One cannot pick the time when stress ignites the first manifestations of magic, nor can one choose the powers that come forth. Only introspection after the fact can guess the forces that shaped the power that came into being.
— Jakor Habir-Nos, Threats of the Children with Power
Linsan loved the first week of spring. As she walked along the overgrown road, she admired the new buds sprouting on the tree branches and the grass just pushing up through the thick mat of rotted leaves. The smells of the forest came to life, thawed by the early seasonal warmth.
She paused to shift her new violin case from one shoulder to the other. It bumped against her school bag until she managed to swing it over to her other side. The heavy weight of the hard case bore down on her, but it was a comforting companion on her long walks through the woods.
When she saw the curve with the three oak trees, some of her good mood faded and her footsteps came to a stop. She looked at the thick forest around her, the way everything was living and bright.
Then she tightened her grip on the strap across her chest. Looking down, she stared at her feet for a moment.
“Come on, Linsan,” she said to herself. “You've been doing this for years. You're fifteen, you aren't a little girl anymore.”
That didn't make it any easier.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to take a step forward. And then another. Soon, she was back to her steady pace as she approached the curve.
With every passing second, the world grew brighter. The canopy ahead of her opened up and the rich smells faded. Even the calls of the early birds broke up and grew silent.
By the time she reached the curve, the world had changed. Gone were the old growth woods and the rich smells of history. They were replaced by the bright colors of the sun-drenched valley with few plants taller than herself. Where there used to be spruce and maple, there was nothing more than grasses and wildflowers. They peeked up around the rotting remains of the old workshop, ridges of blackened wood sticking up among the rainbow of petals.
Linsan stopped and looked at the valley her family called their own. Six years had erased the memories of what the valley looked like when she was a little girl and was helpless as it burned. She couldn't remember what the workshop looked like anymore, only a few fragments of abstract memories were left behind.
It would be decades before the trees were old enough to lumber and see if they had retained the qualities that made her family's instruments special. By then, all the skills that went into crafting violins would also be gone; her father showed no interest in teaching her his craft.
She started walking again, straight for the ruins of the workshop. Her heart began to beat faster with anticipation. This was her private place, the quiet valley with painful memories.
Near the opening that once was a door, she set down her violin case and bag. She popped open her case and eased the violin from the velvet. It wasn't one of her father's but a good-quality one her mother had bought without her father's knowledge.
Stepping away into the knee-high grasses, she tuned it carefully and began to play. It had been a year since the fateful day in the attic. Her mother had given her a new violin as a present and she had played it every day since. Now, she was comfortable with the instrument and could play simple songs fluidly.
Her mother was also happy Linsan finally taught herself songs that didn't center on butts, though the childish part of her loved My Ass for a Glass of Milk for an entirely inappropriate song.
Linsan started to play. Her first song came out strong, it was a ballad about a girl and a boy. She didn't really know the words, but the melody always drew her. It was sad and sweet at the same time, an appropriate song for the ruins.
Closing her eyes, she just let the music flow around her. She imagined her father playing, the way he swayed back and forth with the movement of the bow. She followed suit, letting the song and the wind move her body as she ran through the notes.
When Linsan finished, she paused only for a moment and let her mind go back over the song with an analytical view. She noticed where her wrist stiffened up and she missed some notes. There was also a part where the notes didn't quite fit.
She took a moment to center herself and started back into the same song. She had to find the right combination of focus and relaxation at the same time.
The sounds of her instrument drifted through the wildflowers and filled the valley.
She lost the ending in a muddled mess. Frustrated, she let the violin slip from under her chin. She had to get it, if anything because she needed to be able to play more songs.
As soon as she started the third attempt, she knew it would end up wrong and she gave up before the fifth measure.
“Damn it,” she snapped. She paced around in a circle to calm herself. Her boots crunched on rotted wood and rocks. She hopped up on one edge of the foundation walls and off again.
After a few minutes of moving around, she was serene again. Steeling herself, she brought her violin up and started the same song. The anxiety and frustration grew despite the first notes coming out loud and clear. To fight it, she kept moving. First it was swaying but that wasn't enough. She stepped to the side, almost dancing as she swept through the songs.
Music rose from the bow. She felt it as much as she heard it. With a smile, she kept dancing, spinning and sliding with every moment as the song kept going.
When she finished without a single mistake, she couldn't help but smile. Her entire body hummed with the accomplishment.
She did it again.
With every iteration, she grew more comfortable with the song. Soon she was hopping up the sides of the ruins and twirling around on the narrow bricks. Her music flowed around her in perfect harmony with her movements.
“Oh look, it looks like the squirrels got drunk again,” said a familiar voice behind her.
Ripped from her song and dance, Linsan almost lost her balance. She tightened her grip on her violin as she teetered to one side and then used her other arm to regain balance.
A wave of laughter followed, all girls. They were mocking and cruel. Unfortunately, she also recognized all of them.
Heart pounding in her chest, she looked around until she saw Brook standing near the former entrance of the workshop. Behind her were two other girls from school, all in the same class as Brook. They were leaning against the ruined walls.
A year younger than Linsan, Brook was Dukan's eldest daughter. She had her father's dark hair but the curls tumbled over her shoulders and down almost to the small of her back. Even from the opposite side of the ruins, Linsan could tell that Brook had changed her outfit since school; her fancy dress and makeup would never be allowed in the halls. Nor would the wide-brimmed hat she wore.
Her outfit wasn't appropriate for standing in knee-high grass either.
Brook held the bottom of her sea-green dress away from the ground but the lace clung to the leaves that surrounded her boots. Some of the lace had caught broken leaves and there were little burrs clinging to the fabric.
Linsan glanced at the other two. They were still wearing their school dresses, relatively plain outfits of dark colors and somber patterns. They gave Brook the appearance of stepping off a stage or coming out of a portrait.
Brook made a show of looking around. Her face was twisted into disgust. “Why do you bother with this old place? There is nothing left here. Just some old walls and scorched rocks.” Her tone was sharp and cruel, just like whenever she spoke to Linsan at school.
Linsan struggled to not raise her voice. “This is still my family's land. Just because it hurts doesn't mean I'm going to abandon it.”
“Hurt? Places don't get hurt. Trees don't hurt. They get ruined and destroyed. Then everyone who counted on those lands fall. They are the ones who suffer, not some grass and rocks.” As Brook spoke, her voice grew sharper and more biting. She gestured to the ground around her, her hand almost smacking into one of her friends.
The muscles in Linsan's neck and chest tightened. She let the violin drop but kept it away from the bricks. “What are you doing here, Brook?” What she didn't say was that she would give almost anything to have Brook and her friends just go away.
“Just going for an evening stroll. Like proper ladies do.” Brook smiled sweetly but the smile didn't reach her eyes. “Not that your mother had ever taught you how to be anything proper.”
“You are an hour out of town unless you have some wagon nearby,” snapped Linsan. “In that outfit, the dirt road had to be hell on your ankles and worse on that pretty dress of yours.”
Brook's painted lips tightened into a thin line for a moment. “Maybe I just wanted to see you jumping around like a drunken squirrel? Or screeching like some sort of beast with that bit of wood? Everyone needs some entertainment, even refined ladies.”
Linsan started to snap back but Brook interrupted her. “Before you ask, we're all going to Koson's for dinner. A very exclusive dinner for people who are going up in the world, not backwater squirrels scampering on branches. Daddy is going to meet us there with a wagon.”
Koson was an expensive distillery a few miles past the valley. Even so, Brook had to come out of her way to the Sterlig Valley. It wasn't not an easy place to find.
Linsan flushed. Her stomach twisted as she glared at Brook. “I come here to get away from people like you.”
“Yes, you should do that.” Brook stepped forward. “In fact, you and the rest of your rotten family should move here to where we never have to see you again.” Her dark brown eyes flashed underneath the wide brim of her hat. “You are a stain on Penesol, a reminder that the Sterlig used to be famous crafters, not cowards hiding from their debts.”
With a flinch, Linsan had to force herself to relax her grip in fear of breaking her bow. She trembled as the tears rose in her eyes. “My family was ruined in that fire. We lost—”
“So was mine! But we didn't have your mother's fame to keep us floating in the muck. We fell in and drowned. We lost everything, I lost everything.” Brook's voice grew sharper. “We had to move. I lost my room and everything in it. We had to sell the pictures, my dolls, and even my paintings. We lived in a tent for a year because of you!” Her screams bounced off the rocks before fading.
Linsan shook her head. “But you're fine now. Your father is one of the richest people—”
Brook stomped hard on the ground. She screamed, “No thanks to you and your damn family!”
A flush of heat and discomfort rolled through Linsan's body. It was shocking how she could almost trace the wave as it radiated from her chest and flowed down into her hands and feet. Her violin trembled, the vibrations humming along the strings.
Brook stepped over Linsan's case and into the empty space between the walls. “Your father didn't help us! Your mother didn't either! Your damn parents walked away when we needed you the most!” Her face grew redder with every word.
“I-I can't tell you why that happened. I was only nine.”
“And I was eight and I lost everything!”
“That was six years ago! We were both little girls!” Linsan desperately wanted to get away. It was turning into a fight but there were no teachers to break it up and they were at least a half an hour away from anyone who could help. She glanced past Brook to her cases. They were now trapped between the three girls.
Brook's face twisted into a deep scowl. “We lived in hell for most of those years! Tents, that horrible cabin, even the Couple-damned apartment filled with bugs! That is our hell and you had to go through none of it!”
One of Brook's friends reached out. “Brook? I think—”
Brook turned on her and snapped. “Quiet!”
Her friend flinched.
Turning back, Brook took another step toward Linsan. The tall grasses dragged at her dress. “You didn't lose anything important. Just this place—”
As Brook gestured to the ruins around her, Linsan ground her teeth together. Brook didn't know what she was talking about. She had no idea how much the fire took out of her family. She opened her mouth to say something but Brook interrupted her.
“No, you don't get to tell me about losing things. It doesn't matter! You lost nothing but your damnable pride. You even still have one of your father's famous violins in our vault. Just a single box as if was the most important thing in the world. It's probably worth more than my father, but your parents don't have,” she spat out the word, “to sell that, do you?”
When Brook's father had recovered from the fire, he had bought one of the banks in town. It was where Linsan's father had taken Palisis for safe keeping.
Linsan jumped off the wall toward Brook. “I lost more than that, cow!”
From behind Brook, her other friend spoke up. “Brook? I thought we were just going to tease her? This is going too far.” She was obviously uncomfortable. Both of them had stepped back, away from the wall.
Brook appeared to ignore her as she stomped toward Linsan. She released her dress which dragged along the wildflowers that Linsan hadn't crushed with her dancing. She was sweating as she did, droplets running down her face and marring her makeup.
Linsan hesitated at the sight of Brook balling up her hands into fists. Their encounter was rapidly sliding into a fight and she still had her violin her hand. She glanced to the side, looking for some place to toss it safely if she had to defend herself.
Brook stopped in front of her. Her face was red with dark streaks from her ruined makeup.
Linsan backed up. Her mind plotted her next action: duck to the right and throw her violin onto a bed of violets. That looked like the safest place. She could then come back with a punch if she had to.
Brook leaned toward her. “I never want to see you again,” she hissed. “Not in school, not in the street. There is nothing good about you or your family and I want the rest of the world to know it.” Her breath was hot against Linsan's face.
Linsan felt sick to her stomach. The discomfort had grown rapidly and she was on the edge of throwing up herself. The world spun around her as she stared into Brook's angry brown eyes.
“You and the rest of your drunken squirrels need to go away and never be seen again.”
Trembling, Linsan fought the urge to lash out. She tried to convince herself if she just let Brook threaten her, it would be over. Just a few minutes, she hoped.
Brook seemed to have the same hesitation. She trembled as she kept her face shoved toward Linsan's. They were only inches away and it felt like the air between them was growing more heated with every passing second.
“B-Brook?” called out the second girl. “We should probably be going.”
Brook's lips pressed into a thin line.
Linsan wanted to look away, to avoid the conflict, but couldn't. She stared back and waited for what would happen next. Her lungs hurt and she realized she was holding her breath, but she didn't dare let it go.
Brook yanked back. “Rot in a pile of rancid crap,” she muttered and spun around. Her dress tugged on the grasses around them as she stormed away.
Letting out her breath, Linsan squirmed. She got a better grip on her bow and instrument; both of her palms were slick with sweat. The rest of her body still felt uncomfortable, as if her skin wasn't fitting quite right anymore.
She panted as she watched Brook walk toward the entrance. Beyond Brook, her two friends were already walking back. Linsan just had to hold on a little longer, then she and her friends would be gone and she could let herself go, no doubt to cry.
Brook reached the entrance. Before she crossed the threshold, she looked down.
The feeling of something about to turn rose up inside Linsan. She followed Brook's gaze to where her violin case and school bag were propped up against the wall.
Brook lifted her elegant boot.
“No!” cried Linsan as Brook stomped hard on the case. The thin walls cracked loudly.
Brook didn't stop. She smashed the case twice before kicking it hard. The top cracked loudly as one hinge burst.
Linsan's vision blurred for a moment. She fought back the nausea, she couldn't throw up with Brook standing there.
Brook's friends stopped and turned to look back. Neither were smiling. One slowly lifted her hand to her mouth.
Brook held up her dress and kicked the case again. It slammed into the stone wall and the lid sheered off, bouncing on the stone before falling to the ground.
With tears in her eyes, Linsan walked toward her. “Stop! Why are you doing that!? I bought that with my own money!”
Brook glared at her over her shoulder, her eyes half-hidden by her dark curls. “You don't deserve anything!”
She turned and kicked Linsan's schoolbags. Papers flew everywhere.
Linsan tossed her violin and bow onto the patch of violets. The instrument bounced once with a discordant twang. “Stop that!”
Brook started to walk away. “Fine, I'll stop. I have a better idea anyways.”
The tone of Brook's voice sent a pang of fear coursing through Linsan.
“I might as well finish the job the fire started.”
The world blurred for a moment. A sick feeling twisted in Linsan's stomach, almost doubling her over in agony. She fought it, trying to keep her gaze focused on Brook's back.
Brook went a few yards before she stopped and looked over her shoulder again. “The nice thing about wooden instruments is that they burn so easily. Only one left—”
Linsan charged forward with a scream, “You leave Palisis alone!”
Brook's smile froze. She turned and raised her arm.
Linsan swung wildly but missed.
“You cow!” snapped Brook. Her fingers raked across Linsan's face, leaving four burning lines. She followed with a kick that caught Linsan's knee.
Linsan dropped to the ground.
Brook rolled her eyes and then brought her knee up. The soft padding of her dress did little to cushion the impact as it connected with Linsan's chin with a crunch.
With a groan, Linsan fell back. She clutched her jaw with one hand and felt the pain radiating from between her fingers.
Brook leaned toward her. “Do you really think a dress is going to stop me? I have two sisters! I know how to fight!”
Sick and dizzy and enraged, Linsan staggered to her feet. “Don't you dare burn Palisis!”
“Pal… the violin? You named that stupid instrument?”
“It isn't stupid! That's my father's! That's all we have left!”
Brook clicked her tongue and shook her head. “That's what wrong with all of you. You cling to those stupid things like they are somehow going to save you. It's just a rotted thing and you don't deserve any of them. You need to lose everything, just like us.”
She turned and stomped back toward the ruins. “In fact, you don't deserve this one—”
Linsan didn't hear the rest. She was charging forward wildly. Her shoulder caught the small of Brook's back as she threw all her weight into tackling her. Her incoherent scream echoed across the valley.
The dress tore loudly and the ripping sound filled the air.
“That's it, I'm going to burn both of your violins!”
Linsan kicked and punched as she tried to free herself. Her hands dug into the ground as she crawled to her violin. Her vision blurred but she managed to keep her attention locked on her violin. She had to get it before Brook did.
“You ruined my dress!”
Linsan reached her violin. She grabbed it and rolled over, clutching the instrument to her chest as she stared.
Brook stood in the middle of the ruins. Blood ran down her shoulder and soaked into her ripped dress. Her makeup had been smeared and dirt darkened her skin, adding to the red tone as she stared at Linsan with fury.
Linsan shook her head. She glanced around and saw the bow was only a few feet away. Her stomach rumbled and her skin was flushed. Everything felt like fire but burned deep in her bones than along the surface. She didn't know what was going on, only that she had to protect her instrument.
Brook pointed at her. “You're going to get arrested for this! You attacked me!”
“You threatened my family!”
“I'm going to burn that shit-covered violin to the ground! I'm going to ruin every Couple-damn thing you have left to you and when… when you have nothing, I'm going to find every damn, diseased dog in town and have them shit all over your grave and this entire fucking place!” Her arm swept to encompass the ruins of the workshop.
Linsan scrambled to her feet.
Brook flipped her thumb at her. “You hit me one more time and you'll spend the rest of your life rotting in some jail. I promise you, if it comes between us, you know the town will listen to my dad over yours.”
Hesitating, Linsan didn't doubt it was true. No one wanted to talk about her father anymore. They averted their eyes whenever he left the house.
“Now, excuse me because I have something to burn!”
Unthinking, Linsan grabbed for her bow. It was light in her hand but somehow it felt alive. She wanted to play, in that surreal moment, the urge to bring music forth was stronger than anything she had felt before.
Brook stepped back. “What are you doing?”
Linsan stepped forward, her jaw clenched tight. She jammed the violin against her chin.
The sick feeling in her stomach soured and knotted. She felt like the world was melting away from her. The trees, the ruins, everything felt unreal. The only thing solid was her violin and her bow.
Brook held up her hands, ready to parry.
Linsan drew a single note across the tight strings.
Her entire world fragmented as something rushed out of her. It blew away from her in almost invisible wave of force. The tall grasses and flowers flattened almost immediately. When the wave hit the ruin's walls, one of them tumbled apart.
The force slammed into Brook, throwing her back violently from the ruins. Her body flew over the wall, a sharp edge tearing her dress further apart. She landed with a thud.
Linsan gasped but she didn't lower her bow.
Around them, the forest was deathly silent.
Brook stood up, her arms covered in dirt and blood. “What did you do?” Looking around, she bent over and picked up a large rock. With a grunt, she threw it at Linsan.
Moving reflexively, Linsan didn't dodge it. She felt the tone before she played it, a single sharp note. It ran out from her violin, drawn by her bow. In her panic, the sound ended with a screech but it was enough.
The air rippled around her as something shot out, spearing the rock and knocking it aside.
Linsan glared at Brook. “Leave my father alone!”
The notes were burning in her head and she played them without thinking. It wasn't any song she had heard before, but it was violent and angry with sharp discordant notes that burst out of her. Each one manifested into waves of force that shot out to punch Brook. Blows caught the other girl's stomach, chest, and thighs.
Brook staggered back. “Bitch!”
Enraged, Linsan continued to play. She pummeled Brook with rapid blows, each one in perfect harmony with the notes in the back of her head. She didn't think she could stop. She wasn't even sure she wanted to.
Brook fell back in a spray of blood. Her shoulders slammed hard against the ground.
Shocked, Linsan froze. Her bow hovered inches above the strings, waiting to strike again. To her surprise, the sick feeling was gone, leaving behind a rush of something far more intense. It felt like she had just finished a dance or dove into water.
A few birds called out.
Linsan's arm began to tremble. The anger ebbed away, leaving behind an exhaustion that startled her. She shook her head. She knew everyone had a magical talent, but no one ever explained how they got it. She always thought it would be some secret ritual her parents would use, but somehow she had just used magic through her instrument.
She glanced at her bow and gave a little hesitant pull. The note rang out and the energy hummed around her. It fluttered against her skin, a little caress of power that was almost invisible in the air.
Brook groaned as she stood up. Her dress was ruined and blood soaked the side of her face.
Linsan focused on her, holding up the bow to strike again.
“This isn't over,” gasped Brook. “We aren't done until I say we're done.”
One of her friends held out a hand. “We should go,” she said.
“Please?” asked the other.
Linsan ignored them. “Leave my family alone.”
Brook stepped back, moving toward the trail leaving out of the valley. She was limping. “Like hell I will.”
Rage surged through Linsan. She drew her bow and played a full measure of rapid, sharp tones.
Brook turned. Her face twisted in rage for a moment, then it turned into a strange look of confusion as she peered down at her bloody palms.
Enraged herself, Linsan's bow tore another sharp sound out of the instrument and the translucent energy exploded from the violin and shot toward Brook.
Brook looked up. With a scream, she clapped her hands together with all her might.
A burst of raw noise exploded from Brook in a wave. It slammed into Linsan's music and tore the tones apart. The wave rushed toward Linsan, flattening grasses and shattering the walls of the ruins.
The concussion wave slammed into Linsan's chest as if a horse kicked it. She was ripped off the ground and thrown through one of the last remaining walls of the workshop. The impact of cracking stone sent sharp agonies along her hips and thighs as she tumbled into the grasses. Sharp rocks and leaves cut at her face, scraping her skin as she flipped over twice before landing heavily.
With ears ringing from the burst, she tried to reach for her instrument but she had lost it. She groaned and rolled on her hands and knees. She knew a blow would be coming soon but whatever Brook had done left Linsan dizzy.
Gasping, she managed to push herself up into a kneeling position. Looking round, she tried to orient herself to her attacker.
Brook wasn't nearby.
Startled, she looked around and realized she was facing the valley. With a sob of pain, she turned to see Brook hurriedly limping toward the road leading out of the valley. Her friends were hovering next to her, trying to help but Brook kept waving them off.
Linsan thought about chasing after her but the cuts and ached throbbed in her joints. Whatever rush came from fight was fading away, reminding her that she had almost as many injuries as Brook.
Her first thought was to run home but there was only one road leading into the valley. She wasn't going to give Brook a chance to ambush her. She had to wait.
With a hiss of pain, she got up and frantically looked for her violin. The fear that Brook had smashed it hovered in her thoughts until she found it unharmed in the grass. With a gasp of relief, she snatched it up along brought it to the smashed remains of her instrument case. The sides of the leather-lined container had been shattered by whatever power Brook had summoned.
Her vision blurred as she looked at the ruined wall of the workshop. Years ago, the fire had scorched the stones but Brook's power had blasted it apart. In the still crumbling opening, she could see the stones scattered dozens of feet in a spray pattern.
Brook's magic was far more destructive than Linsan's musical blasts.
Linsan scoffed. Naturally, the gods decided that Brook would have more talent.
She sat down heavily and stared at the case. There wasn't much she could do to salvage it, but her violin was more important than paperwork. She emptied out the bag and started to make something to protect her instrument.