Quiet and dark sat the small single-story farmhouse on the edge of Renfell Village, mirroring the landscape around its small fenced yard; the hardwheat-filled farmland that surrounded the house had once belonged to the original owners, but ever since they passed away, it had been sliced up by the bank that owned the mortgage and sold it all off in parcels to people looking to build new homes and get a taste of the country life.
Those original owners just so happened to be the grandparents of one Adienne Lyn Petersen, a young woman who had grown up inside the creaky little home. They had left her everything the bank didn’t already own, namely the farmhouse property, the furnishings inside of it, and what remained of the retirement Grandfather Caleb Petersen had set aside during his forty-five-year career as the town ritual healer, or sanare. If you’re wondering how much the amount was, suffice it to say that the amount would look a mite different to a single twenty-one-year old woman than it would to a seventy-six-year-old man with a family. Nevertheless, it would certainly be enough to keep Adienne fed and clothed for at least a few years, and if invested wisely, would help her get the education she needed to survive on her own.
Not that money seemed to matter much at the moment. In fact, the only thing that mattered was the awful silence inside the farmhouse. It was maddening. Although it seemed as though nothing in the house had physically changed in the last twenty years, the last six months alone had brought a whirlwind of changes to the Petersen home.
First, Eliza Jane, Adienne’s grandmother, had fallen ill and remained so despite all of Adienne’s and Caleb’s best efforts to help her condition improve. It was a bit expected: the Wilting disease had flared up all across the countryside the spring prior, and even Adi and her friend Owen Larsintry caught it, coughing and gagging for weeks on phlegm and gasping for air. Eventually, the symptoms disappeared. But in Eliza, they intensified. Caleb brought a mask filled with aetheris crystals from the sanareum to help Eliza breathe, but it did nothing to improve her bone-rattling cough. From perfect health to her deathbed, it only took two months for Eliza to lose her short-lived battle with the lung-ravaging illness. It was bad enough to hear her cough echo through the small farmhouse through all the hours of the day and night. It was all the worse to hear them suddenly fall silent as she passed on from life, suffocated by her body’s own natural defenses.
The funeral was short, and the flowers were beautiful; the Petersen’s didn’t lack for friends, but they lacked for family. Adienne had only known her grandparents since she was a small child, as the War had taken both her mother and father. In this, she was not unique. In fact, many of the friends who came to Eliza’s funeral had themselves lost parents and loved ones. The catastrophe that had caused the Wound alone not seventeen years ago had changed entire demographics overnight.
But with the loss of Eliza, Adi lost more than a grandmother. And Caleb had lost more than a wife.
Caleb seemed to soldier on, squaring his shoulders as much as he could and standing as the anchor Adi needed as she grieved. He continued as Renfell’s sanare for three months and three weeks more before he too passed away. One morning, he rose from his bed, greeted his granddaughter in the kitchen, kissed her forehead, and headed out the door with his coat on his arm. It was the last time Adi would ever see him alive. About halfway on his walk to the sanareum, Caleb Petersen collapsed on the side of the road, clutching his chest. A few days later, Adi would stand alone, so very alone, at the edge of her grandfather’s oak casket, unable to be comforted.
No matter how concerned they may have been about Adi’s future well-being, the crowd of friends eventually moved on. The only two familiar faces that promised to see her regularly was her grandfather’s accountant (naturally) and Owen Larsintry, her confidant and friend since childhood. At one time, other friends had teased her because of her relationship with the awkward boy.
But those friends had disappeared. Owen had not.
The lusphere shone above Adi’s left shoulder as she and Owen approached the dark farmhouse. The sound of crickets filled the air, punctuated with the sounds of their footsteps upon the gravel walkway. Adi’s eyes were red and puffy, but the tears had since burned away. They would no doubt return soon. The white light from the lusphere increased as Adi reached the front door, hovering from her shoulder to land gracefully upon the wrought iron brazier that hung bolted to the stone beside the wooden frame.
“Hey, Adi…” Owen said quietly, adjusting his spectacles. “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay over tonight? I know I wouldn’t want to be alone right now.”
“I’ll be fine,” Adi said as she turned around, the phrase coming out for more distant than intended. “Like Maribel said, I… I just need to learn how to be strong… and independent…”
“Maribel can take her ‘strong and independent’ and violently kick it down the road,” Owen said. “That’s not good advice. In fact, that’s very bad advice, and I know you know that. You just lost your grandfather… And you’re not very distant from losing your grandmother, either. You know what I was like when my Da passed.”
“I know. And thank you for stating the obvious, wickhead,” she said, just daring a smile to cross her face. None did, though Owen appreciated the effort.
“See? Calling me names is making you feel better already. You can call me all the bad names you like all night, so long as it makes you happy. I should think this quiet house would drive you mad.”
Adi shook her head.
“Owen, I’ll…” She sighed. “I’ll be fine. Really. I just need some time. Besides, I’ve already gotten used to the house being quiet. Papa would often return home after I was in bed, and he’d be off to work before I got up. And Nana was quieter than me before she got sick. It’ll just be… different.”
“Bad different, I should think.”
“At least until school starts, right?” Owen said. “And then you’ll have plenty to keep your mind occupied. I’ll be over every night struggling to understand alchemy the way you do.”
“Taking the sanare exams won’t be the same without Papa’s help.”
“I’m sure my Ma would love to help you. You’ve seen her garden, you could come up with all sorts of strange mixtures with all the herbs and flowers she grows. All she’s lacking are the fancy glass cups. And what’s that copper thingy you have what looks like a bent raindrop?”
“Flasks, first of all. And it’s called a retort.”
“I thought you said you’d taken an alchemy class before,” Adi said wryly.
“I said I’d used a mortar and pestle before,” Owen replied. “It’s pretty much the same thing.”
“I’m pretty sure it isn’t,” Adi said, producing her housekey from her jacket pocket.
“But it did make you forget about everything for a few seconds, didn’t it?”
Adi paused, giving Owen “the look”. She’d had many years practicing it, of course, with Owen being a familiar target.
“Nice try,” she said.
“I thought it was.”
“Really, though, thank you, Owen,” Adi said, folding her hands around the key. “But I’ll be fine tonight. I have some… personal things around the house that I have to set in order before tomorrow afternoon, and I thought I’d rather get them done sooner rather than later. It really will help me keep my mind off things.”
Owen paused, giving Adi “the look”. It was different from her “look”, much more suspicious of falsehoods and involved a greater arching of the right eyebrow.
“Okay,” he said, taking a step towards the road home. “But… make sure to leave the lusphere on tonight.”
“Why?” Adi asked with a frown. “You planning on scaring me through my window again?”
“No, I was just…” Owen frowned and looked to the ground pensively, taking Adi by surprise. “I was just thinking… Grief and depression are a lot alike, they put you in the dark and force you to stay there for as long as they can. But lights can help keep the dark away. Even a literal light. I just don’t want to think of you hiding in your closet tonight, hiding in the dark. Illuminate thy sons and thy daughters afield with reflections of knowledge and starlight… I suppose your lusphere could act like a star tonight.”
“I didn’t think you paid attention in seminary,” she said.
“I do sometimes,” Owen said.
Adi stepped forwards and wrapped her arms around Owen, pulling him close. He gave off a nervous laugh and embraced her in return.
“I promise not to hide in the closet,” Adi said. “This time.”
“And no time afterwards,” Owen said. “Right?”
“Aww. But I have such a comfortable spot in there.”
Owen pulled back, pointing a finger at Adi’s face.
“Tears are okay. Hiding from them is not. No matter what that old fussbudget Maribel Corsel says.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Anytime,” he said back.
Owen turned and walked down the gravel path and beyond into the dark of the evening, heading west beside the road towards the lake and his home. For a moment, Adi watched him go, allowing herself a moment to get her bearings. Although a bit overly dramatic at the best of times, Owen was growing to be more than a friend. The more that her family and friends disappeared from her life, the more he remained. Part of her was telling to truth; there were many boxes of her grandfather’s belongings to organize and send back to the sanareum. But there was no real deadline.
Maybe one day, she would have the courage to stop lying to Owen out of convenience. Maybe he would understand if he knew there was more than grief. Maybe he already did. She didn’t want to press the issue hard enough to find out. She would never know how to explain it.
* * * * *
Unlocking the door, Adi stepped into the dark living room with practiced steps. She whispered “lus’vai” to the sphere hovering at the doorframe, and it followed her inside, lighting up from pure white into a warm orange-yellow. Removing her jacket and placing it on the coatrack beside the door, a thought dawned on her that she never thought would arise: despite the farmhouse’s tiny two-bedroom size, it suddenly felt very spacious and empty.
Tears began to fill her eyes as she instinctively entered her grandparents’ room beside the front door. The inside of the room was always kept very plain and tidy by her grandmother, and it had remained that way in the time Adi’s grandfather had without her. Beside the bed was a box filled with the leather-bound journals Caleb had kept throughout his life, filled with detailed notes of his surgical methods and alchemical formulae. She grew up loving his handwriting and the style of his prose, always writing as if someone in the future were currently reading the words he wrote. His welcoming personality filled every page, no matter how scientific and precise the procedure described.
Picking up his very latest journal, Adi took a seat on the bed and turned the pages back three months and three weeks. Following many empty pages that represented so much pain and struggle, it simply read:
“The starlight of my heart faded away today.”
Page after page following this solemn line, the journal entries became less detailed and more obscure, lacking the charm of his storytelling ability. Anecdotes about his experiences in the sanareum and funny things his patients would say were noticeably absent. Instead, short remarks about the season or changes in the weather filled the pages, along with details of something Caleb rarely ever talked about: his regrets.
“My dear Adi is no longer a little girl,” Caleb wrote a week before his death. “Oh, that I could see her shine like the sun. She already aids me in ways I cannot describe. I love you, Adi. Would that I could tell you this more often than I already do. Your mother and father would have been so proud of the woman you have become.”
“Somehow you knew,” Adi said, tracing the words on the page with her finger. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have done… something. Anything.”
Being careful not to spill her tears on the delicate pages, Adi turned to the last journal entry Caleb ever wrote. The last line had no clarification:
“I could not solve it. Please take care of them.”
What was “it”? Some disease? Who was “them”? Caleb’s patients at the sanareum? Adi’s could only guess. But since the War, the sanareum of Renfell had seen fewer and fewer long-term cases, and of the ones that remained, only a handful had been under Caleb’s care. Naturally, they had all been transferred to the care of other sanares without a problem; Caleb’s healing abilities may have been supurb but they weren’t irreplaceable.
Adi sniffed, setting the book back down into the box. The lusphere silently continued to hover, its light mimicking that of brightly lit candleglow. But then, slowly, the sphere drifted off towards the bedroom door, leaving her in the dark.
“Lus’vai,” Adi whispered.
The command must have been too soft, as the lusphere didn’t deviate from its course.
“Lus’vai,” Adi said more intently.
The lusphere ignored her.
“Where are you… going?” she asked, standing.
The lusphere increased its speed as it exited the bedroom, turning right into the living room and then into the small kitchen. With complete precision, the lusphere descended to a few inches above the polished wooden countertop along the far wall and slowly turned a cold violet hue.
It only did this in the presence of danger.
“What?” Adi whispered, her hand clutching the focus that hung from her neck. She had no other weapon. But if something in the room threatened to hurt her, she would at least be able to tend to the wound in an instant. She spoke up, even though there couldn’t possibly have been space in the kitchen for someone to hide, even for a child. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”
No voice spoke up.
But something very small drew her eyes from across the room. Perhaps invisible at first, then strangely apparent in the shadows, and tiny pair of animal eyes met her own. They sparkled in the lusphere’s purple light, disappearing and reappearing as they blinked. There was no tapetum lucidum to reflect the light like the eyes of a rodent or cat, however. These eyes showed off a timid humiloid intelligence.
Adi took a step forward into the kitchen.
No, not timid. Fearful.
It was a child.
No, not a child. There was no way. It was too small to be a child. Yet, there it was, upon her grandparent’s countertop, cornered against the backsplash and a large box of funeral decorations. In the light of the lusphere, Adi could see the child’s long matted hair that clung to the head like a rag, a thick puffy shirt and baggy shorts made from mysterious materials, and a rucksack held together with a single small button that to which the child desperately clung. Whether it was a young boy or girl, Adi could not tell. It could not have stood taller than Adi’s thumb.
Not one more step from the countertop, and the child stammered in a light but hollow voice:
“S-Stop! Go away!”
The child’s voice cracked from the stress. Adi paused and stretched her hand towards the lusphere.
“Lus’varom,” Adi whispered, and the lusphere obeyed her at last, returning to its place over her shoulder and blushing from violet to a pleasant orange-yellow flicker. “I’ll not hurt you. Please don’t be afraid.”
This did not stop the child from crying. Tears were running down its cheeks, which Adi could now see very plainly.
“Where is Grandfather?” the child asked, grasping the bag in its lap.
“Grandfather…?” Adi asked. “You mean… my grandfather?”
“My Grandfather!” the child nearly shouted, its voice cracking once again. “Where did you take him? Where is he?”
Adi stomach sank and tears welled in her eyes.
“I… I didn’t take him anywhere, he… Who… what are you…?”
“Go away!” the child cried again, curling up tighter against the corner. “Leave us alone!”
Adi’s eyes turned from the tiny child on the countertop to a voice that called out from somewhere above. The lusphere again quickly hovered towards the voice to her right and instantly turned deep translucent purple. This time, however, there was no one to see. At first. The voice came from above the cupboards, hiding somewhere behind the decorative crockery.
“Who… who’s there?”
Adi’s eyes darted back to the sobbing child, just in case someone had put a spell on the lusphere. But it was indeed still there, still panicked and cowering behind the rucksack. By the time she looked up at the cupboards, however, a small humil man had appeared. No, a boy, younger than Adi but certainly older than the child. “Who are you? Why are you asking about my grandfather?”
The boy took a seat on the very edge of the cupboard, no doubt putting on a brave face for one only a few inches tall.
“Is it true?” the boy asked. “Is he… gone?”
Adi wiped away a few tears.
“My grandfather passed away, yes,” she said quietly.
“How?” came the question.
“His heart… well, it… gave up on him, I suppose.”
“Damn it,” the boy whispered, folding his arms.
“No, you’re lying!” the child screamed, standing to his feet. He didn’t release the rucksack, however. “Grandfather’s not dead! You’re lying! You took him somewhere!”
“Juni!” shouted the boy down to the child. Adi’s head spun from this strange conversation. “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Don’t you get us in trouble with Adienne!”
“I don’t care!” Juni continued. “I want him back right now! I want to see Grandfather! Bring him back!”
The boy rose to his feet, unhooking something from his waist.
“Juni, I said shut up! I will come down there and pound you until you stop shouting!”
“Okay, just stop, both of you!” Adi shouted, throwing her hands down and making both tiny creatures recoil in fear. The lusphere dipped and dived, throwing off multiple shades of red and purple. “Stop yelling and tell me who you are! Why do you want to know about my grandfather?”
The child stopped crying, looking up fearfully at Adi. The boy up above approached the edge of the cupboard again and folded his arms.
“He was our grandfather too,” the boy said. “He cared for us when no one else would. We would have been eaten by animals, or ran out of food and water. Juni would have died of the wilt if it wasn’t for him.”
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Adi asked. “Who are you?”
“My name is Kaelan. That’s my little brother Juni. We’re not family by blood. But we’re all brothers and sisters living here because of Grandfather.”
“Living here?” Adi asked. She frowned. “You live in my house?”
“It’s not your house,” said Juni, still defiant. “It’s Grandfather’s house. You live in it just like we do.”
“We just live… underneath it,” Kaelen said. “Out of sight. That’s where he told us to live. He made it comfortable for us. It’s warm and dry, and it keeps the wild animals out. We’re safe here from birds, cats, rats, farmers… Everything.”
Adi shook her head. Please take care of them. The words on the page were ringing in her ears. But there was no way. Adi had never seen any signs that her grandfather had ever kept a secret from her. Nothing like this.
“But what are you? You aren’t humil, are you?”
Kaelan fell silent.
“I don’t know. I was really little when my real parents died. They went out looking for others like us, and they… they never came back. I remember they used to say we were ‘ahm-bli-ree’. I… don’t know what it means, or how to spell it. Grandfather just called us his children.”
“Why would Papa keep something like this from me?” Adi said aloud. “Did… did my grandmother know about you?”
Kaelan shook his head.
“No,” he said. “We never talked to her. Grandfather said it was important that we stay hidden from… everyone.”
Adi pressed her fingers against her temple.
“I can’t believe this…” she said. “How many of you are there?”
“Thirteen,” Kaelan said. “That includes Juni and me. When we heard something happened to Grandfather, we didn’t know what to do at first. Everyone’s scared, especially the little girls. Lillie and I decided we were going to come talk to you in the morning, but…”
He paused with a sigh.
“…my blockheaded brother didn’t believe me when I told him what happened.”
Adi looked down at the poor broken boy sitting upon the countertop, still grieving and clutching his rucksack. Juni no longer looked up at Adi in fear or anger. He simply squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head downwards, concealing his face behind his hair. Adi’s countenance fell. She’d never seen anyone shaking from grief and fear, much less a child.
She bent down as low as she could, her face level with the boy’s.
“I’m sorry,” Adi said, resting herself against her knees. “It may not look it, but I’ve been crying all day. I miss my Papa and Mama.”
“You’re not like Grandfather,” Juni said bitterly. “You’re gonna kick us out and take everything away from us, and then we’ll all get sick and die, aren’t you?”
“No, that’s not true,” Adi said, shaking her head. “If my Papa taught me anything, it’s that we should always look out for each other. If he was your grandfather like he was my Papa, I’m sure he taught you that, too. There’s no way I can just… throw you out. If he told you that you belong here, then you belong here.”
“Really…?” asked Kaelan from up above.
Juni looked up, his eyes red and swollen.
“Yeah, of course,” Adi said, standing. “If everything you’ve told me is true. That, and assuming you’re not just black magick trying to trick me into giving away my grandparent’s house.”
“I’m not a trick!” Juni blurted.
“Y-Yeah, me neither!” Kaelan said. “It’s all true, promise! Wait just a second!”
Adi turned towards the older boy, and as she did so, Kaelan took a flying leap off the cupboard. In shock, she took a step backwards as a sudden tiny flash illuminated the kitchen, much like the flash of a small firework. The lusphere also panicked, flashing a violet warning and circling Adi’s head rapidly. In a split second, Kaelan had somehow “fallen” diagonally from the cupboard to the countertop in front of Juni, landing without harm. The lusphere returned to orange-gold.
“How… how did you do that?” Adi asked, stepping forward. Now she could clearly see that the older boy was indeed young, despite the deepness of his voice. He wore his dirty-brown hair shoulder-length similar to his younger brother. He dressed much the same way as well, although his jacket seemed much more padded and even armored in a dark but semi-reflective material along his arms, chest, and back.
“Practice,” he said confidently, looking up at Adi with a surprising amount of bravado.
“And aetheris crystals,” Juni whispered. “He’s not supposed to jump like that. Grandfather said so. Makes too bright a flash.”
“Hush,” Kaelan replied. “You’re not supposed to tell on me.”
After a pause, he lifted his hand skyward.
“Here, shake my hand,” he said. “Then you’ll know I’m real.”
Adi smiled, lifting her hand. Gently, she took Kaelan’s hand with her forefinger and thumb. Spindly and bony but warm. Then, just to be sure, she squeezed her finger and thumb together just tight enough around the hand and slowly lifted upwards.
“What are you…? Ah, ah! W-wait! Put me down!”
Adi obeyed right away, releasing her hold, and Kaelan dropped to his feet.
“Just had to make sure you’d react the right way,” Adi said with a giggle. “I’m pretty sure you’re real now.”
“That’s not fair!” Kaelan said, pointing an accusing finger. “Humph. Last time I shake your hand…”
Adi’s face showed remorse.
“I’m sorry, you’re right. I shouldn’t do things like that, should I? Teasing someone smaller than myself isn’t something my Papa would do.”
“No, he would,” Kaelan said. “But only to us older kids, when we do dangerous and stupid things.”
“Oh,” Adi said. “So… I have your permission?”
“Ye- N-no!” Kaelan spurted.
“You can be so dumb sometimes…” Juni said quietly.
So this is Adienne’s story! She will be Aeo’s great-great-great grandmother, born in a small village in Antiell only three years before the calamity that caused the Wound. Her story will lead to Aeo’s birthplace and reveal the source of his magickal abilities. I wanted to write something a little different in the timeline, I may or may not make this an important part of Aeo’s story (a sort of dual-timeline telling as Alyssum unfolds). However, lots of characters makes for tough reading, so I probably shouldn’t do that. I have enough characters in Alyssum as it is.
Still, I’m having fun writing, so depression hasn’t completely taken me.