The book was quite thick and slowly people around them started to file out one by one. That wasn’t surprising. It’d been late afternoon when Asren had arrived at the library and they must have been reading for at least an hour. Dinner tended to be served around late afternoon for the trainees but for everyone in the keep, it was consistently at the turning point of the night. He imagined that’s where they’d gone. Food in the Keep could be purchased at any time for a higher price, unlike buying into a large meal down at the barracks.
There was also a large selection of different tea, some of which were exorbitantly priced. Maybe sorcerers liked tea? Who knew.
What remained important to Asren was not the food; it was the possibility of the woman leaving to get it. Especially when he hadn’t even thought to ask her name yet. He was deeply vexed by his inability to break the ice in a sort of sense, but it felt like attempting to chat with her would be violating their agreement to read. That would undoubtedly put him in a negative light. Still, he had to find a way to broach some kind of conversation.
In his silent rumination, Asren was a little blindsided when the woman broke the stalemate first, never letting her eyes wander from the book.
“I never caught your name.” She said, letting the words hang in the air for a moment before prematurely turning the page.
“Oh… that slipped my mind. I’m Asren, you?” Asren asked.
“Aria.” She stated curtly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Asren.”
Huh? So she didn’t use her last name. He was sure she had one, what with the family crest and finely tailored clothes that were most likely enchanted in some nature. Asren didn’t know much about Aria, but her quickness to dismiss the question with her first name alone sounded reflexive. While this wasn’t the friendliest environment and he had no idea how long she’d stay here, Asren felt she wasn’t attempting to withhold the information for a lack of trust. He guessed that Aria didn’t like bringing up her family name in general, but asking would be far beyond overstepping the boundaries of what could barely be called an acquaintance.
“Likewise.” Was all he spoke out.
“So then, have you ever seen one?” Aria asked, not alluding to what this one was. Asren could guess, especially from how focused she was on the book. One simply needed to read that title and they’d have their answer as to what she was asking about. Grim as it may have been. Unlike him, she didn’t seem to share the same notion of where their boundaries with each other lie. That or it was a test, albeit an insensitive one, to see how involved Asren was with the subject.
Either way, it was a small show of trust that didn’t bother him much.
“Once, and I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s hard to forget something like that.” Asren said, genuinely shivering at the memory. Aria nodded at his uncomfortable reaction but didn’t seem intent on letting the question end there, nudging him a little to elaborate.
“What was it like?” She asked, appearing somewhat mystified. Asren couldn’t imagine how she found such a horrifying thing appealing but to each their own.
“Just about as terrible as you could imagine, tragic too. One of the men in my village just couldn’t handle the prospect of his wife being infected with the Ashen plague. Damned of the consequences, he chained her to a small basement he constructed. I and my neighbours were none the wiser, all while this man was treating his sick, dying wife like a chained mutt. Refusing to accept that she was sick. He must have watched her slowly lose herself to insanity.” Asren recounted, still disturbed by the howling screeches he so vividly remembered.
“That’s… awful,” Aria admitted, looking somewhat shook by the tale. It was awful so that much was to be expected. “But insanity? That’s not one of the symptoms I remember being recorded in victims before they pass. Visual and verbal hallucinations, sure. But insanity? I’ve… that just doesn’t seem right.”
Asren understood she was trying to tread the line between being sympathetic and still disagreeing with him. If the victim were related to him on a more personal level, that level of wariness might’ve been warranted. The man in question, however, was not someone he’d interacted with a lot, much like most people in Dalath. His plight didn’t bother Asren, nor did he think his actions were in any way justified by something like love. Cruelty was cruelty. The motivation behind an action would never be as crucial as the action itself.
In saying that though, Asren did find Aria’s objection to the insanity claim a little odd. It was pretty much common knowledge among the villagers that insanity was unavoidable and eventually a symptom of the Ashen plague, shortly followed by death. Then undeath, if you could even call it undeath. Thinking about it a little he could actually guess pretty quickly why.
“Tell me, have you ever seen one?” Asren asked, throwing her question back at her.
“No.” She replied.
“Then I assume most of what you’ve heard about them stems from books like these? On reports and medical examinations, along with biographies of powerful healing sorcerers?”
“...I’ve read more than a little literature on the subjects. But yes, that is what it could be summed down to,” she admitted. There was a tad of vexation in her voice, perhaps annoyed he was calling into question her sources. “Your point?”
“You’ve only ever read about it. Something you yourself admitted. There’s no way you could understand the ramifications of a plague this rampant, especially when your understanding and even this book neglects one fact. These people have been infected just barely, in the most minimal amount possible.” he concluded having read enough of the book to denote that, “Hell, some of them are just test subjects to see if curing the ailment is possible.” he paused, “Which is utter nonsense.”
Aria perked up a little at his mention of a cure. She’d seemed a little downtrodden, begrudgingly accepting he could be right. That was now replaced by a look of annoyance. A look of anger. “You think it can’t be cured?”
Her words were icy and without the subtle meekness of someone simply offering their opinion. Aria clearly disagreed. She adamantly disagreed. Something akin to intuition told Asren he’d just planted his foot on a Spellmine.
Ah, shit. Why had he even argued with her in the first place, wasn’t he trying to bring her onto his side? Asren could only conclude that something about her lording around knowledge as if she’d ever experienced the horror of the Ashen plague pissed him off. He seriously wanted to hit himself right now, but it wasn’t the time for it.
“I want it to be cured… I just don’t know how it could be done,” he spoke out, quickly realigning his statement. “To me, it seems absurd that someone could cure something like that. I mean, it just feels like the kind of thing you have to lie down and take. But so was death and magic proved that wrong three centuries ago.”
Aria scoffed, though did her best to conceal it in the next second, flipping the book's page. It opened to a fully drawn out and labelled image of infected lungs. Both pre and post mortem.
“Magic is grand, isn’t it?” she whispered, idly pushing the paper's edge back and forth. Looking deeply lost in thought. For the next few moments, both of them returned to the silence before a small smile made its way back onto Aria’s face. “So Asren, have your studies been going well? The library is a breath of fresh air, especially from my paranoid private instructors.”
“Ah well, I’m quite new and lacking funds to rent any of the magical knowledge this place has to offer. Not that it’d be of much use,” he replied, waving it off with some honest embarrassment.
“Really? I haven’t been here long myself but I’ve talked to some of the sponsored apprentices picked up by either a sorcerer here or by the military and such. Most receive a stream of Ignis consistently or get some freebies from the High Warden.”
“And instead I was told to be ‘resourceful’, that demon woman really had a funny way of wording things.” Asren lamented in response, leaning back on his chair, careful not to fall through the balcony and onto the first floor’s cold ground. He’d rather not go splat yet.
“A shame. You could try the Splinter expeditions, there is one two days from now. That’s where the trainee Paladins gather the majority of their Ignis reserves. It’s not uncommon for many to come to request guidance during the feast, the bolder and older ones even ask for body modifications in advance. Though I’m unsure how wise the latter is.” Aria commented. Her eyes then strayed for a minute, lingering on the back of a deep green-robed sorcerer tall enough to give Dathre a run for his money.
Asren hadn’t seen the man once in the library and for his brief tenure while he and Aria were talking he could tell the man didn’t like to linger. Maybe the two apprentices that were a tad more courageous than their peers, approaching the man only for their proposition to be promptly rejected had something to do with him feeling skittish here.
His bookmate's attention seemed to have been ensnared. Asren couldn’t help but wonder why? As quickly as he could the man snapped the book he wanted up, briefing reading over its contents far too quickly for someone to believable grasp any of what was written, then deposited it back in the bookshelf and skedaddled out.
Aria’s attention reverted back and she looked… disappointed? Maybe she had desired to talk to him as well but knew it was a lost cause.
“A friend of yours?” he asked.
“Heavens no, that was Lord Jaken. He’s a potions master, one that outranks all but the High warden himself in terms of alchemic skill in Lothril,” she explained.
“I imagine one of your study fields is alchemy then?” Asren added, keen to keep the conversation on magic. “Since you seem so invested in his backside.”
He couldn’t tell whether she chuckled at his remark or the grin on his face that had perhaps grown just a bit too wide to be flattering. Either way, Asren saw it as a small win. After a moment she pursed her lips together, before giving a response. “Alchemy, Body modification, Healing. My interest lies in anything with medicinal applications.”
“Averse to conflict are we?”
“Well no but I… you know what never mind. Let's move back to your learning problems, they seem more pressing. I feel indebted to at least give you some pointers at this point if only to make up for your time.”
“Fine by me.”
Asren thanked the Spire in spite of his lacking faith that Aria was anything but impolite. She was almost too gracious, a little too friendly as well. Maybe his interest and experience with the Ashen plague that captivated her attention had left a better impression than he first realised. He acknowledged it could’ve but still felt the need to be wary and polite around Aria. Mainly because the longer he was around her, the more he believed she was actually quite dangerous.
Something about her reminded him of Elizabeth. It was different and somehow the same.
“Show me your telekinesis so I can get an Idea of your Aca control.” She requested, leaning back and waiting with a keen expression. She seemed excited to help, maybe she enjoyed teaching. Not that it mattered considering most of the sentence went over his head past telekinesis; something Asren was sure he would’ve noticed being capable of. “Well? Go on.”
“I can do that?” Asren mumbled, staring at her blankly. He must’ve scowled somewhat getting such a visceral reaction of confusion and befuddlement on her end. His pride went down a peg; half of him was tempted to challenge her to a book fight just to claw some of it back.
Aria let her face fall into her hands, muttering something about the sheer state of elementary education nowadays. Well… this didn’t go nearly as bad as it could have. Asren took solace in the fact that his prospects for magic didn’t seem to be going in the completely wrong direction.
Though he imagined his newfound acquaintance would be far more fed up by the time he was an even passable apprentice, let alone sorcerer.