The first performance was a fire breather. He opened his act by spitting the flames high above the town, and they came raining down again in a harmless twinkling of fireflies. As they were still falling the man began his dance, whirling about in a blur of red and orange – his clothes just as vibrant as the flames he wielded – as he spun the fire about him. The flames grew as he danced, nearly engulfing him in light, and when he jumped they jumped, and when he ducked they too swooped low. As the fire breather spun the fire began to tighten, and soon enough the flames had taken shape and he was dancing with a golden dragon, which mirrored his moves and twined around his limbs. With a leap the fire dragon took to the air, skimming over the heads of the crowd in a shimmering wave of heat. It spiraled upwards, and then as the man called it dove back down towards him at a ferocious speed. Before it could strike, however, the man blew out a second bout of flames, and this turned into a serpent, which wove up into the air to meet the dragon in a fierce battle. Sparks and embers fell from the fight, hanging in the air just over the crowd’s heads, until the creatures were reduced to nothing more than a indistinct ball of flame. The orb hovered there for a moment, rotating slowly in the air, when suddenly it began to shake and wobble from side to side. With an explosion of light the fire egg cracked open, and a phoenix burst out, letting out a cry as it scattered intangible flames down into the crowd. The fire breather held out his hand and the fire bird flew to it, leaving behind a sparkling fall of lights in its wake. When it landed on the fire-breathers arm, the man drew his free hand over the bird, and the flames came away in a great swath, hanging from his hand like a magician’s cloth. The bird now glowed, but did not burn, and was made of red feathers instead of fire. The man set the bird down on a perch, and the audience burst into applause.
“That was amazing!” Amber turned to Jack. “Is that a real bird?”
“Yeah, it’s our phoenix,” Jack said. “My dad’s familiar.”
“Your dad?” Ash asked.
“Yeah,” Jack said, looking back up at the stage with a smile. “He’s pretty great, huh?”
“Really great,” Amber said, watching as the man stroked the phoenix, which fluttered up to his shoulder as he left the stage. “That was amazing.”
The next act was a play, put on by three figures dressed in skin-tight black outfits, which covered their faces. Against the backdrop of twilight – getting darker with every minute – they were difficult to make out.
“This one they do every year,” Jack explained. “It’s about our town’s founders – three witches that discovered our valley’s magic.”
As he spoke the first of the three walked across the stage in exaggerated movements, a hand raised to their face as they appeared to search for something in the distance. With each step they took plants sprouted behind them, curling up from the stage in a growing forest of green. Bulbs of green and yellow lights bloomed among the flowers, and the plants grew up to serve as a backdrop to the platform, bathing the stage in a gentle, natural light. The second figure then crossed, meeting with the first, and as she walked a trail of purple and green light followed like the glow of an aurora. This one raised a hand to the sky, and a handful of lights lifted from her hands, floating up to hang above the stage in a pattern of stars. The third came last, and though her crossing was met with no physical change, the sounds of animals – the hoots of owls, the buzzing of summer insects, and a distant yip of a coyote – slowly rose, as if coming from a forest hidden within the stage’s backdrop. Unlike the first act, where the audience had cheered and gasped at the fire breather’s magic, this time the audience spoke in hushed tones, allowing the sounds of the stage’s animals to echo about the town square.
Now that all three were on stage, the witches turned towards each other and held their hands together, palms up. A blueness bubbled from their hands and spilled down, weaving about the ankles of the actors in a clear but glowing stream. The floating water then spilled into the crowd, and spread slowly through the audience.
“That’s the Blue River,” Jack explained to Amber and Ash quietly. “It travels most the way around the town, and marks our borders. Since it originates in the glade, it’s also considered to be a source of our town’s magic. Some say it’s even more powerful on nights like tonight – the solstice.”
The three witches let go of the water, and it finished falling from their hands, but the illusion did not diminish and fingers of the river continued to gently weave through the crowd. Next the witches raised their hands towards the crowd and formed a circle between their fingers, and a single ball of light began to glow at the center of the six hands. The women drew their hands apart and the orb slowly grew with the motion; the sphere was lit with an internal, white light, but only half of it was illuminated. It wasn’t until the orb was bigger than the women’s heads that Amber and Ash recognized it as the moon – a perfect moon replica, and in far more detail than the girls had ever seen. The witches raised their hands and the moon floated up to rest among the stars. The real moon hung even higher, framed by two of the peaks that surrounded Greenburrow, which made the smaller, false moon appear almost like a reflection. In fact, as the girls looked between the two, they saw that the false moon’s image was reversed, and even as they watched the air seemed to ripple, as if the surface of a pond were hanging in the sky above them. Next, out of the stage’s trees came a series of trout, each glowing and swimming through the air as easily as they might through water. The fish drifted over the heads of the audience, lighting the upturned faces they passed over, and after them came several lily pads, each of these containing a glowing, pink blossom. As the lily pads floated over, their presence was accompanied with a warmth which lingered even after they had passed. It was a warmth that sunk all the way down to the bones, and was as much emotional as it was physical. Amber found herself smiling from the sensation – and when she turned back to the stage she found the witches, moon, and forest had all vanished. The rest of the illusions also faded away, the fish first vanishing into the Blue River, which itself sunk into the ground once each of the trout had returned to its depths. The act ended quietly, and without fanfare, but its end had left a the crowd feeling happy and energized. Amber looked down at her hands, feeling as if she were crackling with magic.
“What was that?” Amber asked Jack, looking up to watch the lily pads as they continued to drift lazily throughout the town, persisting even though the rest of the act as done. “The feeling those lilies made?”
“It’s empathist magic,” Jack said. “Like what you do. Empathists can control other people’s energies as much as lend out their own. Like what you did when there was that wolf and the mud magic, remember? You sort of…” Jack shrugged. “Boosted my magic. That’s what the lilies do. Give us a boost.”
“To everyone?” Amber asked. “That sounds like a lot of magic to lend out.”
“It is,” Jack agreed. “But it’s just once a year, and it’s three people doing the spell, to make it easier. Plus,” Jack added matter-of-factly, “the adults are way stronger at magic than us.”
“What’s the next act?” Ash asked, hoping up and down. Amber secretly believed her sister could maybe have done without the extra spike of energy. “It’s so pretty! I want to learn how to make pictures in the air, too.”
“Illusions,” Jack corrected. “It’s pretty hard to do illusions – nothing like the physical magic most of us use. But you could probably learn from someone… I think your spell book might have had something on it as well. Anyway, though, the next act is Ronald doing some divination thing, but it’s really just a plug for the Black Moon Society’s weekly meetings.” Jack rolled his eyes. “There’s better acts later. Come on, let’s explore in the mean time.”
The girls were all too happy to agree, though Amber did wave to Chuck as she caught sight of him by the stage, and he happily waved back before pulling up his hood and casting his face in dramatic shadows.
The evening passed in a blur of magic, sweets, and werelights. The kids tried every one of the treats that were offered for free, and couple more that were for sale (as they had been saving their allowance and decided the bubbling cauldron puddings were a worthy treat to spend their savings on.) Within an hour they were thoroughly stuffed, though it certainly didn’t stop them from trying to fit more in.
There were trinkets for them to buy and play with as well, including various toys that would appear to come alive and a few gimmicks that would temporarily stain anything vibrant shades in any color you liked. Though she let Ash buy a couple of these color bombs, Amber thought it would be best for her to hold onto them at least until there was less sugar in her little sister’s system, and promised to give them back the next day when she was sure to be more responsible with them. For herself Amber found a new sketchbook on one table full of leatherwork; it was detailed in green and gold ink that depicted an oak tree, and when the light hit the colors just right the branches and leaves seemed to sway from an invisible breeze.
Jack didn’t get anything for himself, but was all too eager to show the girls around. They stopped by the stage a couple more times when other interesting acts came on – one involving smoke magic, and another where a witched raised a set of animal bones and had them run about the square – but as the night grew longer the girls began to tire, overstuffed and a bit chilly now that the sun was down and the night fully set in. They slipped their jackets on and sought out Willow for another round of hot drinks, then went back to the stage for the final act of the Midsummer’s Eve festival.
This one was hosted by Nan herself. Though she was not the oldest person in town – at least, the girls didn’t think she was, and Jack wasn’t sure – she was certainly the most respected, so it fell on her shoulders to close out the ceremony. Wordlessly (many acts were done so) she took to the stage, leaning heavily on her cane as always. Once she reached the center she paused, looking out on the assembly with a wrinkled smile. Then she looked up to the moon, which was now overhead.
“The longest day of the year,” she said, and as she spoke the town’s clock tower struck a bell. At the same time Nan tapped her stick on the wooden boards of the stage with a hollow thunk. “We will welcome it in before the sun even rises.” With the next toll she again tapped her stick, and this time a few sparks of light skipped away from the base of her cane. Jack nudged and pointed, in case the girls hadn’t seen. “We welcome it in at midnight.” More lights bloomed with the next tap, briefly illuminating the stage in orange light. “At the witching hour.” Bong, thunk. “When our powers’ potential grows three fold.” Bong, thunk. “When we-”
But Nan’s next sentence was cut off as a long, low howl reverberated down the square. The clock tower range six more times all while the howl continued, growing steadily louder. The sisters looked at each other, and Ash mouthed “the wolf.” The howl was slow to die off, and once it did everything was deadly quiet. The echo of the clock tower seemed to still be vibrating in everyone’s bones, and the crowd looked around in hushed silence. Even Nan seemed to be unsure what to make of the eerie call. Then there came the sound of rushing fur and nails clacking against concrete, and someone screamed as the wolf burst into the town center, all snarls and growls and snapping teeth.
The crowd scattered as people screamed and stumbled over one another. The floating lilies were sent spinning away in every direction as both people and magic knocked into them, causing the lights to dance dizzyingly about the square. Amber, Ash, and Jack tried to get out of the way of the trampling adults, but there were people in every direction, and it seemed no matter which way they turned the wolf was close by – too close, and getting closer.
A beam of light cut through the square, shooting up from the ground and spreading into a wall at least ten feet tall. Moments later three more followed, boxing the wolf in.
“Good lord, it’s huge!” Willow said, her arms raised as she held up a wall of the glowing box.
“Least as big as me, I recon,” Chuck agreed, holding up another side.
“Cursed,” Nan observed. She held her walking stick before her, and it gave forth a light that completed the last two walls of the wolf’s cell. “Do you see the weavings?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah!” Willow said, tipping her head and letting out an impressed whistle. “Just beneath the fur. You’ve got sharp eyes for an old- whoa!” The wolf leapt at Willow, shaking the walls as it collided with the magical projection. Next it tried to jump, nearly hooking its forepaws over the lip of the case before the three sorcerers lifted their hands higher, and the walls continued to grow. The wolf fell back down and snarled, clawing frantically at its enclosure.
“What do we do with it?” Willow asked. “Someone’s gotta hold it down so we can check out that- Aaaahhh!” Willow screamed as something jumped at her from behind, digging its claws into her bare arms and neck. The wall went down and the wolf wasted no time in bolting away, knocking over Nan and Chuck as it careened into the front stage, shattering the pieces of wood to splinters. The black cat jumped down from Willow’s bloodied shoulders, then shot back into the darkness, disappearing quickly among the shadows.
“Where is it?” Amber was saying. “Can you see? Where did it go?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said. “It’s too dark – too many people running around – I can’t see anything.”
“There’s got to be-”
“Dad!” Ash screamed. “Amber!”
Amber spun around, searching for her sister in a sudden panic. “Ash!” she cried, trying to catch any glimpse of her. “Ash, where are you!”
“Amber!” The scream came again, terrified and desperate. “Amber, help!”
“Ashley!” Amber called. “Ash! Jack, where is she, I can’t see her!”
“There!” he cried, jumping up and down to try to get a better look. “By the bridge!”
Amber pushed her way out of the crowd, trying to see where Jack was pointing. The lights were dimmer away from the town’s square, but there was just enough werelights flicking in the nearby trees that Amber was able to catch the flames reflecting off of something wet, and hear her sister crying for help one last time, before it slipped beneath the bridge and out of sight.
The wolf completely forgotten, Amber sprinted towards the riverbank, calling her sister’s name as she ran. She swore she could hear her, but by the time she slid down the shallow slope she could see nothing but the moon’s shattered reflection in the stream. Amber splashed out into the river, the cold water sinking into her shoes and pricking her toes.
“Ash!” Amber called again, but this time there was no response.
A light bloomed above her head.
“She there?” Jack asked, cradling a fire. Amber use the source of light to frantically look around.
“I- I don’t know, I don’t see her. But she was here! She was- she was covered in mud, or something. I don’t know.”
“Like the magicked mud we found in the river bank…” a look of shock passed over Jack’s face. “It’s a mud doll! I should have realized it before – so stupid, but I’d only ever heard of them-”
“What! What is it?” Amber asked, too impatient for Jack’s rambling.
“A mud doll,” he repeated, sliding down the bank towards Amber. “River mud bewitched to take on human form. In the stories they sometimes steal people away. Fuelled by jealously. It had to have been a mud doll.”
“But why would it take her, Jack?” Amber pleaded. “Where would it go? Where would she… there!” Amber caught a glimpse of light a ways down the river bank, and before Jack could say another word she was sprinting down the river, throwing up a spray of cold water in her wake.
“Amber!” Jack called, running after her, but Amber wasn’t listening. The river grew darker as she left the town behind, but the cold wasn’t going to hold her back. Her sisters was close, she could feel it.
Another light flickered, this time at the top of the bank, and Amber zagged to the left, groping blindly at the dew covered plants and roots that covered the bank as she slipped and climbed her way out of the stream. Jack was still calling behind her, but she couldn’t afford to wait for him – she couldn’t afford to lose sight of Ash.
She was in the trees now, sprinting through the forest at a reckless rate. Dusk, who had given her some space during the night’s festivities, cawed as he returned to her now, keeping pace with her as he wove between the limbs of nearby trees. Amber took comfort in his presence, and in fact felt more energized – more confident – with him nearby. Between her familiar and the extra bit of energy the charmed lily pads afforded, Amber felt as if she could run for miles – and that was exactly what she intended to do.
“Amber, stop!” Jack called again, though he sounded a bit more distant this time. The light still flickered ahead of Amber, however, and it also seemed more distant. She couldn’t stop, not now – if she lost Ash she wouldn’t know what she would do with herself. What would her dad say? Oh, no, her dad, she’d run off and hadn’t told him – he’d have no idea where they were-
A fireball impacted the ground to Amber’s right, causing her to skid to a halt. The fire bloomed in Amber’s vision, temporarily burning bright orbs of light into her retinas. She paused as she waited for her vision to return, but the forest had grown darker in the absence of her night vision, and she suddenly wasn’t sure which way she was facing anymore.
“Amber, geez, I told you to stop!” Jack panted as he caught up.
“Why’d you stop me!” Amber demanded. “I’ll lose her!”
“You already have!” Jack exclaimed. “Look! You see a light over there?” Jack pointed, and it took a few seconds for Amber to catch a glimpse of what he was talking about.
“Oh!” She started, taking a step forward, but Jack grabbed her arm and stopped her.
“And over there,” he said, pointing in a different direction. A distant, purple light was flickering between the trees. Amber’s desperation turned instantly to uncertainty.
“What…. what are those?” she asked. “What was I following?”
“Will-o’-the-wisps,” Jack said. “They’re meant to make you lost. And I’d say they pretty well succeeded in that.”
“Oh, no,” Amber said. “What did I do? I’m so stupid!” Amber began to shiver, partly from the cold but also in shock. She had lost her sister, and then gone and lost herself. “What’s going on, Jack? Why’d it take Ash?”
“I don’t know who, but someone doesn’t want you to find her,” Jack said. “Mud dolls – will-o’-the-wisps – they’re not natural, they’re made. Someone did it for some reason. Who would want to take your sister, Amber?”
Amber hadn’t known until the moment Jack asked, but suddenly she was certain. “Bast,” she said, looking at Jack. “He tried to kidnap us when we were just little. And your mom said he wasn’t dead, just trapped… oh, no, Jack. I think we let him out.”
“What?” Jack said. “How do you know? Why would he want your sister?”
“I’ll explain later,” Amber said, reaching into her bag with sudden determination. From within she drew her dowsing stone. “First, I have to find Ash. Jack, I need some light.”
Jack obliged, calling a flame to both his hands. He lifted them up above their heads, so their eyes could adjust to the dark. Amber shivered from the welcome warmth.
“I also need some water,” she said. “And a bowl… but I don’t have one. Would my hands work the same?”
“They should,” Jack said, recognizing the dowsing stone. “If you can keep the water from dripping out. But I don’t know where we are, or even if there’s any water nearby.”
Amber’s heart sank. “What’s the use of a dowsing stone if I can’t even use it to find water!” Amber looked down at her hands, wondering for a moment if she could use spit instead, but she didn’t think she had enough spit for it to work, and it would take too long besides. And even then, she recalled with sudden doubt, she’d never really gotten the dowsing stone to work well; her sister had been better at that kind of stuff than she.
“Jack, what do we do?” Amber asked, a sinking feeling growing in her stomach. “How do we find our way back?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out,” he reassured her. “Plus, I’ve got an idea.” Jack brought his flaming hands together and held them out to Amber. “Let me try.”
Hesitantly, Amber held the dowsing stone above Jack’s hands. She could feel the fire’s heat, but it was much cooler than a natural fire, and she was sure that it wouldn’t burn her. Dropping the stone into the flames, the arrowhead bobbed then leveled off, floating in the fire a few inches above Jack’s hands. Like the needle of a compass, the stone first spun one way, then back the other, eventually settling on one direction off to Jack’s right. Amber peered for a moment into the shadows of the forest, as if expecting to see Ash waiting just beyond the firelight.
“Okay,” she said, glancing at the dowsing stone again to make sure she knew which way they were heading. “Let’s go.”
The children began to run once more, this time their path lit by the fire cupped in Jack’s hands. Feeling began to return to Amber’s feet, though she hadn’t even realize they’d gone numb until she began to feel prickles of sensation returning to them. She bit her lip, trying to ignore the pain, cold, and fatigue that gnawed at her. She wouldn’t stop – she couldn’t.
Flickers of purple light began to appear between the trees. Amber noticed them and moved closer to Jack, who seemed to have caught sight of them as well.
“The will-o’-the-wisps,” he panted as they run. “They must know that we’re getting closer. Try to ignore them.”
Amber hated to admit that following Jack’s advice was easier said than done. The ghostly lights were difficult to ignore, and Amber found her eyes continually drawn towards them each time a flicker caught the corner of her eye. Amber brought her hands up to her face, trying to block out the sides of her vision, and turned her head downwards instead to stare at the dowsing stone floating in the flames. The fire burned into her vision, but she refused to look away.
A roar and then darkness – Amber stumbled forwards as the fire abruptly vanished and she lost her footing, blind in the sudden dark. Amber cried out as she went sprawling forwards, jarring her forearms as she blindly tried to break her fall. There were rustling leaves and snapping twigs nearby, and she could hear Jack screaming wildly as he fought against something in the black. There was a burst of flame which snuffed suddenly out, then a yelp of pain.
“Jack!” Amber called, groping in the direction of his cries. The moon was hidden by the trees, and Jack’s fire had gone out. As Amber’s eyes once more began to adjust to the dark, however, she was able to make out dim shadows, growing slowly more distinguishable as will-o’-the-wisps began to drift closer.
“Don’t move, Amber,” Jack said, not far from where she was. She turned her head in his direction, straining to pick up his silhouette. “Don’t come closer!”
One of the will-o’-the-wisps drifted by, and Amber caught a brief glimpse of the scenery in the spirit light. Jack was on his side, his arm twisted beneath him at an awkward angle, though he was staying carefully still. A giant muzzle was clamped around his shoulder, but the eyes of the beast, reflecting purple in the werelight, were trained on Amber.
The wolf growled.