Alyssum – Chapter Fourteen

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“Aeo.”

Aeo didn’t budge. The blankets were warm, the pillow too comfortable, the mattress too conformed to his body. He lay as a puzzle piece perfectly suited for snoozing. Besides, the room was still dark.

“Aeo, wake up.”

No. No no no. The only thing that would get me out of this bed would be…

Aeo’s nose perked up. Food. A truly mouth-watering scent wafted in the air close by. Laying on his front, he turned his head and opened his eyes.

Leon sat on the side of his own bed. In front of him was a short table, and upon the table was a smorgasbord of food on a tray, including: two large baked potatoes smattered in butter and cream, a pile of sausages, eight strips of bacon, two boiled eggs, twelve slices of roasted beets, several steamed carrots, four slices of rye bread, and two bowls filled with blackberries. Leon smiled with a fork in his mouth.

“Time for breakfast,” he said simply.

Aeo peeled himself from the bed and put his hands through his long hair.

“I can have some?” Aeo asked, his throat grumbly and dry.

“Of course,” Leon said with a laugh. “You think I can eat all this by myself?”

Aeo rubbed his eyes and swung his legs off the side of the bed.

“I’m afraid they only had a single clean plate this early in the morning, so they jammed everything together,” Leon said. “I hope you don’t mind. At least they had two forks. Better than I have. Although you may be pleased to hear that I did buy you your own mess kit last night.”

“Mess kit?”

“A metal bowl and cup, a spoon, knife, fork, just like mine. I also purchased a few other things you might enjoy.”

“Oh.”

The guilt hadn’t vanished. It had simply disappeared with sleep, and rose to greet him the moment he awoke. The pain of the night before still sat fresh in his mind.

“Here, have a seat,” Leon said, patting his hand beside him on the edge of his bed.

Aeo hesitated for a moment before reaching down to the floor. He grabbed his socks and pulled them up his legs as far as they would go. Nope, the cotton end still dangled from his toes. He pulled his shoes on. They fit a bit loosely around his ankles. Admittedly, his shirt and pants were a bit warm for bed. But he could hardly complain: he felt incredibly spoiled for even wearing everything at all. He couldn’t justify the thought of personally “owning” them. They felt borrowed, as if they belonged to another boy his age.

“What time is it?” Aeo asked. Through the window he could just barely see the light of dawn beginning to pierce the cloudy sky.

“About 6:30,” Leon said. “I figure the sooner we leave, the less trouble there will be. I believe there are still a pair of guards outside the inn waiting to escort us out of town.”

Aeo crossed the room, sat down silently next to Leon, and didn’t move. Leon looked at Aeo with sad eyes and placed an arm around the boy, resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“I feel horrible about last night,” Leon said quietly. “I’m a poor excuse for a teacher.”

Aeo sniffed, and rubbed his nose across his sleeve.

“I’m really afraid of going back,” he said.

“I know, and I used that against you,” Leon said. He paused. “I hope you can forgive me. I wanted to show you what you could do if someone lashed out at you in anger. If I can teach you how to shield yourself, there will be very few things that can harm you.”

Aeo nodded.

“Like that stupid man.”

“Precisely,” Leon said.

Aeo sat for a moment, unsure of what to say next.

“Go on,” Leon said, handing him a fork. “Eat up. It’s a long way to our next warm meal.”

Taking a fork, he couldn’t decide what to start with first. Eventually, he chose a piece of sausage. He’d only eaten sausage once or twice in his life, and it smelled incredible. He closed his eyes and took a bite, savoring the rich flavor of the meat slowly and deliberately. The smoky spices, the crispy texture, the juicy fat…  It took him a few good seconds to process it all, and Leon looked at Aeo’s face with amusement.

“You won’t get through all this food if you eat it like that,” Leon chuckled.

Aeo opened his eyes and saw Leon staring at him.

“Huh?” he whispered. “Oh. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” Leon said with a grin. “I should think you’re not used to eating this variety of food, am I right?”

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo said with a shake of his head. He speared a steamed carrot next and deeply contemplated its taste as well.

“Oh, Aeo,” Leon said. He snickered as he peeled a boiled egg. “I thought you should know. Something happened last night at the general store.”

Aeo frowned.

“What?”

“You know that ‘stupid man’ that scared you so badly?”

Aeo nodded.

“He confronted me when I was trying to pay for our supplies.”

“He… he did? What did you do?”

“Well, nothing. I let him shout at me for a few moments. He accused me of trying to ruin his business with my… what did he call it? My ‘rickety old shite-wagon’, I believe. He said I belonged in prison, and he called Poro a ‘dumb mule’. He had a few choice words about you as well, most of which I don’t care to repeat.”

Aeo’s shoulders drooped and he said nothing.

“So you know what happened next?” Leon asked. “For some reason, his belt came loose and his trousers dropped to his ankles. His coat flew straight up off his arms, and from the sounds he made, the sleeves appeared to strangle him. He spun around a few times until he tripped into a shelf stocked with bags of flour. Then, most mysteriously, the bags of flour ripped open and dumped all over him. It was quite the sight; he looked like a shocked ghost. You should have seen the look on the faces of the people in line behind me.”

Aeo blinked.

“Wait, what? How did that happen?”

“I have no idea,” Leon said, putting a spin on the word ‘no’. “The merchant was quite furious and blamed me for assaulting him. But it obviously wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t laid a finger on the man. He stomped his feet and made quite the scene, flour flew everywhere. That’s when several people started laughing. I heard one elderly woman say: ‘you deserve nothing less, you puffed-up windbag’!”

Aeo choked on a second piece of sausage.

“Really?” he gasped.

“Truly, it was the strangest thing,” Leon said with a knowing smile. “He pulled his pants up, waddled outside, and shouted for a guard to arrest me. The guard recognized me and became immediately suspicious, but everyone around me attested to my innocence. They called the merchant ‘positively batty’ and ‘a right lunatic’ for exposing himself and diving headfirst into the flour bags. The poor guard had nothing to say. Then, as was surely natural for the old windbag, he marched right over to me and tried to attack me. To everyone’s surprise, his pants fell down again and his coat sleeves yanked him right out of the store.”

Aeo smiled as he chewed. What an entertaining image.

“So…” Aeo said. “It was your magick, right?”

“What?” Leon gasped, raising a hand to his chest and acting positively aggrieved. “Well, I am quite offended. No, Aeo, heavens no. I’m an Academy master, remember? I’m far too respectable and disciplined for such… such irresponsible behavior. Why would you even think such a thing?”

“Uh-huh,” Aeo said with a smile on his face, taking a bowl of berries and eating them one at a time.

Leon leaned into Aeo, pushing him gently sideways.

“Now, when you’re at the Academy and I start hearing about student’s pants mysteriously falling down in your presence,” Leon said. “I will be very cross. Even if I find out they deserved it. Understand?”

Aeo almost let out a giggle.

“I’d never do that,” Aeo said. “I’m far too… uh, ress-peck-tibble.”

Leon laughed.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, taking a large bite of bread.

By the time they had finished with breakfast, the sun had risen somewhere deep within the clouds, leaving the morning cold and gray. The thunder was far distant across the lake, but a few raindrops still fell upon the inn room’s window. Aeo hadn’t eaten much compared to Leon, but by the end, he couldn’t have eaten a single berry more. Anything he hadn’t eaten, Leon had been more than happy to oblige. Aeo had never experienced a belly so full of delicious food, and  felt quite sick as his system desperately digested the large meal. For about twenty minutes while Leon left to return the tray downstairs and prepare Poro for the travels ahead, Aeo laid upon his bed, groaning.

It was worth it, Aeo thought, slowly recovering. So worth it.

When he heard the door open again, he raised his head and saw Leon step inside, carrying his bag.

“Aeo,” Leon said. “I want you to do something for me.”

Aeo’s stomach, full as it was, sunk. He no longer liked when Leon said that. Aeo clumsily sat up.

“Here,” Leon said. Much to Aeo’s surprise, Leon opened his bag and produced a simple object: a fist-sized red rubber ball. He tossed it over to Aeo, who fumbled a bit but caught it.

“No, no, don’t catch it,” Leon said, pointing a finger. “I want you to shield yourself from it.”

“Do… what?” Aeo asked.

“I want you to absorb the momentum of the ball so that it bounces upon your animis instead of hitting you. Do you understand?”

Aeo frowned, confused.

“Nuh-uh,” he said.

“Toss it back to me,” Leon said, sitting upon his bed.

With a light hand, Aeo tossed it upwards. Leon raised his hand as if to catch it. Instead, a small glimmer of blue light and a crackling sound met the ball about six inches from Leon’s open hand as surely as if it had hit a solid wall. The ball bounced backwards across the room and landed squarely in Aeo’s lap.

“That’s what I want you to do,” Leon said. “Use your hands. Remember what I taught you on the mountain? Pull the warmth in your body from your feet to your legs, up through your waist and your chest, and then down your arms and into your hands. In Drael-dena, it’s called sym-yattra, or the flow of animis. You can practice sym-yattra to move animis to any part of your body, but I want you to practice it with your hands first.”

“But…” Aeo whispered. “The light only comes before I get hurt. I don’t know if I can do it with a ball.”

“Well, the last thing I want to do is hurt you,” Leon replied. “I’ve learned my lesson: that’s the worst way to teach you. Tell you what. Keep the ball in the wagon with you, and when we catch our first break this afternoon, I’ll teach you the right way to focus your animis.”

Aeo tossed the ball upwards and caught it.

“But what if I make fire instead? On accident? Isn’t it the same?”

“It’s good you recognize a difference. I’ll teach you both. It’s a matter of feeling, both based on concentration. Don’t worry, you’ll learn quick. I can tell you’re going to be very familiar with the basics by the time we reach the Academy.”

Aeo shrugged, looking at the ball in his hands.

“Remember what I told you last night,” Leon said. “Don’t be afraid of your talents. Once controlled, you’ll be able to use them to protect yourself and your friends. And I think you’re going to develop strong friendships in your classes.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to Aeo.

“I can make friends?” he said. “I mean… by myself? I’ve never had friends before.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting to know others like yourself. Did you know there are many Edians and Ashanti your age at the Academy?”

“Really? Like me?” Aeo paused. “With red eyes and red hair? But, um, does an ‘Ashanti’ look like me?”

“Well, you might be surprised to meet one,” Leon said. “Most have long white hair and bright blue eyes, and long ears that droop at the tip. Several who belong to family tribes also wear traditional tattoos that are considered sacred to them. You can ask what their tattoos stand for, perhaps, but you should never make fun of them for it. Ashanti come from many places. Some ashanti even make their home in Antiell and migrate to Ashant to learn.”

Aeo nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “I want to meet everyone.”

“And you will,” Leon said, standing to his feet. “Come on, the wagon is all prepared. Grab your boots, and let’s leave this place while we still can, shall we?”

*    *    *    *    *    *

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Leon called out, waving to the two soldiers who rode silently on horseback behind the slowly-rolling wagon. “It’s been a pleasure.”

Aeo timidly watched them from the inside of the wagon. Indeed, they had been so bored waiting for the two “criminals” at the inn, they wouldn’t have noticed Leon’s wagon rolling southwards if Leon hadn’t called out to them. Now beyond the brick buildings and wet farmlands, the soldiers stopped escorting the wagon, looked at each other, shrugged, and turned their horses back towards Rurali. As they disappeared into the distance, Aeo settled in for a cold, wet, rumbling day.

Leon called Aeo for his marker, ignoring the light drizzle of rain that fell upon him. Once in his hands, he said ‘lah-sev-rai’, and the marker revealed an expansive illustration of the road ahead of them in thin green and blue lines. For a moment, he said nothing, holding Poro’s reigns and studying the map.

“It doesn’t seem like we’ll be departing from the lake’s edge for a few days more. Lucky for us, it’s a freshwater lake. Good news for Poro, anyway. We’ll have to rely on mountain streams to refill our water keg. Here you go, Aeo, you can take a look. Afterwards, put it back in my bag, will you?”

“Yeah,” Aeo said, taking the open marker. Somehow, the page showed no signs of water droplets, and the surface beneath the lines felt completely dry. The map itself was difficult to study, as the green and blue lines of light didn’t merely outline the path before them. He realized that some of the “obstacles” in the forest and along the road weren’t physical objects on the map, but something different. “Leon? Are these… words? On the map?”

“Yes, they are,” Leon replied. “Drael-dena words.”

“I wish I could read them,” Aeo said, closing the marker and placing it in the bag.

“Drael-dena is a complex language. I still can’t speak it fluently, and I’ve lived in Ashant my entire life. Fortunately, Ashant has become a veritable mixing pot of languages and cultures over the years. Not many ashanti speak only Drael-dena anymore. Mostly Yshlene with a bit of Ediani.”

Yshlene, right. Aeo’s language.

“They speak Ediani in Edia, right?”

“That’s right,” Leon said. “And Tagnurik in Edan. Thought you won’t see many xa’rith at the Academy.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” Leon said. “That’s a difficult question to answer. One, they have to travel the continent to reach Ashant, and that means walking through Antiell or going by sea. Either way is terrible for them, as they have been in constant war with Antiell. Second, they refuse to make peace with Ashant, as Ashant have been allies of Antiell for fifty years now. And third, which may surprise you… They are incapable of learning magick.”

“Oh. Why not?”

“No one really knows. Some scholars have tried to study them, and they have a theory that the xa’rith seem to be creatures that have no animis, which should not be possible. Many Edani have come to hate those who practice magick, and have called for the destruction of the San’Drael Academy as well as the Everspring.”

“Why?” Aeo asked.

“Full of questions today, eh?” Leon said.

“Yeah,” Aeo said with a sheepish smile.

“Well, the xa’rith have been at war with Antiell for a long time. And from what I’ve heard from some xa’rith colleagues of mine, they’ve come to see scholars and spellswords as evil. I don’t like it but I understand it. Those that work with the Academy, though, are masters of swordsmanship and the martial arts, and some are alchemists with very unique traditions and techniques.”

“Will I get to meet any?” Aeo asked.

“Certainly,” Leon said. “If my friend Thoksigim still studies at the Everspring, I’m sure he’d be delighted to meet you. His Tagnurik accent is very strong, and their beaks aren’t quite made for Yshlene. But he speaks it very well for a xa’rith.”

“Beaks?”

“Yes. They are quite birdlike in shape and mannerism.”

“Man-er-izzim?”

“The way they act.”

“Oh.”

Aeo rested his head on his arms and stayed silent for a few moments. Leon chuckled.

“I talk too much. Don’t feel like you should stay up on my account,” he said. “If you’re still tired, get some rest. We will travel for as long as the weather allows.”

“Do you have magick to keep us dry in the rain?” Aeo asked.

Leon turned around and ruffled Aeo’s hair again.

“You already know me too well,” he said. “It’s not made for a rolling wagon, unfortunately. In the meantime, bundle up and hopefully the wagon cover will keep you dry.”

Aeo pushed himself from the front of the wagon and did his best to maneuver into the thin space the wagon afforded him. It was stuffed full of crates with three weeks of foodstuffs and travel necessities like two extra wagon wheels, a large water keg, two large wool blankets, a pair of pillows filled with down, a fishing net, and more, including, strangely enough, a six-foot tall quarterstaff. Leon had never mentioned being skilled at fighting, much less skilled with a glorified stick. Wouldn’t a sword be a more effective weapon? Or maybe a spear with a pointed tip? Either way, the weapon (or was it a tool?) intrigued his imagination. The more Aeo thought about it, the more he wished to see Leon in action.

The day continued on much as it had in the days before, the wagon trudging along on wet muddy roads. Fortunately, Leon’s driving skills were excellent, and Poro’s strength equalled it, despite the heavier load upon her back. Once or twice, the wagon slowed to a crawl, encountering a thick patch of sludge. Fortunately, the wagon’s momentum kept it moving, and the wheels never stuck to the road for long.

Along the way, Aeo noticed they were actually passing other wagons headed in the opposite direction. Some had covers above the driver’s seat to keep out the rain. Others did not, leaving their leads miserable and wet. Some wagons had one horse, or two, or four, depending on the size of the shipments they carried. Aeo even saw a rather fancy burgundy-colored horse-drawn carriage transporting a rather well-to-do family. Most notably, none of the other drivers offered Leon any kind of regard, despite the fact that Leon cheerfully greeted every single one that passed by.

As the morning moved on and the afternoon began, the sky refused to reveal the sun. The clouds gathered thick above the merchant’s road, and a true rainstorm began to fall. As the storm increased, Aeo looked up at Leon, who seemed no worse for wear sitting in the midst of it. The wagon canopy about Aeo’s head was, unfortunately, quite porous, leaking at the points dangling furthest down into the cart. One of the deepest points was right over Aeo’s chest, and another fell upon his knees. To protect himself, he covered his upper body with one blanket and covered his lower half with another, hoping they wouldn’t leak into a puddle in the middle. Before he had the heart to complain about his situation, however, Leon slowed Poro to a halt on the right side of the road and stepped off the driver’s seat.

“What’s going on?” Aeo asked.

Leon appeared at the back of the wagon, his hair and jacket quite thoroughly drenched. He grabbed his bag and lifted the back bar.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s dry off and wait for this storm to pass. No sense in catching a cold by staying on the road.”

Dry off? By going out into the rain? Oh, wait. Leon’s magick.

Aeo gladly crawled out of the wagon, accepting the large drops of water that fell on his head and lap.

“What about Poro?” Aeo asked, looking over to her.

“She’ll be okay,” Leon said. “I’ll check on her every so often. I think she’ll be more hungry and thirsty than cold.”

As Poro munched at the grass that grew on the edge of the highway, Leon and Aeo walked a short ways into the pasture, coming to a stop just before the edge of the treeline about one hundred yards from the edge of the lake. Kneeling down on the mud-soaked ground, Leon produced from his magickal bag another ten-inch candle. Aeo stood shivering at his side, water dripping from his hair and seeping through his shirt.

“We have a problem,” Leon said, turning the candle in his hand. “The candle is soaked, and trying to light a fire in rain like this would be too difficult and take too long. Besides, if we lit the candle in a campfire, it would probably go out before we could use it. What do you think we should do?”

Aeo frowned.

“Um… Your magick?”

“Magick, certainly. But not mine.”

“What?” Aeo stammered. “Mine?”

“Do you want to try?” Leon asked, looking up at Aeo.

Aeo pulled away.

“I… I don’t know.”

“Here,” Leon said, patting the wet grass in front of him. “It’s wet, but hopefully in a few minutes, it won’t be. Let’s give it a go.”

Aeo paused. Stepping over in front of Leon, he sat in the mud and grass; water immediately soaked his bottom.

“Remember what it felt like when you held fire in your hands?” Leon asked. Aeo nodded. “I want you to have that in your mind. Never mind the fire in Olvaren. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration. Holding fire and causing fire aren’t very separated from each other, and almost nothing but your will can extinguish it. Here, just as before, hold your hands up, just like this.”

As if grasping a globe by its equator, Aeo’s hands hovered about a foot apart. Leon lifted the dripping candle right in between.

Sym-yattra. Move the heat in your body from your feet to your legs, your legs to your waist, up through your chest and head, and then down through your arms to your hands. It doesn’t have to feel like anything, but imagining it makes it so. And you’ll be surprised what a little imagination can accomplish. Understand? Try it now. Close your eyes if you like.”

Aeo did so, and imagined as hard as he could. Once again, there didn’t seem to be much heat in his body at the moment. But a rainstorm in the valley couldn’t compare to the terrible cold of the mountain. He drew upon the thought of warmth traveling through his body to his waiting hands, and for a moment, he could almost feel something moving along his nerves. A boom of thunder somewhere across the lake startled him for a moment, cracking his concentration. He continued, however, shutting his eyes tighter and focusing his thoughts on nothing but the movement of heat.

For a moment, he imagined the burning inn. The flames that consumed Harthoon. He couldn’t think of such things. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration.

A thought came to him, completely unexpected.

I haven’t dreamed of the sun since I left the mountain.

And it was true. Even nightmares had departed from him. Sleep came to him so quickly every night after traveling on the bumpy road, he hadn’t had time to dream.

That voice. That woman’s voice. The one that came from the sun and the sky. Why was it so familiar to me? I haven’t had a dream like that before. Why was it so familiar…?

“Aeo,” whispered Leon. “Open your eyes.”

Aeo did.

Between his hands, a tiny sphere of flame shuddered in the rain, dancing in the air as if summoned by a wispy spirit. Aeo didn’t move. Something held him in place, propped up by the falling droplets of water. There was no pressure or pain from this curious force, and he felt as though he could move if he chose to do so. He simply sat there, watching the fire in his hands. His imagination no longer fueled this flame; indeed, it felt as though someone had turned on a faucet in Aeo’s chest, out of which strength and energy poured.

“There we go,” Leon said, lifting the candle wick to the flame. It lit immediately, and resisted every raindrop that fell upon it. “You feel it, don’t you? The animis leaving you? Now, Aeo, reverse the process. Pull the warmth from your hands back down your arms and into your chest. Imagine it fading back into your body.”

This time, Aeo’s eyes remained open. Somehow, this process was much easier to manage. Unlike his desires in Olvaren, he wished this flame to fade and vanish. The physical feeling of energy leaving him slowed to a trickle. The force that held him up slowly released him, and the sphere of fire shrunk to a series of bright sparks before fading entirely.

Aeo pulled his hands towards him, watching them. No evidence of burns. He hadn’t even felt warmth from the glow.

“Very good, Aeo, very good,” Leon said. “Don’t forget this candle flame, now. We don’t want it going out. Don’t imagine it away.”

For a moment, Aeo entertained the thought by instinct, and the candle sputtered. But denying the image of a candle blowing away in a breeze, the tiny flame remained bright and delightful.

“Now it’s my turn,” Leon said, pulling the wooden candle base from his bag. He placed the wax firmly in place, set it on the ground, and placed both hands above the twirling flame. A white swirl of energy emerged from his palms like a cloud, and soon coalesced into a single mysterious glyph that looked like one of the symbols from the map in Leon’s marker. With a faint pop, the glyph fell upon the flame in a perfect sphere, like two bubbles connecting on the surface of a pool.

Aeo felt the effect of the glyph immediately. The raindrops that fell on him ceased. He looked up. They were indeed still falling, but they collided with and poured across an invisible surface in a ten foot diameter, creating a curtain of water around them. Then, as quickly as the water had soaked him, the moisture of the mud and grass around Aeo began to evaporate. The moisture that had sunk into his trousers vanished. Aeo brushed a hand through his hair and across his shirt: they were completely dry, albeit a little wrinkled and messy. Leon removed his coat and shook his own long hair as if throwing off raindrops; there were no drops to drip.

The temperature hadn’t changed. But Aeo was fairly certain the magick (or perhaps the thick curtain of raindrops) kept the wind at bay. Being dry made everything perfect.

Except for two things: his eyes became itchy, and his throat dried up. He rubbed his uncomfortable eyes and his lungs coughed in response.

“You feel it, too?” Leon asked with a quick cough. “Apologies, I made it a bit strong to ensure we dried off. Hold on.”

Leon kneeled on the now-dry dirt and held his hands above the glyph in the same manner as before. As if turning the knob of a door, Leon’s hand caused the glyph to rotate upon the candle. In a second, moisture returned to Aeo’s eyes and throat, and from what he could tell, the raindrops above them pitter-pattered upon the magickal surface just a little closer to the ground.

“Can you teach me how to do that?” Aeo asked.

“I imagine so,” Leon said, standing. “Though it requires an understanding of Drael-dena symbology and the proper balance of water and air. Without the right balance, some scholars have died from dehydration after spending a single night under such a ward. How they didn’t feel incredible discomfort right away, I can’t imagine.”

“What is dee-high-dray-shun?”

“Dying from a lack of water.”

“Oh.”

Suddenly, Aeo wasn’t sure he wanted to learn that particular ward.

“So,” Leon continued. “Let me run and grab the waterskins to keep us hydrated. And I also have something else to show you, something you might like.”

Walking through a waterfall, Leon vanished towards the direction of the wagon. Aeo entertained himself for a moment by watching the delicate flame of the candle. Though he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn’t help himself: he had to know. Slowly, he reached his hand above the candle and the ward placed upon it. He felt heat, but no pain. He lowered it closer. More heat, but no pain. Finally, he reached a finger beneath the ward directly into the orange glow. He expected the same effect as touching a hot stove or burning himself with a torch. But nothing. Nothing at all. Maybe a tingle of warmth, but no effect besides.

“Huh,” Aeo whispered to himself. He moved his finger away.

The flame, as well as the ward, fastened to his fingertip and moved with it.

“Ahh!” Aeo cried. He nearly shook his hand to smother the flame. But the ward did not break and soak him in the rain; he thought it best not to move. The flame didn’t hurt in the slightest, much to his relief. He felt the same strong support he’d felt just moments ago help him stabilize the flame and the ward on his finger. And like before, he felt the warmth drain from his chest. But this time, it felt more intense, as if jogging up a steep hill or climbing a mountain. His breathing became labored.

There was only one thing to do. Ever so gently, he pushed his finger against the wick of the candle. It didn’t attach as he pulled his finger back.

I can do this, Aeo thought. I can…

He felt the wick beneath his skin, and imagined the flame leaping from his hand to the candle. He even closed his eyes for a second to focus.

I can do this, he thought. Remember the sun. The dream…

He opened his eyes. Somehow, the flame had grown larger upon his finger, and the ward shuddered as if blowing on the wind. The invisible surface that held back the rain also shuddered, and Aeo felt a few raindrops fall onto his head.

Okay, the dream is too much. Pull it back, pull it back…

He pretended the heat sucked back into his hands and up his arms, and accordingly, the flame shrunk down to an appropriate size. He pulled his finger back, but still the flame and the ward refused to connect with the candle.

Come on, please… Before Leon-

The rain parted, and a man peered through it.

“Aeo?”

“Eeep!” Aeo yelped, yanking his hand backwards.

The flame and the ward vanished. Like a roof collapsing, freezing rainwater shattered upon Aeo, drenching his head and lap and pouring down his back. So surprised, he couldn’t even apologize.

“Ah,” Leon said with a laugh. “It’s time to practice again, isn’t it?”

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