The forests of Selson seemed to only truly come alive once the sun had gone down. Most of the creatures that roamed and hunted in the daylight had lain down to rest but many more had risen to take their places, preferring the darkness to the light, and Valarayan to the sun. As she followed her mentor, Iona was bombarded with a barrage of clicking, chattering, cooing, and cawing from all directions, like the forest was conducting its very own choir.
Trekking through the trees was hard enough by day but by night was a different story, as Iona had already learned. Even with the ball of light Sahel had conjured in the palm of his hand, it was hard not to trip over tree roots and get snagged on brambles every few seconds. She’d been right to wait until morning before properly embarking on her journey though Sahel wanted to get back to the academy as soon as possible, even if it meant travelling in near pitch darkness.
“Hey, can’t we rest for a while”?
“We can rest once we’re back at the academy”. For a moment, Iona worried he wouldn’t answer at all.
“I can barely see where I’m walking. I keep tripping and catching myself on stuff”.
“That’s what happens when you run off into a dark forest”.
Iona was about to give up, but her legs ached so badly. “We shouldn’t be walking when it’s this dark. It’s dangerous”.
“That didn’t stop you last night, did it”?
“I didn’t go very far while it was dark. I waited until morning. Please Sahel. My legs are killing me. I’m not gonna try anything. I know what I did was wrong. I just want to rest. Please”.
Sahel stopped. A spark ignited inside Iona. He turned to her. “If I find us a place to rest for the night, you have to promise not to do anything except exactly what I say. Do you understand me”?
Iona did her best not to smile. “Yes, I promise, I swear. I just need to sit down for a while”.
He looked like he didn’t trust her in the slightest but said no more. They found themselves a clearing and hunkered down. The ground was cold and hard but Iona was happy just to take the weight off her legs. Sahel had her sit perfectly still with her back to a tree and ordered her not to move a muscle until he said otherwise. It was a cold night, colder than the previous. Iona silently wished for a fire. Seemingly having read her mind, Sahel waved his arm and a branch came plummeting from above, stopping just short of his head before floating to his feet. Iona watched, transfixed, as it split itself into equal pieces that then arranged themselves into a little pyre. Sahel then knelt and set the sticks alight with nothing more than a snap of his fingers. Iona didn’t want to think what might have happened if she’d been entrusted with lighting the fire. She’d probably have ended up razing half the forest to the ground.
Sahel sat against the tree opposite and they enjoyed the heat in silence. The only sounds were from the crackling of burning wood and the calls of distant animals. Barely a word had been said in hours though, by the time they stopped, the tension that followed them like the rain clouds had begun to subside. He was still very disappointed with her; that much was clear. But, in the hours since saving her life, he seemed to have gotten over his initial anger. The atmosphere around the fire was a little tense, but they soon started to relax.
“How far do you think it is to the academy”?
Sahel eyed her. “A few hours give or take”.
Iona pulled her knees to her chest. “I’m sorry”, she said for about the hundredth time. She’d wanted to tell him again for a while, like if she said it enough times, he might come to understand. He probably didn’t believe her at the time; probably didn’t now either. “I know what I did was stupid. I just thought… I guess I must be stupid too”.
Sahel looked to her again though Iona didn’t detect as much anger now. “What you did was foolish and dangerous… but all people your age do foolish things. Believe me, I know”.
Iona was intrigued. What foolish things had Sahel done when he was young? she wondered. She wanted to ask but wasn’t sure if she should. “Are you still mad at me”?
“Not mad, not now at least. Just disappointed. I see great potential in you, but you are seriously close to throwing it all away, if you haven’t already”. Iona’s heart sank at the thought of her life as an arcanist being over. This wasn’t supposed to be the end of her journey. It was meant to be the beginning.
“I just wanted to help”.
Sahel sighed, probably tired of hearing that too. “We’ve had this conversation. There are better ways to help people than acting irresponsibly and risking your life. Stronger and wiser people than you have risked their lives to help others and lost them, and caused others to lose theirs also. You should have thought more before you decided to do what you did”.
The conversation died again, the awkwardness and tension returning like a pair of unwelcome guests. There was only the fire and alien sounds to keep them from sitting in silence. Iona didn’t like the silence. It made her nervous, reminded of how things were before the Mahleeka attacked. The rustling of some nearby leaves set her heart racing. They’d never encountered them again, but that did little to alleviate her fears. She wondered if it was a good idea to have a fire at all. It wouldn’t be hard for some passing tribesmen to spot it from a mile away, and they would surely come to investigate. Sahel must have known, but he didn’t seem worried. If he wasn’t worried, then she shouldn’t be too, right? The conversation helped distract her from her worries, but they soon came creeping back. Perhaps a change of subject would help.
“Where are you from”?
Sahel looked suspicious. “Why do you ask”?
Iona looked to the fire. “You never told us, and I’m just trying to make conversation”.
Sahel’s eyes went to the ground. “I’m from Dunesen. Do you know it”?
“I’ve heard of it. But I don’t know much about it”. It was a city on Valarayan, on the continent of Tendelsen though that was nowhere near Tylest. It lay far up in the northwest. Iona’s home city was in the southeast. She knew nothing else.
Sahel smiled for the first time since he found her, but in his smile, Iona saw only sadness. “It’s the only home I’ve ever known, aside from the academy, of course”.
“What’s it like”?
“About the same as any other city. It has its good parts and bad. It’s nice, for the most part. You should go someday if you get the chance”.
“Do you have any family there”?
“My mother, in the home I grew up in”.
His answer intrigued Iona. A mother but no father? “What about your father”? Only after asking, Iona realized he may not have wanted to talk about it.
Sahel’s smile vanished. He looked to the ground again. “I don’t know”.
Iona’s curiosity deepened. “You don’t know where your father is”?
Silence. “Me and my father are followers of Dode Shalum”, Sahel then began in what Iona anticipated was going to be a long story. “Do you know what that is”?
“It’s some old Human religion, right”? That’s all she knew. While agnostic at heart, Iona had always leaned more towards atheism. Religion was never something of great interest to her.
“Yes. The most prominent religion of the Ralenta people to be exact. My father was Ralenta, my mother is Haelqen. In Dode Shalum, we believe that the world, Karasen, was once inhabited by beings called the Shamenta, who were led into transcendence by the Dode, the One. Once just a lowly criminal, the Dode found meaning and redemption when he was visited by a spirit who told him that he’d been chosen to lead his people into the next world. The spirit said it would be the Shamenta’s responsibility to create those who would inherit the world from them when they left. So they created man and gave them Karasen, so that they might watch over it until the coming of the next Dode. When that happens, man will be led into the next world, and we will create a new race to inherit Karasen, the catch being that the next Dode will only appear when man becomes righteous in all things and sets aside his hate and selfishness and respects all other life around him, which evidently has yet to happen. Of course, things were complicated when we discovered there were worlds outside of our own, and further complicated when we discovered that there was intelligent life on some of those worlds but they figured out ways to explain all of that without breaking the core beliefs of our faith. Most of us don’t take the story literally anyway. It’s just a good way to build a moral framework upon which to base our lives”. Iona listened closely but only out of politeness. She had no interest in this Dode Shalum stuff, nor did she believe a word of it. She was waiting for the part that concerned Sahel’s father.
“My father was a Nivek, the leader of the temple in our area. There’s a high concentration of Relenta in Dunesen, and, despite our modern times, many still practice the faith of our people. My father was one of the few to take our beliefs literally. It was his responsibility to maintain the temple and teach the word of the Dode to his followers. From an early age, I helped him run the temple. He was an arcanist, far more powerful than I ever was. When my abilities manifested, he showed me how to use them properly and, when I became of age, I left home to begin my formal training. Thanks to his teachings, I was able to skip ahead in my studies. I only spent four years at the academy”. Iona wondered if her mentor’s training was any different from hers.
“When I returned home, I went back to helping my father at the temple and was formally anointed a Civvet. That’s the person next in line to inherit the responsibility of running the temple when the Nivek is no longer able to”. Sahel looked to Iona, probably to make sure she was still listening. “As part of my training to take up my father’s mantel, I was required to complete a period of missionary work. We both left home and travelled around the Confederacy, spreading the word of the Dode to all who would listen. That was a very dangerous time in my life. We went to some very rough places and encountered many dangerous people. There were more than a few times when our powers saved our lives”. She’d asked about his father, but now Iona wanted to know more about Sahel’s travels around the Confederacy, particularly if Arcana was involved. But she would only be disappointed.
“We travelled for almost two years and then returned home, and life went back to normal. Most of our time was spent looking after the temple and its attendees. In my spare time, I continued training my Arcana. Like you, I was hungry for knowledge and power. I wanted to learn everything I could, but there were many things my father refused to teach me. He knew many of the most dangerous secrets of Arcana, awesome abilities but ones that were capable of causing great pain and destruction. No matter how many times I begged him, he would never tell me of these abilities. To this day, I’m sure there are still a great many things he knew that I still do not”. It was strange to think there were parts of Arcana that even Sahel didn’t know about. Iona wondered just how deep the well of arcane knowledge was, reminded she’d barely even scratched the surface.
“I’ve always suspected that my father had a dark past that I was never made aware of. That, in a previous life, before I was born, he was involved in something that required him to know and use these abilities. I often wondered if he turned to Dode Shalum as a means to atone for something he did before. I think he once used his abilities to cause pain and suffering and, for whatever reason, changed his ways though that’s only speculation really”. Iona understood, a little at least. She knew there were things about her parents she didn’t know about. “Anyway, after a few years at home, my father wanted us to continue our work as missionaries. But this time he wanted us to go to the Free People’s Republic”. Sahel went quiet again, eyes returning to the ground. Iona started to see where he was going.
Sahel took a breath. “That was where I drew the line. The Confederacy was one thing, but the FPR is something else entirely. I refused to go and hoped that would convince him to change his mind. My father was outraged. We argued like never before. I’d never seen him so furious. I did everything I could to make him see sense, but nothing worked, and, eventually, he insisted he would go with or without me. My mother begged him not to but he would have none of it. He believed it was his calling, his purpose in life. He said there were many souls in the FPR that needed to be saved and that spreading the word of the Dode was more important than any one life, including his own. We pleaded with him until the end, but it was no use. The last thing he told me before he left was how disappointed he was in me”.
“What happened to him”? Iona knew there was no happy end to his story.
“I don’t know. He never returned, and we never heard from him again”.
Iona saw the grief painted on her mentor’s face. She knew what it was like to lose someone so close but still couldn’t imagine how he must feel. To lose someone you care about is one thing, but to not even know their fate? She supposed there was some small comfort to be found in that. His father could be alive and well somewhere and may someday return. But she would rather have known what happened. At least that would provide some amount of closure.
“Did you ever think about looking for him”?
“Of course. I almost did, several times. My mother always talked me out of it. I hated her for it at the time, but it was for the best. What could I have done? The FPR is such a big place and a dangerous one. He never told us where exactly he would be going. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea where to start. I probably would have just ended up getting myself killed as well”. Iona knew what he was saying. After all that time in such a dangerous place, it was unlikely his father was still alive and, what’s worse, it seemed Sahel blamed himself, at least in part. He probably thought if he went with him, he would have been able to protect him.
“I’m so sorry”.
Sahel smiled through his pain. “Don’t worry about it”. He wiped a tear from his eye. “It was a long time ago. It’s an old wound”. It pleased Iona to see him put on a brave face. Many people would have let that kind of pain destroy them. “So anyway, I stayed at home for a while longer before training to become an arcane tutor, and here I am”.
“Do you talk to your mother very often”? Iona hoped for a happier answer.
“Yes. I call her every few days”.
“How is she”?
“She’s fine. But she’s getting old. Her joints are aching her”.
“Does she live by herself”?
“No. She lives with my aunt, her older sister. She moved in with her when I left to work at the academy”.
“That sounds nice. At least she has someone to keep her company. Do you ever visit her”?
“I use my holiday time to return home. I usually get to spend a few weeks with her every year. Not as much as I’d like, but I’ve got a job to do here”.
Iona understood. She was missing her home and family too.
They went quiet again. It wasn’t often Iona ran out of things to talk about though Sahel wasn’t the kind of person she was used to talking to at great length. She could talk for hours when she was with her friends, but now that she was with only her mentor, her mind was a blank.
“So now that I’ve told you about my past. How about you tell me about yours”?
That surprised Iona. She’d never gone into detail with anyone about her past, nor was she sure if she wanted to. She hid so much pain away inside. Talking about it would surely bring it all rushing to the surface. She could barely think about her parents without tearing up. But she supposed it was only fair. He told her about his heartbreak, she owed it to him to share hers.
“Well, I- ”. Sahel turned his head. “What is it”?
He didn’t answer, staring into the darkness beyond the reach of the firelight. Iona’s heart rate skyrocketed. She thought having Sahel there would make her feel safe, but it didn’t. The forest felt sinister again, like the moments before the Mahleeka attacked. She remembered how she felt in those moments. It was so strange. She could almost sense them before she even knew they were there. But now she felt nothing, except the pounding of her heart and shaking of her hands. Iona followed her mentor’s eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever caught his attention, but she saw only darkness, and heard only wind.
One moment Sahel was staring at the dark, and the next he was gasping in pain and gripping the arrow sticking out of his shoulder. Iona could only stare as the blood stained his tunic. It didn’t seem real. It was like she was in a dream, or a nightmare. Everything seemed to disappear: the fire, the forest, and her mentor. She felt like she’d left the galaxy entirely, only to be ripped back as Sahel slumped onto his side, moaning. She rushed to him, almost tripping and falling into the fire. No idea what else to do, Iona rolled him onto his back, grabbed the arrow with both hands, and pulled as hard as she could. Sahel let out a cry that she felt in her bones and she relented. The forest’s peace was shattered by a chorus of inhuman cheers. Iona’s heart felt like it might explode as panic took hold of her again.
“What do I do”? she managed between breaths.
Sahel answered with a groan. Iona couldn’t tear her eyes from the dark patch at his shoulder. She’d never liked the sight of blood; even the slightest drop made her want to throw up. Her eyes stayed fixed at the spot as she wracked her brain. But then something else distracted her. It was back, the feeling at the back of her head, the same piercing pressure she felt earlier. A compulsion came over her that was impossible to resist. Iona dropped to the ground in time to avoid the arrow that screeched by.
“It’s the Mahleeka”, Sahel moaned.
Iona dragged herself to him, keeping low. “What are we gonna do”?
“Run”! He shoved her away, sending her falling onto her bottom.
Iona pulled herself back to him. “I’m not leaving you”!
“There’s no time! Go now! I’ll be fine, but I might not be able to protect you! Go”!
Iona stood up but hesitated. Her heart pounded, body shaking. She could feel their unseen assailants closing in. She wanted to help Sahel to his feet, but he was right. There was no time. If she waited any longer, she was dead. Iona cursed herself for running off into the darkness, leaving her mentor by the fire to face the savages intent on tearing them apart. Her fear got the better of her. It was fight or flight, and she chose flight.
Iona scrambled like a panicked rat through bushes and brambles and vines, barely able to see a thing in front. The screams followed her, their sources not far behind. She forced herself to run faster, faster than she’d ever ran before, ignoring the searing of her legs and the cries of her lungs. The way ahead was pitch black, nothing but a few white slivers from above. But she had to keep going. If she stopped, she was dead. All she could think about was Sahel, and whether or not he was still alive.
He’s a master arcanist. He’s powerful. He can fight them. He won’t die. He can’t die.
How could she just leave him? He could be dying right that moment. Iona wanted to go back, but that was suicide. The screams were getting louder. She couldn’t tell how many there were, their screeches bleeding together into one ear-splitting crescendo.
She tripped on rocks and roots, cut herself on thorns, snagged her clothes and hair, and slipped on wet leaves and mud. Every inch of her ached. Her will was crumbling. She was slowing down, her body on the verge of giving up. Iona had never ran so fast or hard or for so long, and it was taking its toll. Her lungs were on fire. Her heart felt like it could burst from her chest. The Mahleeka were close. Any moment now, they would catch her, and that would be the end. It was all her fault. They wouldn’t be out here if not for her. She’d gotten herself and Sahel killed. There was no way out. She might as well accept her fate. A stupid girl chasing stupid stories.
Iona didn’t realize there was a hill ahead until she was tumbling down it, her body aching even more with every bounce upon hard ground. It seemed to go on forever, the relentless spinning making it seem like she was inside a washing machine, powerless to do anything but wait for it to stop. The rock came out of nowhere. She didn’t notice it until her head had impacted it. Iona continued on her way, head pounding as the warm, wet feeling made its way down her cheek. Finally, she came to a stop. She felt soft ground beneath her, but her head ached like it did during the attack on the academy. Her body felt light, aches and pains fading as consciousness slipped away. She couldn’t hear a thing, neither the Mahleeka nor the forest. They couldn’t be far away. Even if they had lost her, it wouldn’t be long until they found her again.
Something wasn’t right. Iona knew she should be frightened, and yet she felt nothing, perfectly happy to close her eyes and accept her fate. The terror she felt seconds ago had been washed away, as if by a gentle stream. Something told her not be afraid, something inside, and far away. She glimpsed something at the edge of her vision. There was just enough time to turn her head and see the light shimmering among the trees. Then Iona closed her eyes.