S. A. Bolich
Masters of the Elements, Book 1
Publisher: Sky Warrior Books
Number of pages: 394
Word Count: 133,000
What do you suppose that fire thinks about as it cooks your dinner behind its cage of containment stone? Jetta ak’Kal knows—but no one listens to a Firedancer who has failed to protect her assigned village from an assault by living flame.
The Ancient, the strange, elemental fire imprisoned at the heart of the world, took her lifemate, her reputation as the most talented Dancer of her generation, and nearly her life. Now her clan demands she redeem herself, yet seem strangely indifferent to her insistence that the Dance itself that has always bound the Ancient seems to be failing. Assigned to Annam, a village with no previous experience of fire, Jetta and her new partner, Settak, find themselves battling the naive ignorance of the villagers, the hostility of arrogant Windriders whose mastery of air could kill them both with the flick of a finger, and occasionally each other as they struggle to find new and more powerful forms of the Dance.
Pursued by fire crawling up through every crack, by a new love she does not want, and a nagging suspicion that there is more to her assignment than her clan bothered to tell her, Jetta must forge unprecedented alliances in this high and beautiful place before the Ancient breaks free—for if it does, there will no longer be anything left to fight for.
Fire rose that night. Jetta jerked awake to a deep booming horn shivering the glass in the windows and Nuurn’s voice shouting, “Fire, Jetta ak’Kal! Fire at the storehouses!”
She scrambled out of bed, throwing a harried look out the window. She could not see the fire but she saw a glow, the size of which turned her stomach to knots. Ruthlessly she suppressed it and charged down the hill. Clouds had rolled in since sunset; it was black as the inside of Wind Point between the houses, forcing Jetta to slow down on the uneven streets. Then a huge shadow loomed out of the night and Rununn said breathlessly, “Follow me, ak’Kal!”
His great hand caught hers and tugged; she followed, trusting his night vision as he wove around hummocks and ruts. Her feet were wet and numb from the chill dew on the ankle-deep grass by the time they dashed over the slight rise and came to the first of the storehouses. Delvers with shovels, with buckets and picks, some half dressed, others barefoot, milled around between her and the fire, determined to catch any spark.
“Let me through!” she shouted, pounding both fists on the first broad back. Rununn cleared a path with indelicate shoves of a broad shoulder and many a, “Pardon, master. Please step aside.” that would have set Jetta giggling at any other time. One Delver turned with a sharp, angry protest, planting himself in Rununn’s path. Jetta almost shrieked at sight of Burrood.
“Remember yourself, a’Kam!” he snapped at Rununn.
Jetta, trapped amid a towering forest of giant Delver bodies, lost all diplomacy. “Move!” she screamed at Burrood. “The fire–“
Burrood opened his mouth, but what he might have said, Jetta never found out. Rununn wrapped both strong young arms around the older Delver and simply lifted him out of the way, his face averted from Burrood’s astonished outrage. Jetta darted through that convenient hole and halted, appalled.
Not one, but three separate fires burned on the road and in the spring grass on the uphill verge. Settak faced the largest, an inferno in the middle of the road roaring shoulder high with a yellow-white core. The other two were spinning threads into the damp and verdant grass, finding it tough going but racing to combine arms of knee-high reddish flame.
“Dancer, what do we do?” a panicked Delver shouted at her.
Jetta gathered her wits. “Clear a line around those two!” She pointed at the lesser fires, which would not spread quickly in that lush grass. “And stay back!”
She ran to join Settak. Outmatched, still he bravely stood his ground. As she came up beside him he thrust his hands out in the move that had worked so well yesterday. The fire shied back but none of its flickering branches sank or died. Jetta saw the failure hit him like a blow to the gut and shouted, “Show no fear, Dancer! Take position on the other side!”
He turned his head and saw her. Relief washed into his face. He nodded and spun away, terrified but still game. Jetta stepped instinctively into the Dance, straight to the fifth movement.
The fire roared at her, malicious to its core. She felt its hostility as she had felt it at Firehome, at Setham. Heat blasted toward her and recoiled; she saw it withering the grass even where fire had not yet taken hold. Sweat glistened on Delver faces at the edge of the light. She set them from her mind, concentrating on the ground underfoot, reaching for the pulsing power under Earth Mother’s skin. She planted both feet in the dying heat of ruined grass, uncomfortably warm for a terrifying, endless instant in which she could not feel the run of the fire even with it towering in front of her. And then it came, the sweet, staggering relief of the Dance connecting her to…everything. Everything worth protecting.
The heat faded. The searing brightness dimmed as the air seemed to thicken into a shield around her. The acrid bite of smoke and scorched grass no longer afflicted her nose. Jetta scarcely noticed, for the center of the fire faded to palest yellow and then to white, and a hysth burned there, cunning vanguard of the Ancient, defying the Dance, the Mother. Her. Jetta set her jaw and began to dance.
The hysth roared at her, divided itself and tried to advance on her flanks; she stopped it with an improbable leap and twist that took her level with shocked Delver eyes. On the edge of her awareness danced Settak in brief glimpses of random movements, out of step with her own, disconnected, though she saw that somehow he was keeping the fire from spreading on his side. He was not Kori; she could not expect his efforts to lock smoothly with hers, but still it distracted her on levels she barely sensed save in tiny jolts to the smooth flow of the energy pouring through her.
Then a malevolent intelligence assaulted her, a driving need deep underground. The Ancient. The hysth lunged at her, breaking out of its circle to attack the ground at her feet, burning downward, striving to dump her into the arms of the Ancient. Dimly she heard Settak’s frenzied “Jetta!”…