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A thin boy struggled near the top of a cliffside on which his companion, a tall, jaunty girl, already stood. Though the two were the same age, the girl had at least four inches in height over him and was far more muscular. He grasped desperately for the top of the mossy cliff and stretched himself as far as he could, feeling his toeholds slipping rapidly when his sister’s hand gripped his slender wrist.

“Saved your life, again, little brother,” she teased as she helped him up onto the top of the cliff beside her.

The boy quickly dropped her hand and brushed himself off, grimacing as he answered for the hundredth time, “You know I was born two minutes before you, Afton. And I would have gotten up myself if you had let me.”

Afton laughed, “I’ll take that as a thank you,” then, noting the trail of smoke drifting from somewhere across the forest ahead of them, nudged her brother sharply, “Oren, look. We’re getting close!”

Oren looked up and let a slight smile slip in spite of his ongoing grudge about his sister’s growth spurt.

“I bet it can’t be more than a mile off! We’ll be able to make it there and back home before sunset,” Afton beamed.

“We’d better,” Oren frowned, “Or Mother will have our hides again. She still gives me an ear-full about the time you snuck us out to see that caravan that had the captive elephants!”

Afton sneered at his implicating tone, “If you didn’t want to come, you could have stayed. You need to stop pretending I’m the reason you aren’t Mother’s perfect little angel.”

Oren’s mouth opened to protest or apologize — he wasn’t sure which — but his sister has already spun impatiently on her heels and was well on her way to the forest ahead. He took a deep breath to keep himself from provoking more of a fight by yelling after her and hurried to catch up. His steps weren’t as sure as hers on the rough, craggy stone that made up the clifftop, but he managed to keep pace with her.

Some days Oren felt like Afton truly did go out of her way to get him into trouble. She acted as if he was as reckless as she, but more often than not, he went along because he felt someone had to keep an eye on Afton. In his own eyes, he was sure he’d saved her from heaps of trouble. This time, however, Oren really had wanted to investigate the cause of the plume of smoke. He just didn’t relish the thought of what their mother would have to say if she found out where they were. Or worse, if Father finds out, Oren thought with a shudder.

A hundred paces or so into the woods and Afton finally seemed to soften up. She started making guesses about what it was they were would find at the bottom of the smokey trail they were following.

“I think it’s a star fallen to the earth,” Afton settled on, “It’s got to be some kind of omen.”

Oren shrugged, “It looked more like a ball of fire to me. I bet it’s one of those burning stones Father spoke of from the war. The ones the mages would light that couldn’t be put out without magic. Father said they would load those into iron catapults and launch them into enemy forts.”

Giving him a gentle smirk, Afton replied, “If they couldn’t be put out except by magic, wouldn’t this whole forest be on fire by now? No, I think it came from the sky.”

Oren’s face sunk a little realizing she was right. But whatever the object was, they would soon find out. The stony cliff had sharply given way to soft earth and towering trees. Twigs and fallen leaves crunched softly underfoot as the twins marched deeper into the forest. Beams of light filtered through the canopy of branches and leaves overhead, and the soft chatter of wildlife and wind through the trees set a soothing backdrop to the youthful conversations of the pair.

Although the two had explored much of the forest surrounding Greensborough, they had never ventured quite this deep. But Oren was confident in his sling in the pouch on his hip to drive any wolves hungry enough to chance encounter with people. And he was sure that Afton was simply confident in herself. At any rate, they were making enough noise between their boot steps and their talking to keep from surprising any unsavory critters.

Thin wisps of smoke were starting to fill the trees they now passed through, and a few hundred paces ahead they could see billowing black smoke coming out of what must be a hole in the ground. The thing, whatever it was, had made such an impact on the ground that it sunk into a crater. Already Oren could see the way the earth around the impact raised from the force.

“What could have done that?” Oren whispered more to himself than his sister. Still, she took it as an opportunity to reinforce her going theory.

“I told you, must be a fallen star. Let’s hurry and see what it looks like!” Afton cheered, brimming with eagerness. Without waiting, she sprinted toward the source of the plumes of smoke. Oren groaned, pulling his sling and a hardy stone out of his belt pouch before running after her.

The nearer to the crater they came, the hotter the air around them felt. Branches lay scattered and charred around the crater from the path the fireball had taken to the ground. Bright sunlight poured through the hole in the forest canopy, and Oren noted with relief that the sun had not gone much further toward evening since they started into the woods. Although Oren could not see inside the hole made by their mystery projectile yet, it was obviously not burning anymore, but it had been quite hot at some point. Maybe it was a fallen star, after all. Oren scoffed at the outlandishness of the thought, but he remembered the tales of the mages’ battle magic from the war. Perhaps pulling a star from the sky was something a very powerful mage could do.

Afton crested the top of the mound caused by the impact first. She had pulled a kerchief from her own belt pouch and pressed it to her face to shield her from the smoke and heat. Oren did the same as he ran less gracefully up the small incline to stand beside her. Together, they peered into the smoke still clouding the shallow pit before them. After a moment, Afton pointed frantically at movement in the midst of the haze. Oren peered, trying to get a better look while holding his sling at the ready.

Eventually, the breeze in the forest shifted, clearing the smoke away from what had caused such destruction. Laying in the center of the crater was a crumpled heap of a man.

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Cover image. Text overlaying a picture of a hand holding a small glass ball. Text reads 'Fracture chapter two'

Fracture, Chapter Two

An impossible wizard imparts the twins with a magical gift and an ominous warning.

February 5, 2022 · 9 min