In a small wooden shack near the sea, Jeya gazed out the window toward the setting sun. It lit the sky in a blaze of orange, illuminating the smile on her face. Any minute now her husband would return from his work at the docks. She couldn’t wait to tell him the wonderful news.
Soundlessly, the latch to her shack lifted, and a man stepped inside. Sensing a presence, Jeya turned to see a figure, hooded and cloaked, standing inside her home. The man said nothing. He stood tall, his piercing eyes fixated upon her.
Jeya eyed the knife that lay just out of reach on her left. If only she could get to it without him seeing. “What do you want?” she asked, her voice shaking.
“That which you carry,” the man replied. His voice was soft but determined.
“I carry nothing,” she replied. “If you think to rob me, you will be sorely disappointed.” Jeya knew she owned nothing that would interest a thief. Her young husband worked at the docks, loading crates onto merchant ships. Such work didn’t pay well. One day the couple hoped to save enough money to purchase a vessel and become merchants themselves. That day was far in the future. For now they lived a meager existence.
“You carry something of immeasurable worth,” the man stated.
As the cloaked figure approached, Jeya backed away. Within a few steps, her back was flat against the wall. There was nowhere to run. Each breath became shallower as she panicked. Her eyes once again looked to the knife, but her body was too stiff to respond. Fear ran through her veins as the man moved closer.
“Why do you hide behind that hood?” she asked.
The man allowed the hood to fall back, revealing black scales along each side of his face. He continued to advance.
Closing her eyes, she flattened herself against the wall. “Please!” she shouted.
The man extended a hand, placing his palm flat against her midsection. A beam of white light glowed beneath his fingers. Before her eyes flashed a vision of a child, a swaddled infant with violet eyes. Instinctively, her hand moved to her belly, soothing the child within. The image lingered a moment before fading, and only the hooded man stood before her.
Moving his hand away, the man took two steps backward. “The daughter you carry has a great destiny before her. I will return to claim her when her powers begin to manifest.”
Jeya found her courage and stepped away from the wall. “You will never take my child!” she shouted. Lunging for the knife, she gripped it firmly in her hand. Though her body was shaking, she would not back down. No one would take away her child.
The man held up both hands in a gesture of peace. “No harm will come to either of you,” he said. “I promise you that much. Your daughter will one day become a powerful sorceress. She will need guidance that you cannot provide. When the time comes, you will beg me to take her.”
“Who are you?” Jeya asked, her eyes narrowing.
“You may call me Taren,” the man replied. Without another word, he swirled his cloak, disappearing within its blackness. A faint cloud of black swirled momentarily where he had stood before vanishing.
Jeya stared where the man had stood. How did he know about her child? She had told no one that she was pregnant since realizing it herself this very day. The man was obviously a sorcerer, but was he good or evil? Was her daughter destined to study magic as well? Jeya shook her head, trying to clear her mind. Only children of the richest lords studied magic. Poor children who showed magical abilities were forced to become servants to wizards. It was a way of keeping their talents in check without allowing them to have power over those who were considered superior by birth. This man must have been a representative from the Mage’s College. Perhaps all parents of gifted children received such a visit.
The young mother did her best to return to her cooking, but she could not shake from her mind the image of the cloaked man. He said I would beg him to take her. What mother could possibly be willing to hand over her child? I would never do such a thing. Feeling the child inside her move, she placed her hands protectively against her belly. Looking down, she observed the tips of her fingers glowing with a pale white light—part of the white magic had been left behind, a trace of the man who had placed it there.
“Are you afraid of the dark?” Sekai asked.
“Not at all,” Pia answered. It wasn’t true. She feared the dark above all other things. Squeezing the younger girl’s hand, she kept her close to her side. The docks could be a dangerous place for a young girl, especially when sailors were returning to port.
Those sailors never bothered Pia. Not since she was ten years old. They feared her, and her odd violet gaze. Touched by magic but rejected by the Red Council, they considered her an ill omen. It didn’t matter to Pia. If the Council had decided to educate her, she would have been forced into a life of servitude. Her family was far too poor for tuition, and her status would have been the lowest of the students. It was the Red Council’s way of ensuring only those of high birth became true wizards.
The two girls strolled along, their bare feet leaving footprints in the dust. The docks were never swept clean, save by a blustering wind.
“This way,” Pia said, tugging on Sekai’s arm.
Sekai grumbled. “I want to see the ship.”
“Which one?” Pia asked. There were a dozen ships docked along the port.
“That one, with the dragon,” Sekai said, pointing ahead.
Pia sighed. “All right.” Quickening her pace, she moved toward the ship with the figurehead of a dragon on its bow. Without turning her head, she shifted her eyes to her right. “Don’t take too long,” she urged her companion.
Sekai paid her no mind. She stood beneath the wooden dragon, her mouth open. Its carved eye stared down at her unblinking. “Hold me up,” she said, lifting her arms.
“What?” Pia asked.
“I want to touch it.”
Pia wrapped her arms around the girl’s hips and hoisted her as high as she could. “You’re heavy,” she said, grunting. She couldn’t hold her long. The child began to slip, and Pia nearly lost her balance.
“I touched it,” Sekai said, beaming. “I touched a dragon.”
Pia shook her head. “A wooden one.”
“Still a dragon,” Sekai said, sticking out her tongue. “You’ve never touched one.”
“Touch a real dragon, then I’ll be impressed.”
“Can’t,” Sekai replied. “My Papa says they all died out.”
Pia turned her head to the sky. “He’s wrong,” she said.
“How do you know?” Sekai asked.
“I just do,” Pia replied. “Come on.” She took the girl by the hand and hurried along the docks, moving away from the dragon. This time she kept her gaze forward, her head tilted downward. It wasn’t enough to avoid notice.
“Hey, witch,” a boy called out.
It was Marcas, the boy she was hoping to avoid. At only fourteen, a year older than Pia, the boy was large and stocky. He took after his father, a hefty sailor who rarely returned home. The boy’s actions begged for discipline, but he never received it. He bullied every child in town and his own mother, but Pia was his favorite.
“I said hey,” Marcas shouted.
Pia didn’t slow down. Pulling Sekai along, she began to jog, then broke into a run. Marcas ran after them. Despite the girls’ best effort, the boy caught up to them, cutting them off with his presence.
Stretching his arms out in front of him, he forced the girls to stop. “Pee-uhh,” he said, his tone mocking. “You know better than to run from me. You come when I call.”
Pia crossed her arms and lifted her chin. “You don’t own me,” she said.
Sekai pressed her clenched hands against her chest. She was shaking and didn’t bother to hide it.
“What’s wrong with you?” Marcas asked. “Afraid of your little witch friend?”
Sekai didn’t reply, but Pia did. “You’re an ugly little boy, Marcas. You don’t scare me.”
The boy lunged forward, grabbing two handfuls of Pia’s silver hair.
“Stop it! Stop!” Sekai shouted. “Someone help!”
No one heard, or at least, no one acknowledged her plea. She paced around the two, her hands outstretched in desperation. What could she do? Grabbing Marcas’ right arm, she tried to pull it away. No use. He was too strong.
“Use your magic, witch,” Marcas taunted. He yanked at her hair, forcing her to double over. Dragging her near the water, he threatened to throw her in. “Last chance before you’re all wet,” he said.
Pia envisioned breaking free and wrapping her hands around the boy’s throat. He’d bullied her enough. If only she were truly magical, she could zap him with lightning or summon a hawk to rake his eyes. Anger swelled within her, but there was no magic. A sound erupted from her throat, a cry of anger and fear. She flailed her arms in a wild fit, then kicked with all her might. Her foot connected with Marcas’ shin, forcing him to release his grip and grab his injured leg.
“Witch!” he shouted.
Pia grabbed Sekai’s hand and ran. Marcas took two steps toward them but winced in pain.
“Keep up!” Pia shouted as Sekai turned back to look at the boy.
“Serves him right,” the younger girl said, continuing to run.
Paying no attention to where they were headed, the two continued their flight across the docks. It was freedom, the wind tousling Pia’s hair. She had not performed a spell, but she had saved herself and her friend from that awful boy. He’d think twice before coming after her again. She was smaller than him, but she would fight. She would always fight.
“Pia!” an angry voice shouted from the water’s edge.
The girl stopped dead in her tracks, her friend crashing into her from behind. “Papa,” Pia said.
“Whatever you two are up to, stop it,” Danik said.
“Pia fought off that bully, Marcas,” Sekai said proudly.
“Did she now?” Danik replied, his face unreadable. “Over there, now.” He pointed to a spot on the wharf near a set of baskets.
“Both of you,” Danik said. He looked to Sekai. “Your parents wouldn’t approve of you running around like a wildling either.”
Sekai turned her eyes to the ground and left them there, shuffling her feet as she went. Taking a seat next to Pia, she uttered not a single word.
“There’s work enough for both of you,” Danik said. “There’s wool in those baskets that needs combing. It’ll fetch a better price that way.” He shoved a small basket toward them.
Pia retrieved two metal combs and passed one to her companion. Neither dared utter a word until Danik walked away, returning to his work aboard ship.
“I’m glad you kicked him,” Sekai whispered.
Pia grinned. “I wish I really had magic,” she said. She’d have taught Marcas a real lesson.
“You are magic,” Sekai said. “Everyone says so.”
The silver-haired girl shook her head. “The Red Council doesn’t think so.” That was the end of it. The Council decided in all matters arcane, and they hadn’t chosen Pia. She’d shown no signs of magical talent when they tested her. Her mother had been wrong.
Since birth, Jeya had insisted that Pia was special. Danik had tried to tell her otherwise. He insisted her visit from the hooded stranger had been the talk of a madman, and nothing more. But then Pia began to exhibit strange characteristics. Tiny sparks of power could be seen in the night as the child slept. Was she the cause of it? Were her dreams the sort that summoned magic? Neither parent had the answer. There were no sorcerers for a hundred miles. They kept to themselves in the richer districts of Ky’sall. Here in the city of Lyraeus, there were only the poor. Magic was an oddity, something to be feared.
But Pia didn’t fear it. Travelers came from all over Nōl’Deron, claiming to have witnessed great feats of magic, and she listened to each tale, fascinated by their words. She could picture the stories clearly in her mind. She knew what power looked like, even if she hadn’t seen it. She had felt it in the words of the travelers. They had brought it for her to enjoy, and she could never get enough.
Pia and Sekai combed at the wool until their fingers were sore. There seemed no end to the work, even as the sun moved low in the sky, its rays reflecting off the surface of the water. Sekai groaned at the piece of wool in her hands and shoved it back in the basket.
“I’m tired of this,” she said, staring out over the water. “Pia? Where does the ocean end?” Sekai had never been away from the sea. Neither had Pia.
Pia raised her head, her violet eyes looking toward the horizon. A ship disappeared in the distance, moving ever lower until it seemed swallowed by the endless sea. “The ocean doesn’t end, Sekai. It goes on forever.”
Sekai laughed. “That’s silly. Everything ends.”
Furrowing her brow, Pia said, “Not the ocean.”
“Prove it,” Sekai challenged.
Pia felt heat rise to her face. Her throat tightened as she lost all patience. “Look at the waves,” she said, pointing toward shore. “See how they come in? Well they go out too.”
“I know that,” Sekai replied.
“They come and go, round and round, never ending,” Pia went on. “They never end. They go on in an endless cycle, visiting every inch of the world.” As she spoke, her words softened, her anger fading away. “What it must be like to travel that way.”
“You want to go out on a ship?” Sekai asked.
For a moment, Pia considered it. Life as a sailor might suit her well. She could travel the world, seeing new sights, and never going the same place twice if she wanted. But that meant no family, no home, no roots. She didn’t know what sort of life she wanted. All she knew was, it wasn’t here in Lyraeus. “I want to go somewhere,” she said. After a pause, she added, “Someday.”
“Tell me a story,” Sekai said. “One about magic.”
Pia smiled and sat her wool aside. “You know there are magical creatures in the sea, right?”
Sekai shook her head.
“They’re elementals,” Pia explained. “They pull magic straight out of the water, bending it and shaping it as they desire.”
“What do they look like?” Sekai asked.
“I…I,” she stammered. “I don’t know. The person who told me that had never seen one.”
“So how do you know they’re really there?” Sekai asked.
“I suppose I don’t,” Pia admitted. “But they say there are millions of them, living in every inch of the sea.”
“I’d like to see one,” Sekai said.
“Me too,” Pia replied.
“I’d better get home,” Sekai said. “Mama will be worried.” She waved goodbye to her friend and then hurried away, careful to avoid Danik.
Pia continued to look out over the sea, trying to envision what a water elemental might look like. Of course they’d be blue, but would they appear as humans do? Elves maybe? She doubted it. They were likely a creature all their own, unique and beautiful. She closed her eyes and pictured the sunset in her mind. Were there creatures on the sun? Fire elementals? Did they provide this light to the world? What a glorious existence. She held the thought, imagining flames on the water.
Screams of fright drew her from her daydream, her eyes snapping open. Flames erupted on the surface of the water, blazing uncontrolled. They were coming for her!
Leaping to her feet, she shouted, “Papa!”
Danik turned to see the flames approaching the wharf. Grabbing his daughter by the midsection, he threw her over his shoulder and ran. Setting her down at a safe distance, he stared wide-eyed at the fire.
“Put it out!” he shouted, shaking her.
Pia swallowed hard, her voice little more than a squeak. “I can’t.”
“Do it!” he shouted again, squeezing her shoulders. “Like you’ve done before.” Laying his hand over her eyes, he blocked out the image of the flames. “Picture the water, and only the water,” he said.
With her vision darkened, Pia tried as hard as she could to picture the sea, calm and blue, beneath a rising sun. It was an image of peace. Then all went dark. Her body went limp, collapsing into her father’s arms.
Danik kept his eyes on the water. The flames receded, and then disappeared altogether. But it was too late. Sailors and dock workers alike had gathered, their accusing eyes fixed on the girl. Choosing not to argue, Danik said nothing. He lifted his daughter and carried her through the crowd, heading toward his small cabin near the docks. None followed.
“What’s happened?” Jeya asked. Wiping her hands on her apron, she rushed to her husband and child.
Placing Pia on her bed, Danik looked up at his wife, his face pale. “She set the harbor alight,” he said.
Jeya gasped. “Was she hurt?”
“No,” he replied. “She put the fire out before it caused harm, but there were witnesses.”
Jeya covered her mouth with her hand.
“I have to get back to the ship,” Danik said, leaving Pia in the care of her mother.
Fevered dreams plagued Pia’s rest. A shadow, larger than any she’d seen, even larger than the largest ships, tracked her steps. She ran. Out of breath, she pressed on, her chest burning. Still the shadow pursued. High above, it sailed with ease, waiting for her to tire. She ran on and on, along the endless shore. The pain in her legs gave way, leaving no sensation at all behind. She dared to glance down, reassuring herself that her legs were still there. After only a few steps more, she saw her salvation. A massive spinning vortex called out to her. She reached for it, striving with every ounce of life left in her. But she could not reach it. She collapsed inches short of her goal, and the shadow descended upon her.
Pia shot up from her bed, sucking in a breath. Sweat drenched her skin, leaving her bedsheets soaked. She stood, prying the sticky shift away from her body and fanning herself with her hand. Streaks of sunlight poured in through the shutters. She’d slept through the night but didn’t feel rested. What had happened?
The memory hit her with great force, and she reeled, stumbling back to her bed. She had set fire to the sea. Or had it only been the reflection of the sunset? Her father had overreacted. Hadn’t he? Pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes, she tried to make the memory stop.
She had performed magic, but she didn’t know how. It had come, as it had before, unbidden, unwanted. What is wrong with me? She wept into her hands. She craved a normal existence, despite all her dreaming. Magic was real, but it wasn’t for her. The Red Council had declared it. It was only a dream, a child’s passing fancy. No more stories, she decided. From now on, she would refuse to listen to the sailors’ tales of magic and heroes. She was getting too old for such things anyway. It was time to put childhood away.
Tiptoeing across her small room, she retrieved a fresh shirt and pants from her trunk. Beside them was a blue dress, the fanciest item she owned. It was far too small now. She’d grown over the past year, and her pretty dress was no use. She would gift it to Sekai when next she saw her. At least its beauty wouldn’t go to waste. Jeya could sew another, but she wouldn’t. Until Pia finished growing, there would be no more dresses. The next she would own would be for her wedding, assuming she managed to find a groom. The entire town was convinced she was a witch, a disgrace to true magic.
But that was far away. Pia wouldn’t have to worry about such things for another four years. No one would expect her to marry before seventeen. Then she would be forced to leave her family and do as her husband commanded. She shut the trunk and took a deep breath. No, she would not marry. She would be her own person, living her own way. Without magic, she thought. Alone.
Pulling on her fresh clothes, she folded her dirty shift for washing. She might as well get started on that now. Pulling her sheets from the bed, she gathered them under her arm. The sound of voices drew her away from thoughts of chores, and she paused to listen. It was her parents, their voices low.
Moving to the doorway, she opened the door only an inch and pressed her ear to the opening. Holding her breath, she concentrated on the voices. There was a third, someone she didn’t recognize.
“I’m just saying there’s talk,” the man’s voice said. “I don’t want trouble, but I thought you should be told.”
“I appreciate it,” Danik replied.
Pia heard the front door close.
“What are we going to do?” Jeya asked.
“What can we do?” Danik replied. “She lit the harbor aflame. She could burn down the whole city.” He paused. “We have to send her away.”
“We can’t!” Jeya replied, her voice frantic. “She’s our child!”
Heavy footsteps sounded. “Listen, Jeya,” Danik said with force. “They’ll turn on her. It’s already begun. Do you want to watch her stoned to death? Burned? It will happen.”
Jeya wept openly.
“We’re lucky I was able to make her stop,” Danik went on. “Like last time when she nearly burned down the kitchen. I coached her to do what she did then and picture the flames gone. It worked.”
Pia remembered that day. She was baking bread with her mother, and the oven’s fire had gone out. In her attempt to bring it back to life, she had simply pictured it as it should be. The flames had burst out of control, spilling outside the oven and onto the floor. Luckily her father was nearby to stamp out the flames. Her mother had held her back, or she might have been burned.
But the fire inside the oven had continued to burn, threatening to spew once more. Pia had closed her eyes, squeezing them as tight as she could. Go away, she repeated in her mind. Then she focused on imagining the oven unlit and cold. The flames died away.
The damage had still been done. The cabin was fine save for a few burned spots on the floor, but her parents never looked at her the same way again. They feared her. They had no idea what she might do next. All they knew was that she was an abomination. A creature without magic had managed to perform it, and not in a positive way. She was a being of destruction.
Do they still love me? she wondered. How could they? She didn’t deserve their love. Clasping her hand over her mouth, she stifled her pain. What’s wrong with me?
“Maybe we should send for a representative from the Council,” Jeya suggested. “Maybe they can test her again. Maybe they were wrong before.”
“You want to tell a bunch of mages they were wrong?” Danik asked. “They’ll hang you next to Pia.”
“I can’t send her away, Danik. I can’t.”
Her father sighed, and the sound of a chair scooting against the wooden floor suggested he was now sitting. Pia waited, counting the seconds before he replied. Her future was in his hands, as it had always been.
“How do we protect her?” Danik asked. “The town will turn on her. Remember the doll?”
Pia swallowed hard. The doll. Her only doll, the one she’d had since she was too small to remember. It had been her closest friend. She could tell that doll anything. Her love for the doll allowed it to talk and play as a real little girl would. When her mother discovered the doll moving and speaking, she had shrieked with fright. Danik came running and spotted the doll, dancing and singing. He snatched it away. When Pia tried to take it back, her father had struck her and knocked her to the ground. She touched her face, remembering the pain, and the red welt that had risen on her cheek.
When she asked what had become of her beloved toy, Danik told her he’d thrown it out in the sea. Pia searched the coast endlessly, hoping it would wash up, but it never did. With no way to control her magic, she couldn’t summon the doll. She had tried. She’d imagined it back in her arms. Remembering it now brought tears to her eyes. She still missed that doll.
“She must learn to keep her magic tucked away,” Jeya said. “She has to learn not to use it.”
“There’s no one to teach her,” Danik replied. “And I don’t think she’s using it intentionally. It happens when it happens.”
At least her father understood that much. How could she prevent it from happening again? She had no idea. What if she went to the Red Council herself? She could ask them to take away the power. Or to show her how to do it herself. She wouldn’t be asking to learn magic, and she wasn’t saying they were wrong. She would tell them something was wrong with her. Maybe one of their healers could fix her.
“The town will turn on her,” Danik went on. “They’ve been suspicious of her for years, but now it will be worse. We won’t be able to protect her for long.”
“What are you going to do?” Jeya asked, her voice growing so thin that Pia barely made out her words.
“I’ll start looking for work or maybe a foreign husband for her,” he said. “She can’t stay here much longer. She needs to go far away. As far as she can go.”
“She’s too young!” Jeya said. “She’s not yet a woman!”
“What would you have me do?” he asked. “The only other option is to drown her myself!”
The anger rising in her father’s voice made Pia stumble backward, dropping her laundry. Would he really go that far? A chill moved along her spine, setting her body to trembling. Panic-stricken, she reached for the shutters and opened the latch. Climbing out the window, she ran without looking back. Anywhere was better than here.
Fleeing the cabin, she skirted along the edge of the woods, keeping her distance from the city. If anyone saw her, they’d be too ready to tell where she’d gone. She paused only once to look around before disappearing among the tall evergreens.
Darkness enveloped her, the light hidden by giant boughs. After a moment, her eyes adjusted, allowing her to see a short distance ahead. Where should she go? As far as she could get. She didn’t want to end up thrown into the sea like the doll she’d once loved.
Tripping over the dense undergrowth, she fell, landing hard on her wrist. Crying out in pain, she clutched the injured wrist to her chest. Forcing herself back to her feet, she walked rather than run. Running would only lead to more falls. Her heart was injured enough; there was no need to punish her body.
Tears streamed down her face as she pushed on through the woods, the light growing dimmer. When she turned, she could no longer see the shoreline, nor hear the lapping of the waves. But she hadn’t gone far enough. Not yet.
Trudging forward, her steps grew heavier. A rustling ahead stopped her in her tracks. The low needle-covered boughs waved on a tree only steps away. Something was there.
“Who’s there?” she asked, her voice too small to be heard. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Who’s there?”
The movement grew more pronounced, a shadow stepping from behind the tree. Two small shadows moved behind it.
Frozen in place, Pia couldn’t even scream. She wanted to run, to flee and find safety. The figure moved closer, the outline of a bear standing before her. The she-bear tilted her head slightly and sniffed at the air.
Pia summoned her courage and managed to shout. “Go away!” she shouted. The second shout was louder.
The bear’s muscles tensed. It took two steps, charging toward her, but Pia stood her ground, knowing not to run. The bear was only bluffing. It turned away, leading its cubs into the thick of the forest.
Pia’s legs gave way beneath her. She puddled on the ground, grasping at her knees. I’m so stupid, she thought. Why did I think I’d be safer here? Where was I going to go? She buried her face and wept. When she looked up again, the rising sun was shedding its light amid the branches. She must have slept through the night, undisturbed by the forest’s inhabitants.
Brushing herself off, Pia stood and slowly turned her gaze toward home. There was nowhere else to go. She’d have to go back and face her father. He would know by now that she had run away.
“Pia!” someone shouted as she emerged from the woods. Squinting against the sudden light, she made out the smiling face of Sekai.
“Why ever did you go in there?” she asked, picking pine needles from Pia’s silver hair. “There are bears and wolves in there, you know. My Papa said never to go in there. Didn’t yours ever tell you that?”
Pia nodded slowly.
“You’ve been crying,” Sekai said. “What’s wrong?”
“You didn’t hear about last night?” Pia asked. “The rest of the town obviously has.” She would not forget the cold words of her father, planning to send her away, or worse. “They want me to leave.”
“I don’t want you to leave,” Sekai said. “Don’t listen to rumors and gossip.”
Pursing her lips, Pia grabbed her friend and hugged her. She was wise for her age. “I should go home,” she said.
“I’ll come with you.”
Pia squeezed the young girl’s hand. She was glad to have her support.
“Pia!” Jeya cried when the girl came into view. “You had me scared to death.” Clutching her daughter to her breast, she squeezed her as hard as she dared. Pulling back, she said, “And look at you! You’re a mess.”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” she replied.
“What sent you running out the window like that?” her mother asked.
Pia looked down at her feet. “I heard you and Papa talking,” she said. “He wants me gone.”
“That isn’t true,” Jeya said, kneeling before her daughter. “He wants you here, with us. But there’s trouble, and he’s afraid for you.”
“So he’d drown me?” Pia asked, sticking out her chin.
“He didn’t mean that,” Jeya said. “That was his anger talking. Not anger at you, at the town. They’re foolish and hateful.”
“Maybe your whole family should move away,” Sekai offered.
“An easy thing for a child to say,” Jeya replied. “There are responsibilities we can’t walk away from. Life isn’t as easy as it seems to a child’s eyes.”
Though Jeya’s tone was well-meaning, the young girl clearly took it as a rebuke. She shrank back, biting at her lip.
“Mama, I don’t want to go,” Pia pleaded.
“Nothing is settled yet,” Jeya replied. “Come inside and get cleaned up.”
“Can I give Sekai my blue dress?” she asked as she stepped inside.
“Of course,” Jeya said. “You’ve no use for it now.” She looked at the smaller girl. “I think it’ll fit you nicely.”
Pia went inside and scrubbed at her face with water before retrieving the dress. Sekai’s eyes sparkled when she presented it to her.
“It’s pretty,” she said, stroking the fabric. It was simple, but lovely to a girl who ordinarily wore plain white and brown. “Thank you.” She offered her friend a hug, which Pia gladly accepted. At least she could make someone else happy. It seemed she would never be happy herself.
“Run along, now,” Jeya said to Sekai. “I need to speak with my daughter.”
As soon as the girl was outside, Jeya closed the door. “Someone has sent word to the Red Council about your magic,” she said. “Do you know what that means?”
Pia shook her head. All she knew was the Red Council judged whether a child was worthy of training in magic. She had not been selected. Why would they come again? Would they now consider teaching her?
“To be honest, I’m not entirely sure either,” she said. “All I know is that once a child is rejected for magical training, the mages don’t change their minds. If someone is coming here, it means danger. They could accuse you of conspiring with dark forces, and that’s a crime.”
“But I don’t know anything about that,” the girl protested. She truly didn’t. Was magic separated into dark and light?
“I know, little one,” Jeya said. “They might think dark forces are using you against your will. I fear the punishment is the same.”
“Worse than drowning?” Pia asked.
Her mother nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
Soaring high over the countryside, the onyx dragon looked for any sign of danger. Below him there was devastation, but it wasn’t caused by the enemy he sought. Trees felled by the hand of man were strewn, smoke rising from piles of discarded limbs. Such waste, he thought. If only they knew the true heart of trees. They had feelings, a spirit of their own. Each had a life, though the dryads had long gone from them.
The world had changed. And the onyx dragon had witnessed it. How long had he lived? He couldn’t remember. The only way to be sure would be to return home, to find the documents from his years in training. It was too long since he’d been there, but it was too painful to return.
One day, he told himself. When the world was as it should be, he would rest awhile. He would visit his old home. He would honor his former master.
Thoughts of the old man pained the dragon’s heart. How he missed the eccentric old fellow, gone now for centuries. He’d left him his most prized possession, and the dragon had placed it safely where none could reach it, not even the shadows.
The landscape altered by man was soon behind him, and he flew on toward the mountain. A rocky path snaked around it, at times stretching over lower areas. None set foot on the peak. It was a favorite stopping point for a dragon to think, but there was no time for that now. He continued toward the forests along the edge of the mountain.
This land was primal, untouched, and beautiful. There was no sign of man, elf, or otherwise. The darkness had yet to reach this forest. There was still time, but evil was coming. And neither mountains nor the mighty sea would stop it.
Smoke rose in a single line, the remnants of a campfire. He swooped low, then rose higher, his shadow briefly falling over the small campsite. His heading now was the coastline, but he must slow his flight. There was a path beneath him, but was it safe? There was no sign of danger, not by man, not by the darkness. It was safe. But it still wouldn’t do.
Widening his eye slits, he allowed the light to enter. Reaching for his magic, he spied the ground below, scanning, searching. There it was. Nearly overgrown but still traversable by the daring. His companions would complain at first, but they’d follow him. It was time to return.
Making a wide arc, he returned to the campsite. An opening amid the trees was barely wide enough for his body, but he had learned a few tricks over the years. He didn’t need to reach the ground in dragon form. Hovering at the treetops, he slowly descended, changing as he went. It was not the softest of landings. He’d begun his change prematurely.
Landing on one knee, his hand smacking against the ground, he kept his head low. Nothing was injured. He rose to his feet and dusted the grass from his cloak.
“We need to leave now,” he said. Tugging at his hood, he positioned it over his head. The scales along his neck never went away. Not any longer. There was a time when no one could tell he was a shapeshifter. His human appearance had been as ordinary as any other. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height, slender build. Not much to look at. Now, however, he had lost that hard-won ability. He was a dragon, his blood hot, his appetite yearning for only raw meat. No spell could reverse it. His merger with the symbol had given him a mighty gift. And for that, he must pay. In time he would remain a dragon, but not yet. There was still work to be done. Work he could perform only as Taren, the human sorcerer.
“We’ll be ready in an hour or so,” Leko replied, unconcerned. He took a bite of a strip of dried jerky and chewed it, his feet stretched in front of him.
“I want to reach the city by sunset,” Taren replied, annoyed. The white-haired elf always had a relaxed manner, even when the situation called for urgency.
“The road takes two days to walk,” Leko pointed out. “So unless you’re planning to fly us there, we won’t reach it tonight.”
“I’ve located another path,” Taren replied. “It’ll be rough, but it’s much quicker.” He glanced at the sun. It had risen almost an hour ago. They had to get moving.
Embyr situated the bow on her back and fussed with an arrow in her quiver. Taren had delivered the feathers for them, but several had been bent. She’d done her best to smooth them, but some would need to be redone. Was it possible for a dragon to hunt a hawk without damaging every one of its feathers? Apparently not. She sighed and turned her attention from the arrows. “I’m all set,” she announced.
Taren looked at his red-haired companion. She was still young, but she was strong. Her deep brown eyes reminded him of his own, and he smiled at her. She was as much a daughter to him as he could have hoped for. For many years he’d regretted not having children of his own. Though they would have brought him great sadness. He could not augment a life the way his own had been extended. Witnessing their deaths would have crushed his spirit. He couldn’t think about it. The future. The inevitable loss. The immense loneliness. Were there any benefits to immortality? Such long life brought only pain.
Leko kicked dirt over the fire to smother it. Wrapping himself in his jacket, he checked the daggers in their sheaths. Touching both edges with his thumb, he made sure they were sharp. Who knows what they might meet in those woods? Magic was well and good, but a solid weapon was far more dependable.
“All set then?” Taren asked.
His companions nodded. “Then let’s get moving.”
* * * * *
“You’ve hardly said a word since we left camp,” Embyr said. “What troubles you?”
Taren turned his eyes skyward. “It’s getting late,” he commented. It was well past midday. The trio had been walking for hours without stopping. Luckily his companions had youth on their side. Taren found himself burning magic to keep stride with them. His human body wasn’t meant to last so long. It was only through the symbol’s gift that he managed to go on. Its power surged through his veins, providing him with the stamina he needed.
“We’ll be there by nightfall,” Embyr said. “You never said why we’re in such a hurry.” She glanced back at Leko, whose light steps narrowly avoided catching in the low brush. He moved with the same easy manner he would on a well-maintained road. He was always like that.
“We’re in a hurry because we must be,” was Taren’s reply.
Rolling her eyes, Embyr sighed. “A typical Master Taren reply.”
“I think we should stop,” Leko said from behind.
“No time,” Taren said, looking at his feet.
“Let’s make time,” Leko said, tossing his pack to the ground. Finding a soft patch of grass, he plopped down, removed his right boot, and began plucking thorns from his stocking.
Embyr chuckled and reached for Taren’s arm. “It’s only for a moment,” she assured him.
Leaning against a nearby tree, Taren crossed his arms. “Fifteen minutes,” he said.
From his pack, Leko retrieved two apples. After tossing one to Embyr, he bit into the other. “Nice juicy apple, Taren?” he asked, grinning.
There was no reply. Taren wondered how long it had been since he’d eaten fruit. A year? Ten? He could not remember the taste, only that it was repulsive. While the others ate, he looked around at the numerous plants of the forest. Within sight were seven he could use to craft potions and medicines. When was the last time he’d bothered to do so? Probably not since training Leko in the art of herbalism.
The young elf had taken to the profession easily, despite his lack of magical skill. He had learned a trade that would serve him well, should he choose to pursue some other existence. For now, the young man did as Taren requested, always eager to share in an adventure.
With their apples consumed, the trio resumed their trek through the dense woods. The trees closed in around them, the path narrowing as the sun moved west in the sky.
“You’re sure this is the right person?” Embyr asked.
Taren looked at her questioningly.
“The person you’ve set out to find,” she said. “The girl. She’s the right one this time?”
Taren had been searching for the same girl for centuries. He’d made mistakes in the past, and this could be another one. They might be hurrying for no reason. No. This time he was certain. “Yes,” he said. “This is the last time I’ll ever go searching.”
Leko frowned. “What will we do with our time after you’ve got her?”
Softening his demeanor, Taren slapped the elf on his back. “There’s plenty to be done,” he said. “You’ll never want for adventure.”
“That’s a relief,” Leko said.
The woods opened up into a glade, sand and soil mixing to produce a rocky hillside covered in yellow blossoms. Natural and untouched, few had passed this way, despite its proximity to Lyraeus.
“Looks like we’ve arrived,” the elf said. “You want us to go ahead?”
Taren nodded. He would wait at the glade until sunset. A hooded man in a small town drew the attention of every citizen. Superstition and ignorance ran rampant in such places, and he didn’t want to be the cause of rumors.
Embyr and Leko proceeded into the town, drawing few glances from the citizens passing by. The pair were ordinary-looking and gave no one a reason to consider them. Only Leko glanced back to where Taren was waiting. He hoped the townsfolk wouldn’t venture that far. One look at Taren would put them all on edge, and every stranger would be scrutinized.
Choosing a tavern near the docks, the two stepped inside. The room was filled with male sailors, and only two women. The scent of ale was heavy in the air. A song of adventure burst from the mouth of a drunken man, his words slurred but no less enthusiastic. It drew raucous applause from the gathered patrons.
Leko looked at Embyr, his eyebrows raised.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Let’s see about a room.”
A woman stood behind the bar, a friendly smile on her face. Streaks of gray ran through her hair, which was pulled into a tidy bundle on her head. “What’ll you have?” she asked.
“Do you have any rooms for the night?” Leko asked.
The woman glanced at Embyr. “For two?”
“Three,” the elf replied.
The woman did her best to conceal a smile. “All right then, three. It’s five copper and it includes a loaf of bread for the morning.”
“A fair price,” Leko said, placing the coins on the bar.
“You heading out in the morning?” the woman asked, tucking the money away. “I hear there’s a ship headed here from the Red Council tomorrow. You might want to stick around to watch.”
“Why would the Council be coming here?” Embyr asked.
The woman shrugged. “I hear gossip, but who’s to say?” She wiped a rag at an invisible stain on the bar.
“Someone being tested for magic?” Leko asked.
The woman only shrugged.
“I’ll have an ale,” Leko said. “Two.”
Smiling, the woman reached under the bar and produced two mugs that she filled to the brim with a frothy brown liquid. She leaned against the bar and held out her hand.
Leko counted another five coppers and handed them to her before taking a sip of the ale. It was awful. “Now what more can you tell me of that gossip?”
“Word is the witch child is to be looked over again,” she said in a hushed tone. “Someone sent word by ship last night. A Council representative lives across the bay and keeps an eye on the area. He said he’d come tomorrow to have a look at her.”
Embyr grimaced and gave Leko a sideways glance. “Which room is ours?” she asked.
“Second floor, third door on your left,” the woman said, sliding a key across the counter.
“Thanks,” Embyr said.
The pair didn’t bother finishing their ale, instead returning outside. “We have to tell Taren,” Leko said.
Nodding in agreement, Embyr quickened her pace. Taren was waiting at the glade. He hadn’t moved an inch from the rock where he’d perched himself.
“Are you asleep?” Leko asked, approaching with caution. He’d learned never to touch a sleeping dragon.
“I’m awake,” Taren replied. “What did you find out?”
“That a representative from the Red Council is on his way here and expected tomorrow morning,” Embyr said.
“And something about a witch girl,” Leko added.
Taren nodded. “That’s who I’m here to collect,” he said.
“Then you’d better hurry if you don’t want to encounter the mage,” Embyr said.
“I fear no mage,” Taren said. “Not even if he’s a member of the Red Council.” He paused and stared out at the field of yellow. “But the child will fear him, and rightly so. Her parents will be terrified as well, especially the mother. I must go to them.” He glanced at the sun. It couldn’t go down soon enough.
“Do you think the parents will be willing to give the girl away?” Embyr asked. “It’s not a small gift you’re asking of them.”
“They’ll gladly let her go,” Taren replied.
“You sound so certain,” Embyr said. She sat down next to him, her hands on her knees. “I doubt I could give away a child.”
“If your child’s life were in grave danger, and the only way to save her was to let her go, I think you would make the right choice.” Ever since he’d known her, Embyr had made wise decisions. She was smart and thought things through, even as a child. She saw that she was being used as a pawn, and she rebelled against it. Her life could have turned out very differently had she been one to obey rather than blaze her own path. He was proud of her.
“I suppose,” she said. “Still, I’d want to flee with her, given the chance.”
The trio waited until sunset, resting from the day’s march. When the sun dipped into the sea, Taren stood. “It’s time,” he said.
“We’ll be at the inn,” Leko said. “You’re sure you don’t want us to find passage for tomorrow?”
Shaking his head, Taren replied, “It isn’t necessary. The girl’s father will see us safely to the far shore.” Pulling his hood up to conceal his face, he strode into the city.