War and Despair

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Chapter 29

Nessa and the dragons walked through the forest, the early dawn light washing over the trees. Callen had walked through these trees, Nessa was sure of it. She half expected to look up and see Callen beside her.

Umber and Ember were getting nervous. “Nessa, I smell dragon’s blood here.” Ember said uneasily.

“Something bad happened here.” Umber whispered.

The half-light gave the clearing an eerie effect, the stream bubbling through adding to the mystery. Nessa traced her fingers over the deep gouges in the tree trunks that she was sure had once been scorched black.

“Signs of a fight, long ago.” She whispered. “Something strong, but not strong enough, died here.”

“And since then, many more have died here.” Ember said. “The ground is stained red in places no grass grows here.”

“Bones.” Umber said. Nessa and Ember looked over at the large bone Umber had found. Nessa bent and brushed away the leaves and dirt, revealing a full skeleton.

“What is it?” Ember asked, examining the twisted skeleton.

“The remains of experiment number fifty-four. He died painfully.” An unknown voice said. They whirled around to look at an unkempt old woman. Her grey hair was matted with leaves and dirt, her clothing was filthy and wrinkled, her face haggard.

“Who are you?” Nessa asked.

“Just an old lady with a piece of advice. Don’t take the dragons any further. There’s a creature lurking in these woods, and you’ll be much easier to spot with dragons.” The hag said.

“Thank you for the advice.” Nessa said, but the woman was already gone.

“Are you planning on taking that advice?” Ember asked her.

“Yes. Look at all the bones here! And you said you smelled blood. I don’t think she’s lying.” Nessa said.

“I can tell you’re just going to sneak off if we try to come with you.” Ember said. “Don’t get killed.”

“I won’t.” Nessa promised.

Sixty-two could tell that the Geomancer was worried. It was clear in the tenseness of her shoulders and the tightness of her jaw. Sixty-two just wished she knew what was worrying the young woman so much.

Right in the middle of a lesson, a pair of roots shot up out of the ground and wrapped around the Geomancer’s feet. Sixty-two had no idea what message the roots had given Silt, but she saw the alarm in her teacher’s eyes.

“Seren!” She yelled.

“What’s going on?” Sixty-two asked worriedly.

“The creature has breached the clearing of the heart tree, I taught you about the heart tree yesterday. The roots said that he intends to kill the tree and the dryads.” The Geomancer said grimly. She passed the message on to Seren when he appeared. “Sixty-two, you’re coming with us. You might be able to reason with him.”

Sixty-two nodded. They let the roots whip them through the earth to the clearing. They found a dark-haired dryad and a pale blonde-haired dryad standing between the creature and the tree. The creature held another dryad by the neck, and a fourth dryad was lying crumpled on the ground.

“Stop!” The Geomancer shouted. The creature looked up and gave them a twisted smile.

“Just who I was hoping to see.” He croaked. “The twin born and my sister.”

Sister. He thinks of me as a sister, Sixty-two thought.

“I am grateful that you saved me from my torturer, but that hardly makes us siblings.” Sixty-two objected.

My first friend. The creature that saved me from a short life of pain and loneliness.

“I think you’re wrong. We have more tying us together than any siblings. We understand each other. I know what you’ve been through, and you I. Me and the other creatures that the witches destroyed are the only family you will ever have.” The creature creaked.

“That’s not true, Sixty-two.” The Geomancer said.

“I agree with the monster here.” The dark-haired dryad said silkily. “That thing will never belong. It should die, by our laws.”

“That is why you will be the ones to die today, not us.” The creature said.

“No! Don’t!” Sixty-two protested. “They’re just trying to protect the tree!”

“They go on about how horrible beings like Sixty-two and me are, yet they didn’t lift a finger to stop the witches. They just sat here in their little clearing protecting their pitiful tree. Its creatures like them that make me sick.”

All four of the dryads had somehow moved in front off the creature and stood in a ring around the tree. They had their palms pressed flat on the tree bark. They chanted something under their breath. Sixty-two didn’t know what their words were, but she knew what they meant to do. A beam of dark green magic shot towards the creature.

It will hit the creature and the Geomancer! They’re standing too close together!

Sixty-two willed her small body forward. She tackled the Geomancer, knocking her into the creature, both of them falling to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Sixty-two realized that she would never be able to move in time. The beam slammed into her chest, knocking her to the ground.

Dying didn’t feel like Sixty-two had thought it would. It wasn’t painful, like she had always imagined. It was more like going numb all over. Somehow that made Sixty-two panic even more.

The creature reacted first. He picked himself up and scooped her up. He ran into the forest, to where the trees grew so close that the sun barely reached through the canopy.

“You were right.” Sixty-two said, smiling weakly through her tears. “Memories do return. When you’re least expecting them, they surface, and you find yourself. I have a real name!”

“Tell me.” The creature whispered.

“My name is Callen. My mother died in child birth. I had a sister and a father. I hated them, so I ran. I wanted my sister to finally feel my frustration. I wanted my father to feel regret. Then the witch captured me. Her name was Corina, and she changed me. I started over. I had a real family this time. A brother that would die to save me, and a sister who was willing to teach me everything she knew.”

“I was born with stark white hair and a black mark on my face. My mother abandoned me, I never knew her, or how I survived. I grew up without a name. I lived alone at the edge of the forest. There was a girl I saw from a distance every day. I fell in love with her. I met her in the woods one day, and I think she fell in love with me. She was everything to me, my fire, water, earth and air. We married secretly and lived on the edge of the woods in a cottage I built for us.” The creature said. “She was carrying our child, but she lost the baby during childbirth. She wasn’t the same after that. She wouldn’t sleep, and she was always sad. She assured me that she was fine, but she wasn’t. I was a fool to not press her, instead I gave her space. Then she was gone. I found her a day later, lying facedown in a stream. She was gone forever, I’d lost everything. My wife, my child, I’d never known parents or a name. Everything I had was gone. Then the witches found me, and I found a new kind of loss.”

The Geomancer and Seren came running up. “Don’t you dare die!” The Geomancer cried, cradling Callen’s head in her hands. Tears streamed down from her moss colored eyes.

“I…My name is Callen.” Callen’s body shook violently. The numbness had turned into cold. “I don’t regret what I did, Silt. You…can never…regret it either. Thank you for the kindness you’ve shown me.”

“No! No, no, no, no! This isn’t how you die!” The Geomancer cried.

“This is the end. Don’t waste your power trying to save me. I was dead the moment Corina caught me. This is the end, please, don’t make it harder for me to say goodbye.” Callen pleaded. “The name Durazno, he was a man I was supposed to capture. I failed. Find my family. Tell them that I’m dead.”

“I’m right here, sister.” Said a tear-choked voice. A young woman with blue eyes and brown hair stepped out of the trees. Tears blurred her sister’s face.

“Nessa. You did follow me after all. Tell Umber…Tell him that I said goodbye.” Callen whispered. Her sister knelt beside her and took her hand, gently.

“I should have come sooner.” Nessa wept. “I didn’t believe that you were gone, and now you’re gone forever!”

“Its okay, sister, this is not something that I regret.” Callen said. She felt like her body had been encased in ice, like she had never been warm before. She shuddered.

The creature held her close to him, as if he were trying to keep her warm. Nessa squeezed her hand and tried to smile, but her tears fell freely. The Geomancer was holding Seren’s hand with a death grip. Seren himself was trying to hold back tears.

He’s trying to be brave for me.

“Tell father…” She said to Nessa. “Tell him…”

All the noises around her faded as Callen fell into oblivion.

Tell father that I forgive him.

The Geomancer watched Callen as she died. The girl had never seemed so small.

Callen’s body crumbled into pieces, turning to earth. Flowers shot up out of the earth where she’d been lying. The trees themselves rearranged themselves, branches and leaves pulling back to let the sunlight through.

When the transformation was complete, a shaft of sunlight shown down on a small patch of flowers.

Durazno stood behind a tree, watching the girl die. She was brave about it, braver than most.

When he’d heard her name, Callen. He hadn’t been sure that she had been the same girl that he’d captured until the sister popped out of the trees. The two looked exactly alike.

It was clear that Callen had never delivered the message to her father, like he had expected her to. In fact, she had been running away when he captured her.

The monster spoke. “The dryads will pay for this. You will pay for bringing her here today. I’ll kill you all and watch your corpses go up in smoke. But not today, today I let you go free.”

Durazno watched as roots poked up out of the soil and grabbed the dark-skinned girl and the black-haired man. The roots pulled them beneath the earth. Nessa ran away into the forest. The creature lingered for a moment longer beside what was left of Callen, then he too disappeared into the tree.

When he was sure the creature was long gone, Durazno entered the clearing. He knelt beside the patch of flowers.

“I’m sorry.” He whispered to them. “I know you can’t hear me, but I want you to know that I’m sorry. Maybe if you hadn’t been born on the other side we might have fought side by side. We might have been friends. I wish I had known you. I’m going to end this.” He slashed his hand with one of his daggers and let the blood drip into the ground. “I promise.”

A white flower petal drifted down into his hand, as if Callen had heard him. He rubbed it over the slash and watched in amazement as the cut slowly closed. He unwrapped the bandage over the dragon’s bite and rubbed the petal over it. The pus slowly moved to the top and his wound closed.

“Thank you.” He whispered to the flowers. A breath of wind moved through the flowers, causing their heads to nod.

Durazno straightened himself and looked at the flowers one last time before walking away.

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