“Perhaps we’re expected?” asked Mal.
“I don’t find that reassuring,” said Teri.
A bright orange light shone ahead of them. The hum was audible now, a susurration somewhere between sand and the wind in leaves. Static electricity stood their hair on end. Dmitrio felt his hands tingle and itch as the aetherium gathered around him, seeking a will to shape it. He stayed close to the outer wall, peering around the curvature to try and glimpse what was happening before they stepped into the light. A few more steps brought a walkway leading out over an abyss into view. A woman stood at the end of it. She was bent over a book and aetherium dust swirled and danced around her.
“Marta?” Teri whispered.
Dmitrio’s brow furrowed. “I’m not certain. Her hair wasn’t silver the last time I saw her and she isn’t that old.”
“Too much aetherium?” asked Mal softly.
Dmitrio shrugged and motioned for them to stay back. He crept forward, trying to sense what the woman was doing. The patterns of aetherium manipulation felt familiar. His boot scuffed against the uneven edge where inlay changed to a wooden platform. The woman turned and Dmitrio gasped. Her eyes glowed silver and orange. It was his sister’s face but it was barely recognizable under silver tattoos of alchemy.
“Welcome, little brother. I wondered when you’d figure out the door.” Marta sauntered toward him, the aetherium clinging to her like a silk cloak.
“Hello, sister. It’s been a long time. Please forgive the intrusion,” said Dmitrio. He held his ground but watched her warily. Aetherium in the air gathered around him, unbidden. He strove to ignore the temptation to shape it. Given no clear direction, the dust responded to flickers of emotion and stray thoughts. It rose up in a defensive shield, swirled down and crashed into waves against the ground, then rose up again.
Marta looked past him. “Welcome, Wanderer. You’ll find your maps on that table against the wall. There are also annotated copies you may take as repayment for their loan.”
Dmitrio glanced over his shoulder and caught Teri’s eye. Teri nodded slightly and moved slowly and deliberately to the maps, keeping his eye on Marta. A flicker of orange drew Dmitrio’s attention front and center. Marta smiled coldly as she drew the aetherium whip back into her hand.
Teri said, “I think you have to ask permission to borrow something to call it a loan.”
Dmitrio heard papers rustle behind him. He said, “Marta was never quite clear on that point.”
Marta laughed, a deep throaty sound. “Little brother, I was always quite clear on that point. I merely choose to act first and ask forgiveness later. Wanderer, do you find the new maps satisfactory compensation?”
“Yes, thank you.” Said Teri.
“Good. Then you have no more business here. And why have you come, Maldriano? Still following Dee around like a love sick goat?” asked Marta.
“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a love sick goat,” grumbled Mal. “Dee’s just a friend I try to keep from getting himself into too much trouble.”
Marta laughed. “Whatever you say, dear.”
Teri smiled faintly at Mal. “I believe you.”
Mal sighed and shook her head irritably. “Of course you do. Everyone does.”
“She was just helping us find you,” said Dmitrio. “Might I inquire as to what you are working on?”
Marta smirked. “Still protecting her. How gallant.” She took three long steps towards him. “Finally taller than me by what? Two fingers?”
Dmitrio held her gaze and smiled slightly. “So it seems. How are you?”
“Better than ever.” She looked past him to his companions. “The two of you may go now. Dmitrio and I have business to discuss.”
“I’ll have a hard time getting home if they go without me,” said Dmitrio. “I’d prefer they stay.”
Marta’s gaze snapped back to him, her eyes narrowing. No one moved as the silence deepened. Dmitrio did not flinch or look away.
“As you wish.” The corner of Marta’s mouth curled up in a snarl. “It’s not as if they’ll understand anyway. I merely require they remain silent.”
“Say your peace,” said Dmitrio cautiously.
Marta turned and drew him up the walkway. “I’ve been learning the secrets of the Aether Masters. Dee, they are within our reach.” When they arrived at the edge, she traced an alchemy symbol in the air. A roar from below rumbled as water fountained past them, hit the distant cavern ceiling, and fell back down as mist. “Imagine being able to end droughts, awaken dry wells.”
Dmitrio felt the power stir within him, a longing to reshape the world to his will. He drew a deep breath. “Remember Rodrigo’s curse.”
Marta laughed dismissively. “The curse is an old-wives’ tale told to apprentices to keep them from learning their true potential.”
“I doubt the Aether Masters would agree.” Dmitrio glance back. Teri and Mal were waiting at the end of the walkway. They looked worried.
“The stories of their falling to curse? Most likely coincidence. They grew overconfident. You and I could do better. Will do better,” said Marta.
“Do you plan to reestablish the council?” asked Dmitrio.
“Why not? Those that shape the world rule the world.”
Dmitrio shook his head slowly. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. The world is managing just fine. Come home with me. We can continue to study together.”
“To what end? Making little light shows for the townsfolk on festival days? What is the point?”
“We could explore other applications, carefully. We must remember that there are consequences to every action. That water you drew up. Whose wells ran dry because of your demonstration?” asked Dmitrio. The aetherium whispered to him, offering to correct the water flow. He dismissed it irritably with a wave of his hand and it settled around him in a nebulous cloud.
“Don’t fear the power, Dmitrio! We were born to this. Look!” Marta drew another symbol and lava shot up and coated the far wall with a river of fire. “See? Nothing happened. The curse is a hoax.”
He shook his head and backed away. “You tempt the fates. Please stop. If you could see your eyes, you’d know you need to take a break from the aetherium. Rest. Then we’ll discuss this.”
The river flowed across the ceiling. Droplets of fire fell around them.
“I don’t know why I waste my breath on you. Fine. Be a Rodrigo apologist. Never learn to use your power to its fullest extent. I will pity you when I am leader of the new Council.” Marta’s voice grew louder and the aetherium around her swirled up into a burning tornado.
The wooden walkway caught fire and burned quickly. Aetherium dust blew up to form an umbrella over Dmitrio’s head as he reached out to his sister. He coughed as smoke and fire obscured his view.
“Come on!” Teri shouted in his ear as he pulled him back. They stumbled back to the stone passageway as fire rained down and dripped off the edges of the umbrella. The walkway creaked and collapsed as they reached the stone flooring.
Mal pressed a water skin into Dmitrio’s hands. “Drink this. Are you burned?”
Dmitrio drank deeply then passed it on to Teri. “No.” He turned back to the abyss and surveyed the charred remains of the walkway. He released the umbrella and gathered the dust into his hands, drawing more from the air and feeding it into a symbol of water. Stone sizzled as the fire turned water into steam. Fog filled the room as silver-orange droplets of water fell. The aetherium separated from the water and surrounded Dmitrio in a cloud. He changed the symbol to air and blew the fog down into the abyss. Water dripped against stone in the silence. He let out a long breath and collapsed the symbol as he gathered the remaining aetherium into a pouch.
“Where is she?” asked Mal.
“No idea,” said Dmitrio. He swayed, suddenly exhausted.
Teri steadied him and said gently, “I doubt she survived that firestorm. The walkway collapsed too fast for her to have escaped.” He put his arm around Dmitrio. “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
Dmitrio let the illusion fade. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save her.”
“I guess she was wrong about the curse,” said Izabela. “If only she’d turned her power to healing like Da wanted.”
“Yes.” Dmitrio leaned back in his chair. “I’m glad he didn’t live long enough to see this.”
Izabela cleared their dishes. “And the Wanderer? What became of him?”
Dmitrio smiled faintly. “We’re still getting acquainted, figuring out how to meet up when we can.”
“So you’re not becoming a Traveler?”
“They don’t make a balloon big enough for my workshop. Besides, I don’t think I could settle for just nine personal belongings. And no, he won’t be settling down on the ground anytime soon.”
Izabela leaned against the counter and studied her brother. “Still, a relationship that bloomed under Amori’s gaze is promising. You’ll find a way.”
“I hope so.”
“And thank you for telling me about Marta. I can’t say I’m surprised. Disappointed maybe, but not with you,” said Izabela.
Dmitrio stood. “I’m glad. Still, I’ll miss her.”
Izabela hugged him. “As will I.”
Dmitrio held her tight. She felt his warm tears on her shoulder and realized her cheeks were wet with her own. She pulled back and dried her face. “So. When do I meet this Wanderer who’s stolen your heart?”
“How do you think I got here? He’s waiting on the edge of town.”
“What is it they say about Wanderers? Something about solving problems while creating new ones?” asked Izabela.
Dmitrio smiled. “Wanderers solve big problems but create small ones in their wake. I suppose he prevented Marta from becoming a tyrant. As for the small problems that swirl around us, well. I think I can live with a complicated relationship.”
copyright 2015, all rights reserved, Kimberley Long-Ewing