Chapter Sixteen: The Bounds of Reality

ORA sat on the hard earth with the night sky bright above her. Sleep had not come easily. Every time she shifted in the small bed, the throbbing pain in her hand reignited. Now that she sat in her familiar landscape, she did not care if she ever woke again. The starlit desert of her dreamworld soothed her aching heart. Time did not weigh upon her. It was always night. It was always dark.

A breeze tickled the hairs on her neck. She shivered, becoming aware of her surroundings. She dug her nails into the soil and tried to ignore the feeling that crept up her spine. There was something else there, something pressing into her consciousness. Breath shaking, she got to her feet and turned.

“Who’s there?” she called out when she saw nothing but the strange, blue nightglow caressing the land.

A soft rustle came from behind her. She turned again. A piece of paper was caught in the brush. She bent to pick it up and gasped. It was a page from The Transformative Arts. As she straightened, she became aware of more feather-light pages drifting toward her across the dusty earth.

One by one, she gathered the pages. The paper was warm to the touch, as if it had been left out in the sun. She stared at the drawing of a pig’s anatomy. The lettering around it was nonsensical. In an unconscious movement, she felt for the crystal pendant around her neck.

“You could summon it to you.” The voice startled her. It was brisk, almost dismissive. When she looked up, she found the wayfarer standing before her. “You look surprised, and yet you summoned the pig pages with hardly a thought.”

Ora drew the pages behind her back, distrustful of the wayfarer, who had swallowed them to begin with. “How are you here?”

“That is difficult to explain.” Esi tilted her head as if thinking, but her expression remained impassive. “I imagine we are tethered now. We made a deal, and I must uphold my end.”

She wanted to feel hopeful, but she was tired and cautious of giving a dream too much credence. Still, she said, “So you’ll give me passage.”

“I have no choice.” The wayfarer sounded annoyed by the idea but went on all the same. “Call on me when you reach a crossing.”

With that, she vanished.

When Ora woke, she did not know if the wayfarer had been a dream or a reality. As she became aware of the hot pain in her hand, she forgot about it altogether.

After Tyg had left, she had slumped down to the floor and squeezed her wrist as if she could stop her mangled hand from shaking. Furious and afraid, she filled the house with another anguished cry. She sobbed until her head stung. Until a numb disbelief settled over her.

The rest of the day had been a blur. She had cleaned the wound and dressed it with a strip of cloth she found tucked in the back of the larder.

Picking up her own severed pinky from the table was surreal. She did not know what to do with it, but she felt strangely attached. She held it in the palm of her good hand and stared at it for a long while. It was a gruesome, cold little thing.

Her mind grasped for a way to make a joke of the cruel injury. What good was a pinky anyway? She had four more perfectly good fingers, and she would give up any of them to return home. She paced through the parlor a few times before turning to the fireplace.

She had felt empty when she set the severed appendage aflame. What else was there to do? It could not be reattached. It would rot. Smell.

Now, the pain drowned out all other thoughts. Unable to sleep anymore, she lay in bed and waited until Tyg called for her. In the parlor, she could not bring herself to look at the Magus, so she stared at the hearth instead. She could still see the bones smoldering in the ashes.

“Make yourself useful,” said Tyg. Then, she left. The door clicked shut.

Whatever the Magus had meant by useful, Ora did not care. Her mind felt clouded, her body weak. She had not eaten since the previous morning, and now hunger tore at her hollow stomach.

She went to the kitchen and devoured half a loaf of stale bread. She had to wedge it under her arm and rip chunks off with her good hand. Crumbs littered the floor. She found what looked to be an apple, but its skin was brown like a pear. After the dry bread, she welcomed the sweet juice. She licked her fingers clean and drank water directly from the pitcher.

As she wiped her lips with her sleeve, a tap on the doorframe made her flinch. She spun around to find Callum watching her.

“You must think yourself clever for running off like that,” he said.

He received a cold glare in answer.

“Tyg took a finger I see.” There was no sympathy in his voice. He held out his hand expectantly, and when she did not move, he said, “Let me have a look.”

“No,” she said bitterly. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“I don’t have to ask.” The Valor stood over her in just a few strides. He took her wrist and began to unwrap the cloth she had tied around her hand. The wound beneath was inflamed and beginning to weep puss.

“You should not let this fester,” he said and stepped past her to open the larder. He held out a corked glass bottle. “Wash it in vinegar. You’ll be glad for it.”

Distrustful but eager to be alone, Ora took the bottle and waited for Callum to leave the house. She set aside the vinegar. The gruesome injury was the least of her worries. She had to find a way out of the house. If that meant attempting a spell to get past Tyg’s enchantments, so be it.

She spent the morning searching through book after book for a useful spell. The complex and often unfamiliar words overwhelmed her. As she gave The Fundamentals of Conjuring Flame a second pass, she briefly considered setting fire to the front door, but its introduction consisted of a colorful, ten-page explanation on how fire magic should not be attempted without a teacher. Frustrated, she tossed the book across the parlor. It bounced off the chaise and landed open-faced in front of the fireplace.

“Is that some sort of joke?” she asked the book, then got to her feet.

She held her good hand up, palm open to the sky. When she knocked Cyn’s chair out from under him, she had not used a spell, and she certainly had not uttered a spell the night she dreamed of the falcon. If it was that simple to summon magic, why did almost all of Tyg’s books contain warnings about botched spells?

It mattered little. She still did not know how she managed to channel magic to begin with.

Half lost in thought, she returned the book on fire magic to its place among the rest of Tyg’s small library. The night at Fyntolomah’s had been an accident, and yet, she had felt the power flowing through her veins.

The magic arose with her anger, but if that was so, why then? Why with Cyn? Why not when Tyg attacked her? Why not in the Hy Borea when she first encountered the fae?

Determined to quell the growing sense of doubt in her chest, she lifted her hand again and recalled the spell Tyg forced her to cast.

The word burst from her, assured and pointed. “Ayluma!”

Warm energy streaked through her arm, her palm, her fingertips. Then, an orb of light blossomed inches from her skin. Ora’s breath caught.

It worked.

Stunned, she lowered her hand, and the pale, blue light drifted above her head.

“To the depths with warnings,” she muttered, eyeing the books once again.

Ora ran her hand along the spines, plucked one from the shelf, and flipped through the pages in search of another simple spell. Finally, one caught her eye.

Azyna’s Featherweight

Less well known than Torsyn’s levitation spell but exceedingly more elegant and simpler, Azyna’s featherweight is an excellent example of alteration’s fundamental truth: reality is subjective and therefore changeable.

The mention of alteration made her recall Berengar’s words. If understanding the basics of such magic was the first step in learning how to cast transformation spells, perhaps she still had a chance of changing Hademar back.

She continued to skim the page. Beneath the introduction to featherweight was a drawing of a hand gesture that reminded her of the graceful way her mother held a needle. She laid the book on the table and imitated the illustration. The text continued at length, detailing Azyna’s early life as a hermit and subsequent success as a scholar.

While the traditional method of levitation requires adept visualization, featherweight can be achieved by recognizing an object’s infinite potential. Much like a sculptor reimagines a block of granite, a mage too can reimagine the bounds of reality. Of course, it is recommended that one starts with a light object as it is easier for the mind to grasp. As with many alteration spells, the mind will rail against the extraordinary and seemingly impossible outcomes inherent to bending reality.

It was less ominous than many of the cautionary tales she had read, so she scanned the rest of the page for the spell. Once she found it, she read it aloud several times. “Hyferiahyferiahyferia.” The word alone made her heart quicken.

Ora decided to test the spell on a letter first. She swept aside the mess on the table and placed the folded paper in front of her. With some effort, she managed to balance the book in the crook of her arm while she prepared her good hand for the casting.

Several attempts later, she dropped the book on the table and let out a frustrated sigh. The letter remained where she placed it, unmoved and mocking.

“So much for subjective reality,” she muttered.

In truth, she craved fast progress. The idea of staying in Tirnan any longer frightened her, and it was difficult to slow the waves of doubt. Every day Hademar lived as a pig was another day he could be hunted, whether by man or beast.

These thoughts staved off any sense of discouragement. She spent the rest of the afternoon trying to pronounce the levitation spell differently, adjusting her hand position, experimenting with different objects. Once, she directed the spell at a cork and thought she saw it wobble.

When the sun began to set, she knew the Marigens would return soon. She rushed to tidy the space, hoping it would look like she had attempted to make herself useful. The last thing she wanted was Tyg’s undiscerning anger.

Soon, Ora heard the Marigens approaching the door and recognized the fighting edge in Tyg’s voice. Thinking it best to stay out of the way, she rushed to the spare room.

“It’s a waste of time,” the Magus cried as they burst into the parlor.

Ora held her breath and pressed her ear against the door to listen.

Callum’s retort sounded weary, as if he had been arguing with her for too long. “It’s a show of goodwill and respect for the Cedar Clan.”

Tyg fell silent. Even from the spare room, Ora could sense the tension in the house.

“What about the girl?” she asked.

“Take her to Wynn,” said Callum. “There’s always plenty of work to be done in the palace.”

At the Valor’s words, Ora smiled to herself. It was not just that the Marigens would be absent from her life. The mention of Wynn had stirred a memory. On her first day in Tirnan, she had stood at the thachwing’s window and looked down on the palace garden. At the time, the stone circle had looked ornamental, but now she understood. It was a crossing, and all she had to do was find a way to reach it, to call for Esi. And this time, Tyg would not be there to stop her.

Sarah Day ©2021