Edmund opened his eyes. As usual, he woke before the break of dawn. Wind whistled outside the rounded stone walls of the tower he had called home for all of his twenty-two long years of life. The wooden shutters covering the single window in the middle of the outer wall creaked and rattled. Thin streaks of moonlight streamed through the cracks, bringing a soft glow to the otherwise pitch dark room.
Shivering due to the morning chill, he hesitated to pull back the quilt which Ian had given him a few weeks earlier. The soft fabric had surprised him at first. Thinking back, he recalled the moment when Gaelan suddenly appeared at the castle two fortnights ago. Initially, he was startled when the man he thought of as more of a father figure than his own birth father showed up just to ask him to train his new apprentice. Edmund only accepted the request at the time due to curiosity about what kind of person could convince the stubborn blacksmith to change his stance on never taking apprentices. It was only supposed to be a one-time thing. Now, after more than a month of training the weakling every other day, he found himself wondering whether or not he could call Ian a friend. Growing up without any friends of his own left him without any comparisons. What exactly was a friend, anyway?
After listening to the wind for a few minutes in reflective contemplation, he threw the covers to the side and swung his feet off the bed. He breathed deeply through his nostrils before exhaling a visible mist of air. It reminded him that summer was nearing its end. Harvest season was almost upon them. Bandit subjugation missions would likely start popping up any day now. His lips curved upward at the prospect of completing them.
Since he needed to head to the Guild office, he stood and stretched, yawning in the process. The straw mattress groaned upon being freed from his weight. Following his morning routine, he waved a hand toward a bowl of water on the shabby nightstand at the end of his bed while stepping toward the armor stand in the corner furthest from the door. Six steps, to be precise, just like every other morning. He stopped directly in front of the stand just in time for the suspended stream of water to reach his outstretched palm. It bubbled into a spherical form as though forming an amorphous third limb, an extension of his own body. Under his will, it floated to his face and swirled over his skin. The frigid embrace from the airborne ball of water eliminated any remaining grogginess from his mind while he lifted the black hunting cloak and garbs from the armor stand. While sliding on the pants, he waved the ball of water back to its bowl. After adorning the rest of his garments, he retrieved all of his pouches and weapons from a nearby wooden table, worn and splintered from decades of sitting in this room. He also grabbed the large waterskin from the floor below the table.
Fully prepared, he approached the window and unlocked the shutters. Unsurprisingly, the wind swung them wide open. He caught one in each hand since he did not want to replace them again. He then climbed onto the windowsill and carefully pulled the shutters tight behind him.
Standing on the small ledge which jutted out from beneath the window, he looked down at the large river which wound past this side of the Ursa Keep. The wind instantly blew his hood off and whipped at his hair.
A sudden rap on the door to his room nearly startled him into falling of the ledge. An angry voice yelled from the other side.
“Hey! Edmund, you little sack of skat! If you’re in there, then get out here so I can have someone to practice on!”
Grimacing, Edmund ignored his half-brother’s spiteful words and dove from the ledge without a second thought.
As his body sliced through the air like an arrow, he released all the water from his waterskin and wrapped it around himself. All the sounds of early morning became muffled within the liquid shield. Moments before crashing into the river, he extended a portion of his shield toward the surface, connecting the body of water to his own. Without breaking momentum, he extended his control to the river itself and used the current to angle his body enough to smoothly glide through the water, barely avoiding a collision with the stone-ridden riverbed. A dull splash echoed deeply from behind him where he initially jumped in. Bubbles surged past in every direction as he pushed himself downstream with the undercurrents generated at his will. His initial momentum from plunging several stories through the air gradually slowed to the speed of a horse’s gallop. Higher speeds were still impossible to maintain with his current Affinity level and fortitude.
Every so often, he propelled his body to the surface in order to breathe. Occasionally, it would startle a passerby. The action probably made him look like some sort of flying fish from afar. Most people with water affinity never traveled this way due to the generally unnecessary mental strain, so it tended to take others by surprise. However, their thoughts did not matter. This was training. The more he forced himself to use Water Affinity, the sooner he would reach the coveted title of Magi. Then, and only then, could he make a fool of those who mocked him over the years. Imagining Baldrik one day groveling at his feet especially motivated him to push his body and mind beyond its limits on a regular basis.
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Before he knew it, the familiar star-shaped boulder, which had remained lodged in the riverbed behind the Adventurer’s guild for as long as he could remember, came into view. Using his self-generated currents, he streaked toward the surface and broke through into the air. He cartwheeled onto the manmade cobblestone riverbank. Most of the bubble he used to keep himself dry underwater returned to its place in the waterskin. Any excess was returned to the river. Every movement was executed with practiced fluidity. Despite that, he breathed deeply multiple times to catch his breath from the exertion on his mind and body while using his sleeve to wipe away the thin layer of sweat on his forehead. Taking inspiration from Ian, he stretched before moving on. The simple act made a surprising amount of difference.
Edmund glanced upward at the grandiose steeple of the Church of Lucem across the river. The crystalline, seven-pointed star at the top reflected the light of the stars still hovering in the sky before sunrise. It was always a sight to behold. Although he did not put much stock in many of the church’s teachings, he respectfully pressed two fingers, index and middle, to his forehead. A second later, he raised them toward the sky before pulling his hand down in a straight line. Every time he did it, he wondered what the action meant. He doubted anyone did.
With the religious salute out of the way, he meandered toward the rear gate of the Adventurer Guild, a building equal in splendor to the church, but twice the size. The difference in size displayed the priorities of the populace, or at least their court representatives. He honestly did not care either way. He simply set the strange thought aside and stepped through the gate, all the while hoping to find some interesting requests to fulfill while Ian was out of town.
* * * * *
Around the same time Edmund entered the grounds of the Adventurer Guild, Sarah slammed onto the floor after rolling off the bed in her sleep. Immediately, she bounded to her feet and pulled all the water molecules in the room to her side to form a handful of ice shards. It took several seconds for her to figure out she was safe in her own room, small as it was. Sighing, she dissolved the shards back into the atmosphere, returning the already lacking humidity to the stuffy air.
A quick glance toward the small window above her bed made her realize she woke up before sunrise… again. She couldn’t recall the last time she slept restfully through the night. Thinking about returning to Earth for the first time in years only made it worse, considering she had rolled around nervously for hours before falling asleep. She didn’t even know why she agreed to go. There was nothing there for her anymore.
Like the night before, a wave of nervous nausea crept up on her. Groaning, she sat on the edge of her bed and hung her head while waiting for it to pass. Meanwhile, she glanced over at the drawer of her old wooden nightstand. For a few moments, she hesitated to open it, but she eventually did. It took some jostling to force it open. She then reached in and pulled out a small black pouch. From within the pouch, she removed a small camcorder. Several minutes passed as she stared at it. In a way, she regretted keeping it, but she could never bring herself to throw it away. It had been such a large part of her life. It also led her to fall into this world. While fixated on it, she couldn’t help but feel jealous of Ian. From her perspective, it looked like a decent life here had been handed to him on a silver platter, whereas she struggled to get off the streets for more than a year.
Angry at herself for thinking such a thing, she hastily returned the long-dead camcorder and pouch to their dusty place in the drawer. Cursing under her breath, she slammed the drawer shut tight in the vain hope that it would never open again. Tears began rolling from her eyes. Emotional pain seized her heart. She wished she could truly feel happy to see Ian again. She truly did.
Moments later, before she could process her emotions, someone knocked loudly on the door.
“Sarah? You alright?” Valerrie asked from the other side. “I heard a crashing sound from downstairs.”
Struggling to wipe away any evidence of crying, Sarah answered, “Yeah, I just fell off the bed.”
“Oh… Well, let me know when you’re ready to head to the orphanage, okay?”
Sarah listened carefully as her friend’s footsteps descended the rickety stairway outside her room. Each creak grew further away step by step. She appreciated the woman’s constant worrying from time to time, but sometimes it just came across as overbearing.
With her friend out of earshot, she breathed in deeply through her nose and out through her mouth. She pursed her lips as she tried to muster the motivation to prepare for her little journey. Today was going to be a long day.
At sunrise, Sarah and Valerrie walked to the nearby orphanage. Sarah carried a wrapped package in solemn silence.
When they arrived at the front gate, they could already hear the playful chatter of children running amok in the small courtyard. Sarah couldn’t help glancing through the fence toward the children while waiting for the priestess to greet them. It only took a moment to spot the wild and unkempt red hair of a young boy stumbling about with a face full of laughter. A lump formed in her throat. Seeing the boy always confused her heart. It was always a contradictory mix of happiness and regret. Luckily, the priestess arrived at the gate before any memories could overwhelm her.
“Oh, if it isn’t Miss Sarah,” the quaint woman garbed in white linen robes said. “I thought you might show up today.”
“Yeah… Well, I’m here.”
“Is that for Clayton?” the priestess asked.
“It is,” Sarah answered while handing over the top of the gate.
The priestess took the package and examined it for a moment before returning her attention to Sarah and asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to see him?”
“Yeah. It’s best this way.”
Sarah’s words sounded hollow to her own ears. There was no conviction in them.
“If you say so…” the priestess dejectedly replied. She obviously did not believe there was any truth in Sarah’s statement but refrained from pursuing the topic.
After one last glance at the redheaded child, Sarah bid farewell to the priestess and spun on her toes. Pain clenched her heart as she walked away. Behind her, Valerrie followed with a concerned expression. She only knew how to give her friend some space to think.
Without a single word spoken between them, they eventually arrived at the guild headquarters.
“I suppose I won’t see you for a few days,” Valerrie said.
“Yeah, but I’ll be back shortly.”
“Make sure you take care of yourself, then. Don’t do anything too reckless.”
Sarah barely smiled. “You too.”
The two gave each other a farewell hug before going their separate ways. Valerrie entered the guild while Sarah headed toward the southern gate.