Chasing The Wind (Novella)

BOOK: Chasing The Wind (Novella)
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Chasing the Wind
D.K. Holmberg
Contents

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opyright © 2015 by D.K
. Holmberg

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Chasing the Wind

T
he sudden scream
died off quickly, seared away like everything else in the dry land. Even the acrid wind felt stunted. Lifeless. Zephra thought it strange that the scream carried.

All around her ugly and spindly scrub trees struggled to grow, sharp needles pulling at clothing if she came to close. Some could even shoot their needles if she walked too heavily. Innocent looking brown grasses sprung up in clumps that she was careful to avoid. In Incendin, even those could be poisonous. The ever-present scorching sun burned her exposed skin so that Zephra had quickly learned to cover herself completely. Everything about the land was designed to kill.

She hated and feared the land almost as much as she feared those who lived here.

Zephra paused to take a slow drink from her waterskin as she considered the source of the scream. She had heard others since entering Incendin, each muted in the lifeless air smothering the land, but this was different. Closer. And more urgent.

Anything in Incendin could be a trap – especially screams that sounded so human, so familiar. Still, the scream pulled on something within her, leaving her trembling and drawn toward it.

How many days had she already spent in the waste?

The heat made her mind blur and she lost track.

Eight? Ten? Maybe a dozen. Too long since a cool breeze touched her cheeks.

All Zephra wanted was to continue onward. If her map was right, she was nearly there. A day, maybe two, before she reached the outer edges of the gentle plains as they rolled toward the sea. This close to Doma she could almost smell the hint of salt on the air. Soon she would breathe easier, no longer inhaling the burning dusty stink of Incendin.

It was the promise of wind that compelled her forward, away from the stifling air of the waste. The promise that she would finally catch her wind.

It would have been simpler to sail around to Doma. Easier. But Tellander wouldn’t let her. Not if she was to find her wind, master it as Tellander demanded. She heard his voice in her head like a taunt:
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy
. After what she had been through already, this had
better
be worthwhile.

A tall rocky prominence stretched into the sky not far from her, the only thing that grew in lands that the Mother clearly forgot. With the heat, the scream could be little more than her imagination. And would not be the first hallucination. Much better to keep her focus and reach Doma.

Then the scream came again, muted but closer.

The sound rang through her head, demanding her attention.

A mournful tone hung with it, searing her in a way the sun overhead could not. She shivered. When it ended abruptly, she shivered again.

She knew she should turn away. In these lands and without her shaping, she could do little more than a child.

That scream would not let her.

Not far in the distance, she spied a clump of ragged trees near the rock tower. A few wide brown needles, nearly the size of small leaves, coated thorny branches. At the university, Zephra had read that the Incendin flowers, blooming after the rare rain, had healing powers. In the week she had spent crawling across this blasted land, she had yet to see even a drop of moisture. And nothing suggestive of flowers. They were probably just as ugly as the rest of the tree.

The tower of rock stretched impossibly high the closer she came. Like a wide platform, it rose toward the sun, sides seemingly sheered from the ground. Smaller boulders looked flung from it, strewn to either side. Trees and the thick Incendin shrub kept an almost respectable distance from the base of rock. The sun seemed hotter as well, as if challenged by the tower.

Zephra ducked behind the trees, careful to stay away from their sharp nettles, as she moved toward the tower and listened. As a wind shaper, even this still dry air could not resist her sensing.

The soft sound of whimpering carried to her ears, drifting slowly around and through the rock. From more than one person, from the sounds of it. Zephra silently slipped the knife from her belt. The least she could do was see if anyone was injured.

She crawled through the trees until she reached the smooth stone. The surface was surprisingly cool. Zephra slid forward slowly to slip around the edge of the rock, staying in the shadows.

Her breath caught in her throat.

Three people, one of them a child, huddled near the base of the rock tower. Arm and legs were bound with thick rope and once brightly colored clothing that she recognized immediately was now dirty and torn.

Aeta.

Even from where she crouched, that much was unmistakable.

In the kingdoms, no one dared touch the landless Aeta. As traders, they traveled freely and favored none, having long ago vowed never to settle in any particular land. Such a violation of the ancient peace accords was nearly unimaginable.

If Zephra needed any reminder that she was no longer in the kingdoms, this was it.

She knew with certainty that it had been the child’s scream that drew her. The other two stood protectively around her, as if shielding her from someone unseen. Zephra had a sudden urge to run forward and slice at their bindings, but held back. Without the wind, she could do little other than join them.

A sudden crackle of heat sizzled the air and burned away the remaining moisture from her lips. Heat haze shimmered up from the ground around the captive Aeta, distorting her view.

All three began screaming.

Zephra’s heart skipped a beat. She had felt such energy a few times before but hadn’t expected to encounter anything like it here, deep in the Incendin waste.

Fire shaping.

She shifted to better hide herself. She was not equipped to face off with a fire shaper, especially one powerful enough that she felt it where she stood. Little would protect her here, not without any wind. The knife in her hand might as well be a knitting needle for all the good it would do.

Helplessness burned angrily within her. If only the wind would cooperate.

She leaned against the stone. It was rough, but surprisingly cool. The heated air of Incendin resisted her attempts at shaping, but would cooler air?

She pressed herself against the stone while taking slow breaths, steadying herself. Then she focused, trying to will the wind into a shaping. Never an easy task in the best of times, she prayed to the Great Mother that she could catch the wind.

A flicker. Barely more than a breath of air, but she grabbed at it hungrily.

At first it fought her, slippery as if a thing alive. She could beg and plead with it, but the wind needed her to control it. Sudden anger gave her power, purpose. She demanded command of the wind, twisting the air and thickening it. As she did, a softly swaying current formed around her.

Zephra clutched tightly to the wind. If she lost the connection, she was not certain she could regain it.

The shaping was not much, but might mask her presence long enough to observe the fire shaper. Observe was all she could hope to do. These lands were ideal for a fire shaper, a natural defense against water and wind shaping; Zephra suspect that the hot and lifeless air would challenge even Tellander.

Earth shaping was another matter. Not for the first time, she wished she had let Grethan come. Earth shapers were rarely helpless, him especially so. But this was a journey she had to take on her own. That much she knew. Though he had not liked that fact, at least Grethan had understood.

Zephra moved slowly around the rock, keeping a hand on the cool stone and staying within the shadows. Whatever veil she managed would surely fail once the sun destroyed the relative coolness of the shade. Even this might not be adequate.

As soon as she felt a swell of heat she stopped.

Still not all the way around the rock, she shifted her focus back to the air and increased the effort of her shaping. This much taxed her to the edges of her limits. Straining against the writhing struggle from the wind, she forced more of her will, her focus, into the shaping. Echoes of the scream reverberated softly in her mind, seeming to augment her strength.

Even then her control was imprecise.

She turned her attention back to the captured Aeta. The girl was missing.

Zephra felt an edge of panic. In that moment, her concentration drifted and subtle shifting of wind around her start to falter. Cursing herself, she steeled her focus. Little would hide her if it failed, and the fire shaper that had captured the Aeta would come after her.

Slowly she regained control. The soft breeze shifting around her felt warmer than before. The veil weaker.

She had another sudden fear, one that almost sent her back to the rock for cover. Could the fire shaper simply penetrate the haze?

Shaking away the fear, the compulsion to find the girl grew more urgent.

As she slipped farther around the rock, she looked for the girl. The heat haze rising from the ground made everything opaque. Only the bright colors of her clothing helped Zephra find the young Aeta.

She laid helpless, arms and legs stretched apart, her once brightly colored clothing tearing. Patches of burned skin already blistered. Raised welts, clearly shaper made, seemed to mix within the patches of burned flesh. The lower edge of her tattered shirt had shifted and more of the scorch marks worked across the flesh of her stomach. Only the girl’s face was hidden from her, tipped back and away.

The smell of charred flesh drifted to Zephra on shaped wind. Anger surged through her.

Only then did Zephra hear the screaming.

The girl wailed, her voice high pitched and haunting. The sound nearly penetrated the remainder of her focus. How had she not heard it before?

The young Aeta girl thrashed as much as she could against the bindings holding her splayed across the rock, but her legs and arms held fast. Only her head tossed violently.

A rod thin man stood facing the sun, arms spread out in supplication. Nothing covered the browned and leathery skin of his torso. Dark pants, a deep maroon that was nearly black, covered him from the waist down. His feet were bare and he flexed his toes into the hot ground. A shorn head twisted slowly from side-to-side, like a lizard sunning itself. A foul sulfurous odor radiated from him, hot and rank.

Zephra froze. Something about the shaper sent waves of fear through her.

She could not hold the veil much longer without roasting herself. Even now the air writhed, struggling to escape her grasp. Only then did she realize that a shimmering haze originated around the dark shaper, spreading out from his arms and swirling toward the Aeta girl.

Violent anger rose within her, pushing back her fear. Memories of a forgotten past tried to blow into her consciousness but Zephra pushed back, holding her focus. She did not know what the fire shaper did to the Aeta girl, but she could not simply watch it happen.

The screaming suddenly stopped.

Zephra was moving before she knew it. She slid forward, the hot air concealing any sound she made, and reached the other two Aeta first. Shifting the veil as she reached them, she quickly shaped a gag to keep them from making noise as she sliced through the bindings. She felt the veil sag and she forced more of her will into it, angrily holding it in place.

“The rock. Far side,” she whispered, knowing the shaped air would carry it to their ears.

The man glared at her and shook his head, pointing toward the girl. His face was youthful and strong. Something in his brown eyes was so like Grethan that she nearly lost her control again.

The woman grabbed her wrist, startling her with the urgent touch. Her fingers were moist and tingled. Hot wind carried a floral scent off her of lilacs and evergreen.

“I will get her,” Zephra promised.

The man shook his head.

Zephra did not have time or the energy to argue with him. She considered pushing him at the rock with a gust of wind and let the Great Mother protect him from injury.

Then the Aeta woman shook herself and nodded, grabbing the man and pulling him away. For her, he went without argument.

Zephra turned toward the shaper. His shaved head had turned a shade of bright red, the flesh itself seeming to glow like coals in a fire. The redness spread to his arms and exposed back, and suddenly his pants simply burned away in a flash. The shaper glowed like a torch.

The girl started screaming again.

It was a desperate sound. Heavy with pain and hopelessness. The sound pulled on her, compelling her forward.

Zephra did not know what sort of shaping this man did. She had never heard of a fire shaping where the shaper themselves glowed as this man did, but she feared he neared the completion of his shaping. Only her roiling anger protected her from the heat of it.

Without thinking, she shifted the shaping, sliding the veil into a wedge and knifed forward, letting herself be carried on the gust of hot wind. The blast hit the shaper at the same time as she reached the girl.

The fire shaper turned, his glowing face twisted in a snarl. Heat sizzled from him, blasting through the wall of wind she shaped.

Zephra spun, letting hot fingers of air carry her away from his shaping. Summoning all of her anger, she sent a gust of wind spinning toward the shaper as a distraction.

The bindings slashed away quickly. The girl looked at her with wide eyes.

Zephra expected fear but there was none. Instead she imagined that she saw recognition. She hoped the girl had the strength to walk; even as small as the girl appeared, Zephra was not nearly strong enough to carry her.

“The girl is mine.”

Zephra whipped her head around in time to see the shaper stepping through the twisting wind funnel. His voice hissed like steam. A surge of fear coursed through her with the realization that she was not strong enough to stop this shaper from taking the girl.

She tried reworking her shaping, willing the air to thicken and slow the fire shaper. The hot air did not obey.

Pushing the girl behind her, Zephra forced herself to look at the shaper, through the glow surrounding him. His features had changed, melting and morphing. No longer did he resemble a man. Sudden horror dawn on her as she realized the target of his shaping had not been the girl.

BOOK: Chasing The Wind (Novella)
10.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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