A Blossom in the Storm
Siara sighed in frustration, wiping away the sweat as she contemplated the small stone in front of her. "You work for everyone else," she growled, "but I bump into you once and that's it? No more cold air?" She plucked it from its perch on the table angrily, briefly rubbing her rough, tanned fingers over the runes traced upon its surface before suddenly clenching it in her fist and drawing her arm back. "Whoa!" a cheerful voice called from the now-open doorway in front of her. "I know we're not on the best of terms, but I'd hoped we'd at least avoid violence. For Mother's sake?" "Fai'la? What are you doing here?" Siara glared at the multicolored woman in the doorway, lowering her arm. "And without even knocking, at that." "Can't I visit my little sister?" Fai'la forced a grin, arms outstretched for a hug, but became somber as Siara looked away. "Look, I know it's been a while, and I haven't been a good sister all these years. But I'm really going to try now. Can't I get a little credit?" "Credit?" Siara scoffed, gripping the now-useless stone even tighter. "You tried to kill me, remember? You're lucky I let you stand in my doorway." "I never tried to kill you." Fai'la shook her head. "That was an accident." "Of course it was. You were just teaching me to swim. In the river. During the wet season." Siara shuddered, remembering the roar of the water as it tore her away from Fai'la in its efforts to claim her as its own. "I cast a buoyancy spell on you. That's how I learned. I thought you'd be safe." "You know magic doesn't work on me." The betrayal from years ago was written across Siara's face. She closed her eyes and steadied her breaths, her knuckles turning white as she clenched the stone in her hand, fighting back the sounds of the rushing water as it careless flung her four year old self like a ragdoll. Breathe, she reminded herself. That will never happen again. "I was ten!" Fai'la cried, blind to Siara's distress. "I didn't understand! I didn't..." Fai'la's voice caught and she collapsed onto the bench, her sun-kissed brown hair seeking to obscure her down-turned face as she lost herself in her own memories of the event. "I was so scared. I thought I lost you." She looked up again, a tear tracing its way across the multicolored patterns adorning her cheek. "I didn't want to lose my baby sister!" Fai'la seemed pained at the memory. "I did save you." "My hero." The sarcasm dripped with resentment. "You just didn't want to get in trouble with Mother." She remembered the sudden jerk as a hand grasped her ankle, Fai'la's professed relief while pulling her from the river... and how quickly that had turned to hostility once their mother had arrived, panting from her panicked sprint to the riverside. Fai'la's pained expression froze on her face. "It didn't matter that I was the one who pulled you out of the river. Mother yelled at me anyway. I didn't understand." She sighed quietly. "I didn't understand, and I took that out on you." "And what about the next two decades?" Siara asked softly, her blue eyes hostile and angry, carrying years of her sister's verbal insults and violent outbursts. "What about once you did understand?" "I'd been blaming you for so long, I didn't know how to stop. Not even when Mother -" "At least you got to see her, before she..." Siara's voice faded off. She looked up angrily at her sister. "I didn't even know she was sick. Nobody told me she was dying! I didn't even get to say goodbye! She's the only family I had!" Siara broke down, sending the broken circulator skittering across the table with a flick of her wrist before sinking onto the bench next to her sister. "You have me now." Fai’la’s voice was barely audible. Siara snorted. "Only because you promised Mother. You don't want to be here, any more than I want you here." The silence hung in the single room apartment as both estranged sisters slouched side by side on the rough bench, their silhouettes almost identical in the light still streaming in from the open door. Siara looked over at her sister, briefly admiring the bright rainbow of swirls and patterns decorating her sister's skin, reminders of the life she could have had, except... No sense dwelling on what will never be, she told herself, returning her face to her hands. Her plain, ordinary, patternless hands. Eventually Fai’la stood up, slowly. She pulled a contraption out of her bag, a runed stone suspended in a cage of wire. She placed it gently on the table next to its malfunctioning twin. "I got you a new Circulator," she whispered softly. "It gets so hot here in Avorae, and I know it must be tough to keep your old one working, given your... well, condition. You can hang this one from the ceiling, and the enclosure means you won't be able to bump it on accident, so the magic won't come out." She paused, but her little sister did not react. "I'll just... leave it here on the table for you then?" She stepped through the door, turning around one last time to say her goodbyes. "I really am sorry... and maybe I'm just planting Giftwood, hoping we can have a relationship after all I've done to you, but I'm still going to try. Remember what Mother always said? 'You'll always need your family'? She always wanted us to get along and... and now I think I want it, too." The door shut softly behind her, and Siara was left alone with her thoughts.
Siara walked the docks with a purposeful gait, her head clouded from the confrontation with her sister that morning. She almost didn't see the young boy darting past her, his arms full of nautical instruments bearing the telltale signs of her employer's enchantments. "Not another theft," she gritted through her teeth before giving chase. "Stop! Thief!" The boy shot a quick glance in her direction, his greasy face registering surprise, before taking off at top speed towards the most crowded part of the docks in an effort to blend in. Siara gave chase, easily keeping him in sight, his unkempt red hair and disheveled clothes a stark contrast against the sharp uniforms of the dockworkers and fancy dress of their prospective customers. The boy tried losing her by sliding through a gathering of naval officers but she caught him easily, grabbing his wrist in her firm grip before he could slip away again. The boy dropped his stolen treasures in surprise, his blue eyes screaming fear and confusion. "Siara!" She looked up from the boy to see the naval officers backing away from her in alarm and her Foreman glaring at her angrily. He turned to the officers. "Why don't you board the ship and take a look around?" He gestured to the brand new vessel docked at the adjacent pier. "I'll join you shortly once I take care of... this." He turned his attention back to Siara. She straightened her back, her grip still firmly around the boy's wrist. "I caught this thief stealing our instruments." "The only thief I see here is you," her Foreman sneered back. "Everyone told me not to hire you. They warned me you'd be trouble, you and that curse of yours. But no, I didn't listen. You promised you'd stay away from our enchantments, put yourself to good use assembling my instruments for our enchanters and never go near them again. Unattunable Disorder wasn't going to stop you from being a valuable member of our workforce, no sir. And what do I get in return for my faith in you?" He kicked at the small pile of instruments scattered across the ground. "Do you know how long it's going to take to re-enchant all these now that you've touched them?" "I didn't touch them, I swear!" Siara protested, tugging on the boy's arm. "He-" "I suppose they walked here on their own?" her Foreman snorted. "That's a good one. Can't even take responsibility for your own actions. But actions have consequences, and here's yours. You're not my problem anymore. You're fired. Go fool some other sap with your little sob story of how you can make a difference." He grabbed someone from the growing crowd, directing them to collect the scattered instruments. Siara looked down at the young thief, incredulous. The boy was grinning up at her in amusement. "But the boy...!" Her Foreman turned around. "What boy? Go tell your lies to someone else." Her Foreman waved his arms, motioning the crowd to disperse before departing for the pier to join his prospective clients on the ship. The young boy gave Siara a lopsided grin. "I guess this means I'm free to go, right?" He tugged his arm, unable to break free from her grasp. "After what you've cost me?" She bent down until her face was mere inches from his. "You are going to tell me everything." She gripped him tighter and began the walk towards her dockside apartment, dragging the ragamuffin thief behind her despite his protests. The boy continued struggling, calling out to the crowd on the docks. "Help! I'm being kidnapped!" They turned and started towards Siara. "Great, now they can see you?" She continued tugging on his arm, desperate for the privacy of her small apartment, eyeing the approaching crowd with dread. "There you are Matthias!" an unfamiliar voice called out, gruff and triumphant. "Thank you for locating him for me, young lady. I will take him back under my care now." Siara watched the crowd pull back and resume their business before turning to view the stranger, a wizened gentleman with piercing green eyes and an authoritative bearing. She noticed a blazing yellow sun emblazoned on his red robes, the insignia of the Followers of the Hidden Flame. The sharp black trim denoted him as a Seeker. No wonder the crowd was so quick to disperse. Matthias redoubled his efforts to slip away, to no avail. "This child has a debt to settle with me," Siara stated bluntly. "His thievery cost me my job today." The Seeker eyed her carefully, scratching his head through his graying hair. "I must admit, I am curious how you found him even while he was able to evade me. I could not sense him, not even with my tracing spell, until just before we met." "You had no right to cast that!" Matthias protested, briefly forgetting his struggle with Siara. "I wish I hadn't felt it necessary," the Seeker sighed sadly before turning back to Siara, his hand held out in a friendly greeting. "I am Talenthar, Seeker of the Hidden Flame, and I would like to learn your story. Do you have somewhere we can talk?"
Talenthar's gaze wandered around the small apartment, taking in the sparse decor and organized travel bags. "Do you travel a lot?" he asked Siara pleasantly, making conversation. "Not by choice," Siara grunted, squeezing a small collection of clothing into one of the bags. "I have to move a lot. Happens when you have trouble holding on to a job." She stopped to glare at Matthias before returning to her packing. He stuck out his tongue at her in reply, arms crossed against his chest, feet swinging under the table in boredom. "I didn't catch your name," Talenthar changed the subject. "Didn't give it." Siara continued packing, her movements clearly well practiced. She looked up at Talenthar as she folded. "If you really want to help me, I'll need a place to stay. This apartment belongs to the company and since I am no longer an employee, courtesy of your friend there..." Her voice trailed off. "How did you find him, anyway?" Talenthar queried, puzzled. "Matthias' magic is powerful. Even with his lack of training, I was unable to break through his wards." "She cheats!" Matthias interjected. "I couldn't feel her Imperium at all! That's not real magic." "I can't use magic," Siara admitted, shaking her head. "It doesn't like me." "I can help you with that," Talenthar began, kindly. "If we find you the right Focus it doesn't matter, I can help you attune -" "No, you can't." Siara met his gaze, her face impassive. "Nobody can. I'm cursed. Unattunable. Cut off from the Imperium and its magical fields. I can't even use everyday technologies, their enchantments fade when I touch them." She pointed to the circulator she'd bumped into that morning, still laying dead on the table next to the replacement from her sister. "I've disenchanted that thing three times this month so far." Talenthar viewed her with interest. "That would explain Matthias' inability to evade you this morning. I may never have found him if you hadn't forced him to drop his wards." "Cheater!" Matthias wrinkled his face at her. "Worked out well for you, Seeker. Not so well for me. I'm running out of people who will take a risk on hiring someone who can disrupt the enchantments on their wares just by bumping them. Word travels fast. This was my last shot in Avorae." Siara hung her head in defeat. "Not sure where to go next." "Since you will be traveling already, why don't you travel with me?" Talenthar suggested. Matthias looked up at him with alarm. "Travel with her? No! Please? I'll do anything. I'll sit still and do that schooling stuff you want. Just don't bring her too!" "Nobody wants my company," Siara answered honestly. "People offer out of a sense of obligation, but even the ones who do mean it change their mind soon enough. I'm too much of a liability." "Nonsense," Talenthar brushed away her objections. "The fact Matthias is so adamantly against this idea is all the more reason you should come. You have a way of foiling his plans, maybe we can use that to let me actually teach him." He stood up from the bench, poised and confident. "Besides, the Hidden Flame says everyone has gifts to share with the world, and as a Seeker it's my duty to help you find yours. I would take it as a personal insult if you refused." Siara began to protest, then changed her mind. "Fine. But don't say I didn't warn you." Talenthar grinned excitedly. "Great! We'll stay here tonight, and set out in the morning." He motioned to Matthias with a smile. "Keep an eye on this troublemaker while I make us something to eat, would you?" "Something without vegetables?" Matthias suggested, craning his head around Talenthar for a glimpse at his future meal. "How about extra vegetables instead?" the Seeker answered playfully, pulling a handful of dried beans from his satchel, his smile growing with the volume of Matthias' groans. "One of these days you're going to discover you like vegetables." Siara couldn't help but grin at their antics, Matthias burying his face in his hands and moaning, Talenthar egging him on. It would be nice to have some good company for once, she let herself hope a little. Someone who appreciates me even though... She shook her head, banishing the thought. It was never good to get her hopes up. But watching them... maybe today would all work out for the best. Maybe.
Siara hummed quietly to herself as she prepared breakfast for herself and her guests. She had slept soundly the night prior and despite her best efforts she found herself actually looking forward to the upcoming journey. Talenthar had regaled them with humorous tales of his past companions and their exploits during his simple but expertly prepared vegetable hash, and she discovered that she had already begun to dream that the elderly Seeker could help her discover her gifts for the world, as well. If nothing else it would certainly be a new experience to travel with someone who genuinely wanted her company as he had professed. She hoped she wasn't setting herself up for disappointment later. Matthias stirred in his spot on the floor, displacing his blankets as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Good morning," she greeted him cheerfully, waving her arm toward a large platter of butterfly pastries already on the table, their sweet fruit fillings still warm from the fire. "The biscuits aren't quite done yet but you can help yourself to the pastries while you wait." Matthias' eyes lit up excitedly as he eyed the sweet pastries, before eyeing her with suspicion. "Is this a trick? You hate me." She looked at him mischievously. "I decided everyone deserves a second chance. But cause me trouble again..." Her voice faded off, ominously, as she pointed her wooden spatula in his direction before returning to monitoring the stove. Matthias gulped and watched her warily, sneaking growing glances at the butterfly pastries before temptation won over. He quickly sat down at the table and loaded up a plate with the sweet desserts before she could change her mind. "So, what's your story?" Siara asked the boy distractedly. "How'd you end up with him?" She motioned to Talenthar, still sound asleep in his bedroll on the floor. Matthias muttered something through his mouthful of pastry before hastily swallowing. "Ummm... He sorta saved my life," he admitted sheepishly. "Says I'm some powerful mage or something. I dunno." He shrugged his shoulders. "I only ever used magic to hide from my parents and stuff. I don't think they liked me." Matthias absent-mindedly tugged at his sleeve, drawing Siara's eye to a crisscross of old scars of varying sizes. "Papa used to say I was a Demon. But I'm not a Demon, right?" He looked up at her for reassurance. She pulled the biscuits from the fire, their meaty stew filling bubbling up from the center like a delicious volcano, and set the tray on the table before joining Matthias on the bench. She grabbed his shoulders and looked into his eyes. "When people say things like that they're jealous of something you have that they don't." She smiled sadly, remembering her sister's anger over sharing their mother. But while her words brought her only sad memories, Matthias grinned. "They were never much good at magic," he bragged, "but everything is easy for me!" "And will get even easier if you let me train you properly," a familiar voice greeted them as Talenthar shook the last holds of sleep from his system. "I don't usually sleep this late," he admitted sheepishly. "Trying to watch over Matthias by myself must have been more tiring than I realized." He joined them at the table, eyeing the biscuits and pastries hungrily. He looked up at her curiously. "You don't have the markings, but this food... Are you Rol'nara?" As if on cue, Fai'la's multicolored frame appeared in the entryway, interrupting the conversation. "Siara, I know you probably don't want to see me right now but I had to apologize after yester..." Her voice faded off as she noticed the others. "Oh. You have company." "I do have my own life," Siara reminded her sister resentfully, before relenting. "But you might as well join us for breakfast." The older sister began to refuse before noticing the stew biscuits. "Are those...?" She tenderly selected one and took a bite, closing her eyes as she savored it. "These are just like Mother used to make. I could never get the gravy right." Matthias watched Fai'la's reaction curiously before selecting a biscuit to try for himself, devouring it eagerly before grabbing another. "You're sisters?" Talenthar asked curiously. Siara waved her hand and made introductions. "Talenthar, Matthias, this is Fai'la, my... sister." Fai'la winced at the pause. "I really am sorry I took everything out on you, Siara," she hung her head. "I had a comfortable life, I thought you were trying to take it from me. It took me until recently to realize it's all been Father's fault... That stubborn insistence that we couldn't move, even though you couldn't come through the portal to join us. Mother was just trying to keep the peace, and you got the short end of everything." "It's not my fault Mother became pregnant with me while visiting his family," Siara agreed sadly. "But instead his family hates me, and Mother..." Siara's voice drifted off. "But what's done is done, and with her gone now there's nothing tying me to any portal cities. So I hope you enjoy the biscuits. Don't come looking for me here tomorrow." Fai'la looked at the visitors, for the first time noticing Talenthar's Seeker cloak. "I'm guessing you don't know where you're going yet, either." "Does it matter?" Siara shrugged. "Anywhere's better than here." "It matters to me," Fai'la answered, resigned. "But I understand. Just... Please let me know when you're in a Portal city again? I pulled all the strings I could to be assigned Avorae, but I'd like to at least try to visit you the next time you're in a portal city... If you'll let me?" "I'll think about it," Siara replied cautiously. She still wasn't certain she wanted Fai'la back in her life, not after a lifetime of hatred and insults from her older sister, even though she appeared to be sincere. Siara had just started coming to terms with the reality of a life without a family, no need to reopen that door if there would only be more pain behind it. "At least let me give you something for your travels." Fai'la motioned outside. "I rode Dro'lan here. You'll need a horse for the trip, take him. I'll feel safer knowing someone I trust is there to watch over you." Siara started to protest, but Fai'la cut her off. "I'm not taking a no on this one, Sister. You need a horse, I have several, take mine, end of discussion." Fai'la stared at her sister until Siara finally conceded with a quick nod. "I'm... I should get back to work. I know I'm not wanted here. But... Just be safe, okay?" She slipped out the door. Siara looked at her new companions, trying to appear busy with breakfast. "Yes, I'm Rol'nara. No, I've never been there, and I don't want to talk about it." She scooped up a pair of stew biscuits and retreated to a corner of the small apartment, feeling their eyes upon her. So much for the good morning.
It was a beautiful day for traveling, and Siara found herself smiling at the constant chatter of the two mages, especially the perpetual questioning of Matthias. Dro'lan, her sister's stocky Portal Horse, was an especially popular topic of conversation. The horse reminded Siara of her mother, both with his serene demeanor as well as the assortment of vibrant colors and swirls in cyan and magenta with hints of reds and greens across his dun hide. A large part of Rol'nara culture, the patterns were a sign of regular exposure to Portal Travel and its magical fields, and one more reminder for Siara of her Unattunable Disorder. She shook her head, banishing the dark thoughts to focus on the new life Talenthar had promised. Thus far Talenthar had not rescinded his invitation to join them, even when she had tried to helpfully affix his travel bags to his horse only to become buried in his personal belongings as her touch disrupted the magical fields maintaining his space-saving charm. He had actually chuckled at the mishap, cheerfully casting a realignment charm before repacking with a glib comment about her now discovering all his secrets. She found herself trusting his kind words of welcome, in spite of her typical apprehension. Matthias, too, had readily accepted her into the group. Breakfast had seemed to solidify his opinion of her as a powerful wizard in her own right, although whether it was because of her cooking or the fact that Talenthar had not protested as Matthias grabbed for thirds it was hard to say. She chuckled to herself. No sense letting on how many vegetables he had consumed for breakfast. The Rol'nara had mastered the art of healthy sweets and her mother had been one of the best. She studied his grin as he chatted happily about her horse. It seemed genuine enough. Was it? Talenthar slowed his horse and turned to his companions, waving his arm towards a welcoming grassy patch next to a copse of trees along the riverbank. "This looks like a good stop for lunch, and to water the horses." He motioned for Matthias to gather some dried sticks for firewood before opening his travel pack. He turned to Siara. "Shall I make lunch, or would you prefer your cooking?" "I'm not so great at travel food," Siara confessed, "but I'll bet we could manage something nice if we worked together." She paused. "Your cookware isn't magic or anything, is it?" Talenthar cocked his head before startling Siara with a deep guffaw. "A good question, but no." He noticed her hurt expression. "I"m sorry, Siara, I just don't often have to worry about those sorts of things. In my travels... Well, it's been a long time since anyone made me look at the world from a different perspective. It's refreshing for me, and I'm enjoying the challenge, but it's something you've had to struggle with your whole life and I'll try to be more respectful." Siara quickly wiped away the beginning of a tear before reaching out to accept the large cast iron pan in Talenthar's outstretched hand. She looked away for a moment, lost in thought. She didn't understand her current feelings aside from her surprise at receiving what felt like a genuine apology, but she figured she'd try to sort them out while helping prepare their lunch. "Do you have any spices in that pack?" she queried, turning back to the Seeker. His back was towards her, arms tense, his attention focused on three well-armed men emerging from the clump of trees. She clutched the frying pan and held it up, ready to swing. "Matthias?" he called in alarm, frantically looking around. "We already have your friend," the leader sneered at them, the twisted scar across his cheek speaking volumes of past violence. "Give us all you've got and maybe you can have him back." "No, you don't," Siara answered coolly, observing Matthias slowly sneaking towards their camp, his eyes scanning the ground before each step to ensure his stealth. Talenthar's wariness dissolved into confidence at her words and he began to mutter under his breath. Siara felt her chest tighten as a large column of water shot out from the river behind her and slammed into the apparent leader of the hostile group with the force of a runaway carriage. She sunk to her knees and felt herself lost to the river, a helpless child, while the bandit spluttered in surprise as the veritable wall of water propelled him backwards and out of sight. Lost in her childhood nightmare, Siara barely noticed as Talenthar turned his attention to the remaining pair of ruffians, conjuring a fireball in both hands. "Who's next?" The two bandits quickly sheathed their swords and ran in the general direction of their leader, tripping over themselves to gain as much distance as possible from the river and the irritated Seeker's fireballs. Talenthar held his positioning, watching them fade into the distance. "Did you feel anyone else with them?" Matthias shook his head, dropping his armful of firewood in the center of the camp. He looked towards Siara with concern as she wrapped her arms around her legs, rocking herself. Talenthar lobbed his conjured fireballs into the wood to ignite their campfire before slumping onto a downed log, exhaustion written across his face. "Siara, what's wrong?" Concern overtook exhaustion as he noticed her distress. "Can't breathe. Drowning. Too strong. Lai'na, help!" The weary mage removed his Seeker cloak and draped it around her shoulders, slowly rubbing her back and breathing slowly. "I got you. Slow breaths. You're safe. I'm here." Siara slowly fought her way out of the flashback. "Sorry, so sorry, I..." She choked back tears. "Bad memories?" Talenthar asked kindly. Siara nodded. "You can tell me when you're ready. And I will try and avoid water magic." Talenthar waited for Siara to nod again before turning his gaze towards Matthias. "Matthias, your ability to sense the Imperium of others is a unique gift, and one I've not seen in anyone else. When you feel someone watching us please let me know, because you are the only one who can give us advanced notice like that." Matthias nodded again, and Talenthar turned his attention back towards Siara. "I think I overdid it there... Thanks for letting me know he was safe," he sighed, fading, before attempting to smile at her. "I'm sorry about the water, and for asking this of you now but... Looks like you'll be making lunch after all. Spices... I do have some Fyreflower in my pack. If you want something spicy, get Matthias to... fetch it..." Talenthar's eyes closed and he slumped to the ground, fast asleep.
They were no longer following the Springbass River, instead continuing on their eastern course while the river's source had turned north. Talenthar was fairly closed lip about where they were going although she suspected this was in part because he didn't know for certain himself. It didn't matter. She had grown to enjoy the soothing tempo of Dro'lan's gait and the comfortable rapport of their small traveling group. She had decided to let go of her uncertainty regarding their intentions, at least for now. She was beginning to feel like she had a family again, something she had believed impossible after the loss of her mother those few months ago, and she wanted to enjoy it, however long it lasted. It had been days since the run in with those bandits, and life had been fairly quiet, evolving into familiar patterns and routines as she had adjusted to her companions and they to her. She had learned a fair bit about preparing easy meals on the road and had shared many of the simpler flavoring secrets of the Rol'nara with Talenthar in return. Matthias had actually begged for seconds of his vegetables last night, a robust mushroom dish seasoned with piping hot berries and a few flower-based spices she had collected along the roadside. She found she enjoyed sharing the foods of her heritage with her new friends, but was also surprised at how much she had begun to appreciate the challenge of simplifying and modifying her mother's recipes. Siara munched absent-mindedly on a piece of Dragonette jerky. A collective of the winged pests had invaded their campsite one night after dinner, several of them fighting over Talenthar's Focus, a small, feminine locket necklace she'd spotted him caressing whenever he became lost in thought. Siara had reacted quickly, stunning a pair with a fierce thwack from Talenthar's still hot frying pan and scaring the rest of the collective away to hunt for easier trinkets. It had been a small matter to slip a thin spiced salt bath beneath their scaled hides and, after convincing Talenthar to cast a modified magefire to burn the dragonettes from the inside out, she was able to extract a unique spiced jerky from their dehydrated carcasses. Matthias had watched the whole exchange in amazement, losing concentration on the fire manipulation spell he'd been practicing and nearly igniting his bedroll. Matthias' lessons had been progressing well. His natural attunement meant that he did not require a focus to perform magic, granting him the ability to eventually surpass Talenthar given enough practice. Siara enjoyed watching the two work spells together, Talenthar explaining a concept and Matthias puzzling out the steps required to achieve the provided goal. The two welcomed Siara's questions, offering her a window into the magical world that had outcast her before her birth. Sometimes her questions had sparked long debates on concepts and hypotheticals. Sometimes Talenthar would request that she become the target of Matthias' challenge for the lesson, crafting spellwork to affect her surroundings in such a way as to apply a particular outcome to her despite her immunity to the spell's direct effects. Watching Matthias work his logic through these puzzles had become especially interesting to watch. Last night he had managed to levitate her by moving a branch to trip her onto her own bedroll and then levitating the blankets beneath her. She rubbed her left ankle, still sore from when he'd gotten a little too enthusiastic with the branch, but he'd been sincerely apologetic. Not to mention she discovered she rather enjoyed being the target of these practice sessions, physical as they became sometimes, because they also taught her new things about her own possible benefits from magical items. While her mere touch did tend to disrupt simple charms or enchantments, it was comforting to know that items with stronger spellwork still retained at least a portion of their enchantments regardless of her proximity, as long as she wasn't smothering their connections to the magical fields. Matthias pulled his horse to a complete stop, breaking her out of her reverie. "Uhhh, Talenthar? You said to tell you so... Someone is following us. Just one, but they're very strong." Siara looked around, failing to spot anyone in the grassy fields surrounding them. "Where?" Talenthar motioned they should begin moving and began to mutter an area of effect protecting spell. His spooked horse interrupted his efforts, throwing him from the saddle as it jumped sideways and bolted down the path. Matthias' horse quickly followed suit, toppling him to the ground. Siara looked down at her stoic stallion, calmly pawing at the dirt trail. "There's strong magic nearby," she mouthed to Talenthar, remembering the Portal Horse's breeding to limit reactions to magical fields due to their use in Portal Travel. Siara helped pull Matthias onto Dro'lan's back and reached out for Talenthar. He shook his head, miming his fear that his magic wouldn't be strong enough for the encounter if he was sitting in such close proximity to her. Dro'lan pranced in place impatiently, clearly sensing the tension and awaiting their reaction to the threat, but otherwise as calm as always. There was a slight disturbance in the grass and then Siara could see it, a large dark feline carefully sauntering up the path, its hungry eyes locked on them. "Zancig," Talenthar hissed through his teeth, not moving. "Run!" He began muttering again. Siara turned Dro'lan away from the cat, urging him away at top speed. "Hold on!" she called to Matthias, his arms still loosely wrapped around her waist. "I can't!" he cried in frustration. "It's a telepath or something. It's saying not to move!" Siara looked over her shoulder to see Talenthar still standing in place, the large cat casually moving in for the kill. Why wasn't he moving? Was he stuck, too? "Try not to fall off!" she ordered Matthias before turning her horse around. "Like the wind, Dro'lan" she whispered in his ear, urging him faster. She pulled a small kitchen knife from her saddlebags. It had been a gift from her mother, for slicing fruit, but today it would have to be enough to take down a hungry telepathic wildcat. By the time she pulled it free Dro'lan had reached Talenthar, and with that Siara lept from the horse to tackle the Zancig. She landed hard, her chin banging against the nape of the Zancig's neck. Her knife hand landed on the cat's front right paw, the small blade biting up to its hilt. The Zancig roared in pain, pulling the paw away, and Siara watched as the blade went spinning off into the grass. Great, now what? She wrapped her arms tightly around the Zancig's neck, mostly to stay atop the cat behind its snapping jaws but also in a desperate hope she could find the strength to strangle it before it could claim anyone as a meal. The cat bucked desperately to no avail, spinning Siara in circles until she became dizzy. She witnessed quick flashes of her companions, Talenthar still frozen in place, Dro'lan prancing indecisively at a short distance from the fight, Matthias laying motionless on the ground where he had fallen after she jumped. I should have just kept running, Siara thought to herself, closing her eyes and clinging for dear life. "Magic. Horn." Siara heard Talenthar's words as he strained against the cat's commands. Magic horn? She couldn't use magical items, he knew that, and when would she be able to fetch this horn, anyway. She adjusted her grip around the Zancig's neck, shifting her head, and felt a small but hard protrusion poking into her temple. She opened her eyes again to look, noticing the flattened bony protrusion from the back of the Zancig's head. She wrapped her arms tighter, reaching up to cover the horn with her hands and her cheek, cutting off its connection to the magical fields. The Zancig went limp and her skin began to crawl with an uncomfortable burning sensation. She rolled off the smoldering cat and looked up at Talenthar. "Jerky tastes better when you season it first, you know." "Had to take my shot as soon as you disrupted its hold on me." Talenthar prodded the dead Zancig with his foot. "Besides, I'm sure you can work your magic on it later." Matthias stood up, dusting himself off. "That's the last time I ever share a horse with you!" He stomped his foot with mock anger before noticing she hadn't moved since rolling away from the Zancig. "Are you okay?" "Are any of us?" she answered, still struggling to calm her heart. "But if you have something to treat burns without magic, I could use it." "I can make a poultice." Talenthar looked for his saddlebag before remembering the loss of his horse. "Er, I can try to make a poultice," he amended sheepishly. "Matthias, see if you can find our horses or any of our things? I'm going to find a place to set up camp." Siara shifted her position slightly and winced with pain. "I'm... I think I'm going to stay here," she offered. "Your turn to make dinner!"
Travel was much slower now. They took turns riding Dro'lan and stopped more frequently to conserve energy. They were following the river again, its fish-laden waters forcing them into a leisurely southeastern direction. Talenthar had said the Zancigs were forest dwellers, and rare creatures at that, and could not offer any explanation as to why they had encountered one in the grass plains of the Valley, but Siara was thankful at leaving the tall grasses behind in favor of the mud and wildflowers that bordered the river roadway. She scratched at her arm, the skin still itchy but otherwise mostly healed from the minor but well distributed burns she'd obtained in their fight with the Zancig. The Zancig had been an elderly cat, its meat tough and gamy even before accounting for Talenthar's magefire cooking method, but the meat had proven surprisingly flavorful as a base for gravies and broths. Between the cat and the bounty of the river they had adapted well to the loss of Talenthar's supplies, although this was due in part to Matthias' lucky find of the cast iron frying pan partially embedded in the dirt further up the path. Talenthar had managed to locate her fruit knife as well, the blade now residing in a makeshift sheath in her boot in case of emergencies. She had resolved to learn how to defend herself in case of further assault by angry wildlife, Talenthar apologizing that he had no training himself in those sorts of situations but pledging to assist in whatever way he could. The first step, of course, would be to obtain some sort of weapon when they finally reached a town. Matthias began gesturing excitedly to his companions from his perch on Dro'lan's back. "I think there are merchants up ahead! I hope they have cool stuff!" Siara noticed Talenthar perk up at the thought. He had maintained his usual upbeat manner but she had noticed him periodically reaching for items from his saddlebags only to remember they had been lost. As a lifelong traveler she imagined he'd collected his own travel kit of necessities, and this could possibly be the first opportunity for him to begin to replace them. Hopefully the Zancig hide would fetch a nice price, as aside from the coins in their pockets and the small savings she'd brought in her saddlebag the rest of their funds had galloped off with Talenthar's horse. Matthias' challenge that evening had been to remove the hide without cutting into it, a delicate feat that periodically resulted in the two combining their efforts with Talenthar directing the spell and Matthias donating his own magical strength to add potency. As they approached the small caravan ahead Siara noted the dozen or so armored warriors lounging nearby, most engaged in heated conversations over games of chance while a few stood solo around the perimeter, weapons in hand. She absent-mindedly cataloged the variety of weapons, still uncertain which would be best for her purposes. The merchants were certain to have a large selection, judging by the quantity of guards they were able to afford to escort them between towns. "Welcome, welcome!" An older woman in well dyed clothes glided out to meet them, her eyes scanning the party to identify the most likely customer before settling on Matthias, still perched atop the multicolored portal horse. "I must apologize sincerely. Our wares are currently in storage for our travels, we were not anticipating meeting such esteemed travelers as yourself." A tall gentleman strolled out to join them, setting his sights on Talenthar and his dusty but still authoritative Seeker cloak. "We would, of course, be more than happy to display anything your heart desires." He opened his arms welcomingly, gesturing towards his wagon of wares. The travelers heard a boisterous laugh behind them as large man with an impressive beard joined the fray, addressing the three travelers at once. "What my travel partners mean is, if you have the coin, we have what you need! Just tell Uncle Amos what you are looking for." "About that..." Talenthar began, pulling the large Zancig hide from Siara's bag. She had allowed Talenthar to enchant hers to provide for extra storage until they could replace his own. "We were hoping we could start by trading this for a fair price?" He motioned for Matthias to dismount before expertly displaying the hide on the stallion's back. The merchants crowded around, eyeballing the size of the animal and feeling the quality of the leather from the preliminary tanning efforts of Talenthar and Matthias. "It's singed," the elderly woman observed, flexing the hide. "Still pliable, though." "Only singed in a couple places," Talenthar confirmed. "Around the paws, and a bit near the head horn hole." The haggling continued for several minutes, the merchants pointing out flaws to bring the price down and Talenthar talking it back up again, until the boisterous merchant offered a price Talenthar found acceptable, exchanging the hide for a sizable purse and a hearty handshake. To her surprise, he offered half to Siara. "Me?" she asked, startled. "Of course," Talenthar answered, confused at her surprise. "You were a large part of killing it. Plus you saved our lives, and you've been letting us all take turns riding your horse, and you've proven it's better to split up our assets, and... should I go on?" Siara shook her head. "Okay, okay, I get it!" "Then take it," Talenthar insisted before turning back to the merchants, who smiled pleasantly at him. "And now that we have coin again, there's a few things we'd like to procure for the road, if possible..." The merchants' smiles broadened as they beckoned the party to view their wares.
Siara relished the raindrops on her uplifted face, the misty rain extremely welcome on such a hot day. Her companions were appreciating the break as well, Matthias with his arms spread wide from his seat behind Talenthar on their new horse. The merchants had offered them three horses in exchange for Dro'lan, but Siara couldn't bear the thought of parting with her now beloved Portal Horse. The mild mannered stallion had already proven his worth to the group, and Talenthar and Matthias had made it clear that sharing a single horse would be sufficient. Talenthar was notably more relaxed than he had been in recent days. They had been able to replace the majority of his urgent travel kit with items from the merchants' caravan, and Siara had even found a small set of throwing daggers for self-defense, bearing no enchantments or charms but crafted of magically folded metal to strengthen the blades. Perfect. She had replaced the fruit knife at her ankle with one of these instead, fashioning a makeshift grip to use it as a regular dagger until she felt comfortably proficient throwing them. The daggers weren't her only recent acquisition from the merchants. Matthias had learned it would be her birthday in a couple days and had insisted on gifting her a hat. It was a ridiculous thing with a giant brim dyed with a loud assortment of colors. It reminded her of her mother's stories of the plane of Rol'na and she wondered if it was a Rol'nara Chromatic Palm hat. Matthias had burst into hysterics when she had put it on, but she truly loved it both for being a hat and a birthday present. During the heat of the day she had even pulled out the hanging Circulator from Fai'la and affixed it to the back of the brim to cool her as they rode, turning Matthias' glee into envy. But the visit with the merchants hadn't been entirely without incident. They had been invited to join the merchants and their mercenaries for lunch, a surprisingly flavorless affair revolving around hardtack, two kinds of cheese, and a poor assortment of dried fruit. At Matthias' insistence she had turned this into a hearty stew utilizing some of the crispy Zancig meat and invariably the conversation turned to the felling of the beast the day before. Matthias had been more than happy to oblige, embellishing his own role in the encounter while also gleefully describing Siara's wrestling of the cat. To Siara's relief Talenthar had interjected at this point, explaining away Siara's feat as a mere distraction of the cat, causing it to lose the concentration required to keep them bound within its telepathic demands. He had fortunately picked up on Siara's careful efforts to hide her Unattunable Disorder from the merchants, and she smiled at him with gratitude for protecting her privacy rather than letting Matthias explain it was actually her hands over its horn to physically block its commands. While she had finally found a welcoming family of choice in the company of Matthias and Talenthar she was not so naive as to believe the merchants would react to such a revelation with anything other than the ridicule and degradation to which she had become accustomed. Best to avoid that situation if possible. "So where exactly are we going?" She pulled her horse up next to Talenthar and Matthias' new mare. "I've been enjoying the traveling, and it's been a pleasure, not having to worry about others' reactions to my Unattunability, but I'm assuming we're not traveling just to travel?" Talenthar paused. "We were, actually," he finally admitted sheepishly. "It's easier to train Matthias out in the wilds without the distractions, and I'll admit I wasn't exactly sure how to help you..." He voice faded off for a moment. "But that encounter with the Zancig made me realize that we should probably stay closer to civilization. Plus you have voiced, and rightly so, that you need a way to defend yourself too. So I thought we'd stop at Hopestaff for a bit." "What's at Hopestaff?" she asked. "I've never heard of it." "Not much. It's a small village," Talenthar explained, "but there's a commune for the Hidden Flame there. I can check in and see who they'd recommend to help you learn faster with your daggers, and if they have suggestions for ways you could use your particular talents. Plus we can see if we're needed anywhere." "Uhhh, guys?" Matthias interrupted. "There's umm... I feel a lot of people coming. Really fast. Towards us." Siara turned away from the conversation to peer ahead down the road. Squinting her eyes she could faintly make out the shadows of a large group of riders barreling towards them at incredible speed. She looked towards Talenthar in alarm and saw the mage reflexively reach for his focus and start muttering under his breath. She checked her daggers, ensuring they were easily accessible on her belt should she have need of them. The bandits converged on them quickly, a dozen in all, their horses kicking up a storm of dust as they circled the party. Despite Matthias' advanced warning Talenthar had only been able to throw up a single protective spell but at least the bandits would need to break through before attacking them physically. Even now Talenthar was muttering his spellwork in an effort to raise a second, stronger ward, Matthias lending his own power to strengthen Talenthar. "Halt!" Siara watched as the bandits reacted immediately to the command, positioning themselves evenly around her group to cut off any attempts at retreat. The largest bandit dismounted in front of Talenthar, the large scar across his cheek leering at the surrounded party. "Remember me? Not going to scare us away that easily this time, Magic Man." Siara recognized the man instantly as the bandit from the beginning of their trip, the one Talenthar had sent reeling with the wall of water. But what was he doing here? "You followed us? It's been umm..." Matthias paused to finish counting on his fingers. "It's been three weeks!" "That was your first mistake!" Siara cried, launching one of her throwing daggers at the man. Now was as good a time as any to see if her own personal practice with them would help in a fight. The bandits' leader threw back his head in laughter as the dagger flew past him. "Big words for someone who doesn't know how to fight," he scoffed. "Got those at a traveling merchant, did you? In the interest of speeding this up a bit I'll have to inform you they're enchanted not to harm us. Now if you don't mind we're just going to take all you've got and, if you're good, maybe we'll let you walk away." He eyed Dro'lan. "Should have taken the deal you were offered for that horse, Missy. Then maybe I wouldn't have had to come take everything else from you and your friends, too." "You're wasting your time," Talenthar had finished his spellwork and stood ready to defend, a small windstorm already conjured in his left hand while he steadied the horse with his right. The bandit shrugged. "Technically, you're wasting mine, but I didn't have much planned today anyway." He turned to one of the other bandits. "Perhaps you can convince them? Just remember, don't hurt that horse." "And the others?" the newcomer asked, a twisted smile growing on his face. Unlike the others he was unarmored save for a reinforced cloak, fastened around his neck by a clasp bearing a beautiful multifaceted gem which he rubbed absent-mindedly. "Just don't hurt the horse." The cloaked man grinned menacingly before hurling a fireball at Siara's face. Everything moved in slow motion. She heard Talenthar curse under his breath as the flames penetrated his defensive spells without challenge. She found herself wondering how often he cursed, as this was the first she had heard him do so. Perhaps he had not prepared for a mage within the bandit group? Given the prevalence of magic in the world this was a severe oversight that she would need to tease him about later. And then her world was engulfed in flames. "My hat!" she cried in despair, throwing it to the ground and watching it consumed by the flames. "My birthday hat!" The bandit mage spluttered at the fireball's lack of effect, clearly accustomed to more spectacular reactions. "What bewitchment is this?!?" Talenthar's ball of wind kicked up a dust storm on its way to the bandits but dissipated just outside the edge of their barrier. Siara threw another of her daggers towards the mage as well but it bounced off an invisible barrier and careened into the dirt. "I can't get them!" Matthias cried. "He must have put up a shield while we were talking to that other guy!" Even now Siara could see the cloaked bandit rubbing the gem and muttering. That gem is his focus, Siara realized. Maybe if I take it from him... "I have a plan!" She reached for the dagger from her boot, urging Dro'lon forward towards the barrier. "Wait! Catch!" Matthias threw something in her direction and she instinctively reached to catch it. It was cool and heavy to the touch. "Hold that in his shield. Then close your eyes!" Siara wondered what Matthias planned but time was short. She lunged at the barrier, wrapping the object in her hands to insert it into the barrier before removing one hand to allow Matthias magical access to the item. Streaks of lighting flashed across the sky, reaching hungrily from Matthias' fingertips towards the focus cradled in Siara's hand. She winced involuntarily as the air around her electrified, crackling around her ears in spite of her own immunity to its power. It didn't take long for the lighting to reach its target, sparking through the focus to strike the bandit mage, still too stunned by Siara's immunity to his own spell to successfully counter Matthias'. The force of the strike knocked him from his horse and sent him into convulsions on the ground. "Don't! Hurt! My! Friends!" Matthias shouted through gritted teeth as he continued to channel the lightning, its force now arcing between the remaining bandits encircling them, the bandits' spooked horses bucking and bolting from the fray as their former riders writhed in pain from the electrical onslaught. "Don't ever hurt my friends!" "That's enough, Matthias," Talenthar voiced sternly, looking at Matthias over his shoulder. "It's over now." Siara looked up at Matthias in amazement, shuddering involuntarily at the heavy scene of burnt flesh and ozone in the air. "You did it!" She surveyed the destruction surrounding them, disproportional in size to the young mage behind it. "We did it," Matthias cheerfully corrected her. "Could I please have my Focus back? I don't need it for magic..." he surveyed the carnage surrounding them with a gleeful grin. "But it's more fun when I do!" Talenthar sighed and rubbed his temples wearily at his ward's reactions. "There are ways to enjoy magic without enjoying carnage and wanton destruction, Matthias. We are going to have to work on this." Siara looked down at the object he had thrown to her and recognized the horn from the Zancig. He had carved some runes into its sides, and at the top was a crude carving of three stick figures, one in a giant brimmed hat, standing over what was probably meant to be the dead feline. She walked over and offered it to Matthias, fighting back the tears welling behind her eyes. "Thanks," he tucked it back into his pocket. "You need a new hat."
They rode into Hopestaff the next morning, the streets bustling with traffic heading to and from the pop up market in the square. The citizens chatted happily among themselves, and Siara noted that they all seemed to know each other. This was definitely a small town, welcoming and warm, but likely not a place she could stay for any duration of time once her Unattunable status was discovered due to the speed at which the news would spread. She pulled Dro'lan closer to Talenthar and Matthias. They had spent the prior evening cremating the bandits, Talenthar patiently impressing upon Matthias the cost of his actions. "These were people," he explained as they constructed the pyre. "Yes, they were trying to kill us, but they still deserve a proper burial." They'd been unable to locate the bandit leader among the dead, Talenthar surmising he must have slipped away sometime in the confusion after Siara had survived the bandit mage's fireball to the face. She'd said a few words at his behest, a short prayer to the Goddess Patheia. "May our blessed suffering bring us your forgiveness. May our empathy lead us to our redemption." She had prayed it for her mother then, too, remembering the nights spent learning the prayers of the Three Songs as Matthias solemnly lit the pyre. "I miss you, Mother," she had whispered to the dancing flames. Siara's mournful reverie was interrupted by a young man riding towards them, dressed in bright and airy clothing, the colorful swirls and patterns across both his skin and that of his horse revealing their identity as Rol'nara. "Good morning, horses and travelers. May I ask your business in Hopestaff today?" he asked politely but firmly. "I wasn't aware the Rol'nara were interested in the comings and goings of travelers," Siara replied coldly. "Especially in towns without a portal to the Exchange." "They are when a portal horse is involved," came the answer. "Tell me how you came to obtain this horse." "Dro'lan was a gift," Siara replied. "Formerly belonging to Lai'na Stormblossom, Portal Guide to Avorae, until three weeks past." "And how did you come to earn such fine a gift?" he pressed. "That is a personal affair," she answered firmly. "It is Lai'na's to tell, not mine." He mulled it over for a bit. "I know this horse, and his rider. She has not mentioned anything about his disappearance, and so I will take you at your word. My sincerest apologies. Walk in the Tree Songs, Traveler." "May your dance be long and well-attended." Siara answered the greeting automatically. "Tell me, what is a Rol'nara Guide doing in Hopestaff? Do they have an Exchange Portal?" The young man laughed. "Of course not. But when the proper petitioning steps are taken, the Exchange must evaluate the request. And so I am here." Siara thought for a moment. "When you return, could you please deliver a message to Lai'na for me?" "Certainly." "Tell her that her sister is well." "Lai'na doesn't have a sister." He shook his head in confusion. "She'll know what it means." Siara returned to her companions, who had been politely attempting to not watch the exchange. "Figures," she shook her head. "Every time I think to maybe reach out an olive branch I'm reminded why I shouldn't." "Broken things take time to mend," Talenthar answered softly. "Give it time. If it's meant to be, you'll know. And if it's not... Well, eventually you'll know that, too." He turned the horse towards a side alley. "The commune is this way. They usually have some beds set aside for Seekers and their companions, and they'll know where we can look to find help for training you on those throwing daggers. You were great against the bandits, but that aim needs some practice." "I wasn't much help," Siara apologized. "Not much help?" Talenthar asked, incredulously. "I should be the one saying that. I overlooked the possibility of defending against magic users and was unable to cast anything of use afterwards." "You did keep the other bandits out," Siara noted. "But what did I do?" Talenthar stopped his horse to look her in the eyes. "I'm not going to give you another list. It's clear those only work until the next time. What I will say is that you have spent a lifetime being told things about yourself that aren't true. You are a very gifted young lady. You have talents and abilities that Matthias and I will never be able to replicate. When we first met I said I was going to help you find your gifts and talents in this world, and I meant it, but I had no idea what to do to fulfill that promise. Meanwhile you have shown what that means. And above all, you have shown that you don't need us to get by in this world. You could leave today to find your way elsewhere without us, and I know you'd be okay. You don't need us." Siara gazed back, recognizing the truth of his words in spite of the self-doubt still gnawing at her. She remembered the carving on Matthias' focus. "You always need family." Matthias grinned and grabbed her hand, unexpectedly leveraging it to pull himself to the back of Dro'lan before wrapping her in his arms in a tight hug. Siara savored the hug, and the feeling of belonging that came with it. Matthias' voice floated up from behind her, muffled in her shirt. "Can we go now? I'm starving." With a chuckle the trio nudged the horses forward again towards food, lodging, and a promising tomorrow.