Rain fell. It did not pour. It did not sprinkle. It simply fell, dropped from the clouds above with careless ease.
While the rain fell, the branches of the ancient elm tapped an irregular beat in the strong summer wind as it watched two travelers trudge up a rain-soaked hillside. The skies above stirred slowly, grey and subtly green.
The younger traveler, a lanky, disproportioned young man at that most awkward age, carried an awkward bundle across his back as he slipped and stumbled his way up the muddy hillside. The elder of the two, a bearded man in a healthy middle age, climbed up with a steady, sure pace. He looked at the churning sky as thunder grumbled across the landscape.
“Hurry up, boy. I’m not missing this storm.”
The boy gasped in reply. The climb, though simple in better circumstances, was exhausting. The rain had glued his hair to his face, and his feet sunk with every step, weighed down by the burden on his shoulders.
Of course they weren’t missing the storm, he thought. The storm had already found them.
He could feel nothing but the pain and the constant splatter of rain. The ever-softening mud clung to him, pulling at him, begging him not to finish his climb. His legs burned from the effort of pulling him through the hillside’s grasp, and the pain vined through the muscles of his back.
“Not much further.”
The boy glared at his unburdened master.
He muttered with every step, angry at the hill for being muddy, angry at the skies for sending rain, angry at the bundle for being so heavy, angry at the man for not being angry. And as he crested the hill, he was angrier still, for there was nothing there but a colder wind and an old elm tree.
“There,” the man said, pointing at a spot utterly alike every other spot on the hill. “We’ll set up over there.”
Alfor Runcible was a master Craftsmen, renowned beyond even the shores of the Green Isle for his skill and cunning, and it was well known that he had passed over numerous promotions within the guild, much to the chagrin of those who held those positions.
His apprentice Aaron, on the other hand, was only known in the village of Crossroads, and mostly for the time the mayor’s dog peed on his trousers in the village square.
Aaron unfurled his pack, emptying out the array of metal rods he had been carrying. Master Alfor seized the smallest, which had a clawed setting at its tip, and walked it to the desired point, plunging it into the earth.
Free of his burden, the young apprentice stared at the sky. The wind had grown fiercer, and the rain began to pelt him with sharp, cold spears. The chaotic, churning clouds had developed a pattern, a slowly turning swirl that seemed to reach out from its lofty seat, seemed to grow and stretch, a smoky tendril of terrible, whirling fury.
“Boy,” Alfor shouted, “move your ass before you get us both killed!”
Startled from his reverie, Aaron moved quickly. He lifted up the tall, iron rod and stabbed it into the ground many yards away from the area his master had chosen for the ritual. Then, he set to work with the silver rods, each of which was covered in intricate runes all along the shaft. His master measured out the distances required, double checking each one. He would then mark the point for Aaron, less than a year into his apprenticeship, who would plunge the silver stakes into the ground.
The first, the second, the third silver stake stabbed the earth as the wind grew angry around them. The spiraling clouds above twisted with malevolent force, the spout now clearly taking shape. It seemed to move at a crawling pace, but the apprentice knew the cyclone’s power could reduce a town to splintered ruins.
As the fourth stake entered the muddy earth, the apprentice began to hear a hum, which only grew louder as he put the fifth stake into place.
A flash stole the world from his eyes, and the crash that followed it flung him across the hilltop to a heap of awkward bars and bruises.
Slowly, Aaron’s ears began to work again, and Master Alfor’s booming laugh rolled over him. He was too dazed to feel embarrassed as the expert Craftsman lifted him to his feet with ease.
“Remember, lad: the only old Craftsman is a careful Craftsman, so do make sure that you and I grow very old indeed, eh?”
The apprentice nodded, still dazed, but no longer deaf. It occurred to him that there were many Craftsmen who lived before they had developed the lightning rods. It also occurred to him not to think about the apprentices of those Craftsmen.
The silver rods were now vibrating, and the hum grew even louder as the funnel above loomed over them, threatening to undo all their preparations . As the sixth and seventh stakes fell into place, it grew louder still. The master moved further away from the center, measuring the required distances with his wheeled instrument, each pair of measurements a precise ratio to the previous ones, growing out in an even spiral through which the gathered energies would flow.
The master Craftsmen looked carefully at his device. “Here! The last one!”
The final conduction rod shook Aaron’s hand numb as he speared it into place. The wind kicked up, bending the ancient elm tree nearly in half with its power and freezing the soaked apprentice to his core. He looked upwards and saw that the clouds’ spin no longer seemed lazy. It was so fast, so close.
The large Craftsman grabbed his apprentice by the shoulder and tore his gaze from the danger above. “Here!” he shouted over the roar of the wind. “I want you to set the crystal!”
Aaron looked down to see a simple crystal, similar to quartz, carefully carved and etched with complex runes. He had carved the runes himself, under his master’s tutelage, but he had never imagined he would be the one to set it in place.
“Go on, boy,” his master yelled. “If it shatters and kills the both of us, I want the gods to know for damned certain that it was your fault!”
Aaron wanted to vomit. Instead, he gripped the Aether and sprinted across the clearing, lost his footing, and slid across the mud.
He sprang back up, losing more dignity than momentum, and reached the setting rod as the roar of the storm drove him deaf once more.
His fingers, numb and freezing, had lost all precision in the wind and rain. The crystal slipped and nearly fell to the mud but for the boy’s frantic, impromptu juggling. With some effort, he slid the clasps around the crystal and secured it in the setting.
He sighed, and the fluttering anxiety left his stomach. He glanced over to his master and saw the man lying on the ground, his hands covering his head. The apprentice looked up and saw no sky at all. Instead, a mountain, swirling with malevolent, incomprehensible power filled his vision, and the pit his anxiety fled suddenly filled with terror.
The dumbstruck apprentice fell to his rump, heedless of the mud and rain. Nothing existed to him but the swirling storm above. As it reached down, it twisted and bent, and the hum of the rods on the hilltop became shrill, the only sound loud enough to hear over the winds.
Aaron had always wondered how he would die. All considered, this seemed a bit dramatic.
Then, the storm… jerked. Aaron had never imagined that he would see a storm jerk, but that was certainly what had happened. The tip of the cyclone was pulled first to one side, then to another. It followed a long circular path through the sky.
And it shrank.
It contracted quickly, and as it did it spun more fiercely. It spun faster and faster, and as it did it moved faster and faster about its path. The grey-green clouds that stretched for miles seemed to rush across the sky, feeding the frenetic tornado. And as it spun, it rushed closer and closer to the earth, finally tracing its tip through the spiral of silver rods they had placed along the hill. It spun with maddening speed as the tip of this terrible storm touched down on the tip of the Aether rod.
The crystal glowed with brilliant green light as the cloud rushed into it three feet from Aaron’s terrified eyes. It flowed, guided by the lattice of rune-carved silver that they had placed along this seat of power, pouring the might and fury of the storm into the Aether, worked with great care by his own hands.
In a few frantic moments it was over.
The sky above was dark blue broken up by trailing wisps of harmless clouds. A light rain pattered on the boy’s face. He could hear the impatient tapping of the elm in the gentle breeze.
“Haha!” The staccato laughter of Master Alfor broke the sudden, unexpected peace.
“My boy, you might just have it in you after all!” Already standing, the Craftsman crossed the clearing and plucked the crystal from its setting, loosening its fastenings with practiced ease.
Aaron, for his part, stared at the sky and wondered why he was not dead.
“Come on, boy.” The old master turned the shoulder of his wide-eyed apprentice. “Take a good look the fruits of your labors.”
He turned unthinkingly to the stone in his master’s hand. As his eyes focused, he saw movement deep inside. A grey-green cloud swirled within, lashing at the walls of its prison with impotent fury. He had done it. He had crafted his own Storm Aether, and as he reached out to grasp it, for the first time in his life he held the power of a cyclone in the palm of his hand.
Perhaps, he thought, being an apprentice wasn’t completely terrible.