Must Be Magic: Part II

Hello again, Readers! Are you ready for Part II of Must Be Magic? I’m sorry for making you wait so long. This turned out to be a little harder to write than I was expecting. (And I’m still not happy with it. Forgive me!)

Now I’m sure you are itching to get to the story, so I won’t keep you. Enjoy! (and tell me your thoughts afterwards).

The WordPress Daily Prompt word when I started writing this last week was Devastation.

Fireflies illuminate a forest in Shikoku, Japan. © Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures
Fireflies illuminate a forest in Shikoku, Japan. © Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures

Must Be Magic

Part 2

For a moment, none of us moved. I stood a few steps in front of Griffin, my arms cradled against my chest after pulling out of his grasp. I glanced at him and Bart, hands on their weapons, and back to the tiny old woman in front of us. She looked more ancient than anyone I’ve ever seen. Her hair was white with a few gray strands and pulled up into a bun on the top of her head, held there by two twigs. She moved fairly quickly for such an old woman and was now disappearing in the late afternoon light, her mottled robes blending in with the scenery.

I made a decision and started forward, only to hear a hissed “No!” from Griffin, but I didn’t stop. Something was drawing me to the old woman, a sort of gravity or curiosity, I wasn’t sure what. I continued to follow her and soon heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Bart was following, looking nervous and Griffin looking grim. He had put away his sword, but still looked tense and ready to spring into action at any moment.

I shook my head, wondering how he could possibly think an old woman was a threat to us and moved forward through the village, trying not to notice the emptiness of all the homes. The cloth doll I had seen earlier floated through my mind and my heart twisted at the thought of a child becoming a victim of the Soul-Eater. What sort of monstrosity was this?

Horatia lead us to the outskirts of the village, which only took a few minutes since the settlement was so small. She lead us to a cozy looking cottage with a small herb garden neatly kept beside it and flowers growing beside the door. Some of the tension I hadn’t realized I’d been holding dropped out of my shoulders. I didn’t wait for Griffin or Bart before following her inside the small house.

The inside was just as cozy as the outside. It was clean and well-kept. Dried herbs hung from the low rafters, filling the room with the smell of basil, sage, and spearmint. Along the wall hung shelves holding all sorts of objects – clay bowls and bottles, a mortar and pestle, cups, vials, books, various rocks and crystals, some carved wooden figures, a nesting doll and a silver chalice. A large table dominated the center of the room, not far from a small iron stove and the fireplace, beside which sat a single bed, with a curtain that could be dropped down for privacy. By the time Griffin and Bart joined us inside, Horatia had already filled a kettle with water, set it to boil, and placed four cups on the table. When we had all gathered inside, she gestured to her table.

“Please, sit,” she said. I crinkled my eyebrows together, certain that there hadn’t been four chairs before, but shrugged and sat down, curious to know what Horatia would tell us. Bart and Griffin sat down on either side of me, both with the same wary and grim looks on their faces.

The silence stretched between the four of us for a few moment before it was broken by Griffin. “Well, tell us what you want to tell us woman, so we may be on our way. Ours is a quest of urgency.”

The gruffness of his tone startled me. I glared at him, about to reprimand him for being so rude, when Horatia interrupted with a bark of laughter. “Urgent indeed, if only you knew how much.” Her eyes gleamed and her smile held back the knowledge I was more desperate to know by the second.

“Please,” I said, extending  my hand across the the table and pleading with my eyes as well as my voice, “if you can help us, tell us what you know. We seek to destroy the Soul-Eater and rescue the Taken.”

Griffin glared at me as if our quest was some sort of secret he didn’t want this woman knowing, but I brushed him off. The entire kingdom knew that Griffin was the king’s champion, the one he sent to deal with situations like these. Horatia’s gaze softened when she looked at me. “Patience, star-girl. I will help you. But first, tea.”

She bustled forward with a steaming kettle and poured a generous amount in each cup. Then she pushed one in front of each of us. “Drink!” she commanded. “You’ll feel better.”

Neither Bart nor Griffin moved to touch their cup but I picked mine up. I breathed in the vapors rising from the cup and sighed, feeling more of the tension I had been carrying melt away in one breath. A question popped into my mind and tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop it. “Why did you call me star-girl?”

“Stella is your name, is it not?” Horatia answered.

My mouth fell open. “How did…”

“Don’t be so shocked, girl, I simply heard your companions call for you.”

A pang of disappointment went through me. For a moment I had hoped the rumors of magic welders had been true.

As if sensing my thoughts, Horatia smiled and said, “Too often men mistake simple observations for fortune telling or mind reading. I merely pay attention to the world around me and listen to what it wants to tell me.”

I smiled. “I suppose you’re right.”

Horatia smiled again, the same smile I had seen earlier, the one was full of secrets. She took a sip from her own cup and settled comfortably into a chair. “Now then,” she said, her tone switching to something more serious, “about your quest.”

“How did you survive the attack?” I asked, the question bursting forth before she could continue. I felt my cheeks redden. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t hold my tongue. But Horatia didn’t seem to mind.

“I was gathering roots and plants when the demons came. By the time the screaming started, I was deep in the forest. I knew instantly that this was no ordinary attack of bandits or thieves.” Her brows came together and her mouth pressed into a hard line. “I could feel them. The cold, dark, slimy feeling of the Otherworld, of that shadowy place where demons come from. It was so strong, almost staggering.” A shadow passed over her face. I felt a cold stab of dread in my stomach.

“How have you come to know the feeling of demons so well?” Griffin asked, his voice hard.

Horatia fixed him with a equally hard stare. “When one lives as long as I have, doing what I do, meeting a few demons along the way is inevitable.”

Griffin snorted, clearly unconvinced. “And what exactly do you do?” he asked.

“Oh, this and that,” Horatia said, smiling again. It was maddening.

“Nevermind that – tell us what happened next!” I leaned forward, feet bouncing under the table.

The smile vanished. “I hurried back as quickly as I could. The screams grew louder and louder with every step and the feelings worse. I was terrified of what awaited me once I reached the village.” She paused for a moment, closing her eyes as she remembered. For an instant, I saw Griffin’s face soften, but the moment she started speaking again he hardened his face. “I had prepared myself for bloodshed and gore, but what I found was much worse,” Horatia said soberly.

“What?” I asked, my eyes wide.

Griffin answered for her. “Nothing. You found nothing. Just an empty village with barely a sign of struggle to be seen, as if everyone had vanished in the middle of whatever they had been doing.”

I turned to him, about to ask how he could possibly know that when Horatia nodded and said, “Exactly. Not a trace of anyone, nor any sign of the terror I had heard. Just a feeling of wrongness pervading everything.”

“But you knew,” prompted Griffin. “You knew what had happened.”

“I had heard enough news from the North to guess,” said Horatia. “The rest I figured out from my own observations. It’s not obvious, but there are little signs the demons leave behind, things anyone with a trained eye can see.”

“Clever,” said Griffin dryly. “But none of that tells me anything I didn’t already know.”

My heart beat a little faster. I knew Griffin knew about the Taken and the Soul-Eater, but he hadn’t been forthcoming on many of the details.

Horatia studied him for a moment. “Quite so,” she said finally. Then breaking her gaze with Griffin, she looked at me. “Tell me girl, what do you know of the moon?”

My mind blanked. The moon? Why was she asking me? What did this have to do with the Soul-Eater? “Wh-what do you mean?” I asked, hating the fact I had stuttered.

“Do you know about the moon’s cycles?”

I tilted my head. “You mean that it grows bigger and smaller?”

Horatia nodded. “Have you been paying attention to it? What is it doing now?”

I resisted the urge to turn and look out of the window, as if  the moon would be sitting there in plain view. “What does this have to do with anything?” Griffin demanded.

Horatia ignored him. I glanced quickly up at him then back to the old woman. “It’s getting smaller now. The nights are darker.”

Horatia nodded. “That’s right. And did you know that in only a few days time, the moon will disappear completely?”

I nodded. Griffin growled and Bart elbowed him lightly.

“Complete darkness,” whispered Horatia.

I looked at her and back to Griffin and Bart. “What significance is that?”

Horatia didn’t answer. Instead she asked, “How long have these attacks from the demon men been going on?”

My eyes widened. “Um, I don’t know, a few weeks at least.”

“A little more than a few weeks,” Horatia said. “I think you’ll find that the first whisper of an attack came on the night of the last vanishing moon.”

Griffin seemed to suddenly catch her meaning because he gripped the edge of the table with one hand and made a fist with the other. On the other side of me, Bart looked over my head at Griffin. I however, was still in the dark. “What does that mean?” I said a little irritably.

“You think the Soul-Eater is going to retreat on the night of the vanishing moon,” said Griffin. “Are you certain?”

“Positive. Your own memory will prove me right,” Horatia said. Griffin flinched as if smacked.

“But why?” I asked, ignoring this odd reaction.

“The Soul-Eater and its minions will be at their strongest when the night is darkest. On this night they will be able to open a portal and return to the pits whence they came.”

“But that’s good, isn’t it?” I looked around at everyone. “If they leave, the attacks will stop.”

Griffin bowed his head and Bart looked away. Horatia shook her head slowly. “It is true the attacks will stop here. But if you seek to rescue the Taken….” she trailed off and started again. “If the Soul-Eater is allowed to retreat to the Otherworld, then the souls of the Taken will be lost forever and their bodies will slowly fade away into nothingness.”

Silence filled the air. Roy. I stared into my cup of tea for a few moments, watching the leaves floating. Roy. I drew in a deep breath and suddenly straightened up. “Then we just have to rescue them before the vanishing moon, don’t we?”

Both boys turned to look at me. I set my jaw and tried to look confident, even though hopelessness was flickering in my chest. Horatia reached out and put a gnarled hand over my white-knuckled one gripping my cup tightly. “I might be able to help you with that, star-girl.”

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