Sometimes Azalea dreamed of when her brother was still alive.
Deep in the forest, away from their family’s cottage at the edge of the woods, they often scavenged for toadstools and lizards. Azalea built a makeshift fairy garden out of flowers and old bottles, and it lit up like a pretty little thing in the dead of night. Azure, her brother, was more partial to using stones and twigs to build battle stables for his pet lizards.
“One day, ’Zalie,” he proclaimed very magnanimously—or, as magnanimously as a nine-year-old could proclaim—“these little lizards will grow into magnificent dragons, unparalleled beasts of war! Just you watch!”
Azalea looked at the current object of his enthusiastic attentions: a tiny forest lizard with dingy scales the color of mud, barely spanning the breadth of his palm. It could probably fit in her bottled fairy house.
“Will they?” she asked doubtfully. She drew the hem of her red capelet over her pale brow, dabbing away the sweat from the afternoon sun.
Azure nodded firmly, his untidy shock of hair bouncing like wheat sheaves. “That with the humblest beginnings grows to become the greatest power,” he said with surprising wisdom. “You know the seeds of the great oak trees, ’Zalie? Such tiny kernels grow to be bigger and stronger than the mountains!”
This was actually not accurate. But Azalea decided to accept his word. She, at seven, was hardly as wizened to the world as her brother.
“If the lizards get all big,” she said, “then where will we keep them?”
“In our house, of course,” Azure said matter-of-factly.
Azalea blanched. Dragons, in the house! Think how much dirt they would trek in. Think of all the wooden tables and chairs, set aflame! Their ma would be beside herself!
“Um, Azure,” she tried timidly, but Azure was already chattering on, green eyes bright and immutable—
“We can sleep on the roof! We’ll get more sun that way. Plants need a certain amount of sunlight, or they stay small and weak. Do you want to stay small and weak, ’Zalie?”
“Exactly! I think we could use more sunlight. Maybe we’ll grow as tall as the oaks. No, as tall as the heavens! No, no, as tall as Da!”
Azalea gasped. Da was the last straw. As a seasoned, weathered lumberjack, cut like a wind-beaten bluff with a jaw of stone, nothing could possibly be taller than Da. Even the very forest seemed to quake under his footsteps.
“That’s impossible,” she said firmly.
“It won’t be impossible,” Azure said, just as firmly. “Not if we train hard enough. C’mon, ’Zalie, let’s practice.”
Training would actually not help one grow any taller, but Azalea was seven and didn’t know that. It sounded very reasonable to her, mostly because everything Azure said sounded very reasonable.
Azure took a grounded stance across from her, feet a shoulder’s width apart, knees slightly bent. Azalea mirrored him. She didn’t actually like fighting him, even for practice. She would much prefer to bake some apples over a little fire, or fold some fairy clothes out of fabric scraps. She just wasn’t much of a fighter. But Azure cared so deeply about training his manawell and growing strong, and he made strength sound so very exciting. She couldn’t help but be swept along.
Azalea saw Azure breathe in, deep and steady, and close his eyes. She followed suit. This was the beginning of sensing mana: focus.
It took her a moment to catch it past the distractions of singing birds and scuttling lizards and chirping insects, but finally Azalea felt something. It was a subtle sensation, like the scent of baking cookies or the warm pulse of sunlight. Ever-present and threaded into the air was a tingle of something, like brushstrokes on a canvas of atmosphere. If she concentrated, she could pick out distinct traces: the breezy, restless wind mana, the fertile earth mana, the speckled fire mana from the sunlight, and still others that she couldn’t name.
“Form your weapon,” Azure said in a commanding tone. “Then we spar.”
Azalea winced. He made it sound so simple—and for him, it was simple. Azure had been Forming mana weapons practically since birth. Azalea, on the other hand, had yet to Form anything larger than a raindrop.
Once, Azalea had asked Azure if she could participate by using mana in some other way. Azure had looked at her with a puzzled frown and said, What other use for mana is there? Which, really, he had a point—Forming could shape explosive fireballs, Forming could create weapons out of the elements, Forming could bear its users on a wind current like makeshift wings. In comparison, other manacraft like Stabilizing or Threading felt pitiful.
No, Azalea would have to learn how to Form a weapon, or be left behind.
She concentrated hard, trying to remember Da’s instructions: See the trace. Pluck it. Weave it in like thread. There, Azalea, just like your fairy blankets.
She sensed it in her mind, felt its presence there: a thread of mana laced with wind and sunfire, loose and supple. On a calm, cloudless day like this, it was steady, easy to form.
Azalea reached out and burned a little of her manawell. At least, she thought it was her manawell, that flask of quiet energy sitting somewhere inside her chest, waiting like a motionless lake. Every person was born with a manawell, some larger than others. Burning it offered a way to harness the mana within and around them, and like every other source of human energy, it replenished with food and rest. Azalea’s manawell was rather small, but even so, it was more than enough to Form a weapon.
Azalea burned a little of her manawell and brought in that thread of wind and sunfire mana. She wove it together, balling it up into something solid. And there—it dropped in her hand, warm and spherical like a marble.
A good start, but hardly a weapon. She wouldn’t even be able to fit it into a sling.
Azalea breathed in deep, burning her manawell and pulling in more traces from the air. More wind, more sunfire. Over and under, like weaving on her little loom. Over and under, another thread, over and under, yet another. The marble began to grow and lengthen, pulsing until it melted into the shape of an arrowhead.
Then sparks skittered in her hand, and the arrowhead dusted away like dandelion seeds. The mana traces dispersed.
Azalea bit her lip, eyes watering. She kicked at the grass.
“I can’t do it, Azure,” she blurted. “I just can’t.”
Azure looked up with a slight frown. He had, true to his natural talents, already Formed a shadowy sort of sword. From the night-black blade to the onyx hilt, it was made of alluring darkness that seemed to swallow up all the surrounding light.
Something about the weapon set Azalea on edge. She squinted, her manawell tingling. There was a minute shift, and then her nervousness eased.
Azure stepped a little closer, his blade humming. “Don’t worry about it, ’Zalie,” he said gently. “You’re a whole two years younger than me. I couldn’t make the Aphotic Blade of Calamitous Void until last month.”
He was trying to be nice, but really, Azalea knew she was a lost cause. Two years ago, Azure had been Forming the Darker Blade of Void, which was basically just a prototype of the Aphotic Blade of Calamitous Void. He had apparently been Forming blades of void since three years old—a habit that routinely gave their ma conniptions.
“It’s okay, Azure,” she mumbled. Having given up on manacraft, she sat down and returned to stitching together her third fairy quilt. “Sorry. I think you have to find a better training partner.”
“You’re the best training partner I could ever ask for, ’Zalie,” Azure said emphatically, raising his blade. “Here, why don’t you toss some pebbles my way?”
Azalea tried. Her first throw was completely off, missing Azure by the length of a horse. After a bit of cajoling, she gathered enough courage to toss three more, which arced smoothly through the air. Azure cut them into smaller pebbles, Azalea clapped delightedly, and just like that, world peace was restored.
They continued with this little game for a while: Azalea tossing smaller and smaller pebbles, Azure practicing enough finesse to slice through them each time. It wasn’t until the sky began to blacken, dark clouds rattling over its face like coal dust, when Azalea looked up nervously.
“Azure?” she tried. “Maybe we should head back.”
Azure glanced at the sky and frowned. The grey cover of clouds rattled once, and the forest shook, trembling like the surface of a drum.
“Something’s strange with those clouds,” he said tightly. “Do you feel it, ’Zalie?”
Azalea did feel it. She wasn’t sure how to describe it—a strange presence hanging in the air, thick as the scent of baking bread, pulsing like a wild heart. It seemed to be leaking from those dark, dark clouds.
“Let’s go home,” she said nervously. “I’m, I’m scared.”
Sparks began to crackle from the boiling sky, carving vibrant aurora strokes that flashed and glittered like fairy dust. The clouds were set alight with iridescent lightning, blazing like magic torches in the sky.
Azalea stopped short, transfixed by the sight. It was so beautiful, so ethereal, so…fairy-like.
“Pretty,” she whispered.
“Such power,” Azure whispered.
And it was powerful—enchanting like a siren’s song, luring meager sailors to dash their ships upon the rocks. Azalea could feel it prickling at her skin like wool too hastily spun.
She’d often listened to stories of mana that was untamable. Chaos mana, celestial mana, time mana—elements that had never submitted to human hands. But this was the first time she’d come so close to such a source, and for the first time, she understood. The power. The instability. This storm could never be Formed, no matter how hard the greatest manacrafter might try.
“Alright,” Azure said wistfully. He pulled his eyes away from the vibrant storm clouds with intense effort. “Let’s get you inside, ’Zalie.”
That was when the earth split from under their feet.