Mieshka slipped under the covers, enjoying the feel of the sheets against her bare feet. With Jo’s help, she’d managed an embarrassing, awkward shower—avoiding her stitches—and had washed out the dirt that had been stuck to her hair and skin since leaving Lyarne. The water had run brown for a full five minutes.
Jo clicked off the light. Mieshka felt a hand brush across her feet as the mercenary walked past. “Comfy?”
“Very,” Mieshka replied.
“Good.” The bed next to hers creaked as Jo got in. “I don’t know about you, but I plan to sleep for the next twenty hours.”
“Can we?” Mieshka sagged against the pillow, pulling the comforter up to her chin. It smelled clean, fresh. When she closed her eyes, she could feel the exhaustion reel through her mind.
“I’m not opening that door until at least 8 a.m.” Sheets rustled. Mieshka’s eyes adjusted enough to just barely make out the mercenary’s silhouette in the dark.
The room was quiet, warm. Mieshka nestled deeper under the quilt and closed her eyes. With the drugs keeping the pain at bay, she felt like comfortable, limp puddle of warmth.
A soft knock came from the door.
Jo groaned, rolled over. “Shit.”
Mieshka didn’t even bother to open her eyes. She heard the rustle and thump as Jo stood. “Change of plans?”
“Apparently.” Jo’s feet were not silent on the room’s carpet. A few seconds later, Mieshka heard a bolt disengage on the door.
Light cut sharply into the room. Voices mumbled.
Then, the door opened wider.
She squinted against the light. Jo and two other people stood in the doorway. As her eyes adjusted, her mind connected the voice to the taller one.
Aiden’s sister had come to visit.
They shut the door quickly, flicking on the room’s lighting. Mieshka pushed herself upright, ignoring the tug of pain the movement caused.
Aiden’s sister looked even more tired than Mieshka remembered—something that was becoming a theme of their group. Bags lined the underside of her eyes, contrasting against her otherwise-pale skin. The collar of her uniform had rubbed a raw mark into her neck.
In contrast, the woman beside her stood poised and straight. Light, silver-gray hair caught the outside light. Her forearms were bare, the sleeves of a seasonal-red cardigan pushed up and bunched around her elbows. Small, elegant earrings dangled from her ears. Her eyes, a paler blue than Mieshka had ever seen, took a calculated sweep of the room.
When they came to her, a shock ran through her.
They looked as cold as stars.
Fire snapped into her blood. The Phoenix awakened, sharp and immediate, and spread through her body like a desert sun.
A sick feeling struck her stomach as she felt the heat settle in behind her eyes.
No. This can’t be happening. Not here. Not now.
Both mages stopped short. Mieshka cringed at the look on their faces.
“Mieshka?” Aiden’s sister faltered. There was an edge to her tone that hadn’t been there before, when she’d just been whispering. “Are you okay?”
She was fire, too. Mieshka could feel the similarities reaching out between them, one element calling to another.
But her fire was cold, doused. Dry as ash.
Mieshka’s heart cindered. From the corner of her eye, she saw a tip of flame flit around the edge of her bandage.
The other mage made a quick gesture—one hand slipping to her face as if to readjust glasses, though she wore none. Once her attention had been drawn to her, Mieshka found it hard to look away.
There was a familiarity about her that she couldn’t quite place—and an enigma about her that drew the Phoenix like a raven to silver. Everything about the mage’s appearance—from her skin, hair, and even the business-casual attire—just screamed normal.
But Mieshka’s new instincts screamed something else.
Heat rippled through her as she scooted back. More fire slipped through her fingers. The bed danced with flickering, gold light.
“What are you?” Mieshka breathed.
Aiden’s sister had sidestepped farther into the room. Her element was closer to the surface now. Mieshka could feel it at the edge of her senses, stoked like a bed of coals. The exhaustion had dropped from her face, replaced by an analytical, combat-ready mask.
Behind her, Jo had done something similar, quietly slipping toward her gun belt on the couch.
But the other mage hadn’t moved.
At Mieshka’s words, a strange expression flickered over her face.
For a second, she smiled.
“I must be strange to you,” she said. “They told me you have linked with a kirakisnan? A firebird?”
Her English was strange, lilted by an accent Mieshka had rarely heard.
“Yes,” Mieshka said.
“I will introduce myself, then. Perhaps that will satisfy your bird.” Another flicker of expression. Another quick, half-hidden smile. The mage stretched her arms to her sides slowly, turning her open palms toward Mieshka. The left sleeve of her cardigan dipped below her elbow at the gesture. “I am a elini, a light mage, who is called Axariel in our old language. I have taken the name Shana for this world. Eli a propesni.”
The Lurian words slipped from her tongue breathlessly, each emphasized with a strange dip, and an exaggerated “y” sound. It reminded her of the way her mother had spoken, of the one time she’d met her grandparents before they’d died.
Fire shifted inside her. She could see the light of her irises reflected in the woman’s face, could see it glow on other things in the room, too.
For a second, the Phoenix felt so close to the surface that she could reach inside and touch it.
Then, it faded.
Mieshka wasn’t sure exactly where the Phoenix lived. Aiden hadn’t told her, and she doubted he knew. It felt like it retreated into the nether—some abstract part of space that felt black and impenetrable to her. Once the door shut—once the bird was gone—no amount of mental banging could pry it open.
She knew. She’d tried.
As far as she could tell, the firebird came and went on its own accord.
The light left her eyes. Only warmth remained of the fire, rapidly cooling to the room’s latent temperature.
“Does that happen often?” Aeryn asked.
She’d straightened out of her earlier posture, but her body language was far from relaxed.
“No,” Jo said. She casually leaned against the opposite side of the couch. The gun belt was nowhere in sight.
The light mage—Shana, Mieshka thought—smiled a small smile. “She’s a special one. That’s Abrochdan, isn’t it?”
“If it’s the bird, then yes. Aiden’s other crystal is a dragon.”
“Abrochdan and Misenfri’in. Didn’t they have siblings?”
“Three, I think.” Aeryn tilted her head. “Mieshka, how do you feel?”
“Tired. Sorry about the…glowy-eye thing.”
Glowy-eye thing? Mieshka cringed. Now that the Phoenix had left, her thoughts felt thick and heavy. Her mouth was not well connected to her brain.
“We’ll let you sleep soon—and I’m sure we can find out about the… thing,” Aeryn said.
“They said she could heal you. With magic.” Jo had crossed her arms over her chest. Her face was blank, unimpressed. “Is this true?”
“Of course it is. Axariel can heal anything.” Aeryn shot the mercenary an irritated glance. “She’s a light mage.”
Jo raised an eyebrow, meeting Mieshka’s eyes across the room. Her index finger tapped against her bicep.
Aeryn’s expression slackened. “Aiden didn’t tell you about light mages?”
“He didn’t tell me a whole lot about anything. There wasn’t… he was too busy with the shield.”
That part hadn’t been a problem before—there’d always been a sense that he’d get around to training her. Keeping bombs out of Lyarne’s city limits had taken priority.
So long as Mieshka didn’t turn to arson, he’d seemed content to keep her coasting along while he dealt with rebuilding the shield.
It wasn’t until recently that she’d started exploding.
By the look on Aeryn’s face, “too busy” was not a good excuse.
“Ilia miyn fresni a fierd,” Aeryn said, a hand rubbing the bridge of her nose.. “I’ll kill him.” She took a breath, meeting Mieshka’s eyes. “The light element works with light and healing and is very rare. Shana is a gift among mages.”
Mieshka turned back to the other mage. She hadn’t moved since she’d entered the room. Light seemed to focus on her, define her color and complexion, control her shadows.
“Are there dark mages, too?” Mieshka asked.
Aeryn’s lips thinned. “There are.”
Jo barked a laugh. “And what do they control? Darkness and not healing?”
“Something like that. Fortunately, they’re just as rare as she is—no offense, Axariel.”
“None was taken.” The light mage dipped her head. “Let’s start. She will want sleep after this.”
“Yes, yes,” Aeryn said. “Please, go ahead.”
A spark of her earlier unease stiffened her spine as the light mage stepped forward. The carpet hid her footsteps, and the fluidity with which she moved triggered another warning in Mieshka’s head—but she couldn’t quite put a finger on why.
A silvery sound tinkled as the mage drew close. A second later, Mieshka found the tiny bells on her earrings.
The bed dipped as the mage sat on its edge, her eyes never leaving Mieshka’s. She was close enough to smell. Close enough to touch.
Golden light slid onto the woman’s skin, sharp and warm. A careful, elegant rune curled around the pulse of her wrist. “She will need the stitches taken out in the morning. Do you know how to do that, soldier?”
“I do,” Jo said.
Shana raised her hand. The rune slid from her wrist to her palm as she reached out. It pulsed there. Mieshka detected no heat.
“I won’t do this again,” she said. “I am not a healing dispensary, no matter who asks.”
Aeryn’s expression sobered. “I understand.”
Shana touched Mieshka’s arm, and the coolness of her fingers touched Mieshka’s fire-warmed skin. Shana’s eyes unfocused. Energy tingled between them.
“Who stabbed you?” she asked.
Mieshka worked to unstick her tongue. Tingling spread through her arm like ants’ feet. The wound in her bicep crawled. “An earth mage named Michael. I don’t know his full name.”
“Michael Seif.” The mage’s lips twisted. She spat the name with a hiss. “Aeryn told me that he has died.”
Mieshka dropped her head in a nod, and the mage’s expression turned grimmer.
“This world is better off with his loss. I’m sorry you ever had to encounter such black blood.” Shana’s power spread through Mieshka’s bones like waves over sand. A quiet glow followed in its wake, concentrating in every cut and bruise that Mieshka had sustained. She watched it shiver down her legs, muted by the bed’s thick quilting.
Then, Shana pushed more energy into the spell.
Drowsiness hit her like a brick. Shana caught her as she swayed. Strong hands lowered her gently to the pillow. Her breath tickled Mieshka’s ear as the mage leaned close.
As darkness edged her vision and her mind dropped from the surface, she heard the mage whisper in her ear:
“Be careful, Mieshka Renaud. The city is not a safe place for little birds.”