Pillars Of Life

Chapter 2: The Nocturnal Blacksmith

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12

"I think I've figured out how to fuel heat," Mitilda said that night. Heat, cold, light, and darkness, of course, were the four fundamental energies of the universe. While we both regarded telekinesis as the most practical, we also sometimes tried to manipulate the four energies.

Of course, Mitilda had come to me thinking she had figured out how to fuel each of the four energies - and telekinesis - on more than one occasion, only to be disproven by later results. I had low expectations that this time would be any different. We didn't even have solid evidence that there was something that fueled each energy - Mitilda had only recently decided that there had to be a pattern to the random fluctuations of the strength of our magic. I wasn't convinced that there did.

"I think it's fueled by anger," Mitilda continued. "I've noticed that it works much better for me after I get attacked by guards than when I just decide to do magic because I'm bored."

"Okay, sounds plausible. I'll try it next time I'm mad."

"You should try it now too so you know what you're comparing it to. I'll do the same."

We both tried to heat the air around our hands. I could barely notice any difference - I had always been incompetent at heat and light and far stronger with cold and dark (although even with cold and dark I wasn't as powerful as Mitilda). She, on the other hand, was blowing on her hands after just a few seconds. It made me jealous.

I wondered if jealously counted as anger - it too could sometimes be described by the word 'mad'. I couldn't notice any increase in the strength of my heat magic, though. I wasn't sure if that was because jealously didn't work or because it was just too small a difference to be noticed on such a small scale - I assumed emotional fuels were more like multipliers than addends.

We practiced our magic for a few minutes, and stopped when I felt I was close to running out of mana. "So I've got a question," I said. "The guards presumably know the truth about magic. So are they allowed to practice it?"

"Hmm... we should ask them about it."

"They'll just tell us they aren't because they have to keep up the facade for us."

"Probably. But then we'll ask them if they've ever actually seen it. And that should be more interesting."

"No!" I said quickly. "They'll suspect us if we mention it!"

"No they won't. It isn't illegal to talk about magic, only to do it."

Why had I had to mention it? "Please don't ask them in the morning. You know they'll suspect you. You already have a strong reputation for rebelliousness."

"You're right, I shouldn't ask them. You should."

"What - no! I am not doing that."

"You almost never get in trouble. You have a reputation for submission. They might suspect me if I ask, but they won't suspect you. The worst they'll do is hit you once or twice for minor sedition and then forget about it. It's not like you'd be talking to Nemesis."

"No. Period." I gave the sternest look I could muster, for want of a nearby table to hit.

"Well if you won't, then I will."

Drat. I wasn't going to talk her out of this. I dropped the sternness.

"Fine, I'll do it sometime tomorrow. But you can't go ask them yourself if they refuse to answer me."

"Deal," Mitilda said. We went to bed.

Figures. Again I was going to bear the consequences of someone else's foolishness, just like happened all day yesterday. Drat this.

I got the thought to try my heat magic again. If Mitilda's theory was correct it should be pretty strong right now, because I was definitely mad. However, I noticed no difference.

"I think your heat magic theory is wrong. Mine isn't any stronger right now."

"Weird. But you really shouldn't be mad right now."

"Don't force me to get punished to protect you and then tell me not to be mad at you."

"I was gonna do it myself, but you're choosing to take my place voluntarily."

"I don't call it voluntary when the alternative is you getting arrested."


I was woken in the night by noises like someone yelling. I could not discern words at this distance, if there were any, but the voice sounded deep, angry, and male.

I sat tiredly, rubbing my eyes, and looked around at the cots beside mine. Not surprisingly, Mitilda's was empty.

The idiot. What could possibly have driven her to go outside at night and get caught by the night patrols? So stupid...

I layed back down. There was nothing I could do about it; going out there to save her would just get me in equal trouble.

But as the yelling persisted, and there were no screams, I wondered if that was really what it was. If Nemesis had caught Mitilda, he wouldn't yell, he would pummel her, and if Mitilda was being pummeled, she would not be silent. Besides, it was going on for too long. Violating curfew was considered a relatively small crime.

I could go out and see. It wasn't that big a deal if I got caught outside at night. The guard would probably just hit me a couple times and escort me back home. I had risked the far graver crime of magic just a few hours ago.

What was I thinking? To even consider such a thing was not in my character at all. Doing magic must have been affecting me somehow.

Yet as I layed I felt my will growing closer to doing it. There weren't that many guards around during the day, and there were presumably less at night, since there was nobody out. And I was only going to investigate the yelling. It was crazy, brave, and stupid, but... with the hatred that had filled me last evening as I watched the sunset counteracting my fear, I let curiosity get the better of me.

I left my shoes behind, figuring I'd be quieter with bare feet on the dirt and grass. I stepped outside. Before getting started, though, I glanced up at the sky. I had seen the moon and stars before, but never with such lumosity. I had no idea there were so many stars... and they were all so bright! The night sky was even more beautiful than the dusk sky.

Slowly, my mind still partially on the sky, I followed the yelling. It led me left. Left was the direction of the tree, so I wasn't surprised if there was indeed a connection between Mitilda's absence and the yelling.

The yelling had grown distinct enough to be recognized as not Nemesis's voice by the time I encountered my first night patrol that couldn't be easily circumvented. I had managed to get around one already by taking a detour, but that would not be possible here. I knew going left would take me too far off the trail before I got another hole in the buildings, and it sounded like there was another guard in the clearing behind the building to the right. The only way past this one was to actually get past him.

I could go back home. Being unwilling to try to sneak directly past a patrol was totally understandable. I would not have to feel like a coward at all. I could just go home, totally dignified, and not be caught.

But I already came this far. Was I willing to throw it away? I wasn't far from the yelling now. And to be honest, I felt great about the decision to leave home. Courage was incredibly gratifying when you didn't get punished. I could experience that feeling again, Mitilda's voice said in my mind. I found myself peeking out from behind the house I was using as cover.

I pulled my head back out of view quickly. The guard hadn't seen me, but it was a natural reaction to go back into cover after the first glance, similar to how you would tap an object before resting your palm on it if you thought it might be hot.

I peeked out again, and this time stayed long enough to see what was ahead. The guard was patrolling parallel to the way I needed to go, and there was another house not far from the one I was using. As the guard drew near, I could also hear that he was talking to himself, so probably very distracted.

He turned around and started walking the other way again. I had a few seconds to make my decision before the window disappeared. I was nearing abandoning the errand, but then I used the same argument against myself about not wasting how far I'd come, and, feeling insane, I walked after him.

My stomach screamed with fear, and my chest with exhilaration, as I synchronized my steps with his to cover the sound. My breathing was rapid, but I was managing to keep it quiet.

In just a few seconds I had made it. I almost collapsed, barely managing to keep my sigh of relief silent. Did I really just do that? I did. And again it felt wonderful. I could almost laugh right now.

I didn't run into any more patrols that couldn't be easily circumvented. After a minute, I found myself hiding behind Mr. Hobart's smithy, pretty sure the yelling was on the other side. I could now clearly make out stomping as well.

Mitilda was definitely not here. There were no sounds from her, and the yelling and stomping had gone on far too long to be a guard punishing someone for violating curfew. Not even Nemesis would beat someone that far past the point of unconsciousness. But I still had yet to find out what this was about. After the two crazy decisions I just made, it wasn't that hard of one to peek out and take a look.

The guard was facing the other way, stomping on and smearing the remains of a finger-drawn message in the dirt. He had destroyed much of it, but, aided by the moon, the remainder appeared to say:

gu rd  ho s ov d  e: yo ' e v le   vil   d c  el

So that's what the yelling was about! The impossible fool... Why did she have to do stupid things like this? No doubt Nemesis would hear of this, and when he did he would exact revenge. Insulting a guard that directly was sure to earn much harsher punishment than violating curfew - espeicially since she had presumably done that too in order to leave this note (speaking of which, it was still questionable how she was able to write this directly under a guard's feet without him noticing. It was also not obvious why she put it under a different guard's feet instead of under Nemesis's. I would have to ask her about both in the morning).

I leaned against the wall of Mr. Hobart's smithy, thinking about what to do next. I guessed I should probably go home. Mitilda could be anywhere, and I didn't want to push my sneaking luck any farther than I already had. Sneaking past that patrol was more than enough courage for one night -

I froze. It was probably nothing, probably just my fear playing tricks on me, but I thought for a second that I was hearing some footsteps from the other direction.

No, it was not fear playing tricks on me. There was another guard coming my way. I couldn't go back the way I had come. I couldn't go the opposite direction because that lead to the yelling guard. Stepping away from the wall of Hobart's smithy also put me in the yelling guard's sight. There was no safe direction, and it wasn't safe to stay here either...

But just in time, the door to Mr. Hobart's smithy opened, and I darted in, closing the door behind me as quietly as possible. The footsteps rounded the corner immediately thereafter, and stopped. Hobart and I were still and silent.

"Fredric?" the new guard asked, this one a woman. "What are you stomping on?"

"Read this!" Fredric said.

"I... can't come over there without leaving my patrol area," the woman said.

"It's a message! From her!"

"What's it say?"

"I won't repeat its words! Just come read it!"

"But... my patrol area..."

"It's not that important." There were some footsteps.

"Oh," said the woman a minute later. "I didn't realize she was that bad. I'm new in this town. Who's this for?"

"I don't know, but come morning, we're gonna find out. And she will answer for this. I'd say we go punish her right now, but I guess we should let the guard who shoved her have that pleasure."

"Agreed. And by the way, may I ask how she managed to leave this message right under your feet while you were on patrol? You weren't snoozing again, were you?"

"What? Of course not! This message was here when the patrols shifted, and the previous guard said it was here when he arrived too."

"You sure? Cause if I've got ears, the yelling didn't start until just a few minutes ago."

"Yes I'm sure! The other guard just kept quiet about it. She must've left it during the evening - it's the only time there wasn't a guard posted here."

"Hmm..."

"Hobart!" I whispered when the guards' conversation had died down. It wasn't illegal to be awake - and even talking - at night, only to be outside, so we could talk as long as we weren't loud enough for the guards to hear what we said. "What are you doing up at night?"

"There was a guard coming right for ye when I letted ye in. I saved ye this night."

"Uh... thanks."

"Ye's welcome," Hobart said. "Now what might ye be doing outdoor in a night anyhow?"

"I'm looking for Mitilda. She disappeared, and I heard yelling, so I figured she had snuck out and been caught by Nemesis. But apparently not."

"Ye was very brave to come out after her," Hobart said. "I thinked ye was all about safety and didn't like to defy the government."

"Yeah, no idea what got a hold of me just now. So do you know what she might be doing out here?" Mitilda was much closer with Hobart than I was, so I thought he might have a clue.

"She was probably just feeling restless and sneaked out to do some magic," Hobart said. "She's did that before."

"Wait a minute. You know she practices magic?"

My stomach lurched with terror as soon as I said this. What if he actually didn't know that and just said it so I would spill the beans if it was true? I thought of the massive reward promised for turning in magic practicioners...

"I seeed her doing telekinesis one night."

"And you haven't reported her?"

"I'm a better person than that."

Phew. "Well good."

Hobart paused, and his expression became solemn. "I guess it's time to tell ye. I have a lot of information that'd be very valuable to ye and Mitilda."

"I'm listening."

"The government hasn't been around nearly as long as they want us to think. I remember when it was new. When a lot of people still had stronger magic from before the government taked over and outlawed it... and threatened all the parents into telling their children the government had been here for centuries." Hobart was the oldest person in town, so if anyone remembered that it would be him.

"There was a time before magic was outlawed? What was it like?"

"Most kids ye's age could telekineted stuff as big as my fire poker." He pointed to a metal rod in the corner.

My eyes went wide with awe. "That's incredible! That thing has to weigh ten times the cup Mitilda was using, if not more!"

"But when the government maked it illegal to practice, people couldn't share knowledge and experience anymore, so it getted a lot harder. Worse, most people don't even find out it exists until they're ten." The government waited until children turned ten to tell them that magic was a thing that could be used by humans and prohibited the parents to tell them about it any sooner. If the child seemed to already know about it, they would arrest the parents. I had found out the standard way and told Mitilda immediately, who had managed to feign surprise well enough when she turned ten.

"So how did the government take over in the first place?"

"I was too young to remember the politics. All I know is there was a war, and the badguys winned."

"And then they outlawed magic so we couldn't become powerful enough to fight back..." I said.

"Exactly. And it's a good strategy."

"So I assume you practice magic? How powerful are you?"

"Probably not any more than ye. I practiced when I was little, but I stopped after I getted frustrated with it and decided it wasn't worth the risk. I only getted back to it recently when Mitilda inspired me."

I looked down. I had been hoping to meet a sage who had been practicing for decades, not another peer. "Well still, we should practice together tomorrow. We can share theories and - wait a minute. Why didn't you tell Mitilda about all this a long time ago? It was obvious she wouldn't turn you in."

"It wasn't her I was afraid of. It was ye. I thought if I told her she'd tell ye, and ye might turn me in. Ye going out here to look for her erased my doubts."

"That's... insulting. I'm a better person than that."

"I thought so, but ye understands. I almost never saw ye do anything brave. I just didn't want to risk it."

He was right about me almost never doing anything brave. I guessed I did really look on the outside like someone who would report a stranger for magic. "Fair enough, I guess."

"At any speed, ye ought go home now," Hobart said. "If ye's too tired tomorrow, the guards might suspect ye."

I nodded. "Goodnight, and thanks."

My head swam absorbing everything Hobart had told me as I journeyed home. I had a lot to tell Mitilda. And I guessed I would tell Mother and Father too. Unless... actually... did I know they wouldn't report Hobart? They wouldn't report me or Mitilda because we were their children, but turning in a stranger for a huge reward... Did I ever see them doing anything brave or altruistic? To someone that wasn't their child? I wasn't sure that I did. I understood Hobart's decision perfectly now. And I was pretty sure I was going to repeat it.

I thought I heard footsteps behind me as I approached home. No, I did hear footsteps. They were too light to be a guard's though - way too light. They weren't even heavy enough to be an adult's.

I looked behind me. It was Mitilda.

I was startled so badly that I nearly slapped myself in the face, and I was sure I had alerted at least one guard to our presence. I flung open the door quickly and scurried inside. Mitilda followed with equal urgency.

"Drat you!" I said as soon as we were inside. "Why ever did you surprise me like that?"

"I didn't mean for you to see me out there. I meant to trail you inside before I talked to you so you wouldn't jump like that. But you've got better ears than I thought."

Somehow it made me even more furious that she had attached that complement. "What ever were you doing out there anyway?"

"I went out to do magic. Having to be inside just makes me feel so oppressed, and the night sky is so beatiful. It seems to make my magic stronger."

"You think the night sky really makes magic more powerful?" I asked, my anger cooled by the remark about its beauty. Before I would have been only mildly interested in such facts. Now I sought them like treasures.

"Yeah. I came back after just a few minutes, but when I saw you had come out to look for me, I realized I had to go find you since you wouldn't be finding me. I saw you get saved by Hobart. I knew he was a better person than most, but I had no idea he would help a citizen breaking curfew get out of being caught like that!"

"So how did you manage to leave that message right under the guard's feet?" I said.

"Yesterday evening. I knew - or thought I knew - from studying the guard's patrol patterns that Nemesis would be posted there, but it looks like I miscalculated somehow."

"You're going to be in trouble for that tomorrow," I said. "Serious trouble."

Her expression turned solemn. "... I know," she said. "I know suffering is the result of courage. But I don't regret it. I choose the thrill of defiance over not being punished."

To my own surprise, I did not tell her what an idiot she was for that. I actually kind of respected that decision now, although I did not mirror it.

"Anyway..." she continued in a more positive tone. "Isn't it exhilarating to be out at night, sneaking past patrols and all? I can't believe you came out to look for me - that was so brave! Especially by your standards. I'm proud of you."

"Neither can I," I said. "Oh, and also... I have a lot to tell you."


I sat in the tree the next day, with a stick to whack the bird. It was time to rid myself of this bird's oppression, as a symbolic diminutive of overthrowing the government. I didn't know if I really expected to kill it today. Maybe it would just dodge and peck my wrist and make me drop the stick or something. But I was determined to try.

It was early in the morning. I had not yet found a guard to ask about magic - I intended to postpone that as long as possible - and Fredric and that other guard had not yet found Nemesis to tell him about the message - or, if they had, Nemesis had not yet found Mitilda to punish her.

Breakfast had been as meager this morning as dinner yesterday. My hunger had reached the point of physical pain surfacing from time to time. It may have been partly because I was up so late last night, and one's stomach emptied much faster while awake. I was both excited and anxious about the food delivery today, as it would either return our rations to normal or reveal that we had another day of this coming.

The bird! I whacked it before it could bite me.

My strike smashed it against the tree, killing it. I had succeeded! I was free at last of this aggressive territorial ninja bird's oppression!

Only then did I notice that it had a nest in the tree, just above the highest spot I ever went to, which I was in now. The poor bird had only been going to its nest, in which there was even an egg. It must have thought I was some kind of predator all this time. And now I had killed it for its defense of its young.

I dropped my stick. Who's cruel now? my conscience asked me. At least the guards don't kill innocent people.

I got down from the tree. I felt that it would be disrespectful to enjoy a moment of peace in my favorite place so shortly after I had won that peace by murdering an innocent creature. As I stood on the ground, however, looking at the bird I had killed, I started to feel that this was not enough. To just walk away and leave it on the ground after killing it. So I picked it up. I climbed back into the tree, to the highest spot, and set it in its nest. And then I felt better.

"Hey!" said Gabriel from behind me, panting. "I've been looking all over for - what is it?"

"I just killed the bird."

"You don't sound very pleased."

"I'm not. Let's not talk about it." I didn't think Gabriel would understand.

"... Okay. I came to ask you if you wanted to play zo."

"No thanks. I want to go -" I cut myself off just before I could say "practice my magic". Phew. I paused for a while, looking away from Gabriel to hide my terrified expression and trying to breathe quietly. "Home," I finished. "I've got... something I need to do."

"Alright," Gabriel said. "I won't pry."

I took leave of him in an akward mixture of walking and running, breathing hard. Nothing like almost getting thrown in prison or whatever to sober a person... Maybe I needed the reminded after last night.

"Hello, Jaydin," Mother said when I walked inside. "Where have you been?"

She was in a better mood than I had seen her in since seeing our rations yesterday. "Playing with Gabriel," I said, since I needed to say something a little more detailed than "outside" to keep her from prying further. "Anything been happening?" I added, partly to change the topic.

"We think Father's getting better," Mother said. "He's still asleep. People usually sleep for a long time the morning they recover from a sickness."

"Well that's good," said I. "It means more food for all of us, too, since people don't get hungry as quickly when they're --"

"Jaydin!" Mother said. "Do not remark about your father's drain on our resources!"

"But it was a positive remark."

"If you can't say anything nice, then don't speak," Mother said. I sighed, deciding not to answer.

"That's not usually true," said Mitilda. "Sometimes it can even be wrong to say nice things - like to a guard."

"Mitilda, being respectful to the guards is--"

"You want to do some magic together?" I said before they could get into an argument about that. This earned me a thrilled look from Mitilda and a horrified one from Mother.

"Jaydin!" Mother said. "I thought you were on my side!"

"Sure!" said Mitilda. "Hey - do you think we could lift that pot if we worked together?"

"Let's try it," I said.

We both extended an arm, concentrating on Mother's pot. It wobbled. "Can't you two practice on something other than my dinner-making utensils?" Mother said.

The pot lifted off the ground. It started to ascend at about two inches per second.

"Let's bring it toward us," Mitilda said. This was when we dropped it. I panicked at the thought of adding complexity to this, and made the split-second decision that I should focus on keeping it up while Mitilda pushed it toward us. Mitilda had the opposite and far more reasonable thought, so it kept going up. She figured out what I must have thought and started to focus entirely on pushing it toward us, leaving me alone to hold it up, which I could not do. The pot began to plummet. Mitilda switched back to pushing up, and she almost saved it, but it already had too much momentum to the side, and apparently our failure to account for its change in position caused our telekinesis to start "missing", for it looked like it was toppling off a table as we dropped it. It landed upside-down.

"And now you've dropped it!" Mother said. "What if that pot had been glass?"

"We wouldn't do this with anything glass," said Mitilda. She turned to me. "That was awesome though! Now we know cooperative telekinesis works, and it looks like our failure was just due to miscoordination."

"Should we try again?" I said, realizing with a mixture of fear and pleasure that I was actually interested in magic, even though I wasn't in a particularly rebellious mood at the time. Last night really had changed me.

We tried at this until my mana ran out - which of course I felt coming and stopped doing magic before the exhaustion hit me. We quickly but smoothly set the pot down.

"I think pushing it until you get the exhaustion deepens your mana reserve," Mitilda said. "Cause I always push it and I've got plenty left. At least I think I do."

She was probably right. I never pushed mine and now that I thought about it, my mana reserve seemed to have grown very little over the last... long time. That probably was it.

"I think you should finish yours," she continued, "just for the sake of growth."

"No," I said. "It might be safe for you, but I can't. I have food collection and distribution duties and stuff." The effects of mana exhaustion were easily recognizable, which meant you had to stay inside for a while if you did that to yourself. That was what I was talking about.

"Not for a while you don't," Mitilda said.

"Yes, but..." I sighed. The real reason for my aversion was fear. Not of being caught. Fear of the sensation itself. I remembered it vividly from when I had learned my lesson the hard way. There were some symptops that were just scary if you didn't know they were coming: vision narrowing, everything sounding muffled, extreme weakness, and then there were two that were actually painful: one's entire body going numb but at the same time aching everywhere, and breath shortening.

"I don't want to go through it again," I said.

"Do it," Mitilda commanded. "If not to deepen your mana reserve, then to overcome your fear."

I was silent as I contemplated my memory of the experience, wondering if it was really as bad as I remembered. Eventually I decided to do it.

I conjured light between my hands. It was a very small light, but my increase in power since the last time I had done light magic was clearly noticeable. I could feel my last bit of mana draining like a needle when the doctor gives you an injection (not that we had those), and a terrible mundane feeling coming over me, as if I were a bird losing my flight abilities. All the expected symptoms came.

My light went out. I collapsed, putting a hand to my forehead - which missed due to the dizziness - as I tried to take a deep breath, only to find that my lungs seemed to have lost capacity. My breathing became rapid, and stopped relieving the need to take in air. This was what it felt like to run out of mana.

"You did it!" Mitilda said. "See? It's not so scary, is it?"

She said this as I lay on the ground hyperventiltaing with lungs that refused to fill past twenty percent, so desperate for air that if this hadn't happened to me before I would be expecting to die.

"That was very brave," she continued in a different tone when she realized the hooray angle wasn't having a positive effect.

I layed there for a while. The difficulties with breathing only lasted a minute or so, but I remained weak after my lungs had regained their lost capacity. It was as if the same energies that regenerated my physical stamina were busy replenishing my mana, and I couldn't recover any physical stamina because of it. If I so much as moved an arm to the other side of my body, it would be exhausted, and it wouldn't recover nearly as easily as it normally did.

"So what's the status with the guards being after you?" I said while there was nothing else to talk about.

"Dunno," Mitilda said. "I think Nemesis will be posted in about an hour though, so if I evade him for just a little longer he won't be able to go looking for me again until evening."

"Yeah, so you said you'd been studying the guard's patrol patterns? Do you have a map of the city or something?"

"I do. By now, I can predict where any guard in the city will be at given time almost flawlessly." She went over to her cot and rummaged through it, then pulled out a stack of pieces of parchment. "Here," she said, handing me the stack.

"This is how you don't get caught..." I said, looking through it with my mouth open. "You can do magic outside and sneak out at night because you know when and where the guards will be..."

"Yep. Only I must have done something wrong. Cause all the data I have gathered says Nemesis should have posted right where I left that message the second shift of the night."

"It could have just changed," I said.

"Yeah, it could have. Haven't noticed anything else different. So what's the status with you asking a guard about magic?" Mitilda said.

I paused.

Mitilda sighed. "I didn't think you'd have done it yet. Why don't you go do it as soon as you've got your strength back?"

"I plan to delay it as long as possible," I said.

"Whatever. But don't forget now, you hear? If you haven't done it by curfew, I will do it myself the next morning."

"I won't forget."

"Well, I'm gonna go out to the tree," Mitilda said. "Probably do some more magic." We exchanged a smile and a sigh respectively, and then she left.

I put Mitilda's map away immediately. I didn't know why I felt so secretive about it, but Mitilda had seemed to, and that seemed like a good enough reason.

Just then Mother came back in, making me glad I had done so. I hadn't actually noticed her leaving, although I had noticed that she was gone.

"Hello Mother," I said. "Where --"

Mother cut me off, noticing my state. "You pushed your mana, didn't you?!"

"Yeah..."

"You fool of a boy, Jaydin! I thought you were the careful one!"

"I was."

"What if, Jaydin - what if a guard comes in while you're weak?"

I noticed that this sounded like something I would have said to Mitilda a few days ago. Then I said something that sounded like a response I might have received from her. "Mother, guards don't just go knocking on random houses at random times. They've no reason to come in here right now."

"You sound just like your sister now! Listen to yourself, Jaydin!"

"I can hear myself fine," I assured her. "And I know."

Mother sighed.

"So where were you just now? I didn't notice you leave."

"Is that how involved in your magic you were? So much that you didn't even notice your own mother leaving?"

"Apparently."

Mother sighed again. "I was talking to Mrs. Greywood about your father's condition. She says he ought to be awake any hour now."

Mrs. Greywood was the town physician. She was Nayomi and Gabriel's mother and a friend of my mother's.

"Well that's good news," I said, not wanting to upset her again.

Mother, apparently less mature than me, decided to poke me about it. "Indeed it is," she said, "because even though people get hungry faster when they're awake..." But then she found herself at a loss for words, as she realized that there actually was no reason this was good news.

"It's not really good news," I said. "The only thing good about it is that we get his company. So it's profitable for us personally but bad for the family as a whole, which means Father loses on it compared to us."

Mother blushed.

Father began to stir. Both of us froze since this was definitely bad news. Mother looked at me accusatorily for being the last one to speak - even though she had spoken much louder than I.

"Hi son... and honey..." Father said.

"Jaydin's so sorry for waking you!" said Mother. "He just lost control of his volume while he was lecturing me on why we should let you sleep."

"Yep," I said. "Totally what happened." Then I started to worry that Father wouldn't pick up on my sarcasm.

"That's okay," Father said. "I wanted to be woken." Even though he actually couldn't have wanted anything at all while he was asleep.

Mother gave me a "ha" look and put on the most immature-looking smirk I had ever seen on her. I was not embarrassed. I still believed that this was bad news, and tried to say this with my eyes.

"It's a good thing you're awake," Mother said, still rubbing this in. "Maybe you can talk some sense into Jaydin here. He pushed his magic!"

"Son..." Father said, using the word like an interjection.

I did the food collection and distribution a while after that, and, to my horror, the food barrel I was given felt just as light as last time. "Um... madam..." I said to the guard. "This isn't very much. May I ask why the rations have decreased?"

"I'm told the extra rations are being stored for something. Not my place or yours to ask what. But I would suggest that you stop being ungrateful - that amount is still more than you'd have if the government weren't here to make sure all the food gets distributed fairly."

I barely managed not to laugh at that. If the government weren't here we'd have as much as we produced, which was way more than we had in the first place. "Yes madam, I understand. I shall not be so ungrateful in the future."

I returned home. This was not good... one day of halved rations had been rough. We could handle a second, but what about a third? How long was this going to go on?


A couple hours later, it was getting late, and I remebered that I still had to ask a guard about magic by tonight if I was to stop Mitilda from doing it herself tomorrow. I had better do that now.

I walked about town for several minutes, surveying different guards' expressions, looking for one that appeared unusually serene. I had little success with this. Every guard I passed just looked angrier than the previous one, although it was probably my imagination. Finally I gave up. I swallowed my rational fears, and approach a random guard.

"Sir?"

"Speak, citizen."

"I have a question, if you would hear it, sir."

"Ask it, citizen."

Here it went. "Are you allowed to do magic?"

"Of course not. It's dangerous and volatile."

Alright, phase one complete. But phase one was the easy phase. Now I had to ask the follow-up question. "In that case, sir, I have a further question, if you would be so patient," I said.

"Ask it, citizen."

I gulped, anticipating the guard's reaction. "Did they ever show you? Or did you just take their word for it?"

The guard actually laughed slightly. "What, you think the king might be lying to us all?"

"Well, to be honest, yes sir, I do."
"Actually, I do too," the guard said. "But not enough to try it. And I wouldn't recommend you trying it either, because I'd have to arrest you."

This erased any suspicion in my mind that he had lied the first time. Which was interesting. Hobart had said magic was outlawed to take power away from the people so there could never be a revolution, so how come the guards weren't allowed to do it? Was Hobart wrong? Had the king just figured revolution was impossible enough as it was and the guards didn't need magic powers? Was there something about magic itself that repulsed him?

"Yes, of course, sir," I said. "Thank you for answering my questions, sir. That's all I wanted to ask."

"You're dismissed," said the guard.

Phew. Mission accomplished. And I hadn't been slammed into a wall or anything. Heck, I had actually gotten answers - not something I had expected to get. Mitilda would be pleased with these results. I knew I sure was.

Speaking of which... where was Mitilda? It was getting awfully late. If she were smart she'd be heading home by now - not that she was. I elected to head home as well.

"She hasn't come home yet," Mother said when I asked. "She's been spending most of her time outside, since she has to avoid places where that guard will know to check for her. I still can't believe she left that message in the dirt. I bet she's off doing magic somewhere right now. I'm sure she'll come home before curfew, but why don't you go look for her just incase she's forgotten?"

I sighed. When would I finally learn to see this coming? "Yes Mother," I said.

I checked the tree. I checked the big open space in the center of town with the inactive fountain. I looped around the bakery, the carpenter's shop, and the agricultural district, which contained home. I did not find her in any of these places. When I came to Hobart's smithy, however, I found something.

I took cover behind Hobart's food barrel. Peeking out, I saw Hobart and Nemesis standing in the same area where I had found Mitilda's message, and Hobart was holding a dagger (possessing weapons was strictly illegal, of course, and Hobart, being a blacksmith, was one of the few who had the power to violate this law). Nemesis had his sword drawn and pointed at Hobart. But that wasn't the half of it. The half of it was that Nemesis had a scratch in his armor. What could possibly have just happened?

"Arrest me if ye wants!" Hobart was saying. "Ye will only aid the cause of the revolution!" His voice didn't sound anything like it had the night before. It sounded twenty years younger and stronger.

"Revolution?" Nemesis said. "Don't be ridiculous. The government is invincible."

"Every time ye boasts, ye're making it feel better for us when we finally do overthrow ye."

"I've had enough of this hogwash! Just give me the dagger and come quietly. If you continue to resist, you will be executed!"

"I would become a symbol! If ye kills me, ye'll make more anger than fear!"

My stomach lurched. Would Hobart actually be willing to give his life for that? To die in public, just in the hopes of instilling rebellion in the townsfolk? I hoped not. Mitilda and I needed him! He couldn't abandon us like this!

"Then it wouldn't happen in public," Nemesis said. "You'd be taken outside of town. Or you can just come to jail and this can all be over."

Hobart glanced briefly behind him, made eye contact with me, and then seemed to get an idea. "Alright. I'll come quietly. I accomplished what I wanted."

"You've accomplished nothing," Nemesis said as he begun to lead Hobart away.

"I did," said Hobart. "I leaved my legacy in the place we hided together when ye breaked curfew." He said this with his gaze clearly fixed on Nemesis. Hobart, you genius... I smiled.

"I'm a guard!" Nemesis said. "I can't have breaked curfew. I mean I can't have broken it. Gah, now you've poisoned me with your bad grammar!" But the message had been delivered.

I would have pondered this event longer, watching the sun go down, but I recalled with a wave of terror that I was supposed to find Mitilda, and that I had just wasted about two of the probably four minutes I had until curfew. Frantically I sprinted all over town again, checking the tree, the clock square, the fountain square, looping around the bakery and the carpenter's shop and running all through the agricultural district. It was in an obscure alleyway nor far from the site of Hobart's arrest that I found her.

She was laying on the ground, and looked to be clutching a wound on her side. As I drew closer she turned toward me, and I saw the relieved expression on her face. She looked at me in a way that told me she had never been gladder for my presence.

"Mitilda! What happened?" I said as I crouched down beside her.

"Nemesis..." she said quietly, removing her hand temporarily. There was a gaping wound on her side, from the sword of a guard. There was a lot of blood on the ground.

I gaped at it. "He did that to you just for writing a message in the ground?"

"It was more than that," Mitilda said, voice shaking with pain. "He said I was evading him too well. He figured out I was gathering data on the patrol patterns."

"Oh... So how did Hobart get involved?"

Mitilda's expression changed from pain to anger at Nemesis, then to deep, sincere appreciation for Hobart. "He... saved me. I think Nemesis had just decided to make the wound deeper when Hobart arrived and attacked him with that dagger. He told me to run and... I did... but it hurt. A lot. I can't do it again."

I looked at the sun - or rather, the horizon where it had been a second ago. The sun was down. Curfew was in effect.

"We're out of time!" I shoved my arms under Mitilda and lifted.

"Thank you, Jaydin," she said, appearing to fall asleep as soon as she was off the ground.

It would take me several minutes to get from here to home while carrying Mitilda, so that wasn't an option. The Greywoods' house, however, was close, and if there was one other family I trusted, it was them. It also didn't hurt that they were doctors.

I kicked the door, since neither of my hands were available. My arms were aching terribly, and I knew they would give out any second. "Open!" I said.

The door opened quickly. Mr. Greywood stood behind it. "Can't hold her forever!" I said when he didn't move immediately.

Mr. Greywood stepped aside without saying anything. I stepped inside and set Mitilda on the floor, panting.

"Mitilda!" said Nayomi, Gabriel's sister. "What happened to her?"

"Vile guard," Mitilda said quietly.

Nayomi looked at the wound in horror. "This is very bad... far worse than they've ever hurt Gabriel." Gabriel was the second placer for rebelliousness in town.

"Harold, get water," Mrs. Greywood said. "I'll make a bandage." Mr. Greywood took a bowl and stepped outside, braving curfew, if only for a second.

"Damn the guards!" said Gabriel. "They've always been cruel, but I've never heard of them doing something so... evil! What did you do?"

"I made a map of their patrol patterns. And I don't regret it..."

"What do you mean you don't regret it?" I said. "It got this done to you!"

"The only thing I regret is using it so much at once."

I noticed Nayomi was holding her hand near Mitilda's wound, similarly to how I held mine when I telekineted something. She had a conflicted expression on her face.

"It's okay," I said, putting my own hand in the same spot and beginning to do cold magic, which I noticed was far more powerful than usual. "We're practitioners too."

As soon as I said this the air around Mitilda's wound became a lot colder. Nayomi's cold magic was even stronger than mine.

Mr. Greywood came back in with his bowl full of water and poured some on the wound. Mitilda winced, but gave no sound of pain. "You Greywoods are magic practitioners..." she said with an expression of awe.

"And proud of it," Gabriel said. "We should have confronted you about it a long time ago - it wasn't like there was any possibility of you reporting us. But we were... cowards." He looked down.

"Yes, you were..." Mitilda said. "So was I. I should have confronted you."

"No!" said Nayomi. "You were wise to keep quiet about it. We weren't nearly as obvious about it as you were. You had good reason to fear being reported!"

Mitilda exhaled deeply, although I couldn't tell if it was a sigh or just a reaction to the pain. "Give yourself some credit. You were a good person, and I knew it."

Mrs. Greywood returned a moment later with a bandage, and wrapped it around the injury. "Why do you do such things?" she said. "Courage only brings pain."