Chapter Six: Power
After the Kliid warriors finally retreated, the warriors went straight back to the shelter. Who knew what kind of long-range weapons the Kliid had retreated to use? We weren’t about to follow them.
“What about the kids?” I asked a random Zephan.
“They have houses,” the Zephan said.
“Houses aren’t bombproof. Get them over here.” We herded the kids over. At first, they wouldn’t respond to the warriors because they thought they were scary. But they responded to me, because I’d kept them safe. Which raised a question: “Haven’t any of you tried to protect these kids?”
“They’re just kids,” someone said.
“So were you, once,” I hissed. “What are you fighting for if you aren’t fighting to defend them?”
I watched as she unraveled my sentence, then she shrugged. “We’ve just never been given orders to do it.”
“Ditch orders,” I said. “They should be in the shelters day and night in the middle of a battle like this.”
“Who are you to tell us what to do?”
“I’m Amanda. And everyone should be able to voice what’s right.”
She left it at that. I wasn’t sure if it was because I had a little more political power now, because I was getting a little more known around here as a fighter, or because I would berate her morals, but she went away and I herded more kids into the shelter. I wasn’t relying on infuriated instinct and adrenaline now, fortunately. That sort of stuff tends to make me jumpy.
The shelter was scrawny, but it was made with metal reinforced by the strongest Fire magic, and could have handled a nuclear bomb. It would do for now.
I let the kids sit in the corner. “Is there any food?” I asked.
“No,” Jane, a Light Anoki, said. “There’s a shortage.”
“I can deal with that. Kids, your job will to be picking the vegetables.”
I took some seeds out of my backpack and buried them in the clay (yuck) floor of the shelter. It’s hard to grow seeds in such bad soil, but I did it anyway.
“That looks easy,” one of the kids said. “You just go to the place where you can tell the seeds to grow and do it. That’s not real magic! You’re just telling something to do something…”
The kid stopped and realized that all his friends were staring at him.
“What’s your name, kiddo?”
“Tony.” He scowled, as if daring me to make anything of it.
I took his hand and pressed a squash seed into his palm. He smiled slowly.
I turned back to the warriors.
“Jane?” I said.
“You and Ivory are to take care of the children and kill anyone who threatens them.”
“As for the rest of you, travel in groups. Don’t let yourselves be singled out, ever. And no rushing them in a thin line. It’s weak. Gang up on them. And if you need healing, I need you to scream as loud as you can. I’ll be fast. Don’t separate yourselves into Fire parties, Water parties, whatever. Make sure that each group gets as even a number of each talent as possible. If you do get separated, yell and I’ll take you back to a group. Otherwise…” and I paused dramatically… “You will die. Don’t underestimate the Kliid, because you really don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised. Too much force on the enemy is better than not enough. Take no prisoners, but take revenge and use anger. And don’t be afraid to kill, because they aren’t! Now stay here and I’ll come back with some more food. Do you have a basket?”
I returned with a much-too-full basket and a pitcher of lemonade. Everyone, including the adults, fell on it all like rabid wolverines. Uh.
I made two more trips with the basket before my group slowed down.
A Fire Anoki poked his head in the door. “Elder Jaken wants to see you, Amanda.”
“Take a picture,” I said, “if he wants to see me. I thought he knew what I looked like.”
“I think he meant that he wants to talk to you.”
“Talk with me or at me? If it’s about battle strategies, he’s done a lousy job.”
“He didn’t say,” the messenger said, looking like his patience was wearing thin. “Can you just go?”
“All right,” I said, knowing that someone behind me was giggling slightly.
I followed the messenger out to—points to you for not guessing a Quonset hut—a three-story mansion with no bomb protection whatsoever. There’s a surprise. Someone opened the door from behind it. I went in, and the messenger fled.
“You are Amanda.” It seemed more a statement than a question.
I resisted the urge to blurt out, “That’s my name! Don’t wear it out!” and nodded.
“You have taken control of one of the army groups.”
“Technically, I was asked and I accepted.” Jaken had his back to me. I read this as, “I don’t want you to see my expression.”
“How old are you, exactly?” The age-old question.
“Thirteen. And a half,” I added.
He turned, so I had to wipe the grin off my face. “And what makes you think you are capable of leading our troops into battle, let alone qualified?”
“Because I just saved your butts several times today, I’ve been fighting since I was seven, and your previous general got killed before I got back here.”
“That brings me to my other point,” Jaken said, frowning in that way adults do when they think you’re too stupid to know what you’re really asking and thinking that they’re not being paid enough to explain how audacious you’re being. Too bad. “You left, leaving our village in peril. Your lack of responsibility, as well as your audacity…”
Here we go, I thought. Jaken babbled on a little more, but I’d stopped listening.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but you never employed me. I wasn’t in the army. Ever. I defended people, but I was never paid, never employed, and never thanked, I might add.”
“You knew full well that you were the only Zephan healer. You left us.”
“And you didn’t pay me for that, either! My parents were killed. I healed little kids’ cat
scratches for their lunch money so I wouldn’t starve! Not to mention that I did teach Zephans conventional medicine and left you with numerous stores of potions. I bet you aren’t even out of them yet. I can see it in your face.”
“There are rumors that you ran to the Kliid tribe,” Jaken said. I could tell that he was running out of cards to play.
“So you drag me here based on rumors to accuse me of something you don’t have proof of. And even if I was there, how do you know I wasn’t spying on them? I’m sure you don’t pin down your spies like this.”
“We didn’t employ you for that, either!” he said, trying to use my own argument against me, but realizing how ridiculous he sounded.
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” I said.
“Minors are not fully mature. Teens especially are impulsive and hard to control.”
“And in battle, this matters how? I’ll tell you what matters. What matters is that there are Zephans alive now. What matters is that the tribe is safe. And you can’t even bother to defend children! In ten years, what army will you have? The only people still alive will be old, retired farts who fought in the war that one time!”
Jaken was constantly giving me that well-that’s-quite-an-interesting-bug look, especially when I used phrases like “saved your butts” and “old, retired farts.” Then I noticed that the retired fart thing had struck a note with Jaken, who must have been fifty-something.
“What’s your argument?” I kept going. “That I’m rude? Oh, no! The Kliid will be so angry at me! Oh, wait! Half the Kliid army is pushing up daisies. Well, they’ll be very offended in hell.” I wanted to add, “Tell me if I’m right when you see them there,” but decided against it.
* * *
Jaken… lost the argument. I didn’t know until later that he was skilled in Dream magic and had been reading my mind the entire time. Oops. Well, I do have witty banter. Wait a minute… dang it, I could have said it and it wouldn’t have made any difference!
After that demoralizing situation, none of the other elders came near me about it. I was irreplaceable; they might have Mel, but she wasn’t trained in Earth magic, and as far as the elders knew, she couldn’t fly. Besides, if they killed me off, they’d have an army of really teed off soldiers, all whose lives I’d saved at one point or another, as well as a mob of ticked kids. They couldn’t do anything to stop me. Which was ridiculous. I mean, think about it: you’re a dictator, you think you have ultimate power, but if people just stop obeying you, all at once, you know you don’t have that power any more. Because if the general populace takes your word and throws it in the river, you know that your guards are going to make a break for it, too—and you can only pay them so much.
The Kliid still hadn’t attacked us. I wasn’t sure if the war was considered over for now or not. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down; I would make use of the time.
“Why is there a food shortage?” I asked Jane.
“There’s a drought. Nobody here knows how to farm without water.”
“And yet, you have Water Anoki all over the place? Don’t you know that any of them could have summoned rain a long time ago?”
“But that’s Storm magic! How do you know this, anyway?”
“It’s a long story. But if I’m not mistaken, the stronger Water Anoki should be able to summon rain as well. I’ll teach them. I’ve… gotten better,” I finished lamely.
“Do you want me to get them?”
“No. You’re busy.” I frowned. “Where is that one kid from last night?”
“Tony?” Jane asked. “Probably up a tree somewhere around here, knowing him.”
“Of course,” I murmured, and climbed up the easiest tree myself. I figured he’d be there. I was right. He was sitting right there, sulking.
“Can’t get the seed to grow,” he grumbled.
“The tree sympathizes,” I said.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“It says. Don’t you ever talk to trees?”
“No. They never said anything to me.”
“Have you ever listened?” I asked.
“Not really,” he hazarded.
“Well, let’s climb down and we’ll get the seed to grow. Come on. You’ve got to stop pouting sooner or later.”
He followed me reluctantly.
“Where did you plant the seed?” I asked. He pointed to an area about three inches from the tree trunk. “No, that won’t do,” I said. “It needs room. Give it some space.” I dug the seed up and re-buried it several feet away.
“I bet you didn’t talk to the seed, either,” I said.
“I told it to grow, but it didn’t respond.”
“Seeds are finicky. But squash is one of the easier seeds to grow. At least, they were for me. Maybe you’re not a vine person.”
He looked at me blankly.
“You’ll understand later,” I said. “The thing is, you can’t command it to grow. That freaks a seed out. You have to suggest it, casually, like it wouldn’t matter anyway, because really, the seed’s going to grow anyway. You’re just suggesting that it could get it over with if it grew faster, so it might as well do so. But with squash, you have to pick it fast, while it’s still growing, or it’ll get huge enough to use it as a baseball bat. Ask me how I know. Try it again.”
“Try it again. I’ll leave you alone now—you can tell me about it later. Right now I have to teach some Water Anoki some stuff they should already know.”
As I got up and turned to leave, there was the leafy rustle of a plant growing very, very fast. I smiled and walked on. There was that constant popping noise about every five seconds of a kid trying to pick vegetables very, very fast (which is hard with squash). I guess people everywhere are gaining Earth talent. Hmm.
I found Andrew, a Water Anoki who happened to be one of the better warriors. “Round all the Water Anoki up in front of the shelter,” I commanded, and both of us went off to find them.
Soon the Water Anoki were standing, confused, in front of the shelter.
“Clouds are just water, water that’s far away. This is simple. All you have to do is make the water cluster together so it drops, like running your finger on a fogged-up mirror. Look.”
I located a cirrostratus cloud that was probably a remnant of the storm that had hit us in the other area of the forest and gathered the water into one huge clump. It fell like bricks.
“This might be hard. Anyone can make a cumulonimbus or a nimbostratus cloud rain, but it’ll take talent to do it with altocumulus, cirrus or altostratus, just because they’re so far away and so often, you have to melt them because they’re frozen. Otherwise, you’ll get snow, or worse, hail.”
I was looking out at blank expressions. “Seriously? You can’t predict weather from clouds? You guys must have more to learn than I thought.”
Later, it had started to rain so hard from the collected efforts of all the Water Anoki that nobody could see their hands in front of their face. I don’t call that a drought.
“See?!” I heard someone say. It was that Fire Anoki messenger, talking to Elder Jaken. “She shows up, our problems are all solved. She’s our key to the Kliid. You can’t forbid her from fighting. We’ll lose!”
“I cannot tolerate this,” I heard Jaken say. “She is disrespectful. She leads too well. If I don’t do something, I’ll be looking at an overthrow. Who knows what the villagers will take into their minds to do? This, and she is the Star Anoki that the Kliid spoke of. That Anoki left the Kliid just before Amanda came back. She’s a traitor.”
“Why would she leave the Kliid? Have you thought of that? They could pay her a lot better than we could. You never paid her, but she came back anyway. She didn’t fight for the Kliid—in fact, she left them in a bad spot, where they were relying on her to win the battle. Now you have her. If you forbid her from fighting, she might leave again and fight with the Kliid! And you can’t stop her. She can fly; you know that. Nobody will be able to kill her at all. If she is the Star Anoki that you speak of, then nobody will be able to hurt her. If she is not, then you have no reason to forbid her doing anything because she doesn’t pose a threat, nor did she go to the Kliid. Why would she try to overthrow you, anyway?”
“She’s already expressed a dislike towards our system. That’s the reason she left—she’ll tell you herself. And she wouldn’t leave to fight with the Kliid—she cares about the Zephans too much. Don’t you know that’s why she came back? It’s not for me, it’s for her precious little kids!” Jaken stopped in thought. “Wait a minute… it’s for the children…” He smiled maliciously.
“I really don’t advise that,” said the Fire Anoki nervously.
“Leave me to think it over.”
I gasped, knowing what he meant immediately. Using my new Time powers, I stopped time for everyone else and went and got the sword and killed Jaken immediately—a stab through the heart, then the brain. I left as fast as possible, sick to my stomach, and released the time back to normal. And he called me a traitor! Plotting to destroy your own people to regain your power! I’d almost say that he’d gotten possessed by Darkness magic, if I didn’t know better. It crossed my mind to kill all of the elders like that, but I wasn’t sure how long it would be before the Time Anoki broke free of the spell and changed everything back to normal, and I didn’t want them doing that while I had my sword stuck in someone’s head. Plus, it’s completely obvious when Time magic is being done.
I decided that I was going to give up hiding my Star magic. With that Fire Anoki around to defend me, I wouldn’t need to worry about being called a traitor. I don’t see how they’d ban me from fighting, either. I’d stop, and they’d lose the war. If they put me in prison, I would melt the bars, kill the threats, and break out. You can’t contain me. You can’t control me. You can’t catch me. Even if you somehow prevent me from doing magic, I have a bow and seven years of fighting skills.
I didn’t want to be considered harmless. I wanted to be dangerous to them like an axe to butter. Because they’d be finding out soon that this was very true. I wanted to be sucked up to, to be talked to with care as not to upset me. Respect. Respect is power, and power can be used a number of ways—not just good/bad. And I was going to use it in a different way from just about everyone else in the world. A new way. I don’t think this has ever happened before.
I was feeling sick with guilt and anger, but my reasons were clear, and they’d nailed them. I was defending the kids… and not just from the Kliid.
I decided to go check on Mel and the girls. I took to the air and saw nobody, so I went to Mel’s friend’s cottage. I was relieved to see that everyone was there, drinking tea—as opposed to, say, in prison, trying to bribe the jailer.
“How’s it going?” Mel asked. “Did you kill anyone?”
“You have no idea.”
“We watched you fight for the first two hours. I’ve never seen someone so aggressive, and then you didn’t get tired.”
“I killed more than Kliid.”
“This early?” Mel said, shocked. “I thought you wanted to build trust.”
“Wasn’t working. I ripped Jaken’s face off the other day, and in the middle of a discussion with his advisor, he figured out a way to bend me to his will. I froze time and killed him before the word could get out.”
“So that’s what that was. Aren’t you worried about the advisor?”
“No. He was defending me. I spied on them for maybe half an hour.
“What exactly did you do to Jaken?”
“I disarmed his arguments against my becoming general to a war group, and then I disarmed the argument he hadn’t said, which was that I was too rude. I told him that most of the Kliid army was dead anyway, so they’d be teed off in hell. I didn’t know he was reading my mind when I was thinking about telling him to confirm my suspicion when he got there.”
Mel’s jaw dropped, and she cracked up. “Well, there’s one less constipated old dude badly running this place.”
“Oh! Dang! I missed a phrase!”
“Amanda!” Mel giggled. “Shame on you!”
Even Mel’s friend was laughing now.
“Jaken was easy,” I went on, “but I’m not sure now how I’m going to get the others.”
“Somebody hand me a pen and paper,” Mel said. Mel, being very political, knew who everyone was around here. “You have Elder Katyen, who will do anything you want if you appeal to her ego. She’s very prideful, and she’s… you know how some cats are more feline than others? She’s more fiery than most Fire Anoki, and not in a good way. You might want to invite her to dinner at your parents’ house and cook the most elegant dish you can prepare. Act like a fashionista, and dress like one, too. Get her to trust you as one of her advisors. Don’t let your guard down, though—she’s nasty, and she’s a true tyrant at heart.
“Elder Butan—remember to pronounce it right—is a fat old dude who’s only stayed alive through his Time magic. The way to his nonexistent heart is through his stomach, preferably all the way through… with an arrow. Just stuff him right, and he’s your friend. You might need a longer sword to get all the way in to kill him. Invite him to dinner, stuff his face and get him drunk. Then slit his throat before he can kill you.
“Elder Henrei is a thinker and a Water Anoki. Watch your words, and make intelligent and interesting conversation for a while. He’ll start to trust you if he thinks you’re smart enough not to try and kill him. Unfortunately for him, you’re past that into being smart enough to know he doesn’t rule this place right and needs to be killed. That guy will be a challenge, but at least he’s cocky enough that he’ll think he’s too clever to fall into any traps. Fortunately, he can’t read your mind.
“Elder Raystar is a Light Anoki. She thinks she’s this kind little fairytale spirit who grants everybody’s wishes. She’s not. She’s what I call a pyrite person—looks like gold, and might even convince you that she is. But keep in mind that her sweet persona doesn’t always hide that she’s a truckload of fool’s gold—sometime around midnight on a full moon. If you ever see a werewolf fighting the Kliid, that’s her. Raystar isn’t what she says she is.”
“Thanks, Mel,” I said.
“Anytime. By the way, you might want to tackle these people in that order. Especially Katyen. Do her fast, or she might get nervous and start throwing fireballs out of habit. You don’t want her to burn the house down. And everyone but Raystar enjoys wine, especially the expensive stuff. They’re going to be pretty neurotic by then, so buy sealed wine, and if the vendors give you trouble, explain that it’s for the elders and they’ll give you a discount. No wine vendor will ever deny the elders their drinks.” Fortunately for me, Mel had been writing all this down.
“It’s a good thing that you keep up with politics,” I said. “Otherwise, I’d be in deep doody.”
“Hey, it pays to help out the future Zephan leader.” Mel grinned. Zephan leader… wow. I wasn’t too sure about that, but it had been what I’d been planning. I hadn’t really thought past “assassinate all these sadistic egotists and stop the wars.” Dang. Did I really want to do that for the rest of my life?
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