Episode 4: The Young Blacksmith

      While I spent my days being a scared child living in at an Inn with a guardian angel, the Second Yunai Invasion raged across all of Azirin. The Yunai were creatures that fought us in two instrumental ways. The first was through a kind of mind control, wrenching our autonomy away and willing us to do their bidding, and the second was through the use of their vile mechanization. The machines were bad enough, but their armor plating was so impervious that not even the strongest metals could pierce it.

      Soon enough, however, magical powers and Azerin engineering came together to form a new weapon. It was a blade of crystal, forged in magical flame and sharpened to a point so fine it could cut any surface. They were the first step toward defeating our foes, and the Army of the Northern Kingdom was glad to add them to their ranks, recruiting their finest soldiers into the Order of the Crystal Blades.

      As the Yunai closed in on Udiria, they began to face off against more magically-trained soldiers. We soon discovered that those attuned to our magical arts could also withstand the mental barrage of the Yunai, many times preventing them from taking control of their minds. This strength, combined with a crystal blade, made the soldiers incredibly powerful against the invading enemy. In addition, the magic users began to manipulate their powers to fight back, sometimes even wresting control of a Yunai!

      At this point in the war, someone that had interacted with a Yunai became known as a Shadow Speaker. Those that resisted the Yunai were called Shadow Knights, and those that succumb to the enemy’s assault became Shadow Sleepers. The Shadow Knights and the Order of the Crystal Blades became the assault force that the Northern Kingdom needed to finally start pushing back the Yunai. We interrogated creatures when we could, and the Udirians discovered that they could shatter the crystals that powered the Yunai machinations if they created special weapons that resonated at certain frequencies. The weapons were large, and they took time to warm up, so they took on the name of Monster Cannons.

      In a few short months, the massive organized efforts of all these citizens across the Northern Kingdoms started to pay off. Udiria became a military stronghold that saw groups of soldiers passing through on a daily basis. They dragged, rolled, floated, whatever they had to do to move further toward the Yunai front lines.

      And it worked.

      The Yunai were powerful beings, existing outside of our physical realm, and they relied heavily on their assaults of the mind and machine to be a successful invader. When the Northern Kingdom assaulted the Yunai with their new weaponry, the foul creatures were forced to retreat. We had stripped them of their teeth, and we gladly pushed them out of our lands. The magical schools of Udiria mandated that all magical users be trained in Yunai suppression techniques, and we even began to learn spells that could help us rip the Yunai from the minds of those already under assault.

      Our armies pushed them back, all the way back to the dark doorway, into the depths of our world, until they were… gone.

      Of course, they were never really going to be gone. They didn’t exist in the same plane as us, so we knew they would likely be a threat to us for now and forever. Their monstrosities of war, however, we could deal with, and as we pushed them into the darkness of the void, their nightmares and whispers went silent.

      In Udiria, a new type of magic user emerged. Those who had become Shadow Knights soon began to speak with the Yunai outside of approved means. The Udirians made laws to ban such behavior, but like any newly illegal activity in a society, the practice simply slipped underground.

      Meanwhile, soldiers returned home to their families, the magical schools of Udiria went back to training magic as a form of art, rather than one of war, and life began to return to a stability that it had not seen since the Yunai first emerged in Azirin.

      My father never came back from the war.

      I wasn’t the only boy made an orphan by the Yunai, but it sure felt like it at the time. In Udiria, war stories started to emerge about the Order of the Crystal Blades and Shadow Knights. They said that some of those brave souls had discovered dark secrets behind the dark doorway, and they had passed through to keep those evils at bay and protect us for eternity. I allowed myself to believe that my father had wound up there, at those battles, and that he had passed through the doorway and stood as a defiant soldier keeping me safe so that I could live a life of peace.

      When I was much older, I eventually looked into it. I tracked his route with the army and the trail went cold in the Zarthan Plains. A massive Yunai creature ambushed over two thousand soldiers there and wiped them all out. Only a handful of survivors made it back to tell the tale. The truth, most likely, is that my father died there in that ambush, long before he ever would have reached the front lines.

      All those lives lost… it hurts to think about, even now.

      The patron of my current childhood must have reached the same conclusion about my father. It became official that Lady Sonea was my guardian, and she introduced herself as such. I ignored her, of course, as I ignored many things at this time, and she seemed content to let me play it out, so the trend continued for some time. She eventually teased me out of my small room, and she treated me more like a young boy than a scared animal. Eventually, I started speaking to her and she offered me chores to do around the Inn in exchange for money so that I could buy treats from the nearby candy store. Sonea made it her duty to have me grow into a boy like all the others. I learned to read under her watch, how to be proper, how to clean and play and anything else that you can imagine. I learned it all from her.

      It was on one day, eleven years old now, that I met Appoleon for the first time.

      I remember that day because it was special for two reasons…

      When I wanted to travel to the candy shop, Lady Sonea would assign me a chaperone. I didn’t see the point, to be honest, but my chaperone was usually a young woman named Evanor, and she laughed with me and talked with me, so I didn’t complain much.

      She was Sonea’s apprentice, but she almost looked like a younger version of Sonea. She had matching long black hair and bright blue eyes. At the awkward age of eleven I was crossing the threshold between thinking that girls were evil and that they were the sweetest creation in all of Azirin. Whenever I bought my candy from the small store in Udiria, I made sure to share with Evanor so that she would want to come with me again the next time. I don’t think she had much choice, but I hope she at least enjoyed the candy.

      Evanor was at least five years older than me and she was deeply dedicated to her studies. When she wasn’t escorting me around at Sonea’s request, she was off studying so that she could become one of the most powerful magic users in the world.

      It was on one such day that I was sitting in the candy store trying to find my favorite treat. Evanor expressed the most dreadful sigh, and I looked back at her to see she was tapping her foot while staring me down.

      “You don’t have to stay here,” I said casually. “I don’t know what I want yet.”

      “Right,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to leave you here just to have Lady Sonea rip me apart back at the Citadel. Hurry it up.”

      “I’m fine, Evanor,” I assured her. “I know the way and I’m a fast runner. The streets are crowded. I’m not in any danger. Go on home.”

      Evanor squinted at me. She was born to follow rules, but she was still a child herself, and I had been a particularly annoying burden today. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll trust you to keep this between us?”

      “Oh, certainly,” I answered.

      “Fine. Please don’t get lost or killed or kidnapped. Okay?”

      I laughed. “Go on!”

      Despite her clear internal conflict, Evanor turned and left the candy shop, leaving me all alone too look behind the display case at all the candy I could afford. I remember that I would always look over the enchanted candies on the top shelf of the display case. They were spinning, or jumping, or sparking; delicious toys that doubled as treats. I would have liked to eat one of them, but it would have cost me an entire week of Sonea’s reward money. I was far too impatient for that, so I found myself constantly limited to the sweet cinnamon ribbon candies or green apple taffy.

      I was concentrating on the sugary treats so deeply that I didn’t even notice when another boy entered the store. My first clue that someone else was in the room with me was the dirty hand that came to rest on the display glass near where I was trying not to press my face. I looked to my left to make a comment that the boy needed a wash, but I bit my tongue when I saw just how filthy he was. From top to bottom he was covered in grime and soot.

      “Haylow!” he said to me with a big smile that revealed brilliantly white teeth. “You one of the new recruits in from Lederan?”

      “Uh, no, I’ve been here awhile,” I replied. “My name is Sionis.”

      “Appoleon!” he said loudly, extending his gritty hand. “Nice to meet you, Sionis.”

      As much as I didn’t want to dirty my hands, I wasn’t one to offend others for no reason. I took his hand and shook it, reminding myself I’d need to scrub it extra hard before I ate my candy back at the Citadel. When he gripped my hand tightly, the first thing I noticed was how squishy my skin felt compared to the callous-hardened fingers that held mine.

      “The pleasure is all mine,” I said politely. “Are you here to buy some candy?”

      “Oh yeah,” Appoleon said proudly. “I’m here for the spinning candy snapper.”

      The candy store owner swept in at Appoleon’s words. The spinning candy snapper was one of the most expensive treats in the store. He quickly stepped over, but looked less than excited once he got a look at Appoleon.

      “Do you have the coin?” the shop owner asked, clearly expecting Appoleon to decline.

      “How much is it again?” Appoleon asked.

      “Two silver,” the owner said firmly.

      “Ohhhh,” Appoleon said, sounding deflated for a moment. “I guess I can only buy two then.”

      With that, the boy snapped his dirty fingers and four shining pieces of silver were pinched between them, shiny and unstained from all the grit.

      I nearly gasped.

      That was a lot of money for a young boy to be walking around with. I would have had to clean the whole Inn top to bottom just to get a silver piece out of Lady Sonea. The store owner obviously felt as skeptical as I did, taking the four coins and giving them a closer look before bothering to open the display case to retrieve the treats.

      As he handed the candy to Appoleon, the boy looked to me with a sly grin. “Well, I can’t very well eat both of these. You want one?”

      After that display of kindness, Appoleon was my best friend. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the streets of Udiria and talking about what we would do if we could make our own magical snacks. I learned that Appoleon was a blacksmith apprentice who worked outside of Udiria during the day and returned to the city in the afternoon because his family lived here. Becoming a blacksmith wasn’t his only goal in life, however. He wanted to someday join the Order of the Crystal Blades in their crusade against evil that remained in our world. He told me that his father was a well-known alchemist and he did well for the family, but that his skill with chemicals must have skipped a generation. At only eleven years old, Appoleon seemed so very mature and relaxed. He knew the names of the nearby towns and he told me stories of the Second Invasion that he had heard from travelers who came to his father’s shop.

      It wasn’t until it was too dark to see much behind the magical street lamps that I remembered I was supposed to be back home hours prior. I thanked Appoleon for the fun and asked him if I’d run into him again. He assured me we’d meet soon enough and I rushed back home as fast as I could.

      I reached the front entrance of the Inn to see the keeper sweeping the front stoop as she did whenever the children’s curfew had passed. The popular opinion was that she was a failed magic user that dropped out of the Citadel Academy. She now got pleasure from trying to ruin other students who stayed out too late. I doubt that was the case, but an eleven year old believes a lot of silly things. I stopped short of the doorway and desperately wished that I could just be back in my room. I thought about my bed and my toys and in my mind I was able to generate a mental picture of the location. The sudden visual image felt real, like it was right in front of me, so I reached for it. I’m not sure if I physically lifted my arms, but I took one step forward and stepped from the street outside into my lit room on the second floor of the back hallway inside the Inn.

      I had just performed my first magical spell.

      I felt like the most powerful wizard in the universe. I had, quite accidentally, accidentally teleported across time and space to slip past any danger. If I could do that…

      “Hello, Sionis,” Sonea’s voice ripped the feelings of ecstasy away without hesitation. I slowly turned to see her sitting on my bed with a frown on her face. “Out late?”

      “Yes,” I admitted. “I’m sorry, but did you see what I just did?”

      She seemed to hesitate. “I did. That was magic, Sionis, there’s no doubt about that.”

      “I was outside and then I was in here,” I explained. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I just didn’t want to get caught and then I kind of like… imagined myself here and I was here!”

      “That’s very impressive,” she said. “I’m very proud of you, Sionis.”

      “Does this mean I can be a mage?” I asked.

      Sonea grinned. “Well now, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Let me ask you something, little mage, do you think you can come home when you’re supposed to?”

      She hadn’t shrugged that little thing aside, despite my marvelous magical performance.

      “I can,” I said slowly.

      “Do you think that you can honor the wishes of those who have authority over you?”

      “I can,” I said again.

      “So if you decide you want to dismiss young Evanor instead of coming home with her, I suspect you’ll suppress your desires and do what you’re told instead?”

      I nodded firmly. “I am sorry. I meant to come back sooner. I met another boy. His name is Appoleon and his father is—”

      “Oh, I know the boy’s father,” Sonea interrupted. “I doubt he wanted his boy out this late either.”

      “You can’t tell!” I practically yelled. “I just met him and I want to be friends. If he gets in trouble he’ll think I told on him and then we won’t want to be my friend at all.”

      Sonea frowned but her face eased and she rested a hand atop my head. “I suppose I can let it slide just this once. Now go to bed, young one. We can talk more about your little demonstration when we’re both rested.”

      “Thank you, Sonea,” l said, feeling overwhelmed.

      She gave me a pat and stood from my bed so that I could scramble under the sheets. She shook her head and stepped toward the doorway, taking one more look back at me with a gentle smile. “Sleep tight, Sionis.”

      “Goodnight,” I said, already closing my eyes to dream of my magical prowess. “I love you.”

      I said it without thinking about it. It had been ages since I had slipped into bed with the comfort of a loving figure there to give me warm wishes. I spoke the words as a child would say to their parents. I loved her as I had loved them. She had given me happiness.

      I rolled over on my side and tried to force myself into the dream world where I could escape the embarrassment of my words.

      There was silence for a long moment, but I remember as the door groaned with its closing swing, she said in a near whisper, “I love you too, little mage.”

      That night, I had dreams of unending power and magical dragons.


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