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Fire Lesson [story]

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The sun shined hot and angry through the leaves. Somewhere high above in the thin trees, a moogle tooted a horn in a cheerful dirge, serenading Jehanne’s worsening migraine. She stood before a forlorn scarecrow, arms outstretched, fingers tracing arcane circles in the air, heavy words falling off her tongue. For two hours Jehanne had been trying to set the scarecrow afire, but all she had achieved was a slight smoldering on its button nose. Her voice cracked hoarsely as she ran through the spell one last time, and then dropped to her knees. “Pissing, feck, damn!” The scarecrow’s s leaf-stuffed head bobbed in the wind — its painted smile seeming to mock her.


            “Giving up so soon?” a cool voice said behind her. Jehanne glanced back at the pale elezen woman sitting cross-legged under a withered oak tree. An ash staff rested across her knees; her closed eyes shaded under the wide brim of her tall hat. “Confounded by a simply fire spell? You disappoint me.”


            “Why can’t I use my scepter?” Jehanne said, getting up and turning to her. One, hard blue eye opened under the brim. “Um, mistress,” she quickly added. “I mean, I’ve never seen you work a spell without your staff.”


            “Foci should be tools, not crutches,” she answered, the blue of her eye seeming to deepen in irritation. “Are you a cripple, or a sorcerer? Again.”


            Jehanne nodded and turned back to the scarecrow. She wove the incantation, tracing the symbols her mistress had taught her. For a moment, Jehanne thought she felt the aether pool at her fingertips, quivering and ready to ignite, but it fell away from her hands into the air like a puff of invisible smoke. “Feck!” she spat, pulled the short scepter from her belt, and pointed it at the scarecrow. Before Jehanne could even utter the first syllable of the spell, something swift came down on her forearm with a crack. Bone snapped and her hand went limp, dropping the scepter to the dirt. She screamed in pain, and looked just in time to see her mistress swing the staff again.


            Another crack and Jehanne spun; blood squirting from her nostrils. She hit the ground hard on her back. The world whirled as the elezen straddled her prone body and pressed the staff under her chin. “Just like a Hyur, always looking to take the easy way out,” she said coldly, and pressed down on Jehanne’s throat with the staff, choking her. “Never thinking of the consequences. Never preparing for fortune’s turn.”


            All Jehanne could see were her mistress’s blue, blue eyes. They filled her vision: sapphires burning with loathing. She tried to lift the staff from her throat, but the elezen’s strength was too much for her. In desperation she lifted her good arm up and traced sigil in the air. She croaked three syllables and those eyes vanished in a cloud of smoke and flame. The wood lifted from her throat, and she rolled onto her side, gasping and coughing. Jehanne lay in the dirt for how long she did not know. She stared at the sparse patches of yellow grass that dotted the ground before her. Strangely, the pain in her face and arm seemed to hover over her, present but not overwhelming. Slowly she sat up, clutching her broken arm close to her chest.


            Her mistress stood holding the smoldering remains of her hat. The cone had been burnt away, leaving only the smoking brim. 

“I liked this hat,” she said with a wry smile. “My mother gave me thishat. Oh well.” She dropped the brim to the ground and stomped out the remaining embers with a white boot. She then turned to her student. “Well, lesson learned. Congratulations.”


            Jehanne spat out wad of concealing blood to the ground and mumbled, “Thanks.”


            “Oh, no need to be cross,” she said as she knelt down beside Jehanne. “You’re the one who asked for my teachings without first asking about my methods.”


            The pain started to descend back into her flesh, hot and throbbing. “Ah,” she winced. “Ah, I didn’t assume masters pretended to kill their apprentices.” Jehanne blinked back tears. “I mean, you were pretending, right?”


            She did not answer, but instead studied the girl’s broken arm. “Just a fracture, I think. A simple curing spell should mend it.”


            “You think?” Jehanne sobbed. The pain from her broken nose had wound into her skull, bringing the migraine to full bloom. Her stomach lurched and she vomited blood and breakfast onto the dirt.


            Again, the elezen didn’t answer. She took a handkerchief from her sleeve and gently wiped Jehanne’s mouth. “Lie down. Let me work.”


            Jehanne nodded, and did as she was told. She closed her eyes, trying not to cry. Her mistress reclaimed the ash staff and stood over her. As the elezen began chanting her ministrations, Jehanne mumbled, “I think I hate you, Lady Ciel.”


            “Good,” she said, smiling, and continued her incantation.





            The sun hung fat and bloody over the western hills, dyeing the world in a red wash that made the caravan guards look angrier than they were. Still everyone from guardsman to cook was restless. The caravan leaders had decided to wait two days for the scouts to insure against another birdman raid before heading deeper into the Shroud. A small party of Ixal had attacked the caravan shortly after it passed into the Shroud, killing several merchants and spiriting off some of their wares: candles, cutlery, and fine silks. What the bird men wanted with candles and silks the gods only knew. So while the trackers scouted the leagues ahead, the merchants traded stories and drank the vintner poor. Jehanne got used weaving around stumbling men and slapping back roaming hands as she moved about the caravan.



            Her father had barely noticed her bruised face. He was too busy trying to wheedle names of titles from a competing bookseller. “The bastard’s probably got some lost history or grimoire I’d give my left jewel for,” he huffed before putting on a smile and bringing the ‘bastard’ another goblet of wine. 




            Jehanne left their wagon and wandered toward the withered trees that marked the wide boundary between the sands of Thanalan and the Shroud. Lady Ciel’s spells had healed her broken arm and nose, but Jehanne still felt sore and nauseous. She was happy to be away cooking fires and in the clean air. She found her mistress as always: alone and meditating. She looked strange without the hat to hide her face, and Jehanne realized she never noticed the color of her hair before. Long silver tresses spilled down her back, and glowed reddish in the sinking sunlight. Jehanne had met the elezen during the attack. The caravan she rode with came from the east and joined with theirs for the journey north. Though the elezen was recognizably a magi of some sort, she seemed never to use her power, not even during the attack. Jehanne had found her beating a prone Ixah with her staff. When another leapt over a wagon at the elezen, Jehanne was quick enough to grab her scepter set the birdman’s beak alight, giving Lady Ciel enough time smack it in its long throat. After the raid fled, Lady Ciel told Jehanne she owed her a favor for saving her life. However, she uttered the offer in a tone that sounded unwelcome at best. Thus Jehanne started her apprenticeship through a promise Lady Ciel seemed to immediately regret making.


            “I doubt you’re father will find that other bookseller will have anything of worth,” the elezen said without moving.


            “Oh?” Jehanne said a bit annoyed with her mistress’s prescience. “Scrying have you?”


            “No,” she said, opening her blue eyes. “I visited his stall at Grindania in past years and he has nothing of real value, unless you find treatises on rhubarb cultivation particularly captivating.”


            Jehanne smirked, and instantly hated herself for it. “Well, the caravan will be leaving tomorrow. We’ll be there in three to five days then we can find out. Who knows, maybe father has a client looking for a good rhubarb book.”


            Lady Ciel clutched her staff and pulled herself up with it. “I’m afraid the rhubarb will have to remain a mystery for us at least. We’re not going to Grindania; we’re going to Ul’dah.”


            Jehanne shook her head, “I can’t go home now. My father will need me at the scales, and---”


            “You’re father has no need for you,” Lady Ciel said matter-of-factly. “You’re more in the way than a help to him. You like books, but hate selling; and he only cares for selling.”


            Jehanne flushed and grit her teeth. She wanted to say something cutting and mean, but she couldn’t conjure the words. And besides, she knew her mistress was right. “If you’re thinking of going to the Thaumaturge Guild, forget it. I already took their entry test…and failed.”


            The elezen scowled. “I thought you were done being a helpless whelp, or is your dream to be the dog that fortune kicks?”


            “No,” she answered slowly.


            “Then to go pack your things, and say your good-byes,” she said, turning Jehanne around and pushing her toward the caravan. “We leave in the morning. It will be fun; I haven’t been to that mice nest in ages.”


            Jehanne glanced back as she stumbled to the wagons. Her mistress smiled after her; it wasn’t a cheerful smile, but cold, frosted with menace.

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