The Path Ahead – 3.04

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Kowler POV

Alice’s home was a lot bigger than one would expect from a family of middle-class shopkeepers. I had actually asked Alice about it once. She said that her mother and father bought it before she was born. The property was supposedly rundown and riddled with overgrowth, but they had fixed it up with some help from one of the families that were carpenters, and it now served as their home.

It stood two levels tall, like the Sylphide but wider, nestled into the base of a hill. Considering that its placement was on the side of the river where most of the agriculture was done, grass stretched from the surroundings unhindered for a bit, with the sole exception being the pathway leading to the porch stairs. The raised porch was made from polished wood, with thick beams rising in intervals to support the balcony and flat rooftop, and there was a single tree that stood at its side like a sentry.

The interior was lovely, with the windows catching the light to brighten what served as the family room when the fireplace wasn’t a necessity outside of winter. The floor was solid wood, covered with rugs and kept from being bare by furniture that they had placed about. On the right side was the stairway leading up to the bedrooms for Alice and her parents, while the guest bedrooms were on the left.

“We don’t usually have guest who spend the night, so it’s rare that we use it otherwise,” Alice’s mother said as she offered me the use of the closest guestroom to the exit. The room was pristine in the light, even if it lacked anything beyond the basics. There was, however, a small basket on the top of the dresser similar to the one at the shop. “I was expecting you this time, so I cleaned it up and added a small place for your companion to sleep.”

“Thank you,” I told her as Aeria fluttered from my shoulder and to her makeshift bed. The wind spirit jumped up and down on it, testing the materials, before flying over to thank our host. “I’m happy that we left a good enough impression that we were allowed to come back.”

A small laugh slipped out at that. “I remember you were so nervous then… Then again, Alice surprised us all, didn’t she?”

I could only nod in agreement, despite Alice’s grumbling in the background. The last time Alice had brought me to her home it hadn’t been planned or announced for the most part. It was an… interesting experience.

“I’ll get started on dinner now,” Miss Pyralis said as Aeria fluttered over and rested on my head. “Make yourself comfortable, and get some rest if you need it.”

Alice sat down on the bed once her mother left and slipped out of her shoes, leaving only her socks adorning her feet as she rocked them side-to-side over the edge of the bed. Her brow was creased in a manner that suggested she had a question on her mind.

I indulged her as I pulled out the wooden case and began unshrinking our luggage. “You can ask me whatever you wish, Alice.”

“That saying Ma recited earlier in the shop,” she said. “What was it?”

I sighed. I was hoping she hadn’t heard that. “It was the creed of the Freslight family, nothing more. I was a bit surprised because it is only known in certain circles.”

“Oh.” She tilted her head. “Ya never really talked much about yer family.”

“There’s not much to talk about,” I told her as I finished unshrinking her bag first. My family was as different from hers as night was to day. “The Freslights are a fallen branch of a magus clan that went into business. That’s about all that needs to be said.”

Whether or not she believed me I wasn’t certain, but she let the topic drop. “I’m gonna go catch up with the folks in town. Want me to wait for ya?”

I shook my head as her bag finished growing back to its normal size now. “I’m going to get some sleep. I’ll see you at dinner.”

She leaned down and gave me a short kiss on the cheek before leaving the room.

I brought my hand to my cheek. The spot was warm, a lingering sense of affection that stirred at my heart. I moved to the doorway to watch the cherry-haired witch speak to her mother on the staircase leading up to her room, a smile on her face.

Then I shut the door and leaned against it. Knowing what I did now, what I was hiding from her, made it hurt more. My knees lost strength, causing me to sink down to the floor, and I started at my bandaged arm in silence.

Aeria, who had been on my head until now, floated down. She was uncharacteristically silent, which was a testament to the weight of what was unfolding. In a soft and caring voice, she asked, “Are you okay?

“It’s just from the talk with Magister Atra,” I told her as I forced myself to stand. Wrenching open the window, the warm breeze that flowed in rustled my clothes. From my bag, I pulled out a jar for her to take. “Aeria, can you go to the spot where Alice was hurt and gather the dirt into the jar? I need soil samples to check on my suspicions about what was said that night in the sanctuary.”

She nodded and grabbed the jar. Then she took off, straight through the opening, a green blur abruptly venturing out of my sight. Normally, I would be worried about leaving her to her own devices. But as long as she wasn’t bored or distracted she would be fine without me guiding her hand.

A yawn escaped uncontested as I sat on the bed. I truly did feel tired in body and mind. I needed the sleep between now and dinner if I was going to pull myself together.

I removed my shoes and lay atop the bed. The softness of the pillow was like a snare that wrenched me from the waking world and into a vivid memory of the night when the magister had caught up with us….

~~~~~

Space itself twisted, and the world felt unhinged. Then Aeria and I were suddenly in the Sylphide, via some form of magic, rather than the ruins. It twisted again. This time the magister emerged from the distortion with Alice in her arms.

“Show me to her bedroom,” she ordered. “I’ve cast a spell to help her recover from the strain she’s undergone, but she won’t wake for quite some time and we have much to discuss.”

I complied silently, if only because I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening. Leading her up the stairs, I opened the door to our shared bedroom. The room was dark, the moonlight spilling in from the window and the glow of the Entwined Lotus not nearly enough to banish the shadows.

With nary a word, the lantern in the room was set aflame by the magister as she entered. She set Alice down on the bed. “I’ve done what I can for her, but you’ll need to monitor her for the next few hours.”

She pulled out her wand and pointed it at the marking that was etched upon my arm. “Now we need to deal with this. Walking around with that mark exposed is liable to get both you and her killed.”

“With all due respect, Magister Atra, what is going on here?” I finally asked, moving my arm out of her line of fire. Aeria was atop my shoulder, silent but standing with her hand braced against my neck like a sentry in her own right, despite her exhaustion. “The higher fire spirit mentioned the mark was only recognizable by enemies and allies, and I’m less inclined to believe you are the former.”

The magister lowered her wand and turned her back to us. Gently brushing aside her long black hair revealed the nape of her neck. Her slender fingers reached for something there and grabbed hold. They pulled, and the seemingly normal skin peeled away to reveal more pale skin.

Only it bore the same mark as my own arm. “For the foreseeable future, I am an ally in service to Lady Skaroa, Mister Freslight.”

I frowned, my mind putting together the pieces while she replaced the false-skin covering. Alice had often told me of how the magister had always been fair, but when I considered how often she came looking for Alice it started to make sense. “You knew about the spirit being the source of Alice’s magic the entire time.”

“Yes,” she admitted. “To be more exact, until tonight I was the only one. I take it you’ve both joined one another, and realized the true purpose of the contract?”

How did you—” I set a finger on Aeria’s mouth before she could confirm it.

It was too late judging by her following dialogue. “You should be careful trying that here. The sanctuary is so rich in mana that joining with one another is both essential for survival and at its easiest. I trust it goes without saying you do not want to reveal that form to anyone else either, especially not when the enemy has already come to the Academy once.”

“When was this?” I asked in a less than polite tone. It has been a stressful day. “Do they know of Alice?”

She sighed. “No, they are not aware. It was when the Trolls came down from the mountains. They were a distraction to keep the staff and students away while they did what you saw in the ruins, trying to open the path to the sanctuary. If they were aware that Lady Skaroa was within the sole student outside the safety of the walls then she would have gone missing, and you would have been killed, both blamed on the monsters.”

“What about the incident with the forest?” If they were the ones responsible for the mana leaking out then it was possible it had been a trap. “If they recognized the color of the flames she sent up, then they would know that a student held the spirit inside of her.”

“No, you underestimate how tightly I keep information controlled regarding her in the academy.” Sapphire-colored eyes turned towards Alice. “Outside of yourself and your elemental, everyone else only remembers a large pillar of regular fire. Memories are pliable in regards to simple details like color.”

“You’ve tampered with their memories….” My brow creased further as I realized something. That incident with the Trolls on the ground, I had thought it odd how she could seemingly read my mind. But what if she could? “This wasn’t the only time either, and they weren’t the only ones, were they? You’ve tampered with our memories and invaded our minds too.”

“Several times in your cases,” she admitted without shame, only practiced neutrality in her tone. “Her proximity to the pair of you made it so that you were both a constant in her life, and merely changing a detail of a memory wasn’t sufficient in some cases. Occasionally, I’ve had to do a little supplanting on you. Memory-altering magic merely creates an event or image in the mind and substitutes the connections used to call the real memories, so your mind goes towards those false memories instead. Spirits are trickier to deal with, but I have more than ten years of experience on that end.”

I took a step forward, muscles tensed and bristling with anger. My mind, the one place where no one had any right to trespass, had been violated. Judging from how the atmosphere itself tensed, Aeria felt the same. “How dare you—”

Her wand was at my throat before I could finish and my muscles were locked into place. Aeria was sealed inside some kind of translucent magic sphere she couldn’t break as well, her power limited to the space she was in. “Make no mistake, I am aware I have violated several laws and ethics to protect My Lady. The fact that she entrusted you with her mark is why we are having a discussion, rather than the alternative.”

“The discussion being ‘comply or lose your memories’ isn’t remotely fair,” I pointed out through gritted teeth. It may have been foolish given the circumstances, but the thought of someone rooting through my memories and tampering with my mind, violating my privacy to that extent, more than unnerved me.

“If life were truly fair then things like persecution would not occur,” she countered softly. Though, it felt like she was speaking towards herself, rather than me. “We must accept reality for what it is before we can even attempt to defy and change it. More so when there are those who would kill you where you stand to protect their own secrets.”

I didn’t say anything back. If forced to admit it, I was honestly afraid. For someone to trespass in the domain I held the most pride in so easily, without me knowing, and had me so thoroughly bounded I couldn’t resist if she did something to me… what was stopping her from erasing my memories and taking Alice away this instant? If these supposed enemies showed up, what could I do to stop them?

“Personally, I do not care if you loathe me,” she stated bluntly after the minute of silence passed. The tone of her voice did nothing to betray that statement either. It was completely nonchalant, the softness that was present before absent. “But we are allies, who have this young lady’s best interests at heart, correct?”

I nodded in silence.

“So, I will remove my wand and release both you and your elemental. We will then go to your workshop and discuss this matter in a civilized manner. You will tell me what was discussed in the sanctuary, and I will cover that marking on your arm. Understood?”

What other choice did I really have if she could subdue us this easily? “…Fine.”

We left Alice in the room and made our way back down the stairs. It was then, arriving back on the store floor, that I recalled how we arrived here. “Our store has wards in place against entry like how you brought us here to prevent theft. Did you subvert them?”

“I already told you that I would do anything to protect Lady Skaroa,” she said. “From the moment Miss Pyralis received permission to stay here, I had an anchor in place to allow me free passage here, no matter what.”

I grumbled under my breath again at the invasion of privacy, but she ignored it until I got the door to my workshop opened. The room was still intact since I had left, with minor scorch marks on the floor from where Alice had fallen and was set aflame. The memory of it reminded me of the burns on my hand, and how they were suddenly absent. When did they fade?

Magister Atra entered and proceeded to cast a number of spells. When she was done, she closed the door and locked it. Then she gestured to the scorch marks on the ground. “Please start with what happened here.”

Less than eagerly, I told her about how Alice and I were deliberating on the source of the concentrated mana when she spontaneously combusted. Then there was the journey through the forest in the dark, guided by the light of the dragonfly that had manifested. Finally, I told her of the quest that the spirit of flames had put forth.

“She’s put herself to sleep,” the magister said, once I had finished. There was a note of sadness to be found in her voice. But she quickly drew herself up and continued on. “It was for the best. If I don’t have to worry about Miss Pyralis having a sudden flare up, then I can offer some assistance in looking into the Archidoxia locations.”

“Are there others who can assist?” I asked.

“Very few. Our enemies are greater in number. Those of us who survived have become isolated and clandestine by nature….” Her eyes fell on the marking on my arm again. “Speaking of which, we need to cover that up right now.”

I tensed as she pointed her wand towards me. A spell flew into me and both my arms were numb and paralyzed. That made me more than a little worried. “What exactly will this entail?”

“I’m going to flay enough skin from one of your arms to graft it onto the other,” she explained calmly. “And once that’s done, I can force the skin to grow again from the donating arm. It will be sore for a time, but in a week it will be as if it never happened.”

~~~~~

No sooner than the moment her spell flayed the skin off one arm, I was jostled awake by something crashing onto my stomach. Both were painful in themselves, only the jar I had given Aeria hurt less, despite the soil packing the inside of it. The elemental herself was fluttering above it, her arms and legs dangling. “Why did you drop it on me?”

It was too heavy for me to hold it up anymore,” Aeria said in her defense. She then frowned as she lowered herself onto my head. “This dirt doesn’t feel right, like she said. Even the flowers and grass won’t grow where I dug into it.

“We’ll test my hypothesis when we get back home…” If my suspicions and the words of the fire elemental were correct, contact with the Devourer sucked away not only portions of the spirit itself, but that of the earth around it. It could take centuries to restore life to that part of the land in particular.

Once on my feet, I could see the soft orange light of the fading sun in the window. Evening had come while I slept. I hadn’t even unpacked my bag, or continued going over my notes on spirits like I had planned to in the wake of everything. Time lost I supposed.

I placed the jar next to Aeria’s makeshift bed. That was when I heard the hinges of the door creak. I turned to see Alice poking her head inside. “Yes?”

“Ma’s finished now,” she said. “Both of ya c’mon and eat with us.”

Aeria rejoiced at the thought of eating. She perched herself onto Alice’s head with a leap and a brief working of her wings. Alice pulled her head out of the gap between the door and frame, giving it a slight push to open it up. I followed after them, shutting it behind me.

There were four seats at the round table in the kitchen, two of which were occupied by Alice’s mother and father. There were five plates, all with the meal that had been cooked atop them. There was one smaller than the rest, positioned between the ones set out for me and Alice, with a napkin folded to make a cushion for Aeria to sit on. We took our seats and the meal proceeded, during which I took a moment to pause and simply observe everyone.

Aeria was entranced with her food, savoring it rather than listening to anything that didn’t involve or interest her. Alice was regaling her father and mother with a story about something that went on during a class, to which her father laughed abruptly. Her mother was silent as she ate with a sort of practiced grace that I saw in my own mother, only far more relaxed and casual as she smiled at certain points.

It was a nice scene, I would admit. It had never been like this the few times my family had eaten together. Not this peaceful and calm.

I turned my attention back to my plate and wondered if I was envious that Alice had been so lucky to have such a life… A father who was protective… A mother who was kind and compassionate… If only things were that simple on my end….

My head snapped up when Alice tapped me on my shoulder. I noticed that the three of them were staring at me, and the atmosphere seemed different somehow. “I’m sorry. I must have drifted off.”

Alice’s mother slightly furrowed her brow. “Maybe you should get some more rest after dinner then.”

“That might be for the best after all,” I agreed. “But what was the question?”

“That nosy witch sent a message to Ma and Pa,” Alice grumbled. “They want me to take another class rather than help out at the shop, but I’m tellin’ them ya need me there more.”

“Now firebug, ya know why we sent ya there in tha first place,” her father chimed in. Then he turned his gaze to me, and the eyes he reserved for Alice turned into a glare. “Tell her boy.”

If I agreed with Alice, I would upset her parents by having her focus on her personal relations over schooling, which was the primary reason they sent her to the academy. And if I agreed with them, it would upset Alice by making it seem like her help wasn’t needed further. There was no win to be had here.

“I… agree that you should prioritize your education,” I settled on.

“Priorities,” her father added, making things worse for me.

Alice pouted, her eyes narrowed and her brow creased. To say she was upset would be an understatement, even if she didn’t voice it. She left for her room in silence the moment she finished her food.

I sighed. I suspected that the next few days would be rather tense and unpleasant. I would have to try and explain to her that I was only doing what was best for her at some point.

“I’ll go and talk to her in an hour or so, after she’s calmed down,” Alice’s mother said, as if she read my mind.

After dealing with Magister Atra, the only thing that drove the thought that she actually didn’t was the fact that she was not capable of magic. Much less what I was assuming to be an esoteric branch of a specialized field. I could only chalk it up to motherly intuition then.

“Thank you,” I told her, my eyes never leaving my plate. “Alice and I both went to Amadeus for an education. Just because I couldn’t learn anything else from there and left doesn’t mean she should do the same. The magisters there can teach her much more and… while I enjoy spending time with her, I can’t allow myself to be the reason that she devalues her education, or ruins her future.”

“That’s a very considerate thing of you to say,” she replied, her soft smile returning.

Dinner wrapped itself up after that. She and her husband insisted on doing the clean-up, and that I got some rest. I thanked them and then returned to bed, feeling more tired than I had before.

Next Chapter

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