Burnt Children – Chapter 1

“You’re good company for an abomination.” Colis raised his hand and a cream teapot with painted blue swirls floated across his office. A matching teacup hurried after it, passing through the ghost sitting on his desk.

“Abomination?” she asked and leaned against the desk.

Seven thick, black braids — a symbol of her status among her people — fell down her translucent shoulders. Even in death, she was a striking figure. She wore her signature red and black with a belt of gold disks around her hips that jangled eerily. 

“If that’s what I am, you’re no different. You have a great deal of Spirit magic for a Hand.”

“I know it has been a long time since you’ve walked across Meli’s fields, but I would caution you to be careful with your words, Nila. I am no Spirit.” Colis plucked the teapot out of the air and poured tea into his awaiting cup. The spicy scent of the gano herb rose into the air. Hopefully, it would take care of the fever he battled. He sighed and took a sip. The price of a long life was the eventual sensitivity to the difficulties of age.

He glanced at Nila. Her posture was relaxed, as though she was sitting comfortably on her throne instead of hovering over his cluttered desk with quills and stacks of papers passing through her. 

His robes whispered across his skin as he raised his cup. “I would offer you some, but…”

Nila glared at him. “After everything you’ve told me…what they have done to my people…the Burnt Children.” Her body trembled and blue tendrils of light pulsed around her. “How can you deny to me you’re a Spirit?” 

“I’m a Hand. That is the truth.” He sipped his tea once more, ignoring her display of temper. 

“Liar,” she growled. 

Sighing, Colis placed his teacup in the air, leaving it floating, and raised his hand. A bronze pendant slid out of a pile of smooth, brown stones on his desk. Several stones fell on the burgundy rug while the pendant drifted toward him. Where it went, so did Nila. She hovered over it with her arms crossed. She and the pendant stopped an arm’s length away.

“Nila.” Colis looked into her eyes. It was like focusing on a window, instead of looking through it. “Despite all this time, you have learned very little.” 

Blue light swirled in her eyes, glowing brighter at Colis’ words. She straightened her back. “You know nothing about what I’ve experienced. I have learned much.”

“Not what is important.” He snatched the pendant from the air and snapped it shut.

Nila vanished. Light flared around the pendant, sending a shock through Colis’s fingers. He jerked his hand back. The pendant fell and thumped against the wooden floor. 

“As vengeful as ever.” He crouched down and scooped up the pendant. He turned it over, looking at the faint broken lines that came together in a swirl of tiny symbols in its center. There had been more of them this morning. “I’m sorry, Nila, but we’re running out of time.”

“Yes, you are,” a man said.

Colis jerked and slid the pendant into his pocket. He stood up and turned to face the new arrival. “You’re here late, Demeri.”

The younger man walked into the room, confidence in his stride. He gazed around, glancing over Colis’ shelves with unusual interest. Colis followed his gaze. His office was covered with books. Books about the symbols of Meli and the myths and histories of the Evaion Hills were strewn across any surface that would allow it and some that wouldn’t. A stack of books tumbled across Demeri’s path. 

Demeri didn’t pause but merely stepped over them. He brushed his fingers over a large silver mask propped against a bust of an owl with twisted horns. It was one of many trinkets Colis owned. A multitude of oddities cluttered the room. They were items from different lands and cultures, each vying for attention. Though Demeri had been in the office many times he seemed to gaze at them with new eyes. 

“Don’t you think it’s time for you to retire, Colis?” Demeri ran a hand down a bookcase, collecting a layer of dust on his palm. He wiped it on a blue and gold tapestry that had been gifted to Colis during his visit with the distant tribes of the Oriklin shore. 

Colis shoved the pendant deeper into his pocket. “When have you started calling me Colis?” The Elder pushed up from the ground and stood. “It seems you have forgotten your place.” 

Demeri tensed and then relaxed.

Colis watched Demeri carefully but made no other move.

Leaning against Colis’ desk, Demeri smiled. “There’s no one else here and, as I said before, you don’t have much time.” 

Colis plucked his teacup out of the air and raised it to his lips. “What do you mean?”

Demeri’s smile grew wider. “Have you been enjoying your tea?” 

Colis looked at the teacup. His hand trembled and he laughed. “Poison? You have much to learn if you think a cup of poison will kill me.” 

“Not a cup. Ten years worth of cups.” Demeri pushed away from the desk. He crouched in front of Colis and touched his cheek. “It isn’t old age that weakens you.”

Colis’s mind scrambled over his symptoms: trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, and the fever. All signs of a bad cold or the rising heat as his magic began to melt his insides. “Hakir leaves.” 

Smiling, Demeri rose to his feet. “I just have to wait.”

Colis’s brow furrowed. “I can attack or call for the authorities.” 

Demeri shrugged. “Feel free. Use that level of magic and you’ll die before you finish.”

They both knew the effects hakir leaves had on Melitans. For a moment, Colis wondered if Demeri was bluffing. He doubted it. Demeri could see the weaknesses of the body and mind with a touch, so he would know the exact moment Colis’ body would collapse from the poison. Colis raised his hand to his cheek. It still felt warm from Demeri’s touch.

“All these years and you finally mastered your magic.” Colis rose to his feet and walked toward a plush burgundy chair. After hefting a stack of papers out of it, he plopped down. “Well done.” 

Demeri watched him but said nothing.

“One question remains.” Colis leaned back in his chair with a soft sigh. “Why?”

For a long time, Demeri looked at him before shrugging. “Make something up. I’m sure whatever conclusion you reach will have some truth to it.” 

“Ah.” Colis put his hands in his pockets, one hand clutching around the pendant. “Ambition, hatred, some secret plot between you and the university. The possibilities are endless.” Colis slid one hand out of his pocket and rubbed at his beard. “None of that explains why you took ten years to do it. I’m sure you could have found a quicker way.”

Demeri chuckled. “You have never been an easy man to kill.” 

Colis smiled. “True.”

For a moment the silence was comfortable between them. Demeri looked at him. His eyes darkened, flickering with a mixture of determination and defiance. At that moment Colis knew he had brought this upon himself. He had failed Demeri. Colis looked away. 

“I needed you alive,” Demeri said.

“Why?” Colis forced himself to look at Demeri again. 

Demeri shrugged. “Perhaps I wanted you to suffer.” He glanced at the hand stuffed in Colis’ pocket then quickly looked away.

“I have suffered more than you know,” Colis said. 

The words seemed to trigger something in Demeri. His face grew red and he marched across the room and glared at Colis. “Not nearly enough.”

Beads of sweat ran down Colis’ skin. The metal of the pendant dug into his palm. If he were to do it, he would have to do it now. He only hoped his power would last before the poison from the hakir leaves took him. He pulled his hand from his pocket and swung it to the side. Tendrils of red light spilled from his hand and twisted around the pendant. Demeri reached for the pendant, but it was already flying through the air. The pendant crashed through the window.

Go to the one who will reveal the truth. Across Jelam, across all the lands of Meli if need be,Colis thought. He could taste blood in his mouth as the poison reacted to the magic.

“No!” Demeri grabbed Colis by the collar, dragging him from his chair. “You stupid old man.” 

Colis smiled at him. “What a thing to say to me.”

Demeri tightened his grip on Colis and reached for something at his side.

Colis coughed, tasting blood, but a different heat began to build in his hands that had nothing to do with the hakir leaves. There was still one last thing he needed to do. One last bit of magic. The world began to shimmer around him, rays of blue surrounded him. A dawning realization came over Colis.

“Nila was-” 

He gasped as his son shoved his sword deep into Colis’s gut.

“You won’t escape,” Demeri said and twisted the blade, determined to stop the magic Colis had started. But it was too late.

Blue light wrapped around Colis and the old man vanished. Colis was left with the image of Demeri’s twisted face, a mixture of rage and agony, as Colis escaped him.

I’m sorry, Demeri. 

Light flared as Colis reappeared in one of the university’s dorms. He had only a moment to see the nearly bare room before he slammed against the floor. Pain smashed across his face and along his side. Sweat slid down his body, soaking through his robes. He gasped for breath and managed to push himself to his knees. Colis clutched at his stomach. Blood seeped over his hands.

Someone gripped his shoulders. “Master Colis! What happened?”

“Don’t scream.” He looked up at Mefina and for a moment he could see the beauty underneath the severe features. He wanted to say something to her, to tell her she was too young to be so serious, but he didn’t have time. Instead, he gave her a weak smile. “I need your help.”

Mefina’s gaze drifted to his wound and she paled. “You’re bleeding.”

Mefina pushed him on his back as she scanned his wound. “This-I can’t-We have to get help.”

He shook his head. “No time.” His entire body trembled and he began to cough up blood.

“Who did this to you?”

He should tell her, but he couldn’t. It would break her to know. “You must go after it. After the pendant.”

She narrowed her eyes. “It was her. That demon did this to you! I knew she couldn’t be trusted.” 

Colis shook his head. “The pendant…you must go…now.”

“I won’t let her get away.” Her face was hard and determined. 

He tried to grab her hand, to make her understand, but he couldn’t move. “Please Mefina, only you. I can only trust you.”

Colis closed his eyes. His body burned as though his insides were bursting.

Or maybe it was the fireworks. 

Beautiful fireworks. He glanced down at his son. Red and gold shone in the air. Colis placed his hand on Demeri’s shoulder. The celebration of the Great Union already in full swing.

You too will do great things, Demeri.

I know, Father.

Next