Alicia’s eyes widened and she cast a quick look around the charred woods.
“No, I haven’t.”
The sisters shared a quick look. “Did you get the north already?” Alicia asked.
“Double check it for me, I might have missed her.” Benedette said. The two of them glanced at Garth.
“I don’t mean to sound callus,” Garth said, flopping back down into the mud, “But surviving that took it out of me, I’m tired, and my head feels like it’s being put through a wood splitter. Let me know how it goes.”
Alicia and Benedette split up, calling Susie’s name as they searched the mud filled waste of burnt trees and stacked wood. It was reminiscent of a world war one battlefield Garth had seen in a black and white photograph before.
If the girls couldn’t find Susie, once he had enough rest, he could use Scry on her, to at least be able to tell them if their sister was alive or dead.
Garth found a log to rest his body against and fluffed it a little before reclining in the slackening rain, staring up at the rectangular clouds being disrupted by the massive column of smoke.
It probably wasn’t going to be safe to rest here for much longer.
Garth closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, easing the pain of overworking his brain through Cass’s proprietary meditating techniques.
Garth was methodically fixing the drain on his system and stretching his mental muscles when someone called out nearby.
Probably some other Edward.
She sounds a little pissed. I pity the fool.
“Edward!” A hand roughly shook Garth’s shoulder.
“Ack, what?” Garth shouted, his eyes opening to see Alicia and Benedette supporting Susie.
The girl was in bad shape: Half her scalp was covered in burns, one eye seemed to be swollen shut, burns traveled all the way down her shoulder to her back, hips, and legs. She was in so much pain that she was shivering, her pupils were dilated until her eyes were completely black. Needless to say she was missing most of her hair.
“Fix her.” Alicia said.
“Excuse me?” Garth said, glancing around at the couple hundred other students who were composing themselves. In a few minutes they’d probably start the miserable, half naked march back to the city.
There were way too many people who’d seen Susie’s extensive burns, and if Garth healed her now, that was it, he was done. He’d gotten away with doing it to Alicia because the burns were limited to the soles of her feet, and no one had really gotten a good look at them.
“No. There’s too many witnesses.” Garth said.
“Fix her!” Alicia shouted, drawing the attention of many of the nearby teens, who looked on curiously.
“He’s right,” Susie whispered through her chattering teeth. “We can’t…let anyone know.”
“Is there anything you can do for her?” Benedette pleaded.
There were plenty of things Garth could do for her, and Alicia’s desperate look struck him right in the softest part of his tough façade. Damnit.
“You Dentons are sucking me dry.” Garth grumbled, reaching into his left-hand vest pocket. “And not in the fun way, either.”
Garth manifested some stripped aloe leaves that also produced cocaine.
“Oh, would you look at that,” Garth murmured, pulling out the clear gel slabs from his pocket. “I just so happened to have something for burns and pain.” Plausible deniability.
“Rub these on the burns, and she’ll feel better. It’ll help with healing too.”
Alicia and Benedette snatched the leaves out of his hand and began coating Susie with the clear liquid.
Susie flinched and moaned in pain as they started, but gradually began to relax as the drugs kicked in.
“So where’s Kyle?” Garth asked with his hands in his pockets, glancing around. He didn’t see any Garthspawn either. Maybe Grass had gotten the hang of it…
“I think he might be on the other side of the fire.” Benedette said, glancing toward the mountain. “He went out last night-“
“To kill me.” Alicia chimed in.
“Allegedly. I think he may have been outside the camp when the fire started.” Benedette said, holding out Susie’s arm and gently covering it in Garth’s patented Aloe-cocaine mix.
“Ah well, if you guys aren’t worried, then I’m not worried.” Garth said.
“We’re not.” Alicia and Benedette said as one.
“Speaking of being worried, are all your bodyguards accounted for?” Garth asked.
They gave him an odd look, as if he had asked him to check and see if the sky was still blue.
“Womb?” Alicia called out. “Doll? Breeder?” There was no response.
“I’m going to have to have a discussion with your elders about how you name Garthspawn in the future.” Garth said. “Don’t you think if they had still been around, they would have found Susie before you?”
Alicia’s eyes widened, and she looked around at the students. There wasn’t a single Garthspawn in attendance, when there had been maybe one for every three noble heirs, about a hundred of them, give or take.
And they couldn’t all be invisible at the moment, either. Not after an exhausting trial like that.
Garth glanced at the mountain. Looks like the plan with Grass is coming along nicely. Garth patted the Amulet of Endeavor in his right-hand pocket. Maybe I should let him wear it.
Getting Grass a class would be a pain in the ass, but the benefit would be vast once the effort was past. Heh.
Still don’t know if that’s possible, though, Garth thought, as he watched the Headmaster stalk through the haggard ranks of the students, getting everyone ready to march.
“You,” Gloria barked at a rather large young man. “You look brawny, go over there and carry a stretcher. Your nursemaids aren’t here to do it for you.” She pointed at where students were lashing together trees to make simple stretchers to carry the injured. “You, you and you, join him.”
She glanced over and saw the Dentons, marching toward them with focus.
“Get her to one of the stretchers.” She pointed toward them with a scowl, prompting the girls to drag themselves to their feet and carry Susie over there.
Once the girls were gone, her gaze returned to Garth. “And as for you…” Her expression melted.
“Are you all right?” Gloria asked, seizing his face with both of her hands. “You didn’t get burned anywhere did you?” She started peeling his vest off like an overanxious mother.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. I just – whoah!” Garth slapped her hand away when she started peering down his pants.
“I’m completely fine, okay? I just have a bit of a headache, and this isn’t-“
“A headache?” she demanded, peering into his eyes with the desperation of a starving woman. “That could be serious damage from smoke inhalation! Get on one of the stretchers!”
“It’s fine, I-“
“Right now, young man!” She said, pulling rank on him.
In a matter of minutes, Garth was lying on a stretcher beside Susie.
“So what are you in for?” Susie asked. The girl was a lot more chipper now that the cocaine was numbing her nerves and getting her blood pumping again.
“Headache.” Garth said, folding his hands behind his head as they picked up their stretchers and began carrying them toward civilization in a neat double line.
“That must be awful.” She said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Wasn’t my idea.”
Garth closed his eyes and blocked out the distractions around him, focusing on weaving the spell from space mana, maintaining a steady idea of Grass as he did so, giving the spell a target.
Garth was a quarter mile in the air, looking down into the valley where Grass and Mrs. Banyan made their home. He could see Grass, a huge swath of grass and bamboo that covered the entirety of L.A., and a school of Swordfish swimming through the air above him.
Garth tried to mentally zoom in, but the spell kept sliding out of his control, denying him the ability to see in more detail what was happening on the other side of the mountain, where he suspected the Garthspawn might have disappeared to.
If Grass had found a way to call them home.
“Need more control.” Garth murmured, opening his eyes. It didn’t help that he didn’t have anything to focus the spell with like a mirror or a pool of water.
Garth closed his eyes again and relaxed, letting himself be carried through the forest.
When the train of students broke out of the woods, the excited voices of teenagers cut through Garth’s thoughts, grabbing his attention.
He sat up and twisted to glance over his shoulder, spotting an army five thousand strong, flying the banners of the city.
“That was fast,” Garth said, lying back down and focusing on looking as sick as possible.
Be cool, they’re probably a relief force sent to aid the academy when they saw the forest fire.
“Students! Do not move!” Came a voice along with the clopping of hooves as a rider went by them. “We’re here to find a traitor!”
Or not, Garth thought, staring up at the blue sky. At least it’s not me.
“Which one of you is Edward Bergstrom?”
Garth sighed and raised his hand.
Once Lora was sure her husband was fed, she helped him sleep in the best way she knew of. She knew he was afraid of having a Garthspawn, and so she recently had found other, equally pleasurable ways of satisfying him, even if it was only to make him feel better for a while longer.
Once Paul was tucked into their bed, lightly snoring, she studied his face for a few minutes.
She never had thought she could be so in love with someone.
Raised for sixteen years from the time she’d been given to the state, taught that her only worth lie in producing heirs for nobles, she’d dreaded the day she was put up for auction.
Then the day came, and she and her sisters had been paraded past hundreds of older men throughout the day, eyed critically before being casually dismissed. She didn’t know what was more humiliating, being shown off and handled impersonally like an animal, or them having no interest in her. Until one of them had been unable to take his eyes off of her.
It had sent shivers of dread down her spine, that man’s focused gaze. In a day, she had been taken from her former life and abruptly dropped in a stranger’s home. A handsome, charming, patient stranger who’d won her over with a kindness she’d never expected.
Lora reached out and booped Paul’s nose, and he grumbled in his sleep, turning over. She felt far luckier than she deserved, because every moment with him was bliss.
The light of the candle flickered, drawing her attention to her purple skin that marked her as tainted. She could never be his wife because of that damned skin, but without it she’d never have found him.
She stroked her stomach. She was pregnant again, and this time it felt different. She wasn’t sure how to tell Paul yet, but she thought it might be another Garthspawn. There was some kind of resonance forming inside her that she had never experienced with any of her other children.
She was afraid to tell Paul, even though she knew the day would come sooner or later. She wanted to put it off at least one more day, unwilling to face that reality.
Lara blew out the candle and slid under the covers, pressing her generous breasts against his back, curling her legs beneath his, wishing she could feel all of him at once. Being pressed against him made her feel like everything would be okay, even if she knew it wouldn’t be.
Tucked against her love like that, she fell asleep.
Lora had a strange dream.
She dreamed she was walking through the streets at night. Somehow she knew that no one could be allowed to see her, that she had to hide.
Just like in a dream, strange, surreal things happened. She actually turned invisible!
Sliding through the damp night with nothing on, and no body to speak of, she felt like a ghost, joining a massive procession of ghosts. Thousands of invisible women just like her. She couldn’t see them, but somehow she knew they were there.
This procession of ghosts seemed to march through the night as Lora drifted in and out of the dream, first travelling along the desert highway, then through a forest, her senses numb to the pricks of twigs and rocks as she floated ever westward, following the brilliant light of the moon as it sailed through the sky.
In her dream, the forest around her glittered softly, shivering with delight as thousands of ghosts tickled the moonlit leaves on the way by.
Time passed without her noticing, and she found herself standing in front of a massive, unmanned gate nestled in the center of a steep valley, held open in front of her. The moon peeked just above it, seemingly winking at her in mirth.
Inside the gate was a bamboo forest, gently waving at her, ushering her and all the other ghosts in.
Then she dreamt no more.
Lora rolled over in bed, inhaling as she woke up. She had to make breakfast with Clara and Rupert for the family.
Maybe if I sleep in, Paul will make breakfast for me again, she thought guiltily. No, I shouldn’t. She rolled over and smelled her man’s scent in the sheets…except it wasn’t there.
Lora’s eyes shot open, and she sat up, scanning the room she found herself in.
She was in a soft padded single bed made from homespun wool over a bamboo frame, in a tiny hut built against the side of a tree, barely big enough for the bed, with a single open doorway where the light of dawn streamed in.
“Good, you’re awake.” A voice came from the corner, where a beautiful, naked, brown-skinned woman phased through the tree trunk.
Lora squawked and flopped out of bed, urging her short legs to spring her towards the doorway.
Where is Paul, and Clara, Rupert…Where are my children??
“Wait!-“ her voice faded rapidly as Lora stumbled out into the open, where she saw thousands of other tiny huts, and thousands of other Purple skinned women milling around, many of them looking confused.
Where am I? Lora thought, craning her neck to examine the strange forest of interweaving bamboo and a strange brown tree that seemed to be interconnected everywhere. The two woods seemed to weave gracefully around each other in a way that almost seemed…sexual?
Forests do not have sex. Lora shook her head at the strange notion that tugged at the edge of her Garthspawn empathy, focusing on the situation at hand, which was finding out what was going on.
“Excuse me,” she said, tapping the shoulder of a nearby Garthspawn, a tall woman with high cheekbones, the kind Lords loved to show off at their parties. “Do you know what’s going on?”
The woman turned, and laughed in Lora’s face. “Your guess is as good as mine. Word going around is we’ve all been called to the green hell, to answer for the sin of being Garthspawn.”
“I can answer any questions you might have.” The same brown skinned woman said, stepping out of a nearby trunk.
Another stepped out of another trunk, and another, and another, until there were just as many brown women as purple.
In the wave of confusion, the brown woman took Lora and each other Garthspawn aside to speak to each of them privately.
“You’ve been taken from your home, so I understand if you’re confused.”
“Are my children all right?” Lora asked, eliciting a brow raise.
“Yes, they are fine.”
Lora sighed in relief before refocusing on the woman in front of her, ignoring the occasional raised voices around her.
“I want to go home.”
“Of course.” She said, a clipboard manifesting out of thin air in her hand. “My name is Mrs. Banyan, and your name is?”
“Got it, Lora.” She said, scribbling down a note. “And you want to go home because…”
“I have a family there and they need their mother, and I need my husband!” She shouted, before clapping her hands over her mouth. She wasn’t supposed to call him that.
“I see.” The tree-woman said, scribbling another note. “And would you say your relationship with your owner is…good?”
“I love him, and he loves me, because he’s the best man in the whole city. Why are you asking me all these questions? I just want to go home!”
“Tucker…Imprint triggered…looks healthy…sense of self intact…” Mrs. Banyan pressed a finger into Lora’s stomach. “Well-fed. Happy.”
“What are you doing?” Lora demanded.
“Oh this?” she asked. “Interviewing every concubine of every noble in the city to expose every secret they have buried, and also decide who can be sent back to their family and who needs to have their owner disappear in the middle of the night. From what I’ve seen and heard so far Mr. Tucker has treated you well enough. If you wish to go back to your family, go to the south side of the city and you’ll be back in your home tomorrow night with no recollection of these events.
If you wish to have your children moved here, where you can live with all of them in peace outside the influence of the Mississippi Empire, go west, to the beach where the city planning is taking place, and if you have some secret reason to hate your ‘husband’, you can head north and give me a more detailed report in confidence.”
A half hour later, Lora was standing in the center of the ruined city, holding her stomach as her gaze was torn between the west and the south.