The fire blazed to life.
Neither of them had touched the fireplace before bed, and the lights had faded after they'd gone to sleep. Emily had woken from a dream kneeling before the crystal gate to look straight into the flame the moment it inexplicably lit. She gently extricated herself from Lessia's grasp, trying not to wake her. The air was cool, once she was away from the warmth of a second body and out from the blankets, but she was curious and wanted to investigate.
The fire seems like a normal fire, but the way it lit itself made Emily question that. It did heat the air, and took the edge off the chill of the night, but that would have been expected of a normal fire. It wouldn't have been the first automatic fireplace or flame-based heating system she'd run across, but who would have left it running, and why? There wasn't anything in the cottage to suggest that anyone lived there, and yet everything seemed functional, there was magic keeping the place clean, and now, the fire.
Emily looked at the fire closely. It seemed to be behaving itself. She reached a hand as close as she could before the heat forced it back. Nothing to suggest that this was anything but an ordinary sort of fire in an ordinary sort of fireplace.
"Emily?" came a soft voice behind her.
She turned back to see Lessia, still curled on her side, eyes half-open.
"Did you put on the fire?" she asked slowly.
"No, Lessia, I didn't," Emily replied. "It started itself when I woke up."
"Hm?" Lessia said, rolling on to her back. "That's odd." She stretched languorously. "Maybe the owner's coming home."
Emily grinned. "Wouldn't they be surprised."
Lessia sat up, the blanket falling to her waist. "Who wouldn't be happy to see us?"
"Can't imagine being unhappy to see you."
"Mmm, and I'm—"
With a loud whumpf, the fire went out as quickly as it had started, plunging the room into total darkness.
"You alright, Lessia?" Emily asked.
"I'm fine, you?"
"Doing okay. Just can't see."
"I'll get the lights, then," said a third voice, a warm, masculine tenor.
Both women gave a shout of surprise, causing the owner of the voice to chuckle. There was a sound like the ringing of a small bell, and the light on the wall flashed to life. A man stood by the fireplace; Emily judged him to be in his mid-thirties. He was taller than Emily, had dark, shoulder-length hair, hanging loosely down to frame his face, and sharp blue eyes that seemed to take in everything around him. His light canvas pants and were worn and dirty, as though he'd just been digging in the garden.
"Sorry to intrude." His tone seemed more amused than upset.
"Are you the Sage?" Emily asked.
He nodded. "Not exactly the picture of dignity and wisdom, I admit."
Lessia giggled. "I figured you would be..." she trailed off, with a shrug.
"Older?" The Sage smiled. "I get that a lot. I plan to be older someday, but right now, I'm this age."
"Yeah, me too," Lessia said, laughing.
"So, uh." Emily realized she was naked in front of a strange man. "What brings you here?"
He tilts his head. "It's my home. One of."
"I was told you live halfway up a mountain."
He nods. "I do, and that's where you'll be meeting me in a day or two. It's... not as impressive or daunting as it sounds."
"How do you know we'll be meeting you there?" Lessia asked. "Maybe we're going to turn around and go back."
"Well, for one thing, you've come this far," he said. "And for another..." He made a small gesture in Lessia's direction.
Lessia blinked. She looked momentarily confused. She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again, her expression blank.
Emily frowned. "What did you do to her?"
"Oh, you'll find out soon enough," he said cryptically. "I don't need to persuade you of anything, though."
"Well, for one thing, I can't." He steps a little closer. "May I?" He reaches up and taps the silver collar around Emily's neck. "That keeps me from influencing your mind. Mostly."
"It does?" Emily asked. She stepped a little closer, not sure why she did, and put her hand on the Sage's wrist, holding his fingers against her neck.
He chuckles. "Mostly." He held a hand to her cheek and she pressed into it like a cat. "There's still a few things I can do. You'll pardon me, I hope, I figured this would be more comfortable than you feeling self-conscious."
"Mmmm," she murmured, warm all over. She put her left hand over his, and her right rubbed her stomach lightly.
"I can tell you something else about the collar, too," he says. "I can't use it because you don't trust me yet, but you've clearly come to trust your traveling companion, there."
"Mmm, yeah, I have." Emily smiled. "That's one way of putting it, for sure." She kissed his fingers.
"And when there's someone you trust, all they need is your name, and they can... well..."
"Emily." Lessia's voice was soft and monotone. "Come sit on the bed."
The collar felt warm. Emily stepped back from the Sage a bit reluctantly and sat down on the corner of the bed, and then realized what she'd done. "Wait..."
"Emily, sit and listen," Lessia said.
Emily sat and listened.
"So you see," the Sage said, still standing by the fireplace, "if someone you trust uses your name and gives you a direction, you'll just... do it. If it doesn't break your trust."
"You don't know me, so you don't trust me... but the collar doesn't know that I have control of Lessia."
"Emily, never tell me what I can do with the collar," she heard Lessia's voice drifting past her.
The collar was warm. "Why make her say that?" she asked.
He smirked a bit. "Do you think you could keep that secret? Do you think that she could resist using it?"
Emily actually laughed. "Wanderers tell stories..." she looked over at Lessia. "... and you're right, we'd never get out of this cottage."
"Mhmm." He dusts his hands off. "And so, you can't tell her what she can do to you."
"Alright, great. Uh, now, what did you do to her?"
He winked. "She's going to be pretty focused on getting to my library. The one halfway up the mountain. Among other things."
She turned to Lessia. "Among other things? Like what?"
There was no answer. Emily looked back to the fireplace, and the Sage was already gone.
She heard a yawn to her right. "Emily, come back to sleep."
The collar felt warm.