The Astral Wander Book 1: A New Light
There is a fine line between bravery and stupidity. It is still unclear which one this young Magi has more of.
“Hey, mister, can I have seconds?” a boy shouted above the loud chatter of the Hearthfire Inn. It was barely morning, but many men and women crowded the tables and ate their fill at the start of their early day.
“Aye, boy,” the innkeeper nodded, took the empty plate with large, plump hands, and stroked his beard to the side. “As long as you got the cobalt for it, of course.” The child offered a bright smile, slid his hand to his belt and into his purse, and withdrew a small piece of a blue metallic material in the shape of a jagged line. With an arched eyebrow, the proprietor asked, “A whole splinter? You only need a few bits for one plate, my friend.”
His young patron nodded and placed it on the table. “Well, I might order more. Plus it’s my attempt at recompense after I kept your kids awake far later than intended.”
The man chuckled although the boy was fair and had the right of it. He had spent the previous evening regaling his children with tales of his old man, who was a captain of the guard in the capital city of Monleans. When the innkeeper had tried to shoo his brood away and stop them from disturbing the customer, the boy quickly defended his temporary playmates and continued, and his stories had eventually delayed the children’s bedtime by a good hour.
“You did keep my children entertained, for sure, if a little too long.” He placed the empty bowl on the bar and nodded to the chef, his chipper wife, through the window to the kitchen to let her know to prepare a second omelet and toast as he turned to the boy again. “You would think I had forced them to do hard labor with the way they whined getting out of bed this morning.”
With a rather sheepish frown, the youngster pushed the splinter toward him. “Guess I did stretch it too long. Take it, please.”
A little hesitantly, the innkeeper picked it up and examined it. The inert piece of cobalt would be far more valuable if it was charged, but even a splint like this was far more than was necessary. His young patron would have to stay another day and enjoy a couple of large meals to come even close to the value held in his hand. “Oh, not now,” he retorted with a smirk as he sat across from the youngster and put the splint on the table. “I should be thankful. If the truth be told, I haven’t seen my kiddies sit in one place for that long in many days. I was able to finish my list of chores for once instead of chasing them around.”
The boy shrugged and smiled again as he gestured at the splint. “Well, I’ll leave this here,” he stated quietly and took a sip of water from his white clay cup. “I should be thankful as, well…you’re the first innkeeper who welcomed me without a barrage of questions. I didn’t mind answering them, but they hardly made me feel welcome in an inn.” He pursed his lips to the side and looked up as a question seemed to form in his mind. “It seems counterproductive now that I think about it.”
“There’s an art to every job, my boy,” the man reasoned as he set his massive arm on the surface elbow-first and rested his chin on his palm. “Some people have the skills but not the knowledge, you know?”
“My mother says something similar,” the youngster responded and swirled the liquid in his cup. “She usually says, ‘There is a difference between doing something and doing it well, and only those smart enough will know the difference.”
“Smart woman,” the innkeeper declared with a loud laugh. He leaned back in the chair and folded his arms. “At the risk of sounding like one of those idiot innkeepers you’ve run into, I must admit I am curious as to how you came this way on your own—if you don’t mind me prying.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem.” The boy fumbled beside his chair and lifted a dark-brown satchel that he dug through quickly. He brought a map out—mostly white but some areas darker than others—that suggested both use and age. “I won’t bore you with all the details, but I’m heading to the bay town on the coast—Fairwind.”
“All the way from Monleans?” The man didn’t hide his understandable shock as that was almost three hundred miles away. “Whatever for, boy? You must have been making this trek for weeks!”
“Only about nine days, actually,” he said and unrolled the map on the table. “My father had business in Warpaw. I traveled there with him and left a couple of days after.” He traced his finger over the parchment to show his companion his route. “Went through Tuffles, then Leyoville, then Filo.” He pointed to the village he was now in—Bluebell. “Before I arrived here at your inn.”
“Truly now?” The innkeeper stroked his red beard. “Still, even starting in Warpaw, that’s some distance to travel on foot.”
“I got some rides from other travelers,” he explained and glanced at a candle on the side of the table. “But I’m also a fairly fast walker.” With a small smile, he pointed to the candle, pressed his thumb and middle finger together, and snapped them, and the wick lit itself.
“Ah, a little Magi, I see.” His companion nodded. “My eldest daughter and son have something of a knack for that, although the most they use it for is getting the brooms to clean things themselves and anything else they can do to get out of doing their chores.”
The boy's eyes lit up. “Does that mean you practice the Mana arts too?”
A noise that was a mixture between a grunt and a light laugh from his large companion made the boy grin. “Hardly, and no more than the average man. I use some of my Mana to help with heavy lifting.” He stretched his already large arm and flexed. It increased slightly in size and a white light shimmered very briefly under the skin. “Nothing much more than that. They get it from their mother mainly. She doesn’t use it much herself but there is a reason she can run the kitchen almost on her lonesome. Many of the dishes take care of themselves.”
“So, you can use Vis, then?” A waitress arrived with his second breakfast. He thanked her quickly before he tucked into the meal with enthusiasm.
“Vis?” the Innkeeper asked before he nodded. “Right, that’s the term for Mana enhancement—less wordy, though. I can but barely. Me forgetting the word should tell you how little mind I pay to it.”
“It’s not a problem,” the boy assured him. “In all honesty, I only practiced it as much as I did thanks to my mother. Her mother used to teach at one of the academies and she taught me. And I can only use Mana in practical ways—the disciplines and all that. I can’t do many of the fancy stuff like cantrips. Lighting that candle is basically my only trick.”
“You didn’t go to the academy yourself?” the innkeeper asked.
He wiped his mouth with his napkin and shook his head. “No, my parents tutored me—well, my mother mostly. I learned a few things on my own as well.” He finished a piece of toast and leaned back “Thanks for the meal.”
The innkeeper looked down and his eyes almost bulged. The plate was clean, and he realized the youngster had eaten it all in a little over a minute. He could eat like a likan.
“Hey, Devol!” a young voice called. The boy and innkeeper turned to see a young red-haired girl run toward them, followed by a boy with brown hair and another young girl with red hair. They dragged chairs closer and gathered around the table. “Hey, Devol, do you think you can play with us today? We’ll have our chores done by noon.”
Devol ran his hands through his long auburn hair. “Sorry, I’ll be gone by then.”
“Oh, boo.” The girl in the pink dress sighed and her father darted her a disapproving look.
“If I come back, we can play then, okay?” he promised, and although the children nodded, they still pouted to reveal their disappointment.
“You should probably get those chores finished instead of spending your time sulking,” their father said sternly. “Help your mother in the kitchen and tell her I’ll be there shortly.”
“Yes, Father,” the children replied in unison, stood quickly, and raced away. Devol waved at them as they left.
“You have spirited kids,” he noted as they disappeared behind a door that led to the kitchen.
“Aye.” The innkeeper nodded and rubbed the bridge of his nose before he smiled affectionately. “They can try my sanity sometimes but they fill my heart.”
Devol laughed and bumped the sword that leaned on his chair, which fell with a thud. He picked it up and placed it on the side of the table. The innkeeper studied it with open curiosity. It was sheathed in a scabbard of darkened leather but the hilt was silver and wrapped in a similar black leather binding. The handguard had a pointed tip, but only one way. In fact, despite its size and shape, it looked almost like it was half of a larger blade, even in the sheath.
“Boy, that sword…” he began, and the boy glanced at his weapon. “That’s a unique weapon you have there.”
“I know, right?” He grinned and gestured at it with his thumb. “It’s the reason I’m out here. It’s a magical sword.”
“That so?” The man chuckled. “An exotic weapon? Those can be quite pricey.”
“I don’t think it’s an exotic,” the boy admitted. “Or at least not a typical one. It merely…appeared one day.”
“Merely appeared?” he asked and stroked his chin in thought. “I’ve heard of warriors getting runes on their exotics that allow them to teleport the blade to their hands. Is it something like that?”
“No. Up until about a month ago, I’d never seen it before.” The youngster shrugged and finished his drink. “I’m going to meet someone who can hopefully explain what it is.”
The proprietor nodded and peered at the map again. “I see. About that…” He placed his finger on the dot marking Bluebell. “From what I’ve seen of your current path, you’re not heading west, are you?”
Devol frowned a little in confusion and focused on the map. “Unless I read it wrong, that is the quickest path, right?”
“In distance, sure, but also to an early grave,” the innkeeper warned and folded his arms. “That leads to the Wailing Woods. As you can probably guess by the name, it’s not a great place to take a stroll through.”
“Huh.” The boy moved the map closer to the lit candle and studied it carefully. “You’d think they’d mention that here.”
“It’s more of a local name but one well earned.”
After a moment, Devol looked away and out one of the inn’s windows “I thought I saw a road in that direction.”
“It splits and heads down another path around the woods,” the innkeeper clarified. “They tried to make a road through it but the crew sent to chop it down only got part of the way in.”
“They get scared off by something?” the boy asked as he tapped his fork on his plate.
“Some did and got right the hell out,” his companion said with a grim nod “Others… Well, they didn’t make it out. The ‘wailing’ part of the name comes from those who have been lost within or left to die or be killed by the beasties there. There is something off about those woods and the beasties are a big threat—snakes, giant rodents, flesh-eating insects, and even flayers. Some people have claimed even imps and likan roam the forest. Can’t say I’ve seen them myself, but if it were true, this village sure as hell isn’t far enough away from it.”
The boy pursed his lips, leaned back, and tapped his chin in thought. “I should probably buy a torch before setting off, then.”
The innkeeper’s stern face melted into one of bafflement. “Do what now, boy?”
“Hmm?” He looked up. “A torch. Most of what you have described are creatures that live in darkened areas. It must mean that the forest is dark enough for them to be there so it would probably be wise for me to take a torch.”
The innkeeper wanted to holler in the boy’s face that he simply didn’t understand, that if he wanted to be ‘wise,’ he wouldn’t go there at all. But his skepticism made him stutter his words before one of his daughters ran to him and tugged his shirt. “Daddy, Mommy says we have more customers and you need to get back to working the bar and main parlor.”
“Huh? Uh…sure, darling. Tell her I’ll get right on it.” He stood, slid his chair in, and turned to point at his young patron. “Stay right there. I need to tend to something before I come back and smack some sense into you, boy.”
Devol cocked an eyebrow. “Why would I wait for that?”
The innkeeper shook his head as he went to tend to his new customers. The youngster pushed to his feet and waved goodbye. “Thank you for the hospitality, Mr. Bernard!” He smiled with his silver eyes wide, sat again, and adjusted his blue-and-white jacket and black slacks. After a moment, he decided to close the coat over a white shirt.
Bernard sighed. He should probably have smacked the auburn-haired boy to put an end to his craziness before he left him. A little anxious, he hurried to finish his tasks as quickly as he could lest the hospitality go to waste when the boy got himself killed.
Bernard took the last orders hastily and passed them to his wife. That done, he told his kids to clean the tables of the guests who had finished eating while he took a map off a shelf near the bar, found a pen, and marked it to show a clear path around the woods. Maybe this would help to persuade the boy to not venture through that accursed place. If he needed more convincing…well, he had said he would smack some sense into him and only slightly in jest.
When he came out from behind the bar and entered the side room where the youngster had been seated, however, his place was empty. On the table lay a note and the cobalt splinter. The man looked at the hastily written letter with a scowl.
Thank you again for the room and food. Sorry I could not say goodbye to you and your wife and children, but if this forest is as bad as you say, I probably want to make the journey through it with as much sunlight as possible. Please keep the splinter for being so nice to me. Hope to see you again if I come through.
The innkeeper ran a hand down his face and released a deep sigh. He wondered if he should go and look for the boy before he got too far. If something befell him, even if it were as a result of his stupidity, he would feel terrible. But a part of him was sure that he would hightail it back to town once he saw the woods. No sane person would see even the forest line and think it safe in any way.
He collected a few coins from nearby tables and decided he would give them to the kids. They had earned a little extra and he would tell them it was from Devol. It would at least help them to remember him fondly when the boy returned that night—and he was sure he would have a much more exciting story to tell about the woods when he did.
The obvious solution to dark wood creatures is just a little light, I suppose Devol has a point there. To see what happens next for Devol Pre-order The Astral Wanderer: A New Light today. Be ready because first thing April 2, 2021, this book will be available to all.