insectera

Element of the Abstract

Book no. 01 of Insectera

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information

A character driven coming-of-age fantasy for adults and teens alike. You're never done growing, after all.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Horror
Word Count: 60,048
Date Completed: September 21st, 2021
Content Warnings: graphic depictions of violence, monstrous creatures, bugs, discrimination, religious extremism, suicidal ideation, parent-child conflict, substance abuse, underage drinking, mentions of CSA, abuse, death, unreality

Synopsis:

Osryn Seld, the local wizard of a small industrial city known as Lunora, is growing disillusioned with his life as he grows older. When two remarkable children with genetic abnormalities are left on his doorstep, he takes them in as his own. As the children, Sebastian and Adelaide, grow from infants into strong young adults, Osryn learns they posess some special abilities and trains them in the art of sorcery. However, parenting is no easy feat, and Osryn worries he is failing them as the children begin to seek answers about their birth family. When a mysterious stranger named Urta shows up at their door, claiming to know information about their origin, the Seld family embark on a journey to the opposite side of the valley, where supposedly answers can be found.

Will Adelaide and Sebastian uncover the secrets of their mysterious magical origins? Is Osryn losing his children to the allure of their birth family, or does nurture truly outweigh nature after all? Can the Seld family trust Urta?

Well, I know the answers. That's why I wrote it all down.

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Table of Contents

  1. Chapter One
  2. Chapter Two
  3. Chapter Three
  4. Chapter Four
  5. Chapter Five
  6. Chapter Six
  7. Chapter Seven
  8. Chapter Eight
  9. Chapter Nine
  10. Chapter Ten
  11. Chapter Eleven
  12. Chapter Twelve
  13. Chapter Thirteen
  14. Chapter Fourteen
  15. Chapter Fifteen
  16. Chapter Sixteen
  17. Chapter Seventeen
  18. Chapter Eighteen
  19. Epilogue

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Chapter One

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Between the hills and mountains, in the creeks and meadows of the valleys, the greatest powers in the universe hide their deepest secrets. These secrets, not easily discerned by the average human, are desperately sought after by a handful of dedicated individuals. Osryn Seld, poring late at night over an old, crinkled scroll, was one of these individuals. Thunder rumbled outside the window of his old, creaky home, but his focus on the scroll did not waver. He had been staring at the thing for hours and made negligible progress. In fact, he had been trying to decipher this particular scroll for three whole years to the same end. Really, he had not been trying all that hard at all. Yet it, like every other listless project before it, had its grip on Osryn. It kept him focused, and keeping focused kept him distracted.

The rain had been persisting, pouring relentlessly for the last several hours. In Mistlorn Valley, it was rarely clear or sunny. Fog, rain, and cloud cover dominated the region, and most of the residents were known for their equally dreary demeanors. Osryn was no exception to this dismal rule, and this evening in particular, he found himself aching to forget about the raging storm outside. Osryn sighed, realizing his eyes had glazed over and he was no longer even looking at the words that remained ever-confounding to him. The Cerulean Scroll, as he had taken to calling it, had been given to him by his close friend Daniela years prior, and he had been intrigued by it since the moment he rolled it open. The scroll was written in a strange, unrecognizable language, in ink that shimmered as blue as a clear summer sky–– not that Osryn had seen a clear blue sky in a long, long time. Perhaps that was why the bright azure color of the writing captured his attention so much. Perhaps his younger brother Nygel had the right idea in fleeing their hometown of Lunora to the sunny, prosperous west across the Sea of Rata, but he tried not to dwell on it. Osryn did not care much to think of family.

This eve, the scroll’s allure had been broken, and Osryn’s mind was steadily deteriorating as the night dragged on. He glanced at a nearby clock, but huffed when he remembered it was long-stopped. Well, he figured it had to be long past midnight. A drawn-out yawn escaped him and he rubbed his dry, tired eyes. Perhaps it was as good a time as any to call it a night.

After three years of sporadic analysis, there were only a few things that were clear to Osryn about the Cerulean Scroll. First, the ink was magical. Whoever had penned this had done so with an ink that held remarkable magical properties. When Osryn attempted through any means, physical or magical, to alter the text–– to smudge it, or dull the shimmer ––it remained shining and sparkling, almost effervescent. Osryn had never seen anything like it. Second, the language of the scroll was absolutely incomprehensible to him. Admittedly, linguistics had never been his strong suit, but in his few vague attempts at looking into it, he couldn’t find any specific language that made the words on the scroll in front of him make sense. The letters looked the same as in his own language, but the structure of the words and sentences resembled nothing he had ever seen. Whoever had designed the magical ink was likely the same one who wrote the scroll, and Osryn had endless curiosity regarding what it might say.

Outside, a gust of wind rattled the window adjacent to his desk, and Osryn found himself shuddering with the pane. The storm tonight was making him uneasy, and it was hard to know why, due to the common nature of such weather in his area. Osryn knew well that there was a reason for these seemingly sourceless energies–– a sudden shiver, causing you to turn around and realize someone’s following you, a gut feeling that you’ll win a lottery right before they call your name, or of course, an abnormality in your mood that you simply can’t attribute to anything that happened. That reason, Osryn had learned, was ‘the abstract.’

The abstract is defined in common language as “the intangible flow of magic in an otherwise scientific world,” and it was the discovery of this property in university that sparked Osryn’s interest in the arcane in the first place. Osryn had always been a logical-minded person, having started university many years ago with the intention of pursuing a science degree. His parents, particularly his father, had not been thrilled with the notion of their son taking an interest in something so… unfounded. They were devout believers of a common local doctrine that the sun and moon controlled everything, and that there was no foundation to anything that the numerous scientists throughout history had proven to be true. This infuriated a young and curious Osryn, and in an act of rebellion and discovery, he opted to go to college for biology.

Despite his love of science, and his dislike of the doctrine his parents subscribed to, there was always something incongruous to him about the way the physical world worked and the way his own intuition guided him. It was in his third year, in a Philosophy of Science class, where he was introduced to the idea of the abstract–– a concept that would guide him for the rest of his life.

Tonight, with its blustering winds and torrential downpours, felt particularly abstract to Osryn. Maybe it was the sheer archetypal power of the “dark and stormy night,” or maybe it was simply a shift in air pressure–– he did live in a valley after all. Nonetheless, he was unable to shake the feeling that something was amiss. The first time he had felt this way was when he was a small child, finally old enough to realize the disconnect between the science they taught him in school and the bizarre religion his parents preached. It was this same feeling that had later spurred him to drop out of college and seek a new kind of knowledge with the only person he could think of–– the local wizard, Cornellius.

Cornellius, now passed, had occupied the house Osryn now resided in for his entire adult life. Before him, there had been another sorcerer, and before him, another. Unlike religious radicals such as his parents, lone practitioners such as Cornellius had a unique take on the way of the world. Magic did not rule him, nor did science–– instead, they both lived together in harmony. It was an abstract union, and one that had provided him with worlds of knowledge. When a young Osryn Seld showed up at his doorstep, headstrong, determined, and willing to learn, Cornellius knew this was the boy he was destined to teach. And so he did.

Fifteen years had passed since that day. Osryn was now the sole resident of the old, eerie cape in the valley, and that solitude took its toll on him. Cornellius had warned him of this suffocating loneliness when he was aging and his health began to decline:

“It is a lonely life, the life of a wizard… don’t let it break you. Someday, someone will come to you like you did to me, and you will teach them, as I did you.”

Osryn had been losing faith that anything like that would happen to him. Every day, he woke up, slumped into his desk chair, and studied the numerous artifacts he and his predecessors had collected over the years. These artifacts were strewn haphazardly around the room, as well as books and scrolls, many opened, many more untouched.

Understanding–– it had always been what Osryn sought. Yet, he understood nothing about the mess that always surrounded him. So much knowledge and history within this one room, and yet as much as he studied, as much as he learned, he never felt as though it was enough. When would he understand why he’d walked down this lonely path? What benefit did he ever see from having taken the road less traveled?

Osryn became aware of a tightly clenched jaw and loosened it, rubbing his chin and exhaling in a huff. Having worked himself up into an anxious flurry yet again, Osryn abandoned the scroll and rose from his chair, catching a glimpse of himself in an enchanted mirror he’d found and dropped to the right of his desk. Catching sight of the dark circles under his eyes, and the five o’clock shadow ruining the aesthetic of his carefully kept goatee, Osryn sighed and scratched at his cheek, picking at an area where an ingrown hair was forming. He looked at the scroll, then out the window, then around at the dozens of piles of arcane artifacts and journals. They seemed to loom over him, as though they knew he would never find the answers he sought in any of them. A resigned grumble rose from Osryn’s chest and he decided–– he would go downstairs and have a glass of mead. That would calm his nerves. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could sleep before dawn.

The hallway, like his study, was dimly illuminated by oil lamps, mounted in even intervals on the walls. They weren’t burning oil, however, but were sustained by magical plasma Osryn himself had synthesized. It was his greatest skill, the spell he’d spent the most time honing over the years. He made his way downstairs to the den, where he fished a bottle of mead out of the cabinet beside his fireplace. This particular brew had not come out particularly well, but his newest batch wasn’t done fermenting, so reluctantly, he would finish it. As he poured himself a glass, he listened to the sounds of his old house shifting in the wind. The gusts howled through his gutters. Wood creaked. Raindrops fell. A lone ant crawled across the dust on his bookshelf, but Osryn couldn’t be bothered to kill it.

Osryn stopped pouring and narrowed his eyes. In the distance, beneath the sounds of the storm, Osryn swore he heard a strangely familiar sound: the crying of a baby. He had not heard such a sound since his brother was an infant. He put down his glass and listened harder, again hearing the sound. Was he hallucinating? It was probably just the wind; or maybe he had tripped over a psychedelic amulet in the hallway. He lifted the mead to his lips and heard, clearer this time, the anguished cry of a child.

Fear struck through him and he placed the glass on the table, rushing around and listening for the source of the noise. When he reached the foyer, it became clear that the sound came from beyond his front door. Sure now that there was a child in danger outside, Osryn swung open the front door with vigor... and found two.

Two blankets, swaddled around what Osryn knew now were most certainly children, in a bassinet there on his doorstep. Their cries overlapped each other as Osryn whisked them out of the rain and into the foyer, letting the door bang a few times on its frame before shutting. He ran them into the den and rushed to remove the children from their soaked blankets, unwinding one quickly to reveal the first child’s head.

There, squeezed shut and streaming with tears, were six small eyes.

Osryn froze. The child’s sobs continued as he attempted to gather himself, but he couldn’t stop staring at the child’s face. Was this real? No. He was definitely hallucinating. Shaking now, Osryn ran to find… something. He wasn't sure exactly what, at first, but he ended up digging through a linen closet and scurrying back to the den with two blankets. They were oversized, but they would do. Osryn removed the child, a boy, from his wet blanket, swaddling him in a clean, dry one. Six tiny eyes blinked and gazed up at Osryn as the child settled into the comfortable warmth and dryness. Osryn shook his head, dissociating from the oddity he had just seen. Absolutely unsure what to expect, Osryn unwrapped the second child. A normal, two-eyed face greeted him and Osryn exhaled softly, relieved. Then, he unwrapped the torso and was immediately met with more confusion: the child had four arms.

“What in the name of…” Osryn pulled away from the child, shuddering. Beings like these children were absolutely unheard of, even to someone as well-read as Osryn. They were some kind of mutant or magic, either or both, and Osryn had no idea why they were on his doorstep. Having taken a moment to reconcile that this was reality, Osryn shook his head and removed the girl from her soaked blanket, swaddling her next to the boy. Osryn stared at them as they settled and their cries softened. To his right, on the table, was his glass of mead, which he readily grabbed and took a hearty gulp of.

The storm raged around the home as the children, finally free from its grasp, relaxed into their blankets and cooed softly. How long had they been out there before he noticed them? Osryn worried that they would not warm up quick enough, but he had just the spell for that. Focusing in his energy and channeling the abstract, Osryn synthesized an orb of glowing bluish-purple plasma in the air in front of him. Using his hands like a conductor, he directed the orb to levitate slightly above the children, where it would radiate a small amount of heat, safely out of their reach.

He realized he would need to find a way to feed these children… what did children even eat, anyway? He had never really wanted kids, so he’d never put too much thought into the idea of taking care of one. However, the children were remarkably calm for two who had been left out in a storm for who knows how long. Osryn gazed at them, taking in the reality of the pale little boy’s six eyes, and though the girl’s arms were nestled in her blanket, there was a soft smile on her tiny brown face. Osryn had never known what to say when asked how cute a baby was, but he could say with absolute certainty that the two in front of him now were the most beautiful and precious he had ever seen.

This was no hallucination, and as he downed the rest of his mead, he realized the gravity of his situation–– these children were officially his responsibility, whether he liked it or not. What was he to do, drop them on another doorstep? Whoever had left them with him likely knew he was a sorcerer, and believed that he would know how to handle their… differences.

Well, he didn’t know. Osryn hardly knew how to take care of himself, never mind two orphaned children with bodily abnormalities never before seen on this planet. Head swirling, Osryn picked up the bottle of mead and poured another glass. Maybe this didn’t have to be so bad. Maybe he could be kind to these children, raise them in a way that they could thrive and be happy despite their condition… but how could he possibly show them to the world? The residents of Lunora were known for their relative intolerance of those who disturbed the status quo. His best friend, Daniela, ran an antique shop, and even she faced discrimination for supporting art and history in this heavily industrialized town.

How, then, would the general populace react to children who looked like this? It was out of the question, really. The spiritual fanatics would declare them cursed, or the scientists would snatch them away to experiment on. No matter what, he was stuck with these children. He would need food. He would need toys. He would need to teach them, raise them, care for them. Maybe, he truly began to believe, this wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe he could be the father he had always wished he’d had. Lightning illuminated the sky outside and Osryn sipped his mead again, settling on the couch next to the children and tenderly stroking the girl’s head. As Osryn’s mind whirled with the uncertainty of their fate, the unnerving power of the storm that once disturbed him had faded, and the familiarity gave him comfort now. All else seemed unknowable, but one thing was archetypal and sure: it was a dark and stormy night.

Chapter Two

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A cold wind swept across the town square, casting leaves into the air where they danced and swirled around the feet of the rushing citizens. Osryn pulled his cloak around him and shivered, dodging out of the way of a particularly irate individual. It was an early February morning, in the height of Lunora’s “rush hour,” during which the majority of the downtown residents made their way on foot from their homes to their jobs, usually in factories. Blustery mornings like these, topped off with cloudy skies and occasional showers, were a staple of the city’s ambience. Dull, gray buildings rose up against a pale white sky, and Osryn passed by them quickly. Mostly, Lunora consisted of up-and-coming factories and low-income housing. Some people knew Osryn and gave him a smile as he passed them. Others flashed him the characteristic glare of a tired, worn-down working person. Not everyone approved of the comparatively lavish life of a wizard.

After a few blocks, Osryn arrived at the front of a slightly abnormal looking building. It wasn’t gray like most of the other buildings. Colorful murals and drawings of plants and flowers covered the walls, and above the door, a hand-lettered sign saying “Macron Antiques and Curiosities.” Osryn smiled as he always did at the sight of the murals–– after all, he knew the artist. He entered the building and a bell jingled as he did so.

The store inside was warm and inviting, the smell of rose incense wafting across the room. Tables and desks were covered in numerous antiques and artifacts, not unlike the general look of Osryn’s own home. Old clocks and vintage signs adorned the walls and dozens of old-fashioned lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling, all with price tags. A woman with shoulder-length red hair whirled around from behind a glass jewelry counter.

“Hey there, welcome!” She said, then she locked eyes with Osryn. He smiled slightly, raising a hand in greeting. The woman widened her eyes and blinked. “Osryn?”

“Hello, Daniela.”

“My, my, it’s been a while since I last heard from you…” Daniela crossed her arms and dribbled her long painted fingernails on her elbow. “I almost thought you were dead.”

“Yeah, well,” Osryn mumbled, “it’s been a crazy couple months.”

“You look…” Daniela squinted, trying to find a kind way to put it, “...overwhelmed.”

“You won’t even believe what’s been happening.”

Daniela raised an eyebrow and leaned over her counter. “Oh? Well, it better be good. I don’t appreciate you going ghost on me, Seld. It’s boring without you around.”

Osryn scoffed, rolling his eyes. How could he explain when even he could not get a grasp on his situation? “Trust me. It’s… something.”

“Well, spit it out. I haven’t got all day.”

Osryn interlocked his fingers and twirled his thumbs around themselves, avoiding eye-contact and instead staring into the face of a clock on the wall. “I… have children.”

Daniela blinked. “Excuse you?”

“Children. Two of them. I have them.”

“I’ll be damned, Osryn!” Daniela shook her head in disbelief. “It’s only been a few months since we spoke! I didn’t even know you had a girlfriend, never mind two children!”

Shifting awkwardly, Osryn leaned against one of the nearby tables and finally made eye contact with Daniela. There was a teasing curiosity in her eyes, and Osryn smiled. He had met Daniela when he was a first-year in university, and the two had dated rather seriously for quite some time. The sight of her freckled face always brought warmth to his soul. “Ahh, no, no… No girlfriend, I’m afraid.”

“Hmmm, I see…” Daniela narrowed her eyes. “Are you going to be any less cryptic, or must I dig it all out of you?”

“Listen,” Osryn said, “I don’t even know… where to begin. It would be much easier if you simply came with me to see them. Can you do that?”

Daniela sighed, glancing at one of the many clocks and around at the store. She bit her lip. “Oh, I don’t know, Osryn. Hector’s been doing more deliveries to keep up with the bills as it is. I’m not sure I can afford to close up shop…”

“I knew you would say that,” Osryn admitted, “but Daniela, please. You do not understand… what I’m dealing with, here. I need you, now more than ever. I don’t want to leave the kids alone for long, so come quickly.”

“Alone?” Daniela shook her head incredulously and pressed her hands to the glass counter. “You left two children… alone?”

Osryn blinked. “Should I… not do that?”

“Oh my sun and moon, Osryn, no you should not!” She pressed her palm to her forehead and sighed deeply, then ran it through her hair. “Okay, fine. I’ll come with you, but you’d better not pull something like this again. I have to make a living, you know. I’ve got kids too!”

“I know, I know.”

The two made their way out of the store and back into the October morning air to begin their somewhat lengthy walk. Osryn’s house was on the edge of town, and no one in Lunora had a vehicle. Despite the bustling industry of the small city, not one of them, even Osryn, having inherited all Cornellius had, could afford such luxury. Industry workers were viewed by the elite as necessary, but not as valuable as artists or craftsmen–– if they knew this, they probably wouldn’t keep working, but where would they go? No one had a car, and it was a three day walk to the nearest other city.

After about an hour, Daniela and Osryn arrived at his home on the outskirts. It was rather brisk, so they both shivered as they shut the front door behind them and removed their shoes. Wordlessly, Osryn guided Daniela upstairs to the room he had designated as a nursery. Piles and piles of knick-knacks and trinkets had been shoved unceremoniously to the floor to make room for the two cradles that rested on a table. Daniela caught one look at the children and gasped, covering her mouth with her hands.

“I told you,” Osryn said. “They’re indescribable.”

“They… they’re…” Daniela realized he was right.

“...awesome.” Osryn muttered. “They are absolutely awesome.”

“My stars, Osryn, they cannot be more than a few months old… how in the world have you been caring for them?”

“They were on my doorstep in a storm, sixteen weeks ago. It’s a miracle they didn’t die in the cold before I found them… I managed to get a hold of some food and supplies, but it wasn’t easy without arousing suspicion.”

“Sixteen weeks? Osryn, why in the name of the moon did you wait so long to tell me?”

“Daniela, I haven’t told anyone. I wanted so desperately to tell you sooner, but I feared you wouldn’t believe me. So, I resolved to bring you here and show you as soon as I had the chance. How else could I possibly explain?”

“So,” Daniela was still reeling, but she reached out tenderly to touch the boy’s forehead, where pale blond hairs were already beginning to sprout, “nobody knows about this but me?”

“Not a soul,” Osryn confirmed. “Do you see why I can’t just hire a nanny?”

Daniela chuckled and brushed her hair out of her face, turning towards him in anticipation. “Well, Osryn, what are their names?”

Osryn paused. “...names?”

Again, Daniela pressed her hand to her forehead. “It’s been months, and you haven’t even named them?”

Osryn tugged at the collar of his shirt and scratched a mole on his face. “I haven’t known what to call them… they’re so unique and beautiful. I just don’t know how to do them justice.”

“Well… have you thought of any names that you like?” Daniela asked. “You don’t need to think too much about it. I mean, Greer was somewhat of a panic name when I found out I was pregnant… but for our second, we both really liked the name Anna.”

Osryn took a moment to think about this. There were a few notable figures he could think to name a child after. His mentor, of course, Cornellius Renald… but just, no. Then there was early abstract physicist Anne Brenali, but that felt a little too much like copying Daniela. Then, he spotted an obsidian wand in the pile of artifacts and he knew.

“Sebastian.”

Daniela’s interest was piqued. “Sebastian. I like it… any reason why?”

Picking up the wand, Osryn twisted it around in his hands. It had always felt a little too intimidating for him to attempt to handle. Although he had learned a thing or two about fighting from his rough-around-the-edges mentor, Osryn had little reason to use that knowledge. Still, he knew the power contained within the wand was vast, and he did not think himself powerful enough to wield it.

“The wand of Sebastian C. Haelstron,” Osryn explained. “He was a recluse from Solelio who was found dead in his home after decades of social isolation. Alongside his body was a treasure trove of knowledge; hundreds of studies in numerous fields–– linguistics, engineering, even entomology. You name it, he’s done it.”

“Biology?” Daniela responded to the dare.

Osryn smirked, having known she would guess that. That’s what they had both been studying when he met her. “Certainly. The man was a jack of all trades, but what I’ve always valued were his contributions to abstract theory. Hell, he revolutionized the field when he raised the theory that the scientific and the arcane not only could coexist, but must coexist. Without his help in popularizing abstract ideas, and inspiring those who came after him, I never would have developed such a passion for the abstract as I have. His work went down in history, yet not a single soul knows what kind of person he actually was.”

“Hmm…” Daniela gazed at the child and nodded her approval. “It’s interesting. A name shrouded in triumph, but also mystery.”

“Yes!” Osryn was pleased that he had managed to come to a decision, only to be paralyzed again. “But, what about the girl?”

For a moment, Daniela looked at her. “Well, Hector and I thought about having a third child, and if she’d been a girl, we would have named her Adelaide.”

“Adelaide,” Osryn repeated, wrinkling his forehead. “I like it.”

“Sebastian and Adelaide. You’re a father, Osryn.”

“Oh, stars…” Osryn rubbed his head and inhaled sharply. “I’m not sure I’m ready, Daniela. The last four months have been an absolute nightmare. I’ve hardly gotten any sleep since October....”

Daniela only raised her eyebrows. Osryn sighed.

“Alright, yes, I know you’ve been through it twice, but… I didn’t ask for this, Daniela. Besides, you had Hector… I’m not sure I can do this alone.”

With a pitying smile, Daniela put her hand on Osryn’s shoulder. Osryn reached up and placed his own on top of hers, squeezing it softly. “I believe in you, Osryn,” she assured him. “You’re the smartest, most resourceful person I know.”

Osryn pulled away, keeping her hand in his and grabbing her other one. “You really mean that?”

Daniela flushed and looked away, giving his hands a tiny squeeze. “Of course, Osryn. You know I love you.”

His nerves steeled themselves and he kept his gaze directed at her until she sheepishly looked towards him again. When she did, she saw the tired face of a new father, but also the solemn, caring eyes of the man she’d always loved. Those eyes nearly captivated her when he opened his mouth and said, “Raise them with me, Daniela. Please. I need your help.”

Her hands fell away from his and she scratched her shoulder, shaking her head with a sigh. “Oh, Osryn… why? Why would you say that?”

“You know I’ve never forgotten the way it was when we were together,” Osryn told her. “Walking away from you was the most foolish decision I ever made, you know. I need you, Daniela. These children need a mother.”

Daniela scoffed, casting a piercing glare at Osryn, who recoiled slightly. “Unbelievable! You made your bed in college, Osryn Seld, and now you must lie in it. You did walk away from me. I was ready to marry you, Osryn… but I married someone else. My children need a mother… your children will simply have to deal with you.”

Osryn fell silent. He knew it was wrong for him to have asked, and in retrospect, knew there was no way she would have accepted his offer. Hector and Daniela were happy, and in love, and for the last decade, she had been an amazing friend to Osryn despite all their history. They both knew the ship of their romance had long sailed. It crushed him to see her so disappointed in him.

“Dee… I’m sorry…” he said. “I know you’re happy. I like Hector. I wouldn’t want to hurt him like that. You’re right. I need to do this alone.”

Daniela softened slightly, offering him a smile. She rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue, still clearly shaken, but willing to lighten up for both their sakes. “You’re silly, Osryn… obviously I’ll be around. I don’t have any siblings, and I’ve always wanted a niece and nephew.”

Osryn grinned. “Auntie Daniela.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, stop it…” The two friends gazed upon the strange children again, taking in their magnificence. “They really are beautiful, aren’t they?”

Mesmerized, Osryn nodded absently. “I really didn’t expect to grow so fond of them… but it’s true now. I’ve named them, so...”

“You’re a father.”

“I’m a father.”

Daniela smiled and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “What would you ever do without me?”

He rubbed it, furrowing his brow as though considering. “I’m not sure. Possibly light myself on fire?”

“Hm, frankly, I’d bet on turning yourself into a toad.”

“Do not mock me. You know full well that I have yet to perfect the art of autotransmogrification.”

The two laughed and said their goodbyes. Osryn thought maybe she’d forgotten his blunder, but when he went to hug her, he saw that her arms were crossed defensively over her chest. Heavy-hearted, he refrained. Daniela headed out into the cold to return to her shop. After Osryn shut the door behind her, he collapsed in a slump against it, head in his hands. How could he have been so thoughtless and cruel, to put his closest friend in such an awkward situation? She was right, after all–– he had missed his chance. Instead of marrying her, he dropped out of college and dedicated himself to the art of sorcery and the crippling loneliness that came along with it. He knew things about the forces that made their world tick, sure, but what did he know of fatherhood? What did Osryn Seld know of what it took to have a family?

It had been a year since Cornellius had passed away, leaving Osryn alone in the home he had long ago been invited into. He had always asked Cornellius if he regretted not settling down, finding a wife and having kids. Cornellius had always assured him he didn’t regret a single moment of his life, and that Osryn would always be like a son to him. It occurred to Osryn in that moment that not a single man or woman before him had raised a true child in this home. This house had gone master to apprentice, then his apprentice, then hers, and so on for centuries.

Again, he found himself wandering listlessly to the mead rack. Two children slept upstairs, and every instinct told him he shouldn’t do it, shouldn’t numb his senses when there were beings who relied on him. That was why he’d never gotten a dog, after all. Yet, the bottle was uncorked, and a glass poured, then subsequently finished. Osryn missed Cornellius. He had always been a positive influence on him.

Unlike Osryn, who was rather antisocial and extremely aloof when confronted, Cornellius had been a social butterfly, gaining the respect and friendship of many of Lunora’s residents. In his early years, he and a crew of like-minded samaritans had been involved in the dissipation of several violent gangs in Lunora. When he took the more passive role as the village wizard as he aged, it felt like a well-earned retirement, and he continued to do good by the community through healing and public education. Even now, he is spoken of often in town and dearly missed.

Osryn wondered if anyone would miss him that way. What had he done worth remembering, after all? Was it too late for him to do anything to change it? He had no history of good deeds. No philanthropy. Nothing more than a few published studies no one was likely ever to read. The love of his life was happily married. His parents had disowned him long ago. Even his estranged little brother was making a fortune across the nation.

Out of the corner of his eye, Osryn saw movement on the den floor. Several crawling insects were making their way around the room. Osryn scowled. He had never had much of a bug problem, but in the last few months, he swore they had made this place their dormitory. Frustrated with his social blunder and lost in his existential angst, Osryn stood from the couch where he’d been drinking and crushed one of the cockroaches beneath his shoe, twisting it harshly into the floor. When he lifted his foot, there was nothing but a stain of blood and viscera.

From upstairs came the sound of infants crying. With a sigh, Osryn finished the mead in his glass and headed up to check on them. Behind him, the obliterated remains of the cockroach on the floor congealed, its exoskeleton re-formed, and the little insignificant insect came back to life and walked away.

Chapter Three

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On one particularly chilly fall evening, the hazy sky was streaked with pale shades of orange and purple. Osryn stared out his kitchen window at the trees waving in the wind. It was October again, almost one year since the children had come to him the autumn before. Over the stove an oily broth sizzled and a pot of long and round noodles boiled. Osryn tended to it, periodically dashing to the threshold between his kitchen and the den, where Sebastian and Adelaide were crawling around on the floor. At eleven months old, they were already exuberant explorers of every nook and cranny in the old house–– they were even already starting to talk, and could take a few bumbling steps. Osryn had reluctantly been forced to do some tidying, as there were a variety of magical objects in his house that were less than ideal to become a children’s toy–– childproofing a wizard’s home was no easy feat.

That being said, Osryn had also scattered a handful of select artifacts and totems around the den floor, allowing the children to handle them and become familiar with them if they so desired. So far, the kids had found a few of them, but none had struck their fancy. Knowing nothing about raising children in an arcane environment, Osryn had been forced to adapt some unique parenting techniques. Exposing his kids to some magical items young was his way of preparing them to learn the craft someday. He would have to teach them, after all. It was customary.

Finally, Osryn’s anticipatory glancing out the kitchen window paid off, as he saw Daniela striding down the cobblestone pathway to his abode. Excitedly, he dashed over to his front door and swung it open, allowing a fresh burst of crisp October air into the foyer, and then his friend.

“Oh, Daniela! It’s been so long. When did I see you last? It must have been summer!”

Daniela nodded, shaking a few dead leaves out of her wavy auburn hair. “I believe so. Well, you know how it goes. Fall is a busy season for Hector’s trading, and school started last month for the kids.”

“School…” Osryn muttered, glancing into the next room where Adelaide was chewing on a small, donut-shaped “toy” Osyrn had foraged from his hordes of objects. “How old are children supposed to start school? There’s no question about them going in person, of course… Even if we disguised them it is far too great a risk. If anyone knows I even have children, there will be drop-bys, incessant check-ins, questions on the street––”

“We get it, Osryn dear. You despise having contact with other humans.” Rolling her eyes, Daniela hung her cloak on the rack next to the door. She straightened out her shirt and the brown corduroy overall dress she wore over it. Osryn smiled and nodded at her.

“You look well.”

She tilted her head and fingered a strand of her hair. “Thank you. You look… well, you look just as spread-thin as you did the last time I saw you.”

Osryn sighed, shaking his head and beckoning her into the den. “You don’t even know. Have you ever tried changing a child’s diaper who had four arms flailing around at you?”

Daniela chuckled, settling in on the sofa. Sebastian immediately looked up from his spot on the carpet and directed all six of his wide tiny eyes at her.

“Hi.” The small child said.

“Hello sweetheart!” Daniela waved and smiled brightly. Sebastian continued staring with no further words. He knew her, but still wasn’t sure what to make of her.

Despite having seen them dozens of times before, Daniela still always found herself captivated by the beauty of the boy’s eyes. They were arranged symmetrically: two where they should be, two above them, and two to the outer sides, like two triangles of eyes reflected across his tiny nose. His visual field must be remarkable, she thought, but as she looked at him, she noticed something she never had before. The two eyes that rested where normal human’s eyes always did were a pale, faded blue, compared to the deep and bright hue of the other four.

“Osryn, have you ever looked closely at Sebastian’s eyes?”

From the kitchen, where he had returned to the stovetop to stir his pot, Osryn yelled, “Sorry, what?”

She shook her head and continued watching the children. It was probably nothing. “Never mind.”

For another few moments, she watched the children, delighting in the wholesome innocence of their play. It was amazing just how human they seemed, despite their strangeness. However, Daniela noticed something off about the environment in which the children were playing. She wrinkled her nose, and at that moment Osryn returned from the kitchen to join her on the couch.

“There’s so many bugs in here, Osryn… you let your children live like this?”

With a sigh, Osryn looked in the direction of the children, where indeed, a handful of cockroaches, ants and beetles were crawling around. A few flies also buzzed around in ditzy circles above them. “Okay, this might sound crazy, but… I think they’re drawn to the children.”

Daniela furrowed her brow. “Excuse me?”

“Seriously.” Osryn told her that for the past year, starting after he obtained the children, there had been an odd increase in insect activity around his house. Crawling bugs, flying bugs, if it had six legs, it was in Osryn’s house. It had been extremely unnerving for the longest time, but he admitted he was starting to get used to it. Daniela shook her head as he relayed a few stories of times where the infestation seemed to center around the children. Times where bugs he swore he had killed somehow reappeared. Daniela wasn’t having any of it.

“That’s ridiculous, Osryn. They’re children.”

“Abnormal children…” Osryn murmured, directing Daniela’s attention back to where Adelaide was crawling rather briskly across the room. “Tell me, what do you see when she crawls?”

Daniela observed her. With her four arms and two legs scampering about, almost hydraulically, it was difficult not to perceive her movements as akin to some kind of insect. Nonetheless, Daniela didn’t want to believe it. She was rather repulsed by bugs.

“You’re crazy.”

“That’s why I got into this line of work, after all. I’m crazy, but I’m right.”

“Sure, Osryn,” she muttered, nervously glancing around the couch as though a creepy crawly might emerge from any crevice, “whatever helps you sleep at night.”

The two watched the children together for quite some time, getting on their knees to play with them and smiling and laughing all the while. Osryn savored every moment he got to live like this with Daniela–– it was healing for him, to feel like he was living some semblance of a “normal” life. After essentially proposing she leave her husband and kids to raise his own with him, he wasn’t sure their friendship would recover… but he should have known better. No matter how many times they fought or grew apart, they would always be there for each other. A year had passed now, and he was sure his blunder––like all of his hundreds––was water under the bridge.

Adelaide was busy trying to shove her entire arm through the donut-shaped object she’d been chewing on earlier when Sebastian stumbled upon a black wand that Osryn had left in the corner of the room. He hadn’t intended to leave it out as a toy, but he didn’t consider it dangerous either, so he hadn’t moved it out of the way. Sebastian gripped it with his small nubby fingers and stared at Osryn. The adults both smiled at him, but their mouths quickly opened in shock as the wand began to glow, as blue and gleaming as a sapphire.

“Oh my stars…” Osryn murmured. “It’s chosen him.”

Daniela was far less calm about the brightly glowing wand Sebastian still clung to, and began to chew on. “Chosen him?! What on earth do you mean? Is it going to hurt him?”

Osryn chuckled. “No, no… I shouldn’t be surprised, honestly.”

Daniela kicked his foot with her own. “Please explain to me what’s going on.”

“Ow! Fine!” Osryn whined, then took a breath. “That he’s holding there is the obsidian wand of Haelstron.”

Daniela blinked, impatient.

Osryn sighed, disappointed that she did not remember. “Sebastian Haelstron, the famous abstract scientist I named him after.”

Daniela raised her eyebrows. “I suppose now you're going to tell me there's no such thing as coincidence when it comes to magical artifacts?”

Narrowing his eyes, Osryn tilted his hand from side to side as though unsure. “I mean… yes. It’s not likely that a wand would activate due to simply a mad coincidence. It’s more likely that genuinely, it sensed power within him and knew he was destined to be its master.”

“So, you will train him to use it?”

Osryn nodded. “I suppose I have no choice.”

Dinner was ready a few minutes later and Osryn readied it for serving, testing that the thick noodles were suitably chewy and spooning them into bowls of broth as Daniela set the table in the adjacent dining room. The children had already eaten and were growing tired, as darkness began shrouding the world and the sun slipped below the horizon. As Daniela had seen him do many times before, Osryn conjured his favorite plasma magic and cast numerous small globules of the hot, bright material around the den and dining room, where they found the various lamps on the walls and tables and lit them, illuminating the room.

Adelaide and Sebastian had found each other on the sofa and were curled up together, nodding off. Osryn let them rest there, where he gently kissed each of their little foreheads. While they had felt like a terrifying and daunting responsibility one year ago when he had obtained them, he loved them deeply now, and he felt so lucky to have them in his life.

Returning to the dining room, he found the woman he also felt extremely lucky to know sitting at the table, ready to eat. He joined her and the two began their meal in relative silence. She remarked on how the broth was good, but Osryn was too busy slurping the noodles down to respond. It having been months since he’d last seen his friend, he began making small talk as soon as his hunger was sufficiently satiated.

“So, how’s business? You were struggling this time last year. Has it gotten better?”

Daniela shrugged. “Well, you know Lunorans. All the factory worker types tend to snub the idea of arts and culture, but there’s been an uptick in interested parties, I think. Last fall was a rough time economically for everyone, but Hector managed to get a hold of some pretty rare and cool stuff this summer, so I’ve been making a fair amount off of that. Leo, who comes by my store often, told me that he’s starting to convince a few of his friends to come by and check out my selection. Other than that, it’s the same people who always buy from me.”

“Leo? Have I ever met this man?”

Shaking her head, Daniela held up a finger while she slurped some noodles down. “Maybe? Not sure. People don’t really mention you.”

Osryn went quiet. Immediately, Daniela picked up on her mistake.

“I- I don’t mean no one cares, of course… you just, don’t really come up in conversation.”

“No, I get it…” Osryn said bitterly, drumming his fingers on the table. “No one likes me.”

Daniela sighed. “I didn’t say that!”

“But, it’s true, isn’t it? I’m not stupid. I know people consider me off-putting, a shut-in…”

“Well,” Daniela started, scratching her neck, “you don’t really come around town, and when you do, you certainly don’t strike up conversation.”

“Oh, blame me, why don’t you, for my social scorn.”

Daniela’s eyes flashed. “I am not blaming you for anything, Osryn. I’m simply stating facts. From a stranger’s eyes, you don’t have the friendliest, most remarkable persona.”

“I’m no Cornellius.”

Sighing, Daniela put down her fork. Osryn used chopsticks, but he tried not to judge her too much. “You need to stop comparing yourself to him.”

“People still talk about him, Daniela. To this day. When I die, who will remember me? What sort of legacy will I leave? Will anyone even know I lived in town?”

“That doesn’t matter, Osryn. What matters is what’s right in front of you. Your friends. Your family. Your children.

Osryn knew she was right, but he said nothing, taking another bite. Daniela shook her head slowly and the two finished eating in silence. When he finished, Osryn held a glass of mead by the stem, swirling it around and staring at the tablecloth. The citizens of Lunora have already shed him from their day-to-day thoughts. When he died, how long would it take before no one remembered him at all? He wasn’t as socially skilled as Cornellius, and he certainly wasn’t as friendly. He wasn’t as wise, nor as powerful, nor as experienced in combat. His mentor’s memory would outlive his own–– Osryn was simply sure of this, and it made his soul ache. He sipped his mead and sighed.

“Alright. Well, on that note...” Daniela rose from her seat and wiped off her skirt, turning to Osryn, who wouldn’t make eye contact. “I’ll leave you to your lamenting, I suppose. You can be a crabby old man, you know?”

“Oh, please.” Osryn managed a hint of a smile, rolling his eyes. “We’re not old yet. Don’t scare me like that.”

Osryn had been hoping for a chuckle, but she only offered him a pitying look. Still, he walked her to the door, where upon opening it, she turned to him. “Be kind to yourself Osryn. When you don’t, it’s not just you who suffers.”

Without waiting for a response, she pulled her shawl over her shoulders and shut the door behind her. Osryn sighed, shivered, and wrapped his arms around himself, walking to the stove and putting on another log. The hot embers erupted into flame and he allowed it to warm his body, but he was having trouble calming his mind. Worrying had always been a special talent of his, but that certainly wasn’t enough to be remembered by. He wandered back into the dining room, where he listlessly cleared the table and washed up all the pots and dishware.

“Daddy… Cookie.”

Osryn was just finishing up the dishes when Adelaide wandered into the kitchen, standing with remarkable balance. Chuckling, Osryn ruffled the little girl’s hair, which, unlike Sebastian’s pale and straight blond, had been dark, coarse, and curly from the start. “Not now, Laidie-bug. It’s bedtime.”

“But…” Adelaide pouted, crossing her four arms over each other like a braid. Sebastian was sitting quietly in the nearby den, still holding his wand and watching the whole thing. “Wanna cookie.”

“Maybe tomorrow, dear.”

Adelaide huffed and stomped away. Osryn continued his chores, which served as a good enough distraction from his ever-darkening thoughts. Daniela was right. He always managed to work himself into a funk for no good reason. He flitted from one end of the house to the other, upstairs and downstairs, taking care of odds and ends but not really making any real progress on the mess. For some time, as he absently polished a crystal upstairs in his office, all was quiet, which should have been a dead giveaway to a father that something was awry. A crash from downstairs whipped Osryn’s head away from his task and he raced downstairs and into the kitchen.

From the doorframe, Osryn watched in awe for a moment as a massive swarm of ants descended from the counter where the cookie jar had just been. Osryn looked at the jar, now open on the floor, and Adelaide noticed him, a cookie in all four of her hands. The two stared for a moment, like long-time adversaries determining the other’s next move. Osryn crossed his arms and looked down at Adelaide, who relented with a huff and dropped the cookies on the floor.

“You no gimme cookie...” Adelaide whined as he scooped her up off the floor.

“How did you do that, honey?” Osryn asked her softly, digging for information about the surreal ant behavior as opposed to scolding her. “Those ants, they got the cookies for you… right?”

Adelaide nodded, fiddling with her many fingers. “Yeah. Friends help.”

“Your friends?”

She gestured to the floor, where the ants were swarming the cookies that no one had bothered to pick up. “Friends get cookie!”

Blinking, Osryn watched the ants swarming. There was no doubt now that he had been right. The uptick of insect activity in the last year had been because of the children. Not only were bugs drawn to them, but it seemed that they were somehow able to communicate with them. Had Osryn ever taken a parenting class, he was certain they would not have taught him how to deal with something like this. Without questioning her any further, Osryn put Adelaide down and she stormed off into the den. Osryn began cleaning the cookies up off the floor. The jar, thankfully, was unharmed, but the cookies were likely tarnished. As he rose from the floor with a handful of cookies, Sebastian let out a piercing wail.

“Daddy! Laidie took bearie!”

Sighing, Osryn attempted to unload the cookies into the trash. “Adelaide! Give Sebastian back the bear!”

“No!” She screamed, and Osryn rushed into the den just in time to see her hit Sebastian with the plushie. Six eyes squeezed shut, Sebastian’s screaming intensified and Osryn rushed over to him, coddling him in his arms and whispering soft reassurances. All the while, he glared at Adelaide, who was hugging the bear plushie with a devious little smile on her face. Osryn sighed deeply, having thought that maybe they’d tired themselves out enough to go to bed easily, but he could never be so lucky. With love in his heart, but lead in his soul, Osryn prepared for another long night: a night so full of meaning, and yet so meaningless it made him want to cry.

Chapter Four

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Time passed. Years, in fact. It was August, almost a decade later, when Osryn truly realized the gravity of the burden life had placed on him and his children. The day itself was unassumingly bright, the sunniest day Lunora had seen in years–– definitely the brightest in the children’s memory.

Nonetheless, the sky was still streaked with cirrus clouds, which periodically blocked out the sun. By evening, the moisture would have fully descended, and the characteristic fog would cast itself over Mistlorn Valley. That didn’t matter. For now, it was bright, and Osryn was happy. Sitting in his own front yard on this beautiful day, in the company of his closest friends and family, Osryn was happy.

He would have to savor this serene moment, as they did not come for him often.

“You’re in a particularly good mood, it seems,” Daniela teased Osryn and jabbed him in the arm, pulling him out of his absent stupor. “You’ve been staring into space in silence for a while now… and you’re smiling?”

“Careful buddy,” Daniela’s husband, Hector, interjected, “you’ll go blind if you stare into the sun for too long.”

Hector flashed Osryn an earnest grin. Osryn chuckled. “I’ll try to avoid it.”

“I thought all Lunorans went blind if the sun even came out,” Hector said, that amicable smile melting into a smirk. “Are you sure it’s okay for you to be sunbathing? Won’t you die or something?”

“No,” Daniela responded, “that’s vampires, dear.”

“Oooohh.”

Hector Macron was from Solelio, the warm sunny town on the northern side of Mount Astella, known for its lengthy growing season and a communal society based around arts and culture. Its coastal location, compared to inland Lunora, made Solelio an attractive hub for traders and merchants of the valley, Hector among them. It was through this lifestyle that he found himself frequently in Lunora, where he’d met and fallen in love with Daniela, and now resided with her. He, unlike Osryn, had not only traveled deeper into the mainland than Lunora, but across the Sea of Rata to the western lands Nygel spoke so highly of. That, after all, was where a lot of the more valuable goods came from. While there was undeniably a twinge of jealousy felt by Osryn for the man who’d settled down with the love of his life, he couldn’t deny the fact that Hector was a good and honest man. It did amuse him to a degree that Hector was apparently his physical opposite in every way: short but muscular, with pure white hair against dark brown skin. They both wore their long hair back in a ponytail, though. Perhaps Daniela did have a type.

“Anna! Don’t pull your brother’s hair!”

Daniela briefly scolded her daughter, the eight year-old Anna, who was currently attempting to scalp ten year-old Greer. Adelaide and Sebastian, who were now ten as well, stood aside, snickering as their friends got in trouble. Soon enough the dispute was resolved, and the children continued their game of tag. Osryn’s heart swelled as he looked at them all. After much consideration, Osryn had decided he couldn’t bear to let his children grow up in isolation. So, he’d allowed Daniela to tell Hector about the children’s existence, and together, they’d decided to allow Greer and Anna to play with them.

Greer had sworn to secrecy, and if anything he seemed to enjoy having an important secret to keep. Anna, despite her age, didn't talk at all. She, unlike Greer, was quite introverted, so although she communicated in her own way, she was not much of a leak risk.

Daniela had suggested that if Adelaide hid her arms under her clothing and Sebastian wore a bandana over his top eyes, the two would be able to enter public places, but Osryn was still nervous about the idea of it–– after all, one mishap could reveal the truth. It was too risky to try and send them to school, so for the last several years, the twins had been learning from their father using the home-school curriculum that Osryn and the Macrons had devised together. All in all, things were finally starting to feel somewhat normal for Osryn. His children were thriving, he was happier than he could remember, and he hadn’t heard from his immediate family in years. Life was good.

“They’re all growing up, huh?” Daniela mused, sipping her glass of Osryn’s newest batch of mead. It had turned out rather delicious this time–– he’d had much practice over the years. “I never expected to raise my kids alongside yours, Osryn. I was really starting to have my doubts you’d ever become a father.”

Osryn rolled his eyes. “Tch. Well, I’ve surprised you yet again.” The adults focused their attention again on the children. Anna was much quicker than Adelaide, and was continuously managing to make her “it.” Adelaide grew frustrated with this when she was tagged by the edge of the yard where a rock wall designated the property line. All eyes widened as she, in a fit of childlike temper, grabbed a boulder that couldn’t have been less than a hundred pounds and tossed it across the yard. No one was in her line of fire, but Daniela and Hector looked at Osryn with expressions of sheer disbelief. Osryn, who had seen this phenomenon before, simply sighed.

“Adelaide!” He scolded, and she flashed a glare in his direction, knowing already that she had broken the rules. “No throwing rocks, remember? It makes Sebastian jealous.”

Daniela raised an eyebrow. Osryn sighed, relenting, and added, “Also, it’s dangerous. Please stop.”

Sebastian whined, hiding his upper eyes behind his shaggy blond fringe. It was true that he had tried in the past to lift the rocks she handled with ease, to no avail. It was clear to Osryn that whatever powers the two did have, they were different and specific to each of them.

Adelaide huffed and the game of tag continued. Anna and Greer seemed somewhat off-put, but they were children, and just as quickly returned to their game. Daniela and Hector, however, were not as easily distracted.

“What in the name of the sun was that?” Daniela gasped, downing the rest of her glass. “That rock must have been twice her body weight!”

“She’s got quite the little temper, that one.” Hector laughed, sipping his mead far more quaintly than his wife had. “How’s that working out for you, Ozzy?”

“Are you not shocked by this?” Daniela asked, waving her hands around. “His ten year-old daughter just tossed a giant boulder.”

Hector shrugged. “I’ve seen weirder in this world… haven’t you?”

“I’ve tried to tell you before, Daniela, dozens of times. You never listened to me,” Osryn said, somewhat bitterly. “Bugs are attracted to them. Later on, it became clear that they both can communicate, telepathically I believe, with insects. Didn’t I tell you about the cookie jar?

Daniela rolled her eyes. “Jesus, Osryn, it’s only been, what, eight years? Excuse me for forgetting.”

Osryn shrugged. “Anyway, Adelaide is… strong. I think it’s all connected to their physical abnormalities.”

Nodding, like this was obvious and he totally understood, Hector said, “Oh, yeah! Like an ant. She can probably lift… well, anything.”

Hector had always wanted to go to college for entomology, but since trading paid the bills better than staring at bugs, he had settled for reading up the topic on his own as well as engaging in some amateur beekeeping. Daniela, despising bugs as she did, did not often bring it up, so Osryn had completely forgotten about that aspect of his history until now.

“Yeah,” Osryn raised his eyebrows, somehow never having made the connection himself, “like an ant.”

Daniela shuddered and glanced nervously at the kids, where Sebastian was jumping to tag Anna, who barely managed to dodge his attack. “So it’s true. They’re… bugs.”

“Well,” Osryn tilted his head side to side, scratching his goatee. “Bug-adjacent. Yes. I’d say that’s confirmed.”

“That’s a shame…” Daniela murmured, gazing into her empty glass. “I like them, but… what other dark and creepy secrets may lie within them?”

“I know, I know…” Osryn’s voice had taken on a dismal tone. This was a thought train he rode far too often for his liking, but it was true that he had no idea what his own children were capable of. What sort of creepy-crawly magic made them tick, and if they were insects, were they harmless... or would they bite? “I worry, Daniela. I do. But what am I supposed to do? My children are… insects. Whatever happens, at this point, will simply happen.”

“I think you’re being a little cruel, guys,” Hector insisted, a pronounced frown highlighting the wear and wrinkles in his face. “First of all, they’re children. Second of all, not everything about insects is a bad thing. Insects are integral to ecosystems and, well, life as a whole. Plus, without the honey my bees make for you, Ozzy, you wouldn’t have any of your precious mead!”

Osryn managed a smile at Hector’s playful reassurance and Daniela squeezed her husband’s hand. At that moment, Greer suddenly broke down crying, kneeling over something on the ground. Anna knelt a few feet to his right, unsure how to help, and Sebastian, and Adelaide watched from a distance. Hector rushed over to him and put his arm around his shoulder, asking what’s wrong.

“I stepped on a bee!” Greer cried, wiping tears out of his eyes and off his pale stringy hair. Hector’s hair had not turned white with age, but had in fact been that way since he was born, and he had passed the trait onto his son. Osryn had always wondered what sort of abstract gene could cause a heritable condition like that. It seemed that the father and son had more in common than just their hair color, as Hector frowned as he saw the broken bumblebee in his son’s hand.

“Oh, no…” He cooed softly, stroking Greer’s hair. “It’s okay, son. It’s okay.”

Osryn could tell that although Hector was trying to act as emotional support for his distraught son, he was having trouble keeping it together himself. Daniela sighed and put her empty glass down, raising her eyes at Osryn before she stood up and walked over to her panicked family. She put her arms around both of them and said, “The death of one bee is not the collapse of a colony, guys. Come on, you know that!”

“I killed it!” Greer sobbed. “I killed your flying friend!” Hector was shaking his head furiously, seemingly on the verge of tears himself. There was a distinct femininity to his appearance and mannerisms, and it contrasted well against Daniela’s masculine tendencies. One more reason to prove that in the end, Osryn wasn’t right for her. Still, Osryn couldn’t help but find it weird that even a ten year-old boy was so emotional, never mind a grown man. It unsettled him deeply, yet almost made him jealous.

It was then that Sebastian separated from Adelaide and stepped quietly over to the family, where he knelt down beside Greer and looked at him. His eyes met Greer’s and in that moment, somehow they both felt calm. Sebastian held out his left hand and blinked. The Macrons had known Sebastian and Adelaide for so long that it didn’t even throw Greer off to look so closely into the six, piercing eyes of his young friend. He nodded and carefully dropped the bee into Sebastian’s hand. It was writhing and squirming, oozing blood and certainly dying. Sebastian closed his eyes, cupping the bee in his hands. Osryn rose from his chair and wandered closer, awestruck… was it truly as it seemed? Sebastian was channeling, for the first time, into the abstract.

After a few moments of silence, in which Anna grew a little impatient, Sebastian uncupped his hands. The bumblebee flew out and bumbled around, landing on Sebastian’s shoulder, then his head, then Greer’s, then flew away. Everyone exclaimed in wonder and excitement and Greer gave Sebastian a tight hug, startling him.

“You saved him, Sebastian!” Greer cried, tears dripping onto Sebastian’s shoulder. Unused to affection from anyone but his father, Sebastian tentatively patted Greer on the back a few times until he let go.

“Son, how long have you known you can do that?” Osryn asked. Sebastian shrugged.

“I dunno. A while. You step on bugs around the house. I re-form them. It makes me sad to see them die for no reason.”

Osryn blinked and looked to Adelaide. “Can you do that?”

Adelaide frowned and shook her head. “I tried… I don’t think so.”

“It’s only fair,” Greer said. “You can move rocks.”

“You’re both so talented, my children!” Osryn grinned and swept them both into his arms, where they groaned in embarrassment over his praise and affection. Anna snickered, and Greer was smiling now, but still wiping tears from his eyes. “I’m going to train you, you know. You’ll be skilled sorcerers someday, like I am. Just you wait and see!”

There was a rustling sound in the woods, and for a moment, no one paid it any mind. It wasn’t until Sebastian picked up on a strange clicking sound alongside the rustling of the undergrowth. He turned his wide gaze beyond the rock wall and his eyes widened.

“Guys… look over there.”

Everyone turned at once towards the woods and there, emerging from the outer brush of the forest was what looked like a giant stag beetle. After the day’s events, there was no doubt in anyone’s minds that Sebastian and Adelaide had a connection to insects, yet no one could have expected the creature that loomed before them. The monolithic segmented creature inched its legs forward slightly and pulsed its large mandibles. As it progressed, the Macron family steadily retreated towards the house, leaving Osryn and his children to face their reality.

“Children, go inside,” Osryn commanded Adelaide and Sebastian, but they shook their heads.

“No daddy,” Adelaide said, grabbing the boulder she’d thrown earlier. “I’m strong.”

Sebastian nodded, but inched back slightly. His eyes had not moved from the giant bug since he spotted it–– in fear, but also a hint of awe and admiration. It was the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen in his young life.

The monstrous insect no longer appeared to be playing neutral, loudly chittering as it scuttled across the threshold between the woods and the boundary wall and fielded it with ease–– the wall was no more than a meter tall, and the beetle hardly needed to climb to get over it. Osryn summoned his go-to plasma magic and cupped the metaphysical orbs in his hands, feeling their power pulse through him and into them. The beetle made its first attack towards Osryn, lunging at him with its giant mandibles, but Osryn was able to dodge, shoving Adelaide out of the way as he did so, and cast a volley of plasma balls in the beetle’s direction. When they made contact with the bug’s exoskeleton, it began to sizzle and melt, but the bug was only slightly deterred. If anything, the pain had made it angrier, and it lunged towards Sebastian now, who screamed and jumped out of the way, narrowly avoiding being pierced through by one of the creatures’ antlers. Adelaide tossed a boulder at it, but it hit a particularly armored part of its exoskeleton and hardly made a dent.

Meanwhile, Osryn continued pelting the being with plasma bullets, drawing its attention away from his children and onto him. This resulted in a very irate beetle charging Osryn quicker than he could fully dodge and grazing him across the stomach with the point of its mandible. Gasping, Osryn collapsed to the ground, where instead of clutching to his wound, he held out both hands in front of him, summoning a small energy shield in front of him. The beetle was unable to perceive this in its rage, and charged directly into the fortified magic shield, breaking its left mandible and buzzing in distress. While it was distracted, a boulder came crashing down on the joint where its head met its body, snapping the head clean off. As the beetle collapsed, Adelaide stood behind it, eyes wide and breathing deeply and shakily. She dropped the boulder, now covered in dark insect blood, and fell to her knees, sobbing.

Sebastian rushed over to his father and held his hands to the cut on Osryn’s stomach. He channeled his healing energy into it, but huffed in frustration when nothing happened. Wincing, Osryn ruffled his son’s hair and shook his head. “Don’t bother, son. I’m not an insect… like you.”

“What was that thing?” Adelaide screamed between sobs, dark hair hanging in her face. “W- Was it coming for us? Did you get hurt because of us?”

“No, darling, you saved me!” Osryn assured her. “This little scratch is nothing, dear. If it weren’t for you, I’d be beetle food.”

This hardly helped, and the young girl continued crying over the creature’s corpse. Osryn attempted to rise so he could go comfort her, but although the cut was thin enough not to warrant stitches, his wound was somewhat deep. Sebastian was still trying to summon healing magic to cure him, but there was no success whatsoever. Frustrated, Sebastian threw his hands down to his sides and, though it was unable to course through Osryn to heal him, the magic energy he had been concentrating had to go somewhere, and it struck the ground through each of his hands in a small bolt of electricity. Adelaide caught a glimpse of this and examined her own four hands.

“I tried, dad, but I didn’t help at all…” Sebastian muttered, shaking his hair out of his face and staring at the corpse of the giant bug.

Osryn had taken matters into his own hands and was grimacing as he guided a thin wobbling string he had generated out of low-temperature plasma across his wound, cauterizing it. “Y- You’ll get there, son. Both of you… I’m going to teach you how to harness your magic.”

“Really?” Adelaide’s eyes gleamed and she clenched all her little hands into fists. “I want to be a wizard like you, daddy. I wanna learn magic like Sebby.”

“Magic flows within everything, my children.” Osryn told them, dissolving the plasma string into gas and managing to rise to his feet. He looked at the corpse. “You both hold power inside you. Never forget that.”

Hesitantly, the Macron family returned to the yard from where they were sheltering in the foyer. Hector had his arm around Anna’s shoulder, who was still trembling. Daniela was holding Greer by the hand, but he stared straight at the bug corpse unfazed, then at Sebastian.

“Man, where did you learn to fight like that?” Hector was aghast. “I mean, aren’t you an academic?”

“My late mentor was a little bit more than an academic back in his hayday… he showed me a thing or two.” Osryn hesitated for a moment. “...Also, I was in a fight club in college.”

It did not sound like a joke, and everyone knew that to be plausible. Hector looked to Daniela for confirmation, and she nodded once, like she knew and didn’t like to think about it.

“Sebby…” Greer said. “Are you gonna heal the big bug too?”

Sebastian stared at it, seemingly realizing that Greer was right, he probably could do that, but Osryn shook his head and shot down the notion. “No, no… Some things are better off dead.”

“You kids are full of surprises,” Daniela chuckled, but there was fear behind her expression. Unlike her fond husband, Daniela was deeply afraid of bugs. “My, my… I wouldn’t want to cross either of you.”

“That bug… deserved to die.” Sebastian was hypnotized by its monstrosity, even in death, and could not take his eyes off it for more than a few moments. “Where do you think it came from?”

Osryn did not know. “It… could have been from anywhere. There’s no guarantee that it had anything to do with the two of you.”

“Oh come on, Osryn…” Daniela scolded, crossing her arms. “Don’t talk to them like they’re stupid. They’re old enough to know the truth.”

Osryn sighed and looked at his kids sitting on the ground. Adelaide’s tears were only beginning to dry and Sebastian’s six-eyed stare kept flickering back to the corpse his sister had created. Nervously, he crouched down to their level, and addressed them both.

“I do not know where you came from, darlings, or what sort of power you might hold. It seems more than likely that the beetle knew you were here and was attracted to you like the normal-sized ones tend to be…

“Know this: I will love you forever, no matter what lurks out there or within you. You are my children, and I will train you to be strong. Adelaide, you’re so strong already! And Sebastian! You learned all by yourself how to harness the arcane!”

Adelaide crawled towards him and wrapped her arms around him, crying into his side as he patted her back. Osryn looked over towards Sebastian, beckoning him over with his free hand, and his son moved closer as well, allowing his father to hold him and bring the two children some modicum of comfort.

The corpse still lay before them, yet it was hard to even believe that anything abnormal had occurred. Perhaps, Osryn realized, this would be the new normal. He looked over his shoulder at Daniela, and she gave him a sad-looking smile. Osryn squeezed his children to him tightly; he had always been searching for a purpose.

Chapter Five

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Another weary night, and a familiar cerulean scroll had made its way onto Osryn Seld’s desk. As per his custom, it had been many years since he had pulled it out and attempted to make sense of its foreign script. Shuffling and thumps could be heard from across the house, as both children were awake and active. Their thirteenth birthday had passed a few months earlier and they were both making leaps and bounds in their magical training, which they did alongside school almost every day. It’s a good thing he decided to start training them when he did, too, as the periodic attacks by strange mutant insects had continued since that first fateful day. Adelaide always seemed to be wanting to learn more and try harder, but Sebastian had the tendency to get bored or space out. That’s not to say they weren’t both shaping up to be wonderful young sorcerors–– they were simply going through something that everyone went through: puberty. Even “Insectera", as the children had taken to calling themselves and any other insect-esque being that their powers applied to, were at the mercy of hormonal change.

“Sebastian, stop it!” Osryn heard Adelaide whining faintly from down the hall. “I’m braiding my hair! Gross, your feet are disgusting!”

Osryn chuckled. Teenagers. He adjusted his glasses and turned his attention back to the scroll, but it was long past midnight again, and he was feeling himself begin to drift off. Like him, the children had turned into quite the night owls themselves. In fact, they often mocked him for dozing off ‘early’ like an old man… at only 4:30 A.M. That said, he wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet. Though his body was tired, his mind remained wired, so he continued referencing the scroll’s characters and grammatical structure to that of the existing language, Soleli. They were similar at a glance, but so different grammatically that Osryn was finding it impossible to make any headway. He groaned and shut the book, removing his glasses and rubbing his eye. He squinted at the lenses and used his shirt to wipe away a few smudges.

He put them back on, looked at the book, up at nothing in particular, and sighed. The existential apathy had hit him all at once. As per usual by the time three o’clock rolled around, he felt he needed a drink. Before he could rise to get one, however, Sebastian wandered past, presumably on his way to the kitchen himself.

“Sebastian!”

Sebastian stopped at the threshold of the door and looked in. The boy standing there was still remarkable to Osryn, and had only become more so with age. He had agency now, and a mind brighter than Osryn knew how to handle. In response to being hailed, Sebastian only raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Can you come in here for a minute, son?”

Sebastian did so, making his way rather quickly and efficiently past the mess to the table where Osryn sat; the children had become rather familiar with this study throughout their education. He moved a stack of books on a nearby stool to the table, taking a seat on it and resting his feet on the lower bar. His long legs seemed to jut out at acute angles, and his tall torso only accentuated just how disjointed he looked. All Osryn could think of was one word: arthropod: ‘jointed leg.’

“Have I ever shown you this scroll before?” Osryn asked, tapping it with a dry fountain pen he’d been chewing on.

Sebastian narrowed his eyes, but only four out of the six would read the words. It had taken them a while to realize, but as Sebastian got older, his bottom two eyes got cloudier and cloudier. It became clear that he had never been able to see out of them at all. Osryn had raised the theory that if he had not been born with six eyes, perhaps he would have been blind. Daniela said she’d suspected as much all along. However, his remaining two pairs saw extremely well, and his peripheral vision was beyond amazing.

“I don’t think so,” Sebastian responded upon taking a glance. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest,” Osryn admitted. “I’ve been on-and-off attempting to translate it over the years, but I’m not making much progress.”

Sebastian examined the scroll for a few more moments. Osryn tapped his foot, eventually, scratching his newly stubbly chin, Sebastian made a comment. “That’s a really strange triphthong. I haven’t seen it in any local language.”

Osryn blinked. “What did you just say?”

“That vowel combination, there,” Sebastian pointed to the spot.. “You see? ‘Y’, ‘U’, ‘O’. Three vowels in a row. Triphthong. Hell if I know how to pronounce it.”

Osryn only blinked, realizing for the first time in decades that the ‘Y’ in this language most likely represented the vowel sound 'ee', and that in combination with ‘U’ and ‘O’ it was indeed a triphthong. Clearly, he was worse at linguistics than he had thought; his own name had a 'Y' that was a vowel, after all. “How do you know these things?”

“You have a book downstairs,” Sebastian explained, averting his eyes towards some wayward pile of junk. “Linguistics of Thought by uh, I think his name’s Chimpsky or something.”

You read Linguistics of Thought? My stars, son, I couldn’t even get past the first chapter, it was so far beyond me.”

Sebastian shrugged. “I thought it was interesting. I like language.”

From the hallway, Adelaide poked her head in the door, long brown hair dangling around her face in twin braids. “Sebastian, what are you doing? Where are the candied walnuts? I’m starving.

“Dad’s showing me some weird scroll,” Sebastian said. “Apparently he was too bad at linguistics to translate it for fifty years.”

Adelaide snickered and Osryn felt the need to defend his position. “Excuse me, boy! How old do you think I am?”

Sebastian shrugged, smirking knowingly, and Adelaide walked up to his side, where she put her head on his shoulder. As they grew, he had shot up and was more than a head taller than her.

“You really understand this stuff, don’t you?” Osryn asked, still incredulous.

“I mean yeah. It’s pretty cool, I think.”

You should translate the scroll.”

Though he’d been enjoying the attention, Sebastian looked like he wanted to disappear into the shadows at the prospect of taking on that burden. He leaned over the table with both arms and tilted his head onto his hand. “Aw, man, I really would love to, but… I’m busy.”

Adelaide couldn’t stifle a laugh and she lifted her head from Sebastian’s shoulder, only to punch him with both right arms. “That was the most pathetic excuse I’ve ever heard.”

He groaned, rubbing his probably-bruised rib cage. “Why do I have to do it?”

“Because clearly you’re some super genius,” Adelaide mocked.

“I don’t have to do it just because you can’t,” Sebastian retorted, and Adelaide’s smile flickered.

“Sebastian, you’re going to translate this scroll,” Osryn told him, snapping his fingers to make him look at him. “Hey, don’t you roll all those damn eyes at me.”

“Why are you always so pushy!” Sebastian grumbled, crossing his arms, and Adelaide nodded along supportively. “Shouldn’t we be most concerned with learning magic and how to fight? Insect monsters from who knows where have been storming our house on the regular for years now.”

Adelaide crossed her arms and added, “Yeah! I mean, we’ve had no less than three Insectera encounters a month since we were ten.”

Osryn sighed. It was another uprising in the ranks, and as per usual, he was outnumbered.

“I just want what’s best for you both, don’t you understand? You’re unique, and you live a more dangerous life than I or any other human. Being strong is important, but so is being smart. Have both, and you’ll be successful. Who knows–– maybe someday you’ll go down in history.”

“What does that have to do with translating your stupid scroll?” Adelaide asked.

“Don’t talk back to me,” Osryn grumbled, unintentionally raising his voice, and she went quiet, scratching at her many fingernails. Sebastian took her hand so she would stop and they both pretended to listen as their father spoke; he had a tendency to go on these rambling lectures.

“It’s not about me. It’s about your future, okay? You don’t always push yourself hard enough, Sebastian. I worry you’ll grow up to be lazy if you don’t learn to work hard now.” Sebastian turned his head away. Osryn cringed when he realized he sounded exactly like his father and attempted to re-route his argument. “Listen, I just want you to do things you’re passionate about instead of lazing around all day… I don’t want you to end up alone, with nothing you’ve worked for. I don’t want you to end up... sad.”

“What, like you?” Sebastian asked, deadpan. Osryn only looked back at him and shook his head a little. Unconvinced, Sebastian twisted at the front fringe of his chin-length hair, which he kept swept to one side. A few months earlier he had insisted he dye his bangs black, in stark contrast to his natural pale blond, and Osryn had allowed it. They were teenagers now, after all. Sebastian pushed the dark hair aside and shrugged. “Fine… whatever. I’ll do it. You’re probably right that it’d be fun, but your methods of convincing could use some work.”

Osryn sighed, wanting that drink more than ever. He didn’t let his posture slump though, and his expression remained stern. Nothing good ever came out of him acting all depressed in front of them–– that sort of behavior was exactly what he was hoping to avoid teaching them. He didn’t know what to say, so he merely said, “Call it tough love, but it’s love.”

“Whatever you say, dad.” Sebastian stood from the stool. “I guess I’ll look at it tomorrow.”

Osryn nodded and smiled, hoping his son would understand he didn’t mean harm. “Thank you, son. Besides, you never know: maybe this knowledge will come in handy someday.”

“Sure, dad. Whatever.”

Huffing, Sebastian pushed past Adelaide and exited the study, stomping down the hallway until he was in the room they shared. Osryn rubbed his forehead and exhaled, now ten times as exhausted as he was before. He looked to Adelaide, who was staring at him, but her arms were withdrawn close to her and she appeared very small.

“You know I’m not trying to be mean…” He said, and she hesitated a moment before nodding.

“I know, dad. It’s just…” Adelaide pored over her words, fiddling with the tie on her black peasant nightshirt, complete with four sleeves. Anna Macron was a decent young seamstress, and she had been volunteering to make custom clothing for Adelaide as practice to hone her skill. Adelaide opened her mouth and closed it.

“Spit it out, girl.”

“You make us sad, sometimes…”

Osryn had no idea how to respond to that.

“It’s okay, though!” Adelaide tried to reassure him, gesturing at the scroll and forcing a somewhat crooked smile. “He’s gonna be so happy once he starts translating it. He said it himself, right? He loves that stuff.”

Nodding, Osryn managed to return her weary smile. He took her two upper hands and squeezed them, but she pulled him in with her bottom arms, hugging him instead. Osryn chuckled and hugged her back, and all six arms joined together for a moment of peace and serenity. Osryn loved these moments. They made life feel like it was truly worth living. Like all good moments, though, this one had to end, and Adelaide pulled away.

“I’m going to go check on him,” she said. “Are you gonna be okay, dad?”

Osryn nodded. “Yeah… I think I’m going to go downstairs for a drink and then head to bed.”

Adelaide nodded. “Okay, good night.”

She left the room, he wandered downstairs, and the house was silent now, no thumping or voices from the children’s room. Osryn nursed his mead, unable to shake the shame over the way his children reacted to what he felt was a simple suggestion. Was he pushing them too hard? He only wanted them to have a better life than he did. Was that too much to ask? Osryn Seld had a chance now. He finally had a chance to have a family in a way that he felt was meaningful. Why, then, did it feel like he was always screwing it up?

Chapter Six

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The sun was setting, and the Seld family was in full-swing practicing. Now fifteen, his children were more competent than ever with their magic. They were learning faster than he ever had, and would likely outpace him within a few years. Their mossy backyard was the perfect place to train, being level and soft. This particular day felt like any other, nothing special, but Osryn had been learning to live more in the moment, rather than dwelling all the time on the future. Sure, it didn’t stop him from falling prey to his negative mindset sometimes, but doing better sometimes was the first step towards being better all the time.

He was getting old; every year that passed only solidified the fears and doubts he had in his mind about whether or not he was doing the right thing with his life. His teenage children, however bratty and rude, helped him make sure that even as the clock kept ticking, he kept his sights on what was important: them, and their far wider future potential. How old had he been when they had come to him all those years ago? Thirty-five, he realized. He had just turned fifty in August. Oh, how time had flown.

“Alright,” Osryn stood from where he’d been sitting, on the rock wall that divided their back yard from their decrepit and long-neglected garden. “Break time over. Show me your stance.”

Adelaide and Sebastian had different stances, as they had come to specialize in different “elements'' that came more naturally to them. In addition to their Insecterous affinity, Sebastian had a knack for channeling electricity or lightning, and Adelaide had taken to hot steam, mist, and fog. Both were able to be used on clear days with some strain, but were better adapted to their rainy and foggy climate. On this particular day, the sky was covered in a thick sheet of clouds that had dropped a curtain of fog below them into the valley, where it swirled lightly around the lower parts of their yard.

Sebastian’s defensive stance was rather relaxed, with his knees bent slightly and legs not spread too far apart. In his left hand he held Haelstron’s obsidian wand, which he’d been learning to use to channel his magic into more precise and powerful forms. Were he to be attacked head-on, his best chance was certainly to dodge than to withstand any blow. With his enhanced peripheral, he would see anyone coming, even if they thought they’d surprise him. He was thin as ever and not very muscled, with legs longer than anyone Osryn knew–– because of it, he was quick as the wind.

Adelaide, on the other hand, was more physically capable than anything. Her broad shoulders and hips mixed with the uncanny strength of her arms made this fifteen year-old girl a force to be reckoned with in hand-to-hand combat. In fact, Osryn had given up sparring with her long ago, as he genuinely feared for his old bones, even when she held back. Her stance was wide-legged and her upper hands clutched a carved wooden staff, one she had only recently taken a liking to during their training.

Osryn claimed he had no idea where the staff came from, but in reality it had been given to him by Daniela… years after their breakup, as a peace offering when she came to deliver the news of her impending marriage. He hadn’t known exactly what to say to Adelaide the day she found it and started using it. He’d thought, that was a sad story for another day. For now she didn’t need to know. It had been ages, and he wasn’t sure when he would have the heart to tell her.

“Looking good, looking good…” Osryn murmured, examining both of their forms and nodding. “Alright, demonstrations. Who wants to go first?”

Sebastian looked at his sister expectantly and backed away, giving her space. She rolled her eyes and began improvising a routine of the moves she had been practicing. With a thin fog on the air, Adelaide’s magic was easier to work with, as she didn’t need to worry about synthesizing any steam. She let go of the staff and it hovered on the fog in front of her, being suspended gently in the air by each individual water molecule. Using her hands to guide it, she moved the staff back and forth, twirled it, and lunged it forward. To anyone unaware of her specific magical affinity, they might think she was simply telekinetic, but it was never quite as simple as that. Above all, there was one concept he knew he needed them to understand: the physical world and the magical world go hand in hand. To be a sorcerer, one must understand both the potential and the limits of the abstract.

When she was satisfied with her air-wand routine, she returned the staff to the grip of her upper arms and showed off some moves holding it normally. It was unfair, Osryn thought, to whoever would cross her, that alongside her skill with the blunt weapon she chose, she had two free hands to throw punches or wield separate weapons. Adelaide spun the staff through the vertical plane and shifted her stance 180 degrees, ending her demonstration by digging her staff’s end into the ground, where it sent up a puff of mossy spores. Osryn grimaced.

“What did I tell you about being disrespectful to your tools?”

Adelaide rolled her eyes. “What did I tell you about minding your own business?”

Osryn sighed. “Well, you’re doing pretty well. I think you need to work a little more on your isolation spins, when you’re using the mist. That can be a very effective move for taking down more than one flying opponent at once.”

“I know that already!” Adelaide said somewhat rudely, flipping her now-sweaty hair off of her neck. “Why do you think I’ve been practicing it?”

“I just think you should try––”

“I can figure it out on my own!” She interrupted, twirling the staff. “You don’t need to be looking over my shoulder all the time.”

“That wasn’t my intention, dear.” Osryn said, smiling and trying not to lose his cool. He knew that reacting harshly only made these situations worse… but it was hard. “I just thought you might benefit from some instruction. But, if you’d rather work it out on your own that’s fine.”

Adelaide shrugged and wandered over to the stone wall Osryn had been sitting on, plopping herself down on it in a rather odd fashion, one foot on the wall and the other on the ground. She wasn’t as tall or thin as her brother, but her many arms and longer limbs compared to her torso constantly reminded Osryn of just how Insectera she truly was. He loved his little bug children, he truly did… but he worried about them. Especially Sebastian. The boy had no values that he knew of–– no goals, aspirations, desires. It was concerning.

“Okay,” Osryn addressed his son, who blinked back from wherever he’d been zoning out to. “Your turn.”

With a sigh, Sebastian assumed his starting stance again and began a half-hearted routine. Electricity sizzled between his fingertips and he cast bolts out of them sporadically, making sure to dissolve them before they could strike a solid and cause any damage. Through Haelstron’s wand, he was able to control the length, heat intensity, and speed of his lightning strikes, making a normally erratic and dangerous elemental magic rather calculated. As a test, Osryn decided to cast a few low-temperature plasma balls in Sebastian’s direction, which he was able to dodge with no problem at all. Despite his efficiency in dodging and his skill in controlling his magic through the wand, Osryn’s lips were pressed in a frown when Sebastian finished his routine. It seemed from Sebastian’s own tense jaw and fidgety final stance that he was equally disappointed with himself.

Osryn took a moment before deciding what to say. “That was alright.”

“You don’t have to sugarcoat it, I’m not a fruit fly...” Sebastian muttered, kicking the ground where Adelaide had jabbed it. “I get it. I sucked.”

“You didn’t suck.”

Sebastian raised his eyebrows, knowing well by now that his critical father always had something to say. “...but?”

“But… you could certainly try harder.”

Sebastian’s six eyes blinked incredulously and Osryn immediately regretted what he’d said. “Excuse me?”

“I said,” Osryn began hesitantly, “you could do with a little more practice.”

“Oh, come on, dad! I’m not all buff and lumbering like Laidie is,” Sebastian said, catching his sister’s attention, who turned towards him and glared, shaking her head. “I have a different way of fighting. You told me I was supposed to lean into my strong suits, but what, now that’s not good enough?”

Osryn sighed and pushed his loose hair back from his forehead. “It’s not as simple as that, Sebastian. You’re leaning into them, sure, but you aren’t putting the time in to perfect your form. You’re... sloppy.”

“I’m sloppy?” Sebastian asked, shaking his head in bewilderment and narrowing his eyes. He jabbed a finger towards his sister, who was listening from her spot, eyeing him suspiciously. “She’s the one who’s working with brute strength and a hint of magic. Do you even know how hard it is to focus hard enough to control synthetic lightning? To bend the rules of spacetime itself?”

“I do, actually.” Osryn couldn’t help but become rather short with him. “I happen to be the one who taught you all of that, and the least you could do is show me the courtesy of trying to care. Adelaide is strong, yes, but that’s not why she’s shown better progress than you. She has more to show for her efforts simply because she’s put more in.”

“You think I don’t try?” Sebastian’s voice cracked. “I try! I- I might not practice for hours after our lessons like she does, and I might get a little distracted sometimes… but, I try!”

“You see, you just proved my point. You’re distractible. Your mind wanders off. You don’t practice on your own because you can’t be bothered. It’s not about what you know, it's about the efficiency and efficacy of the way you use that knowledge. That’s why Adelaide’s routine flowed better than yours, despite your inherent agility.”

“Well, maybe I’m just not good enough, okay?” Sebastian shrugged his shoulders and sank quickly to the ground like a marionette being dropped, crossing his long legs and hanging his head. “I’m never going to be strong enough.”

At this, Adelaide was done being silent from a distance. She stood up, walked over to her brother, and joined him on the ground, putting one of her left arms around his shoulder and the other around his waist. He sighed and sank into her, leaving Osryn speechless yet again. Somehow, he always managed to hurt the people he cared most about. However, he knew he was right. Lucky for him, Adelaide did too.

“You know, Seb,” she started, poking him in the arm, “you could practice with me sometime. I know you spend a lot of time translating that scroll, or just reading, but maybe you could take a little bit more time to work on things? Don’t you want your attacks to be more effective? Don’t you wanna look cool while you fight?”

“I don’t look cool?” Sebastian asked, half-seriously. “What am I doing wrong?”

“Well…” Adelaide’s voice took on a higher pitch as she drew out the word, eventually leading into, “Dad kind of already told you. You need to work harder on the individual aspects of your training. That way, when you put it all together, things will flow so much better.”

”But…” There was a hint of hopelessness in Sebastian’s voice. “I don’t know how. Everything just jumbles together. I don’t know how to pull the individual aspects apart.”

Adelaide smiled. “I can help you!”

After a moment of silence, Sebastian relented with a sigh. “I guess you’re right… and I guess I can practice with you.”

Adelaide flashed Osryn a thumbs up with a hand Sebastian couldn’t see, and he smiled at her. He didn’t know what he would do with Sebastian if it weren’t for Adelaide helping bridge the divide between them. If anything, Sebastian reminded him far too much of himself at that age for his liking. So stubborn and narrow-minded, unwilling to put in the effort to change yet dissatisfied with his stagnance. Thankfully, Sebastian had Adelaide there for him. A loving sibling was something Osryn had simply never had.

The tension dissipated and the trio continued their training. Sebastian made the vague effort to at least seem like he was more focused than he usually was. Soon enough, the sun had set over the horizon and they decided it would be as good a time as any to call it a day. Osryn started heading towards the back door to head inside and start cooking dinner.

“I was going to practice some more until supper,” Adelaide was telling Sebastian as Osryn walked away. “Do you care to join me?”

Sebastian didn’t feel like he had a choice.

“...Sure.”

Osryn chuckled to himself as he stepped inside and removed his boots, knocking the dirt off them out the door before he shut it. He went into the kitchen with thoughts of the day filling his mind. What was he going to do about Sebastian? He cranked on the gas stove and lit a fire in the wood one, allowing the cool home to become cozier before his children would enter it to eat. It was the turn of seasons from summer to autumn and the cool nights were noticeable and uncomfortable since no one had gotten used to them yet. Osryn was in the middle of chopping some of Daniela’s garden-grown cabbage when he heard the back screen door slam and bounce repeatedly against its frame.

“What did I tell you about slamming that door!” Osryn yelled over his shoulder, but Sebastian appeared, poking his head out of the back hallway and looking confused.

“Uh... Laidie found a cat.”

Osryn blinked and put down the knife. “What?”

“Just come see.”

Osryn followed Sebastian into the backyard, where Adelaide was giggling on the ground, lifting a small purring kitten above her. It wasn’t unheard of to see stray cats around Lunora, but they usually did not wander so far towards the outskirts of town. This one was white with black spots and… Osryn’s face twisted up when he noticed the hole where the cat’s left eye should be.

“Laidie, darling…” Osryn tried to get her attention, but it took a moment of him repeating her name before she looked toward him.

“Oh, hi, dad. I found a kitty! Isn’t she cute?”

Osryn looked at Sebastian, who shrugged. Neither of them had taken her for a cat person, but neither her nor Sebastian had ever really seen one outside of picture books before. It seemed that this deformed little kitten had struck a chord in Adelaide’s heart. After all, the kitten was abnormal, just like her.

“You want to keep it, don’t you?” Osryn cut straight to the chase. Adelaide cupped the kitten in all four of her hands and it curled up there, content and purring.

“Can I? I’ve already named her…”

Osryn sighed, but he couldn’t help but smile. He walked up to where Adelaide was kneeling and crouched beside her, petting the small animal’s matted and dirty fur.

“Of course you can, dear. What’s her name?”

“Flea.”

Looking at the mangy little thing, that name seemed fitting enough. The three took their newfound pet inside and the twins got it cleaned up while Osryn finished up dinner. After eating, the family gathered in the den around the blazing wood stove to play with their newest addition. Seeing his children so happy, only if for a night, Osryn felt as though maybe he was doing right by them after all.

Chapter Seven

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Seasons changed, and so too did the children. It was summer in Lunora, which meant brighter, partly cloudy days instead of cold and rainy ones. It meant rare glimpses of sunlight that best be remembered, lest you forget the warmth will return during the dead of winter next. This particular day was warm, but not too hot, which for the middle of July said a lot about their valley’s climate. Golden late afternoon sunlight spilled through the wide, west-facing window, warming the complexions of the three Selds clustered around their dining table.

“Make up your mind, Sebastian!” Adelaide said, drumming ten fingers on the table and clutching a hand of cards in her other two hands. “What’s it going to be?”

Sebastian shot daggers at her, glancing at his cards, at his sister, at his father, and back at the cards. Exasperated, Sebastian threw his hand on the table and crossed his arms. “I fold.”

Smirking, Adelaide laid out her hand on the table— three of a kind. Osryn shook his head in resignation, flipping over his pair of tens and scoffing as his daughter pulled the pot of assorted coins towards her. The coins they played for had no monetary value, not anymore, but a handful of them were enchanted–– not that Osryn could remember which ones, or what they did, or even how he had come upon most of them.

Sebastian caught sight of her hand immediately and leaned over the table, head in hand. “Damn it, Laidie! Why do you always know when I have a good hand?”

“Intuition,” Adelaide said, winking. “But, also, you make it really obvious.”

“I’m more impressed she knew I had a bad hand,” Osryn mused, raising his eyebrow and scratching at a scab on his cheek. “Tell me, Adelaide… who taught you how to count cards?”

Adelaide went red in the face. “I… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, yes you do!” Osryn insisted, pointing at the pot she had just won. “I’m not as good as you, so it had to have come from somewhere.”

Adelaide rolled her eyes and gave in. “Auntie Daniela taught me.”

Osryn smiled and snapped his fingers. “I knew it. Damn woman was always a wizard…”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the wizard?” Sebastian teased.

“Oh, hush.”

Someone rapped on the door. Osryn wasn’t expecting anyone, but he couldn’t have been more pleased to hear the knock. He got up and headed to the door, swinging it open to greet the only person who ever came around. “Great timing, Dee, we were just talking about you.”

In front of him stood not Daniela, but a man about his height, with wavy black hair and a mustache. He wore large round glasses and an expensive-looking suit, holding an umbrella even though it was sunny. Despite his well-put-together appearance, there was an unmistakable eccentricity to the man in front of him. Perhaps it was that oddness, the few hairs that weren’t smoothed down and the wrinkles in his suit jacket, that tipped Osryn off to who exactly it was that stood before him. Someone whose face he’d almost forgotten. Someone whom he hadn’t seen since long before the children entered his life.

“Nygel!” Osryn gasped, immediately stepping outside and shutting the door. There was no way he could let him see the children. His brother raised an eyebrow skeptically.

“Hello, Osryn.” Nygel said this with a slight air of pomposity, as though the mere fact he bothered to come out here was a compliment to Osryn’s worth. “How long has it been now? Five years? Ten?”

“I’m sure you know, Nygel,” Osryn responded flatly. “You’re supposed to be this big genius after all.”

“Genius? Oh, no, no, no… I prefer to call myself an entrepreneur.” Nygel waved his hand dismissively. “Enough about me. I came here to see my baby brother!”

“You’re younger than me!” Osryn scoffed. His fist clenched unconsciously, a habit from numerous arguments past. “Are you seriously going to do this again? Right now? I don’t see you for decades, and you just show up––”

“Tell me, brother,” Nygel interrupted, scratching his chin. “Why do I hear voices beyond your door?”

“I’m babysitting. Daniela’s kids. So, if you could please get back to where you came from, that would be wonderful.”

“Daniela’s kids?” Nygel quirked one of his dark bushy eyebrows. “Oh, Osryn… So you did end up a bachelor, cuckolded by a greater man and forced to care for his offspring? I had always hoped you’d prove me wrong. That’s sad, dear brother… So, so sad…”

“Shut it, Nygel, and get off my property!” Osryn was not going to put up with this if he didn’t have to. “If I were you, I’d go back to your western paradise and never come back. Thank you.”

With a mockingly-polite nod, Osryn pushed the door open and attempted to make a quick getaway. Nygel, however, had traveled a long distance to get here, and would not simply take no for an answer. Before Osryn could slam the door, Nygel thrust his umbrella into it and leveraged it open, waltzing his way through like he hadn’t broken a sweat.

Osryn stopped Nygel in the foyer, gripping him by both shoulders and narrowing his eyes. “Why are you here brother? Really.”

“I’ve moved back to the valley, Osryn.”

“Great. So I have to deal with you just popping in unannounced, now?”

Nygel shrugged. “Well, maybe not that much. I’m living in Solelio, you see.”

Osryn had never been to Solelio. Geographically, it was on the opposite side of Mount Astella, the central peak of the area. There, the microclimate was vastly different from Lunora’s, and it was sunny almost all of the time. With Nygel always having been a westerner at heart, Osryn wasn’t surprised that he’d decided to plant his roots there.

“Well, I certainly do not need you coming around. Do not act as though we are neighbors. You have never been neighborly to me.”

“Oh, Osryn, you wound me so!” Nygel dramatically held his hand to his head as though faint. “All I’ve ever wanted was to help you… it’s not my fault you’re beyond help.”

Osryn closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “Get. Out.”

“Why, brother, are you so eager to cast me aside?”

“If I could, I’d cast you into the fire.”

Nygel shrugged and a crooked smile dimpled his cheeks. “Fair enough! Now, where’s the wine in this house—”

“Wait, no, stop!”

Before Osryn could stop him, Nygel had slipped past him into the den, where he was greeted with the undeniable sight of Osryn’s two abnormal children. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped as he held a hand over his mouth. “Oh my sun and stars…” Quickly, he regained his poise and held his chin cheekily. “Babysitting, are we? My, my… what unusual children you’ve found, indeed.”

Sebastian took Adelaide’s hand and Osryn quickly ran between them, protectively putting an arm around both their shoulders. They knew they were never supposed to reveal their true identities to anyone but the Macrons, but it was futile. They were exposed, and they would fight if they had to.

“Tell a soul,” Osryn’s voice took on a low tone, “and you are dead.”

Nygel raised his hands defensively, “Relax, relax! I mean no harm. I’m just admiring the beautiful specimens you’ve obtained.”

“Who are you?” Adelaide spoke up, glaring trustlessly at the man who was already getting on her nerves.

“Thats, uh…” Osryn stalled. Nygel grinned and pushed up his glasses.

“I’m your Uncle Nygel!”

Osryn sighed. He had been worried he might say that. “Right…”

“Uncle Nygel?” Adelaide narrowed her eyes. “Isn’t he the one you hate?”

Osryn ignored her and addressed Nygel again. “What brought you back? I thought you were thrilled with the west.”

“Well, I wanted to be closer to mom and dad. Have you spoken to them lately?”

Osryn froze. “Uh. I…”

“You have parents?” Sebastian scoffed, aghast. “I thought they were dead!”

“You’ve never once mentioned them…” Adelaide looked at Osryn as though she wondered what else he was hiding.

Osryn ignored the children, unsure how even to answer Nygel’s question, never mind unpack all that. His parents still lived in Lunora, in the very house they’d raised him in, but he hadn’t visited ever since they deemed him a heretic. Not in over thirty years. “No. I haven’t. Mother and father don’t care much for me these days.”

Nygel frowned. “Aw, what a shame. I suppose it makes sense. You did dedicate your life to the mockery of their faith.”

“Blind faith is a mockery of itself, Nygel. It’s about time someone told you that. Speaking of which, whose ass are you kissing now, to get all this money?”

Nygel’s eyes glimmered. “I’ll have you know I am self-made, brother. But I am happily taken, unlike someone I know. You wouldn’t even know her. She’s far out of your league.”

“Did I ask for your life story?” Osryn grumbled. “Why do we go on and on like this? What is the point?”

“The point is that I’m relatively local now, and I hope to see you––and your little ones––again.”

Sebastian glared. “Little? You sure about that?”

Nygel ignored him, gazing at them in wonder. The silence, and his increasingly unnerving staring was driving Osryn up a wall. The pot boiled over when Nygel reached out tentatively to touch Adelaide’s hair. Osryn slapped his hand away.

“Do not touch my kid. You’ve already overstayed your welcome. Go home.”

Nygel pouted, instead twirling one of the bouncy strands of hair that framed his own face. “Really, Osryn? You’re still going to act like this? When will you accept that I’m simply richer and better than you? You’d be a lot happier if you stopped with all this nonsense about ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose.’”

“Get out!” Osryn growled, lifting his hands and beginning to form small orbs of hot plasma within them. Nygel caught one look at the burgeoning magic and leapt to his feet, eyes wide.

“Haha, oops! I always forget about that whole wizard thing of yours. O- Okay, brother… I shall get going.”

Osryn corralled his brother out of the den and into the foyer. Nygel walked through the door, but peeked back through the crack to add: “Promise you’ll visit, though?”

“No.” Osryn put out the spell and slammed the door in his face. He walked swiftly back to the den, where he poured himself a drink and tried to ignore Nygel calling from outside.

“Suit yourself, Osryn! I’ll be seeing you one way or another. Fate brought us back together today… I have faith it will do so again.”

Osryn sighed deeply and sipped his drink, looking out the window to confirm that his brother was indeed leaving the premises. Once his bobbing frame had disappeared down the road into the forest, Osryn finally relaxed and turned back to the children, who were visibly shaken. He didn’t blame them–– they had very little experience with other humans, and Nygel was an odd and intimidating one to begin with.

Adelaide and Sebastian stared expectantly at their father, but he had no idea where to begin. Avoiding eye contact and instead staring straight ahead into the fire of the wood stove, Osryn swirled the mead in his glass and adjusted his glasses. “I’m… sorry you had to see that.”

“He knows.” Adelaide’s voice was low and solemn. “He knows about us.”

“Yes…” Osryn muttered. “He does, and I know not what he intends to do with that information. If I’m being honest with you, children… he has always been a little too fond of bugs.”

“Too fond?” Sebastian asked.

Osryn only looked at him and shook his head. “It’s better you don’t know.”

“Well, that’s great…” Adelaide sighed, running her hands through her long tangled hair. “Your estranged brother knows our deepest secrets now. And what’s your plan to deal with it? Nothing? What if he tells everyone we’re here? D- Dad, we have to leave!”

“No!” Osryn didn’t mean to come off as harshly as he did, but the stress of seeing his brother was enough, never mind the looming threat of exposure. “No… I’m not worried that he’d let it go public. Nygel’s not the type to do something like that. With him, it’s always personal. If he’s going to use this information to ruin us, he’s going to do it his own twisted way.”

Sebastian grimaced. “Wow, thanks, that’s so reassuring. So, what, we just wait and hope he doesn’t ‘ruin us?’ What even is your problem with each other anyway?”

Osryn sighed, straining to think of a good way to put it that didn’t feel like a lie. He and Nygel had fought for as long as he could remember. It was always a battle about who was better, stronger, faster, smarter. Who could keep their parents attention, or who could make them madder when they acted up. If there was anything he wanted in the world for his children, it was for them not to make the same mistakes he did. He wouldn’t know how to live with himself if they grew distant the way he and Nygel had.

“Nygel and I are… fundamentally different people. I like routine, he lives for chaos. We simply never got along… not like you two.”

The siblings looked at each other for a moment and Adelaide smiled, sensing Sebastian’s worry and taking his hands in hers. “You know, Sebastian, even if the secret did get out, we would be alright… we’ve been training, right? If anyone tried to cross us, we could take them down!”

“I guess…” Sebastian reluctantly allowed his sister to squeeze his hands. “I just wish we didn’t have to hide at all. Like, if that happened, would we just be fugitives? I don’t want to live my life on the run.”

“I know.” Adelaide pursed her lips; she did know, all too well. “I mean, we’re strong, but how could we stop the military from coming to lock us away in glass boxes to experiment on us? Or the religious fanatics from deeming us the work of celestial forces and proof of higher life?”

“Listen,” Osryn started, putting down his now-empty glass. “You’re both catastrophizing. Nygel is a twisted man with no moral compass and a passion for the abnormal, but if there’s one thing he hates more than me, it’s institution. Whatever he does with the information he has, he wouldn’t allow it to get into the hands of the government… or religion.”

Nothing more was said after that. Adelaide went to play with Flea in the corner and Sebastian retreated silently to his room while Osryn poured himself another tall glass of mead. The poker game was unceremoniously considered over, and no one cleared the table before they all dispersed to be alone with their unnerving thoughts. Osryn didn’t think that Nygel would let the information go to just anyone… but there was always a chance he knew exactly the person to tell it to that could make their lives a living hell. Nygel knew people. As Osryn stared into the wood stove and drank his thoughts away, he wondered if, when it all came down to it, he truly could cast his brother into the flames. He didn’t want it to come to that.

“Look at us now, dad…” Osryn muttered, and his eyes fluttered shut. No moonlight shone through the wide window, and the stove fire slowly wore itself out. As the alcohol profused his bloodstream, he slipped into a broken sleep right there on the couch.

Chapter Eight

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Perhaps it had been a mistake to knock on her door.

“Adelaide? Can I come in?”

There was no answer, and Osryn hung around the outside of his children’s room, hoping the door would open. The years had seemed to fly since the day he’d found them, almost like he was time-skipping year-to-year through the beginning of a young-adult novel. If he’d thought they were bad at fifteen, he had not been prepared for how difficult it would be now that they were almost seventeen. Over time, Adelaide had shifted more and more into her own bubble, withdrawing even from Sebastian, and electing to work alone on her various passion projects without telling Osryn much about what they were. This was, admittedly, taking its toll on the man. His children were a few of his only friends, after all. He knocked again.

“Laidie? Dear, can I please come in?”

No answer. With a sigh, Osryn gripped the doorknob and hesitated for a moment before opening it. Adelaide was sitting at a desk to the left side of their room and groaned immediately, covering the papers she had out on the desk and shooting him a glare. “Dad! Leave me alone! Why do you never listen?”

“You didn’t say no,” Osryn attempted to defend himself, glancing around their room. It wasn’t often that he came in here, no. Back when it was their nursery, this room had been rather sparse, but as soon as the children had their own agency with the place, it had become a rather homey little enclave. There was a loft to the upper right side of the room with small brass footholds along the wall allowing one to get up there, and as soon as Sebastian was able to climb, he’d wanted to sleep up there, so his bed had been nestled into the nook above everything else. As a result, Adelaide had taken over most of the ground floor. Her bed was unmade, the floor had clothes scattered around it, and the windowsill she used as a vanity had powders and lipsticks scattered all around it. A layman may have been off-put by the crawling of an occasional insect every few moments, but this was the Seld household. Bugs were part of the little family.

The cat, Flea, was prowling around on the messy floor, searching for insects to terrorize. Having gotten bored of that, she hopped up onto Adelaide’s desk and took a seat carelessly on a pile of writing implements and sticky notes. She settled happily and began to purr. Osryn sighed. Perhaps Flea was the only friend Adelaide wanted or needed nowadays.

“I was trying to ignore you!” Adelaide grumbled, using one hand to pet Flea, still hiding her work with the others. “Now, go away!”

“I get that you need your space, dear, and I try to give it to you, but…” Osryn kept looking past her defensive glare to where her four arms were effectively shielding him from being able to see what she was working on. “I’m curious about your interests. I just wish you would talk to me about them, even just a little…”

“It’s none of your business!” Adelaide snapped. “Just leave! Please! You never leave me alone!”

Osryn bit his lip. He knew this wasn’t true. In fact, he made an active effort every day to give her as much space as she needed. However, today his heart hung heavy and he really just wanted to connect with a daughter who seemed to need him less and less every day. Osryn needed Sebastian and Adelaide to feel okay, if only so he could feel like he was doing something, anything at all, right with his life. They were the best things that had ever happened to him.

Adelaide’s posture was stiff, aside from the one arm that softly stroked Flea, and Osryn wondered what he’d done wrong to make her get so defensive. Had he been worrying so much about Sebastian that he’d forgotten to worry about her? Just because she was succeeding in their training sessions didn’t mean she was content overall. This thought process began intruding its way into his brain, and before a few moments had passed, the stress and anxiety had already spread its branches into every corner of his mind.

“Alright…” Osryn conceded, raising his hands in surrender and backing toward the door. He glanced around the room again, knowing it would be hypocritical of him to tell her to clean up, but he did wish he was able to be a better influence in that way. A cluttered environment led to a cluttered mind, and his were both full to the brim. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone.”

“Shut the door on your way out.”

Osryn did so, immediately letting out a deep sigh. He scratched at the mole under his left eye. It protruded from his skin, so he was often prone to picking at it, even though he knew it would hurt if he tried to pick it off. He picked at his skin, Adelaide picked at her nails. It was amazing just how much his children had inherited from him–– if it was nature vs. nurture, he felt especially inclined to believe that nurture was what mattered. After all, no one knew what their “nature” even entailed. He wondered how much of their personalities were because of his influence, and how much of it was simply how they had been born.

These philosophical questions could wait, however, as he wasn’t done trying to get some well-deserved one-on-one time with his children. Sebastian tended to prefer to work in the study, which was rather large and had a variety of tables. It could accommodate all three of them, if they so desired, and probably more if need be.

If any of them bothered to clear off more than the required space to do what they were doing, perhaps the place would be a sight to behold. There were empty cabinets built into every wall, there were chests of drawers, closets, shelves. So many ways Osryn could store his collection of mystical items, yet they remained strewn about him, everywhere he walked in his own home.

The door to the study was open and Osryn sidled up to it, knocking on the sideboard. “Sebastian? What are you up to?”

Sebastian stared vacantly at the scroll in front of him for a few more moments. Osryn was beginning to doubt he had heard him at all when Sebastian turned his head towards his dad and said, “Nothing.”

Osryn blinked. Was it truly so hard for them to tell him just a little bit about whatever it was they were doing? He wasn’t dumb. It was clear they were doing something. Osryn looked at his workspace. “Oh, is that the Cerulean Scroll? How’s that going?”

“Um. Good.” Sebastian fidgeted in his seat, stretching his long legs in front of him and crossing his ankles. He clasped his hands together as well, and his flickering eyes gave off a nervous energy. Osryn thought about calling him out for sounding extremely suspicious, but he wasn’t about to start another fight with one of his children. Instead of prying, Osryn realized he could talk about something perhaps more important with him.

“Can I ask you a question, Sebastian?”

“Sure.”

“Your sister… is she alright?”

Sebastian narrowed his eyes slightly. “Uh, yeah. I mean she hides in our room and works on that grand plan of hers, but when she’s around, she seems fine to me.”

“Grand plan?” Osryn was fed up with being in the dark. “See, this is the first I’m hearing of this! She doesn’t tell me anything.”

“You don’t know what she’s working on?” Sebastian raised his eyebrows and scoffed a little. “I figured you would know, since you’re so close and all.”

Osryn didn’t have the energy to unpack that. Instead, he kept digging for information. “Could you tell me, maybe? Please… I know she doesn’t want me to know but… should I be worried?”

Sebastian shrugged. “I suppose I can tell you, as long as you don’t let on that you know. She’s making a big deal of it, I think. She’s trying to figure out who our parents are. Researching entomologists, famous sorcerers; anyone with a connection to insects and magic, really.”

Osryn’s breath hitched. “What? Why?”

“How should I know?” Sebastian shook his head and shoulders vigorously. “Maybe because we know we were adopted. Maybe because we’re Insectera. Maybe because giant insects come here and attack us every week.”

They were all good points, but Osryn’s frazzled brain was seeping with self-loathing and disappointment. Maybe it was because Osryn wasn’t a good enough father.

“How long has she been doing that?”

“A while. I don’t think she’s gotten very far. Turns out, most people don’t care for bugs.”

For a moment, Osryn mulled over this, allowing the negative thoughts to seep through his mind. Then, he realized he was sabotaging himself again and shook the thoughts out of his mind. He looked at the Cerulean Scroll. “Hey, are you enjoying translating that? I haven’t seen you take it out much lately… it’s been quite a while, actually.”

“Yeah…” Sebastian mumbled. “About that.”

“What?” Osryn didn’t mean to come off as gruff as he did.

“Well… I kinda finished it.”

Osryn’s eyes glimmered and he slammed his hand on the table. “What? Oh, Sebastian that’s amazing! Why didn’t you tell me? When did this happen? Just now?”

Eyes wide, Sebastian gritted his teeth. He hesitated before speaking, but finally got the words out. “Um… about a year ago.”

The silence that fell was palpable. Osryn narrowed his eyes and his voice dropped to a low whisper. “What did you say?”

“I… I finished it a year ago. I didn’t want to tell you.”

“Why!” Osryn gasped. “I can’t believe it! I’ve stared at that scroll for decades and you neglect to tell me you’ve uncovered its mysteries for a year?

“Well, that’s the thing…” Sebastian muttered, “I don’t think it’s too mysterious.”

Osryn bit his lip. “Read it to me.”

“Dad, I––”

“Read it to me!”

Sebastian sighed and began to speak.

I have always wanted a collection such as this.
A legacy to leave behind after I’ve turned to carbon.
Creations etched in time that only my hands could have carved.
My name will go down in history, my face will appear in schoolbooks.

I will die a pioneer. I will die a part of history.
Although I never cared to know another, everyone alive will know me.
All I will know is the cold embrace of the earth as I decompose
and ants dig tunnels through the soil that once was me.

Osryn stared at the ground, mind swirling. Legacy… Memory... These were ideas that often plagued him. Though he was dazed and shaken, he managed to hear Sebastain when he said, “It really just reads like a bad poem to me. And… you really cared about it. I didn’t want to tell you that it didn’t mean anything important…”

“It does, though, don’t you see?” Osryn murmured, running his eyes up and down the scroll despite his inability to understand the words. “You heard the author! They’re speaking of the ants! Unique creations! A legacy! Whoever wrote this is obviously talking about you and your sister! This person may be your, shall we say, ‘parent.’”

Sebastian bit his tongue. “I guess. I just… I think it might be reading into it a little too deep. It’s so vague, dad, there’s no way we can confirm that.”

Osryn was shaking his head, grabbing a glass pen and some ink from somewhere in the mess and placing them next to Sebastian. “That doesn’t matter. Transcribe it. I think this means something important. I think this could be a prophecy about your family. Our family.”

Our family?” Sebastian inhaled deeply, templing his fingers. Neither of them wanted to get into some sort of fight right now. “Okay, whatever. I’ll transcribe it.”

Osryn thought about calling Adelaide in to tell her the good news but he realized two things. First, she likely would not budge from her spot in her room, and he was not about to cross her again today. Second, she’s so close with Sebastian it’s likely she knew a year ago that the scroll was translated, and that, according to Sebastian, it was useless.

It was not useless to Osryn. Whoever had written the scroll knew exactly the sort of dreams Osryn had, the hope to leave behind something memorable to society after his body turns to dust. That said, there was a strange hollowness within him now. What if Sebastian was right and he was just grasping at straws? That didn’t matter. Even with the mystery of the scroll’s content solved, Osryn was hell-bent on discovering the truth behind it. Whether it was prophetic somehow about the life and legacy of his children, or if it truly was just a piece of random scrap, it meant something to Osryn. It resonated with him. Someday, he hoped he would understand why he’d spent so much time pondering the scroll. For now, he was merely confused.

Loud knocking on the door downstairs snapped Osryn’s attention away from his thoughts. Ever since Nygel had shown up uninvited, the three had all been on higher alert when it came to visitors. Osryn looked at Sebastian, who shook his head rapidly and shrugged.

“Don’t know. You get it.”

Osryn rolled his eyes and went to get the door, looking through the glass panel to see… Greer. Osryn squinted, overwhelmed by the bright light of the cloudy sky reflecting off of Greer’s stark white hair, and opened the door.

“Greer, what a pleasure,” Osryn greeted them. It wasn’t often that Greer came over here unexpectedly without any other member of their family.

“Hi Uncle Osryn!” Greer smiled brightly, bounding into the foyer with a small package in hand. They were rather short for seventeen and had developed a peculiar style of dress and mannerism. Greer had realized as a preteen that they weren’t a boy, so since Anna was a skilled seamstress, she made them a wardrobe of essentially whatever they wanted. In Greer’s case, what they wanted was the brightest colors imaginable and a rather unique mismatch of male and female clothing. Today’s reds, yellows, and pinks made up a sunny outfit, befitting of someone with such a sunny demeanor.

Osryn would be the last person to judge the kid’s fashion, as he believed anyone should be able to wear whatever they pleased, but he was admittedly always somewhat unnerved by how bright and colorful Greer always dressed, compared to the muted blacks, blues and purples he and his family tended towards.

“What brings you here, kid?” Osryn asked, smiling cordially though he felt queasy and mentally drained. “It’s not often you come here alone.”

“I brought a gift!” Greer lifted their twine-wrapped package and grinned. “For Sebastian. He’s home, right?”

Osryn nodded, raising an eyebrow. He called out to his son, who stumbled carelessly down the stairs and spotted Greer immediately. A smile came over Sebastian’s face, which made Osryn smile too. His children always seemed so melancholy… he was glad they had friends.

“Oh, hey,” Sebastian greeted Greer, walking up to them with his hands in his pockets. “What’s up?”

Greer held out the package and coaxed it into Sebastian’s hands, pressing their lips together in a catlike smile. “I made you something! I know it’s not your birthday yet, but I was too excited to wait.”

Sebastian looked curiously at the package and shook it, smiling as he tore open the wrapping to reveal a small wooden box. Within it was a hand-carved brooch of dark-stained maplewood, depicting a flour beetle surrounded by flowers.

“I thought you’d like the wordplay… Flour, flower…” Greer muttered nervously, toying with a lock of their bobbed hair. “I wasn’t sure if you’d wear it, but I just thought it would look so cute on you.”

“You actually remembered that?” Sebastian chuckled, face flushing brightly as he traced over the textures of the brooch with his finger. “Greer, this is beautiful. How did you make this?”

“Of course I remembered,” Greer giggled. “We totally trashed your kitchen! My dad helped me make it–– he’s really good at woodworking. Don’t worry, I’ll have Adelaide’s gift done soon!”

“Hold on just a moment,” Osryn narrowed his eyes and glanced between the two. “What’s this about trashing my kitchen?”

Sebastian burst out laughing as Greer waved dismissively. “Oh, it’s nothing, Uncle Osryn. It’s just this one time Sebastian tried to help me bake a cake, and we found a whole nest of flour beetles in the pantry.”

“By found,” Sebastian interrupted coyly, “they mean they disturbed the nest and they all flew out of the pantry, getting flour absolutely everywhere until I got them under control.”

“How was I supposed to know beetles could fly!” Greer whined, crossing their arms and pouting.

“Because I’ve told you, and you’ve seen them do it.” Sebastian prodded them in the belly. Greer squealed and clutched at their abdomen in defense.

“Stoooop Sebastian!” Greer protested, but they were both still beaming. Osryn watched on, fascinated with the dynamic that had unfolded between his and Daniela’s kids. He had never realized they were so friendly… They were baking cakes together now? Upon thinking about it, Osryn realized he did remember a cake, he’d just assumed Adelaide had made it. Well, he was glad for it. Adelaide and Anna were good friends, but they certainly were not this close.

“Anyway, Greer, I don’t have anything else I need to do today. Wanna go for a walk in the woods?”

Greer’s eyes lit up. “Sure, Sebastian! Is that okay, Uncle Osryn?”

Osryn nodded. “Of course. Just be cautious as always. Make sure no one sees you.”

One day, Adelaide and Sebastian had conspired to sneak out in the early morning while Osryn was sleeping. One of them tripped on some clutter in the hall and woke him, so he’d heard the door shut. He followed them into the woods and they admitted they had been coming out there for quite some time, but that they were being careful. Osryn pitied them, isolated as they were, and allowed it.

Sebastian rolled his eyes–– always outnumbering Osryn three to one. “You know damn well no one ever goes into those woods.”

“I know. I just worry about you.”

The children said farewell and disappeared out the door. Osryn let out a sigh. First, Adelaide didn’t want him to know about her origins, then Sebastian about the scroll. What else weren’t his children telling him? Was it his fault for making them feel like they couldn’t tell him these things? That was the last thing Osryn wanted. Above all, he wanted his children to trust him and come to him with anything, but he couldn’t help but wonder what good he could do for them even if they did. After all, he had no clue how to help himself.

Chapter Nine

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Another day, no more than a week later, there was a rapid knocking at the front door. Osryn was in bed, reading with a glass of mead, when he heard it–– at first he’d thought it was simply the house settling or a branch creaking outside. Then, again, a rapping. Osryn narrowed his eyes and put down his book.

“Was that you?” He yelled, not wanting to get up to ask either of his children.

“No!” Two voices replied.

“Can you get the door!”

“No!”

Rolling his eyes, Osryn hopped out of bed and threw a cloak over his shoulders, not bothering to get dressed. Another unannounced Macron drop-by? Osryn, however, did not see Daniela, Hector or one of her children through the glass panel of the door. It was not his brother either, and he wasn’t sure if he should be thankful or not. He froze, uncertain how to proceed.

Swallowing, Osryn opened the door a crack. “Who are you?”

The man on his doorstep was a stranger–– tall and strong, with patchy-looking almond and beige skin and dark hair tied back in a small bun. His right arm was clutching onto his left, and his eyes darted back and forth, unconfident, before settling on Osryn. “My name is Urta. Please understand, I mean no harm.”

“Prove it.” Osryn said, readying a plasma ball discreetly in his palm behind the door. The man was playing coy, but Osryn didn’t trust it. “What do you seek? Why are you here? How much do you know?”

Urta shifted back slightly, holding his hands out sheepishly in front of him. “I- I just want to talk to you… and the children.”

So, he knew. Osryn gritted his teeth and exhaled through his nose, pulling away and shutting the door in Urta’s face. As he considered his options, Adelaide and Sebastian were making their way down the staircase. Curiosity was evident in Adelaide’s wide-eyed expression.

“Is somebody there?” She whispered, adjusting her long hair and straightening out her blouse. Sebastian remained quiet and put his hands in his pockets, leaning against the foyer wall, watching as the gears in his father’s head turned.

“Yes…” Osryn mumbled, and opened the door a crack again and spoke through it. “What exactly is it that you wish to talk about?”

“There's trouble in the valley,” Urta said, dark eyes glinting in the early afternoon sun, “and I believe your children are the only ones that can help me.”

Before Osryn could decide whether the man was safe enough to let enter, Sebastian had weaseled his way to the door and pushed it, and his father, out of the way. He locked eyes with the stranger, whose mouth immediately fell agape.

“My sun and stars…” Urta murmured, raising a hand to his mouth, but he quickly snapped it back. His stupefaction was quickly replaced with his same nervous apathy as before. “Hello. My name is Urta. It’s amazing to finally meet you.”

Sebastian narrowed his many eyes, but before he could respond, Osryn jabbed a finger in Urta’s face. “Nygel told you, didn’t he! That bastard!”

“I have known of your existence for some time,” Urta tells them, offering a subtle smile. “Where is the girl?”

Adelaide walked to the doorframe and raised her hand. “I’m the girl.”

“Can we maybe let this poor guy in? It’s getting chilly…” Sebastian said, and it’s true that the cold November air was truly setting in. Urta did look like he’d been out in the cold for some time. With a sigh, Osryn gestured for Urta to enter. He nodded thankfully and entered the foyer.

“Tell me what you need, now,” Osryn demanded. “Before I change my mind about your welcomeness here.”

“I’m sorry my father is being so rude,” Adelaide held out her two right hands for Urta to shake, and he looked at them for a moment, unsure which one to take. Realizing her bi-lateral muscle memory had kicked in again, she lowered one of them. Urta shook it. “We don’t get many guests around here, and never strangers who know… about us. He’s just being defensive.”

Urta nodded, adjusting the collar of his jacket. “Yes, it must have been hard, living in secret for all those years.”

“You get used to it,” Sebastian muttered. “Being isolated.”

Urta pressed his lips together and nodded. “So you do. Anyway, as I stated, I am here because there’s a problem in the valley.”

“Of what sort?” Osryn asked.

“Insects. Giant ones, and a whole lot of them. But, I think you knew that…”

“I thought they were only coming for us…” Adelaide almost sounded disappointed. “They’re attacking the whole valley?”

Urta nodded. “Well, they’ve been reported between here and Solelio. I fear there may only be more and more attacks. Insects have a tendency to rapidly multiply.”

“You’re just coming to us with this now?” Osryn scoffed. “This has been happening for seven years.

Urta sighed. “I know… unfortunately, for a long time I was unable to take action as I didn’t know enough about the situation. However, I now believe I know where their lair is.”

Adelaide’s eyebrows rose, her eyes sparkled and she stopped chewing on her thumbnail. “A den of mutant insects?”

“How’d you know, Urta?” Sebastian chuckled. “Something like that is like crack pixie dust to Laidie.”

“Laidie,” Urta repeated. “That’s a beautiful name.”

“My name is Adelaide,” she corrected, flashing Sebastian a glare. “Laidie is for family.”

Urta nodded and looked away. “Of course. My bad.”

“My father here is Osryn,” Adelaide continued, gesturing at them each. “And my bratty brother is Sebastian.”

Osryn wiped his brow, overwhelmed with how quickly the day had turned from mundane to incredible. Who was this guy? He didn’t believe a word out of his mouth, but his children both seemed enchanted with him. Not only was their little insect problem apparently more widespread than they had thought, but someone knew it was connected to his children. Even with all his suspicions, he could understand why they were eager to converse with a new person. After all, he had deprived them of more than a handful of friends.

“It’s nice to meet all of you,” Urta said, “but unfortunately, it’s not under the best of circumstances. I’m afraid I come with not only information, but with a call to action.”

Sebastian had read a fair amount on literary analysis, and couldn't help but chuckle at Urta’s phrasing. “Oh? And what might that be?”

“You two are connected to the insects––”

“Insectera.” Adelaide interrupted. Urta blinked. “That’s what we call anyone… buggish.”

Urta smiled brightly at that and nodded. “Yes, yes, Insectera! Well, given that you’re Insectera, you have more know-how than most on how the creatures we’re facing might behave. I must ask for your help in my attempt to... deal with them. I’m afraid I am simply not strong enough on my own.”

“You want us to help you eradicate an army of Insectera? Doesn’t that seem a little overkill to you?” Adelaide scoffed, and it made Osryn smile. He still didn’t trust the man, but he was glad his daughter was so outspoken and confident. “After all, there’s no telling who might be related to us.”

“Cousins, uncles...” Sebastian mused, counting on his fingers and pursing his lips. “Parents, maybe?”

Osryn was sick of hearing that word thrown around. “You have some nerve coming here. Why should we believe a word you say? Maybe you only know about the bugs in the valley because you’re one of them. You seem a little relaxed about all this.”

“I don’t know what to say, man,” Urta sighed, shrugging his shoulders. “I’ll leave if you want, and I’m not asking anyone to kill anyone. You may be able to communicate with them. I’m… just worried what might happen if they start getting worse. People are already starting to go missing…”

“You really think you know where this insect den is?” Adelaide pushed, crossing her arms. “And you really think this is something we need to do?”

“Yes! I really need you both… I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” Urta’s eyes did genuinely seem weary and tired, like someone who truly had gone through a lot of effort to get out to them. Osryn wavered, but he would not allow himself so easily to form sympathy.

“Why both?” Osryn countered. “Couldn’t just one go if the aim is to talk with the enemy?”

“Dad, shut up!” Adelaide groaned in frustration and turned to Urta, stomping her foot with the motion. “Urta, sir, we’re going with you. All of us, including my father.”

“Of course the sorcerer is welcome,” Urta assured, and Osryn admittedly felt challenged by his amiability in the face of Osryn’s blatant hostility. “The more power we have, the more likely we are to win in the face of adversity. I’ve heard of you, Osryn. You’re a skilled alchemist, I hear, and also in the art of plasmamancy. I’m not from Lunora, but I looked into you when I realized I had to come here.”

Osryn’s guard fell slightly and he blinked, adjusting his glasses. “You’ve heard of me? Well, that’s just wonderful… I suppose if we must go, I can go along.”

“I think we must, father,” Adelaide’s tone grew solemn and she put two hands on his shoulder. “These things are causing problems for us, whether or not the valley is at stake. Plus, it’s possible we’ll get some leads into who our real family is.”

The words cut into Osryn like a knife. Real family? What was he, then, after all these years? Simply a nuisance, providing shelter, a house they clearly are itching to get away from? Suddenly, he felt as though agreeing to let them go may have been a mistake. He clenched his fists. No, he was catastrophizing again. Adelaide had every right to find whoever had created her, and Osryn would be cruel to disallow that. That said, he was still unsure if he fully trusted this Urta character.

“That’s wonderful, oh stars, I’m so glad you agreed,” Urta seemed to release a breath he’d been holding in. “I was getting real worried there, haha.”

The children both vibrated with excitement as they raced upstairs to pack go-bags. According to Urta, the den was likely located in Solelio, which was a three day journey by foot from where they were, so they made sure to pack camping gear. Osryn was thankful that it had yet to become the truly freezing part of fall, though it would certainly be chilly. He had never been to Solelio, and he couldn’t help but remember that’s where Nygel had set up camp when he returned to the east. It put a sour taste in his mouth to think that perhaps they would meet along the course of this journey, but somehow it felt inevitable. Urta knew about the children somehow, after all, and who else could have told him but Nygel?

Adelaide crouched in the kitchen and laid out large bowls of food and water for Flea, petting her and assuring her that she'd be back soon. Against Osryn’s wishes, she insisted on leaving a vague message for the Macrons for when they inevitably decided to stop by. Osryn thought it would do nothing but concern them more, but there was no stopping her; she wanted them to know they were okay, and to provide more care for Flea. Sebastian grabbed the pin Greer had given him and pinned it to the breast of his coat. Soon enough, all three of the Selds had gathered up what they felt they needed for their travels and reconvened in the foyer.

“Well, if everyone’s packed, we should probably get going as soon as possible," Urta said. "We should cover as much ground as we can today before we have to stop and camp. There are roads, but unfortunately, as you may guess, we must take the long route through the valley in order to not be seen.”

“Are you ready, dad?” Sebastian asked as they all stepped outside, and Osryn smiled sheepishly and nodded.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, kids.”

Adelaide twirled her staff in her hands and jumped up and down, a pot bubbling over with excited energy. Osryn had his doubts about the legitimacy of this adventure, but it was the first opportunity the children had had to truly go out and experience the world.

He sighed. Had he deprived them of a normal childhood, or were they simply deprived of it from the start? Society simply wasn’t ready for Insectera. That was why they were doing this after all. As they climbed over the rock wall and crossed into the forest, his knees were aching already. Were it not for his magic, he might have truly been too old for this.

“Strap in everybody,” Urta said, hoisting his pack further up onto his back and taking the lead. “We’re in for a long and arduous journey.”

And so it began.

Chapter Ten

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The woods were mainly hemlock and hardwood, with a majority of the hardwoods having little to no leaves left. As the afternoon faded into evening, a thin fog settled between the trees, dampening the hair and clothes of everyone and obscuring everyone’s vision but Sebastian’s; he had always had a knack for detecting things in the fog. A chilly wind swept through the leafless canopy every few moments, causing the lingering mist to drift listlessly onward in its journey to wherever.

Osryn was a little uncomfortable, having been very much an indoor-oriented man his entire life. If Daniela hadn’t been dragging him camping every year since college, Osryn likely would not have even owned most of the materials he ended up needing tonight. The kids, on the other hand, did not seem fazed at all. Adelaide seemed warm enough in her thick wool sweater that Anna had knitted for her, and Sebastian wore a cotton peacoat that Daniela had bought him for his sixteenth birthday. Osryn had elected to wear his usual cloak, even though both children reminded him it would hinder his movement in battle. It was a comfort thing. He was fine with any downsides.

They made their first few miles of headway rather quickly, as Urta walked abnormally fast. Sebastian kept up with ease, but Adelaide and Osryn expended some energy keeping up with their brisk pace. That said, it was understood that the quicker they could cover ground, the quicker they would make it to Solelio. Urta would periodically consult a compass and map, which Osryn realized he hadn’t thought to pack. What if something happened and they needed to split up from Urta? It was too late to have these regrets now, they were leaving familiar ground, even for the children. By the time the sun was setting, the forest began to thin and the tree composition shifted slightly.

“Take a look at this place,” Urta said. “I saw it on my way here. Isn’t it beautiful?”

The Selds emerged in a grassy clearing by a large, shimmering lake. It wasn’t yet cold enough that the water would freeze, and the wind created the slightest of stillwater currents on the surface. What was truly mesmerizing wasn’t the lake itself, though, but the countless mountain lupine that bloomed along its edge. All three Selds were overcome with awe. Even Osryn, who had ventured further in general than his children, was taken aback by how beautiful it was. In the distance, across the lake shrouded by sheets of fog, Mount Astella loomed, covered in a patchwork of leafless deciduous trees and evergreen pines, but for a large rock face that was exposed near the peak. Urta was smiling and nodding, arms crossed. “See, I told you. It’s absolutely breathtaking.”

“I’ve… never seen anything so beautiful in my life…” Adelaide gasped. “How much have I been missing out on?”

Sebastian had no words, but he gazed out upon the vista with all eyes wide. Then, Adelaide jabbed him with both her left elbows and he groaned.

“I bet you get a way nicer view than the rest of us,” she teased. “Like a whole panorama.”

Chuckling, Sebastian quirked an eyebrow. “You know, you may be right about that.”

“Does anyone else hear buzzing?” Osryn spoke up, unsure if he was just going crazy or if there truly was a steady buzz that seemed to only be getting louder. Everyone went quiet for a moment, and yes, it didn’t seem like the normal kind of ambient chittering of assorted insects from within the shoregrass. It was too late in the season for mosquitos, but flying insects never bit the children anyway.

Adelaide nodded. “Yeah, I think I hear it…”

“Uh, I think I see it!” Sebastian pointed across the lake, where a dark cloud was hovering over the near-stagnant water and steadily approaching.

“What in blazes is that?” Osryn asked Urta, somehow figuring he would know, but he shrugged helplessly. Osryn sighed and Adelaide was readying her weapon.

“Whatever it is, we can’t assume it’s our friend,” she said, and everyone else followed suit, preparing for the potential fight. Urta had a strange weapon in his hand… a gun. No one was legally able to own one in Lunora, but it was manufactured there for transportation to places further west. Osryn had only ever seen one in Daniela’s secret safe, where she kept an illegal collection of antique firearms, none of which she had ever used. It alarmed Osryn slightly to see such a deeply detested weapon, but from the way Urta held it, it seemed he had a fair idea how to use it, which almost relieved some of Osryn’s anxiety. Urta lowered the gun, however, when the adversary came into clearer view and it became obvious his weapon would not be helpful. The cloud was, in fact, a swarm of black flies.

“Curse me,” Adelaide muttered. “There’s no way those aren’t for us.”

“Hey, calm down, okay?” Sebastian said. “We don’t ever get bit by bugs, remember?”

It seemed that this particular swarm had a different modus operandi. As soon as the cloud reached the shore and the buzzing rang in their eardrums, the flies started biting at whatever open flesh they could find. The four of them ran around in a frenzy, Adelaide batting as many of them away as she could with her staff. Urta hid in his jacket and Osryn attempted to swat at them with his cloak, but they only dug into the folds of his clothing, nibbling on his arms and torso. Sebastian stopped trying to fight them away, instead gripping his wand in front of him and closing his eyes. He breathed deeply, connected his own energy to that of the wand, and once combined, he felt strong enough that his command would hold if he said it.

Disperse. Leave us alone, dear friends. We mean no harm.

Perhaps it was a loyalty such as those the ants showed to Adelaide back when she was a toddler, or perhaps the flies were simply bewildered that this human could understand their language. Either way, as Sebastian focused and repeated the phrases, more and more of them began to break off the swarm and buzz off into the forest. Adelaide smacked a few dozen more down with her staff and before long, every single one of the flies had left the clearing and the buzzing faded off into the distance. Sebastian breathed heavily, having fallen to his knees from the strain, and his eyes behind his tangled hair were wild.

“I did it!” He gasped, clutching his wand to his chest. “Did you see that?! They listened to me! They all listened to me!”

Adelaide, still somewhat shaken, poked and prodded at some of the fly bites on her neck and chin. Luckily, they were all rather small. “How did this happen? We’re immune to bug bites! Or, well, I thought we were… we always have been.”

“I don’t think those were ordinary bugs…” Osryn muttered. His bites were the worst of anyone, dotting almost every inch of his exposed skin. “They were attacking us. Don’t you think they might be connected somehow to this den?”

Adelaide nodded solemnly. Sebastian rose from the ground, still grinning with his wand in hand. “Did you see that, dad? I controlled those flies! All of them!”

Osryn nodded, offering his son a smile. “Yes, you did. Well done.”

That was good enough for Sebastian, and he continued to ride the high. Urta finally spoke up.

“You guys look awful.” Urta took the large backpack off and knelt down, rummaging through it for a moment before pulling out a first aid kit. “Here, let me take care of some of those bites. Osryn, you first.”

The twins had wandered off to the lakeshore and were talking amongst themselves. Reluctantly, Osryn walked over to him and sat down. His face was the most affected, and Urta immediately applied a thin layer of ointment. Osryn narrowed his eyes, examining the skin of Urta’s forearm. “Any reason you don’t seem to have been bit?”

Urta seemed taken aback, looking at his own arm as though this were news to him. “Not sure. I’ve never been very prone to bug bites. Maybe I just taste bad?”

Osryn didn’t buy it, but the cool cream felt so good on his red swollen face. He watched as Urta focused on his work, taking great care not to use too much pressure.

“You know, I’m pretty sure we’re in for a rather rough journey...” Urta admitted. “I believe this is far from the last wound of yours I will treat.”

“Are you skilled medically?” Osryn asked.

Urta nodded. “More than most. I was once an ER nurse.”

Osryn’s eyes widened. “Wow. That must have been… difficult.”

“That’s an understatement...” Urta said, pausing for a moment. “But, it readied me for some of the things I’ve been seeing lately. The violence. The damage.”

“So, it truly is as bad as you say?” Osryn asked, and Urta nodded.

“Obviously.” He sighed, moving on to treating Osryn’s hands and forearms. “You’ll see for yourself soon enough.”

Osryn swallowed and was silent for a moment. “I dread the moment I do…”

“Your children are cooler-hearted than you are,” Urta said. “They’re ready for the danger, for the thrill. I think they look forward to it.”

“I know...” Osryn said. “I fear they’re more ready than I would like to leave the comfort of our current day-to-day…”

Urta smiled. “That’s understandable, Osryn. I’m not a father, but if I were, I wouldn’t want my children to grow up either…”

“Are we leaving yet?” Sebastian’s voice cut across the clearing. “I’m getting bored just sitting around.”

The twins made their way to where Urta was finishing up Osryn’s first aid. Unsurprisingly, their bug bites had healed at a rapid rate and were nearly invisible. Urta noticed this while cleaning his hands of the cream and nodded to himself. “You guys seem better, so, I’d say we can leave right about now.”

He grabbed his backpack and the group moved onward through the valley. The forest was thinning out slightly, and it wasn’t long before they found themselves approaching a prairie of tall wild grasses. The grass was easily a meter high and the buzz of insects was louder than it had been at any point. The sun had set almost completely now, and it was just barely light enough still to see. Urta stopped and looked out onto the prairie, though one couldn’t see too far in the fog.

“I think we should cross it before calling it a night. There’s more forest on the other side and we can camp there.”

They made their way, bushwhacking through the tall grass with whatever tools they had available to them. Osryn really wanted to blow some plasma beams through the grass and carve out a path, but Hector had rambled on far too much about the preservation of natural ecosystems, so instead they trod carefully, only breaking what they had to. Suddenly, Urta stopped everyone short and shushed them. All that could be heard for a moment was the ambient insects, then a rustling noise amongst them. Everyone readied their weapons.

“Again? Already?” Osryn muttered, panickedly wiping his foggy glasses.

“Bring it on…” Sebastian muttered, and at that moment, a creature jumped out of the woods and landed on his shoulder. He screamed, shoving it off and quickly regaining his composure. It looked like a grasshopper, only the size of a small child, and two more were leaping out of the grass. Sebastian’s lightning was more suited to longer-distance combat, so hand-to-hand, Sebastian was forced to grip his obsidian wand with both hands and smash it into the grasshopper’s head. The creature crumpled to the ground.

Osryn and Urta had teamed up to take down one of them, Urta wielding a dagger now rather than a gun. Osryn was not great at close combat, but he did have more specialized plasma attacks for closer quarters. Adelaide was fighting the third one, channeling her magic into the mist that carried her staff to charge her attack. It leapt at her, and she thrust the staff forward, where it would have made direct contact with the creature’s head, had Sebastian not jumped in front of the attack and shoved the grasshopper out of the way, tackling it into the grass.

Adelaide gasped, having nearly missed her own brother, and he pocketed his wand. Sebastian grabbed the creature’s thorax with both hands, squeezing and allowing electricity to flow. Its legs squirmed against him for a few moments until they stopped, curling back in on themselves and ceasing to move. Sebastian threw the electrified grasshopper corpse to the ground and turned around to face the others.

“Take that, bastard…” Sebastian muttered, standing up and wiping the hemolymph from his hands on some of the grass. Osryn cringed. Somehow he never got used to seeing insect blood. Adelaide stared at her brother in sheer disbelief.

“What in the name of the sun was that?” She asked, holding her hands out in search of an answer. “You jumped right into my line of fire! I had it!”

I had it!” Sebastian objected, looking coolly at his hands as he picked exoskeleton bits out of his fingernails.

“Son, are you mad?” Osryn asked incredulously, crossing his arms. “You could have been killed!”

Sebastian faltered a little, biting his cheek. “Sure. But, I wasn’t.”

“You were pretty damn close!” Adelaide was still wired; it had all been too close for comfort. “I was inches away from murdering you! You can’t just do things like that!”

Urta wisely hung back as the family argument intensified. Sebastian scoffed. “My fighting style has never been good enough for either of you, has it?”

“Because you’re lazy!” Adelaide scolded. “And reckless! You don’t pay attention, and you literally almost died because of it. Do you not get that at all?”

Sebastian sighed, kicking the ground, unintentionally cracking the dead grasshopper’s antenna. “I’m sorry, alright? I didn’t realize you were attacking it…”

“Maybe you should try being more aware of your surroundings,” Osryn advised, shaking his head.

“You’re always holding me back,” Adelaide admitted, hugging her chest with all four arms. “I just want you to think about things a little before you do them…”

“It’s not like I saved the day back at the lake,” Sebastian said drily, and Osryn scoffed.

“I could have done that too!” Adelaide reminded him. “You just had to be the one who got father’s praise––”

“Oh, come on, you’re such a little––”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Urta’s voice overtook theirs and their overlapping sentences faded out. The three Selds realized how heated things had gotten and Urta was clearly becoming irritated. “I’m sure this argument was very important, but the sun has set completely. It’s a good idea for us to camp for the night as soon as possible.”

Sebastian huffed, frustrated. “Whatever! Let’s just get across…”

Urta led them the rest of the way through the grasslands and they escaped unharmed. It seemed that the only enemies around had all taken the same opportunity to attack.

Before long, the group reached the edge of the grassland. Osryn ended up needing to pick a few dog ticks off of himself, but the other three were unaffected. Not more than ten meters into the woods there was a suitable area to set up a few tents while still being hidden within the tree cover. It took a while to set up the tents, as Urta was the only one of them who had any real idea how to do so. Usually, when Osryn went camping with Daniela and Hector, they did all the dirty work while he sipped on some ale.

Eventually, two tents were made, one for Urta and Osryn, the other for the twins. On the edge of the clearing, Sebastian had noticed a tall tree with a dark, carbonized lightning strike along the side. Osryn watched him trace his index finger up and down the cut through the bark. His six eyes were impossible for Osryn to read, though he felt that even if he’d only had two, Osryn would have just as much trouble figuring out what was in his son’s head. He looked towards Adelaide, who was sitting next to the fire Urta had built, having a light-hearted conversation with the man. She was somewhat easier to get a read on, and it was clear she was fond of this stranger. Osryn was not sure how he felt about that.

“What are you two talking about?” Osryn wandered closer to the fire. Urta patted the ground next to him for him to sit down and Osryn did.

“I was just telling Adelaide why my skin’s like this,” Urta said, tilting his head up and pointing out a particularly distinct patchy part of skin on his neck. “It’s called vitiligo, it happens when the cells that produce melanin start to die. Lots of things can cause it.”

“I’ve read about that,” Osryn said, nodding. “Never seen someone who had it in person before, though.”

“I think it looks cool,” Adelaide said with a smile. “You’re different, like me and Sebastian.”

“Stop talking about me!” From his tree, Sebastian turned around and scowled in his sister’s direction.

“Well, stop being a loner!” She called over to him. “I said I was sorry!”

Rolling his eyes, Sebastian made his way over to the fire, where the four had a very relaxed conversation. Urta didn’t tell them much about who he was or where he came from, but they were able to make amiable small talk nonetheless. It was much-needed after the tension of the earlier battle, and eventually the group began to feel the fatigue of their day of traveling.

“Man, what time is it, even?” Sebastian yawned. “I’m usually up till dawn, but I’m so tired I could pass out.”

“Well, one of us needs to keep watch.” Urta fished a sooty blanket out of his backpack and used it to snuff out the fire. “I’ll take the first shift.”

“I’m afraid I’m not comfortable with that, Urta. I still don’t know if I trust you.”

“Fair enough.” Urta couldn’t really deny the logic in that.

“I’ll do it!” Adelaide raised her two right hands. “I’m not even tired yet, honestly.”

Sebastian stretched his arms out over his head and yawned again, loudly and obnoxiously. He waved his hand goodbye and stood up, making his way over to his designated tent. “I’m okay with that. Good night folks, I’ll be sleeping on the ground.”

Osryn and Urta bid Adelaide good night and she readied her staff, sitting up against the lightning-struck tree. It was awkward as Urta and Osryn entered their tent and dressed for the night, putting aside their belongings and getting comfortable as far away as they possibly could from each other. Osryn did not like sleeping in the company of other people, and he was certain he would lose his mind if Urta snored. Within a few minutes, however, the stranger’s breathing slowed and fell into a soft rhythm, assuring Osyrn that he was actually asleep. This comforted Osryn greatly.

He leaned back on the rolled up cloak he was using as a pillow, exhaling deeply with his hands behind his head. It had been a day to remember, that’s for sure, and it was only the beginning. He would never have expected to be out on this sort of adventure, and there was certainly a part of him that was thrilled to be doing something exciting and heroic, like the characters of myth. Here, in the beginning of his journey, he felt like the archetypal fool. Naturally, he was skeptical of Urta, and he pondered what his motive may be if what he said was not quite true. Were his kids ready for more and more battles like these? Sebastian’s behavior had not been reassuring. That said, was he even ready for what lay in store? He felt older and more decrepit than ever, aching on the cold hard ground after a day of walking longer than he had in quite some time.

Despite his whirling thoughts, the faint sound of the grassland insects could still be heard and the ambient buzzing soothed his soul. With some meditative effort, Osryn was eventually able to drift off into a comfortable sleep.

Chapter Eleven

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The next day, Osryn awoke to the familiar sound of his children arguing.

“I’m sorry okay?” Adelaide was saying. “I thought I wasn’t tired!”

“You thought, huh? Well, you thought wrong!” Sebastian growled back. With a sigh, Osryn found his glasses, put them on, and got dressed. He emerged from the tent looking exhausted and disheveled–– more so than usual.

“What in blue blazes is going on?” He grumbled, scratching his head. “I’m trying to sleep, don’t you know?”

“Adelaide fell asleep during watch, and she didn’t wake anyone up!”

”You are such a snitch!” Adelaide huffed. “Why does it matter, anyway? Nothing happened, okay? We’re alright!”

“Something could have happened,” Urta said, and she took those words to heart more so than those of her brother. “It was irresponsible, Adelaide.”

“I’ll do the lecturing, thank you,” Osryn said, raising his eyebrows. Urta realized he was overstepping his bounds and backed off, apologetically. “You couldn’t have woken someone up?”

Adelaide sighed, hanging her head. “It came over me too quickly… I didn’t even realize until Sebastian woke me up.”

“Well, Urta’s right. That was very irresponsible. I thought I raised you to be smarter than that, Adelaide. We were left completely vulnerable all night.”

Adelaide bit her lower lip and a pang of anxiety flew through Osryn. She always did that when she was trying not to cry. She swallowed and said, “Why do you always make it about you? ‘I’ trained you, ‘I’ taught you better? Do you even care about me?”

It was far too early in the morning for Osryn to be walking on this many eggshells. He clasped his hands. “Darling, I care about you more than you can ever understand.”

“Why don’t you show it, then?” She cried, and as the tears began to flow, she turned away and dashed into the woods. “You’re always so selfish! I hate you!”

Sebastian watched her run into the undergrowth and collapse next to a distant tree. He shrugged. “I should have kept watch anyway.”

Urta had been watching this whole thing go down from the ground, tending a fire with a pot over it. Seeing Osryn on the verge of collapsing from lack of caffeine and fatherly stress, he beckoned him over. “Come sit down, Osryn. I’m about to make some coffee.”

Wordlessly, Osryn sat down next to Urta, hugging his knees to his chest. Urta allowed him some silence to ruminate as he waited for the pot of water to boil, then took it off the portable metal stand he’d erected over the fire and poured some into two clay mugs. He handed one to Osryn, who nodded gratefully and blew on it a few times before taking a sip. He scrunched his face up slightly. Urta chuckled.

“Don’t care for instant coffee, huh?”

Osryn tilted his head ambivalently. “It’s fine. I’ve had it before. I’d be lying if I said it compared to my fresh-ground beans.”

“Oh, do you get it from Solelio?” Urta asked with a smile. “I’ve seen some of the farms.”

Osryn nodded absently, staring into the flames and allowing the scent of the coffee to fill his nostrils. Sebastian was lurking around the edge of the clearing, seemingly debating whether he should go talk to Adelaide or leave her alone. Urta sighed and addressed the elephant in the room.

“Teenagers say things sometimes,” he started. “That doesn’t mean they mean it.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Osryn exhaled and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. It was a brisk morning, no more than an hour after sunrise, and it seemed to chill him straight to the bone. The cold front his daughter had put up sure didn’t help. “This isn’t anything new. She can be… difficult.”

“She doesn’t hate you,” Urta said. “At least, it doesn’t seem like she does. What do I know, I’m just a random guy.”

Osryn gave half a laugh to that, but his gloomy demeanor quickly returned. “I just feel like I’ve done everything wrong and nothing right. Is it too much to ask for me to know how to do something right by them? I feel like I’ve been flying blind since the day they came to me. I’m just trying to be there for her...”

Urta didn’t rush into a response, nursing his coffee for a moment. “I’m not a father, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I think you just need to be patient with them, especially her. She seems to like having her own autonomy, so maybe being too ‘there for her’ as you say is overwhelming to her. Maybe she needs you to step back a bit and let her handle some things on her own.”

Osryn groaned, burying his head in his cloaked knees. “I’m just so tired… we’ve been out here for less than a day and they’re already driving me off the deep end. It’s not just them either. I’m just… so tired.”

Urta raised his eyebrows. “Oh, come on. They’re not that bad. It’ll be fine. Cheer up, sorcerer. Isn’t there a spell for that?”

Osryn lifted his head and locked eyes with Urta, solemn as the grave. “There’s plenty of spells that could cure what ails me... through death. I’m afraid the idea of becoming sweet nothing has been tempting me for far too long.”

Urta turned toward the fire, prodding at the coals and putting a new log on it. It was awkward now, and Osryn realized it was his fault. Why was he baring his soul to this stranger? Perhaps it was because Daniela had become numb to his existential moaning many years ago. This man, to whom Osryn was a stranger, was here to listen. Maybe he could say something no one else had ever managed to say, something that would pierce through the depression.

Maybe. Maybe all Urta was thinking was, “No wonder his kids are so screwed up.”

Apparently Sebastian had managed to calm Adelaide down enough that they returned to the clearing, hand in hand. Osryn heard them approach, but was too ashamed to address her. Luckily, she addressed him.

“Dad, I’m sorry. For falling asleep and for being mean to you.”

“I’m sorry for being so hard on you. You’re just as human as you are Insectera; it’s my job to make your life easier, not harder. I feel like I only do the latter.”

Adelaide rolled her eyes and crouched down next to her father, wrapping her many arms around him. “Dad, you’re gonna be okay. We all are.”

No longer feeling as though he was sliding into the deep end, Osryn was able to get moving and the group was packed and ready within an hour. Urta guided them further for a few more miles. The hemlock-hardwood forest was beginning to be more dominated by pines and firs. The understory was open with very few low branches or undergrowth, but the canopy was thick with needles and it made sense that few smaller plants could get enough light. Osryn was losing his breath and his pace slowed steadily. Eventually he was panting so hard he stopped and leaned against a tree, closing his eyes and attempting to regulate his breathing. Adelaide noticed he had stopped and told Urta and Sebastian to hold up.

“Dad, are you alright?”

He inhaled deeply through his nose, exhaling out his mouth. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m just a little tired is all. Your old man’s not used to walking around this much.”

Adelaide rolled her eyes. “Yet we’re the lazy ones.”

“Oh hush,” Osryn said, clutching his hand to his chest and taking a few moments to catch breath. Eventually, he was breathing well enough to continue and he nodded. “Alright, I’m ready.”

Before they had even traversed a hundred feet, Sebastian stopped suddenly and whipped out his wand. Adelaide too had her staff quickly at the ready. Osryn groaned inaudibly–– this again. He readied a small ball of plasma in each hand. From all directions, strange moths were flapping their wings and fluttering towards them, but the creatures seemed like more than just moths; they were the size of a chicken and had large pincers. Everyone was ready this time, for a battle, and combat kicked off quite effectively with Sebastian taking out two of them in one lightning strike. Even Osryn had to admit, his control with his wand had gotten better over time.

Osryn himself was easily able to take a few out before they got close to him. Adelaide cast her staff sideways with a dramatic flair of her hands, knocking a moth away from Sebastian before it could pinch him from behind. Urta had his handgun out again, and was running around the flanks of the fight, picking off moths from a distance. Osryn noticed he had rather good aim from over fifteen meters away, and he appreciated the man’s conscious efforts to take some of the fight off his children’s shoulders.

Though, it was amazing how well they were fighting together. Whether it was because Adelaide’s words about his recklessness had gotten through to Sebastian, or because they simply knew each other’s behaviors so well, they had managed to synchronize their fighting so well it almost looked like it was a dance. Sebastian’s lightning carried on Adelaide’s mist, so if she sent her staff forward on a stream of mist, towards an enemy, Sebastian could electrify the current and then could take down any unlucky moths that happened to fly through in the process. If there was one thing that had been consistent among all the Insectera they had ever fought, it was that they were not that smart.

The moths kept coming, but the children were determined to take them down, with Urta and Osryn supplementing the effort. Soon enough, fewer and fewer bird-sized moths were coming at them, until one, the largest, swooped quicker than any of the others towards Adelaide from behind.

“Watch out!” Osryn cried, and Adelaide whirled around just in time, whipping her staff around with her and knocking the moth back a few feet. It was hardly stunned, however, and it clicked its pincers in Sebastian’s direction before dive-bombing him.

He dashed out of the way and called out to Adelaide, “Cover me!”

Adelaide nodded and grabbed her staff in her hands, batting the moth away repeatedly as it attempted to land a blow on her. Sebastian was charging his wand while she did that. It was mesmerizing to Osryn watching his son channel so much of his energy into the wand such a famous sorcerer as Haelstron had once owned. He thought of this man who he idolized so, and wondered why his wand had decided to choose Sebastian of all people. It must have been destiny, Osryn decided in that moment, that he named his son for the man whose wand would someday choose him.

Finally, Sebastian unleashed his charged lightning bolt and Adelaide jumped out of the way. The moth had no time to dodge the rapid attack and it collapsed to the ground. All was quiet but for the heavy breathing of the four exhausted travelers.

“That… was… badass!” Sebastian yelled, jumping in the air with his wand in his hand. “Did you see that?”

“That was amazing, kids,” Osryn smiled, opening his arms for them to give him a hug, but neither seemed interested. He looked proudly at both his children and gave Adelaide a small nod, which she returned. “Both of you did so amazing in that fight. Do you see what can happen when you take your time and think ahead?”

Three of Sebastian’s leftward eyes twitched. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you seriously still trying to criticize me?”

Osryn blinked. “I- No, of course not! What are you talking about?”

“You’re being passive-aggressive, don’t think I’m too stupid to realize,” Sebastian muttered, pushing his hair back out of his face. “You just need me to know that I only was a decent fighter because I had my sister’s help. That’s what you’re saying to me.”

Osryn clenched his fists. “By the stars, I said no such thing! Your insolence is not your best quality, my boy. What, is my pride not good enough for you?”

“Why should I be happy to receive pity pride?” Sebastian rolled his eyes. “I get it. You don’t need to pretend.”

“I only want you to realize the true potential of your strength!” Osryn told him. “You’re so unique, we know not if there is a limit to what you two are capable of. How will you live up to the best of your capabilities without a hard shove in the right direction?”

Sebastian laughed, glaring straight into Osryn’s eyes. Osryn hated having three times as many eyes as he had himself trained on him, and full of malice. “You’ve been shoving me in some direction for years, but how do you know it’s the right one? What do you know of being strong? Being powerful? That’s not your boat, father. That is ours.”

“Lay off, Sebastian,” Adelaide put two hands on his shoulder, but he shook them off.

“Why should I? He says he cares about legacy and being remembered, but all he does is philosophize about stupid scrolls. What about that is memorable? Do you really think you’re a good role model?”

Osryn was speechless. He looked helplessly to Adelaide, who only shook her head and kept quiet. She couldn’t be faulted, really, for wanting to stay out of it. To defend one would be to scorn the other, and both men were already acting particularly sensitive.

“You’re not powerful, father,” Sebastian held his wand out to show him. “Powerful people take risks. Maybe you’ve never done anything with your life because you’re simply a coward.”

“Okay, knock it off, Sebastian, for real!” Adelaide’s harsh words seemed to pierce through his furious haze and he shook his head. Sebastian looked at her, then to his father’s pitiful face, then sighed.

“I’m not apologizing for what I said. Why should I? He’s never apologized.” Sebastian kicked the corpse of a moth-bird a few meters and huffed. “Whatever. I need to piss.”

He stormed off, leaving Adelaide and Urta alone with Osryn. They were trying not to look too much like they pitied him, but it was obvious–– the man’s expression was far too hollow not to be pitied. He reminded himself what Urta said, about how sometimes kids could just be mean, but Sebastian’s harsh words had cut him straight to the core. Adelaide patted him on the shoulder.

“There, there…” She mumbled, but it felt awkward, comforting her father. After all, he’d just been made a fool of by his own son, and by Adelaide herself earlier that day. Urta hung back as he always did, but Osryn was aware of him watching, worrying. Frankly, Osryn was already getting a little sick of the man’s omnipresence. Having a stranger bear witness to the mundane arguments and conflicts between his family was unnerving. Adelaide knew not what to say to Osryn to make him feel better, but Osryn wouldn’t have known how to reply.

They would leave him. He knew now, they would. Whatever they find, wherever these creatures are coming from, Osryn’s children would leave him behind for their new “family.” Their real family. Even if their family was nothing but a ditch full of worms and maggots, he was certain his children would prefer anything to the hell he apparently put them through. It was crushing to think they might so quickly disappear, the most meaningful things in the world to him. The soul of his last seventeen years.

Adelaide squeezed his shoulders in four different places, and he exhaled, grounding himself in reality. Sebastian returned to the group now, expectantly standing with his arms crossed and wand in hand waiting for them to get going. He had nothing to say for himself that hadn’t already been said. Osryn sighed and stood up. Adelaide exchanged a glance with Sebastian, who still wouldn’t speak.

It was Urta who broke the family’s tension. “You know, you two really do work wonders as a team. I have never seen such intuitive cooperative fighting.”

Adelaide blushed and brushed her hair off her shoulder. “Well, as long as I can get him to stop diving into my line of fire, we’re pretty good.”

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “As long as she watches where she’s aiming, she means.”

Eyes all around fell to Osryn, though Sebastian’s flickered away. The sorcerer gulped and shifted his cloaks. In a moment he could never have realized he would regret as much as he would come to, Osryn could not shake the bitterness he felt towards his son. He looked towards his daughter. “Adelaide, you’re very skilled. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that your team efforts are coordinated.”

Sebastian could only scoff at the blatant disregard. Adelaide shook her head, as though she were the mother disappointed in her son. Osryn flushed, but there was no taking it back now. The tension was palpable.

“Well… Shall we be going?” Urta asked hesitantly, and Sebastian’s answer was walking forward in the direction they had been traveling. Having successfully ostracized his son, Osryn sighed and manned the back of what had become a rather sorry group.

Chapter Twelve

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It was hardly midday, and there was no sun to speak of in the sky. Dark gray clouds drizzled down onto the travelers as they sloughed along. Leafless trees scratched against the pale colorless sky, assuring that none of them would be able to shake the deep pang of sadness that was hanging in their hearts. Even Urta was keeping his distance and acting aloof. The rain was not helping anything, but it was Mistlorn Valley–– that’s simply how it was.

“We’re coming up on the Fugoluna River,” Urta announced after hours of silent, dismal marching. Indeed, the faint rushing sounds of an active river in the rain could now be heard over the rain. The motley crew meandered along until they reached the river bank. Mount Astella, to the west, was closer than it had been thus far in their journey. It would have been possible to get to Solelio faster by scaling the mountain itself, but Urta and the Selds were not up to the undertaking, so were going around the northern side. Astella was the tallest peak in the small range, so tall in fact that Lunora’s cool, rainy microclimate was formed in its southeastern shadow, where it stayed almost year-long.

The Fugoluna river was rushing rather quickly, sweeping away wood and other debris that was being knocked from trees and the shore by the heavy winds. Over the river at this particular junction was an ancient wooden bridge, one that hardly seemed to be holding onto any structural integrity. Sebastian wandered up to the bridge and examined it, crouching down and allowing a few tiny bugs to crawl onto his hand.

“Termites,” he said. “This bridge is going down sooner rather than later.”

“Let us hope that day is not today,” Urta said, pointing across the bridge at the dirt path that began on the other side. “We need to get over there.”

“Have you done this before?” Adelaide asked, narrowing her eyes and crossing her arms. “Do you know it’s safe?”

“Just because I’ve done it before doesn’t mean I know it’s safe. Your brother’s right–– it won’t withstand the damage the termites are doing forever. It held last time I crossed it. Let’s hope it lasts today.”

Sebastian shrugged and walked out onto it, mumbling something to the termites, who stopped their nibbling. He gestured with his left hand for the others to follow him, so with a shrug, Adelaide did, stepping onto the bridge behind him and making her way across. As usual, Sebastian was the first to make a decision and the last to care to think about it. Luckily, it did seem that the bridge would hold, even if they crossed all at once.

“I wonder who built this bridge,” Adelaide mused as she walked. “It seems extremely old.”

“I believe it was the early Lunoran settlers,” Urta said, shrugging, “but I could be wrong.”

There was an odd, throaty noise from across the bridge. Everyone stopped, Osryn instinctively putting his hand out in front of Adelaide, who pushed it away. On either side of the road ahead, creatures seven feet tall and just as long were emerging from the forest. Insectera were commonplace by now, but there was something about these monsters that struck fear into Osryn’s heart. No, these were not giant beetles or bird-sized moths, but slinking, lumbering masses of unrecognizable exoskeleton and viscera. Some had compound eyes, others human eyes. Some had wings, others pincers. Many of them had one or numerous human limbs. Easily, the most trending characteristic that tied them all together was their odd patchwork exoskeletons, which varied in shade anywhere between a pale white and a chestnut brown.

Sebastian, who had been leading the party, was frozen in place, not by fear, but by absolute awe at what he saw before him. It was unthinkable that any creatures such as the ones in front of him could even exist, could even physically function, yet here they stood, crawled, or fluttered towards him slowly. It was magical. It was amazing. It was abstract.

It was terrifying.

The enemy had not yet made any moves to advance on the party, and Osryn could count about a dozen when he managed to pull his mind back to reality. It didn’t matter that these creatures were abominations known neither to science nor magic–– they were likely going to attack him and his children any minute now. One of them, apparently heading the group, with particularly wide and humanlike eyes, opened its bug mouth, which to Osryn’s horror was full of human teeth, and muttered what sounded like a word.

“Ur… ta…”

Everyone turned towards him, but before it could be explored further, a few of the creatures from across the bridge lurched forward, some waiting on the shore. It seemed that, whatever these things were, they were smart enough to coordinate battle strategy, and even, in some capacity, speak. The first two came after Sebastian, who whacked one away with his wand, which he held like a baseball bat, and struck the other through with a lightning bolt when he released his left hand. The one he’d knocked in the head went tumbling over to Adelaide, where it emitted a horrifying screech at her heels. She jumped, missing the staff attack she’d been aiming at another foe, but managing to pull the staff back into her hands and piercing the grounded bug through the abdomen.

Osryn, thankfully, was being assisted by Urta, whose gun was loaded and ready in his right hand, with a dagger in his left. Plasma balls and bullets flew towards the creatures on the shore, who it seemed were not prepared for a long-range attack. Several of them scattered into the woods, but a couple were felled, oozing hemolymph onto the dark silicate shore.

Adelaide’s accuracy and power with her attacks was greatly increased due to the rain, as every particle of water in the sky gave her more control over what she was doing. She locked eyes with Sebastian from across the bridge and nodded, casting her staff to the left, which barreled into an enemy and sent it tumbling towards her brother, who bashed it in the skull with his obsidian wand and kicked it over the side into the river. Sebastian laughed raucously, pushing his hair out of his face with bloodied hands and readying himself for the next one. Said creature body-slammed him between its horns, but he was hardly fazed, wriggling his way out and getting up quickly to strike it down with a bolt. The creatures that had retreated on the shore were emerging now, and Urta and Osryn were only able to take down one more before they made their way to close proximity, where Adelaide took down two at once, one with her staff and the other with her bare hands. Her expression was more serious and focused than Sebastian’s, but a slight smirk hinted that she was proud of how strong and self-sufficient she had become.

Urta was fighting some behemoth that could be approximated as a grasshopper’s love child with a half-human worm. His expression while he fought was stern but casual, as though he were experienced with fighting and unfazed by the monstrosity of the creature he grappled with currently. Osryn narrowed his eyes, still suspicious of the fact that the creature’s leader seemed to have said his name. He couldn’t hear over the sounds of the battle, but he saw Urta’s lips move, then the creature’s small insect mouth opened. Were they communicating? From behind Urta, a dozen-legged creature scuttled towards him, aimed to attack.

“Urta, look out!” Osryn gasped, and Urta whirled around, but it was too late. The creature slammed into him with its pincers and grazed the side of Urta’s rib, knocking him off the bridge and taking a chunk of disintegrated wood with him. Infuriated, Osryn launched white hot plasma through both creatures’ neck joints, severing their heads and knocking them to the ground.

Having finished them, he leapt down into the water, where he was immediately shocked by the ice cold temperatures. He’d forgotten, in the heat of the moment, that it was mid-November. His teeth chattered and his bones felt as though they might freeze, but his frozen synapses still fired, and he saw Urta’s head bobbing in the water. Then, the head of one of the monster’s in the same spot. Osryn blinked. Had one of the heads he’d lopped off fallen into the water? Urta surfaced again and Osryn was making his way closer and closer. Then, the creature. Osryn swore reality and his recent memories were confused by the cold. He grabbed Urta and dragged him to the shore. It was a miracle either of them had survived.

Urta choked and sputtered for a moment, clutching at the left side of his chest. “That... was the dumbest thing… I have ever seen.”

“Well, I wasn’t just going to let you die!”

“You… could have died too…” Urta mumbled, head lolling to the side, but Osryn propped it up.

“Yeah, but, I didn’t…” Osryn coughed and shuddered as he unzipped Urta’s backpack, which he was still leaning on. “Where’s the first aid kit?”

“Front pocket…”

“Take that, scumbags!” Sebastian was yelling now, having knocked a live creature into the water and electrified the current. Osryn was so frazzled trying to help the man he wasn’t even sure he trusted, that he didn’t quite grasp that had his son tried that move only moments earlier, he and Urta would have been fried.

“Good job, brother,” Adelaide put her hand on his shoulder, ruffling his hair with another. “But my stars, what were those things?”

Osryn overheard this and said, “I think our friend here might know.”

It was then that Adelaide and Sebastian realized that Urta was hurt and raced from the bridge to the side of the river with the road, where Osryn had pulled Urta to safety. Adelaide glanced around the woods nervously for any stray creatures, then fell to her knees next to Urta.

“Oh no! Dad, is he going to be okay?!”

Urta chuckled. “I’m going to be fine, kid. Just a little stab wound. No big deal.”

“Don’t play friendly, Urta,” Osryn grumbled, pouring alcohol on the wound and causing Urta to wince. “If that’s even your real name.”

“You’re being so rude and presumptive!” Adelaide insisted. “He’s injured! Can’t you at least interrogate him later?”

“I dunno. I think dad’s right.” Sebastian weighed in. “You heard it, right? That thing at the beginning. It said ‘Urta.’”

“Yes, but…” Adelaide trailed off, unsure how to counter that oddly specific point.

“Save it, Adelaide.” Urta sighed, looking up at her. “There’s… some stuff I haven’t told you. I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”

Adelaide seemed hurt, but she blinked and nodded, taking on a somewhat-commanding tone when she addressed her father. “Okay… Well, then. Heal him. Then, we shall talk…”

Soon enough Urta’s wound was cleaned and bandaged, and he was being stared down by ten pairs of scrutinizing eyes. Nervously, he glanced amongst them, closing his own eyes and inhaling before he found the words to say.

“I haven't been completely honest with any of you…” Urta started, turning to Osryn. “I know you had your doubts from the start. You weren’t crazy for thinking something was off about me. There’s something unique about my… situation.”

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Spit it out. We don’t have all day.”

Urta gulped and tried to rise to his feet, but winced when he moved his abdomen. “May I have some assistance getting up?”

Adelaide helped him to his feet where he staggered slightly before gaining his footing. He looked around, scanning the area for any witnesses before he took a deep breath and pulled a small plumbob shaped object out of his jacket’s buttoned breast pocket. It was a pale, sickly green with a grey metallic shift, and it was radiating an energy that, when perceived by an arcane-attuned mind, could only be described as “fuzzy.”

“I’d stand back a little, if I were you... “ The Selds retreated towards the woods and watched as Urta held the little stone in his hands and it began to glow, spreading its strange green shine to every inch of Urta’s skin. Then, his skin melted, some of it turning into new flesh, and some of it dissolving into thin air, which puffed away like a mist. Moments later, where Urta formerly stood was a huge, long-antennaed creature with a thick segmented exoskeleton and six fuzzy jointed legs. It made a friendly clicking sound at them, sensing their fear immediately, and then spoke. “It’s… me… Urta…”

The voice was not his own, or so the Selds immediately believed. It was slow, warbling, and raspy, as though created through non-human means of sound production, but it was indeed speech. The words were comprehensible.

“Oh my sun and moon…” Osryn took off his glasses, unable to believe his eyes. “Am I going mad, children?”

Sebastian was entranced by the scene unfolding before him, and he was unable to tear his eyes away or formulate any words. Adelaide shook her head a few times.

“No…” She said. “I think this is real.”

“This… is real…” Urta confirmed, holding out one of his legs towards her. She jumped back, but quickly reconciled that the creature in front of her, though it looked like her enemy, was her friend. She took his fuzzy foot in her hand and its hairs prickled at her skin. She shuddered and pulled it away. Urta’s antennae twitched. “I’m… sorry…”

“Sorry?” Osryn gasped, scratching his forehead. “Hell, we don’t even know what’s going on!”

“So… Urta you’re… Insectera.” Adelaide inferred, and Urta nodded his head. Its eyes–– no, his eyes ––were on either side of a mantis-like head, large and compound, devoid of emotion. Yet, Adelaide and Sebastian could feel what he felt–– it was an unnerving feeling, unlike anything they had ever felt from a creature or simply a bug. It felt like fear, nervousness, uncertainty. Urta was afraid of how they would perceive him.

“I’m going… to change… back…” Urta told them.

Osyrn nodded. “That sounds like a great idea, yes.”

Urta’s insect flesh disappeared as his human flesh had, and again, bits and pieces re-formed as his human form and others scattered as carboniferous gas to the wind. The man that stood before them looked the same as the one who had been guiding them on this journey, but this wasn’t him. Not really.

Sebastian spoke up. “That… was... awesome.”

“You’d better start explaining!” Osryn growled, lunging towards Urta and grabbing him by the jacket collar. The man’s eyes grew wide and he cringed, clutching his wound. “What the hell else have you been lying about, huh? Tell us! Spill it!”

“Calm down, father.” Adelaide insisted, frowning. “He can’t explain if you’re yelling at him.”

Reluctantly, Osryn released Urta, who inhaled shakily a few times before gulping and beginning his story.

“My name, as you know, is Urta.” He gestured towards his chest, then towards the bridge, where numerous insect corpses lay. “However… their name is Urta too. It is the name we have been given. The only name we have ever known. I’ve been… Well, all of us have been Insectera as long as we can remember.”

“You know them, and you just let us slaughter them all?” Adelaide gasped, clenching her fists. “What if they would have been willing to work out a truce?”

Urta sighed. “They are loyal to their master…. All they’ve been told is to attack anyone they come across.”

Osryn narrowed his eyes. “Who is this master? I thought we were dealing with a ‘den of mutants.’ You’re not particularly good at keeping track of your stories.

Clasping his hands together, Urta inhaled through his nose. “Okay… I confess. That much was a lie.”

“I knew it, you piece of––” Osryn lurched at him again, but was unable to pull against Adelaide, who held him back.

“So, all of you…” Adelaide pieced it together again, as Urta clearly was suffering from Osryn’s hostility. “You ‘Urtas’... you have some kind of leader?”

Urta nodded sheepishly. “Yes… I’ve been sent on a special mission, actually… To find you, and to bring you to our master. Master has… a question for you.”

“So, you lied to us… why?” Sebastian asked. “Why did you make up this story in the first place?”

“I was hoping we could avoid this conversation, but the jig is up…” Urta said, looking to Osryn. “He saw me. In the water.”

Osryn recalled the flashes of Insectera he saw in Urta’s place, which he now recognized as glimpses of Urta’s true form.

“The Illusion Crystal isn’t perfect. It's finicky, and it can only transform up to a certain mass threshold. I was injured and getting knocked around by the current… its matter-altering field was malfunctioning.”

Osryn nodded–– so that was why.

“If you’re an Urta,” Sebastian said, “and they’re Urtas… then why are they attacking us?”

“Yeah, what makes you different?” Adelaide added.

“To be honest, our master has a particular… fondness, for me. She chose me to be the ambassador of this mission, but did not trust any of the others with the knowledge.”

“She?” Osryn raised his eyebrows.

“Shit…” Urta cursed. “Um, yes… Anyway, as far as the other Urta’s know, you are just as unimportant as anyone wandering around. Their orders are to attack–– mine are to bring you to her. There are traitors in our midst, and our master is not willing to disclose anything more than necessary to those she does not trust.”

“So, what you’re telling us is that you’re a bootlicker, and we’re your hostages,” Osryn growled, clenching his fists, but he wasn’t going to try and fight Urta this time. Not again. Frankly, the man was giving off an air of weakness and it almost felt pathetic to come at him. “You’re taking us to your leader, and you lied.”

“You are free to leave if you desire,” Urta assured them. “I’m simply doing what I’m told.”

“What does your master want from us?” Sebastian asked, crossing his arms. “You’re being awfully vague, Urta.”

Urta bit his lip. “I’m not permitted to know.”

“So you admit it!” Osryn exclaimed. “This is a trap!”

Sebastian scoffed. “No, he’s only admitted that it could be a trap.”

Osryn kicked the ground with a worn, dirty boot and a low growl rose up from his chest. “Oh, sure. And why should we trust him?”

“Well, for starters,” Adelaide started softly, trying not to step on her father’s toes, “he’s done nothing to harm us, and in fact only fought to protect our lives. He fought his own kind for us.”

“Why did you lie in the first place?” Sebastian asked. “What purpose did deceiving us serve but to foster our distrust?”

Urta sighed. “I thought you wouldn’t come with me if I told the truth… I’m just a lowly servant, and like you said, it could be a trap. Why would you follow me?”

“That’s absolute nonsense,” Osryn said. “I was suspicious of you from the beginning either way.”

“No offense, dad, but you’re not exactly his target demographic,” Sebastian said, turning to Urta. “I think your true form is absolutely awesome. I wish I could look like that.”

Urta laughed uncomfortably, scratching his neck. “If I’m being honest, I much prefer this human form. It’s new to me. Only recently was I introduced to this technology, and it's far from perfect, but I never knew it was possible for me to look in the mirror and feel like I was… me. Not a monster.”

Adelaide nodded and Osryn kept his seething rage bottled down, for the children’s sake. How were they buying this nonsense? Hadn’t he raised them better? He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. It was frustrating that they could not see the blatant inconsistencies in Urta’s story and feel the weight of his lies, but he couldn’t blame them for latching onto this connection to the Insectera world–– a world Osryn simply would never be a part of. The three were talking now, but Osryn had tuned them out. If they could have their own little world, then he could too, in his head. Alone. His thoughts swirled, but Adelaide’s voice knocked him back to reality before he could fall into his depressive vortex.

“Dad, are you okay?”

Osryn blinked. “Hm? Sure, I’m fine. We’re traveling to unknown destinations with a traitorous stranger, but I’m fine.”

“I am sorry you do not trust me...” Urta sighed. “I’m simply following orders.”

“I think we should keep going, dad,” Sebastian told Osryn. “If you want to turn back, you can, but Laidie and I want to meet this master of his. She could be our only chance at finding out where we came from, you know?”

Osryn wondered hopelessly why it mattered to them so much.

“If it’s a trap, dad, we’ll handle it,” Adelaide spun her staff confidently. “You trained us to be strong, after all.”

“I am not leaving you alone with him,” Osryn grumbled. “Whatever. Let us go.”

They had made it to the other side of the river after the fight, so Urta nodded towards the road and shifted his pack on his back. “We’re going to follow this road for a while, okay? There may be humans around, so if there are, you will need to hide your… abnormalities, somehow?”

“Well, can we use your crystal?” Sebastian asked, eyes glinting with childlike hope.

Urta shook his head. “Unfortunately, it is only capable of altering the material form of one living organism at a time… However, I think we can disguise you easily enough.”

“It’ll be nice to feel like a human for once…” Adelaide muttered, but Sebastian rolled his eyes.

“It’s a shame that we have to hide our true forms. Urta especially.” Sebastian countered. “We all should be proud of our heritage. Insectera are people too.”

Osryn glanced at the decrepit bridge, littered with corpses of the Insectera they had slaughtered to get across. “You are naive, son. Trust me. Some things are better left hidden…”

Chapter Thirteen

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The road ahead was always shrouded in a thick, mysterious cloud of fog. The forest was lush and coniferous upon crossing the river, pines and firs and hemlocks dominating the world–– so verdant, even in the depths of November. This evergreen forest thinned slowly as they traveled on and on, no end visible through the mist. The terrain had become rather hilly as they got farther from the river valley, and the fog drifted in front of them as they descended from every little peak. In these valleys, the coniferous trees would disappear, in their place swamplands full of ferns, moss, and old rotting snags. It was on a narrow boardwalk over one of these particular wetlands that Urta stopped in his tracks, causing the single-file line of travelers to halt.

“What? What is it?” Osryn asked impatiently. His body ached, his lungs were tired, and the sun was creeping down towards the horizon, casting a pale yellow haze through the fog into the swamp.

“Listen,” Urta said, and everyone did. The swamp was quiet, as most frogs were freezing for the winter, and in the distance the faint sound of laughter and conversation could be heard.

Sebastian’s eyes widened. “People.”

“You’re going to need to hide before we move forward. Can you do that?”

Adelaide nodded and tore off her backpack, digging in it for a brown shawl which she draped over her shoulders. It was long enough that it covered her lower arms, which she simply kept crossed behind her back. It wasn’t comfortable, but it would do. Sebastian, on the other hand, borrowed a handkerchief from his sister and tied it around his higher eyes, effectively hiding his abnormality, but effectively blinding him as well.

“I’m so excited to interact with society!” Adelaide giggled, twirling around in a circle so her shawl billowed out around her. “Aren’t you, Sebastian?”

“I can’t see, you know…” Sebastian muttered. “This isn’t going to be fun for me the way it is for you.”

Osryn put his hand on his son’s shoulder, who reluctantly accepted it. “Don’t worry, son, we’ll guide you.”

The group moved forward through the fog until slowly the shape of a building emerged from the haze. It was a large, old-fashioned building, sporting the same greys and browns most Lunoran architecture had. Outside, a small group of people was laughing and drinking from metal flasks, leaning against the fence of the building’s long front porch. It was directly adjacent to a small grimy pond, so thick with algae that it hardly looked like water. A sign hanging haphazardly over the entrance to the tavern-like establishment read, in thick black marker, “The Screeching Leech Tavern & Inn.” On the opposite side of the building as the pond, there was a booth erected of dark black wood. It appeared to be unoccupied, but simply read “Potion Seller.”

The group was approaching from this side, and as Osryn passed the booth, still guiding Sebastian by his shoulder, someone lazily rose from behind the booth, stretching their arms as though they’d been asleep. Osryn stopped to look at the person, who was yawning and didn’t notice him until they stopped. The stranger narrowed their eyes, leaning over the side of the booth.

“What say you, traveler?” The odd person grunted, running their hand through their stringy hair. “It’s rude to stare…”

“You sell potions,” Osryn started pointing at the sign. “I am interested in buying.”

The potion seller snickered. “You can’t handle my potions. They’re too strong for you.”

Sebastian, unable to see the man, was not amused by what he was hearing. “We want to purchase some potions, merchant. Do you care for our business, or not?”

“Hmmm…” The potion seller looked between the two of them and shook their head. “No, I’ll pass. You both look rather… well, shall we say ‘worse for wear.’ Were I you, I would seek a seller that sells weaker potions.”

Sebastian clenched his fist, frustrated that he didn’t know where to direct his glare. “What are you insinuating, man? That I am weak? That my father is weak?”

Osyrn’s mouth fell agape as the potion seller lifted a hand holding a cane and lightly bopped Sebastian on the head, startling him. The potion seller scoffed mockingly and offered Osryn a sinister smirk, though they were still addressing Sebastian when they hissed, “You think you can handle my strongest potions? Ha! My potions are fit for beasts, not mere men.”

“I am no man…” Sebastian growled.

“Clearly,” the potion seller said. “You’re just a boy.”

Sebastian lunged at the seller, who retreated back beneath their booth before he could even try and make contact. Osryn held him back, but Sebastian swatted his hands away. Adelaide, who had moved forward with Urta, was catching wind of the conflict happening behind them and raced to her brother’s side.

“Sebastian, are you okay?”

“No!” Sebastian growled. “This fool of a merchant is mocking me and I won’t stand for it.”

Adelaide softly spoke. “Come on, Sebastian. You must not concern yourself with the opinions of strangers.”

Reluctantly, Sebastian allowed her to guide him to where Urta was standing, Osryn following along. The group converged outside The Screeching Leech and looked at it. A drunken woman with ratty hair yelled at them from the railing upon which she sat. “Preppy lookin’ types, are we? What’re you rich’uns doin’ in a place like this?”

“...Shall we go in?” Osryn asked, and Urta furrowed his brow.

“Do… you want to? I suppose we’ll have to camp soon anyway.”

Osryn nodded. “I am certain I could use a drink.”

“Same...” Sebastian muttered, and Osryn thought better of forbidding it. His children were growing up. They could have some ale. He wasn’t stupid, after all. He knew what it meant whenever his mead bottles were a little light.

They passed the ratty-haired woman without answering her question and entered through the heavy wood double doors. She scoffed and called after them, “Ey, can’t even spare a nickel for an ale?”

Inside the Screeching Leech was far more lively than outside, which was saying something given from what distance they could hear the sounds of merriment. A couple dozen small tables were scattered throughout the large room, almost all of them occupied, and a handful of waiters and waitresses were maneuvering their way around them, swifty taking care of task after task. It seemed that the place was running quite smoothly, despite the lack of staff–– they must get paid a pretty penny.

“Have a seat anywhere, folks!” A barkeep yelled to them from across the hall, hand-drying a martini glass. She flashed them a smile revealing a rather pointy set of teeth, a few of them gold. Osryn nodded in her direction and scanned the room for an empty table. Spotting one, he beckoned his party towards it and they side-stepped carefully through the crowded room, trying not to bump into any particularly portly patrons or wander into a server’s path. They found themselves seated at a round table in the corner of the room. It had exactly four seats, and the travelers collapsed into them wearily. Adelaide, who had been guiding Sebastian through the establishment, released her hand from his shoulder and he groaned, stretching his arms out above his head.

“I hate being blind,” he muttered. “It’s exhausting and humiliating.”

“Plenty of people are blind, son,” Osryn reminded him, looking at the placard in the middle of the table listing the drink specials.

“Yeah, well, I’m not.”

The bartender that had originally greeted them came whirling over to their table, whipping a pad of paper out of her apron. “How’s everyone doin’ tonight, hey? Name me Mariah. Yous looks thirsty.”

Osryn had never seen a woman quite like her–– obviously not from around Lunora, she spoke with a strange accent and her hair was kinky and dark, closer to Adelaide’s than his own. Her skin was a warm, chocolate brown, and her features were round and friendly. Osryn’s observant eyes fell upon her cleavage and he blushed, hoping she hadn’t noticed his wandering gaze. He cleared his throat. “Yes, I’ll have the Pollywog Porter.”

She wrote that down and nodded. “A fanny choice, my good man. And for the others?”

Urta quietly ordered a pale ale and Sebastian a drink special called a Brandy Heartworm. Osryn was unfamiliar with the naming conventions of this area, but the menu items read very strangely to him. Adelaide ordered a glass of mead; Osryn was more pleased than he should have been that she had developed a taste for the stuff. The waitress nodded and Osryn lifted a finger, realizing he had quite a fair amount of coin on him, and could treat the crew to a rather nice dinner.

“Oh, and if we could have the shaved steak over rice and some vegetable croquettes? For the table.”

“Absolute, sir. I’ll be runnin, then you’ll see your meal!” She disappeared into the crowd, leaving the travelers to themselves. Sebastian was rubbing his belly and groaning.

“Oh, I could use a nice rice bowl…” He murmured dreamily. “We’ve been eating nothing but trail mix and Urta’s jerky for days.”

“I worked hard on that jerky…” Urta said plaintively.

“Like you worked on your lie of a story?” Osryn was still bitter from the events of the riverside. “Tell me, how long did that take in comparison?”

Urta went silent and neither of the children jumped to his defense. With a heavy heart, Osryn realized his negativity was wearing on them. He hated how much they trusted Urta, even after he was confirmed to be a liar, an agent for some unknown master. He supposed their link to the Insectera was so strong he would never understand. Osryn had never cared much for blood relations, or perhaps in the case of the Insectera, hemolymph relations. Of course, he thought of his parents, but never fondly, and his brother was a basket case to say the least. Osryn knew that Nygel was a part of this–– it couldn’t be more clear.

Osryn’s birth family had always been the root of his problems. Was it so daft to believe his children could be harmed by what they find out about their own kind?

Their table was quiet. Perhaps there was simply a lack of conversation topics among the travelers or perhaps they were all simply too weary to care to start some. Soon enough Mariah returned with their drinks. As she flitted away to the next patron, she dragged her fingers across Osryn’s shoulder and he turned towards her, eyes wide. From a few tables away, Mariah winked at him. Osryn blinked. He had forgotten how to flirt with a woman.

“Ooooohh…” Adelaide teased, tapping her fingers on the table. “Father has a crush.”

“I… do not…” Osryn lied and Sebastian snickered.

“Dad, you’re redder than Daniela’s hair. She’s hot and she likes you. We all see it.”

“She does not like me,” Osryn insisted, taking a large swig of porter. “It is her job to treat customers like that. She’s hoping for a bigger tip.”

“Oh I think she wants more than just the tip…” Sebastian muttered, too quiet for Osryn to hear. Adelaide burst out laughing and even Urta could not hold back a smirk. Osryn glared at them all.

“What? What is it? Are you mocking me?”

“Oh, dad,” Adelaide said, shaking her head in pity. “You make it so easy.”

The conversation was light and playful for a few moments, but eventually petered out when a new, louder voice penetrated the space. Osryn and his companions all turned towards the source of the noise and saw a large, bearded, bald man sitting with a few younger men around the table right of theirs. One of the young men was quietly speaking to the waitress, but he couldn’t be heard by Osryn over the bellowing voice of the larger man.

“You know I canny be makin’ this up, boys!” He exclaimed, shaking a young man next to him by the shoulders. “I saw it with me own eyes, pinchers and all.”

“I’m almost to believe you…” The shaken man replied, fixing his hair. “How’d this happen? And where?”

“Down by Hansklau’s farm, boy,” The larger man told him. “Five of em, bigger than me. Lads, I swear a beetle looked ne’er so fearsome.”

Everyone at Osryn’s table was listening intently to the conversation. Adelaide nodded somewhat absently, and broke the silence. “So people know. Urta wasn’t lying about that.” The slight twinge of venom in her voice was directed at Osryn and he knew it, but he sipped his porter without letting it on.

“Osryn, I wanted to apologize again for what happened by the river…” Urta spoke up. Osryn looked into the stranger's dark eyes and saw nothing that indicated whether or not he should be trusted. He was a closed book, and sensitive Osryn despised him for it. Urta continued warily when Osryn did not reply. “I admit that I lied, and perhaps the truth would have served me better. My master only wishes to talk with your children. You trust that they are strong, no?”

“I trust my children,” Osryn huffed, slamming down his now empty glass. “I do not, however, trust the air of lies and vagaries through which you operate. Thus, I do not trust your master.”

“Father’s just worried about us, but he need not worry,” Adelaide told Urta. “Sebastian and I are strong, and we’ll take down your master if we have to… No offense.”

Sebastian remained quiet through most of this discussion, absently gazing into his drink and swirling around the liquid. Osryn worried about him more and more each day. His son had been acting abnormal since they’d embarked on this journey. He had always known his son was a sensitive boy, but that had never been a problem… had he convinced Sebastian that it was a problem? So far since they’d left Lunora, Sebastian had been masking this sensitivity with violence and antagonism towards anything that sets him off. On the battlefield, faced with adversity, a version of Sebastian emerged that Osryn felt he did not know. Yet when Osryn looked at him, there, hunched over a tavern table in dim lantern light, he saw the only son he did know: a skinny child with a fragile heart.

Without having asked, a new flask of porter was pushed in front of Osryn and he nodded appreciatively at Mariah as she took away his empty vessel. Sebastian yawned and Adelaide was leaning on her elbow with her face in her hand. They looked bored and exhausted. Then, Osryn remembered what it said on the sign outside the building. He took a large swig from his drink and pushed himself up from his chair. “I’m going to get us some rooms for the night. How’s that, then?”

“Please,” Sebastian whined. “I’m so sick of being blind.”

Urta looked at him, wide-eyed, but Osryn only glared.

“You can sleep outside for all I care,” Osryn said before walking away. He made his way to the bar, which by the looks of it functioned also as the front desk of the establishment. Their waitress Mariah was the closest one to it when Osryn approached, so she handed the drink she’d been making to the customer and bounded over to him.

“Yessir, how can you be helped?” She asked cordially. Osryn smiled politely, trying rather unsuccessfully to hide his nerves. She blinked a few times and Osryn realized he was staring.

“Oh, dear...” He cleared his throat and looked away, scratching awkwardly at his beard. “Pardon me. I am Osryn Seld, a wizard of the town Lunora. I seek shelter for the night in your inn–– have you any vacancies?”

“Hmm, lemme check…” Mariah found a nearby book and skimmed to the right page, glancing at it only for a moment. “Aye, sir. We’ve got plenty a vacancy, ya see?”

“I see.” Osryn laughed slightly and nodded, adjusting his glasses. He swore his face was getting sweaty. “Well, I’d like to book three rooms for tonight, if possible.”

“Of course, prince,” She cooed, and Osryn could no longer hide the redness of his face. He was unsure if “prince” was simply a colloquial way to address someone or if she was intentionally flirting, but Osryn found it flattering. She looked at him only for a moment before continuing, but Osryn was struggling to deny the fact that she might, in fact, be into him. She got all the required information from him and handed him three small keys. Osryn brought them all over to the table and sat down.

“Adelaide and Sebastian, this is for you.” He handed them one of the keys. “I figured you would want to share a room.”

“What about Urta? You’re not actually going to make him sleep outside, are you?” Adelaide demanded to know. Osryn sighed, sliding another key across the polished wood table to Urta.

“Calm down,” Osryn sighed. “I’m not that cruel…”

The food arrived not long after and they scarfed it all down within a matter of minutes. All of them leaned against their chairs in a few moments of post-feast euphoria, digesting and reveling in how good it felt to be full. Living on trail food had gotten old very quickly for a family of decent chefs–– Osryn had taught his kids something useful, he supposed.

Now the sun was completely set and the tavern had reached its peak business, with tables overflowing capacity and waitresses working at top speed and efficiency. Adelaide and Sebastian rose from the table.

“We’re heading upstairs,” Adelaide said, putting her arm around Sebastian’s shoulder. “He’s tired and I’d like to get some reading done in peace.”

“Sleep well, my children.” Osryn was finishing his second pint and was aching for another. It was strong, creamy and utterly malty–– nothing like the fruit ferments he made at home. “I think I’ll stay here for a bit.”

“Do you mind if I stay as well?” Urta asked. “I was hoping to talk to you, man to man.”

Osryn wanted to deny that Urta could even be considered “man” at all, but the look in his eyes was sad, almost pathetic. Sighing, Osryn shrugged as Sebastian and Adelaide retreated to their room. “Sure. You can stay. Please know that I cannot forgive you for your obstruction and misdirection.”

“I’m not asking for forgiveness,” Urta said, folding his fingers together. “Only cooperation. Listen, Osryn… I wouldn’t tell your children this, but I’m not exactly happy working for my master.”

Osryn quirked an eyebrow. “You don’t say? Calling her “master” and doing her bidding doesn’t get you off?”

Urta shifted his eyes towards the floor and Osryn regretted the joke. Urta moved past it. “I’ve worked for her as long as I can remember… I know not who I would even be without her. Frankly, I am not sure who I am at all.”

Osryn took a few moments in silence following that. “Well, that’s depressing.”

“So we’re one and the same.”

“I know who I am,” Osryn insisted. “And I’m not one to fall for dumb ploys like whatever you’re plotting.”

Urta shrugged and gulped down some of his ale. “I’m not plotting anything at all.”

“Why, then, did you lie?”

Their conversation stalled and the noise of the other patrons came to the forefront. Osryn coughed. Urta sighed and shifted his gaze from side to side. Osryn stared at him, impatiently.

“I’m sorry, alright?” Urta managed to make eye contact. “I was told to say whatever I needed to to get you to come with me. Perhaps I went a little overboard. You distrusted me from the get go–– I was simply trying to maximize my chances.”

Osryn sighed, scratching his beard. “I suppose I understand. I already doubted you–– what good would it have done you to appear more suspicious?”

Urta nodded. “You wouldn’t have come.”

“You’re right…” Osryn muttered, and Mariah swooped over to his side out of the blue.

“How’s you good sirs?” She asked cheerily. “Caring for another?”

Osryn, still feeling rattled but feeling buzzed enough to consider Urta an ally, nodded. “Sure. One more I can do.”

Urta leaned back in his chair, stretching his hands out above his head. Lazily, he unwound the bun atop his head and let his shoulder-length hair fall flat. Osryn had no such compulsion to let loose–– he only let his hair down when he was going to bed, or on certain special occasions. Mariah returned within a few minutes with refills for the men, who had finished their beverages quietly in the meantime.

“Your children are smart and strong, you know,” Urta told Osryn. “I can tell. There’s a fire in them.”

“A little too much fire…” Osryn muttered, drumming his nails on his metal flagon. “I spend every waking moment worrying about them. Worrying I did wrong by them. Worrying I should have done everything differently.”

“Well, again, I’m not a father, but I don’t think it’s rational to overthink every choice you’ve ever made. Time stops for no one, Osryn, and the past is in the past.”

Osryn nodded, holding his beer up in a toast. “I’ll drink to that.” The two clinked their mugs together and Osryn offered him a soft smile, only now managing to loosen up his attitude towards the man. “You know, Urta, you’re right… my past is my past. I need to think more of the future. I still have time to do something… to be something.”

“Be something?” Urta blinked. “You are something. Hell, you’re everything to those kids.”

“They think I’m old, overbearing and mean,” Osryn sighed. “They’re basically grown up, now. They don’t need me anymore.”

“Children will always need their caregivers,” Urta said. “I… don’t remember my parents.”

Osryn debated whether or not he should ask, but decided to press it. “What happened to them?”

Urta swallowed. “I… genuinely don’t remember. I don’t remember a lot about my past, if I’m being honest. It’s kind of a blur.”

Osryn could understand that. He had spent a fair portion of his early twenties engaging in so much substance abuse he hardly remembered a single day. That was something he wouldn’t judge Urta for. He turned the man’s mantra on its head. “Well, you said it: the past is in the past. No use fretting over it, am I right?”

Urta chuckled, taking a rather hearty sip of ale. “You know, I get it. Feeling like no one will remember me if I die. I mean, I don’t really have friends, or a family.”

“What’s your master to you then?” Osryn asked. “Nothing?”

“No…” Urta exhaled sharply, twisting a knot out of his hair, which was actually rather curly when he took it down. “She’s… she’s everything, really.”

Osryn nodded and averted his eyes, taking a sip. He didn’t feel like it was his place to ask what exactly that may have meant. The two men continued drinking and their merriment progressed until, after their final pint, they were both convinced they were good friends now. Hell, they always had been. Osryn had been foolish to ever doubt Urta. They had a lot in common. He was a good and kind man. He was glad he had decided to pay for his room. Urta, it seemed, was penniless. That, or cheap–– but Osryn would never think that of his dear, dear friend.

Osryn and Urta parted ways on their floor, at the doors to their adjacent rooms. Osryn locked the door behind him and immediately breathed out a sigh of relief. He’d had a good time, but he was an introvert at heart–– he was happy to be alone in a room he could call his own, at least for the night. The inn was small and homey, with nothing but a bed, side table and desk in it, with a few wall sconces and two oil lamps. Osryn lit the sconces and one of the lamps, preferring a lower level of light, especially when he was drunk. The porter swirled in his mind and he settled into the chair by the desk, though he had no books or papers to pore over tonight. No, tonight he only held within him thoughts of his children, their journey, and the stranger with whom they traveled. The booze was betraying him now–– was he mad to believe Urta could be a decent person? That perhaps he could be trusted? Adelaide and Sebastian trusted him, but they were young and naive. What did they know about reading people?

Osryn blinked a few times and wiped his eyes. What did he know about it, either? He had always struggled to read social cues, and he hardly understood his own children. His mind ambled on over to Sebastian and a wave of worry crashed over him. He clenched his teeth and exhaled through his nose, trying to steady himself before the alcoholic depression struck him down. He waited for a moment as he floated through the dizzy spell, eventually re-grounding himself in reality.

Rising from his chair, Osryn wandered over to the window and pulled aside the worn curtain. The window sill was deep and coated with a thick layer of dust and cobwebs. Beside the webs lay the still, lifeless body of a stink bug. Osryn was used to those, dead or alive–– like every bug, they were drawn to his children and as such, his house. He stared at the bug for a moment before picking it up, carefully examining the exoskeleton.

Insectera. The children had invented that word, but what did it mean, really? Sebastian said it meant anyone with a link to the world of bugs–– the twins, Urta, all insects themselves. The simple truth is that Osryn would never be able to answer the questions about their identity that were etched into the children’s minds. If anyone could answer them, it would be Urta and his master… and if not, Osryn did not want to think of what could happen.

Osryn was not Insectera. He wasn’t sure he wanted his dear kids to follow an unknown path alongside suspicious mutant strangers, but he could not deny them their legacy. They deserved to know. He had agreed, after all, to go with them towards the only sign there’s been so far of where they may have come from.

Still, Osryn worried and worried, wracked with doubt and contradictory ideas. Even he had lost track of whether or not he trusted Urta, whether or not he thought this was all a trap, whether or not he was a decent father. No answers would come to him. It seemed that even now, when it mattered most, they evaded him. Eventually, Osryn collapsed wearily onto the old bedquilt, teetering on the edge of sleep. He watched the lantern flames flickering on the ceiling and with one spell, one fluid motion of his right hand and fingers through the air, snuffed them all out.

Chapter Fourteen

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Osryn was rudely awakened by the sound of violent bashing on the door to his room.

“Dad! Wake up! The day’s wasting away!”

Groggily, Osryn reached over to his side table for his glasses, but they were not there. Instead, he found them, miraculously undamaged, on the ground next to the bed. He must have fallen asleep with them on and knocked them off sometime during the night. The voice behind the door was Adelaide, and her fists banged away, echoing in Osryn’s unacclimated ears.

“Hold the ruckus, child!” Osryn growled, and the banging ceased. “All hells, must you be so loud?”

“You missed breakfast, father! Hurry up. We’re hitting the road in fifteen minutes.”

Her footsteps began and just as quickly receded. Osryn groaned and pulled himself and his possessions together as quickly as he could manage. When he was ready, he walked downstairs and passed through the tavern hall, where Mariah was wiping down tables.

“Oh, Osryn!” She flagged him down and he stopped, furrowing his brow.

“You mean me?” Osryn asked.

“Well, you’s Osryn, right?” Mariah’s eyes widened. “Maybe I forgot…”

“N- No, I mean. Yes, I am Osryn. I’m just surprised you remembered my name.”

Mariah laughed and rolled her eyes, pulling a card out of her apron pocket and putting it in Osryn’s palm, locking eyes with him and folding his fingers over it. “Take this, hey? Mail me if you need.”

Osryn looked at the card–– it read, ‘Screeching Leech: Innkeep/Barkeep. Antozen. Postal Code 67249’ He blinked, nodded, and wordlessly exited the establishment. He still hadn’t even processed the interaction when Adelaide scoffed at the sight of him.

“About time!” She groaned, grimacing as she looked over her father. “You look horrid. How much did you drink last night?”

“Enough,” Osryn muttered, glancing at Urta, who was irritatingly well put-together and had color in his face. How did he do it? They’d drunk the same amount. Sebastian was giving him that judgy teenager look he so despised and Osryn sighed, adjusting his pack. “Well, shall we get on with it? You’ve complained enough about the wait.”

The road opposite the way they came was much more of the same for some time. They passed low wet areas, higher sparse ones, every once in a while a small pond or stream. Most of these low water bodies were full of moss and algal blooms, and as the temperatures warmed with their proximity to Solelio, the last few mosquitos of the season buzzed around but did not bother them. A few miles down the road, where a dirt path forked off into the woods, Urta stopped and glanced around the area, checking his map and compass. Eventually, he nodded to himself and addressed the travelers.

“West through these woods should get us to Solelio quickly and unbothered. I think it’s best we avoid human contact as much as possible. After all, it’s best if you both are at your peak fighting ability. You never know when we may be attacked by more Insectera.”

“Can’t you just sound the alarm?” Osyrn said drily. “Call up your master and tell her to hold off on all the violence?”

Urta shook his head. “As I have said, she does not wish to disclose the details of my mission to the others.”

”Wait,” Sebastian said, “I thought you said the other Urtas were stupid or something? Would they know? Would they care?”

“Well… for the most part, no. The drone-line fighters we see in the field tend to skew lower in intelligence, but there are others closer to my levels of speech ability and intellect. It varies. Some are also more obedient to my master than others… I believe she seeks to prevent an insurgence.”

“Trouble in the ranks?”

“Something like that.”

The twins shed their disguises and Sebastian blinked repeatedly, rubbing his eyes. It had been a while since he’d last seen daylight, even the dim, grey daylight of Mistlorn Valley, and Adelaide stretched her four arms freely, tossing her staff between the two lateral pairs. Both children seemed far more energetic than Osryn was.

Urta led the way again, and as they followed him through the woods past more boglands, the swamps slowly became smaller and smaller until there were none around at all. They were coming around the north side of Mount Astella now, and the climate was changing rapidly. The travelers quickly found themselves growing hot under the warming sun and were beginning to shed layers, shoving what they could into their packs and carrying the rest. Even Adelaide’s knit sweater was far too heavy, now. Urta smirked a little as Sebastian pulled at his collar and attempted to air out the sweat from beneath his shirt. He gestured to a stone bridge in front of them, crossing a small stream. It had a carved wooden sign that said, in an impressive script, “Entering Sole Valley.”

“We’re coming to the end of Mistlorn Valley, friends… can you believe it?”

“Hardly…” Adelaide gazed around her. Where the woods had been interspersed with swampland and rocky gulleys, by now it had been mostly replaced with grassy pastures, trees and bushes, and bright light filtered through the leaves. Neither of the twins had ever seen sunlight so bright and unhindered by clouds–– even on the brightest July days. Osryn too was rather taken aback by the light levels; he had lived in Lunora his entire life, and had rarely, if ever, traveled out of Mistlorn Valley. He thought he could recall a time where Daniela took him camping on the sunny side of the range, but that was all.

They continued along the same path for quite some time. As they traveled, with the increasing diversity of plant life, the insect activity increased until all they could hear was a buzz all around them. Warmer temperatures meant more insects, after all, and it was starting to feel like summer in the middle of November. Osryn could hardly believe it, but summers were even hotter around Solelio.

Suddenly, there was a flurry of rustling in the underbrush. A familiar clicking and hissing could be heard from in the lush woodlands. Everyone readied their weapons. The enemies were not being particularly stealthy.

“About time some more of you came around,” Sebastian was able to lock eyes with an enemy Urta beyond a nearby bush. It had more eyes than Sebastian did–– two compound ones where insect eyes normally are, and a spray of simple ones across the front of its face. Before anyone could get another pre-battle quip out, the Urtas leapt out of the brush. Immediately, one attempted to pierce through Adelaide, but she deflected it with her staff. There was no mist hanging on the air anymore to assist with her levitation staff, so she stuck to handling the staff with her arms to conserve energy.

The Urta Sebastian had taunted with his eyes had lurched at him, but Sebastian side-stepped. He held off on attacking, instead letting the Urta keep trying to land a blow and dodging every one. The creature became frustrated and its antennae twitched. Sebastian dodged one last attack before harnessing his electric energy and shooting a thin bolt directly into the Urta’s eye. It collapsed backwards but was not defeated, but Sebastian wasn’t done. He aimed similar small lightning attacks at each of the mutant’s many eyes. It stopped moving after Sebastian shot the third of its eyes, but he didn’t stop until every eye was blasted through.

Osryn had been watching this out of the corner of his eye while sparring with an Urta of his own, which was proving to be rather resistant to plasma due to its waxy exoskeleton. Eventually, though, Osryn was able to penetrate its flesh through a crack under one of its three wings. Osryn was particularly struck in that moment by just how strange the Urtas all looked. Not only did they exhibit features natural to insects in the wild, but odd deformities as well. Excess eyes and appendages, warped or malformed heads or exoskeletons. It was a good thing he still didn’t quite trust the Urta that had made himself their guide, because he didn’t hesitate at all to deal the final blow to the Urta that stood before him now. It fell to the ground dead and moments later, as Osryn caught his breath, Adelaide took down hers and Urta ended another.

In total, it appeared there had only been four enemy Urtas. Osryn was surprised that Urta had been willing to kill them, knowing what he now knew, based on talk of insurgence, Osryn gathered it was not all fun and games between them all. Perhaps this was indication of Urta’s trustworthiness–– perhaps it was an elaborate ruse. Sebastian kicked the corpse of the Urta he had blinded to death and smirked. When he turned his head and noticed his father staring at him, his smirk faded into a grimace. He drily asked, “What? The thing deserved it…”

“It’s a little overkill, don’t you think?” Osryn ventured.

Sebastian pretended to think it over. “Hmm… No.”

Adelaide and Urta walked over from where they had felled their enemies and glanced at the corpse Sebastian had left. Adelaide wrinkled her face up.

“Ew, Sebastian. Again, really? With the eyes?”

Shrugging, Sebastian, tapped his fingers on his wand. “It’s symbolic. Blinding the eyes that let me see.”

Osryn narrowed his eyes, not exactly following the teenage metaphor, but it was Urta’s nonchalant reaction that was truly baffling him. He adjusted his glasses and itched absently at his beard.

“Urta, tell me… doesn’t it tear you apart to murder your own bretheren?” Osryn asked. “I mean, how do you live with yourself?”

Urta kept staring at the dead Urta for some time, then sighed, turning his head towards Osryn. Osryn was startled by just how deadpan he seemed.

“I don’t lose sleep over killing them,” Urta said. “They’ve never really been my brothers.”

Osryn sighed, not wanting to push the issue further, though he was overflowing with curiosities. Who was this master of his? What, truly, was the difference between Urta and ‘the Urtas.’ He supposed it didn’t matter really. After all, when he said it out loud, they sounded the same.

It seemed as if Urta had read Osryn’s mind when he said, “Urta is more of a rank, than a name… Urta is the name we were all given. It is not an indication of anything other than loyalty.”

“To your master,” Osryn assumed.

“Yes.” Urta stayed silent for another moment. “To be Urta is to be loyal. It does not mean anything else… I gain nothing by being Urta, I lose nothing by killing Urta.”

“If you gain nothing out of being Urta,” Osryn muttered, somewhat confused, “then why don’t you have us call you something else?”

Urta’s eyes flashed, like he’d never even considered the notion. He was quiet for some time before responding.

“There is nothing else.”

They continued on for quite some time, Osryn mulling over it all. He didn’t want to distrust Urta as much as he did, he just cared deeply about his children. . The forest was filled with the sound of buzzing insect life, and Osryn did not notice the rustling of leaves as someone trailed along behind them. Sebastian picked up on it just in time to whirl around and yell, “Who goes there?”

It was too late. A gunshot rang out right as his words did, and before anyone could even process the fact they had been shot at, Adelaide was screaming out in pain and clutching at her shoulder. Sebastian’s attention was immediately on her and he rushed to her side, murmuring panicked reassurances as she gasped and cried. He let her lean against him and pulled her quickly behind a tree, where he hurried to channel his healing magic into her. Osryn and Urta were on the defensive, weapons raised and pointed in the direction the shot had come from. Though, Osryn supposed, to a stranger unfamiliar with his sorcery, he might appear unarmed.

It seemed as though they were in a standoff with a disheveled old man wearing a hunting cap. His face was scrunched up in disgust from behind the barrel of his rifle, which was pointed directly at Urta. “Drop your weapon, boy. I don’ wanna have to kill ya if I don’ have to.”

“Nice try, but that’s not going to happen,” Urta said simply, cocking the handgun. “You shot a companion of mine.”

“What is your damage?” Osryn growled, not quite as eager to keep calm in the face of an attack against his daughter. “We are merely travelers, passing through.”

“You blind, man?” The man with the gun asked incredulously. “Your lil’ companion ain’t human… the other one too. I saw them eyes...”

“They’re with us,” Urta said, maintaining a steady gaze on the man. “If that is a problem for you, I suggest you keep moving and leave us be.”

The man only laughed at that. “Like I said, I don’ wanna hurt you. You’re probably nice folk and all that… but we don’ tolerate the likes of that around here.”

Osryn bit his tongue. He wanted to tell this man that that which he referred to was in fact his daughter, and to shove his head somewhere unpleasant, but he knew that would only compromise them even more. He cast a panicked glance at Adelaide, who was resting her head on the tree as Sebastian worked at healing her. It did seem, based on her expression, that she was not in any grave danger.

It was Urta who seemed to know better what to say. “Listen, my guy–– I understand you’re afraid, but we are of no threat to you and your people unless you continue to be a threat to us. We are simply trying to pass through.”

“Were those demons just tryna pass through when they climbed my fence and attacked my son?” The man scoffed. “Everybody knows about the things that have been infesting this valley, and the one that took my boy had arms just like that girl of yours… if you can even call it that. Ain’t no provin’ you’re not on their side, I reckon. Now, let me take care of ‘em or I’ll take you out first.”

“I would highly advise against that,” Urta warned, holding his firearm steady.

Osryn was beginning to understand why Urta did not hesitate to kill others of his own kind. Never had Osryn wanted to kill another human being as badly as he did right now. It was dawning on him how narrow of a lens he had been viewing it all from. Urta was not the same as anyone of his species, just as Osryn was not the same as any old human.

“I’m givin’ ya one last warning, folks,” the man yelled, aiming his rifle at Urta’s head. “Leave now and I won’t have to kill ya. Stay and you’re just in my way.”

Urta shrugged. “Guess I’m in your way, then.”

Osryn didn’t think he’d actually shoot, but sure enough a bullet whizzed past Urta’s head, nicking him in the ear. It was a good thing, both for Urta and for Adelaide, that this stranger was not a particularly good shot. Urta doubled over and Osryn readied a quick plasma orb, sending it directly into the rifleman’s leg. The man stumbled to the ground and lost his grip on his gun, which Osryn hastily kicked out of his reach. Osryn readied two larger, stronger plasma orbs in each hand and stood over the man. The stranger, clutching at his leg where a hole had been seared through his trouser leg to reveal seared skin, looked at Osryn and the magical weapon he wielded.

“You!” The man growled through gritted teeth. “You're just as much a monster as the rest of ‘em! You’ll all burn when the solar flares come to scorch the sinners! Just you wait!”

“Oh? Who is burned right now?” Osryn asked calmly, but the man just kept ranting and raving about how they would all pay for wronging him. Osryn ignored him and turned to Urta, who had managed to right himself and was holding a spare shirt to the side of his head in an attempt to stop the bleeding of his nicked ear. Human blood, Osryn noticed–– oh, how he wanted to get a closer look at that transformation crystal of his.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, he barely grazed me. Hurts like a menace, though.” Urta grimaced and walked up to Osryn, still holding his gun in his other hand. “You go check on your daughter, I’ll watch this idiot.”

Osryn nodded his thanks and went to where his children were. Now leaned against the tree and Adelaide’s shoulder, Sebastian had all his eyes closed in recuperation from the intensive healing he’d just performed. Adelaide seemed weary, but her shoulder looked good as new apart from the bloody hole in her blouse. Their blood, Osryn had noticed, was of a thicker viscosity and with darker greenish undertones than pure human blood.

“I’m alright,” Adelaide assured Osryn when she saw him, but there was fear behind her eyes. “That was a close one… but I’m alright.”

Sebastian blinked his eyes open and looked at his father. “It shouldn’t have been a close one.”

“You’re right. We should have been more careful. It was lucky that we didn’t encounter anyone out here before now.”

“We shouldn’t have to need luck just to avoid getting killed.” Sebastian stretched his weary bones and, despite seeming a little off-balance, rose to his feet. He scanned his eyes around the vicinity until they landed on the human. Osryn saw where this was going before it even went there.

“Sebastian, don’t––”

Sebastian ignored him and went straight for the human, kicking him in the injured leg and hissing down at him, “Who are you to call us monsters when you’re the one who tried to kill us? Tell me. Who are you to cast celestial judgment? The sun and moon shine upon us all!”

“You mutants are dangerous!” The man spat, eyes still glinting with rage and hatred, even though he was defeated. “I’d do it again.”

“Yeah?” Sebastian chuckled, shaking his head. “Well, my reputation’s already beyond repair. I may as well live up to it.”

“What are you doing?” Urta gasped as Sebastian let a current of electricity flow between his hands, charging a good shot.

“Taking out the trash.”

“Kid, you’re being crazy.” Urta’s voice wavered.

“We’re all just stardust, you know?” Sebastian said. “Me, you, a bug… why should it matter who lives and who dies?”

“Son, stop that nonsense.” Osryn spoke with authority, but he felt with harrowing truth that he had no control over the situation. “We’ll knock him out and disappear before he can follow us.”

“He shot Adelaide!” Sebastian yelled, wobbling with the strain of channeling his magic when he was still so weak from healing. “I have to kill him.”

“You don’t have to kill anyone!” It was Adelaide who spoke now, having risen from her resting spot to try and talk down her brother. “Sebastian, please. I’m alright. You don’t have to avenge me like that. He shot me, dad shot him. We’re even.”

“Even isn’t good enough.” Sebastian didn’t look at anyone but the man below him. “The world is better off without people like him.”

“Are you stupid?” Adelaide shook her head and put two hands on Sebastian’s shoulder. “Not stooping down to the level of the enemy is like, rule one of moral superiority.”

“Our morals aren’t the same as theirs,” Sebastian insisted, shaking her hand off. “He’s right about one thing; we aren’t human. But he’s the one who’s going to burn––”

“Sebastian! Please!” Adelaide’s voice rose to a pleading tone and it struck Sebastian at once that perhaps this wasn’t just about him and how he felt. With a hesitant glance from side to side at his companions, Sebastian allowed the current pulsing through his fingertips to dissipate. With a huff, Sebastian turned away and crossed his arms. It was obvious he didn’t want to confront the situation, but he couldn’t hide the fact that he was trembling.

The man on the ground started cackling, feeling like he’d won, and Adelaide unceremoniously cracked him in the head with her staff. She winced as he fell to the ground, unconscious.

“Was that too hard?”

Urta shook his head, finally able to engage the safety on his handgun and slide it into his holster. “He’ll be fine. How do you feel, Adelaide? Are you alright to move on?”

Adelaide shrugged, still staring down at the human’s motionless form. “Physically, I’m fine. Sebastian’s magic is powerful… but I’m shaken, if I’m being honest. I never realized just how thoughtlessly cruel people would be to us just for looking different.”

Urta nodded, looking her in the eyes. “It’s an unfortunate reality.

“We should get going if we want to make it to Solelio by sundown,” Osryn said. “Sebastian, I’m proud of you for using restraint.”

Sebastian’s eyes flickered towards Osryn, then away. Osryn scoffed silently. He had thought that compliment was so good, so unprompted. He totally could have scolded him right then, but he chose praise! Shame overtook him, however, when he remembered that parenting was not a game to be won. Urta led the group onwards and Adelaide clung like a small child to the sleeve of Osryn’s shirt. He turned to see her gazing sadly up at him.

“I’m sorry I was always so mean to you, father.” Adelaide said softly. “About keeping us hidden away, I mean… I think I understand why now.”

“That’s alright, darling,” Osryn told her, putting his arm around both her and Sebastian as they walked. “It was never your job to understand. It’s always just been my job to protect you.”

Adelaide leaned her head against her father’s shoulder for a few moments, but Sebastian shook Osryn’s arm away, charging forward and following Urta into the unknown.

Chapter Fifteen

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The forest broke before a short log fence, beyond which lay acres and acres of fertile farmland. In Lunora, November would be the time of year where frost was setting in and crops were dying off, but here in the balmy northern climate, most crops were still producing rather well. Adelaide approached the fence and leaned against it, supporting her weight with her upper arms, as she’d corralled her lower ones back into a cloak after their encounter with the hostile hunter. Besides, they needed to cross the farmland to get to Solelio, and Urta warned that they would need to interact with its owner.

“Farmer Hansklau is… ornery,” Urta had told them as they approached. “It’s best if we just make a brief stop, be respectful, and move along. He’s not the kind of person you want to be friends with.”

Sebastian sidled up to Adelaide and leaned against the fence. It was a windy day and it caught his hair as he exchanged forest cover for the open air of the farmland. Out of the corner of his eye, down rows and rows of cabbage, Sebastian spotted someone. He pointed.

“Is that him?”

Urta squinted and shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand. “Don’t think so. Must be his ward.”

“Ward?”

Urta shrugged, shaking his head slightly as though trying to shake an unpleasant thought. “He works there in exchange for food and housing. It’s pretty common in agricultural communities.”

“So that’s what this is, huh?” Osryn mused, gazing out over the vast windswept fields. “An ‘agricultural community…’”

Urta chuckled. “Yeah, well, it’s not exactly as common in Lunora for people to take to farming. Industry is booming over there.”

The man in the field was busy working and did not see the group of lurking travelers beyond the property line. Impatient, Adelaide pushed her weight up using the fence and lifted herself off the ground. “Well? Are we going to go say hi?”

Urta nodded and climbed over the rather short fence, making sure not to land on any growing crops as he did so. “Careful of the crops, alright? Walk in the aisles.”

“Duh…” Sebastian muttered, though he would not have known that. Hector had tried to instill the idea that nature was cool and good into the minds of Osryn’s children over the years, but Sebastian had not particularly taken to it. Beyond his insect kin, Sebastian didn’t care much for the natural world. A piece of decomposing leaf litter stuck to his shoe as soon as he stepped into the aisle between rows, and he grimaced and wiped it off in the dirt. He flipped his hair out of his face, catching sight of Adelaide’s bemused smirk. “What are you looking at? Let’s go.”

“Your… your eyes, brother…” She told him, gesturing to her forehead. “You might want to cover them up.”

Sebastian gave an exaggerated sigh and pulled his bandana out of his pocket, tying it around his forehead to cover his four upper eyes. “Great, I’m blind now. Happy?”

Adelaide linked her arm with his to guide him. “Sure am.”

The group started walking down the row towards where the unknown person was working. It took a few minutes, as the farmland was rather vast, but they soon got within range of being seen. The person looked up and wiped sweat from his hair, staring with a thick furrowed brow at the approaching group of strangers. Osryn flushed slightly as he realized just how odd they must look–– A group of Lunoran travelers, out of their element in this world, and it showed in their attire and even their movements.

“Who goes there?” The young farm hand crossed his arms, a utility knife in one hand, and addressed the group before they got close. “What brings you city types to our humble farm?”

“We are simply looking for passage.” Urta stopped in his tracks and held out his hands innocently. The rest of the party fumblingly did the same. “May we speak to Kurt?”

The farm hand paused, looking over everyone one by one as though gauging their trustworthiness. Shrugging, he scratched his neck and flicked his work knife back into its closed position and into his pocket. “Do you know him? He’s not super friendly to strangers…”

Urta nodded and the group continued moving until they were within a few meters of the man. “I know him. He’s not super friendly to me, either.”

The farm hand couldn’t help but smirk at that. He seemed to be a teenager, perhaps a little younger than Adelaide and Sebastian, and had a warm, friendly smile with a dimple on the left side and somewhat crooked teeth. He held out a callused, dirt-stained hand for Urta to shake. “I’m Travis. I work here.”

Urta shook it. “Nice to meet you, Travis. I am Urta, and my friends are Osryn, Adelaide and Sebastian.”

Travis nodded along and looked each of them over. Osryn and Sebastian could not hide their discomfort with how, shall we say earthy this stranger was. Had he offered a hand to either of them, it is likely they would have denied the opportunity to touch his dirty flesh. Despite the mess their home constantly seemed to be in, neither father nor son cared to get their hands dirty. Adelaide, however, was taken aback by the handsome stranger. When he looked her over, she blushed visibly and he smiled, nodding in her direction. “Hi, there.”

“H- Hello…” She mumbled, twirling a strand of her hair at hyper-speed. “Your farm is beautiful.”

“Hey, why thank you.” Travis had been collecting cabbages in a large crate, and Adelaide blushed as he crouched down and flexed his toned arm muscles, lifting it without a sweat. “How about you guys come back to the house with me? Kurt’s probably there waiting for us already.”

“How would he already know we’re here?” Osryn questioned.

“He tends to keep an eye on things a little too well…” Travis said as they started walking in the other direction, where a two-story red house was clearly visible in the distance. Sure enough, there was an older man with a bald head, ratty clothes and giant wading boots waiting at the edge of the field near the house. Osryn was unnerved by the man’s evidently hostile posture, legs spread wide and arms crossed. Perhaps they should have taken a different route…

Farmer Kurt called out something Osryn couldn’t hear. Travis, apparently, could hear far better than he could, as he yelled back. “Travelers! They wish to speak with you!”

More unintelligible yelling from Kurt, and Adelaide scoffed, but Osryn still wasn’t able to hear it. A shiver ran down his spine. Had his hearing really gotten so bad over the years? It didn’t matter for long, as within minutes they were within a normal distance from the old farmer–– however, this unnerved Osryn even deeper.

“What are you people doing here?” Kurt asked curtly, arms remaining crossed tightly across his chest. “I do not take kindly to crop thieves.”

Though bald, Kurt Hansklau had a thin greying beard. It made Osryn thankful for his own hair, which was only gray in places, and his hairline had hardly receded. As though subconsciously trying to rub it in, Osryn took his ponytail and flipped it over his shoulder. “My name is Osryn Seld. I am a wizard from the town Lunora. We seek passage to Solelio.”

Kurt narrowed his eyes. “Wizard? Are you some kind of hippy?”

Osryn blinked. “Um. No… I am a wizard. A sorcerer.”

Travis interrupted the conversation before it got into dicier territory. “Uh, Kurt, I don’t think it’s very important what he does for a living. How about I go pick some beets and make up a salad for lunch?”

“It’s not lunchtime yet,” Kurt insisted. Osryn had never seen someone's posture be quite as closed-off and uninviting as Kurt’s somehow managed to be.

“I know…” Travis started nervously, glancing around as though perhaps the right words would fall out of the sky. “I just... I figured these nice people could use a bite to eat. They’ve been traveling, after all. And we have plenty of food.”

Kurt glared at Travis. Travis blinked.

“Okay, well, I’m going to go pick those beets!” Travis announced, and Kurt sighed, relenting.

“Can I come?” Adelaide asked as he started to walk away. “I actually really like beet salad. My auntie Daniela grows really tasty ones–– red ones, yellow ones… I’d love to see how they grow up close.”

Travis seemed a little taken aback by this request, and he had never met someone so passionate about beets, but he smiled and nodded.

“Oh, of course. I’d love to show a foreigner a little bit about life on the farm. Come on… um…” Travis trailed off, blushing as he realized he could not remember her name.

“Adelaide,” she reminded him, smiling and tilting her head. Travis nodded and reached out his hand. She took it and he dragged her off into the field.

Kurt seemed far less amused. Having been conned by Travis into hosting company, he softened slightly. His arms uncrossed and he beckoned Urta and the remaining Selds towards the house.

“Come, come… sit.” Kurt pointed at a few adirondack chairs on the concrete with an awning that served as his front porch, then wandered into the house. Osryn guided Sebastian towards a chair and sat him down, taking a seat in the other one. He took this moment to take a better look at the farm house itself and the surrounding area. Aside from some manual farm tools leaning against the front of the house, to the side there was a large stack of tires and an old dilapidated vehicle, and a tractor. Osryn wasn't surprised. Most people in Lunora could not afford cars anymore, but they were still manufactured for more wealthy individuals. In greater Solelio, farmers were able to apply for certain loans and leases to get their hands on the industrial equipment they needed.

“What does it look like, dad?” Sebastian asked quietly. Osryn hated how sad he got when he was forced to live a lie as a blind human.

“Well, it’s… rustic. That’s for sure.”

Kurt emerged from the house, then, wordlessly handing all three of them a can of extremely light beer. Osryn nodded in thanks, but didn’t take a sip. His stomach churned at the thought, in fact. He was still recovering from yesterday. Urta, however, immediately took a hearty swig.

“So, Mr. Hansklau,” Urta addressed the farmer, who was laying back in a chair rather irritably, like he wished he was just doing this same thing, but alone. “I have heard great things about your farm. I hear you dabble in both organic and conventional farming?”

Kurt scoffed. “I’m a farmer. I farm to make a living. The boy, however, got it in his head that one should ‘respect the land’ and ‘protect the environment.’ Organic crops don’t pay the bills… but after he wouldn’t stop badgering me, I allowed him to sequester some land for his dumb project.”

Unlike Urta, Osryn had less than zero interest in listening to the farmer ramble on about his techniques. He tuned out their conversation and turned his gaze to the field, noticing Adelaide and Travis in a row not too far from the house. Travis was on his knees, yanking massive beets out of the ground and moving his mouth, though Osryn could not hear what he said. Every time Adelaide saw one, she was awestruck by how large the root became under the ground. It was completely foreign to her, and her eyes were lit up with excitement. Osryn smiled. It was nice to see his daughter bonding with another young person.

“So, boy, you’re blind, huh?” Kurt addressed Sebastian, and it brought Osryn’s attention back to his immediate vicinity.

Sebastian hesitated for a second before nodding, unsure how exactly to navigate a conversation based on a lie. “Yeah. It’s a little difficult, but I’m used to it.”

“I’ve heard that blind folks have abnormally good hearing,” Kurt said, and Osryn narrowed his eyes, glancing at Urta. Urta nodded. They both could tell there was a strangely saccharine tone to the way Kurt spoke to Sebastian, a sweetness that was absent when he spoke to either of the adults.

“Yeah, I can hear for miles,” Sebastian said. He rested for a moment with a neutral expression before realizing he should probably smile. This was supposed to be a friendly conversation, after all.

“Amazing…” Kurt nodded repeatedly, eyes still locked on Sebastian. “I imagine you’re not well suited to farm-work… And I don’t just say that because you’re blind.”

“My son is very skilled in the field of linguistics,” Osryn disliked the implication that his son was weak or somehow deficient. Kurt narrowed his eyes. Osryn quickly added, “His godmother translated my entire linguistic collection into braille. Isn’t that amazing?”

“Absolutely. You’re a very talented boy, it seems.” Kurt nodded and smiled at Sebastian, who was blissfully unaware of the attention he was getting. Had he been able to see, he may have been creeped out at the way Kurt kept staring at him, but instead he seemed to be soaking up the praise and reveling in the attention. Osryn, however, felt like something was off, and he didn’t like it one bit.

Urta struck up another random conversation about farming and Osryn turned his attention back to where his daughter and Travis were working. The two were laughing and fooling around, now. Adelaide lost her footing in the narrow aisle between rows and Travis caught her under the arms. Osryn and Adelaide both tensed up when that happened, but it seemed Travis had not felt the existence of her hidden arms. Osryn watched as Adelaide realized this and her nervousness faded back into simple joy and she turned around to smile at her newfound friend… or suitor. Osryn had no way of knowing for sure, but the boy sure seemed to be interested in her. It was a shame, Osryn thought, that she had to hide her true self. The same went for poor blind Sebastian.

“Stop staring, witch,” Kurt snapped suddenly. “Don’t think I can’t see you looking.”

Osryn furrowed his brow and blinked. “I’m sorry? Have I done something wrong?”

“Don’t get any ideas about the boy.”

Everyone went quiet as Osryn and Urta processed the words that seemed to sail over naïve Sebastian’s head. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You know what I mean…” Kurt growled. “He’s mine, you hear? Don’t go getting any ideas.”

It was evident now that there was nothing benign about the way Kurt spoke to Sebastian. Osryn looked to his son, then to the field where his daughter played with the boy Osryn now worried for. What the hell was Kurt doing with this kid? What the hell was he thinking of doing to his own kid? Without hesitation, Osryn rose from his chair and swept Sebastian onto his feet.

“Dad, what are you doing?” Sebastian whined as he was forcefully whisked off the porch and towards the field.

“We’re leaving,” Osryn said, directing his gaze out towards Adelaide and waving. “Laidie! Come back!”

Adelaide exchanged a look with Travis but the two started back towards them. As they did so, Urta rose as well, sensing the tension, and Kurt simply shook his head and leaned back in his chair.

“That’s right, witch, get out,” Kurt hissed, crunching his beer can and tossing it into a nearby wooden box that was chock full of them. He turned on that sickly sweet voice again and addressed Sebastian. “It was nice meeting you, son. If you’re ever in the area again, do come visit.”

Sebastian nodded and smiled. “Will do Mr. Hansklau.”

Urta quickly took Sebastian under his arm and ushered him further away. Osryn looked to Kurt with the harshest of judgment evident in his face. Kurt merely held onto the idea of animosity–– that Osryn was attempting to steal away what was rightfully his.

“Listen here, farm boy,” Osryn growled, summoning a ball of plasma in his hand. Kurt’s eyes went wide. So much for a hippy witch. “If you ever so much as look in my son’s direction again, I will not hesitate to show you what happens to men like you where I come from. I am not like you, and I have no interest in ‘your boy.’ I hope you rot in hell.”

It was clear that the threat had rattled Kurt to the core, as he had receded into himself and taken to nodding passively at every word that came out of Osryn’s mouth. Unsurprising. Osryn knew men like him were always cowards. Adelaide and Travis returned with arms full of beets. Bright-eyed Adelaide innocently asked, “What’s up dad? Why’d you call me?”

“We are leaving immediately,” Osryn said, protectively wrapping his arms around her, but she pushed him away.

“Why?! Travis and I just collected beets for salad––”

Now, young lady, and I will not tolerate your insolence right now.”

Adelaide froze. Her father could be irritable, but this was a different kind of tension. She glanced at Kurt, who had beckoned Travis over to sit on the arm of his chair. Travis did so, confusion evident in his face, and Kurt put a hand on his back. A part of Osryn wanted to whisk this boy away… but even more of him wanted to whisk his own children out of the line of fire of this sick, twisted man.

“W- Well, it’s a shame you have to leave so soon,” Travis said. “Adelaide, do come visit sometime, alright?”

She nodded. “Of course!”

Before anyone could get another word in, Osryn was dragging both of his kids by the arm as far away as possible. Urta followed behind, shaking his head.

“So, where to next?” Osryn grumbled, trying to erase the negative experience from his memory as soon as he and his companions had made it to the opposite side of the large farm.

Urta scratched his neck nervously. “Well, I think we’d best avoid any more human contact until we get to the city. Things are starting to get a bit dicey around here…”

“Through the woods?” Osryn asked, pointing a thumb vaguely northward.

Urta nodded, but pulled his map out anyway to double check. “Yeah, a few miles that way and we should be in Solelio.”

“Ooooh, exciting,” Adelaide cooed, elbowing Sebastian and startling him. “You ready?”

“Ready for this to be over with.” Sebastian mumbled, and without further ado, they stepped into the treeline.

Chapter Sixteen

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It was high noon, and the sun started fading out of the sky. At first, no one paid much mind to it, assuming that clouds were simply covering it. The native Lunorans were more used to a cloudy sky than a sunny one, after all. The darkness was quickening abnormally, however, and it was not long before it resembled early evening. Sebastian stopped first and narrowed his eyes, now uncovered.

“Is it just me or is it weirdly dark right now?”

Adelaide looked around. “You know, you’re right. Is it cloudy?”

Urta shook his head, furrowing his thick brow. “This is far darker than even the cloudiest of days.”

“Let’s keep moving,” Osryn said, still eager to put as much distance between them and the Hansklau farm as he possibly could. “If it’s something to worry about, we’ll know.”

Adelaide nodded, readying her staff in a position apt for fighting. Sebastian was less concerned, rolling his eyes and shoving his hands in his pockets. The four hiked onward and the sky darkened and darkened until stars began to glimmer above. Sebastian stopped a few more times to gaze at them and remark on how strange it was, but Adelaide and Osryn maintained that they should just keep moving–– perhaps they could see what was causing it. It was not long before the sky was dark as midnight and a shimmering belt of billions of stars sprayed out above them in perfect clarity.

Now, there was no ignoring it. No one was free from the spell of the midday night sky. Even the darkest of nights in the remotest of locations had never revealed stars so bright to Osryn, and it was clear the other three were even more blown away.

Sebastian’s wandering eyes were the first to fall away from the sight, landing on yet another strange one. “Wow… that’s… beautiful.”

Sebastian’s words were a soft murmur, but Adelaide heard and turned around, where she saw what he saw and her mouth opened slightly. Osryn and Urta followed suit and soon, they were all entranced by the sight of a mystical woodland pool. It was a small body of water, no more than two meters in diameter, and its water rippled in the soft evening wind. Around it, dozens of fireflies flickered in the moonlight, their glows streaking across the sky and around the pool itself. The trees around were verdant, illuminated by the reflection of moonlight from the pool, with vines covered in blue and white moon flowers dangling down from every one. Tentatively, Osryn approached the pool.

“What… is this place?” He murmured, watching his face ripple in the water’s reflection.

“Some kind of magical clearing?” Adelaide speculated, reaching out to touch one of the vines that dangled around them.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before, have you?” Urta asked Osryn.

“No…” Osryn was slowly becoming more and more entranced with the pool in front of him. The ripples and ridges of his face, the streaks of light as fireflies flew past and around him. The others felt compelled to join him in kneeling over the pool. In that moment, Osryn was there, by the bank of a mysterious pool, and surrounded by his traveling companions.

In the next moment, he was a child.

“Father, why must I read this?” Young Osryn moaned, flipping the book he’d been reading over to examine its cover. “None of this makes sense. It’s boring.”

Joseff Seld was a hard-faced factory foreman who had worked in Lunora his entire life and hardly seen more than pennies for it. He glared at his son from behind thin-rimmed glasses. “It’s the scripture, son. It’s the word prophets discerned from the stars, of the moon and sun.”

Osryn wanted to say, ‘Do you even know how you sound right now?’ but he’d been clobbered in the head enough times to know when rudeness would not benefit him. He pouted and re-read the words on the cover: The Stellar Word. Frankly, to Osryn, the stories of ancient peoples who communed with deities living within celestial bodies were far-fetched and unfounded.

“Fine… but can we at least get ice cream later?”

Joseff had only scoffed and turned the page of his newspaper. “You do not get rewarded for adhering to the scripture. You simply obey the word of the stars.”

Young Osryn now was at the dinner table, seated at the far end of the table from his father. To his sides, his mother and brother stared at him expectantly. His father’s eyes bore into him worst of all, and all Osryn knew to do was shift under the weight of it. Nervously, Osryn blew out the singular candle on the cake his mother had made to celebrate his birthday. No one cheered. No one sang. The formality had been taken care of, and it was time for the heart of the matter.

“You’re fourteen, Osryn,” Joseff told him. “It’s time for you to get a job.”

Osryn sighed. He’d known this was coming, as his father had hinted at it rather heavily. “But father, I don’t want to work. I just started high school and I have so much homework.”

“The education system is a sham, Osryn,” His dear mother, one dim and lifeless Mariana Seld, reminded him. “Your father didn’t finish high school…”

“And look where that got him…” Osryn muttered under his breath. Joseff slammed a fist on the table, shaking the plates and knocking wax from the side of the pewter candelabra onto the dingy tablecloth.

“You are so ungrateful!” Joseff boomed. “I slave away at the factory every day for this family, you know that? I come home and what do I get? Rudeness. Insolence. You are the eldest son, Osryn. When will you realize what that entails?”

Osryn slunk back in his chair. He avoided eye contact with eleven year-old Nygel, who he knew must be eating this up. Nygel kissed up to both of them so often–– he was rarely the one who got in trouble. Not like Osryn. Not like difficult, disobedient, back-talking Osryn.

“I just… I just want to learn…” He said softly and Joseff rolled his eyes, scoffing and sipping his whiskey.

“Oh you’ll learn, alright.” Joseff growled. “You’ll learn when the world kicks you down.” A silence overtook the family until Joseff broke it with a sigh. “But what do I know, right? I’m just your goddamn father...”

A door slammed, and Osryn, eighteen now, was the one slamming it.

“I’m leaving, father!” He yelled up the stairs from the foyer, suitcase in tow. He’d grown his hair down to his shoulders, much to his father’s dismay, and wore a rather nice jacket that he’d managed to afford with money from the job he’d gotten as a market clerk–– money that Joseff had been hoping would go to the family. “I’m leaving, and I’m never coming back.”

“And stay out,” Nygel said snidely from the den where he was scribbling out some sort of letter on a piece of parchment. He didn’t even look up at his brother at the door. “You’ve never liked it here anyway.”

“You’re ridiculous, boy,” Osryn’s father emerged from his room and stomped only to the top of the stairs. He wasn’t going to bother himself coming any closer for this sort of foolishness. “You won’t last one minute on your own at your damned university. You know they don’t even carry The Stellar Word in their library? Blasphemous, if you ask me.”

“Honey…” Mariana started, having emerged from the kitchen, but she didn’t know how to finish. She looked anxious, like she wanted to prevent her dear boy from leaving, but she’d been passive in the matter for too long. The damage had been done–– Osryn no longer felt welcome in that home. He took one last look around the house he grew up in and took a deep breath.

“I’m over it, father. Your words don’t affect me anymore.”

And Osryn was gone.

He arrived, years later again, at university.

“You can’t be serious,” A young Daniela Macron–– no, she was Daniela Cassius, then–– was twirling her long auburn hair around her index finger, gazing up at Osryn from where she reclined on a stone wall outside their biology lab. “You’ll be a laughing stock if you’re wrong. Do you think you can pull it off?”

“Of course,” Osryn told her, flashing the wide toothy smile she’d always loved so much. “I’m not an idiot. I know this has potential. However, I think it’d be better if we both worked on it.”

Daniela blinked, rose to a seated position and hugged her knees. “You want me to work with you on your thesis on the link between genetics and magic?

“I don’t see why not,” Osryn shrugged and rose to stand, walking aimlessly along the wall just to feel it under his bare feet. He whirled around to face Daniela and took in the beauty of her face–– her rounded jawline, her bright green eyes, the little freckles that splattered across her nose. “I like you, and I think you’re amazingly intelligent. So, if it seems interesting to you, I’d gladly take you on as a partner. It’s a four-year undertaking, after all–– I could use the help.”

Daniella nodded excitedly and jumped up as well. The two walked towards each other and met halfway. “Of course I will, Osryn. Interesting? It seems revolutionary!”

Osryn rolled his eyes, deflecting the compliment with a wave of his hand. “Oh, come on… It’s just a simple study. I’ve seen compelling evidence that certain genes are linked to a force unknown… I’d just like to prove it to the world.”

Daniella’s eyes met his and his breath caught briefly in his throat. She was entrancing, and against all odds, it seemed she was equally entranced. He blushed, and she shifted nervously before speaking. “Osryn, I’ve wanted to tell you something for a while now…”

Osryn was speechless for a moment as she took both his hands in hers, but managed to squeak out, “What is it?”

“I… like you.”

“Well, I like you too, Daniela.”

“No, I mean. I really like you. I’d like to go on a date.”

Osryn blinked. “You mean, like… to the cafeteria?”

Daniela rolled her eyes and laughed at him, causing his face to fire up even brighter. “No, stupid. Like a real date. Like, I want to date you.”

Osryn had never heard those words before and they filled him with a newfound sense of vigor. He squeezed her hands and his smile returned. There was nothing he wanted to say to her, and one thing he desperately wanted to do. So there, standing awkwardly on a campus wall, Osryn kissed Daniela for the first time.

The moment did not last long before Osryn was transported forward in time to another, one year later, in the biology lab of their school. Daniela was not talking much as Osryn banged his head over the data he was making an attempt to analyze.

“It just doesn’t make sense, Dee!” Osryn sighed, shoving the papers away from him as if he couldn’t bear to look at them. “What the hell is missing? You have a variable, you solve for x. But what the fuck is x?”

Daniela sighed and walked over to where he was, leaning over him and putting a hand on his shoulder. She kissed the top of his head and wrapped her arms around his chest. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply and clutched at her arm with one of his, holding it to his heart. “I’m just so tired, Daniela. I don’t think I have what it takes after all… there’s just something I don’t know… something I can’t figure out.”

“I ran the numbers too, Osryn. I see what you see–– there’s no answer. It’s impossible. Something is just missing.” She was quiet for a moment before she dared to raise her suggestion. “Perhaps it’s wise to give up, Osryn.”

He pushed her hands away and turned over his shoulder to scowl at her. “You’re telling me to give up after I’ve worked so hard on this? What am I supposed to do my thesis on, hm?”

Daniela sighed and reached down to scratch her elbow. “I don’t know, anything? You’re brilliant, Osryn. You could do so many things… I know it’s compelling to be the first man to discover a missing link, but what if it’s impossible? What if your hypothesis is simply unfounded? Part of science, dear, is knowing when to admit defeat.”

Osryn scoffed and pushed his chair out, standing and pacing around the room, fingers entwined. “Screw that! I’m not wrong, you see?! Perhaps I cannot prove it in a way that is clear to the layman’s eye, but Daniela, do you not see it too?”

“I see it,” Daniela said softly. “But I also see no feasible path to obtaining scientific proof.”

Osryn sighed, stopping in his tracks to lean against the chalkboard, where some old notes from another class were fading away. “I suppose… I just really wanted this. Is that crazy? To have wanted to be known for this? I want my name in a parenthetical citation, stars be damned!”

Daniela supported her weight on the back of the chair Osryn had evacuated. “I don’t think you’re crazy at all, darling. Just dedicated. Passionate. Hard-working.”

“And what does it get me, all those things?” Osryn sighed, slumping down the chalkboard onto the ground and hanging his head low. “Nothing. I have nothing to show for any of those so-called virtues…”

“Nothing?” Daniela scoffed, heading over to where he was slumped and crouching down next to him. She pushed his long black hair out of his face and pressed a tender, lingering kiss to his lips.

Osryn wrapped his arms around her torso and when her lips pulled away from his, blinked at her through wide bespectacled eyes. “Alright… perhaps I may have something.”

“The only thing that matters,” Daniela teased, flicking him in the nose with her index finger. “Don’t you forget that.”

She was crouching in front of him again, less than a year later.

“I know this is far from traditional, but the time I’ve spent with you has been the most amazing time in my life. I love you more than I have ever known how to love.”

Daniela Cassius opened the small wooden box to reveal a sleek black polished steel ring. Osryn’s mouth fell agape.

“Osryn Seld, will you marry me?”

“But Daniela...” Osryn murmured, shaking his head rapidly and narrowing his eyes. “I- I’m leaving the university to study with Cornellius. I’m going to dedicate my life to the study of the abstract!”

“Your plans are abstract, Osryn,” Daniela told him, smiling softly. “A life with me is concrete. I want to be with you, Osryn… do you want to be with me?”

Osryn hesitated. “I do, Daniela, I… I do. But––”

“D- Don’t say it…” Daniela slapped the box shut and stood up, wiping at the first trickles of tears. “You’ve always loved your work more than you loved our relationship. It’s... fine. I was stupid to even dream.”

“Daniela! I- I love you, I don’t want to lose you,” Osryn gasped, grabbing her arm as she tried to abscond. “Please, Dee. Don’t take this to mean I want nothing to do with you.”

Daniela ripped her arm away and looked off into the distance. “It’s not your fault, Osryn. I should have known better. You have goals. You have dreams. I know you’ll do something amazing someday... without me.”

The mirage of memories that had overtaken Osryn was beginning to fade, but as his universe crumbled into fragments and dissolved back into reality, Osryn found himself sitting in the study he’d occupied for years, reading a periodical beside his aging mentor Cornellius. Cornellius was the archetypal paragon of old-man wizardry, with a long white beard, kind, knowing eyes, and a tendency to wear flowing pale robes. That said, he was a man with history, sporting small silver hoop earrings, several other body and face piercings, and the eccentricities caused by years of hallucinogen abuse in his youth. If he wore a summer shirt, a sleeve of ink upon his arm could also be seen. He was a man content in his past, present and future–– something Osryn had never learned to imitate.

“Cornellius, sir, how long do I have to wait?”

Cornellius furrowed his eyebrows. “What do you mean, son?”

“How long until I learn something that can change the world?”

Chuckling heartily, Cornellius slapped Osryn a few times lightly on the back, jolting him slightly. “Only time will tell, sonny. Only time will tell.”

The last remaining fragments of his late mentor’s face shattered and Osryn found himself slumped over the bank of the mystical pool, head lolling over the edge. Groggily, he attempted to lift himself up, finding that his ponytail had fallen into the water. His head was swirling, but at least he knew where––and for that matter, when––he was now.

“What… was that?” The voice was Sebastian’s, and Osryn turned to see him rising from an equally collapsed position.

“The past, I think…” Adelaide said, rubbing her head and taking a breath as a bout of vertigo hit. “Did everyone see their past?”

“Oh, I saw it alright…” Osryn grumbled, squeezing some of the water out of his thick, coarse hair. “I lived it. Like I needed a reminder that my life has been worthless.”

“Wow, glad I could assist…” Sebastian muttered, but Osryn was too worked up from what he’d seen––no, experienced––to formulate a remark. Osryn made an active effort to avoid thinking about two things: his parents and his failed relationship with Daniela. Evidently, this pool, or whatever had caused such vivid and intense hallucinations, was out to get him. Once, he had big dreams. Tangible ways forward, paths he could have taken that would lead him to where he wanted to be–– where was that, exactly? For Osryn had wanted to be something all his life, yet when asked, he knew not what it was he truly wanted to be. A scholar? A wizard? A father? All of these were words that could describe him, but none of them truly felt like who Osryn was meant to be. What could have happened if he hadn’t made the choices he did?

Well, he wouldn’t have Adelaide and Sebastian.

Managing to tear himself away from his spiraling thoughts, Osryn looked at his children, who were wandering around the edge of the pool and examining their surroundings. Adelaide was pondering deeply–– he could tell by the way she bit her lip. Urta, meanwhile, had not spoken since the vision. Osryn turned his attention to the man at last.

“Urta? Are you alright?”

He was pale, and his eyes were narrow and cast towards the vision of himself in the pool. For a moment, Osryn thought he was still entranced in the hallucination. Soon enough, though, he turned towards Osryn, mouth slightly open and eyes dull. “Uh, yeah… Just a little… shaken.”

“You’re telling me.” Osryn inhaled through his teeth.

Urta didn’t respond, only staring again at his reflection in the water. This concerned Osryn slightly, but not enough for him to say anything further.

“Do you feel the same energy I feel, Sebastian?” Adelaide asked. “Coming from the fireflies, I mean.”

Sebastian paused to sense his surroundings. “Yeah, actually. It’s subtle, but I feel it.”

“I think it’s possible, even likely, that the visions we saw were caused by the abstract energy emitted by the insects,” Adelaid theorized. “The strength of the current seems to wax and wane, like those Levician garnets we studied. They gave off hallucinogenic compounds, right? Maybe this is the same kind of thing.”

Osryn smiled and nodded. “You’re probably right, Adelaide. As always, I’m blown away by your deductive reasoning.”

She didn’t hear him. In fact, they were both ignoring him now, focused on catching and examining a few of the many bugs. Osryn sighed. Were they doing alright? Was it his fault if they weren’t? How was he ever supposed to get through to them if they didn’t listen? He felt like he was running out of time. He wouldn’t be in their life forever. Osryn watched the firebugs flicker through the sky and wondered if all life was as fleeting as their light.

“We gotta get out of here,” Urta stood up suddenly, adjusting his pack and wiping sweat out of his hair. Why was he so sweaty? His eyes were wild and his posture tense. “I hate this place. It’s messing with me. Let’s leave before it happens again.”

“O- Okay,” Osryn wasn’t going to question the man’s logic. He felt rather similarly about the whole ordeal, though it seemed the children were unfazed. Perhaps they were simply too young to have enough life to look back on that would traumatize them. Perhaps Osryn could thank himself for that… or was it a good thing? He didn’t know. He shook the thought out of his head and they all followed Urta into the forest.

The artificial night faded soon enough, and before long they found themselves approaching a city.

Chapter Seventeen

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Farmland. Vast stretches of farmland. Neither Osryn nor the children had ever seen such abundance of agriculture. At the height of harvest season, the fields were alive with activity. Tiny silhouettes of people hand-picking crops were scattered throughout the landscape, and the sound of tractors whirring in the distance had replaced the buzz of insects. Osryn stared at the silhouettes of tall buildings in the distance beyond–– Solelio, the shimmering city. Indeed, the city skyline did appear to shimmer with the ripples of heat that came off the ground.

Urta had been notably quiet since they’d left the mysterious pond. What had he seen? Osryn wondered what kind of past a person like him had endured. Evidently, it was too much for him to handle. He’d been nervously ticcing, the side of his jaw shifting every so often when he spoke. Osryn had been onto his suspicious nature from the beginning, but from the way Adelaide was giving him the eye, Osryn suspected she was beginning to realize something was off about him as well. Soon enough, they made it to the city limits, where the twins reluctantly put up their disguises.

“I don’t even get to see the city up close...” Sebastian whined. “It’s not fair. Why can’t I just take my chances? If people try to cross me, they’ll regret it.”

“You won’t be making anyone regret anything,” Osryn grumbled. “Do you even hear yourself talk?”

“It’s so hot under here!” Adelaide complained, flailing her arms around under the cloak which concealed them. “It’s like a hundred degrees.”

“You’ll both be fine, just be patient.”

“Come, come…” Urta beckoned them forward, shifting his jaw again as he did so. “We’re so close to my master’s base. Just… bear with me. Don’t dawdle. I’ll show you the way.”

His tone was harsh and somewhat detached from emotion. Adelaide scoffed under her breath and turned towards Osryn, both of them falling far enough behind as they walked to converse in quiet whispers without Urta hearing.

“Father, I think you’re right.” Adelaide told him, and Osryn’s heart swelled. He loved being right. “Urta’s up to something. He’s been acting strange since the pond.”

“Agreed, Adelaide. We must remain vigilant. Stay sharp.”

“He’s hiding something.”

Sebastian, who had hung back when he caught wind of their whisperings, reminded them: “Everyone is hiding something. Aren’t we?”

That shut them both up. They crossed through the threshold of the city, an entrance marked by a giant arch of granitic gneiss. Immediately, Osryn’s senses were bombarded. They had stepped into the middle of a bustling marketplace; people were rushing around everywhere, some on foot, others on motorized bikes. The scents of various foodstuffs all combined into one savory-sweet sensation that left Osryn’s mouth watering–– they never had eaten lunch, after all. The architecture was tall and rounded, with buildings showing abnormal bumps and bulges in their structure that served to both catch the eye and soften the feel of the entire city. The ground itself shimmered with particles of mica, which formed in abundance on this side of the mountain. People smiled at Osryn as he walked past. One man spoke to Osryn in a foreign tongue––Soleli, most likely––but re-stated his request in Lunoran as soon as he took one look at Osryn’s completely blank expression.

“Dear sir, would you care for a taste of my fresh persimmon wine?”

“Oh, well,” Osryn was already holding a glass before he could even accept. “Don’t mind if I do.”

He sipped the wine and nodded contentedly. He was finally starting to get over his hangover and admittedly, he needed the drink after such a high-stress day of traveling. The merchant who had handed it to him, a short and stout man with unkempt dark hair, smiled eagerly. “You like it, dear sir?”

“Indeed, indeed…” Osryn swished the wine over his tongue like a sommelier. “Wonderful notes.”

“The bottle shall be yours for the low low price of––”

Before he could finish, Osryn was whisked away from the booth by Urta. Osryn was unprepared for the harsh motion and rolled his shoulder irritably as soon as Urta let go of his arm.

“My stars, Urta. Why on earth did you have to be so forceful?”

“Sorry…” Urta mumbled, glancing off in some wayward direction. “It’s just… We’re so close, and it’s very easy to get distracted by the city life.”

It was, and Adelaide and Sebastian were proving it as Adelaide described every sight to her blinded brother in great detail, allowing him to feel textures and taste some of the free samples vendors were offering. Everyone around him offered him a smile and it made Osryn somewhat uncomfortable; compared to the standoffish nature of the average Lunoran, this kind of socialization with strangers was absolutely jarring. Well, he was in a foreign land. In fact, most people didn’t even speak his language.

Urta corralled the Selds eventually and let out an exasperated sigh once the three of them were all in one place. “Okay, now that you’re all ready and listening to me… We’re heading down this road. The house is on the opposite side of town. Please try not to get distracted while we make our way there.”

“A little anxious to get there, are we?” Osryn judged.

“Just doing my job…” Urta sighed, and for whatever reason, Osryn almost pitied him in that moment. Adelaide rolled her eyes, but they all followed Urta through the city. Sebastian had drawn the short stick, as he needed to remain by Adelaide’s side to make his way through the city without bumping into anything, and he could not even admire the lovely architecture and the people that made their way around. Osryn spotted a stray cat or two as well. Adelaide noticed one of them and smiled fondly.

“I miss Flea…” She murmured. “I hope she’s okay.”

“I’m sure Daniela got our message and is taking great care of her.”

Eventually they ended up walking down a rather long and winding road, bordered on both sides by thick tropical plants and without any buildings. At the end of it they came across a secluded mansion, painted dark black and grey. It was a stark contrast to the pale pinks, golds, and beiges of Solelio so far–– almost as if someone had copied a building from Lunora and pasted it into Solelio.

“This is it. The home of Haelstron. Come in.” Urta stepped up the front stairs and put his hand on the doorknob.

Before he could open it, Sebastian stopped in his tracks. “Haelstron? As in Sebastian Haelstron?”

Urta sighed and turned around, crossing his arms. “Yes, what of it?”

“That’s his namesake…” Osryn said softly, still unsure how to process what he was hearing. “Wh- Why are we here? Why have you taken us to Haelstron’s abandoned home?”

“Oh, it’s far from abandoned…” Urta said. “Just come in.”

Osryn narrowed his eyes. It became more obvious than ever now that Urta was hiding something, and they would find out sooner rather than later whether they had made a huge mistake by coming here. Still, Osryn was one of the late Haelstron’s biggest fans–– even now, he and Sebastian could not pass up the opportunity to explore the home he’d once lived in.

Sebastian was already standing in the foyer when Osryn entered, having removed his bandana and started gazing around at the large den. It was full of dark wood furniture and strewn with artifacts. In fact, it was just about as messy as Osryn’s house usually was, but some furniture was overturned and everything was coated in a thick coat of dust.

“So… this is where they found him?” Sebastian asked.

Osryn nodded. “Upstairs. Just dead. Leaving an entire legacy behind him.”

“So you’re familiar with him, huh?” Urta asked, but he wasn’t looking at anyone. He simply stared into the glass of a china cabinet full of expensive obsidian dishware and picked at his fingernails. “Interesting…”

Osryn followed Sebastian into the library, Adelaide by his side. The room was rather large, with gothic-style interior design and shelves too tall for any of them to reach. Sebastian traced his finger along the spines of shelf after shelf. Adelaide lifted a glass dip pen and a bottle of mysterious shimmering liquid off the desk in the middle of the room, admiring the craftsmanship of the pen and shifting the liquid around.

“Dad, look!” Sebastian pulled a book off the shelf and blew the dust off, shielding his many eyes as it floated into the air. He flipped through the worn and dog-eared pages. “Constructed Language! He wrote notes in the margins! I didn’t know Haelstron was into linguistics like me…”

Osryn had known that, but had never actually made the connection before. “Huh… You’re right. That is odd.”

“I wonder why his wand chose me in the first place...” Sebastian mused, pulling it out of his pocket to run his hand along its smooth surface. “I mean, sure, it could just be the name… but why does it feel like more?”

Urta was suddenly at the door to the library. “Wait, what did you say?”

Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “What did you hear?”

Urta’s grey eyes were trained on the obsidian wand in Sebastian’s hands. “Did you say yours is the wand of Haelstron?”

Sebastian crossed his arms, still holding it. “Yeah. Is this a problem for you?”

“No, no…” Urta shook his head and wiped his forehead. “I just… it surprised me, is all. To think, this whole time…”

“Okay, Urta.” Adelaide put down the ink bottle and pointed the end of the glass pen in Urta’s direction. “Enough lying. You’ve been acting strange since the pool with the fireflies. Did something happen? You’d best tell us, lest we come to our own conclusions.”

“It’s not my job, nor within my ability, to tell you all you need to know.” Urta’s face was solemn and he turned back into the hallway. Adelaide gave her family a disbelieving look before rushing out of the room.

“Get back here, you!” She called after him, but it wasn’t until she nearly collided with him as she rounded the corner to the kitchen that she realized he wasn’t even running from her. Urta placed his hand on the doorknob and looked between the Selds as Osryn and Sebastian came to stand behind Adelaide. Osryn put his hands on her shoulders. Sebastian’s arms were crossed, but his tense shoulders betrayed his frayed nerves.

“It’s too late to turn back now, my friends…” Urta said softly, unlocking the door with a small key and swinging it open. Ahead was a descending concrete staircase with shoddily-built stone walls on either side. “All will be revealed. My master awaits.”

Chapter Eighteen

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“Wow, this isn’t suspicious at all,” Sebastian said, following Urta as he descended the stairs. They descended into total darkness and Urta pulled a small hand-lantern from his pack, lighting it with a match. Sebastian turned to Adelaide. “Hey, do you think he’s going to kill us?”

“Shut up,” Osryn said, taking the back of the line and glimpsing back at the open door behind them. He wouldn’t close it. It was better to leave their escape route free and clear if it did turn out they were in mortal danger. He had come prepared to fight, and the events of the day had only proven to Osryn that he would have to.

The group descended in relative silence, only the shuffling of clothing and the tapping of feet on cement could be heard. Sebastian hung back a few feet behind Urta, maybe just to feel like he would have a quicker chance of getting away if it turned out this was all a trap. Then, the staircase, which seemed to have gone down for miles, ended and a long passageway began. They followed it to the end where there was a large metal double door. It was banged up and battered as though someone had tried to break into it before. Urta slid aside the cover to a panel and looked at it for a moment.

“Hold on a moment. I’m not quite used to this.”

Urta pulled his crystal out of his pocket and his molecules began to rearrange back into their Insectera form. Sebastian backed up a little more, shielding Adelaide, but Urta was obviously not hostile even once transformed. Instead, he turned one of his compound eyes towards the panel, which made a soft beep. A loud clanging noise could be heard as the doors slowly slid apart, a blinding light shining through the crack. Urta transformed back to his human form.

“Why bother doing that?” Osryn asked. “This is the end of our journey, no?”

Urta shrugged and slid through the door just as soon as it was open enough for him to fit. “I’ve grown fond of this form in my time occupying it. Might as well do so as long as I can.”

Osryn and his children all hesitated. He put his hands on both their shoulders.

“Stay strong, alright? We can handle anything they throw at us.”

“I’m ready!” Adelaide said, lifting her staff.

Sebastian smiled. “Let’s kick some ass.”

Osryn crossed the threshold first, letting his children take the back in case there was danger immediately ahead. The first room they entered was small and bright, with fluorescent lights illuminating walls covered with drawings, notes, and diagrams. Rusty lab tables on either side housed ancient implements and assorted pieces of technology Osryn didn’t recognize at all. The place was so anachronistic, even for Solelio, which had experienced a boom of technological advancement over the last few years.

The fluorescent lighting that illuminated the whole lab was common enough for the area, but the strange devices they spotted throughout were something different altogether. Though the room seemed like it had once been a functional laboratory, it showed the wear of time. From the looks of it, the facility had not been used since Haelstron’s death. They soon emerged into a larger room, one with high ceilings and an expansive open design, but before he could examine any of the laboratory’s qualities, Osryn froze when he saw what lay ahead.

The creature was massive. At first glance, Osryn would have called it Insectera, except that it was monolithically large compared to any Urta or wild insect they had encountered thus far. It had the abdomen of a large beetle, but off of it came other abdomens with heads, legs, and antennae of their own. At the top of the main beetle-like body was an apical head with a cluster of compound eyes directly in the center. What made the being the most frightening, however, was not its insect-like features, but its human-like features. Where a normal insect's mouth and pincers would be, there were human lips, and where the protruding bodies off its main one had insect limbs, its main torso had two human arms. Osryn stopped in his tracks about ten meters away from the thing.

“Oh my sun and stars…” He murmured, but before he could process anything further he was grabbed from behind by what he immediately recognized as two unfamiliar Urtas. They pinned his arms on either side of him and held him there.

“Unhand me!” Osryn yelled. He glowered in the direction of their own Urta, whose eyes were cast to the floor. “Urta! I knew it! I knew you were scum.”

Urta said nothing, only staring at the scuffed, once-pristine floor below him.

“Hello, children.” A rumbling voice seemed to echo through the vast underground chamber. It boomed, crooned, and clicked all at the same time. “At long last you stand before me.”

Adelaide had attempted to break off and rescue Osryn, but Sebastian had stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. He gave her a knowing look, and she realized that none of the Urtas that served this being––this master––were trying to hold them back the way they had their father. Still, Adelaide was not one to let such an attack against her family go unrecognized.

“You have restrained my father. I do not take that lightly.” Adelaide started in a strong voice, attempting to even remotely mirror the sheer intensity of the enormous creature’s speech. “Tell me: who are you? What do you seek?”

The thing tilted its head up and made a sound halfway between a laugh and a buzz. “You, children, are all I seek. And here you are, now… in my care.”

“Who are you?” Adelaide repeated, but something about its words made her uneasy.

“I know who you are,” Sebastian said, locking his many eyes with her even more numerous ones. “You’re Urta’s master. No… you’re all the Urta’s master.”

“I am Celine.” The first consonant dragged out like a hiss and the sound of her name filled the room. “You are correct. I am indeed the master of those who crawl and writhe and ooze inhuman blood.”

“Why have you brought us here?” Osryn yelled, impatient with the pace of this whole introduction. He fought against the Urtas, but their grip held fast.

Celine directed her eyes towards Osryn, and for the first time he truly comprehended the weight of her power. She was large, likely encumbered by the seemingly independent beings that comprised her flesh, but there was no doubt in Osryn’s mind that she was capable of killing him if she needed to. Osryn would not free himself yet, but his plasma was his way out if things went south. Her lingering gaze sent a shiver down Osryn’s spine.

“You? I have no use for you…” She pointed a long manicured nail at Osryn, an asynchronous sight amongst her many legs and antennae. “It is the children that I seek... or, I suppose, sought, and seek no more.”

“Yeah, we know…” Adelaide clenched a fist and attempted to remain patient with the creature antagonizing them, but she was, at the end of the day, her father’s daughter. “Why? Why did you make us come all this way in the first place?”

“Well, my darling little Urta has always been so good to me…” She cast her eyes towards Urta, who, still in his human form, refused to meet hers. “Isn’t that right, Urta? You know you’re my favorite.”

Osryn’s eye twitched. There was something sickening about the way she spoke to him–– almost akin to the sickly sweet tone Farmer Kurt had taken with Sebastian. Urta, realizing now he had no choice but to acknowledge his master, looked back at her and smiled sheepishly. “Of course, master Celine. I brought them to you, just like I said I would.”

“Know that you will be rewarded for it.” Celine turned her attention back to the twins. Adelaide was holding her staff out, ready for combat at any moment. Sebastian, however, held defenseless posture–– slouched shoulders and hands in his pockets. “You ask why I brought you here, but the answer is the same as why you came.”

Adelaide narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”

Celine’s human lips twisted into a sick smile, revealing that she had teeth as well. “Why did you come here, Adelaide Seld?”

Adelaide shivered, perhaps surprised that the creature knew her name, but why wouldn’t she? She had summoned them here in the first place–– obviously she knew enough. Obviously she knew something they did not.

“I came here to find you,” Adelaide said, finally. “I mean, I didn’t know you were you… but a link. You are the missing link to figuring out where Sebastian and I came from.”

Celine nodded, turning the attention of her main head towards Sebastian. “And you, young one?”

Sebastian shrugged, remaining quiet for a moment, but Celine allowed him the time. After a moment of thought, Sebastian sighed. “I wanted to find out where I belong. Somewhere where people are like me.”

“Such smart little ones. In fact, I brought you here to give you just the answers you seek… isn’t that marvelous?” Celine cooed. The beings (perhaps they themselves were Urtas?) that protruded from every side of her body pulsed as one, shifting around their limbs and heads whenever Celine did. Osryn noticed, or perhaps he was crazy, that some of them exhibited the same jaw-twitch and face scratch that Urta did when he was under stress. Were these attached Urtas suffering constantly at Celine’s hand? The whole scenario was so disturbing, it perturbed Osryn even to speculate.

“So, you want to know who you are?”

Adelaide nodded rapidly and Sebastian only once. Osryn gritted his teeth.

“Well, put simply, you are one of us,” Celine said, crossing her arms. Sebastian glared and she made that same unnerving laugh-like sound. “Fine, I suppose I owe it to you to explain why...” She pointed at the Urta they’d followed all along. “Urta. Care to do the honors? Your story precedes mine, after all…”

“I…” Urta muttered, rubbing his hands together. “I don’t remember, master. You know that.”

Somehow, even to the humanoids in the room, it was obvious Celine had harshened her gaze. “Urta. Try.”

Urta took a deep breath and nervously addressed the Selds. He was unable to maintain eye contact with any of them for more than a moment. “I– My name is Urta. One day, I woke up here looking like… well, you know what I look like. I have no idea who, if anyone, I was before I woke up here. All I know is the life I’ve lived ever since that day, under Celine… and before her, under Sebastian.”

Sebastian raised his eyebrows. “Sebastian? You mean Haelstron?”

Celine smiled and beckoned him towards her with her hands. Sebastian only blinked, not moving an inch. “Yes, my dear. The man who started it all.”

“You’re telling me Sebastian Haelstron built this place?” Osryn glanced around at the high-tech lab. It must have cost a fortune. “And… created you?”

Urta nodded. “He’s… my father, of sorts. The only one I’ve ever known, at least.”

“Did he create us?” Adelaide asked almost desperately, eyes wild with curiosity. “Celine. Tell me… is Sebastian Haelstron our father?”

Celine shook her head and the Urtas attached to her body did the same. “No, dear. How Sebastian obtained Urta, none of us know, but we do know how he cloned him.”

“Clone?” Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “This is beginning to sound like some science-fiction garbage.”

Celine gestured widely to the room around them, the Urtas on her body, the Urtas gathered around, the Urtas holding back their father. “How else do you explain what your eyes are telling you is true? Come now, Sebastian. Your eyes see everything.”

Adelaide was staring at her shoes. Finally, she lifted her head and addressed Celine. “Who are you? Really? I don’t mean who created you, who cloned you… Who are you… to us?”

“You know, child. I’m your mother.”

Osryn could feel his heart sink through his chest like a bowling ball. It seemed too awful to be true, that the monstrosity before him was somehow the genetic link to his children’s existence. But, there was nothing he could do or say that would make it untrue–– and true he knew it was. As soon as she said it, it began to be clear how exactly his children had come into the world.

“Wh- What are you saying?” Adelaide gasped, glancing at Sebastian, who appeared outwardly unfazed. “If Haelstron created Urta, then he must have created you… and if he created you, he must have created us too, right..? So how…”

“I, unlike Urta, remember exactly who I was the day I arrived here…” Celine started. “I awoke next to the man known as Sebastian Haelstron. He told me he had completed me–– perfected me. He told me I was his greatest creation, that he had been waiting his whole life for me. However, I knew this was not who I truly am. I remembered, you see? I remembered my face. I remembered my body.

“This!” Celine gestured to her writhing massive form, anguish rising in her booming voice. “This is not the body I was born with! This is the thing that man turned me into… and I will never forgive him. That day, when I felt my new body and saw my new face… I ended Sebastian Haelstron once and for all.”

“You killed him?” Adelaide exhaled nervously. “W– Well, I don’t suppose I’d blame you.”

“But, there was something else!” Celine held up one finger dramatically, also raising a plethora of her other insect limbs. The Selds were left speechless. “Something Sebastian had known perfectly well when he turned me into this monster…”

“You were pregnant.”

Celine immediately stared daggers at Sebastian, who had interrupted with a deadpan look on his face. “What? You’re making it so obvious.”

Osryn was having trouble reconciling all the information he was being given. That… that thing in front of him had given birth to his children? The thought sickened him, and for a brief, shameful moment, Osryn felt his love for them become tainted by it.

Celine emitted a strange clicking hiss before continuing her story in her more human-like tongue. “I never did find out who the traitors were… the Urtas who stole the egg sac away. Nor do I know how my offspring ended up in the care of such a bumbling old wizard. What matters is that you’re here now, my children! You are here now. Where you belong.”

“You know nothing of parenthood, you monster!” Osryn spat, unable to hold back his venom at being attacked right where it hurt him the most. He thrashed against the grips of the Urtas, but would not try to free himself. Not yet, though the temptation was greater and greater the more Celine spoke. “How dare you insist your claim to my children? You are a––”

“Just shut up!” Sebastian spat, and Osryn was stunned into silence. “You talk and you talk but you never listen. Did you hear a word she said? She’s our mother. She’s been searching for us. You weren’t even looking when you found us. You just got stuck with us.”

“Sebastian, I––”

“Save it, Osryn.” Sebastian spoke solemnly, turning away from him and looking up at Celine. “Not everything is about you.”

“You’re being awfully cruel, Sebastian,” Adelaide said, banging her staff on the linoleum floor. She gestured towards Celine. “Look in front of you! Don’t you see how it might alarm father to learn she’s our biological mother?”

Sebastian shrugged. “I care not how he feels. He never cares how I feel, after all.”

“You are not bound to anyone, children.” Celine spoke up again. “You are grown now––so mature and powerful. No one can make any decisions for you now, no?”

“No!” Sebastian agreed. “That’s what I’m trying to say! Dad always gets involved, and for what?”

“Dad only informs the decisions I make,” Adelaide said. “He doesn’t force us to do anything.”

Celine looked between the two of them, having hardly given Osryn so much as a glance since they had entered. “You know… you two could always join me. I’m trapped in this room, you see. Had I known before that Sebastian had placed a curse on this room to ensure I would never escape, I would have thought before I acted in rage and murdered him.”

She spoke of her heinous act so calmly it made Osryn shudder. He wanted to tell her she should rot in this room, but Adelaide was already taking it upon herself to fire back.

“I don’t associate with criminals,” Adelaide stated simply, tossing her hair over her shoulder and spinning her staff. “Sorry.”

Everyone, including Urta, who had been silent and kept his gaze averted, turned their eyes to Sebastian. He crossed his arms and looked Celine dead in the many eyes.

“I’m listening. Convince me.”

Osryn and Adelaide looked at Sebastian with shock and disgust. Shaking her head in disbelief, Adelaide said, “You’re listening? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Son, come on. Don’t––”

“Yoo-hoo~!”

A new but familiar voice broke through the tension and a man came wandering into the room, letting the side door he’d entered through close behind him. He was twirling absently at his mustache and scratching his nose when he addressed Celine. “Dearest, I can’t seem to find my log book. Do you know where I may have left it?”

At that moment, he made eye contact with Osryn. He blinked and wiped his glasses as though his eyes were deceiving him. When he realized it truly was who he thought it was being held by the Urtas, a wide, devious grin spread across his face.

“Why, hello, brother. Long time no see.”

“Uncle Nygel?” Adelaide gasped, and Sebastian burst into laughter, which he quickly tried to stifle.

The Urtas who had been holding Osryn immediately let him go upon hearing the word ‘brother,’ slipping away into the crowd of Urtas who were lurking around the edges of the room. Osryn rubbed his arms where he’d been gripped, shuddering at the obvious power his brother also seemed to hold over these creatures.

“Nygel.” Osryn muttered. “I knew you had something to do with this. Never doubted it for a second.”

Nygel glanced apologetically at Celine, who clearly had not been expecting him, and held his hands out feebly towards her. “My love, I’m sorry. I forgot today was the, uh. The day with the children. The day of reckoning? Not sure what you called it, hon, but, I see you’ve met my brother!”

Celine’s eyes flickered back and forth between the brothers, who simply glared at each other for a few moments. She let out a dismayed growling buzz. “You’re an idiot, Nygel. Your log book is in the record room, and your brother was not supposed to know you were here.”

Nygel shrugged and chuckled awkwardly, clasping his hands behind his back. “Ah, well… Next time. Too late for take-backsies, I assume?”

His eyes flickered nervously between Celine and Nygel. It seemed Nygel was caught in a strange grey area between wanting to intimidate Osryn and wanting to please his… lover? Master? Who were they to each other?

Osryn recalled something Nygel had said the last time they had met:

“I am happily taken, unlike someone I know. You wouldn’t even know her. She’s far out of your league.

It all made Osryn’s brain feel like it had been electrocuted.

“So, this is where you’ve been all this time,” Osryn said drily. “I can’t say I’m surprised to see you as some monster’s lackey. Why would I have ever expected more out of you?”

“I’ll have you know that I am not just ‘some monster’s lackey’...” Nygel insisted, crossing his arms. “I’m the most beautiful creature in the world’s… lover. And, shall we say, financial benefactor.”

“So you pay her to have sex with you?” Sebastian asked bluntly. There was a small smile on his lips, even though the attention had been diverted away from him. It was too fun to watch his long lost uncle make a fool out of himself. Nygel blushed.

“W- Well, not exactly, I––”

“Silence, you fool!” Celine cut him off, pressing one of her many palms to her forehead. “Nygel is more loyal to me than even the Urtas. It is with his monetary assistance that I am even able to maintain this place as well as I do…”

“Enough about my bumbling uncle,” Sebastian said, having lowered his voice as deep as it could go. Coming out of the mouth of a teenager it was a little awkward, but he was trying his best to seem intimidating. “Talk to me, Celine. Tell me about this plan of yours.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Celine’s rumbling voice somehow also sounded like a whisper. “Look at me. See what I have become. See the loyal army behind me. First, I will escape this wretched place forever… and then, society will dare not reject me. Men would perish before they crossed me. That is the world I see.”

“So, world domination.” Adelaide scoffed. “Lofty goals for someone so fat they can’t even move.”

Celine’s dark compound eyes blinked. “You think I cannot move?”

Like a writhing mass of zombies emerging from the earth, Celine and all her attached Urtas began slowly advancing upon Adelaide. She gasped and readied her staff, but Celine stopped before actually getting close enough to actually attack.

“I may be slow,” Celine said, “but I am powerful.”

“How do you get out?” Sebastian wanted to know the logistics of this grand plan of hers.

Celine pursed her lips. “Well, I haven’t actually figured that out… I’ve analyzed the curse and it seems as though it’s a little bit complicated. It requires a key, as well as a number of other factors.”

“A key, huh...?” Sebastian said softly, then pulled his wand out of his pocket. “Perhaps this would do it?”

“Sebastian! What in the world do you think you’re doing?” Adelaide attempted to snatch the wand away from her brother, but he was too quick, and he held it in the air out of her reach.

“I’m doing what I want,” Sebastian hissed, pushing her away and pointing the wand at her. Adelaide’s eyes widened, but she was still skeptical that he would actually attack her. “Look, I’ve been thinking for a long time, and I don’t think I’m a part of your little family.”

“What are you talking about, Sebastian?” Osryn opened his arms. “I’m your father!”

“Admit it, you’ve never known what to do with me.” Sebastian’s posture, in return, was closed off. “I’m just a lazy waste of space and you’d have been better off just raising Adelaide on her own.”

“When have I ever said anything like that?” Osryn asked incredulously. “I’ve only wanted what’s best for you both since the day you came to me!”

“Since when are you the authority on what’s best for me?” Sebastian’s cool and collected demeanor shattered and for once, he dared to show genuine emotion. His voice cracked. “My whole life you’ve pushed me and pushed me. You’re pushing me off the edge here!” Adelaide put her two left hands on her brother’s shoulder, but he slapped them away, turning towards her. “You know it’s true. He never cared about me.”

“I– I don’t think he ever didn’t care, I just think… he didn’t know.”

“Could I have been more clear?” Sebastian laughed, flipping his hair out of his face. “I don’t know how I could have made it more clear that I wasn’t like him. I wasn’t going to be his perfect little son.”

Osryn’s heart was open and bleeding, but he persisted. “Son, I… I swear I had no idea you felt this strongly. I– I always thought that I could––”

“You thought, you think, whatever!” Sebastian interrupted. “I don’t believe you thought about anyone but yourself. Tell me, Osryn, when you ask yourself why you’re such a bad father like I know you do at night, do you feel bad for me or for yourself?”

From the sidelines where he’d been watching, Nygel whistled. “Yikes, brother. Looks like your son has a point.”

“You shut up!” Osryn yelled.

“Celine, I’ll join your little nest here,” Sebastian said with confidence. “Nobody can stop me.”

“Sebastian!” Adelaide cried, running in front of him and shaking him by the shoulders. “You’re absolutely mad! You’d really abandon me like that?!”

“I don’t want to abandon you,” Sebastian’s cool, quiet tone had returned. “I want you to join me. Don’t you see, sister? This is our chance to be something. Be remembered.”

“I don’t want to be remembered as someone like her!” Adelaide stood her ground. “I’d die first.”

Sebastian shrugged. “I’m not like you… I never have been. Sorry for thinking you might understand...”

“You’re full of it, you know that?” Adelaide thrust her hands down at her sides as fists. “All my life I’ve cared about you, defended you, listened to your whining. I know you and father don’t always get along, but you’d really throw our family away for this? For her?

“All I’ve ever wanted was for someone to tell me I had something to give!” Sebastian directed his cruel gaze at Osryn, who was genuinely at a loss for words. It felt as though his son had slipped completely from his grip. All those years of trying, years of doubting himself, years of wondering if he was doing wrong by his children. It was true. He had done wrong by Sebastian, because they were standing at this crossroads right now. Just as quickly as he had made eye contact, Sebastian averted it. Those six blue eyes stared directly into Celines, almost as though they spoke a language only Insectera could understand.

For all Osryn knew, they did.

“You, my child, are more powerful than you even know…” Celine cooed, and that lit a fire in those pale blue eyes of his. “You shall guide all of us in our journey to independence. You are our link to the outside world.”

“Sebastian!” Adelaide couldn’t stop tears from rolling down her cheeks. “I’m not just going to let you walk away!”

“Then come with me. Together we are outcasts, and together we will rise above it all. Don’t you want to be able to live your life freely the way you are? To be yourself without fear of death?”

“Not if the cost is other lives!” Adelaide insisted. “You’re my twin, Sebastian… we were born together. I can’t bear to have you leave me like this. Stay. Please.”

Sebastian shook his head, unable to look her in the eyes. He held back the beginnings of tears. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“You bastard!” Adelaide lunged at her brother, who jumped out of the way. “I’ll kill you before I let you leave me!”

Osryn grabbed her by the shoulders before she could leap at Sebastian again. “Wait, Laidie. Let him go. It’s pointless to try and get through to him.”

“We can’t leave him like this!” Adelaide was strong enough to push Osryn away, but her upper hands instead rose up and met his on her shoulders. She was shaking. “We can’t leave him like this…”

Osryn squeezed her tighter, unable to do anything but watch as his son walked up to Celine and stood before her. “We’re not leaving him forever… just for now.”

“What if she kills him?” Adelaide whimpered.

“She needs him,” Osryn said quietly in her ear. “And we just need time.”

“Well, it looks as if your brother has made the correct decision…” Celine addressed Adelaide. “Unfortunately, I can’t just settle for one of you. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you too, girl.”

“Over my dead body.” Osryn readied his plasma energy and stood by Adelaide, who had managed to wipe away her tears and face Celine with a determined scowl.

“That’s the idea!” Celine laughed, then swept her hand over the crowd of Urtas. “Take the girl! The man can die.”

Immediately, Osryn and Adelaide knew they would not be able to stand their ground. The sheer number of Urtas was absolutely overwhelming, and even at their skill level they would not be able to take down that level of power. Adelaide spun her staff in circles, knocking as many opponents as she could to the ground, where Osryn attempted to finish them off with plasma. He shot a desperate glance at Sebastian, who only watched with six glassy eyes. Osryn couldn’t afford to lose focus on the battle, but the look in those eyes cut into Osryn’s core.

How could Osryn judge anyone as a monster, when he himself had created one?

“We can’t take them, father!” Adelaide gasped. “We must find a method of escape!”

“The door behind us locked,” Osryn muttered. “I heard it click.”

“Quick! Over here!”

Osryn’s head spun around and an Urta––no, the Urta––was beckoning them towards the exit. The door had been locked, but Urta had iris scanned it open. Osryn and Adelaide had no time to question Urta’s motives in helping them. They simply bolted for the open door and Urta followed, his atoms shifting back into their human arrangement as he ran.

An unintelligible order was given by Celine and the onslaught of enemy Urtas ceased. The three escapees raced up the staircase and Urta slammed the door, locking it, even though surely it didn’t matter if he did so.

“She’s not going to send them after us.” Urta gasped for breath, leaning against the door. “You’ve already put enough of them down. She’s going to want time to build up more.”

“Build up more?!”

“She still has access to the cloning device, as well as a few of the other machines she has the Urtas maintain. How else do you think they just keep on coming?”

“We need to get out of here,” Adelaide mumbled and Osryn almost didn’t hear her, until she more loudly finished, “or else I’ll kill him myself.”

She stormed out of Haelstron’s ‘abandoned’ residence and immediately let out a soul-ripping scream from deep within her chest, throwing her staff across the gravel driveway and into the weeds. Osryn emerged from the doorway just in time to see her collapse to her knees and hold her head in her hands, sobbing. Osryn’s heart hung heavy, and the reality of what had happened was only just beginning to set in. He’d lost his son, and it was his fault. His daughter was crying without him in the driveway of his dead hero, who he had learned was a sociopathic mad scientist.

Osryn approached Adelaide carefully, crouching beside her but giving her her space. “It’s not your fault, you know. He’d made his mind up long before we got here.”

“I could have been there for him…” Adelaide sobbed. “I could have stopped him.”

“Neither of us could have stopped anything… Adelaide. He’s not gone forever. I know it. I won’t let him be.”

“You’re the reason he even left in the first place!” Adelaide hissed, then dropped her harsh tone and broke into heaving sobs again. “I– I’m sorry… I just… I wish I had known he was feeling that way. I wish I had known.”

“Yeah…” Osryn swallowed and exhaled. “Me too.”

“Thank you, father… for everything.”

Osryn furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

“You stopped me, when I was angry at him. I don’t know what could have happened if you hadn’t…” Adelaide stared blankly into space. “I don’t know what I could have done if you hadn’t told me to stop.”

Osryn pulled her in and wrapped his arm around her. “Dear, you mustn’t think that way. You didn’t do anything. That is what matters.”

Adelaide needed some more time to process alone, so Osryn retreated and found Urta standing by the stairs, looking anxiously in through the open front door.

“Worried they’re following us?” Osryn asked. Urta nodded and scratched his neck.

“Yeah… but I think we’re clear. Thought maybe she would send out a few to push us off the property, but she probably doesn’t even know we’re still here.”

“You made a bold decision, there,” Osryn noted, realizing in that moment the gravity of Urta’s decision to help them. “Didn’t you just betray your master?”

Urta raised his eyebrows and pressed his lips together. He clicked his tongue and looked at the ground. “Yep. If she ever gets her hands on me again, it’s over. It’s the end of the line for ol’ Urta…”

Osryn blinked. “Why would you do it? You brought us all the way here. Why would you change your mind and help us escape?”

Urta looked at Osryn, and for the first time, Osryn saw a young man behind those eyes, not just a weary traveler. Urta was a naïve, unsure of his place in the world, and if what he said about having no memories is true, he must not be all that old intellectually. The human body he inhabited might make him look like he was in his mid-thirties, but to Osryn, he may as well be a child. “I’ve experienced more of the world with you than I ever had locked in that dismal laboratory… I like this human form. It makes me feel… comfortable. I never feel comfortable in my exoskeleton. I’m comfortable like this. Out here. With you guys.”

Osryn had half a mind to tear into him about how much he’d lied and how right his suspicions had been, but Urta just seemed so low and weary. The man had risked his life to save Osryn and Adelaide–– whether or not he’d had bad intentions going in, it could not be disputed that he was on their side now.

“I’m sorry…” Osryn finally decided on the amicable route. He’d had enough fighting for one day. “I was right to have distrusted you, but I was wrong to believe you were against us personally. I underestimated the power of the pull of a cult.”

Urta tilted his head slightly. “Cult?”

Osryn inhaled through his teeth and slapped Urta on the shoulder a couple times. “Let’s save that conversation for another time.”

Since they’d gotten to Solelio, the blazing sun had fallen in the sky and now cast a bright orange glow through the palm trees that lined the driveway. Adelaide eventually managed to get off the ground and without many more words between them, they set off into the sunset. The group which had been four was merely three now, and Sebastian’s absence was felt by all. Everyone was weary and the sky was dark by the time they made it to the edge of town. Urta suggested they camp there, on the outskirts of the vast expanses of farmland, and everyone was too tired to disagree.

No fire burned that balmy evening as they made their camp. The three disheartened travelers simply lay on their backs in the grass for what felt like hours, staring at the starry night sky. Sleep did not come easily, but like death comes eventually for all of us, it came for all of them that night.

Epilogue

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Morning was dreary. Bright and warm, sure, but the weather could not penetrate the gloom. Lunora was known for its fog, and Lunorans were known for their foggy disposition. Adelaide and Osryn were slow to rise and even slower to want to start moving. It was only with Urta’s meek reassurances and guidance that the depressive father and daughter even managed to get moving in the first place. It was hard to want to go back to a place they’d always shared with Sebastian without him. It was hard to want to do anything at all.

The journey back was uneventful. No monsters. No fighting. Just three sad, numb people and the cycles of the moon and sun. In as much time as it had taken them to get to Solelio, they made it back to Lunora. It was sunset again by the time they arrived, and they were surprised to find Daniela, Hector, and Greer Macron sitting on their front steps when they approached.

It looked like Daniela was crying, Hector’s arm around her shoulder. Osryn was happy to see Flea in Greer’s arms. As they all emerged from the forest, Daniela looked up and jumped to her feet.

“Oh my sun and stars, Osryn! You’re alive, oh goodness! You’re alive!”

Before Osryn could get a word in edgewise, Daniela barreled into him, swooping him into the biggest hug. Adelaide and Urta hung back slightly, but Adelaide caught Greer’s eye, noticing that they were glancing around for someone who simply wasn’t there. She approached them.

“Hi Greer,” Adelaide said, wanting to say more, but her words stuck in her throat. Instead, she turned her attention to Flea and gestured that she wanted to hold her. She took her cat into her arms and held her close.

“Hi Adelaide.” Greer said. Adelaide hadn’t seen them in a while, even before their journey. Frankly, Adelaide hardly knew anything about Greer. They had always been closer with Sebastian, and his absence felt like alcohol in a wound.

“Where in blazes have you been?” Daniela cut directly to the chase, her despair having quickly turned to anger. She pulled away from Osryn and looked around, scowling at Urta and addressing the elephants in the room. “Who’s that man? Where’s Sebastian?”

Osryn pursed his lips. “Daniela, you might want to sit down.”

She didn’t, but Hector put his arm around her. Greer pretended they weren’t about to cry. Osryn explained everything. They were the few people in this world he could trust with the truth of the children, and he told them everything that happened. Throughout, Daniela and Hector remained stoic-faced, but tears were running down Greer’s face by the end and they clenched their fists.

“Y- You just left him there with her?” Greer accused the Selds, eyes teary but fierce with betrayal. “How could you? I’ll never see him again because of you people!”

“Why should you care?” Adelaide snapped, only able to hold back tears due to how many she’d shed on their journey. Her sudden emotion startled Flea, who jumped out of her arms and ran back to the house. “You think I wanted this? I tried to save him! Besides, who is he to you? He’s my brother.

Greer wiped away their tears and looked Adelaide dead in the eyes. “He’s my boyfriend.”

Adelaide and Osryn exchanged flabbergasted looks. Urta, who had been lurking in the background this entire time, remained awkwardly silent.

“I… I didn’t know…” Adelaide muttered, looking at the ground.

Daniela’s mouth opened slightly. Hector raised his eyebrows and he pulled Greer into a hug. “Kid… why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“I don’t know. I guess we were nervous? But I mean… That’s not important…” Greer’s voice was low and monotone. They looked towards the sunset and sighed. “He’s gone anyway. Probably forever.”

“Greer, I assure you, we did everything we could to try and keep him here.”

“Ha, you’re one to talk!” Greer rolled their eyes. “You’re the reason he even left in the first place. All he ever wanted was for you to care, and you didn’t, did you? You didn’t.”

Daniela cuffed Greer on the back. “Hey! Don’t be so rude. It’s cruel.”

Osryn frowned― Greer had an edge to them that Osryn had never really noticed beneath their bright, colorful exterior. Had his son really been seeing them romantically behind his back? He had genuinely assumed they only hung out all the time as friends. Osryn didn’t mind at all of course that the two were a couple, but it wounded his heart to think Sebastian didn’t trust him enough to tell him. To find out like this felt like a spear through the heart.

“We had to do it…” Adelaide spoke up for her father. “He was acting crazy. There’s no way we could have gotten through to him…”

“You know… it’s not too late.” Osryn said. “We can save him.”

“And how exactly do you propose we do that?” Daniela asked, crossing her arms. “If your story’s true, you’re no match for an army that large.”

“Maybe not alone, and maybe not with what we have now… but it’s possible, Daniela.” Osryn scratched his beard, which had grown in a little around his goatee over the time they’d been gone. “Adelaide is getting more and more skilled with her magic every day. I can fight. And Daniela, I know you’re talented with a rifle.”

“But, I haven’t hunted in years…” Daniela scratched her neck. “Besides… I’ve never shot somebody before…”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, ma’am,” Urta interjected. “Many of the other Urtas are hardly people at all… Sure, there are some of them with the ability to communicate in human tongues, like myself, but a vast majority of them hardly have a personality anymore… It's tragic, honestly, but the more of them she manages to clone, the more warped and deformed they become. It’s like she’s trying to strip them of whatever autonomy they have left...”

“Aren’t you one of them?” Hector asked, narrowing his eyes and scratching at his neck. “Why should we trust you at all?”

“I no longer associate with Celine and the others. I have never stood for what they stand for, and only now have I been given the opportunity to do something different with my life. I want to help you… and I’m not the only one.” Urta turned to Osryn. “I have connections, you know. Other older Urtas who also dislike the way Celine operates and are not just her mindless slaves. I can get information.”

“It all seems so risky…” Daniela muttered, sighing and rubbing her forehead. “But we can’t just leave him there.”

“We will not be leaving him there,” Osryn raised his voice. “Listen, I know I haven’t been the best father in the world. I know now that I haven’t shown Sebastian enough love and understanding over the years… and I have paid the price. But, I wasn’t there for him then, and that’s how we ended up in this stars-forsaken situation, after all. I would sooner string myself up from an old pine to die than fail him again.”

Adelaide was dabbing at tears as they welled up just slightly. “Dad… are you sure?”

“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I need my son back. I only wish I had learned sooner… but that is life’s cruel game, after all.” He looked at Daniela with a familiar melancholy fondness. “You only understand the truth when it’s too late.”

Daniela smiled and blinked slowly. “I… I’ll help you. You’re right, after all. Sitting here being upset and angry isn’t doing anyone any good.”

“Rage and anger steered my brother wrong…” Adelaide reminded everyone. “We must not give in to such things.”

“You all have power and skills…” Greer said, looking at their nails, which were painted bright pink and orange. “What do I have? Am I just supposed to sit idly by while you all save my boyfriend?”

Osryn directed a serious gaze towards Greer, who stiffened. Then Osryn smiled, clearly joking, and they relaxed, even managing a half-hearted laugh.

“Well, kid, I’m missing a student. There’s no time like the present to learn a thing or two about how to hold your own in combat. Your sister as well, if she’s interested.”

“Where is Anna, by the way?” Adelaide inquired.

“Honestly, I think she’s been a little bit depressed.” Hector admitted, putting his hands in his pockets. “We all have been, but she’s already so much of an introvert, and Adelaide… she’s fond of you. I don’t think she wanted to come all the way out here just to see an empty house again. Little did she know…”

“Well, we’ll have to come visit then, just as soon as we get cleaned up.” Osryn raised an eyebrow at Daniela. “Would you be opposed to some dinner guests?”

Daniela punched him in the shoulder. “Are you kidding? We’ve been waiting all week to have dinner with you guys again. Come over as soon as you’re ready. We’ll head home and put the stove on.”

“Perfect.” Osryn nodded, then looked again at Greer and Adelaide. “Then, once we determine if Anna’s onboard, we can discuss your training.”

Greer’s eyes brightened for the first time since the Selds had returned, and they managed a weak smile. “Thanks Uncle Osryn. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I just… I felt like that’s what Sebastian would have done.”

Osryn chuckled. “You’re right. That’s exactly what he would have done… Well, it’s no matter… if anything it made me feel like he was here. And that… you’re good for him.”

Greer softened, and the kind, bright-hearted individual Osryn knew them as returned. “You really think that?”

“Of course.” Osryn nodded, then gestured towards his house, which was cold and dark. “Come on, Adelaide. Let’s freshen up.”

Flea, sitting at the door staring at them with one big pleading eye, meowed that she wanted some dinner herself.

“We must feed Flea!” Adelaide gasped, making a mad dash for the door and scooping up the cat again, who mewed in protest. “Oh darling, how I’ve missed you!”

The Macrons made their way back downtown to get dinner started and Osryn began walking towards the door. He stopped when he realized Urta still stood nervously in the yard. He turned around and beckoned him inside. “You didn’t think we were just going to leave you out of this all, did you? You’re family now, Urta. Whether you like it or not.”

Urta smiled, shook his head, and ran a hand through his hair, letting it out of its tight top-bun. “If you say so, Osryn. If you say so.”

Osryn smiled back. “Oh, I do.”

The friends and family, new and old, crowded around Daniela’s small dining table that night. Though Sebastian was missing, they all clung to the idea that it was possible to save him, and that no matter how many dinners they had to have without him, there would soon come a day where he would join them again. It was easier to think that than to think that he was out of reach. Osryn believed it, though. He might not know his son as well as he would like to, but he believed that the boy had a good heart deep down, that he would see through evil’s allure eventually. Osryn would fight for him, and it was clear that everyone gathered around this table would fight for him too.

Osryn knew now that the meaning he’d been searching for had been right in front of him all along. His legacy, his future, his chance to do something good― it was in raising his children. He had spent so much time staring into scrolls and books that he’d been blind to the beauty of life that was all around him. The misty forest at dawn. The sound of his son and daughter laughing. The face of his best friend, even the face of her husband. Their children. Even Urta. The abstract ran through all these things, and he knew now that the way to truly understand it was not through writings, not through the wisdom of those who wasted away in studies before him. To understand the abstract is to embrace it fully, and to embrace it fully, Osryn had to live in the moment.

It was possible that Osryn Seld would die tomorrow, or that his son would waste away at the hand of a power-hungry killer queen. It was possible that somewhere down the line, no one would ever remember him, his family, or anything he’d ever published. Only now did Osryn realize that none of that mattered. When he was dust, he was dust. It was as simple as that. So, as long as he still lived and breathed, Osryn would try to find meaning and joy out of whatever was in front of him, and he would stop at nothing until Sebastian could be in front of him again.

Of the people gathered around the Macrons' table that night, each one of them would do whatever it takes.

Insectera Book Two: Matters of the Heart, coming... eventually.

© 2022 Rychard Collins