No matter how hard she pinched herself, Iona didn’t wake up in her bed at the Selson Academy for the Arcane. It felt like a dream, stumbling through the forest, almost half-naked, following a ball of light. Then she thought about Sahel and it seemed more like a nightmare. Despite the light’s insistence that he was safe, Iona couldn’t get the image of her mentor’s arrow-riddled body out of her head. Every time she pushed such thoughts from her mind they only forced themselves back in. She could almost see him hanging from a tree, guts dangling by his feet, or lying with his head bashed in, or just hacked to pieces. Over and over, she told herself the same thing: He’s a master arcanist. He’s powerful. He can fight them. But Iona still couldn’t escape the thought of him lying dead somewhere, and it was all her fault. He wouldn’t have been out here if not for her, and now here she was following some stupid ball of light instead of doing what she was supposed to be doing. How stupid could she be? Just a stupid girl chasing stupid stories.
The sun was up now. Iona guessed she’d been walking for at least a couple hours. She was so frustrated she could scream. The light had barely said a word. Whenever she asked it anything the only answers she got were, “everything will be clear soon”, or “You will find out soon enough”. It didn’t take long to realize she wouldn’t get any answers and resolve (reluctantly) to follow quietly. At least it was warmer now. The forest had returned to its peaceful state though that did little to calm Iona’s nerves. Her illusion of the quiet and serene forest had been shattered. Every snap of a twig or rustle of leaves had her worrying the Mahleeka were about to attack again. They were still out there, probably looking for her. It was only a matter of time before they crossed paths again.
“Hey, how much further”?
Not far. The same answer she got last time she asked, and the time before that. It had been about an hour since she was last told they weren’t far from wherever they were going and it still didn’t seem like they were anywhere near.
“Are you sure it’s safe around here”?
Yes. Have no fear. Iona guessed being a ball of light was a lot safer than being a small and weak girl with no means of defending herself.
“Can’t we rest for a while”? Her legs ached like hell. The light didn’t even answer that time. Iona guessed that meant no. They would have to stop at some point. She wasn’t going to last much longer. Her stomach was rumbling so loud they could probably hear her on Valarayan. “I’m hungry. I need to find something to eat”.
There’s no time. Iona could only sigh. What was she doing with herself?
The clouds parted. Midday sun streamed through the net of green. They’d probably be expecting her and Sahel back by now, Lorsek and the others ready to throw the book at her as soon as she walked in the front door. Iona wasn’t sure which frightened her more, running into the Mahleeka, or facing that panel again. The looks they gave her still made her shudder. She wondered who was taking care of Boltan. If only she’d listened to him. Instead of traipsing around a cold and wet forest, covered in mud, dirt and blood, in clothes ripped so badly she might as well be in just her underwear, she could have been in the warmth and security of the academy, learning how to use her powers with her friend and mentor, who would be alive and well. Maybe Sahel was right; maybe Boltan was the smart one. She also wondered what Llannaiea was doing; probably flying around the Confederacy, fighting pirates and other bad guys. Iona would have given anything to trade places with her. Hers was the life she wanted. It would be dangerous but at least she’d be making a difference instead of being stuck on a little moon learning how to do cheap magic tricks.
Iona stopped. Her whole body tingled, in some parts strong and others weak. It was back. The sensation she felt when the Mahleeka’s arrows were shooting toward her. But now it was everywhere. It was like shockwaves flowing through her. They seemed to come from within but far away at the same time. What was happening? Was this the light’s doing? It was floating not far ahead, seemingly paying no attention to her. Iona was about to call out when she heard the rustling of leaves, and felt them as well. The tingling shot through like her electricity. She felt it in her fingers and arms, then her chest, legs, and head, almost in time with the moving of the leaves. The call of some unseen creature echoed through the trees and Iona felt it again, resonating through her like the vibration of a tuning fork when struck on something hard. Iona felt the calls of the animals, every slither and snap and coo and caw. Sparks bounced around every inch of her like static electricity but a thousand times stronger, all in time with something either close by or far off. Iona began to understand though she had no idea how or why. She could feel the sounds and movements of the forest, as if they’d become one and the same. She heard and felt it all: the rustling of leaves, the waving of branches, the calls of animals, the beating and fluttering of wings both huge and small, and the stomping of big feet accompanied by hushed voices. The hairs on the back of her neck became rigid spines. They were close. Each footstep sent a fresh torrent through her. She looked around for the sources but found only endless green. They were there. This was their forest. They knew it better than she ever could, how to travel it, how to hide in it, and how to use it against her. She didn’t stand a chance, not without Sahel to protect her. She’d be dead already if not for him, but he was gone. All she had now was that stupid light.
“We need to get out of here. They’re close”. Everywhere Iona looked she sensed danger. She could hear their voices: gruff and inhuman, and made up of words that were completely alien to her. It was the Mahleeka; she was certain. No other creature would produce such sounds. She heard and felt them whispering. They were hunting. Iona wrung her hands and gritted her teeth “We need to go”.
Have no fear.
“They’re going to kill me”.
To kill you, they first must see you.
“They will soon. We can’t stay here”.
The light continued, not bothered in the slightest. It had no reason to be. How would the Mahleeka go about killing a ball of light? Still, they’d have no trouble with her.
“Please don’t make us go any further”.
Everything went haywire inside her. Fireworks exploded as the rustling got louder and no longer seemed natural. Iona stopped and looked to where the sounds originated and saw movement, not from the wind but from strong arms and legs.
Move, a voice told her from within. Iona wasn’t sure whether it was her own or something else. Move now.
She looked to her left and spotted some undergrowth, a mess of snaking tendrils thick enough for something to hide beneath and remain unseen. They were her only hope. As the tingling reached its apex, Iona threw herself onto her stomach and crawled under, just in time to hear something big burst from the bushes. She lay there in the dirt with nothing but the covering above to conceal her. Beneath her skin prickled, like background noise. But then it went blasting through her so hard she nearly jumped, again and again. Every footstep was like an earthquake inside her. A pair of big feet stepped into view, skin blue as the sky. Iona couldn’t see its eye but she saw the spear in its hands. It turned on the spot, looking, searching. It knew it heard something here. Iona gripped the dirt. One sound was all it took. The creature looked around a little more, and saw nothing. Iona bit her tongue so as not to give the loudest sigh when the beast looked about to move on. Then it stopped. It knelt in the dirt, examining with its blue globe of an eye that was now clear to see. Iona wondered what it was looking at, then realized: footprints. It would know they came from her. Her heart raced like a cheetah. The desire to flee burned like the sun. She knew it would be no use. They’d run her down in a heartbeat.
The creature called out, words unintelligible. They sent a wave through Iona and then came a gust that made her tremble as more emerged. She couldn’t see much, but she did see the crude axe clutched by one and the bow and arrow held by the other. They mightn’t need them. She felt like she was on the verge of a heart attack as it was. They gathered around the spot where the first knelt, looking down at the strange tracks left by her trainers. She heard and felt their whispers, gentle pops like popping candies on her tongue. They knew she was nearby; none of their own would leave tracks like that. They were barefoot. The quiet deliberation continued, and then the search was resumed. The one with the axe gave what sounded like a command and they spread out. She needed to move. But a single sound was all that was needed to draw them. Iona had never felt fear like this before, not even as she was being dragged along the corridor during the attack. It was Sahel who saved her then as well. Who would save her now? All there was to do was shut her eyes and wait.
Go away. Maybe if she thought it hard enough they would do as she said. Iona wasn’t hopeful, having already seen where trying to get inside her enemies’ heads got her. There would be no Sahel to do it for her this time. Go away. Leave. Turn around. Go! It was no use. It was never going to work. She was useless. She could barely lift a rock and now she was trying to control the mind of a living creature. This was madness. Go away! GO AWAY! NOW!
The footsteps and shockwaves ceased. It was still there. Its breath made Iona’s skin bristle. The beating of its heart was like the snaps of firecrackers. Opening her eyes was like lifting the moon. It took every ounce of will not to recoil at the sight of the blue feet inches from her face. Iona raised her head, gaze travelling up the chiselled body until her eyes met its. She bit her tongue to stifle the scream fighting to escape her lips, so hard she might have sliced through it. It saw her, no doubt about it. But it just stood there. Iona saw nothing in its expression, none of the rage and bloodlust she’d come to associate with its kind. It was like she were staring at an empty shell.
A mismatch of confusion and relief filled her, mystified as she watched it return to its companions, then, with a grunt and a sigh, disappear back into the bushes. She could hardly believe her eyes. It was staring straight at her, but then walked away like it hadn’t seen her at all. Did she do that? She told it to go way, then it did. She couldn’t think of anything else, no Sahel this time. Excitement coursed through her. She might have screamed for the whole galaxy to hear were she not worried about drawing them back. This was huge. There she was struggling to lift rocks and now she was speaking to living creatures inside their heads and getting them to do what she wanted. How many students at the academy could do that?!
Iona waited a little longer before pulling herself out from the underbrush. The blowing of the wind and leaves left her tingling but there no more shockwaves. The forest was calm but she was blazing inside. It was all her this time. She did it herself. She almost didn’t notice the light floating nearby. Had it been there the whole time? Iona stared at it, wondering if it had some part in this as well. It seemed to be staring back.
“What just happened”?
Indeed, you are powerful, Iona Aventius. That will serve well in times to come.
That only confused her further. “What times? What are you talking about”? The light floated on its way, silent. Iona could have screamed. “I’m not going any further until you give me some answers”. It kept going but she stood her ground. She meant what she said, or she thought she did. Iona watched the light shrink, concerned it was going to leave her where she stood. Her defiance withered and she was about to start following when it seemed to stop, then started growing again. It stopped barely a centimetre from the end of her nose though Iona didn’t find its glow the least bit blinding.
You must follow.
You will find out in time.
“No! Tell me now”! It said nothing and Iona prepared to hear the same answer she’d heard again and again.
I lead you to that which you seek.
Her heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t mean . . . “The people from the academy? You know where they are”?
I know of what you seek.
I know all about you, Iona Aventius. Iona repeated herself. The time approaches. You must help, or soon there will be nothing left to save.
She understood. They were in danger. “What’s going to happen to them”?
A reckoning. One that must not be allowed to take place.
Iona wasn’t sure what that meant but it didn’t sound good. She knew they had to move quickly but there was one final question she needed to ask. “What are you”?
No more talk. You must follow. You must help before time runs out.
Iona didn’t like being kept in the dark but it seemed she wouldn’t get any more answers and, like it said, time was running out. “OK. Let’s go”.
The light set off and she did her best to keep up. The tingly feeling persisted though it seemed to subside over time. Eventually, it faded completely and she was left with only the same five boring senses she shared with most other members of her species. She’d read about arcanists who could use their powers to sense danger around them though not a lot was written about how it actually felt. Sahel said emotion played a big role in how their abilities manifested. Iona guessed it was her fear that brought about her new sense though, if that were the case, she wasn’t sure why it would fade away. She was no less scared now than before. It seemed she wasn’t fully in control of her abilities though that wasn’t much of a surprise. She could only hope they would be there when she needed them next.
With her mission seemingly back on track, once again the question was raised of what she would do when she reached her destination. She had no idea what was waiting for her or how she would free the captives and get them back to the academy, but at least she now had some help.