The Path Ahead – 3.02

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Kowler POV

I took that it wasn’t a good sign that Alice was unconscious and aflame on my floor. The peculiar golden flames clung to her like fabric in an uplifting breeze, wavering in place without doing any harm. There was no smoke or any radiant heat to classify it as a fire but, the moment I touched it, I was disavowed of that fleeting theory.

While it burned me, it was nothing severe enough that I couldn’t deal with. What mattered was the fact that Alice was still on fire and needed to be put out. The problem with magical fires was that there was no telling if water alone would suffice, or if I would need something specific to extinguish the flames.

My thoughts on the matter were impeded when the flames suddenly began to take on a vaguely humanoid shape above Alice. Then it spoke in an unfamiliar, fleeting voice. “The forest…

It was sentient? “Who… no, what are you?”

All will be explained in the forest ruins,” the voice urged as the flames began to peter out. “Hurry or…you won’t be able to save her…

The golden flames snuffed themselves out, but Alice was still hot. Not good. Even if she was seemingly immune to those flames, her body couldn’t function at this high of a temperature for long.

The ethereal voice mentioned the forest ruins Alice wanted to go to. While I had my questions, and doubts, the urgency of the situation meant I had little choice but to heed its warning and get there. I didn’t want to risk going at night, but there was no guarantee that a physician would be able to treat her. This seemed to be the only solution I could think of.

What is this?” Aeria’s soft voice came from the athanor as she dropped down from vent that led outside. She must not have been able to get through the door while it was closed. “What is this feeling?

Her tone was worrisome. Don’t tell me something was wrong with her too? “What is it, Aeria?”

I felt something in here,” she said, her gazed fixed on Alice. Her expression went from curious to concerned in a heartbeat. “It’s eating her.

“Explain,” I ordered.

It… it feels like I do, but…” She tapped her cheek and frowned. “It’s hotter. Like the sun is leaking out of her. It feels like, if anymore comes out, it’ll eat her and she’ll be gone.”

“We need to get her to the barrier in the forest,” I said as we went back in the shop with Alice in my arms. That sun analogy and Aeria stating she could relate to it was unnerving. The problem was that there was no way to get there by foot before Alice died from the heat her body was outputting. I didn’t have another Fume Beast lying around either.

It was times like these I wish I could just hop on a broom or staff like a…. wait, Alice’s Broom! I remembered the saleswoman that I bought it from mentioning that all brooms and staves were carved from wood that reacted in the same way when in contact with magic of any kind, since it was made for any magic-user. If that was the case, then maybe we would have a chance. “Aeria, can you use your magic to make Alice’s broom fly?”

She darted over to it and set a tiny palm against the wood. Motes of pale green light flickered to life from within the broom and it began to float. “Yes.

Good enough. I took the broom and charged outside, straddling it while adjusting so that Alice was braced against my chest. “Get us to where the barrier is as fast as you can.”

Hold on tight,” she warned. Three seconds later, we surged forth and left a trail of unbound flecks of pale green light in our wake.

Alice and Aeria both loved flying around when they weren’t on the clock at work. For them it was something they relished indulging in. They found it relaxing and stated that it was a sort of freedom they enjoyed.

I did not find the notion to be very attractive. Doubly so as Aeria did as ordered and went as fast as she could, which was far faster than I was comfortable with under any circumstance. If it weren’t for the urgency, I would have told her to slow down to a pace slightly faster than walking speed.

Just as we made it to the forest, in record time I might add, a flare of aurate light that almost blinded me burst from Alice. The shroud of flames returned and lashed out at my clothing, the heat searing the fabric and nipping at the flesh below, before suddenly peeling away. It streaked away from her body as a ball of flames.

The throbbing sphere then compressed and shaped itself, forming into a large dragonfly that stood out in the darkness of night that veiled us. Its elongated abdomen left a trail of golden embers behind as it circled us while we hovered in the air, both sets of fore and hind wings fluttering too fast to make out anything other than a golden outline. The dragonfly then darted below, the trail still visible like a guiding pathway of tiny fireflies.

Pretty,” Aeria muttered as she was drawn to it. There was no time to second guess whether or not to follow it. The sylphid guided the broom after it and we sunk below the canopy of the forest, into the weaving branches nestled within the leaves. While she managed to avoid the thicker branches, and any subsequent major trauma, leaves and twigs still whipped at my face and arms as I curled over Alice’s body, shielding her as best I could. It hurt a lot.

Aeria collapsed into my hair once we touched down. She hadn’t had more than an hour’s rest after closing before she had to take control of the broom with her own power. There was no way I could expect her to break the barrier in her current condition, or be of any further use until she rested.

I seemed to recall that Alice said that she had created a tunnel somewhere around here. The question was where she had done so. It was too dark for me to try and look for it. So, like everything else that had brought us to this point, I turned to the golden flames for answers.

The dragonfly circled over a specific point in the ground, the glow of the falling embers revealing foliage that seemed out of place bundled on top of each other. It shot up into the sky for a moment and then dove downwards through the foliage, leaving an entry hole that slowly expanded from the heat, only to come out on the other side of the barrier. The tunnel Alice made was there.

It was a tight squeeze getting though it. But I made it into the interior of the barrier. From there, I had to trek through the flora as I carried the two while unarmed, the brush shuffling as I felt eyes on me.

I had been in such a rush that I had nothing to defend myself or the others. Considering that there may have been mutated monsters lurking about, it was not the smartest thing I had done. It was a mistake that I hoped wouldn’t cost us dearly, but there was no other choice. Alice’s breathing had become shallower, her face was flushed, and sweat was soaking her clothes.

The dragonfly didn’t proceed as fast as before, instead lingering close to us as we moved. It became the bane of anything that stalked towards us in the darkness, warding it away with a flare that blinded them or searing heat. Under its guidance and protection, we were led deeper into the woodlands.

Eventually, we arrived at a ruin that was half-sunken by the earth, a temple of sorts from the structure. I had heard that the deeper parts of the forest had sites like this, which wasn’t too much of a stretch considering how vast the grounds were, but I never had a reason to come this far until now. It could easily be confused with a cavern from how the details of the stone blocks were aged and worn, flora claiming whatever it could as its own while nature asserted itself over the ancient man-made structure.

The dragonfly led me around to an entrance that was devoid of light of any kind. The opening that could normally be walked through was half-buried, leaving me crouching down to enter and dropping lower onto pathway with my two companions. From there, it led us down the only clear path we could take….

No. That was wrong. This pathway, consisting of a number of turns and corner hallways, was cleared ahead of time. The amount of dirt and debris didn’t add up when I caught a glimpse of the side paths that would lead us astray throughout the labyrinth of the ruins. This was a route someone had taken before and used magic to leave a trail to follow.

The dragonfly came to a standstill at a pair of doors that stood as a hindrance to it. Magic construct or not, it didn’t have the mass to open them. My turn then.

I pushed against the doors with all the strength I could bring to bear, now carrying Alice on my back and listening to her breathing fading as her body temperature reached its peak. Everything would be lost if whatever we were seeking wasn’t here. The sound of stone hinges churning echoed throughout the empty structure as the doors gave way, much to my relief, and revealed what lay hidden at the end of the long trek I had undertaken with the girls.

It was an altar of some kind, the room being almost cavernous. Broken pillars were sparse along with ones that withstood the test of time. It was here that the source of the mana that Alice had given me was found, luminous and viridian liquid coating the floor, seeping through cracks in the wall that had an outlet elsewhere.

The air was so thick that it was almost suffocating. But, at the vertex of the room, where the liquid seemed to have originated from, there was a broken arch with a stone dais in front of it. The dragonfly flittered towards the dais and circled it, signaling its importance.

I waded through the liquid mana and set her down on top of it. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But whatever it was, I only hoped it did something to save her.

Looking to the molded flames, I asked, “Now what?”

The dragonfly darted towards the broken archway and the space between it rippled, like a stone dropping in a pond. Strangle symbols, which could have been ancient writing for all I knew, on the surface of the stone arches began to shine with a golden hue. The viridian liquid at my feet followed suit.

Then things became complicated.

The liquid rose into tendrils, defying gravity as they then snaked through the air towards the archway. They poured into the empty space and then stretched out to fill it, as though it were an empty mold. Suspended in the air, touching from the floor to the top of the archway, it formed a doorway of some kind. Then it ruptured in a blinding flash of light that swallowed us all….

~~~~~

…There was a blink in my consciousness, a point between when the light engulfed me and now, where I believed that I was dying.

The air was so thick that it was choking me. Eating away at my body from the inside out like a wretched poison. The poison, the venom, saturated every cell in my body, flowed through every vein and artery with each beat my heart, and would induce necrosis in mere minutes if it wasn’t flushed. This was death by excessive mana poisoning.

Ahr…” Words wouldn’t form properly as I tried to call out for Alice. Her condition would deteriorate faster than mine. We had to get away. It hurt trying to move, but if my words wouldn’t come out then I had to search for her. I couldn’t let her die because of me.

My fingers dug into soft soil and blades of grass beneath me. Muscles tensed in my arms, straining themselves to work against the poisoning. A wretched cry came from my throat as I forced my head up and saw them.

Sitting in front of me, with Alice laying her head upon its lap and Aeria standing in the palm of its hand, was without a doubt a spirit. It, or should I say she, took the form of a rather regal woman made of the same golden flames that once shrouded Alice, devoid of any sort of clothing or details, only an outline that gave her a mature appearance. Crimson orbs served as her eyes. Strands of golden fire were woven thin and in great numbers to serve as her hair, pooling somewhat on the ground behind her.

I had drawn their attention. The spirit extended the hand that Aeria was atop toward me. My contracted sylphid darted towards me with an uncertain expression. Then she sank into me and the change began.

I was torn apart. My body was dissolved. My consciousness scattered. I was trapped in a barely bound container when I wanted to spread out. Helpless within a thin frame when I could expand and reach the four corners of the sky. Then I could breathe again and felt whole just as abruptly.

<Are you okay now?>

I heard Aeria, but I didn’t see her. “Where are you?”

<I’m inside you. I did something to your body to make the air not hurt you. But it’s hard.>

I looked down to see that I was semi-immaterial, viridian in color and draped in a matching haze. Around my fingers were thick threads, tendrils linking them to the world around me that was painted in shades of different colors that constantly shifted. A tug of one, testing the line, caused a breeze to blow through the grassland around us. Interesting…

I moved my hands in a gesture and the wind turned into a gust that nearly toppled me. Worse, I felt the boundaries of my body being stressed by the wind. I would be free of this shell if it ruptured, but would I be able to pull my scattered sense of self back together in the end?

I’d rather not find out.

“The spirit-symbiosis was a success,” said a soft voice, a hint of an accent unbeknownst to me. It belonged to the spirit. “Hear me, little one. Make yourself small so as to not overwhelm your host. His senses must remain those of a human and not a spirit, or his mind will not cope well with the initial change.”

<Okay.>

 The strings attaching me to the myriad of colors loitering in the air were severed. The wind was still even when I tugged a finger. Whatever she did worked. I turned my attention the spirit.

Needless to say, I had questions. So many questions I needed answered, like a dying man needed medicine. ‘What was going on? How did she know all of this? Where was I?’

But those were a secondary concern as my gaze dropped to the witch, who lay still in the spirit’s lap. Her pallor had improved drastically, and her breathing was stable. She looked peaceful as she slept.

“She will not be harmed by the mana,” the spirit said, as if reading my mind. “Being here holds the opposite effect for her. Rest assured, Alchemist, you brought her here in time to save her life.”

The words would be more of a comfort if I knew where ‘here’ was. The land was much like the forest that we had traversed to get here, thick with flora. We sat in a clearing that was encompassed by alien trees that held round bulbs on their trunks and glowed with a luminous, caramel hue. “Were you the one who guided us here?”

The spirit nodded. “I have gone by many names since I came to be. But I am best known as Skaroa, the spirit of the original and undying flame.”

“I’ve never heard of you, I’m afraid.”

She acknowledged that with a short shake of her head, the strands of fire wavering as she did so. “I imagine not. Your knowledge of spirits of the elements is only what they’ve allowed you to know. Regardless, I have brought you here not only to stabilize her, but so you may learn.”

“What do you need me to learn?” I asked.

With thin fingers, she brushed locks of hair covering Alice’s sleeping face. “How to save us. We are running out of time.”

She had my undivided attention. “I’m listening.”

“To begin with, you must know of the secrets my kind,” the spirit began. “The temple you were in was once a place where spirits could enter this place and leave it. There are many like it around the world, all of them connecting to this land which we call a sanctuary and the mana is thick. The majority of our kind are born here.”

So this was the spirit sanctuary spoken only in theory. I would be more impressed if it didn’t nearly kill me the moment I woke. Such a land was unfit for any being other than spirits.

<I was born here too.>

Aeria’s words lightly struck the memory of when we found one another with abnormal clarity. Was she guiding my thoughts somewhat? There must’ve been a similar archway in the forest near my home, where we found one another. But, if that was the case, why didn’t she mention the archway to this realm?

Perhaps it was because she was too young at the time. It was possible she crossed an archway and didn’t realize it, her young ego and the shift in senses confusing her. There was no telling how long she was lost in the forest without any way back until we met.

“Our kind has long lives, but we have our enemies,” Skaroa continued. “Those who would prey on we, who are aspects of nature given sentience, and could devour the world if left unchecked. They are Fiends, creatures from a foreign realm that feed on mana. ”

That was new information. “Never have I heard of such a thing, I’m afraid.”

“In the past, they were great in number and we could not fight that which fed off what composed us. Thus we turned to humans for aid. Fiends fed off mana, which humans lacked both the ability to use and produce, but could not process the quintessence humans possessed in great amounts.”

I put the pieces together. “A relationship that was mutually beneficial between spirits and humans. Alchemy was born from this relationship?”

The fire spirit nodded. “Yes, it was. Alchemy’s origins came from the moment when man and spirit worked together. Equilibrium was reached as we worked side-by-side. They could fight against the enemy we couldn’t, and in turn we made their lives easier with our arts. We brought rains to their crops, fire to ward off the cold, and drove away the creatures that would be their bane.”

That sounded almost like a fantasy compared to the modern times. The origin of my own art, what was now a dying art, was something that wasn’t properly explained in the source material. It was just there, theories abound much like the origin of magic in humans.

As long as it worked there was no need to delve into the past that was long lost. As long as the method of producing what was necessary could be found, what did the origin matter? Such were the thoughts even I entertained, until I expanded into the unknown by trying to replicate the legend that was the homunculus.

“Eons passed,” she said suddenly, drawing me out of my musings. “The Fiends that came into the world grew larger, more than humans could handle on their own. They needed more power than their bodies could offer them. So they sought a solution and it became possible to merge human and spirit for a time. The process of which became known as spirit-symbiosis.”

<Like we are now.>

“Indeed,” the fire spirit opposite me said. That answered one question that had been teetering on my mind. She could hear Aeria somehow. “Spirit-symbiosis requires a balance between the spirit and the human. The mindsets of our kinds are too different, so the process produced few in numbers and came with complications. The contract system had yet to be developed and refined at that time.”

I frowned. “What sort of complications?”

“If the human overpowered the spirit’s presence in their body, then the human would retain their appearance but lack the advanced abilities or control that the spirit possesses. If the spirit overpowered the human, the mana that composed their bodies would erode away their quintessence. For it to erode is akin to death. Naturally, such a stopgap was inefficient and desperation grew, until Paracelsus forged the contract system.”

Paracelsus was widely considered the greatest alchemist known. He was the one who contracted the four spirits that came to known as the apex of elementals. The contract system that bonded spirit and alchemist was also a fruit of his labor, but the mechanics behind it seemed to elude the minds of the curious and was thought to be lost to the shadows of time.

Skaroa gave me a moment to think before she continued again. “Utilizing a contract, the human and spirit could regulate the flow of mana and quintessence to avoid erosion and loss of identity. Your current state is because the two of you are unfamiliar with the flow and how to control it, as such your state is closer to a spirit rather than a human, but you remain an individual and lucid.”

So I was more spirit that human, more Aeria that Kowler. My individuality remained my own, but my body was that of hers. The world I was seeing now was how she viewed it, the different colors being the gases that made up the air and the strings that pulled them around were her ability to manipulate the wind in accordance to how I interpreted her senses.

<It’s neat, isn’t it?>

“There were still too few for us to claim victory,” the fire spirit went on. “Even more so, the contractors suffered from their bodies being converted to mana and then exposed to the fangs and claws of Fiends. At best, it would lead to mutual destruction of both sides. So Paracelsus sought knowledge from centuries past, and found another method of salvation in the form of the Homunculus race.”

“So he created artificial beings to act as foot soldiers in your war?” I guessed.

She shook her head. “Homunculi are not artificial beings. That knowledge spread around in the modern day is a misconception meant to shroud the truth. They were created by taking humans and altering them to biologically produce a means of manipulating mana. This was done by creating a form spirit-symbiosis that was permanent, and thus they and those who were descended from them became capable of using magic.”

“You mean…” I licked my lips as the full weight of what she was telling me set in. “Magi, witches, wizards… all of them come from the homunculi? The gifts they had were artificially induced and passed through the generations?”

“The hybrid use of mana and quintessence, Magic, was something the Fiends could not consume. Not while the quintessence laced it so thoroughly from the melding that it made their source of food poisonous. In addition, because the source of their power was new and had yet to deteriorate, it was akin to a spirit’s use of the art. Combining the benefits of both sides made the homunculi and the homunculus-born invaluable as they beat back the Fiends.”

“I’m assuming what followed was a change in the circumstances?”

She sighed sadly. “Spirits were still few in number, even as the number of Fiends lessened. Eventually, the homunculus-born outnumbered spirits. Endowed with magic and better capable of understanding humans than we were, they took over the roles we once held as protectors and allies.”

The bonds of cooperation withered away. The relationship between them became less of equals and more unstable. I could only imagine the animosity that came into being as the spirits lost the status they once had, and were no longer treated the way they were accustomed to for centuries.

“Now going by the name of ‘Magi’ and possessing powers that other humans lacked, they quickly came into prominent positions of power and wealth. Displeasure amongst my kind rose, especially when it took a sacrifice of our numbers to give them the abilities they treasured so much. That information was not widespread amongst the uninvolved and, to maintain that, the truth of their origins had to be erased.”

Thus began the fall of alchemy in the last few hundred years as the number of spirits dwindled. It made sense that they were being hunted. Today, magi held positions coveted by many others, even other magic-users. If it was artificial then it could be reproduced.

And, if it could be reproduced, then they would lose the ground they held based on their birthright. “So they hunted spirits down then?”

There was a bitter expression on her face, as if recalling the memory brought her pain. “A clandestine collection of their kind used Fiends they managed to leash and control to eradicate our kind. Mighty as they were, they were still only mortal. Greater spirits like myself possess no minor amount of quintessence, as our memories are long and egos great. The fighting escalated and soon they summoned a greater Fiend only known as the Devourer.”

The fire spirit actually shuddered. Was it truly that much of a monster? “It was so fearsome that it threatened to eliminate our kind entirely, until it was split into fragments and sealed away. So few spirits remained that most retreated to the sanctuary, content to remain here and out of the reach of humans.”

The tale she told me covered hundreds, possibly thousands of years of information. For that much information to go unwritten would require much interference and manipulation. Things added up, assuming I believed her tale. The dwindling of the alchemic arts, the number of spirits disappearing, and the reasons for the abnormal amount of regulations to get an alchemy license—it all linked up.

“So those responsible needed to cover this fact up for various reasons, and they’ve been hunting spirits who would be old enough to know of this truth. The younger ones like Aeria…well, they can’t exactly eliminate all of the spirits, since they’re essentially nature given form. By monitoring and controlling the studies and regulations of those who practiced alchemy, they could keep an eye on anyone who was close to unraveling their secret, or had a spirit that would know of it. Then they could take measures to eliminate them.”

And, as of now, we fell into the category. Just great. “But what does this have to do with saving you and Alice?”

“Think about your attempts at altering life in the unnatural way you do,” she said. “Could such a thing have the aspects they were given and pass it through their bloodline?”

Thinking back to the experiments with my amalgam slime creations, I was certain there was no way for them to produce an offspring that maintained whatever alternations I made to it at present. The creatures were too far from their natural state to even survive for a prolonged period. Relating that information to what she was hinting at, I drew my own conclusion. “You’re saying the reason for the things like what happened to my family about a century ago, the reason we no longer produced functional magical nuclei, was simply because the life-span of alterations wore out somewhere along the way.”

She nodded. “The process itself was meant for warfare. It was not meant to last beyond a few hundred years at best before deteriorating. Similar to how mana will erode spells that are bound by quintessence over time, by wearing away at it until it assumes its natural state, eventually those of the homunculi-descent will lose their abilities and return to their previous state. Your linage is as such, leaving you no different than those who were born before their inception.”

The magic-users were dying out. The original source of their power and wealth would be lost in who knows how long. Without their magic, things would return to the way before. That would be unacceptable for those who grew accustomed to how they were treated over centuries.

“They are desperate to find a way to reverse the process. But without knowing how they came into creation in the first place, how could they? They needed the source of knowledge that Paracelsus utilized, and the only ones who knew were spirits old enough to have survived the wars….”

Skaroa turned her crimson gaze from me to Alice. “They freed a fragment of the Devourer and set it upon me in hopes of finding answers. After all, I was the one who originally guided Paracelsus to the knowledge in the first place. It tore out bits and pieces of me as those who I considered allies, humans and spirits alike, were killed until it chased me towards a small village and…”

The final pieces fell into place. I couldn’t help but grit my teeth at the realization of why Alice could use magic when she wasn’t born as a witch, and why her magic lasted so long. “You forced spirit-symbiosis upon Alice without a contract, didn’t you? You’re killing her just to hide from your pursuers.”

“I did it to save her,” Skaroa argued. “This child was caught in the crossfire and laid dying during the last conflict. Had I not acted she would have died then and there. As long as she does not call upon my powers in excess she will live without being eroded by my quintessence. But, if they find out I dwell inside of her, then they will kill her by attempting to extract me from her.”

I could barely keep my voice in check. “Then split apart from her! It should be reversible, right?”

“Too long we’ve been in this state. If I separate from her at this point, she would be a hollow shell. The best I can do is to go back to into a deep sleep to suppress myself as much as possible, and rely on you to save us both by finding the Archidoxia.”

The Archidoxia, also known as ‘The Great Wisdom’, was allegedly the tome which recorded every scrap of knowledge and technique once in the hands of Paracelsus. Many alchemists searched for it after his passing. None found it, and it was recorded as a falsehood spread after his death. “The tome actually exists?”

Skaroa shook her head. “The Archidoxia isn’t a single tome, but a series of artifact that hold knowledge of alchemy that has been long lost to your age. They came even before Paracelsus’ time and, from them, he procured the process of making homunculus. They are a wellspring of knowledge that everyone seeks.”

And gigantic targets that will only serve to further endanger us both. But, if I didn’t, then Alice would… I sighed. “Then which one am I seeking?”

“I am not sure which,” she admitted. “With the growing hostilities, I instructed four spirits that I trusted the most to hide each one of them and left it to their discretion. One of those artifacts contains the means of separating us in a reversal of the method used to create the homunculus.”

“So I need to seek out which of the four great spirits has the one I need?” The notion was appalling. I was not an Adventurer. My place was in my shop, even if I went out gathering of my own accord occasionally.

“Three,” she said, a somber tone in her voice. “The mana that permeated that pathway was an ally of mine, traces of his quintessence remaining inside of it, allowing me to peer into his final moments through Alice. They bound him with ropes woven of Fiend’s hair, destroyed his shell using a blade forged of Fiend’s bone, all seeking to open the pathway to the sanctuary to get their hands on the artifact that is hidden somewhere in this domain unbeknownst to me—”

Pain struck me like a bolt of lightning, causing me untold agony and deafening my ears to her words. Flecks of mint-green sprinkled down onto the grass from what composed my body. I was literally falling apart at the seams.

<Sorry. I-I can’t keep this up. I was tired when we got here so it’s harder to concentrate.>

“You cannot remain here any further,” the fire spirit declared as she stood with Alice in her arms. “The contract will forcibly separate the two of you before you run the risk of being overwhelmed by the little one. I will open the pathway back and return you before I slumber.”

Not…yet,” I ground out past the sensation of falling apart bit-by-bit. “The…names…spirits….

She reached down and touched my forearm. The area was set ablaze before being snuffed out, leaving the mark of a dragonfly on it. “Seek out the Spirit of the Desert, Wuroah, the Spirit of the Mountains, Fliwi, and the Spirit of the Sea, Chellennis. Show that to them and tell them of your duty. Good luck, Alchemist.”

She raised her hand. Crimson light blossomed upon my back, the archway having been there the entire time and inert. Now active again, it was drawing me in like before, pulling me against my will and dissolving me into motes of dust as I was sucked inside…

~~~~~

…There was another blink.

Now back inside of the ruins, I was splayed on the cold stone of the altar floor, feeling as though I were made of metal rather than trapped in a container and yearning to be free. A quick visual inspection showed that I was back to normal, barring the mark on my forearm that was left on me by the spirit. I rose to my feet and found Alice asleep on the dais from before, Aeria resting atop her.

I needed to think. This place was detrimental to that considering everything. I needed to sit down and think through everything back at the shop. But getting through the forest again without the guidance of the fire spirit was impossible while these two slept, and waking them prematurely wouldn’t be much better considering the distance and dangers.

That meant I had to wait until they woke naturally. I could only hope it was before the magisters started investigating the forest like they planned. Then the sound of stone hinges moving drew my attention to the entrance that now stood opened. I was out of time already.

Dressed in black, Magister Atra stood there. In her right hand was her wand, while the left had Alice’s broom, which I had forgotten. There was no feasible way for me to explain things as they were either.

This would not end well. “Good Evening, Magister Atra.”

“Your prowess for being in places where you shouldn’t seems to be quite an issue, Mister Freslight,” she said as she approached slowly. “I was hoping to only have to lecture Miss Pyralis about her foolishness in coming here, but it seems things aren’t as simple as that…”

She trailed off when her eyes fell upon the mark Skaroa had left me. It was a look of recognition. “You have no idea the trouble you’ve found yourself in by bearing that mark, Mister Freslight.”

I strangely found myself agreeing with her….

Next Chapter

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