“So what’s next for a former archmage?” Ianari had taken her place behind the bar once more and was cleaning glasses.
“I suppose you won’t allow me to go back anytime soon?”
“The only way you’ll leave this place is if you take the path to reincarnation.” There was a hardness to her expression that she hadn’t yet shown him. “Only one person has left this place through other means and we both know how well that went.”
“That’s a different story,” The elderly man answered. He was about to continue, but once he saw the look on Ianari’s face, he decided to drop it. Angering a god again was not something he was willing to do.
“No, I think I’ll stay here for a little while longer. The drinks are good and the company is even better.” He looked around at the other patrons. “Well, some of it is.” He smiled at Ianari.
She sighed. “I don’t understand what my daughter ever saw in you.”
He chuckled. “To be honest, neither do I.” They both laughed.
He stared out the window at the small dock in the distance, where the boatman was just returning from another trip. “Reincarnation, you say?”
Ianari shrugged. “That’s what I like to think. Not even I know what happens when you leave this place, but one day I’ll find out.”
“I suppose I’ll stick around until then and keep you company. I bet it gets lonely around here. She poured another set of drinks and handed one to him. “To family.” She smiled at him with a bright, honest smile.
Fesquera smiled back at her and raised his glass with a satisfying clink. “To family.”
The first day of their journey went rather smoothly. The continuous rain was definitely hampering their speed to some extent, but that was the only thing working against them. Charlotte vaguely remembered the direction she came from, so they knew which way to head to get to Larania. They also had a map, but neither of them was too confident about their map reading skills in the middle of a dense forest. They travelled until dusk, only taking a quick stop on the way to have some lunch. Now they were setting up a camp. They had a small two-person tent, as well as some thin bedrolls. It wasn’t much for comfort, but it was better than sleeping on the damp ground. The magical storage chest that Liari had was a big help, since it meant they could bring a lot more. Some of the stuff they were unlikely to need as much was just stored away at the library. Liari still wondered how Fesquera got his hands on something so amazing. It hadn’t quite dawned on her that being an archmage at some point was a big deal. She was still thinking of him as this strange mage that lived in a tower sometimes. To know that he was not only her father, but also one of the very few arcanists that had made it to the rank of archmage was very strange still.
“I can get a fire going while you set up the tent,” Charlotte said. She was already collecting some dry twigs and other flammable objects from the forest floor. She then used a stick to carve a small trench around where the fire would be. By the time Liari had fully set up the tent, the fire was already slowly starting, and before long they were warming up next to it. The rainy weather did seem to be improving slightly, but it was still cold and wet, so the fire was a nice bit of comfort. They had some rations and Liari took some fruits from her chest to supplement the dry meal with. It wasn’t too bad, all things considered. She reckoned if they were to travel for a long time they would have days where food would be a lot worse than right now. Still, it was simple compared to some of the better meals she’d enjoyed at the library.
“How are you feeling?” Charlotte put another bit of wood in the fire. “You know, being away from home for the first time.” She looked at Liari while biting off a piece of jerky, curious about her response.
Liari stared at the flames. “I don’t think I quite realize it yet, but it feels nice, actually.” She sat upright and smiled. “Don’t get me wrong, I already miss the library, but I also think this will be a great way to learn more about the world.” She chuckled. “Besides, It’s only been a day, if I was already worried now that would be a very bad sign, would it not?”
Charlotte nodded. “I can imagine.” They finished their dinner and went to bed quite quickly. It was getting cold and they would much rather sleep and get moving early, than sit there in the cold.
Liari didn’t sleep well that first night. She was plagued by nightmares of the library collapsing and Fesquera abandoning them, saying it was their own fault for not properly taking care of his possessions. When morning finally came around, she woke up sore and more tired than the previous day. After a quick breakfast, they packed up camp and continued their journey towards Larania.
They didn’t talk much for the second part of the journey. Charlotte was worried about going back to the empire so quickly and was clearly lost in thought for a good part of the trek. It was nearing dusk when they came across a small cabin. There was a light inside, but besides that there were no signs of life.
The small wooden cabin didn’t look out of place in the small clearing, though. Some of the vines from the ground had started to creep up the sides, with one of them even seeming to enter the cabin through a window. A pelt was hanging in front of a door opening. A rack with some fabric was left outside to dry in one of the few places where the rain was blocked completely by the canopy.
“Do you know this place?” Liari asked Charlotte.
Charlotte shook her head. “I don’t think I saw this on the way here. I could have gone a different route though, I don’t really remember half the journey here, so you can’t really blame me.”
“Should we go in and have a look?”
“Are you out of your mind? I don’t care how nice the cabin looks, going into some random person’s house in the middle of the forest is crazy talk.”
“They could be nice.”
“I regret this journey already.” She looked around. “Let’s just carry on, no harm in ignoring it.”
“At least come in for tea,” a voice said behind them.
Both women turned around to see an elderly elven gentleman walking up, holding a basket with leaves and herbs in his hand.
“I’m sorry if I scared you, but in my defense that’s my house you’re standing in front of.”
“That’s quite alright, we were just about to leave,” Charlotte said.
Liari nodded. “What kind of tea?”
“Oh, I’m so glad you asked.” He reached into the basket he was holding. “You see, I have these new herbs that I’ve been growing that make for a great tea, I can give you a quick demonstration if you’d like?”
Liari looked at Charlotte who let out the deepest sigh since she met her. “Fine, let’s go then. But we’re not going to make a habit of going into strangers’ cabins in the woods.”
“I promise I won’t.” They both followed the man inside.
Both women took seats on some creaking old chairs that were available. Liari excitedly awaited the tea and Charlotte was extremely wary of her surroundings. The walls had several small shelves that looked like they would crumble if you touched them too aggressively. They were filled with vials, scrolls and strange materials. Liari hadn’t seen most of those before and she was very curious about what they might be. Above the door they’d entered through was the skull of a wild animal that she didn’t recognize. The table they were sitting at had several vials and mugs sitting on it, some cleaner than others. The old man turned on the kettle and cleaned three mugs in a bucket of water in the corner. “It’ll be ready in a minute,” he said to them, as he prepared the tea.
A few moments later the water was boiling and the tea was ready to be served. “Please, let me know what you think of it.”
He sat down opposite of them. “While we wait for it to cool off a bit, I do wonder why two women like yourselves would be wandering through the forest like you are.”
“That’s rich coming from someone who lives here.”
The man chuckled. “I’m here to live in peace away from the cities. I can work on my alchemy without being bothered by other people here.”
“We’re on our way to the ocean,” Liari blurted out.
Charlotte looked at her and shook her head. “You really don’t know how to shut up, do you?”
Liari turned red. “I’m sorry.”
The man laughed. “It’s good to be honest and open like that. It’ll be abused by people and get you into trouble, but I think it’s a good trait nonetheless.”
He took a sip of his tea. “I think this turned out alright.”
Liari and Charlotte both agreed after drinking some of the tea themselves.
Liari spotted some strange objects on a back wall. “What’s that?” she asked.
The old man turned around and got up to grab what she was pointing out. It was a glass orb covered by a piece of cloth that he removed. “This is my prophecy orb.”
“Of course it is,” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “We should really leave.”
“Do you mean you can see the future with that thing?”
The man nodded. “It’s a little bit more complex than that, but that is what it boils down to.”
He put it in front of Liari. “Want to see?”
Liari looked at Charlotte with pleading eyes.
“Fine,” Charlotte said. She looked at the old man. “Is this safe?”
He nodded. “It’s just showing you something that could be in your path in the future, but it’s not like it will make anything happen on its own.”
“So this thing can show me my future? How does it work?”
“Do you see that little gem in the middle? Keep staring at that.”
Liari looked at the center of the glass orb, but couldn’t see a gem. “I don’t think I see it.”
“Keep looking, you’ll find it if you look closely.”
Liari kept focused on the glass ball until she suddenly spotted something. There was a red bead at the center of the orb. As she focused on it, it grew more and more until it had clearly turned into the red hair of a person. Liari was too focused to notice that Charlotte was also intently looking at the vision, as it was clearly visible to everyone in the room now.
The red image turned into red hair more clearly now and she could see that a woman was walking towards a building. It was actually two women, but Liari couldn’t see the second woman as clearly. She was wearing thick layers of clothes and had a staff in her hand that she tapped the ground with. Whenever it hit, vines would start sprouting from the ground and grow at a rapid pace. The building they were approaching looked like a palace of sorts. She could see the faint glow of fires in the corners of her eyes, but she couldn’t see anything beyond what the glass orb was showing her. The two walked towards the palace and any guard or projectile approaching them was crushed or slammed aside by the vines that were coming out of the ground everywhere. They walked on unhindered. After a moment, they walked into the throne room where a king was sitting on his throne. “The red demon and her vile witch.” The king said, almost spitting out the words. “You’re probably feeling pretty proud coming all the way here. What will you do now? Will you kill me and take my kingdom? They won’t accept you as their ruler. Within a week there’ll be folk out the gates demanding you step down. You have no idea what you’re starting, girl.” He said “girl” with a hatred that made Charlotte recoil. Liari was glued to what she was seeing though. The magic that the hooded woman was using looked like something extremely advanced and she wished she could get a glimpse at how she was casting it.
The red-haired woman stayed silent, but the woman next to her spoke softly. “Unfortunately, you are not a part of my vision for this place.” She lifted her staff and slammed it into the ground loudly. Vines shot out from the point of impact and eviscerated not only the king and his throne, but also shot outward and destroyed the building itself.
The elderly man threw the piece of cloth back over the orb. “I think that’s more than enough for one vision.” He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead before getting up and putting the orb back on its shelf.
“What the hell was that?” Charlotte was still shocked by what she’d just seen. “What did you just show us?”
The man let out a sigh, but didn’t turn around. “These visions, although often accurate in a sense, can be extremely deceiving. I know my master once had a vision that didn’t come true until more than a century later. I’ve also seen visions of something that would happen later that same day. Sometimes they wouldn’t even happen to me, and there’s some visions I’ve seen that I have no way of knowing if they ever came true.” He turned around and sat back down. “It’s impressive and interesting that you managed to see something in the orb at all. Most people don’t see anything.”
Charlotte and Liari exchanged a look. Charlotte stood up. “Thank you for the tea, but we really have to get going. We’re hoping to reach Larania soon and there’s still some time left in the day.”
The man nodded. “Of course, I don’t want to keep you here when you have business to attend to. I appreciate the company though and if you ever find yourself in this area again, please do not hesitate to come by for a cup of tea.”
Liari smiled and nodded. “Thank you, I might take you up on that.” They both left the house, waving once more at the edge of the clearing to be polite, before travelling for another two hours.
Neither Liari nor Charlotte said much in the last two hours of travel that day. Both were shaken in their own way from the visit. Neither of them really wanted to address the clear comparison between the woman in the vision, whom they only saw from the back, and Charlotte’s own red hair. When they sat down for their evening meal and rest, Charlotte was the first to start talking about it. “That was definitely something unexpected, wasn’t it?” They’d just gotten a small fire started. “I think that’s an understatement. I thought magic was quite rare.”
Charlotte nodded. “I can assure you it is quite rare, which makes finding random strangers with magical orbs an even more strange experience than you might be thinking.”
“Do you think that was you in that orb?” Liari asked.
Charlotte shook her head. “It could be, I don’t know, but I have a theory.”
“What theory?” Liari leaned in a bit closer as the fire crackled.
“I had a sister. Or I still have a sister. I don’t know. I do know that my older sister, Scarlet, was very smart. If I managed to escape the castle that day, I find it hard to imagine that she wasn’t able to do something similar.”
“Why do you think that?” Liari asked, and quickly added, “I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but maybe it’s not good to have false hopes for these kinds of things.”
Charlotte stared into the fire for a while before she spoke again. “There were rumors in the palace. They’d been there for years, among the staff. Supposedly Scarlet would leave late in the evening and not return until deep in the night. There were those saying she had ties to the local thieves’ guild. Why she would do something like that, I do not know, but now I hope they were right, because she would definitely have a way of escaping the palace unseen if that were the case.”
“What is this thieves’ guild you speak of?”
“That’s how my father referred to them. They’re a group of thieves and outlaws living in the city. They opposed the royal family and the way my father ruled his empire. Stealing from the rich folk in town was their way of striking back at their oppressors.”
“Was your father a bad ruler then?”
Charlotte shook her head. “I don’t believe so. I think he did his best to be a fair ruler. But I also don’t think it’s possible to make everyone happy, no matter what you do.”
Liari thought about this for a bit. “That makes sense.” She looked at the sky that just barely peeked through the dense canopy. “Let’s hope you’re right and your sister escaped as well.”
Charlotte nodded in agreement. “I hope so, too.” She put away her stuff and went to sleep.
It took the two women another two days to reach the outskirts of Larania. The path leading to the village had torches lining it sparsely. A lone guard was walking along the path, presumably keeping an eye out for any forest beasts. When he spotted the two women, he stepped towards them. “Halt, state your business.”
Charlotte tried her best not to laugh. The guard was still a teenager and his voice betrayed his nervousness at the sight of people walking out of the dense forest. “We’re travelers passing through, I’ve met your village elder before.”
The boy looked at them. “I’ll go get the elder to check, you better not move from here before I’m back.” He looked at Liari for a moment and then turned around.
“How nice of them to have someone welcoming us,” Charlotte said.
“He didn’t look very welcoming, he looked more worried.”
“I think the changes in the empire have worried the smaller towns on the outskirts. They now have to worry about beasts from the forest, as well as maybe other things.”
“But we didn’t really encounter any beasts.”
“That doesn’t mean there are none there. We might have gotten lucky, or they might have known about you, since you’ve lived in the forest for so long.”
They waited for another few minutes before the young guard came back, with an older man walking next to him. Once he got close enough for his eyes to see the two women, he smiled. “Well, that’s a pleasant surprise.” He looked at Charlotte first. “I’m glad to see you found your destination in that snow storm. We were quite worried about you after you left in the middle of that weather. We considered sending someone after you to help you, but we are already quite short-staffed as is.” He turned to face Liari. “And you, I haven’t seen you for more than twenty years.”
Liari looked the man up and down, but didn’t recognize him. “You’re saying we’ve met before? I can’t say that I remember.”
He laughed. “Where are my manners. I’m Elder Grahm, the village chief of Larania. A long time ago I visited the Foxire Library to have a chat with Fesquera. I met you back then, but you were only a little girl.”
“I see.” Liari blushed. She was still a bit out of her element, not being at the library.
“Well, it’s dry right now, but those clouds look ominous. Please, can I offer you some dinner inside?”
Charlotte smiled. “That would be lovely.”
Grahm turned to the young guard. “Excellent work, Boret, thank you for getting me.”
The young man puffed up his chest proudly. “Thank you, sir.” He went back to patrolling the road.
Grahm walked a little bit ahead of the two women. “Don’t tell Boret that it’s completely safe in these parts. Giving these kids some responsibility does wonders for them.”
Liari laughed and looked at Charlotte. “See, I told you that beasts weren’t a problem in these parts.”
Charlotte just shook her head. “A forest without beasts is news to me.”
They followed Grahm into town. The small elven village didn’t seem to have more than a few dozen buildings. Most of them had closed doors with light coming through the windows. It was late in the day after all, and most people would be done with work at this point. There was a small square with an inn and some shops. Most of the buildings looked to be made out of wood and lean up against the large trees. The trees in this part of the forest, although not growing too close to oneanother, looked a bit larger than the rest of the woods. “Why are these trees larger?” Liari asked.
Grahm turned around. “The founder of this village used magic to make the trees larger to protect us from evil.”
“Really?” Liari asked enthusiastically.
Grahm shrugged. “That’s what the stories say, I don’t know if it’s actually true or not, but it sounds nice.” He stepped onto a small path lined with tree stumps that led to one of the larger houses in town. The interior was lit and the door was slightly open. “This is where I live. Please come on in.” The two women followed Elder Grahm into the inviting house.