The moment Ian and Aria reached Gaelan's home, the sun already peaked in the partly cloudy sky. Along the way, feverish shivers sapped Ian’s strength.
“You look terrible...” Aria said. She intended to remain silent, but the words came out anyway.
“Well, thanks,” Ian replied sardonically. Then his tone turned serious as he said, “Haaah... Yeah, I don't feel so great. Definitely need to sleep.”
When they reached the backdoor, Aria opened it for him. Normally, it would have bothered him if he wasn’t the one holding the door, but his weariness prevented him from worrying about such a thing. Inside, he realized his hands were shaking enough to turn the simple act of removing his boots into an unbelievably arduous task. Eventually, Aria helped him remove both his shoes and backpack. Afterward, he left her by the door to do whatever she wanted and beelined into the kitchen toward the antibiotic pills he stored inside a cupboard the medicine cabinet.
When he stumbled through the doorway without paying attention to his surroundings, Bianca jumped at the unexpected intrusion. The last thing she expected while cleaning the dishes from lunch was a person invading her little domain.
A moment later, she realized it was Ian who ran into the kitchen. Confused by the fact that he had already returned from his trip, she stared with furrowed brows. She only figured out what he was doing when he opened the cupboard containing medical salves and strange pills he brought back from his homeland. Then, she looked at the left side of his shirt and ripped pants to see that they were covered in blood. She gasped, drawing Ian's attention.
“Oh, you were here. Sorry if I startled you,” Ian quickly remarked before resuming the hasty act of rummaging through the cabinet searching for the capsule of antibiotics. He could already feel a cold sweat forming on his brow.
“Um... are you okay?” Bianca hesitantly asked while walking over to him. Already aware of the similar magical constitutions between Ian and her father, the blood on his clothes caught her less off guard than others in Conncinnanta.
“Uh, yeah. I think...” Ian distantly replied. “Oh, there it is. Why was it in the back?” He murmured to himself.
“Do you need medical salve?” Bianca asked, calming down since such a thing was a common occurrence.
In response, Ian shook his head and answered, “Thanks, but I got some at Aria’s place.”
“Did you know healing magic doesn’t work on this guy?” Aria asked from the doorway, once more startling Bianca. She really didn’t know what to think about all these surprises today.
“Um, yes, since dad is the same way,” Bianca answered after collecting herself. “I thought you were working today.”
“I was, but then I saw this guy walking into the city with blood pouring out of his hip. Also, what's this about your dad not being able to receive healing?” Aria replied. During the back and forth between the two women, Ian forced down an antibiotic pill.
“Um... actually, I don't really know how to explain it...” Bianca said with downcast eyes. Sure, she knew her dad could not be healed by magic, but she never really thought much of it until Ian came along with the same issue. Were there actually things she did not know about her own Father?
“Hmm… Actually, is that why he took you as an apprentice, Ian?” Aria asked, turning to the man in question who happened to be gagging on his pill.
“Huh? Uh, I guess so. He hasn't totally explained it to me either,” Ian half lied. After all, he had no idea how much of the Dark Matter issue a secret. However, it was true that Gaelan had only given him a vague reason for taking him on as an apprentice, and Ian suspected there might be more to it. Both of the girls looked at him as though they knew he hadn’t spilled the beans, but he just shrugged and said, “I'm going to go to bed now, if you don’t mind.”
“I guess you need the sleep...” Aria muttered, her tone indicating dissatisfaction. On the other hand, Bianca simply watched Ian walk upstairs to his room, which Aria took note of. The two of them remained silent until they heard the click of Ian’s bedroom door shutting. Curious, Aria looked at her friend and asked, “Do you like him?”
“Huh?!” Bianca was definitely more than a little surprised by such a remark. “I... don't know...”
Aria stared at Bianca for a few moments before sighing. “Sorry, nevermind.”
The two of them avoided each others’ gaze due to the awkward atmosphere. Since the two of them had gotten along with each other since they were children, a situation like this was rather unusual. Surprisingly, Bianca broke the silence first.
“Um, I don't know much about him... but he is strange...” Bianca muttered.
“Ian? I would have thought that was obvious,” Aria remarked, smirking. Generally, Bianca was a good judge of character. In fact, her assumptions would nail a person’s attributes so accurately that it was scary. Recalling a few instances, she hesitantly asked, “What exactly do you mean by strange?”
Bianca shifted her weight, grabbed the hem of her skirt with both hands, lowered her sunset purple eyes, and said, “I can't see his mind at all... It's like trying to see a dark object at the bottom of a murky river...”
“Wait, what? See his mind?” Aria asked, taken aback. Although Bianca had always been good at reading people, she never mentioned anything so abstract before.
“I haven't told you that I can see people's minds?” Bianca asked, brows furrowed in confusion. “I thought I told you before...”
“Uh, okay. This is new,” Aria said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Seriously, what is with your family? You’ve apparently got a Unique Gift. Neither Gaelan or Ian can be healed by magic… Weird people just flock around you, don't they?”
“Um... that... includes you too...” Bianca pointed out.
“Oh... right,” Aria muttered. After all, she had Low Charm as an Innate Gift. A smile appeared on her lips as she said, “I suppose we are all just a bunch of strange people, aren't we... haaah...”
In response, Bianca scratched her nose, grinned, and answered, “You sounded like Ian just now.”
“Ah...” Aria went silent for a moment. A moment later, her lips curved into a sly grin and she said, “You didn't have to point that out.”
Then, she stepped toward Bianca in a menacingly playful manner.
Bianca's eyes widened. She knew where this was going. Before she could run away, Aria jumped her and tickled her.
Although Ian was already under his quilt upstairs, he heard Bianca's laughter and screams. He thought it strange, but at the same time, he smiled. It was his first time hearing her laugh. With that thought in his mind, he slowly fell into a deep sleep…
* * * * *
Ian tossed and turned below his bedsheets. They felt like lead, crushing him beneath their weight. Beads of feverish sweat crawled out from every pore on his body. He felt awake, but at the same time, he felt asleep.
Unable to tell if he was dreaming or conscious, he looked around the room. Everything bobbed and waved as though submersed in the ocean. Still, it was the same old bedroom in Gaelan's house.
Deciding it might be a good idea to change his sweat-drenched clothes, he tried to move. He couldn’t. Anxiousness welled up within him. The familiar sensation of inescapable fear clutched his heart.
Although his head was out of sorts, he once again looked around the room. However, he slightly regretted it afterwards, for standing in front of the closed bedroom door was an unfamiliar man. Well, that was not completely true, since he looked exactly like Aella, but taller and broader. The man's short, white-gold hair glowed with pure iridescence. A golden ring circled his sky-blue irises. In contrast to Aella, his jaw was square and perfectly shaved. Not to be shadowed by his facial features, a robe of pure white laced with black and gold embroidery dotted with strange symbols loosely covered his entire body. Somehow, as Ian continued to look at the man, his unease disappeared, although his fever remained.
“Ah, you look so pitiful right now...” the man said, his voice was smooth like a flowing river yet just deep enough to calm even those with the hardest of hearts.
Ian tried to reply, but found that he could not. He could only watch the man slowly glide toward his bedside.
“You are in such a miserable state.” The man said. “It feels so strange... so strange indeed...”
'What is strange?' Ian wondered. In fact, it was pretty much the only thought he could muster.
“I was not going to help you at all, but you will surely die if the toxin spreads. So, I shall help just this once. Remember this: be more careful in the future.”
Suddenly, a bright light enveloped Ian, forcing him to close his eyes. Or were they already closed? He couldn’t tell, not that he cared since a strangely comfortable warmth enveloped his body. For some reason, it even felt nostalgic in a way, though he did not know why.
When the light dissipated, Ian glanced around the room expecting to see the man, but nobody was there. On top of that, he no longer felt feverish. The surroundings distorted and he found himself floating in a dark space of nothingness. For the first time in his short life, he felt at peace. Unable to stay awake, if his current state could even be called ‘awake’, he slipped into a deep slumber he had not experienced in a long time. He dreamed of living a childish life where everything was perfect and nothing was wrong with the world. It was a peaceful and happy dream…
* * * * *
Aella sat on the side of Ian's bed using a damp cloth to wipe away his sweat. A few hours earlier, both she and Gaelan had been astonished to find that Ian had returned ahead of schedule. They ended up even more stymied when they discovered his ridiculously high fever and the gaping wound on his side. The two of them spent most of the day taking turns watching over him but they both ended up staying in the room when the fever reached the point where it could take Ian’s life.
Aria and Bianca stood outside the room peering through the barely open door. It was already dark outside, but Ian had yet to wake. They worried for his safety. If he had been awake, the sentiment would have moved him to tears.
All of a sudden, Ian stopped tossing and turning. His ragged breaths slowed and his unconscious body relaxed. Somehow, the fever instantly disappeared like a shadow fleeing from the light. The occurrence struck them as odd.
“I wonder what happened,” Aella said, face wrinkled with concern.
“It looks like his fever vanished... how strange...” Gaelan muttered, rubbing his beard.
“Um... is he okay now?” Bianca asked sheepishly from the doorway.
“I think so,” Aella answered, though her voice leaked hints of uncertainty.
“...Let’s allow him to rest for now,” Gaelan suggested. “We can check on him again in the morning.”
Although everyone hesitated to leave Ian alone, there was nothing they could actually do to help. That being said, Aella, Aria, and Bianca all nodded at Gaelan's suggestion.
“Aria, you can just stay here tonight if you want,” Gaelan said.
“Okay, I'll do that. Thanks.”
With that, everyone began getting ready for bed. As she usually did when she stayed the night, Aria slept in Bianca's room. Although everyone wanted to sleep, the only one who actually got a good night's rest that night was Ian.
When Ian woke the next morning, he felt surprisingly refreshed. The fever dissipated. His muscles no longer trembled with weakness. The only downside was that the wound on his hip still hurt. On top of that, he felt like he had forgotten something important. Delving deep into his memories, he recalled that there had been another dream, if he could even call it such. Although he had no idea if it had been real or not, he did remember the warning from the unfamiliar man about being more careful.
“Haaah... even if that guy didn’t say anything, I would have been more careful in the future anyway,” Ian thought aloud. “But, man, that guy definitely looked a lot like Aella...”
Deciding there was no use worrying about it now, he shrugged and crawled out of bed. He put on some clean cargo pants and fresh shirt. Of course, he had not been wearing anything besides boxers before.
With that out of the way, he headed downstairs to make some coffee. Until his gash healed, he would probably have to stay in Regnoras, so he began his usual routine. However, said usual routine generally implied that Bianca was awake to make breakfast for him. Contrary to his expectations, she was nowhere to be seen.
“Strange... she is usually down here by now. Dawn has already broken...” Ian muttered to himself. Since she was not downstairs yet, he took the initiative to start a fire in the stove. Although he could not start a fire from nothing, starting one required little effort these days. He could already envision himself flinging balls of fire around despite how far in the future that would actually be.
After setting a pot of water over the fire, he walked over to the sole window in the kitchen which overlooked the Marlow's front lawn. He recalled the events of the previous day with mixed emotions while waiting for the water to boil. In contemplative silence, he watched the morning breeze rustle the branches of a large willow in the front lawn. If he had died in the battle yesterday, his family probably would have never found out. Perhaps the Marlows and Aria would have noticed he was gone, but that was probably it. Honestly, Ian felt that such a measly impression upon the world was rather... sad. If he was going to live, then wouldn't it be better to leave a mark on history? What better way would there be to do that on his current path than to become the greatest blacksmith that ever lived?
“That's a pretty bold undertaking...” Ian muttered to himself.
“What's a pretty bold undertaking?” Gaelan asked.
Ian jumped. The man never made a sound coming downstairs. Whirling around to face his mentor, he exclaimed, “Gah! Don't sneak up on people like that!”
“Yeah, sure,” Gaelan nonchalantly replied, waving him off. He looked Ian over for a moment before saying, “Looks like you are alright.” Compared to the man’s normal calm demeanor, his current expression was far more serious.
“Yep. The gash wasn’t too bad, so I guess I'm fine,” Ian said.
Raising his brow, Gaelan asked, “You do know your fever last night was bad enough that it could have killed you, right? Hobgoblins hunt all sorts of vermin, so it is not unheard of to end up sick or poisoned after being wounded by one.”
“Really?” Ian asked, brows raised in surprise. If that was the case, then he had been through a much closer brush with death than he originally thought. After all, antibiotics would not be able to fend off poisons.
Gaelan smiled more genuinely than ever before and reached around Ian's back to rub the back of his head, pushing it downward in the process. “Well, it's good to see you in one piece, though.”
Although Ian felt slightly uncomfortable due to the unfamiliar physical interaction, he felt surprisingly happy inside. He could not recall the last time someone had done something like this with him.
“So, what were you talking to yourself about just now?” Gaelan asked curiously after releasing his iron grip from his apprentice’s head.
“Ah, that...” Ian muttered. Embarrassed, he rubbed the back of his neck. “Haha, uh... I was thinking that if I am going to live, then I might as well become the greatest blacksmith in history... or something...” Now that he said it out loud, it sounded far-fetched.
“Hoh~ Looks like my apprentice is getting some pretty big dreams in that small head of his,” Gaelan jested with lips curled into a snarky grin.
“Huh. For some reason I feel like punching you. Can't imagine why...” Ian sardonically retorted.
“Hoh~, how about you give it a try!” Gaelan exclaimed, maintaining his snarky grin.
During the back and forth, Ian noticed dark circles under Gaelan's eyes. Curious, Ian changed the subject by asking, “Did you not sleep well last night?”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about it,” Gaelan answered, his grin softening into a friendly smile. “Back to the blacksmith thing, though. If you want to be the best blacksmith, you will eventually have to visit Bolcan, the capital of the Dwarven Kingdom.”
“That's really far away isn't it?” Ian asked, briefly recalling his conversation with Rogar and his fellow peddlers.
“Well, sure it is. That’s still far in the future, though. For now, you still have a lot to learn from me before you can dream of being the best,” Gaelan said. He gazed out the window with a nostalgic expression. It was a similar face to the one he would make whenever he mentioned Dustin Crawford, the former scientist that had stumbled into Regnoras and somehow become his friend.
Suddenly, the sound of water boiling over and sizzling in the flames caught their attention.
“Ah, forgot about that,” Ian said while hurrying over to remove it from the flame. Luckily, he did not have to worry about the heat anymore. High Fire Resistance really was a convenient ability. After grabbing it, he walked over to the french press already prepped with ground coffee beans inside.
While Ian was pouring the boiling water into the carafe, Gaelan jokingly said, “Good job forgetting something was on the fire.”
“This one’s on you,” Ian quickly retorted.
“A bit childish to shift the blame,” Gaelan said with a shrug.
“In that case, I'm not sharing now,” Ian firmly decided out loud.
“Were you going to before?” Gaelan asked. After all, Ian rarely shared his first batch.
“Uh... probably not...”
“That's what I thought,” Gaelan said. For a few moments, silence filled the room, but Gaelan broke it by asking, “So, feel like manning the storefront today rather than helping in the forge?”
“Sure, I can do that,” Ian answered. Obviously, his attention was focused on his coffee, but he knew he could not go anywhere today. Although the fever broke, the gash on his side was still there, meaning travel of any sort was out of the question.
“Alright then,” Gaelan said, nodding slowly. “Now that that's out of the way, let me make you my famous egg sandwich since Bianca probably won't be up any time soon.”
Considering Gaelan's previous attempts at cooking during the last month, Ian grimaced.
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