A few minutes passed before Rabbit raced up next to me, panting, “Ohmylightareyou~ Are you alright?” he gasped, his little chest heaving.
“Ye-yeah,” I stuttered.
He approached and raised to put a paw to his chest. “I saw the dragon and I thought for sure you were a goner! Man, I almost didn’t make it. They came after me and I managed to get away to come check on you.”
“I thought – you left.” I shifted to sitting on my legs.
“I was trying to lead them away from you, dummy,” he answered as he crawled into my arms. I hugged him to me and whispered, “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He wiggled in my arms and I put him down. “Let’s start walking. The sooner we get out of here, the better.”
“Agreed,” I croaked and coughed. “And maybe find some water?” My mouth was dry and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
We made our way through the forest, treading lightly and keeping to the shadows. It was really a rhythm of run and duck into bushes, crawl, hide behind tree, and then run to duck once more.
It felt like hours went by until we reached a field of tall grass, interspersed with trees and – was that a creek at the valley of the hill?
I knelt down and began to crawl through the grass. The rabbit led me, stopping to sniff the air periodically. The ground made a gentle slope up and, once we crested the hill, I stood and dashed for the creek. Cattle and a few horses stopped drinking and eating to stare at their midnight visitor.
I knelt at the creek and dropped both hands into it to see how deep it was. Only up to my elbows, but it would suffice. I checked to make sure I was upstream of the grazing beasts and splashed water on my face. I even dipped my hat into the water as a scoop to dump water over my head. I rubbed my arms down and grabbed a handful of grass to rub it on my clothes.
“You’re smarter than I thought,” Rabbit commented. I glanced at him with a shrug and answered, “I don’t even know if this will work.” I scanned the skies for the Dark Dragon. “We’re not safe out here.”
“Yep,” answered the rabbit as he found some large rocks to climb across the stream. I followed suit and we climbed the next hill as quickly as possible.
We came to a fence that led to a house with a barn next to it and a silo on the other side. A large lump on top of the fence posts moved and I jumped when it spread wings and flew away. It cawed in a harsh scolding tone and I watched it fly towards the barn. I climbed between the barbed wire.
I rubbed my eyes from exhaustion as the adrenaline rush wore off. My muscles started to jellify and the ground was looking like a good pillow right about then. But I pressed for the big red barn and found it unlocked. The chains looped through the metal handles were linked by the lock that someone had made to look like it was locked. I opened the doors with ease, the metal chains clanking loudly.
The smell of horse manure, dry hay, and stale oats woke me. The horses here made nervous nickers and shuffled around in their place. The the dim light, I counted five horses and eight stalls. I held up my hand to the nearest one and whispered, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The horse blinked and stopped moving, hay hanging from the edges of her mouth. The other horses, too grew silent. She gasped, “Oh, my, the princess’ tongue is gifted to speak to us! What beast bestowed such a power to you?”
“A tom cat,” I replied and frowned. “His name is Tweety. Do you know him?”
The horse chewed on the hay and asked, “Do one of you small ones know of a tom by that name?” She bent her neck over the stall door to look at the cats peeking around the corner at me. I smiled to them with hope.
A gray, long haired cat stepped forward and tipped her white nose up at me. She squinted and answered, “Yes, he is one of our champions.”
“Can you let him know I’m free? Maybe ask if he can come help?”
The cat glanced back at the black cat who approached her side. He purred, “The Champion has disappeared as of late. A few moon cycles, perhaps? Six?” He looked as his companion, who flicked her ears in agreement.
“Thank you,” I answered, my hope diminishing. I glanced around for Rabbit, only to find him tucked behind my shoe, trembling fiercely. “Please, don’t eat my friend, here,” I added to the cats. They cut their eyes at him and flicked their tails in annoyance before the gray one said, “We have plenty of mice anyway.” They dashed around the corner.
Beyond the stalls were the stairs to the barn’s loft. There was a promise of bedding and quiet there. There was a screech above me and I looked to see the dark lump from before with orange-red eyes staring down at me. The eyes squinted and watched as I checked the hay for mold and bugs. It looked alright, so I fell into the pile.
The lump spread its wings and swooped down to land on the railing next to me. It was a great gray owl, with ash-spotted feathers and a large, discus face. He kept his eyes squinted as he coughed, “Princess.”
“Hello,” I said as I straightened upright. In the dim light, I saw he had scars on his breast and face, which formed gaps in his ragged feathers. He looked wilted and old. He murred and shook himself. “The humans come to this building at sunrise. Be gone before then.”
“Where are you headed?” He shuffled his claws, which scraped against one another. They looked deadly.
“I … I don’t know.” I remembered what Dr. Graham said. “Is there a city nearby?”
“Yes. A few miles from here.” He glanced at the wall and pointed a wing in the direction. “East. Stay to the highway. Don’t speak to any humans along the way unless they wish to help.”
I wrinkled my brow and saw a black mark under his wing before he closed it.
“Are … are you bonded to a Valkyrie?” I asked.
The owl scoffed – or coughed, I couldn’t tell, “Was. Her throat was slit when the elves came for her.”
I shuddered. “I thought bond animals die when their Riders are killed?”
“That’s dragons, girl. We bond animals must live with our dead marks. Then again, the way dragons die, who knows if they’re truly dead?” He fluffed his feathers again, his amber eyes dark. I wanted to hug the huge bird, but I refrained. Instead, I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“I have lived a long life. I’m happy for what we were able to accomplish.” He paused to turn. He added briefly, “Thank you, princess.”
I nodded and he flew back to the rafters.
I dug around into the backpack to find a sleeping bag, but no pillow. I took the backpack and upended it on the loft floor. Though tired, I needed to know what all was inside the enchantment.
Apparently, my past-self believed in being prepared. I had a first-aid kit, a flashlight equipped with an illumination talisman, a heating talisman and a spark talisman, a compass, a whistle, a mirror, a box of granola bars, three water bottles, a jar of peanut butter, two more sets of clothes and the institute-issued clothes I kept, a paracord bracelet, a pocket knife with a small file to sharpen it, and a crowbar. There were even a few books that I didn’t recognize for some light reading and a survival guide.
Lastly, a leather-bound book tumbled out. It was larger and thicker than most books I saw in the library. It had a small clasp to keep it shut and some kind of brass talisman set in the clasp. I touched the talisman and the book levitated from my hand of its own accord, hovered before me, and opened to the first page.
I balked at the inscription on the first page: Grimiore of Lyric Williamson. My grimoire? Of course, my parents likely taught me magic. “What spells did they teach me?” I asked the air. The book flipped its own pages a few times.
The magic journal documented spells for levitation, with instructions and notes. My past-self had an easy time with it, as I had noted, and was able to lift tools to multitask when doing chores. The only thing she – er, I – had a hard time was splitting my concentration between washing and drying dishes.
There were instructions for manipulating water, air, and earth. I noted that my parents refused to teach me fire and my past-self seemed relieved to not have to deal with fire yet. I didn’t like the idea either. There was a kinetic shield to protect me in tight spots.
There were more documentations. Past the spells chapter was a section on glyphs. Listed first was the counter-glyph, with details on how to cancel glyphs quickly. The next was the binding glyph, which tethered an object to another object for summoning. Such as for a gun, I would draw one glyph on the holster with a special mark added, while the matching one went on the gun. If the gun was anywhere else, I’d activate the glyph on the holster to bring the gun to my hand. The next was the protection glyph to draw around yourself or an object. I had written in red next to this one, “YOU MUST USE A COUNTER-GLYPH TO LEAVE GLYPH OR DISABLE IT.” I briefly wondered if magic users ever suffocated in the protection glyphs.
I was surprised by how little I had learned. I wondered if my parents only started teaching me glyphs before their arrest. There was a chart at the front showing the myriad of glyphs I was to learn and there were some used in talisman crafting only, all of which corresponded with certain elements.
Next was magic-craft, which encompassed talismans, potions, and enchantments. There was an explanation on what materials to use for talismans – any gemstone or metal, so long as it didn’t conflict with elements I grafted them to. There were all sorts with so many variations, it was a bit overwhelming. It seemed my past-self felt the same by the note I made in the bottom margin saying, “I’m so glad I don’t have the talent for this.”
Then there was the chapter on enchantments. This, too, looked sparse. There was a protection enchantment, which was weaker than the spells. Then a ward against elemental harm, also weaker than the actual spells. Then there were enchantments for structure and clothing alteration, pocket dimension tethering (with a note on needing to know how to build your own dimension first. I didn’t know how to think about that – it sounded crazy, but tempting), and finally, storage enchantment (also requiring a small dimension or a special place to store things, which looked more complicated).
Potions were a small range – healing, magic-restoration, and then tonics. Tonics were potions used to do damage to opponents, which were similar to magic grenades and combined with talismans for activation. Such as the fire tonic, which used a spark talisman and a vial of oil to spread the fire. Usually, the talismans in the tonics had timer symbols in place, so I wouldn’t hurt myself or my own team.
I recognized the healing potion from a bottle in my first aid kit. I hadn’t paid it much attention before and thought it was some kind of antibiotic. I levitated the kit to me and unzipped it. The potion bottle had a black, waxy seal around the cork, which looked like I could pop it open with enough of a pull. The grimoire had an entry on easily opening them. I did my best not to, since I wanted to save the potion. The liquid inside had an amber, gold look and had a viscus quality, almost like honey but runnier. I stored the potion once more. The grimoire explained that healing potions weren’t a fix-all and could do more harm than good if applied at inappropriate times.
Lastly, at the back, was a small chapter titled Bestiary. It documented the beasts of both magical and normal world with a list of animals at the front for reference. I noticed I had dragons in the list and asked, “Why would I write about dragons?”
The book flipped its pages in a flash and brought me to the entry on dragons. I gawked. Apparently, I would need this speech-and-search ability over time as I added more. I noticed a note in the margins with a complaint about how I “already know about dragons, but Mom says I have to write this down anyway” followed by a grumpy face. I rolled my eyes and continued skimming through entries. Almost each entry on beasts had some sample – a hair, a scale, or cartilage – taped to the page in a sealed packet.
My head spun a little from the detailed instructions and doodles my past-self left. Each entry was heavily documented, with do’s and don’t’s, alternative instructions, and various combinations of each magical element. In fact, some of the handwriting was from a different author and another headache came about from digging around in the blank recesses of my mind. I assumed it was one of my parents.
I closed the thick tome and rubbed my face in exhaustion. It was getting late, my body told me. Time to rest. The grimoire, too, seemed tired, as it closed itself with a quiet click of the clasp and floated down to my lap. I scanned the mess I made on the loft floor and pondered for a moment.
What had I been preparing for? I shrugged to myself and chalked it up to living so far in the mountains. I must have been afraid of getting lost. I remembered lots of forestry around our old house. At least, around our yard. I had no memory of where I had lived. Or even how to get there. Only forest and mountains. Horses. Smiles. But no names or landmarks.
Was I even in the correct state? I piled everything into my backpack using my levitation, which was getting easier and easier to use each time. Except on the crowbar, that was a little out of my weight range.
With that done, I used the backpack as a pillow and stared at the rafters. The owl had disappeared. I stared into darkness between the rafters, my mind tumbling over itself as it struggled to process everything.
The image of Dr. Graham getting run through with the sword flashed in my head and the sound of life slipping out of him filled my ears. I pressed my backpack to the sides of my head and gulped for air as sobs threatened to surface. I curled on my side and saw the rabbit milling about the hay piles. He glanced at me before turning to leave me to my sorrow.
It was my fault the man died. If he never … But it was his choice to help me. He wanted to stand up against what the magi were doing. Dr. Wulf’s voice came back, “She made her choice.”
I did. I thought I understood the consequences – a transfer to another institute, maybe they’d drug me until I was comatose – but not containment and … death.
I let the hot tears come and cried myself to asleep.