Guardians Of The Zodiac

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Summary

12 Zodiac Houses. 13 Guardians. Hundreds of Guilds under their Command and undocumented Outcast Guilds that refuse to label themselves as anything other than family. Tara is the 13th Guardian. The Guardian of Hope. In a society centered around magic power Tara has the affinity for one of the most powerful gifts that could be bestowed upon any Guardian. The power to bring people Hope is not to be taken for granted. Tara is also on the run. But how long can she run for before the Stars catch up with her? With her three sprite Companions accompanying her the four of them run away from the life they once had and toward a life they never imagined having, but the Dodeca Council will not tolerate a Rogue Guardian with no control over her own magic power and they will not make her escape from the Guardian Estate easy for her. But what happens when she finds sanctuary with the one magic Guild that swears they will keep her safe no matter what? Will she be able to allow herself to trust fellow comrades again? Or will they eventually turn on her like all the rest? And does she have enough Hope to keep her going on the path of Light, or will her heart succumb to the Darkness?

Genre:
Fantasy
Author:
LostGirl22
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
10
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

Chapter 1

A white hot pain seared through my whole being as the forest blurred in and out and what I thought were darkened stars falling down around me turned out to be black soot layering itself onto my skin as it fluttered down from overhead.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I groaned as I smeared the mud from my hands across my shorts.

All I wanted to do was take a nice stroll through the woods, have some lunch in the shade, and enjoy the gentle sun on my face. Needless to say making a pit stop to say hi to some bandits that were terrorizing a village was not on the agenda.

An explosion had sent me flying into a nearby stump, knocking the breath out of me and Trinkette, my Tinker Sprite Companion, was the first to fly over to where I landed. She hovered in my face while initiating a body scan.

“You okay, Tara? I underestimated the circumference surrounding that last explosion.”

“I’m fine, Trinkette. Nice job dismantling that thing. It’ll be easier to take them out without flaming missiles being aimed at us,” I offered a smile while staggering back onto my feet.

Six bandits on the run, four flaming missile machines and some ill-trained magic users (being us) did not make for a fair fight.

“Next time a little explosive warning would be nice before you start tinkering, Trinkette,” Serena, the eldest sister Sprite, scolded. “And Tara, you have got to be the clumsiest Charge I have ever been assigned to.”

“I’m the only Charge you’ve ever been assigned to,” I put my hands on my hips.

“As far as you know,” she mimicked my actions, causing my eyes to roll.

Taking on the role as leader of our team gave her a complex and an attitude that I didn’t quite appreciate, but it wasn’t exactly the time to fight about it.

“Okay, whatever. You’re up, Serena,” I instructed.

“Right!” she nodded, taking to the sky as she conjured up multiple icicles out of thin air.

I concentrated on Serena’s magic essence, sending her all the power she needed through our Link magic as she circled the village from above and began to smother the flames with a thin layer of ice that fell like snow.

“Tara, look out!” Iris, my final Companion, had a fire trail scorching the path behind her as she sped in my direction.

It took me a moment to realize that one of the bandits was charging at me with a machete in his hand, but I remained planted in my spot, placing my trust in Iris to get the job done. And I was right to do so. Always the quick one on her feet (or in the air) Iris focused on the grip of the blade, making the piece of metal so unbearably hot that the bandit was forced to drop his weapon. Then, I spun my body and slammed the back of my heel into his face, making him stumble to the ground, eating dirt on his way down.

“Thanks for the back up, Iris,” I grinned, holding up my hand for her to high-five.

“You got it!” Iris shouted and flew back into the action, deflecting every fire ball thrown her way.

For a six-inch sized magic being, Iris packed the most punch no matter how big her opponent was.

“Looks like their main source is fire magic,” Trinkette yelled back to me after analyzing the details of the next missile shooter that she had moved on to.

“No kidding!” Iris snapped.

“Well, just because it shoots fire doesn’t mean fire was built into the fragmented code, Iris...!” Trinket shot back.

“Girls, now’s not really the time to be arguing!” Serena intervened from above.

“She’s right. Serena, help Trinkette take these things down. Maybe some ice will help cool the situation,” I ordered

“Please! You have to help my husband!” a woman pleaded as she came staggering out of a building caught in the flames.

“Where is he?” I wheezed, my eyes burning from the amount of smoke that blew in my face.

“Trapped under a bookcase in the living room. He pushed me out of the way and the flames were too much and...” the woman sobbed in a panic.

“Okay, just take a deep breath,” I instructed in an attempt to calm her down.

“Please...help him...” she gasped and then passed out.

I moved her a safe distance away from the burning house and then rushed inside. To cool my body temperature I tried to focus everything I had on lowering my magic essence, slowing breathing and numbing my nerves every time the flames brushed my skin. A skill Iris and Serena had been helping me improve on.

I took slow, short breaths so that the smoke wouldn’t invade my system so swiftly and I pushed my way into what I assumed was the living room and there was the husband, right where the woman said he would be. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins, making the bookcase feel as light as a feather even though the strain in my muscles was still so intense. I flipped him over and he coughed dryly in my face as I hooked my arms around his to drag him out the door and I laid him beside his wife as the ceiling began to collapse.

Sweat flew from my face when I whipped around to a new scream that filled the air. But this time it was coming from one of the bandits who was now fleeing away from the flaming missile machine that he had been operating and followed by his escape came another explosion. From that explosion, two tiny smoke trails flew by fast overhead and before I could even think my legs started moving on their own.

“Iris!” I barked.

“Way ahead of you!” she yelled back as she circled around my feet, spreading her magic into the soles of my shoes.

With her fire acting as jet packs to shoot me through the air, I stretched out towards Trinkette and Serena as the smoke around them began to dissipate. I managed to get underneath them when they fell into my arms right as Iris’ fire lost its power and my back scraped the ground hard as we tumbled to the ground. As Serena and Trinkette laid on my chest, they coughed out some ash and groaned, but the tension left my body when I saw that they were okay and smiling back up at me.

As I sat up I saw the amount of damage that was done to this village and somehow felt a little responsible. The girls were able to dismantle all four machines and scare off the rest of the bandits but we were left to deal with the mess...and boy, was it a mess. But, we weren’t left to deal with it alone. The villagers were okay for the most part and those who were able began working together to put out the rest of the fire. Seeing these people in action was incredible. Their morale was low, mostly due to the fact that they had close to no magic power whatsoever, but they were still able to rise up from the rubble and ashes and help each other back on their feet. I took solace in knowing they weren’t too upset about us not being the most graceful when it came to trying to help.

But something still wasn’t sitting right with me because the most we did was scare the bad guys away. Those 6 bandits were part of a group of 12 that call themselves The Golden Dawn. I’ve read reports about them bouncing from town to town, stealing things and creating chaos everywhere they went and their signature was always leaving after they stole the one item that has the most magic power. But in this particular village they didn’t steal anything, there wasn’t even anything unique enough for them to steal, they just went straight to trying to burn the whole place down. This was also the first time they had been seen using tools that were destructive enough to burn down almost everything around them which also didn’t seem like their style because they were normally more careful, concise and quick about each hit.

Forcing my curiosity aside I had to shake myself out of old habits. Solving these kinds of problems for other people wasn’t my job. Not anymore.

“House Leo is about twenty miles east from here. If you send a messenger there then they should be able to inform the Dodeca Council about what happened and maybe even be able to develop new leads and ways to finally catch those troublemakers. They may even send help to clean this place up,” I instructed the chief of the village and then turned to leave.

“Please. Allow us to grant you with anything you wish for saving our people,” he insisted again with a pleading tone that forced me to stop in my tracks again.

All of the villagers lowered their heads to me as they placed one fist over their hearts, lined it up with the palm of their other hand and moved their arms down their center. It was the Sign of the Guardian. It’s done when someone is seen as being worthy of Guardian status and before I started to wonder how they could even know about me being a Guardian, I glanced over my shoulder to see my sleeve was burned off, revealing my Marked skin as a sign of Guardianship. This is how we knew we were Chosen, when the zodiac wheel appeared somewhere on our bodies, and once we were Marked as Guardians we were forced to attend Guardian Training to eventually be Marked with our assigned “areas of expertise”. My friend, Lyon, is the Guardian of Radiance under the first Sign, Leo, so once he finishes training, then a lion will fill out the center of his tattoo which he’s excited about. A lion will suit him.

I was assigned the Title, “Guardian of Hope” under the thirteenth sign which tends to have a bad rep, so I guess it’s good that my tattoo wasn’t completely filled out yet. Otherwise, these people may not have been so grateful...

“Really. It’s no problem...” Serena flew forward to speak for me.

“Serena, we seriously need some money...” Iris hissed at her.

“We can’t just take their money. Can we...?” Trinkette looked to me for an answer.

“No, of course we can’t!” Serena established.

“Sure we can! They’re offering!” Iris argued.

Well, we did need the money, but after everything these people were just put through, they were definitely going to need it more than us to rebuild their village.

“Please. Let us help you somehow. We may not be able to ever repay you in full but even to help a Guardian in the smallest way possible is an honor,” the woman whose husband I pulled from the fire pleaded with me.

I stared at her while tears rolled down her cheeks and she clung to her smiling husband, who held her close, as if he would disappear in that very moment.

“Well...” I started to speak while they all just stared at me eagerly. “How about you give us a pair of shoes and one of your most updated maps and we’ll call it even,” I came to a conclusion and they happily obliged with my request while Iris began to pout as we made our way out of the village and continued on our journey.

A journey that had only just begun.

For the past nine years me and my twelve other zodiac brethren had been studying as Guardians in Training, always being told what to do, how to act, when to speak. But now, being the fact that I ran away and am officially a Rogue Guardian, I guess that life is over for me. All I wanted was to just be an average mage with non-exceptional powers, but being average or non-exceptional was never an option for me. I was told that the day I was born was when it was already decided that I would be next in line to take my place in the Zodiac, following in my predecessor’s footsteps. In other words, I belonged to the Dodeca Council. But it was hard for me to believe that a person’s destiny is all figured out from their first day of life, so what was so wrong with wanting to do my own thing for once and figuring life out on my own? For the first time in my life I felt free. There was a whole world at my fingertips and with so much I had yet to see or experience I was damned if I was going to go back to being the Dodeca’s figurehead so willingly.

However, even though I distanced myself from the Dodeca my sense of duty to the people continued to tug at my magic essence even after leaving Guardianship behind me. Old habits die hard, I guess. But, if I unofficially decided to stop by a village to help them chase away some terrorizing bandits then I was still living for myself, right? Still free?

“I still can’t believe we’re out here! In the real world. I wonder what we’ll see! Who we’ll talk to! What we’ll learn,” Trinkette giggled excitedly as she quickly flipped through all of her books while she and her sisters hovered at my side.

“Well so far all we’ve learned is that bandits suck at being bandits,” Iris mentioned.

“I had heard that there was a group of them going from village to village, wreaking havoc, but who knew that we would run into them,” Serena mused curiously.

“It isn’t too rare to see in this part of the country. With the country being made up into four sanctioned elements, we’re beginning to enter a sort of limbo territory between the Fire District and Water District. With the Houses of Sagittarius, Leo and Aries being under Fire and Houses Pisces, Scorpio, and Cancer being under Water there is bound to be a lot of conflict and imbalance. Not to mention that we’re about to enter a Melting Pot where beings from the Earth and Air districts also congregate. Houses Capricorn, Virgo and Taurus tend to butt heads with people from Houses Aquarius, Libra and Gemini. And when you calculate individuals who don’t even belong to a House...” Trinkette rambled more to herself than to any of us as the gears in her little head began to work overtime.

“Is it just me or is the magic power in the air spiking more than ever lately. We’ve run into a lot of non-magickals working with other magickals and they’ve done nothing but terrorize people! And I know the Dodeca Council is supposed to just oversee and observe and give out orders for others to carry out on their behalf...but they can still do something, can’t they? Gods forbid they ever lift a finger,” Iris ranted, ignoring her mumbling sister, but also feeling the spike in magic pressure.

It’s why they were all so restless and also full of energy. They weren’t used to so much exposed magic power outside of the Guardian Estate.

As they continued to discuss why and how the Golden Dawn was up to no good and how the Council was completely useless at what they do, I looked to the sky and I couldn’t help but wonder what the Stars had in store for us because even though I could not imagine what lay ahead, I still had this sense of excitement bubbling in my chest. After years of being surrounded by walls that tried to keep me in and always having someone watching my every move and pretending to be someone that I wasn’t, I couldn’t wait to see what else the Stars had to offer me. For sixteen years being a Guardian was all I knew how to do and how to be and I was ready to do and be so much more.

When I was first assigned my Title as Guardian my magic build up was all over the place so I was given three Sprites to help divvy up that build up which is a Sprites main job: to help and assist according to the magic essence of their Guardian Charge. By using Link Magic my magic power connects Serena, Iris and Trinkette to me through waves of our magic essence, which, in turn, enhances their own magic ability by drawing from my own power. A Sprite has a decent amount of free will, but when given a Command by their Charge, the Sprites abilities are strengthened about ten-fold. A Command also means that it’s the Sprite’s “job” to complete their “assignment” which would be to protect their Charge at all costs. As I understood it, it isn’t even their fault that they have to rely on a Guardian for power, they were just born that way.

“You’re not the only one who’s been feeling the magic essence peak, Iris. The percentage of magic usage actually went up 15 percent since we crossed over into the village back there. There are tiny particles in the air, containing a sort of...warmth. It feels like magic!” Trinkette exclaimed excitedly as she swirled around in front of me.

Trinkette didn’t have a special affinity like her sisters but she had her intelligence and the ability to fix things while also causing them to fall apart. She memorized over one thousand different spells and could easily take apart and put together anything that is given to her, but she still craved the elemental magic power that her sisters had.

“Those shoes are completely impractical, Tara. They’re paper thin!” Serena made a face at my new sandals as Iris and Trinkette started to argue because Iris was tired of hearing her stats every five seconds.

“It’s not a big deal. When we get to the next town I’ll just buy some materials to fix them up. Besides, I can feel the Earth through these shoes and it feels good beneath my toes.”

If I’m being honest, most of my Guardianship sucked most of the time. But, occasionally there were some perks that I enjoyed. One of those perks being the fact that I was more in tune with nature and with everything around me. It’s like every atom in every blade of grass was hugging my foot with each step I took.

“Well you wouldn’t have to buy new fabric if Iris was just more careful,” Serena muttered, looking back down at the map.

“It’s fire, Serena! Obviously it’s going to burn something...!” Iris screamed, frustrated.

“What is the next town we’re heading to anyway?” Trinkette asked Serena as the two of them ignored their tantrum-throwing sister.

“Well, the next town over is just a few miles away. We could probably spend the night there.”

“Do you think we could stay for the festival in Lucerne, Tara? It’s on the way,” Trinkette looked back at me for approval.

“How do you know there’s a festival?” I wondered.

“Every four years the city of Lucerne has this festival to celebrate the alfalfa that’s in bloom...” Trinkette spoke matter-of-factly.

“But you can find alfalfa anywhere. We already passed a bunch...” I jerked my thumb behind us.

“But Lucerne is one of the most magic-based cities in the country! And everyone knows magic doesn’t mix well with nature, Tara,” she countered in that duh-why-don’t-you-know-that kind of voice.

“So they celebrate a plant...as it dies due to magic energy. Yeah, sounds fun,” Iris chimed in.

“It’s more than that, Iris...”

“Yeah, whatever, no one cares about your stupid plant...” she pouted from on top of my head.

“Iris, anyone who doesn’t use their own wings or legs isn’t allowed to have a say in what we do next or where we go,” I rolled my eyes at my stubborn Sprite

“I’m low on magic energy because somebody wouldn’t take those people’s money! How are we supposed to eat now?! How will we survive?!” she yelled as she threw her arms back and laid down right in the center of my head.

I could feel her sliding down the front of my forehead so I put out my hands for her to dramatically collapse into them.

“You are such a drama queen” Serena commented.

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

They continued fighting while Trinkette took over the map to allow Serena to get in Iris’ face while the two of them stomped around in the palm of my hands. For as long as I have known Serena and Iris, they have never gotten along. Everything always turned into an argument and I always figured it was because they were polar opposites in every way. Serena has an affinity for ice, is a born-leader and most of the time is cool, calm and collected while Iris controls fire, is impulsive and dives in head first, never considering the consequences.

Listening to them bicker reminded me of the times that I wasn’t exactly the nicest Guardian, or sister, to my own sibling. Caleb wasn’t just my brother, he was also my Handler, which means a lot of the time he had it way worse than I did. He knew my schedule backwards and forwards, was forced to escort me everywhere, never allowed to leave my side even once, and had to deal with the Dodeca Council breathing down his neck every time I stepped out of line. Except, I didn’t have Caleb around anymore to fall back on so that he could take the heat from the Council. No more hiding behind my big brother or any Handler assigned by the Council for that matter. I was on my own. For the first time in my life.

“So do you have any info on Lucerne besides the festival?” I asked Trinkette, feeling both anxious and exhilarated about distancing ourselves even further from the Council and the Estate.

“Tara, what do I not have info on? Lucerne literally means Alfalfa. This type of flower is so common it can be found all over the world but in the town of Lucerne, Alfalfa is very rare....”

“Ironic,” I commented.

“Very. It’s rare because of how high the magic level is and that’s why they celebrate it every four years when it’s in season. It’s like the locals are giving thanks...”

“Thanks for what?”

“For their magic! The Alfalfa is a sign of magic fertility.”

“It is so not. You’re just making stuff up now,” Iris spoke up, finally deciding to break away from her argument with Serena.

“I am not! The fact that Alfalfa is rare explains the major magic essence and when it does appear, that’s showing a sign of how magic and nature can collide peacefully, whether it’s good or bad and it shows a good sign of balance...” Trinkette ranted, frustrated, as she just bombarded Iris with her random facts. “That’s what they’re giving thanks for, Iris. Bal-ance,” she huffed.

I giggled lightly at her puffy red face while Iris just mocked every word she spoke, making her sister even more agitated.

“You’re both acting like children. Can we please just decide on somewhere to go?” Serena complained as she tried to interject but it was no use. They were too riled up.

“We’re going to Lucerne! That was the plan!” Trinkette exclaimed quickly, fearing we wouldn’t be going to her choice of destination anymore.

“I don’t feel like going to some stupid town to celebrate some stupid flower!” Iris exclaimed.

“Geez, how’d I get stuck with Sprites with such attitudes. What’s wrong with you guys today?” I tried to get in between them this time.

Then, all of a sudden, they all just stopped arguing and froze in their spots midair. It even seemed like they stopped breathing as their eyes grew wide and it was as if all time had stopped.

“Guys? I was just kidding. So, what? Now you guys are rude and you can’t take a joke...?”

But they didn’t respond. It was like they were in a trance and forgot I was even standing right next to them. I started to realize that they weren’t just ignoring me, they were trying to resonate with and pull onto my magic essence in order to enhance their own powers which felt more draining than ever before.

“Guys...?” I voiced, trying to get a better look at them as they just faced one another.

The terror spread across their faces as they quickly lined up in front of me, facing the deeper part of the woods, ready for battle. Their magic essence was spiking, becoming stronger with every drop of magic that they were unconsciously borrowing from me so that they could also use it to protect me and I grew weaker with every second.

“Guys, what’s the matter? What’s happening?” I asked again, anxious and unsure of what to do because I had never seen them act like this before.

But then I felt it.

I wasn’t sure what it was at first. This strange magic pressure I felt weighing down the entire forest around us, it was strong and intense. It also felt a little familiar...but also frightening.

“The forest is disturbed,” their voices echoed one another.

“By what?” my voice trembled.

“It feels...like magic...” Trinkette murmured, no longer feeling the warmth that surrounded and excited her moments before.

“Can you tell what kind? Is it dangerous?”

“We’re not used to being around other magic besides yours and the other Guardians. I’ve read up on all kinds of magic but to be able to actually feel it...is completely different...” Serena explained quietly.

We all just stood there for a long moment as I tried to get my body to stop shaking from this feeling in my chest that told me to run. Run toward the mysterious magic power or away from it, I’m unsure. It was the fact that it was unknown that made it both terrifying and exhilarating. There was still so much I didn’t know about the outside world and all I wanted was to learn all I could and live a life worth living, a life that I chose for myself...so if whatever this magic power was was about to kill us before my life even began, it would have really sucked. The ground started to shake, knocking the girls out of their trance and without a second thought Iris was the first one to fly forward without, dashing through the forest. Something I should have expected.

“Iris, wait!” I instinctively chased after her with Serena and Trinkette close behind.

“Iris! Hold on a second! You can’t just go rushing in!” Serena scolded.

“Can’t you feel it? He needs our help!” she called to us.

“Who?!” we all yelled back.

But she ignored us as we continued running in the direction of whatever it was that Iris was chasing and with the crashing sounds getting louder I picked up the pace.

“Tara, 275 paces ahead, eighth tree to the right, 92.3 percent of coming down if the ground keeps shaking like this. And with the amount of magic pressure weighing itself down around us, at the rate Iris is traveling...”

“I get it, Trinkette!” I snapped, not wanting to think about what would happen if Iris was within range of the crushing lumber.

I was closing in on her but she was so much faster than me and when the ground shook more violently, causing a rumble to echo in the air, I panicked for a fraction of a second before I let my body act on its own. My arms flew out in front of me as I launched myself forward and wrapped her tiny body in my arms while holding her close to my chest as we tumbled into the dirt. The roots of the tree trunk beside us began to lift up right as my body was being weighed down and my lungs began to sting as breathing became almost impossible. It was as if something so dark reached to the core of my essence and told it to remain petrified.

And that’s when I realized what this feeling was. Darkness. It had been so long that I had forgotten what it felt like. But now it was unmistakable. It was definitely dark magic.

“Tara!” Iris and Trinkette yelled for me.

“Stay back!” I choked out a Command, forcing them to obey as I saw the base of the tree began to lift up.

I tried to move my arms so I could toss Iris out of the way but the push of gravity increased even more, making it harder to even focus, let alone move. So I just held her closer to me as I shut my eyes and felt an imprint begin to form around me in the ground as the land began to crack around me. The shadow of the tree loomed over us, getting larger as it neared crushing our bodies.

But then it stopped.

There was a loud crack, followed by a thump and the shadow still loomed over us but there was no impact. I opened my eyes to see a pair of legs standing inches away from my face and traced my eyes up toward the sky where I saw a boy standing in front of us with his arms held high, holding the tree above his head like it weighed nothing. It didn’t even seem like he was breaking a sweat.

“Hey...”

He was talking to me.

“You might want to get out of the way. This thing is kind of heavy.”

It took me a second to gather my thoughts back as I realized the gravity spell was lifted while he stood there, disrupting the spell’s path to us. I forced myself up onto my knees as I held an unconscious Iris in my hands.

“I...would...but uh...” I gasped out, unable to get any feeling back in my legs.

His eyes met mine as he looked over his shoulder and just eyed me curiously. I jumped in my spot, startled, when I heard another loud crackle fill the air and, beyond the clearing of fallen trees, large sparks were gathering together to form a swirling ball of pure lightning.

“Okay, then...just hang tight.”

He was talking to me again.

But I didn’t really have much time to think about what he was saying or doing because I realized the built up lightning magic was about to explode right in our direction. But this guy, who grinned at the oncoming danger, stood his ground in front of us and threw the tree he was still holding in the direction of the lightning ball. It flew through the air and then the next thing I knew he spun on his heels, picked me up by my waist with one arm and shielded me with his own body as we took cover behind a boulder. My concern moved immediately to Serena and Trinkette but they were already at my side, digging into my shoulder while an explosion of lightning bolts surrounded us, going around the boulder and only managing to singe the bottom of my pants and the tips of hair. The boulder itself was beginning to crack but Serena reacted quickly by filling in the cracks with her ice while Trinkette used one of her potions to give the boulder an extra layer to strengthen its properties in order to protect us.

When the lightning vanished I realized the stranger wasn’t next to me anymore and was instead yelling into the air of the opposite direction while he stomped around the clearing like a child who just lost a game.

“Yeah, you better run! You got lucky this time!”

Everything had happened so fast, I was struggling to keep up with what was even going on. I think I was in shock.

“Are you girls okay?” I looked down at my Sprites as they clung to my arms and I felt relieved to see the robotic, guard-dog look leave their eyes and I saw the faces of my friends again.

“Y-yeah...” they both answered as they looked down at Iris who was still unconscious in my hands.

Then, I jumped when the guy came back around to our side of the rock and he crouched down to our level, holding out his pointer finger to Iris. A fire spark shot from him to her, regenerating the magic inside her and restarting her whole system, forcing the darkness out of her heart and causing her to suddenly sit up straight and alert.

“Are you okay, Tara?” she immediately asked, looking up at me.

I just smiled down at her. “Yeah, I am. How about you?”

“I think I’m okay...” she nodded.

“You shouldn’t run off like that, Iris,” Serena chided but then hugged her sister tightly.

I gazed back up at our rescuer as he smiled from ear to ear at us and offered his hand to me. When I took it and he lifted me to my feet with ease I noticed he was also eyeing me weirdly when our hands connected.

“Umm thanks for the help...” I suddenly felt self conscious.

He took back his hand and put them both up behind his head. His whole demeanor went from an excitable child, ready for a fight, to lax dude out for a stroll. “I should be the one thanking you guys. I was in a real pinch while fighting those guys. You were the perfect distraction to throw them off their game.”

“What guys?” I wondered.

He just shrugged. “Just some guys. They seemed to fit the description of a group of bandits that have been terrorizing local villages so I followed them which they didn’t appreciate too much. We were fighting and then we heard your voices which caused them to get distracted and cast that gravity spell on you guys and then...well you know what happened next. Guess I pegged them for the wrong bad guys,” he explained quickly as if he was in some kind of rush.

“Right...”

“Anyway, I better get going. See you around,” he went to walk past us.

“Wait! If you’re still planning on taking care of the bandits, we already did that! We scared them off and told the village to notify the Counsel,” Serena informed him and he froze in his spot before he turned to face us again.

“Are you serious? That was going to be my dinner money,” he complained and pouted as he stared at the ground as if trying to figure out what to do now.

“Dinner money? You were going to take money from a village that could barely afford to exist on a recent map?” I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Of course not! I’m not a monster. That’s not how it works anyway...” he eyed me carefully. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“That’s none of your business. We appreciate your help, but we should really get going.” I turned my back and started to walk away as I motioned for the girls to follow.

We couldn’t afford to stop being that the Council was probably hot on our trail and if we wanted to make it in time for the festival then we had to keep pushing forward.

“Now hold on a second. What am I supposed to do about dinner?”

“That’s not our problem,” Iris snapped.

“Maybe not, but this forest isn’t exactly the safest place for tourists.”

I could feel him take a few steps in our direction. “We’re not tourists and we don’t need your protection, thank you,” I waved my hand up in the air, hoping he would get the hint to not follow us.

“Could have fooled me.”

“Excuse me?” I spun quickly to glare at him. “Are you trying to piss me off?”

“Tara, take it easy. You don’t know this guy. Don’t go looking for unnecessary fights,” Serena warned.

He suddenly backed off, putting his hands up in defense.

“Look, I’m not trying to start anything. I’m just saying that if that lightning guy and gravity guy come back, there’s no way you would be able to fend him off by yourselves. For the sake of my own conscience let me guide you through the forest. It’s easy to get lost in this area,” he offered a gentle smile.

“Thank you, but no thank you. We are perfectly fine on our own and no offence but we don’t even know you,” I folded my arms across my chest.

“Yeah. Ever hear of stranger danger?” Iris snapped at him from her spot on top of my head.

I could feel her tiny fingers digging into my roots while she was trying to contain herself and refrain from getting too excited over this new stranger.

He chuckled a little. “You’re absolutely right. So what better way to get to know a stranger then going to a festival of celebration together? You are going to Lucerne, aren’t you?” he asked.

“How’d you even know we were going to Lucerne for the festival?” I inquired.

“Lucky guess. People come from all over for Lucerne’s festivals. It takes about half a day to get there from here and this path can take you right to it if you’re familiar with the forest. I live on the outskirts of the city. It’s a great place,” he cooed.

“Tara, maybe we should take him up on his offer. What if we run into more trouble?” Serena whispered in my ear.

“And with Serena’s directional skills it could take days before we finally get to Lucerne,” Iris voiced.

“And if we’re all going to the same place anyway, it seems pointless to turn down his help since we’ll all be on the same path to begin with,” Trinkette reasoned.

“If it helps, you can just think of it as paying me back for stealing my job and saving your lives,” he added lightly, but held his head high and gave me this knowing look.

“Hey, we don’t owe you anything and we didn’t steal anything of yours!” Iris claimed but I saw the look in her eyes said she was intrigued by this person.

“What do you want?” I found myself asking, unable to get a solid read on this guy.

He had this high and mighty sense of self-confidence, but at the same time he was holding back, keeping his own guard up while trying to help us out at the same time.

“Pay me with food and we’ll call it even,” he spoke so simply, so carefree.

The thought of food made all of our stomachs growl which made him laugh.

“Looks like we could all use a little bit of fuel in our bellies and what better way to get to know a person than over a hot meal? I’m Ryder,” he grinned at me like I was suddenly his best friend and his whole demeanor changed from high and mighty jerk to genuinely friendly guy in a matter of seconds.

I continued to eye him for a moment, wondering what could possibly possess him to give away his name like that? He didn’t know us and we didn’t know him and for all I knew he could have been sent by the Council to bring us back to the Estate.

But he did save us.

And I could feel his magic essence overflowing with good energy. He already revealed his magic essence to me and Trinkette automatically saves all stats on a person’s magic once it’s been exposed so I didn’t think that there was anything wrong with traveling on the same path for a bit. It seemed like I was outnumbered anyway being that my own Companions were ready to go ahead with the stranger and leave me behind.

“I’m Tara. This is Iris, Serena and Trinkette,” I introduced.

“Nice to meet ya. You’re really gonna like it in Lucerne. There’s always something fun going on and it seems like you need a little fun in your life,” he smirked and I opened my mouth to reply.

“Yeah, tell me about it!” Iris agreed and I just scowled at her as the two of them started talking so fast it was hard to keep up.

“Now that we know each other’s names are we still strangers?” Ryder looked to Iris.

“I don’t think you’re so strange,” she grinned excitedly which made him laugh.

“Logically speaking, it’s not possible for us to be strangers anymore now that we know each other’s names and are aware of one other’s magic essence,” Trinkette spoke.

“I’m still going to keep my eye on you,” Serena told him.

My eyes widened as Serena and Trinkette started circling him, joining in on a whole different conversation with him, asking him a million questions a minute. Meanwhile, my brain was telling me to grab the Sprites and run the other way but this strain in my chest was telling me otherwise. I looked to the clear sky, hoping for some sign of what to do, wondering if this was the smart choice and I weighed out how much harm it could do.

A lot of harm. That’s how much.

But, that was the fear talking, instilled in me by the Counsel at the Estate. I’m the one that wanted adventure and to find what it means to truly live the way I want. I would have been a fool to ignore this opportunity to really get to know someone who lived in the outside world, an opportunity that the Stars presented to me on a silver platter. Choosing to follow in Ryder’s steps was the path I wished for and I wasn’t about to run away from it now. Choosing to not be afraid of trusting someone else for a change and choosing to jump forward into the unknown of where this path could lead.

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