Chapter 3: Immunity Two

The hand stroked his cheek softly before proceeding to brush aside a few loose curls.

Micah closed his eyes into the affectionate touch, never feeling as warm nor as comfortable as he did just then. Through the warm, fire-like haze, he was able to discern that he was dreaming.

It was one of those dreams again.

The dreams that made him feel so good, but disenchanted at the same time. No matter how much he tried to control the dream, he wouldn’t wake up until the flames engulfed him.   

His body was tiny as it sat upon the man’s lap.

“What did you do today, Ezra?”

But that voice.

Even after years of dreaming about it, the voice always sent a startling thrill down his spine. It wasn’t a deep baritone, but rather softer, almost menacing in quality and every bit serpentine. Many would find the voice alluring and captivating, a weapon in its own right.

Micah opened his eyes, squinting at the desk in front of him.

There were so many rolls of parchment scattered about.

He couldn’t focus on one document in particular. In his child’s mind, all the words blended together. There was no hope in discovering this man’s secrets. Regardless, he doubted such captivating mysteries would be recorded through the written word.

“Swimming,” Micah replied softly with the voice of a child. “I hate swimming.”

The man chuckled. “You’re part Igni, child, of course you don’t like the water. You would like the desert climate.” His fingers ruffled Micah’s hair. “If you don’t like swimming then what do you like to do?”  

“I like to play games,” Micah proclaimed proudly.

“My, my, what a coincidence.” The fingers stopped combing through his hair. With an embrace from behind, the man gathered Micah closer and placed his lips near the child’s ear. “I also like playing games.”

“Really? What kind of games?”

Bright, naïve eyes craned back in order to catch a glimpse of his uncle. All he could see was the single black braid slung over a broad shoulder and the dark, majestic jacket.

“What kind of games?” the man repeated pensively. “Well, that depends on my opponent. I like challenging games. I enjoy making things happen through the actions of other people. The stronger the opponent, the sweeter the taste of victory.”

Back then, as he was just a child, Micah had never understood his uncle.

Now, he was able to discern Josiah’s words as the words of a master manipulator and a very cruel individual. While Micah was aware of the basic forms of manipulation, something told him he would never be able to dethrone a master at the game.

“Oh.” The child-Micah sighed in frustration at his uncle’s complicated response. “I like playing hide-and-seek. No one can beat me. Even the caretakers can’t find me for bath time. Would you like to play with me?”

Finally, he wiggled enough out of Josiah’s embrace to look at his captor face-to-face.

Looking past the handsome, but cold features, Micah gaped at the eyes. They rivaled the color of the strongest and fiercest flames, somehow appearing even more concentrated when they looked at Micah.

White teeth clenched into a smile and Josiah shook his head.

“No. It wouldn’t be fair to you.” He tightened his arms around Micah. “In the end, no matter where you hide from me, I will find you.”

The scene changed again and Micah stifled a scream when the fire surrounded him. The heat was unbearable. He feared it even more than he feared the water. Suddenly, through the flames, a sure hand reached out to grab him, to save him, to—

“Micah!”

He jerked awake and flinched from his mother’s reaching hand.

She appeared startled, but her expression warmed into one of understanding. “You need to get up,” Ember insisted. “You have to get to work.”

Micah squinted at her, rolling on his side to peer at the wristwatch. His stomach plummeted when he realized he was going to be late. Scrambling from the pile of blankets, he stripped from his flannel pants and pulled on his trousers.

“Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”  

Ember sat on the edge of her mattress, her face pale. “I just woke up myself.”

After lacing his combat boots, Micah stood and threw on his black tunic. He grabbed his desert cloak, hesitating, before looking at his mother from over his shoulder. In a moment of devotion, he wrapped it around her frail shoulders.

Cool mornings usually warranted a cloak, but his mother needed it more than he did.

“Maybe you should get some fresh air,” he suggested mildly. “Staying cooped up in this hole probably isn’t doing you much good. Just stay warm.”

His mother smiled and touched his hand with her cold fingers. “You are too sweet.”

He smirked past the cynicism. No one would be inclined to agree with that portrayal, least of all her. “I’ll bring you home some lunch,” he promised. “And I’ll pick up a few groceries with today’s pay. We can make a good dinner tonight.”

Micah removed his hand from her shoulder and hurried to the door.

“Say hello to Master Idris for me, won’t you?”  

Without responding, Micah raced out the door and down the dark underground complex. It took only three bounds up the flight of stairs before he reached the streets of Region 20.  

Despite it being early morning, there were several people roaming the marketplace and searching for goods. He bypassed the wagon of tomatoes and the over-exuberant vendors, his mind so preoccupied, he nearly collided with a pair of worshipers as they left trinkets for the mural of the desert serpent drawn on the side of a store.

Micah glanced at the black serpent. It was the Fire God’s spirit animal, and though Micah did not believe in Agni, he had to appreciate the talent of the artist and the sheer dedication of the Igni people for leaving offerings when they already possessed so little.

He turned back forward, mulling over the dream he had this morning.

The memories weren’t anything new. He always had dreams about his father or Josiah.

However, this dream was disquieting. He didn’t know if Josiah had truly said those things, or if Micah’s imagination had conjured up the ending conversation. If Josiah could really find Micah no matter where he hid, as his dream-self boasted, then he would have found Micah a long time ago.

Whatever the reason for his dream, it was best to keep an extra eye out.  

Slowing, Micah came to a steady stop in front of the tavern.

Like all the other establishments in Region 20, the tavern’s structure was barely standing and built mostly underground. There was no sign over the door, yet the locals didn’t need signs and Region 20 hardly received outside visitors.

Assertively, Micah walked inside and slid the door shut behind him. The darkness engulfed him and it took him a moment to adjust his eyes to the dim lighting.

“You’re late.”  

Hardly fazed at the deep, gruff voice, Micah gracefully descended the steps that led into the underground tavern. “It won’t happen again, sir,” he responded promptly.

His charmed yellow eyes swept the length of the tavern, observing his surroundings.

While a few tables dispersed across the floor, the majority of the seating was at the long, curved bar. Typically, at this hour, no one was drinking.

This morning was an exception.

The patron at the bar wore a deep, hooded cloak and did a suspiciously good job of keeping in the shadows. Considering the figure sat close to Micah’s boss, Idris, it was probably one of the old man’s shady acquaintances from the war. While cagey, Micah was quite used to the occurrence.

His master was a high-ranking officer in the Unda/Igni war. Seeing as Idris had fought for the Igni Empire, the losing side, it was understandable he would have rebel friends wanted by Unda’s elite.

“Where have I heard that line before?” Idris growled out. “You say it daily!”

Micah remained impassive as he ducked behind the bar. “I’ll work overtime,” he insisted quietly.

After so many years, he firmly believed his cool composure was what made an alliance with Idris possible. Micah’s serenity seemed to balance out Idris’ fiery disposition.

“How the hell can you work overtime if we’re supposed to spar this evening? That doesn’t count as overtime, boy.”

Two years ago, Micah had stumbled across Idris by chance. He’d been looking for work, hoping to get his hands on any extra gold he could find. Despite Micah’s young age, Idris had allowed him to work at his tavern. However, if Micah had anything to say about it, Idris only let him work at the tavern as a favor to Ember, his not-so-subtle infatuation.

The first time Micah was rejected from Concordia Academy, Idris offered to give Micah sparring lessons after work. They started with staffs and eventually progressed to swords. What started with one or two lessons a week advanced to five days a week.

Micah leaned against the counter next to Idris and sized up the tall, brute-like man.

“I’ll scrub the floors, but I can’t spar after work today.”

Idris ran a hand through his greying beard, staring at Micah with a cantankerous glower. “What can you possibly be doing that’s more important than sparring?”

Raising a haughty eyebrow, Micah challenged Idris’ heated stare with icy nonchalance. “I have some personal matters to take care of.”

Idris didn’t need to know about his mother’s worsening condition. It would just make things uncomfortable.

Micah studied Idris closely, easily noting the man’s anxious air. Whenever Idris was on edge, he tended to grow irritable. Looking for the source of his unease, Micah spied the long object wrapped in cloth underneath the counter.  

Clearly, the mysterious stranger at the bar delivered it to Idris.

Angling his head toward the foreigner, Micah locked eyes with nothing but bottomless darkness.

He frowned, not particularly pleased that he couldn’t see the man’s face underneath the hood. For all he knew, the stranger could be an old man or even a high-ranking member in Concordia’s capital.

Nonetheless, Micah would need to tread sensibly around this stranger, especially when Idris also seemed unsettled by the man’s presence.

His pale eyes landed on the bottle of wine next to the stranger’s tumbler. Flashing a victorious smirk, Micah leaned against the bar across from the cloaked-figure and reached for the onyx wine bottle. He had ways to narrow down this man’s identity.

“Ever since I started working here, this bottle of wine has gathered dust.”

Though Micah couldn’t see underneath the man’s hood, he was aware of the stranger’s undivided attention. He leaned closer against the bar, casually trying to catch a peek underneath the hood and feeling extremely uneasy with each inch closer.

His curiosity was too great to suppress.

“I imagine you’re from the capital,” Micah continued, entirely undaunted with the lack of response. “We don’t get many visitors from that far out.”  

Idris cleared his throat next to Micah. “Don’t pry, boy!” he admonished harshly. “He’s here on my behalf.”

Micah swept his eyes across the stranger’s cloak, noticing the fine weaving. The finery of the cloak and the expensive wine had Micah deducing that this was someone a bit more treacherous than he had originally believed.

Maybe this wasn’t one of Idris’ old, rebel acquaintances. Maybe this was someone that Idris felt obliged to serve because of the difference in social class.

Immediately releasing the bottle of wine, Micah retreated casually, but quickly.

Was this what his subconscious was trying to tell him? Did Josiah’s men find out his location? It was certainly a possibility, but Micah didn’t want to jump to conclusions or draw attention to himself. Ember wasn’t in any condition to move to another region.

Just as he was about to duck into the backroom, Idris called him out.

“Micah, catch.”

Turning in time, Micah reached out instinctively and caught the clothed, rod-like object that had rested underneath the bar. The weight was familiar, but he made no move to unravel the cloth.

Instead, he looked imploringly at his master.   

“It’s a gift for you. A congratulation on being accepted into Concordia Academy. I was going to give it to you tonight, but you had to make things difficult.”

A gift.

Micah blinked down at the object in his clenched fist. Besides his mother, he couldn’t remember a time someone had gone out of their way to present him with a gift. He tried to keep face, but he didn’t know if he succeeded.

“I haven’t been accepted into the academy yet,” he rebuffed uncomfortably.

It was two weeks ago that Micah had worked on his application with Keegan Flint. They had mailed their submissions together, still not hearing back as of yet. Both his mother and Idris seemed to believe this time was it. This time, he’d be accepted.

Idris shrugged once, his face dismissive. “Just open the damn gift, kid.”

Not needing to be told twice, Micah untied the string, pulling the cloth away from a beautiful, but familiar sword.

After unsheathing it, Micah cupped his palms underneath the sterling-silver blade, marveling at the sheen and the flawless perfection. It had the familiar face, the familiar serpent-like hilt with the familiar emerald gemmed-eyes. It was entirely Igni-crafted, with white gold trimming around the serpent pommel, but… it couldn’t be…

“But this… this is your…—”

“It is,” Idris acknowledged, watching as Micah absorbed the weight and feel of the blade. “It’s the sword I used in the last war. My friend here is a blacksmith at the capital and fixed it up for me.” He motioned toward the hooded figure at the bar. “I never missed my target with this blade. Neither should you.”

It wasn’t easy for Micah to be impressed or grateful, but he could comfortably admit when he felt flattered. During their lessons, he had always admired Idris’ sword.

As he looked up, however, he immediately perceived the strain in Idris’ expression.

He faltered. Unsure.

“I can’t accept this, Master.”

“Nonsense,” Idris argued. The tension around his eyes cleared and he smiled roguishly. “You’re the best student I’ve had the opportunity of teaching, boy. I would be honored if you would take it and use it on your own journey.”  

“Thank you, Master Idris.” Overwhelmed, Micah bowed low at the waist, keeping his head down until he recovered. He refused to show weakness in front of his master, in front of anyone. He certainly wouldn’t want Idris to see his deplorable appreciation.

Idris chuckled, nudging his palm against Micah’s bowed head.

“None of that,” he admonished affectionately. “Go wash the dishes. There is a mess back there from last night.”

Before Micah had a chance to respond, the tavern door opened with a loud bang. He straightened abruptly, feeling the unease wash him cold.

Something wasn’t right.

Attentively, he gazed up at the door, observing the young boy as he clambered down the stairs with vigorous leaps and bounds.

“They’re here!” The boy exclaimed breathlessly. Fear and excitement danced across the boy’s cherub features as he stumbled to a stop in front of the bar. He gazed at Idris. “Guards from the capital are here, in Region 20! Royal guards even! King Josiah!”

Micah swallowed his bile, noticing Idris appeared just as horror-struck. His master turned his gaze on the hooded figure at the bar, his anger obvious and potent.

“What are you playing at?” Idris accused sharply.

Micah quickly attached his sword holster around his waist, placing his hand on the hilt for a swift draw. He’d be a fool to overlook the way the tavern’s atmosphere darkened, the uneasiness originating from the stranger at the bar.

The man bowed his head.

With long, tapered fingers, he caressed the bottle of expensive wine. Those were the fingers of a high noble, not a blacksmith. One of the fingers in question lifted and pointed at Micah.

“You have outlived your usefulness. The boy is trained and ready.”

Despite the cold, sinking sensation, it really was unsurprising.

To hear him.

To see him here.

The tavern door opened a second time with exceptional vigor. Micah shifted his stance, defensive, on edge. Heavy boots from numerous bodies trekked down the stairs, nearly causing the whole underground tavern to tremor as they blocked the only exit. The child was right. Their deep, crimson robes signified their allegiance to Concordia royalty.

To Josiah specifically.

There were rumors that favored members of the military climbed the ranks and mysteriously disappeared to become royal guards. Their work was shroud in mystery as they carried out direct orders from Calder or Josiah.  

One of the guards, who was clearly the captain, inclined his head towards Idris.

“Idris,” the man drawled the name with scorn, as if he were personally affected by the bartender’s very presence. “It’s been too long.”

The captain was of Igni descent. His long, black hair was pulled into a high ponytail, the traditional hairstyle for elite and decorated soldiers. For being in the position of such power, the man was young and drenched with egotism and pride.

Micah felt his chest constrict with disgust.

These men wore wealth and entitlement like a second skin.

Idris stood shell-shocked, regarding the captain with single-minded intensity before refocusing on the cloaked figure Micah knew to be Josiah. His hard, weathered features were set, twisted into a semblance of disorientation.

“I thought we had a deal,” Idris growled with accusation.

Josiah cocked his head to the side, a gesture of mock consideration. “We did. I gave you the option of immediate execution or the chance to train him. You chose the latter.” He chuckled insincerely. “Did you think, by choosing to train Micah, that your treachery would be excused? Forgiven? You simply prolonged it.”

Standing, Josiah lowered his hood with intentional slowness.

A sly, conceited smirk settled faintly across the man’s lips. Deep, fathomable eyes regarded Micah with attentive obsession. His stare was bright, focused, the eyes of a predator, of a master manipulator who finally unveiled his prized marionette.

Despite the fear for both his mother and himself, Micah raised his chin and met the stare. He wasn’t a young child anymore. Josiah did not intimidate him. This was the man he was destined to dethrone, to outsmart.

Josiah smiled thinly, seemingly thrilled at Micah’s direct challenge.

“You worked for Josiah?” Micah asked Idris, tearing his eyes away from the Igni king to look at his master. “All this time?”

If what Josiah said was true, that meant that the Igni king had quietly tracked Micah’s movements for quite some time. After all these years, moving village to village, he and his mother believed they were covering their tracks and shaking off possible surveillance. It was quite possible Josiah had dictated their movements from the start.

Turning his cheek on the enemies before them, Idris’ expression tempered.

“I had no choice,” he responded quietly. “But it didn’t change anything, Micah.”

That was all Micah needed to hear.

He wasn’t naïve. Many people were often manipulated into doing things against their will. In Idris’ case, he would have been executed if he hadn’t agreed to teach Micah how to use a sword. But that hadn’t changed all the good deeds Idris had done for Micah and his mother.

He tightened his hand on his sword, deciding to defend Idris.

Moreover, as much as Micah loathed considering it, he was Josiah’s Chosen. Such information was useful and it gave him an advantage. As long as Josiah had a sliver of interest in increasing his level of power, he needed Micah alive to accomplish it.

“Endearing,” Josiah mocked, looking between Idris and Micah. “I’d hate to drive a wedge between the two of you, but I’m afraid it’s time to part ways.” He turned his shoulder on the bartender. “I will be waiting outside. Finish the job.”

“Yes, My Lord.”

Micah hardly had time to marvel at the man’s nerve before the four guards shifted, their eyes focused exclusively on Idris. The captain held out his hand, an aura of immense power shifting across the small, underground tavern.

Idris had no chance of fleeing, not against a fire Elemental.

Micah stepped closer, reluctant to use his power, but grudgingly understanding it was the only way to protect Idris. Mirroring his enemy’s posture, Micah raised his arm, his hand pointing toward the captain as an act of challenge.   

The captain paused.

Even Josiah glanced over from the top of the stairs, aloofly intrigued.

“Micah,” Idris cautioned. “Do not—”

“Run, you idiot,” Micah hissed, keeping his eyes on the amused captain.

“Silly boy,” the captain goaded with a haughty air. “What do you think you could possibly do? You aren’t an Elemental. Step aside before you hurt yourself.” Behind him, the other guards shifted, merriment evident across their expressions.

Micah held on to his anger and harnessed his hatred.

These people were animals. Mere cattle.

The captain then dismissed Micah by refocusing on Idris as the man withdrew a dagger from his back pocket. Though it was such a small, insignificant weapon against Elementals, Micah knew his master could and would cause a significant amount of damage.

“Don’t you know alcohol and fire don’t mix, Master Idris?”

Idris did not flee as Micah requested.

Rather, he lunged toward the guards with a throaty, desperate growl.  

Micah exhaled with frustration and hurriedly moved alongside Idris. He sprinted to gain momentum and leaped high enough to land on top of the bar. As his boots slammed on the counter, glass shattered piercingly across the tavern before raining to the ground.

Surprisingly, Idris bypassed the captain of Josiah’s guards, the easiest target of the group. Instead, he downed an unsuspecting guard by throwing a dagger into the man’s temple. Pivoting and dancing on his heels, the old Igni warrior withdrew another dagger from his sleeve, immediately becoming the subject of the captain’s ire.

Hands twisting with elaborate movement, the captain sent a wall of flames toward Idris’ dodging and twisting form.   

Taking it as his cue to intervene, Micah thrust out his hand and focused. He’d only practiced a few times with his mother, who was also a fire Elemental. Yet she was an Elemental years out of practice, and this was a full-fledged and powerful warrior.

His worry was for naught, for as soon as he reached for the cold, it washed through him and froze the adrenaline in his body.

Gradually, the wall of flames conjured by the captain slowed their advance.

The tavern dropped in temperature and the flames slowly transformed into a wall of frost. The chunk of ice groaned loudly as it thickened to its core, eventually turning into a frozen sculpture of earthy flames.

“An ice Elemental!”

“Impossible!”

“Fools, there is no such thing!”

Micah dropped his arm and the sheet of ice crashed to the ground.

Hardly waiting for the shock of his enemies to wear off, Micah jumped off the bar, the sound of his feet hitting the floor muffled out by the endless shattering of ice. He unsheathed his sword, and with a flash of silver, the blade swung expertly at the captain.

The sword, recently sharpened, eagerly honed in on its target. Micah braced his weight on his front leg, bending only slightly at the waist, a perfect finishing posture to his sword execution. The arm that held his sword extended and angled behind his back, having just finished concluding its swing.

Behind him, a soft thump could be heard as his enemy’s hand fell to the ground.

A breath.

Two.

The captain suddenly screamed in sheer fury.

Through lowered lashes, Micah watched as another wall of flames came at him. This time, without having to worry about Idris, Micah dropped to the ground, positioning his sword just right in order to execute a tight roll.

As soon as he finished his tumble, he leaped from the ground, gaining extra height and momentum. Without any sort of hesitation, and only a slight grin of exhilaration, Micah flew through the flames unharmed, his sword trained on his enemy on the other side.

Warmth tickled his skin as the flames embraced him. True to his birthright, however, he was immune to the power of both water and fire Elementals.

As he emerged from the other side of the flames, he witnessed the white, horror-stricken face of his prey.  

“Fool,” Micah breathed, ecstatic as he landed gracefully on his feet. “Not so special now that your Element doesn’t work, are you?”

He quickly twirled his blade around and slammed the hilt of his sword against the guard’s temple.

“Remarkable, extremely impressive,” Josiah praised, his unobtrusive voice somehow cutting through the commotion of the tavern and freezing his men in an instant.

Micah whirled around, watching as the Igni king glided down the set of stairs. The man’s eyes were aflame as they avidly appraised Micah. There was hardly any concern for his fallen men and only extreme excitement over what Micah had to offer in terms of power, of sheer talent.

“Unfortunately, as much as I would admire watching you further, I am pressed for time. And Master Idris’ execution is well past its due date.” His raven-colored braid curled over his shoulder as he turned his attention to Idris.

Josiah lifted a long-fingered hand and a subtle glow encircled his fingertips.

Wisps of white light interweaved seductively around Micah’s feet. He backtracked, alarmed, never having encountered magic being performed. This was not Elemental magic. This was sorcery, real magic that originated from Noir Users.

Before Micah had time to react, his body weakened considerably. His hand trembled uncontrollably in effort to remain clutching his sword. Unfortunately, the magic was stronger. As the weapon clattered to the ground, he followed soon after.   

He lay there. His mind and body were shocked.

The guards, the ones still conscious, jeered at Micah’s sudden immobility, though Josiah was quick to silence them.

Pressing his cheek to the ground, he remained helpless as Idris stood unmoving above him, his chin lifted high as he accepted his fate. Josiah wasted no time conjuring up a blue flame, before promptly tossing it in Idris’ direction.

Micah squeezed his eyes shut, feeling something akin to grief as he watched his mentor crumble vulnerably to the ground.

From Ember’s teachings, he recognized the purple flame as a simple, but effective way to kill and torture a victim. The flame was small, yet it carried a substantial amount of heat. The victim’s internal organs would gradually burn away.

It would be a few minutes, maybe even an hour before the victim passed away.

Each second alive would be an endless hell they couldn’t escape.

As the guards discussed the fate of the child, who still cowered in the corner of the tavern, Micah reached towards his mentor.

Hoping he didn’t catch his enemy’s attention, he dropped his hand upon Idris’ scarred and wounded chest. Clearing his mind proved to be a challenging feat considering Idris’ deafening screams, but he somehow managed.  

While Micah was a child born to both a powerful water and fire Elemental, he had never inherited his parents’ powers. In fact, he wasn’t even sure he was an ice Elemental.

He was just gifted with the power of immunity, that’s all.

When it came to healing, he had the gift to absorb the damage done to a victim like a typical water Elemental. Unfortunately, when he healed, he wasn’t immune to the Elemental magic as he would have been first handedly. Whatever pain, whatever damage was inflicted on the individual he was healing, would be transferred to Micah.

And he’d feel every bit of pain.   

Doubtless of the consequences, he stubbornly absorbed the heat from Idris’ chest. He’d practiced on his mother long enough to learn to absorb only the internal damage and not the superficial scars or wounds.

His breathing hitched when the flames engulfed his chest.

Idris stirred, his screams of pain beginning to lessen. He turned his head marginally, meeting Micah’s pain-filled eyes.

“My mother,” Micah rasped. “Look after her.”

Josiah would undoubtedly take Micah from Region 20. A part of him wanted to die from the pain before the Igni king had any chance of implementing whatever sick game he had in mind for Micah.

But above all else, no matter what happened to him, he wanted his mother safe.

Micah’s hand fell from Idris’ chest and he curled in on himself.

“D-don’t underestimate him,” Idris shakily warned. “Josiah is not who he says he is. The Magi, Micah, watch for the Magi—”

Whatever Idris meant to say was met by deaf ears.

Micah whimpered.

His lungs burned, his ribs roasted, and his heart beat frantically. He tried to hold it in, he tried to withstand the pain, but it was too much. With a high-pitched scream, Micah blacked out everything but the pain and the desperate hope that Idris would make it out alive.

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