Her father stood in front of her, blood running down his chest from the stab wound in his heart. His blue eyes gleamed with hate and rage as he pointed an accusing finger at her. She was backed into a corner, begging for something he couldn’t give. Everything was dark, so all she could see was him.
“You killed me,” he informed her in his smooth voice.
Tears streamed down her face. “I’m sorry.”
“You killed me. You’re a monster, just like me.”
“No,” she screamed, covering her ears. But, she could still hear every word he said. “I’m sorry, Papa. I’m sorry.”
Something was shaking her shoulder. Her eyes snapped open as she came out of the dream with another scream. Jay was there, holding her close and whispering soothing words. She clung to him because he was there and she needed it.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, burying her face against his shoulder.
Jay tightened his grip and just let her gather herself.
Finally, the last of her tears were gone, leaving her drained and vulnerable. She still didn’t want to let him go but forced herself to.
“Are you okay?” he asked her. His normally cheerful eyes held concern and something else she couldn’t name.
She tried to nod only to find she couldn’t lie to him. So, she shook her head. “No.”
“Do you want me to stay?”
She looked up at Jay. Seeing him had her relaxing for a moment, then going tense again. Where had he been? Then the realization struck that scared her more than anything else in the world. Dear gods, she really did need him. She couldn’t need him.
Suddenly, it was more than she could handle. Instead of answering him, she demanded, “Why don’t you hate me?”
“Why would I?” he returned, seeming genuinely confused. “You’ve never done anything wrong.”
“I’m the Jungle Witch. Everyone hates me. Even I hate me.”
“But you still didn’t do anything wrong,” he insisted.
“I killed my father,” she shouted at him.
Ebony gripped his shirt and shook him a little, trying to get him to see what she was. He had to hate her, and she was going to get him to admit it. She had to, because she was starting to need him and needing anyone was just asking to get hurt.
He simply took her hands in his and remained calm. “I know, but he was a monster. You had to make a choice between wrong and wrong. I think that you did the only thing you could.”
She rested her forehead against his chest. “I don’t understand you.”
“What’s there to understand?” She could hear the grin in his voice. “I’m very simple.”
“Why don’t you hate me? You’ve never hated me.”
“Because I don’t believe that your father’s crimes are your crimes.” His voice took on a rare serious note. “If that were the case, I’d be in a tavern right now drinking myself into oblivion.”
That’s right. His father wasn’t exactly an upstanding man either. Ebony tightened her grip on his shirt. She felt something warm and fuzzy brush against her. Peeking over, she saw Raj had placed his front paws on the bed and was looking at her in concern. Venom was coiled next to him, her lime green head following Ebony’s movements.
“I...” Ebony wasn’t sure what to say now. Pulling back, she looked at Jay again. “You scare me. More than the mob outside or my father’s memory.”
He looked taken aback. “Why?”
“Because I...” She didn’t want to admit it. Saying that she needed him out loud would make it real. She edged around the real reason. “Because you don’t hate me. I don’t know what to do with you.”
Jay grinned. “Why do you need to do anything, Ebony?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
He examined her face carefully. “Your color has come back and you’ve stopped shaking. Feeling better?”
She nodded. It occurred to her that he was here in the middle of the night. “Why are you here?”
“I had a few things to take care of for maintenance,” he answered with a shrug. “I about had a heart attack when I heard you scream.”
“Don’t be.” He stood. “Can you sleep now?”
She shook her head and got up. “I’ll just have another nightmare.”
“Well, come to the kitchen, and I’ll make you something to eat.”
Deciding she wouldn’t mind some food, since she’d been too upset to eat earlier, she followed him to the kitchen.
“How have you been?” he asked her as he pulled out some eggs. “Haven’t seen you all day.”
She found herself telling him about finding her father’s journal. He listened as he started up a fire and began the process of making breakfast. His silence helped her calm down more than anything else had.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” she finally said, finishing off the story. “Looking back, all the signs were staring me in the face. My father was never one to leave things to chance, and he wasn’t above a little manipulation when it suited him.”
“Are you okay with these new developments?”
Ebony sighed. “I don’t have a choice but to be okay. It’s not like I can change it.” She raked her fingers through her hair. “At least I found the journals, so I can make things right.”
“So you’ll be able to break the curse tomorrow?” he asked, flipping the eggs over. His eyes looked out to see the sun was beginning to rise. “Well, today actually.”
“Yes,” she replied with a look out the window to see he was right. The new day had already begun. “I’ll take Lord Devdan into Basilisk Jungle before lunch today.”
He turned and handed her a plate with the eggs on it. “What then? I mean after you break the curse. What will you do then?”
“I guess he’ll come back and I’ll stay there.” Her eyes moved to the plate. “The jungle is the only home I’ve ever known. And, I can’t stay here. This place has too many memories, and I’m not welcomed inside the city.”
“Will I see you again?”
She looked at him now. “I...I would like that, but the jungle isn’t safe for humans either.”
“Maybe a compromise.”
“What kind of compromise?” she asked, suspicious.
Jay shrugged, as if unsure, but she could see the hope in his eyes. He was planning something. She ate silently, watching him.
“Ebony,” he said, startling her out of her thoughts, “will you do me a favor?”
“Depends on the favor.”
“When you go to the jungle, can you stay away from the usual path?”
“I’ve been working on something for you, but it’s a surprise. I don’t want you to see it until it’s finished.”
She looked at him with renewed suspicion. “What kind of surprise?”
“A good one.” He added in a pleading tone, “Please.”
Ebony sighed. “Okay.”
The grin he gave her made the concession worth it. “I better hurry off then. Don’t let Lord Devdan bully you.”
“I never let anyone bully me,” she informed him.
“Not normally, but you feel guilty for what your father did.” He met her eyes with rare seriousness. “That might have you behaving out of character.”
She opened her mouth to argue but shut it again. He was right. Instead, she nodded. “Alright.”
With a final wave, he rushed off.
As he left, Raj came into the kitchen. The tiger looked at her as if making sure she was okay. “Feeling better?”
“It’s been a while since your nightmares were that bad.”
“I know.” She set the empty plate down. “Raj, what am I going to do with Jay. I...I actually want to stay near him.”
Raj tilted his head. “Maybe you want to take him as your mate?”
“Humans take mates too, right? Maybe you want Jay to be yours.”
She considered this. How did humans choose their mates? Her eyebrows drew together in a frown. No, mate wasn’t the right word. Humans called it a spouse, didn’t they?
She shook her head. That was beside the point. How did she know if that’s what she wanted from Jay? She saw him differently than other humans, male or female. And thanks to a very embarrassing talk with Sith when she was thirteen, even she knew enough to know that she was attracted to him physically.
Was he attracted to her? How did humans display that sort of thing? Did they dance or sing like birds or frogs? Or maybe they brought gifts like the more carnivorous animals. She raked fingers through her hair as another question popped into her mind. Were human mates permanent? She knew her father had refused to remarry after her mother’s death. Was that the same for every human or had Bura been different in that way too?
Suddenly, she had a whole new reason to hate her years of isolation. She had absolutely no understanding of human rituals and now she needed those answers. Maybe she should just ask someone. But who? The only humans she trusted enough to talk with were unmated.
Maybe she should asked Esha? She dismissed that idea as soon as she thought it. Despite her sympathy for Esha, Ebony didn’t trust her at all. Maybe Chanda? She has the same problem with that one as she did with Esha.
“I don’t know,” she groaned as she raked frustrated fingers through her hair again.
“Better figure it out,” Raj told her, his eyes on her irritated face.
Venom came slithering into the room, her forked tongue tasting the air.
Sighing, Ebony crouched and held her arm out for Venom. “I’ll worry about it after we break the curse. For now, we should get moving. Lord Devdan will want that curse broken as soon as possible.”
“Then we can finally go home,” Venom replied with what she was more concerned with. “Who cares about what the human wants?”
“For the moment, I do.”
First, she had to go wake Naveen up. She made her way upstairs with Raj right behind her and knocked on the door to the room he was using. To her surprise, he opened it immediately. He was fully dressed and alert. His eyes searched her face, and she realized he must have woken up when she screamed earlier.
“We should go to the jungle now,” she said, pretending like she hadn’t had a nightmare.
He nodded, and she was grateful he didn’t ask her about the dream.
“I’ll send one of the soldiers outside to inform my father,” he told her, gesturing for her to lead the way.
She went to the library first to grab both of her father’s journals then made her way out of the manor. The gates didn’t make a sound as Naveen pulled them open.
As she passed by them, Ebony looked at the mob. The air around them changed the moment they saw her. Eyes went from sleepy to hard and awake. There were a lot of glares directed at her that seemed somehow more hostile than they had been.
Naveen asked her to wait while he told one of the soldiers to deliver his message.
The mob shouted at her as she watched them, and it occurred to her that it was increasing in size again. Some of the people must have decided that killing her father didn’t make her any less evil. Maybe they’d decided that it made her even more evil. If so, she agreed with them a little.
For comfort, she reached down and raked fingers into Raj’s soft fur.
After getting a nod from the soldier, Naveen turned to her. “Alright. Let’s go.”
They made their way through the city. She kept her fingers in Raj’s fur, clenching every time she saw someone duck around a corner or shoot her a glare. They approached The Hall and the city seemed silent as a tomb. The humans were quickly making up their mind about her and it wasn’t a good decision for her well being.
Ebony, remembering her promise to Jay, insisted they go out the Northeast Gate instead of the one to the northwest. Naveen didn’t argue with her. He really was getting better about not taking exception to everything she said. Because she appreciated this, she told him, “Jay has something for me down the normal jungle path, and asked me not to go that way until it’s finished.”
Naveen remembered the house Jay had been working on with Commander Abhay and Sith. Was that the present? If it was, he had to wonder if putting her so close to the city was a good idea.
As they walked through the city, several humans either dodged out of the way or followed at a discrete distance. Ebony glanced back, glad that she wouldn’t be coming back here. It would seem the humans were reaching their tolerance level for her presence. The numbers following them grew. Sighing, she faced forward again.
They’d just turned down the Northeast Road. Her eyes scanned the military men standing at the edge of the wide street. All of them stopped what they were doing to turn and face her. She swallowed and continued towards the gate, clutching her father’s journals tightly.
“Please,” she whispered so low that only Raj’s hearing picked it up. “Please just let me get out of the city without running.”
As they reached the gates, the crowd gathered behind them cheered. “The Jungle Witch is gone.”
“Don’t come back,” someone else shouted.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured. “I won’t.”
They walked across the farm fields straight to Basilisk Jungle. Ebony didn’t relax until she was under the limbs and leaves of the only home she’d ever be allowed to have. All around, animals welcomed her back, making her smile a little in gratitude.
“I’m home,” she whispered.
Despite being where she belonged, she felt sad. It surprised her - though she had no idea why - that she would miss Jay, Abhay, Kumar, and even Naveen. She shrugged with a resigned sigh. Things were going back to normal.
A small, brown bird landed on her shoulder. “Sith said to take you to him. The humans that you’re helping are being led to one of the larger clearings by a human called Abhay. I’m to lead you.”
Ebony smiled at the bird’s quick and musical tones. She liked listening to them, especially since they rarely stayed on topic for long. “Lead the way.”
“I always wondered how you learned to talk to the animals?” Naveen asked her curiously, now that he was brave enough to ask.
“Basilisk blood,” she answered after a small debate with herself. “One drop and you can talk to ordinary animals. Two drops and you can communicate with magical beasts. Three and you can speak with any creature, animal or human.”
“So, Sith gave you some of his blood?”
“After I’d been in the jungle for a few months,” she answered. Turning, she gave him a sharp glare. “Don’t tell anyone. The humans of your city might hunt him down if they knew, and that wouldn’t end well for anyone.”
“I won’t,” he promised. After a few seconds, he added, “I’m honored you trust me enough to tell me the truth.”
She was taken aback by that and gave him one of her rare smiles. “You have grown up in the last few days.”
Turning back around, she continued to follow the little bird. They reached the clearing to find Sith standing in the center. He still wore a cloak, but the hood was down, and he didn’t bother hiding the tail. Along the wood-line stood a variety of ‘monsters’ to provide her with magic while she undid the Mista’s curse.
“Hello, Sith,” Ebony greeted, making sure to smile.
She shouldn’t have bothered because Sith gave her a knowing look. “You have mixed feelings about being back.”
She shrugged at first, but under his gaze she gave in. “Yes.”
“Good? How is that good?”
“It means you are forgiving the humans. Or at least that you don’t hate them as much anymore.”
Since she found the thought annoying, she said nothing. She managed this silence for nearly ten heartbeats before blurting, “How do humans choose mates?”
Before Sith could answer, Naveen asked, “What is a ‘mate’?”
“It is the animal term for what I believe humans refer to as spouses. In her case, I believe the mate would be called a husband,” Sith supplied. He was watching Ebony with a knowing expression and didn’t seem at all surprised by her sudden interest in mates.
“A husband?” Naveen turned to her with an absolutely shocked expression. “You want a husband?”
She glared at him and wished, once again, that she could turn him into something terrible. Though the thought wasn’t as vicious as it had been before. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”
“But...” He seemed absolutely flabbergasted, and was trying desperately to keep control of his tongue.
Naveen’s eyes scanned her, then widened more if that were possible. She was starting to wonder if his eyeballs wouldn’t just pop out of his head.
“You’re a....” He immediately shut his mouth, then tried again. “I didn’t...”
She glared at him. “Out with it, Naveen. I’m not patient enough for dancing around.”
“You’re a girl.” He sounded surprised by the revelation, and she noticed, he was blushing. Something she found vastly amusing.
“Really? I’ve noticed that too,” she answered dryly, ignoring Sith’s quick chuckle. “There’s a reason the humans call me the Jungle Witch. Not the Jungle Hermit.”
“I know that, it’s just....” He hesitated then said slowly, “I just never thought of you as a normal girl, who might want a husband, kids, a home. Sounds a little stupid now that I think about it.”
She smiled with amusement. “Only a little stupid?”
“Well, you got to admit that you have a certain reputation, and that reputation doesn’t leave room for thinking you’d want a husband.”
“I don’t know that I want one. First, I need to understand how human mating rituals work, and for obvious reasons, I don’t.”
Naveen considered her question for a while, then said, “The rituals are different for nobles than for commoners, but I can tell you how Esha’s worked.”
Ebony gave him her full attention.
“My father disliked the idea of choosing her husband for her, but there wasn’t any noblemen in the city that were the right age group,” Naveen explained. “So he asked other cities with interested nobles, to come to our home for a tenday long stay. That way, Esha could pick her own husband from proper candidates.”
“Why does it matter if they are noble or commoner?” Ebony asked, confused.
Naveen wasn’t sure how to answer that, so he shook his head. “I don’t know. It just does.” He quickly moved on to the point before she could ask another question. “Anyway, the men who came all tried to win favor with Esha. They would bring her flowers, chocolates, jewelry, and all sorts of other gifts.” He paused, trying to remember what set his brother-in-law apart from the other men. “I think what made her focus on Var was that he was the first to ask her what she liked, rather than just assuming.”
“I still don’t understand,” Ebony said with a sigh.
“There isn’t any other way to describe it,” Naveen admitted helplessly. “It’s not even the same from person to person.”
“It’s Jay Sharma, isn’t it?” Sith asked her, though it sounded more like a statement.
She nodded slowly. “I’ll admit, there’s something about him, but I’m not sure.”
“Give it some time.”
“I don’t have time. I’m not going back to that city, Sith.”
“It will work out,” he reassured her.
She began to pace, needing to move a little. What was she supposed to do? Maybe it was best that she do nothing. Nodding to herself, she settled for that. It wasn’t like anyone would ever want to stay with the Jungle Witch.
She heard approaching footsteps and turned. Abhay walked into the clearing with Lord Devdan, Indra, Var, Esha, and Kurt right behind him. Time to put her thoughts and feelings for Jay aside for the moment and focus on the curse.
Devdan and the other humans seemed taken aback by all the magical beasts around them.
The Darnot looked around with interest but wasn’t nearly as overwhelmed. Then again, Kurt knew that his suppression abilities protected him from the worst of what these creatures could do.
“I don’t even know what some of these creatures are called,” Indra said in an awed whisper.
“Most wouldn’t want you to,” Ebony informed him without her usual malice. She gestured towards Sith, “This is Sith the Basilisk, leader of Basilisk Jungle.”
“I thought you were the leader,” Devdan commented as he examined Sith curiously.
“A common misconception,” Sith replied. His face came as close to amusement as his reptilian features would allow. “I am the reason this place is called Basilisk Jungle.”
“But this jungle has been called that for more than a hundred years,” Indra said a little surprised.
“I’m two hundred and sixty-three years old.” Sith told them with a hint of pride.
“Amazing,” Devdan said. Then as if remembering his manners, held out a hand. “I’m Devdan Mista.”
Ebony wondered briefly if he intentionally left off his title. Come to think of it, the title would seem a little ridiculous in the face of a basilisk that was over two hundred years old.
“Welcome,” Sith greeted. Because of his claws, he was extremely careful about taking Devdan’s offered hand in a gentle hand shake. “We are here to provide Ebony with the magic she’ll need.”
“Do I need to stay back?” Kurt asked, looking around the clearing. “My suppression powers work up to three feet away from my body.”
“No,” Ebony answered, studying the clearing and deciding the best approach. “I’m immune to your abilities.”
He seemed surprised by this. “You are?”
She nodded absently, debating on how safe it was to have everyone so close to the magic she was going to do. “Everyone should probably stay back,” she told them finally. “Only Devdan and me should remain in the center of the clearing.”
“Why?” Indra asked her slowly.
Ebony caught the suspicion in his tone and glared at him. She just knew he thought she was going to do something her father would do, which wouldn’t be good for Devdan. “Because I said it was best and you want the curse broken.”
Everyone but Devdan moved to the edge of the jungle. Ebony moved so that she was between Devdan and the others.
“Why do you need a source of magic?” Naveen asked her curiously, looking around them at the creatures. “You’ve always used magic without a source before.”
“Wizards draw their energy from others,” she explained as she gave her powers a mental tug that would allow her to see the magic around Devdan. “Normally, we contain a reservoir of power that we’ve stored. But, I can’t hold enough magic in my reservoir to break this curse. So instead, I’ll channel the energy of the creatures around me.”
Through her entire explanation, she had been examining the curse over Devdan. Now that she’d read her father’s journal, the energy woven through Devdan didn’t seem as chaotic as it had the first time. Instead, it was more like a living thing, moving and shifting around to feed each other. She had to admire the energy and time it would have taken, even for Bura, to complete this curse.
Naveen watched her from his position next to the Commander. He couldn’t believe the curse was finally going to be broken. Ebony held up her hands palm out towards his father. Lord Devdan stood facing her, looking more than a little nervous.
Suddenly, multitudes of light in shades of deep red and bright purples began to fill the clearing. Naveen blinked, but the strange lights didn’t go away. They were flowing now, from the creatures around them to Ebony. From her, they spilled out over his father, who slumped suddenly as if carrying a great weight. Ebony didn’t falter at all.
It felt like hours passed, and no one dared to even breathe. That breath Naveen had been holding, whooshed out when the color drained from Ebony’s face. Her body began to shake so violently, he thought she might fall apart. Devdan’s eyes snapped shut and he doubled over as if he was in a great pain.
Something hot rushed through Naveen’s blood, making him cry out in agony. His knees gave out and he hit the ground. His muscles clenched, and his skin felt raw and tender. All he could think was, dear Gods I’m going to die.
Then, just as suddenly as it started, everything stopped.