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"Aria! Put on some clothes and get out here right now!" my Guardian's voice exclaimed, snatching me from my sleep. Warm, rough, controlling hands grabbed at my ankles and pulled, wrenching me out from the comfort of my woolen bed. I forced my eyes open, fighting off sleep, as the light from a burning torch stabbed at my pupils.
"What? What is it?" I asked groggily.
"We'll talk downstairs. Put on a warm tunic and hurry yourself up." His tone left no room for argument, and I begrudgingly stood up and stumbled to my closet. Grooge, my sworn Guardian from when I was just a baby girl, paced with wide eyes and shaky breaths. I peered at him quizzically, wondering what had him so nervous. Grooge never got nervous.
"Despite the fact that it is not yet dawn- and usually I am unable to form a coherent thought this early- I can't help but wonder what could be troubling you so much that you can't even look me in the eye?" I asked. He was my father, my protector, my hero, and my only friend. We'd been together through everything, and his apparent anxiety worried me.
"Aria, you need to hurry up. We have... guests in the house, and they aren't fond of waiting." I looked up from my drawer of tunics to see the urgent expression on his face. My brow cocked in confusion.
"Really? And who are these guests?"
Grooge sighed. "Aria, please trust me. You must get down there soon or they'll have to retrieve you themselves. It's bad enough that I had to beg them to let me come up here. I don't want them coming anywhere near you."
My brain started working, thinking of who could be down there that Grooge wouldn't tell me. I pulled my tunic on, some leggings, and my workboots before rushing out the door behind him.
Entering the foyer, I was met with four knights: Eriadoc, Sterling, Metrit, and Barook. I immediately recognized them as the knights whom so many town women adored. Eriadoc, the young knight who wasn't much older than I was, had dark ebony hair and a razor-sharp jawline. He stood tall and confident, with an ease to his stride and a smirk that meant he was used to girls fawning over him. Sterling, the older one who had eyes that seemed too perceptive for his own good, had golden hair that was slicked back so harshly that his hairline must have been pulled backward as well. He was also tall, but with broader shoulders and bulkier arms. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back. Metrit, the man whose hair was a much more bright and shining gold than Sterling's, had a scowl firmly planted on his pale face already. They were all pale-skinned, except for Barook, the knight who was rumored to have killed five men with one strike and answered only to the king. He was the most formidable of them all, with bulging arms and exceptionally broad shoulders- it was as if he were made to be a fighter. His gaze was dark and shadowed, as was his face, making me skirt away from his eyes. I then cursed myself for being scared, and turned my head to face them full on, ignoring the creeping bit of fright that was brewing in my stomach.
These four knights were the most dangerous and cunning I'd seen with my own eyes, and it was beyond me why they would all show up at my house. I exchanged strained nods with each of them, before I was ordered to take a seat and Grooge was ordered to stand by the couch.
Sterling was the first to speak to me, and did so in a condescending voice. "Aria, you are a fine young woman. How do you do this morning?" He smiled tight-lipped.
"Fine, thank you," I replied, struggling to sound polite while my mind scowled at his tone. Instead, I let my eyes take in the sight of the four famous men of the town, and was confused as I saw that they looked rather prissy and patronizing. Are these the same knights whom so many women my age fawn over? I struggled to fit the men they'd described with the men actually in front of me. Sure, I suppose they're... not ugly... But Sterling's attitude isn't quite helping. My eyes locked with his, and I'm sure my thoughts were written on my face. I cleared my throat. Stop being finicky, Aria. These are righteous people, and they're your guests. I strained to keep my voice respectful as I said, "May I ask why you four knights have presented yourselves so early in the day?" Immediately, I winced when I realized that my choice of words wasn't very smart. Grooge hissed at me, and gave me a watch your mouth look. I paused, before looking back at them blankly. I hope that went unnoticed.
My hope crashed when Sterling sneered at me. He turned his lips up and laughed scornfully, scaring me a bit. "Why, we were drawn to you, Aria," he said. "Do you not feel your spirit?"
"Feel my spirit?" I repeated, confused. What is this perverted knight talking about? I glanced at Grooge to look for some kind of clue, but his face was now strangely blank. Even more confused, I turned back to the knights.
"I see that you have been misinformed," said Metrit, stepping closer to me. He glanced at Grooge. "Or shall I say, uninformed."
"Yes, it would seem that you are out of the loop, like all remotely attractive women are these days," Sterling added with a grin. Metrit started to laugh, bringing a disgusted expression to my face.
I recoiled at his words, and struggled not to snap back at him. If I did, I knew I would regret it later. Well, the ladies in town square never said that the knights were so revolting. Where are their enchanted smiles? Or their charming voices?
"But what is it that I don't know about?" I said impatiently. Beginning to lose control over my irritation, I narrowed my eyes at each of them. They all began to smirk. "What?" Sterling caught my eye and winked, just barely, but enough to make my skin crawl. Don't look at me like that. It's horribly revolting, I thought, wishing I could scream the words in his face. Glancing at each of their swords warily, I wondered how I could tell them to leave without angering them. The knights all seemed much too interested in me, as shown in their pointed stares and close proximity. I suddenly wished that my muscles were more capable to fight than just turn soil.
"You have quite the hasty attitude, Lady Aria," said Metrit. I scowled. "Oh, I have forgotten; you are not a lady. You are a commoner, correct?" My hands clenched into fists as I desperately tried to keep in my anger. His eyes gleamed contemptuously. "Do we make you uncomfortable in your own little... quaint home?" His voice held not even the slightest hint of concern.
It took my best effort to ignore him and his childish taunts. "Why are you here? All of you? Do you not have business to attend to in the mornings?" No one spoke, just grinned at me and made faces at each other.
Fuming, I looked back to where Grooge was standing, and saw the intense look on his face. It was made clear by his expression that he wanted to cut in and defend me, or maybe throw the obnoxious men out of the house altogether. His eyes were locked on Metrit, Sterling, and Eriadoc, but in the shadows I caught Barook silently advancing towards him. I hadn't even noticed that he'd moved from behind the other knights. He watched Grooge with a hand on his sword, and the stealth of a cat about to pounce on its prey. Panicked, I turned to Grooge to warn him that Barook might attack him. But I caught myself just barely, once I realized that I couldn't just accuse a knight of wanting to attack my Guardian in front of three other knights. Silently pleading for Grooge to make eye contact with me, I bit my lip to keep from bursting. The men were now beginning to scare me.
"Why, this is the business we are attending to, Aria," Eriadoc said loudly, making my attention crawl to him. "It is a great deal more pleasant than our usual business, might I add."
I narrowed my eyes at him, my lips twitching as I forced a smile. "And might I add that it is quite strange for all four of Sidhe's knights to come to my house at once, only to confuse me with their half conversations?"
Eriadoc's smirk faltered, and I saw a gleam of a predator in his eyes. My spine quivered in fright.
"Your confusion is most appealing to us," Sterling said, stepping closer as well. He sneered at me again, with the a look of sickening enjoyment. His eyes were fixed on me, and he seemed as though all he wanted to do was taunt me.
Something snapped in my mind. I was fed up with their disrespectful remarks and appalling comments on "my confusion." Well then. I stood up angrily. "First you barge into my house at an ungodly hour, tease me about something and not tell me what it is, and now come on to me with perverted admiration in what I believe to be an effort to distract me from Barook's advancements toward Grooge?" I exclaimed, all in one breath.
A heartbeat after I spoke, Grooge must have spotted Barook just as he lunged to attack him. I heard him take in a sharp breath and the rustle of his sleeves as he brought up his arms, while Barook's sword ringed as it was pulled from its sheath. Fear struck my spine cold when I saw that the rest of the knights' smirks had dropped, and were replaced by unbridled hatred. Eriadoc pounced on me with his sword unsheathed, and I couldn't breathe as his arms tackled me to the ground. His face was directly in front of mine, and I could see glowing orbs of a crimson color in his eyes. I had unfrozen just enough to shudder at the sight of them, and he chuckled.
"You dare disrespect me and my friends?" he asked in a deadly calm voice. I whimpered and looked away, catching the eyes of the other three knights. Oh, skies... Their eyes were glowing orbs too; Metrit's a startling green, Barook's a crystalline blue, and Sterling's a bright silver. I closed my eyes and refused to open them again. "Answer me!" Eriadoc shouted.
"Stop!" yelled Metrit. "Eriadoc! Release her, or you will only make it happen now!" What would happen? You would be killed of course. Metrit came up and touched Eriadoc's shoulder, but Eriadoc roared and he flinched back.
I prayed in my head, begging for forgiveness for all the mistakes I'd made and asking for a painless death. Wait a second, I thought, just as a moment of clarity came, am I praying? My brained clicked and suddenly I could think again, and I remembered that I didn't believe in prayer; I also remembered the very few self-defense moves Grooge had taught me over the years. Taking a deep breath, I wrenched my shoulder from underneath Eriadoc's hands, knocking him temporarily off balance. With my free hand, I palmed his other elbow and let him fall onto me. He landed hard, knocking the wind from my lungs, and once again I couldn't breathe. The sensation of my chest being flattened made me freeze up again, and Eriadoc simply righted himself and straddled my body instead. My abdomen hurt terribly, and I cried out in pain. With a heated glare and flaming eyes, he raised his sword to my chest. I locked eyes with him and I knew he could see my fear. He chuckled darkly. I could feel his sword about to embed itself in my heart, and feared what would happen after that.
But in an instant Eriadoc's breath was no longer blowing into my eyes, and I heard a frightening battle cry. My breath came out in a gasp.
I pried my eyes open and saw Grooge tackling Eriadoc to the ground, and then as the other knights rushed him, Grooge raised his palm to the ceiling and the Earth lifted up into a wall- right in the middle of my house. The air in my lungs left me. Grooge turned.
His eyes were a glowing, forest green.
I could barely grasp what it meant, before Grooge was hoisting me onto his back and sprinting out the back door. I absently held on to his arms like my life depended on them, clenching my teeth as Grooge's feet pounded against the ground with each heavy step. Being carried by someone who was sprinting was not a pleasurable experience at all; my head was jostled and I'd bitten my tongue several times before I thought to clamp my jaw shut. My eyes wandered around numbly, tears forming of their own account. It was tiring to keep a steady grip around Grooge's shoulders, but I repeated my mantra over and over in my head: Be strong and don't let go of your Guardian. I forced myself to breathe in and out, and not to dwell on the scene I'd just witnessed.
Grooge ran parallel to the pebble-ridden road that led from our house to the town square. He kept to the edge of the trees, remaining in the shadows. Since it was so early and the sun had just barely begun its ascent, there was enough darkness and cover to hide in. I had a feeling that Grooge's wall of earth wouldn't hold the knights back forever. Wall of earth. Red eyes. Grooge's eyes. Supernatural. Magic. Impossible. Trickery.
Stop thinking about it! I mentally berated my mind. Distract yourself. Distractions are good. Think about something else.
My gaze followed the trees passing by us. Spring was beginning to emerge from the sleeping blanket of winter, and little green and white buds formed on their spindly limbs. Though the temperature had only warmed very little, the thaw was beginning in the land as the ground defrosted and rivers started to run again. The soft rush of water somewhere in the forest was an accompaniment to the start of birds singing. I tried to spot them up in the trees. Then the sound of distant chatter reached my ears, and I turned toward the road. We'd come to town square, and just some distance away was the courtyard of merchants' stands. The morning crowd hadn't arrived yet, but a few merchants were already busy setting up their various wares and services to sell. Town square could hold twenty stands, give or take a few, and about one hundred people at a time. It had a gravel floor and there were restaurants surrounding it. My favorite restaurant was there: Scraps. It had the best roast chicken I'd ever tasted.
But then again, I had never been outside of Sidhe before, so I didn't have anything to compare it to. My lips turned down as I realized that I had never seen another town before; I was always at home, tending to the small farm and sometimes venturing to town square. Grooge was never one to take me places, and he was a firm believer that we had no business going to places outside of home. He raised as a firm believer in that too, I believed it with my soul.
That's what I told myself.
But deep inside, I knew that I wanted to see more of the land. I wanted to know what other forests and towns looked like. I wanted to see if the storytellers' tales were true, or how fake they were. I wanted to know all about people other than those in Sidhe. I wanted to know things. I wanted to see things. Like the knights did every day, I wanted to travel from town to town. Probably not as a knight, but I still wanted to travel. New things were always so fascinating for me.
But perhaps travel is not such a wonderful thing, if it makes people become like those knights. I frowned at the thought, but then other feelings rushed in. Panic. Fear. Fright.
Stop thinking about that!
When the town square was completely out of sight, Grooge turned to the left and ran straight into the forest. I heard his exhausted breathing and how with each step he grew weaker, and knew that we would soon have to stop. The trees continued to pass by, and twigs crunched periodically underneath Grooge's pounding feet. The soft forest floor was covered in grass, and small animals scurried away as they woke up for the morning. I watched the horizon as the sun finally crested, and the trees glowed in light from the sun at their backs. Grooge muttered something under his breath, and I shut my eyes securely. The jostling slowed down, and then I was being settled onto the cold ground. He grabbed my shoulders.
"Aria, snap out of it and look at me," Grooge said.
"No!" I screamed.
"Aria, I'm not going to hurt you, I just need to talk to you, and there's something very urgent that you need to know, because I care about you and I want you to be safe." He spoke all in a rush. "Open your eyes," Grooge pleaded.
I struggled to draw in a calming breath, terrified that if I opened my eyes, I would see Eriadoc's face in front of me instead of Grooge's. I couldn't forget his evil-looking eyes, that made his gaze all the more scary. I forced myself to gulp down air, and reluctantly... slowly... hesitantly... opened my eyes. Finding myself sitting on the forest floor, my body relaxed and an involuntary sigh escaped my lips. This was the forest. This was alright. I was comfortable here. I knew everything about the forest, whether it was searching for water, or picking a tree to climb and sleep in. Many times in my life had I slipped away into the endless expanse of nature all alone, just to center my mind and refresh myself. Grooge always let me, and I was thankful for that. Sometimes our house felt too small, and like it was going to close in on me. I loved to get out and breathe fresh air. My fingers automatically tangled themselves in the grass. Though I wasn't relaxed at all mentally and my heart still felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, I could at least breathe and move normally. I looked to the Guardian in front of me.
Grooge still possessed that glowing gaze, but it was no longer frightening.
"Thank you." He slumped in relief, and the familiar slouch of his shoulders calmed me slightly. I stared at him with a very overwhelmed expression, and he cleared his throat nervously. "Now Aria, I've not been entirely honest with you from the beginning." He looked back at me to gauge my reaction.
"Your eyes are glowing," I said, staring at them.
He sighed and looked down. "Yes, my eyes. They're probably glowing like the moon right now." He looked back at me. "This only happens when I Awaken my spirit."
It took a few moments before I stopped staring and actually looked at him. "What?" I said. I hadn't heard what he said.
He blinked several times, and looked down again. He spoke in a light tone of voice. "They are brilliant, aren't they? Are they a bright forest green that seems to capture the very essence of a tree?"
I started staring again. "Yes." They were dark green and deep, fading into a lush brown near the pupil. Lighter flecks of green appeared around the edges, brightening them up. I could've probably stared at them all day. "I've never seen them like this before."
He exhaled slowly. "No, you haven't. Because I've been very careful around you." Grooge briefly met my eyes, and they held an intensity that made the green color look like the pastels I'd seen on gowns in the dress shops. "I just couldn't bear to see that... that animal strangle you."
I broke from my trance. "Thank you, for doing what you did," I said. He looked at me closely. "But..." I played with my hands. "I don't understand. Why did they come?"
He let out a doleful laugh. "You see, that is a very difficult question to answer, for there could be many reasons. And I'm not sure which one it is." Grooge closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "I'll try to explain everything first."
I held my breath in wait. All at once I got a feeling that after hearing what he was about to say, my life would change. I wouldn't be the same person, I wouldn't think of Grooge as the same person, and my life in a house in the corner of a small town would end. Things will be different from now on, I thought to myself, scared at how sure I was that I was right. I started to tell him not to explain.
Suddenly, Grooge opened his eyes. "You are of the Art'un; only those who are Awakened may join."
I blew out a breath. Too late. "Awakened? You say that as if it means something."
"Yes. Awakened means something deeper, something within your being. Awakened means that your spirit has risen from your soul, to guide you for the rest of your life." He waited for my reaction.
I tried to understand his words. "My spirit? What does that mean?" It sounded like a bunch of religious junk that I'd never believed in.
"Your spirit is what you are connected with. For the Art'un, there are four possibilities: earth, water, fire-"
"-and air?" I asked, my brain finally working again.
He smiled. "Exactly." I leaned back and was struck with awe. "Now, the Art'un is not the only clan of Awakened. There is one other- the Ari. Their clan connects with three different spirits: stone, ash, and..." I strained to hear Grooge's voice, for it had dropped low and inaudible.
He gulped. "Shadows." His face looked pale, as if he were reliving a nightmare in his mind. I reached out and grasped his hand.
"It's okay," I whispered, before I even noticed that I had.
A few seconds later when he'd recovered, he said, "The Ari are not like us. They use their spirits for greed and power, enjoying the act of pushing others down so they can rise up." Suppressed anger brimmed in his eyes. "We use ours only when necessary. Even some who have Awakened choose not to wield their spirit once they become too old to handle the strain. I rarely ever use my spirit," said Grooge with a shrug.
"What do you mean by 'use my spirit'?" I asked. I stared into his face. When the realization hit me, I gasped and sat straight up. "Do you mean that you can manipulate that element?"
He nodded with a small smile. "Yes. For example, I can direct parts of the ground to go in certain directions, and sometimes even conjure plants with my hands." I gasped and hung onto his every word. "Those who connect with water can direct various amounts of water to go in certain directions, and even sometimes conjure a small amount of it from their hands if they're very powerful." I imagined creating rain from the tips of my fingers, and using it to water the farm instead of carrying buckets all the way from the well. "Those connected with fire can manipulate it, and again, some can create it from their hands, if they're very well-practiced. Those connected with wind can create wind easily, and have it gust at whatever speed they wish." My face lit up into a huge smile. What a wonderful spirit that must be in the summer, when it seems to be too humid for there to be wind.
"I saw you create that wall of earth. It was incredible," I said, trying hard to relieve the tension. I could tell he was still thinking about whatever memory had passed through his mind at the mention of the Ari. "You must be a king of the Art'un!"
He half-grinned, trying to hide his pride at my exclamation. "That was merely a taste of the extent of my powers." I oohed for his benefit. "But your connection with your spirit will far surpass any other."
I snorted. "I'm going to be stronger than you?" I asked, disbelieving but also bewildered.
Grooge nodded. "Oh yes; in fact, you will be stronger than the entire Art'un clan. Perhaps even the Ari." My eyes widened in shock.
"Me? The most powerful?" But how?
"My dear, that is your destiny. You were born the brightest of the Art'un. You are stronger, smarter, and braver than all the rest. You were appointed at birth to awaken at a young age, so that your spirit will grow with you on a stronger level. The power you have will guide you through what lies ahead. And let me assure you, Aria, many things lie ahead for you."
"That sounds rather foreboding," I pointed out, not quite getting what he was saying.
Grooge raised his eyebrows. "Aria..."
"Alright, alright, I'm sorry," I muttered. Then what had happened before began to seep back into my mind. Eriadoc. Him attacking me. And something the other knights said... what was it? "Stop! You will only make it happen now!" What had they meant by that? "Grooge? Why did they come to our house and attack me?" I asked in a small voice.
I watched his face carefully, sensing his spiked discomfort. His eyes shot to the ground and he played with his hands, trying to stall time to think of an answer. His cheeks dimpled slightly from him clenching his teeth. He squinted back up at me. "I do not know for sure," he said carefully. I sighed in disappointment. "But, I have theories." I perked back up. His eyes had returned to the ground and he began tapping his fingers.
"What are they?" I asked, only half terrified.
"Well, since you will awaken soon and you shall surpass all others in power, it makes sense for them to want you. Perhaps for ransom or some great bartering scheme." I shuddered in disgust and fright.
"Barter for me?" I shook my head. "I wouldn't dare imagine being some piece of property to be bartered with."
"I wouldn't either." He shook his head. "It could also be possible that they wanted to kill you." My heart stopped for a moment. Death. Dying. Eriadoc leaping at me with murder- my murder written on his face and whispered in his voice. "After all, killing you would prevent you from ever awakening."
Shivers raced down my spine. How could they do that to me? In my own house? But I had a thought... "You will only make it happen now!" Could they have been talking about my spirit awakening? After all, it happened in life or death situations. "Was that what the other ones were yelling about? They didn't want Eriadoc to try to kill me because it would make me awaken?"
"Most probably so."
I thought about that for a second. If it weren't for that hesitation from the others yelling at him, Grooge wouldn't have had his opportunity and Eriadoc would have ended my life. I almost died. Then there was a pang of disappointment, since my spirit hadn't awakened. For a minute I wished that he had tried to kill me, really tried, so that I would have my spirit now. But I shoved it away and thanked the skies for sparing my life. "So, what is my spirit? Do I get to create massive barricades of earth like you do? Or, can I start a roaring fire just by a flick of my wrist?"
"Well, I was expecting more of a surprise from you, but the enthusiasm is welcome," said Grooge, his brow furrowing. I rolled my eyes. "Yes, you can. You can do anything, because you will connect with all four of the spirits."
My forehead wrinkled in confusion. "All four of them? How is that possible?"
"It is very possible," he said, sounding almost offended. "Usually, a person will only connect with one of the spirits. Occasionally, you may happen to find someone connected to two of them. Three spirits connected to you all at once is a rare gift. But all four spirits? That is a power set aside for special people. People like you, who only come along once a century. Maybe every century and a half... Aria?"
But I wasn't listening. I could only think about what it meant that only a few people like me had been born in the last few centuries. Centuries. Why so few? Had they been wiped out by their enemies? By the Ari? Or am I simply part of a very minuscule community of special awakeneds? Am I now a target? Will I be hunted, so that my kind will fully be wiped out?
"Will... will other people try to kill me?" I croaked out. What happens if I die? Will another be born like me? Or will this be the first century where the Art'un had lost its "brightest"? Grooge hesitated. I looked up into his eyes and saw the color shift, just the slightest bit, and I shuddered, having found the reason he hesitated to answer me. "They will, won't they?" It came out more as a statement than a question.
"That is... likely," he admitted. "But we won't have to worry about that. Guards have already been arranged to protect you every day." Everyday? "I won't let you die, Aria." The intensity in his gaze was meant to assure me. But did it assure me? I didn't think I was capable of processing emotions at that particular moment.
"Who... would kill me?" I asked feebly.
He sighed, rubbing his face. "There are many who would kill to possess the kind of power you do. The Ari have always been envious of us, for reasons that I do not know..." he stopped, looking back at me with those intense eyes. "Do not ever trust those of the Ari. They exude greed and selfishness."
I nodded numbly. "Is that all?"
"Yes, my dear, I do believe that's all. Is it alright to move on to a different topic of conversation?" I nodded again. We both sat in silence, different emotions radiating off us both. Then Grooge broke the silence softly. "Would you like to know why my eyes become this color?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"It's quite fascinating, really. The color of your eyes acts like a translucent window. When you wield your spirit, you connect with it, and it becomes a part of you." He pauses, for dramatic effect. "When you wield your spirit, it shines through your eyes."
I gasped. "That bright glow?"
"Yes," he smiles. "Isn't it fascinating?"
"Quite." I sighed, wondering when my eyes would finally glow.
"Do not worry, your eyes will change soon. We just have to wait for your spirits to connect to you."
I jolted up. "Will they all connect to me at once? Or is it spread out?"
"Most probably they will come one at a time. Right now, while you are unprotected, the spirits may appear when you are in danger. The first spirit that appears will be the one with the strongest connection. But it will stay strong only long enough for you to defend and remove yourself from the situation. Then it will recede, and only a young spirit will remain." My excitement died.
"Well, that doesn't sound at all like a tease," I grumbled. Grooge chuckled.
"All in good time, my dear." He ruffled my hair and stood up. "Now, to begin with your training."
"Training?" I squeaked.
"Yes! You must train for the perils that will cross your path on your journey to rise to rule!" Grooge exclaimed in mock greatness, puffing out his chest and lifting his chin. I sat there with my mouth open, part of me happy that his joking side was returning, the other part of me choking on his words. To rule? Rule what? The Art'un? Oh heavens, no. He pulled me up briskly. "Lesson number one: you cannot defend yourself if you are sitting on the ground," he said, his eyes glowing in anticipation. Then the Earth opened up and swallowed us whole.
"Grooge!" I screamed as we fell into the darkness. I frantically reached around, trying to find him. The speed with which I was falling made my body feel limp and uncontrollable, and my stomach felt as if it would leap out of my chest at any given moment. Wind rushed past my ears, deafening them, and I could only see a faint light above us, receding into a smaller and smaller crack. Falling, falling, falling through the Earth. Falling to our absolute death. Panic flowed through my veins, turning my arms to lead and my legs to dead-weights. I was frozen in fear.
The ice took a tangible form and began grabbing hold of my body, coursing through every inch of my person and flooding my fingertips. It felt like diving headfirst into a pond that'd just thawed after a long winter, and I gasped at the sensation. The coldness entered my chest, and flooded everything out. It created a vice-like grip around my heart, and flowed out to my lungs and to my stomach. It clenched and hardened around my entire chest, and I could hardly breathe for what felt like hours, but was only a fraction of a second. But just as I was ready to splinter and crack in half from the powerful cold, it changed into something else. The ice sparked my heart alive now, and fed me large amounts of energy in pulses. It flowed all throughout my body, stopping at the top of my head, to the tips of my fingers, to the tips of my toes. I could feel it spark through my eyes and rush air through my lungs. I drew in another breath, and felt the wind enter my chest and replenish the coldness. I'd never felt more invincible.
It fed me energy; enough that I broke through my panic and began to think clearly again. I looked around, the wind not affecting me anymore, and waited. Waited for what?
A voice whispered clearly in my mind. Break the fall, it commanded. My eyes fluttered closed as I listened to it speak in a hurried voice. Unleashhhh me. Pull me underneath you. I will sssstop your fall. Releasssse me.
I opened my eyes and flipped myself over, still falling through the air for probably twenty seconds now. I summoned the energy all into my hands, and gathered my strength for its release. I focused on creating a large enough puff of air that would blow in the opposite direction that we were falling, to stop our decent. I prepared myself for it, and ordered it to come roaring out of me. It readily obeyed.
An invisible force poured from my hands, which now felt electrified and weightless. All sounds ceased, but then a shock filled my ears and the wind came flying back up at me, roughly stopping my fall. It stayed there, howling past my ears, and began slowly pushing me back in the other direction.
I flew out of the hole in the earth.
It carried me all the way up, softly caressing my hair and face, but still powerfully taking me to the surface. When I reached the lip of the ground, the force deposited me unceremoniously and kept going. The air sailed up, up, up, and then Grooge came, landing next to me. I made the air stop flowing and lowered my hands to the ground, and the howl in my ears ceased. It took me a moment to catch my breath, and when it did, my heart nearly stopped.
I had just connected with my spirit. My first spirit. Air.
Grooge began laughing loudly, smiling broadly at me. I found myself laughing along with him. We both laid there for a long time, until our uncontrolled laughter died down to giggles. Even then, I couldn't help the periodic fits of laughter. "You did it!" Grooge exclaimed. "You saved us! You connected with your spirit and got yourself out of that life or death situation! I knew you could do it!"
I tried, but failed, at glaring at him."Yes, thank you by the way for putting me in that life or death situation, my Guardian," I said, stressing the contradiction of what he did.
"You're welcome," he responded.
After Grooge and I finally stopped laughing, he ordered me to get up and train more. I was standing in a guard stance, looking at Grooge, when he lightly slapped me on the head.
"Aria, that's enough. You have to focus while you can still use your spirit," he scolded seriously.
"What? I am!" I countered.
"No, you're not. You're still jittery from that first test. You need to center yourself and concentrate on the task at hand. We have a lot of ground to cover before we get to Selennia-"
"Selennia? We're going to Selennia?" I'd only ever heard bad things about the haunted city.
He looked away. "Yes, we must go to Selennia before your training is over."
"And why have you not told me this before, Grooge?"
He met my gaze again, "Because it was not necessary information before. Now would you please concentrate, my dear?"
I decided to let it go. I exhaled deeply and nodded. "Okay. I'm ready."
"Wonderful." Grooge also took a deep breath and got into a ready stance. "One of the first things you need to know about using your spirit is that it will grow and develop with you. Not within you. So don't try anything stupid."
After a second, I blinked slowly. "I don't understand what you just said."
He sighed as he struggled to formulate his words. "Sometimes it will not obey your call. Sometimes, it will only answer certain things, because it has its own will.” My eyebrows flew up in a mixture of disbelief and fear. “Don't panic though, it will still obey you as your power, but sometimes it will not work.” I relaxed a bit. “For example, if I call upon my spirit to create a tree out of thin air, it most probably won't happen."
“Have you tried?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ve tried many times when I was younger. Every time I would only end up with tall tufts of grass- if I was lucky.” He chuckled.
“Well, that must have frustrated you.” A thought occurred to me. “Wait, do you have to train in places where your spirit is abundant only? Say, a forest for you?” And for me, later, I added.
Grooge pursed his lips in short thought. “It definitely helps if your spirit is present during your training, so that it is easier to conjure it on command. But it does not have to be in abundance, though; and it doesn’t need to be present either. But I’m sure that it helps if it is.”
“Oh.” That made sense. I made a mental note to always train in a place with great amounts of my spirit. “Does Selennia have good grounds for training?”
“The best, Aria. That is why all Art’un go there; it is the most suitable place for awakening. That is also why almost all of the Art’un are born and raised there; so that they become fully ingrained in the culture and grow up comfortable with spirits and other awakeneds.”
“It is a very crucial part of everyone’s lives. Could you imagine a child finding out one day that he can do amazing things with an element of nature? If he took it the wrong way and hated himself? The day he saw someone wield their spirit would surely fry his mind. It is much safer to him and to the rest of the clan if the child is familiar with everything, so that he will not go into shock or try to run away. Or worse- harm others.” I watched as he looked down disdainfully, shaking his head. I watched his face as a large frown took over and gave him his own set of frown lines. I watched as his whole demeanor seemed to darken and slouch. I watched, I watched, I watched, and I was stung. Still watching the ground, he said, “Could you imagine a child being raised not knowing about any of this?” He looked up and froze, seeing the look on my face, in my eyes, in my stance. “Aria, wait, I-”
“Am I not one of those children?” I asked in a very tight and tiny voice. My heart twisted as Grooge’s face changed. He looked as if he’d been stabbed in the chest- by his own doing. Spitefully, I thought, as you should, for speaking about it like that. “Grooge?” I looked down. “Was I not raised without knowing about any of this? And then one day did I not find out I can do amazing things with an element of nature?” I let out a doleful laugh. “All four elements of nature? Did it not-” I bit my tongue to cut myself off.
Did it not fry my mind for me to see you wield your spirit?
“Aria,” he started. He walked over and brought me into his arms. “If I could have, I would have told you about this from the beginning. I would have raised you with all the stories about our culture, and I would have often showed you my spirit, and I would have…” He stopped when I pulled out of his hug.
“But you did show me your spirit, right?” I said quietly. “You would always show me the amazing crops you grew in our garden, Grooge, remember?” I gave a small smile.
He smiled back. “Ah, so you’ve caught on?” I giggled. “I suppose I always was a competitive nut when it came to gardening. And you were so naturally great at it, that I felt like I had to defend my pride.”
“Oh? You think I’m great at gardening?” I asked. “But you and I both know that I’m not particularly stellar at it. Something always goes wrong with my crops; a weed running rampant across the soil, or too much water, or too much sun-exposure for the crop. I had many things to work on.” I chuckled, but it rang strangely as an awkward silence that I didn’t understand filled the air.
“Well, maybe you didn’t,” Grooge said after a moment, sounding embarrassed. I narrowed my eyes at him.
“What do you mean?” I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew where this was going. He looked at my face and I saw the apples of his cheeks redden. He looked down almost shamefully.
“Perhaps I had to tamper with your crops once in a while,” he admitted, “so as not to raise suspicion from passersby.” My jaw dropped.
“Raise suspicion? Why should my garden raise any suspicion? What is so suspicious about it?”
“Well, it was spectacular, first of all. Even after I’d done something to them, the flowers still looked brilliant and the vegetables grew plump. If I hadn’t damaged them, they would have grown far too perfectly and lavishly to have been planted by a young girl in a corner of a small town. People would have been amazed at the least, and scared at the most. I had to do something about it.” Disbelief and pride swelled in my chest at the same time, while I stared at Grooge silently.
“But, how could they ever be so fantastic as to scare people? Crops are crops; they shouldn’t ever be scary.”
“Yes, but your crops would have been beyond the normal. They would have grown to… supernatural levels.”
My eyes lit up. “You mean… to magical levels?” I said. Grooge nodded slowly. “Does that mean that my earth spirit was affecting my farming capabilities?” My heartbeat raced at the possibility.
“That was my original assumption.” He stared at me carefully; not showing much emotion.
“So…what does that mean-”
He cut me off. “Now, back to what I was saying before. What was it? Oh, yes, about the tree…” I sighed, defeated. Somehow I knew that by asking if my abilities were present even before I awakened was crossing a line with Grooge. I let him change the topic. “Since my spirit does not contain the will to create a tree out of nothing, it will not answer-”
"Try it," I said, eagerly interrupting him.
Grooge opened his mouth to speak, but stopped and stood further back from me. He spread his arms wide and closed his eyes, and when they opened they were glowing again. I was immediately drawn to them once more. He swung his arms down and then up, using up as much strength as he could, and the ground in front of him shook. The grass seemed to grow greener and taller, the soil darkening and building up into something- something was growing, but then it all stopped. The ground went still and the grass resumed swaying in the gentle breeze. Grooge slumped, panting. Sweat glistened off his forehead.
"This... is why... I don't make... trees," he said.
I giggled. "Wow, okay, I believe you."
I watched as he gathered his breath again and stood back up. "Now, another important thing you must remember is that the more tired you are, the weaker your spirit is."
I was surprised. "Why? What if I'm in a fight and I run out of energy? Will it just stop responding?"
"No, it will still respond. You will just need to rest for a bit," he said. "Remember that I will always be guarding you. You'll just have to wait until you have gathered enough strength to continue fighting again."
My eyebrows shot down. "That's inconvenient."
"Oh yes; not being able to create a windstorm while falling asleep is really going to cause you trouble," Grooge said sarcastically, making me smile.
"Okay, Guardian. I get it. Now let's start training."
"Okay. So first we'll begin with tuning your connection to your spirit. Do you still feel it in you?"
The same cold power still flowed through me. "Yes. I can feel it."
"Good. Now I want you to close your eyes and think about nothing," he told me. I started to ask him what he meant, but stopped. "Think, breathe, and feel nothing. Understand?"
I nodded and closed my eyes. I tried to mute out the sounds of the forest and the millions of things running through my mind. Hey, not bad. You're actually clearing your mind, I thought to myself. But then with that realization came back all the random things my brain was thinking about. I thought about the birds that were definitely watching Grooge and I from the trees, I thought about the slight softness of the ground under my feet, I thought about how amazing it was to use my spirit, I thought about the murder in Eriadoc's eyes as he attacked me, I thought about the brilliant wall of earth Grooge had created in the blink of an eye, I thought about how helpless I'd been and how I didn't believe my eyes. Everything possible entered my mind, and I got angry. I squeezed my eyes shut, harder this time, and silently cursed myself for not being able to think about nothing.
"Aria, stop getting mad at yourself. It's clear that you have trouble clearing your mind- which is typical. Look at me." I opened my eyes and saw understanding written on his face. "Don't be mad at yourself, alright? Let's try something different." I nodded.
He paused, thinking, but still looking at me. Then a smile began to appear on his lips, before he stifled it and cleared his throat. "Now close your eyes." I closed them. "Think about connecting to your spirit again. Think about the connection itself, and what that felt like. What do you remember most?" I thought back on the moments before I had released the wind; the moments where I let my spirit consume me. I remembered the coolness running through my veins, I remembered the sudden calm that took over, I remembered my limbs becoming alive again and my heart pumping again. But then I remembered something else. Something so clear, but at the same time so puzzling.
"That voice," I whispered. "What was that? Was my spirit talking?"
He smiled. "Actually, yes. As you are connected, thoughts are shared between you and the spirits. Mostly for guidance."
"Really? So, my spirits are like little people inside that talk to me?"
"No, they most definitely are not little people. They're just able to communicate to your mind. It's a way of nature."
I let out a harsh laugh. "This is not nature we're dealing with, this is magic- no, magic sounds too innocent. This is sorcery."
He looked down at me, insulted. "Aria, be calm. You do not have to worry at all." I could hear the offended tone in his voice. "I know that you have a temper and have no problem saying what you will, but I wasn’t expecting you to act up so suddenly." I honestly didn't even know myself why I was panicking. But the panic and angry fear was there, and I didn't try to let it go.
"Well, maybe that's because I have a talking spirit in my head that isn't actually completely under my control!"
"That is why we are training, Aria!" Grooge yelled, his fists clenched at his sides. Seeing them made me madder.
My eyebrows shot up my forehead. "Oh! So it's the truth? I don't have complete control, do I?" My voice had reached a high level of volume, matching my emotions.
"Aria! Stop it! Calm down!" Grooge looked moments away from grabbing me to make me stop yelling.
"Calm down? How can I calm down?" I asked, because I really didn't know how to calm down. My pulse was racing and blood rushed to my face, flushing me crimson. I could only wonder why I was acting like this. My hands shook and I swayed a bit on my feet. Fury inched its way into my soul.
But when the anger tried to get in, it was pushed out, refused. A feeling of strength and certainty rose up from my chest, shooing away the hot emotions. Cool, liquid levelheadedness surged in my veins, accompanied by that same voice:
Shhhh, Aria. Calm yourssself, it whispered. Immediately I stopped shaking and my pulse slowed down. Be easssy, do not be sssscared. Bravery and courage rose up, and the panic was gone. I was no longer scared of the voice; I was almost thankful for it. I felt better now that the unruly emotions went away and better thoughts filled my head.
Grooge cleared his throat.
"Do you feel better?" he asked.
It occurred to me that maybe Grooge wanted that to happen. "Yes." I smiled for good measure.
"Glad to hear, because that means your spirit is doing its job."
A little bit later on, after we'd tried to get me to use my spirit correctly and gave up, I could hear Grooge start to walk around. His footsteps softly moved across the grass as I opened my eyes. I saw him stretch and then turn to me, gesturing for me to follow him. I sat up.
"What is it? Where are you going?" I asked.
"We must travel further away from home. They're probably tracking us now. We're too close," he explained. He turned back around and walked away from me. Stumbling, I jumped up to catch up with him.
"Where do you plan on going?"
"Well," he scratched his salt and pepper beard in thought. "I was planning on going north, away from the village..." Grooge glanced back, as if checking to see if there was anyone behind us. "But as it is their duty to track us, it is our duty to remain untrackable." He grinned. "Where would you have us go?" he asked me.
I raised my eyebrows in amusement. "Well, since the village is back that way," I said, turning around and pointing behind us. "And you say north is that way," I pointed in front of us in the direction Grooge was walking. "Then the village is south. East is this way, west is that way... hmm." I tapped my finger to my lips in thought. I remembered that the closest village to Sidhe (our village) was to the east- if I followed these rough directions-, so for the sake of being untrackable, I chose west.
"West," Grooge repeated after I told him. He nodded to himself and began leading me in that direction. We trod on an invisible path that Grooge made up as he went along, often stopping and looking around him or telling me to stay and then going ahead before coming back and directing me somewhere else. I followed without hesitation, always conscious of his watchful eyes and the constant hand on the hilt of his sword. I even caught his eyes glowing once. His footsteps were light, and I strained to do the same with my heavy feet. His ears seemed to have been trained to only pay attention to the important noises, while mine were less accustomed to the forest, making me flinch whenever a bird flew overhead.
Sometimes I got caught up in the beauty of the forest. I would unknowingly slow down to watch a rabbit while it ate, or to watch a woodpecker peck for food. I couldn't help myself; everything was much too wonderful for my mind. Growing up with Grooge meant mostly working at home, farming for our food and cooking. I could count on one hand the amount of times I'd been to the main area of Sidhe. And even then, I was hiding behind Grooge, too scared to take in the sights of the town. Back then, it seemed huge to me, full of bustling crowds and smoky huts. I'd always preferred to stay home, where it was quiet and I could be comfortable. But I regretted it now. I realized in that moment that I'd probably never get to see the town. If everything Grooge told me was as serious as he said, then I'd probably never get to go home. I'd never get to sleep in my own bed, sit by the fire, or even bury my hands in the rich soil of our garden.
It made me sad. It made me feel small.
I must've stopped walking at some point when I was lost in my thoughts, because I caught myself standing still next to a large tree. I looked up, startled, and searched for Grooge. All I saw were trees. "Grooge?" I called. I started walking. "Grooge!" I yelled louder. I started walking faster, scanning the forest for him. Then I was running, running wherever my feet took me. The forest started closing in on me. I felt smaller and smaller until I could hardly breathe. "Grooge!" I screamed at the top of my lungs, before I slipped on a pile of muddy leaves and face planted into the soft forest floor.
I lay there, crying, until I heard footsteps in front of me. I lifted my head. "Grooge?" I whispered. More footsteps. They became louder.
"Aria!" His loud yelling carried through the trees.
"Grooge!" I yelled back, but it came out a hoarse whisper. My sight was blurry from the tears I'd been shedding, and my body felt heavy. I struggled to push myself up.
"Aria!" It came again. I pushed harder this time, grunting in exertion. When I'd gotten myself onto my knees, I pushed more, until I got onto the balls of my feet. Then I pushed all the way up, until I was able to run, and I ran to him. I ran to his voice. "Aria!" It was closer. I ran faster. My breaths quickened. I nearly tripped again, but I righted myself and ran. He called for me again, and he was so close this time.
"Grooge!" I yelled. I ran faster, and my feet became lighter. Lighter and lighter, until I couldn't hear my feet pounding the ground anymore. I looked down, and my legs were blurs. I felt the coldness flowing again, and I welcomed it, embracing it and letting it feed me speed.
We will help you, it whispered in my mind. We pushhh you fasssster, we are ssstrrong. Do not stop brrreathing.
I was running faster, and I could feel my eyes change into silver. Weightless as air, I ran. I didn't stop.
When I passed a tree, I barely caught a glimpse of Grooge from my peripheral vision, but he had clearly seen me fly by him. "Aria?" he called, confused. I turned back, and tried to stop running, but I had too much momentum. I ended up going around a few trees, making a loop to run back in the direction of Grooge. As I saw him get closer, I began to cry again, because he was my Guardian.
When I reached him, I barreled into him, knocking us down. I cried into his arms, sobbing, while my spirit receded to a fainter pulse.
He sat back up with me in his arms. "Aria... I thought I'd lost you," he said. I cried harder. He didn't try to stop me. "It's okay, Aria, you found me," he said soothingly. I gripped his shirt tighter, trying to buy more time. "Aria, you were running so fast... I think your spirit was carrying you." I heard the smile in his voice, and I recoiled, tearing myself from his grasp. "Aria-?"
"Stop!" I shrieked. He sat back in shock. "I thought I'd lost you, too." More tears fell. "I-I don't want to go, Grooge. I don't want these abilities. I don't want the spirits." The coldness twisted in my soul, making me wince. "It's too much! I was just flying before! Flying, Grooge!" I cried into my hands.
I heard the leaves on the ground rustle as he brought me back into his arms. I sobbed into his chest. "Shh, Aria... I know it's a lot."
"I-I want to go home," I whispered. His arms wrapped around me tighter.
"I know, dear. I know. When I first awakened, I didn't come to terms with my spirit easily either." I sniffled. "Not one bit," he added. "I used to try to exhaust it from me, by tiring myself out until I fainted."
I gasped. "Grooge! That's horrible!"
"Well, it's the truth. I did it all the time. But it would never work." He paused while I sniffled more. "But you know what helped?" he asked.
I looked in his eyes, feeling like a little girl again, taking solace in the comfort of Grooge's voice. "What?"
"I eventually tried to become friends with my spirit. I gave it a name- Merianne."
I laughed softly. "A girl?"
"Yes, a girl. And she became my best friend. We grew up together! We would talk- I mean, I would talk and she would listen." I smiled. "I would grow flowers for her, we would make vegetables grow."
"She sounds more like a girlfriend to me," I teased hiccuping. "Wait! Is that why you were always a better gardener than me? Because of your spir- because of Merianne?" He looked at me with a guilty expression. "Grooge! You cheater!" I laughed.
"Well, it worked, because I became close with my spirit. Now I have a wonderful control over it, and I can do so many things with... Merianne." I sighed. "Aria, I know you don't want this, I know you want-"
"I want to go home," I cut in. He nodded.
"But home isn't safe for you, Aria. And as your Guardian, it is my duty to protect until I am dead. So right now, as we leave and go begin a new life..." He hugged me and a tear rolled down my cheek. "You need to be strong and open minded and ready to become who you were born to be. I know you can do it, Aria. You are a beautiful young lady and I'm lucky to be your Guardian and to have raised you. " I held in the tears as they threatened to come again. "I need you to stay strong, Aria." He pulled me out of his arms, wiping my cheeks. "Okay?"
I paused. Could I really do this? Could I leave home and become someone totally different, with no one to help me? Sure, I had Grooge, but could I do it? We will help you, whispered my spirit. I flinched. Could I get used to that?
I stared at my hands for a long time. I wished they held all the answers. Could I not do it? Could I stay home and wait to be assassinated or taken prisoner for the rest of my life by the Ari? Could I let Grooge down? I looked at him and saw worry, but also hope. Hope for me. Hope that I'd follow him and take on this new life. I saw that hope, and nodded before I could talk myself out of it. He smiled, and helped me to stand up.
I grinned weakly. "But you'll have to help me find names for my spirits."
As the sky began turning dark and it got harder to see, Grooge picked up his pace.
"Come, Aria; night is falling quickly and we must travel faster. I know a place where we can sleep and eat comfortably," he said. I nodded and switched to a light jog. Grooge still took the lead, making turns and running faster. I kept up as best I could, despite my growing exhaustion and the pain in my feet. When I wasn't closely watching the ground for roots to trip on or mud to get stuck in, I took in the peaceful beauty of the woods.
I'd noticed that it was much different at nighttime when the temperature dropped. All of the birds became silent and crickets began their song, while the trees were colored black from the sun at their backs. The cold surrounded us like a thick coat, despite how long we'd been running. The good thing was that it kept me awake.
When Grooge finally started to slow down to a brisk walk, I saw where we were headed. A house composed of large stones and mortar stood several feet ahead of us, lonely atop the crest of a grassy hill. The forest had ended long before it, and the meadow took its place. There were windows in the walls with their shutters pulled open, and a glow shone through each of them. Smoke gently floated from the short chimney, which thrust upward from the stout roof. The whole house was only a single floor tall.
The more I stared at it, the more a homely feeling grew inside of me. It was the first man made structure I'd seen since we'd left the outskirts of Sidhe. I thought that the house was beautiful.
Grooge caught me looking at it. "My old friend Larien lives here with his wife, Vanya." I glanced at him and saw him smile reminiscently. "We go back a long time; to when I was a boy, almost. You will be greeted with open arms and sincere hospitality." Grooge looked at me. "Of course, you will treat them with the respect and kindness they deserve, right?"
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. "Yes, I know, Grooge," I said. He looked back in front of us. Sighing, I added, "When do I ever not treat people with respect?"
"Of course, I have forgotten you are the picture of forced kindness, Aria. I was just clarifying." I grinned. He took the lead again and we walked silently until we reached the little house.
"Hello, hello, Grooge! I definitely wasn't expecting you to come by today!" The thin man who stood with one hand holding the door open and the other slapped against his cheek in surprise beamed at Grooge and I when he saw us. "And look who we have here," he added, giving me the once-over. I shifted a bit uncomfortably. "I'm Larien; enchanted to meet you." The man stuck a flour-covered hand out to me which I had no other choice but to shake. Larien smiled, his eyes crinkling in the corners, before letting go and yelling behind him, "Van! We have guests here waiting to be entertained!"
"Who is it, Lar? I'm busy right now and I don't want to be disturbed! Tell them to come back tomorrow!" answered a firm but melodious voice. I looked at Grooge and he smiled nervously. Larien had a similar expression on his face.
"Um, let me just go tell her you both are here. As you've probably guessed, we were in the midst of making honey bread and she... doesn't like to be bothered- not that you are a bother to us, it is just that... she gets very focused when she is baking." He glanced nervously between me and Grooge, and then shook his head. "I'll be right back," he said before shutting the door and disappearing into the house. He might've thought that we couldn't hear him from outside, because he let Vanya have it as soon as the door closed. "Oh my heavens, Vanya, you completely made a bad impression. They heard you!" he yelled.
"Well, maybe next time I'll have guests over when you decide to sew a new stocking!" she yelled back. I heard Larien gasp. Gasp. As in, really gasp. I stifled a laugh for Grooge's benefit. Stocking? I chuckled to myself.
"You know you can't say that to me! Oh, you know what-?" He barked out a laugh. "Actually, you don't know what." I pictured him jabbing a finger at his wife. "You don't know, Vanya, that that happens to be Grooge and a young lady standing out there in the cold while you stand here and make bread! So why don't you-"
"Grooge is here?" she cut him off. I heard a soft rustling, which was what I could only guess as Vanya removing her apron. Footsteps followed, and then a tall woman appeared in the doorway, beaming at Grooge. And heavens, was she covered in flour. I cringed automatically. "Grooge!" she exclaimed. She grabbed him by the shoulders and hugged him, murmuring a, "It's been so long." He said his own greetings politely. Her hand rubbed fondly over his back. I raised an eyebrow at him, to which he grinned.
When they separated, she turned and looked me over. "Vanya, this is Aria."
I stuck my hand out hesitantly. "Hello," I said. She continued to look at me.
"I am Aria's Guardian," Grooge added.
Vanya's smile seemed to warm a bit. "Hello, Aria," she responded, shaking my hand. I was surprised at how soft her hands were. It was also striking how tall she was- as tall as Grooge. She was incredibly beautiful, with olive skin, silky black hair, hazel eyes, and a stunning smile. But I was shocked at the possessive attitude she gave off about Grooge. Perhaps she is in love with him?
I mentally slapped myself before I could entertain that thought further. Vanya looked years younger than Grooge; anything romantic would just be... nauseating.
When the awkward encounter ended, Larien invited us inside. It was much warmer, thankfully, from the fire in the large hearth. The kitchen was right in the middle of the house, letting the heat flow all around. A table stood in the left part of the house, and a small couch was to the right. Another hallway was beyond that, where I guessed was the bedroom. It was evidently a very humble house with minimal luxuries.
"Are ya hungry?" asked Larien, standing close behind me. I jumped and turned around. He laughed at me. "Come, come, I think there are some cakes left over from this morning!" He bustled around the kitchen, muttering things to himself as he went. I chose a seat at the table, close enough to the fire to feel warm, but not too close to the kitchen that I'd be obligated to talk to Larien. I didn't have anything against him, but I wasn't in the mood. All I wanted to do was eat and then sleep. Too much to ask? Probably.
When I grew bored listening to Larien converse with himself (which didn't take very long), I turned away and made eye contact with Grooge. He was in a far corner of the house, speaking in low voices with Vanya. He looked back at her, and I saw the stressed look on his face. I smiled, hoping to relax him. He didn't. Vanya seemed to be shaking with emotion, presumably anger, and Grooge looked upset. I could see her gritting her teeth each time he responded, and the flush in her neck only made it clearer to me that she was furious. I frowned.
"Would you prefer tea with the cakes?" Larien's voice snapped me back to myself. He held a pot of boiling water poised above a teacup, waiting to be poured.
"Oh! Yes please, thank you." He commenced pouring. I watched as he precariously balanced a plate of cakes on one arm and held the tea in that hand, while also carrying a second tea in the other hand while holding a loaf of honey bread in the crook of his elbow. I stood up to help, but he shook his head.
"Don't worry about me," he said breathlessly. I sat back down and nervously tapped my foot under the table. Miraculously, he made it with not a single spillage. He sat himself down across from me, and took a cake and sliced a piece of bread. He took a bite of each, before saying with his mouth full, "Go ahead and eat! The food is delicious." I grabbed a slice of bread, and ate it greedily, each bite melting in my mouth. I may have accidentally groaned in pure heaven. I sliced another piece and ate that one too, and then another, and another, until only a small piece remained. I was bored with the bread then; I took a cream-colored cake and bit into it, and sugary bliss erupted in my mouth. Another cake, and then another, until there were only crumbs left. Before I knew it, I'd cleaned the whole dish.
All at once I remembered my table manners, and sat up straight and wiped my mouth. I saw Larien grinning at me, barely holding in an amused laugh at my obvious hunger. I blushed deeply.
"So!" he said, trying to break the awkward silence. "Where are you two venturing off to?" He leaned forward on the table, propping his head on his clasped hands.
Grooge appeared and sat down next to me, taking a sip of my untouched tea. "We are going to Selennia," he answered for me.
Larien barely raised a brow. "Ah, I see. On what business?"
"Well," Grooge started. "Aria-" he stopped himself. I looked at him sideways, wondering what he was thinking. My eyes then shifted to Vanya, who cast a meaningful glance at Grooge. It was a very subtle slip of the tongue on Grooge's part, but he recovered well, looking convincingly excited for Larien. "Aria and I are attending a festival, where we will open a small farmer's market and... showcase all our mammoth produce. And..." he trailed off, not knowing what else to say, .
"...And we will charge children seven gold coins a play to throw an iron ball at the watermelons and smash them," I finished, putting on my own mask of excitement. "It will be a wonderful game, with different prizes to win and different produce to smash!" I gestured my hands, showing how large a particular watermelon was we had grown. "And the one to fully smash a watermelon of this size will be awarded a very special prize."
Larien laughed, loudly. "And what would that special prize be?" he asked, mimicking my tone.
"A... A..." I couldn't think fast enough.
"He will win a light kiss, courtesy of Aria," said Grooge. This made Larien laugh even louder, slamming his hands on the table. I turned in shock to Grooge. Even though this was a lie, he would volunteer me to do such a thing? He noticed my face and was quick to add, "on the head, of course." My eyes narrowed and he grinned, slightly.
When Larien finally stopped laughing, he looked between the two of us. "But might I ask, where are these monstrous watermelons you claim to have grown? It is apparent that you carry no produce with you."
I was speechless. He's seen through the lie. I looked at Grooge, but he looked like a deer right before you'd plunge an arrow into it's jugular. I saw Vanya crack a smile. I scowled at her.
But she gave us an idea. "Perhaps someone has already brought it to Selennia for them," Vanya offered.
"Yes- yes we did! In fact, the watermelons are already there, waiting to be smashed in," Grooge agreed, showing no hesitation. I was puzzled; why were they both trying to hide the true nature of our journey? I sat back, not wanting to talk anymore, but just listen.
"Ah, so that is the case." Larien sat back too, crossing his hands behind his head in a very casual pose. "Well then, I suppose we should all like to sleep now." As soon as the words left his mouth, Grooge and I both let out a loud yawn. Larien and Vanya laughed. "Very well, very well. Here, Van and I will set up the couch. Feel free to explore our home while we do; though I will warn that there is not much to explore."
I nodded, trying my best to smile through my aching stomach. Grooge thanked them and began clearing the plates, being ever the perfect house guest. When the couch was made and Larien went off to bed, Grooge and Vanya engaged in another quiet conversation. I struggled to remain awake to listen, but once my head hit the borrowed pillow, all thoughts flitted away and I fell into what would be the last blissful sleep I'd have for a while.
Soft hands grabbed my shoulder. "Aria, wake up," came a harsh whisper, jarring me from my sleep. I ignored it, trying to latch back onto the receding peacefulness, but failed. I reluctantly peeled one eye open to see who was waking me up, and saw a curtain of black hair against the rising sun. I closed my eye again, clenching my teeth. Of course it had to be Vanya. And she just has to be looking perfect at the crack of dawn. Damn you, you massive amount of rebellious hair. "Wake up, Aria."
"What?" I answered, my voice hoarse from sleeping.
"Shh," she whispered. "Come with me." Her hand cupped my shoulder and guided me to a sitting position. She then stood and started walking away towards the door, turning back to tell me to follow her. "Come."
I gave her my best glare and then rubbed the sleep from my crusty eyes. I blinked several times, trying to adjust to the light before I attempted to walk. My back ached from the thin mattress of the couch. Slowly standing up, I followed Vanya outside and waited for her to shut the door. She turned to me with a serious look on her face, but when she was just about to speak, she drew back.
I waited several moments. She continued to stare at me. I gave her an annoyed look. "What do you want, Vanya? And it better be worth waking me at the crack of dawn," I said.
She still didn't seem to know what to say, and the seriousness in her face began softening into forceful acceptance. "You're very young, Aria, yes?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Compared to you, yes." She gave me a bland look. "Why?"
She ignored my question. "You have never seen the world, yes?"
"Not as much as I'd like."
She studied me for another moment. Her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms, looking down at me with- what? Disapproval? Intrigue? Annoyance? Maybe a mix of the three.
"I can only imagine why it would be you," she muttered in a low voice.
"Why what would be me?"
"Why it would be you, who would Awaken four times," she said. I bristled.
"Why shouldn't it be me?" I asked.
Vanya seemed to grin. "Do not take that personally, but I'm just curious to see how you will come to terms with your new life."
"Well, I intend to be fully prepared." I hadn't known that my life would be changing, but I decided not to tell her that. "I am a woman of nineteen; I can handle four spirits."
Vanya really did smile that time. "We'll see how that goes. But for now, let me just tell you something serious." I scowled. "With the awakening of four spirits comes a life of fear and danger. It is your duty to overcome that fear, and defeat that danger. There are lives depending on your every choice, most of which will be difficult to make. There will be times in which you will question your own strength, which you must remember to always believe in. There will be people whom you will be forced to kill. There will be people whom you will be forced to love. There will be moments when you will feel invincible; you must remember to stay humble. There will be moments when you will feel broken; you must remember to stay strong. You are now part of something that is immensely larger than just yourself, and it is your duty to remember that in times when your emotions threaten to control you."
Several moments passed as I processed what she said. Grooge made my awakenings sound like gifts; Vanya made them sound like horrible burdens. And being forced to love someone- how could that be possible? Being forced to kill people I understood, but how could such a powerful connection like love be forced upon me? There are lives depending on your every choice, echoed in my mind. How? How could so many other people revolve around me? The only people I could think of that might be interested in me were the Ari who would choose to hunt me, but their lives didn't depend on my choices. Who was she talking about?
I shook my head as if to clear out the confusing things. "I don't understand; who's lives would depend on me?"
Her forehead wrinkled in confusion. "Everyone's, of course," she replied. "Grooge didn't tell you?" I shook my head again. "Aria, you will be the most powerful Art'un of all once you awaken all four spirits. You will reach the highest ranking possible, and then become the clan leader. All members of the clan will be dependent on how you conduct business, be it war, lawmaking, peacemaking-"
"Wait, I will be the leader?" I said, cutting her off. "And I will have to take care of all those people? Protect all those people? Guide all those people?"
"Don't forget rule all those people."
I stared at her with shock. "But how am I to do such a thing?" I asked helplessly.
She tilted her head, knowingly. "You can and you will. You said so yourself that you are able to handle four spirits."
"Yes, I can handle that," I retorted. "But rule over a whole clan of people? That will be impossible for me."
Vanya smiled warmly. "Do not worry, Aria. You will have help. Grooge will be there..."
"I know that," I snapped. "But he's nowhere near a savior. He's more like a secretive liar who doesn't care enough about me to actually tell me that I'm some kind of cursed witch-"
She dropped the smile. "Do not ever talk of Grooge that way. He is remarkable in every sense of the word- and do not forget that he's the one who raised you and gave you a life to live!" she scolded.
My jaw dropped. "Who are you to tell me that? All of this?" I asked angrily. "And what is it with you and my Guardian? Are you secretly in love with each other? It wouldn't be a surprise, considering how many other things he hasn't told me."
She looked as if she'd been slapped. "I would never love Grooge like that! I care so much for him because of his brotherly love for my Larien! If he'd never met Grooge, he would still be weeping in the bed over the death of our-" She cut herself off sharply, her face turning red. I was frozen in shock. What had she almost said? The death of their child? I thought. I gasped and took a step back. Was the child killed by an Ari? My heart was torn between comforting her and changing the subject. My choice was made as soon as the first tear escaped Vanya's misty eyes.
I took her in my arms and let her silently cry. Despite the fact that she was taller than me, she still leaned her head on my shoulder and let the tears roll onto my sleeve. I was speechless; how could I have been so selfish? Was this how I dealt? By making others cry? I hugged her tighter, hoping that she got the apology that I was too ashamed to admit out loud.
When she got back her control, she stepped back and wiped her face. "You must stay strong, Aria. Because even if you think that you aren't strong enough to rule a whole clan of people, everyone is depending on you to be strong enough. Grooge is depending on you. I'm depending on you. Larien," she sniffled, "is depending on you."
"You two are also of the Art'un?" I asked surprised.
"Yes." She smiled. "That was actually where I met Larien. We started talking over dinner in Selennia, and instantly fell in love. I remember trying not to laugh as he proudly showed me his stocking that he'd just sewn." I chuckled, imagining a young Larien trying to impress the beautiful Vanya. "He told me that women were 'just so attracted to these stockings whenever I show them,'" she said, mimicking his voice. We both laughed. "Anyway, we should probably go back inside. I just wanted to give you advice before you left us."
"Thank you for that. And yes, I think we're leaving after breakfast."
Vanya studied my eyes. "Are you ready?" The question held more meaning than it usually did. I thought about that for a second, and then it came to me that this is only the beginning of the numerous difficult choices I'd have to make. I looked back up into her mildly puffy eyes, and swore to myself that no mother would ever feel her pain. I swore that I would do my best to protect whomever I was able to. I swore to never make someone cry again.
"I'm ready," I replied. Her eyes smiled with something like pride, making my heart swell. Vanya and I had just gotten closer. Maybe she didn't hate me? I didn't hate her- I don't think I ever did. But we'd just bonded in a matter of minutes. Maybe I could think of her like a mother...
We went inside and Grooge looked at me with confusion as Vanya followed behind me. I grinned at him and saw two large packs stuffed full with food and leather flasks of water. I smiled gratefully at Larien, before walking over and giving him a hug. I looked at him differently now; I had a larger sense of respect for him. Grooge and I said our goodbyes after a quick breakfast, and then set off again without looking back.
For if we looked back, we wouldn't have been able to keep looking forward.
Hours and hours later, the impact of my conversation with Vanya finally soaked in. After hearing her speech, I couldn't help but feel worried about the whole thing. Would I be able to kill someone? Would I be able to fight? Well, you need to learn how, first of all.
"Grooge?" I asked as we trekked through the forest again. He looked at me. "Will you teach me how to fight?"
He frowned, pondering the question. "I do not think I'll be teaching you, but most probably you will be assigned someone to teach you everything you need to know."
"Everything? Are you certain they can?" I asked jokingly.
"Yes." He narrowed his eyes at me. "Did you think the Art'un were not an intelligent people?"
"No, I just had no idea that you were all so well educated and willing to teach, despite the fact that your village is located in Selennia." Once the words came out, I realized they sounded very different from how I'd thought they would. Sheepishly looking at Grooge, I saw that he didn't take it as a joke, that way I meant him to. "I just thought that it must be impossible for someone to know everything necessary. I mean, how could that be?" I laughed nervously.
Grooge looked down at me. "It is not respectful to question the intelligence of the Art'un." He shook his head and walked ahead of me.
"Wait! Grooge, I didn't mean anything by it. It was just teasing!"
"That can get you in serious trouble, Aria. Is that incessant mouth of yours ever going to learn to shut?"
But I saw that he was grinning and ruled it as his own teasing. Maybe he'd known I was kidding, and just decided to give me a heart attack; wasn't very out of the ordinary. It was hard at times to know when Grooge was joking and when he was being serious. You had to watch him because of that, since he could've been insulting you repeatedly and you'd have never known.
We walked on for the rest of the day, stopping only when we passed a spring and filled our flasks with fresh water. I ate my honey bread and bacon, wondering how Vanya made the bread so fluffy and sweet, while Grooge washed his face. When I reached the last crunchy bite of my slice, I decided to go wash my own face and let Grooge eat. The cool feeling of the crystal clear water streaming down my cheeks felt heavenly after sweating all day. My eyes fluttered closed when little rivulets of water trickled over them, making me smile just the slightest bit. Grooge called me to start packing up again, and I begrudgingly turned from the spring.
It hadn't been the most exciting day, but I was fascinated by all the subtle sights and sounds of the forest. Each of the little creatures played and hunted together in a natural harmony, while the plants and leaves swished as the rabbits ate their berries. I was so tempted to pluck one of the most delicious looking red berries from a bush we passed, and when I brought the idea to Grooge, he quickly dismissed it and kept walking. I pouted for a while after that.
The sun had settled over the tips of the trees by the time we emerged from the forest. A wide open plain greeted us, with tall tan grasses dancing in the wind. The orange sun glittered across the grass, while the wind constantly changed direction. When a particularly strong gust of wind pushed down, it looked as if the grass would just snap and fall down. But every time it bounced right back up, continuing to sway like a twirling ballerina. Grooge and I both took several minutes to drink in the sight of the peaceful plain, not wanting to ruin the perfection of this untouched bit of earth.
As my eyes gazed all over the grass, I found myself swaying with it. My hair was waving around my head, just barely brushing in front of my face, and my clothes were refreshed by the cool breeze airing them out. I glanced at Grooge and saw that he was also smiling reverently at the view, enjoying every bit of it. I looked back to the grass.
It occurred to me then, that this could've been like the oceans I'd heard about. I'd never been anywhere near a body of water so vast, due to my living in the middle of a village. Whenever it'd rain and puddles formed in the garden, I'd look into them, wondering how such a large area could ever be dedicated to only water. The little pools that I'd play in were no match for the oceans and lakes that lay far away, the storytellers would say, as they leaned over the group of innocent young children who were hanging onto their every word, imagining the tales of the far away places that the storytellers described. The gleams in their eyes shone brightly as the stories became more brilliant, telling of sea creatures swimming to the sandy shores of the foamy-white ocean. Seashells, they said, were scattered all over the beach; corals and fans that were painted beautiful colors like pink and orange and lime green and bronze. If you walked along the sand for just fifteen steps, there was no doubt that you'd find at least a hundred magnificent seashells. Walk fifteen more, and you just might come across a conch. Walk further to the water, you might find a little sea creature, a crab they said, dashing to and fro, looking for its home. They said that if you walked fifteen more steps, wading into the warm and rushing water, you'd feel the graceful power of the infinite waves that moved within the ocean. You'd feel the bubbles of moving water that carried seaweed and tiny fish and even more seashells. You'd feel the gentle tickle of the waves lapping at the skin of your knee, and you'd be drawn in to walk further, further into the water, fifteen more steps and then feel the water at your waist. Step further and you feel it at your chest. Step further and you feel it at your neck. Step further and you can't step anymore, and you have to kick your legs and sweep your arms to stay at the surface. But if you relaxed for just a moment and let yourself fall into the water, you'd feel it at the crown of your head. It would submerge you, dancing around your face, tickling your nose and cooling your skin. A fish might graze your cheek. Sand might get trapped in your hair. And if you opened your eyes, you'd feel the sting of the saltiness as it nipped at you. But you'd see the blue wonders of the underwater world. Fish swimming, seaweed drifting, sand falling, all of it within the body of the ocean. You'd become a part of the water. You'd want to be a sea creature yourself. You'd want to stay there forever. You'd want to swim to the depths of the icy blue sea, and never leave. You'd fall in love with the water, as the storytellers said. And the water would love you too.
Of course I'd listened and enjoyed those stories, but I never truly believed in them. They seemed too incredible to be real- pink and orange corals? Only the sunset could be such a color. Water as deep as you were tall? Impossible. The stories must've just been dreams that were put into figurative words. I'd rolled my eyes at them a few months ago. But not now.
I'd decided to ask the question that was edging around in my mind.
"Is this what the ocean is like?" I asked quietly. Grooge half-grinned at me, and then closed his eyes.
"The way the grass moves is similar, but the ocean is like no other. It is comparable to only itself." I waited for him to continue, but he kept his mouth set firmly and his eyes shut. I decided to leave it at that.
When we finally continued moving and walked through the plain, it turned out to be extremely annoying. The individual grasses were like flexible knives, almost scraping my skin through the sleeves of my tunic. Bugs flew up out of nowhere, attacking my face. The ground was a bit mushy and my boots suctioned down into it, and by the time we were halfway through, my legs were burning and felt like lead.
"I hope the ocean isn't like this," I muttered. Grooge grunted and continued walking. If the ocean was beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside, then perhaps the storytellers were wrong. The ocean wasn't as amazing as they made it seem. Anything so horribly deceptive could never be deemed beautiful.
The realization struck me, and a premonition took my senses. Was that some sort of epiphany? Should I try to remember that for later? It seems like a wise thought... so I kept it in the back of my head and continued walking through the deceiving grass.
The next time we took a break, Grooge and I ended up deciding to sleep there. We put our packs at the base of a large oak tree, and then carefully set up the blankets that Larien so graciously gave us. Grooge took time to set up a fire close by, giving it tons of fuel to last as long as possible. I watched his hands to try to memorize what he was doing, wishing I knew how to make fire. But wait, I'm going to able to make fire from just by the snap of my fingers soon, I realized. I'll be able to do almost anything just by the snap of my fingers soon.
"What are you thinking about?" Grooge asked me.
"What do you mean?"
"I am curious as to why you have a look of disgust on your face."
I smiled. "I do?" He mimicked me, making me laugh. "I was thinking that soon I will be able to create fire with the snap of my fingers."
His smile dulled. "And that disgusts you?"
"Well, no, of course not," I said, though it partially did. "It just seems unfair to everyone else."
"Well," he leaned back and listed his head thoughtfully. "I suppose it would be if you weren't destined to have that ability." Grooge gave me a meaningful look. "You are meant to be great, Aria. Respect that as the gift it is," he advised.
"I shall have to try," I muttered, lying down and closing my eyes. With my bent arm as my pillow and a thin blanket as my bed, my mind drifted to dreams of beautiful seashells being blasted to shreds and ocean waves boiling into steam at the mercy of my fiery fingers.
The next day was long and boring. It consisted of constant walking over hills and through trees, resting for a drink of water and some bread, and then walking again over steeper hills and stuffier trees. By noon, my legs were stiff and tired, and I was caked in sweat again. Luckily, we hadn't encountered any more plains to pass through where more bugs could attack me- my skin was spared, for the most part. Grooge and I didn't talk to each other much; just walked in silence. The exhaustion and muggy forest were getting to us.
Suddenly, Grooge's head perked up and he stopped in his tracks.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Shh," he said, still looking around. He took two steps in one direction, looked off into the distance, and then took two steps in the other direction and looked off into the distance again. I watched him suspiciously, wondering what had him so alert. He laid down and pressed his ear to the ground, eyes shut. I didn't know whether I should've been looking at him or not.
"Grooge?" I asked tentatively. "What are you doing?"
His face twitched. "I am trying to feel their footsteps through the earth."
"Who's?" I questioned.
"The Art'un. We're nearing Selennia now and I can sense its call."
I took a small step back as my mouth formed the shape of an O. My foot tapped nervously as my pulse began to speed up. We were almost there. We were going to arrive. There were so many questions that invaded my mind. I wonder what it will look like... Or what the people will be like. Are there going to be many people there? Will we become friends? Are they odd people like the rumors say? Are their houses haunted by howling ghosts? Do they eat animal bones and drink chicken blood and dance like possessed creatures at night? There were countless rumors about Selennia, and I hoped that none of them were true, for the sake of my safety.
A small voice in my head asked, Will they accept me? I worried my lip while Grooge stood.
"I have a feeling that we must go this way," directed Grooge as he began walking again. I took a calming breath as I followed after him.
I was about to become one of the Art'un. Now was the time.
I was a mixture of terrified, intrigued, excited, and sad- but there wasn't any time to waste dwelling on those emotions. For as we continued walking on by way of Grooge's direction, the smell of smoke and the sound of many voices began to fill the air. Down by a slithering, silver lake, was the bustling city of Selennia.
I was expecting something different. I had imagined every possible scenario I could think of in my head in those last few steps, and each one of them had included some kind of cheering, crowding, or magical displays of elemental powers (fireballs shaped like soaring dragons, sudden wind gusts of utter joy, spontaneous flower blossoming, a light sprinkle of rain falling from white and fluffy clouds). Maybe a riot of people sprinting toward Grooge and I to celebrate his homecoming and my awaited arrival. I could imagine a burst of sparks erupting overhead into patterns of willow trees or spirals. I could see people running up to greet Grooge, old friends wanting to rekindle dear friendships, and family members wanting to redevelop their relationship with him.
I could even imagine an angry mob of people yelling at us, bringing out flaming torches and rumbling the earth into shakiness and sending powerful wind at us hit after hit. I could see their furious faces, screaming things like "What are you doing back here?" or even "Who is that girl?" I could see Grooge and I getting attacked by these odd people.
But when we were within twenty feet of the first houses of the town, we were met with no one; only quiet, empty houses. We ventured further in, and still we saw no one. The same grayish-brown wooden houses lay next to one another, greeting us apathetically as we passed. We had already reached further into the outskirts when we came across the first few people who were standing outside their houses, sweeping the floors or tending to their livestock. A woman was standing on her porch, knitting a piece of clothing (like she probably had with all her other clothing, as proven by her outfit), when she looked up and narrowed her eyes at me and Grooge. Grooge raised his hand in greeting and even offered a small smile, but she just continued to stare at us and watched as we walked past her house. Her thin body was showing signs of age and wear, and her long hair was tied in a knot at the base of her neck, some strands falling next to her face. It was a cool arrangement of shades of blue, curling tightly and perfectly, making it catch the light every time she turned her head. I stopped walking. I gasped in adoration, wishing my sooty, black hair was that beautiful. She turned her chin and slipped into her house, abandoning the half-knit clothing on the banister of her porch. As soon as she was gone, the lifeless color of the gray wood resumed its dullness. I continued walking.
"I think I know her," said Grooge, once I'd caught up. He pursed his lips. "We might've been childhood training mates for a while. If I remember correctly, her name is Claris- and she loves a good joke." He smiled reminiscently, bringing a light to his eyes that wasn't there before. I walked faster.
A man with steel-gray hair who looked to be in his mid-thirties was tending a sad little garden in his front yard, hunching himself over a heavy-looking shovel. He looked up when we approached, and his face seemed to change. The silver of his irises shined at me when he saw my face, and he leaned against his shovel watching my every move. The perceptiveness of his eyes were startlingly similar to Sterling's, in the way they swiped themselves over every inch of my body. My skin crawled in sudden revulsion. I shied away into Grooge.
"Come in for some hot tea, love?" he asked in a mocking voice, tinged with an accent. "And then we can play some fun games together, just the two of us," he added suggestively, winking at me. I turned my nose up in disgust and walked faster. "Go ahead and walk, my lady, I like to see those legs move."
I had just turned around to give the man a talking, when Grooge rounded on him, eyes flashing green. "If you talk to her again, Verderven, then I shall personally hurt you over and over until you figure out the difference between addressing a lady, and addressing a low-lying streetwalker, understand?" he seethed through clenched teeth.
Verderven shuddered, and nodded once, feebly. Suddenly, recognition played over his face. "Grooge?" he asked in a shocked voice. "Is that really you?" Grooge was still shaking with anger. "You've changed; you look like you've aged half a century!"
"Do you understand or not?" Grooge shouted. Verderven jumped in surprise and nodded his head slowly. Grooge released him roughly, and walked back to me. "I am her Guardian, and unless you are her Inten-" he stopped and glanced at me. Panic flashed in his eyes. "...Unless you are... deemed worthy of her presence by me, I will not permit you to speak to her- especially in that way. Understand?"
Verderven wrinkled his eyebrows. He said something under his breath, looking positively perplexed. "I understand, Grooge." He stood there for a moment, locked in a stare down with Grooge, before turning and stalking back into his house. "I hope you regret ever having become a Guardian in the first place!" he shouted over his shoulder before slamming the door. I urged Grooge to keep walking.
"Well, considering that he was only the second person we've met yet, I'd say things are a bit rough in this town," I said to lighten the mood. Grooge stayed silent.
As we encountered more and more people, we experienced much the same as we did with the first lady: silent glances, scowls, and then they'd walk away. Not until we reached the center square, with many people milling around and shopkeepers selling their wares, were we actually greeted by someone willing to be civil towards us.
He was a man who looked to be Grooge's age, with lively wavy blue hair hanging just a bit long. He approached us and shook Grooge's hand, smiling respectively- and a bit forced- at him. He was bright like the sun, with blue eyes that lit up like gems. Grooge smiled back, politely, and introduced me. When he turned to shake my hand, the startling radiance of his face took me by surprise.
"Well met, lady Aria," he said, looking deeply into my eyes. "My name is Sorit, and I am the commander of all of Selennia's army."
"Well met, Commander," I said, smiling as best I could to match the smile on his face. He seemed stunned by it, oddly.
"Sorit and I used to be training mates," Grooge said.
"Ah," I said, Sorit still shaking my hand. It made me a bit uncomfortable, but I didn't know whether it would've been respectful to pull away first. His startling eyes never strayed from mine.
"I see that you have already awakened your wind spirit, Lady Aria." His lips began to stretch into an excited smile.
So that is why he kept looking so closely at me. "I have, Commander. Why? Have my eyes changed color?" I wished I had a mirror.
"Yes, they have; they are a stunning grey. It is fortunate for you that I am already married, or I may have had to bring you home with me right now!" He busted out laughing at the top of his lungs, as if that was the most hilarious thing in the world. Some people turned and stared at us. I let out a nervous grunt.
Grooge seemed to sense my discomfort, because he added, "Sorit, I would like you to also know that I am Aria's Guardian."
He abruptly looked away from me and dropped my hand. I rubbed it, trying to soothe the ache he gave. He stared at Grooge with an expression that seemed like shock and a bit of disgust, opening and closing his mouth as he struggled to come up with something to say. His smile faded and the light of his eyes turned disappointed. The sudden change in mood confused me.
"You are her Guardian?" asked Sorit in a disapproving voice. Grooge's face remained impassive. "Why- why would you put yourself down to that?" He narrowed his eyes. "Have you given up completely? Already?"
The look on his face offended me. "Why should his Guardianship over me be so disgraceful, Lord Commander?" I asked, not hiding my indignation.
Sorit was surprised at my brevity when he turned to me, but then looked me over with a sneer. "Because of who you are." After one last disdainful look at Grooge, he stormed off to do whatever business he had on a day like today.
And what day was it? I couldn't remember. I'd forgotten what day it was when the four knights came. No matter. There are other things to think about. Including one specific question I had on my mind. "Grooge? May I ask why people don't seem particularly pleased to know that you are a Guardian?" I asked.
He was still looking in the direction Sorit had gone. "No, you may not ask," he said, and then sighed. He rubbed a hand through his hair, ruffling it out of order. He cast his eyes downward, frowning at (presumably) himself.
I was hurt by Sorit's words and wanted Grooge to answer my question, but the weariness that was evident in his appearance made me sigh. "Well," I said. I slouched to one side and placed my hands on my hips. I took in the sights of the town square, looking at each of the buildings my eyes landed on. Shops, restaurants, some houses, a school... Everything was so big. The school itself must've been the size of the whole Sidhe town square, all on its own. Each shop was about the size of my house, and each restaurant was double that. The open courtyard, which all of the buildings surrounded, was a square divided into four quadrants by black stone paths. It was a nice contrast to the gray cobblestone that filled the rest of the ground. The paths led in different directions around the town, branching into other paths, which then intersected and crossed other paths, making a grid-like pattern. Each building was wooden and had at least two floors, and the roofs were all covered with neatly trimmed green grass. What a lovely sight Selennia must be for the birds, I thought to myself, It must look like little islands floating through a pond with black stripes.
I saw a small restaurant with a sign outside that read: "Open Monday to Friday, eight in the morning to eight at night."
"Grooge?" I asked. "What is the day and time? I'd very much like to have a good supper."
Luckily, the restaurant was open and there weren't many people inside. I sat down at a small table and waited while Grooge ordered food, looking around the restaurant at the lanterns hung on the wall and the mural displayed. It was a rectangular building, stretching back from the street. To the right was the kitchen, with several chefs moving about from the large cook top to the chopping blocks. Although the big plumes of steam rose up into a vent in the ceiling that drained to the outside, the smell still escaped into the restaurant and permeated the entire place. A large hearth was all the way in the back of the kitchen, with many dishes bubbling inside. The wide sink sat next to it, and was filled almost to the brim with soap suds and soaking dishes. A sweating busboy was busily scrubbing and rinsing the plates and utensils, taking a break for a second once in a while. I felt bad for him, since he had one of the most tiring jobs in the restaurant. His arm muscles must be massive, though, I thought to myself. Probably the whole staff had muscles, since strength was so necessary for a successfully-run restaurant. The cooks and waiters moved harmoniously around each other, avoiding collisions and not getting in anyone's way. The sound of cooking utensils hitting various cook tops plus the voices of people shouting out orders made sense somehow, like a symphony instead of cacophony. It filled my ears and made me feel energized.
Everywhere else, there were tables and chairs. Candles were set down on each table, letting out just enough light to see people's faces. My mouth began to water when I saw a man making some kind of stew, throwing in spices and chopped vegetables and beef. It looked so delicious; I hadn't had a hearty meal in a few days.
By the time Grooge brought over my roast chicken, I was about ready to snatch it from him as he sauntered over to the table. I eagerly dug in and savored the hot tenderness of the savory chicken, ignoring the sauce that was running down my chin. The meat had fallen apart as soon as my fork touched it, and the sauce was thick enough for the chicken to be dipped in. I could feel Grooge watching me, but I didn't care so much about table manners. Surely he would understand; he must have been ravenous too! There were roasted squash and carrots on my plate as well; I ate those up quickly. Before I knew it, my plate was completely empty. I drank half my glass of cider, and sat back as Grooge finally ate his beef with rice. He cut it carefully and thoroughly, and made sure to have equal amounts of meat and rice with every bite. No sauce ran down his chin, I noticed, and the speed with which he chewed was probably to mock me. He was eating so slowly, that it was making me antsy.
I downed the rest of my cider. "Grooge, do they have any desserts here?" I asked, needing something sweet to finish off my meal.
He finished chewing before answering. "No, I'm afraid not." I frowned. "I should've known you would still be hungry after that," he added, amused.
I sat back up. "Where can I find a good dessert? Is there a bakery nearby? Or a cafe?" Oh, I would love one of Larien's cakes again.
He tilted his head in thought. "I believe there's a bakery a few shops down. If you want to go, I can take you."
"No!" I put my hands up as he began to stand. "I can go by myself. Stay and eat. I wouldn't want to bother you while you were eating. You must be just as hungry as I am."
"No, I should go with you. It will not be a bother at all. I am your Guardian, after all." He half-grinned and put his fork and knife down. At my less-than-pleased look, he added, "You still have yet to learn how to navigate Selennia, also. I do not doubt that you will get lost."
I grunted indignantly. "Pardon me?" I said, drawing the words out. He quirked an eyebrow as if to say, You know it's true, and I narrowed my eyes. "I'll be fine, Grooge. You said it was a few doors down?" I started walking to the entrance. "I'll be back in a minute!"
"Aria, wait for me! You know that you haven't the slightest idea of where the bakery is. Let me take you." I waved him off and left the restaurant, and looked for a sign that said "bakery" on it. I sighed in frustration when I didn't see anything, so I started walking to the left, letting my instincts guide me. The black stone path was nice to walk on, since it felt smooth and steady. Many other pedestrians were out walking on the paths too, most of them talking to someone else. Suddenly, I felt very much like an outsider.
I passed many different shops on the way: clothing shops, jewelry shops, a barber shop, a shoe shiner's stand... I longed to go inside and explore the library, especially since there were only one or two other people inside. I'd be alone and able to wander the aisles, and see all the mountains of books full of words that held meaning and information. Libraries had always fascinated me, and since the one in Sidhe was much smaller than this one, I was instantly drawn to it. But my grumbling stomach pushed my legs forward and I continued walking.
I didn't notice the stares I was getting until I neared the edge of the town square. The feeling of eyes on me grew and grew, and sheepishly I glanced at the people and then looked away. I wasn't very short; maybe five and half feet tall, but I felt very tiny and small with everyone's eyes on me. The worst part was that I saw their thoughts on their faces: I was an obvious outsider. I'd never felt so... watched in my life. I tried to smile back at them, but they just looked away. I straightened my back and lifted my chin a bit to try to appear confident, but it just felt stiff and unnatural. Everyone else walked with a sense of purpose and familiarity, while my strides were so obviously lost it made it clear that I wasn't entirely sure where I was headed. The town square quickly began to feel cramped with people, like it was rush hour and there was an overabundance of traffic now. Shoulders bumped into mine, knocking me slightly off-balance every other second. I tried to say, "excuse me" to them, but my voice was sucked up into the bustle of a busy city during prime hours. The combination of the stares and the close proximity of everyone made me sweat, and my thick hair stuck to the back of my neck. I silently cursed it for being so suffocating and heavy.
My mind played around with theories about why I was being stared at. I wonder if it's because of my hair and eyes, and how generally boring I look compared to the extravagance of everyone. My eyes are silver though; Grooge said so. Maybe that isn't the reason why. But I can't help feeling lowly here... Perhaps I should dye my hair silver to get it going already. I burst out laughing at myself. Never mind. I should probably never attempt to dye my own hair by myself- for the sake of my health and my hair. Oh, how I can't wait for my hair to change colors naturally.
At the corner, I saw a sign that read: "Fresh baked pastries! Fill 'em with anything ya like! Orange creme, strawberry jam, or even pulled pork and cheese! Open sunrise to sunset!" Relieved that the sun hadn't set yet, I quickened my pace. The bakery which the sign belonged to was quaint, with smoke coming out of a chimney in the back, and brick walls with spots where the brick was falling off. There were four windows with flowers planted in the windowsills, their colors ranging from red to yellow. The smells of sweets and baking dough wafted out through the door and the windows. Bright light peeked out.
I wasn't as hungry as I had originally been, but I decided that since I'd walked so far, I would go in and get something to make it worth the trip. As I pushed open the door a bell jingled over my head, and a voice shouted something imperceptible from the back of the bakery. I walked in anyway, and saw a little display of frosted pastries and colored creams and cold meat all around the counter. The combination of those foods made me half disgusted, and half intrigued. The corners of my mouth turned up into a grin. The front counter was devoid of the bakery's owner and there wasn't anyone else inside, and yet it still smelled like the comfortable homeliness of a popular bakery in a friendly town. From the sweet aromas piping from the display, I could tell that many customers came here on a regular basis.
I had just made the decision to steal a pastry and head out, when a figure came bounding out from behind a door at the back. I turned in a panic, hoping she hadn't known what I was about to do, and plastered on a fake smile. The young woman had hair that was a brilliant assortment of shades of reds and oranges, curling wildly around her head like a fiery halo. Her big eyes were an electric hazel, that shone gold when she stood straight under the light from a lantern. She had skin that was the color of milky-coffee, and when she spoke, she had an exciting voice that matched the rest of her appearance.
"It is a pleasure to see you, lady, but I am afraid that we are about to be closing now and we cannot serve you until sunrise tomorrow morning. Would you like me to fill an order for you and then have it ready by then? I can put it under your name!" She spoke all in a rush, as though she couldn't get me out of there quicker. She looked less than five years my senior. The lady reached under the counter for something. "Oh, but forgive me, lady, for I do not know your name!" She laughed and it made me look closer at her, for it was the youthful laugh of a young girl, giggling at a joke that was funny only to her.
"My name is Aria," I supplied, leaning on the counter, "and it won't be necessary for you to fill an order for me." She stopped reaching under the table and stood straight. She was tall, too; about three inches taller than I was. I thought she was pretty, and looked fit to be the owner of a dessert bakery. I'm sure many men are willing to have a slice of her pie, I thought to myself, stifling an inappropriate laugh.
Reaching over the broad counter, I extended my hand in greeting. "It is a pleasure to meet you..."
"Nuria," she finished for me in a surprised voice, hesitantly shaking my hand. She had the strong hands of a baker; hands like Vanya's. I smiled. She paused before asking, "Have you ever been here before? You look distinctly like someone from outside." I quirked an eyebrow. "Not to be insulting, though!" Her eyes widened. "I just meant that you don't look like the rest of us here! I wasn't meaning any offense-"
I laughed. "I understand, Nuria, and I did not take offense." She visibly relaxed. "And to answer your question, no, I have never been here before. My guardian and I just arrived an hour ago. I should very much like to see the whole city though; all I've seen yet is the restaurant where we ate dinner- oh, and now this bakery." I looked down at my lameness.
Her eyebrows shot up and she gasped in surprise. "You have not seen the city yet?" I shrugged and shook my head. "Oh, my- well you must see all of Selennia soon! It is such a beautiful place, and someone as beautiful as you deserves to take a tour!"
I laughed. "Someone as beautiful as yourself must deserve several tours, then?" She laughed. "But thank you, and thank you for the offer!" Her bright mood was contagious. "I'd love to see Selennia. I'd never been outside of my small village before, so I'm excited to see what other places look like. In fact, the library looks wonderful. I am itching to go inside and explore all the different aisles."
She looked like a child who'd been given the bigger half of the candy. "Oh, I would love to show you around! And I've always loved the library ever since I was a little girl. I can take you around tomorrow. Does that sound like a nice idea?"
"It sounds like a wonderful idea! Should I come back to the bakery tomorrow, then?"
She nodded. "If you are able. I can beg Akkita- my business partner- to take over while we go out. What was your name again?"
"Aria." I gave a small smile and she returned it.
"Well, I shall see you again, Aria. Have a wonderful day!" She began to wave me off and I turned to leave. "Wait! Heavens, I am such a nut." I turned back in amused confusion. "You mustn't leave empty-handed! It makes me look bad!" I laughed.
She grabbed a small piece of wax paper and took a red-creme-filled pastry from the display. I smiled and nodded my head in thanks, and took it with me out the door. "Goodbye, Nuria," I called over my shoulder.
The feeling of happiness that came from talking to Nuria stuck with me for the rest of the walk back to the restaurant. But when I got back to the place, Grooge had left. I stood confused and lost in the middle of the doorway, wondering where and why he'd gone. Our table was cleared away and the busboy was now wiping it down with a dishrag, humming to himself as he went. He was the only person remaining in the restaurant, it seemed, and I began to wonder how long I'd been out. Had everyone else left already? Was the restaurant closing down now? But mostly, where was Grooge?
I stepped forward to ask the busboy about Grooge, but then paused as I took him in while he worked. The muscles in his arms rippled- I was right!- and the simple blue tunic he was wearing pulled taut on his shoulders. I saw little bits of navy blue hair, damp with sweat, sticking out from underneath his cap. His skin looked shiny as well. Oddly, it didn't look bad on him; he actually looked more rugged with it. As my eyes found his arms again, I saw many rings along his fingers that glittered as he moved. Some were gold and some were silver, and one of them had a rather impressive red jewel set in it that looked much too extravagant for a busboy to be wearing. As I looked more closely at him, I noticed a long gold necklace that ringed around his neck and fell inside his tunic. It glittered as well and looked like it had tiny stones set into it too; another marvelous piece of jewelry for a busboy to be wearing. I glanced at his pants, and noticed that they were made of a fine material that the wealthier men in my village wore. His boots were made of brown leather and had a shiny buckle. The fact that his attire (save the tunic) screamed wealth and importance shocked me, and was incongruous with his... career position. Busboy isn't much of a career, after all. But why would he possess those wonderful pieces of jewelry? Were they gifts? Had they been passed down from generation to generation? They were very nice accessories, after all. It would make sense to want to flaunt them. Especially since they look so lovely on his lovely body. My eyes roamed all over him now.
I'm staring. Stop being rude!
I looked away and counted to three before tapping him on the shoulder.
"Excuse me, but the older man I'd walked in with earlier- did you see him?" I asked. He looked up at me and when he caught my eyes, he held them for a second longer than I was expecting him to. As I held his gaze, I was struck by the lightness and clarity in his eyes- his stunning blue eyes. They swirled and glowed and shined like the sapphires I'd seen in ladies' earrings, and they seemed to hold a plethora of emotions. As he looked me over and took in my face and body, the colors shifted slightly and seemed to respond to his feelings. Flecks of light blue glimmered while navy blue streaks smoldered; but then they changed into turquoise streaks around the outer edges and sky blue everywhere else. They were extremely expressive and made his face look very intelligent; like a pond filled with brightly colored fish that reflected their colors off the water's surface. Water spirit.
The busboy straightened. He was taller than me- taller than Nuria, as well, and I had to tilt my head up a bit to meet his eyes. Still looking over my face, he wiped his hands on his pants. I quirked an eyebrow. Did he just-?
"I'm sorry, lady, but who are you?" he responded. His voice was light and youthful, and the worlds rolled off his tongue easily.
"I'm Aria," I replied. His expression didn't waver. "Who are you?"
He grinned, and his eyes swirled again. "My name is Kellen," he said, taking my right hand and bringing it to his lips. "How do you do, Aria?" My skin tingled under his lips.
I was stunned; his boldness was interesting- and quite attractive. I liked the way his lips felt. What kind of boy is he? With Kellen still holding my hand, I replied coyly, "I feel rather fine and dandy today, Kellen. After all, it is a beautiful afternoon." I gave him a small smile to test the waters. From my few experiences with boys, I knew that they all fell into two groups: those who will present themselves to you first, and those who wait for you to present yourself to them first. My eyes stayed glued to his as he smiled back. He released my hand, his grin growing, and I decided to take a chance and grab his hand this time. I bowed my head and touched his knuckles to my forehead, before looking back up at him and asking, "How do you do, Kellen?"
His smile changed into an amused grin. His eyes held mine again and I noticed that they were even lighter now. "I feel rather fine and dandy as well, Aria." I nodded once with a grin and released his hand, before he crossed him arms over his chest. "Although I must admit, meeting you is a larger reason for that than the weather." One corner of my lips turned up. So, he is of the first group group of boys. Interesting. It'll be fun to see how I interact with him. My heart sizzled in anticipation.
Well, Kellen, I thought, are you like those boys in Sidhe? Do you have rocks inside your brain? I mentally sized him up. Perhaps. Or, maybe you are arrogant? One could assume as much from the look on your face. I smirked. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.
"Tell me, are you from out of town?" His voice made me come back to my mind.
I groaned and crossed my arms to match his. "Why does everyone ask me that?" I muttered. "Do I really look so much like an outsider?" I leaned onto one hip.
"Well, let me see." Kellen took the opportunity to once again look me over, and the way his eyes raked over me made my heart race. The corner of my lips turned up slightly as he lingered on my face, and when he met my gaze he was smirking. "You have quite the... athletic body; people here are lazy and sedentary and mostly rely on their spirits to do their work for them." I half-grinned and raised an eyebrow. "They tend to be bigger around here" he said, motioning around his stomach.
I laughed, picturing Grooge. A blush filled my cheeks as he continued looking at my hips and then back up to my face. Shifting onto the other hip, I asked, "Is that so?" He laughed along with me, and I found the sound of it to be very pleasant. It was light, like his eyes, which glittered now.
"Have you seen the owner of this restaurant?" I shook my head. Kellen threw his head back dramatically. "I would say he's comparable to a potato." I busted out laughing again and he smiled conspiratorially. "Actually, he mostly resembles a pumpkin... His face is always flushed and his hair is green, so it quite completes the picture." I laughed harder now, and smacked his arm lightly. He grinned hugely.
"How could you say that right now? He may hear you, you know," I said, smiling amusedly at him. He just shrugged a shoulder and grinned.
"It's alright. The grump already hates me and I don't actually work here. Just killing my hours to make it seem as though I'm responsible." He smirked. "The little bit of money he's paying me right now isn't so bad, either." Ah, so that's why he seems out of place; he doesn't actually work here.
"So you aren't a busboy?" I crossed my arms over my chest, smiling flirtatiously. Perhaps I should pursue him...? "Then what do you normally do to kill your hours?" He shrugged.
"It varies, really. Usually I train with others down at the public training court during the day," he said, sounding like he was going to say more.
"And at night?" He smiled like he'd wanted me to ask that.
Spreading his arms, he replied simply, "Parties." I pursed my lips as I squinted at him in confusion. Parties? Seeing the look on my face, Kellen smirked. "Have you never been to a party before?"
"I have, but I just wouldn't have guessed you would enjoy that type of gathering."
He guffawed. "Well, what do you mean?" Now he was peering at me in confusion.
Tilting my head, I replied, "I wouldn't have guessed that you prefer to spend your evenings at stuffy gatherings filled with fussy adults and crying babies, and decorations that fall off buildings and get trampled on in the streets."
His eyebrows flew up. "What sorts of parties do you go to?" he asked incredulously. I was even more confused now, and it must have shown on my face. "No, that is not a party, Aria." My heart stuttered when he said my name. "The type of party I am talking about involves no adults, no babies, and no decorations that fall off of buildings." He grinned mischievously. "These parties are not even located above ground." My eyes widened. "There will be one tomorrow night at sunset underneath Warren's Pub. Tell the man standing out there that you come bearing gifts, and he'll let you inside. You should come, if you want to experience the right kind of party." There was an edge to his grin that made me want to melt. A slow smile spread across my face at his offer. Is he implying that he wants to meet me there? My chest heated at the thought. Well, then I have to accept.
With an impish grin, I answered, "I would very much like to come. But I must tell you, if the party turns out to be disappointing for me, I will be terribly angry at you." His eyes sparkled again, and my knees weakened a bit. There was something about him that just affected me so strongly.
"Well, shall we make a bet, then?" He stuck his hand out for me to take. I took it. "I bet you..." He struggled to come up with a wager.
"A skinny-dip in the river?" I supplied, applauding- but also scaring- myself at my dangerously mischievous mind. Where did that come from?
Kellen was obviously caught off guard by my choice in bet, as made clear by his wide eyes and slightly ajar mouth. I wondered what he was thinking inside his head. Does he like me? I hope he does. I rather like him.
"Alright," he said, once able to speak again. "I bet you a skinny-dip in the river that by the end of the night, you will want to spend all of your nights having fun at parties. With me." I nodded and gave him the best flirty smile I could, and shook his hand slowly. As time passed with my fingers wrapped around his, moments began to feel like minutes and heartbeats felt like drums. My breaths quickened the more he looked into my eyes. Heat spread across my chest and I could feel my spirits being risen. They made little noises in my mind that sounded like giggles, and I couldn't help it as I got lost in his eyes. They kept shimmering at me and I couldn't help but wonder, how can someone possess such magnificent eyes?
The door at the front of the restaurant creaked open and in walked Grooge, who upon seeing me holding hands with Kellen, stopped in his tracks. His gaze went from my face, to Kellen's face, to our interlocked hands, and then back again. He opened and closed his mouth as he struggled to say something, but then he blinked several times and a strange smile crept up his face. He slowly approached us, and I watched him quizzically, wondering why he was looking at us as if we had cooked him his favorite meal.
"There you are, Grooge," I said, letting go of Kellen's hand and moving towards him. But he held up his hand to stop me.
"No, no it's alright. Stay there," he said. I stopped. "Kellen, it is nice to see you. How are you?" He now approached Kellen and shook his hand.
"Grooge, what a surprise! I am well, how are you?" replied Kellen. I watched their exchange in confusion. "It has been a pleasure to meet Aria; she's a lovely girl." He glanced at me with a smile.
Grooge nearly started jumping up and down in joy. "Oh, that's wonderful! She is lovely, isn't she?" They both now looked at me, and I felt very uncomfortable. Why is he acting so oddly?
"Have you met Grooge before?" I asked Kellen. He nodded and Grooge chuckled.
"Well, I am so glad to know that you both have already become... friends. We must arrange for a get-together for you two, yes?"
"That sounds great," Kellen said. He looked at the clock on the wall. "Though I'm afraid I must leave now; I have business to attend to." He smiled at Grooge and then smiled at me, before walking over and giving me a kiss on the cheek. After a slight hesitation, he moved to my ear and kissed just under it, then whispered, "Warren's Pub." As he pulled away he wink, and waved as he walked out of the restaurant. "I hope to see you both soon!" The door creaked once and then creaked twice as Kellen left. I stared at Grooge, waiting for an explanation.
"What?" he asked as he noticed my expression. He grabbed my arm and led me out of the restaurant, still smiling like the happiest man on earth. "Do not worry, Aria; I'm just happy to see that you've met Kellen already." I was still wary of his behavior, but decided to let it go.
Shaking my head to clear it, I said, "Where had you gone? And where are we staying? Is there an inn where I can get a room? I'd very much like to go to sleep now."
Grooge laughed. "Oh, my dear, we are not staying at an inn."
"Really? Then we are we staying?"
He continued to walk me down a few streets. "To answer your first question, I was preparing a very special surprise for you. To answer your second question, well, I may as well let you see it." I waited while we walked down a few more blocks. We were headed in the direction of the river, and away from the city square. My jaw dropped as we turned the corner and I saw the most beautiful house I'd ever laid eyes on. It sparkled with the setting sun resting just behind it, and the gate was open as if to say hello. I turned to Grooge with a very shocked expression, and he clapped me on the shoulders. "Welcome to the house of the brightest."