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Chapter Two- What makes a Friend?

"Absolutely not," Annael said upon hearing Ashlyn's preposterous idea. "We are not going to take him back with us to the Academy."

She and Ashlyn now stood on an ornate stone balcony with the city streets of Tauros several layers below them. The day was still young, a beautiful, crisp morning that swept with an early autumn breeze. The leaves were already caught up in the swirling wind.

Ashlyn folded her hands together and begged. "Please, Annael, he has no one. I think—I think he's been held as a prisoner in Ëolnir. He said he has no living family."

"He is not even a mage," Annael argued. "I sense no ability to draw mana in him."

"But he has so much potential! Being virtually immune to the bazjur has to count for something. Twelve days ago, you expected him to die and he didn't. Damien is powerful, I can sense it."

"How can you go defending the use of corrupt blood magic? This is not the Old Age, Ashlyn, there are laws in place. Many in our order would fight before allowing the bazjur to take Lorianthil too. No good can possibly come of it."

"But he has no one. Maybe he could just stay as my companion while I continue to study."

"Oh, Ashlyn..." Annael cupped the girl's face. "We have already saved the boy's life. Take satisfaction in that and let us move on. If he's truly an orphan, he will be taken into King Arran's custody. It's out of our hands."

"And what is his future in that?"

"I can only assume he will be sent to one of the farming plantations in Nuremas. Many orphans do end up there, working for their provisions under the Crown. Your new friend will be safe."

"He is to be a farmer? The farmlands are the last portion of Lorianthil before the scorched lands take over. He won't be safe there, he'll just be close enough to Ëolnir for them to capture him again. If we take him east to Tyron—"

"Enough!" Annael cut her off. "I have nothing else to say on this matter. The boy has no family, which makes him a ward of the King now. And the King is likely to send him west to Nuremas. I'm sorry, Ashlyn. It's time to pack your things, we should leave for Tyron tomorrow."

Then she left Ashlyn standing alone on the wide terrace that jutted out from the palace. With a sigh, Ashlyn stood at the edge and leaned against the stone railing. She wasn't one to brood, but this matter had her mind in twists.

Observing the people below, Ashlyn envied their freedom to move about the city unhindered. She had hardly been quite so fortunate. Her life in Tyron was a precise schedule of study and practice; these past two weeks had been a refreshing break from her routine. She had spent time reading books for pleasure and dabbling in the entertainments of the palace. Now she was expected to leave it, to let Damien—her new friend—endure an empty life alone and far away. She couldn't permit that, not even if she had to sacrifice her place at the Academy.

The breeze picked up as she turned and left the balcony, then made her way back to the infirmary down a few levels. She pushed open the doors with a bit too much force, but she couldn't stifle how bold she felt in that moment. Damien appeared asleep in his recovery bed, until Ashlyn came close and saw his eyes creaking open.

"Damien?" She leaned close to his face, though it obviously made him uncomfortable.

"What do you want?" Damien shielded his face.

Ashlyn turned to the window beside them and opened it, letting in the breeze.

"Look out there," she pointed into the distance. Damien struggled to his feet and shuffled over. He had never looked upon the city before, and Ashlyn could tell the bustling noise from below disturbed him. "This could be your life," Ashlyn said, gesturing to the human world below. "These are your people, Damien, and I would not abandon you to this bleak situation you find yourself in. I can stay with you if you want."

Damien let out a breath, showed no hint of emotion. "Don't worry about me," he said. "I know I'm human but I don't belong here."

"I was worried you'd say that." She looked down. "Do you know what happens to orphans in Lorianthil? Apparently, they get sent off to be farmers. I don't want that for you. With my help, we could both earn our place here."

Damien sat back down on his mattress, gripping the sides of his bald scalp. Despite Ashlyn's encouraging words, the boy was overwhelmed.

"You alright?" She came and joined him on his mattress, making him scoot away. "Why are you still afraid of me?"

But Damien said nothing to that. He was lost in his own fears, perhaps reliving his trauma.

"Oh, forgive me," Ashlyn sighed, giving him more space. "Of course you don't have to stay. If you want to be a farmer, I can't keep you from that."

"I don't understand," Damien said after a while.

"What?"

"I don't understand why you want to stay with me." He looked at her with deep black eyes. "Aren't you a mage? Don't you have more important things to do?"

"More important than finding you a home? To me, there's nothing more important than that. Not right now, at least."

"But why?" He squinted, confused. "No one cares about me."

"I care about you."

"But you don't even know me!"

"That's not true. I—I haven't left your side for more than a few hours. You just woke up, but I've known you for twelve days now."

This made Damien seem more wary than Ashlyn wanted. She stood, crossing her arms as she paced along the floor.

"Okay..." There was a long pause to gather her thoughts. "It's already clear you don't like the city, not a good place for you to find a home right now. And I understand, it can be loud and crowded."

Damien sat there, listening as the girl rambled on.

"But Annael's pretty firm about me not taking you to Tyron, which is quieter, but still..." She let out a sigh of annoyance. "Urg, I don't know what to do!"

"How about somewhere not full of humans."

"Ah, that's it!" A spark lit Ashlyn's eye, and she faced the window again, pointing into the vast distance. "How do you feel about elves, Damien? They're quiet, peaceful to a fair degree."

"I don't like elves," Damien grimaced.

“Right. If you came from Ëolnir...” she trailed off, then regathered her thoughts. “The elves of Gumber aren't dark elves. They're Lor elves, much more fair and not driven by war. Even I have a home with them.”

“Then I'm very sorry,” he said, causing Ashlyn to giggle.

"You're funny, you know that?"

"I'm serious. I'm sorry you have to live with elves."

"I like the Lor elves, they're my friends. I'm sure someone there would be willing to take an orphan in, especially if I'm there to vouch for you." She placed a hand on Damien's shoulder, only for him to snatch her wrist and push it off.

"Don't touch me.”

Ashlyn saw it then, the grim, despairing look in his eye. "Oh, you poor person." She sat down again, giving the boy a wide berth. "Have you no friends in the world?"

"No. Friends are a luxury I can live without."

"If one has no friends, do they truly live?"

"Why do you ask such stupid questions? Of course I live, because you saved me, right?"

She mimicked his cold tone saying, "I saved you, so that means I'm your friend now, right?"

Damien rolled his eyes. "That doesn't mean I trust you. I don't even remember your name, to be honest."

"It's Ashlyn." She was getting agitated now, but she pushed it down. "And it's not about you trusting me, it's about finding what you want."

"Honestly...being a farmer doesn't sound so bad. At least they have food."

"But the farmlands are close to Ëolnir," she argued. "Close to King Baldemar. I get the sense you might be a target to him, seeing as you're gifted with dark magic and all."

Damien stared at her, wide-eyed. “How did you figure all that out?”

"It's not hard to put together," she shrugged. "You told me you were a victim of Ëolnir, and I found you nearly dead because of the bazjur. I, for one, would rather keep you far away from the scorched lands. Gumber is probably our best option."

“What’s a Gumber?” he asked.

“The forest, the realm of Lor elves.”

"Hm." Damien breathed hard, as if the thought of trailing into elf territory was unbearable, but after a moment, he swallowed and faced her squarely.

"I—I suppose I could let you take me. Nobody's ever asked what I wanted, but I think—I know I just want to be safe. From Baldemar."

"And I can make certain of it," she said. "If you're willing to trust me."

"I don't trust you." He looked down. "But...I don't want you to leave me, either. You're the only mage I’ve met who doesn't seem like they wish to hurt me. That's probably good."

"Well then," she grinned, "are you saying you see me as a friend?"

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Lynea
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