Time is the only determination when stress ignites the first manifestations of power. Is the degree of emotion and the threat of life that determines the nature and measure of the power that comes forth.
— Jakor Habir-Nos, Threats of the Children of Power
Linsan always 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 leaves just pushing up through the thick mat of rotted leaves. The smells of the forest were coming to life, thawed out by the early season.
She paused to shift her violin case from one shoulder to the other. Her school bag went on the opposite side. The heavy weight of the hard case bore down on her, but it was a comforting company 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.”
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, it was grasses and wild flowers. They peeked up around the rotting remains of the old workshop, ridges of blacked wood sticking up among the rainbow of petals.
Linsan stopped and looked at the valley her family called their own. Eight years had erased the memories of what it looked like when she was a little girl. She couldn’t remember how the workshop looked anymore, only a few fragments of thoughts that she wasn’t sure were real anymore.
It would be another forty years 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 used to be the door, she set down her violin case and bag. She popped open her case and took out 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. After a winter of playing in secret, she gotten comfortable with the instrument and learned how to play less bawdy songs. 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, 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 being relaxed at the same time.
The sounds of her instrument drifted through the wild flowers and filled the valley.
She lost the ending into a muddled mess. Frustrated, she let the violin slip from her chin rest. 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 calm 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 as mile, she kept dancing around, spinning and sliding with every moment as the song kept going.
When it ended up 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 entire body joined in with the song and it felt like magic.
“You look like a drunken squirrel.”
Ripped out of 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.
Heart pounding in her chest, she looked around until she saw Brook standing near the gaping entrance of the workshop. A year younger than Linsan, Brook was Dukan’s eldest daughter. She had her father’s dark hair but the curly hair tumbled over her shoulders and down almost to the small of her back. Even from the opposite side of the ruins, Linsan could tell she still had her makeup on from school but she had switched to a more elegant dress fitting for a show. Both seemed out of place next to the building’s ruins.
The muscles in Linsan’s neck and chest tightened. She let the violin drop but kept it away from the bricks. “What do you want?”
“You skipped out of class.”
Linsan shrugged. “So? You do that all the time.”
“Yes, but I already been accepted to the University of Sager. I don’t have to be in school, I just happen to enjoy it.” Brook rested her hands on her hips. In the light, her pale skin almost glowed. If it wasn’t for a narrow brimmed hat with lace trim, her face would burn within an hour. In that regard, she was a lot like Linsan’s mother.
Linsan’s lips tightened. Her mother was on tour again. She was famed for her skill but the public were always looking for younger dancers and singers, the next act instead of the classics. The jobs were slowly ebbing away, something that she heard her parents arguing about more often lately.
“Did you finally get a letter yourself? What college? Bursam? Panzir? Oh, did that little musical number of yours get you a scholarship at Stone Over Moon Waters?”
Linsan glared at her. She twisted slightly to keep her balance on the ruined wall but she wasn’t interested in getting into a brawl. If it went bad, they were at least a half hour away from town.
Brook sighed and made a show of looking around. Her pale blue dress twirled as she turned. “No, you’re going to be stuck flailing around this dead valley until the day you die. You and your father just rotting—”
“Shut it,” snapped Linsan. The grip on her violin tightened and she could feel the strings straining against her fingertips. She was flushed, no doubt from the growing anger.
Brook smirked at her. “Why? You’re going nowhere and you know it.”
Linsan couldn’t help but think about how her father bent over his typewriter, writing out essays about the past. A wave of nausea hit Linsan. She shook her head and crouched down to avoid losing her balance. With one arm clutching her stomach and the other holding her violin, she glared at Brook.
“Don’t forget, I’ve seen your family’s legacy in the vaults. Just a single pathetic violin no one has played and a few scorched boxes of paperwork.” Her father, Dukan, ran the bank where most of the town stored their precious belongings.
Brook smirked and gestured to the workshop. “That thing wasn’t much different than this place, a ruin of someone’s life.”
Linsan gulped at her tight throat. Her dizziness wasn’t relenting. “Why are you doing this?”
Brook glanced down and kicked the violin case. “Your father is a joke and a disgrace. When this entire place burned to the ground, we almost lost everything too.” She kicked the case harder, flipping it over and spilling its contents across the ground.
“We didn’t have someone like your mother to pay the bills,” she continued with a glare. “There wasn’t plays and tours bringing in crowns. My dad had to work every day and night with three jobs to make ends me. I barely saw him for weeks as he scraped the bottom of barrels and raked horse shit.”
Linsan’s vision blurred for a moment. She fought back the nausea, she couldn’t throw up with Brook standing there.
“Then you know what happened? After all the crap we had to go through, things finally got better. No thanks to you and your whole cursed family!” Brook kicked the case harder.
It smashed against the charred wall. Wood splintered as the lid sheared off.
Linsan looked around and saw a spot to hop down. She did, landing on the ground heavily. A few steps took her near her ruined case. The hinge was twisted and snapped and the lid sat at an unnatural angle. There felt tears burning her eyes. “Why did you do that? I bought that with my own money!”
Brook smirked. “You don’t deserve anything after the crap your family did.”
She turned and kicked Linsan’s schoolbags. Papers flew everywhere.
Linsan dropped her violin into her case. It bounced once but stayed within the padded interior with a discordant twang. She glared at Brook. “Stop doing that.”
“Why should I? You and your family are nothing but trash. She gave the bag another kick.
Brook turned and 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, her visible eye half hidden by her dark curly hair. “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 up with a kick that caught the back of 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 face with a sickening crunch.
With a groan, Linsan fell back. She clutched her nose with one hand and felt hot blood pouring down between her fingers.
Brook leaned toward her. “Do you really think a dress is going to stop me?”
Sick and dizzy and enraged, Linsan staggered to her feet. “Don’t you dare burn Palisis!”
“Pal… the violin? You named a 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 instruments like they are somehow going to save you. It’s just a rotted thing and you don’t deserve any of them.”
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, fabric pulling apart.
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 bitch! 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 gestured at her. “You hit me one more time and you’ll spent 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 like. 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 fragments as something rushed out of her. It blew away from her in almost invisible wave of force. The tall grasses flattened almost immediately as did one of the standing walls.
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.
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. Energy burst out from her and her instrument, shooting across the air to punch into Brook. Blows caught the other girl’s stomach, chest, and thighs.
Brook staggered back. “Bitch!”
Enraged, Linsan continue to play. The sharp tone of the song were far more violent than anything her father had taught her to play but they invoked the shimmering energy to shoot across the distance. She pummeled Brook with rapid blows, each one in perfect harmony with a note.
She only stopped when Brook fell back in a spray of blood. She stopped, bow ready as she panted. The sick feeling was gone, leaving behind a rush of something far more intense.
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 to 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 caresses of power that were almost invisible in the air.
Brook groaned as she stood up. She was covered in dirt and grime. Blood soaked the side of her face.
Linsan focused on her, holding up the bow to strike again.
“This isn’t over, cow,” gasped Brook. “We aren’t done until I saw we’re done.”
“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 tones out of the blow and the translucent energy exploded from the violin and shot toward Brook.
The other girl looked up. With a scream, she stretched her hands behind her and then swung forward hand to slap her palms together with all her might.
A burst of raw noise exploded from Brook in a wave. It slammed into Linsan’s blasts and the tones were blasted away. 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 limping around the corner. There was a flutter of the ruined blue dress and then she was out of sight.
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 gathered the remains of her violin case and school bag. The case was ruined, shattered by whatever power Brook had summoned. It was far more powerful than Linsan’s.
Linsan scoffed. Naturally, the gods decided that Brook would have more power.
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. It was going to be a long wait until near dark, that was the only way she would be sure to avoid brook.