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Chapter Snippet

The beginning of next Chapter. This marks the eleventh chapter thus far in No’va

*****

Nickademis eyed the sea of wavering brown and green grass. There was little movement where he had last seen the young harpy until a shift in the pattern of bending reeds confirmed her location. Huffing out a sigh, he continued down the path Windchester had cleared once again.

A sudden squeal, followed by a burst of feathers emerged directly alongside the doctor. He halted in a panicked skid before realizing she had caught a field mouse.

“Someone’s enjoying breakfast.” he grumbled.

Amber eyes peered up at him, the mouse’s tail still twitching along her dark lips. It was intriguing to actually view all of her facial markings during the daylight hours. A black line went from brow to chin, with thinner ones fanned out across her cheekbones. Unfurling her wings broke the illusion that kept them from tangling in tight spaces. Yet even they contained shades of greens and brown alongside the darker plumage.

Everest stood, sucking in the tail and ticking her lips. A small lump could be seen traveling down her throat when she tilted her head back to help get it down. A shake of her feathered head brought a grin, and she patted her belly.

“Earrrly morrrningsss are the bessst,” she hissed with pride. Her top crest of feathers fanned out as wide as her toothy smile before layering flat over her hair once again. The hissing vanished with her next comment, “You should try it sometime. Leaves the whole day open afterwards.”

“I saw some rabbits,” Phine commented from behind the doctor. “Would make a nice stew if we could catch ’em.”

“Perhaps you could assist in helping them,” Windchester suggested to the harpy. “Although I am not permitted to harm the creatures that grant our shifting abilities, that doesn’t mean I will stop anyone else from obtaining their rightful nourishment.”

“With pleasssurrre,” Everest purred in delight before folding her wings in a fade. She then darted back into the wavering blades.

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Another Chapter Completed!!

Just finished a chapter in the second part of NO’VA – Book IV – Red Moon Rising Trilogy!!

Shafari

Chapter Snippet

An untouched berry tremored as it rolled one way, then another. Having had enough of spiders for one day, he raised his hand to smack it.

A sudden spurt of juice from the inside shot at his clothing. Where it landed on skin tingled in irritation, just enough to delay his action for the spiderling to burst from its shell.

Crunch! A woman’s sole crushed it from existence before it could launch itself at Jenario. The young man’s eye-level met a rather luxurious leg before traveling up her slender figure to the face. The ears were an instant giveaway, and yet he still gulped at that glare that read, “You’re pathetic.”

“Haven’t you done enough?” A cold tone added to her already aggravated stance.

“Sorry?”

Eyes narrowed at his response. “You will never fully comprehend our true purpose. Our leader risks his life for your kind, and you come here and upset everything from its place.”

Jenario blinked. “I…I thought they were berries!”

“And now we have to track where it goes from here, as well as the rest you’ve got hatching at your side.”

At this, Jenario froze. He had forgotten the ones stored in the bottle. As if right on cue, he felt it twitch along his side.

“If I were you, I’d remove that bag.”

“Easy now. Do it as smoothly as possible.” Providence approached while Jenario did so with trembling hands. The strap’s clasp was on his back, and was long enough to simply pull over his head. Yet in doing so he had to bring the bag even closer to remove it. The clinks of tiny legs tapping on the glass grew louder as he did, followed by several cracks in the glass.

There goes my herbs! He thought despairingly.

They don’t care much for plants, came a reassuring thought from the Healer. To the other, he nodded in greeting. “Sarra.”

That cold glare did not waver even with her leader stepped close. “You’ve been bitten.”

A shrug. “Nothing a day’s rest won’t fix.” To the young man, he motioned for him to move further back. Once out of harm’s way, the Healer curled a few fingers in the air in the act of magically unclasping the outer flap.

The moment it was open, an explosion of glass and spiderlings erupted from the bag.

“Hico anx lo d’hess.” There were no ribbons of color that flowed from the earth at this command. It was the language only that stopped the spiderlings in their tracks and turned their attention to the Lo-ans’rel leader.

Jenario counted twelve spiders climbing from his pack. Each was equipped with a set of fangs tipped with poison, and eager to hunt.

A distant screech drew new focus. Jenario was sure it was the parent calling to its offspring. At a slight nod from Providence the spiders skittered off in that direction. Finally, the young man relaxed. He had not realized how tense he had become until he slowly got to his feet. Letting out a sigh in relief, he let his shoulders droop.

There was a tired look to Providence as he rubbed his shoulder where the spider had bitten.

Snippet Time!

What I’m currently working on in the latest chapter of No’va.

*****

Its puce skin looked soft and moist from being in the humid climate. If not for a few sharp features and wings flinging even more mud at their faces, it might not have looked very intimidating. Another bubble brought several more into the air. One even carried its young, which clung to its underside and squeaked when the parent made any sudden movements.

Providence held his position, keeping himself between the men and harpy-demons. If he spoke to them, it came out in a series of clicks and sharp gurgles. Whatever the meaning, the creatures returned with threatening hisses. Soon the Healer began to back up where the men were standing. Slightly turning his head to peer over one shoulder, he warned, “Prepare yourselves.”

While the men just looked at one another and around at their sloppy situation, Jenario had his eye somewhere else.

“The water.” He nudged one of them in the direction of the island. “We can swim for it.”

The idea of swimming in swamp water was no more appealing than what suddenly swooped down at them. At a shout from Providence, the men turned to flee. Some of them ended face-down in the muck while harpy-demons clawed at those who still managed to keep their footing. There were at least twelve, with more on the way as Jenario noticed larger bubbles beginning to pop along the tunnel’s edge.

Like the others, Jenario kept his arms over his face when he was attacked. They came in pairs, effectively moving the men away from those who carried young. In between the chaos of yanking at his clothing, pinching claws and bites, he noticed those carrying smaller ones stayed back. There was no sign of Providence, though he caught a hint of green robe in between flapping wings and heard his commands to get as far from the tunnels as possible. Whether the harpy-demons actually attacked the Healer, he was unsure. At the moment, they just needed to find a way out, so Jenario took the one opportunity he had before a leathery wing gashed his cheek.

He dived. It came as a surprise that his boots got the traction they needed for the final push over the mound and down under the water. It was too murky to see, but he could hear several splashes from above as though the creatures tried to follow.

Jenario did not wait. The water was not deep, as his hand quickly touched a slimy bottom. Things that grew underwater slipped along his stomach. He could feel the bark of trees, or what he assumed were trees silently decaying in the dark. He found places to hold and started pulling himself along. Best to stay low, he realized. If they see any disturbance in the water, they might come back.

His thoughts drifted to the other men when muffled variations of dives came from behind. It was an oily sound, like slapping a thick soup. The cooks used to do that back at Mayla when they had just hauled in unusual looking shelled fish, fresh from port. They would slap their ladles across their hard backs in attempts to keep them down, just long enough for the pot’s lid to clamp shut. After the steaming process, they were then peeled and ladled into a thick stew. It had made a delicious impression on the council, who requested it more often than the normal broths containing just vegetables and beef. One would think a chef would not have needed an alchemist, but tasteful ingredients were always needed. Thus Jenario found himself called upon for food preparation more so than medicine, and he hated every moment of it. The very smell of his current pardictument was a good reason to despise becoming a culinary alchemist. A sudden flashback to himself pulverizing oil glands from a stinking fish corpse made his stomach churn.

He thrust up for a quick breath, unable to hold it any longer. The water did not fully break as quickly as a clear stream would have, so he received a mouthful of floating debris and muddy water. This set off a sputter of choking
gasps and hacks to clear his lungs. The gash on his cheek stung once in open air, sure it would get infected from whatever else sufficated in its muddy clutches.

*****

The image below might be something they swim in to reach the so-called ‘island’

swamp water

Chapter 4 – Full

From Book IV ~ No’va
(some formatting has been removed)

Thomas Gracie felt along his side where he kept his hunting knife. It belonged to one of the Trappers back at camp, but there was no disagreeing to the dangers they might encounter once out in an unknown land. Each one was offered protection, even though Shafari proudly boasted his magic was sufficient enough.

Thomas Gracie cracked a smile at the thought, I have no doubt of that. In Mayla, only Trappers were allowed hunting equipment. Once back in the city, everything was turned over to the council for safe-keeping. Less weapons, less crime. Less ways to overthrow its leaders. No, leaving was the best decision we had.

The ground angled slightly uphill as he pushed past some hickory undergrowth. He was mindful of hemlock and tripped over a few roots from a toppled maple. Now and then a few thorns snagged on his pants. In the shadows of towering trunks, most of the heavy foliage stayed in the canopy. It only drew dense when pockets of sunlight were able to filter through, whereas growth spurts of saplings filled the space as much as possible.

There were sounds all around – some familiar, and some not. Strange clicks and throaty calls echoed in the distance. At certain points, the trees broke and he could see down into a small valley of green grass and blooming flora. Here, winter had not touched. It almost seemed unfair, as he thought back to those still in the cave, that none of the others were able to enjoy the warmth of spring.

Soon, we’ll all be out of Astra, away from Mayla, and away from the council. He kept repeating this thought while pausing to take in the beauty of lush landscape. When a large brown bear lumbered into the clearing, Thomas Gracie held his breath. Fully grown, the grizzly’s size was a comparable prize to the ones brought back to the city. There will be plenty here for the people.

He continued to watch as the bear lifted its head to take in surrounding smells, snorting loudly with each whiff. It all seemed fascinating until it stood up on its hind legs and let out an angry roar. Even from Thomas Gracie’s vantage point, he could make out those sharp teeth and powerful claws. A bear this size was nothing to mess with, though something apparently was.

An answering cry made the hair stick up on the back of his neck, especially after seeing a large shadow engulf part the bear. It glided across the clearing and out of sight, though he could hear something heavy land with a loud hiss. The bear still stood, its anger putting even Thomas Gracie on edge. It was not until he saw what landed that his heart skipped a beat.

The bear itself would have given Trappers a run for their money, but the thing that swayed out into his line of vision was beyond what he could have imagined. Black wings balanced its sways while on all fours, hissing all the while. Its skin could have blended well with the russet bark color found on trees. When it stood up, Thomas Gracie swore it was more human than animal, though three times larger. With the wingspan that stretched out to adjust movement with weight, it more than matched the bear’s ferocity.

The bear continued to stand its ground even when the other came within striking distance. What hit first was not the long, black talons Thomas Gracie could visibly see without question. It was the wings. A single turn smacked the animal in the face with enough force to topple it. The bear’s body mass made a clumsy performance to get back on its feet, giving the winged creature enough time to pounce.

Thomas Gracie averted his gaze when intestines spilled out, painting the surrounding grass red from loss of blood. The creature made quick work and was soon feasting from ripped chunks of flesh.

Don’t move, a voice pushed past his thoughts of leaving. It echoed through the mind like a secondary opinion. Yet Thomas Gracie knew better. He had heard of mind-readers before, just never witnessed one himself. He did as told, waiting for the next line of instructions. The wind is blowing downhill. It will smell you.

Thomas Gracie tried thinking back, unsure if his thoughts were being read in the process. What is that thing?

There was no answer but a distant screech that distracted the creature from its meal. With speed that defied its own body capabilities, it lifted itself into flight and was gone.

“That?” It was a physical voice this time, one that Thomas Gracie turned to at the approach of another. “That is what we call a Lsahr’ken…or Black Wing, if you prefer.” There was a slight roundedness when speaking its name, and for a moment Thomas Gracie was not sure if what he heard started in “el” or “zar.”

“Lar-ken?” He took a guess, causing a smile from the stranger.

“Close enough.”

A refreshing breeze tousled his chestnut hair back from around the ears. For a moment, Thomas Gracie thought he saw one move, having a wolf-like appearance. Eventually, his gaze was held by a pair of golden irises. That look of contentment was apparent with the way the stranger moved, but more refined. There was no doubt this being had magic, but what type he could not be sure.

“I’ve heard of humans, just never seen one.” His expression changed to match a sudden serious tone. “There are more of you, aren’t there?”

Thomas Gracie nodded. “Two others. They were together, as far as I know. But now I worry after seeing that…thing….”

“They hunt alone, mostly.” The individual then took a slight bow. “I am Windchester, assistant to our clan leader Providence. I am sure you’ve never heard of Lo-ans’rel. We are Healers, protectors of this side of the forest. When was the last time you saw your friends?”

“Not long.” Thomas Gracie hesitated before adding, “One of them has magic.”

“I know.” His tone was rich, like the dark earth around them that responded to his presence in spurts of plant growth. Leaves reached out. Even grassy stems moved against the breeze to bask beneath his earthen-colored robe. Bistre gradually blended from hem up to burnt orange and sepia, complete with fox fur lining the shoulders. Simple, with an elegant touch to his lean form. “We can feel its use.”

Thomas Gracie cursed under his breath. “I told him not to. It’s probably like a beacon to you, then.”

“And to others.” Windchester inclined his head toward the valley where the bear lay ripped open from throat down. “Magic intrigues them, but they’ll not be fooled. We might hold a mutual respect, but they’ll know who is human or not.”

“I need to find them.” Thomas Gracie started down the hill when a wild cry echoed again.

“They already are.” Windchester’s calm demeanor hinted a warning. “You’d fair no better against one.”

“Then…they?” Thomas Gracie slowly turned.

Sweat beaded across his forehead to think of his friends’ horrific demise. However, the Healer did not seem too concerned as he instead lifted a hand toward the valley. Where the carcass lay, vines began to rise. They wound about its body in a snakelike fashion until fully cocooned. Astounded, Thomas Gracie watched as the earth opened, and it slid beneath until only a patch of dark soil remained. Greenery soon sprouted back in place as though nothing had been disturbed.

“There is always a balance to Nature,” Windchester said. “We make that possible by keeping the land in order. A life lost here is energy gained for another. The earth will certainly use that body to replenish and create a more fertile landscape.” He gave a slight smile. “I wouldn’t worry about your friends just yet. They are not alone.”

*****

Jenario woke with a start to the sound of someone calling his name. The face that floated in and out of a clouded vision reminded him of Tia. How he wanted to be back in her arms again! He nearly reached out to do so when the haze cleared, and he found the face unfamiliar.

“Jenario, is it?” the stranger was saying. He kept talking, but Jenario only closed his eyes to a loud ringing in his ears.

It took a moment for the young man’s head to clear before he could decipher the rest. He tried to sit up, having collapsed from against the tree. He opened his eyes to a sun-filled clearing of overhanging moss coloring everything in a green hue. His gaze then flicked to the lifeless tree.

Jenario gripped the ground in sudden remembrance of the long-necked creature to drag himself from it. When pain filled his chest and rib area, he clasped a hand over it in a loud gasp.

A hand place itself over his and gently held him down. It was warm to the touch. Even through his clothing, the warmth was both puzzling and comforting at the same time.

“Easy now. You need to heal.”

“But…that…” Jenario lifted a shaking finger, and the stranger glanced at the tree.

“That? She won’t bother you. Moss Dragon’s only care to protect their young. What chased you? Now that’s something to worry about. That was a Black Wing.”

The ringing faded in and out like the stranger’s voice. An accent on certain words was lost in Jenario’s floundering thoughts as he tried to grasp its meaning. A Black Wing? There was another word mentioned, one that defined its race, but the ringing hindered pronunciation. Annoyed, he improvised with his own description.

“A harpy, then.” Jenario impatiently slapped a hand over his forehead. “Dragons and harpies! What were we thinking? How do you step into another world without any previous knowledge other than its name? Now everyone’s dead!”

A chuckle. “Meaning your magic-user friend?”

Jenario’s hand slid over his brow, allowing the other’s face to enter his vision. He could make out a ponytail of dark hair that complemented a lean look, but it was a the eyes that captured his fancy. What appeared to be green irises lit with an emerald glow. It was a look that signified inner power, the same he sometimes saw in Shafari, just not as color-intense.

“I assure you. He’s quite safe. Now lie still while I mend these bones.”

“But what are you..?” Jenario tried to raise his head and see what he intended to do. He could feel the warmth on his chest increasing, but so did his pain. He quickly lay back again.

“You’ll be fine. Rest now. Lo d’hess.”

Jenario remained still, uncertain of the last words. A spell? A warning? There was no way to be certain in his current state. He said I needed to heal. Must be a doctor, though he had not seen a medical bag. Dismissing any doubts, he closed his eyes and tried to relax. With a sigh, he turned so his left cheek pressed against mossy ground. That, at least, felt cool against his skin.

A faint crinkle under his ear tempted him to readjust. When it continued, he opened his eyes to a withering patch of moss that a moment ago was dark green. Even his cheek felt itchy where he had laid it, but on quick inspection confirmed that too had dried to a brown crisp and flaked away when he turned his head the other way.

“What..?” Both sides were the same. “What’s happening?”

“This is how our kind heal,” came a thought.

Jenario checked the stranger to find his head bowed in concentration. The pain had died, quite quickly, as though the dying moss had collected the pain from him. Now and then he heard a series of pops coming from the rib area, though the stranger’s hand never moved. Instead, a faint glow of green emitted from the palm and spilled over into the area where healing was needed. As his body began to feel more energized, the glow faded away until the stranger closed his fingers and lifted his head to check his patient.

Jenario’s wide-eyed look of wonder cracked a smile. He checked his hands to find no traces of an earlier fall. The skin was as clean looking as though he had just washed them.

“Better?”

“I…guess?” The young man kept staring at the ears, a tuft of white fur on each tip. It held a wolf-like appearance more so than human. Did one just move? At the thought, one turned toward a rustle over by the rocks. Something skittered from the corner of his eye, but Jenario was not quick enough to follow. Whatever it was ducked behind the various moss mounds.

The stranger followed his gaze. “Moss Dragon young won’t settle into the earth until they’re older, which makes them a tad curious about things that happen to wander into their territory.”

Jenario kept watching the rocks. Gradually, a leafy looking head peeked over the top. Unlike its parent, which had matched the tree’s coloration, the young matched a sprig of green leaves that sprouted from its head. It quickly ducked from view.

“Let’s not waste this welcome. Come. I’ll help you up.”

Jenario allowed the stranger to help pull him to his feet, amazed at only a tender spot around on his left side. His head swam with questions, which the other must have guessed was coming.

“Lo-ans’rel.” The word rolled from his tongue in a rich tone that set his eyes ablaze with power.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You want to know what my people are. Here’s my answer.” In the blink of an eye, a glow enveloped his form. It was not very bright, but enough to cover the body completely. It wavered, shrinking closer to the ground. Where the arms might have been, the light stretched out on both sides and then simply faded. Like a veil uncovering a magic act, an owl was left in place of a man. It folded its wings and returned the wide-eyed look up at the human’s perplexed stare.

Jenario was speechless. In all the time he had known Shafari, not once had he attempted to do magic like this. Why can’t he? He made a mental note to ask when the voice came to his thoughts again.

Because he’s not a Healer. The owl suddenly took flight, gliding on silent wings until it landed atop the staircase of rocks. It adjusted itself a moment before turning back to the young man. Healers are natural-born shape-shifters, depending on the element we take. It does not simply come to us, but rather, is given from the animals we serve as protectors. Their blood allows us to do this. Without it, there would be no other form than the one you just saw.

“What did you call your people again?” Jenario tried to recall the pronunciation. “Low something.”

Lo-ans’rel? The same aura engulfed the owl’s body as it shifted back. The Healer walked back to him, taking long strides. “We pride ourselves with our shifting abilities, as It helps reach destinations much faster.” He clasped his hands together and added. “Now, I believe you have a friend waiting.”

“Does he know this?”

“I’m fairly certain he’s already asked a great deal, but let’s not keep him waiting.” He gestured for Jenario to walk with him. “Shall we? I can explain more on the way.”

A loud huff coming from the inner parts of the tree got Jenario moving. Having no intentions of delaying longer in a dragon’s territory, he quickly accepted the invitation. Together, the two entered the dense forest with the Healer in lead. Unlike before, daunting shadows and towering trees seemed to lose its authority in the Healer’s presence.

“You must command the forest,” Jenario said. “Everything seems to bow before you, even trees.” He noticed a limb dip at at their passing. There was no wind.

“There is respect in power, but more so because we are its protectors. We help keep Balance, so Nature graciously provides our essentials. We lack naught.” He reached out to catch Jenario’s arm when the young man stumbled over an uneven path. Receiving a quick thanks, the Healer added, “I never introduced myself. I am Providence, leader to my people.”

“I’m glad to have met you, and I…appreciate your help. That thing back there…” Jenario just shook his head. “Don’t know what I’d done without help.”

Providence gave a nod. “There’s not much you can do about a dark ‘Keyarx. Their size and strength is unfairly matched against anything else, but they steer clear of us. A clan of Lo-ans’rel could easily pluck the feathers from their backs. There be none where we go.”

Jenario took in all the leader had to say. He was still amazed at the shape-shifting shown to him earlier. Though a small doubt persisted about revealing magic to Tia, he knew his tongue would eventually betray him.

It was not long before they left the trees to enter a bright clearing filled with movement. The crimson robe of Shafari instantly stood out to him, having become the center of attention among gathering Healers. Always the entertainer, that one! He watched the magic-user weave his fingers through the air to fascinate some of the children with illusion.

Compared to their own garments, the rest wore light or earthen colors. Their robes looked woven from the finest of silks, and draped the Healers’ lean bodies in a style that matched their shifting. As Providence pointed out, a preferred form often times complemented the color of their hair or outfit. Together, they watched a red-tailed hawk swoop in for a landing. When it shifted, the Healer displayed a rustic red and white tailored outfit.

It was not long before Shafari noticed the two approaching and quickly brought his performance to an end. After taking a bow, he turned to greet Jenario with that cheeky grin of his. The rest of the Healers acknowledged their leader with flattened ears and gentle purring, to Jenario’s surprise. Likewise, Providence returned his own throaty rumble. They must have specialized vocal chords.

“Not bad for first impressions,” Jenario teased, tensing at the welcoming slap on his back.

“You had me worried there a moment.” Shafari’s grin never died. “I thought for sure that thing had you.”

“So did I.”

“Seriously, Jen, I wouldn’t be here if not for their leader.” That cocky smile waned ever so slightly, and his voice lowered. “I wasn’t strong enough to cast the spell I wanted after it plowed me into that tree.”

“So you didn’t cause that explosion?” Jenario raised an eyebrow. “I was sure…” But he followed Shafari’s nod to to their leader instead.

“That would be my handy-work,” Providence said.

“You should should have seen how he handled that thing!” Shafari clenched a fist in an act of squishing a bug. “Vines ripped up from beneath its feet, and before it could move, had sucked it under!”

Jenario swallowed nervously, recalling how Nature responded while walking through the trees. He checked around the clearing for signs of their last companion. “Where’s Thomas Gracie? Did he not make it?”

“So we’re missing a third?” Providence cocked his head in speculation. “How many are you?”

“Just the three of us…so far as I know.” Jenario felt a nudge from Shafari, who gave a brief glare suggesting he say no more.

“I see.” Providence stepped back. “Very well. I’ll contact Windchester. He was out the same as I, and may know of the other’s location. Just give me a moment.”

The leader then closed his eyes. When Jenario glanced to his companion, Shafari just shrugged. After a moment, Providence seemed to come to and briefed them on the good news. He then tapped the side of his temple.

“The mind is a powerful tool, allowing us to communicate from great distances.”

Shafari released a heavy breath in relief. “That’s useful.”

“Don’t get any ideas.” Jenario just shook his head. “So are they headed this way?”

“Indeed. And when your friend arrives, I’ll want a full report on why you are here. On top of that – how? How you managed to come here unnoticed is beyond me, especially when we can sense other magic.” His gaze fell to Shafari, who fidgeted nervously.

“We should let Thomas Gracie explain,” Jenario said. “He’ll know best.”

*****

Nickademis paced the length of the chamber with growing impatience. At every pass he would glance to the wavering portal to inspect for signs of movement. A rabbit once darted across his line of vision, but that was all. Several hours had already lapsed. He kept checking on the group camped near the front entrance of the cave. While the warmth of their fires helped, the frigid air did not. Those taken ill from the weather risked slipping into feverish sleep, one the doctor knew all too well could mean never waking. This, he feared more with Jenario’s son.

“Don’t let him sleep,” Nickademis had warned Tia, who kept a steady watch over Abraham. “Soon as the others return, I’ll have the medicine.”

Yet doubt edged its way into his thoughts. What if they don’t find any? Nickademis paused his back and forth trek to eye the remaining tracking stones. He tugged at his beard, wondering if it was worth contacting them sooner – if only to check. What if something happened to them? He had heard distant screeches, not the territorial calls of songbirds. This was something different. I have to be sure!

Nickademis grabbed the nearest stone and held it in his palm. Like before, it began to heat.

“Come on, Shafari!” Even with the stone’s rising temperature, he continued to hold it tightly until he was sure his hand would burst into flames. “If nothing else, answer me!” A quick puff of smoke, and Nickademis threw down the stone just as its smooth surface melted into a boiling pool of exploding stone and fire. He shook his aching hand, then stared at the reddened place in the center of his palm where it had lain. “Completely worthless!”

A hint of red moving among the trees caught the corner of his eye. Nickademis dared to believe it might be them as he quickly approached the portal. He about wrung his hands in a nervous switch when Shafari brushed past some leaves and held a low limb out the way for the other two to follow.

“Hold yourself together, Nick!” The doctor heard from the portal. “We’re coming.”

“‘Bout time!” The doctor could barely contain himself, and reach out to help them through to the other side. Jenario came first, who held up a cloth sack.

“Got everything you requested.” He dropped the sack into Nickademi’s outstretched hands. The smell of fresh-cut herbs seeped through when he loosened the neck to peer inside.

“And not a moment to spare!” He rushed from the chamber just as Shafari, followed by Thomas Gracie, stepped through. But was there another? Nickademis could not be sure in his hasty departure, but thought a fourth person wavered within the green illumination of the oval opening.

“No courtesy help for us, I see,” Shafari teased while stepping aside for Providence to enter. The Healer looked around at the cave’s cold interior.

“Your son needs this!” They all heard the echoing words of the doctor.

Jenario felt the blood drain from his face. “Abraham?” He hurried after, leaving the others behind without another thought.

The main chamber was littered with coughing individuals, all huddled together under blankets or whatever they had managed to bring with them. It was easy to pick out Tia, her crested black hair a style no one else had. She cradled the wheezing child in her arms, his shaking shoulders in beat with his discomfort.

“Tia!” Jenario was by her side in an instant. “Nickademis has the medicine!”

She was nearly in tears at the sight of him, but said nothing at the answering wheeze of their young son.

“Give him here.” Jenario took Abraham in his arms and cradled in tightly to his chest. The boy let out a series of coughs that shook his father’s shoulders. He stared into Tia’s pleading gaze. “Nick! Hurry!”

“Jen?” Thomas Gracie and Shafari entered the chamber to assess the number of those ill.

“I might be able to raise the heat a bit,” Shafari offered, but Thomas Gracie’s warning glance silenced him from saying anything further.

“They need more than just warmth.” The extra voice perked Tia’s attention toward an unfamiliar figure stepping in between the two men. He sought out Jenario in the crowd and started toward him.

Sensing Tia’s anxiety, especially when noticing those pointed ears, Jenario rested a hand over hers.

“It’s all right,” he said gently. “He helped us gather medicine on the other side.” As the Healer knelt beside him, Jenario introduced him to his fiancée.

Forest green gaze met the pixie-haired woman’s defensive staredown.

“May I?” Providence indicated to take Abraham, but as Jenario was about to hand over his son, Tia slapped a hand over his arm.

“What are you doing?! You already know how I feel about Shafari’s botched-up magic. What makes you think someone else is any different?”

Even without witnessing power, Tia was no fool. Jenario swore she had an hidden sensor to hone in on magic. The outburst, however, put a shade of red across his cheeks. He could sense Shafari’s embarrassment as well. Surely, their visitor would feel the same, but a quick glance revealed a look of understanding.

“If there was a way to make medicine produce itself, there’d be no need for us. But for your son’s sake, please.” Again, he held out his hands to take Abraham. “Time is against him.”

“Just this once, I swear it! Abraham needs all the time he can get.” Jenario dared not move. It was her call now. The glare of worry and betrayal were prominent in those eyes. Reluctantly, she released his arm. Only then did he hand over his son.

It was a bold move, but one he feared if not taken would result in a harsher consequence than defying Tia’s beliefs. He watched her leave in silent anger. This, however, did little to deter the Healer from his task. Providence only briefly followed her departure before centering all concentration on the child.

“I know that feeling.” He placed a hand over Abraham’s chest. A warm glow quickly emitted from beneath the fingers. “Winter does not allow us to connect with Nature’s energy. But I should have a enough to spare. Don’t worry. She’ll come around when she sees her son is well.”

“What of the others?” It was hard to ignore the harsh coughs reverberating off the walls.

“Hopefully, your doctor will have his medicine in time…if he’s skilled,” Providence said.

“The best Mayla had.” Jenario let his focus drift, like the lone flakes that managed to bypass the canvas flap covering the mouth of the cave. He watched them linger in the air until they drifted over one of the campfires and melted away. “They let everything go.”

The sound of someone sucking in a deep breath alerted Jenario back to his son. The wheezing subsided, and for once Abraham opened his eyes and smiled at his father.

“That’s my brave boy,” he whispered down to him. He looked up to the sound of hurried steps. While Thomas Gracie and Shafari helped with keeping the fires going and distributing food, Nickademis came with a tray of medicines he had prepared.

“Nicolas!” The teenager swiftly came to his father’s summon. “These need to be kept warm.”

Jenario noticed how Providence scrutinized every move the doctor’s son made. Though limited in magic, he managed to heat a flask to the desired temperature. It was enough to get over to Jenario’s son and administer the first few drops of dark liquid. Nickademis then hurried to others, repeating the process until there was none left.

“I’ll need more, but this should do for now,” he said to regrouping leaders at the back of the chamber.

Jenario got up to join the others, having taken his son from Providence. The child was squirming to get down as his father watched Nicolas leave with the empty bottles and tray. His gaze finally landed on Tia, who had been watching the entire process from the back. She brushed past the teenager, never acknowledging his help.

“You can already tell a difference.” Jenario could hear Thomas Gracie addressing the others. Providence had joined the group as well, but watched the pixie-haired woman with interest when she crossed the chamber at a brisk pace to take her son.

“I’ll handle it from here,” she said quickly.

“Tia…” But there was no use in arguing. With a sigh, Jenario made his way toward his companions.

“She ought to be more thankful,” Shafari said. “Your son wouldn’t have made it this far without us trying to get supplies. And then with the healing….”

“Tia’s…Tia.” Jenario scratched his spiked-hair in doubt. “She knows what she likes.”

“And what she doesn’t, no doubt.” Providence gradually shifted his focus from the woman to Nickademis. “I’m impressed with what little you had to work with.” He gestured around the room. “This is a large group to handle.”

“I do what I can…under the circumstances.”

“And under the circumstances, we’re running low on firewood,” Thomas Gracie added. “No one’s been out in that storm since our departure.”

“Well, why should they?” Shafari checked for dirt under his nails. Seeing some gritty spots, he tried to pick it out before allowing his fingers to weave through the air in magical demonstration. “That’s why they have us.” His cocky grin put everyone at ease, with Thomas Gracie only shaking his head at his meaning.

“Magic-user,” he breathed.

Providence eyed the makeshift door keeping the howling wind at bay.

“Perhaps I can assist you further,” he said. “From the looks of it, your group won’t last but so long. Not in this weather. But what if I offer you sanctuary in our land?”

“You would do that?” Thomas Gracie then lowered his voice. “What of Black Wings?”

“I can show you the safest parts of the forest. From there, you can take your people to wherever you like, providing you leave my people in peace.” His emphasis on the last part was fair warning. Inner power lit his eyes, and for a split second they flashed a brilliant emerald. The swift showcase of promise confirmed that Healers were nothing short of powerful.

Jenario glanced over to Thomas Gracie. He could see that concentrated look, weighing his options between staying or taking that chance and leaving Astra altogether. The young man then glanced around the room, noting each person within their makeshift camp, until he reached the tent flap beginning to come loose from the abusive wind.

It’s surely death if we stay. He tried to make eye contact with Tia, but her back was to the group.

“Chance of a lifetime.” Shafari cracked a coy smile. “No fear of the council. Build where we like.”

“With respect to those who already live there, Shafari.” Thomas Gracie’s gaze narrowed.

“Nothing less than that.” The magic-user crossed his arms, his smile never fading. “I can handle it.”

“If I might add,” Providence said, “that I would also be willing to show your doctor more ways to use herbs in producing quick medicines like the ones you just did. Healing can only remove the physical wounds. It does not include poisons or other bodily mishaps.”

“And you trust us to enter your land, just like that?” Nickademis grunted in disbelief. “What’s the catch here?”

“I don’t think there has to be one,” Jenario’s soft tone turned heads his way. “I think the outcome is obvious whether we stay or go.”

“Providing that fiancée of yours lets us go,” Shafari said, though his tone was not playful this time.

“That’s enough,” Thomas Gracie intervened before Jenario could answer. “She has her reasons to be weary. As do we all need to be.” He glanced between each member. “So…are we all agreed on what we want? Jen? Think you can convince Tia?”

Jenario let out an uncertain sigh when Providence privately thought to him.

I can help blanket her thoughts so it’s more appealing to leave, though I’m fairly certain she’ll not stay by herself in the cold.

With that in mind, Jenario slowly nodded in answer. “She’ll be fine.”

“Then I think it’s settled.” Thomas Gracie turned to the Lo-ans’rel leader. “Master Providence…we accept.”

 

No’va: Chapter 3 – Full

“I don’t like this.” Tia’s expression was nothing new when it came to magic. That look of contempt could make any man feel ashamed, and Jenario was no exception.

Ever since the group was brought into the cave, and with news of a portal within close proximity, Jenario had heard every excuse not to go near it. Even into early morning, Tia harped on the subject of him disappearing into a world they knew nothing about.

“I don’t like it either.” Jenario hoped his confession would appease her for the time being. He glanced around at those huddling near the fire. The cave had served well for shelter during the winter storm, for it was back up to howling across the opening again. A torn canvas flap from one of the tents served as a door to keep out as much cold air as possible. Still, it was better than digging in the wet snow trying to get a fire going.

The clink of ladles dishing out warm broth suggested it was time to get moving with their next line of duties.

“We need supplies, Tia. And Abraham still has a cold.” Even as he spoke, he could hear his young son coughing beneath the blankets of his makeshift bed. Others had also picked up the wintry illness, but none sounded as worse as what their son was getting. “Nickademis could do with some fresh ingredients as well, which the portal may provide once we go through.”

“But what if it closes while you’re still out there? Then we’d have nothing!”

“Nick has said he would stay. As it is, he’s a little uncomfortable with the idea as well.”

Tia sighed and just rolled her eyes in a sarcastic manner. “At least he has sense not to touch it. I’ll bet Shafari’s thrilled. He would be, finally having something around that’s meant for him, and only HE knows how to operate.”

“Shafari knows nothing more than what we already do.” Jenario gripped both her hands in his own and held them against his heart. He wanted to sound brave, like Thomas Gracie when things needed to be done. But now as he held her, he felt that his panicking heartbeat would betray his own worry. “It’ll only be for a few hours. I promise. We’ll get what we need and come straight back.”

“You’d better.” Tia pulled a hand from his grasp to send a teasing slap across his left cheek. A coy smile cracked the corner of her lips. “And don’t think I won’t be counting those hours!”

Jenario rubbed his cheek in pretend hurt where she had slapped him. He leaned in for a farewell kiss, only to be greeted by empty air as his fiancée retreated to where their son lay resting. With a heavy sigh, Jenario pulled a pouch over one shoulder before departing down the familiar passage containing the portal.

He found Shafari leaning up against the wall just outside the portal’s chamber, leg crossed over the other and a long pipe stuffed into his mouth. A white haze puffed out at the tip, some unholy matter that made Jenario queasy whenever the smell hit his nose. It did so now with a force that nearly made his stomach turn inside-out.

“Ugh!” He frantically waved a hand in front of his nose. “Do you have to do that now?”

Shafari pulled the pipe from his mouth and licked his lips to savor the taste of smoldering herbs. “She gave you an earful, didn’t she?” He cracked an all-knowing grin.

Jenario’s face remained devoid of emotion. Holding his breath, he stepped past his reeking friend to join Thomas Gracie and Nickademis, who were making final preparations.

“Took you long enough,” Nickademis greeted with a somewhat serious tone. “Though I don’t blame you. Trusting unknown magic can be dangerous, and you know that’s not something I delve in should anything happen while you’re on the other side of this thing.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the portal.

“You know Tia.” Jenario just shook his head.

“We do,” Thomas Gracie said. “She’s a right to worry, but Shafari’s analyzed it enough. Should still be fine.”

Jenario sent Shafari that look that read, “And we trust your judgement on this?”

“Aww. Someone’s not giving me credit.” Shafari tapped out the remains of his pipe and stuffed it in one of his belt pouches.

“I’m glad I didn’t add anything else about you,” Jenario admitted.

“Ha! You make it sound like I’m her brother all over again!” Shafari balked. “At least I’m content with what I already have. Sure, it’s not perfect! But it’s gotten us out of some situations.”

About to counter, Thomas Gracie cleared his throat.

“And we’re all grateful for it.” He paused long enough for his words to sink in. “Now let’s be mindful of what we’re about to do, because once we’re on the other side things might change. Nick, you’ll be in charge while the three of us are gone. Keep tabs on the portal. Use the tracking stones Shafari’s made to signal us if you think it looks unstable.”

“You have the list of ingredients?” Nickademis nodded when Thomas Gracie held up a piece of paper.

“Here, Jen.” He handed the list to his companion. “You’re better at identifying these than myself. You’ll be in charge of gathering what Nick needs.”

Jenario glanced over the list, all of which were the same type of plants studied through alchemy.

“Easy enough.”

“Good! Shafari?” Thomas Gracie motioned to the magic-user. “Be our eyes and ears. Your magic is to be used only for defense purposes, got it? No playing around or practicing. If where we’re going is where I think it is, then I’m sure they’ll be plenty of magic already strewn about.”

“What of you?” Jenario said. “Are we not taking a Trapper, or will you hunting yourself?”

Thomas Gracie chuckled. “I was fairly decent at one point. But…not yet. I’ll look for game…and more.”

“More?” Shafari said. “As in?”

“Well, if this land proves to be a suitable place to inhabit, then perhaps we can leave Astra altogether.”

“What?!” Jenario and Nickademis stood in shock. Shafari, however, seemed pleased.

“Huh. Why not?” he said. “Someplace the council won’t except to find us should they come looking.” He walked over to the wavering ring, its outer rim glowing and ready for use. “I’m curious to see what we’ll encounter out there. Nick, you know how to use the stones, right? They’re very sensitive to touch. I’ll feel your presence the longer you hold it.”

“Won’t explode in my hand, will it?” Nickademis stared at three white pebbles lined across a rocky platform jutting up from the cave floor.

“So little faith,” Shafari mumbled, watching the other two go through first. “Makes me wonder how I even call you a friend.”

“Get on with ya, now!” Nickademis gave him a playful shove, sending Shafari stumbling through the portal. The doctor’s cheeky grin met that narrowed look when the magic-user turned to swear up and down at him. Ignoring it, Nickademis bent to retrieve one of the stones. “So you feel ‘em when they’re picked up, huh?”

It was hard to believe such a small thing was so important. Yet his suspicions of impeding concerns grew more apparent the longer he held it. Is this thing getting hot?

“Ack!” He let it drop when it suddenly flared red. It smacked the corner of uneven stone flooring and bounced away from him. It did not get far, as its heated surface began to warp into a molten pool of red goo.

“Well, don’t waste ‘em!” he heard Shafari’s scolding voice through the portal. “I told you they were sensitive!”

Nickademis whirled on the wavering image of his friend. “If that had been my hand..!”

Once through the portal, Jenario studied the list of ingredients: red clover, yarrow, jewelweed – the list went on of herbs needed to help with sore throats, coughing, all the symptoms his son and others had developed. But will I recognize them as much in the wild versus being delivered fully cleaned to my lab?

He looked around at the plentiful vegetation growing in and around the mouth of the cave and along tree trunks. A wide variety of fern covered the majority of space, with patches of nemorosa sunning their yellow and white faces in the early morning light. There was a sense of serene dignity about the forest. Unlike the night before, Jenario savored the light that pushed back shadows and allowed a glimpse into a new world. The trees themselves seemed taller, thicker, their bark stretching up into a canopy filled with large, green leaves.

Here and there, small birds fluttered from one branch to another. Their energetic songs triggered an intense chatter above their heads. No doubt, our strange appearance probably alarms them, he reasoned.

A series of fir trees and holly caught his interest along one side of the cave. The ground angled slightly downward where they stood, taking his eye along a path of dry leaves and bramble. The way grew relatively darker farther away from the cave, and he hoped his search led him elsewhere. Straight out from the portal’s standpoint, a natural trail of roots and smaller foliage seemed more reasonable to follow.

Doubt edged its way into his heart. In Mayla, people brought him things already gutted and cleaned. LIke fish, he thought grimly. They never let me study anything properly. It was just what they wanted me to see. With the plants already tampered with, there was no telling whether valuable ingredients had been left out. Now he was to find the plants himself in their true beauty. Where to look, however, was another question.

“Everything all right?” Thomas Gracie noticed his friend’s puzzled expression.

“Uh…yeah! Yeah, it’s fine. I’m just…not sure where to start looking for this.” By then, Shafari had finished his little rant with the doctor. He stepped beside Jenario to glance over the list with him.

“I could send out my orb to look for you,” he said. “It’s scatterbrained but will get the job done.”

“No, Shafari.” Thomas Gracie shook his head. “No magic. Let him at least try to find it on his own. Remember, we don’t know what magic already lingers here, and we certainly don’t want to catch its attention by drawing it to us.”

“Just a suggestion, nothing more.” Shafari cleared his throat and stepped away. “You’ll do fine, Jen.”

“Am I being scored for this?” Jenario answered sarcastically. “That’s what the council did.”

“Never mind the council,” Thomas Gracie said. “We all know how they treated people…with the barest of nothing! Do the best you can. If you can’t find what’s on the list, then maybe you’ll come across something better.”

“We’re not separating, are we?” Jenario arched an eyebrow in question as they started through the trees. He glanced back just as the portal resumed its illusion as a mirror. “Shouldn’t we move that thing back into the cave a bit more? Anything passing by will see it.”

“That is a good point.” While the others waited, Thomas Gracie went back. Thinking the mirror would revert to a hovering oval again, he hesitated. When it did not, he gave it a good shove, surprised at how lightweight it felt. He soon returned after pushing it back into the mouth of the cave. All the while, the mirror’s reflection still retained the image of Nickademis watching from the other side. “Ready?”

“As always.” Shafari took an elaborate bow. “Lead the way, oh fearless one.”

“Your charm’s about as good as my boot, you know,” Thomas Gracie said with a wide grin, and Shafari laughed.

*****

Amber eyes peered down through the dense treetops. A new scent peaked its interest to scan along the ground where three humans had appeared. Nostrils flared to take in the strange smell. When it exhaled, dark lips parted to reveal a set of fangs.

It adjusted itself along the limb, a russet flesh tone speckled with the same colors as tree bark. Curious, a crest of feathers stood on end to complete a look of shadowed leaves. Taloned fingers dug into the wood as it skillfully made its way after the strange men. When it could go no farther, dark wings unfurled into a silent glide to the next tree, only to slip back into shadow. It sniffed the air again with an inner hunger that lit its eyes. Like two yellow orbs, they blinked once beneath the shadowed foliage before fading completely.

*****

“Wouldn’t the council love to know where we are now!” Shafari laughed. He paused to examine some wild berries.

“We’re not out of their hair yet.” Thomas Gracie also took note of the dark red berried clumped together within a scraggly bush. “Careful. They may not be edible yet.”

“Are those..?” Jenario studied the small fruit that Shafari held up.

“For sure and certain. These are Falconberries!” Shafari said. “I’d recognize these any day!”

“You’d drink them any day, too.” Thomas Gracie just shook his head with a look of dismay. “Don’t go getting any ideas.” He started on his way again. “We’ve barely just seen what this place offers, and you’re already thinking about wine.”

“Do you know how expensive this is? We gather enough of this—”

“And what?” Thomas Gracie cut him short. “Sell it back at Mayla? I’m sure that’d go over smooth.”

With a sigh, Shafari let the subject drop as Thomas Gracie took lead.

Jenario followed in quiet contemplation until the magic-user leaned over to whisper, “We’d do well to come back and make our own. We’ll be sitting pretty like the council once did when they had it.”

“Do you know how?” Jenario whispered back, and in return received a wide grin of confidence. With a sigh, he glanced over the list again, then around the area.

“Well, I suppose Falconberries are something,” he said. “Doubt it’d be useful to Nick, though.”

There came a sigh before Shafari swiped the list from his fingers.

“Hey!”

“You worry too much, Jen. These things are probably all around us.”

“And you’d recognize them?” Jenario crossed his arms.

“’Course I would…with a little help.” Shafari cracked a grin.

“Alright, you two.” Thomas Gracie peered over his shoulder at them. “Enough hen pecks back there.”

Shafari cleared his throat as they caught up to their leader. “Jenario and I were thinking it might be best to look in different directions, then meet back in a central location.” When Thomas Gracie looked doubtful, Shafari continued. “Let’s face it – we’d cover more ground that way. Besides, what he’s looking for is not the same as what you’re looking for. Plus, he’s worrying himself to death about a measly list!”

“Jen?” Thomas Gracie glanced over the young man in disbelief. “I don’t particularly like the idea of separating. But…we would cover more ground if we did.”

Jenario felt the nudge of Shafari’s elbow and knew he was expected to chip in with suggestions. “Um…we could…meet back at the portal afterwards?”

“Splendid!” Shafari slapped him on the back. “The two of us will go together. I’ll help him with what he needs. You do your thing.”

Jenario felt Thomas Gracie’s gaze scanning over him for any signs of opposition, so he tried to his best to keep a placid expression.

“Alright, then,” he finally said. “Back at the portal before noon, got it?”

Jenario’s head was spinning. Separate? We don’t even know where we’re going! He wanted to shout in protest but decided against it. Yet the moment they were out of ear-shot, the young man was yanked up against a tree and pinned there by Shafari.

What are you doing?!” Jenario demanded, but Shafari just held a finger to his lips for silence. When no sound came from their companion’s direction, he released his friend’s shirt.

“I needed to be sure, that’s all.”

Jenario brushed his backside from flecks of broken bark stuck to his clothing. “Of what? That he wouldn’t catch you using magic? You nearly gave me heart failure!”

Shafari sighed loudly. “I’m sorry, Jen, but we’re not in Mayla anymore. I didn’t agree to come just so I could hold back what I am. Neither should you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you see the potential in this place? We don’t need supervision from another to tell us how or when to use our talents.” At this, he spread his fingers to unleash a dance of crimson fire that caught the excitement in his eyes. “The council cheated us – you especially. They should have enhanced your alchemy. Without that, we don’t have ways to define medicines or even formulas for what few magic-users are actually in our group. As it stands, I believe I’m the only one who still practices.” He stepped away, and when he did his hand clenched to extinguish the flames.

Jenario studied him, letting his words find meaning as he replayed the scene in his mind. One thought led to another, and before he realized what he was saying, the question of Tia’s brother popped up.

“Did the council have anything to do with his death?” He let his gaze trail along the ground while he waited for an answer. He had yet to see one ingredient on his list while vegetation grew denser the deeper into the woods they went.

“Yes and no,” was the reply. “Did the council plan his demise? No. But it was because of him that they decided magic was too dangerous to keep inside the city, even going as far as…well, you already know.”

“What really happened to him?” An image of Tia and her brother clouded his thoughts. “He always seemed so strong-willed.”

“Ha!” Shafari balked. “You think Tia gives you a hard time now? You should have seen her when her brother decided he was going to invent a new type of spell.”

“Is that possible?” Jenario cocked his head in curiosity.

“Is discovering raw materials to work with possible? Of course! But you have to test it over and over. Isn’t that how alchemy works?”

Jenario nodded. “I can remember working long hours into the night.”

“And that takes great patience as well as practice,” Shafari said. “Tia’s brother wanted results right away.”

“So what did he do? Try to pronounce two spells at once?”

“Huh! He’d have been better off had he done so. But what he wanted was a completely new spell, one that wasn’t in any books. I advised him against it because he had no experience in formula development. Yet, he insisted he knew what he doing. I left shortly before he blew himself up.”

Jenario cringed at the memory. “Even the council was shaken up afterwards. The blast literally ripped the house apart. Just think what would have happened had you stayed.”

Shafari chuckled. “I probably would have knocked him unconscious first.”

Briars clung to their pant legs after wading through thick underbrush. Finally, they came to a stop. When they peered overhead, the canopy seemed to engulf them in the shadows of close-knit trees. Strange calls carried on from animals they could not see. Jenario could not even place a single one. Was it bird, or beast?

“I think now’s a good time for some help,” Shafari said. “What say you?” He lifted a hand to call forth his orb. The light of its bobbing form was comforting, as they could see into the deep shadows around them.

The spherical light darted around its master as though in delight. Then, as if noticing Jenario for the first time, it swirled around the young man in examination.

“Yes, yes. You know who he is,” Shafari said. “Show it the list, Jen.”

“Can it actually read? Like a person?” He held up the list.

In response, the orb hovered slightly above the parchment. Each word encountered triggered a pulsing glow until it had scanned over the entire list. It then returned to its owner.

“Think you can manage?” Shafari motioned to their surroundings, to which the sphere immediately began scanning for traces of required herbs.

Jenario kept checking for any signs of movement toward the trees, especially in areas where the orb’s light did not reach. “Are you sure it’s safe to have magic out like this? Remember what Thomas Gracie said.”

Shafari just frowned. “Jen, magic is not going to come flying out at us just because I have an orb.”

“So magic isn’t alive?”

“Not in the respect of thinking. It’s more like a living energy that acts on impulse, like chemicals. I’m sure you can relate. To control it, you have to code it with formulas. That tells it how to act.” He sighed. “But I cannot tell you how many hours I spent creating what you see now, though its behavior seems to have developed all on its own.”

He raised an eyebrow when the sphere’s light pulsated in a sort of giggle to his explanation.

“So in a sense, it’s alive,” Jenario said.

They watched the orb dart over a wall of bramble.

“In a sense.” Sarcasm drenched his tongue. “What did I tell you about keeping me in sight! I swear that thing is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Maybe it found something.” Jenario searched for a way around the bramble. He was careful not to touch the thorny branches tangled in and around itself. Near the bottom, he noticed a place where something had burrowed beneath. It seemed a large enough opening for a person to slip to the other side. “Here’s a way in. Think you can manage not to catch that robe on a thorn?”

Shafari shot him a dirty look. “Not that you’d see much if it did.” He stared down at the hole. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

Jenario knelt to see if he could peer under when Shafari’s orb suddenly shot out of the opening. While Jenario yelped in surprise and fell back, its master was busy trying to calm its wild behavior.

“What has gotten into you!” He raised a hand and threatened to extinguish it.

“Wish it had an answer.” Jenario got to his feet, the feel of his racing heart slowly subsiding at the false threat. A short breeze rattled through the upper boughs, creating a hiss. It was not until he started brushing off his pants that the hissing moved down into the thicket, even when the wind died. “You hear that?”

Shafari was still fussing when a snap of branch caught their attention. Between the shadowed trees, two yellow eyes blinked back at them. The hiss came again, causing the orb to dart behind its master’s back. The eyes followed, intrigued by the glowing object.

Both men remained frozen while a large creature crept into view. A black stripe ran from forehead down to its russet chin. Nearly three times their size, Jenario thought it resembled a muscular human with feathering covering its chest and underparts. When it rose on its hind legs, a pair of dark wings opened to help balance the action. Black lips parted in a throaty growl as it studied them.

Jenario nearly choked. Were those fangs?

“Don’t…move,” he heard his friend whisper through clenched teeth. His own were clamped shut to keep from chattering. Just the sheer size of the thing raised every hair follicle. “When I say ‘go’, dive under the bramble.”

What about you! Jenario wanted to yell. Instead, his gaze flicked toward the magic-user, then back at the creature. It sniffed the air before stretching out a clawed hand. Its large, upper body teetered to one side at the shifting weight, but with the wings acting as a counterbalance, it was soon creeping toward them. Those talons have gotta be four inches long! We’d be dead in one strike!

Flickering light drew his attention to Shafari. The orb pulsated even brighter. While its master raised a hand to control the effect, it now held the creature’s full interest.

“Go!” Shafari shot the orb forward.

Caught off guard, the it nearly toppled backwards. Wings opened in full display of power as they beat the air to keep upright. Thorny bramble shredded on impact, and was continuously pommeled by its powerful strokes to maneuver into a counterattack.

The orb darted around its face, keeping it distracted while the two men made a dash for the opening. Jenario dived first, kicking up dirt as he pushed himself under. He clawed at the ground when he felt thorns scrape across his leather vest. They did not catch, however, and he scrambled to his feet. When he turned to check Shafari’s progress, he found him already halfway under.

Suddenly, he reached out for help.

“I’m stuck!” There was no need to guess. Jenario already knew the crimson fabric had snagged as he quickly grabbed hold and tugged.

A blood-curdling scream of rage stilled Jenario’s breath. He felt the cold pang of fear clouding his better judgement when an explosion of light meant the orb had extinguished. Panicking, Jenario about wrenched his friend’s arms off trying to get him under. There came a rip of fabric before the two fell back at the sudden release. Just in time, Shafari’s feet cleared where claws gashed into the earth.

“Go go go!” Shafari was on his feet faster than Jenario’s thoughts could process. As the two started running, Jenario tried to make sense of a silhouetted form rising above the bramble.

Wings, he reminded himself. Right – it can fly. It had been too dark to see what they looked like other than a dark mass of feathers. But can it fly through a dense forest?

The two men dashed through the trees. Jenario’s heart pounded to the beat of his own feet crunching over decaying leaves and twigs. A little ways to the right, Shafari darted between trees. He was ahead by two strides.
Sunlight was sparse. Aside from his own heavy breathing, there was no telling whether the thing was following or not.

“Shafari!” Not a trace of red garment was seen in the next patch of light. “Where are you!”

He slowed, nearly impossible to detect movement with the pounding in his ears. He turned a full circle, hoping to catch sight of his friend.

A crack made him turn. “Shafari?”

“Di cu’ niédo,” a deep-throated voice answered.

Jenario froze. His eyes flicked between the shadows until movement pinpointed its location.

“You…speak?” Blood drained from his face. It followed that fast? He watched it creep closer, a dead weight in his feet preventing him from moving. Once again, those wings opened as a counterbalance to offset its lumbering form. Why is it so calm? Is this one different?

It spoke again. Its words slurred in a growl that could have been speech, but for the heavy dialect Jenario was not sure. To him, they were simply a mix of deep-bellied grunts. Filtered light played over those each talon digging into the earth.

Jenario took a step back.

A flash of red flicked his gaze to the trees. Fingers curled around a trunk, glowing with the familiar power of a magic-user’s wrath.

“No, wait!” Jenario staggered as a blast of fireball ignited a branch above them. The crackling flames drew a hiss from the creature as it craned its neck to look up. When the branch collapsed over its wings, it screeched and jerked back at the still-burning limb singing its feathers. Yet, the momentary distraction was enough for Shafari to rush from hiding. Jenario could barely think as he was pulled by the arm in the direction the magic-user ran. “Are you insane?! What if you had missed again?”

“I did miss!” Shafari answered. “Just keep going! We need to lose both of them!”

“There are two?!” Jenario hardly got the word out when a crash of foliage directly in front of them turned their course.

“And they’re apparently working together!” Shafari grimaced when a pair of large, black wings opened across their path. The two men skidded to a halt, with Jenario nearly plowing into his backside.

“Use a different spell!” came his hoarse whisper.

“I’m trying here!” Shafari gritted his teeth while the winged creature proceeded to charge. He had just raised a hand to call forth another fireball when its sudden stop threw up bits of dirt and dry leaves in his face.

Jenario cowered behind his friend, who hastily wiped around his eyes. Once clear, he commenced another incantation, then fell silent. Although the creature had risen to full height, its gaze was not centered on them, but the approach of another. A bone-chilling growl made them turn to find a second one preparing to pounce.

“Get down!” Shafari pulled Jenario to the ground as the two winged beasts dove at each other, snarling and clawing. Feathers flew everywhere. Their muscular, upper torsos took each other’s blows with ease, and was the perfect distraction for the two men to slip away. Yet at every attempt it seemed the creatures were tossing each other across their path.

Jenario ducked a claw swipe that dug a long ditch through the dirt. He could feel Shafari’s grip to the back of his shirt trying to moved him from harm’s way.

“Watch it!” Jenario heard, before he felt a shove just as a wing back-slapped Shafari into a tree. While the push sent him careening into some underbrush, he at least was out of the fighting. Shafari, however, was not. He lay with his back against a trunk, tenderly holding his arm. His face contorted into a look of both concentration and pain. His lips moved, but when Jenario he could not make out the words he realized Shafari was casting a spell.

Between sounds of exploding foliage and wild screeching, Jenario was not sure who struck first. When he came to, he was on his back with a strong odor of smoke lingering from the blast. Slightly dazed, he scrambled to find his footing. Screeches of anger filled the air while a large chunk of shredded wood obstructed his view.

“Shafari!”

A horrible screech answered instead, and it was all Jenario could do to keep from tripping over his own feet to get away. From behind, he heard bark ripping down the side of a tree. Tears stung his eyes, sure that his companion was dead. Yet he dare not slow.

Jenario kept looking up into the shadowed leaves, terrified something would drop down at any moment. Branches swatted him across the face. Somewhere, claws clapped along overhead boughs. It’s too fast!

Suddenly, the trees opened to a moss-covered clearing. Every place he looked was coated in green. It hung from branches overhead, clung to logs across his path, but it was far better than traveling in the dark. He kept going when a thrash of limbs and foliage suggested the creature had broken through behind him.

Jenario sprinted once out in the open. Yet here, there was no place to hide. A dead tree covered in hanging moss perched next to a set of large, flat rocks. Like a staircase, they stacked up against the tree as though meant for climbing.
The beating of wings grew louder, and he hew it was on top of him. In the midst of his mad dash, he scooped up a rock. Courage was slim to nil at this point. Still, he closed his eyes, whirled on his heels and threw as hard as he could.

“For Shafari,” he breathed.

There came a thunk of solid hit, followed by a shrill cry that paralyzed him other than to cover his ears. Something smacked into him, and he went flying back. He landed hard and opened his eyes to find himself in a similar position with his back against the dead tree. Yet Jenario knew his end would not be the way Shafari went. There was no dramatic spell he could cast for quick release. His side ached where the thing’s wing had probably cracked a few ribs. Trying to move brought unbearable pain. All he could do was wait.

Thomas Gracie’s probably dead, too, he thought in despair while watching the creature finish rubbing its feathery face.

Amber eyes finally turned his way, the pupils little more than slits. A snarl of anger revealed a set of fang while other features stood out that Jenario had not noticed in the concealing shadows. It looked a bit awkward as it stood upright like a human. Its upper torso was a massive mound of muscle meant for pumping those huge wings. And yet it did an extraordinary thing by folding them into a fade.

Jenario stared, his pain forgotten. The wings…were gone!

“Di cu’ niédo,” that deep-throated sound again as it slowly approached, looking more and more like a feathery gorilla without its wings. “So much noise.”

The translation from one dialect to another nearly stole Jenario’s breath.

“Puny non-Lsahr’ken.”

Jenario’s gaze flicked to the ground for another stone, but there was nothing close to where he could reach. He could only watch it approach with tears streaming down his cheeks at impending doom. He pressed himself as tight up against the tree as his body would allow and closed his eyes when a talon aimed for a final blow.

A vibration along his spine suggested something was moving, though he paid it no heed while awaiting death. When that blow never came, however, he gradually opened one eye to see why it had stopped. Another pulse along the tree trunk caused for alarm when the creature’s gaze no longer fixed on him, but the tree itself. A low-bellied rumble shuttered from the top portion of the trunk.

Petrified at what else had possibly flown in, Jenario craned his neck to look up. Another rumble shook the tree down to its roots. Something extended from its inner core. He could feel it pressing it up against his back as a bulge made its way out. Branches pulled to either side, resembling that of mossy wings instead of decaying limbs.

When the protruding part finally slowed, Jenario realized it was a neck that stretched out over him. Like a turtle emerging from its shell, its features came intact with a crest of mossy scales that resembled the color of bark. The lighting that shone down in the clearing reflected off a set of elongated teeth that held his attacker at bay. Though its teeth extended into root-like points that grew directly from the jaw, it nonetheless would inflict the same amount of damage should its bite dig into flesh.

A…dragon? Jenario guessed, but the story depictions he had grown up with did not match the appearance of this tree-residing snapping turtle. The length and shape of its skull did not match a sleek fire-breather. Still, the use of mossy wings suggested a dragon variation, though being so close to one was nonetheless terrifying.

Amber eyes flicked between prey and dragon. Taloned feet scooted back an inch to get its bearings before unfurling its wings in a push-off dash for flight. Just as quick, scaled neck lashed out and snatched it from mid-air with a bone-crunching snap!

The horrific scene of flailing arms and flying feathers was cut short. Jenario did not even hear a whimper as the dragon simply lifted its head for its catch to slip down its throat, yet not before one of the wings flopped to the ground. The last thing he saw before fear drowned everything else out was its hollow gaze turning to stare down at his frail form scrunched up against the base of the tree.

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