“I still have dirt in my hair,” Aurelia stared into the mirror. Yesterday was the fifth time kids in her social integration class thought it would be funny to pour mud on her blonde hair. They always laugh and say it is to make her hair look normal. Yesterday, the laughing stopped when she set their shoes on fire.
The delightful smell of waffles pulled Aurelia away from the oval mirror. She shook her hair and tried to get the dirt out. She ran into the kitchen, looking like an awful mess.
“You slept in late,” Sophia said. “Did you forget about going to Eve’s house today?”
“No,” Aurelia said with her mouth full. “Eve is the only kid who is nice to me. We are going to do art projects today.”
“Romhilda will be back soon,” Sophia said. “If you aren’t ready to leave with her, you can stay here. I need feedback on my new lecture about the cognitive developments of primitive cultures.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Aurelia winked. “I wish you would get rid of my tutors and teach me yourself.”
“I’ve tried to send them away for years,” Sophia said. “They always come back with a legal decree from Cyrus. Oh well, in less than a year, you will not be here, and I will miss being able to annoy your half-wit Akkadian tutors.”
Romhilda appeared. She had dark circles under her eyes and smelled like sweat. She sat next to Aurelia and stole a waffle from her plate. “Are you ready to go?”
Aurelia finished chewing and took Romhilda’s hand. They appeared outside of a log cabin in a clearing near the Live Oak Forest. It is a sacred forest. Protected by the Hawanne.
It was late in the afternoon when Eve asked Aurelia to show her how ancient Akkadians made pottery. Aurelia pushed her hand into the ground. Water bubbled up through the earth. With a twirl of her finger, she turned the brown sandy clay into an elegant jar. “Now, all we have to do is dry and paint it,” she said. “Or we can carve designs on it.”
“We should paint the carvings,” Eve said.
When they finished the jar, Eve challenged Aurelia to a friendly competition. “Let’s see who can go the farthest into the forest.”
“That’s not a fair contest,” Aurelia said. “You are a Hawanne and way more talented than I am with my power.”
“I promise I won’t turn into anything that can fly,” Eve said.
Aurelia agreed. “One, two, three,” they counted together and ran deep into the forest. Aurelia ducked her head under large, intertwining branches. She did her best to avoid all the hazards in the woods.
Deep in the forest, trees spun together so tight they formed a labyrinth. Aurelia waved her hand and tried to move the branches. Whack! She stopped running. Everything went dark. Minutes passed, maybe hours before she opened her eyes. The thick forest didn’t let her see the stars.
She yelled for help, but no one heard her. Aurelia pulled rocks from the ground. She threw sticks and leaves together inside of a stone circle. With a flick of her finger, the leaves ignited.
Eve flew above the forest as a dark feathered owl. A little bear roared to get her attention. Eve landed on a branch that was just high enough to keep the bear from reaching her. “I am looking for my friend,” she said to the bear. “An Akkadian girl, blonde hair, dark eyes. Have you seen her?” The little bear pointed with his nose. Eve took his form and followed him through the forest.
Aurelia jumped when she saw two small bears approaching. Eve changed into her human form and sat by the fire. “I guess you win,” she said. “Can you make the fire bigger? It’s cold out here.”
“I tried,” Aurelia complained. “I tried to make the earth shake, something, anything to draw attention. Nothing worked. This is why my tutors call me primitive.”
Eve hugged her friend. “Your test scores are more important than your power. Primitive or not, I know you will become a Silver Spear. All the Akkadian kids know it. That’s why they pick on you so much.”
“I’d rather hang out with Hawanne kids,” Aurelia said. “Do you think I can be an artist and a Silver Spear?”
“I don’t know,” Eve said. “I doubt it. At least you will help build the Community. I will probably be an animal physician. Old people tell me it’s a good life. It doesn’t seem exciting like your life will be. I’m sure I will read all about your achievements in our Community information pamphlets.”
Small flames flickered. Shadows moved out of the trees. The girls looked up when a frail woman emerged from the darkness. Her hair was long and dirty. It covered her body from head to toe, giving her a reason to remain unclothed.
“There you are, Gus,” the strange woman said to the bear. “I see you made new friends.”
Aurelia grabbed a long stick and pointed it at the woman. “Who are you?”
The dirty woman glared at Aurelia. “Someone is looking for you. Who brought you this far into my forest?”
“Powerless people can’t live in the forest,” Eve said. “Get out!”
The woman used her boney fingers to twist random strands of hair into an awkward updo. With crooked brown teeth, she smiled. “Silly kids, growing up in the Community. I am not powerful or powerless. I like to think of myself as a self-made woman.”
“Are you in the Community?” Aurelia asked. “How can you have power and be powerless? Are you Profane?”
“No need for labels or judgment,” the woman said. “I live in this world, but I’m not part of it. The struggles of the powerless. The authority of your Community. None of that is for me. I stopped playing the game a long time ago.”
The horrible-smelling woman kept her eyes on Aurelia. “There is something familiar about you. You have a rage in you I’ve felt before. Did he send me to help you? Is that how I got here? Why should I help you?”
“What are you talking about?” Aurelia said. “I got lost. Our guardians will find us soon.”
“An Akkadian lost in the woods,” the woman laughed. “Sounds like a bad joke. You don’t need guardians to help you. Command the forest to protect you, and it must. It’s obvious you need my help.”
“Fine, how can you help me?” Aurelia said.
“I can break the chains that bind you. Someone doesn’t want you to be strong. Someone fears your power, your rage, your destiny. If I help you, will you promise to do great things? Be nice and all the other flowery lies that grown-ups tell children?”
Aurelia’s obsidian eyes sparkled in the darkness. “I will do my part to build the Community.”
“Of course, you will,” the woman sighed. “Just keep telling yourself that.”
The filthy woman never touched Aurelia. She didn’t need to. She threw Aurelia to the ground with a wave of her hand. Gus used his paw to draw a circle in the surrounding dirt.
Aurelia tried to escape. It was useless. She was helpless. Her arms and legs refused her command. She detached from her body. Watching someone, something, control her.
Eve ran to the circle, but she could not step in. She tried to fly above it. To charge through it like a mighty beast. Nothing worked.
The woman closed her eyes and whispered strange words. She cut Aurelia’s arm with a dirty fingernail. Blood dripped to the ground.
Aurelia’s vision changed. The forest vanished. She saw herself as a thousand different people. Living a thousand lives. Then one by one, an iron-faced beast devoured her in every life. Until she ceased to exist.
The strange woman picked up the blood and dirt. Rolled it together. Then crushed it between her fingers. The dirt circle became a ring of golden light and burst into a massive fire.
Aurelia regained her vision. The forest blazed around her. She wasn’t helpless. She wasn’t primitive. She was free.
“You are a true Akkadian,” the woman said. “Your first act of great power was to destroy rather than to create. Continents and oceans come and go because of misguided Akkadians. Do you want to be like them?”
“No,” Aurelia said. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“You are burning my home to a crisp as we speak,” the woman said. “If you don’t want to hurt anyone, stop the flames before they consume everything.”
Eve watched the animals rushing out of their home. “Aurelia, stop it! Get control of yourself!”
“Will you let the world suffer while you learn to use your power?” the old woman shouted. “Fix my forest now!”
The flames bent towards Aurelia. She pulled them into her body. Clouds of smoke turned into large raindrops.
“Now fix it,” the woman demanded. “Fix what you destroyed.”
Aurelia put her hand on the charred bark of an oak tree. It was hot enough to burn her. She pulled her hand away. The woman grabbed Aurelia’s hand and pressed it against the tree. Little green sprouts, yellow flowers, and new leaves grew around her fingers.
“The forest needs time to heal,” the woman said. “For an Akkadian, creation, and destruction are equal. Intentions are everything. Now go home. Someone frightening might step out of the darkness and devour both of you. Where are your guardians? Didn’t you say they are looking for you?”
“I’m not leaving,” Aurelia said. “Tell me what you did.”
The old woman brushed herself off and retreated towards the darkness. “Don’t let the rage consume you. You have a kind heart. Keep it that way. I ask one thing in return. Please don’t speak about me. Your Community will search the forest, and I enjoy my privacy.”
Aurelia looked up. Two large owls circled over the burned trees. They swooped down to the forest floor. Eve’s guardians took their natural form. Then Romhilda appeared.
“Well, I expected at least one of you to be dead,” Romhilda said. “Aurelia, did you do this?”
“I did,” Aurelia said. The smile grew on her face. “I also put out the fire and tried to fix the damage. I need to work more on the last part.”
Romhilda had a curious look in her eye as they returned to Enki. Aurelia did her best to tell Sophia a half-truth. Sophia pretended to be proud about what should have been a self-taught lesson.
It was foolish of Aurelia to believe she can lie to a Telesthia. Sophia stayed silent. She could not change what happened. She sat in the library, wondering how that hideous woman found Aurelia. Romhilda sat next to her. “Why the sad face? Aurelia finally showed her potential. It was exceptional for an Akkadian her age. You should’ve seen it.”
“That is why I am worried,” Sophia said. “I tried to protect Aurelia from herself, but it seems I failed. Cyrus was right about her. He will use Semarah to mold and shape our girl into something she isn’t. Now, more than ever, we must dedicate ourselves to her training.”