By Abra Ebner
“Max, I’d love a rose.”
Avery’s voice was distant. I turned to her, wondering what it was she’d said. “Hmm?”
She sighed, her brows pressed together with annoyance. “I said: I’d like a rose.”
I snapped out of my trance. The sensation of her arm hooked with mine flooded back to me, sending a tingle of warmth over my skin. The wind blew, tickling the white fur on her lapel. Her frosty blue eyes shimmered in the moonlight, so full of light and beauty. Taking in surroundings I had all but forgotten, I saw there was a street vendor beside us that I hadn’t noticed before. He was selling roses.
“See, aren’t they lovely?” Avery protested.
I glanced at the blue roses, powdered with wintery frost. I felt a pang in my heart. I should want to buy one for her—I should want to shower her with gifts, with love, but something wasn’t right.
Avery jerked at my arm, forcing an answer from my lips. I looked at the vendor. “One, please.”
The vendor eyed me with a flash of pity. Avery swooned at my side, happy with the fact she’d coerced me into buying her a rose. Why hadn’t I thought to do so myself? Why hadn’t I seen the vendor earlier, thinking of nothing but the way Avery’s pouty smile would warm my heart with their purchase? But there was nothing. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look.
“Max, you’re such a wonderful fiancé,” she gushed.
Another gust whipped through the streets of Winter Wood, a town so human, yet locked within a purely magickal world. It was a place our kind came to mingle, to live, and to feel some sort of belonging. Here we could be free—here, we didn’t have to hide.
My eyes traced the distant walls of the town that protected us and kept us invisible. The human world outside these walls was tainted with war and destruction. Winter Wood was the only place to escape their horrors and to live as though all that was a simple, yet horrible dream.
“Here you are, Miss.” The vendor handed her the rose, swirling his fingers over the petals as the bud opened before her eyes. She gasped, a silly childish gasp that told me she’d seen this trick a hundred times, but it never tired her.
It tired me.
How long would my life go on? Soon there would be nothing to surprise me, no wonders as there once was. I was only thirty-three, though I didn’t look a day past seventeen. How many more years would I live? One hundred? A thousand? The thought alone made my throat tighten. I coughed.
“You’re not catching a cold are you?” Avery squeezed my arm, the rose now tucked into her hair, perfectly placed in a way that complimented her eyes. We had walked on past the rose vendor, moving street light to street light.
I looked at her sideways. “A cold? Really?”
She giggled, looking down at her feet in the snow. “Sometimes it’s just fun to ask, even if it’s never true. Human novelty, I suppose.”
I shook my head, still unable to enjoy her light-hearted chit chat. My attention continued to pull away from her, finding any means of escape. That’s when I saw the apothecary up ahead, the windows warmed and inviting. “I may not have a cold, but do you mind if we stop in to visit the alchemist?”
I saw the joy on her face fade. She didn’t have any interest in alchemy, as an Element Pixie she had no need to. A pixie’s powers of alchemy came naturally. Potions were useless trinkets, nothing but clutter to their efficient ways of living. Their powers so far exceeded all others that most of us could not fathom their extent, and yet they did not abuse them, only the Shadow Pixies did.
“Fine,” she answered with a sigh and fluffed her long platinum hair, the ringlets spraying a glittery plume into the air behind her—she smelled like cinnamon.
We reached the shop a few paces later, ducking inside and escaping the cold. Avery released my arm, the warmth of her fading to a bitter tingle lingering on my skin. She floated directly to the shelf that contained the perfume, finding it the only thing of interest. She hummed to herself as she began to test each one, her melody as intoxicating as the fumes she was surrounding herself with.
The alchemist came out from the back room, hearing the ding of the bell on his door. His eyes grew light with joy when he saw me. “Max! Good to see you! How are you doing?” He invited me into his arms, not caring about personal space.
I pat him on the back. “Doing well, Patrick.”
Patrick pulled me away from him, seeing through my strained happiness. “Something about the way you say that makes me think differently.” His hands were firmly latched on either shoulder, his clear, blue eyes seeing to the soul of me. He was more of a father to me than my own, helping me acclimate to my new life in this world since my death many years ago. Even before that, he had been a teacher to me, though his magickal secrets had remained hidden because of the affair that my mother and he shared.
I tried to smile, but I was certain that smile gave everything away. Patrick nodded slowly, as though he knew just what I was thinking.
He glanced over my shoulder. You’re engaged to the Crown’s daughter. How can you not be happy? He asked with his thoughts.
He gave me a pat on the arm. I look forward to each day I draw closer to death, because each day is a step closer to your mother once again. His words were wise, and I knew he was trying to tell me something.
I nodded, understanding what he was getting at—true love, not arranged as my real mother and father’s marriage had been, as my engagement to Avery felt.
Patrick broke his silent speech. “So, what brings you in? In need of a potion? A remedy perhaps?” He was trying to avoid raising Avery’s suspicions, asking me a practical, contrived question.
I looked over my shoulder, calmed to find that Avery was still content with the perfume and not at all sensing my apprehension. I turned back, leaning close to Patrick and whispering in his ear. “Actually, I’m in need of a spell.”
“A spell!” he laughed loudly.
I frowned at him, encouraging his discretion on the matter.
Patrick settled himself, leaning into me. “Well, then step into my office.” He winked.
I turned back to Avery. “Are you okay here for a moment, darling?”
She twisted a piece of perfumed balsa near her nose, looking annoyed that I’d distracted her from the scent. “Of course.”
Standing there, I tried not to act irresolute about us. Her eyes narrowed, contrasted only by her smile. From that simple gesture, I knew insecurities were indeed lying behind those eyes. I knew her well enough to see that inside her, but often her tough exterior was too thick. I was naïve to think she couldn’t sense the reluctance in my love for her. I couldn’t blame her, though. She’d already given me everything of her soul—her light. Changing my mind now meant destroying her and handing her to the shadows.
I forced a reassuring expression. “It’ll just be a moment.”
She grinned hopelessly. The guilt of it stung.
Patrick led me into his office in the back of the shop, shutting the door behind us. I settled into an oak chair that sat in front of his desk. He rounded in front of me, leaning two hands against the surface, staring down.
“Are you really looking for a spell?” He looked curious with one eye narrowed, suspicious because I had never asked for one before.
I nodded apprehensively. A spell was the only thing I could think of to fix this.
“What kind of spell are you looking for?” He took a seat and his chair groaned.
I leaned forward, folding my hands on the edge of his desk. “I’ve been thinking about the future, Patrick. I fear what will become of me if I marry Avery. Most of all, I fear that life has already grown old. I want to know if there will be more for me, or if my time here was ill decided.” I paused and diverted my gaze. “A part of me questions if I should have passed on when the chance was presented.” I was ashamed to admit it. “Is there a spell that can tell me whether I’ve made the right choice?”
Patrick sighed long and hard. “I have seen a growing darkness in you. I’ve seen it for the past few years now. I know you long for more from your life—for meaning.” He sat up, lifting his hand where a key hung from his wrist. He unlocked the drawer before him, contemplating what he was about to show me. Committing to his task, he reached inside. When he pulled his hand out, I saw that he’d retrieved a simple clump of fabric. He placed it on the desk between us. “I should have destroyed this long ago, but I knew that one day you would come asking me just such a question, because that’s what it told me.” He pressed the clump of fabric across the desk. “Inside this fabric is a Truth Stone. It cannot tell you the future in detail, but it will tell you the truth of your deepest desires, which in your case may contain the future. Touch it, and I believe you will leave here a happier man.”
I gazed upon the fabric with apprehension, noting the delicate way in which he’d handled it, despite is obvious wear. “Have you ever used it yourself?”
Patrick’s lip curled, his thoughts wandering to a place where he was happy. “A few times. Yes.” His cheeks deepened in color. “There comes a moment in every man’s life when the answers we seek are buried deep within, too deep to reach on our own.”
I hung on his words, wishing I could read his thoughts, but his mind had been washed by a potion that blocked it long ago. Only the thoughts he wanted me to hear came through—right now, he wanted to hide everything but his emotion.
“Don’t be afraid. The truth cannot hurt you,” he reassured.
I clenched my jaw and timidly reached forward, clasping my fingers around the cloth. There was an instant tingle emanating from the rough canvas fabric, warming my hand. I wanted to giggle. I wanted to be a child again. It was a feeling I’d almost forgotten—a feeling of life. I was surrounded by a sudden sense of confidence, of reality and truth. I unclothed the stone and saw nothing but a dull grey rock, a fraction of the brilliance I’d expected. I lifted one brow and looked at Patrick.
“I know it doesn’t look like much, but trust me.” He grinned.
With my other hand, I pulled the cloth out from under the rock, tumbling it onto my palm. The tingle grew intense and shot up my arm, like a surge of electricity. I gasped as a sense of falling caused my whole body to tense.
The room around me went dark, my lips sewn shut as my breathing ceased.
A girl giggled in the darkness.
I blinked, but saw nothing.
She giggled again, the sound growing crisp.
My lips released and I gasped for air, listening to the sounds. “Hello?”
The laughter stopped. “Max!” the girl yelled. “Max, I’m over here!”
The lights suddenly came on. I was no longer in Patrick’s office but in a forest, the sun filtering past green leaves.
“Max!” the girl’s voice yelled again, this time closer.
I felt soft hands grip my shoulders from behind. I heaved, thrown forward as I tumbled over the forest floor. I felt the girls legs wrap around my middle, her lips against my ear. I landed face first, but my typical instinct to attack didn’t take over. Where the need to be defensive should have been, happiness lived instead. A surprising laugh escaped my own lips, ignoring the uncomfortable position I found myself in. Turning over, the girl that had attacked me shifted until she sat straddled on my stomach.
The beauty of her eyes knocked the breath from my lungs. She was about eighteen, her face alive—her life alive within me. She tucked a long strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. “I found you,” she breathed hard, her smile never fading.
I was speechless as I stared at her, my senses drinking her in, wanting to be near her. She wore tattered jean shorts and a white top, a bit of mud smeared across one cheek. She wrapped her fingers into my hair, leaning down until her lips grazed my forehead. I breathed deep, smelling rose and tea leaf, riding on air that was warm and refreshing.
“I missed you,” she whispered.
Her words were so enticingly that it caused me to shudder. I couldn’t blink, I couldn’t move, the desire to kiss this beautiful being was all I could think of. I grasped her around the waist, my fingers sensing the reality of her within my grasp. This was my future, and she was as real as the fabric of her shirt between my fingers.
But the fabric began to unravel.
The dream began to fade.
Just as quickly as the vision had come, it was gone. I was left in the dark grasping nothing.
I had lost her.
Everything was black, the tingling in my arms retreating. Slowly, the room around me came back into focus, my head tight and pounding. Patrick grinned as he sat across the desk from me.
I found that though my body was taxed and tired beyond reason, I was still smiling. The sweet smell of the girl was lingering in my senses, a smell I would hold close until I found her again.
“It worked, didn’t it? I haven’t seen you smile like that since you came back from the dead.” Patrick was being dramatic.
I nodded, still at a loss for words. “It did work. I—I just…” There were so many new questions. “When? How do I know when this truth will take place?” I gushed.
Patrick smiled, lifting the cloth from the desk and plucking the rock from my hand, careful not to touch it to his skin. He dropped it back into the drawer and locked it away. “That’s the beauty, isn’t it? You don’t know when, you just know that someday it will.”
I grinned wider, finding the mystery of it intriguing.
“I once saw your mother in the truth. I knew then that there was a future for me—a purpose.”
I looked at Patrick, tears of happiness and relief threatening to form though they couldn’t.
“Go, Max. I think you know what you need to do.”
Patrick stood and walked me back toward the front of the shop. Avery spun as she heard us, her face alive.
“Oh, Max! Come smell.” Avery beckoned me toward her, thrusting a balsa stick under my nose—cinnamon.
I nodded, finding the act of pretending to be cheerful now worthless—she was not my destiny. Though I would destroy her light, I had no choice. I refused to live a false existence.
“Don’t you like it?” Her face sank, her comment meaning so much more than she could understand in this moment.
I shrugged, turning my attention toward the shelf. Drawn to a particular vile, I lifted it and read the label. It was perfect. Rotating it in my hand, the anticipation for the smell that was contained behind its glass walls became palpable. I had to smell it once more. Uncorking the top and placing a balsa stick through the neck, my body shook as I brought it to my nose—tea leaf. I exhaled slowly, allowing the scent to sweep over my senses and roll across my tongue. I could almost taste her. Ferociously driven, I reached for another vile, not bothering to smell, already knowing it was exactly what I wanted.
I turned on my heel. “Patrick, I’d like to have a mix of these two, please.”
Patrick’s lip curled, trying to understand what I’d seen in the truth but conceding. “Of course.”
“For me?” Avery swooned.
I looked into her beautiful, powdery blue eyes, round and innocent like a doe. The light of her soul was still there, wavering and afraid, though not for long. “Sorry, Avery.” I paused, looking down at the bottles in my hand. “But this one’s for me.”
The light in her eyes leaked away like ink draining from a bottle. The shadows descended in its place.
The game had begun.