On the banks of the silent Flumina River, in this icy season when every breath became visible, the orchard called Pomum Flos was quiet enveloped in the dusk brought by the imminent twilight. Dormant apple trees, naked branches that stretched as far as the eye could ever see, with their sturdy roots coiled deep in the cold snow while underneath slept the fertile soil.
As temperatures plummeted and the color drained from land and sky of San Fhothair, the whitened landscape caused a kind of winter blindness inside a solitary boy's soul. One day, it became indistinguishable from the next. Everything froze, turned fragile just like his hidden heart.
At age fifteen, he had already discovered the empty spaces that gathered between people at the local void market during the low season. Even still, he saw families gathering around the frozen fountain buying frost-flower bouquets for their dining tables and small living rooms.
He longed for his family to be like those he saw on his daily outings to get some food. It wasn't as if his family was broke or just misfit. The boy's family was perfect, even too perfect for him to handle.
The solitary boy constantly wondered how it was possible to live such a comfortable life but at the same time be so unhappy and empty like the apple orchards during winter. No one, not even his perfect mother and perfect father, understood how alone he often felt within these four walls full of apple barrels.
But, he had come up with an amazing plan according to his standards.
He was planning to run away.
The excitement took over his shivering body while his snow boots left footprints trailing his way. No more apple business to take care of. No more being trained to take over Pomum Flos when he became of age.
No more being dressed up or to pretend to be amicable to find a suitable wife.
He desired to live life his way, hence why his first step was to gather enough food to survive for at least a week during the cold winter.
The lonely boy hadn't even traced up a route on his map yet, optimistically believing that Mashya would guide his way. The fifteen-year-old youth wasn't too much into religion but decided to entrust his fate just this once.
"How come I can't buy silphium here?" A young girl whined.
Judging from the looks of the seller who was dealing with the customer, the boy supposed it was at least the tenth time she'd asked that question.
"Do I have to kick you out of my store again, lass?"
"If we're being precise, you technically can't kick me out since I'm already outside, see?" The girl extended both arms enthusiastically.
The young boy blinked, observing the scene that broke his daily commute. Indeed, the mysterious girl had won a small battle of wits since, as she had said, she was standing outside. The general store had an open gigantic window where the merchant sold his goods every day.
That same store was the boy's objective but, cautiously watching the scene, he started to regret his plan and maybe postpone it until two days from then, given he didn't want to get himself involved in an incident with an outsider.
"Enough with trying to play smart," the owner replied. "I've repeated a dozen of times that in order to acquire silphium you need to be either a licensed apothecary or an alchemist that works for the government and judging from your attire, I can conclude you are neither."
"Aw, c'mon old man. Give me a hand here, will ya?" the outsider girl wasn't giving up so easily.
The girl lets go of a small bag of coins in the empty satchel she carried and sat back on her heels, refusing to leave. With mid-short silver hair, bright teal eyes and tanned skin, she had the appearance of someone from the southern region.
The boy bit his lower lip, trying not to frown. It would turn into a mess in no time. He had to get away from there as soon as possible. After all, southerners were known for tricks under their sleeves that had no mercy upon their surroundings.
He kept on his way, his steps increasing in velocity ignoring the voices on his back which gradually went higher in volume. He covered his ears and closed his eyes until he reached the end of the market, a trail of whithered grass dancing on his feet.
There, under an orange blossom tree which would never bloom rested a girl. The boy felt like one of those long, floppy balloons he saw during the summer being slowly filled with air magic, taking on a new form with each breath, and in this case, the breath was this girl he knew from his whole life. They'd been best friends for as long as he could remember, but lately, it felt different to be around her.
"Oban!" he exclaimed, rushing towards the girl and sitting beside her.
"Oban, Noa-kun! What brings you here? It's already evening!"
"Yup, the dusk has already settled in. How's it been for you today?" He asked with a worried expression. "And stop calling me by that nickname, it's embarrassing."
"Aww, but Noa sounds so cute! Nogal sounds way too serious," she giggled. "Answering your question, it has been an uneventful day! However, I do feel a small change in the atmosphere. I don't have a clear idea of what it might be but, you know how my sixth sense works. How's it coming for you, though? Are you still sure of your plan?"
"Of course! Just don't tell anyone about this."
"If I could, I'd stop you myself but, as you already know… I'm coming with you too!"
"No, no! You know perfectly well why I'm doing this! You can't come with me!" the boy lowered his gaze, trying to reach for one of the girl's frail hands just to retract in the end and feel the cold snow in his fingertips. Even so, Nogal's heart-shaped face was uncharacteristically solemn. "You mean a lot to me. You're… my only friend in this world. I don't know what I'd do without you. That's why I'm doing this. Even if at the same time I'm escaping a life I don't want, I'm doing this with a purpose in mind."
"Can you still hear those voices, Noa-kun?"
"Yes, I can… But, what does it have to do with…?"
"Tell me something, Noa-kun... Given you can hear the agony this world covered in the dusk whispers to you, if you were to express this agony in some way, would you use it as an answer?"
"I… don't understand when you use complicated phrases... plus it doesn't fit your happy-go-lucky personality at all!" Nogal tried not to laugh. "I just wish I could stop hearing them but, at the same time, I'm happy I can. I want to comprehend what they say."
The two of them looked at one another over the expanse of the withered orange blossom tree that knew all their secrets. The truth they passed among themselves, in looks alone. The solitary boy couldn't afford to lose his only true and precious friend.
"I will find a way!" Nogal felt a swell of pride and hope. "During my travel, I will find a way to save you."
"That's nice from your part, Noa-kun but… I already told you I'm coming with you, so no buts!"
"Alright..." he surrendered, raising his shoulders.
"I have to go now though, I'll see you in a couple of hours then."
"Travel, travel, we're going on a journey together ♫"
Nogal turned his back and resumed his walking towards the plaza once again while hearing his best friend singing in the distance.
From the depths of his heart, though, he longed the outsider girl from the plaza had already left so he could do some grocery shopping.
That way, he could guarantee enough food to survive while he looked for an answer for his friend's question and, perhaps, find an answer as of why he could hear the cries of agony the world of dusk carried.
The solitary boy understood his own hesitation as well; he never ever really knew what would happen once he stepped outside his village but, this time Nogal was sure he had the answer. If there was one thing he enjoyed the most, it was the times he spent with the girl under the apple tree. They were worthwhile. Everything about her was. Nogal's school friends were just fake, everyone interested to get on the apple orchid's boy's side for future's sake.
That's why, instead of paying attention towards where he was going, he became the center of attention of an incident that would, most certainly, change his whole perspective of the world as he knew it.
"Theif! Someone stop that brat!"
Was all Nogal could hear before his vision became clouded with the silhouette of the tanned outsider he saw minutes ago arguing with the same seller. She was tightly grabbing the silphium with a huge victorious smile, oblivious to her surroundings colliding with Nogal's body while an incantation escaped her lips.
"Secht tonna tacid dom dorodailter!"
And the last thing the boy saw, was the outsider girl taking a piece of jewelry from a bracelet, throwing it in front of her and breaking it with a small blade.
In a matter of seconds, the suspicious girl's body disappeared from said realm, feeling how every fiber of her being gaped for air while her lungs suffered. Nogal wondered how on earth he stumbled upon that impossible and unimaginable situation.
He knew outsiders were trouble, but he never thought that that specific outsider knew Thaumaturgy. The remaining questions on his mind were if she was either an apothecary specialized on gemstones magic or a government alchemist, while the biggest them of all was the following:
How will I save her now if I'm gone?
However, his thoughts were taken aback when he still found himself in the middle of the plaza, with curious looks around him. The suspicious girl was nowhere to be seen, leaving a heavy atmosphere of suspense in the air.
Truly, a new season of change had begun.
An odd winter, with an odd goal.
"Now how am I supposed to run away if this just happened...?"
Were his last thoughts before passing out.