Tracing Shapes in the Dust 7

The story wound to a close as Flare stared off into the distance. I watched the fire dance. Solange pulled Flare into a hug.

“That sounds awful,” Solange said.

“It was just pain,” Flare said. “Nothing special, just an annoyance.”

“I mean the people.”

Flare turned to look at Solange.

Solange continued, “They just didn’t listen to a word you said. Why do people just not listen? I don’t get it.”

Flare nodded.

Solange continued even more, “If I hadn’t listened to you, I’d be frozen right now. I would never have begun to think about monsters, or charms, or whatever. I’d just have been some harvester girl right up until the town went cold.”

Agreement drifted around my mind. Listening was how you made yourself better than you were. If I’d never listened to anyone, I wouldn’t know how to dispel charms, probably not even how to cast them in the first place. I wouldn’t know what witches were, who Flare was, what she’d done for Scorched Rock. She might not have even done anything for Scorched Rock, if I hadn’t been listening as much as I could.

“They weren’t even the worst,” Flare said.

Solange stared at Flare until Flare said more. “Some towns don’t know anything about witches, or regard us with suspicion. If a monster is in a town like that, the people there make dealing with it much harder.”

Solange looked away. “It just seems strange to me. Wouldn’t you want to try anything if you had shadow worms in your skin? Or whatever the monster was.”

“Tapeshades.”

“Yeah, those.”

Curiosity overtook my mouth, and I asked, “How do you get infected with tapeshades?”

“I was more inexperienced then, and wasn’t watching the places the starlight didn’t touch,” Flare said.

“You’ve gotta give us more than that,” Solange said.

Flare leaned back onto her elbows, staring up at the stars. “There are patches where it’s slightly darker than starlight should be. Tapeshades sleep there. If you rest close to them, they’ll crawl inside and start to breed.”

I made a face. Solange said, “Ew.”

“They’re annoying, but it’s only life-threatening if you’re unprepared. I was, then. Now I keep myself better stocked.”

I recalled a while back, when Flare kept us moving for a while after we usually would stop to rest. She kept scanning the terrain, looking for something I couldn’t see. “Was that tapeshades?” I asked, then realized I hadn’t said the rest of my musings.

“Hm?” Solange said.

“No, we didn’t stop then because there was an enthalope on the horizon.”

“I remember you talking about those!” Solange exclaimed before I had the chance to ask. “Once they charge, you’re stuck with ‘em, right? I haven’t seen one myself yet, but I’m curious.”

“Don’t let it charge. Just leave it behind,” Flare said.

“I know, I know, I’d just like to see one, that’s all,” Solange said.

“You don’t.”

“Okay.”

“Um,” I started, not wanting to cut in too much. “Can you show me how to spot tapeshades?”

Flare gave me a quick nod. Solange said, “How much have you taught her, anyway? What cures does she know?”

“I don’t know any,” I said. “Except for the cure for tapeshades, now. And for Fool’s Pyre.”

“Fool’s Pyre, wow. I’ve never seen that one either.”

“It’s not exciting. Just a rock,” Flare said.

“Rocks can be exciting!” Solange said. “Did you even see the collection I had back at my cave?”

“They weren’t exciting. Just rocks,” Flare said.

“How could you?” Solange said, voice dripping with fake offense. I could tell it was fake because she was grinning ear to ear. “Come here! You must answer for your slander!”

Solange dove on top of Flare, and Flare began to make little embarassed protesting noises. I looked away. That was something for them. I should just try to sleep. I could hear Solange giggling, and Flare making small sounds to try and get her to get off. Flare didn’t sound particularly distressed by it.

I pulled my bedroll up around my ears and slept. Their business was their business.

I woke up feeling only half-rested. Looking over at the two of them, I saw that they hadn’t crawled into Flare’s bedroll. Solange had simply fallen asleep on top of Flare, and both of them were now breathing sofly. I looked at the state of the fire, already starting to burn low, and then back over at the two of them. Then I groaned, and crawled out of my bedroll.

I had a spare blanket in my bag, from Crownsbreak. It would probably be fairly inconvenient for the two of them to catch a chill as we traveled. I draped it over the two of them gently. Then I crawled back to my bedroll and returned to sleep.

The next time I woke up, I was properly rested. Solange was wearing her coat again, and Flare had packed her bedroll up. My blanket was back in my pack. There was a little pack of rations sitting next to my bedroll, as well. I crunched my way through the bland foodstuffs and packed up my bedroll.

Flare placed the witch-stone into her lantern, and we began to walk again. Solange was already talking again, going into detail about her rock collection. The rocks were gathered from all along the mountain range, and every so often as we traveled Flare would stop Solange and ask her how she managed to get out of where she’d been alive, and Solange would just gesture at her coat, and that was answer enough.

I wondered how robust that coat was. From how Solange talked about it, the thing had survived cave-ins, monster attacks, falling trees, all kinds of punishment. It boggled my mind how she made it work.

When she hit a lull in her rock collection, I asked her about it, and she was happy to elaborate. With her chattering happily away about her craftsmanship, I found it easy to ignore my legs as we traveled and simply focus on the ideas it drew into my brain.

It was barely any time at all before Brink was on the horizon.

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Tracing Shapes in the Dust 6

The ingredients of the cure were gathered remarkably quickly, once the doctor had told Harriet to go get the proper ingredients. Funny how much quicker it became when the doctor parroted Flare’s words instead of Flare merely speaking them herself.

The only thing that was left was the charm user. If pain made one thing difficult, it made charms difficult. Of course, pain didn’t make one thing difficult, it made everything difficult. Charms were just one of the everythings that this applied to.

For argument’s sake, and in order to circumvent the townsfolk should they be reluctant to find a charm-user or worse yet not have one, Flare still tried to trace the light charm into the incense block herself. A spike of pain shattered her concentration neatly, and the glowing strands of charm dissipated into the air. Flare dropped her hand.

“Can you explain anything more about this?” Hazel asked.

“Once I’ve breathed it in, it’ll take a while to work. So I’ll need somewhere to sleep.”

Hazel nodded. “You can stay here.” She didn’t sound happy about it, but she also sounded firm. Flare didn’t have the energy to argue with her, anyway.

Flare passed Hazel the incense block. “The charm user?”

Hazel looked at the incense block. “Just a light charm?” she asked.

“Meteorlight.” Flare clarified.

Hazel said, “Alright,” and then began to trace the charm herself on the incense block. Flare watched her do it. She was surprisingly adept at it, and Flare began to speculate as to why the town held her in such high esteem. Only briefly, since one of the other everythings pain interfered with was speculation.

Then the charm was finished being carved, and Hazel passed the incense back to Flare. “You three should leave,” Flare said. “The smoke is dangerous.”

“Will it linger?” Harriet asked.

“No. Now go.” Flare could feel another bout of pain coming on, and she wanted to get the cure started as quickly as possible. The faster she cured herself, the faster she would be free of pain and be able to head towards the mountains.

The three others left.

Flare coated the incense in the quicksilver, the metal beading and glittering in the light the incense was now giving off. She hummed as she worked, trying to keep her mind off the pain wracking her, and off the highly poisonous material she was making use of. She produced a flint and tinder from her pack, as well as an ignition charm on a small plate of wood that should make sure it caught.

Incense alight, Flare settled back and breathed deep. The smoke coming off it was thick, and sinuous, and orange-yellow instead of simple gray. It tasted of heaviness and weight and substance, almost like a solid object. Flare waved one hand through it, and felt it wrap around her fingers, envelop her arm, drag the whole thing down to her side, and she knew she’d made the cure right.

It seeped into her lungs, settling in and carrying her back down onto her back, lying on the couch. Already the pain felt faraway and unimportant, a detail of somebody else’s life that wasn’t worth worrying about. The wriggling under her skin slowed.

Solidity was what brought the tapeshades to heel. They were monsters of substanceless, and when they swallowed the light and the smoke that Flare was swallowing they would wind up more solid than the little squirming shadows they normally were. Then the blood could carry them, and the body could expel them. Taking advantage of natural functions in order to heal from monsters. A lot of witching hinged on that, more than most common folk expected. The world had its own ways of dealing with monsters, witches just made it happen faster.

The smoke became thick, too thick to see through. The image of Hazel peering through the window in the door faded away, replaced by thick orange-yellow clouds drifting serenely to and fro. Flare could feel exhaustion beginning to settle back into her body, and with the pain no longer standing in her way, she let the clouds take her off to sleep.

She woke up, and the clouds were still there. She went to sleep again.

She woke up, and the clouds were gone. Nobody was around, but the table was gone along with all its medicines, and there was a full glass of water sitting next to the couch.

Time passed for a few days. Flare’s strength slowly began to return as she worked the tapeshades out of her system, and while Hazel cooked meals and allowed Flare to sleep on the couch, they barely talked.

Harriet did come by though, fairly often. At first she simply wanted to see the book of poetry, curious about what the doctor had told her regarding Flare’s readings of it. Then she was coming by regularly to hear new poems, and to bring some poems of her own for Flare to peruse.

Harriet’s poems were direct, sharp, angular things. Short lines rattling around with simple language. Flare thought they had a wonderful rhythm to them, and the more of the poems she read, the more she got a feel for the poetry, and the better she could follow them spoken aloud.

Occasionally the doctor would visit as well, and when they did Flare would be forced to elaborate as much as she cared to about the local monster population. Flare found the doctor very difficult to talk to. Every statement Flare made would need clarification, or relating to some sort of medical concept, or a line to be drawn somewhere to work the doctor themselves into the explanation.

Still, much like Flare got a handle on Harriet’s poetry, she got a handle on explaining things to the doctor. Hopefully, with the doctor’s help and the things Flare had told them, Brink would be fairly well protected against any local monsters that decided to poke their heads in.

Flare’s strength returned piecemeal, but it returned. Still, though, she couldn’t help but feel that even if her trip through the mountains was as quick as she was hoping it would be, she would probably try to track down a different way back over them and skip Brink altogether. It just wasn’t her place.

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Tracing Shapes in the Dust 5

The poem book lay discarded on the ground. Harriet had dragged a table in front of the couch, and the doctor was beginning to lay out bottle after bottle of medicine from a large black satchel. Flare recognized every one. Rather than examine them closely, she contented herself with glaring at the doctor.

The doctor placed one final bottle on the table.

Flare said, “Are you finished?”

The doctor’s gaze snapped up to her, and then snapped over to Flare’s bandaged arm, and then back to the table. The bandage was beginning to stain with blood ever so slightly. Flare ignored it.

Hazel conferred with Harriet off to one side. Harriet was holding the needle still, which nobody had yet disposed of. Flare was already having enough trouble with herself, she didn’t want to have to deal with a whole town of pain-racked people on top of it. She still had yet to put together her cure, and getting enough for a whole town seemed extremely unlikely.

She wasn’t even entirely sure where to find the quicksilver. It wasn’t exactly a household item.

The doctor said, “You haven’t yet told me much about these monsters. What did you call them?”

“Tapeshades,” Flare said.

“So, these tapeshades. What are they like?”

Flare’s teeth ground in her skull, and her nerves ground in her gut. Her words came in a staccato burst, rattling out between the pain before she had to gulp down more breath.

“I know. You don’t. I’m hurt. Can’t talk. Shut up. Let me get cure.”

The doctor stared at her for a moment. Then the doctor said, “I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.”

“Not. Won’t. Can’t,” Flare hissed.

“Listen, I know that giving up on your professional secrets is difficult, but you need help. You can barely walk, much less cure this on your own.”

The frustration burned almost as much as Flare’s innards did. “I am in too much pain. To discuss. A monster. In detail. With you.”

“Well, I can start you on a painkiller.”

“No.”

“Listen, I’m doing my best to help, and I’m sure as soon as you take this you’ll feel  well enough to talk again.”

“That painkiller will kill me.”

“I highly doubt that. How could it?”

Flare wanted to smash the bottle in the doctor’s hand against the ground and be done with the whole discussion. “I would explain, but–” That was the moment Flare realized there was a better way she could explain. She reached for the poetry book, tugging its weight multiplied by the pain in her veins up to the table. About halfway through the book was a poem about the mind being blinded by the senses, and it ended with pain. Flare shoved the book towards doctor, ignoring the doctor’s wince as several bottles toppled off the table and clinked against the floor.

The doctor looked at the book. “What?”

Flare’s finger jabbed at the poem. The doctor peered at it. “The dream slips away in the face of vividness?” they asked, confused.

Flare stabbed at the book with her finger again, as though that would help with clarity somehow. Her dream had slipped away too hard in the face of the monsters’ vividness, and anything more coherent was beyond her.

The doctor failed to understand the poem, and set the book aside. “How about this painkiller?” they asked. Flare peered at the bottle. She could swear she recognized the herbs inside, but the name and use and exact effects of it escaped her. She simply shook her head. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t help.

Frustration had begun to sneak onto the doctor’s face. A slight vindictive spark of satisfaction caught flame inside Flare. At least the doctor could understand something.

Harriet came over and addressed the doctor. “I’m about to go and throw this away, is their anything you need?”

The frustration on the doctor’s face melted away as they thought, but Flare knew exactly what she needed. “Quicksilver.”

Harriet turned to look at her. Her eyebrows knit. “Isn’t that a poison?”

Flare nodded.

Harriet looked at the doctor, then at Hazel. Hazel said, “There are better ways to deal with a problem like this than poisoning yourself.”

Flare’s hand gripped her own face, hard. She didn’t draw blood, thankfully, but it was a close thing. She could feel the tapeshades wriggling inside her scalp, begging her to pierce the skin. She could also feel the townsfolk’s concern wriggling outside her scalp, begging her to pierce the skin just as much. She said, “I will use it as a cure, not a poison.”

The doctor quietly said, “Just get it, Harriet.” Hazel made a small noise, but Harriet was already on her way out. The doctor continued, “There’s a vial in the second cabinet on the right in my workshop.”

Harriet said, “Got it,” and then she was gone.

Flare locked eyes with Hazel, was staring curiously at her. Then the pain began to subside, and Flare was able to say, “I’ll need a skilled charm user.”

Hazel shook her head. “Tell me what you would need them for first. Don’t just say the cure, I’m getting awfully tired of hearing that.”

Flare took a deep breath. The pain was finally ebbing to a point where she could think again. “The quicksilver needs light. Engrave light onto incense, coat the incense in quicksilver, burn the incense, nobody else in the room. Dangerous to uninfested.”

The doctor blinked. “How does that work, though? That’s not how medicines work, or cures, or whatever you’d like to call them.”

“It’s how monsters work,” Flare said. “The book, please.”

Wordlessly, the doctor passed the book over. Flare took it, and flipped to where she last left off. The doctor and Hazel exchanged a glance.

“What now?” the doctor asked.

Flare cleared her throat. “Now I practice reading this aloud.”

Hazel looked at the doctor, and then went to grab a pair of chairs. Flare waited until she returned to begin.

“When you Muse on the World,” she started, and not one of the three of them noticed the time passing until Harriet returned.

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Tracing Shapes in the Dust 4

Flare didn’t get the cure that night. Every time she steeled herself to get up and go to the door, the pain spiked. Every time she shifted herself to try and get to her feet, the pain rumbled. Every time that she tried to just go to sleep already, the pain doubled its volume. The pain demanded her attention over and over again, until finally she gave up and let it keep her from thinking.

She woke up some time later. While she had been trying her hardest to fall asleep, her exhaustion had made the choice to simply wait until she’d given up on sleeping at all, and only then to let it happen. Flare spared a quiet moment on the couch before her pain realized she was awake and cursed her exhaustion for not working faster. Then she stood, headed to the door, and left.

Hazel, thankfully, wasn’t around to stop her this time. Instead, Flare wandered out into the street, mind still drifting slightly inside her head. She felt unfocused after sleeping on that sofa, and after enduring the night’s pain.

Hazel turned the corner ahead of her, the doctor following close behind. Both of them were gossiping aimlessly about the festivities. The words didn’t manage to penetrate Flare’s head, but the people themselves did. Flare allowed herself a little groan as the doctor and Hazel approached her.

“What are you doing up so soon?” Hazel asked, “Let’s get you back inside, you don’t need to worry about a thing. I’ll make sure to get whatever it is you think you need.”

“Yes, from what Hazel’s told me you should be on total bed rest,” the doctor said.

Flare didn’t resist as they brought her back inside, only groaning slightly. Once more she was lain back down on the sofa.

“Now, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll need to do some tests if I’m to properly diagnose you,” the doctor said.

Flare grimaced. “I know what’s wrong.”

“We’ve been over this,” the doctor sighed. Then they pulled up a chair and sat down. “Why don’t you tell me what you think is wrong, then?”

“Monster outside the village,” Flare forced out as the pain in her gut sprang up once more.

“And that’s why you’re so bruised?”

Flare tried to choke the pain down long enough to find the right words. Sadly it would be distinctly un-witchlike to tell the doctor to go lick the edge of town. Instead, she said, “In part,” hoping the doctor would get the hint that she wasn’t in any condition to talk about it.

“What part?” the doctor asked.

Flare glared at them. The doctor stared patiently. The pain scrambled her thoughts. She groaned and shifted how she was lying on the sofa.

After her pain failed to let up, Hazel said, “I’ll go fetch Harriet,” and left.

The doctor cleared their throat. “Well, if you aren’t going to clarify, I’ll just begin my tests. First, I’ll need some blood.” The doctor produced a needle.

Teeth clenched together, all Flare could do was vigorously shake her head.

“Don’t be nervous, this won’t hurt a bit.” The tips of the doctor’s fingers began to trace out the numb charm. Flare tried to move her arm out of the way, but everything she did felt like a monumental effort, and she found herself unable to do anything as the charm was gently applied.

She tried to bat the needle away. The doctor gently pushed her hand out of the way and inserted the needle. The pain was nothing compared to the cacophony in her stomach, but that wasn’t what concerned Flare. What concerned Flare was what was being drawn up into the needle.

The blood only poured in slowly at first, coating the inside of the needle as it burbled out. Then the blood stopped. The doctor drew back on the needle a little harder. A small spurt emerged. The doctor pulled back harder still, and this time something else came out through the needle, and Flare let out a gasp of pain.

A depthless worm, wriggling and writhing as it was forced out of her vein, splashed free into the syringe, and in shock the doctor pulled the needle out. Flare’s hand went straight to the puncture, covering it in case any of the others tried to escape. She could feel them in her arm, jockeying to try and get to the hole.

“Tapeshades,” Flare said.

The doctor stared dumbly at the monster inside their needle.

“That’s what’s out there,” Flare said.

The doctor shook the needle a little, watching the monster bounce around inside.

“Stop trying to give me medicine,” Flare said.

“Can you tell me about them?” the doctor finally asked.

Flare made a pained noise and gripped her arm harder. One of the little monsters was trying to fight their way out. She could feel it pushing up against her hand, trying to break her grip. It wasn’t strong, but it was disconcerting.

“Hm,” the doctor said.

It was that moment that Hazel returned, Harriet in tow. “What did you find?” Hazel asked.

The doctor held up the needle. Both Hazel and Harriet stared at its contents. Harriet looked over at Flare, still trying to hold her arm shut before anything else got out.

“Throw that to the ice,” Flare said. “Don’t let it out. Get me a bandage.”

“Do you need help? Are you okay?” asked Harriet.

“I need a bandage,” Flare hissed.

Harriet opened her mouth, looking like she was about to say something. Then the doctor said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got one here,” and Harriet closed her mouth.

The doctor leaned in with the bandage. Flare went to grab the bandage to apply herself, but the doctor shoved their way in without noticing. They applied it loosely. Flare could see the slight bump from the tapeshade trying to sneak out.

“Give it,” Flare said, and tightened the bandage. The doctor stood back.

Hazel said, “Well, doctor? What shall we do?”

The doctor looked at her, then back at Flare. “I have an idea. Let me go fetch some medicine.” They fled.

Flare didn’t watch them go. She was too busy enduring the next wave of pain as it hit her.

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Tracing Shapes in the Dust 3

Time wore on, and Flare’s patience ran thin. It was only about three more poems before Flare began to aggressively glare at anyone who came too close to her couch. Eventually, the townsfolk inside shuffled back out to the lawn, where there were more people they knew and less grumpy witches. This gave Flare a chance to lie back and breathe, and attempt to gather energy for hunting down cure ingredients.

That was when the first pang began to writhe in her stomach. Flare grimaced. The pain was sharp and mobile, forcefully dragging her attention to her stomach hard enough to make her double over. Thoughts of cure hunting fled her mind, replaced with fog.

By the time it subsided, some enterprising townsfolk had cleaned out the front room of food and tables, and Hazel was sitting by the window looking out at the winding-down get-together.

Flare broke open the book of poetry once more rather than say anything. She could think again, but only because the pain in her gut had reduced itself to merely distracting levels. Ideally, the pain would be gone entirely with a good sleep. The problem was, of course, getting the pain low enough now that she could actually get to sleep.

Her eyes glued themselves to the poetry book. What better distraction was there from pain than imagery, symbolism, and rhythm? Flare’s eyes traced each line with stubborn deliberateness, as if daring the pain in her gut to reemerge and drag her attention away again.

This time, when it did, Flare was a little more prepared. She braced herself, marshalled her focus, locked her eyes on a single word in the book. The pain crashed against her mind, but she stood her ground.

Then it redoubled, and then tripled, and Flare’s concentration was broken. More time scrambled away from her while she was distracted, trying to escape before she could make use of it. The get-together was entirely gone when Flare could feel her mind again, and Hazel was nowhere to be seen.

The book was set aside. Clearly, it wasn’t working. Tiredness was beginning to drag at her eyes even as pain scooped her guts out, so Flare resolved to tackle sleep with the same vigor she had tackled reading the poem book with. She curled up on the couch, feeling the softness underneath her, focusing on breathing evenly, creating a peaceful and calm mental environment.

The pain spiked. The environment shattered. Flare tried again.

She hummed a lullaby. A simple one she remembered the tune of, even having forgotten the words. An easy, relaxing melody, ready to whisk her away to the world of dreams.

The pain spiked again, and when it did Flare’s notes went haywire and the moment was lost. She groaned and shifted positions. Perhaps she just wasn’t comfortable enough. If she found the right position, sleep could be possible. One of her hands went to her stomach, to try and gently rub some of the pain out, but whatever effects that might have had were offset by the teeth-clenching pain that was her bruised skin.

No matter how she tackled it, sleep evaded her. Pain would leap at her in her most peaceful moments, wrestle her back to wakefulness, bring her back to her exhaustion in the waking world with no mercy or quarter given.

Finally Flare had enough. With a groan, she dragged herself to her feet, the floorboards creaking underneath her. Enough was enough. Tiredness and sickness be damned, lying still was doing nothing to heal her. No, if she wanted to feel better, procrastination wasn’t how that would happen. She would have to simply go and make her cure now, and she could deal with the town and any issues they might have with it after she was returned to her faculties.

The house was silent as she staggered towards the front door. Every step was a jolt, but once she was standing there were no alternatives short of collapse. It made it easy to push through the pain. The front door creaked horribly as Flare opened it, but Flare paid this no mind. She had business to attend to.

“Where are you going? You should be asleep.” Hazel’s voice drifted out from the stairwell behind her, and slowly Flare turned to see the woman herself.

“I need to cure myself,” Flare said.

“Look at you! You can hardly stand. No, what you need is a good rest, and then when you wake up the doctor will be back to help you out. I’ll take care of it, it’s no trouble.”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Of course you can. You just need to let yourself relax, that’s all. Have you tried taking deep breaths?”

“Yes.”

“A lullaby?”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps some painkillers?”

“I can’t take painkillers,” Flare hissed through gritted teeth.

“Nonsense. Trust me, I’ve been around a while, I’ve never seen anyone have a trouble with these.”

“Trust me. I’m a witch.”

“Yes, but do witches know medicine?”

“We do.”

“I doubt that,” Hazel rummaged in the pocket of her nightrobe, bringing out a small shaker of ground-up herbs. Flare recognized the remedy that was, recognized it as interfering badly with her current issue, and backed out through the open door. She stumbled on the front step.

“Come now,” Hazel said, “Let’s get you back into bed. I’m sure Harriet would be happy to fetch whatever you need.”

“Gathering this is a witch’s job,” Flare said, backing away another step.

“No reason it can’t also be one of our jobs. Come on.” With a sudden burst of movement, Hazel was in front of Flare and gripping her arm. A light tug was all that was needed to pull Flare forward. She simply didn’t have the energy to resist, especially not as the pain in her gut chose this moment to ramp up once again.

Hazel pressed Flare into the sofa, and placed the medicine on the table next to her. “Now let’s not see you out of bed again,” she said, “In the morning you’ll feel right at rain, I just know it.”

Flare watched Hazel walk up the stairs. As the pain in her gut blossomed everything else out of her mind, one last conviction bubbled to the surface. Flare had to get out, and she had to get the cure. Tonight.

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Tracing Shapes in the Dust 2

Flare read the book of poetry in bursts. One poem would go down easily, then the next would require her eyes to flick over it twice more before it was digested, and then suddenly she was closing her eyes and leaning back and rubbing her temples. Hazel stood by in the meantime, there to keep Flare’s water filled and keep an eye on the proceedings out front.

It was a quarter of the poems before Hazel finally went to the door and threw it wide. Flare could see glimpses of the commotion outside. A festival had sprouted on the lawn, people already chattering together about nothing in particular, food and drinks being shared, a small gaggle of musicians taking it in rounds to play for the assembled townsfolk. It took about a stanza for the entire festival to notice Hazel’s door was open and fall silent.

“Thank you all for coming out,” Hazel said. “The witch is awake, and I’m sure she would appreciate your cooking after her long journey.”

Flare tensed on the couch. She didn’t even know what was in the things these townsfolk cooked, after all. Given that drinking water alone was already a danger, how likely was it she could eat what had been prepared?

“I’m sure you would all like the chance to speak with her, and to sit indoors for a bit instead of standing out on the lawn until the stars go out. So, with that in mind, feel free to come inside and say hello.”

Hazel came back in. Outside, Flare could see townsfolk picking up foodstuffs, making their way towards the door. Hazel said, “I hope you don’t mind. It’s been a while since the last witch passed through.”

Flare didn’t say anything. She could deal with townsfolk. The only issue was dealing with the townsfolk while unable to even read two poems back-to-back.

They drifted indoors in twos and threes, chattering, carrying plates, shifting furniture to place food or take a seat. One person pushed through the crowd to Flare directly, though. A person of indeterminate gender, carrying with them a small black bag. They had a stethoscope around their neck. Flare preempted them.

“No thank you, I already know what’s wrong.”

The doctor’s pleasantly neutral expression grew a touch pleasanter. “Nonsense,” they said, “A second opinion never hurts. Come now, let me have a listen.”

Flare stared at the doctor. The doctor said, “Ah, yes, you’re right, where are my manners. I’m the local physician of Brink. It’s good to meet you. And you are?”

Flare said, “Flare,” as shortly as she could. Then she groaned, and her fingers went to her temples, and the doctor struck. The stethoscope was in their hand, and then it was pressing against Flare’s chest, and Flare hissed in pain and recoiled.

The doctor’s expression grew quizzical as Flare glared at them. In one sharp angry motion, Flare pulled down her shirt to reveal a blotchy mess of bruises all staining her upper body, including right above her heart. The doctor gasped and reached into their bag.

“Here, let me give you some painkillers,” the doctor said.

“No.”

The doctor looked at her. “I can tell you’re in a lot of pain. You need painkillers.”

Flare stared back. Then she said, “I know the roots you grow here. What your medicine is.”

“So?”

“I can’t take it.”

“Whyever not? If you’d let me see what was wrong with you, then I could–”

“I know what’s wrong already! I know what I need. Leave me.”

The doctor looked at her, then looked around at the townsfolk, who were starting to stare. “Don’t make a scene,” they chided, “I only want to help.”

“You’re not a witch,” Flare said. “If you really must help, the best you could do is stop talking.”

“You’re obviously in a lot of pain.”

Flare glared at them, then she raised one hand and charm-light began to play off her fingers. Slowly, her hand began to trace the silence charm, but about halfway through she grunted in pain and the light flickered out.

The doctor frowned. “That bad?”

Flare said nothing.

The doctor said, “Well, at least allow me to get you some food.”

Flare grimaced, but the doctor went to gather a plate for Flare anyway. In the meantime, more townsfolk finally began to wander up to Flare, swarming her with questions. How did she get all those bruises? What news did she bring from outside the town? Were there monsters out there? Did monsters do this to her? On and on the questions went, and Flare could hear each one less and less as her concentration waned. She answered none of them, but that didn’t seem to stop the townsfolk.

Flare could have read a poem and a half in the time it took for the doctor to finally return and politely ask everyone to give Flare some space. They carried with them a bowl of some creamy ochre-colored soup which smelled earthy and a little sweet. Flare took it, if only to get the townsfolk to leave her be. The smell was pleasant, and brought herself back to her mind some, but she still felt apprehension.

“What is this?” she asked.

“It’s made from a local squash we grow here.”

“It’s very nutritious,” one of the townsfolk mentioned.

“Good for the soul,” said another.

Flare sniffed at it again. It certainly smelled alright. The only issue was if it would interfere with her current condition more than a little hunger would. It didn’t seem too watery, and the water she drank already had only made her feel marginally worse, so perhaps it would be alright.

“Well? Drink up. It’s good, I promise,” the doctor said.

Flare looked down at the soup. Even if it would make things worse, at the very least it would get the townsfolk out of her hair for five minutes. She still had poetry to read, and resting to do. And perhaps after she slept she would have recovered enough to start hunting down her cure.

She lifted the bowl to her mouth and began to drink.

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Tracing Shapes in the Dust 1

Brink had seen witches before. Of course it had. Brink’s light traveled far over the brushlands, so all witches passing through found it and visited, if only for supplies. As sparse as food and water were in Brink, there was none of either outside of it.

Of course, it had rarely seen a witch who had been so ill-prepared to reach it. The witch-stone this one carried was flickering madly in the starlight, barely keeping the frost from cutting into her skin. She staggered into town, and as soon as she made it within the border her legs gave out and she fell flat on her face. Her pack was loose and empty.

Hazel was the one who went over to her and helped her up. Somehow, even as old as she was, Hazel was still the person who did the most around the town. They had a mayor, of course. They had people in charge of things. Yet it was always Hazel picking up wounded travellers, organizing festivals, bringing the town to life. And if Hazel came knocking on a shop door with a plate of fresh-baked pastries, with a little bit of advice, they listened.

“Give her space,” Hazel told the villagers crowding around the fallen witch. “She needs help, not eyeballs.”

The villagers backed off, as one.

“Harriet, be a dear and fetch some fresh water, will you?”

A kind-faced and broad-shouldered woman turned towards the spring without hesitation.

“Could you two help me carry her back to my home?”

A pair of men stopped holding hands and stepped in to assist.

“And if any of you have some spare food, and could bring it, that would be appreciated.”

And with that, everyone else dispersed. Chatter about tables, chairs, drinks, and food began to circulate. The townsfolk knew there was little better place for a gathering than the front lawn of Hazel’s home, and little better excuse for one than the arrival of a witch.

The witch herself was gingerly placed on a comfortable sofa in Hazel’s sitting room. The water arrived soon after, Harriet carrying it over one shoulder in a big barrel. “So, she roped you in, too?” she remarked to the two men who had carried the witch. The three of them left Hazel to tend to the witch. They discovered industrious townsfolk already carrying tables and tablecloths out to the lawn.

Hazel was sitting in a large chair, watching as the town converged to begin putting together a get-together, when the witch’s eyes finally fluttered open. The witch croaked out, “Where am I?” Hazel turned to look at her.

“You’re in Brink,” Hazel said. “You made it.”

“Brink?”

“Brink, yes. I’m Hazel. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Flare. I’m Flare.”

“So, Flare, how are you feeling.”

Flare said nothing. Then she began to cough, hard enough that it brought her to a half sitting up position. Hazel watched patiently as Flare slowly worked her way back to lying flat.

Hazel got up and got a cup of water for Flare to drink. She offered it. Flare wiped her mouth with one hand, and pushed herself up onto her elbow, and regarded the cup.

“Drink,” Hazel said.

Flare shook her head. “I can’t.”

Hazel’s eyebrows knit. “Drink,” she repeated. “You were thirsty enough you collapsed as soon as you reached town.”

“I can’t,” Flare repeated. Then she doubled over coughing again. She covered her mouth with one hand as she did so, and she brought the hand away a touch bloodied.

Hazel straightened up. “I’ll call the doctor.”

“No need,” Flare said, pushing herself up into a sitting position. She dug into her pack.

“You say no need, but you clearly need help,” Hazel said.

Flare shook her head. “I’ve got what I need.” Then her expression slowly began to grow puzzled. Her rooting around inside her pack grew more urgent, more frantic. Finally, she peered inside it and cursed.

Hazel cocked her head.

“I haven’t got what I need,” Flare groaned. She tried to push herself to her feet, and Hazel very gently pushed her back down onto the couch. Flare groaned again as she fell back, unable to resist.

“I need to get supplies,” Flare protested.

“You need to drink,” Hazel corrected her. “If I’m what it takes to knock you over, you have no business doing anything other than resting.”

“I really can’t. It would make recovery harder in the long run.”

Hazel glared at her. “So would dying of dehydration. Stay here as long as you need, nobody here minds witches and this old house has plenty of empty space for you to recover in.”

Flare stared at Hazel, and then she looked at the cup of water. Gingerly, she took the water out of Hazel’s hands and took a small sip. This sent Flare into another flurry of coughs. To her credit, Flare did an admirable job of choking the coughs down as fast as she could and drinking more, and it only wound up causing a little bit of spluttering. Flare frowned down at her now-waterlogged shirt.

“Good. The food will be here soon. I’ll send someone in to bring you something healthy as soon as everything’s set up.” Hazel took the empty cup, refilled it, and placed it on the end table next to the couch. Flare glared at the cup as though the water it held was a personal attack.

“Would you like something to read in the meantime?” Hazel asked.

Flare scowled, and she coughed, but she also nodded. Hazel went wandering over to the bookshelf to pick out something a witch would be properly interested in. She came back with an old leatherbound volume roughly the size and density of an anvil, titled Drift Through The Stars. It landed next to Flare with a heavy thump.

Flare carefully opened the book. The print was cramped and tiny, each of the thin and densely packed pages crammed with enough text to give Flare a headache just looking at it. She looked up at Hazel.

“Have you got any books on poetry?

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Chill Winds 7

The poetry hung in my mind as we made our silent way through the last of the Pass. The only words that had taken the field since we set out again had been Solange’s, as she mused the worm was probably sleeping off the whistle. The rest of the numb steps I’d taken had been in total silence.

I wanted to pick apart what Flare had said, and found the words impenetrable. Poetry was just a different animal compared to the things my father wrote, and the poetry I’d had the most experience looking at was my own poetry. Knowing all the answers when I looked at the poem again didn’t do wonders for helping me look at it well.

I could tell that Flare had said she’d traveled a lot, but I’d already known that. How else would she have amassed the wealth of knowledge she hoarded from town to town? I could tell that Flare wanted to sleep somewhere, but what had she meant by it? Why the stars? Why nestle the lines in between those questions?

I wanted to ask her, but I could already picture questions about my own poetry. Why wouldn’t you want to avoid getting hit? I didn’t know how to answer that, I didn’t have the words to really explain it. Who hit you? I knew how to answer that one, but answering it was the last thing I wanted to do. What and why and where and when and all the questions I could think of just made me want to go back home and stare at my little piece of amber.

Right now fear of the worm held my tongue, but I could tell that as soon as we’d left the Pass the questions would simply pick up the slack. Asking the witch who unflinchingly stared down monsters idle questions was a terrifying prospect, worse if it invited reprisal.

It didn’t stop my thoughts from vibrating with her words, though. Maybe if Solange came with us all the way to the next town, I could ask what she thought of it at some point. Asking Solange was less terrifying in just about every way. It was hard to be scared of someone who was a font of bubbly smiles in any starlight. Flare was company that made me curious constantly, but Solange felt much more like company.

I wasn’t sure if that meant I would actually ask her, though. I’d known people who I’d thought felt like company before. Besides, I would somehow need to ask Solange when Flare wasn’t around to hear my prying, and until we reached the next town I would be sticking close to stay in the witch-stone’s light.

The pass opened up in front of us. There were no trees as far as the eye could see. Instead, small frozen bushes stood out against the gravel and scattered stones that glinted in the starlight. The hills fell off as the terrain stretched away, turning to a horizon of plain and pure nothingness.

I shivered at tbe exposure. There had always been mountains and trees around me in the wilderness. With none of them to block my view, I could see how much nothingness we still had yet to cross. Nothingness full of monsters. There was no destination in sight, obvious or otherwise. No lights in the distance beyond starlight.

“Thank you for bringing us,” Flare said.

“Anytime. Come back whenever you like,” Solange said.

I looked up at her. Then I said, “So, you won’t be coming with us to the next town?”

Solange shook her head, and her upper body along with it. “I should get back home. I don’t want to leave the eels alone for too long.”

I looked down at the ground. No chance to ask about the poetry, as it went. Then, because I wanted to be sure, I asked, “Are you sure?”

Flare said, quietly, “They’ll be fine a day or two.”

Solange didn’t say anything.

Flare said, “I’m sure you could get supplies you can’t get by Liar’s Mint, anyway.”

Solange didn’t say anything, but her hands began to make idle motions at her side. “I’m not sure,” she said.

“It’s a lot quieter when you’re not here,” I offered.

Solange looked me in the eyes. Then she looked at Flare, and her hands moved a little faster. Finally, she said, “I haven’t had a break in a while, honestly.”

Flare and I both smiled

“I haven’t been too far this way, honestly,” Solange said as we began to walk. “How far do we need to go?”

“Not too far,” Flare said. “We can stay in town for a short while, once we arrive, and you’ll still be back in time.”

“Good,” Solange said, and enthusiasm began to creep back into her voice. “So, tell me about this town we’re heading to, then.”

“We’ll get there soon,” Flare said.

Solange had only gotten halfway through a complaint before Flare relented. “I can tell you a little, though.”

Flare began to speak. She didn’t say much, giving a little background on what the town looked like, and what the town was run like, but Solange managed to keep Flare’s speech going with well-timed prompts anytime Flare lost steam. Solange even managed to keep Flare continuing for long enough to carry the conversation to our eventual campsite, where Flare stoked a witch-stone fire.

Oddly, when we made camp, Flare didn’t immediately dive into her bedroll. Instead, she sat on top of it. Solange, emerging from her coat in the golden firelight, went to sit next to her. I crawled inside mine.

“I’m not really tired, yet,” Solange said.

Flare poked the fire with a long metal poker. I’d never seen her use it before.

“What was it like the last time you arrived?” Solange asked.

Flare stared into the fire. Then she stared up at the sky. Then she looked at me, curled up inside my bedroll.

“Well, it’s a long story,” she began.

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Chill Winds 6

Flare’s hand slipped into her coat, and her other hand began to trace a charm. This one I recognized as echo. It wasn’t a charm that got used much, it was mostly just a curiosity.

A whistle was produced. Flare blew it, and I clapped my hands over my ears. The sound soaked into my bones, and it rebounded and continued to rebound until it seemed like the whole pass shook with it. The monster shuddered and began to bounce wildly around between the walls.

Solange yelled, “This way!”

Flare bolted. I bolted after her. The monster careened just overhead, its sharp edges missing Flare by a hair’s breadth.

There was a gash in the side of the pass, a break in the not-ice. Solange waved us in. A little hollow, a perfect place to hide. I collapsed inside, shaking my legs,trying to get the feeling to return to them. Flare sat down across from me, casting a light charm. Solange filled up the doorway. Outside, I could catch glimpses of the monster, flashing by the doorway in brief heart-pounding bursts.

Solange said, “Sorry again. Hopefully it’ll go away soon, and we can get moving again.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Ampworm.” Solange looked at me, then looked at Flare, “Did you not tell her about the ampworm?”

Flare stared at her.

“Okay, fine, stupid question.” Solange took a seat as well, folding her coat-encased legs under her stiffly. “I don’t know too much, but I know they like noise, they hate too much noise, and the repel charm keeps it off me for whatever reason.”

“It repels attention,” Flare said.

“Does it?” Solange asked.

“A little. Enough,” Flare said. “Enough to make it feel like the Pass does to the worm.”

“Oh,” Solange and I said in unison.

Solange started to laugh quietly. “I know exactly what Flare’s thinking. ‘Great, now there’s two of them.’”

I laughed a little too. Flare groaned and looked away from us, but an almost-smile was on her lips as she did it.

The monster flashed past the entrance, and I startled again. Solange noticed, and shifted to block a little more  of the door in my line of sight. I stomped my feet more. They tingled harder, the feeling slowly making its way back down into them, but that didn’t stop it from being an unpleasant feeling.

“This reminds me of that poem you wrote,” Solange said.

Flare’s head jerked up. Then her eyes flicked over to me, then back over to Solange. “I didn’t know you wrote poetry,” I said.

I didn’t know witches could write poetry at all. Flare said nothing.

Solange said, “It was really good.”

Flare said nothing, louder this time.

Solange said, “I don’t remember exactly how it went, but it had a nice ring to it.”

Flare said nothing, loud enough that Solange stopped talking.

My thoughts filled the silence. Poetry had always been something small and pointless to me. It was just me spinning my wheels on paper. Something I did when I had nothing I really wanted to do outside. The thought of Flare spinning her wheels didn’t fit. Like the loop puzzle of Flare in my mind had clinked together and snagged. Poetry was so idle. Witches were anything but. 

“I’d like to hear it,” I said.

Flare locked eyes with me. I looked away. Solange turned to look outside the alcove. “Yep, still there,” she said.

Silence sat with us for a while. Solange looked over her shoulder every so often, and Flare just stared at the wall, and I looked down at my feet as I tried to hammer them back into feeling.

Very softly, Flare began to speak.

“Where do the warm winds blow?

I’ve walked and I’ve walked ‘til my feet ring with ache

Round each hill and each valley and each chilled-over lake

And the question I ask myself more times than I can take is

Where do the warm winds blow?”

She stayed staring at the wall as she spoke, and her voice began to rock back and forth as she recited. I’d never tried reading my own poetry aloud, but I felt like if I had I would want it to be read in a voice like hers.

“Where can I lay down my head?

I’ve walked and I’ve walked ‘til my eyes have to close

And the stars look down on me in an unblinking host

But nowhere is where I can give up my post

Where can I lay down my head?”

Her words began to pick up as she spoke, hurrying forward in order to try and get the poetry out faster. She still stared at the wall, but her hands began to jerk and twist at her sides, like there was something stuck to them that she couldn’t remove. Then she stopped, and opened and closed her mouth, and didn’t let anything else out.

“You added onto it,” Solange said.

“Yeah,” Flare said.

I didn’t say anything. A distinct feeling of unwelcomeness had burrowed itself into my chest, and while it had been nice to hear the poetry it also felt uneasy, somehow. I resolved to not talk about poetry any more. If Flare hadn’t wanted to share it, I shouldn’t have pressed her to.

Then I reconsidered. “I wrote poetry, too,” I said. Maybe if I offered up something of my own it would help fix things.

Solange said, “Oh?”

“It’s not like that. It was just little things. I wrote poetry about little things. And I didn’t speak it.” Suddenly I could see why Flare had started speaking faster. I wanted to speak faster too. To get this out there, and in the air, and then not have to look at it in my own head any longer.

“Do you want to share?” Solange asked.

I didn’t. In so many ways, I didn’t. I began to speak.

“When I’m on the ground I see the stars.

It still hurts. Getting hit always does.

But I wonder sometimes.

Would it be better to be in the sky, where nothing could hit?

I don’t think it would.”

I looked at Flare, who was still staring at the wall. Solange said, “I’m sorry.” I looked at the wall too. Maybe Flare had the right idea. Maybe if I stared at the wall hard enough I wouldn’t have to think about writing that poem.

Solange looked at us, then looked outside of the alcove again. “We can go now,” she said.

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Chill Winds 5

It was three more pieces of the metal knot before we set out for Laminate Pass.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on it,” Solange had said, “It’s as slippery as ever, but I can get you there, at any rate.”

This seemed to satisfy Flare, and Solange put her coat back on, and we set out behind her lumbering form. They weren’t talking as much as they had yesterday, but Flare’s eyes kept flicking over to the coat rather than the path.

Eventually, Solange said, “Over there,” and I saw it. Or, rather, I very nearly saw, since as soon as my eyes reached the place where Solange was pointing they slid straight off of it. I could only catch glimpses by looking at the Pass sideways, trying to scrape an image together out of the periphery.

It shimmered in a way that ice didn’t. The starlight bounced away from it in drunken angles, shards of reds and blues and greens glinted from just under its surface, and I couldn’t make out the exact details of the shape of the pass. The edges seemed unwilling to settle down.

“I’m surprised your coat works on this, too,” Flare said.

“You’re the one who showed me the charm,” Solange replied.

Flare twisted a charm together, saying, “Focus,” for my benefit, and then I could look at the pass. It still wavered in the starlight, but now I could drink it in all at once rather than with stolen glances.

“Oh, that’s how you dealt with it last time, isn’t it?” Solange said.

“Yeah,” Flare said. Then she elaborated. “Repel works as well as anything else, but it’s a general enough charm it might have unintended consequences.”

“Repel?” I asked.

Flare didn’t respond. Solange did, “The charm the coat uses to repel the cold. Needs monster help to be strong enough, but it works.”

The witch-stone’s light failed to melt through the not-ice of the pass. Solange strode onto it without hesitation, and where she did a network of cracks began to form under her feet, pulsing with faint color. Flare followed. I took a hesitant step onto the not-ice.

It wasn’t slippery, like I had thought. Instead, it was stable and solid, and caused something curious to happen. As I walked, I could feel my feet slowly starting to fall asleep, as though they were refusing to even register that they were walking on this stuff. I started to stagger my steps, shuffling around, trying to keep any leg from falling asleep too much to walk on. Neither Flare nor Solange showed any signs of being affected by it.

“Anywhere in particular you’re taking your apprentice?” Solange asked.

Flare didn’t respond.

“Anywhere you can tell me about that’s not one of those spooky witch-secrets?”

Flare said, “No, sorry.”

“Ah well, just curious is all. It’d be nice if I could be a witch, but you cant help not being picked out as a good candidate by those witch-secrets and their witch-secrety criteria you know? Whatever those might be.”

“Witch-secrets don’t choose people. Our secrets are just secrets.” Flare looked away as she said it.

“Ah, well whatever it is that makes you a good witch candidate, then. Is it brains? Your little apprentice took to the loop puzzles like they were second nature to her.”

“They were fun,” I offered.

“I can’t say,” Flare said.

“Is it a witch-secret?”

“It might be. Maybe.”

“Is whether or not it’s a witch-secret a witch-secret?”

“Please stop saying witch-secret,” Flare said.

“Sorry.”

There was a moment in which nothing happened. Then Flare said, “Well,” and I strained my ears to catch every syllable of what she said next. Then something exploded out of the wall of the Pass in front of us, without disturbing the wall.

“Shit!” Solange yelled, “I thought it was still asleep! It just ate!”

Light danced along the tips of Flare’s fingers. I stuck close to her. I didn’t want to leave the circle of the witch-stone’s light.

Ahead of us was a monster. Something maybe three times the height of Solange’s coat, moving with sharp, jerky movements. Its pointed limbs rang out like crystal bells as they tapped on the not-ice. The place where its head would be was a geometric tangle, and its long body was full of hard edges and sharp, distinct lines. It made no sound.

“Take my hand,” Flare said. I did.

The sound of Flare’s voice galvanized the monster into action. It didn’t slither or crawl, rather it reflected itself off the not-ice at us, colors trailing off it as though it were shedding water.

Solange stepped to the side. The monster didn’t even seem to notice her.

Flare’s fingers blossomed, and in rapid-fire she layered two charms on top of each other. I recognized silence. I didn’t recognize the other one, but whatever it was it slowly and silently began to slide us to the right.

The monster bounced past us and vanished into the not-ice, refracting smoothly inside and leaving no trace.

“I thought the boulders shattering the other night would be enough for at least a few days!” Solange said. The monster failed to burst out of the not-ice in response to Solange’s voice.

Flare shook her head. Then she looked at me, and she mouthed, “Silence.” I nodded.

“I’m sorry, you guys,” Solange said.

I jerked my head at her. Flare mouthed, “Later,” at me. We continued on. I didn’t hop to avoid the numbness creeping up my legs, in case that would be too much noise. Instead, I just walked. Once, I looked over my shoulder. I didn’t see any sign of the monster.

The pass was long. The silence made it longer. Solange had stopped talking, even though she seemed to be able to do so freely. I was losing the feeling in my feet.

My dozing foot hit a rock, and I stumbled forwards, into Flare. A grunt of surprise escaped my lips. Flare whirled to face behind us.

Sure enough, right behind us was the monster, refracting up out of the not-ice towards us. Solange said, “Well, worth a shot.” Flare’s fingers shone.

I stared up at the monster.

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