Chapter 18: Flourish
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The landscape of the Redwood hadn’t changed since the day I was captured, and why would it? To a tree, especially sequoia, a few years is an eye blink. This variety wasn’t as large as some of the species that grew on Earth, but they were no less beautiful as they skewered the landscape, claiming the name of the forest as their own.

“What’s the name of this planet?” I asked.

“Earth,” my mentor answered simply between the sips of water I was forcing him to drink carefully.

I sighed, “That’s confusing,” which drew a quiet chuckle from Vander.

Alex looked at me for a long moment, but I wasn't forthcoming with elaboration. Alex came to about an hour into our departure from the campsite—Beautiful as the trees were, their root networks combined with the lack of suspension made riding in the wagon miserable to me, and I'd walk if I wasn't looking after my human charges. Alex’s wounds weren’t so bad that I was worried he wouldn’t wake, but he was by far the most bloodied. The cuts he suffered were clean though, so he might end up with a few cool scars for the trouble.

I asked, “What happened to you Alex? Vander said you were just supposed to be a distraction.” By all accounts, after setting off the explosion in the armory, Alex was supposed to wait at the campsite with Jiju and my sisters for Vander and I to return. Then again, if he had, Vander and I might not have been able to get to the ground floor and out of the estate with relative ease.

He gestured to my neck, “I wanted to get the key. To a mage, that torc is worse than a cell.”

I slipped the tip of my claw between the metal collar and my neck, tugging at it slightly. “It’s certainly not comfortable, kind of itchy. But for magic…” I moved the claw out from under the collar and to my hair, running it down the shaft of a feather and sending out small spark of lightning mana—like striking a match. “I nullified the collar myself. You really shouldn’t underestimate your star pupil.”

Alex’s eyebrows went up slightly, then they dropped as he groaned. “The only thing I underestimated is your recklessness. Come closer, let me take a look.” He dug through a pack and pulled out a smaller, more portable version of a mana lens. I moved over to my hobbled human friend, and he held the tablet-like device up over the collar. When he activated it, I could feel the mana particles bombard the area around it—my neck and the base of my skull tingled in response.

“Stop squirming,” Alex ordered.

I did my best to keep still as I wondered how this version of the mana lens worked. The version in the lab worked in a manner that reminded me of a backlight, or maybe one of those projection machines that Liv’s educators used. Maybe this was more like an x-ray machine, but way slower… no there was no medium to capture the image, no penetration. Reflection then? Like how law enforcement officers check the speed of wagons.

His expression went hard, angry, “Oh hells Tali, you’re lucky this thing didn’t go off!”

“”It explodes?!”” Vander responded in time with me.

“Not by design, but people have tried breaking it physically. But I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this,” his voice trailed slightly as he turned his attention back to the lens. “I think it’s stable now, but I still wouldn’t tamper with it. How did you manage this?”

“Magic,” I replied simply.

Another figure landed on the wagon, joining Alex, Vander, and I—Sen drawn in by our chatter. Her landing was so graceful, if I didn’t see her land I’d think it was a bump in the road. She looked to Alex, and smiled “Good… morning…”

Alex grinned in response, “Good morning Sen.”

She came over and kissed me on the forehead affectionately, then moved to Vander. She looked to the mysterious human with a neutral expression, and held his gaze tightly. He didn’t flinch, and instead held her gaze as long as she wanted.

“Sen….” I warned.

Vander held up his hand to stay my objections. After several seconds ticked by, her expression softened. “Vander lies… speak sorrys,” said my quiet sister.

“I’m sorry for lying to you Sen,” the boy acquiesced.

My sister nodded, then asked, “Like Hesht?”

He shrugged, “As much as any others.”

Sen considered for a moment, “…Like Tali?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

Her cheeks went up slightly and she smiled, “Good to Sen,” then left the wagon and took to the sky again, barely disturbing our ride. I saw her form go up and up, with a few arial flourishes here and there. Wasn’t she afraid of falling? I watched just in case as she came to a stop—or hover more accurately—alongside another, Ghisé.

Vander asked, “So that’s it? She trusts me?” The question pulled my attention back from my sisters to the humans.

I shrugged, “I think so? My Senlish is rusty.” I watched as Ghisé and Sen fluttered around each other above the much slower wagon. Kelz joined them shortly after; she had been scouting ahead while Jiju guided the beast of burden pulling us along.

I sighed heavily, and my shoulders drooped with the weight of feeling like an outsider among my own people. Alex and Vander shared a look before the former spoke reassuringly, “Give it time and you’ll be flying among your sisters again.”

I was glad he could put his questions about my magic aside for the moment, but still, “…I’m scared of heights," I admitted.

Alex looked at me mouth open, “You’re fucking with me right? How can a Hesht be afraid of heights?”

Vander started laughing, first low, then louder and more distinct, “That must be Liv! She did mention something about Ferris Wheels.”

I remembered… Dad took me and my sister to the amusement park. I was a little scared, but I didn’t want Dad to have to wait with me while my sister went on the big wheel alone. When it stopped so high to change riders in a car, the metal squeaked as the car rocked back and forth. Sis was shifting her weight around causing it to rock more, ignoring my father’s scolding while I became more and more upset.

Liv’s life was amazing in a lot of ways, but unlike her knowledge, this was a weakness. I pulled myself back to the present. “Shut up!” I yelled at Vander.

“Who’s Liv?” Alex asked.

I bit my lip in thought. There were a lot of ways to answer, or not answer for that matter. Still, I spent years holding onto lies both spoken and of omission, not because I didn’t trust Alex, but because I didn’t want to put him in an even more difficult position with his father. I didn’t want to lie to him further. “A past life of mine apparently. A human one.  A life I remember bits and pieces of, and apparently, She was afraid of heights.” I pinched the bridge of my nose, “Gods that’s so stupid!”

“You know Liv would probably… never mind,” Vander stopped himself from adding more stupidity to the pile.

Alex chuckled, “Seriously? And you remember it? I’ve had deja vu before—“

I interjected, “It’s definitely not that… That must be how I knew things that no Hesht child should.” I pulled my knees into my chest.

Alex put his hand on my head, “Maybe, but you’re also my brilliant student and accepting, understanding friend. I imagine this ‘Liv’ has something to do with that.”

“I suppose.”

“So then, how did my brilliant student manage to screw with this collar's network as you did.  How did you access magic while wearing it?” Alex asked.

“Oh! That’s a good one, but I think Ghisé would find this interesting,” I eagerly latched on to a change of subject to something of this world, and of my people. I shouted up towards the sky with my sisters, “[Ghisé!]”

After a moment, she landed in the wagon, not nearly as gracefully as Sen, but I was still impressed she was able to arrest her momentum so cleanly. “[What is it Tali?]”

I tittered, “[Some of our peoples’ ancient history I think.]” I pulled out the ancient book that had been my lifeline both magically and emotionally during my captivity. Carefully I set it out on the bed of the wagon, and opened it to the page where I crammed my own notes in. “[Alex was asking about magic, our magic. Spellbraids.]”

“[Hesht history?]” she asked with growing interest.

I saw her eyes quickly get lost in the page, so I happily launched into my explanation for Alex. No harm in revealing the hand I played for the past few years. “This book is one of the ones from your stack, the one you knocked over in delicious frustration wondering if I spoke your language or not. I lucked out. It landed within reach of my cage.”

Alex laughed, “Yeah that’s Luck alright, though I can let this one slide. You taught yourself magic?”

“No, I taught myself to read. You taught me magic, remember?”

He shook his head, “I didn’t teach you this, I was teaching you engineering. I can’t make heads or tails of this. But still, the collar should block all magic. It blocks mana, it shouldn’t matter if it’s a new method of casting.”

“Not a new one,” Vander chimed in, “An old one.” He looked over the pages and hummed, “If your people still spoke this way, it would be much easier for me to speak with them.”

I looked to him, “Wait, you can read this?”

He nodded, “Yeah, this passage right here states: [Ensure each strand used for the braid is a centimeter thick.]”

I stated, “Vander, you’re going to help me finish translating this.”

“When you said you were ‘keeping’ me, I thought you had something else in mind.”

His insinuation brought my mind back to Luna’s most recent intrusion of Liv's memories, that dress, there was a picnic too. My cheeks reddened but I pushed down the embarrassment, unwilling to give there pale green eyed boy the satisfaction. “You’ll have to settle for research.”

“That’s not too bad if it’s with you,” he said.

I rolled my eyes back over to Alex as I heard Ghisé turning some pages. “Technically, the collar activates when it intercepts ambient mana. As long as I kept that blocked off, I was able to use my internal mana to disable the collar.”

“Internal mana… is that a Hesht thing?” Alex asked. I could only shrug.

“Hesht, Elves, Sirens, there are a handful of races that have it,“ Vander answered easily.

Alex eyed him suspiciously, “You sure know a lot. Who or what are you really? Certainly not the merchant's son.”

Vander cocked his brow and crossed his arms, “I know you were unconscious last night, but the group consensus was—”

“I’m not the group.”

He sighed, “I’m connected to Talivi’s past life, I just happen to remember it better than she does.”

I nudged my mentor playfully, “Alex, give it up. I’ve already decided to trust him.”

Vander grinned, Alex huffed, and I sighed. Ghisé however had pulled her attention from the book, and moved close to me. She grabbed a few strands of my hair and started weaving them around a nearby feather. As she went about weaving, she glanced at the book repeatedly.

I cooed slightly, much more receptive to her poking and prodding compared to the night before. The daytime sky was a constant reminder that I was not in that cage, in that lab, in that tower. “[Uhm Ghisé? You’re weaving a spell, do you even know what it does?]”

She pointed at the braid I’d woven the night before, “[No, but I’ll do it right. It’ll help?]”

It couldn’t hurt more than a pulled muscle, or at least it shouldn’t, so I nodded to her. The braid was simple, and though I couldn’t see the one from last night, I’m sure mine was a hack job. She certainly couldn’t do worse, even if only copying a diagram. I did get some relief that it was just a picture book to her, but if the written Hesht Syllabary1Shoutouts to @foxoftheasterisk who introduced me to this word could be brought back, I’m sure she’d be one of the first literate Hesht in our village.

Alex and Vander watched on, though I’m pretty sure the former was more focused on the braid and the latter on me. The wagon bumping along over the root network made my sister work deliberately, and more than once she backed up the braid a step or two before continuing.

It took Ghisé nearly ten times as long to weave the spell as I had, though time wasn’t really of the essence here. When it was done, she moved away and looked at me expectantly. When I channeled my mana into this new braid, it was like night and day compared to the other. It barely tapped my stores to activate the spellbraid, and maintaining it was effortless. It wasn’t like spinning plates, or even a single plate. It was like spinning a yo-yo, one of those well oiled ones where when it got going it would just spin at the end of the string as long as it had the momentum.

“[It’s amazing Ghisé!]” In a show of magical strength, I picked her up off the wagon bed and pulled her into a hug, careful not to squeeze too hard. “[Thank you.]” Her surprise at being lifted changed to a giggle and coo as she hugged me back.

I heard a fluttering as Kelz descended and said something to Jiju that I couldn’t hear. When I broke off the hug, both her and the guardian were approaching.

“[I see the village borders,]” she said cooly. “[Cee is there with two guardians, they look like they are waiting for us.]”

“[Cee!]” I said with excitement. My heart fluttered at the idea of seeing more of my sisters. Based on the looks my sisters were giving each other, they weren’t quite as excited as I. Shakiness entered my voice as I asked a question that had been bugging me since I noticed that Kelz came without the Cee.

I swallowed a lump in my throat, “[Is there something wrong with Cee?]”

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