“Miss, I really must urge you to reconsider. I may not know what you’re planning, but with all due respect, I know it isn’t wise. That place is a dead land. Nothing natural survives that far out for long.”
“If you’re unwilling to bring us yourself, then just the one horse will do. I’ll find the way on my own.”
“Oh, I never said I was unwilling. I’ll do it, but you’ll have to manage the final stretch alone. Death’s doorstep may be familiar territory for me, but even I know not to go inside.”
“And you’re sure you don’t want a full escort team? On my own, I can’t promise any level of protection for you or the boy. Even travelling the main roads, we usually go in groups of at least—”
“I am aware, sir. I’ve travelled with the guild before, but I’d like to keep this between us. I’m sure you understand.”
“I’m not sure I do. In any case, I’ll have to ask a steep fee for this. It’s far from the comfort of the roads on my normal routes.”
“How does double the standard fare for inter-city travel sound? That should cover any challenges we face, but we can discuss extra fees when we part ways.”
“I… I suppose that’s a fair deal. Meet me here at sunrise tomorrow. Get a good night’s rest, ma’am. You too, kid. You’re gonna need it.”
And so, Unnyr and Oscar headed toward the former site of the Arm of Caevo. Their guide, Leif, an older man with deep-set eyes and dark skin, was renowned as a senior member of the Travellers’ Guild. Despite the purported comfort of his usual escorts, his body had become an archive of scars, each one a tale of near-misses and tragedy. After the Exile, most elven settlements were consumed by mana, turning swaths of land into hostile nightmares. New cities arose in livable areas, though they remained semi-portable to accommodate the unpredictable shifting of mana. Leif was assigned the most arduous journeys between these safe zones. He returned from each trip with horror stories of raw mana flooding over well-travelled roads, travellers succumbing to mana madness, or beasts and other wildlife turned rabid and enraged. Every request to venture into these wild lands welcomed an equal amount of curiosity and concern.
Even in an elven world, Unnyr remained practised in evading scrutiny. It was possible that her clan had moved on from her transgressions, but no one could learn that her son was half human. The mortal wars had been suspended through neither conquest and surrender nor by peaceful accord. It was an abrupt end which added heat to simmering tensions. For many, it seemed there was nothing that could begin to undo a century of bitterness. While everyone agreed that the gods were culpable for the Exile and its aftermath, Unnyr had overheard mumbled curses pinning blame on the other races as well. Oscar was the sole human in a world searching for a scapegoat. Distance from society and secrets were still unfortunate necessities.
Thanks to his young age and careful monitoring, Oscar passed as a full-fledged elf and was referred to by his elven name: Vardrun. His hair was kept long, draping over the rounded points of his ears, and his face had always been quite thin, providing the illusion of sharper features. Vardrun was taught to keep a hood up or his head down when in public, a lesson in shame which pained Unnyr to teach him. He had few friends as a result of their predicament, and Unnyr had fewer people she could trust for companionship or aid. In their long stretches of time alone, Unnyr taught Vardrun his father’s language and customs and of the world they were extracted from in desperate hope that they would return there one day. Explaining the need for constant lying — “yes, he’s an only child;” “his father passed when he was just a baby” — was an exhausting feat.
As the years passed, a further complication rose to the forefront. Whether the result of birth or the constant frenzy and peril of his youth, Oscar had often been unwell even before the Exile. Year by year, Vardrun became sicker, now visibly smaller than other children his age. It was an unwelcome excuse for his outlier tendencies: they kept to themselves because he was ill, and he couldn’t perform simple feats of magic like some other children because his body wasn’t strong enough. Though his pains and weakness could vanish for weeks at a time, the symptoms always returned. Unnyr requested examinations from several physicians, but none had the faintest clue how to help.
“So, what are you planning on doing out here? I’ve gotten some strange requests before, but no one’s packed up their belongings and asked to be led head-first into the fire, so to speak. Not quite so plainly, at least. The power hungry and the fools know better than to bother us at the guild, but this trip of yours falls right into their camp. Then again, maybe you are a fool. You’re travelling to an abandoned non-elven city, after all. You looking for a ghost in the dead lands or something?”
“Something like that.” Unnyr paid his nagging little attention, keeping a sharp eye on the trees and sky while holding Vardrun steady against her. The constant jostling and bouncing of the horse ride would not help his lack of appetite.
“I’ve never been there myself, though I saw it from a distance once or twice when I was about your age. Impressive place. I can’t imagine what you’re expecting to find there now. I’m sure you heard that island crashed down. Prob’ly made the city’s name even more fitting than before.” Leif’s cackle echoed out across the open field around them, cut short by her silence.
She was aware of what to expect. When the gods disappeared or left, the Arm of Caevo was said to have gone with them, bringing a definitive end to the birthplace of the avian people. Members of the clan that once lived nearby had told her they felt the shock waves as Caevo’s Palm plummeted back to its ancient home. In desperation, she set out regardless. If she couldn’t find what she needed, then perhaps she could find a clue to follow instead.
“Listen, I get it. We all have our secrets, we’ve all done something… unsavoury.”
“Do you think me a criminal?”
“No, of course not!” His back stiffened straight at her tone as he led the way across faded patches of an old winding dirt road. “Of course not, ma’am. But you’re hiding something, and it’s leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. There’s no one else around to hear, and as much as my mouth keeps flappin’, I know well when to keep it shut. I promise, I won’t speak of it to anyone.”
“Look, I’m worried, and not just because a dead customer looks bad on my record. It doesn’t sit well on my conscience either.” He pulled on his reins and brought his horse to a slow stop, allowing Unnyr to halt alongside. His voice turned cold, almost lifeless, as he stared at Vardrun’s covered head. “It’s obvious your kid is sick. Heck, he’s been passed out since late morning and he was no better last night. That must be tied to what’s going on here. Whatever it is you’re coming all this way for, I promise it isn’t worth the risk. I’ve got kids and grandkids myself…” He shifted his gaze to the horizon ahead and his voice softened. “At least, I used to. The young ones didn’t make it when we had to move. My daughter went missing last year on an escort. My son’s the only one I’ve got left.”
The wind picked up around them, though the rustling leaves and their flapping clothing failed to cover his tears. Unnyr pulled Vardrun’s body closer, kissing the top of his upturned hood.
“It’s not too late still. If we turn around now, we can make it back to the city by dark. I’ll even refund your coin, no questions asked. This place—”
“I’m looking for a friend.”
Leif paused, waiting for the rest of the joke. Her stoic expression replaced the punchline. “Why would you think they’re in Crater of all places? No one’s been there in years. There’s nothin’ left of the place. If anyone did go there… well, if you did find them, they wouldn’t be coming back home with you. Not the same as when they left at least. I’m telling you, it isn’t worth it.”
“If you have a son, then I trust you understand that anything is worth the risk. I’ve run out of other options. I know he’s out here somewhere, though I don’t expect he’ll want to come back.”
The remaining days of travel stretched on in near silence. Leif’s lively nattering was left behind and the steady hoofbeats were interrupted by nothing but directions, warnings, and frequent rests. They were lucky, he declared during a mid-day break, that they hadn’t encountered any ravaging beasts, though mana posed more difficulties as they continued on. A gentle river they had used to keep course turned a deep, vile hue and the horses refused to be near it. Several encounters with clouds of stinging mists forced them to turn back and find another way onward. The air began to feel dense, as if the world itself pushed back against them. Relentless pounding in their heads made it hard to see and keep balance. Without the cold waters of the river to calm Vardrun’s fever, Unnyr was forced to strip him of all but his underclothes and cloak. His skin burned against hers as she braced him in one arm and clutched the reins in the other, eyes always scanning for more dangers ahead.
After four long days, Leif stopped at the crest of a steep hill looking out across lush rolling plains. For a moment, Unnyr was lost within a world no longer her own. She and Henry had travelled the road below countless times in their youth, travelling to Crater with supplies and away with citizens fleeing for a better future. The dark forest beyond looked sinister and the island in the sky was no more, but there was comfort knowing that the sunlit valley had not changed at all.
“This is as far as I go,” Leif said, his face twisted with discontent. “Head that way over these hills for about an hour and, well, it should be pretty hard to miss I’d imagine.”
“Thank you,” Unnyr said, reaching to her side and unhooking a small pouch from her belt. “How much more do I owe you? I have a little left, as promised.”
“Keep the coin for now, we can figure out a deal when you return home safely. Both of you.” He bent down and scoured his saddlebag in a frenzy. “I wish I had something else I could give you to help.”
“You’ve done more than enough, sir. Have a safe journey back.”
“You as well, ma’am. Take care of yourselves, please, and good luck.”
The first time Unnyr and Henry travelled to Crater and beheld the sky island of Caevo’s Palm towering in the distance, they were filled with a deep sense of reverence. As she approached the cities without him, a storm wind blowing against her back, she witnessed the victims of disaster. There was no sign of Caevo at all, turning the once lofty avian city into a petrified wave of earth and rock spilling out across withered farms and into the maw of crumbling stone teeth buildings below. Years separated from the impact, the ground was still unsteady, shifting beneath her and threatening to swallow them whole. At the city’s lip, she bowed her head and closed her eyes, breathing deep what little scents remained of grass and rain and life.
She descended into the city ruins, lobbing her rucksack ahead before shambling over mounds of earth with Vardrun half-conscious on her back. The familiar streets had become a labyrinth of boulders and broken ground, unyielding and yet precarious. Fredrik and Em’s house within Crater’s upper ring was ravaged by the impact, now home to only dirt and dust. Further in, she found a short tunnel carved into the earth, once the rear exit for a quaint shop or home. Clay pots and the shrivelled remains of a dozen different flowers were all that remained, hidden away by a fallen boulder which had all but sealed off the space. Unnyr dropped to her knees and laid Vardrun down on the cleaner of their two bedrolls before passing out beside him in the dirt.
Vardrun’s fever relented after a few days and he began to eat again, allowing her the freedom to explore. There was little left to find. Most buildings were inaccessible, many reduced to piles of rubble, and the stairways which connected the city’s tiers had become narrow slopes of jagged rock. The few homes she managed to squeeze into were barren, evidence of Em’s success with preemptive evacuations. Vardrun pleaded to go with her on her treks, but keeping a watchful eye as he clamoured over debris left less time to search for any hint of life. They began to run low on food faster than she had expected with appetites heightened by constant activity. The city’s wells had all been lost or destroyed, leaving Unnyr the laborious options of conjuring enough water with magic or carrying buckets back from the nearest stream. Leif was right, she thought; there was nothing left here for her.
As she drifted to sleep, the sound of tumbling stones broke the silence of their final night. She scrambled to snuff out the smouldering embers of their fire and crawled closer to the entrance, straining to hear the sound once again. After a moment, she heard the echo of crumbling once more. It was distant, but undeniable that something else had made its way into the ruined city. Peering out around the boulder, Unnyr was dismayed to see the moon blanketed in thick clouds. In the ringing silence, she pressed herself against the wall, straining to sense any sign of danger, but to no avail. As she moved to return to Vardrun’s side, she heard footsteps accompanied by a faint voice too distant to understand. The hairs along the back of her neck jolted outward and her useless eyes widened as her quickening breath became just visible in the night air.
Looking back at Vardrun in peaceful sleep, her mind was split between staying to protect him and searching out the source of the disturbance. Careful not to wake him, she crawled back and kissed his forehead, pulling his blanket up to his chin. Leaving him was inexcusable — he would be defenceless! — but the urge to investigate was strong. She returned to the alley’s exit and paused, eyes shut, tracing a sweeping line through the air from the boulder to the opposite wall. A faint sense of lingering mana followed her path as she urged the darkness of night to fill the entryway, concealing Vardrun further. Pleased with the illusion, but still unable to settle her fears, she set out into the night.
As she steadied her breath and calmed her racing heart, she tracked the intruder deeper and deeper into the city. They were moving further from Vardrun’s hiding place, and she heard no other sources of noise each time she stopped to glance back, but still her worries grew. She crept downward, feeling out the ground in front of her with each step as if she walked along a tightrope, arms outstretched to steady herself against walls she could not see. Within the city’s lowest reaches, the voice became more regular but still too hushed to hear. At the end of Crater’s main street, she spotted the intruder, now silhouetted by the faintest glow of green light. They were kneeling in silence, looking down into the overgrown glade which once housed the base of the Arm. Unsure of their intentions, she gripped the dagger sheathed at her side and hid herself against a broken brick wall, trying with desperation to quiet her breathing. Silence screamed in her ears as she watched them, peering around the wall at their motionless form.
“I thought I saw the glow of flames earlier. I had hoped it was just my mind deceiving me again.” The large man rose to his feet, keeping his back to Unnyr’s hiding spot. His deep voice made her heart beat faster, yet its power was undercut by the wavering of emotion. “Leave me to my business and return to your shelter for the night. If you’re looking for mana or riches or secrets, you’ll find none of it here.”
“I’m inclined to agree, yet here you stand. There must be something that drew you here. Perhaps you do have what I need.”
“Please, just leave me be. What draws me here is not something you want.” As the clouds began to thin and moonlight fell around them, she could see his body slump under a weight that threatened to pull him to his knees again. His voice became almost a whisper as she stepped closer. “There is nothing here you could want. There’s nothing here at all.”
“You’re wrong.” Unnyr took her hand off her blade and stepped forward. “This place is in ruins, but we both came here for a reason.” Her heart quivered against her throat and she trembled as she spoke in Henry’s tongue: “I think we’ve found what we were looking for.”
His head snapped upward and the magical light within his hand vanished in an instant. For a second, Unnyr felt as though she would be sick. A warm relief spread over her as he turned around, tears welling in his eyes. The scar upon his cheek wasn’t hidden, his ears were long, and his face was ragged and wracked by countless nights without rest, but the eyes looking back at her were warm and familiar. She raced forward and embraced him, not sure when she had started crying too, and felt the shivering anxiety within her dissolve away. Together, they sobbed in silence, sharing an unspoken grief that neither had been able to speak of for years.
“It has been far too long, my friend,” he said, his voice much more recognizable in a language not their own. “What in the gods’ names are you doing out here?”
“I was looking for you.”
After sunrise, Fredrik led Unnyr and Vardrun a short ways into the woods where he had built himself a home. In the light of day, the forest was inviting and calm, the rays of sun beaming through the sparse canopy bringing a warmth which brought Unnyr back to her childhood. She could almost envision the elder’s cabin, see where land would be cleared for the community center, hear the excited chattering of children, and smell foods being prepared and medicines being mixed. Instead, the forest felt empty. Rustling leaves and the aroma of wood filled the hollow spaces left by misplaced memories. The small clearing he brought them to housed only a simple fire pit, erratic vegetable gardens, and a shabby wooden hut. Fredrik ducked inside, inviting Unnyr in with Vardrun in her arms, setting her rucksack down for her on a floor composed of dried debris.
“I would apologize for the mess, but I’m sure you’ll agree this is positively tidy for me.” He laughed, gesturing toward the barren room, and sat down into a compressed patch of floor. “Make yourselves at home. It isn’t much, but I hope it’s comfortable enough for him in here. How long has he been sick?”
“Years, I think. It’s been off and on.” She laid Vardrun down on the makeshift bed and rummaged through her pack to find a cloth to dry the sweat from his forehead. “I hate to ask a favour like this, showing up out of nowhere, but no one else has been able to help at all. He just keeps getting sicker. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“I’m more than happy to help, June. It’s the least I can do after everything you and Henry did for us.”
He was without most of his supplies, and his illusory disguise and clean shaven head were replaced with patched-up clothing and a slick of long ashen hair, but his every movement was made with the precision of an expert. Kneeling over Vardrun, he traced a chaotic pattern over the dry cloth upon his forehead and, with a final pulling motion, the cloth grew cool and damp. Holding his arm out toward the hut’s sole window, he stole a subtle light which emanated from his fingertips as he examined the boy’s entire body for markings or injury. He found nothing but stiff joints and weakened muscles. Into a small earthen cup, he combined more conjured water with a pinch of dried leaves and petals from a cloth pouch. As he stirred the mixture with a whittled stick, it began to let off an effervescent steam.
“You mentioned once that you were chosen to be ascended before you left your clan, but it still amazes me watching you use magic like that. It seems effortless.”
“I detest that word — ‘ascended,’ as if we were made to be like the gods, as if magic or power separates me from the others.”
“The gods didn’t gift me some awesome power or give me the key to unlock it. On the contrary, I was using magic in secret before I was chosen. It wasn’t power they gave me, it was information. Knowledge about mana and how to manipulate it. I tried to share that knowledge, but my people wouldn’t take it. That glorification is part of why I left.” He passed her the tea and her hand twitched to recoil away from the heat of his still reddened hand. “You were never chosen, yet you learned to alter your appearance on your own. That always amazed me.”
“Those days are well behind us now, in any case.” She took a sip of the tea and tried to hide the instinctive wincing against its bitter taste, a familiar medicinal blend. “Without the gods around, some people have been teaching others to use magic, sharing that knowledge. There’s probably others like us that learned in secret who are finally able to show off what they can do. The world has changed, and we’re changing with it.”
“I’m glad, though it may be too little too late, and I know better than to trust some of them with that knowledge.” He turned to open a large wooden chest beside the bed, its metallic edges and ornate carved design in stark contrast to everything around it, and began to search inside. “When he wakes up, have him drink that tea. It should settle his stomach, maybe give him a bit of energy. In the meantime, do you mind if I test him, like the old days?”
“Of course. The physicians in town didn’t seem to know much about mana — not like you do, at least — though they agreed that it probably isn’t what made him sick.”
“I have a hunch that it may shed some light on his condition regardless.” He grabbed a small glass sphere from his supplies and held it up toward the window as if to examine its nonexistent contents. “I’ve had a lot of time to think and experiment out here, as I’m sure you can imagine. My measurements all tell me that there is much more mana in the world than we were once used to.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. Even the safe zones feel toxic sometimes. How bad is it?”
“The area around here is fairly calm right now, thankfully, but I’ve stepped into places with levels of mana I would have previously thought impossible. But what if I suggested that these measurements were misleading, that mana hasn’t changed at all?”
“I’d say you’ve spent too much time in your own head. The world definitely changed that night, Fredrik. Everyone knows that. It’s almost like it’s gone feral. Uncontrolled.”
“I agree, but I don’t think those two ideas lie in conflict. My mind keeps returning to something I learned a long time ago.” He proceeded with his ritual, circling around Vardrun’s chest for some time. “When I was chosen, the first thing I was taught was that all magic involves the movement and transformation of mana. It is the essence of all things. Whether you conjure a flame, disguise your appearance, or break stone, you are making use of this endless cycle of change. Of course, the gods were able to do this on a grand scale and they must have used an immense amount of mana to do so. I think their very presence must have kept us safe from what we now face.”
“So you think the gods did this — sent us here or left us without their protection — to punish us? I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect that kind of thinking from you.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. What I’m saying is that our problems with mana are related to the fact that the gods aren’t here, and that the mana itself hasn’t somehow changed or grown. However, it does seem that they had been protecting us, almost instinctively. Maybe they did care for us in a way, but I don’t claim to understand them or their actions. I try to focus on what can be measured and deduced, not on the whims of immortals that were keen on keeping secrets.”
“What about the others, then? What do you think happened to them?”
“It’s hard to measure what isn’t there.” His fluid movements stopped like a boat thrown ashore, but the ritual tides took them into motion as he refocused his attention. “There’s at least one good reason they aren’t here with us, though. If my years in Crater taught me anything, it’s that the other races are much more sensitive to mana. We may be struggling, but we are adapting, as you say. The others… there’s no chance they’d survive here.”
With a flick of his hand, he finished his ritual and held the sphere up to the window’s light. A translucent greenish fluid had filled the instrument. His ears perked up as he held his achievement aloft, the joy upon his face apparent even with his back turned.
“Aside from the circumstances, this is quite exciting. I haven’t examined mana reactions in a new race in… gods, it must be more than a decade now. And I think you’d agree that he’s certainly one of a kind.”
“One of a pair, actually.”
Fredrik’s heart stopped for a beat, a chill sinking through his gut, and he turned back to see Unnyr’s face to the ground. Her knuckles blanched as her grip tightened around the cooling cup of tea.
“I’m so sorry, June. Did they…”
“Her name is Rosalind. She… she’s with Henry, I think. Gods, I hope they’re safe, wherever they are.”
Words failed them both. He pulled her into an embrace and she squeezed back, eyes shut tight. For just a moment, she was back at home and whole again. She opened her eyes to blurred vision, wiped her tears, and moved to be at Vardrun’s side. In the silence of birdsong, Fredrik began his analysis with an emptiness in his chest. As he sat in a trance focused on the fluid-filled orb, a soft voice emerged from the bed.
“I’m right here, Oscar.” Flashing a quick smile despite reddened eyes, she helped him to sit up. “Here, drink this sweetie. It’ll make you feel better.” She guided the cup to his dry mouth and he braced it with his shaking hands, his nose turning up as the smell wafted out. “It doesn’t taste too bad, I promise. I took a sip while you were sleeping.”
“W-where are we?”
“This is my friend’s home. Oscar, this is Fredrik, er, Mister— I mean, Doctor—”
“Oh, just Fredrik is fine. It’s very nice to meet you, Oscar.” He turned to greet the boy but was met with panic as Oscar’s hands flung up to the sides of his head.
“It’s okay, sweetie.” Unnyr plucked his hands from his ears and ran her fingers through his hair, tucking it back to frame his tired face. “Fredrik was a friend of dad’s, too. You don’t have to hide here.”
“You know my dad?”
“I did. The three of us — your dad, your mum, and me — we all worked together for a while.”
“What’s that ball?”
“Oh, this?” Fredrik said, holding up the glass orb. “This is something that lets me help people feel better. This green stuff inside it, see that? That came from you.” He held out the orb and let Oscar take it, keeping his hands nearby to catch it if necessary. Oscar looked wide-eyed at the ball and then down at himself, perplexed.
“Have you heard of mana, Oscar?”
“Have you ever done magic before?”
“No,” he mumbled downward into the cup of tea, grimacing as he took another sip.
“Just as I thought. You know, June, I think that might just be the cure he needs. This device is smaller than my old one, but it filled up remarkably fast, especially for someone his size. I’m not sure a full analysis is even necessary.”
“You want him to do magic? I’m not sure I understand.”
“This world affects all of us differently than it used to. Like you said, the mana isn’t under control any longer. That’s why everyone’s fled to the safe zones, right?”
“Are you suggesting he’s mana poisoned? Fredrik, that doesn’t make sense. I… I’ve heard of people who went mad from mana poisoning, some that just…” She looked down at her son and held her tongue. “Some that didn’t make it. But nothing like this. This has been going on for years.”
“You’ve heard of elves who have been exposed to high concentrations, but he’s not just an elf, is he? I think it’s reasonable to suggest that his human half would change how mana affects him. All of his symptoms are without a clear cause, yet I can easily remember a dozen patients from Crater who showed similar signs. I assume you’ve both have had some exposure these past few years, yes?”
“Well, yes. Everyone has. But I’m not poisoned, so how could he be?”
“You’ve had years for your body to acclimate, June. He’s still just a child. Besides, you have a way to discharge it, do you not?” He grabbed another cup from the ground and filled it with conjured water. “Same as me. Remember, magic is the movement and transformation of mana. That can include the mana your body takes in from your environment.”
“There must be another explanation, Fredrik. Please.”
“June, you were always a bright girl, I know you brought him to me for a reason. You knew the answer before coming here.”
“But even if that is the case, we’ve tried in the past. He couldn’t do it. He’s not an elf, at least not fully. He can’t use magic. He doesn’t have the sense.”
“I can help for now, though it may take a while to extract enough mana given my current resources. I suppose I’ll have to do things the old-fashioned way.”
“And then what? We can’t stay here forever, and I don’t expect you’ll return to the city with us.”
“You may just have to wait and see, June. I’m sorry. Perhaps it’s time I told you another of my more radical theories.”
Unnyr watched each day with bated breath as Fredrik transposed a stream of mana from her son’s frail form into thin air. His fever reduced after the first attempt and his nausea and sleeplessness soon followed. She was choked with tears as she witnessed him smiling wider than ever before, laughing as he ran about the forest clearing, dug up treasures, and climbed trees. Fredrik was eager to be of use after several long years alone. He wowed Oscar with small shows of magic, creating displays of multicoloured sparks and bubbles or small illusory creatures that ran around and disappeared in a puff of smoke. It was a side of him that Unnyr had never seen. Fredrik tried to teach him about magic and how to sense the mana within his surroundings, but Oscar was not the best of students. There was no time to meditate and focus when he could be a kid at last.
“We really should get back to town soon, but he’s so much happier here.” Unnyr added another log to the dwindling fire and returned to her stump seat, keeping an eye on Oscar sword-fighting with twigs against a horde of imaginary villains.
“You could stay. I really do believe I could teach him magic if you gave us some time.”
“I’m not sure, Fredrik. Non-elves have never used mana before. You said it yourself: he reacts like a human to it, not like us.”
“I also said that it’s possible the others could use magic. He’s young, but I think he can get it. Besides, he’s not just Henry’s boy; he is your son, too.” He stopped poking at the embers, took a step back and knelt down, keeping his head to the flames. “It’s nice to have you around, too, June. It’s been hard to go on without…”
“I couldn’t hear you in Crater that night, but as soon as I recognized your voice, I knew what you were doing. I can imagine exactly what you were saying.” She slipped off her stump and over to his side, her crunching footsteps blending with the crackling of the fire. “I say the same things every day. It feels impossible sometimes, to live on without them. I’m lucky to have Oscar. I don’t know what I would have done without him to keep me occupied. I can’t imagine how you’ve managed for so long out here on your own.”
“Not well.” His body shuddered despite the heat growing around them. “I keep searching for answers, for some clue as to what happened or where they are — where we are — but I keep coming up empty-handed. I couldn’t stay in the home we had made for ourselves after we fled Crater. I wandered for years, not knowing where I was going, before I ended up back here. Sometimes I feel like I can see him in the corner of my eye, or hear him singing high up in the trees. Living out here like this, struggling just to survive… it’s hard, but it keeps me busy. It’s nothing compared to waking up each day and remembering that he’s gone. Being here, right next to Crater, it feels like some part of him is with me still. I can’t bear the thought of having to leave him again.”
“But you know we can’t stay. Oscar’s just a kid, he needs to be around other children. I have a few friends in the city who care for us, too. They must be worried sick about us by now. And besides—”
“It isn’t safe here. I know.”
“I know it’s hard. Trust me, I do. Our old home, the last place where my family was still whole… I had to abandon it, too. But we have a new home now. It isn’t large, but we can always make room for a friend.”
“I left my people a long time ago, June. They call me a traitor. Traitor to the gods for wanting to spread the so-called power I’d been gifted. Traitor to my kind for wanting to interact with the enemy.” He brushed the scar along his cheekbone with his thumb, drying a tear that had run down his face. “I can’t go back, not after all this time. They’d never let me.”
“Fredrik, my people hate me, too. My crime against them is alive and well thanks to you. I’ve done nothing to regain their trust, but you could help a lot of people just like you helped him. That would go a long way to change their opinion of you. If nothing else, it would mean the world to Oscar and I to see you more. I’m not sure when we’d be able to travel back here safely otherwise.”
The fire dimmed once more and the burning heat against their wet faces receded like a hug cut short. Chirruping insects had awoken and night had taken full effect, turning Fredrik’s clearing into the shaded, imposing forest that had cut across the horizon when Unnyr first arrived.
“Sweetie, it’s time to go to sleep now,” Unnyr said, wiping her face dry with her sleeve. A ringing silence filled her ears. “Oscar? Oscar where’d you run off to?”
“Mommy!” Oscar came sprinting in from the forest, his face pale and his eyes wide, losing his footing on an upturned root at the edge of the clearing. He tumbled forward with arms out, and in a heartbeat Unnyr was up and running to his side.
“I’m here, Oscar. What’s wrong?”
Before he could answer, a low growl came from behind him. Unnyr tried to pick him up, but his panicked flailing halted her attempts. She motioned for him to be quiet and grabbed his hand, moving with speed toward Fredrik’s hut. A great wolf with dark, dirty fur appeared in the space just beyond the clearing. It stalked around the edge of the circle with quick, twitchy movements, its glowing yellow eyes locked on Oscar.
“Stay calm, June.” Fredrik’s whisper sent a shock through her spine in surprise. “Move slowly to the hut, but don’t let your eyes off of it. Get inside with Oscar, then I can take care of it.”
The beast’s growling intensified as it spiralled closer and closer, now weaving in and out of the trees that bounded Fredrik’s home. It was massive, surpassing Oscar in height, and each step it took felt like the last before it would shift into an attack. Feeling him trembling at her side, Unnyr gripped Oscar’s hand tighter. They backed closer to the hut step by step as Fredrik circled them in time with the beast, keeping Oscar hidden from view. Unnyr unsheathed her dagger and gripped it in front of her, ready to strike.
“I think my weapon is inside.” Fredrik cussed under his breath, fumbling around his waist.
“No, keep it.” He glanced back at Oscar before locking eyes with the beast again. “I don’t want to challenge it unless I know you’re both safe anyway.”
Fredrik spread his arms wide, straining them upward against an invisible force. A wall of dirt and vines rose up out of the ground in a wide circle just inside the beast’s path. Unnyr let out a deep exhale, relaxing her jaw, before her vigilance returned. There had been no vibration or sound accompanying the rising wall. The beast was unfazed by Fredrik’s defence, its glowing eyes piercing through the illusion as it continued to stalk around them. Its growling grew louder, echoing off the surrounding trees, and Oscar’s steady pace stopped in response. It spotted his fear and turned to face them head-on, hunkering down on its forelimbs. She gripped her blade tighter.
The beast released a menacing bark and barrelled forward. Oscar screamed. Unnyr dropped to her knees, wrapping her arms around him to shield against the beast’s approaching jaws. She shut her eyes to brace herself, lowering down further to hide Oscar’s entire body, and felt Fredrik widen his stance to protect them both. The thunderous impacts of its paws made the ground beneath them rumble and its breath filled the night with the smell of rot. She opened her eyes and felt a wave of mana rush around them, turning back to see Fredrik preparing to counter as it moved to gnash at him and—
It yelped, and for a moment the footsteps retreated. Just in front of Fredrik, a shimmering blue-white curved wall had formed, nearly invisible and towering above his head. Through it, she could see the wolf snarling and pacing, its mouth dripping with blood. It moved to run at them from the side this time, but its claws glanced off the shield with a dull thud. Unnyr loosened her embrace on Oscar and brushed the hair from his pale face, feeling the burning heat return to his forehead. Again the beast charged at them, with hesitation this time, but its thick shoulder could not bust through the barrier. It doubled back, keeping its gaze on them as the shield began to falter and fade. Unnyr moved on instinct, covering Oscar again. She looked up at Fredrik, now striding toward the beast, and saw him shift his hand through the air toward the campfire. In a flash, the flame burnt out and another erupted from his palm. The fire struck the beast’s side and it screamed once more, running rampant back through the illusory wall. Its footsteps faded with the smell of burning fur.
Fredrik returned with confidence toward the fire pit and threw a handful of kindling in, returning the flame to full size. Unnyr helped Oscar to his feet, examining his dirt-covered body. His knees were scraped and she could feel his heart drumming as she held him, but he was unharmed.
“We can take turns keeping watch tonight, June. It shouldn’t come back, but it’s best to be safe.” He motioned for them to return to the campfire and sit down.
“Of course. Have you seen that thing before?”
“No, but I’ve seen others like it. Crazed, vicious beasts that have been twisted by mana. I’m sorry, it’s been a long while since I’ve seen anything like that, but I should have been prepared. I let my guard down.” He got up and walked over to Oscar, lowering himself to one knee to look the boy in the eye. “You were very brave, Oscar, but make sure not to wander off in places like this. Your mum needs you, you know, and she loves you an awful lot.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, still sniffling. His gaze dropped to the ground at his feet.
“It’s okay, sweetie. All that matters is that you’re safe.” She ran her hands through his hair and thumbed away the tears from his eyes. “We should thank Fredrik for scaring that awful beast away, shouldn’t we?”
Oscar nodded. “Thank you, Fredrik,” they said in unison.
“It’s a good thing we had a bit of fire still going for me to use, that’s for certain.”
“That shield was what impressed me, Fredrik. You were incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“Nor have I.” A grin spread across his face and he patted Oscar on the shoulder. “I’m very proud of you, Oscar. I knew you could do it.”