened wood.
“Tekko, the door!”
Tekkorin grabbed the girl and ran for the front door, where hands snatched them through into clean air and sunlight and safety.  Slowly Jetta let her dance wind down, stepping lightly between hole and hole in the floor.  With bare feet and palms held flat as a barrier, she drove the fire deep into the ground where it always slept, waiting for carelessness, for a lapse in the watchfulness of the folk who lived in the air it craved.
Finally, deep in her bones, she sensed victory, a lessening of the quivering, fizzing sense of fire in proximity.  This upstart youngster was beaten, licking its wounds in some deep crevice far below her, hiding from the Ancient, which would not welcome this setback.  Another skirmish in a long, long war was over.
Abruptly the weariness hit her, the inevitable aftermath of the Dance.  Jetta stopped in the middle of the littered, blackened great room, drooping like a wilted flower.  Dimly she heard someone shout, and pounding footsteps.  A hard-muscled arm slid around her waist and bore her up, and then sunlight touched her face along with a cool breeze clean of fire stink.
Kori, she thought, but that wasn’t right, Kori was dead.  Suddenly her arm hurt, and her leg; raw red pain licked like the very fire deep into her body.  Jetta screamed and fought the hands trying to soothe her.  She wrenched free, overbalanced, and crashed to the hard-packed dirt of the square in a graceless sprawl, setting off a sudden alarmed babble over her head.
She scuttled backward, seeing nothing but flame.  Strong fingers seized her chin, halting the frantic thrashing of her head.  “Jetta!  Stop it!  You are out and safe!  Jetta ak’Kal!  Stop it!”
The voice penetrated, ringing along familiar pathways.  Jetta froze, looking up into a pair of intense dark eyes as hard as containment stone.  “Farahk ak’Kal,” she gasped.
He released her.  “Is your mind your own, ak’Kal?”
Shakily she nodded, and sat up, drawing her knees into an instinctive barrier.  Farahk’s eyes narrowed; Jetta caught herself huddling and surged to her feet, shaking off the memory of pain and loss still tender after a year.
Faces framed in charcoal hair, bodies in the deep reds and yellows of the Fire Clans, surrounded her.  She looked up at her neighbors, villagers she had known all her life, and bit her lip, groping after the professional calm a Third Rank master should never lose.  They crowded back, breaking the circle of concern drawn tight around her.  Farahk stood up more slowly, hard muscles rippling in the late afternoon sunlight.  It jolted Jetta to see him dressed in the brief leather hip guard of a Dancer with its protective flaps guarding buttocks and groin, his legs and upper body bare of anything the fire might snatch.  His flowing black hair, like hers, was braided up tight and bound with a thong at the nape of his neck.  Wide dark eyes met hers.  Jetta stared, first in realization, and then embarrassment.  Hot color flooded her face.
He waved impatiently at the gawking villagers.  “It’s done here.  The fire’s out, thanks to Jetta ak’Kal.  Go and see what can be salvaged.  Take Nekka to her parents and see to Tekkorin.”
People scattered without objection.  Quite apart from being a Fifth Rank master, Farahk seldom brooked being questioned.  Hands brushed Jetta’s shoulder in passing: silent thanks, appreciation, and then they were gone, and she stood alone with Farahk in an awkward silence.
“So,” he said.
Stubbornly she looked away.  Firin’s house oozed acrid-smelling smoke out the fire-shattered windows facing the square; the roof of the great room bore a gaping hole, but the majority of the sprawling hall stood untouched, its opalescent walls gleaming in the golden light.  The rest of Firehome still dreamed in the sun, a scatter of arrogant white stone and wooden roofs crowning a hill shaped like flame itself.  The vulnerable trees of the forest formed a scantly-tamed green circle a hundred paces from the nearest walls, far enough the Ancient could not use them against the village.  At the far end of the valley the sun hovered low over the hills, turning the river and the high falls pouring over the Guardian Ridge to silver.  Tall hills hemmed the wide green bowl, dreaming in quiet peace, lush and verdant like no other place in ten leagues, for here fire walked with caution, and rarely.  This was Firehome Vale, clan home to the Fire Clans.  Every third person here was a Dancer.
Farahk’s hand touched her shoulder.  “Jetta.”
The hard edge had gone from his voice.  She turned, caught in spite of herself.  Their eyes met, alike in the liquid blackness of mastery, as their faces bore traces of common ancestry in the wide set of the eyes, the winged dark eyebrows, the narrow nose and flat, hard lines of cheek and jaw.  She saw compassion in his face, and flushed, caught all sideways.
“So you are not as well healed as you thought,” he said quietly.
Jetta looked up, her pride caught.  “I did what was needed!  The fire is driven deep, and Firin’s house is still standing.  And the children live.”
“Indeed.  You did well.”
“But still you were set to come in after.”  Bitterness edged her voice.
“Were it needed, yes.  Should the children have died for your pride?”
“How long have you had someone standing my watch behind my back?”
“You have not been cleared by the Circle again to work alone.  Surely you knew that.”
“I—”  But she had known, she had just refused to think about it, as so much else of this past year was forbidden territory.  Of course her credentials were gone; no one trusted a Firedancer who had failed her task.  One dead village to her credit was enough.
Jetta stared at the ground, absently rubbing her left arm.  He caught her hand, raising it when she snatched her head up, startled.  Farahk only looked at her, still holding her wrist quietly.  Jetta flushed again and wrenched away.
He ran a light finger down the unmarked golden skin of her arm.  “It healed well.”
“Dancers always heal well.  And the Water Clan healers are adept.  No scars.”
“No scars outside.”
She met his eyes.  “I am ak’Kal of the Third Rank!  I’m not afraid!”
“Yes, you are.”  His voice was so matter-of-fact it quenched her anger as though he had danced it away.  “You conquered it today.  What of next time?  What when you meet with the Ancient itself?  You came out screaming, ak’Kal.  The fire has touched your flesh.  Did it also eat your nerve?”
Her chin came up.  “The Ancient has no hold on me.  This fire was malicious but it gained no victory.”
His eyebrow lifted like a bird rising.  “So?  Then you did better than well, daughter of my sister.”
She drew a deep breath, steadying as he let formality go at last.  “It was a young fire, not the Ancient—but it tried to call the Old Man.  It tried.”
“Why does that surprise you?  Any fire will try if you let it.”
“Here in the heart of Firehome Vale?”  She stared.  “Since when would it dare?”
“Since when would it dare rise here to begin with?”
Jetta blinked.  Since when, indeed?  Suddenly uncertain, she stood, squirming like a First Ranker, while those eyes that had seen more fire than half the other Dancers in all the clans studied her face.
“You have great talent, Jetta,” he said finally, startling her, for it was not what she had expected.  “Since you were a child it has been expected that you would rise to Fifth Rank, perhaps even to the Circle.  I have never seen a Dancer so aware of how a fire will run, of where it sleeps, of its mood when it bursts from the deep.  Because of you, Setham Village was fire-clear for full five years.  That is a thing unheard of.”
“And now Setham Village lies in ashes because of me.”
“No.  You know why Setham died.”
She looked away, her vision blurring with the easy tears of the past year.  “Kori,” she whispered.
“Kori didn’t cause the fire any more than he caused his own death.”  Farahk’s voice was gentle, but inexorable.  Jetta flinched.  She did not want to hear this, could not bear to think of that time.  But Farahk’s hand was on her chin again, forcing her head up.  Finally she met his eyes, furiously blinking her vision clear.
He dropped his hand, a reluctant smile catching up one side of his mouth.  “Your courage is intact.  Find whatever path will lead you past Kori, and you will yet stand in the Circle.”
“Lead past Kori?” Jetta echoed incredulously.  “And should I forget him, my lifemate, my second self, who died because I failed?”
“Did I say forget?  But he’s dead, of his own mistake, and if you dwell on that mistake it will take you, too.  Or, you will never dance fire again, and then how many will die who might have lived had Jetta ak’Kal had the will and the courage to dance for them?”
Jetta spun away, staring into the sun sinking over the falls.  “I will not fail my duty,” she said through her teeth.  “Is that all?”
Silence behind her.  She waited, hating his trick of outwaiting opposition, but it worked nonetheless.  She turned to find him still watching her with neither anger nor compassion in his face.  He was master now, and she apprentice.
“Annam Vale has requested a Dancer,” he said evenly.  “You will go tomorrow.”
“No!  No, ak’Kal!  Not yet!”
“You object to backing on your watch, and yet refuse an assignment elsewhere?  Make up your mind, ak’Kal.”
Jetta jerked upright.  “Flame has attacked Firehome itself!  How can I leave—?”
“And are there no other masters in Firehome, with more years of facing the Old Man than Jetta ak’Kal has been alive?”
That silenced her.  Even now she could hear First Rank apprentices chanting the histories in the sprawling teaching house where she had learned the Dance.  Firehome had no need of her to keep the Ancient at bay.  Maybe it was only because she was on watch that the Old Man’s spawn had dared to raise its head.
She looked away from Farahk’s gaze.  Setham Village lay like an accusing ghost behind her eyelids, a specter of ashes and tumbled walls and screams.  Maybe if she stayed, it would be Firehome itself someday.  And maybe if she left, it would be Annam.
“If you are not fit to dance anymore, now is the time to find out, Jetta ak’Kal.”
She forced herself to meet Farahk’s eyes again.  “I can dance,” she said through stiff lips.
“Then you go.”
Go with Circle sanction, or just go.  That was in his voice, the thing that happened to Dancers who lost their nerve.  Go to the wastelands where fire could find no foothold and make what life she might.  When fire rooted in a human heart, it was too dangerous to stay.  She looked down that road of bleak wandering, a magnet for the Ancient, welcome nowhere, and swallowed hard.
“Yes, Farahk ak’Kal,” she said thickly.  “Is that all?”
“No.  Settak goes with you.”
“Settak!  But he’s only a journeyman, and Second Rank.  He isn’t qualified—”
“To take your place if you fail?”
“Old Man Fire!  That’s not what I—”
“But it’s what you were thinking.  There’s no danger of you failing here, with a village full of Dancers to catch what you do not.  In your heart you know that.”
“I didn’t know!  I didn’t know you were there, so why should I have feared failing?”
“Then why does Firin’s house have a great hole in its roof?  How is it that flame got such a hold there, if Jetta ak’Kal did not hesitate?”
“It was already well alight when I came, ak’Kal.”
He frowned and looked down his nose at her.  “So?”
“Yes!”
A little silence stretched.  Her anger trickled into uneasiness as still Farahk said nothing.  Abruptly he raised his eyes as if some inner debate had ended.  “All the more reason for you to go, then,” he said cryptically.  “Settak is competent enough in the Dance.  Annam lies in the heart of the containment quarries.  The risk is small.”
Which brought the bright blood rushing to her face again, in humiliation this time.  “Then why send us at all?”
He watched her unblinkingly through a long moment that cooled her anger and hatched a small worm of doubt in her guts.  Something was not right about Annam Vale, and the danger was greater than he pretended.  “Uncle?”
He drew a quick breath and let it out in a sigh.  “Annam is full of Windriders, sister-daughter.  Think on that, if Old Man Fire indeed comes calling.”
Farahk dropped a hand onto her shoulder, a quick, hard squeeze of reassurance, and walked away with the floating, arrogant step of the very top Dancers.  She watched him go, hardly seeing him for the swirl of fear and excitement and doubt squeezing her insides into knots.  She felt like a First Ranker again, facing the fire for the first time.
Windriders….Old Man Fire, what was she supposed to do with a village full of Windriders?
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