• ~Begin Chapter 11~

    Mora was forced forward by Martin, the entirety of her body pulsing with pain, arms filled with ache after being held behind her back so long. Leera's magical invasion had dealt an excruciating blow and the hours of walking hadn't helped. In her weakened and weary state she barely registered her surroundings. The crater had leveled out after a good 2 hours' trudge. The air was completely still with dark smoke hanging in the air, motionless. Such a disconcerting sight was even enough to put Leera edge. Except for a few sharp orders for Martin to keep up she hadn't spoken since the entered.

    The most ominous factor was the smell. The air smelled like stagnant water, as if it hadn't moved in ages. No trees appeared before them, nor any bushes, flowers, or even a single blade of grass. It seemed the Crater of Mephestis was exactly as they had been told. A pit created through the destruction of an entire race of people.

    A dark and lifeless pit of death.

    Nico breathed deeply, trying to connect with his magic as Loki had instructed. He called out in his head, hoping to draw it out. For a moment he felt a glimmer of warmth in his gut, but the shock caused him to lose his concentration. He'd been sitting cross-legged on the cave floor for nearly an hour, repeating these happenings again and again.

    "You're not paying attention," Loki chided. Though they had only spent a few hours together the strange feline had perfectly taken on a mentor persona, acting like one of the meditation instructors from the Tower, complete with condescending attitude.

    "It's difficult," Nico whined. "It feels like my magic's been flipped upside-down. Nothing's coordinated."

    "A dormant part of you magic has just been unlocked, so a little dysfunction is to be expected."

    "Then why do you expect me master this so quickly?"

    "It shouldn't be that hard, Belrax connected with the power in minutes."

    "Well maybe I'm not the same as him."

    "Her," Loki corrected. "Elementals aren't always male, you know."

    "Either way, I'm not the same pers-"

    "Talking won't help you concentrate, now get back to work."

    "You know, for a creature that's been teaching for thousands of years, you don't have a lot of patience for questions."

    "I'm aware, now stop your whining and get back."

    Frustrated with both his elusive power and his teacher, Nico heaved a sigh and resumed.


    Mora was unimaginably relieved when their march finally stopped. Said relief was instantly dispelled when Martin shoved her forward into the tough ground. Only now, with her face shoved into it, did she realize that the gray substance they had been walking on wasn't soil, but ash. In any other circumstance Mora would have been full of curiosity, wondering how something like that was possible, but her mind was too exhausted to be interested.

    Leera sat down, sending a flurry of ash scattering into the air around her. The girl emerged from the cloud hacking and coughing. As broken down as she was, Mora still couldn't keep from grinning at the sight of Leera being taken down a peg.

    Catching sight of Mora's smirk as her coughing fit ended, Leera stormed over to her and kicked the captive girl straight in the face with her ash and mud spattered boot.. Mora rolled over, a cloud of ash and dust rising in her wake.

    “Enjoy this while you're still alive, Your Highness!” Leera screamed, face turning red. She used Mora's title as if it were the most disgusting insult in her vocabulary. “Once I've made absolutely sure that Nico's of the picture, you'll be dead in a flash.”

    Leera snapped her fingers as she spoke the last word, magically generating sparks for emphasis.

    “Do you have any idea how insane that is!?” Mora responded, rolling to face her captor. “You would be murdering royalty! My mother would have you hunted down, tortured, and executed!”

    “Ah, but you forget that nobody's here to witness it. They'll all assume you were killed by a Darkling animal, killed while attempting to gain a spirit stone. Nobody would doubt the possibility considering this Crater's survival rate.”

    Mora scowled as Leera. She couldn't believe the girl she'd known and learned with for years was suddenly talking with such ease about killing.

    “What happened to you Leera?” Mora asked the girl. “You were always conceited, but you were never evil. What happened to you to make you into such a monster?”

    “Monster? Evil? I'm neither, I'm simply willing to do what is necessary. For the good of the Empire.”

    “What are you talking about!? How could killing me and Nico be good for the Empire?”

    “My goal is not to be a killer, but to become the next Grand Wizard. Killing you 2 will only help ensure I gain the title without contest.”

    “You don't think murder to achieve ambition is evil?” More pressed. “Even you can't be that delusional.”

    “You still don't realize. When I was born, the Listeners, the women with the power to hear the words of the Gods, the order that brings prophecy, came to my parents and told them I would become a sorcerer of unfathomable power. With me as Grand Wizard, The Empire would hold the greatest power in the world! We would be able to destroy any enemy in our way!

    “Isn't that for the greater good? You, the princess of the Empire must be able to sympathize with it? Wouldn't you do the same to empower this kingdom?”

    Mora didn't answer, not because she had no response, but because she saw it was pointless. Leera couldn't be reasoned with.

    The young girl was already raving mad.

    When Nico finally made contact with his magic, it was like lighting off a bonfire inside his chest. A warm sensation rushed from his gut and spread through his body. Nico was instantly shaken from his meditative state, and as he opened his eyes, he let out a gasp.

    The walls of the gave were shining with a a pale brown aura, pulsing in tempo with his heartbeat. He rubbed his eyes, sure his vision was skewed from keeping his eyes closed for so long. The light still remained.

    “What's going on?” Nico shouted. He turned to Loki and saw the cat silhouetted by a deep green light, this light too pulsed in sync with his heart.

    “It appears as if you've finally managed to access your magic,” The cat stated calmly. “I expect you've some questions about your vision.”

    “What happening with my eyes?” Nico asked, blinking. He wasn't as worried about the light now that it seemed Loki knew about them.

    “It's part of you magic. You're seeing the natural auras of your surroundings.”

    “Aura? I thought those things were only visible when you had powerful magic being concentrated.”

    “Normally, yes, but your elemental magic links you to the spirit of the earth, to Gaia, allowing you to see what is invisible to others. You can see the life in what is around you.”

    “The life? But, stone isn't alive.”

    “All things connected to Gaia are alive in one way or another, it just can't be sensed by humans.”

    “Suppose it makes as much sense as anything else today.”

    “You're finally becoming accustomed to the bizarre and unlikely. That's a good sign.”

    “So...what now? More training?”

    “No, I want you to meditate again, this time try to feel the stone beneath you. Try to connect with it.”

    “I presume taking a break is out of the question.”

    “You presume correctly, now be quiet, I smell a tasty rat near.”

    Nico sighed, returned to ground, and began controlling his breathing as Loki padded off to enjoy his hunt.

    As his breathing entered the pattern he had practiced for years in the Wizard Tower's meditation classes, Nico started to focus on the stone beneath him. Almost instantly, his consciousness penetrated the ground. It felt as if his mind's eye was spreading through the stone.

    Intrigued by this new insight, Nico began exploring, sending his mind through the ground and cave walls. He went through through the adjacent tunnel, where Loki had just pounced upon his prey and was in the process of skittering it about the cave floor, just like regular cats he preferred to play with his food before he killed it.

    On a whim, Nico sent his mind into the strange feline. Nico slipped his mind through the cat's paw and into Loki's magic. What happened was not what Nico had expected.

    Suddenly it seemed he was Loki, everything he saw was from the cat's perspective, he felt the sensations that pulsed through Loki's body. He felt he rough ground under his paws, he heard the sound of the mouse squeaking frantically as it was tossed into the air.

    Receding from Loki's mind, Nico returned to the cave floor. Loki continued to play with the mouse, apparently having felt nothing from Nico's invasion.

    Feeling strangely guilty for having gone into Loki's head as he had, Nico continued to explore. He sent his mind up through the rocks above, testing the boundaries of his new connection. He went miles and miles above, through rock and then soil, wondering how far he could go. He felt like a child who had just learned how to ride a horse. Racing forward with the thrill of exploration urging him forward.

    Eventually, he reached the surface, and could go no further, it seemed his mind couldn't simply transcend space. He still had to be connected to the ground.

    Not to be deterred, Nico sped across the the surface ground, wondering if he would find anything of interest. After a few minutes, just as he was starting to lose interest, he discovered something extremely interesting. Though his normal senses didn't function in this state, he could sense living things in his proximity, and so far he hadn't encountered even a blade of grass. But suddenly, he sensed not a plant, but a person, or rather 3 people.

    Curiosity peeked, Nico headed towards the travelers. As he neared, he pondered how strange it was for 3 people to be seemingly alone in a barren wasteland. When he reached them, Nico sent himself into the person leading the group.

    He was initially surprised by what her perceived. He was walking in a desolate place. Thick black smoke filled the air, and gray ash coated the ground.

    It was obvious he wouldn't garner much from this perspective, so Nico exited the person's body and entered the person walking behind. Immediately he wished he hadn't. The person's body ached from head to toe, their hands were bound behind their back and their vision was blurred by fatigue. Everything in their sight was fuzzy as if they were looking through fogged glass. All Nico could make out through this person's eyes was the vague silhouette of the traveler in front.

    The person in front seemed to be a girl, about Nico's age judging by height, with long blond hair. The hair troubled Nico, the distorted view made it impossible to be certain, but the way it was set on the girls shoulders seemed familiar.

    Unable to bear the pain in his inhabitant's body any longer, Nico left the middle person's body and entered the one at the back of the procession.

    What he saw from the person's point of view confirmed the fear that had spawned while in the second person's body. In front of the group walked a tall, blond haired girl. Her body moving with perfect grace and composure. Nico couldn't see her face, but he was sure if he could he would be seeing a beautiful face, with a smug, self-assured expression embossed upon it.

    Leera Ajik.

    Behind Leera, a girl with shoulder-length, brown hair walked forward unsteadily, arms bound with rope behind her back, a small bronze circlet askew on her head.

    Trudging on slowly and wearily, being pushed occasionally by the person Nico was spying through, in a pit of death and bleakness, was Mora Mersad.

    ~End Chapter 11~