By Joseph Markell
Aera gently shut the door of the hotel, careful not to make any sound. She secured the lock-bar and crept across the room. It was hard to temper her excitement, but she needed to. Even though it was late, Persephone would still be awake in the room down the hall and would be able to detect anything louder than a whisper.
She grabbed a pillow off the bed and set it down on the desk. Then she carefully took the bundle from the bed and rested it on the cushioned surface of the desk.
Aera looked at it intently and took a long, deep breath. If this was it, she might have enough influence to convince Persephone to release the magic bond that connected them. It all depended on whether she’d be able to control it first.
Aera unfolded the bundle of cloth, strip by strip, piece by piece, unwrapping it like a delicate gift. She felt a growing sense of reverence. She could feel its power.
At last, she removed the final piece of fabric and exposed the Windspawn.
She preferred the pure light of fire, so she lit a candle.
The Windspawn was a perfect sphere; a deep obsidian that reflected nothing. It was darker than shadow. Looking at it made her feel like she was falling inside.
She knew she shouldn’t but she touched it with her bare hand again. Just like before, it felt like a cold shock. She ripped her hand away and clutched it with her other hand – it was ice cold and pale.
“Ow,” she whispered.
She moved the candle closer to see the Windspawn better. Suddenly, the flame leaned toward the darkness. It flickered, zapping blue and yellow as if it were reaching into the sphere. Curious, she moved the flame even closer to the Windspawn.
Thup thup thup thup.
The flame grew and the wax underneath it liquified. She attempted to move the candle away, but the wick separated from the wax puddle and attached to the Windspawn like a snake of flame. A deafening bass began to pulse and fire encapsulated the sphere. The pillow caught fire and erupted.
Thup thup thup thup.
Louder. Bigger. Hotter.
Aera leapt back and reached for her water. She threw it on the fire. Nothing happened.
The wall shook behind her and she turned as the door crashed to the floor and splinters flew across the room, lacerating her.
“Move!” Persephone yelled. Her eyes locked on the Windspawn. Each step forward resolute as she moved to intercept the conflagration. Persephone came within a meter of the booming fireball and clasped her hands together. As if an afterthought, she snapped a look back at Aera, “Get out!”
Aera scrambled over the debris and out of the room. She looked back just as Persephone spread her hands, creating a vortex that pulled the air from the room. It drew the breath from Aera’s lungs and she fell to the ground. Her ears popped and she screamed breathlessly.
After a moment, it all stopped. Then a deafening thunder crashed as the vacuum collapsed and the air returned to the room.
“Get up.” Persephone said from inside the room. Aera looked back and saw her ripping off a bedsheet and wrapping the sphere frantically.
Aera stood, dumbfounded, “I didn’t know –“
Persephone interrupted her stupor, “Later,” she said and whisked the covered Windspawn off the burnt desk and met her in the hallway. “We must leave immediately. Meet me at the car. If anyone asks, it was an explosion.”
Aera stumbled back into her hotel room and stuffed her things back in her suitcase. She zipped it shut and hurried out.
The guests in the other rooms had already started emptying out into the hallway.
“What the hell was that?!” A man yelled, cupping his ears.
A woman in a bathrobe gently grabbed Aera’s arm, “Honey, your face. Are you alright?”
“Is anyone hurt?” someone said from behind her.
“It was an explosion,” Aera said to the woman and pulled away. “I need to get outside.”
“I couldn’t breathe for a minute,” someone said, “was it a tornado?”
Others chimed in as they circled around the blast area. A panicked hotel employee glanced at her as he ran toward the room. Someone was crying.
She caught the reflection of her bloody face as she exited through the automatic doors and into the parking lot. Persephone approached from another exit with her suitcase, looking completely unfazed and, a little angry. Her countless bracelets and necklaces clinked and her hair was wild and gray like usual.
They tossed their luggage in the back of the SUV, got inside, and drove away.
Medora was a small town with distinctive old-west themed architecture nestled in the North Dakota Badlands. At two in the morning, it was usually utterly silent and still. But as they waited at one of the few stoplights in the town, blue and red lights flared from down the road as an emergency vehicle raced to the hotel. Aera looked at Persephone nervously. But as the light turned green, Persephone drove as if nothing had happened.
It was the same feigned indifference that Aera once interpreted as wisdom years ago.
Aera had been new to magic and was completely lost. She had been desperate to not feel alone and scared. In that desperation she found the older woman in a rundown psychic studio in the East Village of New York City. Persephone had acknowledged her potential and helped her feel welcome. Eventually, Persephone convinced Aera that the only way magicians could train apprentices would be if they formed a magic bond between them. The bond would render Aera’s magic useless until Persephone deemed her ready. Aera didn’t think much of it, but over time it became apparent to Aera that she had unwittingly bonded to an abusive teacher who had no intention of letting her go.
They ascended the winding road to the freeway. It wasn’t until they got up to 80 miles per hour and merged on to the dark freeway that Persephone finally spoke.
“You’re bleeding,” She said and handed her a cloth, “Here. Hold this to it for a while to stop the bleeding. It looks deep. It’ll scar.”
“I’m sorry,” Aera said and looked at the glowing center console. The cool lights of the controls always comforted her. She was afraid of what was going to come next.
“I shouldn’t have kept the Windspawn from you,” Aera said.
“Windspawn?” Persephone laughed angrily, “You think that was a Windspawn?”
“What is it?”
Persephone remained quiet and focused on the road. It was silent for a minute before Aera continued.
“Where are we going?” Aera asked.
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
It was silent for a while longer. The newly painted lines of Interstate 94 extended out ahead for miles, casting long lines of reflected light out before them. An occasional semi-truck’s lights shined at them from across the wide, dark median. Otherwise, they were alone.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Aera said to break the silence. She figured if she admitted her mistake, maybe Persephone would be calmer.
“This is not my fault, child,” Persephone said.
“I didn’t say it was your fault,” Aera said quietly.
“Don’t talk back,” she snapped.
“I’m not talking back, I just want to know what it is,” Aera said.
“You will know when I say you can know and not a moment before.”
It was silent again. It was as if Persephone was just building up anger before she blew up. Aera wanted to get out of the car.
“You think you can just do whatever the hell you want? You think what you do has no consequences?” Persephone started.
“I don’t think that,” Aera said.
“I thought I told you not to talk back.”
Aera clenched. She made fists so hard her arms shook.
“Don’t get mad at me,” Persephone said. “You don’t know how stupid it was that you did that.”
Aera’s frustration spread through her like fire. Her blood hurt and her eyes welled as she bit her lip.
“Nothing?” Persephone jabbed, “You’ve got nothing else to say now?”
“I don’t…” Aera trailed off.
“Because of you, it’s all a fucking waste. All my years of searching, of calculating, waiting… everything, a total waste. And you sit there blaming it on me.”
“I don’t blame it –“
“And now you lie to my face.” Persephone was speeding up.
“I’m not lying!” Aera yelled.
“You think you deserve to know everything. You think I’m dumb,” Persephone stated as though it were a fact.
“What?! No I don’t!” Aera defended herself.
“Yes you do, and you think you can just do whatever the fuck you want and I’ll protect you from everything.”
“I’m not… – I didn’t. I’m so confused,” Aera said.
“You don’t know how lucky you are that I’m here. I had no one to teach me! You ungrateful child.”
Aera shook her head, as the onslaught continued.
“You think because…”
At this point, Aera stopped listening. There was nothing she could do to make it better. She would be accused of everything that Persephone hated, and more. So Aera feigned paying attention but disassociated from her body and went into her mind’s space.
At least Aera had learned it wasn’t a Windspawn. Persephone had taught her that there were three elemental Spawns: water, air and wind. And as she understood it, all three Spawns had potential to do three different things. They could create, enhance or channel the element they represented. She had thought it was a Windspawn because Aera had discovered that the Badlands fit the conditions of the last sighting. She never thought they’d actually find it. But as they hiked in the Badlands, she spotted a round-looking black rock embedded in a coal vein. When she went to touch it, she knew –
“And now you’re not even listening!” Persephone yelled, interrupting her thoughts.
“Yes I am!” Aera yelled back.
“Don’t yell at me!” Persephone yelled, “When I was your age, I was…”
Aera returned to her thoughts.
The way the candle flame had reached for the Spawn. The way the fire engulfed everything. The way it tore the warmth from her skin. Maybe it was a Firespawn! Was that why Persephone was so mad? Because she didn’t know there was a fourth elemental Spawn? But she must’ve known about it, she knew what to do when she busted into the room. Maybe she was mad because Aera was the one to find it. Or maybe she suspected that Aera would try to hide it from her?
“What are you nodding about?!” Persephone yelled, breaking through her thoughts again.
“I’m just, I don’t…”
“Stammering like an idiot,” Persephone roared. “I can’t believe I took you along. What would you be without me? Nothing. Nothing!”
“Sorry,” Aera said, hoping that apologizing again would slow her tirade.
“You’re not sorry!”
I guess not, Aera thought to herself and continued her internal metal discussion.
If there were a fourth elemental spawn and it was a Firespawn… if that’s what they had in the back seat. That would be incredible. The power in having that. Why would Persephone be mad about having one? All she seemed to want was power and having any Spawn would give her nearly endless power, which is why she thought she could convince Persephone to let her go if she traded the Windspawn.
It took a moment before Aera realized that Persephone had stopped shaming her. Aera remained quiet and looked at the stars out the window while considering everything.
“What you did wasn’t just stupid,” Persephone started again. “It was like you lit a beacon that could be seen around the globe. It summoned awake things that you haven’t even thought of in your worst nightmares.”
Aera didn’t expect that.
“What do you mean?” Aera asked.
“Its location is known now. Others are going to come for it, not just other magicians, but other creatures, far worse than humans.”
“Can’t we just get rid of it?” Aera asked.
“No,” Persephone answered soberly. “We can’t.”
“But how could anyone find us?”
“You touched it and now you’re marked. We both are. I had to touch it when I stopped your pitiful attempt at pyromancy.”
“I wasn’t trying pyro… nevermind. What do you mean ‘marked?’” Aera asked.
“The Firespawn, that’s what it is by the way, can only be found by those who have interacted with it. The Firespawn does not emit a sensory magic, but it does imprint on anyone who uses it. It is invisible until it is used. Then, anyone or any thing perceptive to magic will sense a massive flare on those who’ve used it.”
“How does it imprint?” Aera asked cautiously.
“It overpowers all other magic – like a short circuit. It wipes away your wards and spells, then it marks you.”
“Like a curse?” Aera asked.
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“How long does it last? I mean, how long are we marked?”
“Oh,” Aera said, feeling light-headed, as though she were going down in a roller coaster.
“Sorry”, Aera said meekly.
“See what I mean now? Colossally stupid. And what the hell were you trying to do anyway?”
Aera pulled her legs up to her chest and curled back into the seat. She looked out her window at the rolling landscape. Blackness veiled the stars near the horizon, signifying hills blocking the view. And occasional off-gassing flames from the North Dakota oil fields faded in and out of view.
They were headed east, but she didn’t know to where or why. She didn’t know if what Persephone said about being marked was true or not, but the stakes suddenly seemed higher because now someone or some thing could be looking for them. But something Persephone had said stuck in her mind… that the Firespawn overpowered other magic. Her intuition kept her on that thought.
Out of the window her eyes were drawn to one particular flare stack from an oil field. Though it was far away, its ferocity was unmissable. It illuminated the ground and hillside beside it. Even the air seemed filled with its light. It wasn’t just bright, it seemed to defy the darkness of the night. She watched it so intently she didn’t blink until it was fully out of view.
Aera felt compelled to look in the backseat but didn’t want Persephone to see her do it. So she exaggerating some stretching motions and in a sweeping turn, glimpsed the pile of sheets holding the Firespawn.
Then it clicked. If touching the Firespawn overpowered all magic…
Aera threw a stasis field around Persephone as soon as she had the thought. The SUV began to drift as Persephone was rendered stiff. Aera grabbed the steering wheel with one hand and with the other, shifted into neutral. She turned the engine off, pulled the hand brake and steered the vehicle to the shoulder until it came to a stop. Persephone moaned a silent scream but couldn’t move.
The stasis field wouldn’t last long so Aera had to hurry. Aera jumped out and raced around to the driver’s side. She opened the door and pried Persephone out of the vehicle, then dragged her over to the grass. Then she ran back inside the vehicle and sped away.
Aera had always been told by Persephone that she drew power from wind, like Persephone had. But as the sun crested the eastern horizon and the heat touched her skin, she knew without a doubt, that it was, and always had been, fire.