The day sped by and I was done cleaning the pen with hours to spare.
“Thank you for your help, Orin,” I told the giant horse as I emptied the last bucketful of green goo into the barrel that would be wheeled away by one of the other staff later in the evening. “I’ve never been done with my task so quickly before.”
He nodded solemnly. There had been no more near-misses. He’d kept his word and kept the other Kelpies at bay and kept his distance, too. Sometime during the afternoon heat, I’d lost some of my distrust of the creature, though I was still wary.
“Will you come back tomorrow?” Water trickled from his mouth with his words.
“Of course. I clean the pens every day.” It was my curse.
“Would it be possible to bring a book with you? Could you read to me?”
My eyebrows raised.
“If I help clean again and keep the others away?”
“Do not trust the prince.”
I gave my head a little shake as I made my way back to the shed and then made a much-desired stop at the hot springs to soak off the stench. What bizarre game was the curse playing?
Though I had expected never to see Prince Lorenzo, he was at dinner, sitting on the dais at his father’s table. I was at the lowest table, furthest from them as the stink of Kelpie never quite left my skin, and we couldn’t have anything unpleasant upsetting the royals.
Orin’s words rumbled over in my brain as I slathered plum preserves onto a slice of bread. My eyes tracked to the high table. I was close enough that I could see the prince’s features clearly. He’d grown up to be a handsome man, but he looked astonishingly like Eric, my gardener friend.
I chewed my lip. Eric was near my age. So was Lorenzo. Was it possible King Hadrian had sired an illegitimate son? It wasn’t uncommon, though the thought cramped my belly.
I brought a book of fairy tales with me to the pen the next day. I’m not sure what possessed me to acquiesce to read to the Kelpie, but I loved a good fairy tale. Even in spite of my curse. Fairy tales had happily ever afters. And I was desperate for one that didn’t involve pails of poop.
I read to him that first day. At his insistence, I read while he brought masses of seaweed to the shoreline. After an hour, my voice was dry and there was a hefty pile of weeds. I fished them out with my rod, and we talked. The Kelpie was an excellent conversationalist. We talked of philosophy, we spoke of poetry, we discussed politics. Things I hadn’t realized I’d missed since the curse fell upon me.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” There was a hint of desperation in Orin’s voice.
“Of course. Shall I bring the book, too?” The lightness in my heart confirmed that Orin had filled a craving I hadn’t realized I had.
“Please. Thank you, Rhiann.”
Eric met me on the way back to the shed.
“Lass, you are well?” His concern sent little flutters through my middle.
“I am.” I felt my eyes shining, content in a way I hadn’t been since the curse was laid on me.
“Where’s your face covering?” His eyes crinkled in worry.
“Oh. It fell into the Kelpie pond. The big on sprayed water on it. It just disintegrated. I’ve been meaning to ask, are Kelpies venomous?”
A troubled look flashed over Eric’s face. “I’ll see if I can get you another.”
His worry was touching. I nearly told him not to bother, that it interfered with my speaking to Orin, but that would bring more questions and only concern him further.
Dinner that night was baked chicken and roasted turnips. I had just finished wiping my mouth on my linen napkin when footsteps behind me set my back straight and brought a flush to my face. The footfalls were confident, but they faltered as they reached the ring of Kelpie stench that constantly engulfed me.
“I know you.” The deep timbre of the voice sent heat over my shoulders and my heart tripping to my throat. Slowly I turned. My eyes grew wide as I stared into the face of Prince Lorenzo.
“Princess Rhiann!” His shocked voice drew the stares of those around us.
“My lord,” I whispered. He knew me? The curse allowed it?
“What are you doing…here?” He gestured to the lowly station of my table. Knowing the curse would stop me, I tried to explain.
“I’m cursed,” I wanted to say, but instead, “I volunteered to keep the Kelpies. I want to learn about them. It is my greatest wish,” came out without my permission.
“Of course.” The words were supplied for me. “They are a most fascinating race.” If I could have bitten my own tongue off, I would have. I glanced back to his face, seeing again how much Eric resembled him though Lorenzo’s features were darker.
“Let us speak. It has been many years. Do you not have an escort?”
“Please, Your Highness, I do not wish to draw attention. No one here knows who I am.” The curse spoke for me.
“Of course. I’ll meet you in the gardens in one hour.” He winked conspiratorially.
Sunlight pierced the skies as I swept a hand over my face to move the blonde strands that had tangled overnight. It was chilly in my tower room. I shivered, as much from the cool air as from what it meant.
My curse would be permanent if I did not find a way to break it by the first frost. Despair nearly crippled me before I sucked in a breath and plucked up my courage. I had to give my first kiss to my true love before the first frost, else I’d be scrubbing Kelpie muck the rest of my days, never allowed to return home. But first I had to find my true love. And right now, there weren’t many prospects. Kelpie cleaners ranked even lower than scullery maids. I wasn’t exactly invited to social functions.
Shaking my head and letting a heavy sigh loose, I struggled into my green dress. While my fingers deftly braided my hair, I thought back to the conversation I’d had with the Kelpie last night.
Surely, he must be a product of the curse. I wasn’t sure if he was sent to help me or sent to hinder me in finding my true love. But for the first time, there was a lightness in my step as I made my way down the long stone corridor to breakfast. Maybe today I’d get some answers while I attempted to remove the rest of the algae. Would the Kelpie keep his word?
Just as I was about to round a corner, hushed voices stopped me. My leather boots made no noise on the stone floors. I backed myself next to the wall, out of sight.
“Prince Lorenzo should be returning tomorrow. The king said his return need not be celebrated. To let him come home quietly. His journey will have been long and hard. He’ll need his rest.”
I’d met Prince Lorenzo once, many years ago. Our fathers had an alliance and a good trade in wool from King Hadrian’s kingdom and fish from our coasts in Evermore. Lorenzo had been a quiet boy, not much older than me, with dark hair and dark eyes. Well, he hadn’t been quiet once we’d started playing in the gardens. We’d whooped and hollered (in a most unlady-like fashion, I was scolded later), torn through the maze, and climbed trees in the orchard. We’d had a grand time. I wondered where Lorenzo had gone and why his return didn’t warrant the usual fanfare.
Even should we meet, I was sure he wouldn’t remember me. And even if he did, who would expect the Crown Princess of Evermore to be covered in pond gunk and smelling like a Kelpie’s back end?
Opening the shed near the Kelpie pond, I reached for a long hooked pole, net, and a large wooden bucket.
“How are you feeling today, Lass?”
I startled. “Oh, Eric. I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
Eric materialized out of the gloom of the shed, carrying hedge clippers and a large canvas bag.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said kindly with a smile. A little dimple appeared at the corner of his mouth and I realized he was actually quite handsome with his dusty brown hair and twinkly green eyes.
“No harm done.”
“Be careful today. That newest Kelpie is a wild one. Here. This might help.” He handed me a soft triangular cut cloth. “Tie that round your nose. Might keep some of the stench away.”
“Thank you. That’s very kind.”
He smiled once more, dipped his head, then went out the door to go about his gardening.
With nervous anticipation tripping through my gut, I approached the Kelpie pen. The moment my foot hit the white ring of enchanted stones the watery head broke the surface. Wicked teeth dripped water as seaweed clung to the creature’s mane. It was a Kelpie byproduct. No seaweed propagated in the pen, but the Kelpies grew it daily and it had to be fished out and disposed of. I shivered. Was this the Kelpie from last night? I couldn’t tell them apart. Every one of them was terrifyingly large, lethal, and revolting.
We stared at each other. Me with my blue human eyes, the Kelpie with large liquid irises that reflected the sunlight.
The breath left me in a whoosh.
“I’ve come,” I whispered.
He inclined his head to me. “I will keep my promise to you. The others will not come near you while you clean.”
As if on cue, four other watery horse heads appeared, a tangle of weeds and wickedness. Shrill screeches echoed around the enclosure and I clapped my hands over my ears while my heart pounded, and my knees knocked in fear. No matter how many times I heard the creatures’ cries, every time it scared me to my bones. The sound was like the keening of the dead, wailing to ensnare a victim. It was all I could do not to cower on the ground.
A deep guttural neighing boomed over the shrillness of the others, and the speaking Kelpie brought his full height out of the water, easily doubling my own stature, his glistening musculature gleaming in the sunlight as rivulets ran off his wide back and sturdy flanks. With a giant galloping lunge across the top of the water, he leapt onto the others, his teeth gnashing and his hooves pummeling. Another ear-shattering scream and they all plunged into the deep waters. Their sudden departure sloshed a huge wave towards the shore. Scrambling out of the way, I only just missed the drag that would have soaked me.
Heart still pounding, I gripped my chest. I had never seen anything like what I’d just witnessed. Either the speaking Kelpie wanted to feast on me by himself, or he detested the foul pen waters as much as I did.
Slowly, my breathing returned to some semblance of normal. Glancing around, several guards had seen the interlude but were now going back to their normal duties. It rankled that my safety was considered so far beneath them.
“Lass?” Eric’s head popped around the large tree that marked the edge of the Kelpie enclosure. “What was all that noise?”
“I,” I stammered, suddenly wary of mentioning the speaking Kelpie to Eric again. “The big one. He chased the others off.”
“Most unusual behavior. Maybe I’d better have one of the others clean out the pen today.” Appreciation swelled at his concern, but my curiosity had been piqued and I wanted to speak with the Kelpie again. If he returned. For all I knew, I’d have to clean his carcass from the pond tomorrow if the others finished him off.
“No, no. It’s fine. But thank you for your concern,” I added with a winning smile. Eric looked at me uncertainly.
“If you’re sure.”
“Be sure to wear that cloth over your nose,” he cautioned. With another hard look at the pond, Eric left.
I tied the cloth around my face. Picking up my rod, I glanced out at the rippling water.
“Thank you,” I whispered. Could the creature even hear me? Seeing no disturbances in the water, with a shrug, I dipped the pole in and fished out a clump of stinking seaweed.
My nose wrinkled as glops of brown gunk slid off the clump before I could put it into the bucket. Hearing the ripples before I saw them, I jerked my head up, the seaweed plopping unceremoniously on the ground, missing the bucket altogether.
The speaking Kelpie, I could tell it was him now—so much larger than the others, slowly swam to the edge of the shore, a giant mass of seaweed hanging from his mouth. My feet were rooted to the spot. My hands clenched my pole should I need to use it as a weapon.
“That’s close enough,” I ground out behind my mask.
The Kelpie rose higher in the water and my eyes widened as several spots on his flanks and chest dribbled dark water. He was bleeding.
He opened his mouth and the clump of vegetation slopped onto surface of the water. Never taking my eyes from the Kelpie, I moved the mass of weeds to the shore.
“Thank you,” I murmured. Unease slithered in my gut as the creature watched me with luminescent liquid eyes. He nodded once and began to submerge.
The ears pricked forward and his head rose back up.
“Do you have a name?”
The horse head cocked to the side. It opened its mouth but only a gurgle came out. Frustratedly it shook its head, mane flinging water droplets as an angry noise erupted from its chest. I took a step back and the creature stilled.
“You may call me Orin.”
“Orin.” I liked it. It slipped off my tongue like a gentle wave. “I’m Rhiann.” It seemed only fair to share my name with him, though after I’d done so, I hoped it didn’t give him some unnatural sway over me. I brushed that thought aside. I was already cursed. The curse might possibly provide some protection from other magical creatures.
“Rhiann.” My name was like the soft notes of a reed pipe as the Kelpie repeated it.
“Will you permit me to help you clean the pen?”
It was the most unusual request. But everything about this Kelpie seemed bizarre. And I could use the help.
“I would welcome it. But…could you be sure to stay several feet from the shore? I don’t want anything to accidentally bump into you,” I quickly amended as he shook his head. We both knew I didn’t want him that close to me. I had no intention of becoming a snack.
Orin turned his back to me, collecting another mouthful of seaweed. I bent over to scoop another glop out when the cloth covering my face fluttered off and into the edges of the foul water.
I growled in frustration. Kelpie stench filled my nostrils.
Suddenly, Orin was next to me. I jerked violently and stumbled back, falling onto my rear. Terror seized me as I realized I was still inside the ring of enchanted stones. Crab-walking backwards, I scrambled to the rocks.
Orin turned his face from me and squirted a stream of water between his teeth at my fallen face covering.
It sizzled. It sizzled right there in the middle of the water.
Were Kelpies also venomous?
Horror clouded round my heart as my hands felt the smooth white stones.
“It is not my intention to hurt you, Rhiann.”
His head submerged again, and my frozen lungs started painfully. For long minutes I sat there, clutching at the enchanted stones, willing my body to move from its arrested state of terror. I’d never been that close to a Kelpie before.
Acting as if he hadn’t just incinerated my cloth in the middle of the pond water, Orin brought up another mass of seaweed. He brought up three more mouthfuls before I moved. With shaking hands, I pulled up the masses with the pole and deposited them into the bucket.
Cleaning the Kelpie pens was the worst job in the history of jobs at the castle. Never mind that I was unjustly cursed. Never mind that I shouldn’t even be in this land. Never mind that I was the Crown Princess of Evermore. None of it mattered. Kelpie poop was the great equalizer.
I detested the magical beasts. They were dangerous. Deadly. If even so much as a hair touched any place on a Kelpie, you were glued to them forever until you either cut off whatever was stuck, or until the Kelpie dragged you down to the bottom of their stinking pen, drowned you, and then ate you for tea. Maybe or maybe not sharing with his Kelpie compatriots.
But King Hadrian was famed for his love of animals, and for his magnificent menagerie. And his menagerie wasmagnificent. Except for the Kelpies. But every kingly petting zoo should house dangerous beasts that even crazed dragon hunters refused to stalk in the wild.
I whacked my pole down in the water beside a watery head that broke the surface a little too close for comfort. The beasts took the shape of a horse in the water and this one peered at me with its large eyes. The watery mane shook, and it bared its wicked teeth. It loomed closer. I was going to lose this pole. Because I was going to heave it straight at the creature if it didn’t back up.
“Horse, I will shove this rod straight in that open mouth of yours,” I warned it as a tremor shook my hands. I could talk extravagantly, but inside I quaked like a babe.
“I’m not a horse,” it whickered as water gushed from its mouth.
I pulled up short.
Kelpies didn’t speak. They were dumb creatures. Dumb and malevolent.
“Easy! Here, let me help!” Eric, the gardener and my one friend here, quickly snatched the pole from my shocked hands and brought it smashing down on the head of the Kelpie. A terrific shriek pierced the evening air and I clapped my hands over my ears.
“Eric. It spoke. Did you hear it?”
He looked at me concernedly. “Rhiann, how long have you been scraping the pens today?”
I shrugged. “Since this morning. There was a large scum of algae that grew overnight.”
“I think the fumes may have touched you. You know breathing in so much of their,” he cleared his throat, “stench is toxic?”
“Yes. I’m aware.” I blinked. Surely that’s what happened. No Kelpie had spoken to me. I’d just been breathing in their noxious odor too long.
“Let me finish here and you go get cleaned up. It’s almost time for the evening meal.”
“Thank you, Eric.” I turned, unsteady on my feet.
I puzzled the phantom interaction all through the dinner of roast boar and spiced apples. At least I’d been cursed to a place plentiful with good food and a marvelous cook. I slowly chewed another bite of herbed potato. That Kelpie had spoken to me. I wasn’t convinced it had been the fumes. The thought both chilled and excited me.
Was this another product of my curse?
I stole down to the Kelpie pens once the castle was still. It was dangerous to be near the Kelpies in daylight. It was foolish to go at night. The shadows would hide their watery forms. I was counting on the enchantments surrounding their pond. Enchantments that would let me pass to go to them but wouldn’t let them pass the ring to get to me, so long as I stayed outside it. I needed to know what place this Kelpie might hold in my curse.
The moon shown down with a bright clean light and lit my way as I stole through the grounds, forsaking modesty and hiking my long green skirts up to my knees so they wouldn’t tangle as I veered off the path.
The Kelpie pond was still. Not a single rippled showed on its smooth surface. I was out of my head. I must be. It was impossible for a Kelpie to speak. Shaking my head, I turned to go back to the castle as would anyone with an inkling of sense.
Unless it was an unknown condition of my curse?
The thought halted me in my tracks.
Something broke the surface of the water.
“I see you.”
The reedy words floated ghost-like on the night air raising the hairs on the back of my neck.
Whirling around, hand clutched over my heart, I could see the bare outlines of a horsehead moving towards the shore of the enclosure. Frantically I glanced down. I stepped back another few inches outside the ring of white stones. During the daylight hours, I had to go inside them to clean the pen. I wasn’t fool enough to venture so close in the black night.
“I hear you. How can I hear you?” I whispered.
“I sssseeee you,” it hissed again. My blood iced.
“Of course, you can. How else would you hunt unsuspecting prey in the middle of the night,” I shot back, hoping enough bravado showed in my voice to cover my trembling.
It coughed a wet gurgling noise.
“You missed some algae.”
A hysterical ball of laughter escaped my throat.
“This is impossible. Why do you speak to me?”
“Only you can hear me.”
This was sounding more curse-related by the moment.
A strangled noise sounded from the darkness as the head approached the shoreline. I bit my lip.
A chuffing noise sounded through its wet nostrils.
“I’m not permitted to speak of it.”
“What do you want of me?”
It was quiet so long I wondered if it’d sunk back below the waters. But then a cloud shifted, and moonlight streamed down on the Kelpie’s head, nose nearly dripping into the water. It looked forlorn. I shook the thought from my head. What rubbish. It was probably a tactic to lure sympathetic girls to their deaths.
“Will you speak with me again?” It finally spoke.
“I must scrape the filth from your pen every day.”
“If you will try to remove the rest of the algae tomorrow, I’ll keep the other Kelpies away from you.”
Was it trying to strike a bargain?
“I will make no promises to you. But if you keep the others from interfering, I’ll do my best to clean the water.” I would have done so today if Eric hadn’t sent me to the castle. I may be cursed, but I could still be thorough in my duties. I may detest the Kelpies, but it wasn’t their fault they were kept here in a stagnant pen. They belonged in open water where currents or waves would cleanse their environment naturally.
“Do not speak of this to anyone,” the gurgled voice rolled over me like thick mist.
“It’s unlikely anyone would believe me even if I did.”
“They better not have spiked the punch. So help me, I will end the whole pack of them!” I muttered under my breath as I swished to the refreshments table in my long satin dress. It was the big formal Christmas dance at Magik Prep Academy, and I was head of the refreshment committee for this event.
The werewolves made it their job to disrupt every social gathering, and I refused to let it happen on my watch.
My stomach lurched as I approached the table bordering the stage. There he was. Corbin Fang. Tall, gorgeous, blue eyed, and cold hearted. He’d just moved here and already he was causing waves in the pack hierarchy.
I tucked a tightly wound piece of dark hair behind my ear, snagging a piece of floating magic and weaving it into my wild, unruly mane to keep it in place. Flames threatened to erupt from my eyes as my anxiety heightened. As surreptitiously as possible, I dipped a strand of orange magic into the punch and sighed in relief when it didn’t change color. All was safe for the moment.
“Everything spit spot?” Corbin sauntered up and his accent made my belly flip. I frowned.
“Just making sure every student has the chance to drink without belching fire or singeing their date,” I returned. I glared. His blue eyes danced. “Last year your werewolf buddies put fire powder in the punch. Do you know what that does to poor unsuspecting creatures?”
“I heard about that one.” His eyes twinkled.
I glared at him.
“Dance with me Uptight Girl.”
“Dance with me.”
As if I would ever.
“I can’t. I have to make sure the punch stays legal.”
He snorted. “I’ll take care of that. Hiya!” he called to several other werewolves lounging against the stage looking shifty. “Not a drop in the bowl. Understood?”
One of them bared his teeth and another snarled, but at a hard look from Corbin, heads bobbed. I refused to admit I was impressed.
He was the newly appointed junior alpha of the school-aged werewolves, according to the gossip. Looked like maybe the rumors were true.
Corbin grabbed my hand and tugged. I didn’t budge. My eyes grew rounder.
“Come on. It’ll be fun. You can lambast the finer points of being a werewolf while we dance.” His eyes held a hidden mirth while his comment stung. I felt fire rising in my eyes and blinked it away. Not fast enough.
“Hey now. You’ve got gorgeous eyes. Flames in your veins?”
I sighed. “Phoenix. My grandma.”
“That’s fantastic! Tell me about it. While we dance.” It was the accent. It did me in. I let him tug me away from the table to the dance floor. I cast one more look at the bowl of punch and the werewolves pacing not far away.
“If they put something in there and another fairy grows a tail this year, I will,”
He cut me off. “Relax. I told them not to. They’re honor bound to obey me.”
“Really. Pack law. I may be the new guy, but I’m also the alpha guy. In our bloodlines, Fire Girl.”
“No. Aida. My name.”
“I know.” He winked and I bristled. “I’ve known your name since the second day I got here.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or consider him a stalker. I looked at him, trying to hide my general disgust. Werewolves were all troublemakers. The whole lot of them. Corbin Fang was their leader.
“You know, we’re not all that bad. Some of us are, sure, but not all,” he said, seeming to read my mind.
I digested his words as he spun me around the floor, graceful but firm. Was I the one who was being narrow-minded?
“Which kind are you?” I finally asked as he twirled me once more.
“I’d tell you, but I don’t think you’ll believe me unless you figure it out for yourself.” Was that a challenge in his eyes?
“Just like you are more than the partial fire inside you, there’s more to me than fur and claws.”
I bit my lip. I felt my own phoenix blood stirring. I hated it when people made assumptions about me because my eyes sometimes glowed. But preconceived notions were often helpful in dealing with the mythical community. At least, that’s what I told myself as Corbin led me off the dance floor. His easy grip projected an inner confidence I envied.
We made it back to the punch table. I quickly dipped a strand of orange magic in and sighed in relief when it remained unchanged.
Corbin tisked playfully beside me as he filled two goblets. He snatched a strand of light blue magic from the air, split it, twisted it, and swirled it into the two cups. The punch glowed. It was beautiful.
“Here you go, Aida, my uptight fire girl who secretly wants to let her inner bird fly.”
I gulped. How did he see me so well?
“What happens if I drink this?”
“It’ll make your phoenix fire glow and give you a secondary sight for awhile. You might see that some people are different than the sum of the rumors surrounding them.”
He winked at me and tipped back his glass. His deep eyes stared back at me and slowly turned electric blue.
“You’re just as beautiful on the inside as you are the outside. Although your insides are still tangled up in knots.” He quirked a smile at me as he finished his assessment. Blood rushed to my cheeks. “What’ll it be, Aida? Do you want to see me?”
The sudden desire to know who this boy was had me abandoning my cautious nature and tipping my glass back as well.
My fire woke within me. It rushed through me like sparklers in my blood. I buzzed with magic and knew the instant it hit my eyes. I sucked in a breath and looked at Corbin.
I gasped. He radiated goodness. Not the snark, not the alpha, not the rotten werewolf I imagined. His heart was kind, his intentions honorable.
Music boomed and lights twinkled. Strands of magic floated effortlessly through the air, only to be soaked up by the ancient stone walls now festooned with tensile and evergreen.
The Christmas Dance.
The one Magik Prep Academy function I’d been dreaming of for weeks. Tonight was the night Tyler Crawson would notice me.
I’d had a crush on him for ages but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Not tonight.
With my best friend Aida next to me and her pep talk still ringing in my ears, I gulped, trying to calm my frantic heartbeat.
“You’ve got this, Girl.” Aida winked at me. The flashing red and green lights bounced off her caramel-colored skin. Her ebony hair, curled tight like tiny springs, absorbed the lights and shadows alike. I wished it would absorb my anxiety.
“Breathe, Lainie.” She looked me over once more and nodded in satisfaction. “That red sequin dress is perfect. You sparkle like fairy dust.” Her lips pursed and she reached behind me and plucked a thread of opalescent magic from the air and swished it around the bottom of my dress. “There. Now you’re radiant.”
A bronze head bobbed on the other side of the room. My heart seized.
My knees knocked and sweat ghosted my palms.
“I’m going to go make sure the werewolves haven’t spiked the punch.” Aida was on the social committee. The werewolves generally liked to party…alternatively to committee plans. With a final squeeze to my shoulder she was off, and I was left staring at Tyler’s head as it dipped and weaved about the crowd.
The music was loud. Too loud. It vibrated up my legs.
I swept up a handful of my shimmery skirt so my feet wouldn’t tangle in the hem. The opalescent string of magic soaked into my dress, straightening my back and giving me confidence.
I’d only gone a few bodies deep into the crowd when a hand reached out and snatched mine.
“Kieran!” I gasped as my other best friend released me.
“Lainie. Wow. You look…” he trailed off as his eyebrows rose to his dark hairline. I couldn’t tell if it was the red lights or if the points of his ears colored slightly.
Searching the crowd again, I found Tyler’s head. He was only a few yards to my right.
“Looking for Tyler?” Kieran’s broke in dryly.
“Yes. Tonight he’s finally going to see me as more than the smart girl in math class,” I practically hissed between my teeth.
Kieran’s expression soured.
“You don’t want him, Lainie. You really don’t.”
Anger and the sting of unintended betrayal crept into my belly. I glared at Kieran.
“Laine? Wow, looking hot, babe!”
The voice froze my blood and Kieran could probably see the whites of my eyes.
Plastering a smile on my face that I hoped didn’t look deranged, I turned.
“Hey, Tyler.” My voice came out higher than it should have. Maybe he didn’t notice over the rumble of the music.
Without any preamble, Tyler grabbed my hand and put his other low on my waist and swung me onto the dance floor.
We danced for long glorious moments. I was in ecstasy. The song wasn’t particularly slow, but it wasn’t fast. We moved together, faster than a slow dance, but no weird gyrating. Which was fine, because it let me savor every second of Tyler’s hands on my waist.
When the song ended, Tyler’s copper-colored eyes gazed into mine. My hand fisted into his lapel without my permission. A smile crooked his lips as his eyes roved over my face and one eyebrow rose.
Slowly he leaned down and his lips caressed my cheek and sent figurative fireworks shooting out my ears.
“Don’t go anywhere,” he whispered huskily against my ear. “I’ll be back in a few.”
I’m pretty sure I grew roots right there on the parquet floor.
I don’t know how long I stood there like an idiot in the middle of the room, but I came to when Kieran tugged on my hand.
“Kieran, did you see?” I sighed. “He’s glorious.”
Kieran snorted, his dark elf side showing in his pessimism.
“You need to see something,” he muttered as he pulled me through the throng of students and out the arched doorway into the quiet corridor.
Kieran stopped us beside one of the heavy tapestries that lined the hallways outside the ballroom.
“Look. I…” he trailed off and ran a hand through his black hair. “I don’t want to show you this but consider the truth my Christmas gift to you this year.”
My eyebrows drew together as he pulled me down the passageway. We crept to the end where it was deserted. He motioned with his head for me to look around the corner.
Unsure, I peeked out just enough to get an eyeful.
My hand flew to my silent mouth.
There was the boy who’d kissed me moments before. Who had looked at me like I was the center of the world. The boy on whom I’d hung my hopes.
He was necking a gorgeous red-head. And his hands…were not in appropriate places. My eyes burned.
I sagged to a stone bench once we were far away from the snogging couple. Kieran sat beside me.
“I’m sorry, Lainie. He doesn’t see you. Doesn’t know how special you are.” He hesitated. “Maybe you should look at someone who has seen you all along.”
The sincerity in his tone jerked my gaze to his. His chocolate brown eyes swam with vulnerability, and I felt my heart lurch painfully in my chest.
Because he did see me.
Kieran had always seen me. He’d seen me when I was all awkward limbs and angles. When I won the science award. When I burned my bangs off with a spell gone wrong. When I dropped chocolate frosting all down my shirt. When my Gran passed away. He’d seen me.
And for the first time, I saw him, too.
Check in again next week to see what happens to Aida when she goes to check on the punch…
Happy Thanksgiving! 2020 has been a year unlike any other. For many, it’s been pretty poopy. For all of us, it’s brought unexpected changes. And yet, there is always something to be thankful for.
This year, I’m thankful for all of YOU. You all have been so encouraging on this writing journey, and I can’t wait to share my story with you next year. Thank you for reading, for encouraging, for commenting, for sharing. It’s so appreciated.
There won’t be a short story this week as I’m taking some time for family this week. I’ll be back in December with one more Magik Prep Christmas story, and we’ll have one other guest writer.
Until then, enjoy this week, and count your blessings.
“So there really was a ghost on your ship?” Sabra set a dainty teacup and saucer
in front of Captain Hale, then filled it with steaming amber tea. Captain Hale shifted slightly, and the spindly chair underneath him groaned in protest. “Yes, unfortunately. It would seem I have to break some sort of curse in order to get rid of the bas– ah, the uninvited guest.”
Sabra tucked a stray curl of black hair behind her ear and sat at the table across from him, and her gray eyes met his. Captain Hale had to remind himself, very firmly, to focus.
“I don’t see how I can help you, Captain Hale. I don’t know anything about curses.”
“Actually, I think you can. Or at least, your grandmother can. You see, like your grandmother, this ghost assumed I was Corsan. Any idea why that might be?”
Sabra’s brow furrowed slightly and she sipped at her tea. “I’m not sure, Captain Hale. Maybe because you’re the captain of a pirate ship, like my grandfather was?”
Hale doubted that was the case, but somehow he couldn’t find reason to argue with Sabra. “Please, call me Rylan. And that’s a distinct possibility, but it still doesn’t get the ghost off my ship.” You’re an idiot, Hale. Pull yourself together.
Sabra smiled softly and set her teacup down with a soft clink. “Very well, Rylan. I think I have an idea. My Gran kept some of my grandfather’s old things. I’ll go get them; maybe something in there will give us a clue as to how to rid you of your phantom.” She stood from the table and slipped into another room. Captain Hale watched her go, then sighed heavily when she was out of sight. Then silently berated himself for acting like a schoolboy.
Footsteps sounded from the hall and Captain Hale sat up straight in his chair, but it was only Sabra’s grandmother tottering into the room. Neela seemed to take no notice of him, just ambled around the room softly humming to herself. Sabra appeared in the doorway a moment later carrying a small chest.
“Here,” she said, setting the chest on the table. “Feel free to look while I get Gran some tea.”
Hale pried the rusted metal clasp on the chest open and lifted the lid; the hinges shrieked from years of neglect. Inside was a random assortment of objects: seashells, gold and silver coins, loose papers. Hale lifted a stack of papers from the chest and rifled through them. There were a couple of old manifests and crew logs, nothing that really caught Hale’s attention, until he spotted what appeared to be a letter, dated nearly 70 years ago. His eyes quickly scanned the letter, and suddenly details started to snap into place.
“Does the name Morgan Trask mean anything to you, by chance?” Hale looked over at Sabra, who was currently busy balancing a cup and saucer in her hand while ushering Neela into a chair.
“My grandfather’s first mate. They were best friends. Why? Did you find something?”
Neela eased into her chair, now singing softly to herself.
Hale glanced back down at the letter still clutched in his hand. “Maybe. But even if I’m correct I still don’t know…” Hale grew still, his gaze fixed on Neela as she sang.
“From the north the sea winds blow, North to the Jagged Teeth they go, The Siren’s Song one did know, While the other knew only woe. From the north the sea winds sigh, Around the Jagged Teeth they fly, But then the waves tossed too high,
And both were cursed to never die.”
“So that’s it,” Hale whispered as a chill ran the length of his spine and the hairs on his arms stood up. He went to place the papers back in the chest when his gaze snapped to a portrait sitting on top of the scattered items. Sea-gray eyes stared at him from above a tangled mane of black beard, and Hale knew at once he’d seen Corsan before.
Or his head, at least.
“I still don’t understand why we’re taking a rowboat C aptain. Couldn’t we have hired a bigger boat?” Henry Bosan tugged on the oars, his face screwed up in a scowl. Captain Hale, standing at the front of the little boat with one foot up on the prow, rolled his eyes skyward. “I’m a captain H enry. Hiring out another boat while we have a perfectly good one would injure my pride.”
“But the Teeth are dangerous, Captain. What if we get caught in a tide and get smashed between the rocks?”
Hale sighed heavily and turned to glower at his first mate. “Well I suppose you’d better steer carefully then, Henry.” The wind howled around them, tearing at Hale’s coat and sending cold spray up to hit him in the face. Hale just squinted his eyes against the stinging salt water and wind and scanned the horizon while Henry coaxed their boat around the rocks known as “The Teeth.”
The boat dipped precariously as Henry hauled on the oars, narrowly avoiding one of the Teeth. When the ship righted itself, Hale saw what he’d been looking for.
“Henry! Aim for the shore over there!” A groan came from behind him. “You mean the one with an eerie green glow?” “Yes, Henry. We’re trying to get a ghost off my ship – did you expect kittens? Rainbows maybe?”
Henry guided the boat to shore, and the bow scraped onto the deserted, rocky beach. Hale jumped from the boat and pulled it the rest of the way onto the rocks, careful to keep his footing on the slippery rocks below him.
Hale glanced up at Henry, who was making a strangled noise in the back of his throat. Henry’s face was deathly pale in the moonlight; his eyes were riveted to a point over Hale’s shoulder, and he lifted a shaking finger to point.
Hale turned, his heart hammering against his ribs. High on a hill stood a figure; bathed in the eerie green glow Hale saw from the boat, the figure was holding a lantern aloft. The ghost – for Hale was sure it was a ghost – had no head.
“Hello Corsan,” Hale whispered.
The ghost lifted a hand and beckoned to Hale, then disappeared down the other side of the hill.
“Captain. Don’t tell me you’re about to follow that thing?”
Hale took a deep breath. “Yes, Henry, I believe I am. Stay here with the boat. If I don’t happen to return, I leave all my worldly goods to your mother.”
Hale marched up the beach, leaving a dumbstruck Henry behind. He followed the light from the specter’s lantern deeper into the island until it finally came to a stop. The ghost held its lantern up, bathing a nearby tree in sickly green light, and pointed.
Leaning against the tree was a skeleton missing its skull.
“Ah,” Hale said. “Your body, I presume. And what exactly am I supposed to do now?”
The ghost of Corsan remained, still pointing at its skeleton.
Captain Hale sighed. “Look, I’m sorry you are dead and all, but your first mate’s ghost is running around my ship. Any chance you had something to do with it?”
The ghost didn’t move. Hale nearly screamed in frustration.
“Are you the one that cursed Morgan? Look, I get it. Good help is hard to find. But I need to remove the curse and get his spectral carcass off my ship.”
The ghost lowered its lantern and patted its chest, right over where its heart would have been, then pointed back at the skeleton.
Hale frowned. “You want me to check your body?”
The ghost leaned forward slightly, in what Hale assumed was a sign of assent. Hale cautiously approached the skeleton; most of the clothing had long since rotted away, but parts of what looked like a leather vest still clung to the bones in ragged tatters. Hale squinted at the skeleton’s chest; a piece of leather clinging to the ribs right above where Corsan’s heart should have been had a perfect, round hole punched through it.
“You were shot,” Hale said. He turned back to Corsan’s ghost. “Morgan?” The ghost bowed forward again. Hale rocked back on his heels, thinking. “So your first mate betrayed you, which is why I assume you’re still hanging around. But why is Morgan’s ghost still lingering? Who cursed him? You?”
Corsan’s ghost raised a pointed finger again and lifted his lantern higher. Hale looked back at the skeleton and noticed something glinting from within the bones. A gold chain hung around the skeleton’s neck, and whatever was on the end of it had slipped underneath the sternum.
Hale gingerly lifted the chain over the remaining neck bones. It was a locket. Hale pried it open; inside was a portrait of a woman with a halo of auburn hair framing her face and the deepest blue eyes that seemed to pierce Hale to his soul. Neela.
He closed the locket with a soft snick and glanced at Corsan’s ghost. “I’ll take your bones to the sea, Captain,” he said gently. “And I’ll tell her what happened.”
A soft breeze rustled the leaves above Hale, carrying the briny smell of the ocean with it. The ghost bowed from the waist, then disappeared as the wind carried him away in wisps.
Captain Hale found Sabra and her grandmother walking the cliffs near the shore.
Sabra smiled when she saw him, and Hale’s knees became noticeably weaker. He clutched the locket more tightly in his fist and forced himself to keep walking.
“Rylan! Have you made any progress with your ghost?”
Hale smiled at her. “Yes, I believe I’ll have things straightened out soon. May I have a word with your grandmother? Alone?”
Sabra frowned slightly. “Alone? I don’t know how well Gran will understand…”
Hale opened his mouth to insist, but Neela reached up and patted Sabra’s cheek. “It’s fine, dear. I feel quite clear today.”
Sabra still looked unsure, but she finally nodded and looked at Hale. “Will you bring her to the Albatross when you’re finished? We were going to get some lunch.”
Hale placed his hand over his heart. “On my honor.”
Sabra gave him a slight smile and made her way back along the path toward town.
Neela turned and watched her go. She remained still, even when she surely heard the click of the hammer on Hale’s pistol.
“How long have you suspected?” Neela’s voice was clear, no hint of confusion or the creaks of old age.
“After I read Corsan’s letter to you. At first, I didn’t understand. No pirate in his right mind would give up a life at sea. But then your song confirmed my suspicions.”
Neela turned to face him then, and the smile on her face nearly made Hale’s blood run cold. He gripped the pistol until his knuckles turned white.
“The song was a bit heavy-handed, wasn’t it?” She glanced cooly at the pistol, the smile never leaving her face. “You really don’t plan to shoot me, do you Captain Hale?”
Hale almost lowered the gun; it was as if an outside force was compelling him to drop it. His hand shook.
“Give me one good reason not to. I’m a pirate – your kind have killed sailors for eons.”
Her blue eyes hardened, darkening to the near-black of the deep ocean churning in a storm. “I’ve only ever killed one man in my life, Captain Hale. And believe me when I say he deserved it.”
She nodded, her eyes still dangerous. “He killed my Corsan. He and my husband left together, and only he returned. I don’t know why Morgan killed him, but it didn’t matter.” She paused, seemingly daring Hale to disagree with her. “I sang to him, Captain Hale. I sang his fate into existence – that he would never rest until I found my Corsan – and it drove him mad. He drowned himself in Candlekeep harbor to escape my song.”
Hale could feel his resolve waver slightly. “Why didn’t you look for Corsan’s body? His soul, and Morgan’s, have been lingering here for decades. Why not put them to rest?”
For the first time the smile wavered. “You don’t know much about my kind, do you Captain Hale? I’m bound here, to Candlekeep – I cannot leave the shore. A siren may lure as many sailors to her island as she wishes, but she cannot leave it. It is our curse – to forever feel the call to the sea, but never be able to sail it.”
Neela’s voice was so filled with sadness and longing, Hale lowered the pistol, but kept it in his hand. He held out the locket.
“I found Corsan,” he said gently. “I returned his bones to the sea.”
Neela cradled the locket in her hands and squeezed her eyes shut. “Thank you,” she whispered. She fixed Hale with her blue eyes again. “Morgan Trask will no longer haunt your ship. My Corsan is at rest, so Morgan is also.”
Hale inclined his head. But one more question burned in his mind.
“Why was Corsan giving up his ship? Did you sing to him, too? Convince him to stay on land with you?”
Neela’s eyes glittered and she arched an eyebrow. “Believe it or not, Captain Hale, I loved Corsan. And he loved me. I never sang to him, not once.” She paused, and gazed out to sea. “Corsan loved the sea. I understood that when I agreed to marry him.”
Neela smiled sadly. “I told him I was pregnant.”
Hale’s mind drifted, unbidden, to Sabra. Her gray eyes and easy smile, and for a moment, Hale thought he understood. Hale quietly slipped his pistol back in his waistband and he and Neela stood silently, both gazing out to sea. Eventually Neela’s hand slipped into the crook of his elbow, and without a word they turned and walked down the path.
Facts, Fantasy, & Fascinations is delighted to welcome fellow writer, M. E. Lebron this week. “The Curse of Candlekeep” is a super spooky read that will keep you on your toes and rushing to read more. It will be a two part feature. Next week will be the final installment. Did I mention there were pirates???
Captain Rylan Hale took one look around Candlekeep and decided he hated the town and everyone in it.
Maybe the pirate wouldn’t be so touchy if his ship was in good repair and he was standing on the deck of said ship with the salt breeze caressing his face. But as it was, Queen Hera’s Revenge had barely limped its way into port, and now Captain Hale found himself stranded.
Really, the storm he could have handled. The damage to the Revenge wasn’t the worst of it either. His bad mood had actually started with the Harbormaster.
“Welcome to Candlekeep, my good man!”
Captain Hale barely had one toe on the pier before a foppish man in a tri-corner hat accosted him.
“My name is Simon Culpepper. I’m the Harbormaster here in Candlekeep. Are you here on merchant business, or simply passing through?”
Good lord, even his name offends the senses, Hale thought. The Captain blinked at the harbormaster, then turned and glanced back at his ship. There on the mainmast, snapping in the breeze, flew a black flag – the mark of a pirate vessel. Hale fixed Simon Culpepper with a pointed stare; the harbormaster’s eyes slowly traveled up to the flag and his mouth formed an “o” of surprise.
Yes, that’s it. Scuttle away from the fearsome pirate and leave me and my crew alone.
“I see,” said the harbormaster.
Captain Hale smirked in satisfaction.
“Well, Captain. I hope you enjoy your stay in Candlekeep. But try not to have too much fun, eh?” Simon Culpepper gently elbowed Hale in the ribs, winked conspiratorially, then turned and went on his merry way, whistling as he went.
Captain Hale had stood rooted to the pier, trying to decide if he wanted to shoot at Culpepper’s retreating back, or throw up. In the end, he settled for being grumpier than usual.
Now, sitting at the bar in the disgustingly picturesque Albatross Inn, Hale could feel his mood going from sour to rancid. Everyone in Candlekeep was so nice. The men tipped their hats to him in the streets. The women smiled and bobbed their heads. The barkeeper even tried to make small talk.
“It’s not natural,” Hale muttered into his tankard of beer.
The door to the inn squeaked open and two women shuffled inside. A young woman with dark hair gently ushered the oldest woman Hale had ever seen into the inn; the young woman was clearly distressed – and clearly attractive, Hale noticed – but the old woman held his attention. Though the crone looked quite frail, she put up a valiant struggle to get away, the entire time weeping and muttering to herself.
Captain Hale sat up a little straighter in his chair. Something interesting might happen in this sleepy little town after all.
The bartender hurried out from behind the bar and took the old woman by the hand, steering her gently toward a table.
“I’m so sorry, Ned. I don’t know what’s come over Gran. She’s been like this ever since we spotted a ship in the harbor while we were walking the pier.”
“It’s alright, Sabra dear. Let’s get Neela to a table and I’ll make a cup of tea.” The old woman lifted her head and fixed her eyes on Captain Hale. “My Corsan,” she said, her voice trembling. “You’ve come home to me at last.” Every head in the bar swiveled in his direction.
Just great, he thought sourly.
The young woman – Sabra, apparently – made her way over to him. As Captain Hale took in her velvet black hair and sea-gray eyes, he decided his bad mood might be improving slightly.
“I’m sorry about my grandmother.” Sabra’s voice was sweet, almost melodic. “Her mind is… not what it used to be. She gets confused.”
Alright Hale, just tell the girl there’s no harm done and go back to your beer.
“Who exactly does your grandmother think I am?”
Drat it, man!
“Corsan, my grandfather. He… was a pirate. Like you.” Interesting. “ And what happened to him?” “He sailed away seventy years ago and never returned. I guess my Gran just saw your ship and thought…” Captain Hale adjusted his hat to a more rakish angle and gave Sabra what he hoped was a roguish smile. “Well, no harm done. Tell your Gran –” The door flew open and hit the wall behind it with a teeth-jarring bang. Henry
Bosan, Hale’s first mate, tore into the inn yelling and waving his arms. “Captain! Come quick!”
Hale rolled his eyes to the ceiling and stood from his stool. “Henry, this had better be good because if not –” “Captain sir, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But I swear on my mother’s grave, sir. There’s a ghost on our ship.”
“Henry Bosan, if you dragged me away from a perfectly good mug of beer for nothing, I’m going to tie you to the prow and let the gulls eat you.”
Captain Hale had been standing in the belly of his ship for nearly twenty minutes, impatiently tapping his boot against the deck boards. A solitary oil lantern pierced the gloom, swinging gently with the slight rocking of the ship.
“Sir, there was a ghost. I swear on –”
“Your mother’s grave, yes I know,” Hale snapped. “I also know your mother is alive and well and living in Raven’s Hollow. She’s quite flexible for her age.” Hale tapped his boot a few more times, then turned toward the ladder leading to the upper deck. “I’m leaving, Henry. Don’t bother me again unless something is sinking or on fire.”
He placed his boot on the bottom rung when the air went suddenly frigid. Hale’s breath came out of his mouth in a puff of white vapor, and he clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.
“It’s the ghost, Captain! I told you!” Hale slowly turned, his hand reaching for the pistol tucked into his belt. A figure, pale and translucent, materialized from out of the shadows. Dressed in pirate’s clothes, the phantom held a bloody dagger in one hand, and tucked underneath the opposite elbow was a severed head.
The phantom turned and fixed its milky-white eyes on Captain Hale.
“Corsan,” the phantom hissed.
The hairs on Hale’s neck and arms stood up and goosebumps prickled along his back.
“I knew you would come for me in the end, Corsan! I should have tossed your bones into the sea.” The phantom raised the knife and lunged for Hale. Hale drew his pistol and fired off a shot – the lead ball passed straight through the ghost and punched a hole through the wall behind it. The ghost bore down on Hale, then passed through him. Hale shuddered, feeling as if he’d been dropped into ice water. With a howl that nearly turned Hale’s blood to ice, the phantom disappeared.
Hale stood for a moment, staring at the spot where the ghost vanished. Then he stuffed the pistol back in his belt and turned to Henry.
“Bosan, my apologies.” Then the Captain swept up the ladder, across the deck, and down the gangplank.
That was the second time he’d been mistaken for Corsan in one day. But Captain Hale wasn’t the type to investigate. All he cared about was that there was a ghost on his ship, and if he couldn’t blast it to pieces, he needed some other method to get rid of it.
Pirates are superstitious creatures. They have to be when dealing with something as wild and unpredictable as the ocean. Superstitions gave a man the illusion of control over his circumstances. But Captain Hale knew of another profession where one needed to be more superstitious than a pirate. And lucky for him, Candlelkeep employed just such a person.
Captain Hale made his way through the neat little town graveyard to the small church and cottage on top of the hill. The ever-so-helpful barkeep assured him Father Basil Barnes, resident cleric, would be at his cottage this time of evening. Hale rapped on the door and waited.
A few muffled thumps followed by a “Just a minute!” preceded the opening of the door to reveal a squat, balding man wearing brown robes. Father Basil blinked owlishly at Captain Hale. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, Father, I believe you can. See, I’m having a bit of a problem with a ghost and I –”
The cleric rolled his eyes heavenward and shoved his head out the door to peek around the cottage.
“Dolores, you hateful old hag! I told you last week if I had to banish you one more time, I’d dig up your miserable bones and bury you next to your ex-husband!” The cleric turned to look at Hale. “Give me just a minute. I’ll get the herbs and candles. Tell the townsfolk I’ll fix Dolores real good this time.”
Hale grabbed the cleric by the back of the robes as the little man tried to retreat back into his cottage.
“Uh, Father, as interesting as Dolores sounds, she’s not the ghost in question.”
The cleric whirled around, his eyebrows shooting up. “Not Dolores? Oh, thank the gods. She’s really mean, you know.”
“No, not Dolores. A different ghost. A pirate. He’s taken up residence on my ship and I want him gone.”
The cleric scratched his chin and frowned. “A pirate, you say? Interesting. And he didn’t appear until you came here to Candlekeep?” Hale nodded.
“I see. Well, considering this ghost just appeared, I don’t think the spirit is bound to your ship. I’d say your arrival here triggered the ghost somehow. Considering it’s the ghost of a pirate, maybe you activated a curse of some sort.”
Hale resisted the urge to sigh in exasperation. “Fascinating. Truly. That still doesn’t tell me how to get the thing off my ship.”
“Oh, well, you’d need to break the curse, obviously.” “Obviously.” The cleric waved his hand dismissively. “Just find out who put the curse on your ghost and they can tell you how to lift it. Should be simple.”
Captain Hale turned and stalked back down the hill. Looks like he’d have to do some investigating after all.
Colin “Hunter” Abreen was my brother’s best friend, the best basilisk hunter instructor at Magik Prep, and definitely off limits. My treacherous heart needed more persuasion on this last part.
On a stupid whim I’d signed myself up for Colin’s 401 basilisk hunter course as my senior elective. Because I was a glutton for punishment. And a hopeless basilisk hunter. I’d been sent to the infirmary with punctures in various places more times than anyone else. Ever. More times than anyone who had ever taken the class.
It didn’t matter how hard I tried, how much I practiced my technique, how much I wanted to excel and impress Colin. I just couldn’t see the stupid creatures. But they always saw me. And then they bit me.
My pointed ears twitched, my blonde hair pulled up and out of the way so nothing would hinder my ability to hear their soft slithering. My ears were more reliable than my eyesight in picking out their inconspicuous bodies in the dense underbrush of the academy’s forested park where class was held. Even using my enhanced vision goggles that protected me from the dangerous stare of the loathsome beasts, my ears were a better bet.
My fingers gripped my net and my hooked stick. I would catch this basilisk if it was the last thing I did. We’d been stalking each other in circles for the past 78 increments. I was done stalking. I was ready to conquer.
A slither to the right!
No, there, in the bush!
I silently raised my net and hook, ready to scoop up a smarmy, slithery, insufferable creature. Crouching as Colin had instructed, I crept forward with the grace of a sleek-bodied water ghost.
A slight movement!
I howled and dropped my net that had snared a terribly dangerous patch of wildflowers and clutched my hand. My whole arm smarted as the creature’s mild venom spread needle-like tingles up to my shoulder. Glancing at the bushy fronds in front of me, I just made out the basilisk’s disappearing tail.
Biting back a curse, I glanced at my hand. It wasn’t a bad bite. But it was a bite. And I’d failed yet again to capture a reptilian fiend.
I ripped off my goggles and stomped towards the tent at the opening of the woods that served as headquarters.
Colin looked up from his desk and I swear a smile flitted across his face as I came crashing out of the underbrush.
My shoulders slumped in defeat. “Again.”
“Let me see.”
I held out my hand to him and he took it carefully in his large rough ones. I suppressed a shiver. He turned my palm over and then back to the marred skin by my knuckles.
“Come on. These are just scratches. I can patch these up with the first aid kit here.”
He led me over to a stump where I sagged like a bag of bones. I felt like a child. A child who wanted desperately to gain their teacher’s approval. Except I wanted more than Colin’s approval. I wanted him to look at me the way I looked at him. A heavy sigh escaped my lungs.
“Cheer up Kaebre. Basilisk hunting isn’t for everyone. So long as you capture one before the term ends, you’ll have passed the course.”
Mortification slid through me and I clenched my teeth to keep my chin from quivering. I was humiliated. I was pathetic. I was the only student in the course not to have netted a basilisk. Fresh worry for my grade slid over the humiliation.
“How did you become so good so quickly?” I asked him quietly. “You broke every basilisk catching record within six weeks of starting the course, and now that you’re the instructor, even top universities have started trying to recruit you for their basilisk programs. Col, how did you do it?”
He was still a minute, his broad shoulders moving slowly as he took a breath. His shaggy thatch of bronze hair grazed over his forehead in the slight breeze. His head was bent, fingers carefully tying off the gauze around my hand. He stilled even more; his body chiseled marble bowed over my hand.
Slowly he tipped his head so that his blue eyes met mine. My breath caught and my heart sped up as he locked gazes with me. His hands still engulfed mine.
“Kaebre,” he started then paused.
My eyebrows rose, encouraging him as my fingers squeezed his lightly before I could stop them.
“I’m about to tell you something that is not common knowledge. I’d like to keep it that way.”
I nodded. He was trusting me with sensitive information? Was it possible I’d worked my way up from best friend’s little sister to reliable student?
He glanced around, ensuring we were alone before meeting my eyes again.
“I’m color blind. Completely.”
I cocked my head, the full weight of his words slowly registering. Color blind? It was a rare genetic trait. Rare, undesired, and dangerous in a world filled with colored magic. Use the wrong color and you could kill yourself or somebody else.
But how did that help him catch basilisks?
The corner of his mouth tipped at my confusion.
“Their camouflage isn’t camouflage to me. I see everything in black, white, and grey. Without their colors to blend in, it’s easy to spot their markings between the leaves and the underbrush.”
I was stunned as my thoughts caught up.
“You’ve hid it your whole life.”
“I can’t see colors, but I can still see other things.” He ran his thumb over my knuckles and my face flamed.
“I’ll make a deal with you. You catch a basilisk, pass the course, and once you graduate in a month, we’ll talk about the becoming shade of grey on your face right now.”
He squeezed my hands as my eyes sparkled.
I would catch a basilisk if I had to do it with my teeth.
My good friend and writer, Rebecca Williams, has written a lovely short story for a guest post this week! If you enjoy her story, you can find out more here.
Vivvy tripped backwards when a large brown eye filled the window. She caught herself before knocking over the stack of bandages and crashing into IV poles.
“Hello?” she asked to the eye that fixed on her.
Vivvy observed the rumbling voice and the wart above the eyelid. An ogre.
Drawing closer to the window, she called out: “LARGE mythical folk can seek attention at the GIANT’S ward on the other side. We regretfully cannot accommodate you here.” As she spoke, she motioned to the room—tiny by ogre standards, filled with beds for small patients.
“Closed,” the ogre said, and his eye blinked. Her trained ears heard pain in that voice. She pulled back the curtain further and peered out to assess her unusually large patient, and the nurse smelled the injury before she could see it: ogre blood stank worse than ogre sweat. There, on his left leg, a bandage oozed with patches of sticky brown ogre blood.
The night visitor stepped back so Vivvy could see both his eyes, which now stared at the ground.
“Gimbly Mountain,” he mumbled.
“Gimbly Mountain—but that’s covered in bittersnag.” Vivvy looked now at the wound in horror. The ogre’s expression told Vivvy he already knew the lethality of the mountain’s spiny plant.
“Help,” he said again.
Vivvy’s hands went to her hips. “Yes, but—I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“Paul the Ogre.” Ogres in those parts had simple names.
“Right, Paul, the only cure for bittersnag is oil from the scales of a behemoth.”
Paul nodded, hope shining in his large eyes. Vivvy looked from one to the other because at such close range she couldn’t look at both at the same time.
“I found behemoth. I take you.” Without further explanation, Paul the Ogre reached inside the window and grasped Vivvy with two fingers, lifting her out of the ward and into his hand.
Vivvy stifled a scream. “No, no, don’t take me,” she protested. The tiny nurse had been punched and kicked by patients, but none had attempted to do her so much harm as take her to a behemoth. Behemoths filled the folklore of the Balsam Woodmarsh, a forested wetland with firs and vines. Marshes interlaced the valleys between the mountainsides. Though undeniably real, the monstrous creatures slipped in and out of deeper streams with such stealth that they lurked out of view. People shared stories and fables of the beasts in fervent whispers. Preferring the valley though, behemoths never climbed to the mountaintops where most woodland creatures lived, and Vivvy hadn’t heard of a behemoth sighting in years.
“W-where?” she asked as she struggled to get out of Paul’s grip. With limping strides, his long legs distanced them from the hospital at an alarming rate. She could have called for help, but the hospital sat on the rim of an outpost facing the jungle forest. No one would hear her.
“In valley. I show you.” The ogre swung his arms back and forth as he lunged ahead, and Vivvy grew dizzy.
“Why me?” She turned her head to watch the hospital lights grow dim behind them.
Paul the Ogre grunted. “You get scale and heal wound.”
The little nurse squeaked. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I don’t collect medicine. Sprites do. We chispas work in the hospital.”
“Chi-spa help me.”
“Chee-spa,” she corrected, sounding it out.
“Sprites not here,” he added, and Vivvy frowned. Her luminescent wings flickered on her back. That morning, the medical sprites had left to gather eel’s tooth, a plant that bloomed one night a year on the eastern side of Hale Mountain. Meanwhile, the other chispas slept in their dorm inside the outpost—now perhaps half a mile already behind them, and she alone covered the night shift of their empty ward that evening.
“Couldn’t you get it?” she asked, trying to squirm out of Paul’s grip as they took a sharp descent. An ogre seemed a better match for a behemoth.
With his free hand, Paul motioned to his size and then to hers without breaking a step. “Behemoth notice Paul. Behemoth not notice you. You fly and get scale without behemoth notice.”
Vivvy’s palms broke into a sweat, and she fingered her wings behind her back. Fly? With her left wing damaged, she could no longer soar over the mountains like she once had. Now, she could only hover. She hadn’t met Paul before though, so he didn’t know.
“Please?” asked Paul. They had already covered far too much ground for the kidnapped nurse’s comfort. How far away was this behemoth? Vivvy knew from nursing school that only fresh oil of behemoth scale would heal bittersnag wounds that could overtake victims within hours. Paul would not survive the wait for the sprites’ return.
For several minutes, Vivvy searched her mind for any excuse, but before she could answer, Paul dove to his belly on the soft marshy ground in the valley that seemed 1000 spans from her safe hospital ward. They had descended her mountain and breached the border of a marsh. He caught her eyes and nodded ahead. Her gaze followed until she saw the outline of a shadowy colossus in the marsh, rising up like a small mountain from the ground. She stifled another scream.
“Behemoth smell blood. Paul stay here.” He then opened his hand as if expecting her to fly off towards the behemoth without hesitation. But Vivvy did hesitate.
“Paul, I can’t fly,” she said, red-hot heat flushing her face.
“You fly. I believe.”
Vivvy wavered on his palm. If only it were that easy. In her mind, she could hear the soft chime of the hospital ward’s clock as if she stood next to it, reminding her that Paul had an hour—maybe two before the poison would overtake him. Too choked to speak, she unfolded her butterfly-shaped wings and began to beat them, the soft whir imperceptible to larger creatures like Paul or the behemoth. Hesitating one more time, she looked at Paul and saw hope still lighting up his face. She sighed.
Vivvy lifted herself above his palm, hovering, but only hovering. She didn’t know how she was going to fly UP to a behemoth, but dredging an ounce of courage from somewhere in her faltering heart, she turned and moved out over the shallow water, refusing to look back at the safe, dry spot on Paul’s hand.
No other noise filled the marsh; behemoths scared away even the crickets, and the beast’s large shadow took form as she approached. Closer, closer—she could see the glint of scales in the moonlight. The beast’s body loomed twenty times larger than Paul’s. She could hear the hum of deeper water on the other side of the beast, which appeared to be asleep next to the marsh’s outlet where it could easily slip into the dark waters that plumbed the unknown depths of their valley.
Trembling, Vivvy hovered towards its face. Thick crusty scales along the backs of behemoths yielded less oil—enough for a dozen little folks and perhaps enough for a dwarf, but certainly not an ogre. The best scales for oil lay above a behemoth’s eyes. Vivvy knew from textbook sketches were to look, and sure enough, there in the starlight, she could see brown scales with a bluish tint of softness on its brow.
I’m a nurse, I help people. I’m a nurse, I help people, she repeated in her head as she came to the edge where water met the snout of the behemoth at rest. With all her might, she beat her wings and gained perhaps an inch of height over the water. She tried again, another inch. Again, another inch. The tiny chispa inched until she reached the level of the bluish scales. Edging closer, straining to keep her height, she stretched out her arms between the behemoth’s closed eyes and touched the closest scale.
Fearfully, she glanced at the eyes. Neither one flickered. Taking all the care she could, Vivvy wrapped her fingers on either side of the scale as tall as she was and pulled. Such scales did not give easily. Yet something from her learning told her to shift the scale to the left and then upward. As she did, beating her wings and willing them not to lose her altitude, the hard scale loosened. Vivvy pulled it back with one swift break and clasped it close to her chest in disbelief that she held a genuine behemoth scale, fresh from the very beast’s forehead. Its absence left a miniscule opening on the large brow, and for a moment, the trained nurse looked for any broken skin that could risk infection, and thankfully, she found none. Her concerns for the predator were interrupted however when both enormous eyelids popped open, and the behemoth’s eyes clapped on her.
Vivvy stopped breathing, certain she was about to die. Behemoths notoriously left no attacker alive.
Its eyes shifted between her and the stolen scale.
As Vivvy’s anxiety turned to panic, she saw the creature focus on her wings. They were unique in size and shape, larger than wings of sprites who normally hunted such animals for their scales. Their butterfly shape and iridescent color glimmered in her hovering movements and reflected dim moonlight in the darkness.
The behemoth snuffed and exhaled a hot breath she could feel around her feet, and she wondered why it didn’t strike. Could she get away? No. With the heavy scale, she couldn’t fly fast, if at all.
Interrupting her thoughts, the behemoth rose back on its haunches, scooping her up on its rough nose and towering above the tree line. Its eyes never moved from the chispa, and Vivvy stood fearful and still. Then the creature’s tail curled to one side. Glancing at the movement, she noticed a scar stretching down its thigh. Only two things leave scars on behemoths—the claws of another behemoth, the damage of which can be life threatening, and the treatment of snarffle root that can heal the behemoth’s tough skin.
Snarffle root grows on mountaintops though. How had the valley-bound behemoth gotten there?
Glancing between the eyes and scar, Vivvy wondered if she truly grasped the gesture. The behemoth must have had help. Had it been from another chispa? The beast seemed to recognize her wings, and she wondered if he was trying to tell her something.
Vivvy nodded, to let it know she understood (perhaps). With the delicacy of one trying to slip away from death, she beat her wings until she hovered again. Meeting the behemoth’s gaze, she backed away, high above the marshy ground, and the mythical beastly creature made no move to stop her.
Further and further she retreated until she was halfway back to Paul, still at the height of the behemoth’s eyes. At that point, the creature blinked, lowered itself to the ground, and rolled into the deep waters beside its resting spot. She saw the water ripple outward from its exit. Signs of the behemoth disappeared as shallow marsh water filled the impressions of where the beast had slept.
Quivering, she watched the empty space for a moment until she remembered the scale gripped in her arms, its scentless oil clinging to her hands and tunic. Spinning around, she hurried back to Paul the Ogre and his poisoned wound. With such an abundant amount of the cure, they should have just enough time to stop the poison and save his life.