I breathe in deeply, barely able to keep my breath even as I stare down the wendigo. Blood from the corpse lying at its feet trails down from its mouth and pools into its matted white fur. A swift wind carries veils of cloud across the peak of the mountain, shrouding the beast for a moment. Anticipating its attack, I dash to the side and unleash a spout of flame from my staff as its claws tear through the fog. The wendigo howls in agony as its flesh and fur ignite, and I press forward, unsheathing my sword with one hand to cleave toward its spine from the side. It’s yellow eyes turn on me, and it thrashes toward me as it burns. I try to backpedal, but my overeagerness and the partially melted ice cause me to stumble and slide into its claws, which would have gutted me if it weren’t for my chainmail shirt. But I am still thrown across the peak from the blow, and sword and staff are ripped from my grasp and tumble into the icy mist below.
“Hævens torn asunder,” I curse as stumble to my feet and press my stomach which flares with pain as steaming blood pours over my hand drips down like garnets into the snow.
The wendigo pants in anticipation, a maw of fangs splaying across its face in a smile. It stalks toward me, brushing the embers from its coat as if they were fleas, not spellfire. The villagers were clearly mistaken in their assumption that the beast would fear fire. Fire just hurts whatever it touches. You would be a fool not to know it burns, and the intelligence in the wendigo’s eyes set me on edge from the first moment it set its gaze on me.
Without my staff as a focus, my magick will be erratic and unpredictable, and my wounded stomach makes me want to buckle.
“Hæll’s teeth,” I snarl as I release my stomach and summon fire with both hands, feeling my blood pump with exhilaration. “If I’m dying, I’m taking you with me, fugly.”
“Eron,” the beast says to me as it stalks closer, it’s eye burning with ravenous hunger.
“What?” From what I had known, wendigos were incapable of language beyond howls and deafening roars.
“Eron!” a voice yells, and immediately, I am pulled out of my imagination.
I startle, nearly leaping off the grass I had been sitting on as I daydreamed. My mind feels cloudy, as if I have just woken from a deep sleep. Sunlight highlights the outlines of clouds as they shroud the mountainside that looms over the city of Ma’ro. Birds chirp overhead and the spring sun warms my skin in the cool air. My class of older city children is grouped together just outside the city’s stone walls which are crudely reinforced with steel.
“Eron,” Captain Rimor repeats. “It’s your turn.”
With one hand, Rimor twists the wrist of his other hand which holds a wooden practice sword. The popping of his joints resound in the clearing as he works the scar arcing from his elbow to his wrist. Standing at an imposing height in the center of the circle made by the other students, with his dreadlocked long black hair pulled back by an ornamental band, I can clearly see the impatience in his dark eyes. I sigh despondently as I look past him at the girl waiting for me to spar with her, dressed in breeches, boots, and a tunic similar to my own. Her long auburn hair frames her golden, angular face and proud, sincere, and compassionate green eyes, shining with playfulness as she realizes I had retreated into one of my frequent fantasies.
“This will be fun to watch,” quips Torus as he sprawls against the trunk of a tree nearby. His bronze, square face, framed by dark hair and stubble, is slack as he regards me with contempt. His group of friends sitting around him laugh, and a few girls turn and whisper to one another, looking at me in a way that I know that they’re mocking me. For as long as I can remember, it’s been like that: Torus, the most popular boy in the entire orphanage, always making me the butt of the joke and almost everyone else laughing along. “Don’t go crying to Essa, Eron. That would just be too pathetic.”
“Almost as pathetic as watching Sarya beat your ass into submission a few minutes ago,” I reply as I stand, stretching and smiling winningly at Torus’ glare.
“Enough!” Rimor barks as he tosses me the wooden sword, which I catch mid-air. “Find your mark.”
I take a deep breath and walk toward Sarya, coming to stand a few feet across from her. She has the decided advantage of being a year and a half older and half a head taller than me. Her arms have begun to develop sinewy muscles from years of training, and she holds herself with relaxed poised, but she smiles encouragingly at me as I approach. We don’t say a word. Instead, we nod to one another as we touch swords, and I grip the handle of my sword to focus the tension building inside me.
This time, I’ll impress her, I tell myself. She’ll see I’m-
“Begin!” Rimor commands.
Sarya lunges forward and I parry sideways, sidestepping before arcing my sword around toward her back. Ducking gracefully, Sarya twists her sword into a backhand strike toward my stomach, forcing me to shift my blow into a downward block. From there, she carries her momentum forward, pushing me back as she throws a flurry of blows that I barely manage to deflect. Her movements are so fluid, I don’t have a single moment to counter, and my breath starts burning in my chest as my arms begin to feel leaden.
Then, one of her strikes goes wide, leaving me an opening. Pushing her sword past me, I pivot the pommel of my sword so that it lands squarely in her stomach. She reels back, gasping for air. I then lunge forward, eager to get my first hit in a sparring match against Sarya. That is until I see a smile on her face and her overly limp posture.
I stop mid-swing and growl, “Stop.”
Sarya staggers and stares at me in disbelief.
“Stop treating me like a child,” I fume at her, panting.
“I said stop!” I yell at her, swinging furiously.
She easily stops the blow with a beat parry, stepping back just far enough to be out of reach, her composure regained as she looks at me coolly. “Maybe I would quit treating you like a child if you stopped acting like one.”
Sarya’s now obvious deception infuriates me and I roar as I attack her madly, my attacks far from the graceful demonstration she had performed. Her light footwork and feints keep me off balance as I strike toward her, never coming close to landing a blow. Finally, she flicks my sword wide and sweeps my legs out from under me, my off-balance posture causing me to stumble head-over-heels in the dirt.
The students circling us howl with laughter as I rise unsteadily, my tired muscles trembling as I stand. Shame and impotent rage cause me to shake even more, and I grip my sword until my knuckles whiten.
A hand lands on my shoulder and I lash out behind me, striking Sarya in the face with my fist. This time, she reels back in earnest, holding her hands up to her face.
“What the hell?!” Torus barks as he rushes me, but Rimor stands between the three of us.
“Stop!” Rimor orders before he turns to me. “I had hoped you would learn some humility from Sarya, but clearly I was mistaken.”
“Humility?” I snarl. “She was faking the whole time! She thinks she’s better than me.”
“That’s cuz she is, dumbass,” Torus laughs.
The look Rimor gives Torus wipes the smile from the boy’s face and he walks back toward his friends. “Class is dismissed!” Rimor calls out to the students. As the class disperses, he asks Sarya, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she assures him as she wipes a trickle of blood from her nose. “I’ve had worse.”
“Still. It is different when the hurt comes from a friend,” Rimor says pointedly at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my eyes downcast with shame. “I’m just tired of no one taking me seriously.”
“Sarya wanted to give you the chance to think better of yourself,” Rimor said. “She gave you a gift, but you-”
“That’s enough, Captain,” Essa says as she approaches us. The breeze plays with her waist-length wavy red hair streaked with gray and white that reveals her age, though not much else does, except her smile lines and blue eyes that bespeak wisdom, kindness, and compassion.
Rimor bows formally, his eyes shining with admiration. “Essa.”
Essa chuckles lightly. “I told you to stop bowing. It’s embarrassing.”
“When I see such beauty, I cannot help but be humbled,” Rimor replies, bowing again.
I grimace at the absurd compliment and Sarya catches my eye. She echoes the grimace and we share a silent laugh. But when Sarya smiles, I completely understand and envy Rimor’s declaration of his love, knowing I could never have the courage to say that to Sarya. Still, I am glad that Sarya has forgiven me, though shame still burns in my stomach.
“Eron,” Essa chides as she turns from Rimor. “Why did you strike Sarya?”
My stomach now feels as if it is being dissolved in acid. “I just… I’m tired of being weak. And I know I am. Even some of the younger kids are better than I am. I’m just… pathetic.”
“The only real weakness is within you, Eron,” Essa replies. “But it is the soil from which strength can grow. Like a seedling pushing through the earth, all the strength you will ever need is within yourself.”
“Sure,” I agree sarcastically. “If I really believe, I’ll just magickally become as strong as Rimor, right?”
“Is it not magick that makes a seed turn into a mighty tree?” Essa asks mysteriously.
I scoff at her disbelievingly. “That’s not magick. That’s just… life.”
“And isn’t that the greatest magick of all?”
I almost gag on her sweet pep talk. “That’s not magick,” I insist. “That’s just… forget it.”
Essa smiles wistfully. “I know my words seem silly, but I hope one day you understand what I mean.” She looks back at the city, watching the bustle of the traffic going into and out of the city. On the battlements, the few soldiers on lookout duty see us and wave enthusiastically. We wave back, though I only do so halfheartedly. Sarya and I know each of the guards very well, acquaintanceships that came from our always getting into trouble that quickly turned into genuine friendship. I hope they didn’t see my childish outburst.
“There are still a few hours before the festival begins,” Essa says as she surveys the scene with serene gratitude and contentment. “You should go enjoy yourselves.”
“Yeah, sure,” I mumble as I turn to walk into the surrounding forest, not wanting to look any of them in the eye.
“Hey,” Sarya says, grabbing my shoulder before I can move away from them. “You’re stronger than you think. You just need to be a little patient is all.”
I sigh and shrug off her hand. “Seems like I’ll never catch up. I’m always falling behind.”
Rimor smiles sympathetically. “And you will only fall behind further still if you keep berating yourself. You have to believe you can improve for it to be possible.”
“I have tried over and over,” I say, feeling anger start to rise up inside me. “I can try as hard as I want, but that doesn’t mean anything is going to happen.”
“Nothing in this world is ever certain until it is,” Essa replies cryptically. “If you decide that you will not improve, you never will. But,” she says, lightly tapping my nose and making me crack a smile, “you can choose to hope, and with hope comes possibility. You may not always receive what you want, but if you believe in yourself, anything can happen. And that, Eron, is true magick.”
I want to hold on to the shell of resentment that’s guarding me, to remain angry at the world for being unfair and confusing. But Essa has shown me that it’s ultimately my decision and that choosing to remain hopeless is a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Alright, alright,” I concede. “Thanks. All of you.”
“Anytime, pipsqueak,” Sarya replies as she ruffles my black hair before I manage to swat her hand away.
“Maybe keep those kinds of remarks to a minimum,” Rimor suggests.
“Like you said,” Sarya says with a smile, “he’s gotta learn to be humble.”
“I think knocking me on my ass was a clear enough message, thanks,” I joke back.
“Go, have fun,” Essa orders us gently. “Be back before evening. I have a feeling this will be a momentous celebration.” Then, she takes Rimor’s arm and walks with him back to the gate.
“Come on!” Sarya says, pulling on my hand. “Let’s go to the waterfall.”
“Do we have time?” I ask. “We’d have to go all the way around the Ruins.”
At that moment, Torus and his friends walk up to us from the forest. “What,” Torus laughs, “are you afraid the ghosts from the Rending will eat your soul?”
“Enough, Torus,” Sarya demands.
“Quit defending him, Sarya. He’s just a coward, plain and simple.”
“And I take it you’re gonna walk right through the Ruins, right?” I ask Torus.
Torus’ face pales before his cocky smile returns. “I don’t gotta prove myself to you. I’m not the one with a chip on my shoulder.”
“Through the forest then. Race you there, asshole,” I snap back.
Torus’ swagger drops entirely. “What?”
“Scared?” I ask with an innocent smile.
Just before Torus can dart to get a head start, I beat him to the punch and start racing as fast as I can and reach the stone bridge at the river in a matter of moments. I quickly dart through the stream of people going to and fro in preparation for the spring equinox. Some of them are merchants driving carts over the stone bridge, traveling from far and wide and bringing goods to trade, while others are hermits and believers pilgrimaging to Ma’ro’s Temple of the Three in the center of the city, some of whom chant incantations as they walk, entranced in meditation. I apologize when I bump into a few but without breaking stride. The one thing I am nearly as good as Sarya at is running, and that’s because I try to beat her every chance I get. Haven’t succeeded once. But like Essa said, I gotta hope to make it possible.