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The air sweltered with smoke.
A dry summer often meant wildfire, and today the airborne ravages of it lay across the valley like a thick fog. The fire was south, across the river, and had been deemed no threat, so although Laisesu complained bitterly about the smell and smog, she felt no fear as she walked out of the sleeping house into the muggy, filtered sunlight. It was no fresher inside, not after three days of the smoke, and the light was equally subdued.
"I dislike this," she said crossly, to no one. Summer was short, and everyone was working hard at building a new sauna building, or cleaning the empty houses while the bulk of Itadesh was away and out from underfoot.
Usually, Laisesu loved this time of summer - it was a rare chance for privacy in the small village, and she thrived on the long hours of daylight. She could spread out her personal belongings across several bunks, and there were no children or meddlesome elders to disturb the order of her carefully arranged projects or put sticky fingerprints on them as they dried and she took precise notes about their dye patterns.
She wrinkled a nose at the spans of cloth drying beneath a canopy. The hues were coming out perfectly, in all the colors of the elements, and several others never seen. But, it all reeked of smoke, and would take days of airing after the fire had burnt itself out to lose the stench. Everything would need to be aired out - people included. At least the people out at summer gather sites had the option of pulling up their tent stakes and finding a more favorable place in the winds.
At the thought, the light breeze increased, and Laisesu lifted her eyes to the sky with hope.
The trees directly within and for a short distance around Itadesh had all been cleared, both as building supply and fire-break, so her view of the sky was uninterrupted, if clouded by smoke. A distant, slow flow of Others gleamed as if there was nothing between viewer and viewed, but that was true with cloud, or even tree branches; their uncanny illumination was not seen as earthly things were. The smoke might have cleared a little - the dirty reddish cast to the light seemed to ease a little even as Laisesu chewed her lip and watched. Above it, were those clouds? Rain would be welcome, to dampen the fire and wash some of the smoke stench away.
She watched until her eyes stung, which didn't take long in these conditions, and could not decide if the sag to the light was clouds or more smoke. She had put off boiling new dyes, so carefully formulated and measured, for two full days for the cursed air quality, unable to stand the idea of standing over more smoke, but she could stand it no longer. What was a little more fire, compared to this?
Laisesu coughed, hating the roughness in her lungs. Cursed, awful smoke! It didn't matter where she stood around the firepit, even when it wasn't swirling at her from her own fire, the rest of the air was so thick it didn't matter.
"Do you need a rest?" Laisesu didn't notice Amariin's approach through the murk, or hear him over the wind whipping in the trees and tent-tops. Two of the canopies had already been taken down and bundled inside, her projects haphazardly hung in an empty house, to her ire.
"No," she snapped. "It has to be done right." If you didn't keep the solids in the dye stirred off the bottom constantly, the yarn saturated enough and the temperature of the fire just so, the color wouldn't be as intense, and her experiment would be ruined.
The thunderstorm that was building in the sky around them, teasing with the idea of rain but failing to deliver, was no match for her mood.
Flame flared from beneath the giant stone pot, licking out of the pit towards her feet at the bidding of the fickle wind. Amariin stepped back from it, and coughed when the fire smoldered and belched a cloud of foul smoke. Laisesu didn't have to see Amariin's look of unease to know that the elements had defeated her. She flung down to the stirring paddle and stomped to where she had buckets of water waiting for such an eventuality. "Fine," she shouted at the wind. "Ruin my work! Laugh at my efforts and throw your little temper tantrum! My colors will always shame you!"
Amariin laughed, a little, but made a small gesture against bad luck.
"Aren't you going to tell me not to taunt the elements?" Laisesu asked as they shoveled dirt over the fire and doused it with water. Columns of steam erupted, thicker even than the smoke, and blanketed the area.
Amariin chuckled. "I think I should rather warn the elements not to taunt you," he said slyly.
Laisesu put her head back and laughed, tossing her short-cropped hair. Once the fire was cool, she took his hand and led him back to the house, where she proved to him that she was an element of her own.
They were drowsing, afterwards, listening to the wail of the wind increase through the thick house walls and rattle stray branches onto the muffled roof, when there was a scream that wasn't only wind. A glance at each other, and they scrambled for clothes. They were alone in the empty house, and it was eerie, but eerier still was what met them outside.
She was used to the uncanny red light of sun through smoke, but it was darker, and the wind was wild through the village as it rarely was. The air felt sucked away, and there was a roar in Laisesu's ears that the wind could not explain.
"Fire! Fire!" someone was screaming, and Laisesu at once looked to the firepits they'd left. They were as dead as she had left them, her dyepot safely covered, though flying ash and cursed smoke made her eyes sting as she squinted at it. She was light-headed, and Amariin's fingertips were leaving indents on her arm. She shook him off and turned - to find that fire was bearing down on them from the north - an awesome, brilliant wall of it that would not stop for lack of trees or will of man.
'The fire was to the south,' she thought in something free of panic. 'Across the river and away from us. Wasn't it?' She could feel the heat of it, but it scarcely felt worse than strong sunlight. The roar of it was deafening. 'A lightning strike, perhaps?' she wondered in strange idleness. 'I should be afraid,' she thought in awe, but all that she could really feel was envy, for here were colors that she would never be able to match.
This is the first of several stories and pieces of artwork (including glasswork! *squee!*) following this event. Be sure to watch the site for more! Also, I have started uploading some of my work at Torn World as downloadable coloring book pages - free for supporters!
The Musical Instruments contest closes tomorrow night - I've decided on the next theme and will post it in the next few days.