The world was blurry and unfocused as the Infirmary slowly came into view when I opened my eyes, only to find a familiar face hovering over me. Even though my throat was as parched as the desert to the west, I managed to wheeze out, “Ko…wl…?”
“Drink this,” he ordered as he held a vial to my lips. It was some kinda medicine he whipped up, judging by the smell and aftertaste. But it quenched the thirst and made me feel lighter. “Better?”
“Much,” I told him, before asking, “but why are ya here now?”
“I came here for a business delivery, only to learn that you were missing again,” he said. Despite how he kept his tone level, the way he stressed that last word made it clear he wasn’t happy. “Since they were adamant about me not running off without an escort, as I was not a student anymore, I had Aeria pick up your scent and lead Magister Flourish and Magister Atra towards you. Of course, even I could see that golden flame from the academy.”
He lifted his glasses and stared straight into my eyes. “It is a miracle that such a flame only managed to incinerate the clearing you were in and nothing else. However, when they found you unconscious, nothing they did would wake you until this point. They presumed it was due to exhaustion.”
“Yep, that sounds about right,” I muttered as I shifted my eyes to avoid his and the way they silently pressed that there was more to it than that. Even if there was, I wasn’t privy to everything myself. “Even for me that much fire is a doozy to conjure…”
“Well, you know your body best,” Kowl stated, seemingly dropping the subject and placing the now empty vial into his belt pouch. “The swelling on your hand was the only physical injury you had, and I think I’ve gotten the jist of everything from Aeria before she flew off again. Far be it from me to be a hypocrite and criticize someone for risking their life to save another.”
“Yer darn right,” I added, before taking a moment to look around the individual room in the Infirmary that they stashed me in. Eventually, I found my wand and robe on the side table, the bulge in the pocket showing the jar was still in it. I assume they didn’t know what it was and thought it was just something that Kowl gave me. “In my pocket, have you seen that stuff in the jar?”
He gave me a confused glance until I pointed to my robe. Walking over and retrieving the bottle, he gave it a long and hard look before shaking his head. “No, I haven’t. The coloring and luminescence match some things I’ve worked with, but not exactly, and the jar itself seems to be the type we use in the shop, with a thin film applied on the inside to prevent odors and any magical residue from leaking, so I can’t tell if they are familiar either while here.”
“Think ya can figure out what it is though?”
“I’ll look into it,” Kowl said as he slipped the bottle into his pouch smoothly. Then he paused as his fingers brushed something within it. He came back to my side and said, “I made this for you earlier, as a thank you for your hard work since I opened the Sylphide. Hopefully it makes a good ‘Get Well’ present too.”
Kowl pulled out one of the Entwined Lotus I had bought the day before… only it was glowing at a steady rate. “It’s…how?”
“An artificial version of the original Entwined Lotus through alchemy,” he confirmed. “I wondered if I could replicate the effects of the flower from your tale over dinner and found that even these lesser breeds could be coaxed into luminescence with Aeria’s magic as a wind elemental spirit. Although it was weak and short-lived, a little Illumines Moss amongst other things managed to make it brighter, and I used a formula to synchronize it with your heart through your blood.”
“So that’s why ya asked for my blood a week ago?” I thought it was for some weird purpose back then, like more of those slime critters, but if it was for something like this…
“No, you only obtained the flowers yesterday,” he said as he put back on his glasses. “I can’t see into the future, but as a rule I always keep blood on hand—mine, yours, lizards, animals, fish, etc. You never know when it would be needed.”
Ignoring that last question and answer, I picked it up and felt the firmness and warmth within it as it blinked slowly, at the same pace as my heart. “It’s beautiful, Kowl. If ya sell ‘em at the Sylphide it would bring in a lot of business.”
“Maybe,” he admitted, giving it some thought, before he shook his head. “But for now the only two are ours and they only last for…a month, if I’ve estimated right. Your magic tends to extend the effects of spells for an abnormally long time and, since blood holds magic fairly well, the luminescence could last longer. I’d have to test it later on, but…
“It’s the best I can do for now,” he said, before lowering his voice so softly that I could barely hear him. “At least until I can secure the real flowers and have them turned into rings anyway. It’s what you want, right?”
I turned away from his gaze again. The heat gathering in my cheeks and beating of my heart would only get worse if I kept looking. Did he just propose to me? “Oh sure, now ya can say and do sweet things…yet ya couldn’t be a little sweeter when I showed ya that spell yesterday?”
“I was honest because I knew you could do better,” he said bluntly. “I want you to succeed. I won’t apologize for that but, if you want, I can do something else to make up for it.”
“In that case…” I gave him a quick glance and then looked down. Honestly, this was humiliating. I was acting like a school gal… oh wait, I was one. “Kiss me and prove it.”
“How daring of you to ask for such a thing,” said another voice from the doorway. We both turned and saw Magister Atra, her hands folded and leaning against the wall. “Your relationship is a heartfelt thing indeed, but perhaps you should have waited until you were in better health before making such requests.
“For one, you seemed to forget that these rooms were meant for two people and didn’t notice you had someone in the bed next to you, Miss Pyralis,” the magister said as she walked in slowly and waved her wand, parting the privacy curtain to reveal Invidia pretending to be asleep—badly at that. “Second, whether Mister Freslight is a student or not, intimacy is not tolerated in the Infirmary. In fact, he should have notified us when you woke, but I will excuse that as him being ecstatic about your awakening.”
“It is as you say,” Kowl agreed as he straightened up and gave her a polite nod. “Magister Atra, a pleasure to see you again.”
“Likewise,” she said as she gave him a small nod back, before looking at the Entwined Lotus that had sped up blinking with my heart. “Your skills have advanced even further. Be proud of yourself.”
She then looked at me. “As for you… wandering off and finding trouble seems to be the makings of a habit. I feel the need to correct that… in fact, if it weren’t for circumstances your penalty would not end with just another detention with Miss Arktiska for going off on your own.”
“Another detention!?” Invidia and I barked at the same time. “But—”
“So they’re going to sweep it under the rug, right?” Kowl cut in. “They can justify the additional detentions, but not the fact that what should be a low-class monster threat becoming far more dangerous? Not in a place as prestigious as this anyway.”
“Exactly,” she responded, without missing a beat or commenting on how he knew that. “Miss Pyralis and Arktiska will remain here for the night to ensure nothing detrimental has occurred in the wake of these events and, after that, none of today happened. There will be an investigation by several of the magisters during the upcoming break, but until then the entire section of the forest has been sealed off through magic—and this time we made sure to cover entry from above.”
“That was directed towards my actions prior to expulsion, wasn’t it?” he asked. She nodded. “In all fairness, I said I understood why you attempted to stop me, and that the lower entrances were sealed. I never said I was going to actually stop.”
“We can discuss your loophole abuse at a later date,” she said. “For now, let us be off. The reason I came here in the first place was because your elemental seems to be literally bouncing off the walls.”
“Not again…” Kowl searched his pouch by hand, looking for something, and then sighed. “There goes another month’s supply of treats. When did she get it and where does she put it all?”
He walked off with the magister, no doubt having to go drug the tiny gal to settle her down or something. For once I was glad I was in the nice and safe Infirmary. Facing a couple of man-eating plants was cake compared to that little one on a sugar rush.
Then, looking at the white-haired gal next to me, I cleared my throat. “That musta been mighty awkward for ya, huh?”
“Incredibly so,” she admitted, her hair coming down over her face as she leaned her head forward. Silence followed for a bit until she continued, the gal’s voice suddenly muted and reserved. “You really are lucky, you know? To have the luxury of falling in love with someone of your choice is something many here lack.”
I found myself put off by the way she spoke then and there. As long as I had known her, from class and the constant provocation to light her up like a bonfire, it was the first time I heard her being so…sullen. “What are ya goin’ on about?”
Invidia sighed. “You aren’t from a lineage like mine or even that of the others, so you wouldn’t know. Most of us who have a Magus lineage are set into arranged marriages, to be fulfilled upon shortly graduation. Love is not taken into consideration when the goal is to preserve our ability to use magic, although exceptional witches and wizards are considered eligible if they have enough standing, so the choice is not up to me.
“When I arrived here, I allowed myself to enjoy the notions of romance and choice while I still could, knowing that once I graduated the notions would be wiped away for good. I chose someone, it was a decision that I made on my own, and…well, you know the rest,” she finished.
“Ahhh…” I understood now why she was so intent on making me miserable now. Not that I would forgive her for it, but I understood. “So that’s why ya had been riding me so hard. Because ya chose what’s-his-name and he decided to get handsy with me?”
“You were an easier target to take my aggression out on,” the gal admitted bluntly. “How would you feel if the person you chose picked someone else? Someone who had no standing in the world, having popped up from some backwoods—I mean humble beginnings?”
“Pride, basically,” I summed up, shaking my head slowly for a bit. “Ya thought ya were that much better than me?”
“By all rights, I should be better than you,” Invidia stated. “I trained from birth for the level of control I have over my magic, for the skill and strength I have. Most magi do. In all honesty, this place serves as a means to teach us everything but magic.
“And you just show up without any of that and start flourishing,” she continued, “you may not be the best, but your level of growth is absurd. Not to mention your friend excelling at every subject he took. It was insulting to us, so those of us who took the greatest pride in our heritage either ignored your existence or lashed out.”
Well, that pretty much confirmed what Kowl had guessed ages ago. “Why tell me this?”
“Honor,” she stated. “While honor means nothing to you, it does to me and I can’t simply turn it off whenever I want to. You could have left me to rot, but you saved me. You could have left me to die fighting against all of those things, but you stayed behind and fought so I could get away.
“In all honesty, despite the spell I cast to protect you at the end, I assumed you were going to die with the sheer numbers,” Invidia admitted, looking down. “Leaving aside the humiliation of running away, I must settle my debt somehow and the best I can offer is an explanation on my actions and a truce at the moment. We’ll never be friends, but I will tolerate your presence and refrain from any untoward comments about you and your lover.”
Which was exactly what she was supposed to do anyway out of manners…still, I suppose that was the best I could ask from such a prissy gal. “Fair enough, we’ll call it a truce so long as what was said and done in here never gets out. Shake on it as equals?”
The white-haired gal brushed her hair back and nodded, standing up from her bed as I did mine. Extending our hands slowly to one another, they mingled. It was uncomfortable, given how we had been to one another to this point, but we bore with and sealed our agreement with a single shake.
Who knows, maybe things at this place would get a little better from now on?
Book 2 – End