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1745, 23rd day of the second month of the Cold period. First day of the week.

“Orris,” I greet as I walk into his work area.

“Little lady,” Sir Orris says with a nod and a smile.

“Can I ask you for some advice?” I inquire. I pull out the latest suppressed exalted essence stone I use to compress my natural dantian. It’s on its last charge so if I fail again it’ll be worth much less.

Sir Orris crosses his arms and looks at me.

“I’ve been trying my 65th compression on my natural dantian but each time I try,” I turn my head away in frustration, “I fail by passing out.”

Sir Orris’ harsh voice brings my eyes back to his, “Do you know how dangerous that is, little lady?”

I shake my head.

“It’s a wonder you’re not dead,” Sir Orris informs. He flicks his wrist and the essence stone floats into has hand. “That’s about as much energy as the sun hits all of Westwood with in a second.”

My eyes widen at his comment. That should have turned me into less than dust in an instant. Then my memory tickles my conscious mind, I’ve been meaning to ask him.

“I’ve been training in a body strengthening art,” I admit.

“Oh? That may have saved you,” Sir Orris comments and strokes his beard. He adds, “but even still I’m surprised and glad you’re not dead.”

“It’s called the Demi-Ethereal Art of the Dancer of Death,” I say.

Sir Orris freezes. He shakes his head and cracks a smile, “The heavens do love you, don’t they?”

Sir Orris’ words throw me into emotional turmoil. I look down and remember Julian’s words about my old friends. He lets me cry for a few minutes.

“I’m sorry little lady, I forget how much Vivi meant to you,” Sir Orris remarks, he scratches his chin. “I haven’t been lucky enough in life to find someone so profound.”

“It’s not that,” I clarify as I dry my eyes. “I found out later from Julian that Vivi was just one of the victims,” I spread my arms wide and tears win out again, “In truth it was all of my friends.”

Sir Orris curses in words I do not recognize.

“I am very sorry little lady,” Sir Orris offers. He hands the Exalted Essence Stone back to me and stands. “I meant that your luck is high and in your short time I’ve known you,” he pauses and scratches his chin, “you’ve acquired two high level arts that nations would war over.

“I don’t even know what a demi-ethereal art is!” Sir Orris exclaims with a smile. “I’m going to go talk to Zane. While I copy the arts, he focuses on cataloging the arts and has a better idea of what we have to offer. There just may be something here to help you.”

I nod. I am sad about my friends, but I’ve come to accept their loss. I seem to lose it for no reason. Damn puberty.

While Sir Orris is away, I take out a quill and inkwell of my own with some high-quality scroll stock. I use the energy from the exalted stone to start inking the Divine Art of the Compressed Shell. I pause and look around where I worked for so long. I miss it, but I need to move on.

It’s like Sir Orris said, the placement of the lines is second to the intent on the paper. I draw a simple image of Bola’s face smiling as he would usually do.

I pen the final stroke and a small pulse of energy pushes out from the page. I look to the entrance of Sir Orris’ alcove and remember, the guards are no longer there.

The rats they caught snooping around are no more. I start crying again, the Rubble Rats are no more. I take out another exalted essence stone and draw one image for each of my friends in the manner that I best remember them.

Ian and Vora holding hands, cheek to cheek and looking at me with a curious look. They would play up their mirror twin look every chance they could get. I use a bit of artistic license and force shift the hidden intent down for their green eye.

Ralph being a snooty brat with his nose in the air and his eye a bit open to gauge my reaction. He was ornery but would defend his friends.

Erin and his curiosity. He would pick up everything without fear. I feel it appropriate to draw him holding a snake with eyes and a mouth of wonder.

Loka named for the red moon of Anfang. He would always crack me up by howling at his moon mid-day. He was as afraid of those dogs in the ruins as he was curious. He cried when Vivi said they were all killed by the city guards.

Henry was a slow learner but was quick on his feet. He would irritate Vivi by batting the end of her skirt up and tease her about her color choice for the day. He stopped the first time she got a hold of him.

Nola and Rex were inseparable. They would get into trouble by helping one another onto people’s roofs and explore the ‘up-over’ as they called it.

I stop at Vivi. I hope fate has us meet in the future. I remember my flashbulb moment and go with that. It’s personal but I don’t care. When I get to her eyes, I find I can shift the hidden intent into the amber I miss so much. The sensation the eyes give me cause my session to end in a soft weep.

I collect myself and look around me. I’ve used four entire exalted stones and the partial one I had remaining. I only have one left. I sigh at this and resolve myself to finish my 65th compression on the next attempt.

Sir Orris clears his throat and I look toward him. Zane stands at his side. Both look to be holding back tears.

Sir Orris gestures to the eight scrolls scattered about, and asks “What do you have there?”

“Just working through some things,” I comment.

“Painful things,” Sir Orris corrects. “Feelings can bleed over into intent.” He walks forward and picks up the scroll for Vivi. “This one’s bittersweet. Were you thinking of your friends when you made them?”

I dip my head in agreement.

“What art did you create with them?”

“The Divine Art of the Compressed Shell,” I say.

“A Personal creation?” Sir Orris asks no one. “Review your work before you do anything with them. The emotions you experienced may have improved or deteriorated the art.

“And Anessa?” Sir Orris pauses.

“Yeah?” I wonder.

“Only sell those you can bear to part with.”

Yeah, the one of Vivi isn’t for sell.

I push out my senses and review my work. Henry’s ornery antics in the image degraded the art. Ralph’s snooty nature did too.

Nola and Rex’s had no impact on the art.

Erin’s boldness added the element of fearlessness to the art. Which is odd.

Loka’s added a synergy to Lokar, an additional compression under its moonlight? I think.

Ian and Vora’s vastly improves one’s affinity with wind.

Bola’s costs next to nothing to activate. There’s another trait I can’t quite identify.

Vivi’s… hers is the most changed. I get the impression if I use this art that my full body dantian will no longer shatter if I try the 65th compression, but it would still hurt and I’d still fail. Instead of ten compressions it’s now seventeen. There’s another powerful intent in it I can’t identify.

I explain to Sir Orris and Zane my thoughts, and they listen without a word.

“Let’s see here,” Sir Orris says. He’s doing the same sweep I did and his face goes through a range of emotions. He raises his eyebrow on Erin’s. He shakes his head at Henry’s. His jaw drops on Loka’s and Ian & Vora’s. His face turns grave on Vivi’s, he conjures it into his hand.

“Do not sell this one,” Sir Orris demands.

I hold out my hand, “I wasn’t planning on it.”

I store it in my storage ring once it touches my hand.

“That one has … a ferocity I have never felt.” Sir Orris shakes his head, “It’s orders of magnitude beyond anything I could fathom until now.”

Zane picks up the one for Ralph, “Would you be interested in selling this one?”

I made these for personal reasons, but now that the session is over my connection to the arts, short of Vivi’s, is gone. I accept with a nod.

“I can’t offer you what it’s worth,” Zane confesses, “but I can give you what my son paid for the last Divine art.” He shakes his head, “He’s still in trouble for that purchase, too.”

I tilt my head to the side, “Why?”

“The money was intended for outfitting our military. He only had it because he begged me. He wanted to be useful.” Zane shrugs, “He failed to show that, he’s still being punished.”

Ouch, squandered military funds? He’s lucky Zane is wise and not hot headed.

Zane smiles, “He can’t bed, or marry Mala until they are 21. He’s also forbidden from bedding anyone else, due to a cursed art.”

That’s brutal. He’s 18 now and marriage is legal for him. The age of consent is 14 in Westwood but 16 in Redwood. He still has another three years before he meets the age requirement. Mala has another five years, being his junior.

“Has he learned his lesson?” I ask with a grin.

“Without question. He’s made it his personal mission to move up through the ranks of our military and accepts no pay. He’s a Colonel all the way from a Private.”

I can’t help but laugh at his starting rank. The juvenile part of me finds humor in it considering the kind of roadblock Zane placed on him.

This nets me a glare from Zane and a grin from Sir Orris. I cough and wipe the smile off of my face.

“I accept your offer,” I say. It’s a drop in the bucket against what I owe. They treated me well for many years, so I don’t have a reason to refuse.

“I brought Zane here to request permission to use the…,” Sir Orris redirects the conversation.

Zane smiles, “Grand Art of Channeling, and without question: she can.”

“This art will help you safely perform your next compression,” Sir Orris clues in. “The art will channel the high energies of the art into a very narrow path within your body from outside your body where most of the energy will rest.”

Sir Orris points to his stomach, and adds “Like just above your navel to the seal.” He brandishes a small syringe. “This will numb the pain you experience in that spot, which is safer than numbing your entire body, which is dangerous.”

Wow, he’s thought this through.

Sir Orris and I spend the next two hours on my 65th compression. The danger doubles for the 66th so I hold off for now.

The Vibrant Lotus is happy to buy my unique divine arts. It was just enough to cover all but a few Regal Emeralds of what I owe them.

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Allen Clark Copeland, Jr.

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