Book one of The Mieshka Files.
She’s not your average fire elemental.
Magic. The word is as foreign to Mieshka Renaud as space travel—and she’s much too preoccupied to think about it. As a new refugee, she finds life in metropolitan Lyarne hard to take. The capitol’s mage-powered shield might keep the city safe from the war, but Mieshka still flinches at loud noises, freezes during air raids, and runs at the sight of guns.
But magic isn’t as foreign to her as she thinks, Lyarne has more secrets than she ever dreamed, and, one by one, the city’s mages are disappearing.
Time is running out. With the war threatening the shield, are Mieshka’s powers enough to save the city, or is it too little, too late?
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October 23, 2002 — Transition, Year 19
The bomb broke over the valley, smoke and debris flying through Lyarne’s blue, cloud-smudged sky. By the time Mieshka Renaud looked up, it had spread like a gray, gritty hand, its distended fingers hugging the slight curve of the city-wide defense shield. The sound concussed through the backs of Uptown’s skyscrapers. Echoes percussed her ribs.
Around her, few reacted to the raid. Traffic crammed onto the road, sped toward the light. People handed out fliers by the top of the subway entrance. The crowd rushed down into the station below. Only three, excluding Mieshka, stopped to stare.
The two countries had been at war for the better part of a decade now—most of Mieshka’s life. And Westray, her country, was not on the winning side. Most of it had been invaded—occupied. Only Lyarne and Terremain—two cities, barely a twelfth of the country—stood free.
But Lyarne was the capitol and, in the war game, it was the capitol that mattered.
It was easy to pick out the refugees among the crowd. The people new to the city. Ones who, like her, found it hard to get used to the city’s safety.
Lyarne’s shield was bombproof. Nothing got past. Everyone knew that.
Mieshka watched the smoke spread.
Down in the valley, Lower Lyarne glittered in the setting sun. The city down there was less developed than bustling Uptown, and its residential quarters were easy to see from the top of the hill. A lake, its waters gleaming in the distance, straddled the farthest, easternmost point of the mountain valley, surrounded by cul de sacs of cookie-cutter suburbs, farmland, and deep woodland. The twin peaks of the Sisters rose in the backdrop. Their jagged, snow-capped crowns scraped the sky.
A glint flashed to the Elder Sister’s left; a tiny fleck in the brilliant sky that might have been the bomber returning to its base.
Mieshka shivered, closed her mind to it, and turned away.
Her friend waited on the lip of the subway’s stair. Robin was a new friend—a new friend that insisted on calling her ‘Meese’, a move that the rest of the class had been quick to echo. A couple inches shorter than Mieshka’s five foot eight, the two shared the same pale skin tone but were otherwise opposite in looks. Robin had black hair to Mieshka’s red, blue eyes to Mieshka’s brown.
“I see the war’s still on, eh?” Robin said.
Mieshka winced. Sometimes, her friend wasn’t the most sensitive sort. Even after two months in Lyarne, it still hurt to hear about the war. It was stupid—they’d come here to escape the war, not have it follow them in memories and flashbacks.
But some pain was just too hard to push back.
Robin’s eyes softened. She put a hand on Mieshka’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry. Nothing gets through the shield.”
Her fingernails bit into the palm of her hand. Her jaw clenched. The world started to narrow, to close.
Mieshka forced a breath out, pushed it back. Her eyes slid sharply to Robin’s, then above, to the sky.
The bomb-smoke dissipated in the blue. Gold light tinged the clouds to the north, touched the white crowns of the mountains.
The next breath was easier. The newscast’s slogan slid through her mind like a marquee.
“‘Nothing gets through except for good news,’” Mieshka quoted.
Robin smiled. “That’s right. Ready for Jake’s one-liners tonight.”
Mieshka grimaced. The anchor was famous for his bomber jokes.
“Sure,” she said, and pushed her way down to the subway. Wind flapped the sides of her jacket. People moved at her side. It felt like she was a fish going downstream. Feet stamped around her, hushing the howl of the tunnel.
In a minute, subway gates opened to her left, shops on the right. Her toe caught on the raised floor stripes meant for the blind. The crowd shifted, and she stumbled into a newspaper stand.
Robin caught up to her at their gate. Together, they flattened their school cards against the sensor and walked through. The train schedule scrolled across a marquee near the ceiling.
“Lansdowne, right?” Mieshka read the schedule. “Five minutes?”
Robin nodded. Already, queues had formed where the car doors would stop. Robin and Mieshka stood between two of those, toeing the red line that warned of the platform’s edge. Three tracks lay in the dark gravel four feet below. The middle one was yellow where the paint had not turned into a dark rust-brown. On the other side a concrete wall rose, papered with several recruitment posters. In each, a female soldier held a large gun, their rank and division sewn into their uniforms.
The one directly in front of Mieshka was a Sergeant. Artillery insignia marked her left breast.
“Hey, your mom was a soldier, wasn’t she?”
Mieshka stiffened. The world closed in.
No. Not here. Not now.
Her hands shook. She turned away, into the station. People shoved at her, she felt herself shove back. Announcements crackled over the PA. Robin shouted.
I’ve got to get away. Too many people. Not enough space. I’ve got to get away.
The crowd parted.
Mieshka darted through the opening. The gate snickered apart for her.
Wind howled in her face. She shied away from the exit, the crowd, turned deeper into the tunnels. Feet stamped. She ran into people, bumped a stand of newspapers. People grabbed at her, shouted. She sprinted.
Shops slid past. A train screamed at the next platform. The crowd thinned, space opened up.
Eventually, she came to an empty hallway.
It smelled different here. Musty, but lighter than the closeness of the platform. The shops here had closed. Heavy padlocks kept their metal curtains shut. Behind a metal cage, window fliers advertised a sale six months expired. Rubble filled the room behind the dusty window.
Mieshka slumped against the wall and slid to the floor. Her heart rate slowed. As her panic wound down, she unzipped the back pocket of her pack and pulled out a tissue. In the distance, the thin wail of a leaving train echoed up the hall, accompanied by the chirps of the auditory warning systems.
Closer, footsteps tapped on the scuffed tiles.
Mieshka bowed her head as she dabbed at her face, letting a curtain of orange hair hide her face. Her throat choked up. A sob wracked through her.
Grief was an ugly feeling.
Robin crouched down in front of her.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. I wasn’t thinking.”
Mieshka curled away, reached for another tissue. Her voice trembled when she spoke.
“I don’t think I should go to Lansdowne today.”
Robin squeezed her shoulder. “We don’t have to go to Lansdowne today.”
Heat flushed Mieshka’s face. Her eyes felt puffy. She wiped them with another tissue. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be—”
“No, no—I shouldn’t have asked,” Robin said. “I wasn’t thinking. You’ve got a history, I get it.”
“I’m not a good friend. Friends should be able to talk about anything.”
“That’s not true. It hasn’t been that long since…” Robin’s voice trailed off. Mieshka winced. Cool air touched her cheek as her friend pulled back, the weight shifting on Mieshka’s shoulder.
“Say,” Robin said, “we don’t have to go to Lansdowne. Not today.”
Mieshka looked up, followed her friend’s gaze. A set of stairs rose at the end of the hallway, where an arched doorway led into a dim, hallway. Light flickered within.
“What is it?”
“The fire mage’s temple.”
“Temple?” Mieshka studied the doorway. It had an ornate trim—like leaves, she thought—wrought in a material that was paler than the rest of the hallway’s beige accents. Marble? They used marble in temples, right? But, why build a temple here, in the middle of the subway?
“That’s what everyone calls it. They say that the fire mage’s ship is under it. You know about the ships, right?”
The mages had crash-landed on this world. They’d used their ships—special ships, all black metal and magic—to slice through the dimensions, fleeing the collapse of their old world. That, technically, made them refugees. But the government treated them much better than it treated people like Mieshka.
There were three in Lyarne, and a fourth in nearby Terremain. Their elemental magic powered both cities’ shields.
“I’ve seen pictures.” Mieshka stood up, swaying a little as she balanced against the wall. Echoes followed her up the hall, carrying the cacophony of the station.
The noise faded as they passed under the archway.
Their shoes tapped on the stone floor, and Mieshka’s ragged breaths seemed to grow louder. The hallway was so quiet she heard the books in her backpack shift. Where earlier she’d felt the press of people, she now felt their absence.
Past the threshold, the dimness enveloped them just like the quiet. Light moved as through water, rippling in lines and arcs across the walls. It struck her as odd for a fire temple. Stone walls rose on either side. The watery light illuminated the concrete ceiling in a dim blue glow.
Monsters danced on the walls.
She stared at them. In the light, they seemed to move in the corners of her eyes. Not all were monsters. A winged horse flew above a giant, tentacled sea monster. An eagle skirted the sun. She looked closer. No, not an eagle. A firebird. She fished for the name: Phoenix.
Running water grew louder ahead. The two girls crept toward it.
The hallway funneled them into a small, shallow coliseum. A three-tiered fountain bubbled in the center, waterfalls shivering in a blue light. Two small, wizened trees flanked its front. At its back, where the first waterfall splashed down its highest point, a screen hovered in mid-air. Its transparent backing marked it as alien.
She’d heard the mage’s had brought some technology from their old world. This must be part of it—her own world hadn’t even come close to replicating the technology. It looked like she could throw something right through it and it wouldn’t even blink.
Three rows of symbols glowed on it, burning with the orange-yellow of the fire element. Mieshka had seen the mage’s old language before—her school had added mages to its curriculum last year. The characters had a strange Asiatic-Cyrillic shape. They pulsed in the air, glowing like embers.
Two steps separated the center of the room from the pillared hallway at its perimeter. The tapestry of mythic creatures continued along the wall, accompanied by more fiery text that lined the room in columns. She ducked behind a pillar, hand tracing its ribbed edges, and followed the outer wall. The light from the letters cast the stone floors in a soft, red haze.
The letters reached close to the ceiling. Each column had only two or three words and maybe fifty rows. They looked clean, uniform, and neat.
Exactly like the ones on her mother’s cenotaph.
Mieshka’s throat tightened. She forced herself to step back. Her eyes did a slow circuit of the room. There were a lot of letters.
Tears pricked at her eyes. Her shoulder bumped into the hard ridge of a pillar as she backed up.
“You okay?” Robin stood in the center, a concerned look on her face. She’d taken off her hat, and the screen’s light reflected orange off her dark hair. Mieshka clenched her hand tight as she directed her gaze upward, to where the screen broadcasted its single, short message. As she watched, one of the letters fluttered briefly into flame.
“This isn’t a temple,” Mieshka said, staring at the words. “It’s a memorial.”
And the screen was its epitaph.
Aiden. Twenty years had been enough to get used to the name—it wasn’t far from the original, after all. Aiden, Aedynan—what did spelling matter, so long as people could pronounce it?
Phonetic transcriptions hadn’t worked for everyone, of course, but it was largely a matter of personal choice.
The fire mage sat behind his desk, staring at the computer monitor. Windows lined the wall to his right at chest height, and their dove-gray blinds filtered Lyarne’s dusk into the room, casting the room in a dim, watery light. As the sun went down, the room dimmed noticeably.
On the monitor, the computer plotted a graph.
It was a model of the city’s shields—specifically, the amount of stored energy plotted against its energy output, over time—and had, in the last hundred-or-so simulated runs he’d done of it over the past few days, been a large source of grief for him.
The first line—the output—was a relatively flat line. No slope.
The second declined at a steady, somewhat alarming, rate.
They intersected a month from now.
So, his latest energy-saving scheme would not work.
The smell of gun oil made him glance at the other two inhabitants of the room. Both were former soldiers, hired on as part of a government requirement that he be… escorted everywhere. When first introduced, some 18 years previous, it had been a thinly veiled attempt to keep tabs on him. Now, with the mages integrated into city life, the Transition period violence behind them, and a new war distracting the civil government, the policy had become mere formality.
Buck and Jo did not escort him everywhere. Instead, they mostly ran errands, acted as bodyguards, and read books on the city’s dime.
Buck, facing Aiden, had the misfortune of looking like his name: a large man, he filled out his clothes, and was tall enough to find some door frames short. He kept the crew-cut the military had given him, and preferred non-descript dark clothes. Abroad, he wore his gun in a shoulder holster; now, reclined in a black leather armchair perpendicular to Aiden, his holster lay on the floor beside him. A book was open on his lap, face down.
Instead of turning on the light to continue reading, Buck had simply lain his head back on the chair and closed his eyes.
Zen master, that.
On the couch beside his chair, her back to Aiden, Jo was the source of the smell. Her black, tightly coiled hair was pulled back from her brown skin in a bun. She, too, preferred dark clothing. She was slighter than her partner, but made up for it in attitude and aggression. Despite—or perhaps to spite—the growing dim, she cleaned her gun. Over the couch’s black back, Aiden watched her shoulders work.
Aiden propped an elbow on the arm of his chair, looking back to the graph. He thought of a few nasty words for the system’s algorithms, and a lot more for the city’s earth mage, Michael, whose fault this stupid energy crisis was.
The man had disappeared, along with the earth crystal that powered his part of the shield. When Aiden and Sophia—formerly Safya—had visited his house, nothing had been out of order. No sign of struggle, no note, nothing. The earth mage’s engine had been in perfect condition. Dead and dormant without its crystal, but perfect.
It said something about the man that neither Aiden nor Sophia were entirely concerned about the earth mage himself, but more about how they, the remaining two, could make up for his absence. This wasn’t the first time he’d run off. Last time it had something to do with family drama. Hadn’t told Aiden or Sophia anything then, either.
Michael was something of an elitist—had been even before they’d all crash-landed into this dimension. Didn’t think much of the rest of society.
They couldn’t assume he’d come back. With ten million living in Lyarne, they could not risk the shield failing. Not even once. Once a shield failed, it was proven vulnerable. Nothing quite fed an enemy’s appetite for invasion more than their bombs suddenly working. Lyarne’s magic-powered shield made a mockery of the non-magic bombs, but that did not stop the regular single-plane raids. Once a bomb made it through, Aiden knew several hundred would be quick to follow up.
That’s how it had worked when Terremain’s shield had begun to fail. Aiden felt bad for the mage there: Derrick, an electric mage, had only one crystal for power. He used his own energy to supplement his shield. He was much more committed than Aiden. Once Aiden’s crystal neared depletion, he would execute a less-than-quiet exit. The city would learn that, yes, the fire mage’s magic spaceship still worked.
He entertained that thought for a moment, then he went back to work.
“Something wrong, boss?” Even in the fading light, Aiden could see the sharpness in Buck’s gaze. The man was a master at observation—at reading nuance—and those quiet eyes picked up everything. It was a quality Aiden liked about him, but only when he was not observing Aiden.
Jo, not as quick as Buck, was quite intent when something pointed her in the right direction. She looked over the back of the couch, the whites of her eyes a stark contrast to her dark skin.
Aiden glanced between them. After a moment, he straightened in the chair.
“At this rate, the shield will fail in a month. Technically, I can rewire it to the ship’s crystal, but I’d rather not.”
The former soldiers continued to stare. Aiden’s index finger tapped against his thigh.
“Never mind. I’ll deal with that. Just…” He eyed them now. It felt crowded in here, with their eyes on him. He felt confined. On the spot. He had to get them out. Give them something to do. “Do another sweep. See if anything’s changed, if you can find anyone.”
Silence. No ‘Yes, sir’ or anything.
Buck spoke: “Anyone with magic?”
“With the Beeper-thing?”
“Yes. With the Beeper-thing.”
Metal clicked together. Jo, without looking away from Aiden, reassembled her gun.
It was busywork, and they knew it.
When Buck moved, it was like watching a mountain. He picked up the book, closed it, set it on the table title-side-up, and rose from the chair. Sometimes Aiden wished there was more volcano in the man, but Buck could haul ass when the need arose.
When Buck walked over, Aiden thought he felt the floor move. It was unkind, but Aiden was feeling a bit juvenile right now. He squinted at the room, finding the screen in front of him even more glaring.
“And turn on the damn light.”\
Across the city, on the seventh level of a fifteen story building, the same twilight dimmed the small apartment Mieshka shared with her father. The front door closed the hallway light off and she tripped on the carpet.
Her keys dropped to the floor with a jangle.
She smothered a sob with her hand, leaning her forehead against the wall. Closing her eyes, she started to count. The back of her wrist rubbed her face when she got to ten. She peered down through the blur.
Most of the light came from the balcony door, filtered through vertical fabric blinds. It was not much, but it glinted on the metal sitting next to her foot.
She left them there.
Her left hand trailed the wall as she walked down the hall, already shrugging a shoulder from her pack. To her left was the cramped kitchen. To her right, a bisecting hallway led to a washroom, a laundry room, and two bedrooms.
She glanced down it, wiping her nose on her sleeve. The last door had a dim line of light between it and the floor.
Dad was home.
She slumped her backpack onto the couch, missing the junk mail and magazines that had piled on the arm. Unsorted laundry occupied the rest. On the coffee table, old pizza boxes stacked like a bachelor’s Jenga game. Some were starting to smell.
Mieshka reeled the balcony blinds back on their balled cord, slid the door open, and stepped over the sill. Their view was of the next apartment and the narrow alleyway between. Every week, the sanitation department emptied the dumpsters at the end.
A few dead plants welcomed her into the chill. The Balcony Garden Experiment had been short-lived. Plants couldn’t live with neglect.
She hunched on the rail and watched the light fade from the alley. It was a gradual process, and one that made her huddle more and more into her hoodie. Eventually, the alley’s lights switched on, beaming an industrial yellow-orange into the gritty shadows.
Behind her, the shuffle of socked feet announced her father’s arrival. He closed the door behind him and joined her. The railing wobbled as he leaned against it. Mieshka watched the flicker of a television set in the opposite building, one floor up. A car alarm went off, its sound muffled by distance. Eyes wandering to the dumpsters seven floors down, she thought of the pizza boxes. If she threw them, maybe she could get them in.
“Cold out.” Her dad’s breath rose in a mist, backlit by their sidelong neighbors. He wore an old, pale blue work shirt, the top two buttons undone. His sweatpants had food stains. The orange alley light glinted off the thin metal frame of his glasses.
She nodded, jaw tightening. She’d drawn her hood over the beanie long ago, though the chill still seeped in through the neck. Her cheeks had gone numb, and her nose. She did not shiver.
“How was school?”
“Of course.” Her tone was snippy. She gritted her teeth as a lump slipped back into her throat. The cold pricked at new tears. She forced her voice to stay even. “Robin showed me the fire mage’s temple.”
“Yeah. It was a memorial.” Her voice broke raw on the last vowel. She swallowed the lump, felt his eyes on her.
The quiet thickened between them for a moment. The railing trembled under her arm. Bitterness grew in her chest.
“Why did we come here?” Her question hung in the cold. She didn’t look at him, knowing what his answer would be. Bitterness quickly turned to anger, fueled by an old rage that collected in her stomach like dead blood. Her nerves frayed like a bad firework.
“It’s safer here,” he said.
“I can’t visit Mom,” she said.
“She’s with us—”
“—in our hearts? There’s a lot of things in my heart right now and she ain’t one of them.”
“No! What can you say? What can anyone say?” She was yelling now, not caring how her voice echoed through the alley. Above them, a neighbor closed a balcony door loudly.
“I’m sorry that—”
Rage flashed ahead of her thoughts. “Sorry? Sorry doesn’t help! Fuck!”
Her hand had smacked against the railing. The cold numbed the pain.
“Mieshka, calm down,” he whispered, hissing across the two feet that separated them. “We have to get through this. Remember what the psychologist said. Count—”
“I’m sick of counting. It doesn’t help. Who are you to tell me what to do? You just hide in your room all fricking day. And order pizza. I can’t live on pizza!”
“Mieshka!” His voice rose. “Keep your voice down. I know it hurts. Believe me, I know. I lost her too.”
She choked, the alleyway blurred around her.
“I lost both of you.”
A sob hiccoughed through her as she turned away. She slammed the door back on its tracks. She sped into the dim, dark room, past the couch with its piles of laundry and junk mail. Past the stacked, moldy pizza boxes on the coffee table.
Into her room.
She slammed the door behind her, breathing hard. Tears slid down, carving raw streaks into the cold of her cheeks. She ripped a tissue from her desk, nearly taking the box with it. Sinking onto her bed, she curled into the mess she’d left the quilt in this morning.
It was starting to smell too.
After a few minutes, she heard the balcony door again. Her dad shuffled in, pausing outside her door. She twisted around to stare at it.
He moved on. She listened as his bedroom door opened, closed.
She rested her head back into the quilt, eyes closing against its familiar softness. The cold had followed her in, and it numbed her skin for a long time afterwards.
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