Will It Come Back
by Owen Rehling
Ellery sank down to her knees and grabbed a fistful of the strange dust. Expecting it to be coarse, she was surprised to find it thin like a powder. There was barely any sensation of touch, let alone time for it to slip through her fingers before a gentle breeze carried it away. Grabbing for another pile, her fingertips scraped against the earth below. Deathly dry and veined with cracks, the sudden roughness she had expected from the dust sent shivers up her arms. Still, Ellery felt compelled to continue pawing at the ground. What used to be a forest of trees, taller than any building she had ever seen, was now a wasteland.
Gideon stood behind her, usually alight with talk, he held a grim silence and kept his hands tucked in the pockets of his driving coat. When they were younger, their family would vacation here for a week or so during the summer. Ellery remembered loving how self-contained the forest was. Rather than an increasing density of trees, the flat, grassy fields suddenly gave way to a mass of vegetation. The trunk of each tree was easily thirty yards in diameter and around
fifty stories tall. The bark swirled up the base in spiraling patterns and branches curled and bent in all manner of unusual shapes. During the day, the leaves in the foliage provided the perfect amount of shade. At night however, they seemed more welcoming to the moonlight and allowed it to illuminate the forest base as if it was always the brightest part of twilight. Ellery had never climbed high enough to inspect the top-most leaves, but it was plainly obvious that they (and the rest of the trees) were overflowing with magic.
It had been six years since she and her family were last able to visit. Gideon was four years older than her, and the only one out of the two of them who could actually use magic. He needed to devote more time studying with their parents, and that left Ellery’s family little time for leisure. Now, kneeling in the ashes of the forest, Ellery couldn’t help but be a little mad at him.
“How did this happen?” she asked, breaking the silence.
Gideon looked as though he was choosing his words carefully. “There have been some… developments since you last visited me. Did you hear about that new Zeppelin model that Van Brine Infusions debuted last year?”
Ellery nodded; it wasn’t like Gideon to beat around the bush like this.
“They got that sucker off the ground, and then up and out of the city walls in five minutes flat. I actually saw it on my way back from a delivery.”
Gideon had been living out their shared dreams of piloting a freelance shuttle in New Agatha. He saved up enough money for his own small rig and took work moving cargo and passengers. Turning to look at him, she saw it again sitting in the dust behind him. It looked rather simplistic, colored in a pale, rusting yellow. Its main body was a flat, rectangular deck surrounded by a waist-high metal wall. Straps for tying down boxes hung loosely from the handrails. Gideon piloted the shuttle in the back by syphoning his magic directly into an engine that was covered in protruding levers and switches. When it was on, it would hover a few feet of the floor and give off a low, whirring hum. Since Ellery could never have her own shuttle, she had been counting the days until she would be able to work with Gideon. Though, now, it seemed to be the least important thing to her.
“A new blimp did this?”
“Not exactly. The ship was impressive, sure, but it was the power source that really caught people’s attention.”
“Gideon, just get to the point already. Look at this place. What about a new engine could destroy a forest like that?
“Elly, please, there’s a lot to explain and even I still don’t know how it works. After the ship landed, they came out and started talking about a ‘stockpile engine,’ something their Magioneers have been working on. Apparently, they found a way to store up a bunch of magical energy and pump it through the ship without using a spell.”
“What, like without a Caster telling it what to do?
“Kind of, they still need someone to pilot it, but they can be totally independent from the power source.”
“But… only five minutes? That must take a lot of energy, where do they get it from?”
Gideon fell silent. Before he even had a chance to gesture behind her, Ellery was already turning back to the dust.
“That’s not possible, it’s not like coal or oil, they can’t just take it…”
Gideon’s voice fell a little, “Somehow they can. They found out that if there’s enough raw magic concentrated in an area, they can just… pump it out of the ground. No one expected it to leave things like this, though.”
Ellery turned back to look at Gideon again. His face had been grim all the way over here, no doubt he remembered the forest fondly too. Now, he looked like the landscape had chipped away the last of his resolve. Whatever distaste he had was now giving away to a kind of numbness. She wondered, in bewilderment, if he had already started to forget:
When they were both still kids, and the forest was still intact, Gideon would always challenge Ellery to see who could climb higher on the tree that they always camped under. They would wait until their Mom and Dad fell asleep before they quickly and quietly scampered up its base. The spiraling bark provided easy footholds, and the twisting branches offered plenty of places for them to perch and rest. Still though, fifty stories were no laughing matter and one of them would always chicken out. Each year became a competition of improvement. Gideon always won. Even though he promised not to use magic, Ellery would catch him levitate ever so slightly or ‘coerce’ a rigid branch to bend closer to him. He could have tried harder to conceal it, but he already had the advantage. Why not be a little careless?
Without magic, Ellery could only bank on being gutsier than him. On their last trip, she climbed higher than she had ever climbed before, passed even Gideon’s greatest height. She turned to jeer at him when he pleaded her to stop, and her foot slipped off the branch. The fear had shocked Ellery into silence, and she remembered Gideon trying to reach out his hand and save her with a spell. She was in total freefall for one second before landing on a platform of small branches perfectly her size.
In all her years of climbing that tree, Ellery had made a point of memorizing every handhold available to her. There were branches that formed perfect right angles and others that corkscrewed out like the tail of a pig. Those branches had never been there before. Gideon feigned some story about summoning up the power in that terrifying moment to save her, but they both knew that it he wasn’t that good. Ellery barely got to know what magic that forest had left to reveal. Now, it was gone. That tree and the others like it swirled lifelessly in a heap of ash. Something inside of Ellery wanted to cry, but she was becoming too angry to cry.
Gideon’s voice pulled her out of her thoughts, “I tried to get you out here before they finished, but I didn’t think they’d be done so fast. Sorry Elly, I know you probably wanted to see it as it was one last time.”
“How long did it take them?”
“Well, I pass by here every now and then. I noticed a bunch of the drills that Van Brine used moving out that way about three weeks ago.”
“What? Three weeks? It took them less then a month to clear it out?”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t faster, if I had known that it would have taken this long—”
“If you had known!” Ellery laughed, “did anyone even try to stop it when it all started to dry up?”
“I mean, a few people raised some concerns, but in the face of what this magic can do? Elly, it’s only been a year, but things are moving quickly. As of now, things are going to get easier for people.”
“How many people know about this?”
“I don’t know, Elly. Not too many people have been as close as we are, but—”
“If people knew about this then they would take a few steps back. They would stop this.”
“Let’s go home, ok? There is nothing more we can do here.”
“If they knew—”
“They would be upset, yes, but it wouldn’t be enough to stop this. It’s the next big step, Ellery. By the time people figure out what happened here, someone who has never cast a spell before will have flown their first airship. After that, people won’t care about the cost because they’ll never want to go back to the way things used to be. So, I’m sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”
Ellery scoffed in annoyance as she turned away from him. As angry as she felt, another look at the dead landscape caused a larger pang of sadness to bubble up. “I know you said that it’s all still so new, but do you think it could come back?”
Gideon was silent for a while. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t think anyone from Van Brine stopped to think about that before they ripped it out by force.”
Ellery sighed, running her hands through her hair in frustration and exhaustion.
“Listen, I know you liked this place as a kid, we both did, but I’m suffering from this too. If these engines get picked up by shuttles, I’m out of a job.”
“What can I do If anyone can pilot a Shuttle or a Zeppelin because of this engine? What’s left for me?”
“Gideon, you can use magic! You have always been able to use magic. This forest was the closest I ever got to knowing what it’s like to have magic and at the end of the day you’re worried about your job? What happens if you can’t use anymore magic after all of it’s been taken and used up?”
“Elly, that’s not what I—”
“What happens if it all gets used and you can still use magic? What’s left for you?!
“Elly, hold on, I didn’t mean that.”
Ellery walked sharply passed Gideon and even farther beyond his shuttle, “I’m going back,” she yelled over her shoulder.
“Going back? Elly, it took us two hours to get here on my shuttle, you’d be walking the rest of the day.”
“I don’t care, I can’t even think about riding in that right now.”
“You do remember that I’m still powering this one, right?”
She whipped back to face him, “and do you remember how badly I’ve wished that I could do that? Do you know that a tiny part of me kind of hopes that this keeps happening?”
Ellery pointed again at the dried lands, “As awful as this is, some part of me would still leap at the chance to drive my own shuttle, to do what you can. But, I can’t so I won’t. Not if it means ruining the magic that I already have. So, you can take your shuttle back to the city by yourself, because this is how it has to be for me.”
Ellery didn’t give Gideon any time to respond before she turned away from him. Instead, she prepared herself for the difficult road ahead of her. The evening light was fast approaching, and there was no guarantee that she would reach New Agatha before sundown. Behind her, she could here Gideon start his shuttle. She knew that he didn’t want to leave her behind, but now she knew that he wouldn’t try to stop her.
OWEN REHLING is an aspiring writer studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. No matter what he tries to write about, death usually comes up in some capacity. Follow his scarce tweets about nothing important @OwenRehling on Twitter.