Part II (of V): Sink or Swim

- O -

(thanks to R Amythest for beta'ing and general advice-giving!)

- O -

I need to be stronger. I have to be. There has to be something in one of those books, some type of magic I can learn. I'll never be a good fighter. I'll be great at magic, though, I have to be. I'm smart. What else am I good at? Nothing, that's what. Who am I? I'm a nobody.

It was dangerous for anyone to walk the streets of Daein alone, let alone a child, but Pelleas did so anyway. Iolana's roads were even emptier and more eerily quiet than usual, and even the birds and the insects were hushed. The afternoon was dark and overcast, dangling the threat of a rare Daein rainstorm over Pelleas' head.

I have to be a man! I can't just be a little boy any more. I have to learn to be a man.

Whenever he lay down to sleep he heard Illumina's weak cries for help. Whenever he tried to eat he felt the nausea that had washed over him when that man had slung her over his shoulder and dragged her away. Whenever he closed his eyes he could see hers, empty, being eaten out by the worms, accusing him with her hollowed-out stare. Even when he slept he dreamt of her, smiling, singing, and playing, and at last dying, the marks dug deep into her ankles from where she'd been left to swing in the breeze.

The other children came to him and asked him why he was so frumpy, why he was crying, and Miles even found some amusement in his plight, smiling at him with his crooked teeth and telling him that everything would be better as soon as the war began—and it would begin soon, of that he was sure. And of course Daein would win.

Pelleas couldn't tell them. They wouldn't remember Illumina, and if they did they probably wouldn't care. And they certainly would not understand how it felt for him. They weren't like him, Pelleas told himself whenever they pried into his state, whenever they castigated him for his weakness. They hadn't seen what he'd seen.

Those men had murdered Illumina, and they were the same type of rotten person who would lynch a sub-human for the simple sin of stealing to survive. They were all innocents, and no matter how hard Pelleas tried, he could not imagine why innocent people were ever made to hang.

Why? Why her? It's not fair!

"It's not fair!" he shouted, hoping there would be someone—anyone—hiding somewhere along the deserted road who would emerge from hiding to comfort him, or even to scold him. No one came. No one acknowledged him. His voice traveled a few yards and broke apart in the wind.

He didn't know where he was walking, and at that moment, he didn't care. For as long as he could remember he lived a quiet life, creeping from the orphanage whenever the matrons turned their backs, playing in the forests or teaching himself his letters with books about heroes and kings and princes and battles. For the longest time his only true fear was if the matron would scold him for wandering off or returning to his bed too late.

Quickly he'd learned that the world changed, and it would not wait for him. The stories of girls disappearing, boys leaving in the night and never returning, they'd meant nothing to him. They were just words, just meaningless words, and like the wind, they'd carried no weight. Alone in his mourning, he understood what Felicia had meant to tell him about "lessons."

Are all my lessons going to be this tough? I want to learn more about Crimea and Begnion and the land where the sub-humans come from. I don't want these lessons.

The tears started falling anew down Pelleas' cheeks and in an instant he was sobbing, trudging through the dust storm like a man walking to the gallows, his unruly blue hair spilling into his face. His tears turned to sawdust and blew away in the wind.

I'm such a coward! Just a dirty, craven nobody. I wish I were a true hero. I wish I had armor and a sword like Rillant the Righteous. I wish I had anything. I can't do anything right. I couldn't even save Lumi when she needed me the most. I want you back. Lumi...

Pelleas breathed in deep.

No, I can't. I have to be strong for her. I have to be strong. I have to be a man.

He lifted his head up high, brushed away his tears in one sweep of his hands and puffed out his chest as far as he could. No. He wasn't going to let his tears control him. Every tear brought him more pity, and he wanted to do anything but pity himself.

As he walked along, he sang "Little Old May" (off-key, as always) and tried to remember the happy times when he and Illumina would sit and sing.

Little Old May, she said one

She said g'bye to her mum

With a skip, hop, jump around


Little Old May went dancing back

Little Old May, she said two

She went dancing in her shoes

With a skip, hop, jump around


Little Old May went dancing back

Little Old May, she said three

She said 'pa now won't'cha please'

With a skip, hop, jump around


Little Old May went dancing back

By the end of the third verse, the memories of her returned and Pelleas had to clench back tears again. He walked the rest of the way to his destination silently.

The wind had grown wroth and rain had started falling by the time Pelleas reached the library. The boarded shutters creaked and cracked menacingly as he passed through one of the small gaps in the windows as he had countless times before. The inside of the library was little solace. The places where the roof had not fallen off with the passage of time or blown away in the storm were dry enough, but the wind blew drops of rain at him and whistled through the structure's many cracks. Once a place of sanctuary for him, now the inside of the library kept only dust and painful memories.

I wonder if there are any books on magic here. I don't know where else to look.

Pelleas wandered around and absent-mindedly leafed through any tome he found that might have some connection to the magical arts. He'd long ago decided that he was too frail and too uncoordinated to fight with swords or daggers or axes. He didn't know anyone trained in the magical arts, though, and he didn't know the first thing about incantation, or where to go to learn it. Pelleas looked through shelf after shelf, searching even the hidden alcoves that he was certain only he knew about, where the founders of the library had once kept their tomes of utmost importance. Even in those places there was little to find; most of the valuable tomes had been taken away by that enigmatic sect of warlocks when they'd fled Iolana for another place to hone their arts. Pelleas was about to give up when he found a well-leafed book near the back of one of the shelves, hidden behind a pile of dusty, illegible scrolls, sealed within a labyrinth of cobwebs.

" 'The Divers Centres of Magical Studiye'," Pelleas read aloud, fingering through the book's yellow-gray pages. It was a treatise on the history of magic in Tellius, beginning with the chronicles of the Goddess and her war against the God of the Dark, and explaining about the practitioners of magic throughout the world and the various deities from whom they ostensibly drew their strength. Nothing in the text spoke of the practical use of magic, but one page noted that there was a long history of the use of magic in Nevassa, Daein's great capital, where record-keepers brought all magical documentation to one building and thus birthed the first library in Daein.

Pelleas closed the book and sighed. He had never set foot in Nevassa, and a part of him had always hoped he would never have the need or the occasion to do so. The city was a terrible place, one that swallowed street urchins into its dark underbelly and never let them escape. Whenever the villagers talked about Nevassa, the largest and most active of all Daien's cities, they always lowered their voices and looked around painstakingly until they knew no one important was listening. There were always stories to tell. There were the rumors about King Ashnard and his often strange behavior at his court, how he would drink until he fell down against his throne then smash the bottles against the wall, or how he would spontaneously order two of his lieutenants to duel for his amusement, then send the loser out to die. There were stories about murders in the street caught by the castle guard and let go with a single lash, houses burgled and ransacked in the night, and almost gleefully sordid tales of girls being seized from their beds by nightfall and passed around the soldiers' barracks for all to share. The city square was the face of the country, and the guardsmen made right sure nothing unbecoming a commercial center happened there. It was a poorly kept secret that the rest of Nevassa was a lawless nest of debauchery, and for precisely that reason the glory-seekers and the glory-shirkers flew there.

King Ashnard neither listened to nor cared about the happenings his castle's walls and in his city's alleys, but under his watch Daein had become a military superpower, their economy powered in an almost unceasing locomotion by the clang of hammers on iron and feet clomp-clomping in step along the roads. Their soldiers were the best trained in Tellius, the best equipped in Tellius, and by far the most ruthless, and other nations they regarded with the utmost contempt—especially the coward Begnionnais, who wallowed ineffectually in their ivory towers, clinging like wet tunics to their faith for protection, or so the Daeinfolk said.

Do I have a choice? thought Pelleas, hypnotized by the sound of the downpour outside. I don't know. I either find a way to Nevassa or stay here and live a craven life while bad things happen around me. I don't know. But I can't give up, no—no, I won't, not again.

Although the idea of a journey north frightened Pelleas, he had to admit it also excited him. Nevassa was the heart of Daein, where the greatest warriors in the beorc world gathered, the greatest mages not aligned with the goddess took residence, where goods smuggled in from as far away as Phoenicis were sold in the markets. Nevassa. The city. As days and hours passed he found the images of the city he had never seen obsessing his mind, and soon even the word Nevassa became something sacred to him. There, in the place they called the Dark City, anything could be found. Anything, even the answers he'd always needed but never knew to search for.

It was one week since he'd seen Illumina's empty eyes, and the shame he'd felt at their soundless, breathless admonishment had turned to determination. Pelleas knew that in Nevassa, that at the center of Daein culture, he would find something that would change his life. After a bit of footwork, Pelleas discovered that a convoy left for the city every full moon to deliver the king's share of Iolana's keep and harvest. He spent a long time walking down the road, trying to convince himself of what he already knew to be true.

She wouldn't be coming back. She could never come back. Pelleas knew this as well as anybody else. But the people that murdered her would come back, whenever they wished, and no one else would dare stand up and step in their way. "Not our business"—it was like a reflex, whenever anyone mentioned trouble, that everyone on the streets of Iolana possessed.

Whatever I have to do to get there, I will. I'm not a victim!

- O -

The night before had been a new moon, so Pelleas knew he had no more than two weeks to earn his passage. Every day for those two weeks, Pelleas went to the Pink Lady Inne or the Roosting Falcon, hoping to find a public-house in need of an extra hand. He spent two weeks cleaning the bars, sweeping the floors with brooms, rinsing the mugs and flagons, cleaning blood and puke from violent disputes and drunken misadventures, and righting chairs and tables that had been overturned. Even then, by the next full moon, he'd only some sixty pieces of gold, and sixty gold couldn't buy him anything of value, let alone passage across the country. He decided to take two books with him: One was the copy of The Great Heroes of Old Crimea he'd taken from the library, to remind him of his task and how he must needed never stray. The other was the white-covered book Illumina had given to him as a gift, the one with Fortuna's eight-spoked wheel on the cover, the one with "Fortune Favours the Bold" on the first page, the one with Illumina's kindness still inside.

Please, give me courage...

The day of the full moon, when the caravan to Nevassa was about to depart, Pelleas left the orphanage and walked up the road, back to the town square where once the laguz had been strung up by his feet to hang. Now the bare tree was empty and only the rope that once bound him remained, swinging listlessly, a broken reminder of what once had been. When he walked by, he tried not to look at it, and was almost rewarded for all his trouble by running into someone.

The center of Iolana was the only place in the little town where people gathered to talk and congregate, and the merchants parked on the roadside to sell herbs and packets of what little spice they were able to have brought over the seas from the "bird-countries" or over land from Gallia. The full moon brought with it a certain sort of exult, and the preparation of the grain caravan to the Dark City was an excuse for people to come together when otherwise the duststorms or sudden rain would keep the peasantry in their huts or lean-tos when they weren't tending the fields. It wasn't a festival—Iolana had a festival only once a year, after the harvest, and even then only on good years—but despite the village's modest population, when they gathered they could make enough noise for a city thrice Iolana's size.

Pelleas approached from the south, and though the crowd wasn't as large or as starved for blood as it had been before, there were plenty of people around, and Pelleas had to weave through the mass of humanity to sneak by, past the cracking stone facade of the apothecary, its wooden door splintering off, its few stone steps crumbling. Before turning his attention elsewhere, he looked to the roadside, downwind of the liveliness of the square. A man named Dylan, blue-haired merchant with a pot-belly, stood peddling there, and Pelleas bought some hardtack and several days' worth of jerky for ten gold. After a few minutes of surprisingly spirited haggling, Pelleas filled his sandy, slightly torn pocket with his rations, and continued north, covering his eyes as the winds brought dust swooping southward.

A caravan sat in the square beside the general store, three wagons long, each covered with a thick tarpaulin made of hemp and nailed in place to keep the sudden rains away. At its front, facing the mountains to the north, two palomino palfreys tethered to the driver's carriage kicked idly at the dusty road, and the driver, equally unoccupied, lazed back and stared at the sky. Off to the east and west, men came from the grain silos with bags slung over their shoulders, and Pelleas stood to the side of the road, back against a building, and watched them load the wagons with the corn and the wheat.

I should ask now, Pelleas thought, and snuck around to the front of the carriage past a throng of gossiping ladies, and waited just beside the horses, where the driver still lazed, head back, sooty flatcap over his eyes. He was a small man, with brown hair and a small moustache, and his clothes—a doublet sewn with turquoise thread and a grey tunic with leather breeches—were unusual for someone of Iolana, and indeed he was a stranger to Pelleas. The ropes that tethered the horses were coiled tightly around his wrists.

"Excuse me," Pelleas said. The driver lifted up his cap. "Is—is there any way I could buy passage to Nevassa?"

The driver looked at him without saying anything, an expression somewhere between bemusement and disgust. Finally he spoke, in a drawl that hid poorly behind a city accent.

"D'you have enough? We inn't a princess's carriage. You pay the pence, and mayhap you may ride."

"I-I have fifty—actually, sixty, sixty gold, is, is that—"

"Two hundred."


"Two. Hundred," repeated the driver, as slow and as condescending as one might speak to an animal or an idiot. He bared his mashed teeth in a sick yellow-green smile.

"I-I don't have that m-much," Pelleas stammered, too worried that his chance may be slipping away to be at all offended.

"Then y'don't ride. We do no services for the poor," –and the man smiled again and laughed, smoky and pale, from the pit of his stomach— "lest they do services f'r us."

Defeated and dejected, Pelleas slunk away from the cart and sat down at the edge of the road, head in his hands, furrowing his brows and sniffing to hold back his tears.

What now? I can't give up, not like this. But what can I do?

Pelleas looked up and watched more of the workers load in the grains. They had filled two of the wagons and were halfway through loading the last.

Have to do it quick. Pelleas looked towards the opening at the back of the second wagon. They'll see me if I go now. A distraction...

Looking around, Pelleas saw, in the alley between the apothecary and the abandoned house, a stretch of dry grass that had grown up almost to the height of his knees. Behind the town's central square was nothing but wheat fields and dull scrubland, to the east where the hills descended into rocky valleys and nothing grew even in spring. Pelleas hunted quickly until he found two small branches and a handful of coarse sand from the roadside, waited until he was sure all the villagers were looking away, and crept into the high, dry grasses, his head a spot of blue in a field of yellow and green..

I hope it doesn't spread too much...

Pelleas rubbed the branches together, using the sand to urge the fire on. He twisted until first his hands burned and then the wood did, a small issue of flame that hopped to a blade of grass. In an instant, the entire blade was alight and the fire started to spread, with a few slow whispers and then a storm of quick flame.

Go, he urged himself, climbing to his feet. He charged out of the alley, flames almost at his heels already, and yelled as loud as he possibly could. "F-Fire! Fire!"

Everyone in the square turned at the sound of the young boy bearing bad news, and the sound of shock washed quickly over everyone in the square.


"Someone stomp it out!"

"Oh, Ashera!"

"The sand's on the west road, in the shack near the mill. Go!"

To the credit of most of the innocent citizens of Iolana gathered, they didn't fall into an utter state of panic, causing the kind of mass confusion Pelleas never hoped to see. But they did run, and quite admirably fast. They scattered in every direction, the women hiking up their soot-dusted skirts to dash, then men tripping over their bare feet to get as far from the flaming alley as they could. Most importantly, as Pelleas crept towards the parked caravan, all the men who had been carrying the tithe in bags from the grain barn to the wagon had stopped and scattered, and the driver had mysteriously disappeared.

Now! Go now!

When no one was paying attention, Pelleas jumped into the covered opening of the second wagon and climbed over the haphazardly stacked bags of grain until he found a place small enough and dark enough to hide without fear of a quick search finding him.

If they think to check before they leave, I'm dead. But they won't...will they? No, they won't.

Curious, and more than slightly guilty about his stint of amateur arson, Pelleas clambered up the small hill of grain sacks and peered out the side of the wagon, between the top of the side panel and the hastily nailed-on tarpaulin covering it. In the small gap, Pelleas watched the impromptu fire militia, splintered buckets in their hands, toss sand and water on the blazing grass. After a few tense minutes, the firefighters put out the last flame and Pelleas sank back down onto the pile, sighing.

As long as it didn't spread into the grain field, he thought, his heart still galloping a steady, quick pace. He would have liked the caravan to depart immediately, but for reasons Pelleas couldn't discern amidst the indecipherable clamor outside, there was a rather long-seeming delay. In fact, it seemed like hours—many of which Pelleas spent on held breaths, eyes peering over grain sacks to make sure no one had come climbing in looking for strays—when finally they departed. First at a slow trot then at a healthy gallop, the grain convoy had finally left Iolana, and for the first time in what felt like an eternity, Pelleas could exhale. His entire body loosened as he fell back, hidden in the shadows within a huge stack of grain sacks. Pelleas closed his eyes and fell asleep to the sound and rhythm of the wheels against the Daein road.

- O -

Pelleas counted two nights and the greater part of three days spent on the path to Nevassa, rationing his jerky and hardtack very carefully, eating once at first light and once at dusk. Sometimes he leafed through Heroes of Old Crimea to pass the time, and other times he just slept, making sure to keep his head down and his body behind the grain sacks whenever the driver stopped to make his cursory check of his inventory.

Every so often when the convoy was moving, Pelleas would climb to the top of the hill of sacks and look out from under the wagon's tarp to see where he was. From what he had witnessed from his surreptitious vantage point, they had followed a winding pathway northeast through a large forest, cut due north and followed a plain dirt trail through a long canyon to the Dark City, and when first he heard the sound of clamor, far greater than the gatherings of village life, he knew he had finally arrived.

It was mid-afternoon, by Pelleas's reckoning, the sun slightly more than halfway across the sky, and he wanted to make sure he was out of the wagon before they stopped at Daein Keep to unload their goods. So, Pelleas inhaled sharply, and, heart beating with anticipation, clambered over the mountain of grain sacks and jumped out of the back of the wagon, hitting the cobbled road with his right arm tremendously hard and rolling a few times.

On his back, Pelleas looked up and saw himself in what looked like a market square, filled with the sights and sounds of many people in unison. He bit his lip to hold back the pain of impact. All around him, a few scattered cityfolk found the urchin who'd just vaulted out of a moving caravan interesting enough to turn and stare; the rest of the rabble continued on their way as though nothing had happened. Just another day in the city. To Pelleas, just lying down, eyes closed, listening to Nevassa move and clamor around him, was like crossing the veil into another world. Finally he hoisted himself to his feet, deftly dodging citizens as they rudely swept by. He wandered about, and as he did, looked around the plaza eagerly.

So this is Nevassa...

He had read that for beorc goods there was no better place to go than Melior, capital of Crimea, and for goods poached from the teeth and fur of sub-humans there were hundreds of vendors in Sienne waiting to comply, but for Pelleas's part, standing in the high tide of humanity, there was nothing more awe-inspiring than the Central Market of Nevassa, the bazaar that rivaled any other in history. The square itself stretched almost as far as the eye could see, encompassing several great fountains and lone oak trees providing shade for benches, long rows of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, and a great empty space in the center where children fruitlessly chased pigeons. Where Iolana might have had a few vendors in its center at midday with their jerky and packs of vulnerary, the streets of Nevassa were lined with covered stalls and alive with the sounds of nosy peddlers, loud peddlers, most notably, loud nosy peddlers. In the middle of the square, a traveling band of musicians played, collecting spectators to hear them cross the strings of their cellos and violins with bows. A beautiful woman stood in the center of the troupe and sung—Pelleas couldn't help but notice that men passing by made sure to lay their coin directly at her feet.

In small pockets, under trees and awnings, men played shell and dice games on wool blankets and piled coins in small mountains beside them. Children chased the flocks of pigeons wherever they landed to pick at crumbs, and as soon as the scamps came close, the birds took wing and left them laughing beneath. There were birds of all sorts: blackbirds, bluebirds, and strange birds with orange and red plumage, none of which Pelleas had seen before, perched on stoops atop the storefronts, and Nevassans walked by without more than a glance. Dogs bounded through the street, of breeds alien to the country boy, and cats crept along the side of the streets, out of the footfalls of the citizenry. Despite feeling decidedly discomfited in a crowd of so many unfamiliar, unfriendly people, Pelleas couldn't help but imagine the life orphans must have there, immersed daily in the magic of the city center alone, let alone the rest of it! Nevassa was a spectacle of sight and sound and the Dark City offered in one day more than Iolana could, for all its festivals and congregations, in a lifetime.

Pelleas climbed to his feet, ignoring the pain of impact, not even bothering to sweep the soot from his clothes—in regards to their sordidness, they were already well past salvation. Walking about, he looked everywhere, to the south where he'd come from, to the north where the grain caravan moved onward towards the castle, and to the east and west, filled with residences and people carrying goods. It was all Pelleas could do not to lose his way there alone, amidst the rows upon rows of identical stone-facade buildings and bustling crowds of people. Pelleas learned very quickly that people in the city did not apologize for knocking you over on the way by.

All along the south, the stone buildings were marked as storefronts, each proclaiming itself as best this or best that. Pelleas walked, in amazement for several minutes, barely noticing the people calling out, trying to summon him to their stands. There was an entire block of young women, each trying to draw him to shimmering jeweled trinkets and silver necklaces. On the corner of the street, men sung in rounds as they turned a great roast pig over a makeshift spit as the children on the corner clapped in rhythm.

Wide-eyed, Pelleas read all the wooden signs as he went, and felt a sudden surge of pride that he could understand the words and not have to rely on the wares on display to infer the shops' specialties.

"Higgins' Armoury...Swords of the North..." mouthed Pelleas as he walked, grin never leaving his face. "Silla's Sundries...The Silent Apothecary...The Magus's Assistant..."

I wonder...what does it take to learn magic?

Curious, Pelleas wandered to the front of the small shop, just beneath where the wooden sign bearing "The Magus's Assistant" swayed gently in the breeze. He stared at the long cloaks of many colors and the long staves with their gnarled bases sitting in the window, then pushed his way through the oak door.

The shop was modest, with magical reagents and various items sitting on shelves on the walls and a small wood counter at the rear where the proprietor sat, her hand on her necklace. The place was dimly lit with smoky white lanterns hanging from the ceiling at four corners and one crystal chandelier swinging gently. The scent of perfume was overpowering; the moment Pelleas stepped in, the vague scents of cooking meat and apple tart from the street gave way to a scent that Pelleas couldn't come near accurately describing. The aroma was strong enough to bring tears to his eyes, which brought his sleeves up and the proprietor's hand to her mouth.

"The sandalwood and the jasmine are strong together, aren't they?" she said. She was a young woman with a musical voice, with long blue hair and blue eyes. She wore a transparent blue veil with small white stars embroidered on, and a thick blue and white cloak clasped above her breast with a small silver bauble the size and shape of an egg. Around her neck fell a gold chain with an unfamiliar symbol at its finish, a half-circle with a horizontal line through it.

"Uh, I—I'm...I just...came in to ask, um, I wanted to know, that, I-I—"

She giggled and Pelleas felt his face go hot.

I can never say what I want to say! Come on, Pelleas, say it right!

"I—what I'm trying to say," Pelleas said, after he collected himself, "is that—I wanted to ask—was wondering if you it takes to learn magic. I-I have to find out a way. I have to!"

"Well," she said, her smile wide. "Hm, magic. Let meeeee think. Well, most aspiring students of magic usually take lessons, either from a learned sage as a pupil or in a class being taught by an elder. Buuut...they don't have many schools like that here in Nevassa. The last one closed last year for lack of serious interest. Usually it's just noblemen's scamperin' little brood who want to take it up nowadays. If you want to learn magic, you're probably going to have to pay a tutor a lot..."

She looked at Pelleas sadly.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"I-It's well. Please, don't worry," said Pelleas, and he tried to fake a smile. He'd almost left the store when the shelves of sundries on the side walls caught his eyes, and before he could pull away he found himself examining everything on the shelves

There were crystal divining balls lined up in different shapes and colors—smoky blues and greens and even reds—on the bottom shelves, and above them peering-glasses and trinkets used in scrying and wands used for divining. There was even a marbled stone basin filled with a mercurial silvery liquid sitting on the end of the shelf, which was ostensibly for "recollecting one's past experiences," but Pelleas could never imagine someone ever dunking their head inside it.

The top shelves were filled with bottles of varying sizes, some of which Pelleas recognized as holy water sprinkles on one's self to protect against magic, and ensorcelled salves used to heal wounds more grave than could be ameliorated with standard vulneraries.

There were strange objects that Pelleas couldn't rightly describe, things that looked like small machines powered by glowing crystals, candles of different shapes made of wax of different colors, and beside them bottles of perfume. There were several shelves all lined with spell books, their spines bearing small symbols of fire or wind, or thunder, and some white books marked with holy symbols. There was even a very worn-looking black book sitting at the end of the top-most row, one Pelleas could only assume was a book of some sort of dark magic.

Pelleas was almost out the door when a small silk bag of white powder caught his eye. It sat on the bottom shelf near a line of reagents, and Pelleas felt a sudden, indescribable urge to touch it. The satchel was indeed as soft and smooth as he'd imagined it to be, and though it was only a coarse, white powder within, it had a weight to it, so great that Pelleas had to lift it with both hands.

"E-Excuse me, miss?" Pelleas asked. The young woman, with her head resting in her hands, looked right at him with her wide smile, and Pelleas had the feeling that she had been watching him the whole time.

"What is this powder called?"

"Ooh, good choice," the woman said. "That's called Spirit Dust. It's the only one of those we got. They say the power of the spirits lives inside that dust. If you dissolve it in liquid or drink it or—" she covered her mouth and laughed.

"Hee hee, sorry. Or snort it—" here she chuckled again for reasons Pelleas couldn't ken— "Your magical power will become slightly greater."

The spirits, huh? Pelleas thought, and briefly thought about the spirits he'd read about in stories, the ever-present beings prayed to as divinities long ago, by the heretical few who lived outside the sway of Ashera's teachings.

"How much is it?" Pelleas asked, not expecting to like the answer.

"Er, eight thousand," the shopkeeper said with a nervous smile.

No, Pelleas definitely didn't like the answer. More than he had expected he wouldn't like it, in fact, and he'd expected to not like it a great deal. He couldn't dream of affording something over eight-hundred gold, let alone over eight-thousand.

" can't learn spellcasting, or, or anything like that just by...eating it, right?"

The young woman laughed again; but not at him, but warmly, enough to evoke a small smile from Pelleas. "No, unfortunately, you can't. Otherwise I might be a mage myself. You never know when the ability to burn some incense without getting up will come in handy."

"I see. Thank you f'r your trouble," Pelleas said, and took a small bow without realizing it. He set the spirit dust back down and didn't wait for the proprietor's reply; he snuck out the door and into the square, wondering why he'd even bothered to go in there in the first place.

- O -

The sunlight and the sounds of midday hurt Pelleas's eyes when he first stepped back into the great common. Pelleas wandered around for a while longer, exploring the northern end of the square and all the stalls in the western end. All the while the musicians continued to play, singing ballads of old heroes and Daenic folk songs, many of which were familiar to Pelleas from his time spent at the harvest festivals, sitting where no one else could see him and listening to the townsfolk revel. The woman from before was still singing with her beautiful voice, alone after her fellows had lain their instruments down. Before he had time to tell himself he really shouldn't, he'd already sat down across from the troupe to listen.

Far beyond the distant western sky

Where brilliant blue is pierced by rising sun

The winged steeds from o'er yonder hills

A flurry of feathers borne on distant winds

The goddess smiles calmly on her own

Her children who have come from far away

Return anon to their remembered cradle

And sheltered in the godly home of all...

It wasn't the song that drew Pelleas in—he'd never heard it before, a song of pegasi descending on an "ivory country"—but the singer's voice, like nothing had ever heard before, haunting and mysterious, like the call of a siren from across the sea, somehow strong enough to carry over the sounds of footfalls and gossip hanging in the square.

The woman finished her song, and the crowd that had stopped to listen to her slowly ambled away. Some of them left a few coins at her feet, but most of them couldn't be bothered to spare even a silver and so let their awe at her voice go unannounced. Soon Pelleas was left by himself, and when he realized everyone else had left, he rose to his feet, brushing away the dirt.

I wonder where she's from? Pelleas wondered, and he looked her over, unable to take leave of the songstress and her fellow musicians. Her clothes were as alien to him as her voice was: she wore a long, thick cloak around her shoulders, turquoise with streaks of gold and red around the fringes, and beneath it a white silk dress that billowed in the breeze and ended just at her ankles. Her looks were equally elegant. Her skin was bone-pale, whiter than Pelleas had ever seen before, the color of a porcelain urn that had never seen a bit of dust. She had eyes the color of deepest water, with a soft chin and round cheeks. Her long silver hair fell over her bangs down almost to her shoulders and she wore an emerald necklace in the image of a long eye.

The woman had a kind of calm about her—startlingly clear to Pelleas but impossible to describe precisely. She stood amongst the bustle in the city—although almost concealed by the veil of uproar, almost blotted out completely by the rush of busy people, her smile was profoundly peaceful, her demeanor impressively composed.

Pelleas suddenly noticed her looking at him with an amused smile, and Pelleas realized he'd been gawking at her the whole time. He fell to one knee and laid three coins with the rest.

"Oh, ah...h-hello," he said, blushing, and rose to his feet. Everything he'd wanted to say had ran away from him, but to her credit she waited patiently while he waded through his thoughts. "I, um, really liked your song."

"Thank you," she said, with a friendly smile. Her speaking voice was as beautiful as her song. "I was blessed to have such a voice. I've simply taken it upon myself to use it. We've little interest in coin—just to spread the message of joy is good enough."

"So you're all just traveling performers?"

The woman nodded. "My name is Melisande." She turned around and gestured to each of the performers in turn, who sat on the ground behind her, instruments on their laps or close at their sides. "And they are Valentinus, Aethelric, Sandral, Matale, and Bryant."

Pelleas glanced at the players, who all smiled or tipped a hand in his direction. They were a motley group, not only in dress but in stature and appearance. A few dressed in similarly chromatic garb as their vocalist but the others wore simple brown overcoats or vests over white tunics.

"My name's Pelleas. Nice t'meet you," he said, and nodded his head at Melisande.

"Nice to meet you too. Are you from Nevassa, Pelleas?"

"No," he said quietly. "I'm from Iolana. It's a village to the south, near Begnion."

"Iolana..." Melisande said, thinking. "I think we passed by there a week ago."

"Aye, we did," said Bryant, who knelt beside his cello. "Half a day up from th' border."

"We're from Begnion," Melisande explained. "Most of us, anyway. This is the first time we've ever set foot in Daein. To be honest, I was afraid how we'd be received here in Nevassa, but praise be: we've been welcomed with open arms here in the city." She clasped her hands together and held them to her chest for a moment.

"Pelleas," said one of the players behind Melisande, a short, scrawny man with brown hair and a viola under his arm. "You've got a right Daeinian accent there. Have you ever found yourself in Begnion, lad?"

Pelleas shook his head.

The player laughed. "Never! You've never lived a right day in your life if you've not seen the white domes and towers of Sienne."

"An' in Crimea!" chimed another, a slightly chubby man, the most extravagant-looking of them all in cloth of red and green. "Th' spectacle in th' market square at midday, the sheer numbers'a peddlers, the smell of meat on th''s somethin' y'can't find anywhere else on Tellius."

"I've never been so far from home before. This's the first time I ever had to travel by carriage."

"There's nothing more exhilarating than traveling to a new country," offered the harpist, brushing his long hair out of his face. "The lush greenery of Crimea, the pristine cityscapes of Begnion—and then the beauty of the island nations! I've dreamed of standing on one of the high hills of Gallia watching the forests rolling far beneath, or sailing by the rocky seasides of Goldoa."

"Pelleas, someday you should see the world. The Goddess has given all Her lands such bounty and beauty."

"I wish I could—but I can't."

"Oi, lad! If you've naught else t'do, come revel with us in our caravan!"The chubby fellow chuckled and clambered to his feet. "We've fresh grapes, and ripe oranges from the cradle'a Begnion, and all sorts of other fruit—and a pig for roastin' if you've the stomach for that."

Oranges and grapes?

The thought alone of the fruit he'd never seen but had heard tell about in quasi-mythic tones made him salivate. In another time, in another place Pelleas would have eagerly accepted their offer without considering denying their kindness, but as it were, here finally in the city, he refused himself the luxury of tarrying any longer.

"Th-thank you...but I must be going."

"Well then," Melisande said. She fingered the long eye on her necklace idly and flashed a sleepy smile. "It was nice meeting you Pelleas. If the Goddess would have it, we'll meet again someday."

"You'd best take care when the night falls, Pelleas," Aethelric offered quickly. "The Daein north is cold as sin at night, and that is the least of the dangers you'll find in the city after the time of vespers."

"I know. But I've no other choice. I've something to do."

"I'd be fain to call you to our caravan when your deed is done, Pelleas." Melisande said sweetly. "If you've nowhere else to stay, let us shelter you. At least once the day is done, if you are wont to come sup with us, wouldn't you please? It wouldn't do for you to go hungry!"

Pelleas shook his head. "Thank you, truly. But I can't! I'll—I shall see you again," he said, knowing full well that there would be no "again". He dashed away, head tucked down low, before he had the chance to change his mind.

- O -

The sun was already halfway beyond the sky, and the people who'd been so eager to shuffle about the square became equally eager to leave. The coming of the night brought a newfound sense of urgency to the young boy in a strange city, a sudden realization that he was nowhere near home, and a sudden fear that time was ever running out for him.

I'd better find out where to look, and quickly!

He looked around, searching for someone to inquire of, and almost bumped into a hunched man in a brown monk's robe.

"Sinners!" the man cried, loud enough to pierce the darkness; in the night there was no clamor or music loud enough to drown his voice out, his voice—distant but threatening. In one hand he held a bronze bell heavily tinged with verdigris and in the other a small bucket that swung as he hobbled along. "Sinners repent! Give away! Give away! Give away the sins of greed! Give away your coin, your lustful worldly goods! Repent!"

Pelleas started and found himself transfixed to the road. A wild dog cried out loud and long and in pain somewhere far away, perhaps in its solitude growing restless longing for company. For reasons he could not put into words or even into thought, Pelleas felt a shiver of fear run through his body and for the first time the sharp cold of the northern city began to cut into him.

"Repent! Sinners repent! Sinners all! The Six are coming to purge the unclean! Our dark lords hate you!" The monk spat the word 'hate' with a mix of anger and fright, and every iteration thereafter bore the brunt of his wroth, hammer-hard against the silent night.

"They hate your vainglory! They hate your selfishness! They hate your self-righteous clinging to your worldly rubbish! They spit on you! They spit on you sinners and curse your names! We are sinners, sinners all! We are sinners all, and the sinners will be washed away! The sinners will be excoriated! The sins burnt! Give away! Give away and you may repent! Repent! Repent and maybe you will be saved!"

Slowly as the man limped away, so did the words of his terrifying sermon, until he'd passed by and all that remained in Pelleas's ears was the distant sound of anguished preaching and the bell's tin-tin-tin.

His face lashed with cold sweat, Pelleas finally found the power to move his legs. Wandering half-distractedly, he stopped whomever he came across and asked for the best place to look for information, and they all told him that he should find one of the rumormongers and ask them for information. They, of course, would offer nothing for free, and most of those he asked told him as much. After a spot of wandering down the northern streets, veering off towards the residential districts, Pelleas saw a man in a tattered green cloak, his back against one of the buildings, just beneath a small red lantern. He asked the man for information, and the stranger had a very interesting reply.

"I sell a lot of things, information one of 'em," he said. He was unshaven, unwashed, and around him lingered the faint smell of raw meat and liquour. He wore black gloves with no fingers. "I sell somethin' diff'ent to the boys, the men, and the women. And it all depends on how they ask."

"I-I need to know something," Pelleas said. "I need to know how to learn magic. I want to get stronger. Please, tell me what you know."

"Hm," the stranger replied, and laughed. He had a smoky laugh, a thoroughly unfriendly laugh. "Would you pay a catamite's price?"

"What? I-I don't understand?"

The stranger spat and growled under his breath. "How much money do you have, lad? Less than I've time to waste?"

Pelleas took the hint and rummaged through his pockets. "I-I've fifty gold, s-sir."

The 'sir' scoffed, but took Pelleas's gold regardless; not content with having it handed to him, he ripped it from his fingers as soon as he'd rustled it up.

"Well, if it's magic yer lookin' f'r, best keep going north," said the rumormonger, looking towards the northern sky. In an instant, he had become outgoing and prolix, speaking almost too quickly for Pelleas to understand. "That's where the Royal Magical Library is. It's a ways south of the castle, so in case you wanted to stay out of footfall of the barracks compounds, you know? I've never had occasion to go into a library, but I do know more than my share about it. It's the best place in Daein and one of the best places in the world for students of magical theory—'least, that's what I've heard.

"The Library's been around almost since the time of the old Daein war, a testament to Daein architecture, but after the advent of printing machines in Begnion it's been built up and almost entirely filled. Oi, so, maybe holy books and the like could be found in cathedrals, and if you'd wanted to know any forbidden secrets, you'd need to visit the apostle's private collection in Begnion. But why? Anything else you need to know about topics magical or non-magical you can find there. And never on your life will you be able to set foot in the Empress's library," the rumormonger added with a sharp smile. "So don't even consider it. Everything you could ever need is here in Nevassa anyway, lad. Who needs the old knowledge? The power of today is in Daein!"

Nodding sheepishly, Pelleas stammered, "So, u-um, how am I to find this, this library you talked about? The Royal one?"

The rumormonger scowled again. "I said, just go north. It's in the middle of a small square. E'en a scummy little street rat like you should be able to find it."

"Aye. Thank you...kindly," Pelleas said, not wanting to stay another second under the rumormonger's dark eyes, and scurried north up the street without sparing another look behind him.

- O -

The alleys of Nevassa were nothing like the market square, and the night was nothing like the afternoon. At every turn, everywhere Pelleas scampered, he found signs of disrepair. His childish awe upon arriving in Nevassa had faded somewhere into the shadows, replaced by a clammy feeling of uncertainty. He used the moon as a guide when the twisting, narrow alleys of the Dark City led him elsewhere but north, through a maze of abandoned buildings and unlit residences.

The day in Nevassa had not been unpleasant. The sun was strong in the city and the warm, dry winds that came west over the mountains was never so hot as to be sweltering. But the nights in Nevassa were cold, and when the wind blew down from the northern peaks to the narrow alleys after sunset it was cold and always inhospitable.

And there was no denying any of the city's flaws here in the alleys. Buildings had their mortaring weathered away and their roofs battered by the constant rain. Bricks and stones that had been cut loose lay haphazardly in the middle of the street; on one lane the rubble had piled so high in such a narrow throughway that Pelleas had to find another way around. The gutters were thick and stinking with shit where the rakers of the street screws couldn't be arsed to tread and the scent settled low at every turn. Lanterns, fallen from their posts in the middle of the road, lay broken, glass shards scattered on the stones, nearly invisible in the moonlight. Sometimes the ground was not even cobbles, but mere dirt paths lined by boarded-up houses, now rat hovels or shelters for strays.

Pelleas turned a corner and when he saw the long, narrow road ahead of him he stopped and sighed.

Where am I? I think I'm getting closer, much longer? How long?

Growing more desperate and more frantic to find something, Pelleas ambled on, jumping over rocks and potholes, almost losing his balance and falling forward. He had to cover his nose as the stench of nightsoil grew stronger with every step, the road littered with broken ceramic pots tipped over from the windows above.

He was not expecting to hear a voice address him from the darkness, but he did.

"Lad! Hold up a mom'nt."

Pelleas stopped and shut his eyes. He took one deep breath and commanded his hands to stop shaking. They did not.

No—not now. Not again! Please, don't—just—

"Y'ain't got a weapon on ye, do ye?" A second voice, higher and hoarser than the first.

Why me? Why again?

"N-No," Pelleas replied, slowly turning around. Opening his eyes, he saw two men standing there, both tall and built like barrels, with broad shoulders nearly blocking off the entire alley. One carried what looked like a small woodsman's hatchet, crude and probably rusted over but sharp enough and heavy enough to cave a boy's skull in; the other carried a knife, and Pelleas didn't like how its edge caught and held the argent moonlight. For a brief moment, Pelleas considered running. He couldn't fight them—as desperately as he wanted to put his fist through the yellow teeth of men like them and hear the crunch—and even with a weapon, he was still outnumbered. Still, he couldn't run. He didn't trust his legs to carry him far enough fast enough, and he didn't trust the footpads enough to forgive him when they caught up with him. His feet felt like ramrods and a drought had seized his throat. He wanted to scream but he knew it would do him no good, so he simply said, "P-Please. I don't want—"

"Then deliver," the first man said. His brow was cold and clenched.

"But, but—" the words clenched, corked tightly in Pelleas's throat. His right hand pressed against the book in his tunic. "I-I haven't got a—"

Not Illumina's gift—please don't—don't take this away too...

"Just give us all you got and I'll let y'live," the first man said. In the moonlight, his smiling countenance was strange and frightening, like the rusted end of a broken hacksaw. "Promise."

Pelleas almost laughed. Promises...

"I d-don't…I'm a poor boy! I don't have any…"

"No!" the second man said unnecessarily loudly, gesturing animatedly with his knife. His eyes were wide and wild and he swayed from side to side as he stood, his head almost meeting the wall as he lurched to the right. "You—you lie! Don't fucking lie to us! What are you, walking around Nevassa with no gold, mad? You ain't one of the street rats in this town. And, we saw you paying for a word or three to the rumormonger, so we know you have coin, you prick! Don't lie to me!"

"Pro'ly some count's prissy son sent errand-running, dressed up like an urchin to avoid the looks from the cityfolk. Tell us the truth or I'll bugger your arse halfway to man-whoredom!" said the first man.

"Tell us, damn you!"

"I-I don't…please, I, hon-honestly, I don't have—"

"To hell with that!" the first man bellowed with an animal growl. He stamped his boot violently against the cobblestones. "I've no problem gutting a boy. If you'll not give us it, we'll bloody well take it from you!"

"You won't," said another voice, and the two thugs started, craning their necks to see who had interrupted their gleeful thievery.

"Let him go," the newcomer said calmly. He was a tall young man with a fine brown goatee and long brown hair and his eyes were narrowed and defiant. He held a book under one arm and a sharp axe in one hand. His poise and composure, even as the two thugs leered at him with all their hate, surprised Pelleas. Pelleas mused that he himself might have laid down his weapons met with such a gaze. The brigands did not.

"Who in the name of Ash' are you?" said one of the assailants.

"Fucking opportunists," said the other, spitting. "To hell wit'im, we got 'im outbodied. Kill 'im! Go!"

The man with the book groaned angrily as he two assailants charged at him as only untrained fighters do, with weapons held out threateningly and without any regard for their opposition. It was immediately apparent that their opposition had them outmatched. The first attacker took a wild swing with his hatchet and was rewarded with the flat of a heavy axe striking him on his nose.

Pelleas's new hero then deftly deflected the second attacker's knife blows, using his thick book as a buckler, his feet dancing back and forth on the cobbled road as the knife blade chopped unevenly against the tome. Finally the attacker growled and lunged deeply forward at the other man's neck; the blade stuck in the cover of the book, and before the blackguard could retreat back, the other man directed a kick at his shin, giving him more than enough time to knock his assailant to the ground with a lowered shoulder.

"A defenseless boy like that! You're mad!" Pelleas's hero said.

His words only incensed the second attacker. Hobbling to his feet, he aimed a quick stab low at the hero's thigh, slashing through his britches, drawing blood. It wasn't enough. Positioning himself to the side to avoid the next knife thrust, Pelleas's champion brought his axe crashing down on the footpad's face.

Pelleas felt a warm spray of blood splash against him, and heard the man scream out in horror, clutching his face, digging his fingers into his eyes. In the moonlight, Pelleas watched in abject terror as the blood spilled from between his fingers and pooled on the stone by his feet. His sobs of pain rang through the alleyway, loud and insistent and threatened to wake an entire city ward, but not a soul besides them seemed to notice or even to care. The city seemed almost dead.

The first man took another wild, overhead strike with his hatchet, and was blocked by a now mutilated book and countered by an axe falling on his right hand. He staggered back, clutching his wrist, and his back met the wall of the alleyway.

"I won't warn you again!" the stranger said firmly, standing his ground. His gaze switched from the man with the hatchet to his injured comrade. "Leave!"

The first attacker either didn't hear him or simply chose to ignore him. "Die!" he shouted, blood streaming from his face. He held his axe with his left hand now, his right bloody and limp at his side, and charged with a maddening cry at Pelleas's hero, trying fruitlessly to land even a single blow on him. His luck was not so good; the other man as dodged to the side, seemingly knowing when and where each one of the assailant's frenzied, awkward strikes would fall. At last, the desperate man charged forward, and when he did, the hero was ready. He brought his knee surging upward against the assailant's chest and used his momentum against him, grabbing him by his tunic and throwing him to the ground on his back. Without hesitating a moment, he brought his heavy hatchet down on the thief's stomach in a clean arc. He screamed out in pain and his head fell back against the cobbled alleyway with a hollow thud. The other man hoisted him up onto his feet and put him against the wall, fist clenched around his vest.

"I hope this is a lesson to you," he said, staring daggers. "Don't play your silly games with people's lives."

"F-Fuckin'..." the thief choked, spitting blood at his foe.

Too foolish to know he was beaten and too wounded to care, the footpad cocked his bare fist and made one last, limp, desperate effort to throw a punch at his opponent's face. Pelleas's hero let him drop, and with one last sickening gurgle the cutpurse slumped down the side of the alleyway and fell limp to the ground. His boon companion had long since turned tail and fled, leaving behind a neat, thick trail of blood.

When the fighting was done, the man with the book sighed and wiped the blood from his axe on the legs of his britches. The assailant's knife lay bloody at his feet.

"Damn it," he mumbled under his breath, shaking his head, quiet in his self-chastisement. "Goddess curse them. Blood didn't used to run hot in the streets like this..."

"T-Thank..." Pelleas choked, words coming out in an exhausted drawl, as breathless as if he had fought the battle himself. The world spun and buckled around him, blurry from the tears fresh in his eyes. His heart beat so fast that he feared he was about to faint dead away on the moonlit street. "Thank you."

"Are you well?" he asked, and Pelleas had no answer.

His hero looked down at him and extended a bloody hand. "That isn't the first time curs like that have tried to rob the alleys. And it won't be the last." The stranger grimaced and looked down at the bloody streets. When he turned back to look at Pelleas, his eyes looked off somewhere in the distance. "It's—what we're becoming in Nevassa. The sweepers won't even bother to clean up the blood. Even if they come around here, they'll just leave it until it dries. Because they know—next night on the morrow it might spill again. And it didn't used to be like that, brother against brother, struggling for power...

"But enough of that. I've not seen you around here, and I've lived in Nevassa in one place or another near all my life. What are you doing here, lad?" His voice was calm and authoritative, and his gaze—straight and powerful—told Pelleas all he needed to know about his clout.

"I-I just want t'—t'help some! E'erybody. My friends. I need't find answers. I need—books, I think," Pelleas sputtered, realizing at once that was not the information his savior was looking for. He wildly tried to wipe his assailant's blood from his face with his grime-covered sleeves. "I just—I need't get stronger. I just—it—I need..."

Pelleas dropped to his knees and dug his face into his hands. He trembled uncontrollably, his legs weak beneath him. The world gyrated, wobbled and turned like a top, enough to turn Pelleas's stomach and shake him out. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers against his forehead, around his eyes. Every quiet whistle of the wind, every flicker of light or roving shadow set his heartbeat racing, carried with them the images of axes—red axes, methodical, shriveled hands, screams, shrieks, blood and struggle. Before he could stop himself, the boy cried out quietly, wailing in whispers, shaking his head, slowly, back and forth, tears dripping through his fingers.

"I yield," he murmured. "I yield, I yield, I yield. Stop, stop, I yield..."

"Oi," the stranger said softly, and knelt. Pelleas felt a tap on his shoulder and a handkerchief slip into his hand. "Don't worry. You're safe now. They won't come here again as long as I'm around. I'll make sure of it."

Sometimes the weight of his life was too much for Pelleas to bear. Everything he'd done had been met with failure, and now he found himself lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces, relying completely on the kindnesses of others to compensate for his shortcomings. He had no answers, and the questions were only growing stronger, louder in his ears, building to a crescendo.

After a moment, Pelleas wiped his eyes and his cheeks with the handkerchief and slowly got to his feet. The stranger was still there, a hand on Pelleas's shoulder, still looking at him intently as he tried desperately to avoid the stranger's sight with his red eyes.

"Are you well now?"

Pelleas sniffed. "Y-Yes," he lied, shuffling his feet. "Thank you, sir."

The man briefly looked behind him, foot tapping against the road. He surveyed Pelleas intently and eventually sighed, shoulders sinking. "Listen to me, lad. If you don't know the streets and where to hide and where to go for food and information, you'll never last another night here. Those two aren't the only ones looking for coin, and they're far from the only ones willing to kill for it. And don't count on someone coming to rescue you again. Most people'd see you die than risk their necks for you."

The man laughed mirthlessly and shook his head out. Pelleas looked up into his eyes: gentle, stern, and in the moonlight very distant. His voice and his features were those of a young man, but the bitterness underlying his voice projected someone older, more weary of the world. "Especially these days. Not that it's any of my concern, not anymore. But—don't go around ferreting out trouble. It's not worth it. Not a bit."

"A-Aye, I understand. Forgive me this," Pelleas said, brushing himself off. "Th-thank you f'r saving me. I—I must needs go."

Pelleas turned away and ran as fast as he could to nowhere in particular. When he turned to look behind him, the man had already disappeared.

- O -

Pelleas ran as far as he could, almost tripping over his own feet, not even bothering to look at which alleys he darted down, not even counting his footfalls along the streets as he liked to do, not even taking the time to wonder if he was running towards or further from his destination. He just ran, head down, teeth clenched, eyes watering in spite of himself; ran as far as he could, as fast as his little bare feet could carry him before his body commanded him to stop and catch his breath. When he finally slowed and he looked near one of Nevassa's smaller, northern plazas, near a fountain which looked as if it hadn't carried a flow in his lifetime. He made it to the foot of the fountain before he collapsed, falling onto his back, gasping for air, quicker and quicker until he couldn't breathe in any faster and still he needed more air, more air, more air, and the panic began to return, because he was being suffocated again, from the inside out, and he couldn't stop it, and he wanted to stop it but he couldn't and he didn't know how but he needed to.

For a second he thought he was going to die.

Can't...I need to breathe...breathe...slow down...

Finally he took a great, deep breath and held it, closing his eyes, gripping so tightly onto the sleeves of his torn tunic his fingers were beginning to burn and released it in one great warm jet. The night air was pleasantly cool on his face and wonderful in his lungs.

Goddess protect me, he thought as he exhaled, with every second letting his fear escape him, letting his worries tumble upward into the night sky with his breath. Then he breathed in again and when he closed his eyes, he imagined the family he never had, the mother, the father, the little brothers and sister, the hearth where they stewed their pease porridge and broke what little bread they have. Then he exhaled and the visions slipped away, the pictures faded back into blackness, all his thoughts dispersed and left him silent in the comforting soundlessness of the square.

The moon, halfway whittled to nothing, looked down on the little boy from high above in the market square. Bright glow, but so far away. In a near starless sky, watching from supine far, far below, Pelleas could only wonder what magic powers the moon might possess. He continued to breathe deep from the pit of his chest, and as he did he marveled. The moon had always held a sort of reverent quality for him. He'd read of the goddess and the spirits that were said to have dwelt in the moon, deities that the emissaries of Begnion might have called idols, heretical: Selene, the caretaker of the moon and the three spirits of light, water, and wind who sang songs to her and told jests so she would never be alone.

Why am I thinking about that now? Pelleas mused as he looked up. By the time he lifted himself to his feet, the moon had already slid further along its skyward path. Does it even matter? None of those gods mean anything to me. And I don't mean anything to them. They're all too far away to help me...

For the first time, Pelleas noted the crumbled fountain he had lain beside. The dark marble had completely collapsed on itself and what had once surely been an elaborate sight was reduced to rubble, stacked in a great heap inside the large circle. It was a microcosm of the rest of the city, a place of majesty laid low and left in neglect. Where once there had been water there was nothing, not even a drop from a rain shower, and where once there surely had been coins, sparkles of bronze and silver and maybe even a flicker of gold from well-wishers who paid superstitious respects, now there was only emptiness. The blood felt thick and sickening on his hands, on his cheeks, on the front of his shirt, and even in the fountain square there was no way to come clean. He turned his rags inside-out in a desperate attempt to hide the stains.

When was the last time this fountain had water? Pelleas mused, realizing that he was incredibly thirsty with no chance of ever quenching it. Is everything beautiful in Daein dying?

All of Daein indeed seemed deserted, destroyed, and Nevassa was no exception. Everywhere Pelleas had went, he had seen abandoned houses boarded up, their mortaring beginning to crack and fall away, bricks scraped and stones sanded by the sharp north wind, and pieces of rubble lying in the road that no one cared enough to empty out. These were the dirty secrets the busy market square held, the "dark" secrets that the "Dark City" bore, secrets kept from everyone but its residents. Meanwhile there was no shortage of life in the streets, not with the soldiers that walked in step through the city and clamored in the street barracks. Pelleas had never lived to see a great war, but he could only assume, looking at the dead fountain in the moonlight, that this was its stage, and that its origins could be found here in the abandoned places where peaceful people no longer set foot.

Pelleas started north again, creeping through the alleys as fast as he could, holding his shallow breaths whenever he turned a corner, hoping only that the cutpurses and night watchmen would leave him alone just for this one night. He had almost abandoned hope again, almost considered sinking down in the alley and giving up when a sharp right through a trash-strewn alley brought him near the steps of a great marble edifice and a stone upon which was engraved the words "Royal Magical Archive of Nevassa."

Is this it? Am I finally here?

As an outsider, a country boy venturing out of his element into one of Tellius's largest cities, Pelleas could feel nothing but awe gazing at the library, standing tall in the shadow of the mountains to the northwest and the looming darkness of Daein Castle to the northeast. The ingress was preceded by a line of great columns from the roof overhead to the apex of the steps, each sculpted in the traditional Daeinic style. Engraved both in the stone walls above the doors and in the center of the shut doors themselves was what was surely the sigil of the library, a large, billowing willow tree, each four branches culminating in a different magical symbol. The entire library was longer than it was wide, with its entrance to the south and its end far to the north, rising slightly upwards as the Daein hills sloped back and fed into a small valley between the city proper and King Ashnard's keep.

He'd heard people say that the real books of value were all in the royal family's personal library stashed deep within the walls of Daein Keep, but admiring the library in all its tallness, for all the perfection in its geometry, Pelleas had trouble believing anything could truly trump it.

Gifted with a second wind even as the north wind blew bitter cold into his face, Pelleas ran to the steps and up them to the great stone door of the library, throwing himself against it, pulling the handles as hard as he could. He tried for at least a minute, tried to plant his feet against the ground for leverage, tried lowering his shoulder and pushing, but nothing worked.

"You won't get in that way, young man."

Pelleas jumped at the sound of the voice and whirled around, heart racing again, paralyzed by fear, wondering if this time he'd have to defend himself. Instead, he saw the man from earlier in the night, standing at the bottom of the steps, book still in hand.

"As soon as you said you were in the market for information, I knew you would come here. I don't know who you are or what you're looking for, but there's no way you're getting into that library. Ever since someone tried to put a torch to the scroll racks, they've barred the doors tightly at night and had men patrolling the halls during the day. And—sad to say, but they wouldn't let a boy like you in during the day. What would an orphan boy need in a library?"

"But—I need t'get in there!" Pelleas cried, falling to his knees. "I need to know—I need to find out..."

The man regarded Pelleas intently for a moment, stroking his goatee with his free hand. "It certainly seems you have a motive other than petty thievery..." He tilted his head to one side, then laughed. "Not that I have any interest in policing the streets of Nevassa. So you want to search the library, then?"

Pelleas nodded.

"You know your letters then?"

Pelleas nodded again and almost smiled. "I taught myself, sir."

He cocked one eyebrow. "I'm amazed, lad! Most of the folk of Nevassa don't know how to read, and many don't care either way. I'm a bit impressed. Consider yourself lucky you even got the chance to teach yourself. I won't ask how you came upon your tomes, then." The stranger cracked a wry smile.

'Lucky'? How have I ever been lucky? There is no such thing as luck, and luck didn't save Illumina.

"Well, follow me, lad," the man said, and in a second he was off, eliciting a hurried "wait" from young Pelleas as he raced down the stairs after him. They dashed off down several alleys, their combined footfalls beating a strange nocturne against the street. Finally the stranger stopped in front of the door to an abandoned house in, with a crude stone archway joining the two buildings. He pushed against the door with his heavy shoulder, and forced his way in, with Pelleas close at his heel. The building was wholly windowless and seemed as if it had never been lived in. Not even an overturned table or brass candlestick on the floor even hinted at a human presence. Strangely, however—to Pelleas at least—the floor seemed remarkably free of any dust, and there were no cobwebs caught in the corners of the low ceilings. The only thing out of place was a large wooden crate sitting against the far wall. The stranger put his arms around it, bent his knees, and with a great breath, pulled it away from the wall until there was a small space enough for a man to fit through between the crate and the edge of the house.

"Come," he said, beckoning Pelleas, and when he approached, the stranger pointed out to Pelleas a small iron hatch-door, only partially visible in the open door's silver moonlight. He pulled a small key from inside his vest and unlocked it, hoisting it open.

"That's as far as I go," the stranger said. Even in the darkness, Pelleas could make out a satisfied smile on his face. "Follow the path and eventually you'll find yourself at the back of the library. Just be careful. If you don't get out of there by sunrise, people will start coming in. And—try to close up the pathway after you're finished. Ashnard's lackeys can't be bothered enough to actively look for rat tunnels, but if they see something out of place they'll start smelling blood. And I'd rather not have that happen, and not just for your sake."

The man paused and gestured at Pelleas's cheeks. "Also, you might want to wipe the blood from your face. It isn', 'presentable'. Not even by our standards."

The stranger was halfway out the door when Pelleas called out to him.


What's down there? It's completely black...

"Why would you help me?" Pelleas asked.

"Why?" repeated the stranger, and he shrugged. "Just seemed right."

Before Pelleas could question him again, he was gone, away into the night. He again looked down the open hatch door, squinting to try to see anything through the darkness, and failing.

Here goes nothing...

Holding his breath, Pelleas lowered one foot down the hatch until he felt solid ground and stepped down. With equal care he lowered another foot down, and he soon realized there was a relatively even set of solid steps leading down the hatchway, down deep into the earth. He ventured downward, spotting a slight glow below, and in surprisingly short order the ground leveled off to a narrow tunnel, with small torches set into the walls to lead travelers through. Most were unlit, but the few that were gave off enough light for Pelleas to see his path.

Walking with one hand against the wall, Pelleas kept going, with only the sound of his footsteps against sandy soil to accompany him. Eventually the tunnel ended at a small metal spiral stair. Two torches lit it at the foot, but far above was nothing but blackness. His heart pounding with some unknown dread, Pelleas ascended until he found the stair's end, with a black ceiling above him. He felt above him and pushed upward, and the hatch door opened up.

When he emerged, the young man found himself in a small, very dusty chamber no wider than the span of his arms, and only slightly higher than him. Pelleas crept through slowly until he reached the far wall. Although it didn't seem at all like a door, there was a thin rectangle of faint light around the edge, so Pelleas lowered his small shoulder and pushed, and slowly he displaced a segment of the stone large enough for him to fit through.

The sight he saw when he stood up from the passage and brushed off the dust made him gasp. The abandoned library on the edge of Iolana had rows upon rows of nearly empty wooden shelves, and still there were enough interesting books to keep anyone reading forever, or so Pelleas thought. The Royal Magical Archive thoroughly trumped that. He had found himself at the very back of the library, with a great window high on the wall to his right letting the moonlight sift through. Pelleas could see how the passageway might have remained a secret: the bookshelves were arranged like the walls of a maze, each stretching far up, the top shelves all out of Pelleas's short reach. He was at ground level, but a quick look up and Pelleas could see, just as was in the abandoned library near home, a second floor above supported by similar columns as stood outside.

There's...just so many of them! Pelleas thought, wandering around the library floor, marveling at its immense vastness. He had never before been inside a building so large before and he couldn't imagine how anyone could describe its scope. There was no center aisle to lead people from the door down the hall, just a glorified labyrinth of books, some leading in an inexorable wave towards the center, some leading off down hidden tunnels to alcoves where yet more books sat on slates of stone carved into the walls.

Under different circumstances, Pelleas might have been content to live there forever, making his home in the rat tunnel, subsisting on a diet of words on yellowed pages and old tales of magic and intrigue. But after the awe had turned to dust, Pelleas found himself searching again, scouring the faded spines of old books, rummaging through the numerous scroll racks looking for anything that could teach him even the most rudimentary points of magic. As he hunted he occasionally turned his glance out the great windows at the rear of the library, as the light of the moon unbearably quickly gave way to the rising sun.

Pelleas continued to look, leafing through several books on basic magical arts. On one shelf he found a strange book, lying face up on a near empty-shelf. Unlike others of its kind, there were no words printed on the cover that he could read—he recognized the words as the ornate script of the ancient language) and the picture of a flame encased in a golden circle in the center. Pelleas touched his hand to the cover.

Is this what a spellbook looks like? This must be a fire tome.

He opened the cover and leafed hurriedly through the pages. The ink had completely dissolved on most of the pages, and what little writing remained, mostly on the final few pages— was equally as incomprehensible to Pelleas as that on the front. There was a strange energy emanating from the writing itself, and when Pelleas passed his hand over it he could feel the sensations tingling through his fingertips, up to his wrist.

Why doesn't any of this make sense?

He slammed the book shut and continued on, searching the shelves until his eyes set on a small, red book entitled "The Bonds of Magic." He had withdrawn it from its space on a high shelf and had begun to read when he heard the sound of clamor far across the building and the sound of sliding stone. He gasped and turned to see the two heavy doors opening, not by the hand of anyone moving them, but seemingly under their own power. The sound of stone sliding over stone and giving way to the night air echoed on the high dome ceiling and made a subdued, quiet music. He didn't know if anyone in Nevassa was lining up to get in their early morning reading, but as far as he knew the hall guards were salivating to find and detain vagrants.

If they find me, they'll—I have to get back.

Throwing his book underneath his arm, Pelleas raced to the stairway at the back of the library. In the window, the morning sunlight shined through and heralded the opening of the library to the masses. Pelleas knew he couldn't afford to be caught, and furthermore, he didn't trust anyone but himself to find what he was looking for.

Pelleas was already at the false wall before even seeing if anyone had entered. He didn't stop until he had completely replaced the thin stone slab sealing off the passage, rushing down the metal steps to the foot of the passage, where in the torchlight he could sit, his back to the stony wall, exhale, and read.

The more Pelleas read, the more disappointed he became. It was an interesting book, that much was never in doubt, but all its information pertained to aspiring magicians already versed in the basics of spellcasting and pointers on the finer nuances of the craft. All the incantations were written in the old language, the birthright of the first beorc, and it all was utterly beyond him. Only a wide-eyed, lonely curiosity drove him to continue reading, as hours passed uneventfully. He had almost completed the book when one portion caught his eye and he paused to read it aloud.

"Magic of the Spirits," he said, mouthing the words as he traced them with a rough finger. "It is commonly believed that the power of magic is granted by the spirits who dwell unseen in the space between our world and the realm of the Goddess Ashera. There are spirits representing each of the primary elements of the anima, as well as the forces of light and darkness, the glory of heaven, and the steadiness of earth. It is believed that the existence of spirits in the world is what allows beorc to invoke the power of magic.

"There are some practitioners of the eldest art who have reached out and communicated in soul with these incorporeal beings in order to share their strength. All living creatures have a spiritual affinity with one type of spirit, but some have gone so far as to make a deal—a pact with these spirits. By performing a ritual, a mage may commune with the spirits and plead for them to grant him their protection. These mages—called Spirit Charmers—are those whose have been accepted by the spirits, and in exchange are given tremendous magical powers, beyond the capabilities of a mortal human. The blessing of this power manifests itself as a mark—often called the 'Spirit's Protection' on the flesh of the 'signer' of the pacts, usually in a shape representative of the type of power granted by the spirits. The spirits are known for always lending their ears to one in dire need of strength."

Pelleas stopped and laid the book on his lap. A chill washed white-hot over him.

"D-Dire need of strength," he muttered. "The spirits?"

The matrons at the orphanage and the townsfolk talked about "spirits," but never concretely. They were always some sort of vague abstraction, a weird power that both existed and didn't exist in this world, or maybe existed in some land so far away as to be inconsequential, like the storied lands of beasts beyond the desert or the unnamed kingdoms across the Wide Sea. "Spirits take you!" they would shout; "she's gone to rest with the spirits," or in a great thunderstorm, "the wind spirits grow wroth!" Now Pelleas retraced the slightly faded words again with his coarse fingertip and wondered if after all his trouble he was left to hedge his bets on a faerie-tale.

A pact with the spirits? Is that the only way? How do I—

Pelleas quickly sifted through the rest of the book looking for the method of performing the "commune with the spirits" and found nothing.

It's gotta be! If I ask the spirits for aid, they have to help me. I'm a one in need... I have to find out! The spirits...they may be my only way!

When day broke Pelleas collapsed, exhausted, and awoke later with a vicious rumbling in his stomach and a dry mouth. Ignoring his hunger, possessed by a singular appetite for knowledge, he waited until night fell and he was sure that the library doors had shut tight. He emerged from the hidden passage and crept through the halls of shelves again, dashing from top floor to bottom, not minding if his anxious, hurried footsteps were alerting any invisible watchers to his presence. He searched every place he could think of until he found one book that caught his eye, wedged at the back of a bookshelf in one of the library's low alcoves, behind another, larger book.

"The Charming of Spirits," Pelleas mouthed, and quickly began to read. "One who calls upon the aid of the spirits must have a strong will...must never waver and must never lose faith in their petition the spirits for their protection, one must be willing to sacrifice one's life blood and surrender their body. Take a handful of the powder of the spirits, scatter it on the ground and let your blood fall on it. Your supplication to the spirits must be strong and honest, and you must be judged worthy of their godly protection."

A jolt of excitement surged through Pelleas. "Invoking the spirits to give me strength." He repeated himself, muttering the word "strength" again and again like a mantra, and thought of what the spirit's protection might bring. Would it mean the boys in the street would think again before engaging him to wrestle? Would it mean he'd finally have the strength to say the things he'd never the courage to say? Would it mean that the barmen and the Felicias of the world could no longer see him as just a little boy anymore? Pelleas didn't know, but even thinking about it gave him a second wind.

In his mind, he recited the things he'd need to attempt the ritual: a handful of spirit powder and a bit of his blood. It was a deceptively simple process, and Pelleas knew exactly where to go. He slung the book under his arm and rushed from the library, retracing his steps through the tunnel and emerging in the abandoned house. The streets were still quiet, illuminated by the near-full moonlight. Pelleas tried to retrace his steps back to the town square and the magic shop, but all the alleys looked the same, and every corner brought with it a skipped heartbeat. He walked as quickly as he could without breaking into a run, leaping over shit and fallen beams of wood and broken glass, with his eyes narrowed halfway and his head angled at the ground, avoiding at any cost the alley he'd been accosted in.

By the time Pelleas arrived at the town square, the few tramps that had lingered into the evening had shuffled off, or perhaps had fallen asleep behind a crumbling segment of wall or in an old lean-to. Like the rest of the storefronts, the magic shop was darkened, and only in the moonlight, face pressed up against the window, could Pelleas see the outlines of the shelves. With a resolve he'd never thought he could set upon, he searched the ground for anything to help him break the glass, and finally found a small piece of lumber that had fallen into an alley in a shower of sawdust. He took the beam in his hands with a great heave, and when he was sure no one was looking, he began to break through the window, one belabored swing at a time.

I'm sorry, whoever owns the shop. I'm sorry, miss.

Pelleas closed his eyes when the glass first shattered, and kept swinging until he'd broken a hole large enough for him to clamber through. The silken satchel of spirit dust still sat on its shelf where he'd found it before, and when Pelleas held it in his hands he could feel its strange weight. It was more than just dust to him—it was a key, a magic key to his destiny, the powder that would unlock his true potential.

As he climbed back out of the broken window, satchel of spirit dust in hand, he looked back at the store and the broken glass lying on the store's floor. Remembering the need to sacrifice his blood, he found a suitably sharp shard of glass and pocketed it before darting away, head down. He briefly wondered if the world was always like this, if someone was always being trespassed upon for the benefit of someone else. Or maybe, he mused as he scrambled back down a side alley, it was just the city that made monsters of men.

In the alley, Pelleas found an abandoned house and scurried in, falling to his knees on the cold dirt floor, spilling out the spirit dust.

All right, so take the dust, and...give one's life blood.

I just have to spill my blood here and—pray. Pray really hard to the spirits...

I can't. Can I? Something might go wrong. What if something goes wrong?

No, nothing will go wrong. 'T will be fine. What am I scared of?

He looked around, quickly, once to the left, once to the right, at the empty walls that questioned him and the cobwebs ignoring him. In the midnight silence he waited, ready to push up off the ground and run at the first crash or rough voice. He felt the callused hands of the night guards on his tunic, around his neck, and heard his shameful whimpers of fear as they dragged him off, far, far away.

Pelleas shook his head. I won't be that boy anymore. And I'm not afraid. Spirits, O Spirits! I need you! I need you to help me.

He could feel his heart beating against his chest. His breaths came shallow. His fingers were cold and his hands trembled. He took the jagged shard of glass and held it against the base of his scalp where his hairline finally ended, so as to offer the blood of his brain, the blood of his deepest mind to the spirits. The glass was cold against his skin.

I can't hesitate. I'm going to be a man.

Pelleas held his breath and cut across his scalp in one deliberate motion.

"Aghh!" he cried out, gritting his teeth to hold back the pain. He felt his warm blood trickling down through his bangs, down his cheeks, and drip to the stone floor, marking the spirit's bone-white powder with spots of red.

Spirits, Pelleas thought, his breaths belabored, punctuated by pangs of pain that spread through him. Spirits! Heed me. Please. I want to be strong. I want to protect the important people to me. I need your aid. Please! I call you! Come to me!

He held his head down to keep his blood from running into his eyes, and waited for anything to happen. He waited maybe hours, maybe minutes, struggling to breathe, tears growing great in his eyes, never so scared or alone in his life, wondering if after all his efforts trying to appease the spirits had gone for naught.

Then his face began to burn. First a small spark then an inferno, and Pelleas fell to the floor, clutching his face, bloodying his hands as he held his head together. It began at his hairline and worked outward, into his fingers, to his chest and his toes until his entire body felt like it was on fire and his eyes smoked with tears, grinding his teeth together trying to punch away the pain. Through glassy eyes he saw the white powder on the ground begin to burn, a conflagration of green flame that washed white-hot over him.

Stop! Stop, no! No, please. Please!

He tried to resist his consciousness fading away, tried to fight the fog that clouded his vision, but something was pulling his thoughts away from him and in a second he felt his head collide with the floor in a solid crash and blackness overtook him.

- O -

It was the strangest sensation Pelleas had ever felt.

He was not dreaming. He was never a lucid dreamer, and his dreams were always strange and vivid, often too absurd to seem real after he'd woken.

He could best describe it as watching himself from outside his body, watching thoughtlessly and soundlessly, unable to react or even interpret what he saw and heard, witnessing only passively a darkness so thick and so cold that he could feel nothing, far removed from the mind that often dragged him to the strangest places.

Then, in an instant, he saw images flashing in front of him, first the orphanage and him, sitting alone in a small corner, weeping as the other children on their beds of straw played together. He saw himself as a boy walking through the meadows, one day of many, tripping over his own feet. He saw himself in the streets play-fighting the other boys, all of who were bigger and more athletic than he was, driving him into the ground, trying to pin him as he rolled away. He saw himself, sitting in the abandoned library under the broken roof, reading by streaks of sunlight. He saw the old shrine of Fortuna and heard the hammers, still as vicious as they had ever been as they broke the statue apart. He saw Illumina, sitting with him in the meadows, teasing him, twirling her fingers in his matted hair and giggling. He saw her smile, saw the way her freckles melted into her lips, the way he always found so charming. He saw her being taken away, pounding at the back of her kidnapper with her tiny fists and screaming bloody murder; he saw himself sitting, helpless, trying to reach out and not reaching far enough. He saw her naked and rotting, screaming silently forever.

As quickly as they had come, the visions passed and he was again plunged into darkness, but now there were voices. Many of them, all sounding in unison, so softly they were inaudible, coming from different places in space, wreathed in shadow.

Finally a voice sounded out, loud enough for Pelleas to hear in his mind, a dark vacuum.

There is much sadness in your soul.

The voice was strong, like that of an old man whose age and wisdom had stolen away none of his strength. You mourn...but you don't yet know what it is you mourn for.

We speak and bid you please listen, came another voice, a soothing, melodic young man's voice, the voice of a traveling bard with long hair and a lyre under his arm. We speak...ever silent, yet we speak. We speak louder than the mouths of men and beast. We are not seen, but we are felt. We are not of your existence, but we are inside you. You can never feel us but we are always watching. We have been, before beorc and laguz, before the Original Folk, before Ashunera first sang her song of dawn, before the soil was built, before the sun first shone on Tellius. We are watchers from the world between and we serve whenever we are called upon, whomever may beckon. We are the silhouettes, the dark shadows cast by the brightest light. We are the stone on which Ashera's realm was built. We were before your first tear and we will be after your last breath. You have called upon us, and we have answered.

Why are you in pain? Another voice, against distinct, the voice of a young woman, quiet and lilting. I can feel something within you crying out. I can feel something within you screaming. Why are you in such pain?

Have you come to us for power, boy? The voice of an adult man, with all the roughness of a career knight or a mercenary. Why do you seek us beyond? Why do you seek strength? It is not for fame or for glory, that much is clear. Is it for revenge?

What do you wish to do? said another voice, the gentle voice of an old woman, which seemed to come from directly behind him.

Are you going to run? asked another spirit, a coward's weak inflections. When it comes time to fight or flee will you be left standing?

Sing a song, boy. Sing a song of your soul. When you cry out, will anyone answer you? Or will you be the one answering the calls? What is the nature of your song? Will you sing a song of sorrow or a melody of triumph? Or are your lips forever silenced by those greater than you? I cannot tell.

Inside you sleeps a great joy...but also a great sorrow. The woman's voice stopped for a moment, then: What kind of man will you be with our Protection? Will you be a hero or a villain?

Will you change the world, boy? That is what I want to know. No...that is what you wish to know.

When did young men like this become so sorrowful...

I pity you. Your anger...your anger startles me. You hide it away so it your fate to die alone? No, I don't want to see that...I want you to live so that others can see your good heart. I want to hold you close, so that you may know what joys come in friendships.

You've nary a possession to your name, came the old man's voice, half depressed, half impressed. Material wealth is nothing if you do not have the will to be saved. When you have nothing to lose, you will have everything to gain.

I see the weakness in your soul. I see your fear as clearly as I see your face. I can sense it. It burns within you. It consumes you. It drives you. Will you ever learn? Can you ever learn to use your fear, boy?

I can't understand, spoke the coward. Inside you is a seething hatred...but also an immense kindness. Inside you is the power of the darkness, the power beneath the deepest seas. You are at one with the water, with the strength and the gentleness of the ocean. But you desire the most detestable, the greatest of all strengths. Do you know what it is you wish for?

Little boy, you who have seen little, admonished the warrior, if it is power you wish, we can grant you it. But we cannot take it back. And your strength means you will receive no mercy from the strong. It is always the meek who have the least to fear. who seek the blessings of those who came before you. Do your eyes see beyond skin, beyond flesh, beyond bone and sinew, beyond the bluest eyes, the reddest hair? Have you seen what horrors lie within strength? And still that is the choice you make?

I feel your determination. I can feel it burning within you.

I hear the darkness within sings anger...with every word it cries to be a witness...that darkness deep within you...

You have big dreams, said the coward.

The voices began to speak in turn, voices that rang out, soft but startlingly clear as if the spirits were whispering in Pelleas's ear, speaking softly to him through the impenetrable darkness.

For whom do you fight? asked the voice of the old man.

What is it you are looking for? asked the maiden.

Why do you think you will ever be worthy of our blessing? asked the warrior.

Will you ever be truly free? asked the coward.

Can you ever be saved? asked the priest.

Will your words sway the world? asked the bard.

Pelleas floated—somewhere, nowhere—in his strange dream, apart from himself, and waited in silence for the spirits to speak again.

Will you accept our blessing? the maiden asked, her voice sad with hope.

When your story is spoken, will the children cheer or sob? Will you be remembered with honor or with shame? The bard's voice stopped then begun again. We will give you our blessing. We are not your guardians; no, you are ours.

Do not disgrace us, said the warrior. We give you our strength. Do not let our powers fall into disuse.

Goodbye, said the old man, and in the sea of his soul Pelleas heard the spirits echo his sentiments. In his mind the darkness was consumed by a blinding light and when he awoke, he was alone again.