Lillya jumped when two fingers snapped in front of her face. Her eyes focused in on Aunt Issabeth standing in front of her with a puzzled expression. Lillya tried to stand, but she had been right in the middle of pulling on a pair of leggings before her daydream distraction, and she nearly fell on her face instead. Daydream was not the right word, since she was replaying the clandestine drama of last night. Was there such a thing as a daymare?
“What?” she asked, recovering her balance.
“You’re on dish duty,” Issabeth repeated.
Lillya bobbed her head in understanding.
Issabeth put a hand on one hip and stared her down. “Are you sure you’re ok after yesterday?”
Lillya’s wide purple eyes were too stunned to blink. How did Aunt Issabeth know about her dream?
“Lil?” Issabeth tried again.
She meant Lillya’s river disaster. The realization broke on her much like the cold water yesterday. She bobbed her head once more. “Fine,” she insisted, forcing out words. “Still have all my toes and everything.”
Of course, she also had a book full of gibberish mystery writing, but that was not a discussion that needed to be had. First thing that morning, she had peeked inside her book, half hoping she had dreamed the whole night—some sort of hypothermia induced dream of a dream. But the writing was still there, still cryptic and indecipherable.
Issabeth’s green eyes continued to stare her down. Lillya’s behavior was too out of sorts, even for her. Maybe she should just tell her aunt what was going on. Except what was going on?
A yelp sounded by the campfire. Three girls jumped away from a ball of flame that flared and shot straight into the air.
“Who is using fire powder?” Issabeth barked, stomping away. The culprit was probably Pippa. She was an expert at mixing up powders and potions. On second thought, seeing as how this fire was threatening to burn down half of camp, maybe this was not Pippa’s doing.
Lillya breathed an actual sigh of relief over the welcome catastrophe. While everyone else was distracted pounding out flames with blankets and hollering about bring buckets of water from the river, Lillya wrapped her book securely in her blanket and stowed it in her pack. She would find out what was going on at home. They were headed back to Crystal Palace today. Everything was going to be fine. Well, except for breakfast, because oatmeal with berries had just turned into a flaming bucket of charred substance unidentifiable as food.
The girls’ panic was hardly warranted. Issabeth rolled her eyes and pulled out her special weapon, the pearl. Once, Tansy had gotten the bright idea she could use the pearl to turn the castle bright orange, but the instant she touched the innocent-looking orb, it threw her back with a jolt so powerful, she skidded three lengths and her hair stood on end. Tansy’s response was to giggle and proclaim, “Taurin, try this,” but they all got a lecture on how powerful the pearl was before Tansy could talk anybody into her shenanigans. Aunt Issabeth could do just about anything with that milky white sphere.
Right now, she held the white ball forward. A focused, spiraling wind swept up the fire, pushing the unnaturally red flames in on themselves until the struggling red tails extinguished in a puff. “If you’re going to cheat,” Issabeth scolded the girls, “at least do it correctly.”
They were all a little hungry when they set off from camp, but that was to be expected after the pitiful breakfast the girls had been able to salvage from the food remnants they had left. Even Pepper abandoned them to find his own food. Aunt Issabeth told them it served them right and if they had really been out on their own in the wilderness, they would have been in bad shape right about now. She also veered off course just a little, which was going to send them right through an old orchard on the edge of an abandoned Naxturaen town.
“Ruby,” quizzed Issabeth as they hiked, “if you needed to find water right now, what would you do?”
“Climb a tree and search for lakes or streams?” she suggested.
The girls tittered in laughter. No matter the survival scenario, they always seemed to wind up solving the hypothetical situation with tree climbing.
“I hope you lot are half monkey,” said Issabeth dryly. “Any other suggestions?”
“Stop and listen,” suggested Jadelynn.
“Thank you,” praised Issabeth. “Always a good first step. And easier than climbing trees. Lil?”
Lillya and natural water sources were not the best of friends after yesterday. “It’s still morning, so there should be plenty of dew on the leaves still in the shade,” tried Lillya. “You could drink that.”
“Interesting solution,” admitted Issabeth. “Unless you end up drinking dew off poisonous leaves.”
Iris snorted and elbowed Ruby.
On their first survival expedition, they had survived about half a day before Ruby had to come home after sleeping in a bed of poison ivy. Issabeth let Mama give the girls a crash course in plant identification before they tried again. Issabeth was a big believer in learning by doing, but even she had to admit there were a few things that really could be learned from books and experts.
“I live in the mountains,” Ruby defended herself. “I’d never seen poison ivy before.”
“Come on, ladies,” coaxed Issabeth. “What do you know about water?”
“It goes downhill?” said Iris.
“So…” Issabeth rolled her hands, indicating they should expand on that revelation.
“Head downhill to find water?” offered Pippa.
“Congratulations, Pippa,” declared Issabeth. “You’ve won a pouch of jerky.”
Issabeth tossed over a drawstring pouch stuffed with fragrant dried meat. Pippa became very popular.
“How do we know which direction we’re traveling, Ivyliss?” Issabeth continued after the joy over the food had subsided.
Ivy suggested a map, Ruby fought for using bread crumbs—fairy tale style, and Lillya chimed in with moss. Since no one could remember which side of anything moss grew on, the whole debate ended in a compromise. They decided to climb a tree.
“Umm, Sorceress,” interjected Iris. “I don’t think we’re going the right way.”
Every head swiveled in her direction.
“Why would you think that?” said Issabeth.
“Well, look,” was all Iris said, pointing to a footprint in the mud.
Nobody lived anywhere near this area. The Glade was slowly being resettled largely by the families of the Sorceresses in training, but Issabeth had taken her survival course group away from the slowly growing towns and villages on purpose. So either they were near a town when there was no way they could have traveled far enough to be near a town or somebody else was wandering around out here, or…
Lillya had noticed something. “Jadelynn, why is your boot caked in mud?”
“I got stuck in the mud hopping over a branch an hour ago,” Jadelynn answered, sticking out her foot.
The footprint was suspiciously Jadelynn-sized.
Iris understood immediately. “Was it that branch, Jade?” She pointed to a suspicious branch, suspiciously jutting out at just the right angle to block the mud from a passerby.
“Well, how could it be,” Jade snapped, “unless—” Her breath caught in her throat and her irritated expression shifted to alarm.
They were going in circles.
“That’s not possible,” Pippa argued. “We’ve been going the same direction all morning.”
“Anything’s possible in the Glade,” murmured Issabeth, glaring at the bootprint. “Girls, anybody have any way to test for sprites or other wood pests?”
“Lillya did the presentation on magical woodland creatures,” offered Ruby.
Sure, but she had focused on cute woodland creatures, like the tufted ploofump, not the devious ones. She tried to remember. “Sprites travel in packs, and are attracted to lone travelers, mostly. I don’t think they’re powerful enough to play tricks on this many of us at once.”
Suddenly, the shady woods around them seemed awfully claustrophobic. The light breeze was chilling. Was that a branch snapping off to the right? Had the leaves been rustling that loudly all morning?
“Where’s Pepper?” Lillya realized aloud. The coal black jaguar could make short work of most foes, but not if he couldn’t find them.
Jadelynn was ready to panic. “Did we get stuck in an ancient Malum trap?”
“D—dark magic can’t survive in the Glade,” remembered Ruby.
“The Malum have their ways,” Issabeth muttered to herself. She pulled out the pearl and rolled it in her hands. “Help me out,” she asked it softly. “Where are we, really?”
As if the landscape was melting wax, the trees around them shifted from leafy and green to monstrous and twisted. The ground, previously a rich coating of needles and forest underbrush, became hard and rocky.
“Where are we?” whispered Ruby, her voice trembling.
“Not in the Glade,” answered Lillya, feeling a cold chill race down her skin.
A darkness rushed in on them like a thick, rolling mist. The girls responded by tightening in, drawing closer to Issabeth. Issabeth responded by dropping her pack to the ground and drawing her bow.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to whoever brought that fire powder getting it out right about now,” Issabeth said quietly.
Yellow eyes glinted next to a tree, just visible through the dark mist.
“Pepper?” asked Lillya, stretching out a hand.
A growl rumbled from the haze and more eyes sprang up around the girls, pinning them in.
“Let’s see how you do at climbing those trees, shall we?” Issabeth was still quiet, but firm, a drawn arrow ready to pierce anything that might leap from the murky haze. “Jade. Ivy. Help the shorter girls. Go.”
An order from Issabeth was just slightly scarier than a freak mist filled with menacing creatures. Terrified, Lillya dropped her pack. She had forgotten the book entirely, but there was no time to dig through to rescue a garbled message anyway. Next to her, Pippa dumped the contents of her pack on the ground and made a grab for a pouch. She had been responsible for the fire after all.
Lillya was snatched up by Ivyliss who pushed her up into the lower branches of a tree before she could process what was happening. Lillya scrambled for footing, pulling herself up just before Ruby was shoved into the branches underneath her.
Issabeth glanced behind to check on their progress. The second her eyes left the perimeter, the creatures pressed forward boldly, heads just visible through the mist. They did look like Pepper—waist-high hulking black cats stalking their prey—but there were half a dozen of the creatures, and the look in their eyes was menacing.
“Don’t try me, furball,” threatened Issabeth, stretching the string of her bow taut.
The creature to her right pounced. Issabeth swiveled and fired. Lillya’s heart hurt to see the beautiful jaguar drop with an arrow between its eyes, but she had no time to mourn. Two more creatures flung themselves at Issabeth. Fire erupted as Pippa tossed down her volatile fire powder. Something was not right with her mixture. The flames shot up as high as a ten length wall, disabling the creatures’ attacks, but also lighting the edges of their temporary tree safe havens on fire.
Lillya felt sharp pinpricks on her skin. She was sensing something out there. She wished so desperately in that moment to have magic as powerful as her mother or Tansy, magic that could blast back these creatures or at least tell her what she was sensing in the mist. Trying her hardest, she held up her hands and conjured a weak wind. It buffeted the mist, pushing it back just enough to see large shapes that had been standing out of sight. The shapes looked like people. One pointed in her direction, right at Lillya’s hiding spot in the tree.
Issabeth fired an arrow at the half visible figures, but her arrow sailed through nothing. The figure she had fired at was gone. The second was already raising hands. Lillya squinted to see, but the dark mist was faster than her eyes, rolling forward to hide the figure once more.
Lillya tried to redouble her efforts at wind, but the mist strengthened to combat her, and the prolonged effort made her woozy. Smoke stung her eyes from the growing fire licking at the girls’ trees. She coughed, and it was all she could do to hang on to her branch without tumbling to the ground.
The air cracked. A dark tear ripped open the very air just as Lillya’s low branch snapped and tumbled. She hit the ground with a thud, slamming the wind out of her. Arms grabbed her, lifted her, and tried to shove her toward the tear. She kicked and struggled, but the figure was bigger and stronger, and she was inhaling smoke. She choked and coughed, barely able to breathe let alone struggle.
A dark furry head sprang up through the smoke, and Lillya tried to scream, winding up only producing a choked coughing squeal. Instead of feeling teeth rip into her skin, she felt a jolt from her captor and a loosening of arms. An angry exclamation implied the person holding her had faced the wrath of the animal. Lillya writhed out of those loosened arms, dropping to the ground. She was able to gasp in a breath or two down lower and scramble away from the rushing portal and the chaos.
Voices yelled, and smoke billowed everywhere.
Lillya’s head hurt and spun. She was dizzy and light-headed from her fruitless magic and the smoke.
A head nudged her. She looked into yellow eyes and tried to scream, producing a hacking cough instead.
The head lunged in at her. She was sure she was dead until she felt black fur nuzzle her cheek.
“Pepper,” her raspy voice greeted him. “You found me.”
Smoke and mist rushed toward the tear in the air, and she grabbed onto Pepper while leaves and rocks pelted her. The black tear pulled harder, and Lillya found herself sliding toward it. She tried to dig her feet into the ground as her fingers lost their grip on fur. She slid, scrambling to grab onto the hard-packed ground. Her fingers caught the edge of a protruding root, and she held tight, eyes squeezed shut as dirt and leaves pounded on her face and arms. Smoke and mist flew past her. All she could do was hang on.
Something grabbed her leg. Hands. She kicked, but the jolt loosened her grip on the root anchoring her to the ground. She flew toward the tear with nothing left to stop her. Smoke and inky mist poured into the tear with her, and she felt an icy stabbing chill.
“Lillya!” called Aunt Issabeth. At least she thought it was Issabeth. The rushing wind was so loud, and rocks kept pelting her in the face.
Just as the tear was about to swallow Lillya, she was shoved back. She slammed to the ground as the tear crackled and sealed shut. All at once, the wind stopped. Branches and rocks fell to the ground all around her. Lillya buried her head under her arms, hearing thudding sounds of falling debris rain on and around her.
Then, everything was quiet.
“Aunt Issabeth?” she tried to choke out, but her throat was so dry with smoke and dust and panic, the sound just came out as a wordless croak. Besides, Lillya could tell Issabeth was gone.