Well, my first night sleeping in a military camp on the road side (if you can call the pathetic path we tread a road) was not as bad as it could have been. The sealed flaps of the covered wagon kept insects out pretty well, as well as the morning dew. And while the soldiers and non-combatants slept in tiny tents that only fit their bodies inside them, they still slept on the ground instead of the fluffy mattress I had taken from Lumpy’s quarters. All in all, I’m pretty lucky.
“Pancakes with caramel?”
“What else would you put on pancakes,” asked Sous Chef Nina as she tilted her head to the revulsion in my voice before putting a sausage on my plate aside the desecrated pancakes.
“What about maple syrup,” I suggested hopefully to her and Lloyd who was making the pancakes with one hand while stirring the melted sugar in a pot with the other.
“Ha! What kind of crazy alchemist would try and make food from wood,” quipped Chef Lloyd. Seems no one in this world ever thought to taste test tree sap. Actually, wait… what kinda loonie would taste test tree sap in the first place? But the word “maple” got through translation, so maybe hope for the future had not been lost? After making a mental note and sighing deep in my heart, I went back to my wagon and used the coachman’s seat instead of squatting down on some random patch of earth.
“Is this seat taken?”
I had barely taken my first bite of pancake when I heard Aase’s voice from the side, hurriedly swallowed, and said, “Sure. Let me get that plate for you, it’s a steep climb.”
And for Aase it kinda was, since she was nearly a full head shorter than myself. Taller than a lot of women, but few people had legs as long as mine. After Aase had gotten settled beside me on the wide coachman’s seat she asked, a hint of trepidation in her voice and on her face, “So, how’s the pancakes?”
I took my second bite along with Aase, as we both made complicated faces. I snuck another peek at Aase and bit back asking if there was anything I could do for her. I learned not to ask women that the hard way back in high school, as it made the opposite gender think I thought they could only want to be around me if I could do something for them. Instead I worked my brain hard to come up with some of that harmless small talk that people seemed to like.
“How did you sleep?” Yeah. I’m not very good with small talk.
“Not very well, actually. It’s my first time sleeping on the ground, and the bed rolls are kinda thin.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
And I had no idea how to follow up on that. God, why do people like small talk? Instead of suffering conversationally, I decided to suffer orally, and cut some of the sausage into a bite sized serving. As I chewed, I got a curious sensation in my mouth. The sausage seemed to have been preserved with some salt, which mixed with the juices and with the aftertaste of the caramel which heightened the pancake’s aftertaste. It was… good? Maybe the meal wasn’t so bad after all?
But then again… caramelized salt-pork. My stomach heaved slightly. I quickly decided that I would try my absolute best to not think too deeply about the food that I ate from now on.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” asked Aase as she ended a wondering stare at the pancake on her fork to look over at me. “Could we try learning magic after we finish… this?”
“Yeah, sure, I’d love to.”
“Great,” exclaimed Aase, beaming a smile.
Then we ate in silence again, until Aase asked a question when there were only a few bites of breakfast remaining. “So, I know we barely know each other, but is there any chance I could sleep with you?”
I got caught somewhere between spitting out a mouthful of sausage and prematurely swallowing a lump of meat. After narrowly averting my choking to death and swallowing, I almost got out an exclamation before Aase beat me to it and with a blushing face said, “Not like that! I didn’t mean like that!”
“I really don’t like sleeping on the ground. It’s rocky and uneven, and my back hurts,” Aase stretched her back to cope with stiffness and for the first time I noticed Aase had a fairly generous chest for her age group. Damnnit, why did my mind have to start going down that route! I barely know her! “So I was hoping you’d be willing to share half your bed with me, if it’s big enough. I don’t want to intrude, I really don’t.”
“No! No, it’s fine. I don’t mind sharing it with you. Anyone else in this camp, yeah, but not you. We Earthlings have to stick together. Not that I intend to stick to you at night, cause we’ll be on different sides of the bed.” Damnnit, Aase’s face was starting to look amused. This is why women shouldn’t be allowed to ambush men like this! “Jus- you know- Just- Please don’t get angry at me if we somehow get tangled up because of our sleeping patterns. I promise I won’t try and take advantage of you, if you promise to be understanding about misunderstandings. Wait, that came out wrong, I mean- um-”
“I get it, I get it. And I promise, as long as you don’t do anything on purpose, I’ll forgive you. Thank you for your kindness, Xander.” Damn it! Now she’s got a beaming smile. That’s a really nice smile.
“How old are you anyway?” Shit! It leaked out! I was be-smitten and it leaked! Damage control! “I mean, you seem so young, so I was curious, just for curiosity’s-”
Aase’s surprise turned into honest, hearty laughter as she turned back to me and said, “My birthday was two months ago.”
As Aase turned away again, getting ready to step out of the wagon, I breathed a sigh of relief. Crap, wait- “Which birthday, Aase?”
With a truly amused smile, Aase grabbed my wrist and pulled me after her, saying, “Time for my magic lesson! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Crap, she grabbed the wrist? Is that the friend zone on touching? Holding hands is romantic, but what does the wrist count as?! Before I could finish my freak out, Aase had found a nice quiet spot not too far away from the wagons and the soldiers who were eating and cleaning up camp. Aase quickly let go of me, turned around and sat down on the soft earth forcing me to join her. When we were sitting cross legged before each other, I asked, “Why are we sitting like this?”
“Well, you said that learning magic was like meditation. Isn’t this how people meditate?”
I’ve never actually understood the need for a specific body position for meditation. You can breathe and think without twisting your legs up under you. But if it helps. “Yeah, sure. Uh, close your eyes and breath deeply. Deep and even breaths.”
Aase did that thing people do with the thumb and middle fingers while resting her hands on her knees, closed her eyes and started the breathing exercises. Okay, how did it go? I guess I should go through it along with Aase as well. So I closed my eyes and breathed. Once my own breathing was stable, I started speaking again.
“Relax, and let the outside world fall away. Slowly look inward, but not to a specific place. Just become aware of yourself. Let your awareness come to you. Eventually you’ll find a spot that seems warmer… a little more alive? Don’t try and find it, just let it find you. Breathe, and relax, until it finds you.”
I repeated the words “Breathe and relax” a few times as Aase dove inside herself. I have to say, this was really helping me calm down after making a fool of myself earlier, and I used the chance to reach out and feel that first sensation of the world around me from when I learned magic once again. Shortly, Aase said, “I think I found it.”
“Okay, good. That is your Magic Reservoir. It’s the part of you that you draw magic from. Try and do so now, not by grabbing the magic, but by gently willing it to move. Slowly. When you feel your magic move once, try to consciously move it about your body.”
Aase might be able to do the body strengthening as well as external magic like I can. It’s worth trying.
“It’s… hard…” said Aase, strain evident in her voice.
“It’s alright. Don’t force it too much. Just try and get use to it.” Aase’s aptitude may not be as high as mine, but it’s fine. Seems she’s able to tap her reservoir, after all. Huh. It almost seems like I know what I’m doing. Anyway. “Tell me once you get comfortable doing it to some degree.”
Eventually, Aase said, “Okay. I think I’m use to it.”
“Good.” Okay, what came next? Well, image is important to magic I think, so let’s try that. “Aase, I want you to imagine your magic. The form you want your magic to take, what is the easiest for you to see in your mind. Think about what you want to do with your magic. And once you have that solid form, slowly reach your magic outside yourself, and let that form become reality.”
Aase kept breathing deeply for a little while, before she gasped and I felt some kind of wave of pressure come from her that felt like magic. I opened my eyes to find that Aase had opened hers as well, and was looking around her expectantly. After a moment, she seemed a little dejected and her head lowered a bit. Seems she wasn’t able to materialize her magic.
“It’s okay. We can try again until you get the hang of it. Truth be told, I may not be a good teacher. Maybe I should go get-” no, wait. Definitely not Mercy. “Uh, Daphne? She’d probably be a good teacher.”
I flinched as something fell past my face. Then another something, white and drifting. I looked up, startled and wary, to see a lot more of them. It was snow. The weather was slightly cool, but not nearly cold enough to produce snow, and yet it was snowing.
“It worked,” exclaimed Aase, as she was bouncing on her butt and clapping. “It worked! I can use magic!”
I stood up from the ground that somehow seemed harder than it had been before I sat and looked around with Aase joining me. The snow wasn’t sticking, it was melting the moment it touched the ground, but the spread of the falling snowflakes were as far as I could see in the wooded area. Aase’s magic had spread further than I had thought magic could spread. At that moment, I heard Mercy’s surprised exclamation of, “Impossible!” which cinched it.
“Congratulations, Aase. You can use magic.”
Aase’s broad smile matched my own, and then she bounded up, gave me a friendly hug that made my ribs protest, all the while repeating “Thank you! Thank you!” before breaking off abruptly and watching the snow fall like a kid whose wish for a white Christmas was granted.
“You are certain, the miracle we’ve been waiting for has happened,” asked the man behind the black leather mask that covered all but his mouth and chin.
“Yes, Grandmaster,” reported a robed figure kneeling before an ancient stone dais in a decrepit mausoleum lit with ensconced torches, where the Grandmaster of The Disorder sat upon a throne salvaged from a dozen heretic hunts. “All accounts in The Holy Capital confirm the descent of The Herald, the agents placed close to the diplomats all have commonalities in the messages being sent to their homelands, and Agent Thorn got a complete story from a Holy Guard that was on hand for the descent by plying him with wine. There can be no doubt, my Lord. The Key is real.”
The masked Grandmaster gripped the armrest, stained with the blood of his predecessors, hard enough for his knuckles to turn white as he experienced an elation so great he nearly climaxed sexually. He groaned the word “yes” in such a guttural voice that no ears, save his own, could catch it. After the overwhelming pleasure left his body, and the Grandmaster’s arching back had straightened, he smiled broadly to the messenger and spoke.
“Prepare coded missives, to be sent to all our Brothers and Sisters, to be watchful for The Key, and to report back any sighting. They are to take no individual action, but are merely to watch and report.”
A voice rang from one of the many shadows in the chamber filled with bones that had been strewn about the ground by rats centuries ago. “Should we not be more bold, Grandmaster? The advent of The Key is surely a sign from our Master that the time for our uprising is now upon us! With the Master’s support, we will surely be victorious!”
“The Master is not yet freed,” shouted the Grandmaster, agony at that truth coloring his voice. “As such we must remain in the shadows, moving without catching the notice of The Faith. Do not worry Brothers and Sisters, instead, rejoice. For the time we have all longed for will be realized within our lifetimes. For once we find and track The Key, we will open The Door. In the meantime, though, there is nothing preventing us from preparing as many ritual sites as possible throughout the lands, so that when The Key is in our grasp, we will be able to act immediately, and meet our True God.”
The groans of pleasure radiated out of and through the many shadows of the chamber as all those in attendance felt the physical elation just from thinking of meeting their deity in reality, instead of just feeling him scratching at their minds from the other side of their dreams.
I lept into consciousness like I was fleeing from a tidal wave, my body bolting up from the soft mattress. The inside of the wagon in the middle of the night was so dark that for a moment I was afraid I was still dreaming, as I lacked all sense of location. Aase’s startled and groggy voice caught me before my mind went to any other strange places, and I found my awareness being grounded by her question.
“Whaf if it? Whatz going on? Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry, Aase,” I panted out. I realized just then that I was out of breath and had been in a cold sweat. “I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.”
“Not until you answer my question. Are you alright?” Aase put insistence into her voice like she was an older sister that detected her kid brother’s attempt to dodge a question. I very nearly lied and told her I was fine… But I actually did want to talk.
“I was dreaming about the colors. It was like I was being attacked by them, all over again.”
“Oh,” said Aase, gravely. She knew exactly what I was talking about. The colors that tormented us when we were ushered into this world. “How often do you dream about them?”
“This is the third time.” I lent on my knees as I was talking, and I heard Aase changing position to sit up. “I dream that I’m alone, being pounded on and pursued by those colors, and there was nothing I could do to get away from them, they were-”
“They were everywhere, right?” That sure as hell caught my attention. “I had a similar nightmare too, on the first night, and the second.”
“You’ve been having the same nightmare?”
“Yeah, pretty much. But I’m okay now, I think I’ve stopping having them.”
“How? What changed?”
Aase was quiet for a time before thoughtfully speaking, emotion threatening to tear apart her voice. “Xander. I won’t ever be able to see my parents or my grandparents again. I’ll never be able to talk to Ida. I don’t even know if any of them are okay. I’m cut off from everyone I’ve ever known. …Am I alone here?”
“Of course not,” I denied reflexively. “You may not really know me, but I’m here for you. As long as we stick together, we’ll get through whatever happens.”
There was a short sniff, and then Aase said, with full conviction, “Exactly.”
“I’m not alone. And neither are you. We have each other. You said it yourself the other day. We Earthlings have to stick together. And we will. After that day, I stopped having the nightmare, because it’s no longer just me alone against the world. Just like how it’s not you alone against the world, either. You have me to watch your back. And I guess those soldiers too, to some extent.”
“Though they’re unreliable at best,” I snarked.
“Very unreliable,” Aase snarked back. Then after a brief shared chuckle, Aase hesitantly asked, “Is that all that’s keeping you up at night?”
My Xander-Sense tingled at the tone there. There was some kind of subtext in that question. “Why do you ask?”
I could hear Aase take a breath and do something with her lips before she admitted, “It’s about the men you killed. I was wondering… if it bothered you. Taking their lives.”
Oh, only that?
“Not really, Aase. Colonel Lumpy was a bastard, I could tell that right away from when he was trying to strangle me. And killing him was legitimate self defense, it was him or me. So I don’t really feel anything about killing him.”
“Huh.” Aase only made that one noise. It wasn’t judgemental, disappointed, or disgusted in the slightest. It was a completely neutral sound. I’m not sure what it was about that sound, but it prodded me on a little. And I spoke about something I had been trying not to think of.
“…The two aids are different, though.”
“I thought Mercy said those two were killed by the lumpy guy.”
“Yeah, maybe they were. Or they were already dead from the fight with me before Colonel Lumpy blew them up, I dunno.”
“Does that really matter? Who it was that killed those two?”
“Not to them, no,” I quipped. “But for me… I don’t know if I killed them, or if I got them killed. If I had taken a couple steps to the left before I started charging Colonel Lumpy, maybe the both of them would be alive. And healthy if I’d have gotten them to Daphne in time. Two more Enslaved recruits to our… whatever this is, instead of rotting under a hill of rubble.”
“Would it bother you if you really were the one who killed them, instead of Colonel Lumpy?”
“Not at all. They were coming at me with swords, they got what was coming to them.”
Aase was quiet for a moment before saying, “So what you have conflicting feelings about is not that they died, but that you don’t know why they’re dead.”
Whoa. Epiphany. “Yeah, that’s it. That’s it exactly.”
“I understand exactly how you feel.”
Ah. Xander-Sense, tingling. “And you know that how?”
Aase was quiet for far longer than she had been before. She sat up straight and it sounded like she started rubbing her hands against the cut off shorts made from a pair of those prison red uniform pants to form makeshift pajama bottoms. Eventually, she started with, “I tried to murder Ida’s father.”
Working hard to keep everything out of my voice, I said, “Why don’t you start from the beginning.” There had to be a good reason behind it, after all. Right? Please?
“About four years ago, I found out that Ida’s father was… forcing himself on her.”
Good reason. Very good reason. “You’re sure. One hundred percent?”
“Yes. Completely sure. One of the nights after Ida confided in me in tears, I got one of my axes and made my way to Ida’s house. My family found out I was gone and started looking for me before I could get to Ida’s house on foot.”
“You must have a paranoid family for them to have started panicking so quickly.”
“Oh, no, not really. It was several kilometers to Ida’s home and it was snowing at the time, which slowed me down enough for my grandfather to catch up to me. His headlights caught me looking inside Ida’s house through a window when he pulled into the driveway. I wasn’t quick enough to hide my axe, and, well, grandpa somehow knew what I was intending to do.”
Lurking outside someone’s house wielding an axe? No kidding. Wait, why the hell did Aase have multiple axes, all to her teenaged self? Let’s hope that’s not a bad sign.
“So your grandfather stopped you from becoming a murderer? What did he do after that?”
“He killed Ida’s father in my place.”
“Your grandfather axe murdered him?!” Damn, Aase’s family was hard core!
“No, no, he shot him.” At my next outburst, Aase started to sound a little annoyed and said, “I think maybe I skipped forward too quickly.”
“Maybe you did. What exactly did your grandfather do immediately after he caught up with you?”
“He took my axe and put it in the trunk of the car before anyone else saw it and took me to a restaurant outside of town. While we ate, he asked me what was going on and when I told him… well, he got real quiet and told me to leave the rest to him.”
“Did you know what he was going to do?” I asked to facilitate the story.
“I had an idea. Grandpa had been a soldier for NATO, so he’d seen combat. And the look in his eyes when he told me to leave it to him. …Yes. I knew.”
“How did your grandfather do it?”
“My father and grandfather liked to hunt. Grandpa was able to push the idea of inviting Ida’s father to deepen the relationship between the families. There were enough people on the trip that the hunters split into groups, and Grandpa paired up with Ida’s father. After that, there was an ‘accident’ and Ida’s father never came home. I still remember the wink Grandpa gave me from across the room when my father sat me down to give me the bad news.”
“So your granddad got away with it?”
“Yeah. He even attended the funeral with us. The whole community felt sorry for him, it being his rifle that misfired that trip. Ida started to get better after that, and now she’s mostly back to her old self. But still, I have that nagging feeling at the back of my heart.”
“That feeling of not knowing the reason why someone died?”
“Yeah,” said Aase, melancholy deep in her voice. “I know that Ida’s father is dead because of me. I know that. But I don’t know if my Grandfather killed him because he was raping Ida, or because he knew that if he didn’t do it, I would. Either way, though, he’s dead because of me.”
“The bastard is dead because he was a piece of shit,” I said with conviction. I didn’t even hesitate a half beat before speaking. “He died because he was hurting his daughter, not because you tried to intervene. I’ve never met your grandad, but I’m guessing he didn’t do the deed because of you, but to protect you against a sexual predator. In fact, it’s a good thing he interceded when he did, because you never would have gotten away with an axe murder, Aase. You’d have gone to jail, and Ida never would have had you there to help pick up the pieces.”
“You think?” asked Aase, her voice a vulnerable whisper.
“I know,” I stated unequivocally. “Your granddad was even able to get away with murder, meaning your family wasn’t broken up by the crime. It was the best case scenario. You did absolutely nothing wrong, Aase. Nothing.”
I couldn’t see her in the dark, but it sounded like Aase choked out a sob, then some tears, and said through a half blubber, “Thank you.” It was a very… heartwarming moment? Bonding over murder? God, the world is one big shade of grey!
After Aase had cried a while and I had found her shoulder to gently pat, Aase was able to calm down again. Seems contracting a hit through your grandpa had a way of weighing on you, as the process took a while. But eventually I felt it was a good point to say, “Let’s both go back to sleep. We’ve had a pretty intense night, and I think it’s time it came to an end.”
Aase gave a chuckle as though I was being genuinely funny instead of blithe, and agreed. As we maneuvered ourselves to comfort between the sheets Aase took hold of my hand and said, “If we do this, then even if we dream about the colors again, we won’t be alone.”
It was a little awkward, falling asleep like that, but I was able to. I couldn’t remember what I had dreamt about that night, but it was a pleasant dream. I know that much.