The Torchbearer's Quest

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Devon roused Willow and Rohan in the early morning. They headed off without breakfast, much to Rohan’s extreme dismay. Acquiring the waist belt had increased Devon’s motivation ten fold. Limited by his injury, Rohan mounted up behind Willow with much difficulty, and Devon took his seat on Apollo. They traveled across flat land overgrown with trees, stopping for a drink and a quick stretch whenever the path passed a stream.

Willow was plagued with the nagging sensation they were being shadowed. Perhaps it was because of how the strained voices of her parents concerned her -- but she was visibly jumpy, her eyes searching the woods at every rustle in the bushes.

“Are you alright, Willow?” Rohan asked as she jumped at the sound of a snapping twig.

“Yeah,” she said unconvincingly. Her face had paled and panic was in her eyes.

“Willow, what’s wrong?” Rohan pressed.

“Look, I know that it’s foolish, but I feel like we're being followed.”

“Not to worry, my lady. After all the time I spent with your parents, constantly on the run from the Grim, I’ve learned a thing or two. If we were being followed I’d know. Besides, listen...” Devon said, a finger to his lips.

Willow opened herself to her surroundings and took a deep breath. The wisdom of her magic washed over her. The air whispered in words she did not understand, but knew someday she would. Gentle sparks shot out of the sunbeams weaving through the trees. She felt the power of the earth and the fingerlets of water that feed the streams course through her.

Then her vision left her, and she could only hear the scurry of rambunctious squirrels, the songbirds hidden among leafy boughs, and the steady hum of buzzing worker bees. Not a sound out of place for a busy morning in an isolated forest.

“Sorry,” Willow trembled, seeing how her two companions were looking at her. “I think my magic is settling in. So, what am I supposed to be listening for?”

“The clues of nature, of course. Animals have a sixth sense about danger. If there is an impending threat– the forest will grow dead quiet, eerily still. And don’t forget the horses, they will become anxious and agitated -- braying as the hair on their backs bristles. See how calm and relaxed they are? There is nothing to fear, Willow.”

Willow understood Devon’s point. Despite his reassurances however, she could not shake the foreboding that had consumed her. She tried to call up the sense of wonder she had felt just a minute before, but failed.

Rohan sensed her trepidation. “Willow, why don’t I take the reins for a bit?”

“Do you think you can with your arm?”

“It’s fine. No worries.”

“Maybe that’s a good idea. I don’t know what’s gotten into me today.”

“No problem.”

Rohan slid off Bellefire while Willow pulled back on the reins. They switched places quickly, Devon’s impatience palpable.

“I’m sorry, Devon,” Willow said softly.

“No need to apologize, fair maiden. I don’t mean to come across as brusque. We just have a lot of ground to cover today, and time is of the essence. It would pain me greatly to know that an exquisite lady, such as yourself, thought me curt,” he said, his voice silky smooth.

His apparent retention of the classic charm, which was no longer esteemed by Willow’s peers, added a romantic undercurrent to his speech. Willow’s heat skipped a beat, and she blushed deeply. She could not fathom why this young man’s words had such a hold on her. Clearly he was only being polite, and yet her heart yearned for his affections.

Rohan tactlessly interrupted her thoughts by a fit of rather obnoxious coughing. Willow was not positive, but she thought that she heard the words, “Oh...please...such...phony,” between his coughs.

Ignoring Rohan, Willow said, “Of course not, Devon. I could never think that.”

Making no effort to conceal his thoughts, Rohan made a gagging gesture.

Willow gave Rohan a quick jab in the ribs, eliciting a stifled groan, before wrapping her arms securely around his skinny waist. She was going to focus her mind on the task at hand. Bellefire adjusted quickly to his less experienced guiding, taking her cues from Devon and Apollo as the reins hung slack in Rohan’s left hand.

As evening approached, they came across a wide, clattering brook that separated the forest from vast moorland. They decided to camp in the shelter of the forest, protected from the biting wind they could hear whipping across the wasteland ahead of them.

Devon shot a young wild boar for dinner. Ravenous from a long day without food, the three devoured their portions, hardly noticing the gamey flavor. Rohan even went so far as to lick his fingers, twice each, determined not to waste a single calorie. Willow laughed aloud as she watched him. Her laughter bred more laughter and soon the forest was filled with the sound of their light hearted banter. The tension Willow had felt all day slowly subsided, and with a full belly and a roaring fire for protection, she allowed herself to be happy.

Twilight descended, and Willow caught a glimpse of several glowing orbs, floating branch high above the ground.

“Do you see that?” she asked, pointing into the thick trees.

Devon was on alert.

“It looks like a grouping of lanterns. Let’s hope that whoever is carrying them is holding them high above their heads. If not, we could be in serious trouble.”

Devon’s reaction set her nerves aflutter -- maybe they really were being followed and her concern had been justified.

Devon armed his bow and stood with string taut. Rohan drew his wand with his sound arm and stood at Devon’s side, gently pushing Willow behind him for her protection. Willow was grateful for his concern, feeling vulnerable without a tangible means of protecting herself. The untested powers of her mind were not as welcome in this moment as the comfort of the cool steel of a knife would have been.

Willow peered between their shoulders into the dark forest. The trio stood with breath abated, preparing for the onslaught of an invisible enemy.

Closer and closer the balls of light approached, weaving their way between the trees without the slightest sound -- not a whispered voice or a labored breath, nor a snapping branch or a crunching leaf. Nothing could be this quiet. Willow thought of the giant fireflies from the Opening Ceremonies Celebration. Maybe fireflies grew larger out there in the wild lands.

“Is there any way that these can be fireflies?” she whispered.

“Now that you mention it, they do look a lot like the one’s we’ve seen at Credo,” Rohan said quietly.

Devon shook his head, “Impossible. Look at the order. They are not randomly flitting about as insects do. This is a procession.”

He slowly lowered his bow and relaxed his stance.

“What are you doing?” Rohan demanded a little too loudly.

“Shh...Look,” Willow said, pointing at the lights.

Incased in the orbs of light were small, ethereal creatures about twelve inches in height. These alluring beings were propelled forward with papery dragonfly wings that sparkled with emerald light. Their hair, cropped in blunt, angled bobs or spiked in mindful disorder, was white-silver, and their tiny eyes were vivid green. Their features were delightfully delicate and their bewitching figures were scantily clad in strips of brilliant fern green fabric to match their eyes and wings.

“Are those-?” Rohan started to ask, his mouth hanging open.

“Fairies! Yes!” Willow whispered back.

An intoxicating scent filled the air making Willow slightly woozy.

As the Fairies came within a few feet of where the trio was huddled, they twisted and flaunted their bodies. Both of the boys slowly put down their weapons. Willow was struck by a pang of jealousy. There was not a girl in all of Tutis that would not be envious in their presence. Her self-esteem, modest to begin with, was crushed. To posses such beauty should have been illegal.

Hovering above them, the Fairies sprinkled a shimmering shower of Pixie Dust, and with miniscule fingers beckoned Devon and Rohan to follow. To Willow’s horror, they willingly obeyed, walking away from the path into the depths of the forest.

Willow recognized the danger, remembering what she had learned about Fairies in her Magical Beings and Mystical Creatures course. Mr. Aelfric had warned the class against being lured in by the Fairies’ captivating appearance or misled by their diminutive size. Fairies could be extremely dangerous, tempting naive travelers to be lost forever.

“Devon! Rohan! Wait!” Willow called.

The boys followed the Fairies, ignoring her.

“Wait!” she screamed again.

The boys did not divert their eyes from the beckoning temptresses. Willow panicked, a lump rising in her throat. She rushed forward clutching Rohan’s arm. He shook free vigorously and walked deeper into the forest. Willow planted herself where she stood, making sure she did not loose sight of the bobbing orbs of fire already partially obscured by the dense woods.

She closed her eyes and imagined a great wind. Her forehead creased with effort, but she managed to summon the power that had come to her earlier. A strong gust ripped through the trees. Willow’s dress billowed, and her hair whipped around her face, stinging her eyes. Boughs bent and cracked with the force of the wind, trunks creaked and moaned in protest, leaves spun in fierce cyclones. The Fairies were caught up in the blast and sent spiraling through the air amidst feeble screams.

Rohan and Devon stood dazed among the buckling trees. Willow focused on creating a breathless night, and the woeful lament of the tempest became a steady hum, and then a soft whisper before finally disappearing altogether.

“Devon, Rohan, come on! Let’s get back to the fire,” she insisted.

The boys were still under the Fairies’ enchantments and did not respond. Willow marched over to them resolutely and pulled them back to the brook. Without the Fairies’ presence to guide them, they did not put up a fight. Willow pushed them into the icy water one at a time to remove the remaining pixie dust, suppressing a tinge of spite at how willingly they both followed the seductresses.

Rohan surfaced first spewing and sputtering.

“What’d you go and do that for?” he asked, his lips purpling, goose bumps crawling across his pale freckled skin.

Devon popped up next to him, shaking water out of his ear and ringing out his clothes.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Fairies,” Willow panted, out of breath from her efforts.

Understanding flashed across their faces, and Willow could tell that the events of the last hour were coming back to them. A few minutes later, they were warming themselves by the fire. Rohan’s drenched long blonde hair dripped causing the embers to smoke and smolder.

“Was it bad?” Rohan asked.

“It could have been,” Willow said.

The boys nodded solemnly looking ashamed. Willow felt satisfied, not to mention a bit smug.

“Sorry, Willow,” they said in unison.

“No harm, no foul,” Willow said, relieved that things ended the way they did.

Devon and Rohan changed into warm clothes, drying their wet ones over the fire.

“Always an adventure,” Devon said.

“That was a close one,” Rohan chimed in.

Willow wondered if the incident may have bonded them in some way, and decided if that was the outcome, then the fiasco might have been worth going through.

“I’m ready for bed,” Willow said.

Without the blanket for warmth, the three scooted as close to each other and the fire as they dared. Willow was once again envious of how quickly and effortlessly the boys fell asleep. She tried to focus her worrying on the chirping crickets’ lonely lullaby and the sparkling glimpses of stars burning high above the tree tops. Sandwiched between Rohan and Devon, a blazing fire at her feet, Willow finally allowed her subconscious to overtake her.

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