The air was still, and the silence unnerving.
Savio sat staring off at the vast white wasteland far across the flatlands. The eternal darkness was not enough to mask the blanket of white that spread across the horizon like an ocean.
Most of the town’s lights were out as most with the sense to sleep after the dark hour had already come and gone, not that it did much here in the twilight regions.
The sudden frozen strike to his cheek knocked Savio backward onto the roof he had been perched on. Quickly he bounced back to his feet, green eyes locking onto the laughing youth on a roof further up the hill.
Savio snapped his hand across his mouth before pointing sharply at the young man. Not all of the businesses in this district were void of people living above their shops, and when things were this quiet words carried quite far.
Ah, that boy will wake the dead. His mother had such energy.
Savio brushed the voice in his mind aside, pointing at his youthful partner once more and pointed down quickly.
Judging by the head roll and tossing his arms up before he disappeared over the back molding of he slanted roof, Savio trusted Callisto understood and would be over here shortly.
His energy will even out as he gets older. You never got to see his mother in combat, did you?
He had not. Savio joined their ranks after she had taken the injury that she would later succumb to.
“One’s skill in combat doesn’t affect one’s ability to be mature and handle things seriously,” Savio whispered in warning to the voice. The mark at the back of his ear chilled, and he rubbed at it in an attempt to dissuade it.
The crunch of snow below alerted him to his partner’s arrival. He cautiously leaned to look over the edge; weary should his ward still be in a playful mood.
No, currently, the cloaked youth was skimming the wall, the orange ring in his eyes revealed his carefully measured gazes. He looked up to Savio, and Savio pointed to the path he used to climb up here, and in short order, he snagged Callisto’s hand to aid the man up onto the roof.
“So, I thought that was the bread shop,” Callisto whispered, his smile caught in the twilight of the nearly eternal evening.
“It’s alright. How are your eyes?”
“It’s fine at the moment. A little brighter here than at home, but not as bad as that damn tavern,” Callisto said. He began to stretch before he paused, listening, before he chuckled, “oh, right - So, I think I got a lead. There was a suspicious cart driver. He was delivering a package but kept talking to someone in the back of the cart. When I spied, it looked like a little kid was in a box.” He emphasized by trying to extend his arms the diameters of the box, “I mean, either a kid or a small adult.”
Savio frowned. “Do you think it’s what we’re looking for?”
Callisto frowned in return, “are you saying unless it’s a Magician we’re not helping?”
Savio sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose before speaking slowly in emphasis, “we can not save anyone unless we know for certain.”
“Right, right, I know,” Callisto huffed in his native language. “They’re still at the tavern. They’ll be heading out in a few hours. If we hurry, we might be able to sneak a peek before they take off.”
Savio let him lead the way. The tavern’s activity had been dying down, and the wagon’s owner was still inside that Callisto could see. While Callisto kept an eye on things, Savio picked the lock and slipped into the cart as silent as he could manage.
The wagon was a simple one with basic requirements for warmth and keeping out of the other elements met, and personal affairs scattered around or stuffed on shelves. No paperwork Savio could spy in a few quick peeks in the drawers around the place.
He paused at the child-sized crate. The holes in the lid did not help ease his mind about the contents of the box.
You need a lead.
But he didn’t want to face an enslaved child.
The metal clicked as he unlatched the crate before shoving the lid up.
Grimly he could not help but compare the box to that of a luxurious coffin. The inside was padded, with a pillow and fur blankets that covered up the child to the tussled auburn hair and blue eyes.
He almost shut the lid as his eyes locked onto those canary yellow rings in those eyes.
He had his lead.
Gale blast it, he had hoped this was all a wild goose chase, and they were just paranoid chasing leaves in the wind.
This doesn’t mean you’ve found a lead to the slave ring.
Of course not, it could be purely coincidental some other psychopath was selling magician children.
“What are your obligations, child?” Savio worded softly.
There was a definite hesitation before the child sat up. She was only a few years old, and her vacant, curious gaze was one he recognized from the few others they had managed to find, the only clue it was from at least a similar group.
“To listen and behave for Mr. Joyce, until I arrive at my new daddy’s.”
“Do you know who your new daddy is?” How specific was this obligation?
When the child shook her head, Savio nodded as he began to formulate a plan.
A sharp knock once came from the door, followed by the fleeing crunch of boots in the snow.
“I am here on behalf of your new daddy, but I cannot pick you up yet. Continue to behave for Mr. Joyce, and when I come back, I will take you to your new daddy. Do not let Mr. Joyce know we met, it’s supposed to be a surprise.”
The little girl’s eyes lit up brightly in excitement. She ducked back under her blanket as Savio closed the lid. He peeked out before he bent out of the wagon and shut the door just as a man came staggering out from the tavern, laughing, holding a plate of food.
“Hey!” The driver snapped as he spotted Savio, “get away from there!”
Savio bolted, hoping the man thought him a petty thief caught in the act and for nothing to come of it.
He almost punched Callisto when the young man grabbed him by his arm when Savio almost shot past the alley he was hiding in.
“Don’t do that,” Savio sharply hissed, straightening his furs.
“So someone was in there?” Callisto asked as he bounced on the balls of his feet.
So much like his mother.
“A young child, scarcely primary school age,” Savio said.
Callisto’s bouncing slowly ceased before he sighed. With a quick punch to the palm of his opposing hand, he recovered with an enthusiastic grin across his face. “Then, we gotta make sure we get her out of there and make him pay!”
“We need information still, Callisto,” Savio cautiously spoke, setting a hand to the much shorter man’s shoulder. “We need to know where he’s come from, and who he is going to see. We need a proper plan of attack.”
“Just tell Lark! Lark’ll be able to follow, right?”
“Lark’s magic wanes past the Shadowrealm’s borders without a Magician’s aid, and you know it.”
Callisto groaned, walking in a circle once before facing Savio again. “We don’t know what those guys are going to do to her. If she makes it to that other Nobleman, she’s screwed!”
“I know, Callisto, I know.” Savio sighed, rubbing his neck.
Still like his mother? Savio strained to think clearly.
He has some refinement to go through, but he’ll get there.
“…but there are ways to get people to talk,” Savio assured.
Callisto couldn’t sit still on the saddle. He got the feeling that Sisuk was antsy too, as she constantly seemed to shift how she bore their combined weight.
Savio’s words weighed heavily on his mind. He was to wait at this outpost until Lark’s call, and then ride east to meet the Nobleman.
This world was so different than his home, which was safely nestled in the ice mountains of Lark’s domain.
Here you could see the sun — even if it was close to the horizon — and plants were far more plentiful and grew so well that they shot up taller than buildings.
Callisto usually wore goggles, meant to prevent the sun’s light from hurting his eyes. He needed time to acclimate to the brightness while he was this far east.. Of course, he’d lifted them up as he squinted to explore the different colors out in the twilight.
“Hey, Olgi?” Callisto asked as he pulled off his goggles in order to look over the beautifully crafted headpiece.
Yes? The voice echoed in his mind as the tattoo behind his ear began to emit a soft, cooling temperature.
“Do you think Savio knows what he’s doing?”
He has always been loyal to us and ours.
Callisto frowned slightly as his thumb brushed over the tinted lens. “But he’s from here , right? The Ablation? How can we trust him?”
A moment passed in silence as Olgi seemed to be in deep thought, the cold pulsing of the tattoo being enough for Callisto to trust they were consulting with themselves and would respond when they had an answer.
The light made his eyes begin to ache enough that it encouraged him to slip his goggles back on.
Savio has much to lose in helping us like he has been. I don’t believe Lark would allow him to be so close, especially to you, if they felt he was unworthy.
Callisto groaned, rolling his head back. “I dunno, Lark’s really close to Savio.”
Lark likes redheads, I wouldn’t look too deeply into it.
“I’m gonna,” Callisto chuckled.
The tattoo began to vibrate, chilling the skin sharply as the wind started to pick up, bringing with it a scattering of snowfall it had carried on.
With the chill came a sharp whistle.
Callisto grinned and grabbed Sisuk’s reins to spur her into a swift run across the hills, driving her east. He followed the road but kept it far to his right. He had to slow Sisuk down once they broke through the tall plant line, as the hard wood eventually grew so close together that Callisto had to stop going in a straight line. It forced him to weave around in order to avoid Sisuk’s antlers from getting caught in anything.
Left , Olgi encouraged as the tattoo pulsed, allowing Callisto to navigate through the obstacles towards Savio. Once they finally broke through into a clearing, he found Savio.
Here, high on a drop off to the hilly world below, capped with even more of the tall plants, Savio was crouched and observing the world through a spyglass.
“So, what’s the plan?” Callisto quickly dismounted his elk and dropped next to Savio.
“The plan, now that we know how many we are dealing with, is to stop the cart, apprehend the dealers, and rescue the child,” Savio said. He never looked over to acknowledge Callisto otherwise.
“What are the chances any of them are Nobles?”
“None with the Obligations she’s under.”
Callisto nodded sagely once, squinting through his goggles at the familiar wagon making its way down the well-beaten path. It was accompanied by a man on a horse, a hired guard if Callisto had to guess.
“Alright,” Savio set his hand on Callisto’s shoulder, “Ask Olgi to be silent, so we can get some Obligations underway.”
Obligations were so weird. They tickled the mind in a way that made his bones itch, and his muscles twitch. Callisto had heard of others who did not enjoy the effects a Noble had on their bodies, but he liked it, within reason. They felt similar to how he felt when he was in Lark’s presence; full of energy and raw power that could likely turn the tides of any war, should they decide to.
Well, this was hardly a war, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that much power being at one’s disposal. As he stood atop the cliff , he took the time to get to know the earth daemon he stood upon. The sheer vastness of the area was hard to ignore while doing this. The daemon's stillness and solidity contrasted with the softer dirt and mud and rock, but was all so familiar. He could sense an eagerness from the ground, and knew it would work well with him.
Once the wagon was closer, Callisto focused his will into the earth. The orange aura lit up around his hands and poured into the dirt, shortly before layers of rock and soil began to break away, tumbling down the cliff’s face as the ground shook.
Immediately afterward, Callisto broke away and sprinted back into the tree line, hopping over the underbrush before a misplaced step sent him through a particularly prickly bush that tugged and pulled on his clothing as he tried to fall forward into a tumble. He landed quite gracefully, all things considered, on his bottom next to Sisuk.
In an instant, he got up and swung himself onto Sisuk’s saddle in a single hop, urging her down the hillside to get to in position behind the wagon. The Obligation weighed on his shoulders alongside Olgi, whose constant singing became more of a gentle hum that obscured the sounds on the wind.
When he broke through the tree line, he hopped off Sisuk as she continued to run forward.
The traffickers were on edge from the landslide before the hired guard was knocked off his horse from the force of a well-aimed arrow to his shoulder.
Callisto sprinted over to the wagon, jumping on to it and yanking on the lock while the men were distracted, hoping to reach out to its innate wildness.
Oh, right, metal like this doesn’t have a daemon.
Olgi’s singing wasn’t enough to overpower the shouts that erupted from Savio’s location, leaving Callisto to worry if they were headed back to the wagon for cover.
He drew his Coriolis from its sheath and slammed it into the keyhole of the lock, twisting it with all his might. He prayed that nobody heard the snap of the lock and slipped into the wagon as quietly as he could, shutting the door behind him.
He spotted the crate with holes that Savio had described and quickly unlatched it, finding the lid lighter than he expected as he quickly pulled it up.
“Surprise!” He whispered with a broad smile as two wide, glowing eyes met his from within the box. She seemed nervous, but her face seemed to light up as soon as the word left his lips. “My big, hairy, redhead friend said it’s time to do the surprise. You ready?”
“Everyone sounds mad,” the little girl protested, turning her attention in the direction of a shout outside the wagon.
“That’s why we need to give them the surprise, so they’ll be happy again,” Callisto offered his hand to her. “Besides, you want to meet your new daddy, right?”
That worked, as the tiny thing took his hand. With a heft, the child was up in his arms, as he shifted to wrap her in his cloak, hiding her head with the hood.
“You know how surprises work?”
“Gotta be quiet until we can jump up and shout ‘surprise,’ okay? You can be quiet, right?”
He felt her struggle to suppress a giggle while making a shushing sound at him, hiding her face with her hands.
Callisto lingered at the wagon’s exit, urging Olgi to stop singing so he could better hear. He stiffened as he made note of the near-silence, which could have meant one of any number of things had happened.
Now isn't the time to succumb to doubt.
Steeling himself, he shoved the door open and jumped, bolting in the direction of his steed. Sisuk had gone back into what Callisto now knew were called trees, where she would be safe. Once he found Sisuk, he grabbed her saddle and swung himself up, keeping his arm tight around the child he carried.
She gasped in surprise, distracting Callisto momentarily, as he realized the child had probably never seen one of the Oscuro’s elk before. He chuckled to himself and adjusted Sisuk’s reins before urging the creature forward. The child squealed in glee at first, but quickly fell silent until some time had passed.
“This is fun!” She shrieked happily, all of a sudden.
Callisto laughed heartily, pushing Sisuk a bit harder to ensure they covered as much ground as possible. Sometimes the elk slowed where the underbrush was too thick to pass through quickly, and meaning she tread carefully so as not to break an ankle. Only once Olgi picked up no more sound did Callisto encourage them to stop singing, as he looked down and grinned at the little girl.
“We can talk for a bit, since the surprise is going to be a bit longer while Savio gets set up. I’m Callisto, what’s your name?”
“Alexia,” she answered all too eagerly. “What’s this? It’s so big!” She twisted and promptly stuck her hands into the thick, white fur on Sisuk’s neck. Her hands seemed to disappear all the way up past her elbows as she sought the solid mass beneath.
“She’s Sisuk. She’s my mount.”
“Can I have one?”
Callisto grinned, remembering his own eagerness for an elk of his own the first time his mother let him ride with her. “Perhaps one day, but you have to be strong enough to pick up her saddle first,” Callisto emphasized by patting the seat they rode upon, “Once you can lift it, you are old enough, and it is a lot of responsibility.”
“I’m gonna be super strong, so I can lift it soon!” Alexia exclaimed proudly, before she leaned forward and smooshed her face into Sisuk’s fluffy, thick fur. Callisto couldn’t pick up what she was saying, since she was muffled by the elk’s thick arctic coat, but it sounded like happy cooing.
It was okay. She was happy and out of danger. All that remained was to find the rendezvous point and wait for Savio. Callisto had wanted to be the one to capture the driver and interrogate him, but Savio’s reluctance was understandable. Besides, Callisto was the better rider and could get away with little Alexia much faster.
He just had to trust Savio had this handled.
The driver had the name of the buyer—assuming it wasn’t a pseudonym— as well as that of the supplier. Little else was of note, and the driver was so in the dark to the proceedings Savio suspected what information he had wasn’t going to get him far. It was frustrating to be operating on a sliver of data; it was like trying to wring water from a rock.
Tying up loose ends was never something he relished, either. The begging hurt, but Savio couldn’t have him spouting off in case he had been lying.
Going back to ransack the wagon to make it look like bandits were responsible for the chaos was the easiest part of the job, and gave him time alone to sort his mind.
Anything valuable got shoved into a bag to bring with him to help with the ruse, but he also scoured the wagon for food and any clothing they might have for the child. Everything was methodical, and relegated to muscle memory, while he intentionally strewed things along where he had already searched.
Savio found a saddle for the horse that was drawing the wagon after everything was packed up. He would need to find the hired guard’s horse that ran off after its master died. Thankfully the mare wasn’t too far, and he was able to coax her back. Savio saddled the wagon’s horse up with the supplies, spreading the load between the two, before leading them to his own Elk, Kutaak, hidden further in the forest.
It had been hours by the time he found Callisto. Sisuk was resting with Callisto leaning back on her like a chair. The child was wrapped in his fur cloak at his side, her feet holding a cup still while one hand held a huge chunk of bread, and the other a large bit of cheese.
Callisto’s theatrical storytelling was in full swing. The little girl currently sat, mouth agape, as Callisto arched his arm wide in front of them both.
“--It was so white, I couldn’t see my nose!”
The girl’s gasp was far louder than Savio thought any tiny creature should be capable of. “Where’d it go?”
Callisto laughed while poking his nose, “it stayed right here. Not that it wanted to. The snow was blowing sideways, as far as I could tell, and if my nose hadn’t been under my face covering it would have turned black and fallen off!”
Savio opted not to interrupt them and instead got the horses something to drink.
“Did you die ?” The child asked in such a tone of awe that Savio needed a moment to stare off into the distance.
Callisto’s laughing brought him back. “No, I didn’t. But my mom wouldn’t let me leave her side for a cycle, worried I’d get myself frozen to death.”
“Oh... you have a mom?”
“Well, not directly anymore. But she’s always with me.”
Savio closed his eyes. Callisto’s mother was a ball of energy, even on her death bed, and a font of wisdom for someone so young. All the Oscuro seemed to be that way, able to rely directly on the knowledge of generations past and recite it for the youth until they were fully brought into the ranks.
The light pulsation of his tattoo reminded him they needed to move.
“Callisto, it’s time to go.”
The child’s head popped up behind Sisuk’s back, eyes wide in shock. The mess of auburn hair disappeared shortly after. “Where did he come from?”
Savio shook his head as a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He mounted Kutaak once more, meeting Callisto’s gaze. “Come on.”
“Ah, alright,” Callisto agreed and stood up, clicking his tongue to encourage Sisuk up to her feet as he bundled up the little girl.
“I’m Alexia! You’re going to take me to my new daddy, right?”
Savio paused, watching the giggling, squirming child as Callisto got himself and Alexia comfortable on the Elk. She wiggled and squirmed and was quickly distracted, trying to take the reins from Callisto’s hands, which he only adjusted to let her hold some of it.
“Yes, as soon as we can.”
“And we’re doing a surprise?” Alexia inquired as her distraction was not enough to dissuade her from her task in seeking information.
“Yes, we have set up the surprise for ah…”
“Yes, Mr. Joyce. He’ll find it when he gets back to the wagon, and he will be quite surprised.” Savio turned Kutaak and carefully began to lead the two horses on leads through the forest, hoping to find a better clearing to regain his wits and direction.
“Ohh, I hope he likes it!” Alexia exclaimed, before beginning to ask a million questions, and even more before Savio had a chance to answer any of them.
Thank the Saints they weren’t being chased and needed to be silent.
Alexia was curled up against Callisto’s chest sound asleep. Savio could have discussed the next stage of their plan now that all was silent, but he found the silence incredibly welcoming.
Callisto didn’t ask anything either, so he was unsure what the youth was thinking. For now, he wanted to get to a town or three over so as not to arouse suspicion in selling off the two horses.
The child made him uneasy. Knowing she had been bred or stolen, and purchased for the sole purpose of becoming someone’s little doll twisted his stomach.
How many more were out there?
Why would someone do such things?
And if she hadn’t been a Magician, what happened after she outgrew the age to be a doll?
Was she actually the age she seemed or had magic adjusted it? Could she be much older?
Savio straightened his back before looking to his right at his traveling companion. “It’s just a lot on my mind.”
The sound of the animals’ hooves fell between them. Savio focused forward again, and tried not to let his mind sink too deeply about any what-ifs should they hadn’t come along. She had been rescued. No, he hadn’t found a better lead, but they had managed to save this one life, and for her, they had done a world of good in that act alone.
Still, the doubt of not doing enough crept along the edges of his mind, trying to sink its icy grip in.
“We will need to find her a ‘daddy’ so her obligations can be fulfilled.” Savio worded his statement carefully, minding his intent. Callisto had Olgi, but they didn’t prevent commands in such close proximity.
“She’s not coming with us?”
“We can’t get distracted from our jobs to take her back, and she’s not equipped to make it across the tundra.”
“Lark would help-”
“Callisto.” Savio gave a pointed look. “Just because she has been rescued doesn’t mean that is the life for her. We still have a mission to attend to, remember? Would you stop everything and raise her?”
Callisto returned Savio’s look with a defiant, steely glare before he jerked his head away, refusing to look at Savio any longer.
“She can stay with us until we return,” the youth protested.
“I have no intention of raising a child on the road like this, especially with what work we must do.She would threaten our mission.” He didn’t mean for his words to sound final.
Callisto was silent in response.
Savio had no idea what was going through the youth’s mind, but he let it be. They needed to do what was best for the child, and unfortunately, that meant she couldn’t be with them forever. He would have to find her a new daddy, and quickly.