(a Magic of Nasci flash fiction prequel story)
Guntram, an aging lumberjack of a man with the grumpy personality to match, sat cross-legged in front of the shimmering disc of the breach. He remained calm and collected, as if meditating in the swaying forest around us, while the mirror-thin disc cut to a world of monsters on the other side.
That would have been all fine and dandy if a gigantic tentacled monster wasn't trying to get through.
"Can you seal that breach a little faster?" I asked, absorbing more fire pith from the metal charm around my neck. I traced a spiky circle with a cross in the air. A fireball flew out of my fingertips and singed a tentacle about to smack Guntram across the face. The aftermath smelled like burnt calamari that had been sitting out for too long. Ew.
"These things take time, Ina," Guntram reminded me patiently, his own fingers a blur as he wrote complex sigil after complex sigil. Sealing an interdimensional breach meant threading your own life energy through the gateway to bar it shut. One false move could cut us shepherds in half. While we could rock all sorts of elemental magic, we weren't known to regrow limbs.
Apparently, the Lovecraftian octopus trying to shove its way into our world had no problem losing an appendage or two. I burned it again with another fireball, but I was running out of fire pith. I didn't dare try smacking it with water, since it would likely absorb that and use it against me. That only left much less effective earth and air to attack the marine-based creature.
When Guntram and I had first found the breach, the giant octopus vaettur had already been trying to wedge its way through the hole into our woods. I told Guntram that we should banish it first, then seal the breach. Guntram, however, had decided this was a unique opportunity for me to defend an active breach while he sealed it shut. As a rookie shepherd, he was always looking to impart a good lesson.
But now I was running low on the one element that could stave off the vaettur. I tentatively sliced at the octopus with a wind gust, but it barely fazed the beast. Ditto with flinging rocks. I couldn't keep this up for much longer.
I knew I shouldn't break Guntram's concentration, but I was running out of options. "I really don't want to explain to the others how you died today," I said. "They already think I'm a loose cannon."
"You're a solid shepherd, Ina. Just concentrate on using less fire pith per sigil, and you'll be fine."
I beamed at the rare compliment from the old man.
"Now, shut your blabbering mouth, so I can finish this."
Followed by a blistering rebuke. Very on brand.
But Guntram had a point. I had to dole out smaller bits of fire pith to keep my tentacled friend at bay.
As Guntram closed his eyes and continued to draw sigils, I concentrated on pulling the tiniest bits of fire pith from my charm. I also waited until more of a tenacle emerged before blasting it, sending the limb curling back into the shimmering disc. Eight small fireballs went by.
When Guntram began the wrap-up sequence of sigils, I felt confident things would go smoothly.
That's when the vaettur's beak busted through. Unlike a normal octopus mouth, this thing had razor-sharp serrated edges and pulsed with an eerie greenish light. It snapped with a scary staccato.
"Guntram..." I warned.
"Sh!" he hissed back, his brow beaded with sweat.
He had just a few more sigils to go, but the beak kept on coming, growing longer and longer. It was easily the size of my arm.
And it was snapping dangerously close to Guntram, who didn't appear at all alarmed at the incoming threat.
I couldn't conserve pith any longer, not if I wanted Guntram to keep his head on his shoulders. I absorbed the rest of the charm's fire pith and drew crosses for a continued fire blast. I let it fly just seconds before the vaettur chomped off the end of Guntram's nose.
Waves of heat distorted the air as the beak retreated back into the disc. Unfortunately, it didn't completely disappear. I kept up the fire stream like a flamethrower, knowing I was running low on fuel.
And then I sizzled out.
The beak shook itself and then surged forward toward my mentor.
"No!" I dove forward, thinking I could at least physically take the blow for Guntram.
"Finished!" Guntram said at the same time.
The shimmering disc of the breach vanished, slicing the beak in two. It fell harmlessly in front of Guntram's lap.
Well, almost harmlessly. Given my forward momentum, I tripped on it and nearly fell onto my face. I drew a quick air sigil just in time to cushion the blow so the plunge only knocked a bit of air out of my lungs.
Guntram towered over me as I flipped over on my back. "Was that so hard?"
"Yes." I panted in fresh gulps of air. "Absolutely yes."
He nodded in satisfaction. "It's good to keep you on your toes."
I waved at my body. "Except I'm not on my toes."
"Close enough. We're alive. It was touch and go there at the end."
My eyes widened. "You didn't know if I could protect you?"
He shrugged. "There was a slim chance you'd fail."
"Why risk your life then?" my voice rose to a shout. "We could have just attacked the stupid thing together."
"But now you're stronger. And the next time, if we don't have a choice, you'll be better prepared. Besides," an amused gleam twinkled in his eyes, "That was kind of fun."
"Fun?" I repeated incredously. "You're kidding, right?"
He didn't answer, drawing a sigil that launched him straight into the air. His raven companions, who had been waiting in the treetops surrounding us, also took to the skies, encasing him in a feathery swirl as he took off back toward our homestead.
"Mentors," I grumbled. "Can't live with them." Then I looked down at the severed octopus beak at my feet. "And definitely wouldn't want to live without them."
Read Ina's story from the beginning with Chasing Lightning.