The Path Ahead – 3.01

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Alice POV

I felt cooped up underneath the stained glass ceiling of the Atrium. The rest of the students were there, all of us gathered up for the End of Term Assembly. There were too many to count, all of them chattering and excited to leave the place behind. Most were going traveling or back home now that the first term of the year was over.

The magisters were calmer. On top of a stage that had been originated from thin air, they sat in their chairs all quiet-like. There were only a few of them I could recognize right off the bat though.

First was Magister Atra. Her dark-blue eyes were closed and her posture was as straight as the long hair rolling down her back. The pale-skinned witch scared the pants off just about everyone, but I kinda liked her… even though she had probably gotten on me more than anyone else. In all fairness to her, I had gotten into quite a bit of trouble that fell onto her shoulders this term.

Next to her was Magister Diagona. Her head and silvery hair swayed back and forth as she hummed something in a tone too low to hear, her wand twirling in her hand. Then there was Magister Astat, Magister Flourish, and a few others whose names escaped me.

The last was Headmaster Crelian, leaning on an actual staff in front of them and looking as old as some of the trees in the woods. Unlike the others, he looked troubled. Like he had swallowed something bitter and had nothing to wash it down.

C’mon,” I muttered under my breath. While I didn’t mind the crowding much, I was testy. The sooner we were let out, the sooner I could take a gander at the forest again. When I was there last time I found some liquid that gave me a strange feeling.

It was nagging me, tempting me to go back. I wanted to know what it was so I could clear my head. The last thing I needed was to be distracted before we went to visit my Ma and Pa for the Kararnys Festival and—

BANG!

—a sound like thunder came from the Headmaster’s staff. It was loud enough that I felt my teeth shaking. Everyone got quiet as the old guy cleared his throat and muttered a spell so that it sounded like he was right next to us.

“Good afternoon, students,” he started with. “I’m sure that all of you are quite eager to depart now that the end of the first term of the year has come about. To that end, I will keep this short and brief.

“As for what transpires during your time outside these walls, I shall trust you to be on your best behavior. What you do as you head towards your homes or vacation destinations not only reflects upon yourselves, but your families and the staff here who look after you for the majority of the year.

“That being said, remain cautious as you travel,” he added, slamming the butt of his staff into the stage hard enough that it could be heard around the Atrium. “Not all of you who do so will be able to afford the company of a guardian and will end up left to your own devices. Leaving aside the vicious and dangerous beasts that roam and prowl over the land, as most of you know rudimentary defenses against them, you may run afoul of less savory individuals.

“These include brigands, warlocks, or some other person who would see you harmed for either coin, revenge, or the simple and sadistic pleasure of tormenting another person. Out of all of you here, at least one-in-twenty will encounter such a threat and be forced into circumstances that are truly mortifying.”

Well, that took a dark turn in a hurry. The other students were riled up a bit at the sudden shift, and his words seemed to have killed their good moods. Even the staff members looked at him funny. Was there something we missed?

He kept his voice low as he continued, the spell allowing it to reach us either way. “There is nothing on this world more evil that what lurks in the darkest parts of men and women. Whereas the beasts and creatures merely follow the instincts engraved upon them as an inseparable part of their nature, your fellow man and woman are the ones who are capable of acting without accordance to instinct. Not that they are lacking in good qualities, but there has been a rash of incidents all over the continent and, to that end, I urge all of you exercise caution during your travels. We who sit upon this stage hope to see you all here again after your reprieve from your studies has ended.”

With that out of the way, he cut his spell and we were given permission to leave. I left out of the Atrium and down the lantern-lit corridor of the main building to go and retrieve my bag and broom from Magister Atra’s class. Since I normally left earlier, and didn’t have a dorm room anymore because I moved in with Kowl, I stored them in her room’s storage cabinet for safekeeping.

The room was empty. Sunlight coming in through the windows gave it warmth that the corridor and Atrium lacked as it baked my robes. I took a moment to just walk over and basked in the light. It felt nice.

“Nice to see someone is able to remain calm even after that warning the Headmaster gave,” said the frosty gal whose voice I recognized. I turned around to see hair as white as snow and eyes as blue as ice. Invidia Arktiska.

The two of us had done some quarrelling until recently, but she mostly left me to my own business since the forest debacle. Some might even say we gained a mutual respect for one another on that front. They might be right on that. “Ya know what’s got him all riled up?”

“Well, I didn’t expect for you to keep up with events outside your immediate interests,” she said, more to herself than me. She tapped her wand against her cheek for a bit before she spilled it. “There has been escalating conflicts between certain parties in the north for some time, and now things seem to have come to a tipping point. The Headmaster’s hometown was… ravaged, for lack of a better term. Many unaccounted for, all that remained dead, bad tidings all around. He fears that war might be imminent, hence the warning.”

We weren’t anywhere near the north, so it didn’t bother me. But I imagine the Headmaster was feeling awful knowing that happened to his home while he was stuck managing the school. Not to mention the frosty gal here lived up there and was going back there for the break. “Are ya gonna be okay?”

Those eyes of hers set themselves into a self-assured look. “My home, while in the north, is easily the safest and furthest place away from the conflict in the region. Even if it weren’t, my family has many means of defending itself and our land. I’ll make it home and back just fine, so no need to worry. Your concern is touching though….”

A crook appeared at the corners of my lips. “Who said I was concerned?”

To that her face mimicked the same almost-smile. Before it could crack into a full-on one she spun on the heels of her shoes, her snowy hair whipping in the air. Walking through the frame of the door, she said her goodbyes. “Be well, Pyralis.”

“Take care of yerself,” I shot back as she disappeared around the corner and out of my view. Then I went to the storage cabinet and grabbed my stuff. Time to get going. I made my way out the door and turned right to go down the corridor to where the main entrance was.

“Miss Pyralis—” I spun on my heel towards the sudden voice coming from behind me. Unfortunately, I did it so fast I clipped one foot over the other and lost my balance, sending me towards the ground while my broom went towards whoever it was. Slender and cold fingers set themselves on the shaft of the broom and my shoulder to keep me from falling. Looking up, I met with the dark-blue eyes of Magister Atra. “—may I have a moment of your time, please?”

I took a second to regain my balance and grip on the broom when she pulled me up. Where did she come from? “Ya surprised me, magister.”

“It was not my intention, I assure you,” she said. “I oversaw that you were in the middle of a conversation and didn’t want to interrupt. Although, I will admit I am pleased that the animosity between you and Miss Arktiska seemed have petered out after that incident last month.”

“Yesterday’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally and all, ya know?” I said, fixing up the stray stands of my hair that were out place. “Nothing more of a bonding experience than survivin’ against everything trying to make a meal outta ya.”

She seemed to take that for what it was worth and just nodded. “To the matter at hand then, I wanted to tell you that you could do with more classes after the break, to expand your skill set. As I’ve said before, you have so much potential to realize.”

I shook my head. At this point I figured out she was interested in helping me out, but I liked working at the Sylphide. “I’m still working at Kowl’s place. I don’t have the time.”

“I know that you reduced your classes to help him, but it has been some time since he fell under your guidance and he is fairly bright,” she reasoned. “I’m sure he can manage on his own at this point.”

“His knowledge isn’t problem, Ma’am,” I explained. “It’s his storefront etiquette that needs work. There’s a reason most of the people who come in prefer me to him when it comes to that end. He’s… unable to relate to most others in a manner they feel comfortable with.”

Kowl was a great guy. He was smart and good with chemicals and stuff like that, enough that some of the magisters still supported him now that he was gone. But he didn’t show too much emotion to others he wasn’t close with. Even to those he was close with, it took some work to drag that side out of him.

Ma and Pa taught me growing up that customers liked it when they felt they were buying from another person who they could relate to, or see as someone who had an interest in them. Kowl was professional, which some people liked. But that wasn’t a good fit for places like Trikryss.

Her brow creased as she thought on that. “I suppose that may be true…. Taking into account his normal disposition, barring extreme circumstances, he would be ill-suited to run the front-end of his business alone. Still, even if you do not return as a full-time student, you should see about adding an additional class to your next term.”

“I guess I could…” The idea wasn’t big on me. I liked magic and being a witch, so learning here was something I did look forward to when things weren’t hectic. And since Invidia cooled it on the bullying from her end. But I liked being needed by Kowl too. “I’ll see about it after we get back from my home.”

She seemed to take something from my words and picked up the meaning. “Ah, right. The Kararnys Festival takes place during the break in your hometown, doesn’t it?”

I nodded. “We’re both leaving the day after tomorrow. Won’t be back in town until about two days after it’s over.”

“Then I wish you well until you return,” she told me gently, ending the conversation with a small and rare smile. It was something to see.

I decided to get outta here before someone else could surprise me, or ask something after she left. There was just one little stop I had to make before I made it back to Kowl’s place. Half-an-hour later, the sound of birdcalls was just about all that I could hear as I entered into the forest just south of the greenhouses.

The trees were as colorful as I remembered when crossing before. Lively as far as I could see. There were even signs of other wildlife looming around now.

I didn’t want to get caught coming here so I was careful on the way in. The magisters made it clear that trouble was coming to anyone who tried to go snooping this way. I couldn’t blame them given what happened the last time, but my patience was running out when it came to the questions that were rattling in my brain since then.

When I touched that strange liquid that I thought was the cause of the mess before, there was some kind of reaction inside of me. Not so much with my body, but deeper inside. The flurry of emotions I felt were a jumbled mess, to the point that I couldn’t tell if it was mine or someone else’s, and every time I went to sleep I could see the place clearly. I couldn’t ignore it and I knew I wasn’t going crazy.

My wand was out to be safe. While I was pretty sure I got rid of all the overgrown weeds that hung around the last time, there was no telling what else was lurking in these parts. Sure enough it seemed safe at the moment, but I tangled with two situations where there was a good chance I might not have walked away from this year already. The third time might not pan out so well.

I stopped when I reached what looked to be a near-invisible length of fabric hanging in the air. When I reached out to touch it, it felt like a curtain of cool and comforting silk that I could press against. But no matter how hard I pushed it, my fingers wouldn’t go past a certain point. If I had to guess, they probably used some kind of configuration spell to endow the air itself with some type of property to make it hard. But also elastic enough that if a critter of some kind ran into it, it wouldn’t get hurt.

It probably took all the magisters working together to make it. But even for them it would take too much magic to change the air like this for so long, unless it was thin. Still, the only other person that could do something like this here was that the kiddy gal, being the air incarnate and all.

Touching it was probably fine, but I didn’t want to use magic on it. That was actually something they would look out for. The question was how do I get in without being noticed then?

Turns out the ants nearby had the answer for me. I couldn’t go above it. I couldn’t go through it. What about going below the surface?

I crouched down with my wand in my right hand and muttered a spell I remembered being taught at the ground. My magic started churning the dirt below to make a tunnel big enough to crawl through. When I finished, I used some plants to cover my tracks and then left for work. I could check it out later tonight with Kowl.

~~~~~

Being all sneaky-like cost me about an hour to get to the Trikryss. But it was better than getting caught. Landing in front of the Sylphide, I opened it up to find that it was as busy as a hive of bees.

The new guy we had helping around the shop, Johan Nesporinus, was being worked to the bone. He’d been working with us for a bit at the request of one of the magisters, as part of a training program of some kind. Now he was rushing around to meet the requests of the folks who were shopping around.

“Aeria!” he called as he tried to get around the crowd. His hands were full carrying a box with something or other towards the shelves to the left. “Grab that allopathic medicinal powder for stomach cramps off the display cabinet for that customer, would you—”

He was in such a hurry he tripped up over his own feet. The box went out of his hands and up in the air. It wasn’t all that heavy from the looks of it, but it could hurt someone if they got hit.

My wand was out. The spell I cast caught the box in midair. It landed in my hands when I got under it.

“Miss Pyralis, welcome back.” Johan dusted himself off and then took the box out of my hands. “Forgive me for that, I was in quite a hurry.”

“Where’s Kowl? He should be out here.”

“Busy,” the man himself said from the doorway leading to his workshop. He was wearing a dull shirt with goggles over his eyes. There was a vial of some kind of smoking liquid in his hand. “Alice, handle the front, would you?”

Please, please, please,” the windy gal begged as she fluttered from on top of the cabinet with a jar. She handed it to a woman who smiled at her. “He just likes to boss us around from his lab while we’re working hard. I’m getting tired….

I shot a glance towards Kowl’s direction at that. He was already behind the closed door. Dealing with him came later then. I hopped over the counter to start squaring away the line of people who wanted to get their goods and go.

Things calmed down once night fell. By the time we closed up not a single one of us was feeling energetic, and I was fanning myself a bit with a paper fan. For some reason, I felt hotter than usual since I got in. That was odd since heat rarely bothered me.

Not since the accident anyway.

The windy gal was on the little bed that was set up on the counter. Poor thing was out cold. Even she could only fly around for so long before dropping like a stone.

“And to think I wanted my own shop one day,” Johan whined from the chair next to the counter. He was into the same line of thinking Kowl was in, starting his own shop and being an apothecary. Unlike Kowl, he knew how to do it, but didn’t have the experience.

He was getting plenty of that now. “I am exhausted…”

“Then go home,” Kowl droned as he came out of his workshop. “You’re no good to us if you’re tired.”

Johan jumped up like he had been bitten by something at that. Then he was out of the door in the time it took for me to blink twice. Despite being older than us by two or three years, he didn’t have much of a spine.

“What were ya doing back there?” I asked. “It was swamped out here.”

Kowl lifted the goggles off his eyes and onto the top of his brown hair. “I wasn’t idle either. Given we’re going to be absent for some time, I needed to make sure we had a surplus of stock. Just in case something occurred while we’re away. I underestimated the rush, and multitasking without Aeria helping me took longer than I expected to make sure the quality didn’t drop.”

Couldn’t blame him there then. Everyone had their part to play when it came to running the place. Wouldn’t trade it for the world though. I asked him about that jar I gave him now that it was quiet.

“Ah, yes… that…” He gestured for me to follow him inside his workshop. “I can readily identify the contents now.”

Kowl’s workshop was tidy. The shelves above the sink held powders and stones of all kinds. Above the empty vials and test tubes on the bottom row of the cabinets were dried seeds and crushed plants, with their labels out in front. His handwriting was neat enough to understand what it was, even if some of the words were ridiculously long.

A scale was on the countertop of the table. Books were pinned between a stopper and the edge of the frost-box that held the temperature sensitive liquids he kept. The utensils that he used for work were on a rack by the side of the sink.

I wiped sweat from by brow and huffed. There was a brick furnace at the very back with a cauldron set up. It must’ve been in use for a while given how hot it was in here.

Kowl approached the table against the wall, underneath a barred window. The jar I gave him was next to the papers with those coded pictures he sometimes wrote in. He put his glasses on before he picked up the jar and held it up to the light. “After extensive testing, I have discovered that this substance you’ve given me is… mana, Alice.”

“That doesn’t sound right. Isn’t that supposed to be”—I gestured with my free hand to the air around us—“the invisible stuff hanging in the air that lets us use big spells?”

“It’s mana in a concentration so great that it condensed into a liquid form.” He gave the jar a little swish so the liquid moved beneath the cap. “This little amount alone is potent enough that it could kill roughly five hundred people from a case of instant mana poisoning, if it was diluted into the water supply and ingested. Monsters and plantlife are much more receptive of mana than humans and could indeed have been mutated by the source of it.”

He was rather calm despite that horrifying tidbit of information. In fact, he looked a little too interested as he twisted the jar in his hand. Between the slime critters he kept cooking up every few days and a few of the things he collected, I honestly worried about him sometimes.

“Do you remember when I helped you study for that written test last year, for your General Magic course?” he asked. “One of the questions was the differences between the type of magic humans used compared to liminal beings, spirits, and other capable creatures.”

I shook my head. “Not all of it. Why?”

“The difference between a human’s magic and that of a spirit, a liminal-species, or other creatures is quintessence,” he explained, stressing that last part. “Quintessence could be considered the building blocks of all magic as they allowed magic-users of all kinds to cast spells by weaving their own quintessence into the mana to make it malleable enough to invoke a change that affects the world. Creating a resonance with similar magic, cancelling out opposing magic, all of it can be traced back to the interaction of the unique properties of quintessence.

“The reason spells from human magic-users don’t last long in general are because the quintessence is eroded by the mana that’s being given off by the world, grating at it until it’s reduced to nothing. The mana that was changed into a spell turns back into its raw state as a result. Are you with me so far?”

I sort of followed. “That’s why they put spells on special crystals and such.”

“Because their quintessence clings to the minerals and uses them like a buffer of sorts without being overwritten,” he explained. “The general consensus is that humans are moving further away from nature, so they can’t invoke reactions in flora and minerals that other beings can, or use magic that last as long. But humans aren’t as limited in what they can do outside their field of expertise and—”

If I didn’t cut him off this would go on for a bit too long. “Where’d it come from?”

Kowl’s expression turned a bit grim for once. “I can only think of a few things capable of producing such a surfeit concentration of mana like this.”

He turned his gaze to the door leading out of his workshop… no. No, he was looking past it. To the sleeping gal that was in the front. “Ya think it came from an elemental spirit?”

“Not an elemental spirit,” he clarified. “This mana isn’t attuned to any basic element or the few abstract ones I can test here. But yes, I hypothesize that it belonged to a spirit in general.”

Throb. Pain blossomed in my left eye. It made me bring my hand to it.

Kowl set the jar down and walked over to me. “Are you all right?”

“It happens every now and then.” It had been happening a lot more frequently since that incident with Invidia. But it wasn’t this sharp before. “I’m fine.”

“You’re looking somewhat pallid,” he pointed out. “Let me feel your head.”

“I’m fine,” I said as he placed his hand on my forehead. “Keep chattin’ already.”

“… As a wind spirit, Aeria is basically an incarnation of mana attuned to wind and condensed into a shell of quintessence, which gave her sentience and her initial personality. If that quintessence is removed then all that mana that composes her would be released in such a form. But that should be impossible for all intents and purposes.”

Throb. There was another sharp stab of pain at that last bit. It was strong enough to make me grit my teeth. Almost like a reaction of some kind. Was it because we were on the right track? “Why’s that?”

“Because ridding any spirit of their quintessence would be the same as trying to destroy the intangible, more or less,” he said. “There isn’t a feasible means of doing so known to man. Say that you were to try and strike a spirit down through the use of a weapon or magic. At best, you could break down their physical form. But they can simply reform given enough time as quintessence isn’t something that can be easily destroyed if it’s birthed from the world itself.”

Throb. “…I’m thinkin’ otherwise.”

“… If it was possible… then it would explain so much,” he admitted with some doubt. “Alchemy’s decline has been because spirits have been separating from humanity, officially anyway. Some of the materials I’ve read mentioned a sanctuary that they go to that humanity can’t access, but what if there was some external force capable of doing what should be impossible? Why would they if that was the case?”

The room was starting to spin a bit. And cripes it was getting hot in here. I had to sit down for a bit.  “I know where that stuff came from. Maybe there’s a clue there?”

He shook his head and moved his fingers around to my cheek. “I tried to send Aeria to investigate discreetly, but she couldn’t cross the threshold of the barrier without breaking it. There are only three spirits in this area, and she’s the only one with a wind affinity. I would be under investigation in a heartbeat if she broke it.”

“Then we just go under it.” I blinked sweat out of my eyes. “It’s a shell that doesn’t break the surface of the ground. I already made a tunnel and tonight they’ll be busy gettin’ everyone ready to go home. No one will be watchin’ so—”

Kowl cut me off. “No, you’re going to go to bed now.”

I gave him a funny look at that. “Huh?”

“Alice…you’re running a fever.” He held out his hand to show me it was glistening wet. “A very high one at that. I’m surprised you haven’t passed out yet. I’ll give you something to combat it, but if you don’t improve quickly I’m going to take you to a physician.”

I pointed to where his cauldron was. “That’s ‘cause of the coals on the furnace.”

He shook his head. “That athanor hasn’t been used for the last two hours and the coals are cooled down for the most part. You must’ve caught something all of a sudden, or you had an illness incubating to this point.”

I kinda figured he had a point when the world tilted and it felt like my right eye was bursting into flames. Cripes it hurt! I lost my balance and fell out of the chair clutching my eye, with Kowl next to me a second later and trying to help me up.

Then he grunted and pulled back like had gotten burned. “You’re on fire!”

I would have rolled my eyes if I wasn’t afraid I was losing one. “Runnin’ a fever, I got it already!”

“No, you’re literally on fire!” He found something to show me my reflection with. I was covered in aurate flames that seemed to pour out of every inch of my skin. It was like the fire inside of me was swelling and bristling with the need to get out. It was connected to all the reactions today, I suppose.

I tried to get it under control, but everything was…

Everything was getting blurry and…

Dark….

Next Chapter

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