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In the world of Nideon

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It was a long walk to the temple. The law dictating Pelan worship time had been purposely designed for inconvenience. Sutday, the middle of the week, and dawn. In winter, that meant the end of the work day. In summer, it meant five in the morning, and Matsias had trouble keeping his eyes open. He had been up all night lamenting the loss of his best friend, Key Truuit. Her parents, Thisaazhou traders who traveled up and down the Southern Continent all year, had decided to leave that day, never to return to the country of Ethion. It was just too dangerous.

His family was the first to arrive at the temple, an unassuming building with only the symbol of the purple torch to differentiate it from the empty storefronts it was wedged in between. They had once belonged to Pelan owners before they had gone out of business. Now the only work the owners could get was tearing them down. Broken boards and a heavy metal grate lay on the sidewalk waiting to be carted off when temple service ended.

As the other families entered, Matsias's father greeted them in the traditional way--holding each person's arm at the elbow as he spoke in the Epaluno tongue, "greetings, child of the flame." Gripping his father's arm in the same way, they responded in the same language, "may your flame burn ever bright." As temple matriarch, this was normally his mother's job, but she was gathering the children as his father usually did. And instead of taking only those below the age of nine, she gathered the teenagers as well. Ben and Kumal Lowe stood near her, each holding a baby.

"Matsias!" His mother called to him and beckoned. He followed the group to the washroom. It was hard for them to crowd in there, but when they did, Matsias could see that where the pipes for the sink led through the wall, someone had pulled away some of the boards, leaving a hole, though no one much larger than Matsias himself would be able to squeeze through. His mother ushered them all through the hole and told them to run across the street and under the fence to the train yard. "Havihal," she would say, "look after the little ones."

"Mom, why are you doing this?" he asked her as the line dwindled.

"Don't ask questions," she said, "just take them to the train yard. Meet with Lishald Fandel. He'll get you on a train to Mevi. He has a friend who can get you out of Ethion. All of you."

"What about you?"

Matsias mother cupped his face in her hand. He could feel her fingers through the coarse fabric of his headscarf. "I can't leave," she said, "I am bound to my people. You are not."

Matsias clutched at her hand. "But..."

"Listen to me." She spoke in her temple matriarch voice and looked to the hole in the wall. Matsias dropped her hand and squeezed through it. As he did so, his headscarf got stuck on one of the boards and ripped. The bottom half swung loose, exposing his face to the summer air, but he had no time to rewrap it. He knew the enforcers could arrive at any minute to ensure everyone was inside the temple. He glanced back long enough to see his mother placing the boards back into the wall. Across the street, the Lowe brothers held up the chain link fence and passed the babies to Havihal and Matsias's brother, Lamel,  who stood on the other side. Matsias held the fence for Ben then squeezed under himself, careful not to snag his headscarf again, or knock his glasses off.

They crossed the train yard as a tight, huddled group, walking as quickly and quietly as they could. As they neared the trains, they saw the beam of a flashlight. Matsias hushed everyone and told them to crouch behind one of the cars. He worried they wouldn't listen to him, but they did. He wasn't sure if it was because he was the matriarch's son, or if they were all just scared.

"Matsias?" a voice hissed as the beam of light neared, "Matsias Beleed?" Matsias recognized it as the voice of Lishald Fandel, an old friend of his parents.

Gesturing to the others to stay behind the train car, Matsias stepped away from it. "I'm here," he said, speaking Zhohu, the common language in Ethion.

Lishald got close enough that Matsias could see him. He was unmistakable, not for his tall spindly stature or his red-orange ponytail, but for the rings in his eyebrows that marked him as an orthodox follower of Zyz, the old goddess of Ethion. He was alone, with nothing but a flashlight and a backpack slung over one shoulder. "Are the others with you?"

Matsias backed away from the tain car that hid them, hoping Lishald would follow. "How do I know I can trust you?"

Lishald walked directly to Matsias and took his arm at the elbow. Then he spoke not in Zhohu, but in the Epaluno language. "I swear on the legacy of the Grand Matriarch, Tsia Xitano." It was the greatest of promises that could be made among the Pelan, and if Lishald had taken the time to learn it properly, Matsias trusted him.

Matsias brought him to where the others hid. Lishald scanned the children for a moment, then nodded and brought them to an open train car. "I'm sorry it's a freight car," he said, "there is no way to get all of you out of Ethion as passengers so quickly. But I'll open the car in Mevi to get you on a ship to Brek." The children slowly clambered into the car as Lishald passed up bundles of food and bottles of water from his backpack. "It's not much, but my friend will have more when we reach Mevi."

Matsias watched Lamel climb in, followed by the Lowe brothers, passing the babies up as they did so. As Ben put out a hand to help Matsias up, several of the smaller children gasped and pointed back toward the temple. Matsias turned. In the lightening sky, he could see the temple was on fire.

"Take care of them," he told Ben. Then he turned and ran for the fence.

Lishald ran after him and grabbed his arm. "If you go now, enforcers will find all of you."

Matsias ripped free from his grip, "Not with my luck." Then he twisted it. He drew power from the pit of his stomach and directed it toward a root in the ground. This time, as Lishald tried to chase after him, he tripped over the root, and Matsias ran ahead.

As Matsias reached the fence, he could see the black uniform of an enforcer walking by, Matsias crouched down and twisted his luck again. This time, he sent his power into a board on the roof of the temple. It fell. The enforcer glanced at it and kept walking. Matsias even thought he smirked. Once the enforcer had passed, Matsias slid back under the fence and ran to the temple. From inside, he could hear the congregation singing.

Matsias walked slowly around the front of the building, keeping an eye out for another enforcer, who would probably demand to know why Matsias wasn't inside. But he saw no one else on the street. The temple doors were blocked by the metal grate which had been out earlier. As Matsias approached, he realized it was half his own height. He grabbed the bars of the grate to move it, and let go as it was hot to the touch. But there was no other way for the people inside to get out. Even if they re-opened the hole in the washroom, most of the adults wouldn't fit. Matsias took off his headscarf, and finding the tear, ripped it in two. He wrapped the pieces around his hands, clutched at the grate again, and tried to drag it aside. He nudged it one inch. Then another. The flames crawled up the wall to the roof, and still he could hear the people inside singing. Matsias took a deep breath and breathed out as he pushed against the grate. It screeched against the concrete, but barely moved. Angry, he kicked at it. Then his glasses flew from his face as he hit the ground. Another beam had fallen from the roof, trapping his leg underneath. Matsias screamed as the flames seared his clothes and skin. He tried to send his luck into the beam, but he panicked and lost control. Instead, it was carried away on the wind. Matsias tried to concentrate on the board. But for some reason, all he could think about was that he didn't get to say goodbye to Key that morning.

Footsteps apprached. Matsias pushed against the ground, trying to get out from under the beam, but every time he moved, it moved with him. The footsteps got closer. Matsias grunted. If it was an enforcer, they might shove him into the fire.

"Matsias?" It was the voice of Ura Truuit, Key's mother. Strong arms slid under his. "One. Two. Three." The woman pulled Matsias backward with a quick, strong tug. His leg came free of the board, which fell to the ground. Someone came in front of him to smother the fire on his leg. Though slightly blurry, Matsias recognized Ura. She had skin the same deep brown as his own, but stood at least a head taller, with the muscular frame of a gymnast.

"My parents!" Matsias shouted and tried to crawl toward the burning building, but Ura blocked him.

"Matsias, we don't have the time."

"No! We have to save them!" When he couldn't push her out of the way, he beat Ura with his fists. She barely seemed to notice.

She looked over his shoulder. "An enforcer is coming. We have to go." She picked up Matsias, who struggled and screamed. So she clapped one hand over the boy's mouth and pinned his arms with her other. She ran through the streets, and with each step, Matsias's leg throbbed. He could hear the enforcer's footsteps behind them. They got closer and closer. Then they stopped.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

Matsias opened his eyes. He sat in a chair, bathed in a cold sweat. Key sat next to him. She reached toward him, plucked his glasses from his shirt collar, and handed them to him. As he put them on, he remembered where he was. On a train. In the country of Nefrale. In the northern hemisphere for the first time. And he was going to Faraday Academy of Magic.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Matsias jumped as someone knocked on the door to their compartment. He swallowed, pushing down his fear. Key stood and slid the door open. For a moment, Matsias almost laughed. Even with her black hair in some fancy updo, the bronze skinned girl who stood in the corridor was tiny. Compared to Key's six feet, she looked like a child. A cramp went through the stub of Matsias's leg, where his prosthetic was attached. He winced and tried to massage it through his trousers.

"Hello," the tiny girl said in Shugbo, "I need a place to..." she trailed off when she saw Matsias. "Are you okay?"

Matsias nodded and swallowed again, trying to think of something to say. Even though he had been using Shugbo almost exclusively since he received his acceptance letter, the language still felt unfamiliar on his tongue. Fortunately, Key had spoken it most of her life and answered for him. "My brother doesn't do well on trains."

The girl cocked her head up at Key, as if she didn't quite hear, but she didn't say anything, which was just as well because Key had turned away from her to rummage in their luggage. She pulled out a thermos of tea, poured a cup for Matsias and pressed it into his hand. It was a calming tea Key's mother had purchased before they had left for school. They had packed a pound of it, just to be on the safe side. He sipped at it and felt the thermos in his body slow.

"Do you need to take it off?" This time, Key spoke quietly in Zhohu, flicking her eyes to Mat's leg.

Matsias watched as the tiny girl came in and, with a single heft, lifted her bag onto the rack above the seat. He shook his head. "I'll be fine until we get to school." He responded in Shugbo. Aside from needing the practice, Pelan custom encouraged the use of a language all present could understand. Private conversations went against the nature of Hospitality. Key frowned at him, still standing with one hand on the luggage rack. He had a feeling she doubted the truth of his statement, but in the end, she took her seat rather than calling him out on it.

The other girl sat down across from him. "I guess it's good you're traveling with your brother," she told him. "You're not going to be sick, as you?"

Matsias shook his head and smiled into his tea. She was not the first stranger to mistake Key for a boy. It was an easy mistake to make, of course, as tall as she was. She wore her dark brown curls cropped to her ears and her small breasts were easily hidden by a loose shirt. It didn't help that outside of the Southern Continent, Key was usually a boy's name. Matsias took another sip from his cup and said to the newcomer, "I suppose you're joining us?"

She shrugged. "You have two free seats. No one else does. There aren't any other options."

For a moment, they just sat as the train rumbled to a start. Then Key offered her hand to the girl. "I'm Key," she said, "this is Mat." She indicated Matsias, whose new Thisaazhou passport listed him as Mat Truuit. Because even in the country of Atlinthaia, being Thisaazhou was better than being Pelan. Key's parents told him things would probably be different in Nefrale, but the admissions panel at Faraday had agreed to let him attend under his adopted name, and Mat wasn't about to risk it.

"I'm Miriam." The girl shook Key's hand. Mat merely nodded at her, his hands still wrapped around his cup of tea. He decided to let Key lead the conversation. She wasn't only better at Shugbo, she was better at talking to people in general.

But after the introductions, there was another awkward pause. Apparently Miriam also expected Key to lead the conversation. Fortunately, she obliged. "Where are you from, Miriam?"

"Oh, Alaj... And you?" She glanced at Key and then looked at the floor of the train.

Key looked at Mat, as if expecting him to have an answer to the girl's odd behavior, which of course, he didn't. "We're from the Southern Continent." she said.

Miriam looked up quickly, and then down again. "The Southern Continent? Not a specific country? Does that mean you're..."

"Thisaazhou." Key twisted her hands in her lap. It was the first time Matsias had seen her look uncomfortable talking about her family background. Mat wondered if the school uniform contributed to it. Even though Key's father had embroidered traditional Thisaazhou symbols on their collars, their starched white shirts with the Faraday starfish looked nothing like the soft yellow and brown tunics Key would normally wear.

"It didn't occur to me that I might meet Thisaazhou at Faraday," Miriam said. "I'm sorry. That was probably rude."

Key laughed and then smiled the way Mat had seen Ura smile at customers she thought particularly difficult. "We do mostly live in the south," Key said, "but sometimes Thisaazhou come north. In fact, our cousin brought our applications up here last winter. And Mat and I have been talking about applying to Faraday since we were kids."

"That's amazing that you've already traveled so much. This is the first time I've gotten to leave Alaj. I can hardly wait to see the rest of the world."

Key looked once more at Matsias, as if she knew what he was thinking. Me too.

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