Caryllie Shaw frowned, her hand trembling over the bucket of water on the table beside her and her nail-beds aching in the dry heat. One dip and her magic would burst free. She could feel the pressure as a writhing creature under her skin, its desires fighting her own. The dry skin of her fingers throbbed as she clenched and relaxed each hand. Just the right pressure along the edge of her index finger and blood would flow from the cracks that had formed in her skin. The council would be forced to pull her from the front.
“Dammit, Caryllie, do something.” Llyr Moreno grunted as he dropped another bucket of water beside her, splashing her thick, leather hiking boots with the liquid. “I’ve got plenty of materials for more water, but I’m running out of space to store it.”
A chorus of quick, snapping noises drifted from across Centennial Boulevard, followed by a loud pop as a burst of sparks flew into the air. Cary looked up, scanning the area.The roads had long been evacuated, but the raging forest fire crept closer to the boundary. Anyone else would have needed full fire gear with masks and still would have been forced further from the edge of the fire. But Cary and Llyr stood protected behind a wall of aerogystas, each pouring their very selves into the effort to blow the heat back and away from where Llyr and Cary worked.
“We should go, Llyr,” Caryllie said, dipping a hesitant finger into the water. Still warm from Llyr’s magic forcing it to convert from separate gasses into liquid. She glanced back, at the distant forms of vehicles approaching their location. “If the firefighters see us here—”
“They bloody won’t if you do your job.” He waved at the growing flames. “You’re the only hydrogista in a hundred miles. Get this water onto those flames or we won’t have homes to go back to.”
As much as she hated to admit it, he was right. Centennial was a large enough road it would stop most fires from tearing through the city, but this monstrosity was no ordinary fire. It grew with a speed that seemed almost supernatural, even in the parched land west of Colorado Springs on a particularly dry summer. Wind blew into her face, pulling loose strands of brown hair away from Cary’s face. And sending the sparks drifting toward the untouched greenery of Ute Valley Park.
Cary dipped another finger into the water, sending a stream out of the bucket to douse the sparks before they found purchase. But that small stream was all she could manage with her hand still clear of the water. Proper control required full contact, her hand fully submerged and becoming one with the liquid, imparting her will on the foreign substance. A tactic she didn’t dare risk. Instead, she sent another stream into the heart of the fire, cooling a flare into a burst of heat. Uncomfortable, but not a risk of breaking free. Yet. Another stream pushed the flames back from the far side, where the fire had been creeping toward the elementary school to the south. A minor shift, but enough to keep the fire moving away from the school. Firefighters had already fought for Chipeta Elementary, further south and west, the night before. Cary shifted her stance, dipping the fingertips of her other hand into the water, as well. Stream after stream, like water guns, soaked fresh fuel and cooled the edge of the flame. Not enough. Like fighting a tidal wave with sand bags. Each shot slowed the fire less as the heat burned away any moisture before she could get a second blast in.
To her left, one of the aerogystas wavered. A blast of heat swept past, tearing the breath from Cary’s throat. Llyr, beside her, gasped in shock and collapsed on the ground, sweat dripping from his face. Cary’s body would take several more minutes to realize the danger and start producing sweat, and those minutes would likely be too long. Heat exhaustion would quickly drain her of any ability to manipulate the water and might leave her unconscious. Her fingers sank further into the water, the edge just below the damaged skin on her fingers, and she splashed the water closer. First on herself, drenching her clothes from top to bottom in controlled bursts. Then the aerogysta, who was far too close to danger to wait. Several splashes and the woman rose, nodding in thanks as she applied herself to the task once more. And finally, Llyr.
Llyr stood when she was done, fixed her with a damp glare. “You’re holding back. This isn’t practice.”
“My skin’s too dry,” she replied. “If I go deeper, I might bleed.”
He cursed. “I can’t allow blood work in my region.” Llyr glanced up at the still raging fire, creeping ever closer. “But that thing isn’t slowing down. Can you use gloves?”
Cary shook her head. “I need to connect. It’s not like air work. It’s not inside me already.”
A series of shouts sounded from behind her and sirens blared over the roar of the blaze. She’d waited too long and they’d been spotted. The firefighters would be there any minute. How many of their lives would her hesitation cost?
“Do it, Cary.”
Llyr turned away, running toward the far side of the park where a half dozen officials were waving at them. He could stall them, but only for a few moments. Hold this fire back now or lose the town.
For an instant she was paralyzed. Dip her hand into the water when she knew the aching dryness like an old, long-despised acquaintance? If she bled into the water as she used it, her soul would be bound to this place forever. Any other home would feel empty, devoid of the life she’d built and savored here. Llyr couldn’t be asking her to sacrifice her freedom for the whims of the arcane council. But if she didn’t, the entire town would burn.
Drawing in a deep breath, Cary dipped her hands deeper into the water. At first, the moisture seemed to soften her too-dry skin, soothing the ache of broken skin. She smiled, narrowing her eyes as her hand clenched in triumph and the water from all the buckets Llyr had filled leapt to her command. Then the pain started. First in her fingers, where the cracks had been in her skin, then growing and radiating further. The pulsing sting arced through every muscle. Her body throbbed in time with her heart, the essence of the ground beneath her suddenly an extension of her pain. She could almost feel the heat of the fire drying the trees, the needles screaming as they burst into flame. Cary stared at the water that streamed from her closed fist, sending a torrent toward the sparks that drifted across the road. A thin, nearly invisible line of red wound through the liquid, threading its way out of a deep crack in her skin. She was bound now, for better or worse. This land was hers, and she would allow no harm to it.
“No.” Llyr’s voice was a distant plea from across the park. “Cary, what are you doing? Stay here!”
The dry ground crunched under the heels of her boots. This land was hers.