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Chapter 10: Inner Fire

I tried to stifle the stretch that worked it’s way through every muscle in my body. Moving meant disturbing the envelop of warm air that built up under my fur coverlet through the course of the night. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop the stretch, it seemed to have a mind of it’s own. I frowned as fingers of cold morning air found their way under the fur to stroke my warm skin. My eyes opened then, and after several blinks, they focused on the world beyond the mouth of our shallow cave. The sky was grey with clouds and snow drifted quietly through the frosty air. A thin mantel of white fluff covered the shore. Beyond the line where land meets water, the grey-blue sea swallowed the fat white snowflakes, lapping them from the air with angry white capped swells. I cowered under the protective shield of fur for a few heartbeats longer, building my courage, before finally crawling out to meet the new day.

I stirred the coals from the previous night’s fire, coaxing them to life again with fresh tinder, before placing the kettle on to heat water for tea. A quick glance around the campsite found Argo happily munching a tuft of the cores grass that grew in scattered clumps along the shore. The weedy plant was known as sea oats among the hardy villagers who made their livelihood along Isadora’s bleak coast. I was glad to see that he was foraging for himself as I had a limited supply of honeyed oat cakes for him.

“Uriel,” I called softly. I was more than a little surprised to find him absent from my bed when I woke. The cat dragon was not fond of being wet or cold and snow combined those two conditions as nothing else could.

“I hunt, Companion,” came his answer against my mind. “By the time you have your tea and pack your belongings I should return.”

Hunting, I mused as I broke off a hunk of travel bread to pair with a sliver of hard cheese, what prey could he possibly take in this weather.

“You would be very surprised,” he replied smugly.

I finished my breakfast and tea, doused the fire with water from the stream, and repacked my gear. As I was making the final adjustments to the saddle girth, I felt the brief but familiar brush of fur against my legs. Looking down, I found Uriel rubbing affectionately against my pant leg.

“I’ve been thinking,” he purred as he launched himself into my arms.

“I thought you were hunting.”

“That too,” his smug thought smiled in my mind. “I do my best thinking when I hunt.”

I pulled back the flap on his travel basket and watched as he hoped deftly from my arms into the snug wicker cocoon. “And what, pray tell, have you been thinking about?”

“I was thinking that, you need a staff.”

This was rather sudden, and his declaration caught me so off guard that my foot slipped out of the stirrup as I shifted my weight into it. I faulted, falling into Argo’s shaggy side and causing my mild mannered horse to turn and regard me with one brown eye. I could almost hear his unasked question; are you alright?

“A staff,” I grumped as I tried the stirrup again. This time I managed to swing myself into the saddle without incident.

“Indeed, most every mage has one.”

It was true, even Balthazar had a staff. The instrument was used as an aid to focus and lend extra power during large or especially difficult workings. On the night of the gathering, my Father and the other Master Magi wielded their staves.

“I’m only an apprentice,” I argued, “An apprentice mage has no need for a staff.”

The Order of Mages had four levels of attainment; apprentice, novice, journeyman, and mage. A fifth level, that of Master, also existed but it could only be held by one of The Seven. Each level had some accomplishment that signified the practitioner’s readiness for advancement. In my case, I finally managed to craft my first magical implement, the scrying disk, which indicated my impending advancement to the level of novice. A staff was a very complicated magical construct; unlike most implement it negated the “one implement, one purpose” rule. A staff could focus the very essence of a mage’s power into any working they desired; from scrying to healing to producing mage fire … and anything else that required a precise focus. Thus, it was an instrument crafted by a journeyman seeking advancement to the rank of a full mage.

“I’m aware of the item’s importance and complexities, Companion,” Uriel thrummed, “but I would argue that in your case, it is a necessity. Could you imagine having your pockets stuffed to overflowing with various bits and baubles to act as a dragon lens for every working of magic you wish to engage in? Or worse, could you imagine me cramming your mind full of dragon memories until you’re no longer certain of where Kerri ceased and Uriel began.”

The cat dragon had a point, the memory he shared with me still felt unnervingly real. As ridiculous as it sounded, even to me, I would still swear upon The Unity that I, a mortal human, breathed Dragon Fire. “Even so,” I dismissed as I turned Argo up the coastline once more, “I don’t know how to go about crafting a staff and the hints about the process that I’ve come across in my readings suggest that crafting one is … an intense experience.”

“I know a thing or two about it,” Uriel insisted quietly against my mind.

I was not surprised. Honestly, was there anything that he didn’t know?

The map Balthazar gave me indicated that I should encounter a trail, leaving the coast and heading inland, sometime during my second day’s travel. We didn’t journey far before finding it. The narrow pass that wound its way up the cliff face showed clear signs of disuse as weeds and small bushes choked the path. To make matters worse the steady snowfall left a blanket of fluffy white powder covering the open parts of the trail. For safety’s sake, I decided to dismount and lead Argo up to the top.

“You haven’t given me an answer,” the cat dragon purred. While I walked, leading my horse behind me, Uriel remained tucked snugly in his basket.

“I hadn’t realized that you posed a question,” I grumped as I struggled up the snow covered incline. “How do I even begin … I don’t know much, but I’m fairly certain that I can’t just pick up some discarded tree branch, and fashion a magic staff from it. Besides,” I paused from a moment to catch my breath, “the Temple of The Unity waits.”

Noontime found us on flat land again. Once we reached the top of the Cliffside pass, I resumed riding, and Argo easily made up for our lost time. Mercifully, the snow had ceased falling, but with the grey blanket of clouds still filled the sky and bitter cold persisted even at noonday. The bleak weather made it likely that the mantel of snow would cling to the ground for some time to come. The cold was so imposing that it seeped in through the warp and weft of my wool travel clothes and made me wish for my fur blankets and a warm fire.

The occasional farm dotted the distant landscape; cozy little cottages scattered in the hillsides, hunkered against the elements. To eke out a living in such a harsh environment seemed an impossible challenge, yet the evidence of their hard fought success lay buried under the fresh snow; the stubble of recently harvested crops. But crops were only the half of it; the inland region of the northern reaches of the Isadora Coast was sheep country. The wool harvested from the hearty breed of sheep reared by the locals here was prized in every corner of the Kingdom of Everlast. Even the Duke of High Glen, who could afford the finest of silks, turned to sturdy Isadora wool when the icy winds of winter came knocking.

A sudden gust of wind stirred the snow into a whirling mass around me before dying and allowing the frozen fluff to settle once more. The gust did more than simple disturb the snow, it suck away the thin layer of heat trapped beneath my tunic and cloak. I shivered in misery as I eyed the nearest farmstead with a hungry longing. There would be a fire in the hearth, and hot spiced tea, and perhaps even a bowl of thick warm mutton stew. Unity, how I missed Balthazar’s tower, I thought desperately.

While I huddled under my cloak and shivered, Uriel seemed unusually content in his basket. The oiled leather flap kept the snow out, but I suspected that the weave of the basket did little to inhibit the blasts of icy wind.

“Inner fire,” the cat dragon purred in replied to my unasked question.

“Is that some dragon magic you use to keep warm,” I asked through chattering teeth.

“No … and yes,” he answered. “It is not, technically speaking, a form of magic. I learned the technique from a group of mystics who make their home high in the mountains in a land far removed from Everlast. It requires no magical gifting to master, but it does require a disciplined mind. Shall I teach you?”

“Actually, I was considering making for the nearest farmstead and begging them to extend Unity’s blessing of hospitality,” I admitted shamefully.

“We have ground to cover Companion,” he replied in a serious thrum. “Inner Fire is, in practice, similar to meditating on The Unity. Find with in you a vivid remembrance of being content and warm, focus on it and allow it to fill you until you feel the warmth of that moment suffuse your entire body. Those not accustomed to such disciplined mental exercises require a great deal of time and effort to master the ability … but as a novice mage, you should have an easier time.”

“Apprentice mage,” I corrected as I closed my eye and began centering myself.

“As you wish, Companion,” he purred warmly.

I ignored his last remark, and turned my thoughts inward. My remembrance was of sitting by the hearth in Balthazar’s tower, sipping a mug of hot spiced tea and watching the flames devour the oak logs. I focused on the feelings of warmth; the way the heat from the hearth radiated outward from the crackling flames and seeped into every pore of my being. As the fire worked it’s magic from the outside in, the hot spiced tea worked from the inside out; every glorious sip sent waves of blessed warmth coursing through the core of my body. As I focused on these sensations, to my great surprise, my physical body began to feel warmer; it was as if a small sun burned within me. Unfortunately, the moment I lost my concentration the icy cold stole back in and chilled me anew.

“With diligent practice, you will be able to maintain Inner Fire for protracted periods of time,” the cat dragon thrummed contentedly.

Bolstered by my success and driven by the misery of being cold again, I centered myself once more and focused on my remembering of warmth. Soon, blessed heat suffused me again and I smiled. The journey to the Temple of The Unanimity would be a much more pleasant one thanks to Uriel’s lesson.

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