Nessa walked slowly back to the place where she’d left Ember and Umber. The two dragons flapped their wings excitedly as they saw her approaching.
“I found Callen.” She whispered, trying to swallow the lump in her throat. “She’s dead.”
Umber and Ember’s heads sank. She wrapped her arms around Umber’s neck.
“She told me to tell you goodbye.” She whispered in his ear. Umber closed his eyes briefly.
“I’m sorry.” He said.
“I tried to tell myself that she wasn’t my sister, that she was just another deserter. But she wasn’t. You should have seen her, she didn’t even look human anymore. They only reason I knew it was her was that she said her name. And she talked about father and I.” Nessa whispered, breaking down into tears.
Umber rested his large, scaly head on her shoulder. Ember wrapped one of her large amber wings around her. They stood there for a moment, sagging against each other.
A noise from behind them startled Nessa. She whirled around to find the dark-skinned woman and the dark-haired man from earlier standing behind him.
“You were her sister.” The dark-skinned woman said. Nessa nodded. “You’re a warrior, aren’t you? You deserted to find her.” Again, Nessa nodded. “She was my apprentice. I will gladly welcome you into my home for a few days.”
“Thank you. My name is Nessa. These two are Umber and Ember.” Nessa said.
“We will fly. Follow me closely, my home has a cloaking spell over it. You’ll miss it if you don’t.” The woman said. She and the man turned into dragons, something that Nessa had heard of, but never seen.
The two dark colored dragons led them through what looked like a thick mass of trees into a sunny clearing complete with a stream and a cottage. Nessa climbed down out of Ember’s saddle. The two changed back into humans.
“My name is Silt, but most refer to me as the Geomancer, and this is my brother Seren.” The woman introduced.
“I’ve heard of a Geomancer.” Nessa said. “I thought that you were a myth.”
“Not a myth. But my predecessors have been rather reclusive.” The Geomancer said, almost managing a smile.
“Hang on. I need to go check on Marigold.” Seren said, giving his sister’s shoulder a squeeze. Seren came back out of the house with an adorable blonde baby. The baby turned her head to stare at Nessa and Nessa saw that she had two strips of marigold colored scales looping around her ears and running down her neck.
“Is that normal?” she asked, pointing at the child’s scales.
“No. A witch did that to her. They liked to stick their hands where they weren’t supposed to, and their results were the creature in the clearing and your sister. Marigold escaped in better condition than most. You saw your sister, she couldn’t even remember her name. The only name she knew when we brought her here was experiment sixty-two.” The Geomancer said.
The remains of experiment number fifty-four. He died painfully, the old woman’s voice whispered in her mind.
“I think that we found their dumping ground for failed experiments.” Nessa said. “There were bones that we didn’t recognize, and a twisted skeleton. Then a weird old woman showed up. She warned me against taking Ember and Umber any further since there was a creature lurking.”
“It must have been Farina. She’s the only one whose mistakes haven’t caught up with her yet.” The Geomancer said.
“How are you going to punish the dryads?” Seren asked his sister.
“What?” She said.
“How are you going to punish them? They just murdered an innocent girl!” Seren said, pounding his fist into a nearby tree. Marigold began to cry.
The Geomancer gently took the baby from her brother. “We can’t. I have no power over them, only an agreement made long before I was born to protect the heart tree.” She sighed, rubbing the Marigold’s shoulders gently. “They used a spell that they shouldn’t have. It is called the winter curse, for them the season of winter is death. It sends the victim into a state like plants in winter. It’s fatal, but Callen’s skin and blood were changed so much that I’m not sure if she really is dead.”
“There’s a chance that my sister is still alive?” Nessa asked.
“Maybe. Did you see what happened to her body after she died?” The Geomancer said. “But we’ll never get her back. The winter curse is irrevocable.”
“Oh.” Nessa said dejectedly.
“I’m sorry, that sounded horrible.” The Geomancer said, sitting down on the ground. Nessa and Seren sat down beside her. She handed Marigold back to Seren.
“It’s fine.” Nessa sighed.
“Were you close?” The Geomancer asked kindly.
“No. I wish we had been. Umber was, though. She was his rider.” Nessa said.
“I have more siblings out in the world somewhere.” The Geomancer said.
“We do?” Seren asked.
“Yes. I’m sorry I forgot to tell you. I found out about them the same day I found out about you. Our mother sent two of her three eggs away with the Dragonfriends, she sacrificed herself to give Seren and me a chance to live.” The Geomancer murmured.
“Three eggs? But you said you had three siblings, shouldn’t it be four eggs?” Umber corrected.
“No, Seren and I hatched from the same egg.” The Geomancer explained.
“That’s really rare.” Ember commented, stretching her neck forward to get a better look at Seren and the Geomancer.
“As far as we know, the creature eats hearts to survive.” The Geomancer said.
A field of slaughtered warriors, holes ripped in their chests. The twig in the corpse’s chest. The creature with hands like tree branches. Tell the Geomancer, they spell out.
“I think I’ve seen his handiwork. A scout found a missing company of men slaughtered and arranged to spell ‘Tell the Geomancer’.” Nessa told her.
“They all had their hearts ripped out?” The Geomancer asked. Nessa nodded. “He said he needed a twin born heart, that it had more magic than a normal dragon heart. But I suspect that he’ll have some dryad hearts if Maple, Aspen, Hemlock and Oak aren’t more careful.”
“We need a plan to stop him.” Seren said. “Before he kills anyone else completely unrelated to this.”
“I’m not sure if there is anything we can do. He’s smart, smart enough to evade us for a long time.” The Geomancer said. “We need to find a way to make him come to us. Seren, remember the young woman that brought Marigold? She may be able to help with that.”