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Short Story

The Eyes and the Embers

By Conor Sheehy

Run.

Lore

Run.

She raced as fast as she could, bloodied feet pounding the earth beneath her. She tore through another thick bramble. More thorns tugging at her ragged clothes. More scratches. More blood. More pain.

Her lungs burned. She gasped for breath, begged for rest, but the voice inside demanded more.

Run.

She fled just yesterday afternoon, but so much had happened since. First she heard the faculty staff, screaming for her from the conservatory grounds. Then the dogs, barking as she scrambled along the banks of the River Gren.

Night came, and with it, the distant sound of riders, thundering through the dark. She had lost her satchel there, along with the meager pickings she'd stolen from the kitchens of the Ravenbloom Conservatory—two apples, a torn heel of bread, and half a block of cheese that smelled like it had come all the way from Nockmirch. Enough to get her to safety, but barely. Gods, how the hunger gnawed. She picked berries, chewed on twigs, drank the rainwater from leaves.

There was so little peace. Every moment she paused, every time she allowed the exhaustion to weigh down on her, the voice inside would speak again.

Run.

She fell, tripped by a protruding root, landing heavy enough for something in her to crack. Through gritted teeth, she screamed. The pain lanced through her leg, up her body, then slowly, with each passing throb, melded with the rest. Everything ached. Everything burned.

For a time, she just lay there, her face in the mud. Night rain fell on her broken body, washing away her tears, and the blood.

Run., the voice said, angrier now.

Finally, she responded. "I can't!" she cried, her voice ragged as the rest of her. "I can't!"

The voice quietened.

Time passed. Exhaustion and pain braided together, and sent her to sleep.

In her dreams, she saw flashes of what had come before. Headmistress Telsi standing in her dormitory room, the Arbiter of Thorns beside her. "You have been chosen," Telsi said. “The war in Ionia requires new weapons. Old weapons.”

The Arbiter's rough hands on her temples. Flashes of fire in her vision.

The fever. The heat. The voice.

The voice.

Wake.

She woke with a start and lurched to the side, searching for danger. The rain had stopped, and a calm silence had fallen over the woods, broken only by the wind whistling through the trees, and the distant hooting of an owl.

No danger. At least, not for now.

Slowly, with weary arms, she lifted herself, then turned onto her back. Her knee cracked again, sending agony through the whole leg. She held the scream at bay until the pain faded to its old dull throb.

She gazed up past the swaying branches above, seeing stars through the clouds. Memories of happier times floated by. She remembered laying in the Fensworth fields with her grandmother as they named the constellations above. The Fox. The Liar. The Hope. Above her now, shining bright, was the Witch—her favorite. Emotion welled inside her. She let out a single sob, which steamed against the winter chill.

Cold. Cold! She hadn't noticed, but the chill had numbed her fingers and feet. She was freezing. She sat up fast and hugged herself, wiping the wet mud from her body as best she could. She breathed faster, panic setting in. The shivering started.

The voice spoke again. A new word.

Fire.

She limped from tree to tree in the darkness, searching for dry branches and leaves, anything she could burn. But the earlier rain had blanketed the woods, and left everything sodden.

The shivering had stopped. Her pain had faded. She was about ready to give in and let the cold take her, when ahead, in a small clearing, her eyes caught the moonlight gleaming off the slick stump of a large, felled tree. She narrowed her focus, looked closer, and spotted a deep notch carved into its surface.

Her heart soared. "A waytree… A waytree!"

Such trees had been a common sight in her youth. Dotted throughout the woodlands, they were used as markers by the empire’s scouts, and housed preserved food and other camping supplies. Slowly, she limped forward, every step an agony, until she reached the stump. She fumbled inside its hollow, hoping to find something, anything, that might help her.

There! Her frozen fingers clutched something thin and brittle. Kindling. She pulled out a bundle of sticks, tied neatly with twine. Inside was more—flint, emberleaves, dried beef, and a handful of wild mushrooms.

Soon enough, the fire was built. She sat by its sputtering infancy, hugging her knees and chewing absently on the beef. It was old and barely edible, but she didn't care. With the threat of imminent danger easing, she allowed herself a moment to think back.

Headmistress Telsi must be furious, she thought, as she stared into the blossoming flames. The old lady was a stern and brittle thing, with a lined and haggard face that would fall into a scowl more easily than a smile. She would have locked the conservatory down by now, and sent both scouting contingents out to search for her.

"Oh, Fynn," she sighed.

He was the conservatory's First Scout, a gentle man with kind eyes who found people like her—gifted people—and offered them a home. He had arrived at her grandmother's cottage just a few weeks after her passing, when the other villagers had all but exiled her. While the empire at large saw the value of mages, some of the more remote settlements like Fensworth still clung to old mistrusts. Witch, they called her. Witch. She remembered all those hateful eyes. She remembered begging for help. All the doors closed before her. The loneliness.

And then, one summer's day, Fynn Retrick had arrived to offer her something beautiful: hope.

She kicked the fire with her good leg. The wood cracked and the flames danced out again, warming her face. She gazed into the flickering light once more, deep in thought.

Surely, Fynn couldn't have known what Telsi would do. He was so kind to me. He was so

She paused, noticing something odd before her. The fire seemed to be taking shape, creating a faint outline for a moment before collapsing away to nothing. She frowned, watching on as it happened again, then again. The same shape, the same collapse.

She glanced up, higher in the fire, and noticed two dark holes in the burgeoning blaze. They remained still and black as the night, no matter how bright the flames around them burned. She looked closer. No, not holes, she realized.

They were eyes.

Amoline.

She froze at the mention of her own name. The flames licked up, but the eyes held firm, fixed on her. She stared back, her skin crawling.

"What… What is this?" Amoline asked, her voice wavering. But she knew. She remembered what Headmistress Telsi had called it. The Gift. Something that would make Amoline stronger, something that would make her more than just a mage.

"You are a queen," Telsi had told her, "and it is your crown."

Amoline.

The voice grew with the flames. It rattled inside her, shaking her bones.

Witness.

The fire began shifting, creating shapes and patterns that put her in mind of events she’d never seen before.

There. A stone cathedral, tall and magnificent. At its entrance, an armored titan made war, scattering the desperate mortal fighters before him with a heavy and cruel mace. By his side were two fearsome beasts—one made of shadow, the other of fire.

Witness.

Amoline felt herself drawn toward the second beast. She peered closer. It was huge, with too-many broad, burning arms and a pulsating frame. It screamed ahead, bellowing out rage that twisted and withered its enemies in unholy fire.

The flames flared before Amoline. A pale woman pale woman smiled. At her feet lay the metal titan metal titan, destroyed. The two beasts that served him were beaten, forced back. Robed figures surrounded them, chanting in a tongue unknown to her. How the two raged. Amoline saw them falter. She saw their strength sapped until their power was whittled down into two droplets, small as rain.

Amoline followed the droplet of raging fire, trapped now inside a small warded vial. Days, months, years passed. It lay untouched, locked away. Dwindling. Desperate. The spirit ebbed. The light began to wane. Its roars fell to wails.

Amoline felt something unexpected well inside her. It was pity.

The flames flared again. She saw the Arbiter of Thorns, riding silently in a carriage. Ahead stood the great Ravenbloom Conservatory. The droplet of fire fell from its cage onto a bare forehead.

Then screaming, shackles, and fire.

Fire.

"Stop!" a voice cried out, and Amoline snapped from her trance.

The two black eyes blazed with fury mere inches from her face. She felt something below. Heat. Amoline looked down to see she was standing in the fire pit, flames lapping at her ankles. Just as the pain began to set in, just as she opened her mouth to scream, a cloaked figure crashed into her side, knocking her clear.

She slammed into the mud, coughing smoke and embers from the fire. The figure picked himself up, breathing hard.

"Gods, woman," he gasped, "what were you doing?"

Amoline turned away, smoke still burning her throat. She lay there, coughing and despondent, until the needles in her lungs calmed. Finally, she spoke. "I can't go back," she said, her voice feeble and hoarse. “You don’t know what she did to me.”

She felt his hand on her shoulder. "Who?"

"Headmistress Telsi," Amoline replied. She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to feel steel restraints closing around her wrists once more.

"Who?" he repeated, and this time the confusion was ripe in his voice.

Amoline turned to find a slight man peering at her in the gloom, his eyes full of worry. He was a stranger to her—and, evidently, she to him.

"Who are you?" she asked.

The man turned and sat on the fallen tree beside him. "I am Gregori," he started, calm as he could muster, "just a simple traveler bound for the frontier. Nothing more." He studied her for a moment. "And you?"

"Amoline."

"Are you hurt, Amoline?"

She checked her legs. The charred soles of her boots had taken the brunt of the heat, and her laces had been lost to the fire. She pulled at the scorched leather to examine her feet… and found them unhurt, save for the blisters and bruises she earned while fleeing the conservatory.

She frowned.

"Just my knee," she murmured, pushing the ruined boots aside, "but not from…"

She looked over to where the fire had burned, and saw the wood scattered by the fall. The pit was little more than smoke and embers now, glowing impotently as the sunrise approached.

Amoline looked for the dark eyes, and found nothing.

"Well, between that and your bare feet, that’s two reasons not to travel on foot, hmm?" Gregori said. He eyed Amoline carefully, suspicious. But in the fledgling dawn light, he saw only a young and desperate woman. "My cart is just a short way there," he said, pointing through the trees, "I could take you to the nearest town. The healers there could—"

"No." Amoline was quick with her refusal. Towns were too dangerous, especially here. Telsi's scouts would be waiting.

"Well, I won't leave you like this."

She looked over Gregori again, searching for a badge or a pin or a pattern somewhere on his clothes that resembled the Ravenbloom sigil. Nothing. "You should," she said.

Gregori nodded slowly. "Would you like to eat, at least? I've a meat pie on my wagon, fresh from the baker’s oven, two villages back."

Amoline fell silent for a moment, trying to fend off the grumbling in her stomach. She failed.

"Yes," she admitted, "I would."

By the time the pair had finished their meal, dawn had fully broken and a frigid winter sun had broken through the crooked treeline. Alongside the pie, Gregori had shared a cold flagon of cow's milk and handful of sweetened chestnuts. Afterward, he joined Amoline on the stump of the waytree, and sketched a misshapen map of Noxus into the mud before pointing out all the places he'd already visited on his travels. Amoline watched on, quietly. This man, Gregori the Gray, was a lively and spirited fellow. His tale about the drunken Basilich krug-whisperers even brought a shadow of a smile to her face, although it was faint and fleeting.

His stories complete, silence fell on their small camp. Gregori leaned back and glanced over to the ruined fire pit. "Would you tell me what happened?" he asked, soft as a leaf.

Amoline pursed her lips.

"Show me where you're going," she demanded, ignoring his question and toeing the dirt map instead. Gregori nodded. He reached over with his charred stick and tapped the edge of the sketch.

"There," he said. "Over the mountains. As north as north gets."

"What's there?"

Gregori shrugged. "Nothing. Plains, valleys. I hope to make a home there." He looked over. "And you? Where will the winds take you?"

Amoline bowed her head, deep in thought. She'd thought of both Drugne and even somewhere in distant Tokugol—but now, in the clear light of day, both seemed so close, so obvious. She couldn't trust her old neighbors in Fensworth, and heading south to the capital would only tempt fate. Amoline thought back to a phrase she often heard the others whisper at the conservatory.

The Rose is everywhere, the Rose is everyone.

No. She would have to go somewhere new. Somewhere unexplored.

"Would..." she started, staring into the mud. "Would you take me with you?"

Gregori fell silent. Amoline slowly turned to see him looking at her, his eyebrows raised.

"I could leave once we neared the border," she continued, "I won't be any trouble. I can hunt and cook. I can—"

Gregori held his hand up, laughing softly. "I will take you as far as you please, Amoline, on one condition." Amoline waited as he leaned over. "It's a long way to the north. Will you tell me some stories of your own?"

"You won't like my stories, Gregori the Gray," she sighed.

"Maybe not, but I would still like to hear them."

By noon, Gregori had mounted his horse and resumed his journey, with Amoline hiding between sacks of food and loose lumber in the cart behind. The cart's rocking, the blanket's warmth, and her own exhaustion soon had the soft pull of sleep tugging at her spirit once more.

Darkness took her, and in her sleep, she finally dared to dream of a quiet and peaceful land far away from all who would hope to hurt her.

References

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