Focus on the blood

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“Focus.”

“Focus.”

“Focus.”

I hear that every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second. My teachers are forever chastising me for my inability to perform even the simplest spells. They don’t understand me. No one does.

That doesn’t surprise me. My parents and my sisters never understood me either. They considered me less than human because I wasn’t as powerful as them. At least, that’s what they thought. They didn’t know what I could do. But they learned. As my teachers and the students who ridiculed me would learn.

I waited until after the last bed check of the night before I got up and pulled on my clothes. A silence spell, simple and one I was forever pretending to flub, kept the other young men in the dormitory from hearing me. I slid out the door and moved down the corridor. I heard voices and quickly cast an invisibility spell.

Two teachers walked past, discussing their love lives. I had to keep from snickering. Their petty complaints would soon be insignificant to what they were going to face. I let myself out through the kitchen door, ignoring the sleeping cook and her helpers.

I went out to the forest and the makeshift altar I’d set up three days after arriving at school. I shed the spells and used a small fire spell to light the candles and a small blaze under my cauldron.

I summoned a water sprite and made it pour magical water into my cauldron before sending it away. Sprites were difficult to keep bound and I didn’t want to waste any of my power. I was going to need it all for this spell.

I waited for the water to come to a boil. I tossed several roots, insects, and a dried lizard in. I stirred it as the ingredients dissolved. I ground up some desiccated bones and poured that in. There was a puff of acrid smoke and the potion turned blue. I smiled. I only needed one more ingredient. I heard footsteps approaching. My smile got bigger.

“You’re a witch,” someone gasped.

I turned around. My discoverer was one of my worst tormentors. She was the eldest daughter in one of the First Families, and a powerful mage in her own right. “Warlock, actually,” I said calmly. “You chose an interesting time to follow me. May I ask why tonight?”

“I saw you get up. I was going to say something but then I watched you cast the silence spell. And then I saw you do the invisibility spell when the teachers went by. You’ve never been able to perform those so I knew something was different. So I followed you. Now I’m going to tell the headmaster. You’ll be burned at the stake,” she said.

I crooked my finger and she started walking forward. Judging from the shocked look on her face, she hadn’t expected to have the control over her body taken from her. “No, I won’t. And you will disappear, never to be seen again.”

She tried to open her mouth, but my spell bound it shut. I led her to a black stone stained with dried blood. I forced her to lay down on it and strapped her into place. There were grooves in it and it was obvious she’d figured out what I meant to do. I released her from my control spell, but cast another one to keep her from screaming.

“Why are you doing this?” she whispered, though I could tell she wanted to scream.

“Revenge, of course. All of you high and mighty mages, thinking we sorcerers are worth less than the mud on your boots just because we don’t use wands and fancy magic words,” I said. “This will show all of you just what we’re capable of.” I pulled out an obsidian knife. “Of course, you’ll miss the whole show. I hope you’ve made peace with your gods.” I drew the razor sharp blade across her throat.

It was deep enough she died instantly. I hated making my sacrifices suffer. The living deserved it. The dying did not. Her blood filled the channels and I gathered it in a chalice. When I had what I wanted, I went over and poured it into the cauldron.

The potion exploded into a swirling crimson whirlwind with glowing white eyes. “What do you wish of me, Master?” it asked in a grating voice.

I smiled at the blood demon. “Devour this girl’s body, and then spread a blood born pestilence to all who reside in this school but me. Make it something that can kill, but isn’t necessarily fatal. Let it scar those who survive. Steal their ability to father children. Destroy the females’ wombs so they can never pass on their bloodlines. Curse them with the same curse that I felt at the hands of my family.”

The blood demon bowed. “As you wish, Master.” It turned towards my sacrifice’s body and started eating. I turned away to face the school. Retribution would be mine.

A gift of freedom

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Aleesia flattened herself behind a small rise in the ground. The herd was still grazing, though the grass was limited. The branches and dead trees provided a hazard to Aleesia and her team as they prepared to attempt a capture. Her client had specified which horse they wanted. She’d already located it and her team had a plan how to separate it from the rest of the herd.

“Jessa, Liesel, are you ready?” she whispered.

The elven twins flashed her a gesture, indicating their readiness. They didn’t speak the human tongue though they understood it. They considered it too crude to even attempt. Aleesia found that opinion amusing and accepted their peculiarity with good grace. Few other wranglers would have done so. But the twins made capturing animals much easier so she dealt with all of their odd habits.

Breton squirmed closer to her. His dark skin was a blot on the terrain and he was keeping himself even farther down the hill. “Are you sure you know which one it is?” he whispered.

“Yeah. It’s pretty distinctive, considering it’s the darkest one there,” Aleesia said. “Are you ready?” He nodded. “Jessa, Liesel, go.”

The twins slipped over the hill and vanished, using their magic to turn invisible. They would be moving into place on either side of the dark mare. Aleesia called her magic to her hands. She took a deep breath and gestured at one of the dead trees. It shattered with a loud noise.

The horses screamed in terror and took off running. The dark horse lunged after her herd but suddenly found herself unable to move. She strained against the invisible bonds holding her but couldn’t break them.

“My turn,” Breton said. He scrambled over the hill, the halter and rope in his hand. He approached the horse. The twins’ magic held it in place as he slipped the enchanted leather over the mare’s head. He attached the lead and took a good hold of it. “Okay, I’ve got her.”

The twins shed their invisibility and released the mare. The horse tried to rear but Breton’s great strength held her down. She snorted and struggled but he stood fast. Aleesia climbed over the hill and joined the others. “She’s beautiful,” she said.

“She’s really spirited too,” Breton said.

Aleesia felt a pang. The client who’d demanded this horse was brutal when he broke them. They were truly broken when he was finished. She’d be utterly without spirit or personality. “I hate turning her over to him,” she said.

Liesel made a few hand gestures. “Liesel has a point,” Breton said. “If we don’t we’ll lose our reputation and we won’t have work.”

“I know,” Aleesia said. She put a hand on the proud beast’s neck. “I’m sorry sweet lady.”

Don’t be sorry. Don’t do this. The voice echoed in all of their minds. All four of the wranglers jerked back and stared at the horse.

“You can speak?” Breton asked.

Yes. All of my herd can. The horse snorted. Did you think we were the ordinary dumb creatures who roam the plains to the east? They could not survive in these lands.

Jessa looked at Liesel. They spoke in their own language for a moment. Then Jessa made a face before turning to Aleesia. “This is not a horse,” she said, her words heavily accented. “This is a sithana.”

“What’s a sithana?” Aleesia asked.

We are kin to the elves and fae, the sithana said. We have existed in this world for millennia. We can take many forms, from gentle creatures such as my herd to those beasts you call imaginary – dragons, gryphons, and chimera to name a few.

“We should let her go,” Liesel said. “We will lose reputation but we will save a life as precious as our own.”

“How will we eat if we don’t deliver?” Breton asked.

Should you release me you will be granted good fortune, the sithana said. That I swear.

“She has the power to do that,” Jessa said. “She has more magic than us. She can do what the fae do.”

Aleesia was silent, thinking hard. “Breton, take off the harness.”

“Aleesia, we’re going to lose out on a lot of money,” Breton said.

“I won’t enslave a sentient being,” Aleesia said. “Release her.”

Breton scowled but did as he was told. The sithana shook her head and reared up on her hind legs. Good fortune is yours, wranglers. You will find it as you pursue your future. Farewell. She took off chasing after her herd.

Aleesia sighed. “Let’s go tell our client we couldn’t catch his horse. At least if we lie we can save some face.” The other three nodded and the wranglers headed back to their own mounts, each lost in their thoughts of the beautiful being they’d just set free.

Snippet: The Miner and the Lady

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This is a brief excerpt from the first draft of my retelling of Snow White. It’s pretty different from the classic faerie tale, as you’ll see.

Dairine’s father Lord Gwillym was the center of her life. When her stepmother killed him, Dairine fled her father’s lands with the help of the strange nature spirits who’d befriended her when she was a child due to her peculiar magic. Lady Ethne swore she’d find her missing stepdaughter and kill her as well. Dairine has lived in another lord’s lands, hiding with a group of miners – with Aran, the leader of the miners, claiming her as his wife to protect her from the nearby town’s gossips – for the past few years. She loves her new life but continues to live in fear of Lady Ethne and her dark powers.

Dairine folded the shirt and set it in the finished pile. She smiled and flexed her fingers. It was getting colder and the sewing was more difficult as her fingers stiffened because of the chill in the air. She didn’t light the fire because the house got too smoky. Aran and Odran still hadn’t managed to fix the chimney as they’d promised. She laughed softly. The two of them were always at odds these days, but it was more of a constant friendly debate than true arguments.

She stood and stretched. She glanced out the window. It was getting close to sundown. She needed to get supper started. The men would be home soon. As she started gathering ingredients, there was a knock on the door. She set the food on the battered table and opened the door.

An older woman stood there, a cloak over one arm and a basket of apples at her feet. “Excuse me, are you Mistress Caterine?”

“I am,” Dairine said. “How can I help you?”

“My name is Hannelore. My husband and I are on our way to Hadenfield market to sell our apples and his cloak got torn. We don’t have much money and none of the tailors in town will mend it for us. I’m awful with a needle and he can’t travel without it,” Hannelore said in a quavering voice. “Can you help me? I can’t offer coins, but I can offer fresh apples. I know they aren’t much, but one of the women in town said you might be willing to do it.”

Dairine looked at the apples longingly. She hadn’t had one since fleeing her father’s lands and they were her favorite fruit. The tantalizing red globes drew her. “I’d be happy to help,” she said, knowing Aran wouldn’t mind. Especially since she knew the men weren’t likely to have had many apples in their days. “Come in and rest. It won’t take me long to fix it.”

Hannelore smiled. “Oh thank you, Mistress Caterine. You have no idea how much this means to us.” She handed Dairine the cloak and picked up the basket of apples. She limped into the house, sitting in one of the chairs near the fireplace.

Dairine settled into her rocking chair and opened her sewing box. It was a matter of a few minutes to sew up the tear. “There you go,” Dairine said, handing the cloak back to Hannelore. “This will hold quite nicely for him.”

“Thank you,” Hannelore said again. She pulled an apple out of the basket and handed it to Dairine. “Here. You should have one now, as a treat for your kindness to an old woman.”

The urge to take a bite overwhelmed Dairine and she gave in. She bit into the firm flesh, reveling in the juicy taste. She swallowed and sighed happily. “It’s been a long time since I had one,” she said. She coughed as a bit of it got caught in her throat. She swallowed again. She coughed again. It felt like her throat was being blocked by something.

“Is something wrong?” Hannelore asked. Her smile was still there, but now there was something wrong with it. Something dark. Dairine opened her mouth to speak but found it harder to breathe. She coughed even more. “You have caused my mistress no end of trouble, Dairine. She has spent far more time than she expected hunting for you.” Dairine’s eyes widened as Hannelore stood up. The old woman’s eyes blazed red. “How will it feel, I wonder, to be buried with your body seemingly dead but your mind intact? To know you’re alive but for everyone else to believe your life has ended?” Dairine dropped the apple, her hands going to her throat. She was unable to catch her breath. She grew dizzy. Hannelore continued to laugh as the world went gray, and then black. Dairine dropped to the floor, her body lifeless but her mind screaming in terror.

Ancient drums of war

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Eran Brant stared straight ahead with his whole body rigid. He’d been ordered to stand at attention and that was what he was doing. He was getting very good at following orders. Others around him were whispering or looking around, still rebellious, still angry. But not Eran. He’d learned his lesson after the last attempt at defying the commanding officers. He wasn’t going to do it again.

Lieutenant Nikolic glared at the recruits. “I said be silent and stand at attention. If I hear one more sound or see one more movement, those who are in defiance of my orders will be placed in the chamber.”

Eran shuddered. The chamber was the worst torture imaginable. These recruits who didn’t understand that were in for a horrifying experience. Most of the others fell quiet but there were a few who continued in spite of the threat. These were also the most outspoken against the new law forcing enlistment in the military for all men and women between the ages of twenty and twenty five.

Eran understood in theory. They were at war and it wasn’t going well. The kitathi were more numerous than the humans and their technology was more advanced. They were pounding the hell out of the beleaguered Terran League. People were too scared to join up, not wanting to die. Or worse. The kitathi were fond of taking prisoners and doing horrible things to them. What they returned to the Terran League when they were finished with the prisoners was too horrifying to think about.

“Cadets Lichtenberg, Lacy, Cartwright, and Grosso, step forward,” Lieutenant Nikolic barked.

“Make us,” Cadet Lichtenberg said. Nea Lichtenberg came from one of the most influential families in the Terran League and as such was utterly shocked that the recruitment order included her. She expected to be excluded, as the elite usually were. But the Senate made it clear no one was exempt from this order, which enraged the elite but they couldn’t do anything without running the risk of losing their positions and their wealth.

Lieutenant Nikolic grinned, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. “With pleasure.” He turned to the two stone faced soldiers behind him. “Sergeant Aleshire, Sergeant Ebner, bring those cadets up here. If they resist, use acceptable force.”

“Yes sir.” The two sergeants headed down into the mass of yellow shirted cadets. The rebellious cadets shifted their positions, ready for a fight. Unfortunately for them, the sergeants weren’t going to fight fair.

When the cadets showed they were going to be aggressive, Sergeant Aleshire pulled out a small pistol and shot all three of them. They went down screaming. Eran knew from personal experience that it didn’t shoot regular bullets. What hit you was a condensed electrical charge that momentarily fired off every nerve in your body. It left you paralyzed, barely able to breathe, for a few minutes. More than enough time for the sergeants to drag you to the front.

Which is what the grim faced soldiers did to the limp cadets. Once the three of them recovered enough to be able to stand, Lieutenant Nikolic looked at them coldly. “I think it’s time you three were introduced to the chamber.” He gestured and six other seasoned soldiers stepped forward. These men and women bore the scars of having been on the receiving end of kitathi attentions, though not to the extent of the POWs. They half carried the weakened cadets away. “Now, am I going to have any other insubordination here?” No one moved or spoke. “Good. It’s chow time, cadets. Fall in.”

Eran took up his usual position in the assigned line and waited for the command to march. Following orders was much less painful than being a rebel, and as long as he didn’t get captured by the kitathi his death would be clean and quick. Even if he had to end it himself before they took him. The order was given and he set out at a specific pace, his boots striking the metal floor in a particular rhythm. It matched everyone else’s, echoing through the room like ancient war drums.

Interesting travels and mysterious encounters

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Corinne tossed her backpack into the corner and flopped onto the bed. Her feet and back hurt, but she was very satisfied with her day’s hike. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and rolled onto her stomach. She checked and saw that she actually had a signal. She dialed her best friend’s number and waited.

“Cor? Where are you this time?” Seth asked, amusement in his voice. “You freaked out your sister again, by the way.”

Corinne laughed. “She should be used to this by now. I’ve been doing it for how long? And I’m in Scotland.”

“Ah, someplace neutral then,” Seth said.

“Neutral my ass,” Corinne said. “Do you have any idea how much power runs through this country?”

“Is it as much as Egypt?” Seth asked.

“More in some places and less in others,” Corinne said.

“Did you find anything interesting?” Seth asked.

“Yes,” Corinne said. “I’m at a really tiny inn in a small village right now. When I get to Glasgow tomorrow and into an area with wi-fi I’ll send you the details. I think I’m on to something here.”

“You said that when you were in Turkey. And again in Kazakhstan. And in Greece,” Seth said.

“I know,” Corinne said. “But wait until you get the pictures and my notes. I think this time you’re going to want to bring the team here.”

“Cor, you know we can’t just drop everything every time you make some random discovery,” Seth said. “The rest of us have day jobs we can’t abandon.”

“S, trust me. You’re going to want to see this,” Corinne said. Her phone crackled. “I’m losing signal. I’ll call you when I get to Glasgow.”

“All right. I’ll talk to you then,” Seth said. The line went silent.

Corinne rolled off the bed and went over to her laptop case. She pulled out the slim machine that went everywhere with her. She grabbed her camera out of her backpack and attached it with the USB cable. She turned on her computer and logged in. She uploaded all the pictures she’d taken before shutting everything down again and putting it all away.

She stretched and decided to take a shower. Using a bit of her personal store of energy, she warded her room and sealed everything. She jumped in the shower, wishing the water would get hotter than a few degrees above lukewarm. She got out, toweled off, and changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She exchanged her hiking boots for her knee high leather ones, tucking knives into the backs of each. She also shoved her runes in her pocket, just in case.

She went to the pub and grabbed some food before going back to her room. As she approached the door, she could feel something odd. Someone was attempting to break her wards. Corinne reached down and slipped one of her knives out of her boot. She moved forward quietly.

A wizened old woman stood outside her door, hands outstretched and eyes closed. “Is there something I can help you with?” Corinne asked, keeping the knife out of sight.

The woman jumped and the feeling of opposing magic ended abruptly. She turned and glared at Corinne. “Ye shouldna be diggin’ in matters that don’ concern ye,” she said, her brogue thick and full of anger.

“Neither should you,” Corinne said coldly.

“Yer presence does matter tae me,” the woman said. “Yer messin’ wi’ things that do better tae be left alone.”

“Why?” Corinne asked. “It’s a source of power that can be harnessed to make the world better.”

The woman spat. “Ye young mages. Ye have no respect fer the old magic. Ye’ll rue the day ye got involved wi’ it. Yer in over yer head and ye don’t even know it.” She stalked off. Corinne sighed, sheathing her knife. This wasn’t her first encounter with antagonistic locals and she doubted it would be her last. She’d just have to add a note to her report warning the others about it. They’d need to be prepared. She went into her room and locked the door behind her. She opened her laptop and got back to work.

 

Blue eyes and crimson blood

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Helene bent backwards, stretching her spine. She put the brush down and shook out her hands. She’d been working on the portrait of her client’s daughter for the past three days and she needed a break, mostly to get away from the blue.

There was so much blue in this painting. Sabrina Jones was a blond haired, blue eyed, angel faced child with doting parents and a love of the color blue. In the photo Helene was turning into the painting, Sabrina was wearing a pale blue dress with darker blue flowers on it and bright blue ribbons in her hair. She’d even been wearing a pair of earrings that Helene suspected were actual sapphires, given just how wealthy the Joneses were.

The wiry artist made her way to her favorite chair and sat down. She picked up her glass of tea and took a few swallows. She’d long ago learned iced tea, or other cold drinks, were her best bet for when she got into the “zone.” Hot drinks got ignored until they were tepid at best, and often had to be reheated. As Helene no longer had a working microwave, she went with cold drinks to save the headache.

She took another sip of her tea before closing her eyes. Sabrina’s portrait was waiting for her, but she didn’t know if she could look at more blue that day. The little girl’s blue eyes were chilling when you saw them in person, though they looked perfectly normal in the photo. While her parents haggled on the price of the portrait, Helene had watched Sabrina wander around, looking for something to steal. The young empathic artist was able to read the preteen girl far better than her parents. Sabrina wasn’t able to find whatever she was looking for, and had left very disgruntled.

Helene glanced at the predominately blue painting again and sighed. She put the tea down and stood up. The sooner she finished, the sooner she could have the family out of her life. As she started across the room, someone pounded on her door.

Helene lowered her shields slightly and tried to test the mental state of whoever was out in the hall. There was a sense of emptiness behind her door, but a little farther down the hall was the raw emotional turmoil Helene tended to equate to a young mind.

Helene shook her head. She opened the door just enough so her voice would be heard. “You might as well come out, Sabrina. I know you’re there.”

The blue eyed girl, now more of a demon than an angel, came into plain view. “You shouldn’t have known I was here,” she said, petulance in every inch of her petite frame. “I was hiding. No one can hear thoughts if the other person isn’t in the line of sight.”

“Who told you that?” Helene asked. She reached over to a small shrine next to her door and set a small rune in the center of it before opening the door all the way. “Thoughts are easy enough to hear if the person is broadcasting them no matter where they are. And you, my dear, are broadcasting on every level possible.”

Sabrina scowled. There was blood spatter on her normally pristine school blouse and the navy wool of her skirt was saturated with the sticky crimson liquid. “My mother told me I was too powerful to be heard that way. She said no one would ever know.”

“Obviously she never met another psionic,” Helene said. “So, what made you decide to kill them?”

Sabrina tossed her hair back, sneering. “You wouldn’t understand. You, with your pretty colors and your broken furniture, couldn’t comprehend it even if I explained it in small words.”

Helene snorted. “My guess is your parents told you no when they usually told you yes, your mother stopped you from using your gift to control them, and in the end you lost it and slaughtered them. I’d say you used one of your dad’s guns to do it. You probably did your mother first so she couldn’t stop you from killing your dad. Then when he ran in to see what was going on, you shot him too.”

Sabrina’s jaw dropped. “You can’t have known that unless you were watching me. Is that why my mother gave you that stupid school portrait of me? Because she wanted you to spy on me?”

“No. I’m an artist. I paint portraits. I just happen to also be able to hear thoughts and sense emotions,” Helene said.

Sabrina stomped her foot. “You’re lying,” she screamed. She drew a gun and aimed it at Helene. “Now I’ll have to find someone else to blame the murders on.” She pulled the trigger.

The gun didn’t go off. In fact, from what Helene could tell, the trigger itself didn’t even move. Sabrina shrieked and pulled hard on the gun. Suddenly she went rigid, eyes wide with a mixture of rage and fear. Elric materialized behind her. His soldiers took the more mundane option of coming up the stairs.

“She’s rather precocious, isn’t she?” Elric said, his lightly accented voice full of amusement.

“I’d say blame her mother, but since she’s dead there’s no real reason for it,” Helene said. One of Elric’s soldiers took the gun from Sabrina. Elric used his power to force Sabrina into a wheelchair, where she was strapped down and taken away. “She’s going to start screaming as soon as she’s out of your sight.”

“I brought my son,” Elric said.

“Ah.” Helene shook her head. “Spoiled, moderately gifted, and convinced she can do and say as she pleases without consequence.”

“This is what, your fourth this month?” Elric asked.

“Sixth, but you missed the other two. The humans took them down,” Helene said. Elric shook his head. He slipped into the shadows and vanished while his men took the stairs. Helene shut her door. She went over to the painting. She decided it was sufficiently far enough along she could deal with the cops when they arrived to question her, and returned to her tea. She picked up a book on psychic phenomena and resumed reading where she’d left off when the Joneses first arrived earlier that day.

 

 

A mother’s sacrifice will prove in vain

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Phoibe carried Aurore along the path, reveling in the scent of the forest after the rain. The faint sunbeams that got through the canopy of the ancient trees cast pale spotlights onto the two dark skinned faces. Phoibe paused for a moment, letting the light soak into her skin. Faint tendrils of green extended from her hair and rose into the light, but Phoibe shook her head and they quickly withdrew.

“Mama needs sun,” Aurore said, snuggling up closer to her mother’s chest.

“I know, Ro. But Mama and Ro have something to do before mama can have some sun,” Phoibe said.

“Wiff daddy?” Aurore asked, tilting her head so her innocent eyes, the color of sunlit leaves, peered up into Phoibe’s.

Phoibe shook her head. “Daddy won’t be joining us today.” Aurore scowled. “I know, Ro. I’m disappointed too.” Phoibe continued along the mossy track, her bare feet leaving no marks in the soft soil.

She glanced over her shoulder but saw nothing on her trail. She didn’t relax. There were always too many watchers on her and Aurore. It had taken a great deal of effort to steal her little girl away alone like this. Someone might already be trying to find them.

“Mama, thirsty,” Aurore said, pointing to the tiny stream running alongside the path.

Phoibe stopped and knelt beside the trickle. She stuck the tips of two of her fingers in. The water was still pure. “Do not touch the bottom,” she said, setting Aurore next to it. The child stuck her hand in, careful not to stir up the mud. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Her hair, which was already showing signs of drooping, perked up a bit. There was more color in her dark cheeks and her eyes sparkled when she opened them again.

Phoibe helped Aurore dry off her hand, making sure they left no trace of their passing, and lifted her into her arms again. “Where we go?” Aurore asked.

“Some place special, Ro,” Phoibe said, kissing her on her forehead. She felt the tears coming. She blinked them away and moved on.

The sun was getting close to setting, and Phoibe’s strength was almost gone with it, when they reached the clearing. “Mama hard,” Aurore said, poking at her mother’s roughening shoulder. “Need water.”

“I know I do, Ro,” Phoibe said. Her voice was soft, almost all of her strength gone. “But it’s okay. I’m going to be fine.” She set her daughter down. “Do you see that tall tree down there? The one covered with all the vines?” Aurore nodded. Phoibe heard a faint howling. They’d found her trail. “I want you to run as fast as you can and try to touch it, Ro. See if you can get there before I do. Okay?”

Aurore giggled. She loved racing her mother. It was a game they played often, though only under the watchful eye of Phoibe’s husband and his men. “I ready.”

“Three, two, one, go,” Phoibe said. Aurore broke into a dead run, laughing all the way. Phoibe started down the path after her, knowing she would never reach the tree. But a part of her ached to try. She restrained herself, giving her daughter the one chance she had – the one Phoibe herself had thrown away so long ago.

“There’s the mother,” a harsh voice called. Phoibe turned and looked over her shoulder. The humans – strange in their mechanical suits – were at the edge of the clearing. None of them could enter, which meant that Phoibe’s husband and his men weren’t with them yet.

“Keep running, Ro,” Phoibe called.

“I run,” Aurore said.

Phoibe turned to face the interlopers. Veletheria had been a pure world of light, soil, and water until their arrival sixty years earlier. Now the sentient planet – and its children – were dying because of them. Phoibe tapped into the well of power she still had access to, something her people were rapidly losing their connection to, and raised a barrier between them and the heart of the sacred tree.

Phoibe glanced over her shoulder to see Aurore still running at full speed. As she turned she felt a sharp pain in her chest. She looked down. Several barbs poked out of her skin in the areas above and around her heart. She looked back to see her husband – a hideous hybrid of Veletherian and human – standing at the edge of the clearing.

“You can’t win, Bea,” he said, lowering his hand. “Whether you like it or not, Ro – and the others of her generation – are the future of this planet.”

Phoibe dropped to her knees, the poison flooding her already weakened body. In her mind’s eye she saw her mother in the same position, her own father standing over her. His hand was held out to Phoibe, calling her back. Phoibe’s husband moved up next to her, drawing that memory even closer to reality. “Ro, you need to come back,” her father yelled. “Mama’s sick.”

The laughter stopped. The footsteps faltered. “Keep running Ro,” Phoibe called, unable to bear the thought of her daughter’s fate being tied to the monster beside her. She pulled all the energy she dared out of the area and got back to her feet. Her husband’s shocked look made it worth the effort. “I just tripped. I’m coming for you, Ro. You’d better run or I’m going to beat you.”

The giggles and footsteps started again. Phoibe’s vision faded, but she was sure she saw her daughter headed towards the World Tree. She opened herself to the forest and let it swallow her, seeing everything for a split second. Smiling smugly at her body as it turned to ash, her husband held Aurore’s hand in his own. The tiny girl stared in horror at the incandescent figure her mother had become. Phoibe’s screams became wind in the trees as her spirit joined those of her ancestors.

 

Aurore looked up at her father. “Mama dead?”

The man nodded solemnly. “She got very sick. It made her mind go. That’s why she brought you here. Only bad things happen when you come here, Ro. Don’t you ever forget that. Never come here again, Ro.”

Aurore looked down at the tiny flowers that were growing where her mother had just been. She surreptitiously reached down and picked one. She tucked it in her pocket, smiling up at her father. “I won’t.”