With Kaellax’s help that summer, my fifth year studying in the Academy went by with a breeze. I wrote to Maron regularly, studied as hard as I could, and paid very little attention to the world around me. My skills in fire skyrocketed and Angus soon told me that I was on track to surpass my grandfather as the youngest Flamecaller on record.
Of course, my studies in other magics continued to give me trouble, but my skills harnessing the basic elements of the twisting aether came all too easy now. In one year I went from barely able to produce an magical shield to teleporting clear across the city.
I turned 18 and ignored any notion of a celebration.
Angus wouldn’t let it slide, however, and took the time to teach me the magnificent fire spell known as the Dragon’s Breath. It was a show of skill, and I wasn’t exactly great at it, but Angus assured me it would woo the ladies during the Summer Festival.
When classes let out at the end of the academic year I had climbed the ranks, though I was well behind the most powerful of the young protégés, including the ever-so-popular Lady Evanor. I didn’t mind. She was several years my senior. I had plenty of time to catch up and surpass her.
I had decided to brave a trip south to Stonehaven, but on the final day of classes my plans were changed by a letter from the capital of Lederan.
Dear Sionis Sepher,
Appoleon, Apprentice of the Order of the Crystal Blade, has requested your presence in the capital for the Summer Festival.Signed, Appoleon
P.S. Come say hi!
Well, obviously I had to go.
I packed my things and was ready to head out when I thought about performing magic while I was in the city. If I was going to perform the Dragon’s Breath, I would need a power crystal attuned to the aether. My staff had a potent one, but I didn’t really want to carry it around all the time. Instead, my mind went to the wand that Lady Sonea had gifted me years before. The wand was much smaller than my staff, and it was fairly easy to conceal. I could strap it to my leg and have it ready if trouble popped up.
With that problem solved, I quickly moved on to finding my outfits.
Some people called it the Capital of the Northern Realm, others called it Lederan City, and others just called it the Capital. I think it’s actual name was something like Naradar. Regardless, it was the bastion of human civilization. With the decimation of the Stonehaven realm, the Yunai had effectively pushed all of the population of Azirin to this one region. There were other areas, like Udiria for example, but they were no match for the size and power of the northern kingdom. Almost all of those who had returned to Stonehaven in recent years had come from Lederan, either having hidden there during the invasions, or because they saw new opportunities in the south. All of this meant that Lederan was one of the busiest cities in the world.
The thing was, I didn’t like busy locations.
I navigated through the chaos of the streets for some time before I found the famous palace gardens. There were still plenty of visitors making their way through this area, but most of them were quiet and I could deal with quiet.
The summer air was hot, but the capital was built next to a great lake, and the breeze that blew through the garden helped to cool things down. I found a large marble bench and took a seat there so I could sort through my belongings and find my waterskin. Before I even had a chance to conjure up some refreshment I heard Appoleon’s familiar voice.
I jumped about ten feet, figuratviely, into the air.
He laughed. “Whoa! Now that’s impressive!”
“You scared me!” I shouted.
“No kidding?” he asked.
“How did you find me here? There’s got to be half a million people in the city.”
“Yeah, and almost all of them are anywhere but the palace gardens, so naturally I figured that is where I’d find you.”
I couldn’t help but grin. “You know me too well.”
“I hope you’re ready to suppress that anti-social mentality for at least one night. The summer festival is a fantastic sight to behold.”
“I can do that,” I replied. “Assuming you fill me in on all the details. It’s been years!”
Appoleon laughed. “Deal.”
The sun set on the capital and Appoleon led me out into the fields surrounding the city. There we found large bonfires sculpted to look like effigies of the Yunai monsters that had invaded our world. Magical fireworks erupted as the night sky came to life, the effigies erupted into great blazes, and music filled the air as jovial cheers echoed in the distance.
Celebration like this never existed in Udiria. There were bursts of excitement or joy, sure, but never anything quite this exciting. I became captivated by it all. Then Appoleon broke away from me and vanished into the crowd. I tried to follow, but lost my way. For a moment a deep discomfort settled over me and I thought I might have to teleport out of the chaos. Then, my large friend emerged once more with two young women in tow.
“This is Sellia,” he said, gesturing to one of the two. “This one is Ayla.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said to them both. “Are you friends of Appoleon?”
Sellia giggled. “Maybe. That’s what we’re here to find out.”
Appoleon laughed aloud. “Come on, Sionis! Let’s dance!”
The evening stretched on for hours. I took several drinks, Appoleon took at least ten more. Sellia and Ayla were right there with us, kicking back brews, dancing up a storm, or singing loudly with music they recognized.
Somewhere before the sun rose over the horizon, the crowds began to disperse, the music died down, and the effigies burned their last flames. My head was fuzzy, but I found Appoleon and with Sellia and Ayla we headed back to Appoleon’s meager dwelling. A small open room at the base of one of the many barracks used to house members of the Crystal Blade. The accommodations were nothing special, but more than enough for a young Apprentice.
When we got inside, I collapsed on a chair and tried to fight back the exhaustion that was settling in over my mind. I had worked hard this year with my studies. This kind of party was something I was woefully unprepared for when I arrived.
“Oh, you can’t sleep just yet,” Sellia said, stepping over me and settling down on my lap. “Ayla and I aren’t tired yet.”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “I’m sure—”
She leaned forward, her mouth was on mine, and my eyes went wide. It had been a while since I’d kissed a woman, and despite how wonderful her warm lips felt against my own, I definitely wasn’t prepared for this.
I gently pulled back, breaking her seal, and gave her a tired smile. “You’re too kind, but I am quite exhausted.”
She tilted her head. “Hard to get, eh?”
As her hands lowered from my chest to my stomach, I nervously fidgeted in my chair. “Oh, no! Sellia, please, I’m just not up for any of this.”
“What’s on over there?” I heard Appoleon ask.
I glanced over Sellia’s shoulder and saw him laid out on his bed. I expected Ayla was giving him the same treatment, but I was surprised to see she was nowhere to be found.
Sellia’s hands suddenly slammed into my chest and I felt a magical spell bind me against the wooden chair. I struggled to break the bond, but she was strong. Very strong.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“So chivalrous,” she muttered in response. “It would have been easier if you’d just behaved.”
“I can’t move,” I shouted to Appoleon.
“Oh man,” he replied, groggily. “That’s rough.”
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Just a minor sleep potion,” she replied. “Ayla was supposed to give you the same.”
“I did,” Ayla’s voice responded from somewhere in the room. “He just didn’t drink enough.”
I realized that was why my head felt so fuzzy. These two didn’t realize it, but I’d felt that way hours ago. I had responded by silently channeling aether energy to keep me awake. I just assumed I stayed up too late, not that I was being drugged.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Sionis Sepher, wealthy magic student of Stonehaven, and his childhood friend, a wealthy apprentice? What do you think this is?”
“That’s right,” Sellia said, slipping off of my lap now that she had me properly secured. “We do a little research and pick our targets each year. You two are the lucky winners.”
“Yeah, well there’s a problem with that,” Ayla added. “They don’t have anything of value here.”
“Impossible,” Sellia replied. “Appoleon’s father is a skilled alchemist. Surely he sent some money, or potions, or enchants to his son.”
“Members of the Crystal Blade aren’t materialist,” I said, still fighting my magical bonds. “He doesn’t have anything.”
“That’s what they say,” she admitted. “My experience is that these young recruits hide away something valuable, just in case their holy endeavor doesn’t work out.”
“You’re wasting your time,” I replied.
“Well, Apolleon aside aside, what about you? What have you brought us, wealthy landowner from Stonehaven?”
Sellia moved to my pack and quickly shuffled through my belongings. There she retrieved a fine leather satchel, paper to write letters, and a few changes of clothes for my trip. Then, she nearly squealed when my ten gold pieces fumbled to the floor.
“Not a fortune,” she said as she scooped up the coins, “but well worth that evening of entertainment.”
“A few coins,” Ayla grumbled, sounding frustrated. “This apprentice was a wasted effort. Five gold pieces for the two of us? We could have made more if we’d worked as dancers.”
“Where’s your staff?” Sellia asked me.
“A mage without a staff? I don’t believe it. Where is your staff?”
“I didn’t bring it,” I said.
“Exactly,” she replied, coming over to sit on my lap once more. As she did, her hand went to my leg and I struggled to break free.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” she said with a wicked grin. “Besides, we both know what I want.”
Her hand slipped inside my robe and she pulled my wand free from the strap on my inner thigh. She waved it slowly in front of me.
“Hiding a little weapon are we?” she asked.
She slid off me once more and stepped over to Ayla, handing her the wand. “This is enchanted, and it’s old from the looks of it. That will sell for a lot of gold.”
“No,” I said, struggling. “Please, you don’t understand. I got that wand from a friend.”
Sellia paused, taking a long look at the wand in her hand. “Precious heirloom? Why did you bring it here to the capital with you?”
“I don’t normally use a wand,” I admitted. “I brought it here, just in case there was trouble. Look, just don’t take the wand. I’ll take you straight to the bank and withdraw some gold.”
“It’s that important to you?” she asked.
My mind was flooded with the memory of being handed the wand by Lady Sonea all those years ago, when I was just a child, hoping to someday use magic. She had entrusted me with the wand and now I was going to lose it.
“It is,” I assured her.
“What is the wand’s name?” she asked.
“The wand has a name. You can feel it in the magical energy that it holds. It speaks softly and you must listen for it. What is the wand’s name. Tell me, and you can have it back.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. How could the wand have a name? How could it speak? Was that something wands did?
I was silent for a long moment, trying my hardest to listen, focusing on the wand, on the energy that swirled around it as Sellia held it out for me to see.
It was there.
I could hear something.
“I hear it,” I said, leaning forward as best I could against my bonds. A quiet whisper, mumbling, speaking, but not loud enough for me to hear. I struggled, the seconds felt like minutes. I saw Sellia growing bored with my failure. I was about to offer gold once more, when something entirely unexpected happened.
A mace, flying through the air, whizzed past Sellia and slammed right into Ayla’s chest. The woman crumpled and fell to the floor, but the mace began to glow and snapped back through the air, right into the hands of the young apprentice that now stood tall over Sellia.
“I do not take kindly to this sort of treachery,” Appoleon grumbled.
Sellia simply flicked my wand and Appoleon was airborne, slamming hard into a the stone wall farthest from her.
The use of magic weakened the bond holding me and I seized the opportunity. I rushed forward, tackling the woman to the ground and struggling to wrench the wand from her grasp. She let out a low grumble and then I too went flying away from her.
“Worthless little mongrels,” she said angrily as she stood.
I struggled to stand and I saw her leaning down to check Ayla’s pulse. Then, she looked back at me, gave another wicked grin and waved my wand before she slipped through the doorway and into the night.
I stood, running after her, but a small hand grabbed my ankle and I tripped. I looked to my left and saw Ayla’s face, turning blue and looking terrified. I broke my ankle free from her grip and thought about running outside, but my conscience outweighed my rage.
“I…can’t…breathe…” she said in a raspy voice.
I moved to her side and saw that Appoleon’s mace had landed square on her chest. A blow like that should have broken all her ribs. I ripped open her dress, expecting to see carnage, but was relieved when I saw a tight-fitting metal breastplate. She probably wore it for protection in just such a scenario as this. Unfortunately for her, the hammer had bent the piece in, and she could no longer draw air into her lungs. She looked at me with bloodshot eyes and I saw a level of pleading in them.
Without a second thought, I found the broken clasp on the side of the breastplate and used my fire magic to super heat it to a molten red so that I could break it. The piece fell away and Ayla was suddenly sucking in several fresh breaths of air.
“Thank you,” she said, struggling to form the words.
“Where can I find Sellia?” I asked. “Where did she go?”
Ayla looked terrified and then tears started to well up in her eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t know her. We only met tonight at the festival. She said she was going to make me rich.”
I felt her magical energy, felt the fear in her voice, she was being honest.
Disappointed and feeling enraged, I simply asked. “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” she said between sobs. “I’m sorry.”
I felt a hand come down on my shoulder and turned to see Appoleon standing there with a look of utter defeat. “Well, this wasn’t what I had in mind for your night in the capital.”
Then, I laughed. He laughed too. Ayla kept crying.
The sun would be coming up soon, and Appoleon would get in trouble with the Order if they found out he’d had two young women staying in his bunk all night, even if they had come to rob us. Ayla, for her part, continued to apologize profusely, which then turned into endless thanks when we told her we weren’t going to turn her over to the city guard.
She rushed to her freedom just as the first beams of light peaked up over the horizon.
“What about your wand?” Appoleon asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess it’s gone.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’ll talk to everyone I know. Maybe it’ll show up on the auction blocks or something and I can buy it.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Appoleon sighed. “Well, jeez. How about next time we just stay in for the night?”
“Yeah,” I said in agreement. “We’ll order in next time.”