Short Story #4
“Stars in the Distance”
“My cheek still hurts,” Erio complained as he rubbed his cheek. The previous night, there had been a large red welt spread across it; now, it had returned to Erio’s normal skin tone, devoid of color.
“I’m sure it does,” Hiante replied. “Be glad it wasn’t Edgar; he probably wouldn’t have stopped.”
Erio groaned as he returned his attention to the bowl in front of him. He sniffed it, cringed, and stirred it a bit more. “I hate this stuff,” he grumbled.
“I’m starting to wonder if you even know what you’re doing,” Hiante remarked.
“I know what I’m doing,” Erio snapped as he shot the bodyguard a glare.
“Then why do you keep scrunching up your nose like that?”
“Because it smells terrible! I’m sure some of the things in this kitchen have gone bad by now.”
“Will it still work?”
The demon nodded as he stood up and turned to the small pot on the stove. He shoveled the contents of the mixing bowl inside and as soon as the mixture hit the pot, it started sizzling. Another scrunch of the nose and Erio covered his nose with his scarf.
When Erio had brought Astra back from the flower field he had somehow found (he explained to Hiante how the teleportation worked but Hiante understood nothing of it and since Erio and Astra came back unharmed, he figured Erio knew best), Lina had threatened that if Erio took Astra away again, she would bring Edgar to the tower and he would deal with the demon. Needless to say, neither Hiante nor Astra wanted that to happen, but Astra had been so excited to see the world outside of Sabine, Hiante didn’t feel right cooping her up in the tower for the rest of her life. It only took Erio the span of a night to come up with something he could do and he tore through every single nook and cranny of the kitchen to find the right materials. Hiante was sure he improvised; what kind of mixture needed half of a potato and crushed tonic herbs?
“How bad does it smell?” Hiante asked.
“It’s dreadful,” Erio groaned as he peeked into the pot. “I hope Astra can’t smell it.”
“I hope the smell goes away soon,” Hiante remarked as he sat back in his chair. “If it smells that bad, how is Astra supposed to eat in here?”
“Then open that vent when I’m done.” Erio nodded up to the vent that sat above the stove.
“Is it almost done? I don’t want to risk Lina coming back and seeing you messing around in the kitchen,” Hiante asked.
Erio sighed and looked into the pot once more. When he didn’t move, Hiante stood and moved over to the stove and peeked in himself. Whatever the demon had mixed together sat at the bottom of the pot, bubbles breaking the surface of the mixture.
“I think it is,” Erio said and turned off the stove. He grabbed the bowl he had mixed everything together and poured the heated mixture back into it. After he returned the pot to the stove, he took the bowl back to the table and pulled Hiante after him. “Now kneel down. You’re really tall, did you know that?”
Hiante laughed as he bent down for the demon. Astra constantly complained about how tall he was and he knew one of her missions one day was to get taller than him if she could. After a moment of thought, Erio grabbed Hiante’s chin and had him turn his head to the left. The demon dipped his finger in the mixture.
“That was just boiling!” Hiante said quickly.
“I know that,” Erio snapped as he pressed his finger against Hiante’s cheek bone. He made three taps before he let the bodyguard’s chin go and then made what Hiante guessed were identical taps on his own cheek. He cringed each time the scalding mixture made contact with his skin and when he was finished he took a deep breath.
“W-was that it?” Hiante asked.
“Now I have to drink it now,” Erio said as he took the bowl, but before he could drink it, Hiante grabbed it away from him.
“You’re going to burn your throat!” Hiante said.
“Technically you’re supposed to drink it but you’re missing a few key parts in your anatomy,” Erio replied and grabbed the bowl back. He took another deep breath and downed the mixture as fast as he could. Hiante cringed as the demon gave out a shudder and made a face as though he were going to vomit it back up, but Erio kept it down with a few deep breaths.
When he finished, he placed the bowl back down and grabbed Hiante’s skull with both hands. A mumble of something Hiante didn’t catch, and Erio snapped his eyes open. They were engulfed in light and Hiante suddenly felt light headed. A faint magic circle formed at Hiante’s feet and glowed momentarily before it died down and the lines snaked around Erio and slid into his feet. When the magic circle was gone, Erio’s eyes returned to their usual eerie look and he staggered in his spot.
“You all right?” Hiante asked as he put his hands on the demon’s shoulders to keep him steady.
“You should be feeling this now, you know! Thank god you don’t have a body,” Erio said and tried to smile. His voice was hoarse, but he patted Hiante’s hands. “First time I did demon magic backwards!”
“Did it really work?”
“Just keep me in mind and then think of the queen doing something,” Erio said as he took a step back from Hiante. He closed his eyes.
Feeling a bit silly, Hiante pictured Lina breathing fire in his mind.
“She is a bit of a dragon isn’t she?” Erio said with a snicker.
“What did you do exactly?” Hiante asked.
“Now your thoughts are linked to me,” Erio explained as he opened his eyes. “If I ever take Astra anywhere without you and you see Lina in the distance, think of me and then think of her,” he said. “No matter where I’m at, I’ll be able to see it.”
“You can’t read my thoughts all the time can you?”
Erio shook his head. “Only if you intend me to read them,” he said. “I mean if I studied it more I could and if I had the right ingredients instead of substitutions…”
Hiante frowned, but he doubted Erio could see the change in facial expression. “I’m sorry that he took you so young,” he said quietly.
“You say that every single day,” Erio groaned as he sat down at the table. “I get it. You didn’t summon me so stop saying that.”
“If I knew how, I would send you back,” Hiante added as he sat next to Erio.
Erio nodded and rested his chin on his hand. They were quiet for a few moments and Hiante could heard Astra from above; she must have been practicing with the sword Edgar had given her. It was dull and she couldn’t cut anything with it, but she delighted in practicing with it; if she did well, Edgar had promised to find a better sword to give her, just in case.
“You know, I could teleport with her again and we don’t have to come back,” Erio whispered.
Hiante looked at the demon alarmingly but he knew it didn’t show on his face. “What?” Hiante asked.
“Just throwing that out there,” Erio added quickly. “I know you don’t want her to stay here. She’d probably miss you though…”
“Yes, and I would miss her,” Hiante replied. He leaned toward Erio and crossed his arms. “But that’s not the issue. Erio, you have never set foot in our world before Edgar summoned your sister, have you?” he asked.
“N-no, I haven’t,” Erio replied quietly.
“You have no idea where you took her, only that it was a pretty field of flowers,” Hiante continued. “What if there’s no town or settlement around for weeks of walking? Both of you would die.”
“It was just a thought. Not like I’d want to go anywhere without you anyway,” Erio said.
“Truth be told I would love to get Astra off this island, but I don’t think that’s a possibility at this moment.” Hiante sat back in his chair and sighed.
“Safer to get off the island by ship, but there aren’t any ports, are there?” Erio asked.
Hiante shook his head. “I recall there being the remains of one when I was following the shore one night,” he explained. “But it’s submerged in water and beyond repair. I did find a rowboat in the snow, but clearly that’s too small for a full voyage.”
As the demon sat back to think, the door to the kitchen opened and Astra peeked inside. Her nose scrunched up almost immediately.
“I hope that wasn’t a late night snack,” she said.
“Just a spell Erio did,” Hiante explained.
“What does it do?” Astra asked as her eyes lit up with curiosity.
“If we’re ever apart, I can think something and Erio will pick it up,” Hiante explained. “A way of communication so if you want to go back to that flower grove, he can have warning if the King or Queen are coming to the tower.”
Astra looked more ecstatic than Hiante had ever recalled her to be; she gave Hiante a quick hug and then reached over and gave Erio one as well. As she withdrew from the demon, Hiante sat straight up; something was bothering Astra.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“You’re getting good at that,” Astra said. She crossed her arms and leaned against the table. “I checked on the stars like Queen Lina showed me, and they’re wobbling.”
Astra nodded. “Not all of them though,” she said. She pulled out a chart of stars from her tunic and spread it on the table. It had been severely amended by Erio and herself; it had been missing quite a bit of stars originally and both of them had banded together to make notes about the ones missing from the chart. All of the new stars were arranged in a circle that spiraled inward where a large cluster of stars were squished together. “Only the ones Erio and I added to the chart.”
Hiante and Erio looked at the chart closer. They had never been able to figure out why many stars had been missing from the chart originally. Now that they wobbled, however, Hiante wondered if they really were stars. Erio sat back and crossed his arms.
“Those are the ones that don’t move with the other stars, right?” he asked.
“I think so,” Astra said with a nod.
“Are those stars in even real?”
Astra and Erio looked at Hiante with the same puzzled expression. “Why wouldn’t they be?” Astra asked.
“If they’re real, how are they wobbling?”
“You do a spell to go into a trance to check on them individually, right?” Erio asked.
“I think that’s what Lina taught me to do.”
“But you can’t do that with all the stars, right?”
Astra shook her head and crossed her arms again. “If they aren’t real, then what are they?”
The kitchen fell silent for a moment as all three of them pondered the question. Hiante only wished he had half the intellect of Astra or Erio; he had no idea what to make of it at all but both of his charges seemed to be deep in thought with some kind of understanding of the phenomena.
“You know, now that I think about it,” Astra started quietly, “when I check on the stars I can hear the ocean. Like it’s right below me.”
“Have you ever checked on the stars in the daytime?” Erio asked.
“It’s always dark no matter what time I go, but I remember the waves.” Astra paused for a moment and looked at Hiante. “You mentioned a rowboat, right?”
“So you were eavesdropping,” Hiante said, amused.
“We should row out to see if we can get directly underneath those stars,” Astra suggested.
“I’m not taking you out on a rowboat, Astra.”
“It’s not safe!”
“Then you and Erio can go!”
Hiante sighed as he rested his cheek on his palm. “How far out do you think that will be? I don’t want to leave you here alone for that long.”
“I’m safe here. If anything happens, you’ll feel it and Erio can come back and check on me,” Astra suggested. “Come on, humor me. There’s something not right about those stars.”
As much as Hiante wanted to tell her to drop the subject, he knew if he did, she would sneak out with the demon and find the rowboat on her own. He wished he hadn’t even brought up the rowboat. With another sigh, he stood and beckoned Erio to stand as well. “We’ll go Astra, you stay here.”
“I knew you were just as curious as I was!” Astra said as she grinned.
Since Queen Lina had visited the previous night, Hiante was sure she wouldn’t come back for another week or so and he had time to go into the ocean. Before he left, however, he went through the tower with Erio to make sure all the defenses he and the demon had set up still worked and he told Astra to stay safe in her room until Hiante returned. She obliged with no complaints and once she was secure in her room, Hiante and Erio prepared to head out.
Unfortunately for the demon, he could still feel the cold and Hiante loaded him up on anything he felt could keep Erio warm. Hiante didn’t need Erio to freeze while they rowed out as he knew Astra wouldn’t take that too well. No matter how the King and Queen felt, she had grown fond of the demon. Once they were ready, Hiante shouted up into the tower to remind Astra to stay put and he led Erio out of the tower.
Thankfully, the rowboat was exactly where Hiante hid it and no phantoms had run off with it; sure, Hiante and Erio had to dig the snow out that had accumulated and fight off a phantom that slid out of the trees to steal one of the oars, but it everything was still in good shape. Within a few hours of leaving the tower they managed to get the operation started; Hiante only hoped it didn’t take that long to row to the correct spot.
Luck still in Hiante’s favor, the ocean was calm as he began rowing out. He was also thankful that he was merely a reanimated pile of bones; rowing took no physical effort out of him. Erio tried to take some of the rowing away from Hiante, but the demon grew tired too quickly and Hiante told him to just sit back and watch for anything coming their way. He doubted it could happen, but if that bird that the King and Queen decided that their little rowboat was a threat, he knew they’d be in trouble.
The bird never showed its face and it was a quiet row into the ocean. Not that Hiante minded it at all; he preferred the quiet stillness, though he wasn’t sure if Erio did. He kept his eyes on the stars up above and after a while, he started to name off the constellations that Astra had taught him.
“Did you know Astra named all the extra stars?” Erio mentioned after another hour of silence.
“What did she name them?” Hiante asked.
“She named them after everyone from that small town,” Erio explained. “And after you. She named the one that’s usually right over the tower after you.”
“I guess I don’t blame her. I’m sure she gets bored.”
Erio started to reply but stopped abruptly as the end of the boat ran into something and nearly sent both him and Hiante into the ocean. Once the boat was steady, Hiante and Erio looked at what they had hit and saw nothing.
“What was that?” Erio asked.
Hiante reached out with his hand and found that it hit something rather solid, as though there was a wall. He tapped it and it gave out an unearthly sound that made Erio shudder.
“Well, that’s peculiar,” Hiante remarked.
“Wait.” Erio looked up at the sky. “Do that again.”
Hiante did so and tried to find what Erio was looking at. As his fist hit the wall and made that unearthly sound, some of the stars above shivered.
“Did you or Astra ever figure out how the stars line up with the island?” Hiante asked.
“We hadn’t even thought to do that,” Erio replied as he looked back at the bodyguard. “The stars must make a barrier around the island.”
“So no matter what, we’re trapped?”
“My idea doesn’t sound too bad now if you ever want to get Astra off the island, huh?”
Hiante reached over and thumped Erio over the head. “And a good way to get both of you killed,” he snapped.
“I’m sure there’s some other way.”
“Maybe when I’m older I’ll figure out how to teleport all of us,” Erio proposed as he rubbed the spot that Hiante had hit. “My sister can teleport lots of people. And I knew a demon who could teleport a whole city if he wanted to.”
“I can only hope,” Hiante whispered as he sighed and leaned forward. Part of him had hoped he could figure out some way to get Astra off the island, somewhere she could be happy and not be cooped up like the King and Queen wanted her kept. As he began to reposition the boat to head back to the island, he felt a great worry start to well up in his head. Astra must have been frightened.
“What’s wrong?” Erio asked, breaking Hiante out of his thoughts.
“Oh, I’m sorry—I think Astra’s having trouble with something,” Hiante said.
“Think I should teleport back?” Erio asked.
“Probably would be for the best.”
“You’re not going to be lonely out here, are you?”
Hiante laughed and shook his head. “I’ll be just fine,” he said. “Go on, I’ll meet you back at the tower.”
Erio gave a slight pause before a flash of light erupted from his body and he was gone.
Hiante looked back to where he knew the invisible wall was and placed his hand against it once more. Beyond it, he could see nothing but darkness. Even if there hadn’t been a wall, a rowboat was surely the worst idea to get Astra off the island. He only wished he knew of another way. A defeated sigh and Hiante got the boat turned around and glanced back at the island. He could still see the very faint lights from the tower. At least she was safe there for the time being.
. . .
It had been a nightmare that Astra couldn’t remember when she sat up in her bed. She just felt as though she had been running and briefly she wondered if it was the thought that she was alone in the tower. She couldn’t remember a time where Hiante had left her all alone. As she fell back into her pillow, she jumped as Erio was suddenly at her side.
“Sorry,” Erio said quickly as he frowned. “Um, Hiante said you were having trouble with something?”
“He did?” Astra asked as she sat back up. “I just woke from a bad dream, that’s all! You didn’t have to come back for that.”
“You had another nightmare?”
“Not with the scarecrow,” Astra said quickly. “I don’t think I’m used to being alone in the tower.” She wrapped her arms around her knees as she brought them to her chest. “You didn’t have to leave Hiante all alone in the ocean!”
“He said he didn’t mind! I’m not that cruel!”
Astra laughed. “Did you two find anything?”
Erio shook his head as he grabbed the chair from Astra’s desk and pulled it up to her bed. “Only that there’s a wall around the island,” he explained. “Not sure if it extends to the other side of the island, but as Hiante hit it, the stars we had to add to the charts wobbled.”
“Then we’re trapped here?”
“Looks like it.”
Astra sighed and fell back into her pillow again. “If this place wasn’t so cold, I think I would be all right with it,” she admitted. “But all we ever see is snow. It feels like we’re stuck in some kind of loop here.”
“Maybe the wall will disappear sometime and we can leave then,” Erio suggested.
“That’s a nice thought,” Astra said and yawned.
“Are you sure you didn’t have the nightmare about that scarecrow?”
“You fixed it, remember?” Astra looked at Erio.
“I’m worried that I screwed up. I never got to test out what I could or couldn’t do before I arrived here.”
Astra smiled and shook her head. “It’s just fine. You can check my dreams if you really want.”
That put the demon at ease and he held out his hand for Astra’s but she moved to one side of her bed and patted the now vacant spot. “You don’t have to sleep in the chair,” she said. “There’s room for two and I’m sure it’ll be warmer.”
A slight pause and Astra wondered if she should have worded it differently, but Erio nodded eventually and after he had discarded some of the coats he had piled on, he crawled into bed with Astra, taking her hand in his.
“Good night, Erio,” Astra whispered as she lay her head against her pillow.
In minutes, Astra felt herself falling away and when she opened her eyes, she had escaped the room with the scarecrow, Erio following her. Once again, they were in the flower field from her dreams and she took a deep breath, only wishing it was real.
. . .
Hiante returned to the tower just as dawn was breaking and once again, glad he was only bones. If he still had his flesh, he knew he would be dead tired. His row back to the island had been uneventful and he was glad that once Erio had returned to the tower, the worry he had felt from Astra had washed away. As he entered the tower, he thought to call up for Astra, but he figured she would rather sleep in than wake early. Nothing to do on the snowy island after all.
All the traps still set in the tower put Hiante at ease; no one had gotten in (though he doubted they could even leave the forest with that bird prowling the skies) so Astra must have had a bad dream of sorts. Even if he couldn’t get Astra off the island, at least he knew she was safe on it.
Still, Hiante decided to go check in on her if only to put his own mind at ease. As Hiante peeked into her room, he held back a sigh. She was curled up in bed and sound asleep all right, though she was cuddled against the demon, just as deep in sleep as she was. He made a mental note to give Erio a talk later and left Astra’s room and headed down the stairs to make some breakfast. Maybe that would wake them faster.