Corbin had reached his limit.
Not only had he disappointed Voltaire, but he had ruined the one chance he had gotten to be something different than what everyone in the Highlands perceived of him. A spoiled, lazy brat of a boy, who didn’t belong there. Who didn’t know what he was doing and would ultimately die alone.
The mission had gone so poorly that Morain, the older lowlander child of the sanctuary, had died. While succeeding in saving the young circus dud, who had corrupted majick and was used as a spectacle, they had lost another kid, who had only had a few years of freedom from his past of injustice, before dying brutally due to negligence on Corbin’s part.
That, and the fact that he was basically worthless as a farmhand, led to Corbin abandoning Voltaire’s sanctuary, and left to wander the streets of Trent that night. Trent was a small town in the valley, nestled beside the abrupt cliffs that towered above. Corbin looked wistfully up towards the top of the plateau, seeing the Highland city lights that flared from the edge. He missed his home, The city of Valor.
But this was the Lowlands, and there was no way to get back up once you fell. While he was not a dud, and an actual highlander, Corbin would still face abuse at the hands of angry lowlanders who were furious at his kind. He couldn’t blame them after witnessing the terrible exploitation the highlands subjected to them in their large coastal city of Halbard, but now that he was back in Trent, and didn’t know how to hide his bright turquoise eyes without the majickal charm, he was afraid.
He had curled up between two brick buildings downtown, his hair greasy and his clothes filthy, tapping his wand—a sickle—against his leg. He had submitted to simply staying there until morning. The Lowlands had beasts of animals, and after seeing the large pet cats at the sanctuary, he was worried if he would find anything else crawling around in the long stretch of roads or farm fields. The ones at the farm may have been nice, but he doubted a wild one would be similar.
Rain soon started sprinkling. Corbin looked up at the sky between the two rooftops, and saw the gray clouds swirling above. He grunted, standing up and moving his sticky hair out of his face. Helplessly he stared forwards, his glossy, turquoise eyes reflecting the street lamp like cat eyes. It was starting to rain—he could see the freezing, sprinkling rain in the warm light.
Thunder rolled in the sky, flashes of lightning startling him slightly, making him flinch. His eyes locked onto a figure that appeared in the light of the lamp, suddenly scarlet, a bloody grin and a bright red stare. It vanished before it could get dark again, the light of the lightning faded.
Corbin was taken aback, fear filling his eyes. He cowered back into the alley, wondering if he was being hunted by the Highland police, or something. They would find that he was down here and they’d dip him in the water pool and drown him alive, or uh, something—he didn’t know what they did!
He shivered in the cold, running fingers through his sopping hair. He turned back to the wall of the alley, his feet stumbling over each other occasionally, walking with a clumsy step. Lightning flashed again. Corbin gazed in horror at the large shadow that towered over the wall, human shaped, with horns and wings.
“AUUGH!” He nearly fell backwards onto the wet ground. His boots skidded and kicked up water as he scrambled out of the alley, running down the Main Street of Trent. He felt like he was being watched, through the windows that he passed, through any sort of viewpoint the city offered. He kept running for a while. He couldn’t get caught, he couldn’t!
Maybe he was just paranoid. For a moment he stopped, gazing around the shop-lined brick road from the sidewalk, pondering if he was simply sleep deprived. He continued walking after a moment, realizing his eyes were glowing because of his nerves. That was not a good look here, or anywhere, really.
He kept his eyes peeled on the buildings. Their intricate architecture and the large signs in the windows looked inviting, and sadness filled him again. He wished he could stay. Voltaire could have used hi-
Corbin had stepped on a storm drain that dramatically broke underneath his weight. He screeched again as he fell, splashing into a wet ooze of brown, cloudy water. Corbin nearly vomited at the smell as his lower half was drenched. It smelled like an actual dumpster, ones that he would have seen in Halbard with their overflowing material and rotting food waste that rats scurried without fear in, a flea and parasite breeding ground from the depths of disgust. Except this was water, and probably a mix of defecation and urine. Not garbage, which wasn’t as tainted or disgusting, to him, as human waste was.
He wished he could cover his nose but his hands had already dipped into the sewage. He desperately looked up at the broken storm drain, and felt tears forming in his eyes. “HELP!” He cried. The sound echoed through the tunnels, with no response.
His terror became anger, wading indignantly through the cesspool. His day had already been terrible, why did it need to become worse? He hoped he could come to some kind of ladder, he could probably blast the opening off with Majick if the other one came off so easily.
After a while, the tunnel became smaller, the space where his head was getting lower. Corbin was getting stressed that he would have to turn back, but it opened up more as the water lowered and there was a sidewalk. He dragged himself out of the water, and onto it. Water dripped from his body as he got up, and it had stained the lower part of his shirt a disgusting, light brown color.
This has to lead somewhere, he thought desperately. He kept walking, trying to wave his hands around to dry the water off of them without having to touch any clean part of his body.
Eventually he came to a door, with three diamonds branded into it. A sign on the door read “Highland personnel only.’’ With those three words, Corbin stared in disbelief.
The Highlands had tunnels into the sewer systems. There was access between the two worlds. It made sense to him, yet he had never thought of how. Of course! The most hidden place would be underground. Just like the tunnels!
The door, while old looking, looked as if it was used commonly, with its varnished handles being rubbed off slowly, having similar wear of some of the doors used at his school. Corbin grabbed the knob, and felt his Majick get pulled into it. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but the door unlocked and he opened it cautiously.
Stairs. Stairs! He could go back home! He quickly ran up for a little ways, before remembering. Oh right. He would have to climb the elevation of an entire mountain. He slowed down.
This would be awhile.
The stairs were interrupted by a tunnel, scarcely lit with a majickal torch hanging on the wall that lit up with a turquoise flame as Corbin came into its range. The bumpy corridors, sandy floors and periodic thick planks of wood that held them up created an ominous feeling inside his head. Corbin would have to be careful in the underground tunnels; if an elite caught him here, he would be dead. He would have to stay inconspicuous.
His stomach twisted slightly as he tiptoed close to the wall, trying his hardest to see into the darkness. Even if he did see someone, he wouldn’t be able to hide anywhere! Every step was full of dread, and part of him wondered if he should just go back to Trent.
His feet hurt though, and he just wanted to see his own bedroom again. Even if the boarding school was the only thing he would return to, as he had no family. His heart sank slightly at the idea of sitting through the drag of classes again, being surrounded by his peers who all radiated arrogance and pride, and were mean to him for his bad performance. Not only that, but he would definitely be punished for his foolish actions the day before he fell off the cliff into the Lowlands. He enjoyed the humbleness of the Lowlands, and felt like he had finally related to people after 11 years of highland schooling.
But he continued, lifting his knees as the tunnels became slanted, with little wooden steps molded into the compact sand of the floor. The torches would magically light up his Majick color, turquoise, as he walked by, and as soon as he was out of a ten foot range, it would burn out again. Not only was it unnerving to have lights automatically reveal where he was wherever he went, it also was why he couldn’t go back, that right there. The lowlanders did not have Majick like him, and he would never be able to relate to them fully. He was, by definition, a highlander. Then again, maybe he didn’t belong anywhere.
Corbin continued walking without more thought. He would just upset himself again. The miserable feeling in his stomach was persistent, though his eyes stayed on the prize.
Corbin had been walking for almost an hour when he stopped and sat on his knees for a moment after a large incline. He had never been all that active, and the amount he was sweating was embarrassing. He wiped his face off with his shoulder, and after a moment, continued. He was breathing heavily, and his paranoia of being caught was increasing. Someone could find him at any moment, especially with how his wheezing self was making too much noise breathing.
He was about to rest again when he finally came across double doors, painted white with intricate carvings. Corbin’s heart burst with joy. Finally, civilization! He sighed with relief. He was glad the tunnels did not lead him to some dead end, or worse, somewhere not in the highlands he did not recognize. He walked over the door, jumping out of his skin when the two torches adjacent to the door belatedly lit themselves before gripping and turning the knob. He did not notice that the torches lit up with white flames instead of his blue-green.
He quickly opened and closed the door before actually turning to look at where he just entered. What the… It was a giant, enchanted library. It’s twisting shelves seemed to go up forever, eventually the sight of them disappearing into the never ending height of the room, shrouded in darkness, unable to be seen. Books upon books, and files upon files, were along the shelves, very neatly placed, not one fallen over.
He carefully stepped in, surrounded by books smelling old, immediately getting the feeling he wasn’t supposed to be here. That only made him more curious. He felt the still air grow significantly colder once he walked ten feet. Corbin paused for a second, swiveling around to look behind him. Was someone following him?
No, it didn’t seem like it. He sighed quietly, turning back around. Facing him was a red figure, the same one as before, flickering like a disrupted hologram. It met his eyes and grinned, and Corbin quickly screamed, tripping over his own feet, and turning so quickly he ended up falling backwards, his head hitting the ground with a thud.
“Gh-!” Corbin twitched as he woke.
“Salutations, young lad!” The red creature said, offering out a monsterous hand, shadowed and pointed. His build was that of a ghost, slightly transparent, with a sickly red glow. He had sharp elven ears, and large grinning teeth. The ghost had a small cape cloak, ending below his shoulders, and a flared out collar, connected by a diamond pin. His intimidating stance and outward, strange speech made Corbin backpedal quickly, stumbling backwards like a confused crab. “I’ve been seeking one such as thyself for one an’a half scores!”
He was in a different part of the bookshelf maze, as if he had been dragged there. It was dark, the only light being the dim red glow from the stranger’s body.
“Who are you!? Why have you been following me!?” Corbin snapped, pointing the curved sickle blade towards the figure’s neck. He simply raised an eyebrow, smirking.
“I am Ankhali! And I hath seen thou’s dreariest woes. Quite the pessimist, eh?” Ankhali chuckled to himself, taking a gloved hand and pushing the blade away from himself. His voice was declarational, loud and obnoxious with a strange pattern to it, like an old man from the early era trying to sound hip with the times. “Corbin! I hath failed time and time again, but finally found thy blood tie! You are tied to the depressed Lowlands, and that is where thou belong! Save them!”
“What in the good God are you going on about?” Corbin asked desperately, barely comprehending what this man was even saying, let alone what he meant by it.
“First thou must read my pride of a guide, thy sweet words, written of a feather, my journal!” Ankhali seemed to pull a book out of thin air, tossing it into Corbin’s chest. It was thick, as if it had been a normal, handmade book bound by string, except more and more pages kept on being added past its capacity, rather than being continued onto a different book. It had a clip on the front that kept it from exploding open, which looked like it was two seconds from breaking at any given time. “Shall tell you everything to know, yes yes!”
“Can you slow your roll? I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Corbin just stood there defeatedly, arms holding the book awkwardly, staring at this eccentric spirit like he had grown two heads.
“I must go now! So should you! All thou must know, is—seek the sanctuary again! They have sought for you in the fields of gold and by the cats, and yet thou hast abandoned them? Shame on you!” He spat angrily at Corbin, who’s eyes glittered at the news he was missed. “Go back now! Someone is on your tail!”
“What!?” Corbin turned around sharply, and was face to face with a silver-eyed boy.
“Corbin!” The boy stared at him, “You’re alive? I thought you were dead when you fell off the cliff!” He scrunched his nose. “Eugh, you sure smell dead—“
“I’m not dead, Killian!” Corbin looked behind him, but Ankhali was gone. The book was still in his arms, overfilled and leathery. “I need to go back!” His breath caught in his throat. Voltaire! Aw man, he was stupid! Why did he leave? As if he would get anything other than a severe punishment for coming back here!
“No, wait, why would you go back?” Killian cried, looking anxious and scared. His hair was a soft platinum, and his skin pale even in the absent light. “And—that’s the property of The Archives! You can’t take that! Lord Spectre would be so mad at you!” Lord Spectre, the leader of the Highlands and the Elites that ran it. Corbin shivered at the thought of being caught by such a man, which was a fear that was creating such a large chasm in his stomach that he was already thinking about how he could escape this situation.
“Why are you even here Killian? You have as much jurisdiction here as me! Which is—well, none! I-“ Corbin glanced around rapidly. His eyes glowed their turquoise as he saw a path of red dust behind Killian, leading through the shelves. Was Ankhali showing him the way out?
“I am training to become the-“ Corbin didn’t let the smaller boy finish, and simply pushed him into a bookshelf. He cried out in pain as some books fell on him, but Corbin was out of there. He grabbed the door handle and swung it open, revealing the old tunnel he had gone up. Follow the same path. He kicked up the red dust in his wake as he sped down the tunnel.
“Corbin!” He heard Killian’s voice echo through the corridors, and his heart spiked with anxiety. No, no no. Killian just revealed them both. Why would he do that?
Corbin tripped and slid down a steep sandy slope. He held his chin to his chest, his nose on the book he clutched tightly in his arms. Eww, why does it smell like a dead animal? No time to worry about that, He quickly got up, ignoring his sore bum and continuing down the corridors. Yeah, he definitely went left there. Right? Yeah, sure.
The way down was a lot faster than the way up.
He crawled out of the hole on the street he had initially fallen into. It was still raining, and he was still protectively clutching the book he had been given. He knew it was important—it had too much material, and he could smell how old it was. He crouched slightly, covering the book from the rain as he tirelessly walked in the direction of the sanctuary. It was almost morning, but the storm had persisted, swirling above as the occasional roll of thunder sounded. Any flash or loud noise was met by Corbin flinching out of paranoia, grumbling to himself afterwards about not being so cowardice.
The cold would not allow him to stop trembling, however. The rain soaked his clothes and hair further, the freeze sinking into his bones. He kept the book safe from the rain, as Ankhali’s words had given him some solace in his dread-filled head. Was Voltaire really looking for him? He couldn’t imagine it. His mind reminded him of how he pushed Killian into a shelf, and he felt bad, one could have hit him in the head.
Even if Killian pushed him off the cliff in the first place, he still felt he was above getting even.
He was truly ashamed, and started holding back tears. How did he get into this mess? He had abandoned everything he knew, probably for the last time. He hoped someone would take care of the plants in his dorm. Not like it would matter anyways. Now some weird spirit was talking to him and he truly couldn’t return to his old life.
He saw a large silhouette in the rain and fog, among the fields of dry grass. His eyes glowed, recognition piercing through his head.
“Corbin! Where were you? We were so worried about you!” Voltaire’s wife suddenly jumped off the large, horse-like Cheetah, bee lining to him, suddenly tackling him and wrapping him in her arms with a warm embrace. Despite everything, despite how he was once drenched with sewage water before rain, covered in sand that stuck to his skin and dusted his hair, Mabel was too kind of a woman to leave him without something kin to parental intimacy.
Why did he leave?
Voltaire jumped down afterwards, still holding the reins of the giant cat. Corbin stared at him fearfully from Mabel’s shoulder.
This was the man he had betrayed the previous dusk. Ghosting without a word, and now he would have to face him.
Corbin pulled away from the woman, his steps towards Voltaire echoing in the puddling rain. “Voltaire I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for such terrible things to happen, I really didn’t-“
Voltaire simply raised a hand. “You are just a boy, and this world is a dark place. Your negligence was my negligence.” He sighed, rubbing the tired bridge of his nose. The man was only 25, though his auburn hair, covered by a hat, was dull, and his face wrinkled by stress. “I’m more disappointed that you left.” His gaze hardened.
Corbin felt his heart drop into his stomach and his throat close up. He awkwardly tried to swallow, but found himself too stiff. “I want to make it up to you,” He began slowly, his voice shaking. He respected the man, which is why he deserved an explanation. “But I need you to know that I am not a good farmhand. I know your rules are to keep majick out of the farm, but I’m only useful with it. I’m not strong in my arms, I’m not good at this and I can’t be what you need.” His eyes dropped. He was still shaking from the cold, though now he couldn’t tell if it was just that, or from nerves.
Voltaire gazed at him, his stony face no different from its usual stance. Corbin simply stood in front of him, waiting for some kind of belated response, his eyes glowing their nervous turquoise as his chin pressed his chest.
“Son, you do not need to be anything for me to still be proud of you.” Voltaire said simply, his deeper voice soft. “You have talents that do not apply to this place, and that’s okay. You stood up to me just now and told me the brutal truth. I respect that, Corbin.”
Corbin paused, processing his words with a shaky breath.
“Now C’mon, you smell worse than the hogs! Let’s go back to the farm and get you washed.” Voltaire rubbed Corbin’s back somewhat forcefully, guiding him to the Cheetah. The gigantic, friendly cat huffed in his direction as he was helped onto the tall creature.
Once they were on the road, Corbin leaned into Voltaire’s back. The rain hit against his face brutally as they raced across the fields.
He found a place he belonged, and a place where he was wanted. Something he would never have gotten in the highlands.
And he would protect them, as best he could. Starting with the contents of this book.
Killian was standing next to Lord Spectre near the majickal, sacred pool. “So you saw him?” The short man asked. They were deep in the tunnels, alone, watching the hissing water reflect and glow across the cave walls.
“Yes, and he had a book. The book with the M symbol. It’s all old and stuffed to the brim,” Killian explained, his brow furrowing. He didn’t know what it was, but knew it was important. He had told the Lord about the interaction, since it felt…off. Maybe he was the reason Corbin was not coming home…his heart tugged slightly with guilt.
The short man’s eyes flashed with recognition at the mention of the book. “Your friend took it to the lowlands?” He seemed curious.
“Yessir,” Killian started getting a foreboding feeling. Maybe it was a bad idea to tell him? The Lord had unnerved him, as he was undead— his skin had turned into a greyed, dull brown, and his popped veins, pumping majick that was an array of color, could be seen running under his eyes like tears. Killian couldn’t stomach the sight of him, so he kept his eyes down at the water, their silver reflecting the glowing surface of the water. “And he—he said he didn’t want to come back.”
“Thank you for letting me know, it’ll have to be dealt with in a responsible manner,” Reagan Spectre smiled, bitterness behind his generally positive gaze. There was something there that Killian was missing, a piece of the older man’s life that Killian wasn’t there for. “don’t you worry about anything, Killian. Me and the other Elite’s will take care of it. Just focus on your training, you’ll be a great Elite one day.” The Lord stalked out of the room quickly, leaving Killian alone with his thoughts.
Killian was left feeling unsatisfied, seeking the knowledge he didn’t have. With Corbin in the lowlands, he wouldn’t ever be able to make it up to him. His only friend, yet a rival. He was utterly alone now, the loneliness seeping in, but the ambition in his heart still blazed furiously.
Time to focus on success, as he always had.