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28. Wand

“This is you getting back at me for dragging you to the Temple of Black Water, isn’t it? I knew it was coming.”

“Why on the War God’s Earth would I want to willingly run through the desert? No, this is not payback. This is me wanting to get paid. The reward is a good one.”

“But the desert is awful.” Absinthe groaned, looking over the paperwork that Alnyx had put in front of him. “It’s so hot and dry. Not to mention that the sand gets-Wait that many zeroes?”

“Yes. That many.” Alnyx preened the feathers of the hawk that had delivered the papers and then perched on his shoulder. “But you are right. We can always tell Garnet that we are not-”

“Fine fine, we can go to the bloody desert.”

“Should the heat really bother you that much? I mean…You are a demon so…You come from a plane of fire, do you not?

“Oh my Darling-”

“I told you not to call me that.”

“Mildly racist elf. Yes, I’ve got demonic blood. But, we aren’t ALL from planes of fire. My line hails from the plane of darkness.”

“I have literally seen you incinerate large groups of people.”

“We’re fire plane adjacent.”

Alnyx rolled his eyes, picking a scrap of meat from his plate to give t the bird. Once it swallowed, the creature flew out the open window it had come in through. Alnyx took the paperwork back from Absinthe, rolling it up carefully so not to tear or smudge anything.

“If we leave in the morning, we should have more than enough time to get there, complete the task ,and get back home in time for the new recruits ceremony. Malja will be so happy.”

“I hate those stupid things. The robes are so damn stuffy. There’s a reason I don’t like to stay in the Red City.”

“Yes, but Malja was our first LIttle Bird. So we have to be there.” Alnyx shook his head, the massive wolf at his feet standing as he did the same. “Try to get some sleep tonight. You are more of a pain when you do not.”

“Bed already? It’s barely half past ten. The night is so young.” Absinthe frowned at the elf. “Surely you can manage to stay up a little longer, Grandfather.” he batted the lashes that protected those bright, green eyes.

“We have a job to do. You can feel free to be exhausted and put yourself in danger. I have no such desire.”

“Does the stick ever come out of your ass?”

“You will never know.”

“Never say never, Al. I love a challenge.” Absinthe licked his lips as he watched the elf go. “And you are a fantastic one.”

 

As Alnyx had predicted, Absinthe was far from well rested for their ride to the southern desert. The elf constantly had to wake his companion who fell half asleep in the saddle at every chance.

“We are not taking the horses into the desert with us.” he warned. “And I doubt a camel will be as good about following order from you half asleep.”

“What are we even romping into the stupid sand for anywhere?” Absinthe shifted uncomfortably as Alnyx stared at him. “I didn’t actually read the contract. Just the number.”

“You…I am not surprised.” Alnyx shook his head. “We are going to find the tomb of an ancient wizard who was a religious leader. A collector is paying well for artifacts from the old world. The one attached to all those zeroes you saw was a very specific one. A wand, likely buried in the hand of the wizard’s corpse.”

“So we’re grave robbing?” Absinthe arched an eyebrow. “From a powerful dead wizard.”

“Grave robbing is such a strong series of words. The contractor is from the same religious tradition as the wizard was. Think of it as….Securing holy relics.”

“And I’m the evil bastard.”

 

It took them almost four days of travel by night to get to the site marked on their map. Alnyx rolled the parchment back up, lowering his hood.

“The entrance should be here.” he squinted his eyes. “Probably a rune on one of these stones. Start looking.”

“That’s hardly helpful.” Absinthe wrinkled his nose. “There are like a hundred rocks here.”

“If it was easy, they would not be paying us to do it.” Alnyx shook his head. “It will likely be some sort of warding glyph. You know what those look like, right?”

“I’m not an idiot.”

“Debatable.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Just get to looking. You too Fish.”

The wolf let out a single park before starting to sniff at some of the smaller rocks. Absinthe shook his head, waving his fingers to cause small whirlwinds that blew sand off of the stones.

“This is ridiculous.” he huffed, kicking one of the stones. “MOrtal wizards hiding their toms…If you were any good you wouldn’t have died in the first place!”

“As he kicked another stone, the ground under them rumbled. Fish lowered his ears, growling as his master rolled his eyes.

“Yes. Kick rocks outside the dead wizard’s tomb. An excellent idea. You certainly are not an idiot.”

“Hey I-”

“Move!” Alnyx lept, tackling him as the ground opened under where he had been standing.

“Wow that was-”

“Shut up.”

“But you-”

“You are annoying but I need you alive.  Alnyx dusted himself off as he stood, shaking sand out of his hair. “That is all.”

He walked to the edge of the hole as Absinthe pulled himself back onto his feet. Fish sat on the ground beside Alnyx, peering into the hole as well with a tilted head.

“Should be easy enough to climb down if we anchor a rope up here.” Anlyx nodded to himself, removing the backpack he wore and setting it in the sand. “Would you stop staring?”

“You save me.”

“Hardly the first time. It is not a big deal.”

“You normally just let me fall.”

“Would you like me to cut the rope as you go down? It would have the same effect.”

“Well no-”

“Good let us go then.” He started by trying off one end of the rope to a larger, half-buried stone. “FIsh, you stay here. You know what to do if anything comes up.” The Dog barked once after his master before the two began their climb.

 

“Better than the temple, right? No spider women.”

“No, just a wraith and his undead minions. The blood loss is making you delirious.”

“Maybe a little.”

They had managed to retrieve the wand, safe in its box within Alnyx’s cloak. But, in doing so they manage to wake the dead wizard from his “slumber,” along with the small army of skeletons that were buried with him.

“The way up should be this way.” Alnyx grabbed Absinthe’s arm before he could go the wrong way again. “Come on.”

He could nearly see the rope now. But, unfortunately, so could the wraith. Alnyx growled, pulling Absinthe harder as they sprinted down the corridor.

“Get up it. I can hold them back. Once we are in the sun, it should be easier for us to fight them off.”

“But I-”

“Go!”

Alnyx turned to face the oncoming skeleton horde, drawing the two short swords that were at his sides. He’d much have preferred having Fish down here with him. The wolf-

He felt the fireball before he saw it soar over his head. THe skeletons turned to ash before him, the wraith dissipating into smoke with a howl. He covered his mouth with a sleeve, smirking behind it.

“Is there a reason you didn’t so that a few minutes ago before you got chewed up?” he put his swords away, frowning when there was no biting response. “Absinthe?”

As he looked up, the man was limp, barely hanging on to the rope only a few feet above his head. Cursing under his breath, he climbed up and managed to get Absinthe on to his back, and carefully on to the ground. He head a single bark and a whimper from Fish above them.

“We are fine. Down boy.” Alnyx spoke calmly as he located Absinthe’s pulse. “Shit.” Faint. Very faint. “Come on you bastard.”

He moved and straddled Absinthe’s hips before digging into his bag for bandaging. They has a single tonic left that would help as well. Making a mental note to pick up a few more with their earnings, he undid the ridiculous clasps on the chest piece. He wrinkled his nose as he smelled more blood than he had before.

“Idiot.”

Working quickly, he bound the gashes tightly in order to stop the bleeding. With a pop that echoed in the empty tomb, he uncorked the small bottle of tonic. Alnyx leaned over his mostly unconscious partner, pouring it down his throat and coaxing it down with his fingers. He relaxed only when he finally saw his throat move as he swallowed.

“‘s that a wand in your pocket,” the acidic green eyes cracked open just to slits as he croaked the words out. “Or are you just happy to see me?”
“You great stupid bastard. You know well-”

The kiss silenced Alnyx faster than any argument in the last three years ever had.

“I…” the elf stood quickly, high cheekbones suddenly very pink.

“Bit of both I’d say.” Absinthe picked up the ruined chest armor from the ground, grabbing the rope. “Comeon. I hate the damn desert.”

The silence that followed him up the rope made him smirk. Nearly dying aside, it was quite the successful mission indeed.

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26. Rhythm

She still couldn’t figure out how Gray got his fingers to move like that. They seemed to glide across the frets, barely touching the wood. As he continued to play up on the stage, she glanced down at her hands.

They were too small, she rationalized. As she looked back up at the stage, she spread her fingers as far apart as she could manage. She tried to match the way Gray’s fingers bend, using the edge of the table as her own instrument. No matter how hard she tried, they just wouldn’t cooperate the way his seemed to.”

“Why so grumpy, Ophelia?”

“I can’t do it like you and Gray can. I’ve been practicing for at least an hour every day, just like you said. My fingers don’t work, Wraith.”

“Nonsense, they work just fine. Here, let me see them.” The woman held her hands out for the girl’s, turning the hands over front to back as they were placed in hers. “Hmm, as I suspected. They’re just fine.”

She bent each blood red digit, causing the girl to giggle. Wraith even bent them to take the shapes of the chords Gray played.

“See? Working perfectly. It just takes lots and lots of practice.”

“How does he do it so fast, though? It’s the extra joint, isn’t it?”

“Could be.” Wraith nodded. “He also has been playing for longer than three lives. You know how he loves that story.”

“It isn’t fair. I’ll never be as good as he is.”

“Aww, never say never.” Wraith tousled the girl’s violet hair. “Tell you what. I’ll ask him to stop over here after his set. He’ll be glad to hear that you’ve been practicing.”

“Okay. He won’t be disappointed that I can’t do it like him?”

“Of course not, Hun. Now enjoy the set.” Wraith was very careful to avoid the horns that hadn’t finished growing as she kissed the top of the girl’s head.

 

“There’s my favorite little Bardess in Training.”

“Gray!” The girl threw herself at the elf’s knees, hugging them tightly. “You sounded really good.”

“Thank you.” he ran his hand through her hair. “Wraith told me that you’ve been practicing.”

“Yeah.” she nodded, releasing his legs and plopping back into her chair, staring up at him. “I’ve been working on the fingerings that you showed me the last time you were in town.”

“Good, good.” he smiled, pulling up one of the other chairs. “Let’s see then.” When the girl went to grab the edge of the table, he shook his head. “Here.”

He removed the strap from his lute, smiling when her eyes widened. He remembered, for the briefest of moments, what it was like to be that young and excited. She took it carefully from it when he held it out, running a finger along each string. Once they made their way to the fret board, she had less a look of reverence, and more one of determination.

“This one is….A, right?”

“Yes. Go ahead, strum. Your fingers are correct.” he nodded as she did so. “A good first try. Now, move them to F.”

 

Thi went on for a good hour: he even walked her through the basics of a very short song. The girl was a quick study, which was good. They only lived as long as humans did, even with the horns.

“I have to go back now.” Ophelia sighed sadly, holding the instrument back out to Gray. “Do you know when you’ll be back?”

“I never know, Red.” he looked down at the instrument and smield again. “Know what….Keep it.”

“What? No, I couldn’t-”

“I have others.” he assured the girl. “I want you to keep it. That way, when I come back through town again, you’ll be even better.”

Ophelia stared down at the lute with wide eyes again. Setting it on the table she stood, hugging him tightly again. Gray smiled, rubbing the girl’s back gently when he heard the tiny sniffle.

“I wish I could go with you.”

“When you’re older, Little Red.” he promised her. “We’ll get into all sorts of trouble, and you’ll wish you had stayed here where it’s quiet and boring.”

She shook her head about the second half, slowly stepping back and releasing him.

“You promise?”

“Cross my ancient heart.” he drew a little “X” over the center of his chest. “Now, get home before you get into trouble with your mother.”

He watched her delicately put the lute across her back with the strap he handed back to her, as if it was something far more precious than stained wood. She ran out of the inn, beaming as she bounced.

“She’s going to be trouble one day.”

“I’m counting on it Wraith.” Gray chuckled. “Otherwise, I just lost a perfectly good lute.”

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38. Strain

The third floor walk-up had seemed like such a good idea on paper. It was safe, unlike the garden level apartments, and it was stay warm when the either changed: totally ideal. Until trip four from the U-haul, that is. He leaned on the wall to catch his breach, closing his eyes. Sure, the walk-up had been loads cheaper than the building with the elevator. And gym. And wireless internet in each unit as a standard…

Why had he picked this building again? He bent down to pick up the box that he’d gotten this far, groaning as he felt a pull in his lower back. After the two friends that were supposed to assist him cancelled, he probably should have hired movers. But the reasons he was in this building and not the high rise with a view of the lake wasn’t because he preferred the neighborhood.

“Oh, are you moving in?” He could feel his eye twitch when he heard the voice. What other reason would he have to be standing, half hyperventilating, with a box labeled ‘kitchen” in the middle of the hall? He opened his mouth with a witty remark, but he promptly swallowed it.

Long brown hair, freckles ,and huge…Eyes. He could forgive the fact that she was apparently an idiot. He straightened his back, adjusting the box so he could hold out a hand.

“Yeah. Name’s Jake.”

“Mary.” she shook the hand. “Here, go set that down and let me change my shoes. I’ll help!”

“Oh no, that’s-”

“The stairs are awful. It’s not a big deal. I don’t have to go to the gym if I do, right?” she winked before unlocking her door. “I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

He licked his lips as he watched her disappear behind the door. It was probably his fastest trip up the last flight of stairs, that was for sure. He caught his breath again inside of his own door, leaning on the wall again.

As promised, Mary was waiting in the lobby, long brown, hair tied away from her face. She was on her phone, so she didn’t see Jake gawking at first. He cleared his throat awkwardly and she finally looked up. Tucking the phone away, she walked over to him.

“So…Is it just you, or do you have like a roommate?”

“Oh no, just me. I cat sit when my friends go out of town, but that’s about it.’

“Oh you’re moving into one of the studios up there then? I know a few of them were empty. Lack of an elevator tends to turn people off pretty quickly.”

“It’s basically free cardio right?” Jake laughed, trying not to wince at the way it pulled at his sore muscles. “Besides, it’s only two flights. The boxes just make that part hard.”

“That’s true.” Mary followed him to the U-Haul.” I hope you don’t have any like big furniture of anything. You’re best off taking bigger stuff in through the back.”

“Nah. It’s all IKEA crap. Should probably toss most of it, honestly.” he climbed up into the back of the truck. “Pawned most of the decent stuff off on my kid brother going to college.”

“That does make it easier.” she rocked on her heels as he pulled a few of the last boxes down. “What school?”

“Something on the East coast. I didn’t really listen.”

“Spoken like a true brother.” Mary laughed, taking the box that was passed down to her. “Right. Let’s get this done with.”

 

Between the two of them, it certainly went much quicker. She was more than happy to take one of the beer Jake had gotten for his friends.

“A few of us were going to go to the bar to watch the hockey game tonight. Since you’re newer to the area, you should come.” She looked over at him from her spot on his couch.

“Yeah, sounds good. I dunno if I’ve ever watched a hockey game…” he thought about it for a moment before shaking his head. “Nope, never have.”

“What? How?”

“We don’t have a team in Nebraska.”

“Fair.” she laughed.”Here, give me your phone. I’ll give you my number. So I can get a hold of you and let you know when we’re going.”

“Oh. Uh yeah.’ he blinked, handing it over. That was way easier than he thought it would be. “So like, your friends and your boyfriend or what?”

“No boyfriend. Just a bunch of people from work and old school friends. We grew up on the sport.” she punched her number into his phone and handed it back. “Send me a text so I have yours.

He absently licked his lips as she he watched her chug what was left of her the beer. She smacked her lips, setting the bottle down on one of the boxes.

“Anyway, you probably need to get your necessities together. I’ll text you when I have a time.” she stood, walking to the door.

“Yeah, sure.” he waved as she stepped out and closed it behind her.

Maybe the third floor wouldn’t be so-He winced as his back tightened when he stood up…Maybe the third floor walk-up wouldn’t be so bad AFTER a shower. And heating pad.

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9. Leather

Something about the smell of old books always made her feel young again. If she had to guess it was the years she had spent sitting at her grandfather’s feet, listening to him tell stories of his travels all across the globe. She took a deep breath as they stepped into the old study, sighing contently.

“Smells like-”

“Mold?”

“Way to kill the mood, Greg.” she rolled her eyes. “History. It smells like history books. You know, like a library.”

“It may as well be one.” Greg sighed. “Come on, let’s sort this quick. The appraisers should be here around three.”

“I wish you wouldn’t have called them until after we had time to look through it all. It would have given us time-”

“I don’t have time, Cassidy. You might be a…Freelance writer or whatever you’re calling it now…But I have three kids and a business trip on Friday.” He shook his head. “Anything worth money goes. The rest you can deal with on your own time.”

Cassidy bit the inside of her cheek, a little bit harder than she probably needed to. Better to cause a little cut than a fight. Their dead grandfather’s office was no place for an argument after all.

“Fine, whatever.” She finally said. “He used to keep the older stuff in cases. He had to downsize from those when he moved here though.”

“Damn so they got exposed?” Greg groaned. “Nothing to be done for it I guess.” he scanned the room. “Where do we start then?”

“Fiction was always to the right.” she wasn’t surprised that her brother couldn’t remember that. “Should be alphabetical by last name. Non-fiction is probably done by the decimal system.”

“I’ll leave that part to you then. You remember what his first editions were?”

“They’re probably changed from when we were young.” Cassidy walked to the wall she was sure the nonfiction started on. “He was always buying and selling.”

“Fantastic.” Greg raked a hand through his hair and stepped to the opposite wall. “Suppose we can ignore the paperbacks?”

“Since we’re speed searching? Probably. I can double back later. We aren’t selling the place right away.”

Greg nodded, stepping away from the book cases to instead open a window. It was bound to get dusty as they started moving things around. As much as Cassidy loved the smell, she’d rather not walk out with lungs full of dust.

Cassidy skimmed titles, trying to recall the ones from when she’d first helped her grandfather set up his catalog. A few of them were easy, considering the gold leaf embossing on the covers and side. Those she stacked gently in a pile on one of the chairs. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that Greg was absorbed in the titles. He wouldn’t notice if she took a little more time on just one…

She slipped a book from the shelf and ran her fingers along the cover. For the skins being old as they were, they were still soft under her fingers. She smiled as she traced the letters of the title. It was an old plant encyclopedia, which Cassidy used to press flowers in to. The pages smelled like roasted marshmallows as she turned through them, keeping her nose close.

She paused on one of the pages, a long faded violet pressed there. Cassidy smiled, picking it up carefully. It did flake a little, but stayed mostly in one piece. When she heard Greg sigh again, she placed it back inside and closed the cover.

“Anything good?”

“A few of the older ones. No idea if they’re worth anything.” she hugged the book to her chest without turning around.

“I have no clue what I’m looking at. I’m gonna go check in with the art appraisers downstairs on those paintings.”

“Yeah, sure thing.” she released the book slowly, setting it back on the shelf. “I’ll take a look at that side. Make coming out here worth their time.”

Greg nodded and walked out of the room leaving the door open just a crack behind him. Cassidy sighed contently, fingers hitting every spine as she sauntered to the other side of the room. Greg might not have had time for their grandfather’s treasures with his children. But Cassidy? She took in a lungful of dust and leather.

She would make time.

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74. Prepare

In every story you read when you’re younger, Christmas morning is supposed to be calm and peaceful: a time for reflection and contemplation. Santa having come and gone, the children are tucked back in bed with their spoils, and Mom and Dad can finally have a quiet moment together alone.

“What do you mean you took the wrong shirt to the cleaners?!”

This was clearly not going to be that kind of Christmas morning. The hot cocoa had been replaced with a red eye espresso as the moment the kids were back in bed.

“You said the blue one. You didn’t say WHICH blue one. So I picked and-”

“That’s indigo, that isn’t even blue.” She hissed. “Now we aren’t going to match.”

“We aren’t cartoon characters, Jessica. We don’t have to match.”

“Kristin and Dustin are going to match.”

“Kristin are sociopaths that somehow managed to reproduce. Besides, it’s close enough, and it isn’t like there’s going to be another cleaner’s open-”

“Tell me you at least picked up the pie order yesterday. Two apple, one pumpkin, and the french silk.”

“Yes, I got them. And the vanilla ice cream. It’s all in the freezer.” He nodded proudly, sipping his coffee. “Nothing to worry about, just like I said.”

“Vanilla?”

“Yes, vanilla. That’s what was on the list- Jess would you just sit down please?” he groaned when the woman, his wonderful beloved wife, got up and practically ran into the kitchen.

But, it was quiet again for the moment. He took another long sip, sighing contently as he closed his eyes. Maybe once she calmed down a little, he’d be able to-

The scream sounded like she’d just gotten stabbed. He almost dropped the ceramic mug as he moved, in the kitchen doorway quickly.

“Jess, what-”

“It was supposed to be vanilla bean!” The woman was crumpled on the floor, the freezer door open high above her head. “Not vanilla. Who eats apple pie without vanilla bean ice cream?”

He raked his hand across his face, shaking his head. Careful not to step on her, he walked in and closed the freezer door. Was she-yep, definitely crying.

“Okay, well I’m going to go to bed while you have this nervous breakdown here.”

“I had everything written out perfectly. It was all going to be perfect. Now it’s going to be shit. You can’t have Christmas with regular vanilla ice cream.”

“Everything is going to be just-”

“And indigo is NOT blue!”

“Daddy why is Mommy on the floor?” the scream had woken up their seven year old, the little boy rubbing at his eyes sleepily. “Did she not get what she wanted from Santa?”

“Heyyyy, Ty.” He scooped the boy up. “Mommy is just having a little trouble getting ready to visit Uncle Dustin and Aunt Kristin later today.”

“But why? Uncle Dustin and Aunt Kristin are the best.”

“Even my own child! Why god why?!” the woman on the floor groaned.

“Let’s just get you back up to bed, Ty. Long day ahead for you and your sister. You and your cousins are going to have so much fun.” He hushed the very confused child and carried him back up the stairs and to the bed he’d abandoned.

 

Yes, holidays were supposed to be calm, reflective…And apparently to be enjoyed with a side of vanilla bean ice cream. At least the grocery store was open 24 hours right now.

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61. Bewildered

“How did I manage to get a girl like you?”

“Oh just lucky I guess. Now get out of here. The office can’t very well run itself. The computers haven’t gotten that good yet.”

Melissa smiled as her husband leaned down and kissed her once, standing on her toes. She watched as he grabbed his briefcase from its place on the kitchen table, waving as he finally stepped out the door.

Once she heard the click of the door locking she let out a sigh, sitting back down in front of her breakfast. She’s barely touched the omelette and toast, stomach roaring as she instead sipped her tea. A heavy, herbal thing, it always made the kitchen smell like a garden. She gave up on eating, leaving the plate to deal with later. Fingers curled around the mug, she walked back up the stairs. Why she continued to wake up to see David off she had no idea. She hardly needed to, after all.

Going into the bedroom, she set her mug on top of one of the dressers. Melissa whistled as she went about getting ready, the shrill noise cutting through the otherwise silent home. As she reached for a bottle of perfume on her vanity, she frowned as she found not a drop of it left.

“Guess that settles plans for today.” she tucked the bottle into her pocket. “Should have what I need to make more of it…”

The tea was ice cold by the time she grabbed for the cup. Shaking her head she walked out without it. Still whistling her off key little song, she sauntered down the hall. The door she stopped in front of was quite helpfully labeled as “Melissa’s Craft Room” in sparkling, purple letters. She removed a small, silver key from the chain around her neck, fitting it into the locked knob. Out of habit, she immediately closed the door behind her as she stepped in.

If the tea made the kitchen smell like a garden, the room here smelled like a warm, densely-packed greenhouse. Herbs were hanging and drying in the windowsills, and potted plants of various sizes and shapes all bent towards the sun as well. And the crystals…Shelf upon shelf in the room were covered in stone, bone, and a number of things inbetween.

“It’s about time for me to renew the spell as well. It’s been almost 30 nights of sleep.” she tapped her shin, setting the bottle from her vanity down on the small work table. “Let’s get that started first.”

She walked to a closed cabinet, tossing open the roods. A host of jars and small glass vials filled with unknown things rattled against one another as she did so. Her fingers brushed against each container as she searched.

“Now where on Earth did I put that batch of heartstrings?”

 

Dinner was always on the table promptly at 6:15, so it was cool enough to eat when David walked in at 6:27. Every night, right on the dot.

“It smells fantastic in here.” His voice was followed by the thudding of his dress shoes hitting the hardwood floors.

“I was feeling crafty today. New recipe I found on Pinterest.”     “You’re the best.” he kissed her on the cheek as he walked into the small dining room.

“I try. Oh! I forgot the wine.” She walked past him, back into the kitchen.

Two glasses of red wine, and the bottle, sat on the counter. Humming absently to herself, she withdrew a black vial from her pocket. She tipped the contents into one of the two glasses and gave it a stir with her finger.

“Thanks Babe.” David had already started to fill his plate before she set the glass in front of him.

“Of course.” she took hers to her seat and took a long drink.

“I really am the luckiest.”

“Oh sweetie, I’m the luckiest.” She watched as he took a drink. For a moment, his pretty blue eyes turned as dark as the glass in Melissa’s pocket. “I’m just the luckiest to have you.”

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95. Life

There was so much ash, it was hard to believe that there were ever trees in this place at all. Once the elementals had begun, there had been no stopping their assault until they had run out of kindling. Even then, it had proven costly to send them back to the Eternal Flame from which they had come.

“Are there any left, Peri?”

“Some of the old growth at the outer rim, Lady Shana. But not much.”

“I see.” The blonde elf woman shook her head in dismay as the dryad beside her pawed at the ground with one hoof. “I don’t see what the council thinks we can do here. Too much of it was raised.”

“Don’t talk like that, Lady Shana.” As the dryad tossed her head, charms in her hair tinkled and struck one another. “It may look dire, but I am sure there is something that can be done.”

The elf shook her head again in return, stooping down to pick up a handful of ash. Even months after the final fire burned its way out, the fine granules were still warm to the touch.

“The soil is baked. Saturated with the negative energy.”

“That isn’t a surprise.” Peri picked up a branch that crumbled in her nimble fingers. “It just needs a little more work that normal, that’s all.”

“These trees were older than the two of us put together, Periwinkle. We will be lucky to coax weeds to grow here now.”

“Always such a pessimist.”

Shana sighed, dusting off her knees as she righted herself once more. A sudden breeze kicked up clouds of the ash and soil, forcing the woman and foal to cover their mouths.

“Gods it tastes like death!” The poor dryad gagged as the wind howled a moan of pain across the barren landscape.

“There, while we wait for the wind to pass.” Shana pointed to two husks of tree that, while were long dead of anything green, were solid enough to hide beneath to block the worst of it.

 

“There were no survivors from your clan’s settlements, you are certain?” Periwinkle didn’t risk speaking again until they were safely under their make-shift cover.

“None. They were taken by complete surprise. Too deep in the heart of the trees for anyone to get word before the Candles made it to them.”

“How many?”

“Fifty-three. Ten are…Were…Children. We did not even have bodies to give their families back in the capital.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“As am I.” Shana leaned slightly against the badly damaged trunk. “But, sorry doesn’t break the dead back to us.”

“Perhaps that is a good thing. They are never quite the same the second time around.”

 

When the wind finally died down, it seemed to have taken at least some of the clouds with it. The midday sun peaked through , making the ground a little too warm.

“We’ll need to leave soon and come back. With the clouds going, I’d rather not get heat stroke out here.”

Periwinkle nodded to agree, starting to turn back to the circle they used to arrive. Her bright eyes widened as she paused in her turn, suddenly beaming.

“Shana wait!” she sprinted off to the west as quickly as her four legs would take her.

“Peri quit-” the elf groaned, running after her. “You do know how much faster you are, right?”

“I see green.”

“I think that the heat has made you delusional.” Shana shook her head. “Let’s just go back. We can return with a green mage and a few water skins tomorrow and-”

The dryad kicked up more and more dirt and ash as she dug in with her hooves. Shana coughed and covered her mouth again. She rolled her eyes but stayed put, waiting until the rhythmic pounding stopped before she lowered her arm.

In the space that Periwinkle hand cleared away, a small sprig of a plant stood. Probably a weed. Or likely something parasitic that was feeding off the latent magical energy…But it was a start.

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