The heat had begun to subside. Maedoc crinkled his eyes open. The once ghastly red glow had dimmed considerably. Only the slightest orange light remained gleaming through the milky quartz.
The boy did a quick physical check on his eyeballs. It appeared they had failed to evaporate. A good sign.
“You should pull that arm out quick, boy-o,” Maedoc heard Cynwrig advise from across the room. He swiveled to see him lounging on the ladder, hanging off the side like some sort of monkey.
“Heat makes metal expand. Now that the heat has been so effectively slain, it might shrink just enough to trap you forever.”
The boy, having just narrowly avoided a total meltdown, was slow to respond.
Cynwrig jumped off the ladder and walked towards him. “More than anyone I’ve ever known, you appear to be a lad who requires constant adult supervision.”
He wrapped a hand around Maedoc’s elbow and gave it a quick tug. It exited the warm metal pipe with a loud pop. The hand was, surprisingly, unharmed. Not even singed.
“Seriously. I don’t want you getting stuck in there.”
As the prowess of reason returned to Maedoc’s personage, he found himself shaking. It wasn’t every day he narrowly escaped a fiery duo of death and manslaughter.
“I’m sorry…” he uttered faintly.
Cynwrig looked at him, his face visibly confused. “Sorry for what?”
Maedoc fumbled for how best to explain the ordeal he had just survived. He wasn’t very successful.
“The dial…” the youth uttered, grasping for words.
“It fell off.”
With a diagnostic glance, the man eyed the hole that once housed the dial.
“Fell off?” He scratched his chin. “That dial was wound in fairly deep. The only way it would fall off is if you unscrewed it entirely. That takes some determination, my boy.”
Maedoc’s face flushed red as he lowered his gaze to his feet. His hand felt ticklish, as if it was falling asleep. He gave it a flex as he rubbed his wrist with his left hand.
“I was distracted. The furnace reminded me of… a sad day.”
Cynwrig shot a look at the contraption.
“You have some sort of history with furnaces?”
Maedoc screwed up his face as he struggled over how much he was willing to share.
“It was strange, actually. That memory, it was something I had forgotten entirely. And out of nowhere, it took over my senses. It felt so vivid. Like I was really there.”
He looked at his feet to steady himself, fully realizing the oddity of what had taken place.
“In fact, it’s a bit of a miracle I had forgotten it at all. It was such a horrible…”
Tears formed at the corners of his eyes as he found himself choking up. Through blurred vision he saw a cloth appear in front of him, which presented itself in Cynwrig’s right palm. He eyed the boy with the same quizzical stare he had worn for most of the evening.
“Maedoc, you will never cease to surprise me. You know what that was? A repressed memory.”
He tossed the cloth at the boy’s face as he hurled himself at a chalkboard and began scribbling wildly.
Maedoc fumbled with the cloth, dabbing his eyes before setting it down.
He cleared his throat. “What’s that, Wrig? A repressed memory?”
The man drew with large, dramatic gestures as he spoke. “The human mind is principally concerned with self preservation. If an event occurs that it deems as too traumatic to hold onto, it’s not unheard of for your mind to bury it deep, where you’ll never see it again.”
He then turned to Maedoc with his finger jousting the heavens, a maniacal air enveloping his every move.
“However! I don’t believe the furnace was the cause of that memory’s retrieval. It was the Aether.”
Backing away from the board, a scene was revealed. A drawing of a human body was in the center, which was paired with a series of squiggly lines, an x or two, and three bubbles hanging near the body’s head.
“This is rather exciting. For you see, up until now there had been only two effects observed from a positive Aether interaction. Two beneficial outcomes that could result.”
He placed a number one next to the first bubble on the left. This bubble housed a squiggle that looked a little like lightning.
“The first outcome is increased energetic conductivity. Usually this sort of skill takes a good while to develop. Months, years even. This outcome speeds the process up dramatically, putting you on par with the ascetic monks from the East.”
Cynwrig rubbed his nose with the back of his fingers. He looked at the ceiling, lost in thought. Maedoc noticed a fine layer of chalk dust encircling the man’s nostrils.
“Not a good monk, mind you. Those individuals are capable of near impossible feats, of which I’m still unable to explain. Perhaps a sub-par, slacker monk would be more accurate. But a monk nonetheless.”
He then turned back to the board, drawing a number two next to the second bubble. Within its borders, a simple smiley face.
“The second outcome is a boosted state of well-being. We humans, after all, are creatures with one foot in the physical, and another in the realm of subtle energy. It’s no wonder that a supply of strong, positive energy will have a positive effect on us.
“These effects can have a range of outcomes. You might experience a sudden freedom from lethargy — that means you cease feeling pooped, Lassie — or you might notice an uptick in mood, if you’re stuck with the blues.
“In essence, it’s a quick, refreshing cleanse that tends to leave you feeling better than before.”
He nodded to himself, satisfied with his answer. A number three was then scribbled next to the final bubble, which looked like a jigsaw puzzle piece.
“Now this…” Cynwrig breathed, who squinted at the board as though it were in a foreign language.
“This I can’t make sense of. Not yet. I do, however, think it’s linked to your fainting spell earlier.”
The boy took a moment to think to himself. Perhaps it’s possible the Aether knocked something loose. Cynwrig could very well be speaking the truth.
Then again, starving one thing of air would logically remind him of having done the same to another. Right?
He was skeptical, and yet…
An inclination rose within him. A faint intuition which hinted that there may be something here. Something true.
Curiosity pressed him to continue. But not without some damage control.
“I didn’t faint,” Maedoc contested with a wince. “I… took a leave of absence.”
“A leave of absence. I like that. Sure. Linked to your absence, then. It would appear that sending positive energy through your body shifted something rather large inside you.
“I would keep at it, if I were you. Seems there’s work to be done. Mysteries to uncover. Who knows what other latent horrors are simmering under that adolescent surface?”
Maedoc squirmed. “I don’t know if it sounds all that appealing…”
Cynwrig gaped at him. “Not all that appealing? My boy, you must not realize the power this path could bring you. The sheer wonder and magic that results when you develop your more ethereal capacities. Lost memories are intriguing, sure, but in my eyes, they’re merely the cherry on top.
“In fact,” Cynwrig grinned, “this is the main reason I invited you here tonight. Not to flop across my floor. Not to entrap yourself in furnaces, no no. It was to show you how to harness your very own subtle energy.”
“My own…?” Maedoc remembered back to Cynwrig having mentioned all living things being accumulators of energy. Though as far as he understood, this process was required for living things to continue living.
“Wouldn’t my body need that? I don’t know if I would want to mess with something so… vital.”
“You are correct. Living beings accumulate subtle energy from their environment to power various aspects of your body. Digestion, basic cell functioning, cognition. Sexual endeavors especially, but I’d rather not go into this now.”
“Yes, please don’t,” Maedoc hastily agreed. He knew nothing about all that, but he didn’t want to learn it from an old man in a mill.
“Right. Now, if an individual were all clogged up — much like how you likely were a dozen or so minutes ago — and maybe a little physically stagnant, in a sour environment, and so on, he or she would not have much access to energy at all, and thus their basic bodily functions will suffer.
“They may find themselves continually drained, frequently ill, irritable at the drop of a hat, and… the aforementioned sexual deficiencies.“
“Yeah, alright, go on.”
“If one were to have an excess of subtle energy available to them, that individual would then have more than enough to run all basic bodily functions. Thus, there would be a surplus to use on, well, whatever one desires.”
Cynwrig set the chalk down, took a clearing breath, then turned to face Maedoc.
“Would you like to give it a try?”
Maedoc shrugged, feeling a slow, syrupy exhaustion inch its way across his limbs.
“I don’t know Wrig. This already feels like the longest night of my life.”
He looked at his cup on the table. There was still a decent sized gulp left occupying it.
“If I down that cup, I think I can manage five minutes more.”
“Fair enough,” Cynwrig affirmed. “It has been an eventful evening, after all.”
He shuffled over from the chalkboard, delivering Maedoc’s cup to his hand. “Here you go. See, this one’s not so bad, right? Though, again, without liquor it all feels a little pointless…”
Maedoc took one final swig of the beverage. How much he had grown in these past minutes. His mouth lit up with flavor, yet there was little burn to be felt at all. He almost felt as if he could chug an entire bottle of this peculiar elixir. Almost.
Looking up, the boy found Cynwrig at a tall, crooked unit of shelves and drawers nestled against the wall to their left. He pulled out a drawer, then another, inspecting the contents. Upon reaching the third drawer he exhaled hard, as if a bucket of warm water had been poured down his back.
“Ahhh… here we go. This one’s perfect.”
He reached for a small item, then made his way back to Maedoc. A mirth he couldn’t contain spread across his face.
“Here. It’s yours.”
Extending his hand, he presented a small tube, somewhat carrot-shaped, which was colored a swirly silver hue. Maedoc picked it up and examined it.
The tube was solid, tapering in slightly towards one end, which was rounded. The broader end was flat. Smooth and cool to the touch, it fit his palm comfortably. He estimated it to be about four inches long.
Weighing it in his hand, he had a good hunch as to what it was.
“Is this also Aether?”
“That it is, Maedoc. This one is a different type than the first, however. They can be programmed to do different tasks, after all.”
“Yeah… I’m a little fuzzy on how it’s done, but as the resin cures, Aether can be given a “purpose,” so to speak. A frequency to exhibit. A color to present. A taste to behold. In essence, the person who pours and cures the resin will determine the quality of energy an Aether device will emit.”
Cynwrig walked to a gadget-ridden table on their right. With a turn of a dial and the clinking of some metal, a flame resulted from the same tube-and-tank ensemble Maedoc had so wisely left alone earlier.
“It’s a little like this,” murmured Cynwrig as he grabbed a dark green square of paper off the table. “It’s been doused in oil, so light will pass through just fine. What do you see, Maedoc?”
The paper hovered in front of the flame. Through it, a murky green light was observed.
“Green light.” The boy was thankful for an easy question every now and then.
“Indeed. This paper has been dyed green, so only green light will shine through. Aether is just the same. Subtle energy is drawn into it from all directions, but only a particular wavelength of energy pours out.
“Unfortunately, you cannot simply add a dye to the resin for this to happen. I’m unaware of how they specialize Aether, to be honest. You’ll have to speak with a crafter to figure that out. Maybe you will, someday,” Cynwrig said with a shrug.
The man pointed at the Aether in Maedoc’s hand.
“This, I’m told, is imbued with the ‘Spearmint Variant‘.
“The piece you held last was never given a name. It was an experimental Aether, and it puzzled me to no end. I thought I’d share it with someone, get a second opinion. And oh, the feedback I was given, pure gold!” he chuckled.
“I figured, if you wish to develop your energetic prowess, it’s best if you start with a piece that doesn’t knock you to the floor. This one is more straightforward. It has plenty of kick, without being abrasive to hold. Cool, collected, but strong as steel. Like a sword upon a snowfield.”
Taking a deep breath, Cynwrig exhaled loudly, retreated a few steps and collapsed into his armchair.
“Go ahead, give it a try. See what it feels like.” He watched Maedoc with a worn gaze. It seems the boy wasn’t the only one feeling tapped out this evening.
Maedoc eyed the device in his palm. Laying flat and still, it didn’t seem to be doing a whole lot, sensation-wise. His palm felt as though it was buzzing, ever so slightly, but it was faint.
Upon wrapping his fingers around it, that feeling began to change and develop.
It was not so much felt upon his skin as it was his bones. That familiar pulse returned, beating away as though it belonged to its very own sovereign heart. It was soothing, but not as stupefying as the first piece. Regardless, he found his left hand firmly gripping the edge of his seat, just in case.
“There’s a pulse again…”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Maedoc felt something new. The pulse was no longer restricted to his hand. Miraculously, this feeling had spread to two entirely different locations: his bicep and shoulder. It was so notable, the piece might as well have been placed there directly.
“…but I feel it in other places this time.”
Cynwrig nodded. “Unlike your fain… I mean, unlike your leave of absence, this effect is fairly common. Any idea why you feel it in those places, and not others?”
Maedoc gave it some thought. He brought his left hand to his arm, rubbing his shoulder gently with his fingertips. From the outside, it didn’t seem noteworthy.
“My shoulder is a joint. But, then again, so is my elbow, and I don’t feel it there.”
“Spot on. Anything else?”
The boy furrowed his brows as he stared off into the distance. Shoulder. Bicep. But not elbow. Not forearm. Why not the belly? Why not the head?
Refocusing his eyes, he found them resting upon the furnace, gleaming against the far wall. It looked so much more innocent when it wasn’t threatening to burn him to cinders.
Something suddenly clicked in Maedoc’s head.
“Hey Wrig. Can energy travel up an arm, like water in a stream? Or say, air in a furnace?”
Cynwrig’s eyebrows twitched as he blinked. “Perhaps. Why do you ask?”
Maedoc extended his arm straight in front of him.
“If energy acts like a fluid, then I think it would be most noticeable where the stream got blocked. You would feel it push and swirl. There would be more pressure.
“So what I’m feeling… I think they’re places where energy has trouble getting through.”
“Oh, my goodness. You’re a bright one. I think you hit the nail on the head, for the most part. ‘Something’ seems to slow the flow of energy in certain parts of the body.
“And before I continue… it’s interesting, how you were able to feel all that with me sitting here. I remember a time where that wasn’t possible. Like, say, 20 minutes ago. Children, they grow up so fast…” He wiped an imaginary tear from the corner of his eye.
Maedoc cocked his head as he considered it. Cynwrig was right. In fact, as he tuned into the feeling of the Aether, he had hardly noticed the man was there.
“As for what’s slowing that energy flow, there are numerous possibilities,” Cynwrig continued.
“For example, it could be physiological. You were right on the money when you mentioned joints. Energy has a harder time passing through them, as well as a few other spots. Notable places include your scalp, neck, wrists, and the base of your spine, especially. It’s pretty much skin and bone down there. Not a whole lot of muscle. Seems muscle is a good conductor of energy. Skin? So-so.
“It could also be based on individual need. Your bicep, for example. There’s plenty of muscle, so it ought to be fairly conductive. Perhaps you injured it in the past, and there’s scar tissue? Positive energy of this nature stops where it’s needed. Maybe there’s something that needs healing in there.”
Maedoc brought his fingers down to his bicep. There were not any injuries to his arm that he could recall…
“There’s one more noteworthy reason. Energy can also accumulate in spots where we place our intention. If we focus on a particular body part, that is where our energy will begin to gather.
“It’s my view that most individuals unconsciously use this law of energy to work against them.
“An awfully common one concerns their looks. They are, for their own reasons, insecure over some aspect of their appearance. It’s all they can think about. So naturally, it’s where all their energy goes.
“This usually results in said body part feeling overly sensitive, exposed, or it results in stiff, mechanical movement. So, ironically, the parts of ourselves we are are most worried about will appear ‘wounded’ or ‘overly emphasized,’ which ends up attracting the most attention from others. It’s rather unfortunate…”
Cynwrig shook his head and abruptly stood up.
“I am getting VERY carried away, here. Sorry, Lassie. Sometimes I don’t know when to stop rambling.”
He raised his pointer finger, signifying the number one.
“This is the very first technique of Aethretics. To have energy travel through your body, from one point to another. Since it involves the conducting of energy, it’s been labeled Conduction. Real inventive, tight?”
Maedoc was just about out of stamina, so he almost let the mystery word slide. However, he was committed to leaving this mill with as few unsolved mysteries as possible. Otherwise he would be up all night wondering what the hell he had heard.
“What is that, Wrig? Aethretics…?”
Cynwrig gave a meek smirk and a shrug.
“That word is another example of their originality. In a nutshell, it’s the practice of achieving energetic mastery through the usage of Aether. I assume they stole the ending from mathematics, or acrobatics. Calisthenics. Something of that nature.”
After a few slow blinks, Cynwrig let out a big yawn, stretching his hands to the ceiling.
“Ahhlright, boy-o. I’m spent. I imagine you are, too.”
Despite the pleasant tingling in his arm, and a body hopped up on spices, his brain was utterly tuckered out. He managed an acknowledging nod.
“Before I throw you out on the street, I have just one more thing to show you.”
Cynwrig raised his hand from the armrest of his chair until it was hovering inches from his chest, fingers pointing upward. With his other hand he reached into his pocket, pulling out a small trinket. Maedoc assumed it was another Aether device.
“I wonder if you can figure this one out…”
The man closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. They were quite long, both on the inhale and the exhale. After the fifth breath, Maedoc was certain he felt a warmth growing from across the room. This heat…
Was it coming from him?
As if reading his mind, Cynwrig opened his eyes and spoke.
“Yep, that’s my hand.”
He stood slowly from his chair, approaching Maedoc with his hand extending slowly from its midair perch.
It was now quite obvious where the heat was coming from. Maedoc brought his hand up to investigate regardless, for he was entirely mystified by what he was witnessing.
The air around the man’s hand felt hot, but not uncomfortable. It was as though the heat wasn’t entirely real. Hot, without being hot. Nothing at all like the discomfort the furnace had brought him.
“This is the second technique of Aethretics. It’s called Charge. It’s a little more involved than the first one.
“You’ll need to actually do something, whereas with Conduction you don’t have to do much of anything at all.
“Your mission, Maedoc, if you choose to accept it, is to find out how I’m doing this and perform it yourself. All information on how to accomplish this technique has been covered tonight. You have all the pieces you need.”
Nothing ever came easy with this man. He truly didn’t mean to, but due to his exhaustion, Maedoc let a small groan escape his lips.
“What, you didn’t expect a little homework?” Despite his assumed weariness, Cynwrig exploded to his feet, suddenly full of passion.
“This artform takes diligence! Perseverance! A continual striving towards better and better capability!”
The man marched towards Maedoc, finger pointed accusingly.
“I’ll let it slide because I’ve beaten your brain to a pulp tonight, but I don’t want any attitude from you in the future, mister!”
Cynwrig feigned a stern professor, but couldn’t help smiling near the end. He just wasn’t the sort to be harsh.
Bringing his hand up to his chin, he combed his fingers through his greyed beard in a ruminative manner.
“You know, I was going to save this for next time, but I’m thinking now — you teenagers like excitement. You like a big show. A warm hand might not be enough to hook you. Would you consider yourself hooked?”
Maedoc opened his mouth to answer, but it proved unnecessary.
“No, it’s decided! I’ll show you now…”
Cynwrig lunged to the furthest corner of the room, retrieving a sturdy looking wheeled cart with an assortment of stone blocks riding atop it. He ducked down for an instant. Upon rising, Maedoc saw two large bricks in his hands, which were placed upon the cart’s surface.
“The full extent of Charge!”
Bringing his hand back to position, Cynwrig closed his eyes and took a quick inhale. Within the scope of this instant, Maedoc felt that same warmth he felt before immediately return to the surrounding air. Bringing his arm down with shocking speed, he exhaled with a forceful “Haah!”
To say the bricks broke would be an understatement.
The bricks exploded.
Fragments of stone whizzed past Maedoc’s head, a little too fast and too close for comfort. Had the boy not been utterly astounded by what he had just seen, he might have raised a formidable fuss. The shrapnel ricocheted off an ocean of metal and glass, creating an almost musical twinkling in the background.
Cynwrig opened his eyes and brought his hand up for Maedoc to see. Besides the slightest tinge of red, it appeared to be undamaged.
“It’s not broken, either. Neat, right?”
He gave it a shake, a squeeze, and returned it to his side.