1.09

I was drowsy, on the edge of sleep myself when I heard the footsteps of someone approaching up the staircase. They were the heavy footsteps of someone in armor, and so my first thought was of that person, XIII, who had opened the temple in the first place.

I nudged Jack with an elbow, jostling them into something resembling wakefulness. Jack’s head shot up, their mouth open to ask a question, but I promptly hissed them into silence.

By now, night had fallen, and the storm practically dissipated; only a few stray clouds blocked out the stars above us, and the light of a thin crescent moon didn’t quite provide enough illumination to see clearly. Up on the altar, though, Jack and I would be obvious to whoever was approaching.

The figure stepped out from the archway, and I could at least be relieved at the way the moonlight reflected off their armor; that silvery light would have just disappeared into the black armor XIII was wearing.

My relief was not long-lasting, however, as within the next few breaths, I recognized the woman I had met at the market – the one who had already been suspicious of me as some thief of temple artifacts. Which, while I was innocent, I was fairly sure the missing artifact in question was the one that had opened the temple sanctum where I now sat alongside a quickly rousing Jack.

(Who, being at the very least some definition of a thief, was probably not a help to my case.)

“You again?” Clearly, she had recognized me as well. “I knew there was something suspicious about you. Hand over the Key, now!”

She put one hand on the sword at her side, the threat implied by it obvious. I flinched, and started as calmly as I could, “I know this looks really bad, but – ”

“But we don’t have your damn key,” Jack cut in, before I had the chance to finish.

“Clearly a lie. How else could you have entered the temple?” The words were accompanied by the quiet sound of her sword being drawn a little higher in its sheath. “The sealing magic could only have been opened by the Key, or another such artifact from one of the other temples.”

I glanced at Jack. “We’re not arguing with that. But we weren’t the ones who opened the temple; we just came in after it was opened.”

The paladin’s stare upon us didn’t lessen; it felt almost like we were isolated in a point of light, the better that she could examine us. “And why should I believe you?”

“You can look down at the entrance,” Jack cut in, their voice full of firm confidence. “Most of the stuff’s packed up, but I’m sure you can still see sounds of them… Once it’s daylight again, anyway.” The last few words carried a note of wry amusement, and Jack gave a little shrug as though to say uptoyouifyoudon’twanttowait.

What I could see of the paladin’s face in the dim light did not look pleased by Jack’s usual joking tone, or perhaps simply the fact that there was actual evidence that she was wrong. Even having only met her twice, I could guess that she didn’t appreciate very much when someone proved her to have made a mistake.

“Then what of this?” she asked, tone still imperious. She drew her sword fully, stepping forward onto the altar stairs as she pointed her sword at Jack. “How is it that you’ve stolen the power of the spirit of storm itself?”

“It’s not stolen!” Jack protested immediately. “Vayesao trusted me – you think the two of us could force one of the spirits to do anything?”

Apparently we were convincingly pitiful in that regard; the tip of the sword wavered in the air, before its owner lowered it to point at the ground. When she spoke again, her voice was less harsh. “I see.”

It still didn’t seem that she was particularly inclined to take our words seriously, but as long as she wasn’t pointing that sword at us anymore, I was much more comfortable with our chances of getting her to listen.

“Regardless,” she continued, “I’m going to have to take you to the temple for questioning regarding this incident. If you come willingly, I won’t be forced to place you under arrest.”

I didn’t have any objections to going with her – it wasn’t as though I had any real plans about where to go anyway – but I didn’t know if the same could be said for Jack. I glanced in that direction, but rather than the nervousness I half-expected to see, Jack’s expression was overfull with excitement.

“You mean, all the way to Luxali?” When the paladin nodded, Jack whistled air between their teeth. “And the church is paying? Hell yeah, count me in.”

The paladin didn’t seem to have been suspecting us to cooperate so easily. She looked at me, and I just nodded a little, which was enough to satisfy her.

“Then, as a paladin of Luzumen, I, Diana Mercy, take you under my protection. Be it within my power, no harm shall come to you until we stand upon the stairways of the Temple of Light.” It was a very solemn-sounding oath, accompanied by an unfamiliar gesture – Diana curled her right hand into a fist, kissing her knuckles, before placing that fist briefly over her heart.

There was a good long moment of silence, after that. A stray lightning wisp drifted into view in the temple doorway, and Diana sheathed her sword finally, turning towards it. “We should get moving as soon as possible,” she said to us, glancing over her shoulder.

“What, at night?” Jack said, and I couldn’t help but agree. The inside of the temple might still have been lit by the lightning-magic above the columns, but the night would be just as dark when we came out the other side of the temple’s stairs. No, even darker – a glance at the moon showed that it was soon to set, depriving us of even that sliver of light. “I don’t particularly relish the idea of trying to get through the forest in the dark,” Jack continued, and I couldn’t help but agree.

Diana didn’t seem to be concerned by the words, however. It seemed like she was smiling, actually, although in the darkness it was nearly impossible to tell. Her voice when she spoke next, however, carried a distinct amount of good humour. “If you’re so concerned, then I suppose I’ll just have to light the way.”

The words of magic she murmured were short and brisk; the accompanying gesture was really more of a flick of her fingers. As I watched, golden light worked its way up her armor from that hand, filling in the detailing of her shoulders, her breastplate, and so on, until Diana herself was a small nimbus of golden light. It was easily enough to see by, even as distant as we were from her, and it lit up the small smile that I had heard in her voice, a warm expression like she had given to the children at market.

I couldn’t help a small awed noise. Jack, in contrast, grumbled and slowly started to lever themselves up from their position against the altar’s back wall. “Alright, fine, you’ve made your point… I was really hoping to go back to that nap…”

I giggled a little at Jack’s comments as I stood up myself, my feet a little wobbly, and made my way down the stairs to the doorway. Diana didn’t wait for the two of us much; by the time Jack and I reached the door, she had already begun descending the covered staircase, leaving us to catch up as best we could in order to stay within the circle of golden light. At least it seemed to scare away the volt spiders; I heard a few small skitters, but none of them approached us.

As we re-entered the area full of wisps, I said to Jack, my voice as quiet as I could make it (although I’d be surprised if Diana could make out the words anyway, over the sounds of her armor), “Why did you agree so easily?”

Jack tilted their head a little at me, and then grinned. “Well, it is a free trip. Plus, if those void people come back to the temple and find that it’s truly empty, it’s probably not a good idea to be around, you know?”

I nodded, and said quietly. “If they were going to try to make a vessel – we kind of did their work for them, didn’t we?” A bit of worry attached itself inside my chest.

“Only if they can catch me,” Jack said, skipping over the last step in the stairway cheerfully. “And that’s another good reason to travel under the protection of a paladin, if you ask me.”

I glanced up at Diana’s back – she was already most fo the way across the room full of wisps, which all shied away from the light of her armor. Indeed, most of them seemed to be trying to cluster close to Jack, perhaps trying to catch one last little bit of lightning magic off the spirit hidden inside. “Well, if you want to stay under her protection,” I said, taking in a slightly larger breath in preparation for a sprint across the room, “then we should probably catch up with her.”

And with that, I took off across the round room, leaving Jack’s laughing cries of “Hey, Aster, wait up!” behind me.

—-

By the time we cleared the forest and were near enough to the town that we were instead surrounded by fields and farms, the sky had lightened enough that the glow of Diana’s armor didn’t make much of a difference in how much we could see. By the time we reached the brick roads of the town proper, I felt weary enough to simply sit and fall asleep against the side of the nearest friendly-looking house. Jack looked as tired as I felt, and even Diana seemed to be showing signs of it; although she held herself just as straight as any other time I’d looked at her, her face had dipped from carefully neutral into a vague frown, her eyebrows scrunched together just a little.

“We’ll take the afternoon ship south,” she said to us, turning away. “Take the day to finish your affairs, whatever they are, and we’ll meet at the docks two hours before sundown.” She turned and fixed us with the stare that had so scared me the first time we met. “Don’t make me come looking for you, do you understand?”

“Loud and clear,” Jack said, with a gesture that was probably some kind of salute. As Diana turned away, they looked at me. “Well, I’m going to go take a nap till then. You coming?”

I shook my head. “No, I’d better leave word for Min, so she knows what happened.” I could leave a message with Maribelle – surely she’d make sure to tell Min. Leaving a letter wouldn’t do any good, though, and I wasn’t sure I wanted Maribelle to know the things we had discovered about my magic. I’d have to consider carefully what kind of message to leave.

“Suit yourself,” Jack said with a shrug, before turning off and heading down one of the nearby alleys. “Seeya later.” And with a wave and another turn around some corner, I was alone in the street, at least as far as my new companions went. Already starting to compose the message in my mind, I headed off towards the square in the center of town, to navigate my way to Maribelle’s from there.

Afternoon came surprisingly quickly; I left my message with Maribelle (ultimately, only that I was headed south and would be travelling for a while; I remembered Min’s suspicion of Diana before and chose to leave that part out) and she gave me a lunch to take with me. It was more than a lunch, really; there was enough food for two large meals, or three small ones, all wrapped together into a large cloth. I thanked her before running down to the docks.

When I arrived, Diana’s bright armor served as an easy enough landmark to point me in the right direction; Jack was already there, still yawning, still practically humming with electrical magic. A few people cast curious glances in the direction of the three of us – being under so many gazes was uncomfortable, and mostly made me want to get underway as quickly as possible.

“Here’s your writ of passage,” Diana said to me, her expression stern as she handed over the folded piece of paper. “We’ll be taking the river to Engel, and from there, taking a short road to the capital before going over the mountains. I hope you told whoever you live with that you won’t be back any time soon.”

I glanced at Jack and almost wanted to laugh. I didn’t think either of us had anyone who would be waiting for our return. Instead, I turned towards the wooden path down to the docks. There weren’t many people left, this late in the day, and only two barges and the single, small passenger craft were still tied up. Even as I watched, the crew of one of the barges began casting off, throwing ropes free and pushing away from the dock with long poles, moving slowly towards the quicker flow of the river.

“Let’s get going, then,” I said, and took the first step.

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1.08

Once I had control of my legs again, Jack and I stepped around the corpse of the spider and continued up the stairs. By then, the storm hovering over the temple had broken; the rumble of thunder reached even through the walls, and as we neared the top, we could also hear the rain pounding against the stone.

The last archway, at the top of the stairs, had no door; there were no signs that there had ever been a door at all. There was also no roof suspended over the columns arranged around the edge of the sanctum – the whole thing was open to the sky and the storm above, with a chill wind blowing between the columns. In spite of that, by the power of some magic, the region of floor within the circle of columns was perfectly dry. Raindrops didn’t even fall below the tops of the columns, so if we had stepped out from beneath the archway, we would still have been perfectly dry.

Still, stepping out was hardly a thing I was eager to do, because the raindrops or lack thereof was only a small detail in comparison to the rest of what was atop that staircase. As Jack had said before, this was clearly the temple’s primary altar, but altar was an inadequate word for it. Three steps led up to a stone platform, but it was not the small table that the word altar called to mind. It was a massive round, almost like the pedestal for a throne, except there was no throne or, indeed, anything else resting there.

What there was, floating a few feet above the ground as though waiting for us, was the spirit of lightning itself. It wasn’t quite correct to call Vayesao a sphere of magical energy, although that was the approximate shape of the spirit; it was a gathering of bolts and electrical arcs, flicking and dancing around constantly, for the most part contained within a series of rings that shifted each shifted its axis slowly. A few trailing bolts connected the spirit to the temple around it; after the earlier encounter, I couldn’t throw the mental image of a spider in its web.

And although the spirit had no eyes (or, indeed, any sort of distinctive features at all to indicate which way it was facing; perhaps spirits didn’t do “facing” at all), I could feel its attention on us. I froze. Jack, moved by some awe or courage, stepped forward; their face showing no trace of fear, only a kind of wonder that looked on the precipice of revelation.

The spirit floated towards us, little fingers of lightning magic preceeding it. They swept across my face, tickling my cheek and sending my hair up with static even further, but they didn’t carry anger, merely a kind of wariness. The spirit itself didn’t make a sound, beyond the crackle of electricity; but I felt a question within those tendrils of magic, somewhere deep in the emptiness where my own magic might have been.

Why have you come? Are you the ones who opened the temple?

I hesitated, unsure of how to address the spirit; Jack, thankfully, spoke up quickly. “We’re not with those people. We were trying to figure out what they were doing.” Their voice had lost much of its joking quality, but Jack still beamed that grin at the spirit. That made me as nervous as anything.

But you travel with one of them. That tendril of thought-magic was directed at me, so when Jack opened their mouth, I held up a hand. I wanted – felt I had to – speak for myself on this one.

“With much respect,” that seemed a safe way to address one of the great spirits, “I don’t know anything about those people, except that my magic is like theirs. Trying to understand why that is is why we came to the temple.” I dipped my head, slightly, and debated asking a question of my own. It couldn’t hurt, could it? “Why is it that you say I’m one of them?”

You have a void of magic. I nodded my head; that much, I already knew. It was what that meant that I couldn’t understand. Vayesao continued, sending the hairs on my arms – already standing upright – ripping as one of the spirit’s electrical currents passed over me. It is those of the void who seek to gather together the spirits within vessels. Always, and as before.

That puzzled me. The last expression – always, and as before – wasn’t quite in something I could perceive as words. It touched on a sense of inevitablility, and a time far beyond anything I could understand, something in a scale that made sense only to the spirits themselves.

I glanced at Jack, who smiled slightly and shrugged one shoulder at me before addressing the spirit once more. “Don’t worry, Aster’s fine. A little dreamy sometimes, but I don’t think she has any nefarious plots to trap the spirits or anything like that.”

Trap them? That wasn’t a feeling I had caught from Vayesao, but perhaps Jack, with a magic that responded to the spirit, understood its communications better than I did. The spirit seemed to be holding back, appraising us, and then I felt a sense of warmth along the crackling sparks.

Acceptance. Perhaps not quite belief, but a willingness to accept our words. My shoulders slumped in relief. It seemed like I would at least not be shocked to death today, for which I was grateful. I’d gotten more than enough of a taste of it from the volt spider. I looked at Jack and mouthed so what now, getting another one-shoulder shrug in return. 

Then perhaps you can be my escape. It was a strange comment, but definitely one the spirit intended for us to hear; I didn’t think that the magic would have carried the thought to us otherwise. I made a questioning noise, half a breath behind Jack’s quiet “What?”

Those of the void would seek to contain the spirits within human vessels, to use our powers for their own ends. Wariness, sorrow; the spirit was communicating more in impressions than words. A feeling of containment, of being trapped – it made me shiver slightly. I couldn’t blame Vayesao for the wariness, if it was suspicious of that kind of feeling. They won’t wait long before bringing a vessel here, and then I will have no choice.

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Jack asked quietly. They wrapped one hand around the fingers of the other, seeming to squeeze in a nervous gesture. “I mean, it’s a great honor, but…”

Spirits without vessels must return to their temples eventually. There was a hint of humour there, in that spark, that crackle of static. We are not so different from humans in that. All things have need of rest.

“Oh.” I couldn’t help but giggle a little, whether at the spirit’s relative good humour or Jack’s simple reaction to it. Jack’s face was a canvas for blank surprise, but it made perfect sense to me that the spirits would have to rest, now that it had been pointed out. They were living magic, but that was still living.

While within a vessel, a spirit sleeps. The words carried a sense of a trance, of a deeper rest than the information we had already been given. A hiberation, perhaps. I would sooner entrust my power to a vessel that found their way here on their own, than one who was brought by those of the void.

Jack and I glanced at each other. That last comment, we could both feel, had been directed at me; while Jack might have cleared the spirit’s suspicions, I had evidently not. But it seemed that Vayesao was willing to trust Jack’s judgement in that regard, at least for now.

“I…” Jack glanced at me again, as though looking for help on the decision. I didn’t know what kind of help I might give, so I just briefly closed my eyes, mouthing do what you think is right. It wasn’t really my place to make this kind of a decision for someone else; even if I didn’t exactly agree with what Jack thought was right, it wasn’t as though the spirit would be inhabiting my body.

But even so, it seemed to be enough to push Jack into a decision. I opened my eyes again to the sight of their face brimming once more with confidence, to that grin from the fountain. “I’ll do it. If it’s really to help.”

The electric hum in the air sounded satisfied, at least to my ears, as Vayesao retreated, half a dozen stride-lengths back, enough that the static wasn’t so clinging and I felt like I had room to breathe again. Then step up to the altar. That last thought was clearly directed at Jack; from here on, I was only an observer, and not ultimately important. The way the spirit’s tendrils of magic curled away from me was a clear dismissal.

I couldn’t say that I minded. In fact, as Jack stepped up to the altar with a certain degree of swagger, I dropped to my knees, and then into a sitting position, resting my aching muscles that still weren’t quite healed from that nasty shock earlier. I kept watch, though, as Jack gave me a little wave before stepping up those three little stairs. I would keep watch as much and long as I was able.

The slow lifting of electrical magic around Jack – the circles of crackling sparks containing them within the altar space – those, I expected, to some degree. I expected the rolling thunder of the storm that seemed, somehow, just beyond the protective walls of the columns. 

I didn’t expect the way Vayesao didn’t simply vanish, but became a bolt of lightning itself, like a sword, like a death sentence, flashing from the sky straight into Jack. I closed my eyes against the bright flash whether I wanted to or not, and squeezed my shirt in my balled-up fists. I expected a scream.

It never came. Instead, the next thing I heard was laughter – Jack’s, and slightly crazed. I looked up, a little afraid of what I might see. The light of the magic around the altar was fading; all that remained was Jack, in the center, still standing but clearly a bit wobbly. 

I was on my feet again and rushed up there before I was fully aware that my muscles could still react that quickly, and just about in time; practically as soon as I arrived, a particularly off-kilter wobble sent Jack crashing into me, my hands not quite enough to keep them from losing their feet and my own legs not enough to keep me from going down as well. We slumped down together, Jack half-hanging an arm over my shoulders, still wheezing with laughing breaths.

“That was… The best damn thing…” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, but Jack kept talking around trying to to catch some breath, so I didn’t really need to. “How many people can say they got struck by lightning from the great spirit itself and survived?”

I could still feel lightning magic coursing beneath Jack’s skin as I forced them into a more vertical position. As long as the power of Vayesao was contained in that skin, I supposed I always would. “Are you sure you’re okay?” I said, trying to keep my voice full of concern, instead of giving in to Jack’s infective near-hysterics.

“I’m fine, I’m great, quit worrying.” Jack waved me off, although they did at least lean out of my grasp without wobbling, which did more to reassure me than the words did. Above us, the storm began to quiet, the constant low rumble decreasing in volume and the pounding rain lightening into a steady sprinkle. “I mean, everything’s buzzing a little, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

That didn’t sound fine to me, but then again, lightning magic had a kind of buzz, so perhaps it was that. “Maybe we should stay here for a while,” I said. “At least until the last of the storm blows over.” Even in the relatively protected space of the altar, the wind tossed through my hair as the clouds continued to disperse.

“…Yeah, okay, that seems like a good idea. I mean – ” And here Jack stopped, their mouth a little open, and yawned. “It’s not like we can get back to town yet anyway. Might as well rest here.”

I nodded my agreement, but I doubt Jack even saw it. They curled up a little against the wind, scooting to put their back against the wall, and as far as I could tell, fell promptly asleep. As for me, I scooted up against the same wall, but more to watch the door across the courtyard, just in case any other volt spiders got ideas about coming up here.

And it was there we stayed, while the clouds cleared and the sun began to set, turning the sky every color but green.

1.07

It was nearly three hours later when the camp was packed and gone, and we were able to finally enter the square. By then, stormclouds had begun to gather overhead, hovering with an oppressing air and blocking out the sun that had just barely started to sink towards the horizon. Jack and I stood at the base of the stairs below the doorway, shooting apprehensive looks at each other, neither quite wanting to be the first to step below the arch.

Finally Jack kicked at the stairs, scuffing one shoe on the stone, and said, “Well, more likely that Vayesao is going to like me nosing in, so I guess I should go first, huh?”

I nodded, shifting a little uncomfortably. It hadn’t been so apparent from the balcony, but now, standing in front of the door, I could feel the ambient energy of lightning magic, raising the hairs on my arms with static. The clouds above, which rumbled faintly every so often, could not be a coincidence. 

Jack’s tone might have been joking, but it was entirely possible that the opening of the temple had drawn the spirit’s direct attention, and even without the storm, that gave me plenty of reason to be nervous. The twelve powerful incarnations of magic itself rarely appeared before humans directly, instead favoring manifestations of their element (including, quite possibly, the storm above our heads). It was even more rare for them to appear before humans who were not gifted with magic in that element, humans who weren’t inclined to follow that particular spirit – and when that did happen, it rarely ended well for the humans in question. Maribelle had told her children the story of such an encounter the night Min and I stayed in town, and Min herself had told me a few more.

There wasn’t anything to be gained by standing around waiting, however, unless you counted the potential for getting caught in the rain. So when Jack began to ascend the stairs, I followed only a few steps after, only pausing briefly to examine the open doors. The runes that had glowed upon them earlier had disappeared entirely, whatever spell keeping the archway sealed gone. All that remained were the intricate carvings of lightning patterns between clouds, set into the grey-green stone.

The inside of the temple, in that regard, was not so different from the outside; the hall was covered and narrow, the same stone and carvings, but the floor was far less worn by weather and footsteps. As we stepped down the path, however, the tops of columns lit up as we passed between each pair – what I had thought was only a gap between the top of the columns and the ceiling was now filled with crackling, blue-green electricity, contained only by a glass barrier. Indeed, although most of the bolts were contained in the glass, some would now and then pass from the top of one column to the other, with a hissing, fizzing static sound. 

I kept my eyes worriedly on those columns, jumping a little when the bolts darted from one to the next. Jack, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned, even exhilarated, with a grin as wide as anything I’d ever seen. “Man, look at this. I can’t believe it just lights up like that, after who knows how long.”

“It’s amazing,” I agreed, continuing to watch the sparks overhead as we came into a somewhat wider area. It was like the square outside in a superficial way, with similar patterns on the floor, but instead of the perpendicular corners, the walls curved in a large, graceful arc, lined with more columns and leading around to a steep stairway on the far side of the room. As soon as Jack entered the room, the sparks from the columns nearest us jumped to the next column along the walls, and then the next, until the entire room was lit by the blue-green light of lightning magic.

The magic lighting the room wasn’t the only evidence of the temple’s nature – as we stepped forward, stray sparks from above began to drift downwards towards us, floating lazily in circles around the room. I tried to keep clear of them, but Jack seemingly possessed no fear of the magic turning harmful. One hand cupped around a drifting ball of magic, Jack turned back to me, still wearing that wide grin that was worrying me as much as any manifestation of magic.

“Relax, Aster, they’re just wisps.” The light in Jack’s hand bobbed up and down a little, before drifting towards Jack’s face and away again, joining the small cloud of wisps gathering around us. I hesitantly reached a hand towards one, which drifted straight through my fingers. It didn’t hurt – in fact, it was fairly pleasant – but the tingle it sent through my arm made me shiver. 

Even one wisp was an indication of powerful elemental magic in a location. Such a large group of them was incredible – no wonder I had been able to feel the power of the magic from outside the temple walls, without even trying to sense anything. Drops of semi-sentient magic, shed by the great spirit of lightning itself.

There could be no doubt that Vayesao resided within in the temple now. And yet before I could voice any worry, Jack started to climb the stairs across the room of wisps, leaving me no choice but to follow.

There were a few more wisps as we climbed, and the air further up was filled with static that pulled up stray strands of my hair from my shoulders. Jack’s hair was in even more disarray, clumping up in spikes that followed after a wisp that arched over our heads. I sprinted up the stairs to catch up with them, my footsteps sounding entirely too loud on the stone. “Jack,” I said, keeping my voice low, “are you really sure this is a good idea?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the curious one?” Jack countered, a little louder than I, but their flippant manner became a little more serious at the sight of my face, where the worry I was keeping inside had to be showing. “Hey, if anything happens, you run. I’ll stay. So don’t worry about it.”

It soothed my nerves a little, but didn’t truly serve to abate my worry about the great spirit that I knew, with increasing certainty with each current of electricity that jumped between the columns above us, had to be waiting at the top of the stairs. And as much as I appreciated the thought, I knew that there was no way that I could leave Jack behind to die. Without any knowledge of who I had been before I lost my memories, I had few enough people that I could consider calling friends.

A few steps on, and the wisps that had been trailing along with us suddenly fluttered away. There was a loud crackle from the lit columns above – one of the stray sparks, rather than going to one of the columns nearby, shot up into the ceiling above us. Over the constant sound of the static, I heard something with too many legs skitter across the stone.

“Volt spiders,” Jack said, looking up at the same patch of dark ceiling. “They feed off the lightning magic, but they’re not anything we need to worry about. The biggest one I’ve ever seen was only about the size of a hand.”

Only Jack, I concluded, would consider a spider the size of their hand “not anything we need to worry about.”

As though on cue, the volt spider on the ceiling scuttled over to one of the other columns, absorbing the bolts in it – the column went dark, its magic drained. Now I could see the glowing outline of the spider, brimming with electrical magic in its large abdomen.

It was not the size of a hand. In fact, the glowing abdomen alone was nearly the size of my head. I glanced at Jack, even as I heard the sound of another spider skitter over us. A small one crawled quickly down the far column, its glowing abdomen about the size of the joint of my thumb.

Jack returned my gaze only briefly, before looking back at the spider we had been watching. “Okay, so that’s a lot bigger than my hand.” I rolled my eyes and just gestured at the stairs – either we could keep going or turn back, but either way, we needed to get moving. Jack nodded, turning back to the stairs. “Forward it is.”

We didn’t get to go very far, however. I heard another sound above us – from the volume, the largest spider yet – and reached out to grab Jack’s shoulder. Fortunate that I did – the motion halted Jack, which was just enough to keep the massive spider that jumped free from the ceiling from landing on either of us.

It was a monstrous thing, with an abdomen the size of a curled up teenager and legs that stood above both Jack and I at the high point of the joints, even without the advantage of the stairs. Its eyes glowed faintly with the power of the lightning magic it had been feeding from – and then suddenly the glow was not so faint, as it charged at the two of us, a loud skitter going down the stone stairs.

I jerked to the side, out of its path; Jack dropped to the floor, and the spider went over them entirely, unable to halt its momentum quickly enough to catch either of us. I saw something metal flashwith the reflection of the lightning columns – a small knife, which Jack sunk hilt-deep into the spider’s underside before rolling out from under it. It made a sound – something like a screech, accompanied by the scratching of its manibles being rubbed together to generate static. 

I swore internally, and gripped the knife Min had sent me off with – it was longer than the one Jack had forced into the thing’s exoskeleton, and the second one they were holding now, in a two-fingered hold that looked better for throwing than for stabbing.

“Looks like it decided on a more substantial meal than magic,” Jack muttered, with a tone darker and more serious than I’d heard before. I only had the time to hum agreement as the spider turned around and charged back up at us, this time directing its attention at me. 

I jerked the knife free from its sheath and side-stepped as best I could, but there was only so far to the side I could get with the columns lining the hall. As it came closer, I used all the strength I had to drag the long dagger upwards through one of the tall joints of its legs. The huge piece of its leg fell freely towards me as it screeched its pain once more. From a few steps behind me, the knife Jack had been holding sailed through the air, just to the side of my arm, and embedded itself into the spider’s face, half of the blade puncturing one of the larger eyes.

I threw the leg off to the side with my forearm, ignoring the smear of spider blood it left across my skin. The creature was still reeling from the loss of its eye, which gave me only a brief moment to act. With the same instinct that had told me where to strike at briarwolves (had they appeared), I lined up the knife and stabbed it downwards, directly in the center of the rough circle of lightning-lit eyes. The spider’s manibles snapped at my leg as I did, slicing open the leg of my pants and sending a shock coursing through my body, flowing from my hip up through my chest and arms to where the knife made contact with the spider again.

My grip on the knife came loose, and I was forced to let go as the spider shuddered, stumbling a step down the stairs. I would have fallen if not for the column behind me, but I was able to support my back against it and remain at least somewhat on my feet. If the spider came at me then, however, I knew I wouldn’t be able to dodge it again.

Thankfully, that potential attack didn’t materialize. Instead, the spider shuddered, blood trailing from the two knives embedded in its head and the one in its belly, and slumped, its legs folding over the body that dropped down onto the stairs. I remained where I was, breathing hard and trying to fight off the shakes caused by the lightning magic still in my system, while Jack cautiously approached the spider’s corpse.

Above us, the sound of skittering had stopped. It felt far too quiet, even with the crackle of electricity still above us, and the wet sounds of Jack freeing our weapons and wiping them on the spider’s back. I let my legs fold, sliding to a seat on the stairs, the column bearing my weight as I propped my feet on the stair upwards of me. Jack came back, with my knife in one hand – their own stowed again somewhere in their clothing.

“Hell of a job,” was their comment as I took the knife and secured it to my belt again. “What happened to you running, huh?”

I just shook my head, laughing a little as my heart finally began to resume its usual rhythm. “I never agreed to that.”

Jack looked a bit surprised, but then grinned in their usual way, and offered a hand to pull me up.

1.06

The temple of lightning wasn’t so much a building as a collection of columns arrayed around a giant staircase, or so it seemed to me as we first approached it, from near the back of the massive structure. There wasn’t much of a roof, just the tops of the columns rounded off by being open to the constant rains of spring and early summer. It was not a well-cared-for building; those who had the elemental magic associated with temple were not particularly common, and these days were more likely to be found experimenting with electricity in the larger cities than in prayer at their temple. The worshipers of Vayesao, the spirit of lightning, were overall a practical lot, or so Min had told me.

When I closed my eyes, I found that I had to make a correction to that. One of those affiliated with the spirit’s magic resided within the temple. I barely had to open my sense to feel it, a hum of magic up the hair of my arms and down my spine, and it was the same feeling as that I had felt from Jack in the square.

That explained why Jack felt at ease in this place – even as I stared up at the columns above us, my companion had already begun scaling the side of the building. It would have been generous to truly call them walls, since they only came up to about my chest, in three or four stair-steps lined with the forest of stone columns. Beyond that, however, was a true wall, easily fifty feet tall, and atop it another twenty feet of columns.

I tossed my head slightly, fighting off a sudden chill breeze, and clambered up after Jack. “Are we going up there?”

“There?” Jack inclined their head towards the high point of the tower, and then shook it in a negative. “That’s the altar, and it’s sealed tight. I don’t think there’s any way in there, unless you can fly like the spirits themselves. We’re going up to the front,” and here was a pause, as Jack grunted from the exertion of hauling themselves up over the last low wall, “since that’s where all our mysterious black-coat folks are.”

I nodded, and followed Jack up – there was an actual path between the columns and the wall here, enough for two or maybe three people to walk side-by-side. Indeed, unlike the tops of the lower walls, here the grey-green stone was worn smooth. When there were clergy at the temple, they probably /had/ walked this path frequently. Jack didn’t much wait for me before turning off to the left, towards the front of the temple, running their hands along the wall.

“There’s a window along here somewhere – Ah, here we go.” Jack stopped in front of the narrow opening, which opened out to a view of the forest between the columns, and swung a leg over the stone sill. “This is how I got out of the place to come find you, since the usual entrances are blocked by those weird guys in their camp. There’s just a few of them right now, but they’re pretty sharp.”

I nodded my head and slipped in the window behind Jack, landing with a muffled noise on a floor that was a bit lower than the one outside. The inside of the temple was the same stone as the outside, but hung with layers of dust and cobwebs. Empty, rickety shelves around us indicated that this had probably once been a library of some sort; the only disturbance in the dust was where we had landed, and a path leading deeper into the temple.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like, where there were still people here, but I didn’t get the chance to wait. Jack was already leading the way along the path in the dust to another door, and I had no choice but to follow.

—-

“See, there they are.”

The front of the temple, as it turned out, was mostly a giant staircase, with numerous steps worn away and broken, leading to a wide square. Jack and I were hidden behind the railing of a balcony overlooking that square, where half a dozen small tents had been erected in the open space between the walls of columns. Below us was another small staircase, leading up to a door worked with runes and emblems of the lightning spirit.

It was this door that the people below us were focused on – three of them, all dressed in long, hooded black coats, and all carrying instruments that were unfamiliar to me, and that, when I asked, Jack couldn’t identify either. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t going very well; the door remained sealed shut.

“That’s all they’ve been doing for a week,” Jack said, as one of them put the flat part of their strange instrument against the door. “They can’t get into the sanctum. Not that I know why they’re want to – I can’t believe they’re going to all this trouble to pray to Vayesao directly.”

I nodded and hummed, but my attention wasn’t really on the people at the door, or the eight people in plain black armor who stood guard in every direction but the one we were watching from. It was on the figure in armor in front of the camp’s largest tent, their head bent to read a letter that one of the guards had brought them while we watched. As I watched, they folded the letter and set it on the camp table, then stood, closing the distance to the trio at the door in loud, metallic strides.

“Step aside,” ordered the figure, in a voice that didn’t carry enough pitch to identify it as male or female, or even to catch any emotion within it. Still, it was loud enough to carry easily to Jack and I, unnoticed on the balcony above.

Jack put a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “That’s the one,” but I was barely listening. My attention was already focused on the impatient figure tapping one foot as the trio in coats stepped aside.

“Our orders are to open the temple,” the figure continued, “with secrecy if possible. As is clear from your complete lack of progress, it isn’t. We will have to use the key recovered from the temple in Luxali – ” and here my attention was diverted, because I remembered that name, remembered the stolen artifact and the Church of Light’s attempts to recover it. ” – so step aside, and let’s get this over with.”

By then, the machinery was cleared out of the way of the door. The figure in armor, however, did not step forward – instead, their helm twisted around, looking at the large tent again, as a figure ducked under the flaps to exit. Like the people moving the machinery, this person wore a hooded black coat that obscured their features entirely; however, gold threadwork on the shoulders and cuffs clearly indicated some kind of rank, and the coat was not nearly as long as the ones worn by the three people quickly retreating away to the edge of the camp. It wasn’t even to its owner’s knees; beneath it were black leggings and tall leather boots.

I glanced at Jack, who shrugged at me in turn. “Haven’t seen that one before,” was the whispered reply. I turned my attention back to the scene in front of us, trying to resist the urge to drum my fingers against the edge of the balcony. Some illogical part of me was convinced that any unnecessary movement or sound would draw attention from below, and put an end to this chance to find answers.

The voice of the hooded figure, at least, was distinctly feminine, higher-pitched and perhaps a bit sensual. Like that of the figure in armor, it was a voice that carried authority; but while the armored figure’s voice held orders, this one, it seemed, held threat. “Now, XIII, aren’t you being a bit hasty? I haven’t even given you the key yet, and besides which, we haven’t found a suitable vessel who was… cooperative.”

Somehow just the way the word was said put another shiver down my spine. The other figure – XIII – didn’t seem bothered; at the very least, there was no change in their posture, but it was impossible to see any expressions through the armor.

“We’ve wasted enough time here, XII,” XIII responded, voice toneless and brisk. “Let’s open the temple and be gone; it’s not as though there’s anyone living here to close it. We can always return once we obtain a vessel.”

“Mmm,” XII hummed in response, “but the use of this key will certainly alert any members of the Church that we’ve been here. They could certainly close it after we’re gone?”

XIII inclined their head upward; the gesture felt familiar to me, although I couldn’t place why for a moment. It was something I did myself, when I was amused, but not enough to laugh. “The only member of the Church in a hundred miles is one paladin girl who only managed to get this close by following the trail of the thief-catcher that you – ” Was it my imagination, or did XII flinch, just a hair, at that? ” – couldn’t manage to lose. She’s of no concern.”

XII folded her arms across her chest. “Fine, then, if that’s how you want it, /you/ do it.” They stepped closer to XIII, fishing in the front of her coat with one hand, before placing whatever object it was in XIII’s outstretched palm.

I risked glancing at Jack again, and, to my surprise, they looked concerned. No, more than concerned – Jack looked outright worried, gnawing on one side of their bottom lip and their eyebrows knit together. I made a quiet noise and dared to speak up. “What is it?”

“They’re going into the temple.” There was a small note of anger in Jack’s voice that I hadn’t heard before. “They shouldn’t be here.”

I was confused, but before I could ask for clarification, I heard a voice chanting quietly from below. XIII was standing at the door, holding the stolen artifact in one hand and tracing the runes on the door with the other, reading them aloud. I risked leaning over the edge of the balcony to try and get a better look – the item in XIII’s hand, lit by a faint glow that was growing stronger with each magical syllable, wasn’t anything like what I would think of a key. It looked like a simple stone sphere, and if it weren’t for the glow of magic, I would have discounted it entirely.

But it did glow, until it was so bright it hurt to look at directly, like the sun at high noon. I averted my eyes, glancing to the side to see that Jack was continuing to watch, a piece of fabric pulled over their eyes to cut off the worst of the glare. It couldn’t hurt. I pulled the collar of my shirt up over my eyes – I couldn’t make out much more than shapes, but XIII’s black armor stuck out enough against the bright light that I could sort of tell what was going on.

When XIII finished the long incantation, the sphere floated up, then entered the door – the glow lessening, but not disappearing, as it settled within a hollow in the stone archway above the door proper. The entire wall hummed, and then truly began to shake; I dropped the fabric from over my eyes to grab onto the railing, but soon the building shuddered to a halt, the door leading deeper into the temple standing wide open. As I watched, the glow of the last few glyphs faded from around the door, the runes of the magical lock disappearing entirely.

At the threshold below, XIII had taken a step forward, looking to be on the verge of entering. But instead, the armored figure just jumped up a little – surprisingly well, considering what the armor must weigh – in order to paw the stone orb out of its new resting place. The key was then folded up into a piece of fabric and tucked into a belt pouch while XIII turned back to the rest of the camp.

“Pack up, we’re done here.” As the other people in the camp scurried to obey the order, I turned to Jack, who was pulling their shirt down away from their face.

I kept my voice quiet, even though it was unlikely that we could be heard over the sounds of the tents being taken down. “They’re just leaving?”

“Looks like it.” Jack didn’t seem very pleased by the development – their eyes kept darting between the door and the camp, only rarely pausing on me. “They’ll be back, though, when they find whatever ‘vessel’ they’re looking for.”

I nodded agreement with a small hum. Yes, they’d definitely return, but who knew how long that would take. It didn’t answer the questions I had now. I wanted nothing so much as to jump off that balcony and run into the camp, to grab a hold of that armor and not let go until XIII gave me the answers I felt /had/ to be there. Intuitively, though, I knew that that was a suicidal idea. Whoever these people were, they didn’t intend to let anyone invade their camp, and I probably wouldn’t even get close enough to ask a question.

I was deep enough in my thoughts that I jumped a little when Jack spoke again. “When they’re gone, we’re going in.”

I made a shocked noise, and even as I turned, Jack continued, “Well, I’m going in. You can come along, or do whatever.” Their voice was serious still, which seemed strange, because even though I’d known Jack only a brief time, they didn’t seem to do anything seriously. Even as I thought it, that jaunty grin popped back into place – “But I mean, who’d turn down a chance to see the inside of the temple, right? It’s been sealed up for centuries – we’d be the only people alive that’ve seen the inside.”

I couldn’t deny that it was an effective argument; the idea of being the only person to have seen something, the only person to know something, took hold somewhere in my chest and wouldn’t let go, slipping fingers of enthusiasm into my ribcage to make my heart beat faster. I nodded quickly. “As soon as they’re gone.”

“Right. Wouldn’t want to be caught in there when they came back.” Seemingly satisfied with my agreement, Jack rolled back onto their stomach to watch the rapidly-demolished camp below. I shifted my position, folding my legs up to rest them against the sturdy part of the railing, and propped my elbows on my knees.

Waiting, I was already certain, was going to be the worst part of anything, and in spite of having the activity of the camp to watch, this would be no exception.

—-

[Previous]

1.05

Morning brought with it sore muscles and a dread of walking any further even before I got out of bed. The makeshift bed I’d slept in Maribelle’s daughters’ room was not much better than the floor in any case. I groaned and sat up, rolling the blankets neatly and putting them in a corner before making my way down the hall.

Breakfast in Maribelle’s house, with her son and two daughters, was already louder than I had anticipated. I descend the stairs after a bit of hesitation, but the four of them hardly even notice me, occupied with cooking and setting out dishes. Only Min seems to notice my arrival, raising one hand to beckon me over to the bench she’s seated on. I slip along the wall to sit next to her.

“The bags are already packed,” she said as I settled into my seat. “They’re in Maribelle’s room upstairs until we’re ready to leave.” I hummed acknowledgment, tapping my fingers on my leg, and we sat in silence for a few minutes, just observing the household going about its routine without us. Eventually, Min continued, “So where did you slip out to last night?”

I stilled my fingers, and took a moment to work my response into words – “I wanted to see what the town looked like at night. I went down to the square and sat for a while, then came back.”

Min seemed to accept my words, inclining her head in something that wasn’t quite a nod, but close enough to get the same meaning across. “What did you think?”

I paused. “It was much quieter than the forest. Every sound came from somewhere, not like the sound of the wind in the leaves.” Min looked amused at that, and spoke up when I went silent for a moment, waiting for her explanation.

“Most people think just the opposite. That cities are loud, and the wilderness is peaceful.”

“They’re not wrong,” I said, thinking of the chaos at the marketplace earlier in the day. “There are a lot of people here. But I think I like their sounds better, and I’d like to see a real city.”

Min hummed thoughtfully, but didn’t reply, and by that time, Maribelle was shooing her children towards the table, and I was more than ready to eat.

—-

It wasn’t until we were most of the way out of the town on the road that the subject came up again. There was no traffic out among the farmhouses today; only a few animals and a pair of farmhands repairing a fence noticed our passing. It was after we’d exchanged called greetings towards their work deeper into the field that Min spoke to me.

“So do you want to go to the city?”

My steps slowed as I thought about it. “I’d like to. But it isn’t very practical, is it? I don’t even know where to go.” Trying to find my way through the countryside without a map – even if the roads went mostly straight to the city, I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea.

“I think you’d do fine,” Min said, as we started to pass beyond the fences. The edge of the forest, where the road narrowed to a trail, wasn’t much farther ahead. “There are people who chase their fortunes there with a lot less consideration and manage to make something of themselves. And there are people who do a lot more preparation and fail, because it winds up not being like what they expected, and they can’t adapt.”

“And I can?” My voice was hesitant; my feet dragged a little on the road, making loud scuffing sounds and sending up a small cloud of dust. The dry part of summer was just beginning; there wouldn’t be much rain until after the autumn harvest. As such things went, it was a good time to travel.

“Of course you can.” Min’s voice was very fond, but there was a tension in it I couldn’t quite pin down and understand. “You started out with no memories, didn’t you? And while I can’t speak to the impressions anyone else had of you, I know that Maribelle and Irvine only thought you were a bit quiet for your age and perhaps a bit on the daydreamy side.”

I flushed a little and tried to sink my head down between my shoulders. I hadn’t even really thought of what they would think of me; I’d had enough to try and figure out after arriving in the town, especially after my encounters with the armored woman and then Jack. The latter weighed on my mind particularly hard; whatever Maribelle and Irvine had thought of me, Jack had certainly caught on that I wasn’t entirely normal, and that had had nothing to do with my missing memories.

(Then again, Jack was pretty strange themselves, so that may not have been the best measure to judge by.)

Min, thankfully unable to see the embarrassment in my face and posture, continued “And if you’re going to go, now is the best time. You don’t have any roots keeping you here yet; best to get moving before something ties you down.”

I hummed, keeping my eyes on the ground until we passed under the shade of the trees. “Are you sure I can go? I don’t want to make things harder for you if I leave – ”

Min’s sharp burst of laughter interrupted the end of my words. “Aster, while I appreciate the thought, I handled things perfectly fine before you got here and I’ll handle them perfectly fine after. If you want to go, then go.”

I smiled. “Okay, then. I’ll go. But I’m still staying the night.” I didn’t think my feet could handle turning around and walking right back to town, much less anywhere beyond that. Plus, I did sort of want to say goodbye to Hedge.

“Of course,” Min replied, as we turned a corner into the familiar field of flowers. “My door is always open for you.”

—-

Although I slept in the same bed that night, I felt like something had shifted, and it wasn’t just that Hedge had crawled onto my stomach and curled up without complaint. Min seemed to treat me a little differently, and we’d actually talked more over dinner than we had in most days, before. I fell asleep with my hand curled up to scratch Hedge under the ears and his purring rumbling on my abdomen.

The next morning I got up and pulled on my boots, and discovered that Min had already put together a pack full of supplies for me. She’d also pushed the long knife into my hands, in spite of my protests – “I can always get another, and you need to be able to defend yourself.” – and some of the few coins she made at market.

By the time I’d had breakfast and was ready, I was nervous and questioning the decision again, but I found that once I’d actually gotten out the door, there was a weight lifted off. I felt more ready, once I was actually on the trail and going, than I had the entire rest of the morning.

Of course, it was never as uncomplicated as that. When I turned into the field of flowers, there was someone already there, lazily sprawled on their back with their hands behind their head and their feet just barely sticking onto the trail.

“Ah, there you are.” Jack sat up and waved, as though it was possible for me to not notice the feet or the crushed flowers in the shape of a body. (How could Jack even rest there so comfortably, with all the stems that must be poking into their clothes?)

My shocked expression turned into a bit of a frown, as I came to a stop right next to Jack’s feet. Had Min and I been followed – no, the answer to that was obvious. There were few enough people out on these trails that we had to have been followed, at least part of the way out of town. “What are you doing out here?”

(I refused to acknowledge the little bit I had to respect Jack’s skill at tailing us without either Min or I noticing, especially if they had followed us through the farmlands. There weren’t many places to hide, even for someone as slight as Jack.)

“I saw something kind of interesting yesterday, that I thought you might want to know about.” Jack appeared unconcerned at my expression, pulling themselves up and brushing off stray flowers and leaves. “You know that temple south of here?”

Knew of it, yes – Min had mentioned the temple in the southern edge of the forest, which was devoted to the spirit of lightning magic, but there hadn’t been any reason for us to go near it. I nodded my head to the question anyway, and Jack continued speaking.

“Well, I’ve been living out there – ” in the temple?! ” – and yesterday, someone very interesting showed up.” They paused to stretch their arms a bit, then started walking in the direction of one of the trails that was unfamiliar to me. I had no choice but to follow. “Well, I mean, there’s been people there a lot lately, weird people in black clothes poking around everything – ”

I glanced down at my shirt, which was the same black shirt I’d been wearing when I woke up in the flowers. Jack kept walking in front of me and talking, not noticing my preoccupation.

” – But anyway, yesterday, somebody in this black armor showed up, much fancier than the rest of them, probably some kind of commander, but the interesting thing is,” and here Jack stopped and turned back to me, arms spread wide in a flourish, so suddenly that we nearly collided before I could come to a stop just outside the range of the swinging arms. “That that commander’s magic felt the same as yours does.”

I twitched hard in shock, my head snapping up to actually look Jack in the eye, sure something about that had to be incorrect. “What?” was the only response I could verbalize.

Jack nodded, grinning. “So I said to myself, you know Jack, I bet that Aster girl would want to know about this, so here I am.”

I nodded distantly, my brain trying to put the parts together. Someone with magic like mine, or at least magic that felt like mine (which felt like no magic at all, but couldn’t really be, after what I’d felt in the square), and dressed in black? It had to be related to who I had been before I woke up in that field. It was just too much for coincidence.

Focusing my attention back on Jack, I said, “Can you take me there?”

If it was possible, Jack’s grin grew even wider. “Why do you think we’re on this trail? It comes out around the back of the temple, come on.” And with that, Jack turned back away from me and lead the way at a much quicker pace than I’d expected. Even so, it didn’t feel fast enough for me. I felt like I could have run the entire way to the edge of the forest, but that would probably have ended badly, on the unfamiliar trail, so I settled for keeping up with Jack and keeping my attention on the ground to avoid the roots and low-hanging branches that seemed much more common on this trail than on the one Min used to get to town.

Maybe that coin had been lucky, and I would be able to get the answers I was looking for, soon.

—-

[Previous] [Next]

1.04

That night, after dinner, after the lights were dim and Maribelle, her three children, and Min had all gone to bed, I found myself pulling on my boots again and slipping out the door. It was a good two hours past sunset; stepping out onto the streets, the light of hung lanterns made the sky darker by contrast, made it seem more like midnight.

The streets were all-but empty, now, compared to earlier; there was no one on Maribelle’s side street, and even when I stepped onto the main road, there were only two men at the far end of the block, casually chatting while one of them leaned up against the wall. I turned the other way, further into the center of town.

I didn’t see much of anyone as I made my way down to the square, except for one lamplighter with a torch and a tall pole down a street crossways to mine. The square was empty of people, but there were still a few carts and horses, most likely merchants who wouldn’t leave until morning.

…Well, mostly empty of people, I observed as I passed one man curled up and snoring on the seat of his cart. The horse pulling it blew air between its lips as I passed, forcing me to stifle a giggle at the noise lest I wake the man up.

There was a fountain in the center of the square, which I hadn’t ventured near during the afternoon due to the crowd, and I sat on the edge now. The water was still enough, here near the edge, that I could see a few scattered coins in the lamplight; near the center, half a dozen spouts of various heights shot into the air, none of them higher than my eye level. The sound of the water splashing back down into the pool was pleasant, if different from the slow slopping of the river. I closed my eyes and sat there, listening, for quite a while.

There wasn’t any equipment pumping the water up that I had been able to see. Maybe it was powered by magic? Min had taught me the theory of how to sense magic in the area, but neither of us had known if I would be capable of it, since she couldn’t sense any magic within me.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try. I fisted my hands in the slightly worn, soft fabric of my shirt, and concentrated, ignoring my other senses one by one. Sight was easy enough, with my eyes closed, and the only smell in the air was the smell of the horses. Ignoring the sound of the water was harder; it was difficult to not notice it now that I was trying to not pay any attention to it. But that, too, eventually faded to a distant noise, leaving my only strong sensation the shirt bundled in my hands and the low stone wall I sat upon. I uncurled my hands and relaxed.

Slowly, then, the sense of the magic opened up; the water magic behind me wasn’t so much a sound as a movement, a flow peaking only to fall again. It was the only active magic in the area, so that’s what I noticed; afterwards I began to notice other, smaller sources of magic, the potential sources of fire in the streetlamps (so like water, and yet not – they both moved constantly, and yet they were so different, the flames flickering-warm-insubstantial and the water cool-rippling-solid), the low levels of earth magic in the horses, their snoring owner, and the bricks of the road. There was another distant source of magic, probably another person but unfamiliar, on the far side of the fountain.

But in spite of noticing all these things, none of them were the focus of my consciousness. My thoughts were focused inward, to what I felt as I used that sense of magic. It wasn’t quite a hunger or a thirst; it was simply an emptiness, a hole down the center of my being, a gap that felt like it ran from my chest all the way down into my fingers and toes.

I lost concentration with a gasp, and had to grab onto the edge of the stone wall lest I tumble into the fountain. That empty space… When I regained my balance, I reached up and put a hand to my chest, as though I could feel the gap in myself like it was a physical thing. Instead, all I could feel was the fabric of my shirt and the motion of my chest as I drew breath.

It was more than not having magic. Somehow my being sought to draw in magic, trying to fill the crevasse where magic should be. Was it an injury? Was that why I had no real memory before waking up in that field – because they had slipped into that void, along with the magic I was born with, the magic I should have had?

Had Min been able to tell, and not told me? Or was it something only I could know, the same way you couldn’t tell by looking at a person if they were hungry or not?

Behind me, the water cycled on, unconcerned by me or my worries about strange not-magic. I heard a difference in the splashing sound, but at first I didn’t pay any attention to it. It wasn’t until the splashing grew louder, approaching me, that I turned towards the sound.

At first I didn’t see anyone – then I heard more splashing behind me, and turned, and there was another person sitting on my other side, grinning, their feet still dangling into the water and a pair of shoes looped over their neck. The best word to describe the person grinning at me was small – thin, and in rough clothes that were probably too large; from coarse-chopped hair to bare feet, they probably would have only come up to my chin, and I was hardly tall.

They twirled a coin between their fingers – a bright spot of gold – before speaking, their voice just a little too high for a man’s but the speech nothing like a woman’s, the rhythm wrong and the words too forceful. “You alright there? Looked like you were about to have a nasty slip.”

“I…” I fought with the words, too busy staring at the absently flipped coin. When the person stilled their hand, looking at me with an expectation, I finally managed to string together, “I’m fine. Why are your feet wet?”

Not exactly the question I had wanted to ask, but it would do.

Sure enough, the person gave me a slightly confused look, as though trying to decide whether to state the obvious or not. They glanced down at the water, then back up at me, then finally said, “Why do you think?”

I frowned. “I meant why, why were you in the water in the first place?” Yes, that was much closer to the question I’d been trying to ask.

“Stealing the wishes of the rich,” they answered without a beat, then stopped, probably seeing how that did nothing to abate the confusion on my face. They palmed the coin and stuffed it into a pocket of their worn vest and kicked at the water instead, making a loud splash. “There’s plenty of poor people who throw coins into the fountain, and I don’t know if it works, but hey, maybe it does, and they probably need it.  But the people who can afford to throw gold coins in the water, they don’t need it as much.” The person – the thief – patted the pocket they’d slipped the coin into, and there was a faint jingle of a handful of other coins clinking against each other.

I frowned, glancing from that jangling pocket to the fountain. The water had gone back to its mostly still state, so I could once again make out the shapes of coins under the water – silver coins, for the most part, brightly reflecting the light of the few firelamps built into the stone wall around the fountain. No gold. I had to assume the person beside me had already collected all of those. “That… Doesn’t seem quite right to me.” But I wasn’t able to put my finger on quite where it was wrong, either.

“They gave it up freely,” came the response, accompanied by a bit of a shrug. “Not like I took it out of their pockets or something.” They pulled their feet up out of the water and shook them off, turning on the stone wall until we were facing the same direction. I stayed silent as they started putting on their shoes. When that was done, they leaned forward, tilting their head around to look at my face, and said, “So what’s your deal?”

Remembering the similar questions from earlier today, I reacted defensively. “I don’t have a ‘deal’,” I said, as quickly as I could get the words out. The only reaction was that the person’s eyebrows moved higher on their face (which meant, at that angle, that they moved more sideways than anything). I frowned more and repeated, “I don’t have a deal. I’m not a thief like you.”

Maybe it was my plain language or my expression, but for some reason, the thief smiled a little in response – no, better to call it a smirk. “Maybe you aren’t, but your magic sure wants to be. I don’t know what that was earlier,” and their expression changes, growing more serious – I got the feeling it was a rare expression – “but it just kind of wanted to suck everything in, didn’t it?”

I didn’t reply. I folded my hands back in my lap and didn’t reply, because while I couldn’t exactly deny the accusation – that was exactly what it felt like, after all, and the fact that other people had felt it scared me more than a little – I didn’t know why my magic was like that. Finally, the thief leaned away from me and sat up straight, rubbing the back of their neck.

“Look, I didn’t mean to upset you or anything. Don’t make that face.” Whatever face it was, I continued to make it. The thief folded their arms and leaned back a little, balanced a bit precariously on the wall as they spoke. “You don’t seem bad, and I don’t think your magic’s bad. It’s just weird, and people tend to think weird is bad.”

I wasn’t sure how valuable that kind of counseling was, coming from a thief, but I was able to relax my shoulders a bit. I hadn’t even realized how stiff they’d gotten. “You mean that?”

“What’s the point of saying it if I don’t mean it?” And just like that, that kind of smirking grin was back in place, the thief’s tone of voice light and joking. “Weird people and thieves, there’s a kind of kinship there. We both kind of have to watch out for each other, even if we don’t like each other much, otherwise the people in authority will screw us all over.”

I thought of the market earlier, the distrust Min and Irvine had shown towards the Church and the idea of a thief-catcher around, but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly the same sentiment. If they stole it, it’s their problem now – I wasn’t sure I could disagree with either statement. I settled for a hum and a mumble. “I suppose so.”

“See, we keep each other’s secrets, watch out for each other a little, you get it.” They seemed pleased by my answer, at least, stretching their arms out in front of them with their fingers knitted together. “You got a name?”

Possibly – probably – the easiest question anyone had asked of my all day, and I didn’t see any harm in answering truthfully. “It’s Aster.”

“Like the flower?” When I nodded, the thief grinned and slid off the stone wall, giving me a slight bow and a flourish of the hand that would probably have looked better if they had a hat to perform it with. Their expression and tone made me think it was mostly joking, anyway. “Then we’re a well-matched pair. Jack Laurel, at your service.”

Laurel – it wasn’t a plant that grew around here often, but I remembered Min making mention of the fact that some people believed it heralded victory and good luck. I wondered if they’d chosen that name personally.

I nodded my head, after a moment where Jack looked at me expectantly, and stood as well. I wound up having to stretch one leg slightly before I could up my weight on it. “Then I’ll remember you, Jack,” I said, as the feeling came back to my leg, “But I need to be going. It’s getting late, and I have a long way to travel tomorrow.”

Not terribly long, maybe, compared to some journeys, but Min wouldn’t exactly wait on me in the morning, either. Jack just nodded, and then waved me off, turning to head off themselves. “Then I’ll see you again sometime, Aster!” And before I could object, they were reaching into a pocket and flipping an object towards me. “Here, for luck. Make a wish, if you want.”

I caught it instinctively and inspected it – one of the gold coins from the fountain. Not sure what to do with it, I looked back up – but by then, Jack had disappeared, gone behind some cart and impossible to follow. I was left alone, with a gold coin in my hand and only sleepy horses and a snoring merchant for company.

I turned towards the fountain and, on a whim, lifted the coin to my lips. The metal was slightly warmed from being held, and still a little damp. Thinking of my strange magic, and the woman in armor, and everything else that had happened today, I tossed the coin into the fountain, aiming it for the circle of water spouts in the center.

It landed just to the right of the middle with a satisfying plunk as it slipped below the surface. I closed my eyes, and wished for answers.

Then I turned and jogged back out of the marketplace and down the main street, slipped back into Maribelle’s house, and for once, fell asleep nearly as soon as I lay down.

—-

[Previous] – [Next]

 

1.03

I was careful to remember which turns I took as I made my way through the town, so that I could find my way back to the alley later. It was fairly easy as long as I kept to the main streets, which slowly slanted downwards as you got further into town. Most of them lead to the bend in the river that formed one side of the town, or to the stone bridge across a narrower point of the same river to the north.

I kept to the side of the crowded square where the majority of the market was being held; it was overwhelming enough without bumping into people every couple of steps. There was the scent of frying meat and vegetables and fresh-baked bread, mixed with the smell of people and animals – I made my way around the back of an enclosure full of squirming, squealing piglets and stopped there to watch the people in the square for a while.

People moved back and forth between the carts set up in the center of the square, housewives in long dresses and children darting at their heels, all with baskets slung over their arms or a few who balanced them on top of their heads. Most of the young men were apprentices of some craft or another, helping their teachers sort and sell their wares, but there were a few who roamed the crowd as well, most of them with some kind of weapon belted to their hips. Some wore the colours of the town’s guard over their mismatched armor, but just as many went without – blades-for-hire, looking to rent themselves out to protect the carts of merchants who would be trundling down the roads to other towns after this. There were a few women among them too, with swords or bows or long knives like the one still strapped to the back of my belt.

I wondered about their lives, moving from place to place as they could find work, and about my revelation earlier that morning, about how best to take down the briarwolves. Seeing the world as a mercenary couldn’t be such a bad life, could it? But if that was the case, why did all those people – men and women both – with swords strapped to their belts look so unhappy, with their eyebrows scrunched together and frowns on their faces?

It was at that point that I did notice one exception to that rule. The woman was young, only a couple of years older than I was, and wearing full armor that was, if not better quality, then at least better cared-for than that of the mercenaries. There were designs of golden sunbursts worked into some of the plates, and trimming the bottom of the tunic she wore underneath – those had to be the symbol of the Church of Light. Min hadn’t shown me any of the symbols associated with the spirits (since, of course, she couldn’t recognize them herself), but I couldn’t think of anything else that that bright marking could mean.

The crowd left a space around the woman in armor, but it wasn’t the same as the space they had left around Min and I. It was a space bordered by respectful nods, not suspicious glances, and children violated it freely to run up and touch her armor before trotting away back to their parents, with looks of wonder on their faces. The smile she gave to the children was small, but warm, as though she expected this sort of thing; the glow of her smile, her armor, and her gold hair made her one of the most striking people in the crowd. I had to wonder how every person in the crowd wasn’t periodically glancing her direction, the way I was, distracted by just the sight of her.

After some time, she disappeared into the crowd, beyond my sight between the people and horse-carts, and I slid my way out from behind the little enclosure of piglets (quite startling the man who was selling them) and went back to roaming the streets.

—-

At some point, I found my way down towards the water, and stood against a section of wooden railing overlooking the docks. The workers down there were busily unloading goods from carts onto barges, or from barges onto carts; regardless of the activity in the rest of the town, they didn’t even look up from their work.

A breeze floated off the water, carrying the smell of the marshy far bank; the river water was a somewhat murky green, and flowed slowly but steadily towards the south. There was a road that lead south alongside it, but hardly anyone used it if they had the money to take a boat – or so the man a few yards to my right was saying to the woman accompanying him. I didn’t know how true that was, but I did know that there were a pair of guards at the entrance to the docks that weren’t letting anyone who wasn’t a merchant or a worker down there. It was too bad. I’d only wanted to see the water up close.

Instead, I enjoyed the somewhat more distant view, which was still close enough to hear the constant ripple of the water in between the calls of the men on the docks below and their heavy footsteps. Birds flew overhead, squawking; it was by listening to them that I failed to notice that the footsteps approaching behind me were not the boots of the dock-workers, but heavier, with the hollow sound of metal.

“You there.”

The voice was unfamiliar, and it took a moment for me to realize that it was addressing me; it was deep, for a woman’s voice, and carried a tone that said the owner was used to having their commands obeyed immediately. Hesitantly, I turned away from the water.

It was the woman in armor from the market square, her eyes locked on me and a much less pleasant expression on her face. Her voice was accusatory as she spoke again. “Why were you watching me in the square?”

“I… Um…” It was hard to respond under the force of her gaze; I dropped my eyes away from her face, focusing instead on the details of her breastplate.

“Could it be that you know why I’m here? That you are the thief who took the Key of Revelation?” She took a step towards me, which lead to me taking a step further back into the railing. This close, I felt like I could smell the scent of sharp metal from her armor; certainly, I could smell the scent of the leather padding beneath it, mingled with a faint perfume of lilies.

“No, I – The what?” I remembered the mention Irvine had made of the thief-catcher looking for a church artifact, but hadn’t he said the thief-catcher was a man? Who was this woman, then? “I was just… Just watching,” I said breathlessly, wishing I could take another step back away from her. Perhaps I’d been wrong, and it wasn’t her golden aura that kept the crowd away, but the intimidation I was feeling now. “I’ve never seen anyone like you before.”

There was a pause, where she seemed to consider my words – then, to my surprise, she took another step, this time away from me, giving me room to breathe. Her armor made a faint metallic scraping sound as her posture shifted.

“Well, I suppose out here in the country, it’s only natural that there aren’t many people performing the duties of the Church,” she said, and to my eternal relief, her expression softened slightly, the commanding frown disappearing. I decided it was probably better not to mention that my memories only lasted the last month and a half or so.

Instead, I just nodded. “And the way your armor stood out in the crowd – it was hard not to look.”

I’d meant it as a compliment, but the woman’s expression said she wasn’t sure if she should take it as one or not, and was leaning towards not. Thankfully, I was spared her saying anything on the subject, although that still left me unsure exactly where I had gone wrong. “I’ll accept that you aren’t the thief,” she said, standing straighter than I had thought possible, more intimidating even though she was already significantly taller than me. “But if you find any information on the,, you are to bring it to me immediately, and me alone, do you understand?”

I was silent for a moment, and when I spoke up, my voice was quiet. “But isn’t there a thief-catcher in town working for the Church as well? Wouldn’t it make more sense together?”

It was a perfectly logical course of action to me, but the woman didn’t seem to like the idea much. She puffed up her cheeks and put her hands on her hips, the metal of her gauntlets clinking on the bottom edge of her breastplate. “Only to me! I’ll be the one to find the thief, not him!”

“Okay, I understand.” I didn’t understand at all, but that seemed like the right thing to say to get her to stop leaning towards me when her cheeks puffed out and her tone of voice angry. She seemed to accept it, nodding to herself and relaxing her posture.

“Then good and virtuous day to you, young woman. If you ever have need, visit the inn off the central square and ask for me.” And then she made a strange gesture – lifting one spread palm in an arc in front of her chest, where the largest sunburst on her armor was – and bowed slightly before turning to leave. Her boots were still loud on the wooden overlook until she passed onto the brick of the main road, and then she turned a corner and disappeared.

By this time, I had realized that it would be a bit difficult to ask after her at the inn without her name. My shoulders drooped with relief that she was gone, however, and the sun was beginning to dip far enough towards the distant horizon that it was probably time to get back to Min’s stall. With that in mind, I made my way away from the docks myself, my own footsteps loud-then-quiet as I crossed back onto the main road.

With any luck, the matter of the thief would be cleared up soon, and I wouldn’t have to deal with the strength of personality possessed by the woman in armor again.

(My luck, I would eventually discover, was not particularly great in this regard.)

—-

When I returned to the alley, Min asked me how my exploration of the town had gone, and I wound up telling her and Irvine the story of my encounter with the Church woman. Min only ‘hmm’ed to herself while she folded up her remaining herbs and the things she had traded for to put into our bags, but Irvine had plenty to say on the matter.

“First a thief-catcher, now a paladin? Whatever got stolen, the Church sure wants it back,” he said, as he pulled leather goods from the table and loaded them into a canvas pack. The table would be going back to his home, too, and that would take both his hands, but he assured me he could manage it. (I couldn’t help but admire that strength a little. The table and benches were both fairly solid wood, and awkward to carry besides; I might have been able to get one of the benches by myself, but definitely not the table.) “Weird that she didn’t want to share information, though.”

I hummed agreement as I rolled tighter a bundle of white linen that Min had gotten for a jar of jam and a bundle of rosemary, trying to make it take up as little space as possible before shoving it into the bag. “It was so strange. They’d do better if they were working together, wouldn’t they? But when I asked about it, she got angry.”

“Got something to prove, probably,” Irvine said, swinging the pack onto his back and putting his arm through the other strap. It looked surprisingly tiny on his broad back.

Min hmmed in agreement, before turning her attention towards me. “It may be that, for her, it’s more important that she is the one to find the artifact than having it found.”

I made a confused noise, but had to step clear of the table so Irvine could lift it. “That doesn’t make any sense,” I said, stepping back into the space once he had lifted the table free. In fact, he lifted it over his head entirely, holding it over the few remaining people in the alley, who swerved around the legs as he went by.

“It doesn’t have to make sense to us as long as it makes sense to her,” Min said, pulling her pack up onto her shoulders. She’d left the walking stick out, but from the way she held it, it seemed more like she was going to knock people out of the way with it than try and feel her way about the town. I pulled my bag up to my shoulders, following her lead.

“So, do you think she could explain it?” In response to my question, Min laughed, as she turned the corner out of the alleyway and headed towards Maribelle’s house, which was further from the center of town, back in the direction of the forest.

“Do you want to see her angry again that badly?” I squeaked a protest, but before I could make the words for a response, Min continued, “It’s lucky that she let you go that easily, Aster. Consider it a blessing and do your best to avoid her again. Church doings are nothing but trouble, and Church knights even more so.”

I hummed my acceptance as we turned onto a side street, but truthfully, it was advice that I wasn’t sure that I was going to take, if I ran into that woman again. The itching desire to understand settled along my spine as we walked down the street, but I tried to still it. It wasn’t as though the woman would be around forever – either she or the thief-catcher would apprehend the thief eventually. She’d probably be gone even by the next time we came to the market.

So I shifted my pack on my shoulders while Min walked up the short stairs to greet Maribelle with a kiss to the cheek, and thought instead of the barges at the docks, and what it would be like to ride one down the river.

—-

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