A Bet on Kindness
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
Gods, but she was cold.
The moonless night had been still and crisp, even before it started to rain – a cold, thin drizzle which dripped down Beryl's hair in icy beads, falling onto the skin around the base of her neck, each one landing with a little frozen sting. Raindrops hung from her eyelashes, and water blurred her vision through her good, right eye. Every so often, she would have to stop, rub her eye with a cold, stiff hand, and blink rapidly. She would stand still for a few, cold seconds as the world regained its edges and her vision readjusted to its nearly uniform blackness.
Then, she would start walking again. She could just make out the outline of the path she had been following for hours, a slightly lighter patch of black surrounded by the darker, rustling masses of tall grass on each side of the trail.
She didn't know where she had jumped to, where she was, or where this path was taking her. So she tried to put all that aside, to just focus on the next step. And, so, she walked.
What else was there to do?
Her gray woolen coat was soaked. It felt heavy with rain, weighing her down, damp and scratchy where it rubbed against her skin, matted against her back beneath the weight of the waxed leather pack she shouldered. Her shoulder blades ached where the pack's weight rode upon them. Her feet sloshed numbly along inside her hobnail boots. It felt like maybe one of the nails in the bottom of the left boot was staring to poke its way up through the sole, but, at the moment, it was hard to tell.
Her teeth chattered.
She tried to remember the last time she had felt this cold, and failed.
Her hands were starting to go numb, her fingerless leather gloves doing a poor job of protecting them against the elements. She rubbed them together, cupped them in front of her mouth, and blew on them for warmth, her breath escaping through her fingers and turning into a fine mist of tiny, crystalline droplets as it came into contact with the night air.
It would have helped to know how much further she had to go, but that would have required knowing where she was going to.
She was getting close to frostbite, and she knew it. If she went on like this for much longer, she would have to try to warm herself up. And that she didn't want to do. Not if she could possibly avoid it.
She put her head down, tried sticking her hands inside the pockets of her sodden coat, which didn't help. So she took her hands back out, balled them into fists, and kept walking.
After a few more minutes – although, with no moon to reference, it was unnervingly hard to gauge the passing of time – the raindrops fell fewer and farther between, until finally they stopped altogether. And, at almost the same moment, Beryl saw a small light begin to take shape on the horizon. Just a white, flickering spot against a world of black. She slowed down, but moved towards it.
As she got closer to it, the path began to widen, and she could make out the dark bulks of trees approaching. Crossing into what must have been a small, wooded grove, she began to pick her way between the trunks of birches and silver maples, their bark reflecting ghostly white and silver from the light which filtered through their stark, leafless branches. She felt the first faint, alluring fingers of warmth as well, reaching out to her from the light, beckoning her to come forward.
Her pace slowed; she blinked, wiped her eye again, and waited for her vision to adjust to the growing brightness. When it did, what she saw stopped her in her tracks.
The light and warmth came from atop a low, flat, moss-covered stone in the center of a small clearing some few dozen paces ahead. But they did not come from a campfire, as she had at first assumed. Instead, they seemed to emanate out from an ephemeral white orb which hovered a few inches off the ground, pulsing softly and rhythmically in place. Although she did not know the spell, she knew the magic when she saw it.
And, sitting nearby atop the broad trunk of a fallen tree, was the woman Beryl assumed must have cast it. The light from the spell reflected off a young face, ruddy and pink-cheeked, topped by short, blond hair and inset with a pair of bright blue eyes. Beryl assumed the woman must have heard her clumsy steps as she had approached. But, if the spellcaster was aware of her presence, she made no obvious movement to acknowledge it.
Beryl stood still, trying to breathe quietly, trying to decide what to do. Every cold, tired muscle in her cold, tired body wanted to walk into the clearing, to join the young woman in the warm glow of the magical hearth. But, from within the depths of her mind, fearful voices counseled against it, against revealing herself, tired, vulnerable, and alone, to this unknown mage of obvious power.
Beryl began looking around, to see if there was any obvious path through the woods which she could take to circle around the clearing without being exposed, when the woman called out to her in a warm, clear voice which seemed to shatter the tension Beryl had felt welling inside her.
“Please come sit down,” the woman said, sliding along the trunk of the log and gesturing to a space nearby. “You're more than welcome, and I promise you have nothing to fear from me.”
Fatigue and trust won out over caution and doubt. Beryl banished the whispers of suspicion back to the cellar of her psyche, and she stepped forwards into the clearing, moving to sit at the opposite end of the fallen tree from the blonde mage.
As Beryl's shivering, bedraggled form came more clearly into focus, a look of obvious concern formed on the blonde woman's face.
“You must be freezing!” she said, standing as Beryl sat. The blonde woman bent down and reached into a knapsack which Beryl only just then noticed sitting on the ground, propped up against the tree's wooden flank. After a second of rummaging, she extracted a thick, downy blanket. Holding the blanket out at arm's length, she took the few steps towards Beryl and offered it to her.
Beryl took it with an eagerness which she feared bordered on greed. Wrapping the blanket tightly around her shoulders, she closed her eye for a second, and pulled a deep breath of warm, dry air into her lungs.
“Thank you,” she said, hoping that the thin, clipped words which escaped though her chattering teeth could somehow convey the depth of her gratitude.
“Don't mention it,” said the blonde woman who, after lingering for a second as she examined the strange spectacle of her unexpected visitor, returned to sit at the base of the log.
The pair sat in respectful silence for a minute, as Beryl stared into the center of the light spell, which hovered and pulsed with an almost mesmeric quality, and the woman stared at her strange guest, trying to take stock of this new arrival.
As Beryl began visibly to warm up, her shivers calming and just the smallest trace of color returning to the margins of her usually pale face, the blonde woman spoke again.
“I suppose I ought to introduce myself,” she said. “My name is Aloise. Aloise Hartley.”
A brief but intense look of sadness passed over Beryl's face, then vanished as quickly as it had come. “That's a good name, Aloise Hartley,” she said without looking away from the magical glow. “A good name.” She shook her head slightly. After a second, she turned to face Aloise.
“But you've shown me a great kindness, and I'm being a poor guest. I'm sorry; my name's Beryl.”
Aloise smiled. “You can call me Aloise, Beryl. Is that what I should call you? Just Beryl?”
“Just Beryl,” she said.
“You're a mage, aren't you?” Aloise said, looking appraisingly at Beryl, her gaze lingering momentarily over the runes on the palms of Beryl's fingerless gloves. “If that's not a rude question, I mean.”
“After a fashion,” Beryl said. “More of an enchanter, you could say.”
This provoked an interested response from the blonde. “Oh, I do enchanting, too!” Aloise said. “It's a fascinating subject – all these tiny, little variations in practice, which can produce such drastically different results.” She pointed to her knapsack. “You should have seen the first one which I tried the spatial alteration spell on, before I discovered a couple of key adjustments. It looked like it had been put through a wringer, inside-out.” She looked back up at Beryl. “What kind of enchanting do you do?”
“Just small, little things,” she said. “Protection spells, mostly. Wards. I've always had a knack for wards.”
“Is that all you do?” Aloise said, sounding unconvinced.
“No,” Beryl said. She rubbed her forehead, brushing her drying hair away from her eye. “But it's all I try to do.”
“And those wards,” Aloise said, pointing at Beryl's gloves, “you did them yourself?”
“They're lovely. I've never seen any done like that, the way the patterns seem to turn in upon themselves.”
“And what are they protecting you from?”
Beryl took a long time before answering. When she did, by way of explanation, she held her gloved hands outwards for inspection, fingers fanned apart. In the reflected glow from Aloise's spell, it was just possible to make out that, where the black leather stopped around the first knuckle on each finger, the gloves ended not with cleanly-cut edges, but with a ragged, scorched fringe, where the missing leather had been burned away.
“From myself,” Beryl said.
“Oh,” Aloise said. Sensing that she had probed a raw nerve, she changed the subject. “Did you come to look for the manalith as well?”
“The manalith,” Aloise said. “I've been looking for one for some time, and I found an old map which suggested that there ought to be one here.” She nodded in the direction of the low, flat stone which her orb of light hovered above. “As you can see, there may have been something here once, but, whatever it was, it's been gone for a long time. Long enough for moss to grow over the place where it used to be, anyway.” She sighed a little.
“I'm sorry you didn't find what you were looking for,” Beryl said.
“But I did meet you, at least,” Aloise said, smiling. “And from the looks of it, too, that was a fortunate thing. Are you drying out well enough?”
Beryl nodded. “Thank you,” she said again.
“So, if you aren't looking for the manalith, then what are you doing all the way out here?” Aloise asked.
Beryl allowed herself a small smile. “I don't even know where here is, actually,” she said, shaking her head.
This caught Aloise by surprise. The blonde woman sat up straight, looked intently at the scarred woman sitting nearby. “Then how did you get here?” she asked.
“I walked,” Beryl said. At the mention of that word, her feet, into which sensation had been slowly returning since she'd taken her weight off them, began to ache in protest. She kicked off her hobnail boots and reached down to rub the red soles of her feet. She could feel the blonde's eyes still glued to her.
“What kind of walking?” Aloise asked.
Beryl tried to find the trap, tried to sense the danger which might lurk behind that particular question, behind this particular questioner. This would be a dangerous admission to make to the wrong person, particularly exposed as she was now – tired, hungry, and feeling sick of magic. But, while her fear was instinctual, Beryl could find nothing concrete to attach it to. She could detect nothing in the situation which signaled a present danger, and this woman, Aloise Hartley, had been nothing but kind to her.
Maybe that was the problem, Beryl suddenly realized. It had been a long time since anyone had been kind to her. The experience of kindness, and the feelings it awakened – gratitude, thankfulness – had grown strange and foreign from disuse, and her mind had reacted warily to their reappearance.
She decided to take a chance, to place a bet on kindness.
“Both kinds of walking,” she said.
At that, the blonde seemed to light up from within. “I thought so!” she said. “I wanted to just ask you, you know, but someone else once told me that's the wrong sort of question.” For a moment, Aloise seemed to take on a far-away look, as though lost in a memory, but presently she returned to the matter at hand. “You're only the second other planeswalker I've met, and you don't seem much like the first one at all. How many times have you walked?”
“Just this once,” Beryl said.
Aloise leaned forward. “How did it happen?”
Beryl took a deep breath, looked up through the treetops into the dark, starless night. Closing her eye, she tried to keep her nerves steady as she allowed the memory to come back. She remembered the heat, the panic, and the smell of smoke. And it all came tumbling out.
“A couple of days ago, someone tried to kill me,” she said. “He tried to kill me and, afterward, I found out that he'd been paid to do it by some dangerous people, and that those people were going to try to kill my sister as well. So I found out where those people were, and I went there, and I tried to convince them that they should back off.” Beryl looked down at her hands, staring at her fingers, as though they had answers written on their tips. “Things didn't exactly go as planned.” She sighed. “First, it turns out they were ready for me. Second, I made my point a little more emphatically than I had intended.” She looked at Aloise, and the blonde could see a tear forming in Beryl's eye.
“What happened?” Aloise asked.
“I'm fairly sure I killed two of them,” Beryl said, “which I refuse to feel guilty about. But I also set a whole tavern on fire in the process, a tavern full of people, and I must have killed some of them, too. People who never did anything to me, people who were just there to see a friend, or have a drink. People who had mothers and sisters and children of their own, who will never see them again, except as a charred corpse at the mortuary. People who could have lived long lives if only they hadn't come across me.” She was crying, now, not bothering to hide it. “And, in that moment, I panicked. I just knew I had to get out of there. It didn't matter where I went, I just needed to leave. I was standing next to this door – I think it must have been the stair to the tavern's cold cellar – and so I just closed my eyes and I opened it and I went through. Only, when I came out on the other side, I wasn't in any cold cellar. I wasn't anywhere I'd ever seen before. I was just, well, here. Or a little ways from here, standing in an open field surrounded by tall grass up to my shoulders. And I didn't know where I was, or how I had got there.”
Aloise nodded. “You’re in one place and then – suddenly! – you’re somewhere else altogether. It’s like the whole world gets pulled out from under you, with no warning.”
Beryl nodded, too. “At first, I thought I might actually be dead, you know, and maybe this was what the afterlife looked like. And, maybe, that wasn't such a bad thing, because, if I was dead, it meant I wouldn't ever hurt anyone else. But then – and it was the strangest thing, this – I heard a bird off somewhere in the distance. A lark, calling out. And I remembered that, when I was a little girl, my mother would take me out into the garden, and we'd sit underneath the willows and she would point out the birds to me, and tell me their names, so that I could learn to recognize their songs. It must be twenty years now, since the last time I heard a lark, and she taught me its name. And, somehow, I heard that lark, and I knew I wasn't dead. I knew that I had walked, and that this wasn't the afterlife, it was a gift – a chance to wipe the slate clean, to go where no one knows who I am, where no one knows what I've done. To try to figure myself out before I go back, if I ever go back.” Beryl wiped away a final tear, and even laughed a little bit. “Of course, now I've gone and spoiled all that by telling you.”
Aloise, who had been listening in rapt fascination, was almost startled to see the scarred woman looking up at her with an almost plaintive expression, one that sought absolution, or at least acknowledgment. She stood up and walked the few paces over to where the other woman sat, and, sitting down next to her, put her bare hand on top of Beryl's gloved one. Beryl seemed to flinch at the contact, and, for a second, it seemed like she might pull herself away, but she didn't.
“I'm sure you didn't mean to hurt anyone,” Aloise said.
“No, I didn't,” Beryl said. “But that's the problem. I don't mean to hurt people, but I do. Everyone I've ever loved, they're dead because of me. Except for my sister, and she just hates me. And she could be dead now, too, although I doubt it. Astria seems to find a way to look out for herself.”
“Do you need to go back?” Aloise said. “Back where you came from, I mean?”
Beryl shook her head. “Not now,” she said. “It's probably better that I'm gone, for the moment. There's nothing there for me anymore, except for one thing. My sister has something – something she took from me, something which belongs to me. Something I need to get back. But it's not the sort of thing I can just take from her, and she's not the sort of person who will just give it back because I asked.” Beryl sighed. “I hate her too much to forgive her, but I love her too much to want to hurt her, and I'm afraid that if I see her now, I will hurt her.”
Beryl looked at Aloise, caught the blonde's two blue eyes with her one green eye. “I'm afraid of myself,” she said.
Aloise was quiet for a very long time. Finally, looking away, she said, “I think that fear is the most dangerous thing in all the worlds. For all the places I've been, and all the people I've met, I've seen more evil done out of fear than any other motive. Greed, ambition, anger – those can all make people do bad things, but it's fear which makes them truly dangerous.”
Beryl sniffled. “So you think I'm dangerous?” she said.
“No,” Aloise said, “because I'm not afraid of you. And I don't think you should be, either.”
A small smile grew on the scarred woman's face. “You have a good heart, Aloise Hartley,” she said. “Don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Aloise smiled. “It comes from not being afraid,” she said. “And trying to teach others not to be afraid, either.”
Beryl nodded. “I have a lot that I need to learn,” she said. “About a lot of things.” She slid her feet back into her hobnail boots, stood up, put her arms up over her head, and stretched. Her muscles complained about the sudden call to action, but not vehemently so.
“How do you do it? Walking, I mean?” Beryl asked. “That is, how do you do it when you want to, and not just when you're about to burn alive?”
At the question, Aloise blanched, and Beryl was about to apologize and say that she hadn't meant anything by it, and was everything alright, but the blonde woman shook her head and held a hand up to stop her. So Beryl stayed silent, and instead it was Aloise who spoke.
“Well,” she said, “I don't know if it works the same for everyone or not. For myself, I close my eyes, and try to focus on the image of the place where I want to go to. I block out all other thoughts, sounds, smells, and I just imagine the place, imagine myself in that place, channel all my energy and magic into being in that place. Then, I open my eyes, and I'm there.”
“That makes it sound so easy,” Beryl said.
“You get the hang of it,” Aloise said. “And I had a good teacher.”
“Do you think you can teach me?” Beryl asked.
“I think so,” Aloise said. “Where do you want to go?”
“Someplace warm, for starters.” Beryl thought for a second. “A place from a book, which my mother used to read to me when I was little, where great deserts of sand go on for farther than your eye can see, where mountains reach taller than the sky, where there are men who are half-lizard, and where they mine diamonds of fire. I think I'd like to see that.”
She unwrapped the borrowed blanket from around her shoulders, and handed it back to Aloise, who took it, folded it up, and placed it back into her knapsack. “That sounds exciting,” Aloise said. She rummaged around in her bag, and came back out with a white linen tunic, matching belted trousers, and a scarf in the same color. “But you'd better take these with you, then. You're not dressed very practically for travel, especially if that's where you're off to.”
Beryl took the clothes. “Thanks,” she said. “I'm afraid I don't have anything to offer you in return.”
Aloise shook her head. “The next time I see you, you can tell me about the places you've been,” she said. “Assuming you won't forget me, that is.”
Beryl smiled, shook her head. “I won't forget you, Aloise Hartley. You have a good name; it's easy to remember. Hold on to it.”
Beryl stuffed the clothes into her waxed leather sack, then slid its straps around so that they dug into different places on her back for a change. Finally, she closed her eye, thought about where she wanted to go, focused all her energy and magic on that thought, and took a deep breath. Thought about a warm place, with sand and palm trees and salamanders.
As she thought about it, she started to feel a tingling up and down her arms, like bright sunlight on a hot day, and she started to feel a burning in the tips of her fingers, like touching a kettle too recently on the fire. She felt her heart thumping in her chest, and the air around her seemed to vibrate.
For a second, she thought she would panic – she must be doing it wrong, she wasn't walking, she was losing control again. She was in danger. She had to stop.
Instead, though, she thought she heard a friendly voice reminding her not to be afraid.
So she kept focusing, ignored what felt like flames licking up her fingers, ignored what felt like the heat from an open oven washing over her face.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, she let her concentration drop. “I don't think I'm doing it right,” Beryl said, as she opened her eye.
Opened her eye, and then immediately threw an arm up in the air to try to block out the light from a high, heavy sun which beat down upon her. In the distance, the air shimmered above what seemed like an ocean of sand, from where she stood all the way to a distant horizon, where she could just make out the silhouettes of what looked like palm trees.
She smiled, and started to walk.
Aloise Hartley is an original character created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.