My eyes drooped shut for the hundredth time that night and threatened to stay that way. I dragged them open again, but the time it was taking to bring my etching tools back into focus was becoming longer and longer. My mouth was dry and my shoulders ached. A persistent throbbing in my temple beat against the walls of my exhaustion.
So close to weeks' worth of work being finished, I couldn’t help but drive my body beyond its limits. I had recklessly abandoned the recommended dose of scorchbark tea hours ago, and while the high use kept the tremors out of my hands now, I would have a hefty price to pay later. Begging my body to hold on for one more tracing, I kept pushing.
“Done!” I gasped a laugh to the empty workroom, ignoring the edge of hysteria I heard. Surely madness was an acceptable price to pay for this achievement.
I lifted the etching tool away from the gemstone slowly, to avoid any accidental scratches before I sealed it. Blowing the excess dust from the new grooves, I grinned down at the perfect Heat Rune now carved into the ruby. Damn I’m good.
I tapped the raw Heatstone gingerly, checking it wasn’t too hot from the incidental warmth generated each time the Heat Rune was completed. Already cool enough to handle, I pressed the stone between my thumb and forefinger and lifted it from the vice. I then immersed it gently in a small bowl of spirits to cleanse any final debris. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow! Stupid cuts on my fingers, I forgot every single time. I lifted them quickly to my mouth, sucking the sting out of them. Ack! Spitting the vile taste of working spirits off my tongue, I pushed my chair back to stretch out. Time to walk away before I ruined everything from being tired.
In fact, that candle has burned pretty low, how long have I been…
“Sierra!” A familiar voice sang my name as the door burst open and an apple tree shoved its way through, golden sunshine filtering past its leaves. The unusual part about this being that the tree appeared to be hovering instead of walking on its own. I threw a hand up against the unexpected light, as my sluggish brain put the pieces together. It was morning, I had been awake all night, trees could now fly, and sunshine was bad for my eyeballs. The tree continued its dazzling adventure into the cramped workroom and I remembered the unsealed ruby in its alcoholic bath.
“Stop!” I roared, and the tree drooped a little. “Kixi, what have I told you?”
A small voice came from behind the tree, as I tried to contain my rage.
“No trees in the workroom?”
“No trees in the workroom.” I confirmed, grinding my teeth.
“But I didn’t think you’d be here this early and I just wanted to get this little beauty all ready for – “
“Can we hurry this up?” Holy crap. “It may seem small, but this tree is quite heavy.” It’s him. “So do you want me to put it in, or out?”
I swallowed past the sudden pounding in my chest.
“Put it in.” Put it in? Idiot. “Ah! Out!” Get it together you imbecile. I cleared my throat as I scrambled for composure. “Please put it outside. As I’ve told Kixi a thousand times, we do not have room in here for a forest.”
The tree bowed and retreated to my fervent hopes that its carrier hadn’t noticed how hot my face was getting. I was probably safe. Rin didn’t seem to notice much of anything beyond his work. But then, that was why I liked him. He worked hard, loved learning, and still made time to help his sister even though he was busy. It also didn’t hurt that he was beautiful. Such deep emerald eyes shouldn’t be allowed.
“You’ve got that adorable wistful stare on again Si.” Kixi stepped through the door, grinning wickedly. As opposed to her brother, my small friend noticed too much.
“You,” I hissed at her with a glare, “be quiet!”
She blew me a kiss.
I shook my head and turned back to the workbench, ignoring her as she placed an apple near my tools. Time to get this done before anything else could interrupt. I reached down to open the small drawer in the right side of the bench, lifting out a long wooden case entwined with minute leaves and buds. Placing it in a patch of sunlight, I smiled as the tiny buds began to unfurl, spreading soft violets and vibrant scarlets over the top. It was truly a work of art. The bright green leaves rustled as the lid was lifted to reveal a collection of golden sealing tools and alchemical concoctions.
Heavier footsteps sounded in the room behind me before a low whistle.
“You’ve been busy.”
A hand reached past me, headed for a gold stylus, and I slapped it away.
“You’ll mess up the order Rin.”
“Fine, fine,” he chuckled, “I’ll touch this instead. I made it after all!”
He picked up the wooden lid and began crooning to the tiny flowers about how lovely they were. Kixi bounced over to her brother, fingers reaching out.
“Rin let me look! Si never lets me touch it.”
Rolling my eyes, I blocked out their argument. You’d think alchemists would be more reserved after all the time they spent hugging trees and sniffing herbs.
I selected the stylus and bottled elixir I needed to seal the ruby, and used a pair of wooden tongs to lift the gem from the bowl. Drying it on a cloth, I set it into the metal sieve jutting from the edge of the bench.
I unstoppered the elixir first and, turning the bottle upside down over the ruby, watched as it dribbled from the nozzle to slowly ooze over the entire gem, seeping into the grooves of the Rune etched on top. Once fully coated, I replaced the stopper and set the bottle back in the box.
Next I lifted the gold stylus and double checked I had the one where the Seal Rune was linked to the Runes for Elixir and Ruby. Last time I was this tired, I had accidentally attempted to seal an emerald with the diamond stylus. Even months later, Kixi and I were still finding green shards embedded in the floor and walls, and the small lump under the skin on my jaw served as an added reminder that not all the shards flew into inanimate objects. I checked the etching on the stylus again.
Confidence restored, I turned my focus inwards and began to gather my magic. Placing my thumb over the swirls of the Seal Rune on the stylus, I touched its gold tip to the ruby, ensuring it aligned with the starting point for drawing the Heat Rune. Then I channelled my power into the Seal Rune under my thumb. My nail began to glow due to the light emanating from the activated Rune underneath, and the linked Elixir and Ruby Runes began to emit their own bright lights as the power flowed on into them.
I took a moment to appreciate how perfectly the river of magic travelled around the twists and turns of each Rune, confirming the precision with which I had carved them. No power would be lost because of careless mistakes on this tool. Efficient Runecasting was always so satisfying.
I breathed with deep concentration as the Rune formula directed the magic to fuse the elixir and ruby together, and made certain I kept the flow of power steady. A slight hum rang in my ears as the magic worked, culminating in a sound like ice cracking as the elixir hardened, sealing the Rune and reinforcing the gem.
Releasing the magic, I removed my thumb from the Rune and placed the stylus back in the bottom half of the box.
“Lid please,” I called out, lifting the smooth gemstone from its cradle.
The coating had fused flawlessly, as expected, ensuring the longevity of the new Heatstone. I pressed a finger to the place where the Heat Rune was etched and trickled magic into it, grinning as it immediately began to warm up, magic swirling blissfully around the path I had carved for it. I laughed out the pride and relief surging inside me.
“Hmm?” Too slow this time, Rin managed to snatch the Heatstone from my fingers while Kixi replaced the lid of the carved box.
“This is really nice work,” he said, scrutinizing the Heat Rune I painstakingly etched there.
“Thanks…” Oh, praise me more!
“How many practise stones did you go through before you had it right?”
I frowned, not understanding, “Practise stones?”
He flapped a hand at me impatiently, and I sensed him pulling magic through the stone to test it himself.
“You know, glass beads, or lower quality stones that you don’t mind ruining if the etching isn’t perfect?”
“Why would I do it if it wasn’t going to be perfect?”
His gorgeous eyes widened and met mine for the first time that day. Keep it together. I could see Kixi’s shoulders begin to shake with suppressed mirth behind him. So my face wasn’t keeping it together at all…
“So this is the only gemstone you’ve etched the Heat Rune into?”
“Impressive.” He conceded, handing it back to me.
“Oh, though I did have practice etching on gemstones when I did the other Runes.” I was quite used to using the tools now, maybe that’s what he had meant. I conveniently avoided the embarrassing memory of the exploded emerald.
He looked somewhat like he was choking, and I cocked my head at such an unusual expression on his face.
Kixi sighed, “After those styluses were finished, all she’s cared about were those silly stones. She hasn’t had proper time for me in ages!” I didn’t have to see it to know that she was pouting. Kixi had that pout down to a fine art.
“The ruby elixir worked exceptionally well.” Maybe stroking her ego would calm the theatrics. Her skill with alchemy was no joke, even if she was useless at drawing Runes.
“See? Barely even speaks to me unless she’s asking me to mix potions.” Her tale of woe continued and I rolled my eyes at her. She responded with a wink.
I reached for a leather strap on the bench that contained the offending stones in small pockets stitched along its length. I placed the Heatstone in the pocket branded with the tiny Heat Rune, then withdrew some of the stones I had devoted my recent time to. Chill. Illuminate. Repel. Cleanse. Reservoir.
It hadn’t seemed possible, but Rin’s eyes became wider and his eyebrows scaled higher with each gem I pulled out. My chest swelled, elated to be shocking him like this. That’s right, try not to notice me now.
“This is advanced work,” he muttered, as he inspected and tested each one. “Too advanced for your second year.”
His eyes snapped to mine and I felt my grin fade.
“Who taught you how to make these?” Was he angry?
I gathered the gems up and began replacing them in their pockets. Turning my back on him, I shielded the rest of the strap from his sight and tried to sort through my rushing emotions. Why would he be angry about this?
“What does it matter where I learnt it? They’re perfect.”
“It’s dangerous to mess with things you aren’t ready for.” His voice was getting louder and I noticed Kixi turn away to busy herself with some inane task.
“Sierra. Who taught you?”
“I taught myself from books in the library,” I snapped, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Pfft,” he scoffed. “Even the smallest child learns not to attempt drawing a Rune just from looking at the finished image, and I know some of those Runes are not taught before Fourth year.”
“Maybe they changed the classes since you were in Second year.” It was a weak argument and we both knew it.
“I’m serious! This is extremely reckless. If you don’t use the correct stroke pattern from beginning to end, the Rune could do something utterly unexpected!”
“I know that! I'm not an idiot!” Why was he crushing everything I had been working so hard for?
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Only an idiot would attempt Runecasting without instruction.”
Ouch. This was painfully far from how I dreamed my conversations with Rin would go.
“As you’re still alive, I’ll assume you’re not a complete idiot.”
“So I’ll ask once more. Who. Taught. You?”
“No one taught me!” It was the truth, but that would probably make it worse. I was too tired to think of a lie though, so I stuck with stubborn denial. His lips pressed together and I realised his fists were clenched.
“This won’t get you a Master any quicker you know. Everyone has to do their time at the Guild before being offered as an Apprentice. You won’t be an exception.”
“You don’t know that!” I couldn’t help shouting. He didn’t understand that I didn’t have time for all the normal years of Guild training. “Someone will want me when they see my work. They’ll all want me!”
“I’ll be reporting this to the Guildmasters.” Then he turned and left, his image beginning to blur in front of my eyes as he passed through the door.
“Don’t cry Si,” Kixi rushed over but I pushed her hands away.
“Someone will want me, Kix.” I hated the way my voice trembled but I couldn’t do anything about it. I’m still so disgustingly weak. I dashed the tears from my face with my sleeve and whispered, “They have to want me.”
They’re my only chance to escape.
Finding a Master I could trust would be the hardest part, but once I did I wouldn’t have to carry this secret alone anymore. While I wasn’t crazy enough to reveal my unique ability as a bargaining tool, at times like this it was tempting.
I gathered up my work while my closest friend wavered in the middle of the room, the atmosphere heavy since Rin’s righteous departure. A few times I thought she would speak, but the silence remained.
It was only as I was walking through the door that I heard her murmur.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”
I didn’t stop.
Of course he meant it. Everyone meant it. Nobody believed that I could be anything more than the perfect little puppet they all wanted me to be. Only good for one thing in the end.
Well screw them! I angrily swept more tears from my cheeks and squared my shoulders. I would just have to learn magic too awesome to ignore, then shove it down their throats. No more holding back. I would break every rule in the book and every bone in my body if I had to.
I stumbled over the threshold. Okay, maybe I could save the dramatic bone breaking for after I caught up on sleep.
“I won’t be in lessons today.” I slammed the door and headed for my room.