I heard the door open and footsteps approaching. “Here’s our driver,” said Haines.
The emperor rested his hands on my shoulders and I could smell his breath. “There will be a space at my shoulder waiting for you when you return.”
“You will be guarded? You will not keep a place vacant just because I’m not there?”
“Don’t worry about me. Just come back to me when you’re ready.” He gently shook my shoulders. I felt like a rag doll in his grasp. “Get better. You hear me?”
I didn’t say anything. I heard him and his escort leave the room. Patricia’s hand took my left elbow and guided my steps as we headed in the other direction through another door.
As we drove to the little house where my parents and I had lived for three years, memories of the landscape flashed through my mind. That wasn’t all; my three best friends, what were they like now? It had been… “How old am I now?” I asked to anyone who wished to answer.
“You’re almost twenty four now,” said Haines.
Almost twenty-four; the trip had taken a long time. “Why so long?”
“The emperor ordered the doctor to wait for him to return. Then we stopped at the barony, thinking that’s the home you were talking about, but just as Patricia kept saying, your mother sent us here.”
I went back to my private thoughts, thoughts of my friends, my teachers and the changes in them and the landscape we were traveling through during my nine-year absence; nine years was a long time. Things change over that many years. Had my friends and their families been relocated? Did they have families of their own now? Were my teachers still there?
The car stopping interrupted my thoughts. I didn’t want to move. Moving meant doing something, walking or talking. I didn’t want to do anything. I had found a place to curl up and I was doing just fine.
“Come on, Liam,” said Patricia.
I didn’t want to move.
“Come on, kid,” said Haines as he pulled at my arm.
I climbed slowly out of the car.
“You’ve arrived. I’ve been expecting you,” said a voice I didn’t really wish to hear again.
“You have?” said Patricia.
“Yes, the baron contacted me and informed me that you were on the way. Please come in and have a beer.”
My hackles began to rise. “No thank you. The last time I accepted your hospitality, you called an ambush on me. I still have the scars.” Well, maybe not any more, not all of them anyway.
“I was just following orders, young man. I had no idea they were going to start shooting. What happened to you anyway? You look like…”
I turned and walked away from the voice. I didn’t realize or even really care that my feet had automatically taken the trail into town. The trail I had used every day for the entire time my parents had lived in that house. There was fire behind my eyes and ice in my blood.
Haines caught up with me. “Wait, Liam. We have to pack up supplies before we go any further.”
“You go back and pack supplies. I won’t touch any of it.” My voice was a hiss in my ears.
“Liam, be reasonable.”
My ‘tail’ thrashed. I spun to face the man. Even though my world was still very dark, I could still zero in on his voice, but before I could come up with some sort of retort, my magic stirred more than just its tail. “Get away.” I felt my voice go stiff. “Get away from me. Take cover,” was all I could get out before chaos arrived.
I dropped to my knees. I don’t know what I did, but if it was anything like what happened in my apartment, I’m sure there were many solid objects flying around in the air while they continued to shred and shatter into smaller pieces.
Much to my relief, the chaos was squashed only a few moments after it started, but I had nothing to do with it.
My confusion was settled a few seconds later when I heard another familiar voice. “You should have sent word. If we had known of Liam’s arrival and his trouble, we could have been here sooner,” said Tsan.
“The arrival of the baron’s son is none of your concern,” said Mr. Preston.
I felt my anger surge again, but the dampening grew to match. It was almost as if I was numb somewhere inside.
“You were mistaken, Mr. Preston,” said Tsan.
I heard a moan. “This one will be all right,” said Larak. “He only caught a small one a glancing blow up side the head.”
A chill washed over me. “Haines,” I said in a voice that was all too close to a whimper.
“I’m all right, kid. I just didn’t duck fast enough,” said Haines.
I sat fully on the ground and drew my knees up to bury my face in them. I curled up inside too and Tsan felt it.
“No, Liam. Don’t do that. Come on, get up.”
I curled up tighter.
“Take him, Tsan,” said Larak. “I’ll bring the others.”
Suddenly I felt the coolness of the mountain cavern where my friends and I had spent so much of our time shortly before my abrupt departure. I still couldn’t uncoil; I didn’t want to. I was detached from my body in a way. Some small piece of my brain could think, but I had no control over the rest of me.
I felt more than one pair of hands lift me off the ground, carry me a few feet and then set me down again. Then the hands pulled me from my coiled ball and pinned me down flat on a hard stone surface.
“Come on, Liam. Help us,” said Durmas, the most welcome voice I had heard so far, but I couldn’t do what he wanted. I was helpless.
“He can’t,” said Larak. “You know he can’t. It’s not too late, is it?”
“I don’t know. Help me,” said Durmas.
I felt their magic wash through my body. It felt cool and fresh, but my own magic rebelled. Ice washing through my veins was the last thing I remembered.