Chapter 4: The Inner Workings of Winter
Though Neal had not left them waiting long, the time spent passed in near silence. Abby picked at her food while Lyssana sat reading her book about the Corpegara. The more she learned about them, the more of an enigma they seemed to be. Though their origins were still a topic of debate, the book seemed to be spot on for the remainder of the information. The Corpegara could be found in the wild at the highest peaks of the Eastern Angwynn mountain range. All lived in a single colony with as many as fifty individuals. She would have to make a future trip to visit them for study.
She lost herself in the pages and aside from a few glances, Abby left her alone. Lyssana allowed herself to focus on the other woman only in her peripheral for the simple fact that the energy radiating from the water mage was calm and soothing – very much the feeling of standing on the beach as the tide ebbed and flowed, perfect ambiance for Lyssana to ignore the room around them.
A young man walked in then that shook the energy of the room to its core. His elemental reservoir matched Lyssana’s perfectly, and the room fell still as she looked up to find his gaze already on her. He gave a single nod of respect and she returned it with an equally respectful bend of her neck. Only then did the room seem to release a breath as people continued with their conversations, though the vibrating hum of energy now seemed to consolidate on either side of the two mages, no person wanting to be stuck in the middle of that torrent. Even Abby moved from the right side to Lyssana’s left, clearing her throat with an excuse of wanting to eat some of the roasted potatoes on that side of the table.
It was easy to be drawn into another energy, especially if said energy was as powerful or more than your own, and so Lyssana could feel the resonance that charged like a raging storm, waves crashing violently against anything that dare stand in their way. It would be easy to find herself getting lost in that storm, but she did not let herself get close, instead pushing her thoughts to another subject. It was a subconscious ritual she had learned as a child, to avoid being pulled in and instead close your field of focus so the invading energy could not get in. She could still feel him, but it now was a haze of recollection, like looking at something in the strained fog at the edge of your vision.
“Can you feel it too?” Lyssana looked over to Abby who was now openly staring at the young mage dressed in dark blue silk seated at the other end of their now empty table. “Of course you can, he’s as strong a you. I just don’t understand how you aren’t bothered by it.” Rose colored Abby’s pale cheeks as she spoke and her eyes dropped to avoid the fiery gaze of the other woman.
“What does it feel like to you?” The question was arbitrary and could have been taken as rhetorical, but Abby answered anyway.
“Well… it’s like – okay, so your energy is like-” She squinted at Lyssana, as though trying to find the right words. “-a volcano about to erupt. Like magma bubbling right underneath my feet. It’s quite overwhelming and chaotic, actually.” She moved her gaze to the man, looking away quickly as he raised his head in their direction. “His is harder to avoid, probably because he shares my element, but it’s just strong like a river barreling through a gorge.”
Lyssana knew there was nothing that could be done and so she nodded before closing her book and sliding it back into the leather satchel she carried. The energy of the room had finally settled into pockets of like elementals and she smirked at the noticeable difference from before he had entered. People gravitated into groups that synchronized with their own energies, creating pockets that flowed around the room in varying intensities until the only open space was that at her table.
Neal chose that moment to make the most obnoxious entrance, whistling a merry tune that fell flat in the high ceilinged room. “What’s got everyone so weird today?” He asked loudly, throwing himself into the seat opposite her and grinning at the state of the room. “You’d think they’ve never seen a little friendly competition. Though it looks like his resting face isn’t as mean as yours, so he’s got my vote.”
She ignored the jest as she pulled out their class notes, scanning the pages as she tried to take over the conversation. “What do we want to compete for our tas-”
“We should do something over the top and make everyone else jealous!” He interrupted, that mischievous glint in his eye. She cringed at the thought of drawing even more attention and shook her head. “We have three of the four main elements, so our task options are many. It needs to be something that obviously uses all three elements without too much explanation when we turn it in tomorrow. I think we should look into metal work.”
Neal seemed to contemplate a snide remark before he shrugged and looked between Abby and herself. “You the boss, fire babe.”
“Call me that again and I’ll stab your face.”
His hands went up defensively as he choked on a laugh and glanced at the forks gathered at the center of the table. “Too far, got it.”
Abby’s face broke into a grin and Neal threw a wink in her direction. An eruption of crimson covered her face and she stared at her lap as Neal turned back to Lyssana. “Working metal is good and all, but what are we going to make?”
“We can make a blacksmith puzzle!” Her face had lightened a few shades but it still held the reddened embarrassment that was becoming a staple of her personality. “I used to play with them when I was a child and it shouldn’t be too difficult to make one.”
Neal agreed immediately, but waited for Lyssana’s approving nod before speaking. “I was going to keep this a secret for myself, but since we are a team, I guess I can share it with you lovely ladies.” Another blush from Abby and a narrowed gaze from Lyssana ensued before he continued. “It’s a cavern I read about in the library. I’ve only been once, but there’s a large iron ore deposit and a pool that gathers water at the center. It’s plenty big for all of us to work and I think it’s perfect.”
Another nod from Lyssana and an excited smile from Abby was all he needed to jump out of his seat. “Well then what are we waiting for? Daylight is wasting, you know!” Both women stood more gracefully and gathered their things before heading toward the door. Neal paused only long enough to grab a roll of bread before taking the lead of the group with a smirk in her direction.
The entrance to the cavern rested on a jagged edge on the abandoned north sector of the Claral Court. The sun here cast eerie shadows and seemed just bright enough to cause them to squint at the staircase leading down into the storm sea that surrounded the island.
“This looks…safe.” The hydromancer’s voice wavered and her face seemed paler than usual as she peeked over the edge to oblivion.
“Without risk, there is no reward!” Neal’s voice took on a lecturing tone as he strode toward the first step. “These steps are sturdy, I can personally attest to their structural integrity.”
“Don’t strain yourself with a heightened vernacular.” Lyssana muttered as she motioned Abby behind him. If the woman was going to pass out, Lyssana wanted to be there to catch her.
“I heard that!” Neal growled, upset that his professor voice had been broken. “See, I bet that other guy is a lot nicer than you. I’m going to be his partner next time.”
“He doesn’t even go to our class!” Abby snapped out of her panicked trance, though her hands pressed against the rock like a lifeline. “Are we almost there?”
“Just a little further. I told you these stairs are sturdy, you aren’t going to fall.”
Lyssana let the conversation fade from her focus as she felt the deep vibrations from the storm clouds they walked through. The energy beckoned to her, just waiting to be mixed with hers again. The temptation was strong, but she ignored it, focusing only on the way the air made the hair on her arm rise. It was exhilarating and a twinge of disappointment filled her as they slipped below the cloud line and onto a shadowed ledge.
“This is it, just at the end of the tunnel. Lyssa, can I have some fire to light the path?”
“Only if you use my name.”
Abby rolled her eyes as a flame sprung to life in Lyssana’s outstretched palm and they followed Neal into the damp darkness. The tunnel was not long, but it seemed to oppress the light of her fire, making their shadows dance menacingly along the walls. There was also a noticeable lack of sound. No wind or echo of their footsteps, just complete silence. It was suffocating. The others noticed as well, but no one spoke, they only hurried through the tunnel until a large gash in the rock opened to a dark cavern.
The sound of dripping water and cave crickets delighted their senses along with the smell of dampness and moss. The light of her flame reflected off the waters surface and threw patterns all over the cavern, giving enough light to see clearly. The pool at the center of the cave was crystal clear and seemed to be deceptively deep at the center where water trickled down from low hanging stalactites covered in green lichens. It was the most serene place she had been since her arrival at Istima and a feeling of peace washed over her.
“Pretty impressive, huh?” Pride filled his voice, as though he had been the creator of this retreat.
Abby could only nod as she looked around, her periwinkle skirts swirling as she turned. “It’s beautiful,” she choked, tears welling in her eyes. “Why do I feel like I could stay here forever with no worries?”
“It’s most likely the result of an ancient enchantment, set here by whoever found this place first.” Her voice was steady and Neal watched her with a questioning look. “There is no telling what magics lie dormant here. I think we should be cautious while we work.”
Neal ignored her and walked to the waters edge, holding his palm toward the ground. As his hand rose, so to did a pedestal of earth about 2 paces across with an indent in the middle; where Lyssana placed the flame. Abby took position closest to the water and she gathered streams around her from the pool. The water was even more crystalline up close and it seemed to refract the firelight into tiny rainbows across their faces. “We should get started if we want to finish by dinner.” His voice was clear as red-brown chunks of iron began to pull from the walls of the cave to converge in the upper flames of her fire. “Lyssana, I need the top portion of the fire hot enough to melt this, but try not to melt the stone beneath.”
She scoffed at the word try, though she did as he asked. The metal turned orange, then a straw yellow as Neal began to shape it into nine individual sections. Each piece was a thin rod the length of her pointer finger with varying sizes of hooks and loops on either end. Abby then started to direct the proportions and angles of each piece, submerging them with tendrils of water as they were complete and letting them cool at her feet. The sizzle of water hitting the metal echoed around the cave as they worked, and Lyssana saw the signs of strain on her companions as they continued the tedious work. Neal’s face was coated in a thin layer of sweat and Abby looked pale and exhausted in the flickering light and though Lyssana felt her energy dropping, she expressed no outward repercussions of the task.
There was no way to tell how much time passed while they worked the strenuous details, but she estimated it couldn’t have been more than a few hours at the most. Her energy reserves had just barely drained when the final piece landed at Abby’s feet and she let the fire dim to a cooler flame. Abby sank to her knees and began assembling the pieces with deft fingers.
“Wow, this is perfect! Great job Neal!” She looked up at him with a wide grin before hastily adding “and you Lyssana. Thanks for the fire.”
Lyssana rolled her eyes and reached for the puzzle, giving it a once over before stuffing it into her satchel. “I’ll hang onto this until class tomorrow.”
Abby looked about to object, but a glance of amber eyes shut her down quickly. “We should get a pretty good grade for this, being able to use three elements and all.” Her voice trailed off as she looked back down to the ground and Neal offered her a hand to help her up.
“We don’t know the skill levels of the other students in our class, but I’m hopeful for the best.” He gave Abby a quick grin as she heaved to her feet and offered a small smile in return. “It was your idea after all, so I’m sure the professor will be impressed.”
Lyssana knew if Abby’s face wasn’t so pale from exhaustion that it would be flushed at the compliment, so she walked away, tired of their back and forth. “I have other things to do tonight, but I’ll see you both tomorrow. Sleep well.” She allowed a hint of sarcasm to touch her voice as she looked over her shoulder and saw both faces go scarlet at the insinuation. She took their silence as her leave and transferred the remaining fire from the pedestal to her hand before exiting into the dark tunnel.
“You’re a jerk and I’m not going to feel any sympathy when she burns your eyebrows off one day.”
“Me? I didn’t do anything to Lady Fire…besides, my face wouldn’t be perfectly symmetrical with no eyebro-”
Giggles faded behind her as she made her way home. Her day was far from over as she had another class before dinner. Her steps slowed as she made her way up the spiral staircase separating the market level from the upper class residency buildings and a shadow caught her eye. Unnatural shadows swirled in the alley below her and as she watched, a figure seemed to move around the corner, taking the shadow with it. Her pace quickened as she made her way deeper into the Winter Court, satchel jingling with every step. These people following her would not get the opportunity to see her unhinged. With a set jaw she pushed it to the back of her mind.
She doubted their grade would be as remarkable as Neal and Abby seemed to think, but it was a solid project for the provided parameters of a first level class. Her next class, however, was a level two class that she had placed into from her orientation performance. It was specific to fire elementals and she found herself the second strongest in the class as she took her seat in the back.
She learned about the different frequencies in which the elemental energies rang, and why some mages were prone to one over the other. Fire, due to its natural state as high energy, was very volatile and moved faster than the other elemental resonances. Her notes were diligent as she listened to the experienced professor go through each element and describe its state and natural movement. Earth was solid and would not move unless energy was applied, making it the lowest elemental frequency.
She hung on every word, happy to finally have a subject she knew little about. She understood the second level elemental classification as the lecture took a challenging turn with the numerical assignments to each frequency and the equations used to estimate each mage’s ability with a certain frequency.
She was pleased when the lecture ended late and the class introductions were skipped. As she was about to slip from the class when her name was called by the professor to come to the front of the class. The other students glanced at her as they filed out of the room, leaving only her and the blond woman who taught the class.
“I am sorry we missed your introduction, I was very much looking forward to it.” Her voice matched the kindness that shone in her green eyes and Lyssana was impressed to find that their energy levels were nearly equal in strength. “I wanted to take a moment to personally introduce myself and offer any assistance during my office hours should you need them. You are only the third student I’ve ever known to be allowed an advanced skip to a higher class, and I imagine such a jump can be difficult, so please don’t hesitate to see me if you have any questions about the lectures.”
“Thank you professor. I wish to succeed here at Istima and I am honored to be allowed a seat in your class.” She bowed her head in respect before being dismissed.
Such hospitality was uncommon in her experience at the school and she allowed herself a small smile in relief, though it quickly vanished in place of suspicion. She would have to keep a close eye on the professor until she discovered the ulterior motive to her introduction.
With the collaborative assignment complete, Lyssana needed only to write a report for her second class using the equations taught to estimate her adjusted frequency to the fire elemental forms. Then the rest of her evening would be free to spend with the Corpegara and let them fly around after being cooped up all day.
They were happy to do just that, cooing excitedly as she entered the apartment and she could not help but smile at their greeting. She opened the balcony doors and they took off over the Court, staying in sight of her rooms as she settled to write her report. Their loops and spins grew more intricate as the evening progressed and she chuckled once at a failed landing that had Sarpia rolling across the room, wings sprawled. She perked up at the laughter from Lyssana and immediately launched herself back at Halvard with a playful growl.
Lyssana only stopped to eat when they both landed, seemingly content with their hours of play and watching her intently as she cooked three large fillets of the rainbow scaled fish. They consumed the fish in under a minute and settled for a night of sleep. She sat on the deck long into the night, reading by the light of the moon until the final page of her book closed. She knew now the Corpegara needed a balanced diet of both meat and bones to help regulate their density when flying and swimming, so as not to sink or crash.. Though not omnivorous in the wild, hers seemed to particularly enjoy these sour orange berries that she had no name for. Tomorrow night would be their time to fly around as she stocked up more food for the hungry beasts. The events that had transpired in the dining hall made her even more hesitant to return regularly.
She changed from her silk dress before falling face first into the crimson sheets of her bed. Despite her hatred of the extravagant cushions, she did admit the silk was much to be desired. Not even two weeks in and this school was already making her soft. With a grunt she pushed herself up and threw the sheets and cushions to the floor, opting to sleep on the mattress alone. She could not afford to be soft. She would not let this place break her.