The three of us wandered back to the main room in silence. I could hear voices ahead of us, nothing loud, just chit-chat. As we arrived I looked around, there was Fion standing at the far end of the room, leaning against the wall, fiddling with something. Sophia was standing next to him, staring at the thing in his hands. The voices had been theirs. Avery was sat at the table, largely hidden by a handled basket.
Heads turned in our direction.
“Hello Fion, I’m pleased you will be joining us,” I said with a nod to the older man.
He grunted and resumed his tinkering.
“Avery is this everyone?” I asked with a glance around, just in case I hadn’t noticed Lyphia entering or you know hiding on the sofa. I was disappointed. She wasn’t here.
“Yes, everyone that I could reach is here. Lady Lyphia is out of touch, I left a message,” Avery said from behind her basket.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m sure you are all wondering what I have gathered you here for. I have planned a day out for us. A trip to the woods, a picnic. I thought it would be nice.”
Sophia was jumping up and down tugging on Fion’s hand trying to share her excitement. Jase and Avery smiled at each other. Airis was kinda looking into space, and I was just looking around, most of my desire for the trip had been extinguished by Lyphia’s absence, but I kept it off my face. Sophia was so excited. It was hard not to get excited with her. Infectious in the best kind of way. I felt a smile crease my face, seeing her happy was worth more than anything. The kid deserved some happiness.
“If everyone is ready?” I asked with hardly a pause for answer, “Lets go then.
I picked up the basket as I headed for the door. I walked quickly, I didn’t want anyone thinking up a reason to delay, Sophia beat me to the door. She was almost running in her haste to get gone.
I led us through the halls, I tried to steer away from the groups of people in the halls, it looked like more had arrived from Greenlaw, I looked at a small group of three mages. they were all older than me. I wasn’t surprised as such, but I thought there might be a few more almost qualified students or apprentices with them. They were arguing softly, lots of waving arms and red faces, hushed whispers. I turned away, leading my group to the other side of the hall. I have a group, I thought, surprised at the strange turn of events. It wasn’t that long ago I’d been locked in a small cell only allowed out for classes and practice. How things change, and so quickly too.
We reached the street outside the academy in short order.
Sophia was skipping about me.
I smiled down at her, “calm down, you don’t want to be all worn out before we get there. Do you?”
“But we haven’t been anywhere, I’ve been stuck in our rooms for days and look it’s sunny,” she said at such a speed I barely understood her.
Even Fion was smiling at that.
“It won’t take us long, the forest is only a few moments away,” Jase said from the back. he was stood very close to Avery.
It wasn’t my place to pass judgement, although if there was something there, good on them.
I shifted the basket to my other hand and took Sophia’s hand.
Airis was stood next to Fion. The older mage kept giving him funny looks. Airis barely noticed, he seemed to have a sense of greater confidence, since the implantation.
“We had best get a move on then. Day light is burning,” I said. I gave Sophia another smile and a squeeze.
It was strange walking the streets as part of a group. Three mages together cleared the street faster than any other method I’ve ever heard of, apart from dragon attacks, which I’m fairly sure are mythical. I’ve never found any real evidence that they had ever existed. I’d looked. The idea of dragons had captured my imagination young and never let go. Anyway, we were soon at the gates to the town, looking at the path into the woods.
The sunlight made the trees glow green, sunbeams created clouds of flickering motes along the well trod track. I let go of Sophia’s hand and she scampered off down the path, dragging Airis along, to be fair he didn’t resist much.
I made my way at a leisurely pace. It was a nice sunny day, no kid was going to make me run. The others were still behind me, Jase and Avery chatted quietly. I heard heavy footsteps behind me not quite muted by the birdsong that drifted from the trees above us.
“That boy is different,” Fion’s gruff voice sounded from just behind and above my left shoulder.
I didn’t turn, it wasn’t a question. I just kept my eyes on Airis and Sophia chasing each other around, maybe Fion would realise I didn’t want to walk about it. A hand landed on my shoulder.
“Yes he’s different,” was all I said in response to the touch. I did turn my head to look at the older mage.
He had a distant look on his face as he stared at Airis. It was as if I could see the wheels of his thoughts turning as he puzzled his way through the mystery that was Airis.
“Sophia, Airis don’t go far, stay in sight, we need to set up,” Avery called from the back.
“How about over there?” Jase asked.
I looked back and saw Jase had his right arm out, pointing across his body, to the left of the path, his left was holding Avery’s hand. I averted my eyes and looked rather quickly to where Jase had pointed. I didn’t want to intrude on a private moment. I felt a strange pang in my chest as I turned, I really wished Lyphia could have made it.
The area Jase had gestured to was a small glade just off the path. a slight rising mound covered in thick but low grass. the gentle slope was ringed by large trees in almost a perfect circle. the sun shone down on the bright grass. It was almost dazzling after the shade of the path.
I nodded more to my self than the others. I hefted the basket as I changed direction slightly taking us off the path.
“Sophia, grab Airis and get over here, we are setting up. You can help first then you can play,” I called as I reached the peak of the tiny hill, it was barely a foot above the path. I stood at the top surveying all beneath me,
Sophia was running dragging an unresisting Airis by an arm, her hair was flying out behind her in a vivid fan of colour, her cheeks were flushed and she was breathing hard. Airis in comparison was a total contrast his dark hair flowed never a strand out of place. not out of breath at all.
“I’m here, hurry up, I wanna play,” Sophia said breathlessly.
“Here is the basket,” I said handing it to her after taking the large blanket out. Avery had helpfully packed it on top of the food. “I will lay this out.”
I took a few steps back. So did everyone else. Then I flicked my wrists with two of the corners of the blanket tightly gripped in my hands. The deep blue fabric flew out as a great sheet, it opened wide. Like a piece of the sky falling to earth as it drifted down to lay on the top of the green knoll.
Airis knelt down to tug it straight and smooth the wrinkles out.
Sophia quickly placed the basket in the center of the blanket, her tiny hands darting in to take out the cloth wrapped parcels of food, she didn’t unwrap anything, just rapidly emptying the contents of the basket with a barely restrained desire to be running and jumping and catching butterflies, or whatever it was young girls did at a picnic.
She looked at me. I nodded and she was off dragging Airis with her as he struggled to regain his footing. For a stone being he really was clumsy, that must have been my influence.
Avery and Jase were the first to sit down. Fion joining them shortly, I watched Sophia skipping about, my heart lightened a touch to see her so genuinely happy. A deep fear had taken root the moment I had taken her from the remains of her parents home, that she would never be able to be truly happy again. I wasn’t kidding myself, she wasn’t suddenly over her parents death, but that fear was gone now.
I sat down on the edge of the blanket, to try and enjoy the bright sun and fresh air.
Avery was the perfect hostess, unwrapping the food and handing it out, even on plates that Sophia had neglected to get out of the basket. I got passed a place with some bread and cheese, what looked ham and a strange cup of juice. The cup was ceramic, but where the opening would normally be was a sort of spout, nevermind. I placed my lips around it and tilted my head, the fluid hit my tongue in a wash of freshness. like tasting sunlit grapes. I lowered the cup and took a look at Avery who was watching me with a rather intent gaze.
“What is this?” I asked her with a gasp.
“Sunlight drops, mood lightening wine. It’s not very alcoholic, but its great for lifting moods. I found a bottle or two in the cellars. I thought it might be a nice treat. even the children can have a small measure.” Avery said with a large grin. It clearly worked on her. she had relaxed wonderfully.
Fion stiffened suddenly, Jase and I turned to look at him then I felt it. I jumped up.
A shifting in the magic, a wave. headed straight for us. It wasn’t strong but it didn’t need to be. We were out in the woods with no protection.
At the edge of the woods I caught a flicker of movement, I turned but it was gone. “Sophia! Airis! Get back here now,” I screamed, fear pushing a touch of magic into my voice. it echoed through the grove with deep rumble like the voice of a storm.
I couldn’t see them, but I caught another flicker of movement in the woods.
“Jase protect Avery, get Fion to help if he snaps out of it in time.” I said shortly.
Jase nodded and stood murmuring reassurances to Avery. Fion continued to mutter to himself.
I spun trying to catch the flickers out, they were small, fast and there was clearly more than one.
I activated my reading as I readied my magic, holding it firmly.
With my enhanced sight I could see Airis like a beacon on the edge of the wood, glyphs flowed over his stone form, he had dropped his boy shape. Cradled in his arms was Sophia, pale and limp, I couldn’t get a read on her but she wasn’t moving.
My heart froze.
All around them were shattered bodies of gnomes, their blue colouring unmistakable.
“Airis, run you fucking idiot, you’re her protector. Get her out of danger. Take her to Rysan It’s a wave, she can’t be out here,” I screamed, my magic, a torrent around me as I shot blast after blast through the earth, tremors that knocked the remaining gnomes about
Airis’ eyes blazed with power, he nodded towards me and ran. When I say ran, it was like watching a mountain suddenly grow legs and move like the wind. A few moments he was gone, out of my sight.
The gnomes were massing, there had to be more than twenty, their matted fur and glittering eyes furious that their prize had been snatched from them turned their attention to me.
I spared a glance to Jase, he was holding Avery tightly his arms wrapped around her his head resting on hers, he looked to me, a sharp serious look filled with anger. his own power swelled around him, fire and earth, flecks of stone rose around him, heated to little more than cinders. Shimmers appeared, warping the air as the cinders flew out, a rain of blazing embers hitting gnome after gnome.
Fion was still muttering but his power was rising, so complicated that even with my reading couldn’t tell me anything useful about it. Shapes that defied all reason like tattoos appeared on his skin, glyphs that were so small and densely packed they looked like scales.
I had no idea about Fion, so I turned my attention back to the gnomes. A few remained, more than enough to finish us if the wave didn’t.
I was feeling the pressure of the coming wave on my links, my magic was suddenly thick and sluggish, as my links shook, they were twined around each other like the threads of a rope. They held each other together. I drew on what I could, which was far less than I had hoped. I drove it hard into the ground at my feet. I used it roughly, no time for finesse. Twisted spires of stone lanced from the ground under the gnomes. I was sagging as the magic took my stamina. I had enough for a final strike if I was careful, but it might be my last if I wasn’t.
The wave hit.
Magic screamed. Avery screamed as her link was shattered. Jase screamed as his shield buckled, fire washing back on him and Avery. Fion grunted and smiled, a vacant smile and raised his arms to the sky. A swarm of dark shapes rose from his bare arms, a dome of sigils I realised, as the giant mage poured his most personal power, some would say his soul into the air.
The sun dimmed and the wind stilled.
The screams stopped.