Ash was out in the back garden, making the plants grow, as Amber helped Nan in her kitchen. Every once in a while Nan would cause chopped vegetables or vials of seasoning to float from the counter and deposit themselves in the casserole dish she was preparing. Amber had tried to perform these feats as well, but so far the best she could manage was to get the objects to wiggle.
“Your affinity is with people and animals, anyway,” Nan assured her. “This sort of stuff would be easier for an elemental – or weaver, like Jack.”
“Jack’s a weaver?” Amber asked, slowly chopping up pieces of a carrot while attempting to keep them from shooting off the counter.
“Oh yes, I’d thought it would have been obvious,” Nan said. “What with all the fire. That’s a weaver’s trick if I’ve ever seen on – turning your own aura into flames. He could be quite powerful at other magics as well, though he doesn’t practice much.”
“He’s practiced some recently,” Amber felt obligated to say, as he’d showed up a few times in the past week when she and her sister were visiting Nan to learn about the spell book. They’d learned since then that their mother was the only one in the town known to have owned a spell book, and none of them even knew where she’d gotten it from.
“That he has,” Nan agreed. “You girls are a good influence on him I think.”
Amber shrugged noncommittally and went back to her chopping. To his merit, Jack had been less obnoxious as of late.
“Hey Nan, I’ve been wanting to ask you,” Amber started, pausing as she looked out the window to check her sister was still outside. “About my mom.”
The two chopped in silence for a moment, letting the rhythm of the kitchen wash over them.
“I see,” Nan said with a sigh. “I thought you’d ask sooner or later. You want to know why she left?”
Amber nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“Well, it’s a bit complicated,” Nan admitted. “But I suppose it started before either of you two were born. Before your father, your mother was close to another man. Bast, was his name. Brooke and Bast grew up in Greensburrow, and given our small population there weren’t many other people their age around. They were close throughout childhood, and closer as adults. And after so many years of seeing them together, I think many of us expected them to marry. Bast certainly did. I’m not sure about the details, but the relationship ended… badly. Your mother left him, and Bast never truly got over it. They fought for a long while – sometimes violently (the whole forest would shake with the fierceness of their battles) and after a time, Bast left.”
Amber was staring at Nan, having forgotten about the vegetables entirely. “Where did he go?”
“I’m not sure,” Nan admitted. “To blow off steam, maybe. He was gone for several years… and in that time, Brooke began to branch out. She visited the city. Began taking trips. On one of those trips she came back with Gale, your father – your biological father, that is.” Nan smiled faintly. “It was so good to see those two together. They were truly happy – Brooke deserved that, after so many tumultuous years spent with Bast. We were all very happy for her when she and your father decided to marry.” Nan winked at Amber. “Even more happy when she had her first kid.”
“But why would mom leave?” Amber asked. “And… and what happened to our dad?” It was a question that had nagged at her for years, and one her mother had never fully answered. ‘Gone,’ was all she had said. Amber wished she could remember his face.
“After some time,” Nan said, “Bast returned. He was changed, more angry and bitter than before. The years had not been kind to him – perhaps he bottled up all the feelings he’d had for your mother instead of moving on as she had. At any rate…” Nan hesitated, then sighed. “I don’t know how much of this to say. But as it is your parents, you do deserve to know. At any rate, Bast was not expecting to find your mother married and with two young children. He became furious – more so than I’d ever seen before. And he… he lost himself, I suppose.”
Nan paused again, looking out the window at Ash, who was still playing in the garden.
“He tried to kidnap you and your sister,” Nan said. Amber startled, setting the knife down on the cutting board and wiping her hands on her apron.
“What? But I don’t remember that…”
“You were young,” Nan said. “Both of you were. And he tried to take you two – for what reason I could never understand. Perhaps he thought he deserved to be the father, or maybe he thought… I don’t know… maybe all he wanted was to have your mother come after him. And she did. As well as your father.”
Nan looked down at Amber, who looked down at her feet. “Brooke and Gale went into the woods after Bast that day. But only Brooke and you two, her children, came out. Brooke wouldn’t talk about what happened to Bast or Gale, but she didn’t stick around for many questions. The three of you left only a week later. And that was the last we saw of her.”
Amber risked a look back up, feeling surprisingly subdued. Bast – her father – she didn’t even know these people. It felt so strange that they were so integral to her life.
“And that’s it?” Amber asked. “She just left because… because… I don’t understand.”
“I believe it was because she wanted to shield you girls,” Nan said. “She was ready to leave all the magic behind, and give you a chance at living a more normal life – even if it would be at the cost of hers.”
The comment stirred something in Amber. “Is…” Amber hesitated. The question had been preying at her recently, arisen from a long lingering suspicion and her newly developing understanding of magic. “Is that why… she got sick?” For the first time since the conversation had started, Amber felt her emotions welling up. Her eyes began to prick, and she tried to sniff back the feelings. “Because… because the doctors didn’t know what was wrong. And she just… kept getting weaker. For years. Always getting tired.” Amber sniffed again. “Was it… was it because of the magic?”
“Oh, dear,” Nan said, pulling Amber in for a hug. Amber let her arms hang at her side for a moment. Then she started to cry, and she hugged Nan back.
“I miss her,” Amber sobbed. “I miss her so bad.”
“I know, sweetie, I know.” Nan squeezed her, and Amber squeezed back. After a moment they let go of each other, and Nan shakily got down on her knees, taking both of Amber’s hands. “But honey. It wasn’t the magic, okay? Leaving didn’t make your mom sick. And if you girls leave, it won’t make you sick either. Alright?”
Amber nodded, wiping her nose on her arm. “Alright.” She forced a smile. “Thanks, Nan.”
Nan patted her on the arm, then picked up her cane and pushed herself back to her feet with a grunt. “I think that’s enough vegetable chopping for now,” she said. “Why don’t you go sit down at the table, and I’ll make some tea and cookies for us. Sound good?”
“Sounds good,” Amber agreed.
The back door slid open. “Look what I grew!” Ash announced. She held up a bushel of radishes. “I made all of them! Just now! I’m an awesome witch!”
Amber laughed, rubbing her eyes to try to dry the tears before her sister would notice. “You are pretty awesome. Why don’t you take those into the kitchen and wash them off.”
Ash grimaced. “Washing, ugh. That’s boring. Hey,” Ash paused, looking more closely at her sister. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Amber said, and she meant it. “Go on, help Nan.”
Ash hesitated, then nodded and went off into the kitchen. Amber stuck her hand in her pocket, brushing her fingers over the adder stone. She glanced into the living room, where Dusk was dozing in a spot of sunlight by the window. Nan had said their mother’s sickness wasn’t magic, but Amber still wasn’t sure. Even if she had wanted to leave the magic behind, why hadn’t she brought her token? Amber couldn’t imagine leaving Dusk. As much as she wanted to leave the painful memories behind, her gut told her there was something else to the story. Something more to her mom than just a bad relationship. Amber didn’t know how, but she decided she was going to find out.
“Guys! I found something gross, you should come check it out.”
Amber and Ash were sitting beneath a statue of an elk, in what passed for Greenburrow’s version of a park. The statue had been welded together by Basil as a pet project several decades ago, and the town had taken such a liking to it that they’d dedicated a small space of weedy lawn in the middle of town for it to rest, and gradually come to refer to the area as “the park.” It wasn’t much, but it was at least easy to identify, so whenever Amber and Ash decided to spend some time practicing their magic outdoors (and in town, so as to generally avoid their father,) they often gravitated towards the park.
Amber looked up from the pages of spell book she’d been reading. She scrunched her nose at Jack. “What?”
“Something gross I found, come see,” the boy repeated.
“Why would we want to see something gross?” Ash asked. She’d been catching on to her magic faster than Amber had (in Amber’s opinion,) and was currently playing with some rocks which she was making spin and roll about beneath her hands as she moved them. To Amber’s merit, her magic sensing seemed to be more keen than her sister’s. She could often tell when a spell was going on somewhere nearby, and even start to puzzle out what the magic’s intent was. Her relationship with Dusk was also shifting, and sometimes she thought she could tell what he was thinking, or at least what he was looking at.
“Because it’s neat,” Jack said. “Duh. Besides, it’s a magic gross thing.”
This caught the girls’ attention. “What sort of magic?”
“You’ll have to come see!” Jack pressed. “Come on already.”
Amber and Ash looked at each other, then stood up.
“Where is it?” Ash asked.
“Somewhere in the woods,” Jack said. “But there’s a faster way to get there. Come on.”
Jack ran ahead, with Amber and Ash following quickly after. The girls were expecting Jack to take them somewhere into the woods, but he stopped instead by a road sign next to 1st Street that led into town. The base of the sign was crowded by brush, which Jack waded into.
“Watch this,” he said grinning at the girls. Then he ducked down behind the sign, and vanished.
The girls craned their heads to try to see where he’d gone.
“Where is he?”
“You think it’s like those trees near our house?”
“The ones that go to the glade?”
“Yeah. There are tons of other places we the glade leads to – maybe this is one of them.”
Jack reappeared, grinning. “Pretty neat, huh?”
“Is that one of the things that goes to the glade?” Amber asked.
Jack’s face fell. “You know about it?”
“We accidentally got there from our back yard,” Amber said.
“Oh,” Jack said, clearly disappointed. “Well, come on. It’s through here.” Vanishing again, the girls followed him through.
They came out into a different part of the glade than they were accustomed to, and for a moment they were all turned around. It was the same glade they knew, however, and its warmth soon made them feel at home.
“Do all of these images lead out to other places?” Amber asked Jack, gesturing to the shadow-shapes in the forest’s leaves.
“Yep,” Jack said. “But careful going through them – sometimes it can be hard to find how to get back through, and since a lot of these lead to places in the forest, it can be easy to get stuck somewhere you don’t know where you are.” Jack started to strike out across the field, heading to some other destination he had in mind. “Happened to me when I was younger. Lucky mum had a tracker spell on my clothes, or they might not of found me.”
“Are there… dangerous places, too?” Amber asked, hesitating. “Places we shouldn’t go?”
Jack frowned. “No, I don’t think so. Besides just getting lost in the woods. Why?”
“Um,” Amber hesitated, wondering what she should say about the tree.
“There was a tree that attacked us,” Ash supplied, causing Amber to cringe.
“Attacked you?” Jack stopped, turning to look at the girls. “What tree? Where was this?”
“It’s an old gnarled tree in the middle of nowhere,” Amber explained. “Just rocks and the tree.”
“Oh,” Jack said. “Yeah, I think I’ve been there. It was boring, though, so I left. It attacked you?”
Amber nodded. “Something… something invisible was trying to grab us.” Now that she thought about it, it had to have been a spell or some sort of magic they hadn’t been able to see. She wondered if she’d be able to see it now.
“Well, maybe we should go back and check it out sometime,” Jack said with a shrug. “If there is something bad here, we should probably tell the adults about it.”
Amber grimaced. Ash and her had been trying to avoid that – they hadn’t wanted to get in trouble – but maybe Jack was right. “Okay. We’ll go back and check it out sometime. Now what did you want to show us?”
Jack turned back to the trees. “It’s through here,” he said, vanishing once more into the undergrowth.
Amber and Ash stepped through to find themselves somewhere deep in the woods. There was more moss here than they saw about town, and the trees seemed thicker and darker. Amber took out the adder stone, turning back around to mark where they’d gone through. She passed it to Ash as well, in case they got separated. Jack watched them use the stone.
“Your mom had the coolest stuff,” he sighed, then turned back to a small ridge that rose behind him. “Come on, it’s just over here. Down in the creek.”
The girls followed Jack up the slope, gradually hearing the bubbling of brook sounding nearby. Jack slowed near the top, looking down on a steep slope that led into the stream.
“I think this is part of the Blue River,” Jack explained. “The river marks the territory of our town – magic’s weaker outside of it, and strongest in it. So sometimes weird stuff happens in the waters. Do you see it?”
“See what?” Ash said, looking down.
“That,” Jack pointed. The girls looked.
The brook was shallow and only about ten feet wide, but nearest the girls the stream was reduced to little more than a trickle. The water swirled into a small eddy, where it was caught near a stagnant part of the bank. Bubbles had formed a light foam in this area, and were growing and popping steadily against the mud.
The girls stared for a moment.
“What?” Amber finally asked, examining the water, tide pool, mud, bubbles, and bank. “What are we looking for?”
Jack sighed and shook his head. “Man, you guys really are magic blind. Here, I’ll show you.” Looking about him, Jack snatched up a small branch and snapped all the extra twigs off. Then he grabbed hold of some roots sticking out of the slope and slowly began to climb down.
“Careful,” Amber said, expecting him to slip down the incline and any moment and skewer himself with the stick. Jack, however, displayed himself to be a proficient slope scaler, and made it to the bottom without any mishaps.
“Look at this!” Jack called, stabbing his stick into the mud. Lifting the stick away, the mud clung to the stick, stretching back to the ground. Jack raised the stick even higher, and the mud stretched out like taffy, before reluctantly letting go and snapping back into the bank.
“Whoa,” Ash said, clapping in amusement. “That’s so cool! What is it?”
“I dunno,” Jack said, poking at the mud again. It seemed to bubble in agitation, grabbing onto Jack’s stick as if to try to pull it away from him. Jack took the stick with two hands and yanked it back, and the mud once again let go to sink back into a brown puddle. It jiggled slightly, and produced more bubbles.
“Does that hurt it?” Amber asked, feeling a bit bad every time Jack stabbed at the clingy sludge.
“It’s mud,” Jack said. “It can’t hurt. Besides, it’s magic that’s making it do that.”
Amber took out the adder stone. Through the stone the mud appeared to shift, waves of sludgy magic lifting from the bubbling brew. The magic shifted like a tide, oscillating back and forth in a strange, pulsing motion.
“Creepy,” Amber said, letting her sister look. “You think the river made that?”
“Sure,” Jack said. “What else?”
“I don’t know,” Amber said. “It just kinda looks like the spell we accidentally put on the wooden bear statues. Does magic do stuff like this often? Make things come alive?”
“Well it’s not really alive,” Jack said. “It just looks that way.”
“Why does the river do this?” Amber asked.
“Can I climb down there, too?” Ash asked. Amber shushed her.
“Sometimes magic just builds up in strange ways, I don’t know,” Jack rolled his eyes at Amber. “Look, that’s not the point. How neat is this?”
“Will it just go away on its own?” Amber asked.
“Usually,” Jack said. “I think.” He poked and pulled at the mud, taking apparent pleasure in trying to extend the mud to its fullest extent before it let go. Looking up at the girls he gave them a very pleased grin – which turned into a moment of shock a moment later as the mud pulled the stick from Jack’s grasp and he went stumbling backwards into the river.
“Jack!” Amber called. Before she knew it she was sliding down the slope, picking her way down the incline as quickly as she dared. Jack spluttered out of the shallow water, crawling over towards the bank as Amber reached the bottom. As he pulled himself ashore, however, his hand went into the puddle of mud, and the magic reacted instantly, spiraling up his arm. Jack cried out and jerked back, but the mud had a strong grip. Though he tried to push away, the mud began to real him in.
“Watch out!” Amber cried, grabbing Jack’s free arm in an attempt to pull him away. Jack grunted and kicked at the mud that was wrapped around his arm, but the muck only gave, and then his foot became stuck in it as well.
“Let go!” Jack growled, summoning fire in his hand. Amber had to drop him for fear of being burnt, and his fire hissed out as his hand fell into the water. Jack shook out his hand, making more flames, but without Amber there to hold him the mud was able to drag him further into the sludge. Jack slapped his flaming down on top of the mud around his opposite arm, which hissed and cracked as it came in contact, causing some of the mud to bake and dry into clay. It didn’t stop the magic, however, which only tightened its grip.
“Stop it,” Amber said, grabbing Jack’s arm again before he could get that stuck as well. “The fire isn’t helping!” Jack tried to kick at the mud with his free leg, narrowly avoiding getting his other leg stuck in the mud as well. “And stop kicking! You’re just going to make it worse!”
“You’re not helping!” Jack spat back.
“Well I’ll just drop you and let the mud eat you if that’s what you want!”
Jack grumbled and said some inaudible, possibly rude things, but stopped struggling. Amber grunted, pulling on his arm harder.
“Just pulling isn’t going to work!” Jack objected. “Only magic can beat magic!”
“Well, then, do something!” Amber said.
“All I do is fire!” Jack cried. “You told me not to do fire!” The mud’s grip tightened, pulling Jack a few inched further into the puddle.
“I know! I’ll think of something!” Amber said, her mind racing.
“Well think faster!” Jack said. “Or I’m going to do fire!”
“Amber!” Ash called down from the top of the slope.
“Not now, Ash!” Amber cried.
“I said not now!” Amber said, glaring up at her sister. Ash, however, was not looking at her. Amber followed her sister’s gaze to the other side of the ridge and froze, nearly letting Jack slip from her grasp.
“Hey!” he said, causing Amber to tighten her grip. “What’s going on?”
Before Amber or Ash could explain, however, a growl rumbled down the stream. Jack looked up and his mouth dropped. The wolf stopped in the middle of the stream, its lips pealed back in a meanacing growl.
“Wha- what – whoa, whoa, whoa!” Jack stuttered, starting to struggle once more despite Amber’s protests. “It’s huge! Get me out of here!”
“I- I don’t think it’ll hurt us,” Amber said falteringly. The wolf certainly didn’t look friendly, however. It took another step forward.
“Get out of there!” Ash called. Amber ground her teeth, wishing it was only that easy.
“Dusk!” Amber called, summoning the crow from where it had been nervously fluttering nearby. The bird landed on her shoulder, giving her a surge of confidence and energy.
“Do something!” Jack said as the wolf stepped closer. All its muscles were tensed, and it walked haltingly, as if ready to spring at them at any moment.
“I’m trying!” Amber cried, attempting to ignore the approaching wolf and focus all her attention on the mud. Amber extended her magic, trying to wrap her influence into the energies that permeated the mud. She tried to will the mud to loosen its grip, but the wild magic resisted. Next she tried to unweave it, similar to how she and her sister had undone the spell they’d put on the wooden bears, but without a physical object to aide her attempts she might as well have been trying to cut water. Mud wasn’t her specialty anyway – maybe Ash would have been able to make it let go – so instead Amber turned her attention to the wolf.
“Stop,” she ordered, exerting her will on the beast. Amber felt her energies brush against his, and for a moment the beast did stop, and it tipped its head, regarding her. Amber pushed again. “Go away,” she said, mentally trying to grip the wolf’s will with her own. She could feel her magic twining into its mind, but there was something else there, something… out of place. Another magic.
A magic which pushed back.
Amber gasped and let go of the wolf, flinching away from a fleeting sensation of something else following her, another magic that was trying to grip her in the same way she’d gripped the wolf. She didn’t dwell on it long, however, for her hold on Jack was weakening, and the mud was slowly inching its way up the boy’s body. If she didn’t do something soon, he’d be pulled under – if the wolf didn’t get them first.
Not knowing what else to do, she finally and desperately turned her magic on Jack. They were already touching, which made it easier – in fact she could already feel his fiery aura swirling about her hands where she was holding him. Amber pushed her magic to him, willing her energy to merge with his. Jack stiffened and he drew in a breath, surprised by the sudden surge of magic. He only hesitated for a moment, however, before he accepted Amber’s push, pulling her energy in. A burst of flame rippled over his and Amber’s skin, Jack’s abilities magnified by Amber’s will. Even Dusk was caught up in the sudden flame, though it wasn’t a fire that burned wood or skin. The mud, however, flinched away, recoiling from the heat. Amber stopped trying to pull Jack away and instead let go of her grip beneath his to arms, simply maintaining the connection by resting a hand on his shoulder. With his free hand Jack grabbed a chunk of the baked mud on his shoulder and pulled it away; as the mud crumbled to flakes of dirt, Amber could see threads of magic breaking away as well, burned to pieces from the magic fire.
The wolf growled and snapped, stepping closer as Amber helped Jack to his feet.
“Stay back,” Amber said again, though this time instead of reaching out with her magic, Jack flared the fire about them, fingers of flame flicking out towards the wolf. At the sudden burst of magic, the wolf shied back, still growling but keeping well out of reach of the fire. Amber also stepped back and Jack followed taking his hand to ensure the shared magic kept going – and keep the wolf at bay.
“We have to get back up there,” Amber said, nodding to the incline but making sure to keep her eyes on the wolf.
“We can’t let go,” Jack said, also recognizing the trouble in climbing up the steep with only one hand.
“Is it shallower somewhere else?” Amber asked, still backing up slowly. Her legs were soaked from the stream, and her feet were starting to feel numb from the freezing mountain water.
“I think a bit upstream there’s a place we can climb,” Jack said. As they had backed away the wolf had slowly followed, but stopped once it grew level with the mud, where it lowered down its head to sniff at the scarred ground. As Amber and Jack continued to back up, the wolf didn’t move to follow.
“I think he was guarding it,” Amber said, watching as the wolf circled the now inert pile of mud. “I don’t think that magic was natural.”
“You mean you think someone made it?” Jack asked. Wordlessly, the two slowly began to taper the fire off, and Amber stopped fueling Jack’s flame. As she released the magic she began to feel very tired – she hadn’t realized how much of her own energy she had used.
“I don’t know,” Amber sighed. “But that wolf seems to be protecting it. And the wolf certainly isn’t natural.”
“It’s huge,” Jack agreed. “But wild magic can make animals big sometimes.”
“It’s also been following us,” Amber said. “We saw it in the glade – and also when we spelled the wooden bears. It keeps showing up.”
“You’ve seen it before?” Jack asked, surprised. “You didn’t tell me you’ve been seeing a wolf.” Amber thought he almost sounded a little hurt.
“Well, why would we?” Amber asked. She let go of his hand, and finally risked a glance towards the bank’s climb. The wolf hadn’t followed. “You keep acting like a jerk to us. Here, I think it’s safe to climb up now.” Amber grabbed a root and began to pull herself up. Jack followed behind in silence.
“Sorry,” he mumbled after they’d nearly made it to the top. Ash had followed them along the ridge, nervously casting glances back towards the wolf. “And thanks,” Jack said. He dragged himself up the last of the slope and dusted off his hands – his shoes, pants, and shirt were completely caked in dried muck.
“Thanks for helping me,” he elaborated. “I woulda been in real big trouble if you hadn’t done… um… whatever you did.”
Amber stared at Jack for a moment, then smiled. “You’re welcome. And I guess Ash and I should apologize for luring the wolf here. If it is following us, at least. So, sorry for almost getting you eaten.”
Jack laughed. “Better by a wolf than by mud, I guess. Come on, we should head back. I need to change my clothes – and you guys should meet my mom. She was going to make some cookies this afternoon. You’ll love ’em.”
As the kids headed back towards the path to the glade, the wolf sat down next to the dried patch of shore, staring intently at the bank. Slowly the water from the stream began to leak back in, and slowly the dried ground returned to mud once more. The water and earth moved in strange ways, however, tracing out marks that had been scratched into the soft bank some time before. One of the marks, however, didn’t quite reform, damaged by the magical attack the kids had unleashed on it. The wolf sniffed at this part of the spell, then delicately raised a paw, and slowly and carefully redrew the broken symbol. A ripple of energy passed over the bank as this action was complete, and the mud began to bubble once more. Satisfied that its work was done, the wolf stood up and turned away, splashing back down the shallow stream as it waded across the current. The muddy bank, meanwhile, continued to stew. The magic continued to churn and the muck bubbled, and after some time the surface rippled, and a hand of mud reached out of the riverbank.