“Fire-Bright Rain” by Jane Lindskold
“Leeya-toh, should the egg whites keep shaking after I stop beating them?” asked Pippea. Whisk suspended in her upraised right hand, the young apprentice turned her elegant antilopine head toward the senior cook. Pippea’s enormous, long-lashed brown eyes—set within snow white hair accented by a dark stripe that ran from eyes to mouth—were creased with worry as she stared into her mixing bowl. She ran her free hand over the tips of her newly budding horns in a habitual nervous gesture.
Leeya slowed her own steady assault on the bowl of egg whites she was frothing into meringue. As she did, she became aware that the floor was trembling under her feet. Her rounded ursine ears twitched, catching the groan of the cottage’s beams as they complained beneath some uncommon stress.
And I was just getting the first peaks, Leeya thought, dropping bowl and whisk on the counter, grabbing Pippea around her trim waist, then swinging them both out the kitchen door into the early evening grey-light. Once out on the gravel walkway, Leeya dragged Pippea around the cottage as fast as she could, not stopping until they both were clear of anything that could fall on them from overhead.
Earthquakes weren’t precisely common in the vicinity of the Library of the Sapphire Wind, but when one worked for a library dedicated to the magical arts, one learned to take precautions first, ask questions later. Thankfully, when Meadow Village had been designed, the buildings had been spaced comfortably apart, oriented on a rounded green from which radiated six streets, each of which were crossed at intervals by another street, so that the village was designed around a series of concentric circles.
As befitted the chief cook, Leeya’s cottage faced the central green. The kitchen, where she directed food services for the entire community associated with the Library of the Sapphire Wind, was across the nearest radial street, a placement that was either very convenient or annoyingly inescapable, depending on Leeya’s attitude toward her job on any given day.
Releasing the still startled Pippea, Leeya plopped down heavily on the bench where she had spent many a pleasant evening visiting with her neighbors. More of Meadow Village’s inhabitants were spilling out of the cottages, and more still from the dormitories that lined the second loop road, although not nearly as many as there would have been if this wasn’t a holiday break, many of the residents gone elsewhere to celebrate.
I suppose, Leeya thought with exasperation, that we have some neophyte to blame for this, some idiot junior researcher who decided to take advantage of so many of the seniors being gone to try an experiment.
Someone bumped against Leeya’s shoulder, and she looked up into the caprine leer of Septi, her neighbor in the next cottage over. Septi was a motley tri-color, mostly black and brown, with just a little white. The hair around his eyes was dark, accenting his yellow irises with their squared pupils. Still grinning at Leeya, Septi flopped down next to her on the bench, lowering his head slightly, as if he might butt her in the shoulder with the neatly curved horns that rose between his drooping ears.
“Did the earth move for you, too, sweetheart?” he asked, jaw dropping open in a mock pant.
Leeya had yet to figure out why Septi persisted in flirting with her. She was well-over fifty and, having made her living as a cook for at least forty-five of those years, did not possess a fashionably svelte figure. Sure, she was curvaceous, but not in the way that word was usually meant as a compliment. Still, her fur was a nice brown, the shade of dark honey. Maybe Septi was one of those who liked the fuller-figured types.
Maybe he just likes cadging extra food. He certainly shows up at my kitchen door often enough when I’m trying a new recipe. What is my problem, thinking about that annoying Septi? We’ve got bigger problems than my flirtatious neighbor.
“The earth is still moving,” Leeya snapped, wishing that her small ursine ears could pin back to make as dramatic a statement as those of the larger-eared types. She settled for a touch of lip-curling snarl instead. “Is everyone out of the buildings?”
To his credit, Septi sobered up immediately. “I’ll grab a few people to help me check. Can you do a headcount? Since you’re cooking for the stay-behinds, you have some idea who should be here.”
“Right!” Leeya said, reaching into a pocket of her apron for pencil and pad of paper. Then she remembered that others were at risk. Most of the supplies to feed the Library community were shipped in over the lake, but they kept their own dairy animals and poultry.
“Tell Mekhiri to open up the kennels and barns, too. But not the coops. We don’t need poultry all over the place.”
Pippea, who was still clinging to her bowl and whisk, said in a shaking voice, “I’ll go to Mekhiri. I’ve been helping collect eggs every morning and bringing back the first cream. I know where to find her.”
“Go!” Leeya said, starting to scribble. Pippea set down her cooking gear and ran.
Within a few minutes Leeya had two lists going. One was for those who were definitely present in the village; the other was for those who were known to have been working at the Library or one of the associated buildings off the main plaza that day.
If she had felt like braving the main kitchen—which she didn’t until the shaking died down—Leeya could have gotten the official roster. However, she knew that would only be of limited use. Although everyone who had gone away for the holiday had signed out as required, not everyone who had invited a guest had gone through proper channels, mostly because the Library’s administration did not care to feed and house unpaying guests. Then there were those who had come to collect those who couldn’t get away for the entire holiday week but were leaving for the mid-week events.
Trying to get an accurate headcount as the tremors grew worse, and smoke began rising from the vicinity of the main library was an exercise in futility. Some villagers raced toward the central complex, although whether compelled by a sense of duty or that mad curiosity that makes so-called “intelligent” people run toward what “dumb animals” flee, Leeya was too busy to conjecture. Then Septi was back.
“I think we have the village buildings cleared,” he said, “but this isn’t an earthquake, is it?”
“How should I know? I’m a cook,” Leeya retorted. “You’re at least a librarian.”
“A humble cataloger and scribe,” Septi countered.
Leeya found herself grateful for his attempt at their usual banter, but the rank odor of burning that reached her nostrils when the wind eddied round from the direction of the central library complex—ursine types were renowned for their keen sense of smell—was not reassuring.
“I think this is a catastrophe of the first order,” she admitted, “and I think that until someone shows up to tell us what to do, we need to keep our little bit of it from getting worse.”
Septi nodded. For the first time in the years Leeya had known him, there was no humor in his yellow eyes. “Take charge. I’ll back you.” When Leeya started to protest, he waved her down with a curt gesture of ink-stained fingers. “People are used to listening to you order them around, at mealtimes, when supplies come in. Jahk”—the head of village administration—"is gone. Someone has to take over.”
“That’s right. He’s at his granddaughter’s wedding,” Leeya said.
Septi went on, “Doc Hrutu is already too busy. There were a lot of bumps and scrapes, at least one bad burning when a lamp went over, and a couple of breaks. He’s had to risk going back into the infirmary to get out his medical supplies.”
“Septi-lial is right,” Pippea added. She was breathing hard from her run, but no longer seemed on the verge of panic. “Everyone at least knows who you are, Leeya-toh. That’s a start.”
Leeya drew in a deep, shuddering breath, then nodded.
“All right then,” Leeya said. “I’ll do it. My first order. Septi, we need to know what’s going on at the main facility. I’ve seen people head over to the central complex, but I can’t remember seeing any who have come back. Pippea, much as it pains me, we’re going to need to stop making lists and get people gathered in one place. Start spreading the word.”
“Can I help?” The voice was sonorous, almost immediately comforting.
The speaker was Hafyz, who, along with his wife, Neka, was the new manager of the general store. Hafyz was a handsome equine type, with strong black and white stripes, and a bristly mane. Neka was a buff-coated porcine type, with a trim figure and a penchant for wearing elaborate sheaths on her short, curving tusks.
“Neka is locking down the security settings on the store,” Hafyz explained. “Thank those who we’ve been before that both the mechanical and magical can be set from outside. She’s also going to make certain the backups for the outside lights are set. We may be outdoors for a while, although I think the worst of the tremors are subsiding.”
“Good thinking,” Leeya said. “I don’t suppose you feel like taking over organizing what’s starting to feel too much like a mob?” Then she shook her head. “No. I’ll do it. You two haven’t been here long enough. Can you find my assistant, Ankur?”
“Already here, Chef,” came a deep voice. Ankur was a raptor-style avian with pale eyes, dark brown feathers, and a wickedly curved beak. Although he had an alarming tendency to use his beak to snap through joints when butchering, he was otherwise on his way to becoming an admirable chef. “Before you ask. We’ve got the security spells up on the kitchens. No one’s raiding my pantry without permission. If I may suggest, let’s set up some sort of late snack out here on the green. People will gather around, and there’s nothing like food to make everything seem normal.”
“Get on it,” Leeya replied. “We just got in several wheels of sharp cheese, and there’s a whole crate of proggies. Serve zinz tea and nemmesu, but nothing alcoholic. I see some of our kitchen crew milling around. Put them to work.”
Ankur gave her a quick nod and went off, calling out names as he went.
“I’ll spread the word about snacks,” Hafyz said, and hurried off.
Leeya turned to tell Septi that maybe he should get going, too, only to find that he was already gone. She was surprised at the pang of loneliness and fear that followed.
Be safe, Septi. Remember. You’re just a cataloger. Okay, and also a scribe. But don’t make the mistake of playing the hero.
* * *
Septi decided to dare entering his cottage long enough to change into walking shoes and gather a few hopefully useful items. He dropped these into one of the many-pocketed vests he wore when working, then put it on rather than a jacket. Emerging from his cottage, he glanced over at Leeya, and saw she was talking to Hafyz. He thought about walking over to tell her he was heading out, then shook his head so hard that his ears flapped.
After all, you have your orders, my boy. What more do you need? Reassurance? A hero’s send off? Be real. Leeya’s never seen you as more than an annoyance. Maybe if you could stop being such a smartass, but . . . Oh, forget it. Get a move on!
Skirting the edge of the village green, Septi reached one of the two radial roads that extended beyond the village. One went down to the lake. The other went into the thick forest that served as a buffer between the elite community at the central complex and those who made it possible for them to exclusively concentrate on esoteric research.
Septi knew that initially the Library of the Sapphire Wind had been just that, a library, founded by a wizard named Dmen Qeres to hold his personal collection of books and artifacts. However, even within Dmen Qeres’s lifetime, other wizards had asked to have their own collections archived with his. From there it was a small jump to building a residence where visiting researchers and their staff could stay, next a laboratory with associated scriptorium. This last, rather than the Library proper, was where Septi worked.
The original Library of the Sapphire Wind had been a single building housing not only the collection, but also a self-contained community that was hardly more than Dmen Qeres’s immediate retainers. However, as the facility expanded, Dmen Qeres had decided that it would be more satisfactory to have the growing support staff live a short distance away, thereby maintaining a rarefied atmosphere of scholarship at the central complex.
Scholars, their assistants, higher level Library staff, and such still lived around the same plaza that held the main library building, but the many people who made certain the researchers could do their research without interruption—those who did the cooking and cleaning, the laundry and gardening, the grounds maintenance and the handling of supplies, as well as animal handlers, guards, and drivers—lived in Meadow Village.
As a cataloger and scribe, Septi could probably have agitated for quarters in the scholars’ housing, but the honest truth was, he preferred the livelier community of Meadow Village. His comparatively high status, as someone who worked directly with the research staff, meant that he shared a nice cottage with a couple of like-minded individuals.
Both of whom had the good sense to get away for the holiday. Are they ever going to be shocked when they learn what happened.
Although his cottage had a small kitchen, Septi preferred the bountiful offerings in the communal dining hall. The food was as good, if somewhat less elaborately presented, as that served to the wizards and scholars. His laundry was done by the same people who washed the wizards’ robes, and the prices at the general store were quite reasonable, comparable to what one could find in a big city like Rivers Meet.
The late Dmen Qeres had apparently possessed a practical streak and knew that the best way to keep his isolated community thriving was to make sure that those who did the mundane labor were comfortable. Even as his successors had expanded the options for scholars, they had not skimped on amenities for the support staff.
The road that led between Meadow Village and the main library complex was very familiar to Septi, given that he traversed it at least twice a day, more often on many. On foot, the trip took about half an hour’s brisk walk, which he often did in the evening. However, most mornings he opted for the commuter transport, as this was not only faster, but gave him time to finish waking up and enjoy a second cup of nemmesu, the natural dark purple of the brew almost lavender from the cream he had added.
Usually, the road was illuminated by lampposts set close enough to each other that their glow made a comfortable tunnel beneath the overarching foliage of the trees. Today, as Septi had half expected, the lights weren’t working properly. Oddly enough, he found the darkness reassuring. Something was very wrong, and he preferred to see it before it saw him.
Therefore, although he’d brought a light, Septi didn’t turn it on, but trusted to the remaining daylight, which proved to be enough for him to almost always avoid getting tangled up in fallen branches.
I’d forgotten that the tremors would have brought down tree limbs, he thought, puffing slightly as the road angled up—the Library of the Sapphire Wind had been built on higher ground than the lakeside village, enough so that the top of its belltower was visible from the Meadow Village green.
As Septi drew closer to the central library complex, he realized some of the light by which he was navigating was coming from a source other than the fading daylight. Septi wanted to hope this was because the plaza and building lights were casting their usual steady glow, but the odor of burning and the flickering nature of the light made it obvious that the source had to be a raging fire.
Stepping delicately, Septi picked his way closer, staying to the verge where his feet would make as little noise as possible. Probably because he was thinking about not making noise, he realized how quiet the forest was. At this hour, the diurnal creatures should be settling in, the crepuscular ones—including a lovely herd of semi-tame kubran—should be browsing along the road. Other than the occasional efindon that flapped away overhead, hissing imprecations, Septi saw no wildlife. Nor did he see any of the residents: not a single villager or scholar, which bothered him more the longer he thought about it.
Surely someone should have run back to Meadow Village to report what was going on or to get help. Or to get Doc Hrutu. This is very wrong. Could everyone be dead? Am I going to end up dead if I keep going? Maybe I should go back. I was an idiot to come alone. I should at least have brought a messenger xuxu.
Somewhere deep inside, Septi admitted to himself that he hadn’t enlisted help because he’d wanted to impress Leeya. She’d asked him to find out what was going on. She’d trusted he could do it.
Maybe Leeya trusted you to have more in the way of common sense, rather than heroic verve. Well, you’re almost to the complex. If you stop before you get there, you will have hiked all this way for nothing. At least get some information. Maybe you can snag a stray riding vikrew, and hurry back to the village and bring help. Maybe, idiot, zinz will brew itself into a tea.
The ground tremors had ebbed to an almost unfelt pulsing by the time Septi reached the central plaza, but their recent severity was evident from the moment he cautiously emerged from the forest and got his first clear look. The entire Library of the Sapphire Wind was gone, flames leaping up from where, just this morning, the towering building had calmly dominated the plaza. In the firelight, he could see the statue of Dmen Qeres, undisturbed, maintaining its calm vigil over the plaza.
Across from where the Library had been, the residence hotel, which had stood several stories high, was in flames. Like many such buildings, its architecture had been designed so that each story decreased in size. This meant the rubble had collapsed within the outer shell, turning the building into a torch. The structure that contained the laboratory and scriptorium had also semi-collapsed. The fortune in glass that had made the transcription rooms such a delight had doubtless shattered at the first major tremor. This building was also burning, although less vigorously than the residence.
Worse, there was something wrong with the flames, especially those rising from where the Library of the Sapphire Wind should be but, to a lesser extent, from the other structures as well. Amid the yellow-orange of the fires were spurts of impossibly brilliant colors, all the shades of the rainbow, as well as some that Septi’s eyes refused to acknowledge, even though somehow he knew that they were no less real than the glittering hoar frost, sea foam green, variegated ebony, livid mauve, mother-of-pearl indigo, dappled crimson, and other more or less real colors that he saw dodging and dancing among the smoke and flame.
I should know why those spurts scare me so much, Septi thought, but he was distracted from pursuing the impulse by a sinuous motion, low to the ground. To his utter disbelief, he realized that a sparkling blue fog carpeted the plaza, seemingly having risen from where the Library should be. The fog had sent questing tendrils into both the residence and lab, and was probing within. Occasionally, a tendril would ripple and bulge, disturbingly like a long throat swallowing, then it would resume its probing.
For the first time, Septi realized that he was the only living person in sight. Nor did he see any of the Library’s guardian creatures: neither the domestic animals like xuxu and summiss, nor the unique monstrosities. Worse, there were no bodies, only those probing tendrils of creeping blue fog.
Septi felt a sharp pain in his right hand. Looking down, he realized that his fists were clenched, and that he was biting into his own index finger in an unconscious attempt to muffle a scream of sublime horror and disbelief. During his hike through the darkness, he’d prepared himself for destruction. He’d even braced himself to find heaps of the dead, killed by fire or perhaps poisonous exhalations or even by magical energies released by burning tomes. But this absence of not only the living but also of the dead, with the only purposeful motion coming from that blue fog, was more than he could take.
He edged back into the cover of the battered trees. He wanted to run, to flee whatever doom had come upon the Library of the Sapphire Wind, but he dreaded attracting the creeping blue fog that was feeding upon the devastation, sparkling as it digested the missing inhabitants. Moving with great care, Septi managed to get far enough into the forest that he could no longer see the central plaza.
One of the items he had dropped into a pocket of his vest was the headlamp he wore when working with delicate documents.
Do I put it on? On the one hand, the light will let me move faster. On the other hand, it’s going to make me easier to see. Then again, if I don’t have light, I’m going to have to go right down the middle of the road, and that is going to make me more easily detectable by whatever might be out there. So, I might as well be able to see, right?
Not at all certain he’d made the right decision, Septi put the headband on and activated the light. He adjusted it down so that it only provided what he needed to keep from smashing into obstacles—his legs already ached from where he’d barked his shins against various branches and rocks on his trip out. Then, glad he had put on good walking shoes, he hit the road at a steady jog. He kept this up as long as he could, then slowed to a walk until the ache in his ribs eased. Then he jogged again.
The headlamp did keep him from crashing into things, but it also ruined what night vision he had, so that the overhanging forest surrounding him was soon populated with shadowy figures. None attacked him, though, nor even crossed his path. He’d convinced himself that they were imaginary when, during one of his increasingly longer stretches of walking, he saw a small tetzet scoot across the road.
That’s when he remembered what he’d forgotten about the color of those flames, and started running again.
* * *
Ankur’s impromptu picnic had transformed the budding mob into a community once again: a nervous, high-strung, on the edge of panic community, true, but at least a community. When the headcount was done, the population of Meadow Village was resolved to be thirty-six adults, if one counted the almost grown apprentices like Pippea as adults. Thankfully, there were no small children, since any residents with children had been among the first to be given leave for the holiday.
However, thirty-six was far fewer than there should have been. Even with the Library on holiday hours, it took a fair-sized staff to care for even a handful of scholars and their assistants, since these still needed to be fed, cleaned up after, and the like. Cleaning crews often worked in the evening, when they would provide less of a disturbance, which meant they’d likely gone back to the Library after dinner.
If the scholars were doing active research, support staff needed to make certain the laboratories were functional and be available to pull materials from the shelves and repositories. Wizards had a tendency to work late, so it was likely some of the missing personnel had still been at the main complex when the catastrophe had struck.
Then there was the crew that had refused holiday leave in order to take care of the sort of repairs that were hard to manage when the Library of the Sapphire Wind was in full session. These were missing to a one, and Leeya assumed that at the first sign of trouble, they had gone to the central complex to see what they could do.
Add to that the ones who ran to see what was going on, to assure themselves that friends or co-workers were safe, even just to gawk, and what we have here at the village are the quiet, unadventurous souls who ate their dinner and were settling in for a pleasant evening with nothing more demanding on their minds than, say, teaching an apprentice chef how to make meringue.
This was not a reassuring thought. Nor was the fact that Septi had not yet returned, nor sent word. Rather than ordering someone else off on what was beginning to look like a one-way trip, Leeya wanted to go herself. However, she let Ankur convince her that he and Hafyz should go instead, that they would take some messenger xuxu with them, and turn around at the first sign of trouble. Nonetheless, Leeya and Neka walked with them right to where the road entered the forest, as if by doing so they could assure that these latest scouts would come back.
When they heard the sound of stumbling feet pounding against the roadbed, their varied reactions were instructive. The other three jumped back. Hafyz drew a sword, while Ankur pulled a butcher’s knife. Neka dipped her head as if to bring her silver-sheathed tusks into play. Leeya simply froze, and so she was the one Septi crashed into, collapsing into her arms.
“What’s cooking?” he managed, with a trace of his usual flippancy, then fear widened his yellow eyes while the squared pupils shrank as if exposed to too much light. “Back! Get back! Away from the forest! I’ve seen a tetzet!”
They all obeyed, but it was clear that none of them had the least idea what Septi meant. As Leeya got Septi to a bench, the community drew close, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. Pippea thrust a cup of chilled zinz tea into Septi’s hand. He gulped it down while, to a background of murmuring consternation, everyone waited for his report.
When Septi started talking, he’d managed to bank whatever panic had fueled his initial, incoherent warning. His words were as neatly organized as a cross-referenced file. He began with a general description: bad. Moved to the level of destruction, lack of bodies, the blue fog: worse and worse and worse. By the time he drew breath to drain the rest of the zinz tea and hold out the glass in a mute request for more, many of those listening were in tears. The rest were frozen in shock.
But Leeya knew that neither tears nor shock would roll any dough. When Septi stopped talking, she prompted, “There’s more. Go on. Tell us. What’s a tetzet?”
Surprisingly, the answer came from Neka. “A long-extinct creature. Initially, scholars actually assumed that tetzet were more than one creature, but recent paleontological work has confirmed that the small tentacled form is definitely the juvenile form of the larger, heavily trunked version. The tentacles turn into heavy limbs which the tetzet use to grab their prey.”
“I saw one,” Septi said. “Clearly. No doubt. Not a large one, or I don’t think I’d be here. One of the smaller ones.”
Leeya wondered if he’d tease her to make him tell why, after raging fires, collapsed buildings, and creeping fog, the sight of a juvenile tetzet had so scared him, but Septi’s sense of humor had vanished. He went on without prompting.
“I saw spurts of color mixed in the flames of the burning buildings, the most from the Library itself, but some from the lab, even a few from the residence. I didn’t remember right off what they were but colors like that come from magical items being burned.” He peered around until he located one of the lab assistants. “But that many spurts… We’ve got a critical magical overload, don’t we, Vrilla?”
Vrilla, a black and orange striped feline, who worked in the labs, hissed in dismay. “I think you’re right, Septi. That’s the only reason I can think for why you’d have seen an extinct creature in the forest. You’re lucky it was an immature tetzet. They’re too small to be dangerous to creatures our size, but a full-sized one . . . And if a tetzet, what else? You saw more than a few of those spurts of color?”
“Lots,” Septi said. “I didn’t try to count.”
Leeya hadn’t worked at a magical library for these many years without having a vague idea of what a critical magical overload was. As much as she wanted details as to what might happen next, she also knew this was not the time for theory. Most of the flying vessels had left carrying folk for the holidays. However, there were plenty of boats on the lake.
“Xabes,” she snapped, addressing the captain of one of the larger sailing vessels used to transport supplies. “Is there a boat large enough to get us out of here?”
“Not all of us,” came the prompt reply, as the gathered crowd parted to let Xabes, a tall, grey-furred lupine, through, “but I think we can manage to crew several vessels.”
Mentally, Leeya added the boat crews to her list, realizing she’d overlooked them in her original count.
Xabes asked softly. “Are we giving up on trying to rescue those up at the main complex then?”
Leeya nodded crisply, although, thinking of the friends and acquaintances who were missing, her heart wrenched. On a peculiar level, she loved everyone she fed, even the difficult ones who would insist on eggs done a certain way or very thin toast. Maybe, secretly, she loved those a little extra, because they gave her a chance to show off.
“Getting out, but not giving up,” she said firmly. “If we stay too long, we’ll end up being the ones who need to be rescued. If we leave, then we have a chance of contacting some of the magically skilled staff. They’re better equipped than we are to handle a disaster of such magnitude.”
Her words sounded thin, even to her, but to her astonishment, there were murmurs of agreement.
“I know most of you will want to get some of your stuff,” Leeya bellowed as the crowd began to disperse, “but before you do, look at that.”
She pointed back in the direction of the Library of the Sapphire Wind, where usually they’d be able to see the lantern in the belltower. The grey light of evening had given way to full dark but, over the treetops, the glow from the still raging fires lit the sky with a lurid glow. The spurts of dense color Septi had reported seeing were merging into the sort of mess one got when a kid got into the food coloring and decided that more was better: blue and red oozed into each other and didn’t make purple, but made something angrier; yellow and blue tried and failed to make green. Her stomach lurched and she looked away, because she had a terrible feeling that if she kept looking, she was going to be sucked in.
“I don’t want any of us to be here when that storm hits, and it looks as if it’s moving this way.”
That got them moving. Leeya felt a tug at her sleeve and Pippea said hesitantly, “Mekhiri says that most of the animals stayed near their shelters, even after the doors were open. She asked me to ask you, can we take them, too? And the poultry? Mekhiri says the coops were made to be portable, and because it’s dark, the birds are all inside.”
Leeya nodded. “If they can get gotten aboard a transport, absolutely. Talk to Xabes. He’ll know which ship is best. Get some of the others to help. Neka’s good with animals.”
Impulsively, Leeya reached to wrap an arm around the girl’s shoulders and give her a hug. “You’re doing great.”
Pippea’s ears melted in a smile, then she ran off, intercepted Neka, who grabbed Hafyz. The three hurried off along the radial road that led toward the riverside meadow where the animals were kept.
Leeya was coming back from telling Doc Hrutu to get his patients down to the docks, when Ankur arrived. He thrust a rolled canvas bundle with carrying straps at her.
“Your knives,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to leave them. We’re going to need to abandon most of the food, though. Pity. We’d put some lovely things together for the stay-behinds holiday meals.”
“Can’t be helped,” Leeya said. “Maybe whatever’s in that storm won’t care about our preserved taga and pickled proggies, and we’ll be able to retrieve the banquet later. Go help move the livestock. I’ve seen Neka leading a string of animals, but not any of the others.”
“What about the injured?”
Hrutu says that most of the injured are ambulatory, and that the ones who aren’t can be moved by the rest.”
Ankur nodded and loped off. Leeya was considering what to do next when she saw two people trying to move a large painting, staggering as they walked. Their shoulders drooped beneath overstuffed packs so hastily stuffed that items were falling out, leaving a trail of socks and other small items behind them.
“Leave the painting, you fools!” Leeya yelled. “Get your tails on a boat. There isn’t time! Can’t you see? There isn’t time!”
She gestured toward the skies. Overhead, the stars were vanishing, occluded by clouds of something that Leeya was not at all certain was as natural as water vapor or even smoke. Ruddy light was reflected back from more than one point.
Have fires broken out other than at the central complex? And what is that moving against that fire-bright sky? It seems to be rippling. Is it raining over there?
“Maybe you should take your own advice, sweet cheeks?” Septi said, coming up beside her, carrying what Leeya recognized with astonishment as her own favorite overnight bag. “Where you lead, they’ll follow. As long as you’re ashore, though, folk’ll figure they have time.”
Leeya shook her head in dismay at her own shortsightedness. “You’re right. I guess I had some weird idea that the leader should be the last to leave but . . . Let me check on Pippea. She’s my apprentice, so doubly my responsibility. Then I’ll get aboard.”
“Fine,” Septi replied with some exasperation. “How about I tell Xabes to get at least one of the transports loaded and cast off? That should make the stragglers start moving faster.”
“You’re wicked and wise,” Leeya said. “Do it.”
She took a shortcut across the green, intercepted the radial road that led toward the livestock area, and moved along it, relieved that the artificial lights hadn’t failed. A few times she thought she felt raindrops and was grateful for her thick fur. Along the way, she passed Ankur and Hafyz, who had managed to wrestle an entire coop onto one of the large flatbed carts used for moving supplies.
“Good job! Get that aboard,” Leeya ordered, jogging around them, doing her best to conceal gasps caused by this unwonted aerobic exercise.
“Will do, Chief Chef,” Ankur replied. “Neka’s already gotten most of the smaller dairy animals aboard. Pippea and Mekhiri should be coming along with the kaut.”
He looked over his shoulder, as if expecting to see the pair, but the only motion was from the gradually heavier rainfall beating against the foliage.
“I’ll go get them,” Leeya said. “If we need to leave a couple of stubborn kaut behind, so be it.”
But even as she jogged through the rain toward the well-lit barnyard, Leeya wondered if she’d be able to convince Mekhiri to leave her charges behind. The kaut were her particular pride. These were a type that had been bred so that depending on what they were fed their milk could have radically different flavors, from sweet to tart, even spicy hot.
Much as I liked what that did for my custards and puddings, Leeya thought, if those kaut are too stupid to get to safety then . . .
She had to laugh, at herself, because clearly the stupid one was herself. Feet squelching in the sodden ground, shoes heavy with tacky mud, she trudged forward, wishing she’d taken Septi’s suggestion and gotten aboard one of the ships.
Then she saw the kaut barn and forgot about the rain, because the structure was under attack by an assailant at least as impossible as the extinct reborn to life.
As with supplies for the people, most of the fodder for the livestock was shipped in. However, just as Leeya maintained an herb garden, because sometimes there was nothing like fresh, so Mekhiri grew treats for her animals. One of these was uaftet, a bitter green that most people couldn’t stand except as baby greens, but that everything from poultry to the haughty kaut devoured with inordinate pleasure. Uaftet grew in bunches out from a central stalk, and Mekhiri harvested the outer leaves when they reached about two handspans from base to tip.
Leeya only recognized the towering leafy figure that was battering the barn because of the distinctive “finger and thumb” lobe pattern on the leaves. Otherwise . . .
I’ve never heard of uaftet growing taller than a person, nor that it was mobile. I mean, everyone knows there are mobile vegetables, like beti-teneh, but uaftet isn’t one of them.
The gigantic uaftet had curled the “hand” shape of several leaves into fists and was systematically battering the walls of the kaut barn, not seeming to care that it was shredding its own outer leaves. The barn doors had been pulled shut, but several sections of wall had been broken out, and through the holes Leeya could glimpse Pippea and Mekhiri huddled near one of the stalls. Behind them could be glimpsed a supernaturally placid kaut, chewing its cud and occasionally stretching its neck as if hoping that it might reach the attacking uaftet and sample a mouthful. Mekhiri’s eyes showed a white panic line all around, and her large nostrils were flared.
“I wonder,” came Septi’s familiar voice from beside Leeya, “if the uaftet wants revenge? But I suppose its motivation doesn’t matter, does it? I don’t think it seems open to reason.”
“We’ve got to get Pippea and Mekhiri out of there… and the kaut,” Leeya said acidly. “I’m willing to bet my favorite paring knife that Mekhiri refused to leave the animals, and Pippea got trapped trying to help her. Any ideas?”
In reply, Septi shouted, “Hey, Mekhiri, Pippea, if we distract the uaftet can you get the kaut out of there?”
Mekhiri called back, her voice tight and thin. “If you can draw it away from the door. That’s the only opening wide enough.”
“Draw it away?” Leeya said, her voice tight. “Me, be chased by a walking vegetable?” She slid the canvas bundle holding her knives off her arm and unrolled it, selecting a sturdy cleaver that she knew from experience could chop through bone. “I think we’ll see how it feels about being made into salad.”
“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Septi said, accepting her offer of a slightly smaller cleaver, “but I make a terrific salad. Let’s at it!”
It turned out that the uaftet had very strong opinions about being made into salad, all of which were negative. When Leeya cut through the base of one of the leaves it was using to batter against the barn wall, it loosened the next leaf and made a fist that it brought down at her. The process, thankfully, was slow enough that both Leeya and Septi were able to interpose the cutting edges of their cleavers and use its own momentum to slice right through the leafy fist.
“Spread out,” Leeya called to Septi. “We’ll go for it on two sides!”
Septi responded by angling around in “back” of the uaftet—assuming that a creature with neither eyes nor face, nor even head, except in the sense that many leafy greens were clustered into “heads,” had a front or back—and bringing his cleaver down into a leaf that was still mostly unbattered.
“Wow! That’s like tanned leather,” he gasped.
Leeya understood what he meant when she next swung. The first leaf had been tenderized by being beaten against the barn. The fresh leaf was much tougher, but not so much that her cleaver couldn’t cut through.
Septi’s next blow left the cleaver anchored in the central rib of the uaftet’s leaf. He took a great slogging step back and grabbed a three-tined hay fork from where it leaned against a fence near a manger. Poking only bent the tines, but the sturdy hardwood handle proved to be so good at pulverizing the leafy matter that Leeya wished she had time to switch to her tenderizing mallet. However, behind her she could hear the barn door slowly sliding open, and she didn’t dare risk the uaftet deciding she was distracted enough that it could go back after its original quarry.
“Move along Butterball, Dreamy Cream,” Mekhiri coaxed. “You don’t want that nasty uaftet. I’ll give you much better later.”
Distracted by this byplay, Leeya took a glancing blow to the side of her head that made her ears ring and nearly knocked her on her tail. Had she been as light and delicate as Pippea, she might have been thrown across the yard, but her sturdier frame not only kept her in place, but upright. In pain and anger, Leeya swung her cleaver in a solid downward chop that went right through the outer leafy layers, to vibrate against the central stalk. At this, the gigantic uaftet wriggled its roots, swimming back through the muddy soil, not precisely quickly, but in definite retreat.
Leeya and Septi pursued, also not very quickly, since their legs were weighted with mud to the knees by now, and they had to drag their feet out with every step. However, even when both the prize kaut and their handlers were outside of the barn, the uaftet did not alter its course. It bashed through a fence, then slid out into the surrounding, sodden meadow, and made much better time getting way. In a short time, it had vanished into the surrounding forest.
Seeing it splashing, for the first time, Leeya realized that the lake waters were rising. Meadow Village was on higher ground than the barns, but if they wanted to avoid swimming out to the transports, they’d better get moving. Septi had reached the same realization and was tugging at her arm.
“I’m sorry about your cleaver, but let the uaftet keep it as a souvenir. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Leeya nodded, suddenly aware how much her head hurt. She didn’t shrug away when Septi, leaning on his hayfork, put an arm around her. Together they made it out of the sodden barnyard, onto the road, where they joined up with Mekhiri and Pippea. On the way back to the dock, they met up with Ankur and Vrilla, who had come to find them.
Proving once again how unintelligent so-called intelligent creatures can be, Leeya thought with cheerful exhaustion. The uaftet knew when to cut its losses. We intelligent people don’t seem to be able to do the same.
* * *
Three months would pass before Leeya would see Meadow Village again, and when she did, she and Septi were aboard the balloon ship, Double Bubble, high above almost unrecognizable terrain. The volcanoes had stopped actively erupting, but it would be a long time before anyone could even fly over that region. The lake was much larger, the once inviting blue waters now a turgid greenish-brown. Even the mountains looked somehow sharper and less inviting.
“Meadow Village was over there,” Xabes said, pointing from where he leaned against Double Bubble’s rudder.
His heroics in getting survivors ashore—including going back to rescue the Library’s small herd of domestic vikrew and their drivers—had assured him of a post with the rescue squad. He had to be retrained to pilot air vessels, though, since the few watercraft that had attempted the lake had been pulled under as soon as they reached deeper waters. A number of over-confident wizards had been drowned then, and those that remained were far less confident.
Leeya leaned over the rail, as if that would help her see better, but she had to shake her head. “I can’t recognize anything.”
“There’s not much to see,” Xabes replied. “After we left, the lake rose and swamped the entire area. When it withdrew, every building was gone. The central complex fared a bit better, being higher up, but what fire didn’t get, the weirdnesses released by the conflagration did.”
“So I was right,” Septi said softly. “It wasn’t just fire and water; it was magic out of control that did for the Library of the Sapphire Wind.”
“All those poor people,” Leeya said softly, pressing up against Septi, who slid an arm around her. “Xabes, how many are unaccounted for?”
“Somewhere between two hundred and fifty and three hundred is our best estimate,” Xabes said. “We’ll never know for sure. Seen enough?”
“Too much,” Leeya said, shuddering. “We’ll certainly be able to swear to the survivors that there’s nothing to come back to.”
“Thank you,” Xabes said. “The Library’s administration—I suppose I should say ‘former Library’—has done their best, but almost from the first there were rumors that they were withholding the truth.”
Septi nodded. “We’ve heard the rumors, mostly about the riches that remain and how people are being kept away so that a few can gather up all the treasure. As for me, I’m grateful that there was insurance. With the settlement, most of us have been able to get a fresh start.”
Xabes nodded. “I’ll be moving on to another transport job soon, now that all rescue attempts have been called off.”
“We’ve settled in Hidden Horizon,” Leeya said. “Septi and I have a shop, now: Cards and Cookery. Pippea’s finishing her apprenticeship with me. Ankur’s set up a butcher shop.”
“What about Mekhiri and those kaut?” Xabes asked, leaning on the rudder so that Double Bubble turned away from the devastation. “The ones that almost got you killed?”
Leeya laughed. “Mekhiri bought them, as well as most of the other animals, cheap. The Library administration didn’t want them. She’s settled not far from us. I still get my eggs and dairy from her.”
“I’ll have to stop by sometime,” Xabes said. “I miss your cooking.”
“We have just about everything,” Leeya said proudly, “on a smaller scale, of course.”
“Except for uaftet,” Septi put in. “We’ve had enough of that to last for the rest of our lives.”
Copyright © 2021 by Jane Lindskold
Jane Lindskold is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of more than twenty-five novels, including the six-volume Firekeeper Saga (aka “The Wolf Books”), the two athanor novels (Changer and Changer’s Daughter), the three volumes of the Breaking the Wall series, the Artemis Awakening series, and many more. Lindskold has also written in collaboration with David Weber (Fire Season and Treecat Wars) and Roger Zelazny (Donnerjack and Lord Demon). When she’s not writing or reading, she’s likely being ordered around by a variety of small animals. Lindskold lives in New Mexico.
“Fire-Bright Rain” serves as a prequel story to her upcoming novel Library of the Sapphire Wind, which, along with Aurora Borealis Bridge, makes up the Other Where series.