Felix, Part 8: Salt in the Air

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

After Filion makes a significant announcement, Felix and Zia hatch a  hair-brained plan to find some answers about Felix’s vision and Zia’s family. 

I arch my back, sticking my chest out a bit. I try to raise my arms, but the family next to us has been shooting us death glares ever since the incident with the drunk. It’s impossible to stretch in such a crowded space.

Zia lies curled up against our bags, brown hair draped over her shoulder. I wonder what would have happened if she had tried to steal food from the drunk instead of me. Maybe the watchwoman or the bald man wouldn’t have gotten involved. I still don’t see why that man freaked out about us talking. He didn’t hit me. He wasn’t rude to me. He was just drunk.

I nudge Fil. “Hey,” I say in a soft voice. Fil’s gaze is fixed at the far end of the wagon. “Fil!” I say louder.

My brother blinks twice before turning to me. “Sorry, what?” His grimy hair sticks to his face, a bead of sweat rolling down between his eyebrows.

“Explain why the bald man got the drunk thrown out again. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, was I?”

Fil sighed. “It happened three weeks ago, Felix. We already talked about it.”

“You said it was because he might try things. What things?”

Fil’s eyes went wide. “That’s, um, that’s…look, there are some people out there who would take…advantage of weaker people. That’s what the bald man thought. I talked with him during the break a few days ago.”

“I don’t have anything of value, though. What is there to take advantage of?”

“Felix, you’re too young to understand. Just trust me.” Fil returned his attention to the back of the wagon. I followed his gaze. Two girls wrapped in red sat in the back, talking with one another. They might have been a few years older than me, I couldn’t tell with their hoods. All I could make out was the glimmer in their eyes.

“Who are they?” I ask.

Fil shrugs. “I don’t know. I’ve been seeing them during the breaks, though. They keep to themselves.”

“So why are you staring at them?”

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.” The two girls keep talking. They don’t look that different from anyone else in the wagon, apart from the red garb.

Zia jerks awake, coughing. “Why are we stopping?” she asked.

“We are?” Sure enough, the wagon was slowly grinding to a halt. How had I not noticed it before?

The flaps at the back tear open. “Everyone out! Break time!” someone shouts.

“Finally,” Fil says, scowling. He hasn’t smiled much since we joined him outside of Haven. Maybe he’s tired of not getting enough food. Maybe it’s just because of how uncomfortable this wagon is. Zia said not to think about it too much. She thinks if he had a problem, he would have told us by now.

Everyone’s jostling around me as we all stand up. I take my fair share of elbows and hands shoved against me. Fil grabs me by the arm, and I grab Zia’s arm. Separating is never a good idea here.

Somehow it’s even hotter outside than in the caravan, despite the gentle breeze. I take a deep breath through my nose, relieved to get a breath of fresh air, but something’s off. “Do you guys smell that?”

Fil sniffs. “It’s not as bad as home. It’s…fresh.”

Zia nods. “It’s a hundred times better than the smell at home.” Her eyes widen, and she points to the distance behind us. “I didn’t know Baress was by a lake.”

I scoff. “It’s not by a lake, it’s…” The words dry up in my mouth.

None of us have ever left Haven before, so the concept of a never-ending body of water has never made sense to me. Looking out across the small field, however, I couldn’t help but gasp. The lake in North Haven seems a puddle compared to this. Deep blue, it bleeds into the sunny sky at the horizon. “It’s by an ocean.”

Zia smiles. “I didn’t know this much water existed outside of a well. I thought it was all pumped up from the ground, like the lake.” She runs across the field, stopping at the edge. “Felix, you have to see this!”

I look to Filion, who nods, glancing at the girls in red. As I run to Zia, the breeze grows stronger, the smell more intense. Zia shouts, “Down there!” She has to shout, it’s that loud.

Waves crash against the rocks below in frothy white, a dull roar audible just below the whip of the wind. I can’t tell how far it is, but it’s definitely too far to jump. “We’re really high up!” I say.

Zia grabs my hand and points it to the left. “Over there!”

Further down the shore is a bay. Dozens of tiny islands encircle the outer edges of the bay, leaving only several narrow canals deep enough to allow sea travel. A red granite wall protects the city on land, one of the strongest structures in the east. I can’t tell where the Baress School is, though. Besides size, I can’t tell any of the buildings apart. Several towers rise up from the maze of buildings, fires blazing at the top as a signal for incoming ships. “The waylights! Those are the waylights, just like I read about!” I can’t help but hug Zia in all the excitement. “We can’t be more than a day away.”

Zia smiles. “Let’s hope we find what we’re looking for.”

I grip the coin from the stranger in black in my pocket. “We will. I’m sure of it.”

Felix, Part 7: The Gentlest Drunk

Felix is back! Not only that, but I finally figured out what was going on with Elements and will probably finish the second draft by the end of the month! Progress is always nice, isn’t it?

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

After Filion makes a significant announcement, Felix and Zia hatch a plan to get some answers about Felix’s vision and Zia’s family.

 

My stomach gurgles. I hug my knees to my chest, glancing at Fil. His head rocks to the rhythm of the wagon, eyes closed. I’m glad he chose the night watch. People get robbed on the caravans all the time. We don’t want to take any chances.

Zia nudges my shoulder. She wipes her brow, nodding to the end of the wagon. “Look at him. He’s been hoarding food for a week.” Her stomach growls. “Do you think he’ll share any?”

I look the man over. His hair and beard are matted together, and he’s rocking back and forth, talking to himself. “He looks scary,” I say. No one sits near him. He reaches into his bag and puts something to his lips.

“Let’s wake Fil up. He can watch our bags.” Zia nudges him.

“Let him sleep. I’ll go talk to him.”

“But I thought you were scared of him.”

“He just looks scary.” I take a deep breath. The man sways to the right before jerking back up. “Besides, we’re starving.” I stand up, swaying a bit with a lurch of the wagon. Zia looks at me, eyes wide in trepidation. I flash her a brief smile before turning my attention to the end of the wagon. Frustrated passengers crowd every square inch of the floor. With even a single misstep, I risk upsetting someone to the point of violence. Already a few heads turn my way, eyes curious.

With a deft step, I barely avoid a lady’s hand and someone’s bag. “Sorry,” I mutter, as I steady myself on a man’s head. He twists around and glares at me. I return the glare, but to no effect. Several quick steps later, I crouch next to the ragged man.

He reeks of booze. Mom and Dad rarely drink, but I recognize the smell well enough. Up close, he looks even worse than the paupers in Haven. Every crease on his face is lined with dirt, but beneath it there’s a faint redness.

A hunk of bread hangs from one of the overstuffed pockets of his jacket. My stomach growls at the sight of it. I swallow the saliva forming in my mouth.

“Huh!” The drunk jerks his head up, eyes wide open. “Who’s there?” My eyes go wide. His guttural voice paralyzes me. I glance around. A few people stare at us. If they realize how much food he has…

“What’re you doin’ here, boy?” the drunk asks. I wrinkle my nose. His breath smells worse than the rest of him. Lies race through my mind, but none of them sound right. He hiccups. “You just gon’ sit there?”

“Sorry!” I stammer. I take a deep breath, going with my gut. “I’m going to Baress.”

The drunk bores into me with his eyes. “One of them boys looking to go to the school, eh?” he asks.

“No, sir,” I say. Why am I telling him this? “I’m looking for a village in the mountains.”

The drunk chucked. “Not many o’ those, I’ll tell you that. I seen ‘em all.” He sways back and forth, reaching inside his jacket. The bread’s exposed. I reach for it with one hand as he rummages inside his coat. “There’s the one near the old mine that got blown in, the one by the lake, the other one near the old mine…hmmm, then there’s the one that folks say don’t exist past the Withering Forest.”

I’m a hair’s width away from the roll, when I pause. “Which village doesn’t exist?” My fingers tease the roll from his pocket. It’s in my hand! But it’s not enough. Zia needs some, too.

“Strange things come out of that village.” He looks me in the eyes, more alert than ever. “Kids who can lift a grown man with one arm. They could disappear into thin air before my eyes. All wearin’ the same thing, more or less.” I sit, eyes wide, as he leans in close. “I swear, this one woman knew everything about me with just a glance. Beautiful woman, but she sent shivers down my spine. Too young to have white hair.”

I gasp. That woman again! A few people stare at us, whispering to each other.

A hand clamps down on my shoulder. “Is he bothering you?” a bald man around Dad’s age asks.

I shake my head. “No, no, I’m just-”

“You can be honest with me. People like him shouldn’t be anywhere near children.” He glares at the drunk, then shouts, “Watchman!”

“No, sir, please-” the watchwoman from before climbs into the wagon. “Not her,” I whisper. Leaning towards the drunk, I ask him “Where’s the village with the strange kids?”

The watchwoman shoves people out of the way as she approaches us. The drunk leans in and grabs my arm. “The only road through the white trees. That’s-”

“Hands off!” the watchwoman says. The drunk recoils, releasing me in a hurry.

“I wasn’t doing – hic – anything, ma’am. I’m just tryin’ to get away from the colonies. Honest!”

“He was all over this kid, ma’am,” the bald man says.

I shake my head. “He wasn’t doing anything, he just-”

“You’re confused, kid,” the man says, “that’s how they lure you in. Ma’am, do you want help with him?” He grabs the drunk by the arm.

The watchwoman pushes the bald man away. “Sir, you need to step back. I can handle him.”

He glares at her, then back at the drunk, spitting in his face. “Pervert,” he mutters. He pats me on the shoulder before walking away. Every eye is on us now. The watchwoman pulls the drunk to his feet, wrinkling her nose. The crowd parts as she drags him towards the back of the wagon.

“No, no, I’m just trying to get north,” the drunk pleads, struggling against the watchwoman’s vice grip. “He started talkin’ to me. Please!” The watchwoman shoves him through the back flaps. “Please, I-” With a crack, his voice goes silent.

The watchwoman scans the wagon, all eyes on her. She lingers on me for a moment, and I shy away from her gaze. She returns to her post sitting at the back of the wagon, closing the flap.

I take my time back to Zia, and everyone moves aside now. Zia looks around as I sit down. She’s shaking a bit. “Felix,” she whispers, “what happened there?”

I shake my head and open my fists. When did I clench my hands so hard? The single hunk of bread is squished into a ball now. I hold it up towards her. “Still hungry?”

 

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Felix, Part 6: On the Road

This will the last installment of Felix for some time. I need to take time to edit Elements, work on some other projects, and plan out Felix a bit more before continuing with it. Keep an eye out for it in the next few months, however.

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

After Filion makes a significant announcement, Felix and Zia hatch a plan to get some answers about Felix’s vision and Zia’s family.

 

One of the crates bounces as the wagon shakes. The road has only grown rougher since we left Haven hours ago. Beads of sweat roll down my face as fast as I can wipe them off. I struggle to discern the smell of the cargo from my own body.

“It’s too hot inside here,” Zia says, sweating through her tunic, “I’ll open a flap.”

I shake my head. “You know we can’t let them catch us!” I whisper, wiping my forehead with my sleeve. I reach for the leather skin in my bag and shake the last few drops of water out of it. “Do you have any water?” I ask Zia.

Zia reaches into her bag, her face flush. She tosses me her canteen, but at the last minute it slips out of her fingers. I grasp as it arcs towards the back of the caravan, but it flies just out of reach and bounces off the flap at the back of the caravan. It clatters on the floor of the wagon, and the wooden cap breaks. Water sloshes out with the rocking of the wagon, a puddle spreading with every bump. I gasp, and Zia’s eyes grow wide. She scrambles over a pile of sacks, knocking one over. Dark green powder erupts from it, and my eyes are on fire. My tongue burns, and I’m coughing and shaking. I hear Zia coughing and cursing.

“Stop!” someone outside shouts. With a jolt I tumble over, rubbing my eyes as the tears begin to form. I hear a rustle, then the same voice says, “Put your masks on. One of the spices spilled.” I feel the wagon shake with a thud, and Zia screams. I’m forced to my feet and tossed away. Blind, I stumble forward, but on the next step I plummet into the air and hit the ground hard.

Pain lances through my bruised shoulder. Zia’s tearful cries next to me and the commanding voices above blend together. “Grab a bucket!” the same voice shouts. My heart pounds in my chest, and I’m rubbing my eyes. With a crash, my face and chest are soaked, and I blink twice. My eyes feel fine, though my mouth still burns. My heart beats in my ears. Zia lays in the dirt, equally wet. Her mouth hangs open.

“They’re just kids,” a man says. Two watchmen in full leather armor stand over us, spears drawn. The big one is holding an empty bucket, and he says in a deep voice, “Zeke should know about this.” He takes off, leaving us alone with the other watchman.

“Take this,” she says, tossing a waterskin on the ground between us. “It’ll help with your throats.” She takes off her helmet, shaking out her matted brown hair. I grab the skin, eyes on her spearpoint, and begin to drink. The burning in my throat instantly vanishes. I toss it to Zia, nodding my thanks to the watchman, who’s brushing her prominent cheekbones with the back of her hand. Should I call her a watchwoman? “I’ve never seen anything like this before. How did you sneak in the caravan?”

I stare at her. Between her cheekbones and her glimmering eyes, she looked even more beautiful than the woman with the white hair. “Are you a watchwoman?” I ask. I hear Zia sigh next to me.

The woman’s eyes narrow, and the corner of her lip turns up. “Yes. People don’t usually call me that, though. Do you know what we do with stowaways?” I nod, glancing at her hands. She grips her spear firmer, eyes fixed on us.

Footsteps and voices rise on the other side of the caravan, and a skinny man with a red face comes bustling around the corner followed by the big watchman. “What should we do with them, Zeke?” the watchwoman asks.

“Dammit.” The man shakes his head, running his hands through his thinning hair. “Did we lose any of the shipment?” He climbs into the wagon.

“Just a bag of spices, but I don’t think it’s anything substantial,” the Watchwoman says. I share a look with Zia, whose eyes dart between the two watchmen. A bead of sweat rolls down her forehead. I can only imagine the thoughts running through her head, if her Dad’s stories are all true.

Zeke clamors out of the wagon. “We didn’t lose much. The school won’t notice, at least.” My pulse races. Did he say school, as in the Baress School? “You,” he says, pointing at me, “do you have a brother?”

I blink. “Yeah. Why?” Zeke nods to the larger watchman, who runs back the way they came. Zeke starts muttering to himself. The Watchwoman stares at us with narrowed eyes. I finally take a look around.

Yellowed grasses sway gently in the breeze. I stand stand to see better. My shoulder throbs, and I massage it despite the sting. Two massive trees stand stout in the distance. A thin column of smoke coils upwards back the way we came. “Where are we?”

“Outside of Haven,” the Watchwoman says.

I point to the smoke. “Are those witches?”

“Sure, if they haven’t been eaten by wildcats or hyenas.” My throat catches. I look to Zia, who shakes her head, eyes wide. The woman chuckles. “Have you heard of hyenas? Have you seen them rip the flesh off-”

“Felix?” I recognize that voice. Zia and I turn around. Filion stands next to the big watchman, brow raised.

Zeke claps, grinning. “I knew it! You two had to be related. No one else in Haven has red hair.”

Fil’s brow furrows. “What? That’s ridiculous. Plenty of people have red hair!”

“Not in Haven, they don’t. Besides, you reek of the Floral District.” Zeke strides over to us and sniffs. “You all stink.”

“Sir, what should we do with the stowaways? We need to get moving.” the Watchwoman says.

“I know that!” Zeke breathes in through his nose, glaring at us. I can smell something raw emanating from him. “It’s not far from Haven. They can walk.”

“No!” Zia and I shout. My heart races. How far is it to Haven from here? What if those hyenas catch us? What about the witches?

“Would you rather they take care of you?” Zeke slaps the big watchman on the back. “I’ve seen them do it before.” The Watchwoman glances at him, and her eyes soften.

“No!” Fil wrenches himself from the big watchman’s grasp. “They’re just kids, you can’t-”

“I can’t?” Zeke glowers at Fil, towering over him. “My job is to take care of whoever pays to use my caravan. Your parents paid for your passage. They didn’t pay for two stowaways!”

Fil glares back at Zeke. “He’s my brother. Zia probably talked him into this. You know they won’t last a day out here.”

My heart races as they stare each other down. Zia’s hand wraps around mine, and I squeeze it. Zeke takes a deep breath, never breaking eye contact with Fil, and sighs. “Their food is coming from your portion, and they’re your responsibility.” He leans in close to Fil. “Don’t make me regret this.” Zeke glares at us, then turns to the Watchwoman. “Get their things out of the wagon. We leave in five minutes.” He marches off in a huff.

I look at Filion, his face twisted in disbelief. I pick up the waterskin and take another sip. I wave to him, saying, “Hey, Fil.”

Felix, Part 5: Caravans and Watchmen

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

After Filion makes a significant announcement, Felix and Zia hatch a plan to get some answers about Felix’s vision and Zia’s family.

 

The lingering mist in the early morning light saturates my clothes. Dad and I toss Filion’s two bags in the handcart on top of all the market wares. “Filion didn’t pack very much for ten years at Baress.”  I hope I sound sick; the plan only works if Mom and Dad think I’m sick.

Dad laughs. “No, but when he starts at the school they’ll make sure he has everything he needs. He’ll be living better there than he did here.”

I groan, leaning against the cart. “We don’t live too bad here, though.”

“True, but by the time he’s done at Baress he’ll be able to do something better than work in a market.” Dad fiddles with the straps, looking away from me. “Maybe he’ll even come back to Haven and make things more fair for everyone.”

I climb onto the edge of the cart, watching Dad tie everything down. “You and Mom always have such great stories, though. All those people in the Federal District don’t know what they’re missing down here.” The breeze picks up, and I cough at the rotting stench in the air. It stinks worse than usual.

“Felix, if you saw how people lived in the Federal District you wouldn’t be saying that.” Dad picks me up off the cart and sets me down.  “Are you sure you don’t want to see your brother off at the caravans?”

“I really don’t feel well, Dad. I wish I could.”

Dad nods and pats me on the back. “Well, say goodbye to him and go back to bed. The sooner you’re feeling better, the sooner you can start helping us at the market.”

“Really?” I’m more surprised than anything else. “You’ve never asked us to help before.”

“Having Filion there this past week improved business tremendously. You’ll get a lot out of it.” Dad turns back to the straps. “Rest up. We’ll see you when you get back.”

I run back inside just as Filion and Mom are coming down the stairs. I run at Fil and wrap my arms around him in a hug. “You’ll come back soon, right?” I ask.

Fil returns my embrace. “I don’t know. We’ll see how everything goes.” He ruffles my hair. “I’ll see what I can learn about that, um, stuff we saw the other night. Baress does have the biggest library of the eastern cities, after all. When I find anything, I’ll write to you.”

“Filion, we should go.” Mom gives me a hug. “We’ll be back before lunch, Felix. If you’re feeling better when we get back, you can spend some time with Zia.”

I let go of my brother, rubbing my eyes as if wiping away tears. “Okay.”

Filion tussles my hair. “Love you, Felix. I’ll write as soon as I can.”

“Love you, too.” I head up the stairs as Mom and Filion shut the door. I run my hands along the wall, wondering what Mom and Dad will think when they find my note on the table. I had already written it the night before. All it said was:

Something happened to me last week. I’m not hurt or in danger, but I need answers, and I won’t find them here in Haven. I’ll come home when I figure it out. I love you both.

Zia helped write the letter yesterday. She’s much better with words than I am, and it sounds a lot like what you’d find in stories. Hopefully it will be enough.

I wrap my dark cloak around my shoulders, grab my bag and the note from the foot of my bed and race down the stairs. I only carry a change of clothes, some food, and our copy of The Hermit’s Knight. I drop the note on the table and dash to the front door. As I place my hand on the doorknob, I take one last look around at the wooden table, the bookshelves, and the metal stove. “It’ll only be a few weeks, then I’ll be back,” I whisper to myself, brushing my eyes. I’m actually crying a bit now. I guess I could fool my family, but not myself.

I jump at the knock on the door. Are they home already? They haven’t been gone that long. I crack the door open a bit and meet familiar blue eyes. “Are you ready?” Zia asks. “You family left fifteen minutes ago, and my dad’s still out cold.”

I wipe my eyes one last time, shutting the door behind me. “Yeah, I was just about to leave.”

Zia pats me on the shoulder. “Don’t be upset. At least you have a family to come back to.”

“What about your Dad?” I ask.

Zia wraps her cloak around her, shivering. “I don’t think he’ll miss me. Come on. The caravans leave in a couple hours.” She hitches her bag and dashes to the alleyway across the street. I follow her, stumbling on the uneven street.

 

“I don’t see Fil or my parents out there,” I say, gazing out over the white wagons and the people loading them. Rich or poor, everyone uses the same covered wagons with several notorious watchmen assigned to them during the trip. Without looking inside or asking someone it’s impossible to know who’s inside or where they’re going.

Zia tears her cloak off, revealing a sleeveless tunic and rolled up pants. “Keep an eye on my bag,” she says, stuffing her cloak into it, “I’m going to talk to that watchman.” She scrambles off the ledge we’re standing at. I duck below, dropping my bag and taking my cloak off. I had already started to sweat through it. Haven always grows warm incredibly fast after sunrise. I watch Zia amble up to a wiry man in  brown leather armor, spear and sword strapped to his back. She tugs at his arm, and he glances down at her. These men are rumored to do unspeakable things to anyone they perceive as a threat. Mom and Dad rarely talk about them, even when Filion and I ask.

Zia’s glances up my way. Is something wrong? Did she get hurt? She looks up at me, direct eye contact, and the glint in her eye is all I need to see. I drop the packs over the ledge then throw myself over. I hit the ground hard and fall on my shoulder. Grunting, I pull myself to my knees. A few people turn to look at me wearing quizzical expressions. Zia’s at my side, helping me up by my elbow. “Felix, did you fall over again?” She laughs. “You’re always doing that. Come on,” she says, grabbing her bag, “We’ve got a caravan to catch.”

“How did you find out? You spoke with the watchman for barely a minute.” I put my bag on my right shoulder, massaging my left.

“I told him my mommy was going to Baress, and I had to find her before she left.” Zia runs past the throng of people to a wagon being loaded with crates and burlap sacks by two large watchmen. “This one is going there.”

I’m glad Zia’s dad used to be a watchman. She’d hear all these great stories when he’d finish an assignment. They memorize which caravans are going where, if there are any important travelers, all sorts of things. As soon as they load the supply wagons, they all do a final check on the passengers before taking off. The two watchmen pull the flaps down on the back of the wagon and run to another one. “Now’s our chance. Hurry!” Zia grabs my hand, and we dash to the wagon. She pulls on one of the flaps, and I clamber in, tossing my pack into the wagon. It smells of all sorts of things I can’t place. Zia jumps in behind me, smiling. “I’m going to see my family again! And you’ll-”

I shove my hand against her mouth. The wagon rocks gently near the back, and a man says in a gruff voice, “You sure you don’t want to be back in your mansion, milady?”

A woman laughs. “You’re quite handsome yourself.” Her voice is almost playful, not what I expected from a member of an elite division of warriors. “I’ve done this route before. Bandits never go after the supplies to Baress. It’s always the passengers they go after.”

Zia’s smile widens. I can’t imagine why. Before I decide to get off, the wagon lurches forward. As much as I want answers to my vision and the mystery surrounding the fire girl, I can’t stop thinking about what the watchmen sitting at the back of the wagon will do when they find two stowaways on board.

Felix, Part 4: The Hermit’s Knight

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

 

“White trees, you say? I’ve never seen anything like that before.” The librarian looks at me with trepidation, rolling up the sleeve of her green tunic. “Why do you ask?”

“I had a dream about them,” I say. I had been coming to the library every day since the vision, looking up anything about hallucinations and white trees. One librarian recommended books about witches, but I don’t understand a lot of the words. Filion might be able to read them, but he was busy helping Mom and Dad at the market. I’ll talk to him after dinner tonight. Maybe if they do well enough today he’ll come with me tomorrow.

The librarian cranes her neck at the higher shelves. “Your name’s Felix, right? You asked me the same questions two days ago.” She put a book high on the shelves. “I didn’t have any answers then, and I don’t have any answers now. I could ask my colleagues in Baress, but it’ll take a week or two before I hear back.”

“A week? This is urgent!”

“That’s the best I can do. I’m sorry.”

That’s the same thing all the other librarians said. “Thank you, ma’am.” I shuffle my feet as I walk back to the kids section to take my mind off of things. Five days of researching and asking questions and I’m no closer to figuring out what happened to me. Maybe I should just tell Mom and Dad and hope they won’t be mad. They probably hear all sorts of stuff in the market, they must know something.

 

The air stinks more than usual. Sweat beads on the back of my neck as I race down our street, hoping I arrived home before everyone else. Mom and Dad would kill me if they knew I’d even gone into the next borough. It’s usually never a problem, but with everything that’s been going on I know they wouldn’t like what I’ve been getting up to.

I duck inside the front door, shutting it quickly. I yank my boots off and toss them in the corner. I race through the kitchen and grab a book from the bookshelf. Yesterday I barely beat Mom and Dad home. I can’t let that happen again.

With my book in my hands, I sit down at the table and sigh. Five days in the library and I have nothing to show for it. Filion and I talk about it every night, trying to figure out what happened. He would bounce ideas around with me, but the only thing we know right now is that there are people far more dangerous than the city guard or the witches. Maybe that’s why Filion’s been working so much at the market. Is he desperate to leave Haven? Does he think he’ll be safer at Baress?

I open the book to a random page, hoping the story will take my mind off of things. It reads Chapter 5: The Hermit. “This is one of my favorites!” I say to myself. Dad used to read The Hermit’s Knight to us as we fell asleep. With how often we’ve read it I’ve nearly memorized it.

Upon the request of his people, a knight sets off to find a magical hermit who can end the curse placed on his king and queen. During his journey he crosses paths with a gambling jester, a pair of witches, a kindhearted dragon, and even men with fish tails instead of legs. Eventually he reaches a mountain pass. Weary from his dangerous journey, he ducks into a nearby cave to rest, only to encounter the very hermit he sought! As he recovers from his injuries, the knight discovers that the hermit had cursed the king and queen for banishing him from the kingdom years ago. The hermit eventually discerns the knight’s true intentions. After a brief struggle of magic and might, the knight proves victorious.

That’s it! The hermit lived in the mountains! Maybe if I ask the librarians about mountain folk I’ll get somewhere.

“Felix!” someone shouts from the kitchen. I set the book on the table and dash to the window. A girl with bright eyes and dark hair looks through the window, both hands pressed against the glass. She flashes a smile when she sees me, and I smile back on instinct. “There you are! I haven’t seen you in days, where have you been?”

“I’ll let you in, come around to the front.” She nods, then vanishes from the window. Lucky for her she’s small enough to fit between our houses. Guilt washes over me; I haven’t seen her in nearly a week. She’s my best friend, and in my obsession with my vision I’ve been avoiding her without realizing it. I open the door, and I fall back in a giggling tackle. “Ow! Hey, watch it!”

She laughs again, saying “Sorry, it’s just so good to see you.”

“You too, Zia!” We stand up, and I shut the door. “So much has happened over the past few days.”

“Like what? Tell me!”

“It’s kind of a long story.” Zia looks at me with prying eyes. “Fine. Mom and Dad came home from the market upset six days ago, but they wouldn’t tell us much about what happened, just that a woman with white hair stared at Mom for a long time. Filion, however, told me that night he learned about a girl with flaming hands in the market being chased by people in black. He had also seen the woman with the white hair going into the Witch’s Brew with a little girl just before dinner. I thought the girl with the flaming hands might be an Elemental – like the ones that took over the eastern cities – and Filion seemed as eager to investigate as I was, so we snuck out and spied on them through the window at the inn. The people in black showed up, they fought, and the little girl shot fire from her hands. It nearly hit me in the face! When they finally stopped, the woman in white looked directly at me, and I had this vision of a woman in these mountains over a white forest. She led me to a pass and showed me a village and told me ‘They can teach you to protect the world. Find them.’ Then I came back to the real world. I’ve been going to the library trying to figure out where the village is every day since, and Mom and Dad won’t let us leave the house after dinner until everyone calms down about the fire girl.”

Zia blinks. “That’s it?”

“Yes.” I shake my head. How does she not get how big a deal this is? “This sort of thing doesn’t happen every day, you know.”

“Yeah, but you said it was a long story. That only took a couple minutes to tell, didn’t it?” Zia sits down at the table. “Besides, it’s not like witches are coming back to Haven or anything.

“This is so much bigger than witches in Haven, Zia. That girl’s probably an Elemental! The woman also gave me a vision, as in transported me to another world vision. That’s not something a witch can do.”

“But she had white hair.” Zia taps the table. “My parents said that all the witches had white hair and could use magic.”

“That’s what my parents said, too, but this lady was young.” I grab two wooden cups and a pitcher of water from the shelf. “She looked younger than our parents, but not too young to marry. Do you want anything to drink?”

“Is your water good?” Zia asks.

“It’s not bad. Why, what’s wrong with yours?”  I pour two cups of water. Surely the well they used wasn’t contaminated again.

“Nothing yet. Dad says we’ll have to dig a new well soon unless the city actually gives us running water. So what did you learn at the library?”

I set the full cups of water on the table. “Nothing. I’ve been looking up anything about white trees and visions, but no luck so far. I’m pretty sure the librarians don’t want me around anymore. Maybe if I ask them about people who live in the mountains, I’ll get some answers.”

Zia takes a sip of water. “I still don’t fully understand what happened to you. Who were the men in black? What did they have to do with all this?”

I reach into my pocket. “I don’t know. One of them was a woman. She tossed me this, as in bribing us to keep quiet.” I pull out the coin from that night, and Zia snatches it from my hands. “Hey, don’t take that!”

“Felix, this isn’t from Haven.” Zia squints as she scrutinizes the coin. “I don’t even think it’s money.”

“What do you mean?” I look at the bronze coin, color rising to my face. I’ve helped Mom and Dad count money at the end of the day, I should have known this. All of the coins in Haven have cats eyes on them, but this one has some sort of pattern etched into it, almost as if a little child scribbled all over it. “I guess I never looked too carefully at it. I never even took it out of these pants until just now.”

Zia sets the coin down, saying “You should ask your parents. They might know about it.”

Someone knocks on the door. “Felix, open up!” Filion’s voice sounds muffled, and not just because of the door.

“We’ll be right there!” I pocket the coin, and just as I’m about to get up Zia grabs my arm.

“Have you told Filion about your visits to the library?” she asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t really have anything new to say.” Zia and I run to the door and yank it open. Filion stands there, a plum in his mouth and his hands full with other sacks. “Thanks.” He weaves past us. “Hey, Zia.”

“How did you knock?” Zia asks.

Fil sets the bags on the table and takes the plum from his mouth, swallowing. “With my foot. What have you two been doing all day?”

“Nothin’. What about you?” I ask.

“Mom and Dad let me go early from the market. Guess what?” I shrug, fingering the coin in my pocket. “They think we’ve made enough to send me off to Baress!”

“Already? It hasn’t even been a week.” I knew he was desperate to leave. I suppose I already knew, I just don’t want it to happen so soon.

“Help me with these.” Filion picks up a bag. Zia and I grab bags and empty them all onto the table. “Gentle, gentle. Mom doesn’t want the fruit bruising for tonight.”

“Congratulations, Filion. That’s wonderful news!” Zia picks up a couple bags of fruit. “Felix, can you help me with these?”

“Yeah, they go in the cooler outside.” I grab a couple bags and follow Zia, swallowing the lump in my throat.

It’s still swelteringly hot out, and everything stinks, but the blast of fresh air when I open the cooler washes over my skin. I hand my bags down to Zia, who’s already in the cooler. I sit on the steps leading down, head in my hands. “It’ll be fine, Felix.” I say to myself.

“Of course it’ll be fine.” Zia wraps her arm around my shoulder. “You’ll hang out with me, and we’ll figure out the mystery behind your vision.”

“Did I say that out loud?” I smile. “Sorry. I just don’t want Fil to leave, you know?”

“I felt the same way after Mom left with Ina. I still do, sometimes.”

“Do you know where they went?” I ask, looking at her. I know I should shut the cooler and go back inside, but talking this through with Zia takes a weight off my chest.

“Baress, I think. Mom and Dad would fight all the time, and one day I guess she just had enough.” Zia sniffles. “Ina was just a baby. She’d be so much bigger now.”

I stand up. “Did you say Baress?” I help Zia to her feet, and we climb the steps out of the cooler and shut the doors.

“Yeah, why?” Zia gazes at me with her blue eyes. A smile creeps across my face.

Felix, Part 3: The Witch’s Brew

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

I shut the front door, taking care not to let it creak. I sniff, coughing. “God, it smells awful. I mean, worse than usual.” Even though our borough has always been called the Floral District, no amount of flowers can mask the rotten stench of the land. The philosophers of the Baress School claim that it’s something to do with the soil, but most people say it’s the witches curse from their banishment hundreds of years ago.

Filion pulls his hood up and wraps his cloak around him, shivering. He tugs on my cloak and starts down the cobbled street. I follow at his side, pulling my hood up. Only a few street lanterns are lit, hanging off the second stories of the houses. It’s perfect for sneaking around, but I struggle to see anything on this moonless night, stumbling every few feet.

The maiden with the sword shines brighter than ever in the sky. Ever since I first glimpsed the stars, she has watched over me. I glance up at her as we stop at a corner, wondering what she would do about the girl with the burning hands.

Bright lights illuminate the next corner. The Witches Brew, they call it. Everything in this city is named after the witches, to some extent. Even the city’s name, Haven, comes from the safety witches once felt here before people threw them from their homes and exiled them to the fields outside the city limits. Only a few witches live within sight of the city walls; the rest have vanished. Their legacy lives on, though. Anytime something mysterious happens, the witches receive the brunt of the blame until a better explanation surfaces.

Filion and I dash to the alley behind the inn. The doorman at the Witches Brew slumps against the wall, belching. I whisper to Filion, “How do we figure out where they are? Maybe if we drag the drunk at the door into the alley-”

Filion clamps a hand over my mouth. “Do you hear that?” I shake my head. Then I hear footsteps. Two figures in black cloaks materialize under a lantern. As their cloaks billow, I see a glint of metal at their hips. We crouch down as they walk past us. I see their faces as they walk past – a man and a woman with stern features. The woman and I make eye contact, and she tosses a coin my way. I catch it, and she puts a finger to her lips. Filion and I share a look. Does she think we’re homeless? Is she bribing us?

The man grabs a purse from his belt and places it in the doorman’s hand. “We were never here, understand?” His voice is smooth and warm. The doorman grunts and nods. The man pats him on the shoulder, and he and the woman enter the inn.

Filion stands up. “Stay here.” He walks up to the doorman, whispering to him. I feel the cold coin between my fingers, watching them talk. Who are these people in black, tossing money around like it’s no big deal? What do they want with the girl?

Filion comes back, saying, “I know where the woman is.” He points up to the second window three stories up.

“Did he mention the girl?” I ask. Filion nods, walking into the alley. He looks around, feeling the walls.

“Up this way, we’ll get to the roof.” He digs into the bricks and starts climbing. I shiver, watching him scramble up the wall like a spider. In minutes he’s on the roof, beckoning me up. I take a deep breath. If he can do it, so can I.

I reach up as high as I can and grab on, then thrust myself up with my feet. I dig into the wall with my boots, reaching the window on the second floor. I look up to the ledge, searching for a good handhold. They’re all out of my grasp. I glance at Fil, who’s pointing to my right. A rusty pipe leads all the way up the side of the building, and it’s within arm’s reach. I grab it and start climbing slowly, step by step. The pipe rattles with every movement, but before long I’m climbing over the berm of the building. I scurry to Filion, who sits across from the window. I crouch next to him, wondering how we’ll get down, but all thoughts vanish when I look through the window.

A young girl with light brown hair sits in a chair, gently kicking her legs and talking. She gestures with gloved hands. A figure in brown pants sits on the bed, writing in a notebook. Her face is obscured by shadows from the candle in the window, but from the way her clothes fit I can tell it’s a woman. She nods, never lifting her head. “Is that the girl you saw earlier, Fil?” I ask.

Fil nods. “I think so. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the girl, though.”

I glance at him. “Why not?” I turn my attention to the inn. The woman in the shadows sets her notebook down and leans forward. I gasp as she tucks her white hair behind her ear. She has shimmering green eyes and long fingers. She’s definitely young with no wrinkles on her face. “That’s her, isn’t it?”

Filion nods. “Oh, yeah.” He’s wearing this goofy grin on his face, and I wonder if he’s hypnotized. She hasn’t looked our way, so she can’t have hypnotized him like she did to Mom. The woman talks to the girl, who stops kicking her legs and grows serious.

I watch them with baited breath. “Fil, did she just hypnotize the girl?”

“What?” Fil hasn’t even turned my way. He’s still staring at the woman, who’s crouched down next to the fireplace.

“The girl, she stopped moving after the woman spoke to her.”

“Huh.”

“You’re not even listening to me, are you? She…” I forget what I’m about to say. The girl is staring right at me. I can see a spark behind her yellow eyes. “Fil, she sees us.”

“Okay.” Filion’s voice is vacant, but then he says, “Wait, what?”

“We’re looking at each other.” I barely move my mouth, paralyzed with fear. Filion pushes me down below the ledge, and I bang my head. “Ow! What was that for?”

Filion shushes me, peeking over the ledge. “She’s still looking our way,” he says, “but I’m not sure – hang on.” The air smells slightly of something rotten, as usual, but is otherwise still. I can hear muted voices from across the alley. “Felix, you’ve gotta see this.”

I lift my head up just enough to see over the ledge. The woman in white stands in front of the girl, arms outstretched as if protecting her. Two figures shift just outside of the candlelight.  I make out the outline and faint glint of a sword in the shadows, then one of the figures leaps towards the woman. I think she ducks out of the way, but in the low light all I can see is people spinning and striking. The only person I notice the whole time is the little girl. Her eyes dart around the room and out the window, and the longer the fight goes on the heavier she breathes. She fidgets with her gloves, ducking from an arm clad in black. A trail of blood spatters across the window, leaving a sinister streak. Filion gasps beside me. “Felix, let’s go!” He grabs my arm and drags me across the roof. A roar and a wave of heat rush past us, and Filion lets go of me. I fall flat on my back as another fireball barely misses my face. I dash to the ledge near the inn and crouch behind it. “Felix!” Filion shouts. His brown eyes are wide with panic, and he rushes to me. “We have to get out of here, now!”

“But what about the fire?” I ask, breathing heavily. I look back to the inn. The window has two shattered holes in it. There’s no sign of the mysterious assailants, only the girl and the woman. Flames from the bed illuminate the room with a flickering light. The girl puts her gloves on, sobbing. The woman closes the door and dumps water from a pitcher on the bed. She goes to the girl and wraps her arms around her, whispering into her ear. Her muffled sobs echo across the alley, and tears well up in my eyes. “Fil, what just happened?” I ask.

The woman snaps her head, and we make eye contact. Her eyes soften a bit. I try to move, but my body won’t respond. The world goes white, and my stomach lurches. The rushing of wind fills my ears. Voices tumble over each other in an indiscernible cacophony. I’m falling and falling until-

I land on hard earth, stumbling. Wind continues to whip around me, sending a chill down my spine. I wrap my cloak as tightly as I can, shielding my eyes. The sun reflects harshly off the snow, but I can still make out a narrow path that drops off to the left. I brace against the rock wall, heart pounding as I scan for any recognizable landmark. Hundreds of feet below lies a forest, the bone-white bark of the trees almost indiscernible from the snow. At least, I think they’re trees. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. They go on as far as the eye can see.

“Hey!” someone shouts. A stranger waves at me from down the trail, beckoning me. I walk towards her, wrapping my cloak tighter. The wind bites at my nose and fingers, and I keep one hand on the wall for my own sake. I look ahead or to the wall, focusing on each step.

The stranger turns sharply to the right, and I follow. The wind dies down here, and I collapse with trembling knees. “Look,” the stranger says in a woman’s voice, “your answers are down there.” I follow her hand the way she’s pointing. The mountains open up on a basin filled with evergreens and streams. A village lays nestled at the base of the mountains, smoke rising from chimneys. The woman puts a hand on my shoulder. “They can teach you to protect the world. Find them.”

“Who are you? Where is this place?” The wind picks up, and I shut my eyes. The woman takes her hand off my shoulder. “How do I find you?” The earth vanishes beneath my feet, and the voices echo around me again. I open my eyes but see only white.

“Felix!” Filion’s deep voice cuts through the rest.

I gasp. The smell of Haven returns, and Filion’s hitting my chest. “I’m here, I’m fine,” I say, “What happened?”

“That woman turned to look at us, and you froze. I’ve never seen anything like it. She took the girl and left.” Filion grabs my face and looks at me, brown eyes full of concern. “Are you sure you’re okay? It’s like you weren’t here.” I gaze at the window across the alley. Sure enough, the room is empty. Apart from a few glowing embers and the broken window, there’s no sign of them. “Felix?”

I cough. “Yeah, I think I’m okay. Do you have any idea where they went?” I ask.

Filion shakes his head. “You’re shaking.” I look down. Sure enough, my knees are trembling. “Let’s go home, Felix. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. I’m just glad we didn’t try to catch that girl. That would not have ended well.”

Felix, Part 2: What Happened in the Market?

Felix has always been fascinated by the world around him and unafraid to try new things. Ever since he read about the rise and fall of the Elementals, however, he hasn’t been able to think about anything else. 

“So Voxace used to be the capitol of the world?” I ask, filling my plate.

“It would have been,” Mom says, “but when the Elementals overran Sauca, everyone abandoned the Unification.”

“That’s where all the cities would have become one big group?” I ask.

“Exactly, Felix,” Dad says, “we would have been a nation. Other lands far away have had nations for as long as I can remember.” The door creaks open, and Filion walks in with a brown jug. “Hey, Fil!” Dad says.

Filion shuts the door as Dad and I sit on the floor at the low table, plates full. “I’ll join you after I put the milk outside,” he says.

“Okay, don’t take too long.” Mom lifts a basin of water onto the stove and adds more wood to the metal firebox. She scoops chicken and vegetables onto her plate and sits on the floor next to the table. I take a huge bite and cough. My eyes water from the spice. Mom laughs. “Strong, isn’t it?”

“Yeah!” I gulp down water to soothe my burning mouth. “It doesn’t smell spicy, though.”

“You must have used the Saucan pepper. It has hardly any smell, but it’ll make any meal hotter.” Mom takes a bite. “It’s good, if you like spice.”

Filion walks back in and goes to the stove. “You used way too much pepper, Felix. I would have mentioned it, but you seemed so pleased with yourself.”

“Filion!” Dad says.

“What? It’s true.” Fil joins us with a full plate.

“I thought you said it was too spicy!” I hit him in the shoulder.

“It’s too spicy for you. I can handle it.”

“Filion, that’s enough,” Mom says.

“Fine.” Fil takes a huge bite. “How did you guys do today?” he asks through a full mouth.

Dad reaches for his cup. “Pretty good. We sold everything today.”

“Even the cima dolls?” I ask.

Mom nods. “Even the cima dolls. People bought them like they were going out of style. Good suggestion, Felix.”

“Zia showed me hers. That’s where I got the idea.”

“The girl next door?” Mom asks.

“His girlfriend,” Filion says.

“No she’s not!” I hit Filion again. He smirks.

“Enough!” Dad says, slamming his hand on the table. Filion and I turn to Dad. His cheeks are as red as his hair. “I don’t want to hear any more bickering from you two, understand?”

“He started it!” I say.

“Your father’s right,” Mom says, “Filion, you need to start setting a better example for your brother. Felix, quit hitting him. You know he’s just teasing you to get a rise out of you. We’d rather not come home to our children fighting after a long day, understand?”

“But you said it was a good day.”

“It was, but something happened today.” Mom takes another bite.

“Was it the fire in the market?” Filion asks, shoveling more food into his mouth.

Dad sets down his fork. “That was nothing.”

Filion swallows his food. “People kept talking about it in the street when I went to get milk. They said they’d risk going to the next borough for food if it happened again.”

“What fire in the market?” I ask.

“They terrified everyone,” Dad says, “people bought those cima dolls so they would feel safer. Cheap protection charms sell in a time of crisis, I guess. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again.  We’ll lose all our business if it does, and then neither of you two will go to the Baress School.”

I don’t understand why Dad ignored me. He always answers my questions, unless it’s about something serious and he needs to think about it. Before I can ask again Filion says,“The school’s not that expensive,”

“How are you going to get there, son?” Dad takes a sip of water.

“I’ll take a horse or a wagon or-”

“Those things cost money, you know. And I am not letting you hitchhike. The road from here to Baress is too dangerous.”

“If we have a couple more days like today, we might be able to send you with Zeke’s caravan next week.” Mom starts gathering the empty plates. “Just be patient, Fil.”

My brother sighs, then picks up my plate and his. “Okay.”

“What went down in the market, Dad?” I ask again.

Dad sighs, resting his arms on the table. “This woman with white hair stopped and stared at your mom. I asked her if she needed anything, but she completely ignored me.”

“I bet she was one of those old witches from outside the city. Did she have a big cat with her?” I ask. “Zia says they always have big cats on their shoulders.”

“That’s just it, Felix,” Mom says, “she couldn’t have been much older than me when I married your father. Beautiful, too. Absolutely beautiful. She stares at me with that eerie stare and then she whispered under her breath before walking away.” Mom sighs. “It’s been a weird day.”

“I saw her!” Filion smiles, and his eyes light up. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I walked past her on the way back to the house. You’re right, Mom, she’s beautiful.”

Mom’s brow furrows. “In that case, neither of you will leave the house after dinner until all this blows over. That woman may be dangerous, and the city guard’s grown more aggressive the past few weeks.”

“But Fil said there was a fire-”

“That was nothing, Felix.” Dad pats me on the shoulder. “Just a couple ruffians causing trouble.”

I look to Fil, hoping for answers. His brow is furrowed. “Can I help you guys out in the market the next few days?” he asks. “I want to help get as much money together as possible.”

Dad smiles. “You’re just itching to leave us, aren’t you?” Fil nods. “Your mom and I will talk about it. Right, sweetie?”

Mom shoots Dad a skeptical glance. “Of course. We’ll talk tonight.”

 

I toss and turn in my bed, thoughts racing. Did the mysterious woman hypnotize mom? When is Filion going to leave for Baress? Why wouldn’t Dad tell me anything about the fire? I rub my face, sighing into my hands. I’m overthinking this.

My door creaks open. I freeze. Filion creeps in, hair pulled back and a finger to his lips. He tiptoes to my bed, sitting at the end. “Guess what?” he asks. I prop myself on my elbows, shrugging. “Mom and Dad didn’t tell us everything that happened at the market.”

“I know. I wonder-”

“This little girl tore through the market, screaming, with her hands on fire. She burned a couple stalls down.”

“How do you know?” I whisper, my pulse racing. Ordinary people don’t shoot flames out of their hands.

“I overheard it when I went to get milk. A few of the older kids witnessed it.”

“It was just a little girl?” I ask, sitting all the way up. Maybe they manifest their powers early. The book never mentioned how they got their abilities.

Filion shakes his head. “I think she was being chased. These kids kept talking about people in black carrying weapons.”

“The city guard doesn’t wear black, though. They wear gray and blue.”

“That’s probably why Mom and Dad told us not to leave the house after dark. With everything they saw today, they’re worried we’ll get in trouble.” Filion’s mouth creeps into a smile. “Get dressed.”

“But you just said-”

“Felix, remember at dinner when I mentioned seeing the gorgeous woman with white hair?” I nod. When did he get so interested in girls? “She ducked into the Witch’s Brew a few blocks away with a terrified little girl.”

I gasp. “You think it’s the Elemental girl?”

“Hah!” Filion looks around, eyes wide. “I knew it,” he says quieter, “I knew you thought she had Elemental powers! Let’s go, we can check it out.”

I hesitate. Mom and Dad will kill us if they find out. Then again, when’s the next time I’ll be anywhere near an Elemental? When will I get to make a difference? I jump out of bed and grab a tunic and pants. “Grab my bag,” I say, pointing at my canvas bag hanging next to the door.

Filion hands it to me as I pull my tunic over my head. “What are you thinking?”

I smile, taking the bag from him. “We’re gonna catch that girl and take her to the city guard.”

Fil snatches the bag away from me. “No way, Felix. We’re just gonna take a look and come home, that’s all.”

“But if we deliver her to the city guard, we’ll be heroes.” I reach for the bag, glaring at Fil.

“No, it’ll look like we kidnapped a little girl. Besides, what if she uses her-” The floor creaks. Fil and I freeze. Insects chirp and buzz outside. I hear the neighbors from across the backyard shouting. No more noises come from inside the house, though. Mom and Dad are still asleep.

“Alright, alright. We won’t try anything.” I’m whispering now, knowing if we get caught Mom will never let us go to Baress.

“So Voxace used to be the capitol of the world?” I ask, filling my plate.
“It would have been,” Mom says, “but when the Elementals overran Sauca, everyone abandoned the Unification.”
“That’s where all the cities would have become one big group?” I ask.
“Exactly, Felix,” Dad says, “we would have been a nation. Other lands far away have had nations for as long as I can remember.” The door creaks open, and Filion walks in with a brown jug. “Hey, Fil!” Dad says.
Filion shuts the door as Dad and I sit on the floor at the low table, plates full. “I’ll join you after I put the milk outside,” he says.
“Okay, don’t take too long.” Mom lifts a basin of water onto the stove and adds more wood to the metal firebox. She scoops chicken and vegetables onto her plate and sits on the floor next to the table. I take a huge bite and cough. My eyes water from the spice. Mom laughs. “Strong, isn’t it?”
“Yeah!” I gulp down water to soothe my burning mouth. “It doesn’t smell spicy, though.”
“You must have used the Saucan pepper. It has hardly any smell, but it’ll make any meal hotter.” Mom takes a bite. “It’s good, if you like spice.”
Filion walks back in and goes to the stove. “You used way too much pepper, Felix. I would have mentioned it, but you seemed so pleased with yourself.”
“Filion!” Dad says.
“What? It’s true.” Fil joins us with a full plate.
“I thought you said it was too spicy!” I hit him in the shoulder.
“It’s too spicy for you. I can handle it.”
“Filion, that’s enough,” Mom says.
“Fine.” Fil takes a huge bite. “How did you guys do today?” he asks through a full mouth.
Dad reaches for his cup. “Pretty good. We sold everything today.”
“Even the cima dolls?” I ask.
Mom nods. “Even the cima dolls. People bought them like they were going out of style. Good suggestion, Felix.”
“Zia showed me hers. That’s where I got the idea.”
“The girl next door?” Mom asks.
“His girlfriend,” Filion says.
“No she’s not!” I hit Filion again. He smirks.
“Enough!” Dad says, slamming his hand on the table. Filion and I turn to Dad. His cheeks are as red as his hair. “I don’t want to hear any more bickering from you two, understand?”
“He started it!” I say.
“Your father’s right,” Mom says, “Filion, you need to start setting a better example for your brother. Felix, quit hitting him. You know he’s just teasing you to get a rise out of you. We’d rather not come home to our children fighting after a long day, understand?”
“But you said it was a good day.”
“It was, but something happened today.” Mom takes another bite.
“Was it the fire in the market?” Filion asks, shoveling more food into his mouth.
Dad sets down his fork. “That was nothing.”
Filion swallows his food. “People kept talking about it in the street when I went to get milk. They said they’d risk going to the next borough for food if it happened again.”
“What fire in the market?” I ask.
“They terrified everyone,” Dad says, “people bought those cima dolls so they would feel safer. Cheap protection charms sell in a time of crisis, I guess. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again. We’ll lose all our business if it does, and then neither of you two will go to the Baress School.”
I don’t understand why Dad ignored me. He always answers my questions, unless it’s about something serious and he needs to think about it. Before I can ask again Filion says,“The school’s not that expensive,”
“How are you going to get there, son?” Dad takes a sip of water.
“I’ll take a horse or a wagon or-”
“Those things cost money, you know. And I am not letting you hitchhike. The road from here to Baress is too dangerous.”
“If we have a couple more days like today, we might be able to send you with Zeke’s caravan next week.” Mom starts gathering the empty plates. “Just be patient, Fil.”
My brother sighs, then picks up my plate and his. “Okay.”
“What went down in the market, Dad?” I ask again.
Dad sighs, resting his arms on the table. “This woman with white hair stopped and stared at your mom. I asked her if she needed anything, but she completely ignored me.”
“I bet she was one of those old witches from outside the city. Did she have a big cat with her?” I ask. “Zia says they always have big cats on their shoulders.”
“That’s just it, Felix,” Mom says, “she couldn’t have been much older than me when I married your father. Beautiful, too. Absolutely beautiful. She stares at me with that eerie stare and then she whispered under her breath before walking away.” Mom sighs. “It’s been a weird day.”
“I saw her!” Filion smiles, and his eyes light up. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I walked past her on the way back to the house. You’re right, Mom, she’s beautiful.”
Mom’s brow furrows. “In that case, neither of you will leave the house after dinner until all this blows over. That woman may be dangerous, and the city guard’s grown more aggressive the past few weeks.”
“But Fil said there was a fire-”
“That was nothing, Felix.” Dad pats me on the shoulder. “Just a couple ruffians causing trouble.”
I look to Fil, hoping for answers. His brow is furrowed. “Can I help you guys out in the market the next few days?” he asks. “I want to help get as much money together as possible.”
Dad smiles. “You’re just itching to leave us, aren’t you?” Fil nods. “Your mom and I will talk about it. Right, sweetie?”
Mom shoots Dad a skeptical glance. “Of course. We’ll talk tonight.”

I toss and turn in my bed, thoughts racing. Did the mysterious woman hypnotize mom? When is Filion going to leave for Baress? Why wouldn’t Dad tell me anything about the fire? I rub my face, sighing into my hands. I’m overthinking this.
My door creaks open. I freeze. Filion creeps in, hair pulled back and a finger to his lips. He tiptoes to my bed, sitting at the end. “Guess what?” he asks. I prop myself on my elbows, shrugging. “Mom and Dad didn’t tell us everything that happened at the market.”
“I know. I wonder-”
“This little girl tore through the market, screaming, with her hands on fire. She burned a couple stalls down.”
“How do you know?” I whisper, my pulse racing. Ordinary people don’t shoot flames out of their hands.
“I overheard it when I went to get milk. A few of the older kids witnessed it.”
“It was just a little girl?” I ask, sitting all the way up. Maybe they manifest their powers early. The book never mentioned how they got their abilities.
Filion shakes his head. “I think she was being chased. These kids kept talking about people in black carrying weapons.”
“The city guard doesn’t wear black, though. They wear gray and blue.”
“That’s probably why Mom and Dad told us not to leave the house after dark. With everything they saw today, they’re worried we’ll get in trouble.” Filion’s mouth creeps into a smile. “Get dressed.”
“But you just said-”
“Felix, remember at dinner when I mentioned seeing the gorgeous woman with white hair?” I nod. When did he get so interested in girls? “She ducked into the Witch’s Brew a few blocks away with a terrified little girl.”
I gasp. “You think it’s the Elemental girl?”
“Hah!” Filion looks around, eyes wide. “I knew it,” he says quieter, “I knew you thought she had Elemental powers! Let’s go, we can check it out.”
I hesitate. Mom and Dad will kill us if they find out. Then again, when’s the next time I’ll be anywhere near an Elemental? When will I get to make a difference? I jump out of bed and grab a tunic and pants. “Grab my bag,” I say, pointing at my canvas bag hanging next to the door.
Filion hands it to me as I pull my tunic over my head. “What are you thinking?”
I smile, taking the bag from him. “We’re gonna catch that girl and take her to the city guard.”
Fil snatches the bag away from me. “No way, Felix. We’re just gonna take a look and come home, that’s all.”
“But if we deliver her to the city guard, we’ll be heroes.” I reach for the bag, glaring at Fil.
“No, it’ll look like we kidnapped a little girl. Besides, what if she uses her-” The floor creaks. Fil and I freeze. Insects chirp and buzz outside. I hear the neighbors from across the backyard shouting. No more noises come from inside the house, though. Mom and Dad are still asleep.
“Alright, alright. We won’t try anything.” I’m whispering now, knowing if we get caught Mom will never let us go to Baress.