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Deep Fire

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The 15th day of Goose Moon
The year 1040 K. F.
Olart, on the road to Anderran

Daja Kisubo stood up. She stretched to her full height, standing on tiptoes and reaching for the sky—and then relaxed and drooped her body down. Straightening up again, she sighed. “I suppose it’s time to continue,” she said to Frostpine, her traveling companion.

“If we want to sleep in an inn instead of on the ground, indeed we do,” he answered. He shivered. “There may not be any more snow on the ground, but I’d prefer to sleep warm tonight.”

Daja looked at him disbelievingly. “You know perfectly well that I can warm the ground and the air anywhere we sleep.” As she said that, she felt a twinge of...something. Apprehension? She was glad that she was unlikely to be called on to do just that. She shook her head and decided that she was looking forward to a good dinner and night’s sleep at an inn.

Frostpine shook his head. “It’s just not the same,” he said. “You can warm the ground, or a tent, but there’s nothing like a real fire—in a fireplace.”

“As long as you warm yourself at the fire, and not in the fire,” Daja replied. Some months ago, Frostpine had done just that, frightening the maids at the Bancanor residence nearly into hysterics. He said later that it was the first time that winter that he’d been truly warm. After that, Daja suspected he’d repeated the experience, but no one had caught him at it.

The two of them had been on the road for several weeks. When they’d left Kugisko, at the northern end of the Namorn Empire, the passes had just opened. Now, there was no snow to be seen, and the days were feeling increasingly mild. They had stopped for lunch and to rest the horses, but there was a long afternoon’s travel between inns.

Daja packed up their lunch leavings and stowed them in a saddlebag, then sheathed her Trader’s staff in the saddle holster specially made for it, and they were on their way. It was still early in the season, and there wasn’t much traffic to be seen, either on horse or foot, though Daja knew that this was prime travel time for Trader caravans. In fact, they had been passed by Second Caravan Mildaro two days ago. They had started out with a caravan—traders of furs, but not Traders—back in Kugisko, but had left them after a couple of weeks to travel at their own speed. They had visited smiths and jewelers in a couple of cities along the road, and were expecting to see more as they made their leisurely way back toward Summersea.

A couple of hours later, just as Daja was about to suggest it might be time for a mid-afternoon break—for the horses, of course—she looked off to the left of the road, startled. “That’s Second Caravan Mildaro!” she said. “What are they doing here? They were two days ahead of us, and we haven’t been traveling all that quickly.” She looked around. “And where is everyone?” The area should have been bustling with Traders—men and women, boys and girls, even toddlers under the benevolent eyes of whoever was in charge of watching them. There were only a few people walking around.

Then she noticed the red pennants that were flying on several of the caravans. In Trader culture, red was the color of death. Red for blood. There had been not just one, but several deaths here.

She turned to Frostpine to explain that to him, but she saw from the expression on his face that he understood as well as she did what those pennants meant. Which made sense, since when she first met him, she had been in mourning for her own family, and wore red the entire year.

“I don’t know what could have happened,” she said. “We exchanged greetings when we passed on the road, and there was nothing like that then.” Daja had spent a year as trangshi, outcast, as the only survivor of her family’s ship, and it was still a pleasure to be able to spend time with Traders and not be ignored. These were White Traders—Traders on land—and her family had been Blue Traders, on the sea, but they were all Tsaw’ha. Daja was no longer precisely Tsaw’ha; she didn’t belong to any clan, though she carried a Trader staff from a clan she’d saved—but that was by her own choice.

Lost in her musing, Daja hadn’t noticed the yellow-clad figure until it came close to her. This was a mimander, a Trader mage.

“You are the mages Frostpine and Daja?” the mimander—he, Daja realized from the timbre of the voice—asked.

“We are,” said Frostpine.

“I apologize for the unseemly haste, but...” The mimander paused, as if steeling himself for the his next words. “...we need magical help.”

“What happened?” asked Daja and Frostpine simultaneously.

“Foolishness,” said the mimander bitterly. “Arrant foolishness. And now we are dying for it.”

“Tell us,” said Frostpine. “Of course we will help.”

“First, you must know that my magic is that of weather, not of things of the earth.” Frostpine and Daja nodded. Trader mimanders specialized in one study. They became very good at that one thing, but were limited outside their area. “That is why I did not recognize when the wirok traded for what appeared to be an innocuous bauble—one that we paid good money for, but expected to sell for more money.

“And what did”

“It was a trap. At a guess, it was perfectly safe when it was kept in the box we originally saw it in, but once it was removed, the outside began to dissolve, exposing actual item. I don’t know exactly what it is, but the wirok and two others who handled it have died—and several others in the caravan have fallen sick.”

“Trader and Bookkeeper!” Daja gasped. She knew it had to be something dire for all the usual Trader formality to be ignored, but this was worse than she had guessed.

“When I tried using the ointments of vision, I could see that magic—evil magic, I assume—was wafting from the item. It seemed to be looking, if one could call it that, for people to sink into. And everyone touched by it has fallen ill. We considered leaving it behind in a hole dug for it, but Oti Bookkeeper would know who was responsible if someone else found it and was harmed. I’m not sure I can destroy it without letting loose more of the evil magic—or being infected by it myself.” Daja was unable to tell much with the mimander hidden under the yellow veil, but she guessed that he was both angry and frustrated—and ashamed that he hadn’t been able to take care of the problem himself.

“Where is it now?” asked Frostpine.

The mimander pointed in the direction they’d come, a ways off the road. “We didn’t think we could move it safely, so instead we moved the camp far enough away that we hoped it couldn’t do anything more to us. It seems to only target humans, not animals or objects. We tried burning it in the wagon we left it in. Everything else burned, but the object remained behind.”

“Someone really doesn’t like you Traders,” said Frostpine. Daja winced. She was sure the mimander would not approve of that sort of flippancy. “To survive burning like that, it has to have a great number of protections on it—either inherent to the object, or layered on top.”

“Indeed,” said the mimander. “That is a problem we will need to deal with. But later, after the object has been dealt with. We can pay for your assistance.”

“That is also a matter for later,” said Daja. She knew Frostpine would have no intention of taking payment for such a necessary task, but Traders insisted on value for work, since they did not want to be indebted to kaq, non-Traders. Daja wasn’t exactly a kaq, but Frostpine definitely was.

The mimander showed them to the area. They remained at a safe distance, and extended their magical senses. Daja could see magic, thanks to the mixing of her magic with Tris’s. Daja, Tris, Sandry, and Briar had needed to combine their magics more than once to save their lives, but that combination had caused some unfortunate accidents until Sandry, with their help and that of their teacher Lark, managed to separate them as part of a woven working. They kept the extra talents they’d acquired, but were now in control of them.

Daja took one look, and recoiled. Whatever was there was definitely malign. It seemed to be grasping at her and her magic. “What do you see, Frostpine?”

“I’m not sure how the Traders managed not to see that something was wrong with whatever-it-was. Someone must have done a very good job of camouflaging the magic. I’m guessing that the camouflage spells and the protective spells were combined. If this was actually aimed at Traders—or these particular Traders—there must have been some sort of release trigger to start letting it do its evil work.”

“You do think it was targeted at these Traders? That’s awful!”

Daja wished she thought it was hard to believe, but she’d had too much experience in her short life for that happy ignorance. She remembered Ben Ladradun’s fires all too well. She still didn’t know if he’d meant to kill people, but many people had died as a result of his actions. She shuddered.

Frostpine considered. “Well, I suppose it could have been a case of someone just trying to get rid of it, but that seems a completely roundabout way of doing so. No, I think there has to be malice intended here. And since people have died, it had at least part of the intended effect.”

“Is it safe to just destroy it? Will that hurt the people who have already been affected?” Daja had limited experience with healing magic, but several years ago, the Blue Plague had ravaged Summersea. That had been a complete accident; the woman who created it had been trying to create—of all things—a potion to help people become thinner. Instead, it killed people. That had taught her a valuable lesson about unintended consequences when it came to people and health.

“You tell me,” said Frostpine. “Look at the magic emanating from the object.”

“Hmm.” Daja looked again. “It’s reaching out, but it doesn’t seem to be connecting to anything.”

“That’s right. The Traders acted promptly, removing it from the area. I don’t know what would have happened if they’d left it there, but it couldn’t have been good. In any case, it needs to be destroyed, so it doesn’t catch anyone else.”

Frostpine turned to the mimander, who had been standing by quietly, waiting for them to finish their inspection. “You said that you’re a weather mage. Do you think you could bring down lightning to destroy it?” He looked dubiously at the sky, which was a clear blue with only a few fluffy clouds. They had been enjoying the lovely weather, but now Daja was wondering if they’d be better off if a storm were threatening.

“No!” snapped the mimander. “I have no desire to kill myself!” She went on, a bit more calmly, “My powers are of predicting weather, not of controlling it.”

“We’d need Tris for that,” said Daja. “My sister. She can call down lightning,” she said as an aside to the mimander.

The mimander nodded. Possibly she shivered a bit, though Daja couldn’t tell for sure under the yellow robes.

“But you are fire mages,” said the mimander. “Can you not call hotter fires to destroy the object?”

Daja didn’t bother to correct the mimander. They both had power over fire, but they were metalworking mages, not fire mages. The fire skills only helped them to do the work they had chosen to do. Or that their ambient powers had chosen them to do. She would always help with firefighting when it was necessary, but it was the creation of items that she loved doing.

“We can,” said Frostpine. “Daja, I’ll need your help to call the deep fires from the earth.”

“I can’t!” Daja said involuntarily. Frostpine’s word brought the vision of Ben Ladradun, tied to a stake and waiting for the flames to devour him as punishment for his acts of arson. She had called the earth’s fires to kill him quickly, so he wouldn’t suffer. Ben had done awful things, but before that, he had been her friend. She had gone to watch him as atonement for her part in Ben’s actions, but she couldn’t let him die slowly and painfully. Frostpine and Olennika had helped her, but she was the one who had called the fires.

Daja’s mouth opened again, but nothing came out. She hadn’t know she was going to say that, and she had no idea what to say next. Frostpine was the one who rescued the moment, speaking to the mimander. “We need some privacy to make preparations. We will be over there.” He pointed in the general direction of where they’d left their horses.

“Come, Daja.” He led her over to a couple of large stones, and motioned her to sit. She sat.

“Now, tell me.” His eyes were kind, but his mouth was stern.

“I hadn’t realized,” she said. “I haven’t dealt with anything but regular forge fires since we left Kugisko.” Frostpine made an encouraging noise. “It’s the thought of it. What I did to—for—Ben. It’s the same thing here.”

“Except that here it’s not to hurt anyone. It’s to save lives.”

“I know that!” she snapped. And then paused. “But part of me doesn’t. I don’t know what came over me, but I really don’t want to do that.”

“And do you know why?”

“Yes. Because that’s what I did when I helped kill Ben. Even though he deserved to die. Even though I saved him pain. I know that in my head, but not...” She trailed off.

“In your heart,” Frostpine completed. “You’re not my apprentice anymore, not since you have your mage medallion. But you are still my student. And as your teacher, I should have noticed that you had use this part of your powers. I apologize for being remiss.”

“Frostpine! How could you have known, when I didn’t know?” But that wasn’t exactly true, was it? She had known that something was dragging at her, even if she hadn’t known for sure. She had suspected that it was connected with the events in Kugisko.

“Well, this is something that can’t be left to fester. For one thing, it could permanently damage you, like a wound that isn’t allowed to heal. And for another—” He pointed back in the direction of the cursed object. “We have a job to do. But not immediately; we have some time. I think this would be a good time to do some meditation.”

Daja sighed. She knew he was right. And now that she knew there was a problem, the best thing to do was face it. But she really would have liked more time! “It’s not fair,” she said. She knew she sounded sulky.

Frostpine grinned. “Who said life was fair? Not me, I’m sure of that.”

Daja smiled back, reluctantly. She took her staff and started drawing a circle. Frostpine raised his eyebrows. “Wards?” She hadn’t needed a warding circle for meditation in a long time. That was usually only a necessity for new students.

“Just in case. And for privacy, too.” Frostpine nodded.

Once the warding circle was complete, Daja fell into the familiar rhythm—inhale for seven counts, hold for seven counts, exhale for seven counts, hold for seven counts—and repeat. The image of the earth’s fires, deep below the earth, rose up in her mind. She tried to push it down, then let the pictures flow. The fire isn’t evil. It’s just the tool. I’m going to have to deal with what I did to Ben Ladradun at some point, but this isn’t the time. She let herself think of the earth’s fires in other ways—providing heat, gushing out of the water to create new land, and anything else she could think of.

Slowly, she let herself emerge from the meditation trance. She sent her mind deep into the earth, and felt for the fires there. This wasn’t volcanic land, but she could go down far enough to reach the molten rock and metal and collect enough heat to do what was needed.

Frostpine looked a question at her, and she nodded in answer.

Daja took a deep breath, then let it out. “It's time to go back to the mimander. We have a job to do.”