Chapter 1: Together

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Loren Howard

25th of Rebirth in Year 4: Shrouded Era

She was a forest elf, even if she had only lived in mountains before Brook Mills. The smell of rich soil and heavy fog through her mask was a comfort. An inherited instinct, maybe. Through the haze of her grogginess, that came as a touching thought. A light chill draped on Loren like a blanket and the prickling urge to get up and move were smothered under it. The small square of light from the barred window in the cart hadn't moved, she thought. Only an echoing ache in the back of her head kept Loren awake.

The door at the back creaked open, the sound and light cutting into her space. A healing spell came right behind it and pushed out the pain in her head.

"Loren," Noyo said and knelt over her while the glow of the restorative magic still faded from their hand. With their dark grey skin, they looked as if they were carved out of the light from outside. Explaining their fluid identity to others in Brook Mills had been difficult, but Noyo always commanded respect effortlessly. It wouldn't have been hard to believe they'd cut through the sun itself to get to Loren. "Stand up."

They held their hand out and Loren took it, steadying herself as she got to her feet. Truth was, Loren saw Noyo fighting so often with close-quarters lightning or flames that it was easy to forget those hands could heal too. Blood stained the front of their cloak even then. The sigils glowed on their mask, standing out from the late afternoon sunlight behind them.

"What—where—"

"There isn't time." Noyo insisted over their shoulder, leaving the cart through the open back gate and jumping down.

"Fresh out, as it stands," said a man past where she could see, casting a spell from the sound of it. A sharp crackle that made her hair stand on end gave it away as an ice spell. The scream that followed said it hit its mark.

The fight for their freedom from whoever these people were had started without her already, not that she had a weapon anymore. Loren dropped down from the end of the cart, landing behind Noyo. Almost inaudibly, they snapped a flame to the tip of their pointer finger and flicked it towards the people coming for them. The forest was shrouded in the rolling smog, nowhere near as thick as it'd been back in Brook Mills, but more than on the beaten path. How people survived out here to attack others, she didn't know. There wouldn't be a chance to ask, either, knowing Noyo. They weren't vicious, but they never left a job unfinished.

And right now, there was one person trying to pull themselves free of the ice jutting out from the forest floor and through their calf while the other fended off fireballs with a singed wooden shield. It didn't look good for them.

"Sword," Loren asked, hoping to get a weapon of her own before anyone reached them. If anyone reached them, between the two mages with her.

"Stay with us," Noyo answered indirectly, holding out the sword and calling on another fire spell in the other hand. "No shield."

"I can make do." Settling the sword in her hand and still feeling a little off-balance without her shield, Loren readied herself for anyone that might come.

"Ah, no need." The man, whoever he was, didn't have spellcasting as crisp and neat as Noyo's. Not many did. The spells did what they had to, though. Rumors about chiali mages were that they were naturally stronger than any others, and not because they had four arms to cast more. That didn't hurt his odds. But the chiali people were supposedly the original discoverers of magic who only taught it to those they deemed deserving back then. Maybe that history was enough that he didn't have to worry about form.

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