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Chapter II - At Home on the Island

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There were no comforts of city life on the remote island, but Oswynn didn’t care. It reminded him of his childhood, playing and working on his parents’ farm. He’d only moved into the city a few years ago, first to Seaton where he’d studied elementalism under Minaras and then to Zairn where Sigmus had taught him transmutation. Now, he and Sigmus were living on a small island in the Cold Ocean, all because of his curiosity. Many months ago he’d come to the supposedly cursed island against his master’s warnings and accidentally freed an army of crossbreeds from a mystic prison, including a half-dragon who then kidnapped Sigmus.
With no place to buy food or goods, Oswynn and his master were forced to grow what they ate and use transmutation magic to create what they needed. In the past few months, he’d learned more through constant practice than his entire year buried in books at the Great Library of Zairn. He was glad he remained on the island rather than attempting the long journey back to the mainland, and he’d make the same choice again, even if his master were in good enough health for the trip.
One of the most amazing things about living on the island was the peculiar fauna. Centuries ago, an evil transmuter had claimed the island as his own to experiment on living creatures. The wizard combined animals with one another and with inanimate objects to form bizarre crossbreeds, many of which were more intelligent than their mundane counterparts. That same wizard was also responsible for creating the race of Fracodians, a mix between humans and either bears or dogs. On the mainland, Fracodians had a taste for human flesh and would raid small settlements for food, but on the island they lived as a fishing society with a rudimentary language. At his master’s request, Oswynn left the island Fracodians alone.
He yanked a few roots from the ground and tossed them into his basket. As soon as he’d opened his first book of wizardry, he never imagined that he’d be back to farming, but for an opportunity such as this, he’d continue seeding, watering, and harvesting without complaints. He and Sigmus had cleared a large patch of forest to make room for edible plants. To the east, an ancient volcano rose from the center of the island, towering over the trees and beaches. The lone mountain was pocked with tunnels and caves, once conduits for hot magma spewing from deep underground. Now, those caves were home to a pair of wizards. Oswynn enjoyed this time with his master.
A trumpeting blast rang through the trees, indicating the return of high tide. Oswynn stood and scratched the few hairs on the bottom of his chin, staring in the direction of the sound. The Fracodians had fashioned instruments out of large shells to call their fishermen, no matter where they might be on the island. Fracodians on the mainland never created anything, instead stealing what they needed to survive and often feasting on humans. A small group had tried to eat Oswynn, but he escaped with some help. Even so, he didn’t hate the mainland Fracodians, which were more like carnivorous animals.
With his basket in hand, Oswynn stepped into a tunnel at the base of the mountain and cast a quick spell to hide the entrance. Although the island Fracodians were peaceful, a handful of fearsome predators prowled the forest at night. One of them was the first crossbreed that Oswynn had encountered, an oversized lizard with the orange fur of a sabertooth. He escaped by scaring the creature with fire just before he met Racer, a crossbreed elementalist with a mastery of fire. Racer disappeared after helping him defeat a megalomaniac half-dragon from creating an army of crossbreeds.
“What took you so long,” said Sigmus. “I’m starving.”
The old wizard was sitting at an elegant wood table. He seemed to make it a hobby to add intricate carvings to the furniture by using complicated transmutation spells. Across the room was a stove with a chimney pipe that led to a natural vent in the mountain. Three other openings completed the room: one leading to a ledge, high up on the southern face of the mountain, and the other two leading to the bedrooms.
“I was thinking about the Fracodians,” said Oswynn, placing the basket on the table in front of Sigmus. “I bet I can teach them to speak.”
“Leave them alone.” Sigmus stood with the help of a thick cane and brought the basket to the stove, where steam was coming out of an iron pot. “They would have been better off if none of us had come to this island.”
“That’s true, but now that we’re here, can’t we improve their lives?”
“Who are you to say what an improvement is?”
Sigmus dumped the edible roots into the pot and stirred the contents with a long wooden spoon. He turned his head and coughed into his shoulder.
“One definite improvement would be to transmute the plants we’re growing for food,” said Oswynn. “They all taste like dirt.”
Sigmus tossed the basket to him. “Do what you want with them after they’ve been harvested, but you may not transmute living matter. Just remember, if you destroy our meal, we’ll be forced to hunt or go hungry.”
Oswynn cringed at the thought. Before they’d found enough edible plants to sustain them, he and Sigmus would hunt small game almost every day. Not only did it take too much time away from studying and practice, but it was gruesome to kill the animals and clean the meat. Oswynn preferred to leave those chores to hunters and butchers. He was thinner than he’d ever been, and the scar that ran across his forehead from temple to temple seemed to ache whenever he thought about death.
“We can always trade for some fish,” he said. “The Fracodians might even filet it for us if we give them a few knives.”
“Didn’t you just hear me?” Sigmus brought the spoon to his mouth, blew on the hot liquid, and sipped, clearly suppressing a grimace from the foul taste. “No contact with them—for any reason.”
“Fine, but I don’t see why I can’t transmute a few plants.” Oswynn placed two spoons on the table and brought a pair of bowls to Sigmus.
He understood the ancient restriction against transmuting living creatures but was frustrated that Sigmus extended the rule to plants. They couldn’t think or feel. Why couldn’t he try a few harmless experiments?
Sigmus ladled out the vegetables and broth. “I’m certain that’s how the transmuter who created the crossbreeds started. Once you begin transmuting living beings, where does it end? Please promise me you’ll obey this one rule.”
Oswynn sat by his bowl and held his breath while he ate.
“I promise,” he said, although he wasn’t sure he meant it.
He’d broken his word before, and this might be a time when he couldn’t control his actions. In any case, Sigmus should be more trusting. His master should know that he’d never cause harm through his magic.
After dinner, the old wizard retired to his bedroom and fell asleep. Oswynn snuck out of the cave into the dark forest and lit a small oil lamp once he was safely out of sight. The lamp was not much different from one he’d tried to create while following Minaras through a tunnel in the Pensorean Mountains. With no prior training in transmutation, the lamp in the mountain had turned from metal to wood and caught fire, almost burning his hand. Each of his masters had called him talented yet reckless, but the only way to learn was through experimentation and practice. As long as he learned from his failures, he’d always improve.
He stopped by a bush with broad leaves and pushed the branches aside, revealing an iron cage that housed a sleeping animal. Looking like a housecat with wings, the small creature awoke and licked a pair of tiny fangs protruding from the sides of its mouth. Oswynn tossed a handful of the cooked roots into the cage.
“It can’t survive on that diet for much longer.” Sigmus limped around the trees, relying heavily on his cane for support. “A growing cat needs meat.”
“How did you get here so fast?” asked Oswynn. “You were asleep when I left.”
“Was I?” Sigmus placed his cane against a tree and sat on the cage. “Was I even in bed?”
Oswynn laughed. “You snuck out when I was cleaning. How did you know where I was going?”
“Once you have something in your mind, you become focused on that to the exclusion of all else. I’ve been searching these woods for weeks to see what you’ve been doing.”
“Now what? Are you going to transmute this cage and set him free?”
Sigmus stuck his hand through the bars and patted the cat’s head.
“That depends on why you’ve trapped this wild animal. Do you intend to tame it, study it, or reproduce its creation?”
Oswynn had been fascinated by the crossbreeds ever since the first sabertooth lizard he’d seen. He wanted to know if this half-cat had come from the mystic prison or had been born to crossbred parents. It seemed to be quite young, but he doubted Sigmus cared about any of those questions.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” he said, looking away.
“Well do so now.” Sigmus collected his cane and slid off the cage. “And do what’s right.”
As his master limped toward the mountain, Oswynn lay down facing the cage, the hood of his robe flopping onto the ground by his head. The winged cat pawed at the hood through the bars.
“I should let you go,” he said, “but you’re so friendly. Do you like me?”
One of the cat’s claws snagged on the hood and tore through the fabric. With a combination of purring and growling, it attacked the hood. Oswynn pulled away, running his hands through his flyaway hair to remove some debris from the ground.
“I guess that’s my answer.”
With a quick incantation, he transmuted the bars from straight to bent, opening a large hole in the top of the cage. The cat looked up, flapped its wings a few times, and leapt out. It sat on the cage, licking its wings for several minutes, but eventually disappeared into the dark forest.
Oswynn was sad to see the animal leave. It certainly would have been an interesting pet, but he was hoping it would become his familiar, an animal with a special emotional and sometimes physiological attachment to a wizard. He tossed the lantern into the open cage and made his way home in the dark.
A fit of coughing from the other room woke Oswynn.
“Are you all right?” he shouted from bed, concerned about his master’s health.
“Just a bout of old age,” said Sigmus. “Be a good apprentice and make me some tea for breakfast.”
“It’ll be a few minutes,” said Oswynn as he threw on his robe and headed to the upper ledge.
It had rained overnight, and the bucket that hung above the cave opening was full of water. He lugged it into the kitchen and lit the stove with a quick elemental spell of fire. While the kettle was heating, he searched for Sigmus’s favorite aromatic leaves, but they were gone.
“We need more tea leaves,” he said. “I’ll be back soon.”
Fresh leaves wouldn’t taste as good as dried ones, but he could always experiment with a few incantations to get the taste as close as possible. Sigmus might not even be able to tell the difference.
Although the plants they used for tea were to the north, Oswynn found himself wandering eastward. Perhaps he intended to find some better tasting leaves, but before long, the recently destroyed cage was only a few paces away. In addition to the lantern, a small orange ball of fur was tucked inside the bars.
Oswynn dashed to the cage, hoping his flying cat had returned, but the trapped creature had no wings. With a thick tail and reptilian head, it appeared to be a miniature version of the first crossbreed Oswynn had met on the island. Its paw was stuck in the lantern and had a splotch of red on its matted fur.
“Why were you so curious about that lantern?” asked Oswynn. “There’s no food in there.”
He reached down to free the creature, but it hissed at him, displaying a mouth full of sharp teeth. It was yet another animal that didn’t want to be his familiar, but it still needed his help. Oswynn tugged on the bars, but the cage was too heavy for him to carry home. He was barely able to lift it two inches off the ground, and there was a loud yelp when it slipped from his grasp. Oswynn’s entire body tensed until he realized the creature wasn’t hurt.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll think of something else—like wheels.”
He placed his hands on the lower bars and chanted. Slowly the metal extended from one side to the other, forming a pair of axles. The ends of the two bars flattened, twisted, and grew into large circles, but Oswynn wasn’t satisfied with metal wheels. He was worried that the ride through the forest would be too jarring for the creature. Concentrating on the wheels, he altered his chant to change the metal into soft wood. The last time he attempted to convert one material into another, his experiment was a failure, but he was no longer a novice transmuter.
One wheel turned from silver to tan, convincing Oswynn that the transmutation would be successful this time. He continued the incantation, watching each wheel change color, followed by the axles. When he stopped chanting and stepped away to admire his work, the conversion kept going, causing the bars of the cage to become brown and brittle.
Unsure whether the creature would be spared from the spell, Oswynn reached into the disintegrating cage and grabbed the animal. Its jaws latched onto his arm but he didn’t let go, pulling it free before the entire cage crumbled into a pile of kindling. With the cat-lizard scratching him, he hurried back to the cave, doing his best to ignore the pain. The poor creature didn’t know he was only trying to help.
As soon as he stepped into the kitchen, Oswynn remembered the tea. There were no embers glowing in the stove and no smell of burnt wood. Sigmus must have gone out to search for leaves himself.
Oswynn placed the cat-lizard near the wall and poured the last of the fresh water onto his arm, washing away blood and dirt. The scratches were painful but not deep. He wrapped a few strands of cloth around his arm and turned to the creature.
“Now for you,” he said, grabbing the rain bucket, “but first I have to fetch more water.”
Before he reached the tunnel, however, a moan from Sigmus’s bedroom drew him back.
“Sigmus?” he called out on his way to the room. “Are you feeling well? I thought you were out looking for tea leaves.”
The old wizard, lying in bed, rolled over to look at him.
“Not today,” he said. “I can barely lie here without pain.”
“I meant to make you some tea,” said Oswynn, “but I was distracted by an animal that got stuck in my cage.”
“What kind of animal?”
“Half cat, half lizard. Do you want to see it?”
“Enough with the crossbreeds.” Sigmus tried to sit up but fell back onto his pillow. “Don’t go trapping them for your experiments.”
“It wasn’t like that at all.” Oswynn helped him up, placing the pillow between his back and the hard stone wall.
His master’s skin felt hot, but he was too worried to say anything about a fever. Once he fetched more cold water, he’d bring some to Sigmus.
“The animal was injured,” he said. “I had to bring it back to help it. I never should have left the cage out there after I freed the flying cat.”
Sigmus was breathing heavily as he sat against the wall. He glanced at his cane but quickly returned his gaze to his hands resting in his lap. They kept shaking until he buried them under his body.
“Do you plan to let this one go after it heals?” he asked.
“Or sooner,” said Oswynn, displaying his bandaged arm. The pain had subsided but still ached when he moved it around. “It doesn’t seem to like me.”
“Good now,” said Sigmus. “Tend to the animal—then you can make me some breakfast. I’m not hungry at the moment.”
“You have to eat something. You’re not well.”
“I’ll be fine.” Sigmus slid down into bed and closed his eyes.
Oswynn returned to the cat-lizard, but while he was fighting with the animal to clean its wounds, loud moans called him back to his master’s bedroom. Sigmus was gasping for air between fits of coughing to clear his chest.
“What should I do?” asked Oswynn as he rushed toward the bed, distraught over his master’s condition.
“Nothing,” said Sigmus. “Nothing.”
“There has to be something that can be done. We’re wizards.”
“When it’s time—” Sigmus coughed into his bed sheet. “Minaras was always happiest—”
“What?” Oswynn handed him a cup of water. “When was he happiest?”
Sigmus knocked the cup away, spilling the water onto the cavern floor. He pulled Oswynn closer with a weak grip and whispered, “Your passion.”
“What about it?” asked Oswynn.
He didn’t understand what his master was trying to tell him and didn’t know how to help. Sigmus’s breathing had stopped, but Oswynn refused to believe he was dead. He removed Sigmus’s hand from his robe and placed it on the bed.
“You should rest now,” he said. “You can give me all the advice you want after a good nap.”
With his eyes tearing, he left the room, telling himself that Sigmus would be fine in the morning. In the main living space, the kettle was on the stove and several cooking pots were hanging from hooks on the wall. After he and Sigmus had chosen the cave as their home, they’d created all the utensils they needed. Sigmus had converted wood into metal, and Oswynn had transmuted the amorphous lumps into pots, pans, and spoons. He launched the kettle onto the ground along with every pot from the wall.
“You can’t leave me alone,” he called out.
The cat-lizard stared at him from the corner of the room, unable or unwilling to move.
“What are you looking at?” he said as he marched into his room and threw himself onto his bed.
Oswynn awoke with a damp spot near his head. Sigmus was gone and would be dearly missed. Although they’d built their cave home together, he decided to seal it closed as a permanent memorial.
He gathered his collection of books onto the bed, folded the sheet around them, and slung it over his shoulder. There were a few robes scattered about, but they were easily replaceable, as was everything else. On the way out, he grabbed the robe nearest the door and tossed it onto the cat-lizard.
“If you don’t want to be sealed in here forever, you’ll let me carry you.”
The cat-lizard fell limp when he lifted it in the robe. Although he shared no bond with the creature, it seemed to know that he didn’t mean any harm. He carried both bundles into the forest, deposited them beneath a young tree, and turned to the tunnel’s secret opening.
As he repeated the words, “Aweaxan stan lang,” the rocky edges of the tunnel expanded until they touched one another, sealing it closed.
This was one of the first incantations he’d cast on his own when he was an apprentice in Zairn. Sigmus had enclosed his bedroom window with bricks as a punishment, so Oswynn attempted to do the same to his master’s room. Unfortunately, after his master’s window had been sealed shut, the bricks crumbled at the slightest touch.
He pounded the new stone formation and it held. The strength of transmuted materials was dependent upon the energy expended during the incantation, a fact Sigmus had taught him over the past few months. He planned to seal the other entrance, halfway up the southern face of the mountain, after finding shelter. With island predators lurking in the forest, the cat-lizard wouldn’t be able to defend itself, and he wasn’t a good enough climber to carry it up the side of the mountain with him.
The Fracodians would probably have let him stay in one of their huts, but Oswynn was more interested in a set of enchanted ruins near the mountain. When he’d arrived on the island, the building was still intact, but he’d inadvertently released thousands of crossbreeds from a mystic prison. One of them, a half-dragon, had destroyed the building in a fit of rage. He slung the makeshift sacks over his shoulder and smiled as he hiked into the forest. Sigmus had told him to follow his passion, and he intended to honor his master’s final request.
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