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The hike back to Greensborough started in total silence. Oren was still in shock at what had happened with the mysterious man from the sky. Afton must have been as well because she had not said a word since leaving the clearing with the crater. But dusk in the forest brought its own activity to fill the lull in their conversation. As the pair walked, birds twittered and warbled, deer and rabbits darted through the trees, and crickets chirped their evening calls. Normally, Oren would have been taking in the sounds of the wildlife, enjoying the time away from the bustle of town. And Afton would be practicing her tracking skills on every animal track she spotted.
Despite the life and vigor around them, heavy silence hung between them. Oren’s own mind was racing. Thoughts clouded his head, about the wizard’s glass, about the wizard himself, and about the warning. Could there really be others coming in search of the little round trinket in his pocket? Increasingly the orb began to cross his mind. He wanted to take it out and hold it again. To look at, not to use, of course. But the way it exuded a calm of its own called to him. And terrified him.
He realized just how deep in thought he was when the trees thinned out and the cliff came into view. Looking around properly for the first time since they started their return trip, he saw that the light was fading much faster now.
“When did it get so late already? We’re not going to make it back in time,” Oren frowned, looking at Afton. She was already crouched at the edge, peering over.
His sister looked back and sighed, “No, we’re not. But moaning about it won’t get us home any faster. Come on, I’ll help you down.”
Oren kicked a rock over the side in frustration before stepping to the edge of the cliff, letting Afton guide him to the best hand and footholds. His mind continued to pour over the implications of the day’s events. A dying wizard had given them a powerful relic that dangerous people were hunting for, they were going to be late and receive the grandfather of all punishments from their father, and on top of it all, Oren still needed his younger sister’s help doing something as simple as climbing. The descent down the cliff face was somehow even more silent than the walk through the woods above had been. Oren was too focused on his own frustrations, and a quarter of the way down the bluff, his foot slipped. A moment of pure panic shot through him, his hands gripping the loose rock. He became keenly aware of the sounds of tumbling pebbles and his boot scraping wildly. His weight had already shifted lower before finding this footing, a mistake he was usually too cautious to make, and his hands were close to losing their grip as well.
Afton was yelling to him from above him, but he could not seem to focus on what she was saying. One of his hands finally slipped from the rock, and he could feel his heart and his stomach leap into his throat. His now-free hand waved wildly, looking for anything at all to grab onto, and it came to rest on his pouch: the pouch concealing the magical orb. Oren could feel his other hand and foot lose their holds, but he had already reached into the pouch. Air began to rush by him, Afton’s shrieking, horrified cries growing distant. His hand gripped the round piece of smooth glass with all his might, the only thought on his mind that he wanted to survive the fall. He closed his eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
Instead, Oren felt soft, mossy ground gently against his back. He opened his eyes, and the cliff stood towering over him. Afton was a speck far up the height of the rocky precipice, her voice barely audible. He called up to her, “I’m alive!” as loudly as he could, but there was no telling if she could hear him any more than he could her. Oren lay frozen on the ground for a few minutes, eyes darting around while he tried to piece together how survived the fall. Gradually he became aware of the heat of the magical sphere in his hand. It was not a burning heat, but more of the intense, panicked heat he himself had felt while plummeting from the cliffside. The glass globe hummed as if alive, its temperature already changing rapidly to the comforting warmth he had felt while holding the object with Afton. No explanation came to mind except that he must have used the magic ball. But how? he all but yelled in his head.
Eventually, his pulse slowed and his mind with it. The rush that had overtaken him while falling to his death eased, allowing him to think clearly again. With difficulty, he placed the ball back into this satchel as he stood. The world seemed dimmer and less alive with the strange orb no longer in his hand. But the thought that he, a Quinn of all people, may have accidentally performed magic strengthened his resolve to put the orb away. He brushed himself off as best he could and peered up to where his sister continued her descent. Whether she had understood him when he called out or not, she must have at least heard his voice. She was no longer waving and screaming for him, although she was climbing down much faster than seemed safe.
While he waited for Afton, Oren tried again to recollect the details of how his fall had turned into a graceful landing. He remembered losing his grip, reaching for anything to hold onto, and holding the glass ball; and he remembered the overwhelming desire not to fall to his death. Then he remembered softly settling in the moss and grass at the base of the cliff. The one part he could not piece together was why he had chosen to reach into the satchel. It was not as if he knew how to make the magic ball work, so why had he latched onto it in that moment? And yet, he had made it work, hadn’t he? Without any training or knowledge, he had used magic to slow his descent.
Eventually, Afton reached the bottom of the rock face. The last fifty feet, once they were finally in earshot of each other, Afton had frantically repeated the same few phrases: “I can’t believe you’re alright,” and “you gave me such a scare,” and of course “how are you alive?” Oren just nodded and shrugged as she spat words out at a dizzying speed. There was no interrupting Afton when she was in a panic, and she had not yet calmed down from seeing Oren’s near-fatal fall. Once on the ground, she rushed over to Oren and wrapped him in an embrace tight enough to make him see spots. He returned the hug, which she cut short when she pushed back from him at arm’s length. Abruptly she shoved him backwards.
“You absolute, mutton-headed fool!” she scolded, words streaming out again, “You scared me half to death. How many times have I told you to be careful of your hand and foot holds when we’re climbing? You nearly died! How is it you’re still alive, anyway?”
Oren shook his head in bewilderment, “How is it that I come within an inch of death, and you end up mad at me? I’d almost think you were unhappy that I’m alive.”
That had cut a little deeper than Oren had intended. Afton winced and gave him a look like a kicked cat, but she did take a breath and spoke much less accusingly, “I only meant to say that I was terrified for you, and I’m glad you’re unharmed. But you really do need to take more care next time.”
She crossed her arms and lifted an eyebrow, waiting. Clearly that was all the apology he was going to get, so he answered her lingering question, “I… think I used the wizard’s glass.”
Afton’s jaw went slack, “You used it? How? And are you mad? You know how dangerous magic is. If Father ever learns about this—”
“More dangerous than dying?” Oren cut in sheepishly. His sister crossed her arms even tighter but nodded reluctantly. He took that as a sign to keep talking, “But I don’t know how I did it. I just grabbed it while I was falling. All I could think about was that I didn’t want to fall to my death, and the next thing I know, I’m on the ground. Totally unharmed.”
For a moment, Afton was quiet. She squinted up into the trees, one hand tapping her chin, the other coming down to rest on her hip. “Let me see it,” she said finally.
It wasn’t a request so much as it was a statement that he would, in fact, hand her the ball. She held her hand out, eyes locked firmly on his. They held each other’s gaze until Oren finally relented, reaching back into his satchel. He placed the smooth glass into his twin’s hand, feeling the warmth of it as it passed to her. Looking at her stony face, Oren was sure she was going to scold him more for using it before throwing it into the forest. Instead, Afton held the globe cupped in both hands. She closed her eyes and furrowed her brows, lips pressed together as if she were exerting a great deal of physical effort.
“Fire and ice!” she shouted at once, startling Oren. Whatever Afton had been hoping for, nothing happened.
She began shifting between different poses: holding the glass in the air with one hand, placing a hand on top and bottom of the surface, placing it in an upturned palm. All the while, she switched from a compressed, scrunched face to a forcibly serene one while shouting every magical-sounding word either of them had ever heard, including a few that Oren was sure were swears. Still, nothing happened. Oren waited as patiently as he could, but he saw the last of the light quickly vanishing.
“Afton, give it here, we need to get back before it’s completely dark,” he said, attempting to take the orb from her while her eyes were shut tight, “Whatever I did to make it work, it was a lucky accident. Besides, you said yourself we shouldn’t be using it.”
Afton’s grip on the sphere was too tight, and she tugged it close to her chest. “No, we need a light first,” she barked. The translucent glass suddenly erupted with light, enough light to see at least two dozen paces in the darkest night. She smirked triumphantly before heading off in the direction of Greensborough without another word. Oren rolled his eyes and followed.
Night had fully fallen by the time Oren spotted the town of Greensborough. As much as it pained him to admit it, even to himself, the light from the wizard’s glass had been necessary. The forest had given way to rolling hills as they walked across the countryside, though there was no sign cattle or sheep. Farmers and shepherds probably brought them in for the night hours before the twins came that way. And all the way, until just then when the lights of town started to reach them, had been in the dark. Thick clouds had rolled in with the sunset, obscuring the moon.
Greensborough itself sat on the crossroads of a mildly important trade route through the heart of Greater Brigdalia. In countless lectures by their tutors, Oren and Afton had learned all about the importance of the River Ewanmoore; the trade for wool, leather, and milk from Greensborough; and other facts that the children of a lord apparently had to know. All Oren took from those lectures was how boring it must be to be a lord. That was a large part of why he let Afton coax him into breaking their parents’ rules so often. If he was to inherit his father’s title and duties one day, he was going to make sure he enjoyed himself before fun itself was no longer allowed.
One advantage of Greensborough being only somewhat important, though, was that it had never needed walls. No one launched armies against a town that was only minorly important. The cities and towns to the north and east of them were far more critical from a strategic standpoint. Oren had somewhat paid attention through those lectures. What made the lack of walls important to Afton and him was that it was much easier to sneak in and out of a town without enormous barriers surrounding it.
Quietly, Afton led Oren around the outskirts of town to the back of an ugly wooden barn used to house grain or something similar. They often used this spot to get back into town unnoticed. Before popping around the corner to the side of the stone building, Afton tossed the wizard’s glass back to Oren. The light flickered as the globe left her hand, making Oren nearly miss it as it arced towards him. He tucked the globe away with a sigh as he followed Afton around the corner.
Most times when the pair stole away for an adventure or just a little relaxation, they returned with hardly anyone the wiser. Then again, they usually came home well before dark. Tonight, someone had noted their absence, and a very familiar someone at that. Desmond Baines, the captain of the guard, was waiting for them in front of the barn.
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Afton and Oren face the consequences of their adventure in the woods.