Rune had made the unusual habit of falling asleep early despite his encroaching adolescence. His mind was growing, and as it grew, his worries grew along with it. He found it easier to fall asleep to the sounds of his father and brother moving about than in the emptiness of a silent house. On the night that it all began, when he woke to the comfortable sounds of shuffling and Corona speaking softly from the kitchen, he thought at first that he had never fallen asleep at all. His sixth sense awakened more slowly than his ears. At the very moment he became aware of an unfamiliar disturbance in the ambient magic, a stranger’s voice echoed down the hall, loud and demanding.
Corona responded to the demand in the same calm tone as he had used before. Rune read the way that the magic in the air moved around six unknown bodies, like magical echolocation, to alert him of the intruders in his house.
When he opened his eyes and pulled the covers away from his face, he still saw only darkness. He reached out in the direction of a clock and breathed out the gentlest lick of fire, warming it in his chest before sending it through his arm and out of his fingertips. The hour hand was somewhere in the top left quadrant of the clock face. Rune buried his head under the covers again, trying to block out the sounds of voices he did not recognize, trying not to notice the discomfort in his father’s voice. Despite his reluctance, his ears strained to listen, but his mind raced too quickly to hold onto any words until he felt familiar stomps in the hallway outside his door and his brother shouted, “What the hell is going on?!”
His heart pounded against his ribs. His breathing was quick and shallow; the air under his sheets grew hot. Faenon kept yelling, and now Corona was yelling, and Corona never yelled, and the strange men were yelling, too, and something heavy fell over and there was a smash of broken glass and a splatter of water, and everyone started shouting “no” and “stop” until something softer, but even heavier, hit the floor. The last thing Rune heard from Corona—and he barely knew it was Corona, because it was a scream—was, “Get Althea!”
Rune clasped his hands over the top of his head and shoved his face into a pillow to stifle a yelp. Tears bled into his pillowcase as he bit through the fibers, shaking too violently to control his motions. He sank his untidy fingernails into his scalp in utter hatred of a self that was too afraid to leave his room when his father needed him.
His opinion of himself began with a thought pattern. With repetition, it became an attitude; with time, it manifested as a feeling, a physical condition inseparable from his state of being. It was the headache, the nausea, the sour taste in his mouth, but most of all, it was the heavy weight that held him inert and that pressed down harder on him each second he refused to move.
If he stayed silent and still, no one would find him. The conflict would come to an end, no matter how gruesome. Even if, by his negligence, Faenon and Corona were killed, everyone would say to him that there was nothing that he could have done. Every time he might try to confess his cowardice, they would tell him not to blame himself, he was so young when it happened. But Corona and Faenon would remember how loudly they had called for help that night, and if an afterlife awaited them, they would spend eternity in loathing of the leechlike half-elf that they regretted ever letting into their home.
Rune hated himself out of his bed. Keeling over his sickened stomach, he fumbled with the lock with shaking fingers before ramming open his door with a bony hip—the lock never held under pressure—and stumbled into the hallway. He ran blind into the kitchen; all he could see through the darkness and his tears were the shadows of too many people. The room smelled like iron. His bare foot splashed into something warm and wet.
“Rune, no,” Corona shouted.
There were hands all over Corona’s body. The shadows of strangers glistened in moonlight and moved with the sound of clinking metal, not quite towards Rune but downwards. He had stepped in a small, dark pool that, even in the blue sheen of midnight, had a reddish hue, in which a body lay. After a blink, Rune saw his brother’s dirty blond curls. Another blink showed him that hands were clamoring over Faenon’s body, too.
Corona fought against the arms holding him back. “Don’t touch him!” he yelled. “Leave them out of this! They don’t know anything about the Vessel!”
“The kid’s going to die if we leave him here,” said a voice that had a crisp echo against the metal that muffled it.
Rune could no longer see at all. His legs failed to take another step forward. In the back of his head, to where his conscious mind escaped to put as much distance between himself and reality as possible, he recognized the sensation of his limbs losing their feeling. When he was younger, his spells of terror whirled his magic into this same uncontrollable frenzy, unleashing wild flickers of fire. His head grew thick with the swell of magic. As soon as he tasted its texture, he squeezed his eyes shut in fear of what havoc he would wreak.
He was an heir of magics both human and elven. His most impressive spells required both types of working in tandem. By their combined might, he could create distortions in space that could move or deflect solid objects, a power Faenon naïvely called levitation. The opposing magics waged war in his small body and came out united in a volume too great for him to control. He needed to calm himself before he risked destroying his surroundings in a flaming, telekinetic whirlwind, but he also needed to make his way to the Rider house in the middle of the night before all of the blood seeped out of Faenon’s body, meaning that what he really needed was to turn back time and hit himself in the face until he stopped being such a useless screw-up.
When he seized what control he could over his own magic, all he could do was push. The armored men gave shouts as the ripple in space knocked them hard against the wall around the backdoor. Bright green flames flared out where the waves of human and elven magics came unglued.
Rune had no idea how terrifying a child he was. He spun out more fire with a careless flourish than a seasoned mage would dare summon with all the time and space in the world. Scholars called fire the most dangerous of the classic elements for its raw power and its unpredictable nature. The few mages in Azier warned Rune to never use it after he discovered his talent when he little more than a toddler. But fire was inextricable from Rune; it was his essence. He could control it because he had become it. Even when little licks of fire escaped his wild magic, he guided them away from walls and furniture, away from his father and brother’s soft auras, and into the concealed faces of the soldiers who threatened him and his home.
“Fall back!” called one. “This isn’t worth it!”
Rune’s knees hit the ground as he gasped for air he did not realize he needed. His body cried for it, for sleep, for food, for something to replace the energy it had so suddenly lost. His arms and shoulders burned in all of the places where magic had seeped out of him. A warm liquid stuck against his cheek when his head found the floor. Every breath he took was poisoned by the stench of blood.
He realized the ringing in his ears was not in his head when he heard Althea commenting on it.
“What the hell is that noise?” she demanded. “Kari, get the light.”
Rune opened his eyes one at a time and believed for a moment that he might have been dreaming. Floating in the air above him were ugly rips in the air, as if rent into an invisible fabric hanging over his reality. Beyond the ragged tears were different places: his bedroom was beyond one, the grassy stretch behind the school was another. Each pulsating window rang with its own ear-piercing shriek, especially the ones leading to something so oppressively, heavily black he thought he might be sucked in if he came too close.
In one of the slashed holes, he saw himself staring back, as if looking into a fragment of a mirror. He was shimmering with sweat, half of his face painted with blood, looking exhausted and pitiful. The blood was splattered on the opposite side of his face from where he felt it drying on his skin—or the same side, if they were not mirror images. He saw his double gasp just after he did, before their window shriveled up into nothing, as if it had never existed.
A flash came from a different hole, and then Rune recognized the interior of the Rider girls’ bedroom: the vanity topped with hair ribbons and folded sweaters, the bookshelf of medical textbooks and ancient fairytales, the war-weary combat shoes and the tiny cloth boots beside it. Kari grabbed both pairs, a lamp hooked on her elbow, while Althea’s close voice muttered, “I think it’s coming from the middle of the room.”
This window was the largest of those he had torn open, and it swelled larger still when he focused on it. His feet slid through blood when he tried to stand, and his arms were far too weak to push himself upright. He did not have the luxury of enough coordination to hesitate before he plunged his hand inside the portal.
It felt like nothing at all. The air was a little warmer on the other side, but that was it.
Althea screamed when he half-appeared in her bedroom. She screamed again when he found her hand and pulled it towards him. A frenzied stare was all he needed to give to Kari. A second after they locked eyes, she ran to the corner of her room where she kept her bow and quiver and where Althea kept a bag of medical supplies. She always understood him better when he was in a panic.
His body protested with pain when he tugged Althea through his portal, telling him just how much magic he had expended. He usually felt a strange tingling in his veins when he used a high volume of energy in a short amount of time, but it was always temporary. The ache he felt now was of desperate fatigue, threatening to pull him to the ground in collapse. He gripped Althea’s arm and fell against her to stay upright when she crossed over to his side.
The other portals were beginning to shrink at uneven rates. The green glow at their corners reminded him of burning paper curling into soot. The spectacle dazed Althea, who, judging by her cotton nightgown, had been asleep only moments ago. Rune’s vision began to fade as he watched the final remaining portal dwindle away with Kari on the other side of it. He never saw how she squeezed through the tiny hole, but the light of her lamp illuminated his closed eyelids when the strident hum of the portal vanished. She grabbed hold of him just as Althea swore and fell to her knees in the pool of blood.
In his right hand, Faenon clasped a slice of a smashed plate so tightly it scraped the tender skin between his calluses. Another shard was sticking out of his skin in the place where his neck met his left shoulder. His eyes were wide open with just enough cognizance to feel the jagged, rough edges of broken ceramic pressing into his body. Blood covered the floor from his wound to well past the top of his head. He held a hand smeared in his blood to Althea’s face when he recognized her, mouthing words he could not put a voice to.
What remained of Rune’s magic once again stirred in terror. Kari must have felt it in his aura, because she was dragging him away across the floor, back towards his room. At the time, he was too weary to fight against her pull, and what a relief it was to watch his worries disappear before his eyes.
After she propped him against the wall, Kari scurried back towards Althea. “Bleeding fast, but it’s not as bad as it looks,” Althea was saying. “There must have been water on the floor, that’s what spread it out like this.”
“Th-the wash bin,” Kari said. She cast a shaking light upon the tipped basin with her lamp.
“Put the lamp down near me and put your fingers here and here for a second,” Althea ordered. “It’ll gush when I pull this thing out. Got him right in the jugular.”
Though Althea was calm, and though Rune could lift his head just an inch and see through the open door to his bedroom, it did not keep the dread from returning to his stomach. He thought he had already sorted through this. They would all tell him it was not his fault, that there was nothing he could have done to save his father. He would half-believe it in his own way. He was powerless, yes, but only because he had grown stunted into something so weak and so cowardly. He was used to hating himself. Yet when he thought of crawling into the warm security of his bed, cold unease crept into his chest nonetheless.
“Rune,” said Kari, as he crawled close enough for her to notice. “Althea says he’s—he’ll be okay, she can—where’s—is Corona here, or—?”
What had once been his shelter felt now like nothing but paltry walls and broken doors. None of it was safe; perhaps it had never been safe, not truly, but for twelve years it had felt home. All of that changed when the house was hollow, missing the presence of a man Rune had never, not aloud, called his father.
“Uh, um, Rune,” Kari stammered when he clawed his way up the wall to stand. “You shouldn’t—your aura is really faint, I don’t know if you should…”
The back door was weak when he pushed it open. There were splinters at the hinges and a chunk of wood missing near where the deadbolt fit into the doorjamb. A wide path through the tall grass in the yard had been stomped flat from the door to the tree line. He felt the cold dew of a warming night under his toes as he trudged forward.
Kari hopped behind him on one foot as she struggled to pull her second boot on. “Rune, don’t—you should really,” she began, then glanced at the cottage behind her. “Althea says you should… Did you—did you bring us here? Was that how—your magic, you… You need to—you don’t have much energy, you might…”
He could barely feel the fatigue of magic loss anymore. All that remained was a chill in his heart that told him he was empty, and the still-burning complaint from the exhausted pathways by which his magic had escaped his body. He had never performed magic like that before. He still was not sure what it was he had done, or even if it had really happened at all. The vivid pain was the only reason he knew this was no fanciful nightmare.
He felt the air desperately for the signature of Corona Winter’s aura, listening so intently that he could feel the sleeping bodies of villagers on the border of Azier. Whether from pain, from fatigue, or from sorrow, tears streamed from his eyes as he strained to see something from the other direction, into the desolate forest to the south.
He caught a sudden, unnatural swell of yet another unfamiliar aura.
It started out so faint that he was sure he was imagining it, but quickly grew resolute. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, it faded back into nothingness. Then, again, it returned, just as strong as it had been before. Without a doubt, it came from deeper in the woods.
“R—Rune,” Kari stuttered. “W-where are you going? What… what happened? Where’s…?”
“There’s someone there.”
She jumped when he spoke, even though it was only a whisper. He could speak, and he spoke most often to her, but it was still rare enough that it took her by surprise.
“There’s… where?” Kari glanced around nervously. “Who?”
The air from this distant aura pressed against Rune’s insides like a cold wind bringing news of a nearby storm. By reading the ripples in the ambient magic, Rune could detect these faraway presences where Kari and Althea were blind. The Rider girls did not read auras the way he did; they only felt for a higher concentration of personal magic, which never extended far beyond the person. By the width and fuzz of the signal from the forest, the aura could have been a mile or more away, much farther than the Riders could see.
“We have to—we have to go right now, don’t we?” Kari realized. “I’ll—I’ll tell Althea, I’ll get everything—you should wait here, and—please just rest for a minute, I’ll…”
What the Riders sacrificed in distance, they made up for in acuity in close range. Althea could read a heartbeat and temperature in an aura, and Rune still did not understand the extent of what Kari could read or how, but his thoughts appeared in her mind so often that he did not find it strange anymore.
He did not wait and rest. As soon as Kari disappeared into the house, Rune trudged on towards the line of trees at the end of the farmland. Corona had told his sons to never trespass there; to cross into the trees was to enter another country. The Highlands were a lawless land, home to legends of coldblooded criminals and tales to frighten children into obedience. Faenon was fifteen years old when Corona finally permitted him to approach the border to chop trees for firewood. The world felt colder when Rune’s toes touched Highland soil.
He moved slowly, touching the trunk of each tree he passed for support. The adrenaline in his veins was losing its potency and sinking, trickling down into his aching feet and making each step heavier. The aura should have been coming into clearer focus the farther he walked, but he was too tired to listen with intent to the fluctuating signal. After a stiff twig pierced the tender skin in the arch of his foot, he dropped to one bare knee in the dirt, leaned against the nearest tree, and fought the need to cry. He lost that fight.
Between quiet, shuddering sobs, Rune felt the aura moving closer to him. He had never felt magic move around someone the way it swirled around this stranger, frenzied as if encountering an unnatural disturbance in the world. The person behind that aura could no doubt sense Rune at this distance, so Rune concentrated on fading away. He listened carefully for the waves that the air made around his energy, his own aura. The proper practice was to inject energy into the air in a way that neutralized the signal, but he lacked the strength to completely disappear. Instead, he moved his magic around inside of himself until the signal became softer, if not weaker. He practiced this quieting technique daily to blend the harsh edges of his half-elven aura into the background noise of humans in Azier.
A dark eternity later, an even more jarring presence than his own glowed on the horizon, but behind him. She could barely hear her own aura, let alone hide it.
“Rune!” Kari called. “Rune, I—we—we…”
Her speech dissolved into panting; she had sprinted all the way. Between her gasps, she started to ask him why he had left, but stopped as soon as they decided he did not have an answer. She had half-changed from her nightclothes into the mismatched outfit she left at the Winters’ in case her clothes were stained or torn during battles. The sleeves of her nightshirt extended beyond those of the pale green cardigan she had outgrown by years. A pastel-patterned, knee-length circle skirt with lace trim and appended pockets sat on top of her thin pajama pants. They were clothes she should have remembered storing in the barn, but were instead in Rune’s room, stuffed underneath his dresser.
“Althea and Faenon… they’re—she—they’re coming, they…” She paused for another breath, leaning on her hands. “Faenon said that… he was saying—I didn’t… hear everything, I just started getting the…”
On her shoulder was Rune’s backpack, sagging in a different shape than the one his books gave it. A layer of chain mail rustled between her nightclothes and her cardigan and skirt. Around her waist was the belt that held her bow and quiver. She handed Rune his shoes. Inside each was a sock; they almost matched.
“I’ve got a sweater and your mail armor and,” Kari went on, thumbing over her shoulder at the backpack, “and pants, in my—in your…”
“Can you see that aura?” Rune whispered.
Kari went stiff except in the neck, which she jerked about. “Wh—aura? I can’t…”
Rune pointed. “It’s been there for,” he began, but his sense of time was too distorted to tell the duration. “They’re probably close enough to hear you talking.”
She stared after his finger. She pulled her feet under her one at a time, then wiped her hands on her skirt before cupping them around her mouth and calling, “Is somebody there?”
Rune managed one barely voiced “no” but the rest were only mouthed. He stumbled to his feet, swinging his body behind the trunk of a tree. Thin though he was, he could not hide himself among the slender birches.
Kari grabbed his arm without looking. The fingers she had trained through archery made a terrifying vise. The leather of her two-fingered shooting glove pressed into his skin. “I—I feel it now,” she breathed. “Is it coming closer?”
With a violent jerk, Rune snapped his arm free of her grip, shaking the socks from his shoes and stuffing his bare feet inside. He was standing and wriggling his heel into his right shoe when Kari gasped and pointed in the direction of the ever-stronger aura.
A gravelly, world-weary voice reached them through the woods. “You two better get out of here,” he warned.
Though Rune was eager to follow this advice, Kari barely stirred. “Hello?” she called back. “Who’s… who’s there?”
Between the trees was the long, thin shadow of a man. As he marched closer, moonlight struck his eyes and made them gleam like a wolf’s. His aura flared out in one last cold wind that sent a chill down Rune’s spine. Rune froze, staring at the ground and breathing hard. The breaths came out cold.
“What the hell?” the man muttered. “How old are you? It’s the middle of the night, what are you kids doing out here?”
When he realized he loomed over the children by about two feet, he stepped back, and Rune found the nerve to lift his eyes. He lingered awhile on the shape of a sword hanging from the man’s belt, the pommel of which he cupped in his palm. His face was white and gaunt with high, sharp cheekbones, contoured by dark hair on his chin and sideburns, and stubble at his jawline. Under the furrow in his brow was a strong nose with an uneven bridge. He looked down it at Rune with chilling eyes weighed down by black bags.
“Is that blood?” he asked. Kari had a fair bit on her hands and knees from helping Althea, but Rune had it all over his face and his clothes.
“Um,” Kari began nervously, looking to Rune for approval. “We were… we’re… I think something really bad happened.”
“Oh, hell,” he uttered. “Are you two half-elves?”
The night went white.
A moment later, Rune was gripping the knitting of Kari’s sleeves with clammy fingers, pressing his head to her back. He pulled his elbows to his stomach and crouched behind her, unconsciously eliminating the signal of his aura, in a futile attempt to disappear.
“I’m—we’re not,” Kari blurted, holding her cold hands over Rune’s. “We’re not, we, we both have these weird, I mean, I think I do, I have the weird aura that people say, the double aura, people say that’s what—what they have, because the two magics, but I have it and—”
“Hey, you’ll pass out if you keep talking without breathing,” the man teased. “I don’t care what you are, you still need to get out of here. The mercs were just here.”
His words could not quell Rune’s nerves. Rune pushed away when Kari moved closer, shaking and sweating, unable to open his mouth without fear of vomiting. In the heat of the moment, he hated Kari for her aura. It shone in two distinct colors, just as his did when he did not control it. His echo presence came from his two different sources of magic, one elven and one human, but he knew how to blend them into one nondescript signature. Despite being human, Kari had an even starker separation in her aura than he. Her lack of aura control had given him away. On top of that, she could not tell a lie to save his life.
“Who was here?” Kari asked in a weak voice.
“The mercenaries. Vega’s,” said the man. “If you’ve never heard of them, all the better. Keep it that way and run home.”
“N-no, wait, the mercenaries, did they—Faenon said they—” She turned to Rune, but turned back when she found he still had not lifted his head. “Do they wear plate armor?”
“Yeah, usually. Red metal,” replied the man.
“Did they have someone else with them?” she asked desperately. “He’s—um, he’s got brown hair and eyes, and—”
“Wait, you know the man they took?” the man asked.
Rune stopped breathing.
“It’s his dad,” Kari said with a nod.
The man gave Rune a fierce stare with his icy eyes. “Kid,” he said, “you need to get out of here. Now.”
Rune jumped at the sound of his brother’s voice. Panic overwhelmed any relief he felt to see the shadows of Althea and Faenon approaching from behind. He was not used to people sneaking up on him.
“Who the hell is that?” Faenon yelled, pointing as he stomped forward.
“Slow down, you ass,” Althea grumbled.
Rune saw the visual explanation for her imperceptible aura when he squinted into the darkness. A breath away from breathless, she rested her arm across Faenon’s shoulders, head hanging low. It had taken a lot out of her to bring Faenon back to health. Faenon, on the other hand, moved with an energy so fiery that Rune forgot, for a moment, that he had been gravely injured only minutes ago.
“Faenon!” Kari called back. “He saw the people who took Corona!”
“Okay, ‘saw’ is a very generous word for what happened,” muttered the man.
Throwing her arm from his neck, Faenon abandoned Althea beside a narrow birch that bent when she leaned against its trunk. His axe jostled in the straps attaching it to his backpack when he sprinted. He stopped short of the stranger when he noticed the considerable height difference between them.
“When did you see them? How far off are they?” Faenon demanded. “Which way?”
“I’m not too sure I want to tell you.” The man lifted his hand and illuminated a small pocket of icy blue magic in his palm to cast light on Faenon’s youthful face. “I’m not that keen on leading a bunch of children to their deaths.”
Faenon tensed all of his muscles to keep himself from charging forward. “Who the hell do you think you are?” he shouted. “That’s my dad they took, you prick.”
“Rune, if you could try to stop him from punching anybody before I can get there, that’d be great,” Althea groaned from afar, trudging along from tree to tree.
There was no danger of physical violence from Faenon’s side as long as he kept his eye on the foot-high gap between his head and the stranger’s. On the other side, it was a question of how long this man could stand to be shouted at.
“You’re literally covered in blood. All of you,” said the man with a glance at Rune. “I don’t know how you kids are even moving, but you’d better stop before it kills you. I’m pretty handy with sewing stitches if you need.”
Faenon shoved him away when he came to take a closer look. “I’m fine,” he snapped. “Go to hell.”
“You’re welcome,” Althea called from several yards back.
“I woke up to the sound of my dad being dragged from my house, I got stabbed in the neck by those bastards,” Faenon went on, “and I walked all this goddamn way with two hundred pounds on my back—”
“Oh, screw you, I’m not that heavy,” Althea muttered. She had almost made it there; Rune could finally feel what little was left of her aura.
“—so if you think I’m gonna turn back now just because you say so, you better think the hell again,” Faenon said through his teeth. “Tell me where they went, now.”
Kari winced at each of the foul words that Faenon spat. He usually kept his tongue clean around her ears.
The man held the light in his palm closer to Faenon. “Stabbed in the neck?” he asked. “Where?”
“It’s fine, I told you.” Faenon clapped a hand over the gentle bruise that remained. “Are you going to tell me where they went or not?!”
“Not if all this blood is from your neck,” said the man, holding up both his hands and squaring his stance. “I’m not joking, I think you’re going to die if you don’t—”
“For the last time, I’m fine! I swear, if you don’t tell me right now,” he threatened, gripping the haft of his axe.
The stranger’s face fell into creases of disdain. “Did you get knocked around in the head, too, or are you just always this insufferable?”
Althea’s eyes went wide. “Oh, hell.”
Faenon whipped his head around to face her and ask the same question, but it morphed into a quiet “ow” as he held his fingers to his eyes.
“Thought your eyes looked funny.” In a single, long stride, the man was next to Faenon. “Alright, sit down slowly and we’ll see if I can help you out. My name’s Daion.”
“Althea,” Faenon said weakly, holding his head in both hands. He sank to the ground, supported at the elbows by Daion, whose head shot up at the sound of her name.
“I’m coming, you big baby.” At Faenon’s side, Althea dropped to her knees with a hefty sigh, lifting her hands. The soft blue light of her magic glowed brighter in the night, emanating from her palms in shaky flickers.
“You’re Althea,” Daion uttered. “You’re… the healer.”
Althea gave him a glance and nothing more.
“You healed his wounds,” he said. “You can heal head injuries?”
“Well enough,” she mumbled.
As she combed through Faenon’s hair, matted with blood, to inspect the damage in and under his skull, Daion sat in silence, staring vacantly at her hands.
“Aren’t you from Azier?” he said at last. “All of you. So you’re training to be warriors.”
“What’s it to you?” Faenon grumbled.
Daion turned his head over his shoulder. He eyed Kari first, then stared at Rune.
“Here’s what I can do,” he decided. “Soon as you’re ready, we’ll start following the mercs from a distance. I’ll cover everyone’s auras so they can’t tell we’re here. If we get a chance, if they drop their guard—only if we get that chance—then we’ll go in and try to take your man back.”