It all really begins in the winter.
It seldom snows in Aricus, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't drop to horrid temperatures. Hayden, fond of the country's usual heat and brightness, hides away in the library with Irene, both huddled by the fireplace in an attempt to chase away the cold. While Irene babbles off about the old novels and spell books she's found, Hayden is content to sit back in listen. Her talking so much is a rarity, something that only happens when she's speaking about something she loves.
"I found these books about the gods, too," Irene says, "not just about the Goddess. It has all the minor ones too, and it's so interesting, because it's from back when all of them were worshipped! Ah, let me find it..." She rummages through the stacks of books surrounding them, letting out an excited noise when she pulls out a particularly large one, more a brick than a book, really. Its cover is faded and tearing, and its pages are yellow. She hands the huge thing to Hayden, eyes shining, and he takes it hesitantly.
The Encyclopedia of the Gods, it reads in elegant font, the "E" in Encyclopedia nearly completely faded away. The only miraculous thing about it is its size, really—other than that, the cover is quite plain.
"Go on," Irene urges him. "Open it."
He opens to a random page somewhere near the beginning, squinting down at the small text there.
Heru, god of the day, the title reads. All the tiny text is accompanied by an illustration on the page beside it—a god, his face all soft and round lines, wearing a crown of golden flowers, smiling down at the magic at his fingertips, all the gold on his clothes contrasting with the dark background.
Nausea over floods Hayden's senses. He nearly drops the book, but manages to grip it tightly, bracing himself for a vision. He can faintly hear Irene's reassurances; distantly feel her holding him steady. Both are used to this, how the visions will always come unexpected sometimes, no matter what they do.
This vision is strange. He sees old architecture, an ever-flowing river, Robin and Ophelia's distant hair, their red and green curls. He sees a knife in Robin's hand, glinting viciously, knuckles gone white from gripping it so tightly. Quick, deadly movements. A girl bleeding out near a river, except the girl is Ophelia, eyes wide and scared and unseeing.
When Hayden comes to, the book is sprawled on the floor, pages bent and pressed onto the floorboards, and he is pressed against Irene's chest, shuddering wordlessly.
"You're alright," Irene tells him, stroking his hair, "the vision is over."
Her dress is wet with tears. Hayden wipes his face, having not realized he had been sobbing.
(He's not sure if it had been the book that triggered the vision, but he avoids it like the plague anyway. It sits on Irene's nightstand, untouched.)
After the vision, Hayden starts to hear things. Voices—or, a voice, he should say.
He's doing his warm-ups in the early morning, jogging along the old trails that no one really notices. He likes the peace and quiet, just him and the trees out there, but doesn't like the cold, and has to pause to rub his hands together and attempt to get warm multiple times.
He's lost in his thoughts, still troubled by his vision and the book. How distant was that future? And could objects really trigger visions? He's never had something like that happen before.
And then he hears it:
Hayden is so startled that he trips over his own feet and goes crashing into someone.
Robin lets out a surprised noise, hands shooting out to steady Hayden. He blinks, and then laughs it off, remarking, "How graceful of you, Hayden."
If his face wasn't so numb, Hayden is sure he would be able to feel it heat up. "Sorry," He mumbles. "I thought I heard something…" He pauses, narrowing his eyes. "What are you doing on this trail?"
Robin smiles. "I could ask the same to you."
"I... guess you can." Hayden huffs. "If you're following it, you're going the wrong way. The training grounds are this way."
Robin opens his mouth to say something, but seems to think better of it. Instead, he nods and lets Hayden lead him down the trail.
The next time it happens, Hayden is helping Ophelia train. He's walking along the trails again, gathering up dead things, wilted plants and brown leaves. That's all he finds, though, even when he travels into the thicker woods. Dead branches aren't a challenge for her anymore; Ophelia can bring plenty of things back to life, make the branches sprout fruit again in seconds. She needs something bigger.
When Hayden reaches a fork in the trail, it happens again.
Go left and you'll find a dead tree near a stream.
He whips around, eyes wide, looking for the source of the voice, but Hayden is alone on the trail.
Go on. The voice sounds amused. Go left.
"I must be going crazy." He murmurs to himself. No, he hadn't heard a voice—it was simply the wind in his ears, tricking him. He nods, satisfied with his assurance, and walks down the trail to the left.
What really irks him is that he does find a dead tree. It's an oak, its branches bare and sharp, like something out of a horror story. Its roots jut out from the dirt in dramatic arches, making way for a pathetic stream to trickle its way under them. He finds Robin, too, sitting on one of the arching roots, his feet displacing the stream unapologetically. He looks up at Hayden, and seems surprised.
"Shouldn't you be training?" He asks.
"I could say the same to you," Hayden quips. When Robin doesn't reply, he continues, "It was just a simple check-up for me today, so I finished early. Now I'm helping Ophelia practice. This," He nods towards the tree, "seems like the perfect specimen."
Robin nods, looking up at the tree as if considering something. "I could probably make it seem like the tree is alive," He muses. "I've seen pictures of oak trees in books before."
"Have you ever tried making an illusion that large?"
"Once. It's tough, but I can probably do it."
"Go ahead, then," Hayden encourages, smiling. "This'll be your practice for the day."
Robin hesitates for a moment, before placing his hands on the trunk of the tree, squinting in concentration. Hayden doesn't know what exactly Robin has to do to cast an illusion, but it seems to be difficult; Robin's hands tremble slightly, and for a second his magic sparks up, red and wild and confused.
He gives up after a while, sighing. "This isn't working out," He says, smiling sheepishly. "I thought I could give a big illusion without contact, but I guess I don't quite have it down yet. Give me your hands."
Hayden eyes him uncertainly, and only caves in when Robin looks at him expectantly, eyes eerie as ever. Hayden offers a hand gingerly, and Robin holds it carefully, a contrast to that tight grip around a knife. He makes eye contact for only a second before Hayden is looking away, staring up at the twisting branches of the tree. Sure, he doesn't crumble in Robin's presence anymore, but that doesn't mean his eyes don’t unnerve him.
It doesn't take long for the illusion to manifest. The tree, from Hayden's eyes, is lush and green, it's branches covered in leaves and moss. He feels tiny compared to it, a little ant in its shadow. If he cranes his neck to look, he can make out wildlife—squirrels chasing each other through the leaves, a nest full of squawking baby birds, an owl blinking its wide eyes. The whole thing shimmers slightly, breaking the immersion, a reminder of just how unauthentic the image is.
Robin lets go, and the illusion is gone.
Neither boy says anything for a long while.
"I'm avoiding training," Robin finally says. "That's why I'm here. They're teaching me to use my illusions to fight. I don't want to fight. We're not in a time of war, fighting isn't necessary, so why should I have to?"
Hayden doesn't have an answer for him. Instead, he murmurs, "I should go get Ophelia."
He leaves Robin there, staring up at the dead tree, expression unreadable.
Ophelia is overjoyed about the tree. There’s a skip in her step the whole way there, making her oddly colored curls bounce, and her pace is eager and rushed. Hayden, tiny as he is, nearly has to run to keep up with her long strides.
When they get to the tree, Robin is gone, making the whole scene much more depressing: a dead tree with branches reaching for the sky and a dirty stream winding past its roots.
“Oh,” Ophelia says, “poor thing. Poor oak.” She’s got that sad look in her eyes, like when they were little, when she would find dead sparrows in the forest and try to magic them back alive.
She easily scales the highest arching root, and Hayden pauses for a moment before joining her. She really is pretty, even in her black training uniform. Her skin is the shade that most women in Aricus would kill for, a warm brown, and her lashes cast shadows onto her cheeks. She places her hands on the trunk of the tree and closes her eyes, face peaceful, none of the usual concentration that everyone needs for magic.
Hayden has to scramble up to join her, but he finds himself glad that he did. Ophelia’s magic is almost like watching time speed up. The tree’s branches extend gracefully, spreading out, growing. Leaves begin to flourish, filling up the empty space, giving the oak tree the impression of being ten times bigger. The bark seems healthier, less dry, less dead. Even the stream is affected, as well as the grass—the grass shoots up suddenly, flowers blossoming, and the stream fills out, almost becoming a full-blown river. The river probably would’ve swept Hayden away, had he not clambered onto the root.
“I think you can stop now.” Hayden interrupts when the river begins to lap at his feet, and Ophelia takes her hands off the tree, sighing. She always looks exhausted after using her magic on such a large scale, but she smiles ear-to-ear anyways, satisfied with her work.
“The tree looks happy now,” She coos. “Do you think animals will come now? Squirrels and birds?”
“We’ll have to keep an eye on the tree and see.” Hayden suggests, peering up at the massive oak. He decides he likes Ophelia’s magic a great deal more than Robin’s—Robin can create just an image, an illusion, while Ophelia makes that mirage reality.