The explosion shook the lab despite its magically indestructible walls. Students gathered in the hall around the laboratory as professors dashed bravely into the thick, acrid smoke billowing out the door. It seemed like an hour before two of the Academy’s professors dragged her unconscious body out of the stinking cloud. Her robes were a tatters, blasted to shreds by the concussive force of the explosion and her face was black with soot and bore streaks of various other colors radiating out from her nose like a kaleidoscope. Her hair was thick and matted with ash and soot, its normally fine, platinum strands frozen in some parody of the explosion itself, as if it had been caught mid-way through blowing up and froze in fear of being seen.

She lay on the floor, unconscious and half naked as people rushed in and out of the lab, hurling protective and clarifying spells at the source of the explosion. Her long, tapered ears laying limply at the sides of her head, almost as though they had been knocked unconscious as well.

“Oh my gods! Ree!!” Katrina shouted as she pushed through the crowd without a care for who she was stepping on or knocking over in her mad dash toward her unconscious sister.

For her part, Katrina’s robes were immaculate, looking almost freshly pressed despite being near the end of a long day of classes. Her own platinum locks seemed to remain in a single cascade down the center of her back despite her mad dash, and her own ears pointed back from her head in frustration and concern, flushing red as she got close enough to the elf on the floor to take in the entire picture.

“Oh Ree! What happened?!” She knelt down next to her twin sister’s unconscious form and gently touched her neck, feeling for any sign of a pulse.

“I’m sorry Katrina, we’re going to have to take her down to the infirmary. We’ll know more after we get a chance to clean her up and check her for injuries.” The stern voice of Professor Garn came in reply, his gnarled hand resting on Katrina’s shoulder. Katrina’s eyes welled up with tears at the sight of her unconscious sister’s charred body being levitated down the hallway by two mages as Professor Garn held her back from following the procession.

“Let me GO! That’s my sister!” She screamed at the man holding her back. It never dawned on her that he seemed impossibly strong for his age. Humans typically only lived for a century and Professor Garn had admitted to being close to the end of his days. For him to hold back the young elf with a single hand should have been next to impossible, not that such a thing was in danger of crossing the troubled elf’s mind under the circumstances.

Gently the old man turned her around and looked into her acidic yellow-gold eyes with his own, cloudy blue orbs. “Calm yourself Katrina. She is alive. We will not know more for a little while, but the healers need time to do their work and that will be impossible with a wailing elf in their midst.”

Katrina looked up at him briefly before looking back down the hallway in time to watch the sea of students closing behind the procession. Quickly she stood up, attempting to break the man’s grasp on her upper arm and chase after her wounded sister, but again, his grip held firm, almost pulling her off her feet. After regaining her balance she wheeled around on the man, ready to blast him with a fireball despite the fact that he would likely bat it away, then ruin her, and her future at the Academy in a breath.

As she turned to face him, ready to throw it all away in order to be at her sister’s side, he simply smiled at her. It was a soft, understanding, even knowing smile that spoke volumes about his understanding, compassion, and desire to let her go. The next heartbeat saw Katrina calming down immensely, the fury quickly draining out of her.

“That’s better Katrina. We’ll get you down to see her in the next few minutes. In the meantime however, I wonder if you might be interested in helping me determine what, exactly, Riana was doing in the enchantments lab without a professor.”

A cold chill ran down Katrina’s spine as she heard the words. She hadn’t even realized what lab this was, and since she knew, as no doubt, Professor Garn did, that Riana had no enchantment classes, this would be a difficult accident to explain, even for Riana. Slowly, she nodded her head, then followed the old man into the still-smoldering lab.

While the major walls in the Magic Academy had been enchanted with powerful spells that made them more or less completely indestructible, the interior spaces were anything but. This was evidenced by the fact that all of the furniture in the room had been blackened, burned and pushed out against the walls in a circular array from the epicenter of the blast radius.

In the center of the devastation stood a single stone work bench, its surface still littered with various implements. Small jars, magical burners, a mortar and pestle and some other odds and ends, all charred black and half melted by whatever had caused the explosion.

“How did all of this stay on the counter when everything else in the room was moved to the periphery of the explosion?” She mumbled under her breath as she picked her way through the scattered and broken furniture.

“A very astute observation young lady. What do you think?” Professor Garn responded in his usual paternal tone.

Katrina glanced at him briefly before finishing her way through the scattered remains of the lab and moving up to the counter. Gently she reached out and touched the mortar and pestle with her slender index finger. A tiny spark arced to her fingertip, causing her to yelp and jump back from the counter, holding her finger in her left hand like a wounded child.

“It’s quite alright young lady, the magic has run its course. No harm is going to befall you.” Professor Garn encouraged, nodding toward the counter. “Go on. Tell me what you can about the scene.”

Katrina stepped back up to the counter, casting another look back at the tiny man, who nodded reassuringly. Gently she touched the mortar and pestle again. It felt like the smooth stone that she knew it to be made of, having used them a thousand times in class. The device was covered in a layer of fine soot that shimmered strangely in the light of the room, as if it was filled with metallic flakes or crystals of some kind. Bringing her fingers up to her face she inspected the soot more closely. The fine material felt almost like a liquid between her fingertips, although it was definitely dry. The reflective, colored light seemed to be coming from a mixture of tiny crystals mixed in with the soot. Slowly she moved her fingers beneath her nose and gently inhaled, instantly recognizing the scent of anthracite.

“It’s coal.” She commented out loud.

“Coal?” Professor Garn enquired, raising a bushy eyebrow at her. “Are you sure?” His tone suggested, as she had learned from her alchemy classes with him, that he already knew the answer.

She looked closer, rubbing the material between her fingers again, then turning her hand sideways and watching with some amazement as the soot seemed to slide off of her hand, leaving no trace behind. Then it occurred to her that she had heard him speak about this substance in class before. What had he called it? Not anthracite, but the primary component of anthracite… Then it hit her, “Carbon!”

“Indeed. But not just carbon.” He smiled as she worked through the puzzle in her mind.

“No. It seems to be composed of extremely small granules that aren’t sharp or jagged like something that had been crushed or ground down. It’s slick like mercury, but dry.” She paused as she examined the soots till covering the table, leaning in closely to get a better view. “And there are some sort of tiny crystals mixed homogeneously throughout.”

“What do you make of it?” He asked sagely.

“It’s almost as if this material wasn’t ground down from something larger, but built up from something smaller. As though each grain is the smallest, simplest possible structure that the materials can build.” She dragged her finger along the counter, creating a trench in the dark material that began to fill in behind her movement as the grains of the substance settled back down to the lowest point in the same way a liquid would when poured into a container. In seconds the table was covered again, as if her finger had never disrupted the surface.

“Interesting isn’t it?” Professor Garn commented from his position over by the door.

Next Katrina reached out to the mortar and pestle and attempted to pick the heavy stone device up, but it wouldn’t budge. She tried it again, working to get a solid grip on the smooth stone surface but to no avail. Finally she reached into the mortar, wrapping her fingers around the pestle, she applied a gentle pressure but found that it wouldn’t budge either, even after she tried lifting hard enough that she felt the counter should be coming up from the floor.

Giving up finally she turned her attention to some of the glassware, only to find that it was all stuck fast as well. “What in the name of Pandoria where you doing in here Ree?”

“A very good question Katrina. Do you have any idea what she might have been trying to do? Anything she has spoken about or alluded to?” His tone was now more like a questioning school official than a paternal mentor.

Katrina had a sudden flash of guilt as she remembered their numerous expeditions into the wilds of Kalijor so that Riana could collect some rare root, or rock. She had yet to admit what any of these things were for, but she had a very specific list of things she needed and Katrina was certain they were to be used in some sort of enchantment or alchemical concoction. “I honestly have no idea Professor Garn. I’m sorry, I wish I did.”

He stared at her for a long moment with a serious look on his face before his paternal smile slowly returned. “Quite alright child. Quite alright. I’m sure we will get to the bottom of this before any more harm is done. Now. Shall we head down to the infirmary and see how she is doing?”

Katrina’s heart nearly skipped a beat as she almost flew of the strewn wreckage of the lab on her way back to the door. Professor Garn followed her out and the pair began to move down the hall, passing the occasional gawking student, still trying to get a look at what Riana had done this time.

About halfway down the hallway, Katrina experienced another pang of guilt as it occurred to her that, whatever it was her sister had been working on for the last few months, part of it was laying in that lab, covering the counter like some kind of inky, black soot. She couldn’t help herself. Her mouth was open and words were falling out before she could even begin to understand why she was doing it.

“I’m sorry professor, I left my spell book in the lab, I need to run back and grab it real quickly.” She found herself muttering, barely loud enough for the man to hear.

Professor Garn stopped and turned to look at the young elf with a look that said he knew better than to believe that, of all people, Katrina Thorindal was the least likely to ever leave her spell book anywhere out of reach. He looked her over for several long moments before finally nodding at her and saying, “Be quick young lady, I’m sure your sister will be anxious to see you when she comes around.”

In a flash, Katrina was back in the lab. She nearly bowled over several younger students so focused on this strange deed was she. Once back in the lab she quickly searched for an intact vial and, snagging one from behind the professor’s desk at the front of the lab, she moved to the strangely immobile counter Riana had been doing, whatever it was she was doing, atop. Carefully, Katrina scraped, or herded more like, a good quantity of the strange substance into the vial.

Once the small vial was mostly full, she pressed the stopper into place and was turning to leave when movement on the table caught her eye. Turning to investigate, she saw the remainder of the substance on the counter top spreading out to fill the void she had created. It was certainly thinner now, but it seemed as though the substance was always leveling itself out across whatever surface it came to rest on. But what really concerned her was something she hadn’t realized before, something she was certain Professor Garn would be more than interested to learn and, quite frankly, scared her out of her wits. Despite the material’s predilection toward equal coverage and flowing to the lowest spot it could reach, it still wasn’t flowing off the surface of the countertop.

She bent down low and examined the edge of the desk more closely and was somewhat shocked to see that the material, whatever it was, had formed a crisp line parallel to the edge of the counter, a mere hair’s width away, but still not near enough that any of it might flow over. Gently she pressed her finger into the material again and drew it toward the edge of the surface. With no small measure of curiosity, and a healthy dose of fear she watched as the strange, sooty material flowed toward the edge, only to change directions as it approached the drop, flowing instead to the sides and avoiding the drop altogether.

Once more she repeated the test, only this time she held her open palm under the edge of the table and, this time, the material flowed over the edge like a dark, crystalline waterfall, its tiny reflective surfaces sending colored shafts of light off in a myriad of directions as it pooled in the center of her palm. She almost lost control of herself when she realized what this meant. Standing up again she poured the material from her hand back onto the table and watched as it once again shifted around slightly in order to create the most uniform covering of the surface that it could.

Raising the vial to her eyes she inspected the captured material, its surface sending off twinkles and shimmers in the light of the lab. “What in the name of Pandoria have you been doing in here Ree?”

_________________________________________________________________

The bright colors and sterile smell of the infirmary was a stark contrast to the dusky browns and greys of the rest of the Magic Academy’s rooms. She supposed it was related to the fact that mages knew nothing about healing magic and, seeing a definite need for such a facility, especially in light of the hundreds of students they had hurling fireballs and lightning bolts around on a daily basis, they had been forced centuries ago to take on a contingent of healers as part of the staff.

Healing magic was not entirely unlike normal mage spells, the kinds that could produce earthquakes, lightning bolts, and thousands of other effects. The basic principals were the same really, but something about turning the wild and often chaotic powers of magic inside the bodies of living people required a completely different temperance than most mages were capable of demonstrating. As a result, the schools of healing magic were almost always closed off to those who studied the more, destructive arts. So the Magic Academy, which was the primary school for mages in Kalijor, had long ago taken on a contingent of Druids, Clerics, and Shaman to handle their needs.

The funny bit of that was when the Druidic and Clerical orders around Kalijor had decided that the Magic Academy would be a great place for their own students and disciples to go and practice their art before heading out into the real world. They had quickly realized that such thoughts were anything but good. The level of destruction and damage capable of being produced by an ill-informed student of the arcane arts was grossly underestimated and it took several deaths before the decision was made to station some of Kalijor’s best healers there. It was one of these Clerics that filled Riana’s vision as she slowly opened her eyes.

“Wha… Where…?” She mumbled as her world spun around her with a frightening ferocity.

“Calm down.” The Cleric said, a soft smile adorning her pale face as she rested a warm hand on Riana’s shoulder. “You’ve been in an accident. We’re just working on getting you patched up now.”

“What happened?” Riana said. The room spun violently at her words, causing her to wince as she tried to force the feeling of vertigo out of her head.

“Shhh.” The cleric responded, pressing her finger to her lips as if ‘shushing’ a child. All in good time. Just take a few moments to rest while we get you fixed up.

Riana tried to put on her best look of indignation but found that it simply caused too much discomfort and finally gave up, opting instead for her best look of utter defeat and slouching down further under the covers of the infirmary bed.

The Cleric smiled at her, a warm, maternal smile that seemed to carry a twinge of ‘stupid youngling, what have you got yourself into this time’ with it. Maybe it was just Riana’s imagination, or some modicum of guilt, but she preferred to think that the Cleric was admonishing her for what she had done, it made her feel somehow better about what she had done. Then it occurred to her that she had almost no idea of what she had actually done.

She remembered clearly the events leading up to the event. She had ground down and mixed everything perfectly. Chanting the appropriate phrases and channeling the correct levels of energy into the mixture. She had followed the directions exactly, down to the last detail. And it had taken her months of sneaking around in the restricted libraryto come up with those instructions. How many times had she nearly been discovered there by the roaming guards? How many times had she been a hair’s width from going home with a letter explaining her expulsion from the Academy to give to her poor mother? Too many for this to be the result. She had to figure out how to get back into that lab.

A surge of strength flowed through her body as the familiar incantations of the Cleric worked their magic. This was definitely not the first time Riana had found herself in the infirmary. Although saying ‘found’ would be a bit of a stretch. ‘Put’ would probably be a better word to use. This wasn’t the first time she had put herself in the infirmary. True, on several occasions she had awakened in this oddly bright area of the Academy, but even on most of those occasions her waking up here had been the results of some experiment or hair-brained scheme of hers. Fortunately, Katrina had usually found herself in possession of sufficient sense to not get involved, saving herself a great deal of pain and Riana a great many feelings of guilt.

“Feeling better are we?” The Cleric said, smiling sweetly down at her.

Riana nodded, and was pleasantly surprised when the room decided not to punish her for the extravagant movement.

“Good. Now, there is someone here who would like to see you, if you feel up to it?” She asked.

“Yes ma’am.” Riana replied, adding another slight nod to see if the room was still in agreement. It was.

Standing up and taking a step back, the Cleric gripped the edge of the privacy curtain that surrounded Riana’s bed and pulled it open, revealing an elf the same size as Riana, with long, flowing locks of platinum hair and yellow-gold eyes, her ears were drooping down in concern as she waited for news and the pulling back of the curtain seemed to have taken her a bit by surprise. She shrank back from the sudden noise of the metal curtain hangars sliding across the support rod near the ceiling, but she quickly took in the scene and within seconds was at her sister’s side, grasping her filthy hand tightly in her own.

“Oh Ree! I thought you’d killed yourself!” She gushed.

Riana smiled slightly before responding, “I’m sure I’ll be wishing I had when the official inquiry begins.”

“What were you doing in there?!”

Riana’s face grew serious for a moment and she shook her head ever so slightly. “Not here Kat. Not yet.”

Katrina inspected her filthy, soot-covered face, taking in the faint rainbow colors that radiated out from the center of her countenance, the colored stripes reflected the room’s bright light with a crystalline glint much like the soot she had examined in the lab. What had she been doing in there?

Finally she nodded slightly. “But you will tell me. Right?”

Riana looked at her seriously for a long moment before grinning widely, her ears perking up mischievously. “Of course I will! You’re my sister aren’t you?”

Katrina nodded solemnly, then forced a smile and reached into a wash basin near her sister’s bed and retrieved a cloth soaked with warm water. “Let’s get you cleaned up a bit.” She said.

“Not just yet young Miss Thorindal.” A stern voice cut in from behind them.

The twins looked round to see a small contingent of Academy staff standing just outside the perimeter of the privacy curtain. There was Professor Liraee, a short felinoid woman with acidy green eyes and a mohawk of bright red-orange hair that arched over the top of her head and down her back, eventually turning into a short tail. Professor Xora, who was a middle-aged elf who had been teaching at the academy for the past four or five hundred years of her life. Professor Genloe stood behind the group, his nearly seven foot frame towering over them and his superbly tailored robes making him look like a mobile drapery with their length. Finally there was Professor Garn, looking frail and old as he leaned heavily on his gnarled staff.

“We would like to speak with you about what happened.” The stern voice said. At this point they could see that the voice was emanating from the mouth of Professor Genloe. It was deep, resonant, and foreboding.

“I’m sorry, I don’t remember much.” Riana lied. Katrina could tell because of the way her left ear twitched whenever she was concealing the truth.

“Be that as it may youngling. we must know everything you remember if we are to determine the cause of the incident.” The soft, lilting voice of Professor Xora added. She smiled at Riana, her own ears splaying out in a sort of welcoming, pleading motion.

“Yes! Liraee needs to know what happened so Liraee can fix it!” Professor Liraee said. “Liraee’s enchanting lab is all out of order. Disheveled, damaged, destroyed, and with Liraee’s advanced classes starting tomorrow too!”

“Be calm Professor Liraee.” Professor Garn soothed, laying a gentile hand on the nearly-naked feline’s shoulder. She immediately stopped her subtile vibrating.

No one seemed to know exactly what had happened to Professor Liraee to cause her to be so strange. She always spoke about herself in the third person, calling herself by name. Of course, she referred to everyone else the same way so that wasn’t really so odd. No, what really made Professor Liraee odd was the fact that she wore hardly any clothing at all, and that she seemed so full of excess energy that she was constantly leaping around her classrooms, hanging from wall and ceiling fixtures and squatting on people’s desks. The other great mystery concerning the strange, nearly naked feline was how, with all of her strange and peculiar traits, she managed to hold on to her position at the Magic Academy. Riana suspected that only her advanced enchantments students could really say, but that class was one taken as students finished up their time at the Academy and as a result, they all moved out of the tower before they could tell anyone anything about the class.

Riana shook her head slightly at the strange little feline woman. “I’m sorry. It’s all a blank. I remember I was working on something for my enchantments class. I was following the prescribed formula and channelling power into the infusion.” She thought for a moment then shook her head again. “That’s the last thing I remember before waking up here.”

“Are you sure young lady? Is there nothing more to your memories?” Professor Garn asked.

Riana looked at him, focusing on his eyes. She hoped her lie would hold up. If she told them the truth she would be instantly thrown out, or worse, they would maker her explain things to her mother.

Ezrina was a good mother and an extremely capable mage in her own right. Possibly even one of the better mages in Kalijor, if one disregarded those mages the pursued their craft above all else. Ezrina was not one of those mages. No, she was an adventurer at heart. A wandering spirit. And she was very troubled still, by the sudden loss of Riana and Katrina’s father. They never could get her to talk about him. Whenever they asked she would turn suddenly sad and then disappear for days on end. The last thing Riana wanted to do was trouble her mother with more family problems. Little things like daughters being thrown out of the Magic Academy and the like.

If Professor Garn saw through the lie, he didn’t let on about it. After a long moment he simply nodded gravely at her and said, “Very well child. If you think of anything, please bring it to my attention.”

“Of course Professor.” She nodded.

At that, the small group of instructors moved off into a corner and began conversing quietly for a few long moments. Professor Liraee bounced up and down as they spoke and at one point even perched herself on Professor Genloe’s shoulders. Finally the group broke up and all of them except for Professor Garn departed the infirmary.

The old man approached the bed where the twins still held one another’s hands and watched the proceedings with interest. He smiled at them with his ancient, paternal smile and then held out his wrinkled hand to Katrina. “I wonder if I might have one more moment of your time young lady?”

Katrina stood up and took his hand. “Of course Professor Garn.” She said. as th eold mage led her around the corner and out of Riana’s sight.

Katrina looked at him hopefully, her entire body quivering slightly with the fear that he was about to call her out on the vial she had secreted away in her robes. When he eyed her seriously for a few long moments, her fears only continued to grow and her palms began to sweat as she fidgeted beneath her robes.

Finally he smiled at her and produced an ancient tome from beneath his robes. The book was bound in a rough, scaly hide that looked as though it could have easily come from a dragon. There were two thick, metal bands that wrapped around the book, with hinges near the bindings so the tome could still be opened, provided of course that the reader was able to unfasten the elaborate looking locking mechanisms that bridged the gap in the bands across the open end of the book. The thing was a dark, coal black in color and the metal bands were a black pig-iron that matched it perfectly. The finishing touch to the tome was some sort of feeling that katrina got, just by looking at it. It wasn’t evil. No, it was something else. It was more like raw, unharnessed power. The sort of power that could quickly turn a mage into a mad-man for just thinking they could harness it.

She swallowed hard as he proffered the book, holding it out for her to take. She reached out tentatively, shrinking away again before her fingertips got closer than an inch or two from the thing. She was afraid to touch it. The thing reeked of power and she wasn’t at all sure that she had the mental fortitude to keep herself from tearing it open and devouring its secrets.

“Go ahead.” He said. “Take ir, it won’t hurt you. It is, after all, only a book.”

She reached out again, this time managing to touch the binding lightly. The instant she did so, the feeling of immense power instantly disappeared. She sighed in relief as she put her other hand on the tome and took it from the old man.

“You see?” He said. “No harm done.”

Katrina inspected the book more closely now, and she could swear the thing was breathing, or pulsing some kind of enerigy as she held it. “What is this book Professor?”

He smiled again. “That, young lady, is a dragon’s magend.”

Her eyes went wide at his words and she almost dropped the book. “A magend?”

“Yes my dear, and it is not where it belongs. Now in the interest of keeping things calm around here, I suggest that you have your sister return it to the restricted shelves the very moment she is able to, if not sooner.”

She looked up at him again, this time narrowing her eyes slightly. “Why didn’t you report this to the rest of the faculty?”

His smile only grew wider at her question. “That book has an enchantment upon it that only allows its power to be used by those who do not lust for it. Most of the faculty here do not understand that and…” he paused for a moment, breathing deeply and looking up as if remembering some fond moment in his life, “Let’s just say that, despite what you may have heard from upperclassmen, i was young once too.”

Katrina smiled at him and hugged the book to her chest where she swore she could feel it pulsing powerfully with magical energy that no mage in the entire Academy could likely contain. “Thank you Professor.”

He eyed her sternly for a moment before turning toward the door and moving slowly with his weight resting heavily on his staff after each labored step. “For what Miss Thorindal?”

She smiled again as she watched the door close behind him, then wheeled around and stormed back into the oval privacy curtain surrounding her sister’s bed. Yanking the curtain closed behind herself she spun around to face Riana and tossed the heavy black tome onto the foot of the bed.

“What in the name of the royal family are you up to Ree?”

“I was making something… personal…” Riana said, letting a sigh of near-resignation escape her lips.

“You were making something personal, using a dragon’s magend that you stole from the restricted shelves of the Magic Academy’s library?!”

Riana narrowed her violet eyes at her sister, her ears laying back flat in annoyance. “Look Kat, I told you I would tell you all about it when I was ready.”

Katrina sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at the pulsing book, it seemed to fill the room like some incredible presence, pushing her toward the door because the space wasn’t nearly large enough for it, let alone her. “Can you even read it?”

Riana smirked, “I’ve picked up a few words here and there.”

“And do I even want to know how you got it out of the restricted shelves?” Katrina asked.

“Not if you want to stay healthy you don’t.”

“What does that mean?”

Riana’s face turned sour, her ears drooping down low. “It means the road there is paved with all manner of things you would never want to come into contact with Kat. Believe me.”

Katrina’s face turned a bit sour as well, hearing her sister’s words. Apparently she decided to let well enough alone and changed the subject. “Alright. When you’re ready. But remember, you promised! Now, let’s get you cleaned up a bit.”

She retrieved the was cloth from the cooling water basin and began the difficult task of removing the rainbow-streaked soot from her sister’s skin. It took an hour, and much complaining from Riana, to clean the remnants of the blast from her face, which left her alabaster skin an angry pink color from all of the rubbing. Katrina had just retrieved a fresh basin of hot water and was going to work on Riana’s hair when the conversation started back up again.

“Kat I…” Riana started, but just as quickly shut herself up again, looking timid and embarrassed. This was an unusual state for the normally boisterous and outgoing elf.

“What’s the matter Ree?” Katrina tried not to look too intently at her sister, recognizing the trepidation in her voice and not wanting to push her.

“I’m thinking about leaving.” Riana said.

Katrina stopped her ministrations abruptly and the infirmary fell silent as if in response to the statement. The silence went on for what seemed an interminably long time before Riana spoke up again.

“Kat?”

“Leaving to go where?” Katrina said. Her voice was a bit hollow and very low.

Riana frowned. “I don’t know. I just know that most of what I want to learn, isn’t taught here. I think I want to be a Spell-Sword.”

More silence. Riana felt as if she had punched her sister squarely in the nose. Feelings of guilt and self-doubt boiled up inside her. The thoughts had been brewing inside her for years now and she just didn’t feel as though she could ignore them any longer. Who else would she tell first if not her twin?

Finally she felt Katrina’s arms wrap around her in a warm embrace. “I’ll miss you Ree.”

Riana’s heart soared, and broke, with those words. “It isn’t as though we won’t see each other Kat. We both live at home still. I just… I’m not happy here.”

Katrina squeezed her sister tighter and stifled back her tears with a sniff. “I know Ree. I guess I’ve known for a while now. I’ll miss seeing you in the halls, and on lunches though. This place won’t be the same without you.”

Riana returned her sister’s hug awkwardly. “I’ll miss you too Kat.” Then she sighed and added, “Now comes the really difficult part.”

“What’s that?” Katrina sniffled again, finally releasing her sister and returning to the task of cleaning the strange soot from her hair.

“Telling mom.” Riana groaned.

Katrina stifled a giggle.

________________________________________________________________

The next day Riana was released from the infirmary by the Clerics. Her hair and the skin on her hands was still a sooty mess and the second ting she did was head for the baths and spend two hours soaking her sore muscles and scrubbing her hair. Even after the laborious scouring was finished, leaving her a lovely glowing pink color over most of her body, her hair seemed to be a bit darker than it had been before, and the roots seemed to have turned a shade of royal purple that Riana couldn’t decide if it was related to her scalp having been scrubbed so thoroughly or if it was really turning purple.

Before that however, she had returned the dragon’s magend to the restricted library. There wasn’t much sense in getting all cleaned up before crawling through the filth and waste in the old stone culverts beneath the bathrooms that led to the magical cleansing chamber under the library. It had taken her the better part of a year to locate the ‘secret entrance’ and then another six months of spending mornings and evenings crawling through the sewage to map the conduits out before she could finally make her bid to steal, or borrow rather, the book.

Now however, she was in a bit of a bind. Having returned the book, she now found herself without either the product she was creating with the tome’s assistance, or the the book itself, which would be necessary in order to make a second attempt at the stuff. And now that she had returned it, she was sure that Professor Garn would be keeping a special eye on it for quite a while to come. This meant that she either had to steal it for real before leaving the Academy to seek a Master who would teach her the arts of martial combat, or that she had to delay her departure until she she could make another attempt and then leave. This last option was a bit dubious though, since she was already a little outside the normal age for those taken on by martial arts masters, despite the fact that fourteen was incredibly young by elven standards, in the human-dominated world of Kalijor, fourteen years was only two from being an adult.

To top off that quandary, she still had to try and figure out what she had done wrong with the enchantment the last time. She hadn’t dared go back into the lab, although she had heard through the other students that the table she had been working on, as well as everything on top of it had, for all intents and purposes, become just as indestructible as the walls of the lab. None of them could be damaged, or even moved, by any force that the faculty had leveled against them. Even the normally delicate glass beakers and vials had become as strong as the fortress walls of the Academy tower.

She hadn’t read about that in the dragon’s magend. No one had, as yet, mentioned any other products, or byproducts of her enchantment, although there was talk about Professor Liraee wanting to have words with her concerning the true nature of her endeavor.

As she sat there, soaking in the giant, bubbling cauldron of hot spring water trying to formulate a plan for the salvation of her project, a sudden splash of the hot water roused her from her thoughts with an annoyed look on her face and her right fist cocked back, ready to flatten someone’s nose for the disruption. Her mood only improved a little bit when she saw her sister’s golden eyes smiling at her from water level near by, the rest of her body concealed beneath the frothy surface of the water.

“Hi Kat.” She said, settling herself back down in the butt-shaped depression that had been worn in the stone bench over uncounted thousands of years of use.

Katrina continued to prowl around the tub with nothing below her flaring nostrils out o the water’s warm embrace. Her ears stuck up like the dorsal fins of two sharks on the hunt as she moved, finally stopping mere inches from where Riana sat, trying to ignore her and come up with a plan.

Katrina blew some bubbles, hardly noticeable given the fact that the entire tub was bubbling, but she still managed to distract her sister from whatever it was she was so concerned about.

Riana looked down at Katrina, putting on her best look of annoyance which was almost shattered by the sight of her sister floating face up in the water, scrunching up her nose and sticking her tongue out at her. It took every ounce of Riana’s willpower to not snigger, or even break out into laughter.

“Why so serious?” Katrina said, finally shifting around and filling the butt-shaped depression immediately adjacent to Riana’s.

“Just trying to figure out what went wrong, and how in Kalijor I am going to make another attempt at it now that I’ve returned the magend to the library.” Riana’s face turned serious again.

“I might be able to help if I had any idea what it was you were making.” Katrina said.

Riana looked at her again, trying to contain her frustration at constantly being asked what she was up to. She had to take it easy on her sister though, after all, she would be doing the same thing if the tables were turned. Finally she conceded a bit, “I was making a base for some ink.”

Katrina nodded sagely, pretending to understand. “And what would this base look like when it was done properly?”

Riana shook her head. “I’m not completely sure. It was supposed to be dark, and fine. Some kind of powder I think.”

“Huh.” Katrina said. Looking across the room seriously for a moment she raised a hand out of the water and scratched the bottom of her chin in mock concentration. “It wouldn’t by chance look anything at all like…” She paused for effect.

“Like what?” Riana asked, not daring to get her hopes up that she had actually succeeded. The thought of now needing to break into some faculty store room or office to retrieve her hard-won prize weighing heavily on her mind. She wasn’t sure if it would be worse, or more difficult for that matter, to steal the magend, or the powder.

“I don’ know…” Katrina stalled further. “This?” She finally couldn’t hold off any longer and produced the vial from beneath the water, its top tightly stoppered and sealed with a bead of wax.

Riana’s heart skipped a beat as she gingerly took the vial from her sister’s hands. She rolled it over in her hands and held it up to the light to see the way it played across the many crystalline grains within the container. “Kat did you…” She couldn’t finish the sentence she was so flabbergasted.

Katrina simply nodded as she watched her sister examining the vile almost reverently. “It seemed a waste to let the faculty get it, especially when I noticed some of its more peculiar properties. I figured if it wasn’t what you were after, it would at least be something for your efforts.”

Riana turned sideways and embraced her sister tightly. “Thanks Kat. I thought I’d really messed it up.”

“Hey. What are sisters for, if not lying to professors in order to steal evidence of malicious explosions in Academy labs for their crazy, school-quitting twins?”

To say there was a note of bitterness there would have been something of an understatement.

_________________________________________________________________

Two weeks later, Riana found herself back at the Academy, despite the fact that she had, just after climbing out of the bath and toweling herself off, headed to the administration offices and tendered her resignation. She had been terrified to tell their mother, but she knew she had to be honest so she had made a great dinner and sat her mother down to talk over food. She laid out all of the pros and cons (not that there were many visible pros about dropping out of the Academy in favor of pursuing an apprenticeship with a warrior), and expressed her long-withheld feelings. Ezrina had responded by standing up, hugging her tightly, and leaving the house without a word. An hour later, their mother’s familiar rapping on the bedroom door had interrupted Riana’s quiet sobbing and when she entered the room carrying a a bundle of leather wrapped around a small sword, Riana’s heart soared. Ezrina explained that she was sorry for leaving like that, but that Riana’s words had reminded her of their… father (she always paused before saying that word), had been fond of using a sword and that she had seen this fine, elven implement at the bazaar just that day. She hadn’t wanted to miss the opportunity so she had left to purchase the blade and an appropriate belt before someone else got it. They had spent a few hours talking about how to find a good master, what to look for, what to expect in the way of lessons, and how proud she was of both of them for following their hearts. So for two weeks, Riana had been wandering around the small towns and villages looking for an instructor that would be willing to take her on with no luck. It probably didn’t help that she was trying to stay within relatively short traveling distance of Rathalon so that she could get home to see her mother and sister regularly, or that she still had much research to do on her special project, which led her back to the Academy on this fine spring day.

Not only was she having trouble locating an instructor, but she was also having trouble locating a dragon. She had been asking around while looking for an instructor, which may have ld to people not wanting to speak to her now that she thought about it. Who would want to make a disciple out of the crazy little elf girl who professed to be searching for a dragon?

So she had returned to the Academy, merely as a guest to the public library they kept, to search the tomes there for any clues as to the current whereabouts of any dragons she might be able to get to in order to complete the suspension for her ink. Still, she was coming up with nothing. Any book that referenced the location of a dragon, quickly followed it up with how the beast had been slain by some knight errant or other.

Currently she had her nose buried in a fine tale about how most of the dragons had ‘left’ the world (that was the description the author used to avoid describing the no doubt violent destruction of each and every one of the creatures). She was beginning to loose hope that she would ever find a living dragon, and where would she get a dragon’s saliva if not from a living, breathing, and presumably drooling, dragon?

“Good book?” A woman’s voice startled Riana halfway out of her chair. The thing would have clattered to the floor and made a terrible racket had the offending woman’s quick reflexes not allowed her to snatch it.

Riana looked around and saw the strangest sight she had seen in all of her life. Before he stood a human woman of medium height with short hair, streaked through with alternating light blue and blond stripes. She had more earrings than Riana had ever seen on a single person at one time before, and that wasn’t counting the numerous studs and rings adorning her eyebrows, nose, septum, lips, and even the bridge of her nose. Her clothing was somewhere between roguish and risqué, with alternating patches of bare skin, leather, chain mail, and metal plates. She wore at least two swords across her back, two more dangling from the numerous layers of belts around her waist and an untold number of knives seemed to have their handles poking out of her chaotic outfit ant random angles.

The only thing Riana could really even begin to think about the woman, aside from how much she scared her, was how long it must take her to don the overly-complicated outfit in the morning. Riana stared at her, ears splayed out in dismay, for several long moments before she realized the woman was speaking to her again.

“What?” Riana asked.

“I said, are you enjoying the book?” The woman repeated again, a knowing smirk spreading across her face.

“I… uh…” Riana’s thoughts ran out.

“Here. Sit back down.” The strange, metal-studded woman said softly, standing Riana’s chair back up and motioning toward it with her other hand.

Riana sat down dumbly, still staring at the woman, unable to conceal her amazement.

The woman slid easily into the chair opposite Riana’s and leaned forward, resting her chin on her hands and smiled at the elf. “You know, if you keep looking at me like that, people will think you’ve got the hots for me.” She grinned.

Riana’s face turned scarlet and her ears sagged as she tried to disappear into the chair.

“How old are you little elf?” She asked pointedly.

Riana looked at her sharply, her ears moving back to the sides of her head, pointing straight back. “What would you want to know that for?”

“Because I’m trying to figure out who I’m talking to.” The woman replied. Her demeanor remained impassive.

“My name is Riana Thorindal, Daughter of Ezrina Thorindal from Rathalon, and I am fourteen years old!” Riana announced somewhat pridefully. Her family wasn’t important by any means, but they had a nice home and some old wealth, albeit small.

“Ok, calm down Riana Thorindal, daughter of Ezrina Thorindal of Rathalon.” The woman smiled again.

“You’re making fun of me.” Riana pointed out.

“Maybe a little. No harm done.” She replied.

“Well since I have introduced myself and you seem comfortable enough to make fun of me, maybe you should tell me your name as well.” Riana prodded.

The woman stood up gracefully and bowed slightly, adding a flourish with her gloved hands. “I am Adonna Gromstein, Daughter of Edward Gromstein of the village of Sunil.”

Riana looked at her stiffly. She’d never heard of such a place. Why would this strange woman come out of nowhere and start speaking to her?

“I’m sorry,” she began, “but is there some reason you are here making fun of me in a public library?”

“Yes.” Adonna replied.

Riana stared at her for a few minutes, waiting for the stranger to finish. When it became obvious that she wanted her to ask, Riana finally relented. “And that would be?”

Adonna’s smile widened and she stared for a few minutes longer before it became obvious that Riana was about to crack. “I heard you were asking for the location of dragons in Avian a few days back.”

Riana’s look instantly grew serious, her interest piqued. “I was. Do you know where I can find one?”

Adonna looked at her seriously. “I do. But I’m not sure I relish the thought of some elf youngling dragging the ground behind me as I go after it. I was expecting something a little different from someone advertising their search for dragons.”

Riana glowered at her. “Well if you don’t like what you see, then just get moving. Since no one is interested in helping me, I have a lot of work to do on my own here.”

Adonna’s smirk returned. Meet me outside the Academy’s doors at first light tomorrow. Pack light, nothing that you can’t fit in a single pack. Loose the robes if you intend to use that sword your wearing. You need something that you can move in. Also, bring some rations. Have you ever traveled before?”

Riana’s head was swimming, she almost didn’t hear the question. It took her a moment but she finally shook her head no. “Nowhere that I couldn’t get back to Rathalon by bed time from.”

Adonna merely nodded. “Alright. Being a light bed roll r sleeping mat, something that can roll up tight and hang fro your pack without restricting your movement. Food should be dried meats, crusty breads, maybe a small amount of cheese, and water. Nothing fancy. Anything you bring, you carry, no exceptions. I will not carry your things, and I will not carry you. You hear me?”

Riana nodded dumbly.

“Any questions?” Adonna asked.

“How long?” Riana stammered.

“How long? Will we be gone?” Adonna confirmed the question.

Riana nodded again.

“It’s difficult to say. Could be as long as a month if we don’t get lucky, maybe even longer if things really don’t go our way. Is this a problem?” Adonna raised a studded eyebrow.

Riana hastily shook her head. “N..no. I just… i need…”

“To say goodbye to your family for a while, yes I know. Otherwise I would be asking you to go get your things right now. Any other questions?”

Riana shook her head dumbly.

“Alright then.” Adonna said, “I will wait here tomorrow morning for ten minutes beyond sunrise. If you aren’t here by then I’ll assume you aren’t coming and leave without you.”

At that the metal-studded Adonna Gromstein stood up without making a noise, despite the myriad of opportunities afforded the possibility by all of her sharp, metal implements, and strode out of the library without looking back.

________________________________________________________________

That night Riana went shopping before she returned to their home in Rathalon. There were a few things she had never needed before, like a good traveling pack and a well-made bedroll. She also bought a nice water skin and some of the provisions that Adonna had mentioned. She wasn’t sure what else she might need though and she knew that she needed to keep her load light, so she opted for a decent length of thin, elven climbing rope and a few stakes (Along with a small mallet to drive them). She finished off her list with some odds and ends, a couple of small vials with good stoppers, and a small writing kit that included ink, quills, parchment and sealing wax, just in case she found herself in a position to take notes, or write a letter. On the way out of the Rathalon bazaar she spied a comfortable pair of boots that looked like they would fit nicely and be comfortable for long walks over uneven terrain so she spent her last few coins on those before returning home for dinner and to pack her things.

When she told her mother and sister what had happened they both reacted about the same way. Looks of amazement crossed their faces, then they smiled happily to see that, though she was nervous and a little bit scared, she was excited to go. Finally they transitioned to a brooding melancholy that seemed to have them all on the edge of tears all evening. Of course, Riana’s evening was slightly more pained than the rest of her family because of the lie she had told them. She had said that Adonna had volunteered to take her on as a pupil. Not once had the word dragon crossed her lips all evening.

Packing her bags proved to be an interesting challenge as, with all of her new purchases in her pack, there was scant room for anything else at all. She made sure to pack her heavy cloak because she had no idea what kind of weather they might encounter. Then she tossed in a small knife and one set of comfortable clothing. At that point she was having trouble securing the pack, so she knew there was nothing more she could take, unless she could get it on her belt.

Opening her wardrobe, she began rummaging through it for something rugged, yet comfortable to wear on a daily basis. She had picked out several possible candidates and was sitting on her bed going through them when her mother appeared at her door again, holding another bundle of leather, this one much larger than the last. This time the roll offered up a bodice, some vambraces, and a pair of leggings with a skirt of studded leather strips that wrapped around them. All of this was wrapped around a pair of thin, smooth, and perfectly fitting metal bracers for her forearms. This time Ezrina explained that the things had belonged to their…father (again the mysterious pause, although after fourteen years it was hardly noticeable to either of the twins), and that the evening she had gone out to pick up the sword, she had also dropped these things off at the tanner and smith respectively in order to have them tailored to Riana’s body. She didn’t want her little girl heading off into the world without a few helpful items that would also serve to remind her of home.

Riana tried the articles on and, once she looked in the mirror, was stunned to see how different she looked. Gone was the budding mage, wearing the baggy, concealing robes of their order. In her place was a new young elf, one with a world of new experiences outside the classroom waiting for her just over the horizon. She felt as though she was seeing herself for the first time, wrapping the sword belt around her waist experimentally, she knew that she was not, in fact, leaving home at all. Rather, she had just come home for the very first time in her life.