Garyl and Lytha smelled the smoke before they saw the fire. Their conversation trailed off, they looked each other in the eyes, and then they both ran toward the blaze.
A handful of students and one instructor had already stepped out of the academy’s main building by the time they backtracked to the hedge maze. The fire had spread quickly, creating a thick gray smoke as it consumed the leaves and foliage within the maze. Without thinking, Garyl began to weave an enchantment to put out the fire, just as he had months ago in Falden’s shack. Confident that Garyl could keep the blaze under control, Lytha moved on, ushering the students back inside.
“Get them back to their classrooms and do a head count,” she ordered the instructor who had wandered out into the grounds. “If you find that somebody is not accounted for, tell me immediately.”
Back at the fire, Garyl chanted a simple incantation and held his hands out. The blaze began to shrink, but then it flared up again obstinately. Garyl concentrated and pushed his hands outward, forcing the fire to diminish once again. Just when he seemed to get it under control, it sparked up again, this time rising higher and burning hotter than it had before.
Irked by the stubborn fire, Garyl walked forward with his hands extended. He pressed his palms against the charred husk of a hedge. The flames retreated away from him, as though they feared touching his skin.
“There,” Garyl said as though the fire were a living thing that could hear him, “not so tough now, are you?”
He entered the maze as the fire shrank, chasing it through rows of burned branches and seeking its source. Then, when he was well into the heart of the maze, the fire exploded all around him. Hedges that had been extinguished suddenly flared up with a deadly new fire that burned white in its center. Smoke filled the air, obscuring Garyl’s vision and leaving him unable to find the exit. Garyl crouched down and pulled his cloak over his mouth and nose, but the suddenly superheated air had already made it impossible for him to draw breath without burning his throat and lungs in the process. He dropped to his knees and closed his eyes.
“What a stupid way to die,” he muttered. It occurred to him that he had given that same lament not long ago. In fact, he realized that he ran into these situations with alarming regularity. Always peril caused by his own lack of forethought, usually followed by him voicing his dissatisfaction with his potential cause of death. The gods usually provided some good fortune to help him reverse his fate. Maybe he made them smile through these close scrapes of his. If so, he hoped somebody in the heavens was laughing loudly right now.
Then it began to rain, and it was Garyl’s turn to laugh.
At first, he didn’t know what to make of the cold prickling at the top of his head. He assumed that maybe his nerves were starting to die as the fire burned away his skin. But then he noticed small puffs of steam rising from the stones on the ground of the maze. Water was falling, but then evaporating. Within a matter of seconds, though, there was too much of it for the fire to force away.
The light shower became a sudden downpour, and the fire retreated from the fury of nature. Garyl held his breath until he couldn’t anymore. Crouching as low as possible, he took an experimental gulp of air. The ground was still hot, but the air was breathable. Beautiful puddles of cold water formed around Garyl’s hands and feet, and the crackle of the fire retreated deeper into the maze.
Garyl listened carefully for the sound of chanting, of incantations, of anything that could indicate to him what sort of magic had just saved him. Nothing. Pushing himself up onto his knees, he craned his head skyward and saw that gray-blue storm clouds hung thick in the heavens around him. This caused him to furrow his brow. Had they been there before? He had been so engrossed in his conversation with Lytha that he hadn’t paid much attention to the weather. The thought of nature taking a hand in saving him from some sort of magical trap would have made him laugh if his lungs were ready for that sort of exercise.
The hedges of the maze had been charred, and many of the branches and leaves now floated on the wind as swirling black ash caught in the sudden rainstorm. Despite the disintegrating maze, Garyl couldn’t see the academy. If Lytha was calling to him, the hiss of rain drowned her voice out. Whatever danger lay ahead of him, he faced it alone.
Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. He noted dourly that he could just turn and leave the maze at any time. It wouldn’t hurt to have Lytha and perhaps a few other powerful spellcasters backing him up for a change. Naturally, however, his impatience and curiosity drove him forward. It wasn’t that he didn’t have better judgment—he just usually chose not to listen to that more rational part of his mind.
He didn’t bother following the carefully laid out labyrinth around him. Instead, he watched where the steam seemed to rise the quickest. Feeling his way toward the hottest part of the mysterious inferno, he forced his way through blackened, broken branches. He pulled the hood of his cloak up, noticing only after he had done so that the storm had already soaked him to the bone. When the depleted hedges grew too difficult to force his way through, he drew his sword and physically hacked them away, carving a path forward.
Not far into the maze, he found Tiane. Moreover, he found the answers he had sought. He knew the fire hadn’t been natural, and the storm proved tied to the same origin. Tiane stood rigid, arms spread outward as though in supplication toward the sky. A ring of steam rose from the still-burning embers around her feet. Rain fell in sheets all around her, but left her completely dry. The storm affected the entire area save for a circle of about ten feet in diameter directly around the child.
Garyl sheathed his sword immediately so as not to appear as a threat.
“Well, I would call this a bit more impressive than turning ice into water,” he called over the pounding of the raindrops.
If Tiane heard him, she gave no sign of it.
“Tiane?” Garyl approached close and held out his hand to touch her shoulder.
As Garyl’s arm moved from inside the downpour to the calm eye of the storm, Tiane’s head snapped away from the sky and she finally looked at him. Her red eyes seemed brighter than normal, and she wore a manic grin on her face.
“You know,” she said in a voice that sounded slightly deeper than normal—familiar to Garyl but also strangely alien.
Garyl pulled his hand back and withdrew into the rain. “Yes,” he said. “I know.”
“Then you are a threat,” Tiane said.
Garyl shook his head. “No, not to you. I wanted to show you the wonders of Niiran.”
“Do you think I don’t see them?” Tiane sounded more bitter than angry, as though she had been denied something that was owed to her. “Do you think seeing the scum that live below the surface of this world or the ants that crawl atop it will do anything to save them?”
“Those ants killed you once before,” Garyl responded. “Do they have to do it again?”
“Nobody killed me,” the girl snapped. “I cannot die!”
“Okay,” Garyl replied. “Fair enough. I believe you. Since you can’t die, why don’t you stop with the rain and fury? Let’s go inside together and maybe Lytha will make us some cookies.”
Tiane gave a toothy grin and shook her head. “Don’t think to patronize me. My body is young, but my soul is old enough to recognize a lying coward when I see one.”
“Coward? Maybe,” Garyl said. “But I take offense to the lying part. Now that I’ve said it out loud, I really want to eat some cookies.”
“You know about us, so we need to know about you.”
Tiane’s eyes grew more intense, and Garyl felt the familiar supernatural fear from earlier creep into his heart. He returned the stare as well as he could, fighting off the terror with a strength that was bolstered by his knowledge of the truth behind the girl.
Unfortunately for Garyl, Tiane didn’t want him to flee. Had he not focused so intensely on fighting off the girl’s supernatural stare, he might have noticed that the rain was beginning to let up. By the time the drying weather did come to his attention, Tiane had already made her next move. She flung her arms forward, hitting Garyl with a force that felt like a wild beast striking him in the chest despite the fact that she didn’t physically touch him.
Garyl opened his eyes to find himself on the ground, even though he didn’t remember falling backwards or closing his eyes. “I get the feeling that we aren’t going to become friends,” he said weakly.
Tiane shook her head and crouched over Garyl. She pressed her left hand against Garyl’s forehead, and he felt a burning on his skin that matched the intensity of the fire. Just before he gave into pain and tried to scream, he blacked out and knew no more.
He recognized the tumultuous rocking of a ship as soon as he came to. The stormy skies around the academy remained—in fact, they had grown worse. Pushing himself to his hands and knees, he found himself aboard a small sailboat cast about on stormy seas. He knew very little about boats, but he knew instinctively that this particular vessel was designed to hug the coastline, not sail in the deep and stormy waters in which it now bobbed helplessly. His head ached, and his stomach seemed to turn circles with the rolling tide.
Garyl pushed himself into a crouching situation, intending to stand up and try his legs on the wild sea. But then he saw another figure in the boat with him—not Tiane, but rather a slender figure with the same obsidian-colored skin and slate gray hair. The other night folk cast a glance toward Garyl while also wrestling with the mainsail.
“Don’t just sit there,” the other night folk shouted. “Figure out a way to get this ship under control before that thing catches up with us!”
A sense of unfettered terror took root in Garyl’s very heart. He felt himself tremble uncontrollably as he turned his head into the storm’s ire. He saw only a single coil of the great green beast as it emerged for a brief moment from the water. It disappeared quickly beneath the waves, but Garyl knew too well that it was coming for the small vessel. After all, it was hungry.
The familiar weight of his shield was missing, as was the sword that had hung by his side for decades. Instead, he had a knife in his hand…and the only other person in the boat currently had his back toward him.
“No,” Garyl said with determination. He gripped the hilt of the dagger so tightly that he felt as though he might bend it in half.
The scene froze in time—the sea monster just a few dozen feet away and ready to strike, the other night folk struggling to direct the ship, Garyl’s trembling hand tense around the dagger. Even the rain held in place, the heavy raindrops hanging in the air like tiny shards of glass.
“I’m not really here,” said Garyl. “And I won’t share this memory with you.”
His senses lied to him and told him that the scene around him was real, but Garyl banished such thoughts from his mind. He was on the ground right now, with Tiane’s burning hand pressed against his skin. And then that became the truth once again.
Tiane jerked her hand away as though she had been the one burned by the magic. The crazed look that had come over her face vanished, replaced by the same sort of terror that Garyl had felt on board the ship in his memory. A great, deadly beast still lurked, unseen but quite definitely there.
“I-I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” Tiane asked when she surveyed the destruction around her.
“Yes,” Garyl said.
They both heard footsteps in the maze. Garyl sat up.
“Run to the right,” he said. “Two right turns, two left turns, and then one more right. You should be able to find the exit from there.”
“But Lytha will know…”
Garyl shook his head. “Get inside as quickly as you can. Dry off, change your clothes. Don’t ask questions right now—we’ll talk soon.”
Tiane reached out to touch Garyl, but he slapped her hand away.
“Not now,” he hissed. “Run.”
The footsteps grew closer, and Tiane followed Garyl’s advice. She turned the first corner just as she heard somebody crash through a frail section of burned hedge. As she continued her flight from the scene, she only hoped that nobody had seen her escaping.