FOUR YEARS AGO — Location: Adarsa (Sanskrit for Mirror/Perfection) – a human settlement
Part 1: The Escape
After a 35-hour hike, Soledad finally took a turn that brought her face to face with the human settlement of Adarsa. Somehow over the last 1.5 days, her rucksack seemed to have gotten a lot heavier than when she had loaded it on her shoulders in the middle of the night and left her camp. She could feel at least 3 blisters forming on her feet. It wasn’t that she was not used to long hikes, being Syth, travelling had been pretty much her life for the past 25 years, but this journey had been different: it hadn’t been a migration; this has been an escape. She had only taken shelter once for food and quick sleep. By now her insides were churning of hunger and everything was a little blur.
Meanwhile, Forb was fast asleep on top of the rucksack on her shoulders (probably adding to the said weight). His cute, albeit majestic face resting on his paws and his long, ginger-black tail curled around her like a warm scarf.
“Little shit” she thought.
Sunset was fast approaching and she had already smelled the dampness of the Blue Wind in the air. It was said that the Wind came from the mountain tops guarded by Mages. Mages were said to lessen the wind’s blow before it reached the settlements of this part of the Earth.
If she didn’t want to die of frost, she needed to reach the lodgings before the Wind it set in.
As she descended the hill pass, she could almost smell the human settlement and notice the air turn just a tad green. To Soledad, human settlement always smelled of warmth, a mixture of cosy hearth and welcoming food. The uncertainty of human lives made the home and hearth just a bit more important. She stood on the final viewing point for a moment, not being able to help but wonder where her caravan would be by now? And had she been able to cover her tracks well…
She tried to shake the inevitable feeling of loss as she thought of the people that had been her family for the last 25 years… of Xiu-ying… It doubled the weight on her that had nothing to do with her rucksack. It was the weight on her heart that had been rapidly increasing the further she got away from what she had called a “home” all her life. She still hadn’t really had a chance to really think about it since Xiu-ying sneaked into her camp in the middle of the night.
He had wakened her, telling her she needed to leave this instant, and that he’ll cover her tracks as much as possible. Inevitable was here, one more day and it’d have been her life at risk, although she still had no idea from what? Xiu-ying had handed her a bag of human currency and asked her to take cover in the human settlement of Adarsa. She had done exactly as told; his urgency had scared her. And now here she was, at Adarsa again, back face to face with another ghost from her past.
The human settlement was a postcard perfect landscape, fenced cottages and their little backyards with trampolines and cloth drying lines, roads and buildings clustered together like galaxies. Houses and streets were lit with string lights and dioramas of mountain valley in people’s front gardens. It reminded Soledad that people had put of the decorations in celebration of Brael, the festival celebrated as an offering to the goddess Blue Wind every winter.
Odd lights were starting to pop up in the windows while the self-driving traffic of Adarsa was quickly vanishing from the roads. Best hurry up before the lodging closes its doors to the public. She won’t survive another night of Blue Wind, she thought to herself.
“Forb, get up, we are almost there, mate.” She gave Forb a little stroke between the ears, as he opened his huge lemon-yellow eyes and looked clearly unimpressed to have been treated like a cat. “Well, if you don’t want to be treated like a cat, then don’t act like a pet, sleeping while I labour us across the mountains.”
“I find us food; in return, you keep me rested.” He said and jumped down her shoulders, stretching his paws in front of him and straightening up, yawning. Forb was the size of a mountain lion, a shape he could transform to become a mountain cat – his fur was a shocking contrast of black with orange stripes. “So, why are we standing here and not going down?” He asked, licking his right paw with precision. Soledad sighed, but didn’t reply. The rush of the last 1.5 days was catching up to her, as 25 years played in the back of her head like an old reel.
Rohmeyro Lodgings had rooms and food suitable for Syths and Saryaals, and it was pet friendly.
“Alright now listen, no talking to me inside the lodging, ok? Act cute and pet-like, please?”. She begged Forb. Plinthor’s found it highly offensive to be referred to as “pets”. Nymphs, Elves and Mages can speak to Plinthor, being a Syth, Soledad never understood how she could understand him, but figured maybe it was because they grew up together and were raised as siblings, they could even communicate telepathically.
Soledad and Forb had both been raised as orphans by Syths, and had been inseparable. In human settlements it was easier for him to pretend to be a cat, as majority of humans were scared of the Forest folk. Plus, you’d never find rooms for Plinthors in a human settlement!
Between the pine trees, Forb and Soledad walked downhill and entered the street with crisscross fairy lights overhead and warm cafes and pubs all around. Soledad shuffled through her pocket and found the mobile phone; she turned it on and waited for the signals. “Still don’t know how to operate that vile thing, do you?” Forb gave an unsettling cat grin. “Shut up, Forb, act pet.” She finally found the “Maps” and entered “Rohmeyro Lodgings” in it, the map showed her the location was 3 minutes away.
They followed the map, cursing the human inventions as the “GPS” played hide and seek, one minute showing them on one street, and on another one the second. Last of the shoppers and shopkeepers were now shutting down, so they hurried towards the wooden board announcing “Rohmeyro Lodgings, We Welcome Syths and Saryaals”. Soledad revised the human language of English and Persian in her head, for this was the border of an English and Persian settlement. Syths had to know multiple languages, from Elvish to different human dialects to the Unnamed language of the Nymphs. It was a requirement of their trade – mining precious gems and selling them around all over the world.
“Here goes nothing, Forby” She hesitated.
“Drama queen” he replied, rolling his eyes. “I, for once, am ready for a nice roasted bird…” Then quickly meowed and blinked as a passer-by looked at him, clearly startled and hurrying along.
As Soledad opened the wooden door with an effort, she was invited by the sound of a bell and smell of roasted potatoes and beer. Warmth of the giant fireplace inside hugged the cold of Winter twilight for a few elongated seconds before Soledad closed the door behind her, now completely engulfed by the overwhelming heat of the lodging’s bar/reception.
As she took a quick look around, she noticed there weren’t many people seated on the table benches, perhaps only the residents of the inn having their dinner and drinks before moving upstairs to call it a night. The bar and reception were typical, long island in the middle of the room, with rows of benches on the left and right. The walls were covered in several posters of famous Humans, Syths and Saryaals. The place was lit by a giant, stove-like fireplace by the bar, and vintage lamps spread a warm glow on each wall. The whole ambiance made Soledad a little dizzy.
There was a Saryaal couple eating their cod fish and potatoes in utter silence, their hands and necks covered in very delicate gills – a human man, rather unshaven and ragged looking, drinking his beer by the corner bench and staring out the window. On the right there was a tribe of at least six Syths, all huddled together in deep conversation over mugs of ale (Syths did love a good human ale). Avoiding their gaze, in case they might be people who knew her tribe, she put her hood on and quickly walked to the reception.
A plump woman with rather kind eyes and a mess of curls on her head welcomed her with a big smile. “What can I do for you, darling?” (So, English it is, thought Soledad) Her gaze next went to Forb next, who was acting ‘cute’. “Oh, I’m so sorry sweetheart, but pets aren’t allowed off the leash or out of carriers inside the reception, too many incidents of them running away with a chicken leg off people’s plates.” She gave Forb and Soledad an apologetic smile
“Oh. I’m so sorry, I wasn’t aware” replied Soledad, she dared not look towards Forb because she knew too well the look of shock and disgust that would’ve been on his face at this moment. “I don’t have a carrier or a lead unfortunately, mine is a free roamer!” She tried to joke sheepishly. “I will however have him on my shoulders and we’ll be quick on our way to our room.” “Here, Forby, get on mommy’s shoulders” She gestured Forb, who after a very dirty look jumped on her shoulders and didn’t hesitate in giving a hiss to the barkeep. “Bad boy, Forby” Soledad smiled, trying her best not to laugh. She was rather enjoying this.
“Oh dear, he is a feisty one,” laughed the barkeep. “I had one just like him, bless him, murdered all my curtains… Very well then, can I have your name, and I’ll have you and your little furball cosied up in your room right away.”
“Solema Rosette.” Soledad lied. The barkeep-receptionist got on a rather old looking laptop with several scratches and beer stains, and replied “Got ya, a pet friendly single Syth room…” Her gaze lingered at Soledad for a bit longer than it was comfortable “You’re a Syth?! Traveling alone? Are you meeting your tribe here?” She quickly continued, trying to erase her shock “I only ask as we didn’t get any reservations from any Sythsian tribes this week…” The barkeeps eyes rested on Soledad’s hand, spotting those sixth fingers on each one.
Soledad hesitated, in her head she had planned all the answers over and over again, but to be in the situation she forgot what to say for a while. “Ah, no, actually I’m… I’m staying overnight and meeting my tribe over in the next town…” She felt her stomach churn – perhaps it was hunger, or perhaps she just wasn’t good at lying, perhaps the memories of the last 2 days were still too fresh and deluding her present.
While the plump woman decided not to further question her and show her to her room, Soledad knew she looked unsettled and that she had given her solid gossip to take back home to her family: a Syth travelling alone with a pet cat- nothing about her situation was normal. Syths didn’t have pets and Syths didn’t wander alone; they weren’t normally as tall as her either.
Part 2: Confessions in the Dark and Day
Their room was small, very cosy. They advertised them as Syth special rooms, when in reality they weren’t that different from Human accommodations. The only difference was that they were smaller and had tents over the beds, supposedly giving the Syths a “camp-feel” to make them feel more at home. Soledad found it a bit racist.
They weren’t lit by electricity but with candles. The wooden walls were illuminated by the glow of oil lamps, under which the posters of famous miners of the past were staring at her, making her feel judged and betrayed.
By the bed there was a big cat bed, fleece lined and round. The barkeep had hastily transported it from one of the human accommodations. Forb was curled up in it now, licking his fur after a hearty meal of gently roasted farmed rabbit. Soledad had eaten a bowl full of Ramen noodles, a human food invention she loved the most. Every time they visited a human settlement, she would buy a bag full of instant ones to take with her on their next migration.
The WIFI in the room was available on demand. WIFI was one human invention that had gone big in almost all other races, except for Mages, who on the whole, remained a mystery to the world. Even the Elves had taken up to the internet, satellite internet was available all over this part of the Earth, and even Saryaals had little WIFI devices, named as P-Knowledge, they resembled human laptops but were smaller and much less accessorised. Saryaals being sailors found it particularly helpful in the parts of the sea where magic was blocked by Murmer civilisations down below. They used WIFI for directions at that time. For some reason, Murmers didn’t find WIFI as solid enough threat.
Soledad had demanded the WIFI, she had some work to do tonight. She opened her laptop, and just stared at the screen for a while. The device was sleek, the size of a P-Knowledge (another human device that was gifted to Soledad once long ago by a friend from her past), with a tiny keyboard attached, much like a small laptop. Syths didn’t much believe in devices like that, Soledad was one of the few who had bought it from human settlement while on stopover 8 years ago. She once again hadn’t been the most popular Syth of her tribe that day. Syths believed knowledge over the internet was deluded, the knowledge passed down over the generations by parents to children was the only reliable source.
Soledad had bought the satellite internet 8 years ago as well, paying the bill every month from her wages, spending the nights in her camp, searching about the Wars of the Monoliths, the Races, about Mages and Nymphs and Elves – Plinthor and all other creatures that lived. She had tried to find as much information as she could about the Mirror World. She had crammed her head with all the information possible, however, when things took a turn for the worse against her within the tribe, she had cancelled her internet subscription to save the money, she knew the inevitable was knocking at her door now, and any day she’d have to leave.
Her nights had suddenly felt empty without her discoveries, and she had read the remaining books she had purchased on P-Knowledge. Once they had all been read, she had filled her nights painting again, not much, just doodling in her old journal until every page was full – one drawing crowding the other. This had annoyed Forb as he had been the centre of her art, the only model available in her camp. She had drawn him in almost every sleeping pose, dignified and undignified. After every corner of her journal had been scribbled and doodled on, she had only stared at the stars and dreamed, tuning on to different radio channels (that’s when she had discovered her love for Murmer’s music. Murmers were kind of dolphins, civilisations of which lived in the further ends of the seas)
Then one day it hit her: she will apply to Druidhkay Academy… This was it; this could be her way out; this could be her future into the big wide world. What she hadn’t known was it’ll turn out to be a necessary refuge rather than a way out.
Now months later, sitting in these little lodgings in Adarsa, she had kept refreshing her inbox to see if Druidhkay had responded to her application. There was nothing there – only a few emails about 7 years old, from a person named Haron.
Haron, she thought. Closing her mailbox, she opened the contacts in her mobile phone and hunted down Haron’s name (not that there were many names there, just a handful). For a long time into the night, she sat and stared at his name, while Forb slept peacefully. Eventually she clicked the “message” and started typing as an unshakable feeling of unease mixed with calm took over her.
Part 3: Present Day – Plans in the Remnant Roses
The walls of Druidhkay Academy were built of Serpent Stone, a stone that is rarely mined now. It took a great deal to mine it, as it was one of the stones found furthest below the depths of the ground where earth started getting warmer and air denser. Syths have passed this skill down to their generations, but it was dying out now.
Once exposed to the atmosphere above ground, the miners had exactly 43 hours before Serpent’s stones perished. These stones were taken within the first 24 hours of mining back to Elves, who used their magic to preserve them. Once the process was complete, no form of unwanted magic or weapon could penetrate the walls built of it.
After the partition and creation of Mirror Worlds, Serpent Stone was rarely found. Rumour had it that most of it was mined in the Mirror World. However, the Academy was built at least a couple of centuries before the partition, and was amongst a total of 3 buildings across this side of the Earth that were built of Serpent Stone. The name Serpent Stone came from the fact that the texture of the stone looked much like a serpent’s skin. It was beautiful and mesmerising to look at. Humans didn’t possess the eye to stare at it for longer than five odd minutes at a time, and didn’t see half the colours the stones exhibited.
Haron, Soledad and Zaera sat in a secluded corner of the Remnant Roses Garden* within these serpent walls, hatching out plans for their next Shack Hunt, as Haron liked to call it. Maya had discovered another cottage abandoned in the outskirts of the Nymph occupied land of Nymphebi. This, again, was near the Southern range of the Mountain. These were not working mines anymore, and last activity was noted not less than a century ago.
The gang was bent over the map of eastern part of Nymph woods on Haron’s iPad, where there was another abandoned cottage that Maya had narrowed down for them.
“Only problem is, we are not nearly social enough to befriend a Nymph to find a safe passage” Said Zaera “although, oddest of thing happened today…”
Haron and Soledad cast her a questioning look.
“Good old Professor Rorri was asking about you” She looked at Soledad. Professor Rorrihram was the chairman of Board of Art Directors at Druidhkay Academy, and head of the Nymph tower. He was a Nymph, and as ancient as time itself, according to the students of the academy.
“Me? What… Why?” Soledad straightened.
“I don’t know. Something about you reminding him of someone or something” She muttered.
“Ok, first of all, why can’t he ask me himself? Soledad replied, puzzled. “And secondly, what on earth were YOU doing talking to him?”
“You weren’t there but he did mention he’ll talk to you if he sees you around… So maybe we can have a nymph on our side?” She continued when Soledad demanded answer to her second accusation: “You know he knows Father. My grandfather was a friend or something – My Father often sends him books he finds on his travels, I’m always the postal service for him, remember?”
“Yea, involve chairman of board of art directors to your dirty work?” Laughed Haron, resurfacing from his laptop.
“Yea, I don’t understand his interest to be honest.” Soledad didn’t find it funny. She absentmindedly started plucking a nearby leaf from the Remnant Bush, which stung her in defence and she cursed, coming back to the world.
She felt uncomfortable. She had already felt shadows over her shoulder at every turn since Forb’s incomplete warning, and Mages warning that she had let her guard down and had been spotted, result of which the message had fallen into wrong hands. A situation that they mentioned had been “resolved” though.
Now this interest by a senior member of board made her even more uncomfortable.
She hadn’t shared Forb’s warnings with Haron or Zaera, and hadn’t told them much about the Court of Mages, partly because she was forbidden to share her work.
“Maybe you genuinely do remind him of someone, or maybe the old guy is finally losing his marbles? Either way, I don’t believe it’s something serious.” Replied Haron dismissively, continuing to press random buttons on his laptop.
“Maybe you could … make yourself available around him and find out?” Suggested Zaera, while on the screen, mapping out the road that they’ll need to take to the newly discovered cottage.
“Maybe… Or maybe I should run in the other direction as far as possible.” Ended Soledad.
“You ok, mate?” Zaera had noticed the change in Soledad’s upsetting mood for a few days now. She had looked a little more distant and preoccupied.
“Yea” Soledad giggled “you know me and drama, we coexist… so let’s see, do we have any other possible path to the mountain that doesn’t go through Nymph Forest?”
“We could possibly get a permit – You’ll just have to make a very strong case of wanting to paint the abandoned eastern border of Nymphebi forest” Answered Haron, still not looking up. Soledad stared at his unkempt hair for a little longer than she should have, then quickly looked away. Zaera noticed and grinned. Soledad gave her a glare that pierced through her.
“I mean… Maybe it could be a part of my dissertation at the end of this semester – It is still a bit in future but I suppose if one is to get a permit, one would need to start working on it now…”
“You’ll need to come up with a really strong case, though, and maybe approaching Rorri directly about it will be good, as he is the one who will issue the right of passage letter anyway” Answered Zaera.
“Not to forget they might want to send a chaperon along.” Added Haron.
“Being an artist there are certain liberties you CAN take, and I have established myself well as the “shy painter”. I would just mention I cannot be my best if I have a constant security guard. And to be honest, this is actually an amazing idea for the final project as well!” Soledad replied. Ideas of what her art project would be started taking over the anxiety that had taken over the mind for days. But only in passing.
“That’s sorted then, I’ll confirm the pathways, you work on your proposal for the permit and meet old Rorri, and let’s get things in motion this coming week” Finished Haron.
As he was putting his laptop in his bag, they noticed rustling by the nearest bush. They all looked at each other alarmed; Soledad got up.
“Who is there?” She saw a shadow behind the nearest Remnant Rose bush, and as she moved towards it, it disappeared. Leaving behind nothing but a slight breeze. The aura around the bush was not still, though, like someone had recently apparated.
They stood there, bewildered, looking at each other. “Did we imagine it?” Finally, Zaera broke the silence.
“We can sure hope so.” Answered Soledad, the feeling of impending doom rising in her gut again, she didn’t share what her Sythsian senses had picked.
“Did anyone see a Fedora hat vanish into thin air?” Added Haron. For the first time that day, he finally joined them in being worried.
Part 4: The Jade Corridors
Druidhkay Academy consisted of four massive towers on each end of its vast lands, and one in the very middle, around which there were just as massive bara-daris (bara: 12 dar: door) structures. These working towers hosted dormitories as well as offices for the professors. Each tower was a sculpture of a founder of Druidhkay. In centre stood the tower of Rakael, the Elven scholar who laid the foundation of the Academy. North tower was Simeel, the human founder, West, Sumshaal, the Saryaal, East belonging to Krial, Nymph and South being Mishyl, the Syth.
Soledad had never been to any other tower than the Elven, where most of art classes took place, and where her and Zaera’s dorms were. She entered the massive door to the East tower, gates of which exhibited Nymphian art, chiselled in wood. A cool air welcomed her from within, and she could almost smell something that resembled “river”. It made her feel a little less nervous. She was there to see Professor Rorri.
She had no idea what to expect.
Following the wooden arrow signs that announced different directions, Soledad took the direct that pointed to “Offices”, which was the corridor to her right. The walls were painted in dark jade, and filled with moving art chiselled in wood. Several nymph landscapes stared back at her, with rivers flowing, fireflies glowing and leaves falling ever so slowly. The corridor was lit by a warm green glow coming from behind the frames.
She stopped in front of the door that read Rorrihram. The name was faded and barely visible – as old as time, thought Soledad and giggled to herself. She knocked. Somewhere inside a bell rang and the door opened, slowly, without a creak. She stepped inside.
Her first impression of the office was: Darkness. However, slowly, the room started emitting a soft warm glow. The room had no walls, they were just bookshelves, with books piled on top of each other in haphazard manner, sundry books lay askew on the floor and on a couple of wooden tables either side of the room. If there were any parts of wall visible, they were covered in art, paintings and wooden art, bright and moving, mostly landscapes of huts and buildings of yore. Elder races possessing magic did not find it chaotic to have an unkept place – it was something that only ailed human beings.
In the middle of the room was a big office table, behind which was a massive window showing off Remnant Rose Garden. Soledad could see the rose bush behind which her gang always gathered to hatch out plans. This made her feel very vulnerable – Has Rorri been observing them all this time?
Rorri was sitting in his chair behind the table, back turned to the door. She could just about see his balding head. Rorri had the warmest pale aura she had not seen around anyone since Xiu-ying.
She stood there for a moment, waiting for him to turn his chair around. She shifted nervously from one leg to another. She had come in contact with Rorri only once in her life before, when she had taken a rogue class on Implication of Wood in Nymph Art.
When he didn’t turn around, she whispered, “Professor…” That startled poor old Rorri, with a little jerk to his armchair, he turned around, the wrinkles on his face had become a lot more prominent since that lecture. He gave her the most spaced-out look, then something changed in his expressions, “L L e…’ He stammered, but didn’t finish. “May I help you?” Recovering from wherever he was, he asked.
“It’s me, Soledad, professor, you asked Zaera for me?” She replied, a bit taken aback.
“Oh y y yes.. of course… Soledad, yes.” A look of recognition finally dawned on his spaced out and then taken aback face. “Please s s s it.”
Professor Rorri stammered in English. He never stammered in his own language or any other for that matter, but English had never been kind to him. Suppose he was past the age to be embarrassed about it, thought Soledad. She took one of the two chairs in front of the table.
Another few awkward seconds passed as Rorri stared at her, not moving, not talking, not even blinking – Nymphs never blinked.
Soledad shifted in her chair, even more uncomfortable than she was this morning. “You wanted to talk to me about something, professor?”
A second episode of startle brought Rorri back to the present. “Oh yes, yes, c c cer .. certainly..” He spoke. “Tell me, how are you f f fiding Druidhkay?” He asked.
“Good.. I mean I love it here.. It’s become a home to me,” She added: “it’s been around 4 years…”
“Tell me about your t t tribe, Soledad. How are they?” He cut her off, and added: “Do they know you are here?” Anxiety creeping its way back in her heart now – How did Rorri know about it? Nobody except her friends knew she had run away… She was lost for a reply. Does she pretend this hadn’t been a secret or look confused?
She went with confuse. “Oh yes, they are happy I am learning art… I was never much of a miner.” She was scratching the skin off the sides of her nails.
Rorri smiled, the kindest smile she had ever seen. It almost put a spell of calm on her.
“Is that so?” He said with a smile and in Sythsian, she felt like a child caught in an obvious lie and blushed.
“Soledad, I have a little task for you, but it is of utmost importance that it remains between us.” After a second thought, he added in English: “Maybe except your friends, I suppose t h h hat won’t be possible?” He smiled again.
“Yes, professor?” Soledad had no idea how to answer.
Rorri got up, with an effort. She realised his knees were bent in an odd angle. She hadn’t noticed that in the class she had taken a year ago.
He went up to one of the old drawer units in the corner and opened the top drawer. He ransacked through it for a while until he came upon a wooden key with a chain hanging with it. He put the key in an envelope he scavenged through his desk drawer and put the key inside. As he placed it in front of her on the desk, the seal wax poured and sealed it for him.
“In the west of N.. N n ymphebi, there is a N n nymph gallery – d d don’t worry, once you enter the forest, you will find clear signs to it- It is 1200 years old.
From the entrance to the r r right – there is a corridor that goes down t towards the modern art s s section. You’ll find a d door there, the key is to this door.”
He continued “If anyone asks, tell them Rorri sends you. They’ll let you in.” He finished
Soledad placed the envelope in the pocket of her coat, more confused than she ever was “What will I find there, professor?”
“T t t h hat is for you to decide. I have included the letter of permission to Nymphebi in there.” He smiled yet again, “Okay then, I’ll see you here once you’ve been t t there.”
Nymphs weren’t the ones to explain. They kept communication short and quick. It didn’t make them the best teachers to other races, though.
Soledad got up. She had so many questions, but she didn’t know how to ask so she got up, ready to leave. However, Rorri added, this time switching to Synthsian again:
“Save the questions for later, Soledad… and Soledad?”
She turned around,
“It’s good to meet you, child.” He added, and there it was, that smile. With that he turned his chair back to the window, and Soledad exited his office, a bit shaken, a bit confused, but more than anything, sad. Like she was losing something. Before closing the door behind her, she took a one last look at Rorri’s office and that balding head behind an aging chair.
Part 5: The Second Escape
“Old Professor Rorri has been stalking us, you mean?” Later that evening, Soledad told everything to Zaera as they sat in the common room on the rug in the corner with their art supplies scattered around, pretending to be painting but really just talking.
“It looks like it, doesn’t it, why else would he mention ‘my gang’?” Soledad replied, sipping a very hot tea and cursing as she burnt the tip of her tongue and also spilt a few drops on her canvas.
“I don’t know about you, but I find it all very exciting, you have a professor that handed you a key to a secret section of Earth’s oldest Nymph gallery, and without even asking for it, you got the permission to enter the woods.” Replied Zaera, handing Soledad a napkin. “Sounds a little bit like destiny, wouldn’t you say?” She added.
Soledad shrugged, rigorously wiping the canvas, only making it worse. She cursed again.
Zaera flicked her finger and muttered something under her breath. The stains started fading out.
“Show off” Soledad snorted.
“You’re welcome” replied Zaera, continuing to randomly mixing colours on her palette. “Anyhow… When are we heading out then?”
“Let’s discuss with Haron” she replied, taking her mobile phone out from her bag and checking. She hadn’t heard from Haron since the day in the Remnant Garden, he hadn’t replied to her two very well calculated texts.
“He hasn’t got back yet, has he?” Zaera asked.
“No, maybe I should call him…?” Soledad replied, opening Haron’s contact and staring at the call button.
“Well, yes, you should!” Zaera said, beginning to pack up. She watched Soledad continuing to stare at her phone, her thumb levitating above the screen, not pressing. Zaera sighed. “Don’t torture yourself, just call him”
Soledad quickly turned off her phone and placed it back in the bag “If we don’t hear from him tomorrow, I will” she concluded. Zaera gave her the most knowing and annoying look.
“Shut up” Soledad added.
“Let’s go to bed, the 7am class tomorrow is already scaring me, and you have your mage “work” before that, don’t you?” Said Zaera.
Next day was spent running from one class to another, they were given a mountain of readings on Art Through the Ages and the part it played in the Partition, so they spent most of their lunch break browsing through the library and on the internet. They also had to finalise their dissertation topics and get them approved, as everyone around them seemed to have already picked theirs.
Even within the walls of Druidhkay, a place which had its foundation laid in equality and peace amongst all races, groups were seen in abundance. Elves sitting with elves, humans in a distance huddled together, Syths and Saryaals often seen walking around or studying in the garden gazebos. This was perhaps one of the reasons why Haron, Zaera and Soledad always got the “looks”.
Three misfits that didn’t belong. It was also common for the group to hear a remark or a snort from around them. 4 years ago, when Soledad had first entered the walls of Druidhkay, she had faced her biggest nightmare: being in the dreaded limelight. The looks were piercing, the questions were worse. Are you an elf or … wait, are you Syth? Mage? Aren’t you too tall to be Syth? On her first class which had been Practical Implications of Moving Art for Beginners, she had picked the table at the very end of the hall, hoping nobody would join her.
However, she had been joined by a tall, very beautiful and intimidating looking Elf. She had sat there awaiting more questions but the Elf had just asked her if she could join, and smiled at her, not giving her a second look.
Soledad had taken a liking to this indifferent Elf from that very moment. Zaera had later told her that the feeling was mutual, as majority of Elves were white, and she was from the darker skinned parts of Elven population- they’d been an outcast before the Partition.
As Soledad and Zaera shuffled through the pages of Arts and Partition books (which weren’t found over the internet), a rolled-up paper hit the side of Soledad’s head. Soledad knew who it had to be, so she turned around with the fiercest scorn she could muster.
“Oi, Hybrid!” Ivri whispered from the table across from them. Ivri was one of the rare Mages that studied in Druidhkay, “Heard old Professor Rorri has taken a liking to you!” She giggled, and so did her gang of Elves that worshipped her.
“He always was into the oddities” One of the elves named Jimayesh added.
Soledad rolled her eyes and turned back to her books
“I am not entirely comfortable that these morons know about this, does EVERYONE know about it? The whole academy?” Zaera looked worried. Ignoring Ivri and her gang was the best tactic. Good thing was, most of the time they moved on pretty quickly to other victims, although the three oddities were certainly their favourite.
“I know… and it’s not like Rorri doesn’t call other students, could just be about some assignment?” Soledad replied, joining in on the worry.
“No, he doesn’t, that’s the point! Rorri is the hardest professor to get hold of, so if someone chances upon him, it is the talk of the town, as they say.” Zaera replied, and then quickly went back into the books when she got the dirty look from the librarian, an old Zitharian lady that had worked at the library for over a decade.
“Let’s get out of here” Zaera started gathering her books in haste. She always had a very authoritative personality, which went very well with her physical attributes. Obediently, Soledad started packing up as well.
Once outside, Zaera asked Soledad whether she had heard from Haron. She hadn’t.
“Call him now, you know what, if you don’t, I will, this is becoming exceedingly absurd now!” Zaera hardly ever showed frustration – today it was very visible. Soledad knew Zaera won’t take no for an answer now.
They were leaning against the red brick walls of the Esoterica Library, a cool wind was about, Spring ever so slightly in the air.
After trying Haron for the second time without getting an answer, Soledad was about to hang up when he picked.
There was silence for a few seconds followed by a very spaced-out hello.
“Haron! Where are you, man?” Soledad asked, she didn’t like the way he sounded.
“Oh, em hey Sol!” Some realisation seemed to have dawned on the other end of the phone.
“Where have you been?” She repeated.
“Oh yea, I’ll tell you, Soledad.” He paused. “Meet you at Firs and Pines later today?” Firs and Pines was a quaint pub in Adarsa, the neighbouring human settlement of Druidhkay.
“Yes – what time?”
They all agreed to the time. Soledad wondered how long her gut can take this never-ending feeling of sinking for; the feeling that has had her in crutches since the day she was summoned by the Mages.
Later that evening, as Zaera and Soledad entered the doors of Firs and Pines, smelling alcohol and “human” in the air, they found Haron sitting in a secluded table, his beard overgrown and his hair haphazardly tied in a bun. However, he was still sitting behind a laptop, oblivious to the world around him.
He looked startled as they approached and called out to him, almost like he had forgot why he was there.
“Hi, you guys, alright?” There was no smile, no playful sarcasm, no light on his face. Something was very, very wrong. Soledad felt Zaera tense next to her as well.
“What’s going on, Haron?” Zaera asked, sitting down with her pint of beer, she despised alcohol.
“It’s Maya…” He replied, his eyes looking at but through them.
“What’s wrong?” Soledad asked.
“She is missing, she has been missing for a week…”
“What?!” Both, Zaera and Soledad chorused.
“Yea, she was on holiday, she went off to meet her parents in Deringham, and she never made it, they filed a missing person’s report 3 days ago.” He finished.
Zaera reached out and took his hand, stroking it gently, that seemed to ease whatever it was he was going through. Elvish ways, thought Soledad.
“Tell us what we can do… anything?” Soledad asked. She hated seeing him this way, she had seen him like this once before – around a decade ago, it was exceedingly unsettling for her at that time as well.
Haron didn’t reply, but smiled. Both girls gave him a moment.
“I have been going through her last texts, I retraced her steps, where she was, when she was, trying to find any clues…” He said, more to himself than anyone.
“I haven’t found anything.” He finished.
“My father’s old cohort, he has several people now working in Missing Persons Operatives. I will contact him!” Zaera’s father always knew somebody…
“Hmm, thanks Zaera, I suppose that’ll be helpful…” He trailed off.
Soledad wanted to add something, but found lost for words. Instead, she just took a big gulp of her beer and choked on it.
“Alright, Sol?” Haron asked. On any other day, this had given Haron ammunition for endless taunts to follow.
“Let’s get out of here, I need some fresh air, some fresh air before the winds blow us off… there is a nice walk in the woods behind Fir and Pine, of Fir and Pine trees, of course.” He smiled a little, but it quickly faded away. It was obvious that he was piecing the conversation together with a lot of effort.
They left their almost untouched beers. Zaera didn’t complain.
The woods had a clear path, surrounded by unusually large fir and pine trees. The air was very dense, but welcoming. Haron was briskly walking in front of them, Soledad and Zaera quickened their pace to catch up. They both approached on either side of him, and they walked in silence for a while, each in a thought of their own.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys,” Haron finally broke the silence.
“Not at all, mate” Zaera reassured, putting a soft hand on his shoulder. “But you don’t have to do this alone, or go through this by yourself, we will do whatever we can.” She spoke for both of them, because once again, words weren’t surfacing for Soledad.
“.. yea we are here for you…” muttered Soledad sheepishly, and instantly felt stupid.
“Thank you…” Haron had never been one for “thank yous” and apologies. They resumed their silent walk.
A few moments later they entered a clearing of sorts, so they stopped and looked around, appreciating the green twilight filtering through the trees.
However, their amusement wasn’t for long – a few steps towards their right, they suddenly heard a rush of wind, like something or someone was invading the air. They all tensed –
“Something is following us.” Whispered Zaera. “I think we need to turn back.”
They all listened, as the air started to move around them. Someone was tracking them.
They all felt a sudden rush of cold that went through them, making them dizzy. The sound of wind was getting louder, rushing through them and freezing them on spot.
Their eyes watered. Soledad felt her limbs go stiff, like an invisible rope was binding her, she looked at her friends, they looked as she felt –
I need to get us out of here, the thought invaded her brain out of nowhere, she reached out and took a hand of each of her friend. It took everything in her power to move her feet in her shoes, but she managed it, feeling that feeling of electric spark in her toes that she could never figure out.
This tiny movement alone from her broke the spell enough that they felt their muscles relax a little, giving them just enough energy to put one foot Infront of the other and run.
The wind was still strong and the forest had turned dark. They spun and tried to make way to from where they had come, but a few feet away, they saw a figure, a tall dark figure in fedora hat – all they could see were green eyes glowing back at them, threatening – The figure raised his finger and pointed towards them. A glow of purple shot through his hand, and missed Soledad by an inch as she dashed.
She ran without looking back – she ran right into the dark and shelter of the cluster of fir and pine trees – anywhere but away from the road, she thought. A few seconds later she turned and realised she had lost track of both Haron and Zaera. It dawned on her that she was on her own. She hadn’t quite recovered from this realisation when she heard footsteps and saw a faint grey aura of the fedora man heading towards her from behind the trees. Trying to think her next step, she hid behind a large looking fir tree.
Her breath was shallow, and her muscles were aching, especially her toes that still felt like they had been electrocuted – but thankfully the chaotic wind was cloaking the sound of her heart tyring to let loose through her rib cage.
She needed to dodge the fedora man, and go back and find her friends. She saw the man walking in her direction, in no apparent hurry, then stop and to her terror, look right at her THROUGH the fir tree, she felt him inside her mind. There were unnamed whispers and the feeling of being immobile took over her body again. She tried to move her fingers, but they had gone stiff, there was no spark this time. She realised she was levitating at least two feet above the ground, as the fedora hat moved nearer and nearer. She was blacking out; it was like being strangled by a hundred ropes.
As her vision blurred, she caught a glimpse of an orange aura glowing and growing brighter behind the dark one of the fedora man. She tried to concentrate, without really knowing how, she instantly knew that this growing orange was her aid.
“Sol, it’s me… Listen, we won’t have much time, I will distract him, and in that second you MUST free yourself of his hold and run, I’ll catch up.” Forb’s voice echoed in her mind. She nodded back – Telepathic communication had always been strong with them.
Next moment the orange aura had consumed half of the black one of the fedora man, In this second, Soledad found the man’s spell falter. She took this reprieve and broke herself free, running – she ran without looking back.
Soon, the orange light had caught up with her, “grab my tail, Sol, and you’ll be invisible too, I’ll make myself visible for a second, do it quick, and open the portal next to that big pine tree, ok?” Forb was invisible. “Yes, I’m ready” she communicated. A second later she saw the orange aura turn into Forb, he was running, Soledad latched on to his tail and he was invisible to the naked eye again. Taking her wand out from her jacket, Soledad pointed it towards the big pine tree and summoned a portal, however right before the portal appeared, Soledad looked behind her and the man in fedora was only a moment away, standing still, staring right at them.
“He can see us, Forb… he can see us even with invisibility!” she told Forb without a word, as they jumped into the blue portal and landed inside the Druidhkay common room.
*Remnant Roses were not just the brightest of the flowers but also grew on stems with leaves with shades of the rainbow. They only grew in the eastern part of Mages Mountains, and were imported to civilisation through carefully monitored channels. Druidhkay Academy, of course, had a whole garden boasting it.