The Crimson Mage

The Life and Times of Orenda The Reign Ender

By M.J. Brigaddon

Chapter 16

Orenda did not follow Rychelle’s advice because she did not think it was necessary. In order to get to the treeline, she would have to take a long detour, and would actually be much farther from the school. Orenda suspected that time had changed the layout that Rychelle remembered, and that it had once been closer, but had since been cleared, or she would not have given the advice at all. Rychelle seemed to believe that the trees had pressed right up against the fence, and had Orenda known more about deforestation, she would have known this to be the case. She likely would have connected the lack of trees to the wooden structures on campus, or to the additions given to the stone structures. As it was, she simply knew that there no longer existed a treeline to hide in without going far out of her way.

Instead, she huddled inside her cloak and walked swiftly, with purpose, around the gate, thinking of how vast the campus was. The sheer size was impressive to one like Orenda, who estimated that the grounds of the school were roughly the size of the town she had left. It spoke of opulence, and she was not sure that she liked it.

The moons were high in the sky by the time she found the back gate, and she was disappointed to see that it was, understandably, locked from the inside. No one had told her that this would be the case, but she realized as she tried to open it that she should have suspected as much. It was a tall fence, and seemed to be made of iron or some other sturdy material, so Orenda shoved her sheet between two of the bars, then tried to climb through herself. It became quickly apparent that she was not going to fit, so she stepped back to assess the situation.

The fence stretched the entire grounds, and there was nothing to do but to go through it, Orenda reached through, grabbed her sheet and pulled it back, then walked farther down, studying the back garden. It was beautifully kept, with smaller buildings dotting the landscape, some of which she recognized as greenhouses or sheds, and others which were unknown to her. There were walking paths with little benches, closer to the school, hedges and trees scattered along them, looking like a painting of a story set in a castle. Orenda was not interested in those things- they were liabilities. She was looking for hidden places.

A row of small houses were situated in a corner, closest to the woods that existed much farther from the fence than Orenda had been led to believe, and they were still alive with the sounds of inhabitants. Orenda thought, because of their cheap but careful construction, that they were probably the slave quarters that she had been told were not her target. Still, they provided cover for what she was about to do.

She set down her sheet and stepped onto the lower rung that connected the posts of metal together, then reached as high as she could, trying to reach the spot where the post met the top rung. She wrapped her hand around the spot and her medallion began to glow. The metal became hot and she watched it turn red between her trapped fingers- then pulled. It snapped away with a few sparks and Orenda pulled back her hand to watch it cool. Once she was sure it had come apart completely, she hopped down, grabbed the place where it met the lowest rung, and repeated the process.

Orenda set the metal pole down as carefully as she could, so as not to make any noise, picked up her sheet, and climbed through the opening. Then she reached through, picked up the pole, held it as upright as she could, and fascened the bottom back into place. One could tell, she thought, if they looked closely, but try as she might, she could not get it to look exactly like the others, to become a perfect replica. At a certain point, she had to decide that it was good enough, and climbed up to fix the top.

It wasn’t perfect, but she was inside, and imperfection could be forsaken in favor of speed and silence. She had to prioritize. The house before her had no glass in the windows, and she was amazed that she hadn’t already been found out. She skirted across it and saw something else that she had not been warned about but instantly felt she should have known to expect. She could see across the openness of the garden, the big archway that Rychelle had spoken of, and could further make out two adults wearing uniforms similar to, but not exactly like, the soldiers that Orenda had burned alive.

She should have known that the place where the earth elves sent their children would have security, and her eyes were instantly drawn to their weapons.

That was unfortunate, but not a complete deal-breaker. They were a good way away, all the way across the courtyard, and she was partially hidden by the slave quarters. They also didn’t seem to be paying particularly close attention; they were instead both looking at something on one of their hands and speaking to each other with smiles. Orenda suspected it was a piece of jewelry that drew their attention and wondered, if she stayed quiet and moved quickly, if she couldn’t escape their notice completely.

She didn’t think that she would be able to make it to the wooden door- she saw it, but it was far too close to the guards, and had no cover. But she probably could make it to one of the other buildings, and if she was lucky she could find someone to help her, or somewhere to hide until she could form a better plan. Right now, she had to focus on getting out of the open before she was caught.

Orenda thought of what Ali had told her; that trained mages could see souls, and wondered if hers shimmered in the darkness. It had been easier to see Ali’s in front of her than Rychelle’s behind the tarp; it was likely easier to see through wood than stone.

She knelt low to the ground and crept as quietly as she could to a large stone building much closer to the school, which she suspected would serve the dual purpose of hiding her and getting her closer to her goal. There was something about it that she began to feel from a good distance away, but was nearly overpowering as she came closer- the same feeling that she had gotten when she had first come into town. The magic that flowed around her became much more difficult to pull from, as if it was coated in something, as if it wasn’t just sitting on her skin. It made her uncomfortable, and her stomach felt as if it was trying to rise in her throat.

This made her curious, and she knew she would have to get out of the open either way, so she hugged the wall and walked up the few steps to the little porch. There was a sign over the door that read:

For a Clean and Healthy Student Body: Glenlen Academy Bathhouse and Pools

This made sense to Orenda. The building had to be full of water, and large bodies of water seemed to do something to her magic. But Orenda also came from a place where water had always been scarce and baths were taken in tubs that were painstakingly filled by hand. She had read about bathing pools, but had never seen one. If it made her magic weaker, it was likely it made it more difficult to detect. Those guards could not possibly stay where they were forever; she could use the water to cover the glow of her soul and find a window or somesuch to watch them. Eventually there would be a change in shifts, or one would need to use the bathroom, or they would have to eat. Eventually, they would grow distracted, and she could make her move.

She opened the door, quietly, cautiously- and stepped inside.

The place had a strange smell that she found distasteful. It wasn’t flowery soaps or citrus treatments; it wasn’t anything she had smelled before or could classify. It smelled like it felt, like the absence of life, as if life were not allowed in this place. It smelled of sterility.

The front room branched off in three directions, two smaller halls and one in the center. The larger, center hall, was marked “Pool”, the one to the left was marked “Ladies” and the one to the right was marked “Gentlemen”. Orenda took the instruction of the signs and walked into the room marked “Ladies”.

It turned sharply, then opened into a room covered in tile. On the far wall was another door marked “Pool”, and directly in front of her were a rows of doors with no markings whatsoever. The wall with the door, in the places it was not a door, was covered, floor to ceiling, with a giant mirror, reflecting the opposite wall, which was covered in what Orenda thought were cabinets, all stacked one on top of the other.

The mirror told her that she was alone, so she walked to one of the cabinets, selected at random, and tried to open it. Inside was an empty space, and she didn’t know what she had expected, yet still she checked them all, and they were all empty. The room itself held benches but no tables, and she maneuvered around them to open the first of the doors on the far wall. Inside was a water closet, and Orenda expected the others would be the same, and had this expectation met when she checked.

She walked to one of the benches closest to the mirror, sat down, and reflected on how tired she was. She looked into her own eyes and allowed herself a moment to think- not on how to get into the little wooden door, but on her general life and well-being. She imagined that the students at the school would be like the girl she had mistaken for a princess. They were all probably light and small, clothing racks or dolls meant to dress up and play with. They probably had long hair that fell down their backs because they never cut it. They probably had servants to dress them, as Orenda had read about, and to feed them.

They really were dolls, she thought, looking at herself. They were dolls who couldn’t even dress themselves. She felt sorry for them for a moment, for the stupidity and helplessness forced upon them, before she caught herself. She had gotten too deep in the idea and frightened herself. She had thought of how weak they were, of how the light had gone out in the soldiers in the library, of how Ali’s flesh had smelled as it burned and how he thrashed and cried but did not try to stop her.

Orenda was a little afraid of how easy it had been to tell herself that people were toys, of how easily it had been to think of the phrase, “All people are flammable”- of how little it bothered her that those soldiers were dead because she had made the conscious decision to end their lives. Yes, they had killed her friends, had terrorized people- but they were once living, and now they were not, because she had decided that they shouldn’t be, and had carried out that decision.

She knew that she should feel bad. She knew that she should care. She stared into her eyes and tried very hard to feel something. She felt the subdued magic in the air, the humidity against her skin, the metal of her medallion and the weight of her clothes. She felt that slight underlying nausea that had started outside. But she did not feel regret. She tried and tried, but it would not come.

Instead, she stood, smoothed out her cloak, picked up her sheet, and walked through the door that proclaimed it would take her into the pool.

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