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Jay - Ahern's Burden

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Jay and Barclay

The sudden change in temperature woke Jay from his difficult sleep. He rolled onto his side and pulled the blanket tight over his head. The swirling mountain air filled every crack and crevasse with its icy chill. A strong gust lifted the blanket covering Jay’s back, demanding his attention. Jay managed to control the blanket but the howling wind had won. Jay was awake. And though he thought it better than fighting the cold earth, the powerful wind made him want to hide.

Jay rolled onto his knees and peered over the jagged rocks. He squinted against the wind and ambient light of the snowstorm. When did that start? Jay thought as a tall snowdrift fell into the cave. Is it time?

Jay answered his own question and sat down. He stretched his arms high into the air and yawned the tension from his muscles. He unconsciously bent to his left and popped several joints along his spine. After massaging his neck and face, concentrating on his eyes, he cupped his hands and blew in some warmth. While rubbing them together he filled his lungs with the freezing air and watched his breath dance in front of him until it floated away and vanished. I need to hurry.

In front of him rested the reason for his day-long isolation. The small, decorative oak box, a gift from an unknown mentor, looked and felt too insignificant to hold anything of value. What secrets did it hold? What was he to do with it? And why did his father want him to have it?

Curious about its contents but not willing to waste more time in the cave, Jay focused and dressed. He secured the box under his shirt before wrapping the blanket around his body. He then slipped his cloak over his shoulders and pulled the hood low to his eyes.

Stepping into the snow brought a heightened level of anxiety. The narrow stone steps along the cliff’s edge had disappeared against the white backdrop. Jay scooted his foot under the snow until he felt it drop and he knew his limits. He turned to his right and shuffled towards the steps. He ran his foot up each riser until it gave way. On the third tread the stone betrayed him, and he slipped to his hands and knees. Fearing any movement would be his last, he held his breath. Gingerly, Jay pushed off the snow and stood. He regained his balance and leaned against the stones above the stairs. He thought about reentering the cavern to regain his composure but spending another day alone in a dark cave didn’t sit well. Barclay would soon come looking for him and he knew descending the stairs was now impossible. Jay couldn’t go back inside. His only choice was to ascend and continue to the meadow.

Jay slipped twice more before standing on solid ground away from the cliff’s edge. Safe, but not out of danger, he calmed his nerves and quenched his thirst. Relaxing, he looked up at the sky and then to the trees.

The heavy snow fell softly against the ancient hardwoods of the Cyprus Mountains. Their strong branches held a thick layer of fresh snow. They had grown used to living under a snowy canopy following centuries of unpredictable storms.

Heading away from the cliff, Jay plowed through snow up to his knees before he reached the tree line. The tall pines provided partial shelter from the blizzard, but more than enough fell through to cover the canvas below.

The storm brought a unique change from the tropical heat of home. Jay had never seen so much snow. He liked it, but he preferred the warmth of the sun on his face.

Almost there, he thought, when he saw a small, half-frozen stream. He paid no attention to the water trickling under the thin ice but turned downhill to follow its course. After walking a few steps, he stopped and tilted his head. On his right, he picked up the heavy panting of a lone horse. The animal and its rider were close but invisible in the stormy conditions.

Must be a Tourig, he thought.

Or at least he hoped.

Tourigs roamed the remote mountain range at will. They had adapted to the harsh conditions and lived in isolation. A docile race, they had no quarrels with other people and were friendly on the rare occasion an outsider came to visit.

Jay smiled when he heard the animal. He knew help wouldn’t be too far away.

Remember, said a voice in his mind, not his own. The voice made him forget about the Tourig.

The past many months had brought several words and phrases into Jay’s mind. Do it now. Be cautious. Each time he struggled to recognize the voice.

“Remember what?” Jay asked in a low voice.

The answer never came.

He listened again for the horse and heard it fade deeper into the woods.

I want to go home, Jay thought, blowing flakes away from his face. The falling snow quickly replaced the void.

There was no wind with the storm and the flakes fell evenly. Jay’s cloak had a thin spread across his shoulders. He didn’t feel the cold, but wondered how long the storm would last, and how often this type of unexpected weather attacked the mountain. He stepped around a thick trunk and his thoughts drifted towards his parents. Would he see them again? Were they alive? Should I let them go? He didn’t know. Would he ever know?

Jay knew no other life than living with Barclay. Until the previous summer, Jay thought Barclay was his father. But an unscheduled visit from the Idols, followed by interrogations and then disappearances of several neighbors, forced Barclay to flee with Jay. Barclay left his wife Nuvi and daughter Arina behind to protect them and Jay.

The day they fled still haunted Jay, and though Barclay had carefully instructed him as to the ways of the world, Jay struggled with the isolation.

The Isle of Taq provided them with ample solitude and privacy. There, Barclay knew they were safe. There, Jay could study without fearing another surprise visit.

Jay knew the Idols had marked him but didn’t know why. He thought Barclay was lying when he told him about the bounty. He had so many questions. Was the use of magic the real reason for it? Barclay was honest with Jay and taught him what he knew about his parents and why they had to leave Nuvi and Arina to live far from curious, prying eyes. But Jay knew there was more. He could feel it.

Jay had yet to break into the physical realm of his guardian, Barclay. Not yet clear of the five-foot barrier and still less than eighty pounds, Jay was not an imposing figure. He had deep green eyes and his thick blonde hair danced in front of those eyes. A handsome young man, but his physical appearance wasn’t why he was hunted. He often thought about what made him bring the ire of so many, but now, those thoughts were far from him.

On Jay’s twelfth birthday, two days ago, Barclay delivered a particularly special gift. A letter from Jay’s father, given to Barclay before he was arrested. In the letter, Jay was instructed on how to obtain the box he now carried under his coat. The letter gave no detail about the box’s contents, but the message did say it was a gift from the most powerful sorcerer ever known, Ahern, Jay’s unknown mentor. A man of legend, and the man the Idols wanted most. Why he left the box for Jay was unclear in the message, but it did stress that through the box, Ahern would guide him.

Jay continued with his thoughts and the stream until he saw a thin, exposed stump, half his height. It had a unique arrangement of five branches twisting around each other. Grateful the snow had yet to cover the sculpture, he shifted his eyes to his left and stared into the continual flakes. Some twenty feet away from him, his vision ended.

“Where are you, Barclay?” he asked, moving away from the stream. His deep green eyes scanned the area and he shifted to hold the box better under his shirt.

Jay needed to be careful. He and Barclay had agreed to meet in the clearing near the five twisted branches, but he was nowhere to be seen. And although he knew the clearing was in front of him, the thick snowfall prevented him from seeing anything.

He thought again about why the Idols wanted him and he struggled to understand why his talents were illegal. He had never committed a crime or harmed anyone, and thought he was a normal boy. The thought brought another round of anxiety, and for a moment his mind drifted and he feared being alone. Where are you Barclay?

A single flake managed to loop under his hood and land on the tip of his nose. He wiped the fresh melt with the back of his hand. The flake distracted him and brought his mind to the present. He knew he needed to focus, and instead of lingering on what might or might not happen, he concentrated on the deepening snow and his absent guardian.

Jay knew he would soon be out of the trees because he had to raise his knees higher and higher to stay above the powder. He found the method easier than plowing through the snow.

Standing under a large pine he stopped. In front of him, he knew a wide clearing sat quietly. He shifted his eyes back and forth, but the white flakes concealed everything. He decided to take a risk and took four tall steps into the clearing before standing still.

This is wrong, Jay thought.

The weather’s awkward thickness and the stillness of sound didn’t alarm him, Barclay’s tardiness did. If he were late, it meant something was wrong. Jay took in a deep breath before lowering his head and closing his eyes. He raised his hands slightly away from his body and held perfectly still. The snow gathered on the sleeves of his cloak, confusing the man watching him from the other side of the clearing.

“What is he doing?” Flog asked, standing with anticipation. Several dozen men flanked him on both sides. Flog had received word of Jay’s movements from his contact the day before and moved quickly to head Jay off before he could leave the mountain. His job was simple, apprehend the boy, alive, and deliver him to the Idols.

One of the many men seeking to apprehend Jay, Flog was a Groodarian, a proud citizen of the former kingdom of Groodaria. Flog hated the designation Grood, but he would be hard pressed to hear anyone call him by anything else.

Once a thriving kingdom, the Monarchy lost their treasury over an ill-fated was lasting decades. Relegated to severe poverty, the people fell into chaos. Generations passed and only a few have tried to undo those mistakes.

Flog wanted to prove that one man could alter the course of a nation. He enlisted the help of some powerful individuals, but soon learned that he had joined leagues with the men he wanted out of his kingdom.

The Idols wanted Jay, and though working for the Idols often made him question his decision, Flog thought Jay an easy target. The bounty would put him up for life, and he would use some of the money to restore what he could of his people’s status. He needed this. He didn’t see any other way.

Flog was a smart man, thoughtful and decisive, and if the rumors were true, he should be helping the boy, not trying to subdue him. But the odds of the boy succeeding were impossible. The Idols were too powerful.

The other Groods thought him only a young boy. They knew nothing except what they held in their hands.

The advantage for Flog was an old device his father had given him. It consisted of a single lens, strapped over his right eye. The lens allowed him to see heat against colder backgrounds. He couldn’t see through objects, but it allowed him to see Jay’s outline despite the heavy snowfall.

When Jay’s warm glow walked towards him, alone, Flog alerted the others of his presence. He resisted rushing the clearing. He had the others spread out to surround Jay but stressed again that they needed to wait for his signal. Even then, they were to only contain him.

No one had an answer to Flog’s initial question about Jay’s behavior. Most in the group thought it excessive to bring so many for a single young boy but Flog wasn’t taking chances.

On the outside, Flog saw nothing peculiar. Jay looked like a typical boy. Why he stood statuesque, exposed, he didn’t know. He watched with anticipation to see what the boy would do. He could feel something about to happen, and Flog stepped closer, anxious.

He got his wish.

Jay quickly lifted his head while opening his hands and eyes. The motion sent an unnatural pulse of energy throughout the immediate area, knocking every Grood off his feet and cracking Flog’s lens. Jay had only intended to alter his vision in a way that allowed him to see objects as hollow outlines. He still didn’t know the extent of his abilities, or how to accurately control them. No one did.

Jay saw men picking themselves up and moving around, confused. He didn’t know what he had done to them, but he knew they were there for him, and they were in a frenzy.

“Do not attack,” Flog said in a hushed whisper. He saw the men looking around, scared. “Tell the others,” he said, trying to pass it down the line. Flog could see Jay through his cracked lens and thought he still had the advantage. “Do not attack.”

It was too late.

On Jay’s right, he caught the wisp of an arrow. More flew over him but he held his ground. One lucky shot went to the right of his head and yanked his hood off. They were shooting blindly into the snow but getting close.

“Stop!” yelled Flog, taking a few steps into the meadow. He didn’t want Jay to run off, but he also needed to stop the others from killing him. If they reached Jay before he did, they wouldn’t hold back.

Sprinting to flank the lead Groods, Flog looked forward to Jay and became transfixed by his appearance. With his head uncovered, he saw a strong heat radiate from Jay’s eyes and hands. He saw Jay looking around.

Can he see us?

Without a formal means of communication, every Grood flooded the clearing.

Jay saw that the strangers would soon overrun him and went into a crouch. While other arrows whistled past him he pulled his arms in close to his chest.

Am I in the wrong place? Jay thought. Where is Barclay?

Now what is he doing? Flog thought.

Can I make it home? Jay continued to debate in his head. Maybe I should hide until Barclay fi

Boom!

Jay looked up to see Barclay’s enormous figure standing in front of him. His bearded face showed a mixture of relief and exhaustion as he stood between Jay and the charging Groods. The snow around him settled and Jay watched more arrows stream past his shoulders.

“Are you well?” Barclay asked, with genuine concern.

“Yes,” Jay responded. The glow around his eyes and hands faded. “I am well.”

Barclay nodded, and Jay saw his stress fade.

“I am sorry,” Barclay began. “The Idols have many followers.”

“You are here,” Jay said, trying to hold his eagerness at bay. “I’m glad you came when you did. I was going to try and leave.”

The two spoke calmly, each trying to deflect their concerns about the charging bounty hunters.

“Were you successful?” Barclay asked.

Jay nodded and patted his chest. “Yes. I have Ahern’s box.”

Barclay nodded, then spun around with a lightning fast backhand to the lead Grood. The man flew back against the snowfall and took out several other men before he stopped. Barclay squinted and brought his left arm in front of his face to deflect a stone. From his right, another man faded into view. Barclay took two large steps towards him and connected his open palm with the man’s chest. While the Grood flew, Barclay walked back to Jay.

“Home?”

Jay nodded, and Barclay threw his cloak around him. In the blink of an eye, the two disappeared, leaving behind a puff of snow and dozens of confused Groods.

Flog had stopped his run when Barclay arrived. He wouldn’t join in the fight unless he had to. After they disappeared, a large amount of snow gathered on his shoulders before he headed back to the trees.

“Did you get anything?”

“Every word,” Teg responded.

“You heard everything they said?” Flog asked in a stressed voice.

“Yes,” Teg confirmed. “I heard every word.”

“You’re positive?” Flog asked, again seeking confirmation.

Teg handed Flog a small rolled up parchment. “They didn’t say much.”

Everything they say matters, Flog thought. He quickly read the page and looked back to Teg before reading it again. He nodded to himself, rolled the page tight and secured it under his cloak. He scanned the clearing one final time before removing the lens. He watched a few men disappear into the storm.

“Send everyone home,” Flog ordered. “Pay them in full.”

“In full?” Teg questioned. “They didn’t get the boy.”

“They never will,” Flog said, not turning around. “They’ve completed all I asked them to do.”

“Where are you going?” Teg asked, when Flog started to walk away.

“Mt. Vintori,” he answered while shoving the lens in his sack. “This boy is more than I’ve been led to believe.”

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