“I’m not saying you should keep it, Leesh. What harm would a little peek do? You can’t tell me you haven’t thought of it before,” Thax stated.
He was currently a hissing whisper in her ear, sitting perched on her shoulder like some devilish conscience. When he stopped talking, he ruffled himself and began his obsessive preening once more. Aleesha wondered how he had any feathers left.
Without looking directly at him, because the angle that caused her neck was more than uncomfortable, Aleesha replied, “I don’t know. Just because Master Lesander is away doesn’t mean I have the right to pry through his belongings. Besides, it’s surely trapped by spells I can’t counter.” The words came out sensible, but even she was not convinced.
Thax simply watched her for a moment, his keen, almost black hawk eyes uncomfortable and piercing her temple.
“Alright, we’ll peek. I almost think you want to see it more than I do,” Aleesha said, her tone skeptical but her eyes alight and playful.
“Ridiculous, I can’t read. I’m a bird.” If Thax had possessed lips, Aleesha knew he’d have been smirking.
The girl rose from her seat at the small wooden table she and Master Lesander ate their meals upon, and tread softly to her Master’s small bedroom, passing her own bed at the far end of the living area. Realizing there was no reason to be quiet, Aleesha straightened herself and forced her steps to be more confident, silently chided herself.
“Hurry, hurry,” Thax pressed. He was never silent in his chiding.
She nudged the partly ajar oaken door, and stepped into her Master’s bedroom. It was simply furnished, but aside from the bed there were several bookcases, filled with books and potions and numerous bottles, boxes, pouches and jars of strange magical components. Between two of the bookcases was a small desk, simply an inclined piece of wood supported by four legs.
Upon that lay a massive book.
As a studying apprentice, Aleesha had her own grimoire, but it was merely a few pieces of parchment bound by some leather string—this book was far more than that. It was heavily bound with a hard leather cover of red and contained hundreds of pages. The grimoire lay closed, the cover a scrawl of symbols and letters, the center an amulet of silver with a picture of a woman’s eye—the symbol of Zatana, the Goddess Magic Weaver.
Taking a deep breath, Aleesha sat herself on the small stool before the book. It was incredible the magical force that radiated from it.
She pulled a clump of dried herb from her pouch, whispered a few words in the Old Tongue, “Bainen Magi,” and pricked the end of a finger on her empty hand with a small needle. She dropped a small amount onto the herb. Her hands glowed with power and the herb and small droplet of blood seemed to crumble and evaporate from her palm. Then, she touched the cover of the book with both hands. It flashed briefly, and went dark once more.
Aleesha could not resist the smile that formed.
Now reassured, Aleesha opened the book.
Thax peered curiously at the writings and pictures, his neck stretching longer than it looked like it should have. “There’s got to be something interesting. Think you can cast any of those spells, Leesh?”
“I’m not sure. Certainly most of these are way above me,” the girl replied.
“Come on, come on. Cast one.” Aleesha could feel the hawk impatiently pacing from one foot to the other on her shoulder, his talons becoming uncomfortable in his impatience. “I know you can. You’ve been studying with Lesander for over two winters now.”
“Shh…” the young mage snapped. She gave him a smirk to illustrate her sarcasm. “If I’m going to cast anything, bird, you can’t be prattling into my ear.”
This ruffled Thax into silence.
Turning the pages, Aleesha scanned the spells in the Master Lesander’s book. Casting a brief, sidelong glance at Thax, she stopped. “I think I’ve found something.”
Not replying directly to his question, Aleesha said, “Okay, Thax. Go stand on the bed, and wait for me to gather a couple of things.”
Thax exhaled sharply with an agitated chirp. “Fine.”
The hawk spread his vast wings just enough to make a gliding leap onto the foot of the small bed, and waited impatiently, pacing from talon to talon and twitching his wings.
Once Aleesha had collected a few small items, she stepped once more before the book and recalled the words. Then, she took a deep breath and cleared her mind.
Thax blinked his wide eyes and cocked his head to various comical angles curiously.
Holding the three items—a feather, a scale, and a scrap of leather—Aleesha began to chant the spell words. “Fra Uhn a Netteh.” She dripped another drop of blood from her finger onto the items in her other palm. Then, as her hands glowed softly and the three components disintegrated, Aleesha reached forward and gently tapped Thax on the beak.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“By Mynna, what have you done to me?” Thax cried.
“What? It was just a simple polymorph spell.” Despite Thax’s outrage, Aleesha beamed with pride. “I cast it correctly. Aren’t you happy for me? You were right, I could cast a spell from Master Lesander’s book.”
“Okay, now undo it,” Thax said, sharply.
“Why, haven’t you ever been curious? You don’t want to see how it would be to be like me? If I were in your position, I’d be curious.”
“Yes, I suppose I have been curious about being human – never enough to want to try it. My wings and legs are so clumsy feeling,” he mumbled, pathetically. To illustrate this, Thax shook his arms as if something might be caught in a sleeve.
Thax, however, currently had no sleeves. In fact…
“Perhaps the first step would be to cover you,” Aleesha stated with an uncomfortable clearing of her throat and trying hard not to blush. “You must be cold.”
“I guess, but that’s the very least of my discomfort.”
Thax was standing beside Lesander’s bed, scanning his body as if checking for extra limbs.
Unable to help herself, Aleesha’s eyes followed his. His human body was lean and muscular, with powerful looking limbs. When her eyes fell upon that meant to be covered, she tore her sight away and stepped quickly into the living area. She grabbed a blanket from her bed, and returned to hand it to Thax, who she realized was now quite tall—a head taller than her, at least.
Upon realizing that, she made an unconscious noise.
“What? Is something wrong? Other than me, that is.” His head was cocked in a very bird-like manner as he formed the words.
“Uhh, no…no,” Aleesha forced out.
His eyes were the same dark, piercing ones, watching her from beneath an unruly lay of brunette hair of a color identical to his hawk feathers. After another moment’s pause, she thrust the blanket towards him. “Put this over you, I beg.”
He pulled it around his shoulders. “Do I make an attractive man?” he asked, his tone uncertain.
Aleesha laughed despite herself.
“I was being quite serious.” Thax looked offended as well as miserable.
“I know, I’m sorry. It just seemed an odd question. And in answer, yes.” Aleesha blushed again and looked away briefly.
Thax grinned. It was not just a smart glimmer in his eyes, but an actual smile. It showed his teeth and did not look unnatural at all, making his dark eyes twinkle. It looked as if he had possessed lips capable of smiling all his life. It was quite a gorgeous smile.
“Well, what do you say we find the spell to put me back?” Thax asked.
Aleesha jumped at the sound of his voice invading her thoughts.
She made herself breathe. “Yes, of course.”
The girl shook her head, as if that might clear it, and seated herself once more on the stool before Master Lesander’s book. Scanning it for several silent moments, Aleesha frowned, the scowl deepening with each turned page. She lifted the last page, glancing at its backside, and lifted her eyes to the empty wall before her.
“There is no counterspell in here,” Aleesha told him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
When Master Lesander returned, Aleesha saw the question in his eyes. She took it as, Who is that strange man?
The girl had convinced Thax to sit in one of the wooden chairs around the small table back out in the living area. It looked to cause him great discomfort – he fidgeted and squirmed in the chair, picking at the too-small tunic and breeches that Aleesha had found for him from her clothes. Both stretched tightly over his muscular frame.
Both of them had spent the remainder of the afternoon discussing how to tell Master Lesander and what his reaction might be. Aleesha was no longer feeling her brief pride – now she was consumed with only regret.
Thax looked so very uncomfortable and lost.
“Evening, Master. How was your day in Farnx?” Aleesha asked. She attempted to make her voice normal with no hint of the strangeness of the situation she had created.
The city of Farnx was a whole day’s journey, to and from, and the only city in the Bracklin Reach and the surrounding several hundred miles.
“Interesting,” the elder man said, his tone unreadable. “But not as interesting as your day it seems.” A tiny smile then tugged his wrinkled lips, causing a twinkle in his powder blue eyes. “So, Thax, was it curiosity or accident?”
Both Aleesha and the hawk who looked like a man looked at one another, their surprise and guilt written like words across their faces.
Without waiting for a reply from either, Master Lesander stepped lightly for one of his years to the door leading to his bedroom. The staff in his hand mirrored the steps of his right leg, but it was more from habit than need.
Although the door appeared to be in exactly the same position, Aleesha knew he was not fooled.
“I see your skill is growing, my dear. Unfortunately, your commonsense has not been as quick to follow.” Master Lesander’s voice was soft as always—he’d never once raised his tone with her—but now it was tinged with an emotion Aleesha couldn’t identify.
“Master, I’m sorry,” was all Aleesha could force from her mouth. Even without the lecture she surely deserved, the girl felt she would easily reprimand herself more harshly than her light-handed Master.
“Pah, I suppose every young mage eventually falls prey to the curiosity of her Master’s book,” Lesander said as he stroked his greying black beard absently, as he often did while studying over his grimoire. “As for now, I suppose you are both curious as to how to undo this polymorph spell.”
Thax nodded, wordlessly.
“Well, the counterspell is more complex. Polymorph spells in general are complex. Not only does the spell affect the balance of nature, as I have long taught you that every spell creates an equal reaction to maintain that balance, this particular spell also affects the balance of the spirit. The first morph is hard on the body, the second, more so. It is easier on a wizard, as we many spend years gaining the mastery over our mind and spirit required to attempt more advanced magics, but young Thax’s spirit is in turmoil. If he does not return to his hawk form by the next moon cycle, his spirit will remain human, and he will not be able to transform back.”
Thax stiffened. Then, he relaxed, stating, “Well, then change me back now.”
“What?” His face fell.
Master Lesander hung his travel cloak on a wooden peg near the entry door and stepped to the table. He leaned his staff against the wall and seated himself between Aleesha and Thax, who sat on opposite sides of the circular table.
“The reverse spell requires different components to coax the spirit back to its true form—components I cannot keep here, for they must be fresh when used.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Despite the bright sun and the pleasant weather, upon reaching the Vale of Voiceless Souls, both Aleesha and Thax shivered. It looked like a wood stuck in perpetual winter—the trees bare skeletons, the few remaining dry leaves quivering in the chill wind surrounding the Vale.
Aleesha wondered at how anything could live in this place.
Master Lesander had explained the spell’s process to them both. The spell had to be cast in a place of restless souls. According to popular rumor and Lesander, the deepest parts of the Vale were home to the walking dead. He had also told them to cast the spell, upon building a fire, both the bark of a Kendra tree and the root of a Knarr must be cast in.
“Well, daylight’s wasting. Let’s go,” Thax said. “I’d rather stumble around in there while I can see what I’m tripping on.”
The young mage nodded.
She followed a few steps behind him and took notice of how strangely inhuman he was. He walked as if his legs were too long, which she supposed they were, and carefully watched each step he made. His steps were awkward and quite ungraceful, like he might fall over with every lift of his legs. She also noticed that as he walked, he kept his arms folded tight to his sides, as if they were still his wings.
“Thax, if you want to be able to walk like a human, you have to hang your arms more to your side. They’ll help your balance, I assure you.”
She trotted up beside him and took hold of his arms gently, and Thax stopped. He watched her with his dark, piercing eyes as she carefully coaxed his arms to loosen and laid them straight to his sides. “Just let them swing and I think that will help. And smaller steps. You don’t need to lift your legs quite so much.”
Thax nodded. “I will try, but I hardly understand how any movement can be graceful in this body.” He blinked and cocked his head. “Though, somehow you management it.”
Aleesha blushed despite herself, and had to break the gaze his hunter eyes held her in.
They continued to walk.
Despite the bareness of the forest, the sky was a greyish haze and the trees grew closely enough together to impede the view of the sun and choke their possible path to a small one. They tripped over gnarled roots and had no choice but to walk singularly for much of the way.
It was difficult to tell whether anything else was watching them, though they felt the presence of eyes.
They were, however, able to tell when darkfall came, for the Vale grew ever darker.
“I think we should find some place to rest for the night,” Aleesha suggested.
The sun was gone and the Vale was quickly fading to black as they built a fire and laid out some blankets.
“I don’t trust this place during the day – with it so dark I think we should take turns sleeping,” Thax suggested.
“Lay down first. I’ll watch for a while. If I start to fall asleep, I’ll wake you,” Thax continued.
Aleesha wrapped the blankets around her, and in them drew closer to Thax. She laid her head against his thigh and curled up on her side, letting out a heavy, tired sigh.
Watching her breath slow and her fingers fall limp from their grip on the blanket, Thax thought about how many thousands of times he’d watched her fall asleep. How was this one time suddenly different? The strange atmosphere? The strange rush of adrenaline each time his human ears caught a sound? Or was it the strange hand, somehow his own, that reached to brush a stray lock of brunette hair from her face?
Thax looked at his hand like a visitor from far away – he studied it. It in no way resembled his wing or his talons. It did however resemble the smaller hand resting against his thigh, he realized with a blink, and Thax found this intriguing and disturbing all at once.
Stroking her hair ever so lightly, not wishing to wake her, Thax felt the soft threads of it fall against and past his fingers and experienced feelings – both physically and emotionally – he had never imagined. He had brushed her hair away with his beak or a wing before, usually with annoyance as it fell against him, but had never actually felt its texture.
It was a strange sensation, it was soft. Then, touching her cheek, he discovered a different texture – still soft, but of a different sort.
Blinking and swallowing with effort, Thax realized his heartbeat had quickened. At first, he thought it similar to the rush after spotting a large rabbit. Seized by an overwhelming wave of emotion, Thax realized it to be both similar and quite different.
The sound of something snapping like a twig jerked him from his thoughts. Within seconds Thax’s body was tensed and ready to spring. He strained his nearly useless human ears to the sound, trying not to disturb Aleesha – not until he was certain there was trouble.
Again came the snap of dead ground cover.
Thax slipped the borrowed dagger from his waistband as carefully as he could. Then, he moved Aleesha’s head onto a folded blanket – gently and careful not to move her too much – and stood up.
It took mental effort to stave off the instinct to try and launch himself above. Thax willed his empty hand to his hang uselessly by his side, as Aleesha had shown him. Then, somewhat clumsily, the hawk who looked like a man turned the blade in his hand to face down, feeling more comfortable with it that way.
He crept slowly, lightly, willing his awkward steps silent. At the edge of the light of the fire, Thax heard the crunching again, now very close. He glanced quickly at Aleesha, then back towards the noise.
Three humanoid figures detached from the trees and darkness beyond. Thax quickly realized the creatures were far from human—each appeared to be a short and skinny bundle of twigs and roots formed into the basic shape of a person. Hungry red eyes glowed at him as their twiggy claws reached forward, and Thax took an uneasy step back.
“Aleesha, awake!” Thax shouted. “Aid me with your spells!”
The girl stirred groggily, and glanced toward Thax’s voice. The sleep fell from her face, replaced by surprise. As soon as she was untangled from the blankets, she reached for her component bag and hurried to him, stopping several steps behind him, to avoid interruption.
Without so much as a word to him, she pulled some items from her pouch and pricked her finger, beginning a hastily worded spell.
Thax did not have the ease of watching her join him, for the twig-creatures did not slow their careful approach. Hearing their joints rustle and crackle, Thax realized it was not crunching ground cover that had alerted him at all, but the movement of the creatures themselves.
The dagger felt painfully useless in his hand, but he rose in nonetheless and slashed downward at the arm of the first to reach for him. It made a dry crackling as several tightly bound sinew-like twigs snapped and splintered. The creature let out a raspy hiss and pulled back momentarily.
The other two wasted no time, each to either side of the first, and both grabbed at Thax’s arms. One’s branch-like claw tore at his forearm, and pain flashed with a burning that followed.
Growling back a cry, Thax slashed the dagger at the second assailant and its blade tore through what would have been its neck. No spray of blood, only dry wood snapping. It barely seemed to phase the creature, only pushed it back from the mere force.
Aleesha shouted in the strange tongue of magic and reached past Thax to grab hold of the third creature to his left. The girl’s hands glowed a fiery orange and upon contact with the twig-creature it made a sharp, hollow cry and its arm caught fire. It stepped back and flailed its stick-like limbs helplessly in a panic, fanning the flames rather than extinguishing them. Within seconds, the twig-creature was a crackling pile similar to their fire.
This struck Thax with a thought, and he grabbed Aleesha’s shoulder, and drew her back beside him as he took a few paces back. Then, he stopped with them both feet from the fire. The two remaining twig-creatures quickly followed, hissing insidiously and consumed with the destruction of the dangerous pair.
Holding Aleesha back, Thax reached and grabbed a half-emerged stick from the fire, flames coating the half not in his hand. He raised it before him as a short sword and waved it at the two twig-creatures. Both hissed and took uneasy steps back, but the hungry look in their eyes did not fade, and neither dropped back far.
“Cast another spell,” Thax coaxed, watching the creatures steadily and not lowering the burning stick.
Aleesha nodded and drew more components from her pouch. She mumbled a few words and threw a small handful of herbs into the campfire. It flashed briefly and when Aleesha pointed a finger at one of the twig-creatures, two small, arrow-like streams of flame struck the creature. It was still screaming when she turned her finger to the other – two more flaming tendrils striking it.
Letting out a ragged sigh, she sat heavily before the second twig-creature hit the ground. Her breathing was labored, and she seemed to be collecting herself.
Thax knelt. “You okay?” he asked, concern bright in his eyes.
She nodded, but did not speak.
A moment later, she glanced at his arm with widened eyes. “One struck you?”
“Yes,” Thax hissed. It throbbed now that his adrenaline was fading.
His arm had a ragged slash that oozed blood only slowly. However, the skin around the tear was pink and swollen, and burned like fire. Aleesha did not touch the wound, but the skin around it, lightly with her fingers. Thax winced.
“I think it’s poison,” she whispered.
Thax did not reply.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Thax huddled against her in a feverish sleep, shivering as if he were cold even though every inch of him was hot to the touch. She clung to him helplessly, too frightened even as she worried over him to forage while it was still dark. All she could do was stroke his face and hair to calm his dreams, and wait.
It seemed an eternity before the sky began to lighten.
As soon as it appeared light enough, she tapped Thax on his burning cheek. His eyes fluttered open, somewhat glazed and out of focus.
“We must move,” she said softly. “I need to gather some herbs for a potion to heal you.” Her eyes scanned his barely comprehensive face. He made a weak nod.
Aleesha pulled him to his feet and started him walking. She’d packed their supplies before she had lain down with him, and now grabbed them too. She had to support him, and that proved difficult with him larger than her. Somehow, perhaps through pure stubbornness and determination, she managed to keep him going and mostly upright. Deep down, she knew it was the only option.
It took her until well after the sun had appeared above the treetops to gather what she needed. It was nearing its zenith.
Then, she propped Thax against a large tree and stewed the ingredients together over a small fire.
“Drink this. I know it smells awful, but it’s what you need to counteract the poison,” Aleesha assured him.
There was no argument from Thax, only a slight pinch of his features when the liquid touched his tongue. He was too fatigued to fight her, and almost too much so to ingest the liquid. She tipped the small metal cup she’d used to brew it in until the cup was empty, and then slouched in exhaustion beside him.
It was several minutes later that Thax pulled himself to a more comfortable seated position against the tree. After a moments hesitation, he tapped Aleesha’s shoulder and she jumped as if struck, having dozed off.
“Should we continue?” Thax asked.
Despite her body screaming otherwise, Aleesha nodded.
For a moment, neither of them moved. A looked was exchanged, and Aleesha found her gaze caught by the man’s. His dark, predator eyes caught her like a scared rabbit. With each slow breath that passed, the girl felt her heart quicken the tiniest bit, until she was sure he would see and hear it thudding in her chest, for she could hear it and nothing else.
Thax opened his mouth to say something more and stopped.
Aleesha’s attention was distracted to his lips and she realized how appealing they were. She licked the dryness from her own and leaned toward him, kissing him before she could stop herself.
At first, Thax seemed caught off guard and unsure how to respond, but then he kissed her back, fiercely, as if suddenly afraid she might pull away. He pulled first her shoulders against him and then threaded his fingers through the soft silk of her mousey hair and pressed her lips to his. Aleesha threaded her arms beneath his and caressed the tensed muscles of his shoulders.
When Thax finally relaxed his embrace, the two separated. Both of their breath came irregular, and Thax thought his heart might burst from his chest if not calmed. He swallowed and willed his body calm.
“We should continue,” Thax finally stated.
Aleesha nodded, her eyes not leaving him.
It was several more breaths of an awkward silence before either moved. Then, they doused the fire and continued through the dead, depressing forest.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The sun was barely past its highest point when the trees attacked.
Both Aleesha and Thax had been silent for sometime, merely walking deeper into the skeletal forest. Neither really knew where to find the items they searched for – and that was how it came about their quarry found them.
One moment, Aleesha was beside him on the path, and the next she was screaming as something dragged her up into the dark forest’s canopy. Her kidnapper was a large, green tentacle, covered with moss and mold and small sprouting leaves.
Not the trees, a damned Knarr.
Well, Aleesha, we found the Knarr, Thax thought, bitterly. Now, how do we get a piece of its root before it eats you?
At that, Thax stopped thinking sarcastically and sobered himself. He glanced around, desperate for any way into the canopy other than the method Aleesha had employed. Nothing simple came to him. His only chance was to convince this clumsy body up a tree. He missed his wings desperately.
None of the trees had low branches, but Thax found one with a branch low enough to grasp and awkwardly boost himself to the higher branches. The second branch he grabbed snapped as the man reached a sturdy handhold, and he dangled from the remaining stub for a sickening second. Then, with all his effort, muslces screaming, Thax pulled his body slowly up, and hoisted himself up onto the higher branch.
Looking down, he saw he was about twelve feet off the forest floor. For the first time in his life, the height gave him a nauseous feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Thax looked around him, desperate to glance any sign of Aleesha. He had not heard so much as a noise from her since her scream had died away.
The massive form of the Knarr was three trees away. He could see its pale green body now that he was above the canopy line. It held Aleesha’s limp body – he hoped desperately she was merely unconscious – in one of its tentacles, of which the creature had four.
With his view of the forest floor all too visible, Thax held onto the hope that crossing from one tree to another might be possible. He carefully and with great effort stepped from one tree to another. Stopping a tree away from the creature, Thax hoped he was far enough out of reach. He tore away a portion of his breech’s leg and coated it with a small amount of lantern oil, tying it tightly around his dagger. Then, he pulled out some flint and steel and struck a flame to the cloth. It caught and blazed.
This seemed to finally catch the Knarr’s attention and it turned towards Thax. The large creature roared, showing the full of its huge maw, lined with tiny, jagged teeth in uneven rows, akin to those of a shark. The comparatively small black eyes of the creature burned with the reflected light of the dagger-torch and the Knarr snapped one of its long tentacles in Thax’s direction.
Thax dodged it clumsily, but held his position. Then, he said a short prayer to Mynna, Goddess Animal Watcher, throwing his dagger.
It stayed lit and, thank the gods, it fell true. The blade struck just right of the creature’s eye, and it let out a surprised snarl. Its mossy body caught fire, and the Knarr retracted all its tentacles in an effort to beat out the flames.
Aleesha fell to a thick branch and Thax wasted no time leaping the remaining distance and grabbing her up from a long fall.
A thought struck him, and he turned back to the Knarr. Its tentacles were now also aflame, and it roared in pain and anger.
Thax carefully set the girl in the crook of two branches and faced the burning plant-creature. More deftly than he’d have thought possible, the man pounced forward and grabbed his scolding hot dagger. A spray of black ichor gushed from the wound, but the Knarr was too busy snarling and beating its body with its flaming tentacles to pay much notice.
Ignoring the burning pain that raced up from the handle of the dagger, Thax stabbed at the creature’s base, where it clung to the tree it perched in and brought back a small handful of its root.
Accomplishment beamed on the man’s face and he left the smoldering creature, whose cries soon ceased, to descend the tree with Aleesha and wake the girl.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The girl had a lump on her forehead from being knocked into a tree branch when the Knarr grabbed her, but aside from that, Aleesha seemed okay. It gave her quite the headache for the remainder of the day, though.
She was just pleased they finally had something to show for their journey.
They walked on, the day quickly receding from highsun towards dusk.
About an hour before the sun would disappear, Aleesha and Thax came upon a strange circle of trees. They formed the shape perfectly, each spaced the exact same distance. The strangest part was that this thin circle of trees all had leaves – bright green, with vibrant leaves – and the ground was covered with lush grass, drinking up the final rays of light that penetrated the clearing. There were a few jagged, dried-up tree stumps and numerous mushrooms of all different shapes and shades, some of the mushrooms forming circles beside the tree stumps. Once inside the circle, it felt like a different forest – a peaceful, living forest inside the dead one.
Aleesha beamed at Thax. “I think we should rest here for the night. It’s going to be dark shortly, and I feel safer here than anywhere else in this place so far. It’s a magical place. Can you feel it?”
Thax nodded, still surveying their new surroundings. “That’s why I’m uneasy. It doesn’t feel right.”
Frowning, Aleesha exhaled sharply. “That’s silly.”
The man shrugged.
“Besides, these are the Kendra trees we search for,” Aleesha said. She walked over to one and ran her hand along the smooth bark. “Fairy trees, they’re called.” She smiled and simply held her hand against the coolness of the tree for a moment.
“Well, then we need some bark,” Thax stated. He stepped over beside her and scooped a small chunk of bark from the tree Aleesha touched.
Aleesha winced and pulled her hand away. “Strange, it was as if I felt it cry out.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
That night, both had strange dreams – dreams of bright, cheerful orbs of light and color, swirling around and around as if in some mad dance. When the dance was over, however, the orbs suddenly seemed less friendly, taking on menacing glows and surrounding the sleeping man and woman.
Aleesha awoke with a start to see Thax had done the same. Both glanced at each other and said nothing as they held their breath.
They quickly realized they were not alone. A circle of tiny people, each hovering above Aleesha and Thax on glistening insect-like wings, surrounded them.
“It wasn’t a dream,” Aleesha whispered.
“No, not a dream,” one of the fairies answered. It was a small, female fairy. She wore a regal scarlet gown and her hair tied up on high her head. Her wings looked like those of a great blue butterfly, and she carried a toothpick size wand. Every flutter of her wings seemed to dislodge a rain of glittering dust in a rainbow of color.
“Tell us, humans, why do you invade our court and wound our friends?” the fairy continued without preamble.
Aleesha’s tongue refused to comply. The mage’s apprentice looked around her. The trees – the Fairy Trees – were what she must be referring to as she recalled the tree’s cry of pain when Thax had cut it.
“We apologize for our intrusion and cutting one of the trees,” Thax spoke for her. He bowed his head. “We are only here on a quest to return me to my true form – that of a hawk. The bark of your friend is one of the components we were sent for.”
The fairy in the red gown contemplated this for a moment.
“I believe you speak true, and meant no malice,” she stated, finally. “When the sun rises, leave, and do not return to this court. But I give my word that the remainder of your evening’s slumber shall go unhindered and that you shall be safe within our friends’ protection until you leave on the morrow.”
“Thank you, that is most gracious,” Thax replied, bowing his head again.
Aleesha did the same.
The last thing either remembered was the fairy in the scarlet robe waving her tiny hands and the tiny wand, and speaking a string of strange words.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Aleesha and Thax awoke rested and refreshed and they continued their trek.
Despite the rising sun, the Vale seemed gloomier and darker than before. Aleesha figured they must be quite deep into the forest by now. The trees were now not only skeletal, they were all draped in a sickly grey moss that hung from most of the branches and reaffirmed Aleesha’s thought that there was no air movement here.
The two soon came upon another clearing, quite larger than the previous one. Instead of feeling welcome and safe, Aleesha felt her stomach grow heavy and upset. When she looked at Thax, he appeared to feel the same way.
The clearing was cloaked in a greenish fog and looked damp, despite the lack of rain during the current warm season. It looked to be a clearing only because something appeared to have knocked all the trees here to short, splintered stumps and fallen logs.
Perhaps a dragon? Aleesha thought briefly and laughed at herself. None had been seen in the Bracklin Reach for centuries.
Though, this clearing may have been that old. The stumps were rotted and crumbling and coated with moss and lichen. Nothing living grew here, but there was certainly a presence. Aleesha did not feel they were alone or welcome.
“I think we found our spell area,” the girl whispered.
Thax nodded silently.
“I suppose we’d best to do this now and leave before darkness falls,” she continued, keeping her voice hushed. “I don’t want to wake whatever I feel sleeping here.”
They built a small fire near the edge of the clearing, not even curious enough to set out exploring the area. Aleesha also noticed the damp look to be a great sinkhole. The entire area was a shallow swamp. It was likely neither would get far out before sinking to their waists, at least.
While the fire was building, Aleesha broke their silence. “Are you really going through with it?” Her eyes watched the growing flames.
Thax looked startled. “Of course, it is the whole point of this journey. Why would I want to stay human?”
As soon as the last word left his mouth, understanding dawned. A wince and the dropping of the girl’s eyes to her hands was all the answer he needed. “Oh, I see. Do you not want me to return to being a hawk?”
Aleesha’s brow furrowed with deep lines accented by the firelight. She could not form words, only shook her head, her eyes glimmering with emotion.
Thax let out a deep sigh. “I find myself with numerous reasons to return to my true form, and only one, growing reason not to…” He placed his human hand over hers.
Something sparkled in Aleesha’s eyes and she glanced at him.
“It’s a lot to give up.” Thax’s look got far away. His eyes went up. “I miss the open sky – it calls me, yet I no longer have the right voice to answer. It’s almost painful. It’s like feeling I am missing a limb.” He paused. “Yet, despite the pain of not being in the sky, for the first time I find myself torn, wondering if there is something different, better. Because this new feeling…”
The man raised her hand to his lips and then brushed it over his cheek. Aleesha shuddered and thought she might faint from lightness in her head.
Throwing her arms around his neck, the girl let out a great shuddering sob of a breath. It was almost a whimper. Thax held her, and stroked her soft brown hair, studying her.
When she finally let go, Thax noticed her eyes were wet.
Thax touched the wet track down her left cheek, curiously. “Am I what causes your pain?”
Letting a ragged sigh fall from her lips, Aleesha replied in a murmur, “Only the thought of you leaving.”
“I am sorry, Aleesha. But, don’t you see? I’m not leaving,” Thax retorted, softly. “I’ll always be exactly where I am now. Here beside you, and here inside you.” He touched his chest and then hers, over her heart.
“No,” she sobbed, the tears flowing once more. “It’s not the same. If you change back, you’ll be someone else again. It’ll be different.”
Sighing, Thax looked up to the sky. “We must begin. The day quickly grows old.” He handed her the root and the small piece of bark.
It was a moment before Aleesha took them. She gave Thax one more, desperate look and stood. She raised both hands over the fire and began to chant, her hands moving in slow revolutions.
Thax saw the tears fall as she spoke. He dropped his eyes, but only for a moment. They seemed magnetized to the girl. This girl who would cast this spell for him, despite her own feelings. Why? A thought blew through his mind like a breeze – love.
“Aleesha, wait,” Thax began. But she had already pricked her finger, snapped the bark, and all three items were leaving her hands as he spoke.
The girl turned to face him just as his form began to waiver.
“Aleesha, I love you,” Thax said, his body enveloped in light. It was accompanied by the soft rush of feathered wings.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Awaiting the Muse by Jamie Roman AKA Effraeti is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at https://awaitingthemuse.wordpress.com/