For all you Ina fans, the Magic of Nasci, Book 9 is set to release on October 4, 2023! Ina is supposed to be building bridges with Vincent's magical family, but a dangerous vaettur threatens those plans. Read the first chapter in this all-new, stand-alone, nature wizard tale.
I tensed under the thick canopy of red, yellow, and green trees around me. My whole body sung with elemental pith—earth, fire, air, and water. My lightning charm hung around my neck in case I’d need that too.
I had to be in top form. I couldn’t screw this up.
“Ina,” Vincent Garcia said gently. “Will you relax a little? You’re not going into battle.” He hid his athletic build underneath a black leather jacket and jeans, his short ebony hair windswept without his work hat. He reached over to brush away a strand of my own long black hair that had escaped my updrawn hoodie.
I pushed aside the surge of happiness that rose in my chest. After getting attacked by the wolf vaettur fenrir a few weeks ago, Vincent and I had officially decided we were dating, a fact which made the autumn’s birdsong brighter and my blood pump faster.
It also haunted my nightmares.
For most women, finding a partner is a normal (and much sought after) facet of life. But I was a shepherd of Nasci, a kind of nature superhero. I could envision Guntram, my mentor, scolding, “Shepherds don’t form romantic attachments.”
His disapproval alone, though, wouldn’t stop me. I have a very specific reputation for breaking rules.
My anxiety stemmed from my history with Vincent. We’d only known each other for a little over half a year, and in that short time, our relationship had been a flow of on-again, off-again contact.
My stupid heart lurched at the thought that this was just another “on-again” phase.
I ignored my fear to focus on the matter at hand. “Winning over your family might as well be a battle.”
“This is Oscar we’re talking about, remember? He already likes you.”
“We’ll see what he thinks after our little chat.”
Although not a shepherd like me, Vincent came from an “innate” family. Innates, like shepherds, can manipulate elemental pith. Guntram tasked me with becoming a bridge between the more reclusive shepherds and innates, who live normal lives outside the forest. I hadn’t made a lot of inroads with Vincent’s family yet.
That was all going to change today. I’d asked Vincent’s cousin, Oscar, to meet us at his house, located outside the coastal town of Florence, Oregon. Oscar knew I could “sense” water pith like him. He often asked me to help him with difficult plumbing jobs under the assumption I was also an innate.
We were about to teach him I could do a whole lot more than find a leaky pipe.
Before long, Vincent and I left the forest and emerged into the unfenced back yard of a single-story house with a hot tub on the patio. Vincent had once put me in that very hot tub after a rogue shepherd named Rafe tried to bury me alive in the desert. We’d shared our first kiss there. I flushed at the memory.
The curtains moved behind the sliding glass door, drawing my attention. Focus, Ina. Focus.
Oscar’s head peeked over the fabric. He had the same ebony hair and dark eyes as Vincent, but his face was rounder and he wore black-framed glasses. His expression changed from caution to surprise as he recognized us. He flung the curtain back and slid the glass panel open.
“What are you two doing back here?”
Oops. I supposed it did seem weird that we hadn’t arrived by road to such a remote residence. Vincent had offered to drive his silver Subaru, but I’d been so nervous, I asked to walk. Vincent and I had hiked from his apartment and traveled here via wisp channel, fixed tree portals that let us cover miles in an instant.
Explaining our transportation method to Oscar was not how I wanted to introduce him to shepherd magic.
I motioned for Oscar to step outside. “I walked to show you something back here. Come on.”
He hesitated in the doorframe. “First you guys call to meet with me to tell me ‘something important,’ but you won’t discuss it over the phone. Now you’re chilling out in my back yard. It’s sketchy.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “More sketchy than abandoning me inside a horror house because you couldn’t handle a bunch of baby snakes?”
“That wasn’t sketchy. That was hilarious.” Oscar’s lips curved upward as he recalled what had become known as the “Snake Incident.”
Vincent interjected before either Oscar burst into giggles or I strangled him because of it. “Actually, that’s kind of why we’re here. Ina wanted to show you more of her magic.” Vincent wrapped his arm around my shoulders, making my cheeks burn. “My girlfriend’s not just like our families, Oscar. She can do a whole lot more.”
“Like . . .?” Oscar asked.
I ducked out of Vincent’s hold. “If you’d quit being a coward for a change and come out here, I’ll show you.”
“Fine, you’ve piqued my interest.” Oscar finally stepped onto the patio and slid the glass door shut behind him. “But I swear, if this is some kind of trick, I’m not giving you any more jobs, Ina.”
“Whatever,” I said, stepping farther away from the house to manipulate the elements. “You need me to help you, not the other way around.”
Oscar lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “You don’t have any other gainful employment.”
This seemed as good an opening as any to drop the bombshell. “That’s because my job is to defend nature itself.”
An awkward silence followed my grandiose statement. Even though what I’d said was true, it did sound ridiculous when spoken aloud.
Oscar cleared his throat. “Okay. That’s . . . neat.”
“What I mean is I do . . .” I tried to find a way to downplay my previous theatrics. “. . . stuff that protects forests from those that would harm it.”
Oscar took a small step back. “You’re not some kind of eco terrorist, are you? Because I don’t want to get into any legal trouble.”
“No, it’s nothing like that.” My mind scrambled for a way to explain what a shepherd was without freaking Oscar out. “I’m kind of like Vincent. He’s a game warden, right? Only he stops poachers from hunting animals. I just guard the wilderness from . . . other stuff.”
“‘Other stuff?’” Oscar repeated, thoroughly confused.
“Yeah, like . . . uh . . .”
Vincent stepped in to say what I couldn’t. “Ina’s a nature wizard, Oscar. She fights interdimensional monsters with her magic.”
I glared at Vincent. “I wasn’t going to tell him about vaetturs. It’s not like I can summon one and prove they exist.”
“But you can show him your powers,” he countered. “So start there.”
“Wait, wait,” Oscar interrupted. “This is too much for me. Can you get straight to the punchline?”
“This isn’t a joke,” I snapped. “I’m a shepherd of Nasci, the goddess who lives in the center of our world and gives everything life. I’ve pledged to protect the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest from the vaetturs of Letum with the elemental gifts she’s given me.”
So much for dialing back the drama.
Oscar threw his hands up. “That’s about as much of this prank as I can take. I have a job to do in a few hours, and I’d like to eat lunch before then. If you’ll excuse me . . .” He flipped around to make his way back inside the house.
Oh, no. I wasn’t going to let Oscar walk away now that I’d given him my Nasci soliloquy. I gathered air pith and wrote a sideways “S” with my right hand. Then, releasing that energy, I sent a sudden gust of wind toward Oscar so strong that it knocked over a cheap plastic lawn chair right in front of his path.
Oscar skirted backward. “Whoa! Where’d that come from?” He studied the towering pines surrounding his property. They rocked back and forth but then stilled without my air manipulation.
“It came from me,” I declared.
He turned back around, confused. He hadn’t seen me draw the sigil, so he had no reason to believe I’d created the wind.
“You can sense water,” he said. “You can’t do anything with air. A person can only manipulate one or the other.”
“Maybe that’s how it works in your family,” I said. “But shepherds can wield all four natural elements, not just one.”
Oscar crossed his arms and gave me a smug look. “Then prove it.”
The little twerp didn’t think I could back up my claim. I glanced over at Vincent, who was trying to hide a laugh. He knew I could do a whole lot more than summon a simple updraft.
But how to really prove it to Oscar? He wouldn’t be impressed with water, and anything I did with air he’d probably chalk up to weather. Lightning would be overkill. That left two elements.
And one of them was way flashier than the other.
I scanned Oscar’s back yard for a good target and found his fire pit several yards away, essentially a homemade ring of cement blocks. A few semi-charred logs remained scattered inside.
Fire is the combination of water, air, and earth and takes finesse to control. I made sure not to overdo it as I pooled fire pith into my hand. I made a deliberate show of drawing a spiky circle with a cross behind it, then flung a fist-sized fireball toward the pit.
Oscar yelped as the fireball streaked past him and ignited on the logs. I’d hoped they would catch fire, but the logs were too damp. The fire sizzled in a few sparks before fading out.
Overall, I was pretty pleased with my magical display. I mimicked Oscar’s self-righteous stance. “Believe me now?”
Oscar tiptoed across to the fire pit, looking as if it might bite him. As he craned his neck to peer over the rim, Vincent flashed me a discreet thumbs-up. His cousin couldn’t doubt me now.
Or at least, that’s what I thought.
Oscar’s shoulders relaxed, and he whirled back around to me. “You couldn’t even light it on fire.”
I gaped at him. “So?”
“So,” Oscar said, nodding his head as if coming to some grand conclusion. “That proves this is all just a hoax.”
“How do you figure?” I demanded.
He wagged a finger at both of us. “Because you two were lurking around back here when I caught you. You must have been setting the scene so when Ina launched a hidden firework up her hoodie sleeve, it would ignite the logs. But you clearly didn’t have time to douse the pit with lighter fluid, so your little plan failed.”
Vincent threw his hands upward. “And where is this lighter fluid we were supposedly carrying?”
“Probably back at your car, which you parked down the road,” Oscar reasoned, nodding his head. “Yes, that explains everything. This is all revenge for the Snake Incident. I knew you were still mad about that.”
Oh, I was mad all right. Oscar was somehow explaining away the truth right before his very eyes. I grabbed my charm necklace, absorbing extra pith from their reserves.
Vincent must have picked up on my mood because he said, “Ina, don’t—”
But I’d already made up my mind. If Oscar needed proof he couldn’t refute, I’d give it to him.
“You now know I can manipulate three of the four natural elements,” I said in a loud announcer voice. “Water, air, and fire. The only one you haven’t seen is earth. Let me rectify that, right now!”
Pooling all the earth pith from within my body and the charm, I drew squares inside squares inside squares until I didn’t have any room to draw anymore. When I released all that pith, it opened up a massive sinkhole underneath Oscar, swallowing both him and his fire pit whole.
To read the rest of Ina's latest adventure, preorder Extending Branches, Magic of Nasci, Book #9.
Until next time, happy adventuring!