“You need to focus your breathing.” Aunt Lily said.
For such a bookish lady, she was surprisingly fit. They’d just run two miles together and she was hardly winded, and had jumped right into stretches. This was supposedly the ‘break’ before they ran another two miles back home. All told, it would take them about an hour, but she seemed perfectly at ease in her gray sweatsuit.
It was all part of the spiritual training.
His aunt had been keenly interested in the connection Andy shared with his sister, Dani. But all it seemed to encourage was for her to push him harder on developing his spiritual training. Which, in addition to study, apparently included getting his body in shape as well.
Lily’s Rule #26: a mind can only be as strong as the body it inhabits. Rang through Andy’s thoughts. Though it seemed to potentially be redundant with Lily’s Rule #1: One’s body is one’s mind, and one’s spirit is one’s mind, and one’s body is one with one’s spirit.
Andy’s Rule #1: When one’s mind is at the mercy of the body, both suffer. That seemed accurate enough to be true.
At the very least, Andy’s body would certainly catch up with his mind. He was an active enough kid, but there was a big difference between occasional play and consistent exercise. At the very least, he was doing better on the tests. He tried picturing the Baerex in his head, to feel its strength filling him, but he was too tired.
Andy was even more tired when they got back to his aunt’s cabin. However, she at least allowed a real break and he took a nap with it. He tried to focus his thoughts, practicing his meditation lessons.
Andy’s first thoughts were to his dreams. His dreams were a tangled morass. Andy had hoped he would find Dani again in his dreams, but when she did show up, they were more like memories. They would be running through the woods near their home, and then he would lose her. Or he would dream he was back at home, searching their home again.
Neither of those things were helping him center himself in the moment though.
The easiest thing for Andy to focus on, of late, had been the Baerex. It was supposedly his spiritual animal, a force which lay dormant in him but offered him great power if he could tap into it. Andy tried just picturing a regular bear and imagined what it might be like to be one, but after a few seconds on his hands and knees he simply felt foolish and let it go. He was tired enough that he slipped into his nap with no issues.
Andy woke an hour later with no memory of a dream. He was sore, but at least a little rested. Outside, his aunt was just putting together two glasses of fruit, yogurt, and some leafy green vegetable.
“Ah, good. I was about to wake you.” She said, offering him the smallest of smiles before scraping one of the glasses into a blender and then letting it run for a minute with a bit of milk.
As Andy watched, the various ingredients were blitzed together into a homogenous purple color. There was sort of a strange beauty to it and Andy wondered if he was getting all chopped up in order to blend nicely with this spirit animal they were trying to help him reach.
His aunt gave him his glass when it was finished and he drank it down, slowly. Andy made a bit of a face, it was slightly sweet tasting, but with enough bitterness that it punched through the bits of berry.
“It’s an acquired taste,” his aunt said after a moment, giving him a long look and then patting him on the back.
She sat down at her table and gestured to one of the other seats.
“Did you dream?” She asked before taking another long sip of her own smoothie.
Andy shook his head and had a smaller sip of his own. “If I did, I don’t remember.”
“That’s fine. It will come to you, but spiritual control over ones thoughts precedes any sort of control over dreams.”
“But it sounds like Dani needed to dream to get back to the past. She didn’t seem to have any more spiritual control than me.”
“Yes, about that.” His aunt appeared reflective, “you said they gave her something to drink? Ice cold?”
Andy nodded, waiting for his aunt to elaborate.
“There is a concoction, though the ingredients are rare and it’s expensive to make. It’s only temporary, but I could see how it might elevate your latent powers. I’ll look into it, but we still need to focus on your training. Even if it does manage to get us there–and back, we won’t have enough for you to use those powers to track down your sister and get her back.”
They spent the afternoon meditating and with brief lessons on topics related to spiritual power and channeling that energy into magic.
Andy learned that there were actually three types of practitioners of the spiritual arts. The first, and most common, were the Hama, or Shaman, who were able to incorporate physical aspects of their spirit animal into themselves for a time. There were powers, such as the generation of a soft, glowing light which were universal for all Hama, and then there were powers which were unique to the type of animal from which they shared their connection.
In fact, as Andy learned, most Shama shared connections with animals found on their world: Terra, rather than the creatures of the other world, Althon.
The second type of practitioner were known as the Maba, or Summoners, who were actually able to manifest their spirit animals within the world for periods of time. Some Maba focused exclusively on this, but most Maba had the ability to cast spiritual spells just like the Hama, in addition to their summoning.
“Does that make the Maba stronger than the Hama?” Andy asked.
His aunt pursed her lips and shook her head, “I wouldn’t think of it in such black and white terms, dear. It’s like, hmm…” she seemed to consider her answer for a moment before continuing, “I’m sure you had friends who were naturally athletic, gifted at sports or the like, and other friends who were gifted in class, learning faster than others. Most are probably able to do both just fine, with only a rare few being exceptional in both, but probably a fair number of them are better at one over the other?”
Andy thought about it. Even with his twin, it was easy to argue that Dani was more athletically gifted and he was more studious, but the truth was that they were both able enough with both areas of their lives.
Eddie was probably the smartest kid they knew, and he wasn’t terribly gifted athletically. There was George and Samantha, both of whom were very gifted athletically, but who maybe struggled a bit more with the rest of school. The only person he could think of that was very gifted at both was their friend Taylor. She was easily up at the top of their class with Eddie, Dani, and Andy himself, but she was far more athletic than any of them. Except maybe Dani, Andy supposed, but he thought Taylor likely had the edge there.
Thinking of his friends reminded him of how abruptly he had left. He had called some of them after arriving at his aunt’s cabin and she had let him set up an IM account for when he was on her computer, but the fact was that he couldn’t share much info with them and so his friends had mostly been silent.
Andy hadn’t talked to Taylor at all. He supposed he was afraid of saying the wrong thing. They weren’t close friends to begin with, but he’d always admired her and hoped they could become better friends. Now he wondered if he would ever talk to her again.
“Okay, so some are better and some aren’t. They just have different strengths.” Andy replied, realizing his aunt was staring at him expectantly.
She nodded. “Third are the Pala or the Primals. They are incredibly rare and are almost always exceptional at the spiritual arts and summoning. The difference for them and the others is that they have the ability to transform their physical bodies to take on characteristics of their spirit animals.”
“T-transform?” Andy blinked. It simultaneously sounded like the most awesome idea, and also sounded terrifying. Was transforming painful? Did that mean Andy may have met an animal that was actually a person?
His aunt allowed a small smile, “indeed. And you may have guessed it, but I can confirm that, yes, you and your sister are Pala. As am I.”
Andy’s thoughts had gone to that question, but they immediately leapt to another, “and my mom and… dad?”
“My sister was a Pala, yes. Your father is a Maba.” His aunt seemed to stare off as she answered, perhaps reminiscing about something.
“And their…?” Andy wasn’t even sure if it was appropriate to ask what someone’s spirit animal was.
“You can ask. I maybe wouldn’t ask a stranger, but even common acquaintances will likely notice a certain flavor to your spells. Your mother’s spirit was a Blue Heron, your father is an Elk Buck, and I… am a Gyrfalcon.” She fingered the small bird charm at her wrist.
“I will show you my spirit soon enough when we get to the practical lessons. But, for now, you should really learn and understand where our spiritual connection comes from. It’s a critical aspect of our magic that makes it so different to the other magic in this world.”
Andy remembered when his aunt had managed ‘wand wigglers’ and wondered if there were other types of magic she was referencing but figured it wasn’t prudent to probe that further at the moment.
As it was, she had grown silent and contemplative. Andy realized that even though his parents had never talked much about their family, they likely missed them dearly. And now his mom, his aunt’s sister, had been not just in hiding, but dead for some five years. He didn’t want to think about what it would be like to lose Dani, though that prospect was a far closer reality than it had ever been.
When at last the lessons were done for the day, his aunt suggested he go explore outside some more.
“Other families will be arriving over the next few days. Normally they would only summer here, but a number of them are actually moving here permanently.” She informed him. “The events set in motion are happening sooner than we had planned, but it has been the plan to settle our community here more permanently. It has been since you and your sister were born.”
That thought was still a bit unsettling to Andy, but his aunt hadn’t really spoken any further on it or any of the prophecy which had been told about them. It was another topic that he wasn’t sure how to bring up with her.
Andy had noticed that more and more of the homes were beginning to appear occupied over the past several days. As he wandered past them now, he could actually see bikes outside and even the occasional motor vehicle. A couple of cars, more trucks than anything else. There were also ATWs and other vehicles suited for the natural terrain that surrounded the town and seemed to cut it off from the rest of the world.
There were more pets now as well, and Andy wondered if they were summoned spirit animals. However, the pets seemed to be mostly dogs, some windows had cats in them staring out, and he saw a couple of pigs and a few houses with chickens, but none of the animals seemed exotic or strange.
There were kids playing outside, as before. Most of them were younger, there were a few older kids but they were talking to themselves in groups rather than running around a shrieking. There were some kids that seemed closer to his age, but none of them invited him over and Andy felt a certain apprehension when watching them that made him feel suddenly nervous and wanting to hide. He slipped off into some woods that separated Painter Street from Park Boulevard.
If he crossed the woods heading north, he’d get to Park Boulevard, but Andy struck off to his left instead, heading for the large lake. It only took him a couple of minutes before the trees cleared away and the placid shoreline. The lake always seemed so incredibly calm, its water like a perfect mirror of the landscape around it and the sky above.
Speaking of the sky, Andy looked up at its overcast and cloudy nature and briefly wondered if it would rain. It had rained the day before Dani had gone missing. It was one of those furious, sudden showers that seemed to roar out of nowhere and drive down rain as hard as nails on the roof.
There were no animals on the shore at the moment, but Andy imagined he could see them. Perhaps his mother’s Blue Heron would be just over there, in the shallows searching for fish to spear with its long beak; his father’s Elk Buck would be lapping up water at the shore, his majestic antlers a warning to any would-be predators; and lastly his Aunt Lily’s Gyrfalcon, surveying from above as it prepared to dive on unsuspecting prey.
On the opposite shore he fancied that he saw the mammoth form of his Baerex, beside it the sleek and elegant Wulvex. Not as large, but still nearly as tall as a horse with its horns curved over its shoulders.
“Are you wishing for something?” A voice asked.
Andy whipped around to find a tall, gaunt boy was staring at him. The look that the boy gave him felt… off to Andy, but he wasn’t sure what to say in return.
“I’m Henry.” The boy said simply, then ran his fingers through his ear-length black hair. “Are you, him?”
“Who?” Andy had a sneaking suspicion.
“You know. The boy… twin. The chosen. You have to be.”
“And how is that? What gives it away?” Andy folded his arms, giving a defiant look.
“You’re alone.” The boy pointed out. “The twins were kept out of the community for their protection. That’s why you don’t know anyone.”
“If I’m a twin, then where’s my sister?” Andy gestured around, as though expecting someone to suddenly pop up.
“I don’t know, but it’s not like you’re joined at the hip. You’re him, aren’t you?”
The boy who said he was Henry was damned persistent. Andy had to give him credit. Henry was shrewd, clearly, and he seemed confident enough, even if he did look like a kid who would get picked on a lot.
Actually, Andy was picked on a bit back at home. He didn’t imagine the same would happen here, but the memories were enough to hurt all on their own. Getting picked last, being told he was a loser, a dork… worthless.
Andy shook it off and held Henry’s gaze. “Fine. What if I am?”
Henry shrugged. “Cool. So where is your sister?”
“That’s not… I don’t want to talk about it.”
Henry shrugged again. “Kay. Whatever.”
“So why are you here?” Andy asked. Without saying anything else, he began to walk the shoreline back to his aunt’s cabin.
“I guess its time to finally formalize my training. My father and mother–I guess they’re important members of the team. I guess… I mean, I knew I had the talent since I was young. But I haven’t done much with it. Haven’t learned. The occasional summer here or there.”
The rest of the walk was in silence, until they got back to Andy’s aunt’s cabin.
“Huh, I would have thought her place was bigger.” Henry said simply. “In any event, I suppose this is where we part for now. Look for me though, yeah?”
His aunt was already getting dinner ready. It appeared to be a salad of some sort, with freshly baked bread. The aromas were thick in the cabin and wrapped around Andy in their warmth and their comfort. He placed a hand over his mouth and walked over to the small kitchen area.
“Did you see them coming?” She asked.
Andy nodded, “there’s a lot more now. Are they all nearly here?”
“For the most part,” she replied, “there will be stragglers. But we’re only missing one council member.”
“And then what?” Andy felt agitated, frustrated, and he couldn’t exactly put his finger on why.
“There’s a lot that needs to happen. And you still have your studies to focus on. I won’t let you get distracted.”
Their meal was quiet as well, it reminded Andy of the walk back to the cabin with Henry. It felt like there was plenty to be said, questions to be asked, answers to be given. But instead there was only silence, a silence which seemed to swallow everything and leave nothing behind.
After dinner Andy went back to his room to meditate. It was a bit easier this time and he let himself drift into a space of nothingness in which he wasn’t bothered by his losses, or worried about the questions of what the future would hold. He was at once everything and nothing all together.
Then the Baerex appeared before him and Andy knew.
<< You are almost ready, small one. >> The Baerex seemed to speak directly into his mind. Andy stared into its golden eyes, they were mottled with every shade of yellow. << Keep pressing. Show the strength of my kin and you will earn the right to summon me. I will make your blows as fierce as a bullet, your roar like thunder, and together we will put an end to the Great Darkness which threatens both world. Remember this: you and your sister are the bridge. >>
Andy reached out and felt his hand touch something soft, yet firm. His fingers splayed against the gold-brown fur of the massive creature before him. The Baerex made a low rumble that might have been approval. In any event it didn’t sound like a warning.
A fire was building in him. Andy could feel it in his gut, burning, twisting, transforming into the energy of life. Then the licks of the fire were like the petals of a blossom, soft and comforting, soothing, yet still with the threat of the power they held in them only moments before.
Then the Baerex faded away and Andy was left by himself on his bed in meditation once more. The night was consuming everything outside, the shadow of the darkness was growing. Andy remembered what his spirit animal had told him about the Great Darkness. He wasn’t sure what it was, or what he or his sister could do about it. But if that was their destiny, then he would work towards it.
Andy would do it. He and Dani would do it. Together. But, first, he had to find her.