“The Aylward family is not weak.”
Thyme had heard that all her life. It was drilled into her head, over and over.
The Aylward family is not weak.
Thyme Aylward sat at her oak wood desk in the manor, studying spirit lore. She yawned. She had gotten up two hours before dawn to study. But she didn’t regret it in the slightest. Aunt Augusta peered over her shoulder, sparing a glance at her curling scripts analyzing and copying her texts.
The nefarious spirits of the Spirit Plane tend to cluster into pods of eleven, and when one is called into the Mortal Plane, the rest wait for its return, hoping for new flesh to consume. Good spirits cluster in groups of nine and live in the Mortal Plane, hoping to destroy nefarious spirits once they are called forth. Ever since the fall of the good spirits, the mage families have stepped in to fill the gap the good spirits left behind. The mage families must never fall, else the Mortal Plane will fall with it.
“Very good, Thyme. You do better than the rest of your peers,” Augusta remarked.
“Thank you, ma’am.” Not that Thyme needed to hear it. She heard that nearly as much as, ‘the Aylward family is not weak.’ It was just more pressure to live up to.
“You will surely ace the Guiding.”
Augusta was referring to the age-old coming-of-age ritual that would take place that night. Every Aylward girl was to pass, else they would be banished and haunted forever. Those who could not complete the Guiding were considered weak.
The Aylward family was not weak.
“You seem nervous, Thyme.”
“I am not nervous, ma’am.” But Augusta didn’t see Thyme’s trembling hands, obscured by the darkness. Augusta had come to check on her progress, but Thyme had limited what was visible. The single candle that was set in front of her textbook did not illuminate the full extent of her stress. Papers were strewn about her desk, taped on her window. The bookshelves had several books missing, and those books had several pages torn out. Her hand was filled with pools of blood where she had dug her nails into her palms. Self-harm, she had thought after looking down at her hand, was absolutely useless.
Thyme’s mind wandered as she hunched over her work, panting with stress. Red locks of hair fell from her ears, a shade of bright crimson reminiscent of blood.
She could still see the stars outside. Thyme frowned, considering their positions in the black sky. She still had another hour of darkness before the sun rose and wavered her focus.
Aylwards thrived in the dark, much like the vampire clans of the Presence Mountains to their west. When the sunset came, it was like being born again. But the stress was a huge, dark cloud, blocking the moon’s benevolent rays. It was a monster, rising up around her, ready to strike her down. The hairs on Thyme’s neck stood up. She rubbed it and glanced anxiously over her shoulders. No dark cloud there, only Augusta.
Thyme was the top of every test presented to her, aced every assignment in her studies, and performed magic flawlessly.
Yet doubts leeched at her mind and confidence. The higher the platform Augusta and her mother built for her, the farther there was for her to fall. What if she did fail? The price would be severe.
A weight pressed down across her temples. She fancied a ringing in her ears.
The room was too small, too trapping. Her doubts crowded her, carpeting the floor and rising in a dark surge that forced her up and out of her seat…
Her book slammed shut.
“Forgive me, Madam Augusta. I need air.”
She strode out of the cramped study and into the ghostly halls of the Aylward Manor. Lanterns lined the halls, their light wavering eerily, clashing with the pale moonlight that filtered in through the fluttering drapes. The morning sun had not quite risen, and yet Aylwards mingled about in the hallways and the great rooms. Thyme flew by them all, robes twirling and crimson hair flowing. The occupants of the manor looked on with interest. Thyme had always been considered a beauty among the residents. They whispered about her beauty and talent. Surely she would marry a most prodigious mage, perhaps a Griffin, Harte, or even a royal prince.
They whispered of her spring dandelion eyes, dancing with a thousand pixies. They whispered of how she was a child of the sun, her skin tanned by the foreign touch of the sun. They whispered of her red hair, her bloody locks, spreading through the air like wildfire.
Despite her beauty and talent, she felt more despair than any of them. She had been preparing her whole life for tomorrow, yet all she could think of was how far she could fall. She had no one to turn to. Her mother and aunt were only teachers, her sisters and cousins were only competitors.
Thyme ran to the swamp in which she would perform the Guiding. She knew the path she would take already, yet she lingered in the willows, tracing her route over and over again.
The Guiding was done every year by her family, never skipped. It was performed in autumn when the leaves were brash and brazen in their colors. Performed when there was a blood moon in the sky. Nefarious spirits appeared in the swamp around every blood moon, and it was the Aylward children who were tasked with leading them away from the manor and back into the heart of the swamp, where the shadow portal lay.
That was how you would earn the name Aylward. Guardian.
Guardians are not weak.
The spirits will try to trick me, Thyme reminded herself. She needed to practice resisting their guile and charm.
“I call forth a pixie spirit,” Thyme commanded, her hands glowing with light and shadow swirled together like flavors in an ice cream scoop. A portal appeared where light and shadow mixed, and a shape clawed its way out of the portal’s smeared edge.
Portals always appeared when there was enough energy, and where light and shadow met. The heart of the swamp, the Planes Willow, filled the swamp floor with dappled light and spiritual energy. The Planes Willow was the biggest portal in all of the Mortal Plane. Thyme could spot it through a gap in the trees. She glanced at the pixie spirit, clawing and climbing its way to the muddy ground.
The pixie wasn’t anything like the images in her book. It had tousled white hair, clear as the sun glinting off the snow. Long ears curled out of its hair, lined with beads and cuff earrings. Its feet were tiny compared to the rest of its body. It dressed in black cotton garments, gossamer threads of fabric dangling behind it. Claws tipped its thick hands, dangling beneath it as it hovered in the air, wings beating like a dragonfly.
It looked like the fairies that floated above the Aylward gardens, but the pixie was much taller than two inches and did not emit light.
“It is not yet the blood moon, yet you call upon me. What could an Aylward child want with me?” The pixie spirit intoned, its voice slippery and smooth.
“I want only practice, that is all,” Thyme snapped. She was blushing furiously in the uncertain light. She had not expected the pixie spirit to be so... easy on the eyes.
“Stressing over the big night, young Aylward?” The pixie spirit crooned, fluttering around her head mockingly.
“Tell me your name, spirit,” Thyme said instead of answering the pixie’s jest.
“You may call me Raimon.”
“They call me Thyme.”
Raimon considered this, peering deep into her yellow-green eyes as if searching for something.
“What was your true purpose for summoning me?”
“I intend to lead you to the heart of the swamp in preparation for the Guiding.”
Raimon raised his eyes to the heavens, currently obscured by a thick blanket of willows.
“Did it occur to you I might not want to be in the Mortal Plane? It disgusts me. I was resting alone when I felt the pull of your call,” Raimon said. “Imagine my annoyance!”
Thyme snorted. “Alone? Highly likely.” She traced the pattern of a binding spell onto the pixie and started through the swamp. He was dragged behind her like a stubborn balloon.
Raimon crossed his arms. “Yes, alone.”
“Spirits in your plane live in groups of eleven.”
“Who told you that?”
“You’re just trying to convince me that there’s no one waiting to devour me if I fail,” Thyme accused.
“Keep telling yourself that, young Aylward.”
They walked on in silence. Mud squelched under Thyme’s feet and mosquitos ruled the sky. Long creeper vines slid across her shoe, tugging at it. Strange animal calls sent the water rippling.
“Why do you need practice, young Aylward? You seem to be having no trouble with me.” Raimon asked from behind her.
“You were more agreeable than I would have expected,” Thyme admitted.
“But it is not commonplace for Aylwards to summon spirits simply for practice.” Raimon pressed. He leaned forward, his dragonfly wings flying him forward to stop in front of Thyme. She paused, her eyes downcast.
“Look into my eyes, young Aylward,” Raimon offered.
“No. This is a trick. I am not weak. The Aylward family is not weak.”
Raimon frowned, and for a moment, it seemed to Thyme that he actually seemed concerned.
“I sense great anxiety within you,” he whispered. “Look into my eyes. I can help you.”
Thyme was tempted, oh so sorely tempted. His voice was so soft and sweet. She wanted nothing more than someone to help her. Someone who could understand.
“No, no I can’t!” Thyme screeched, sending crows fleeing from the murky willow trees.
“I will be banished if I am weak,” she wailed, losing concentration and breaking the binding spell. She sunk to her knees, her yellow-green eyes brimmed with tears. “Augusta and Mother will never forgive me and I will be haunted by the spirit who caused my downfall! What if I fail? Olive, Kayte, Isabella, Scarlett, Heather! None of them will forgive me!”
Raimon landed softly on the mud, balancing on the very tips of his feet.
“All because of the Guiding?” He asked, his voice soft with disbelief.
“Yes,” Thyme sobbed. “If I fail I will be nothing.”
Thyme looked up. Fear clutched her heart as she realized that the binding spell had been severed. She moved to recast it, but Raimon clutched her hand with his claws.
“Wait,” he pleaded. “Hear me out.”
She took several breaths to regain her composure, then nodded once.
“You are a brilliant mage. I would have led any other girl to their doom, but you stayed strong. You are talented in ways you could never imagine. Beautiful, as well, young Aylward.”
Thyme blushed beet red. She liked the way Raimon called her ‘young Aylward,’ as if she had already earned the name. Raimon cleared his throat awkwardly. He fumbled over himself in his rush to continue.
“I mean- all I’m trying to say is...well…” Raimon sighed.
“The Guiding...well, I never quite understood how mortals felt about it, all I know is they don’t like it too much either. But you… you have terrors inside your mind I have only ever experienced in one other mind. Mine.”
Thyme’s head snapped up, her eyes tinted with confusion and pity.
“I was not lying when I said I was alone. Not everything the Aylwards teach you is true. Not all of us in the Spirit Plane are monsters. My group banished me, calling me soft, and I felt such grief at my failure.”
Raimon hovered up to Thyme’s eye height and looked into her eyes, a slight tint in his cheeks. “But I’ve learned that banishment is not so bad.”
Thyme bit her lip. “Are you sure it’s not all lies to make me like you?”
“I swear I will never lie to you, young Aylward. Just whatever you do, please don’t lead me to the heart of the swamp. I want to help you.”
“I think I know a way to ease your stress.”
Thyme sighed. Was she showing weakness? Was Raimon just manipulating her?
She frowned. She could sense her doubts and anxieties piling up behind her, a looming threat over her head. Thyme rushed towards Raimon, placing him between her and her doubts.
“Please. Do whatever you can.”
Raimon turned around to hover just in front of her. “Alright. Look into my eyes and tell me what you see.”
Thyme took a deep breath and looked into Raimon’s eyes. They were a deep red, but not a threatening hue. It was more like a luscious wine red, almost purple.
“Okay. I just see your eyes.”
Thyme felt a flush rising up her neck and cheeks, turning her ears pink. She was extremely conscious of how close their noses were to touching.
Cold filled her bones. She could see the blurry outlines of mountains all around her. They soared into the sky, snow-capped, and painted pink by the sunlight. Birds sang their graceful tunes, and the sky was a thousand hues of pastel purple and pinks. She floated angel-like in a field of huge trees. Wind laughed as it danced its merry way through the world. She could feel the needles as they fell across her upturned lips, soft as feathers.
The scene changed. A huge oak tree stood atop a lonely hill. She felt the soft grass beneath her as she wriggled toes. The air was quiet and the night was crisp. The only lights that shone in the clear night sky were the moon, the stars, and the fairies gathered in the tips of the oak’s limbs. The entire scene gave off a warm glow, bathed in the moon’s gentle yellow light. It made her feel happy inside. Her doubts eased.
The scene shifted again. She recognized the area from her books. She stood in front of the Ash Forest, in the Spirit Plane. The Spirit Plane was strangely...warm. She had expected it to be a cold void, but the black sand beneath her feet felt very real. The ash trees grew in brilliant colors, some bright yellow, others a violent red or deep purple, and every mixture in between. The only difference from the Mortal Plane was the change in fauna and the deeper shadows. Thyme looked up. There weren’t any stars, either.
Griffin cubs played in the shadows, and pods of pixies soared above her head, winking as they went past. She could see goblins chattering quietly among the crimson trees, and huge, bat-like creatures floated in the black sky, teeth gleaming. She smiled. Even the Spirit Plane, which she had once found so frightening, had beauty.
Thyme stumbled back from Raimon. He looked at her anxiously.
“It was beautiful. All of it,” she said simply.
“I know,” Raimon replied, brushing his white locks behind his ear.
“What was the point of showing me it though?”
“To show you what you could see in the world.”
“What exactly to Aylwards...do?” Raimon asked, though in a tone that suggested he knew already.
“Usually...marry someone of high status and live life in their manor.”
“And how much do you want that?”
Thyme could see where he was getting. “I do not want to fail the Guiding,” she said hesitantly.
“But what if you did?”
“I would be cast out and haunted by shame and dishonor. What are you getting at, Raimon?”
He hesitated. “Don’t do the Guiding, young Aylward,” he blurted. “Come with me and explore the worlds.” He reddened once the words came out.
Thyme was angry at the pixie for suggesting such a thing, but then she thought about it. It actually didn’t seem quite so insane when she thought of the beauty of the world.
“Just think about it, okay? I’ll stick around in the swamp in case you change your mind,” Raimon said, clearly embarrassed. He floated gently off the ground and kissed her on the forehead before he fleeing, embarrassed.
Thyme smiled. The Aylwards are not weak. But maybe the doubts and anxieties were the real weakness.
Because the happy little butterflies in her stomach certainly weren’t.
Dawn rose and Thyme strode back to the manor, covered in mud and vines. Her mind was in turmoil.
Her mother rushed over to her, gripping her shoulders tightly.
“What were you doing? You are filthy!”
Thyme looked at her, her face calm despite the war of indecision raging in her mind. She had finally found someone who understood her. When she had talked with Raimon, her great cloud of stress and fear had not disturbed her, not once.
Now that she was back home, she didn’t feel at home at all.
“I was talking with a Pixie,” she said calmly.
A vein twitched in her mother’s forehead.
“A what?” She frowned.
“Nevermind that. Nevermind that. We will discuss your punishment later. For now, we must prepare you for the Guiding ceremony. It is the biggest night of your life, is it not?”
Thyme realized that her mother, Aunt Augusta, and the other girls only fed her great cloud of stress.
Raimon understood it.
“No, it’s not.”
Her mother seized her wrist.
Her mother was looking dangerously unstable now. Thyme looked over towards the swamp, at the great Planes Willow. She looked at the mountains. She looked at the horizon, and for the first time in years, wondered what was behind it. She thought of the pastel skies, the lonely oak, and the crimson ash trees. Her fears crowded behind her, but she turned her back on them.
“I am not weak. And I will not do the Guiding.”