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The Sleepers of Saint Garfir

by josephinefarine


Wrapped in her towel, Miphie did her best to look as though she hadn’t just fallen into a pond. Despite her best efforts, a puddle of lake water was steadily growing at the base of the chair.

A plate of Altadorian cheese, stuffed figs, and bread rested in the center of the table, partially scavenged. Moments ago, Edith had stepped into the glow of the inn followed by a shivering Miphie, freshly fished out of Meadow Lake. Seated around a table at the Sleepy Aroota Inn, she had taken them all in: Augusto and Vaso, and across from them, however improbable, Lucenza, Flute, and Acacia. Miphie had hardly believed her eyes. While Lucenza had indeed promised to check in on the situation in Saint Garfir, she could not grasp why the others should be here. The others, for their part, could not grasp why Miphie was dripping pond water all over the uneven terracotta tiles (but politely refrained from commenting).

Augusto dropped a fresh, dry towel over Miphie’s shoulders. The gesture was stiff. Evidently, he realized now that she had lied to him about leaving Academia. About shirking her final exams. Miphie curled into her towel, a nervous blush rising to her cheeks.

Edith cleared her throat. “I’d like to apologize—again—for scaring you earlier. I should have waited until you had safely cleared the lake before announcing myself.”

“Oh,” Miphie muttered, “it’s alright…” Her mind was still reeling over her meeting with the ghost ixi, and she couldn’t quite process the new arrivals at the inn. Despite the warmth of the room, she was shivering. Her sopping hair clung to her scales, and she was convinced this gave her the unfortunate appearance of a maltreated mop. Another long silence settled upon them, during which Miphie sensed everyone’s eyes on her.

“Well,” Lucenza said at last, mercifully shattering the quiet suspension, “it was very irresponsible of you to leave the school like that.” Miphie cringed again. “But now, coming here, I understand why.”

The Draik glanced up. “Am I… expelled?” she chanced, hating the tremor in her voice.

“Not yet, no,” said the light faerie, “I spoke with the board of professors last week. You are a good student, Miphie, you work very hard, and I vouched for you. We decided that you deserved a second chance. But there will be repercussions. The school does not take kindly to being undermined. For one thing, you will have to take—and pass—all of your exams. And not just ‘pass,’ but succeed beyond a measure of a doubt.

“You will also be placed on academic probation next year. This means your grades cannot fall below a certain threshold—and your teachers will decide what that is. If your grades fall, you will be suspended. You will be required to take six weeks of summer classes before the school year begins. And of course, you will not be permitted to leave campus, except for school field trips, for the entirety of the first semester.”

Frankly, Miphie hadn’t really listened after “not yet, no.”

“I’m not expelled?” she stammered again, “are you sure?” Lucenza smiled and shook her head. A wave of relief washed over her. Three years of falling behind her classmates, of near fails, of solitude, and yet, and yet, something in her let go at those words. The coins which had been gathering in her chest over the last week spilled out, and Miphie felt the pressure of tears in her eyes.

“So, why—how—why are you all here?” She laughed shakily. Hopefully everyone at the table was too distracted by her soaked appearance to notice the sudden tightness in her voice.

They all began speaking at once. Vaso and Augusto, seated at Miphie’s sides, shared in her own confusion, whilst Flute and Acacia launched into their side of things. It was Edith’s voice that rose above the clamor.

“I overheard you in Lucenza’s office,” she stated, her accent dancing like the breeze. “Oh please. There is no reason to look at me so strangely, Miphie. She’s my advisor too, and I had office hours scheduled. Anyway, the door was ajar, I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping.” She blinked at Miphie’s incredulous look. “Regardless, after you left, I spoke with Lucenza. She was going to visit this town after finals week, so I asked to join her.”

“But why?” Vaso piped up. The words slurred slightly. His eyes were bleary with exhaustion, and Augusto squeezed his arm.

The Kyrii shrugged, tossing her hair back. Her Candy color clashed absurdly with the earthy tones of the inn. At the same time, the golden glow of the chandelier overhead softened her features and muted the crystalline blues and pinks of her color. “If the forest was truly dying, I figured it would be a great occasion to study the cause and to practice plant spells in a real-life setting.”

Acacia scoffed. Out of uniform and done with her second year at school, the Green Lutari appeared to be taking full advantage of her summer break. Her hair had recently been retouched with green highlights, and it now sat atop her head in twin buns. She was scraping the bottom of her gelato bowl which had undoubtedly been finessed out of Augusto’s kitchen ahead of Miphie’s return. “You came because you wanted to help Miphie, same as all of us.”

Miphie nearly choked on an olive. As did Edith. Aside from the recurring condescensions and aloof remarks, Edith had never spared her a thought. A week ago, she had begrudgingly approached the Draik with a smidge of admiration, and now the Kyrii wanted to help a town she had never visited? Had Edith fallen on her head after Presentation Day? Miphie was beginning to seriously worry for Edith’s mental well-being.

“If I may…?” Everyone turned at once to Flute, who wilted under the full force of their attention. The Brown Gnorbu blushed crimson. His spectacles were slightly askew on his nose. A subtle whistle emitted from his front teeth as he spoke, and Miphie watched Vaso’s eyes widen at the realization. “The reason we’re all here is because Acacia and I ran into Edith the same day you left—”

“RIGHT. We were talking about—what was it?” Acacia put her gelato bowl down with a thud. “Oh right: we were still gabbing about your presentation and communicating with plants and asking them to grow and what not.”

Miphie bit back a chuckle. Flute had evidently not been able to shake the energetic Lutari off so easily.

“When I heard them talking about you, I asked them if they knew what had happened in Saint Garfir,” Edith piped in, seamlessly picking up the narrative once again. “At once, they were… interested in seeing the situation for themselves.”

“Well, none of us had anything special planned for summer break anyway,” Acacia shrugged, “so why not come along, you know?” To this, Flute coughed quietly. Incredulous, Miphie wondered if he had had any say in coming along.

“We only arrived tonight,” said Edith, “Vaso filled us in on the situation and Augusto told us about what you’d done for the village so far. We’re at your disposal, Miphie.”

Miphie choked on a second olive.

Hours later, after dinner had been polished off, and Vaso had returned home, and everyone had retired to their rooms in the inn—which Augusto had graciously offered, free of charge—Miphie stayed in the kitchen with her father.

“You have very kind friends, Miphina,” the Kougra said softly. He was washing dishes and handing them to Miphie to dry. She nodded, eyeing him from behind her hair. A sluggishness had returned to his arms, another part of his beard had lightened a shade, and time to find a permanent remedy was running out.

“I’m sorry I lied,” she whispered. “I just didn’t want to be a disappointment.”

“Sprout.” Augusto turned and placed two warm hands on her shoulders. He caught her gaze: his dark eyes carried a little bit of sadness, but they were kind. Unconditionally kind. “How could I ever be disappointed in you?” She shrugged. The Kougra thought for a moment, and then, man of few words indeed, he pulled her into his arms. She hid into the solidity, the certainty of his embrace.

When Miphie went to bed, she dreamt of water, and the specter of an ixi, and sprouts with twisted, gnarled roots like trees.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Not that it isn’t important to proudly declare one’s connection to Academia Magika outside of school, but why are you wearing your uniform?” Edith was leaning against the stone wall surrounding the Sleepy Aroota Inn when Miphie stepped into the sun. Her silver lyre, the one she had used during her presentation, peaked out from her bag, glinting in the sun. Miphie wondered if the Kyrii planned on using it to charm the trees in the forest. Flute and Acacia sat atop the partition.

Miphie did not respond and pulled at her starched cotton collar. Her overalls were still drying in the sun, and she had burned through the pile of shirts which Vaso had loaned her. Since all of her other clothes were gathering dust in the student dormitory back at school, she had had to choose between a damp pair of pants or an old school uniform. So, stiff cotton button-down and navy skirt it was. The canary-yellow tie had wisely been left in the closet.

All this to say: she felt ridiculous.

She stifled a yawn and a nauseous swell of panic shot up her spine. The somnolence was steadily beginning to affect her, too.

They made their way up the hill towards Farmer Elio’s, where the views of the forest were panoramic. Edith had wanted to see the affiliated area for herself, and Vaso had promised to meet them there. The walk was long, as Elio’s farm was about two miles from the inn. They passed sleepy homes, and skirted through the town square, where the fountain gurgled away. Acacia splashed her hand in the cool water. Miphie told them about her unfortunate encounter with Edith the previous evening, and to her surprise, Flute and Acacia laughed once she reached the end of her story.

The morning was pleasant, and the buzz of Springabees drifted up from the flower boxes lining the houses. Flute admitted, good-naturedly, that he hadn’t really decided to visit Saint Garfir with the others, but had been dragged out of his last final by Acacia. He insisted he was still glad to be here, of course. Their conversation flitted from one subject to the next, ranging from where they had grown up to their favorite school subjects. Acacia gushed over the school’s conservatory (which Miphie was all too pleased to echo), and Flute softly shared his interest in medicinal magic. Miphie quietly wished she had met them sooner. She noticed (and how could she not?) that Edith remained silent.

Vaso was waiting under an olive tree when they finally crested the top of the hill. Or… no. As they approached, Miphie realized, horrified, that he had dozed off. Her fear sharpened into something like glass.

“Stay back!” she yelled. Little sprouts were growing even here, on the twisting, wind-sculpted bark of the olive tree. “VASO!” She shook the Gelert, and he toppled over, awaking with a yelp.

“Miphie what possessed you?!”

She sank to her knees beside him and yanked him into a hug. “Sleeping! You were sleeping,” she gasped.

They were running out of time.

More and more of those strange seedlings were taking over the homes and vegetation, and their accelerated appearance was coinciding with a quickening progression of symptoms. In a few days, they might all be unable to resist the call of the somnolence, and Saint Garfir would cease to exist.

“Look at me,” she begged. Vaso pulled away. His eyes had dulled substantially and his spotted cheeks were sallow, much like how Augusto’s had been.

“I’ll take him back to the inn,” she said, helping the Gelert to his feet. His strength had waned, and she had to use her shoulder to support most of his weight. Flute, Acacia and Edith were running towards her now. “Do not touch the sprouts.” She left them with the direction to look for Earth Faerie Mushrooms, even though she herself hadn’t found any all of yesterday.

Back at the inn, Miphie helped Vaso into a chair by the unlit fireplace and hurried into the kitchen. Her stores of mushrooms were totally depleted, so Miphie rummaged through the cabinets for a clean mug and brewed some strong coffee. Neither Augusto nor Lucenza were in the kitchen, which meant they were probably out helping the townsfolk. As a light faerie, Lucenza had no power over plants, but she could bless the afflicted with warmth and rejuvenation. Miphie frowned, setting the mug of onyx-colored brew on a tray. This morning, the Silver Kougra had tried to hide the dull lethargy creeping back into his face, but Miphie had seen it: they way he had wobbled on his feet.

“Drink,” she ordered, handing Vaso the coffee. He struggled to sit up, but he accepted the mug.

“You feel it too, don’t you?” he murmured. He took a careful sip from the cup.

She nodded. Waking up had been difficult this morning, as if an invisible thread had been tugging her down into murky waters. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

Vaso scoffed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help, Meef. Look at me: I’ll be asleep by sunset.”

“No. No. Acacia will find you a cure. She’s a master herbalist. And Edith and Flute: they’re clever, they’ll figure something out. You will not fall asleep, not yet.” Her voice shook. “Please.”

Vaso was gazing into his mug. “I wish…” he began, his voice low, “I wish I could have—done something that mattered.” Miphie sank down beside him. “You—you’re learning magic and you go to this amazing school and. An hour after you came back you already invented that mushroom medicine to bring Augusto back. And I’m just…” He shrugged.

“Shut up.” Tears threatened to spill from her eyes and Miphie had to force her voice out. “You’re ‘just’? You’re Vaso. You’ve been here. For the village. Since the first signs of somnolence. You were working towards finding a solution weeks before I returned. You’ve always been. Someone to look up to.” She raked her shirt sleeve against her snout, shaking. All those fears she had buried away since returning were cascading forth. “You—you think I got everything I wanted. At the school. But it’s not—” her throat clamped shut.

Vaso set down the cup and sank to the ground with her. “Meef…”

“You changed the moment I got accepted into Academia!” she burst out, pressing her fists against her eyes, “You—you started spending all this time at the farm. You didn’t even see me in person when I moved to Altador! You just left that card—and you brought me home because… But I’m not who you think I am! I’m not some. Chosen. Gifted witch! Half the time I’m. Failing my stupid classes. I’m still… I’m just…”

When Vaso placed a hand on her heaving shoulders, the sobs which she had worked so hard to force back came tumbling out.

“I’m just me. I’m still just me, Vaso.” Shame fluttered in her belly.

Beside her, Vaso shifted to sit on the floor with her. “I had no idea you were carrying all that, Meef,” he said softly. “After you moved to the city, I guess I… just thought you had finally outgrown this tiny, backwater town. I felt it would be better if I accepted it right away.”

Miphie tried to laugh, but it came out sounding more like a garbled puff of air. She stood, reaching down to help the Gelert back up onto his feet. “You silly… I thought you had moved on without me because you’ve become so important to Saint Garfir.”

“You’re…” Vaso’s words oozed together as Miphie helped him back into the chair, “you’re important too, Meef. You’ve always been important.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The day grew uncharastically cool. As the shadows lengthened, a chilling wind picked up, carrying with it fluffy clouds speckling the ground in dark shapes. Saint Garfir had cloaked itself in silence, once again taking up the guise of a ghost town. The mushroom balm, treated as a miracle just a few days ago, was losing its effectiveness. As the lethargy overcame the inhabitants once more, a new, silent fear whispered under their doors. Whatever hope might have existed before was quickly dwindling.

Miphie dragged her feet along the northeastern perimeter of the forest, lagging behind Edith, Flute, and Acacia. Because the dying trees seemed to be radiating out from a point north and east of Saint Garfir, Edith was determined to find a way to the source. Acacia had foraged a small handful of Earth Faerie Mushrooms, and was carrying them in a basket. The fungi were juvenile, too small to generate much medicine. Miphie hated having so recklessly depleted the mushroom population.

She hated a lot, at this very moment. Her eyes were still puffy, her snout was red. A throbbing headache had been radiating from her forehead all afternoon. Her vision kept losing focus.

Her thoughts drifted to Vaso and Augusto. The Gelert had been too weak to walk back to his house, so Miphie had set him up in one of the vacant rooms at the inn. She was hungry and sweaty from walking, and most of all, she was tired. An invisible thread was dragging her into some cold abyss, and it frightened her how desperately she wanted to give in to the pull. To curl up right here, against a tree, and fall asleep.

She would not voice her fears to the others.

Now, it wasn’t just the trees that had become ashy and sick. Shrubs and wild grasses growing at the base of the trunks seemed afflicted. The forest’s verdant undergrowth and autumnal shades had dulled so much, the original colors were nearly unrecognizable. Dust hung suspended in the air.

“There is certainly some kind of loophole,” said Flute, not for the 50th time, “some way to sneak into the forest without triggering the reroute.”

Miphie kicked a stone. “There is no ‘loophole’” she muttered, “nothing gets by the trees.”

Edith turned around. “I don’t suppose you’ve spoken to the trees, have you?” The day, the heat, the wind had done nothing to derange the Kyrii’s hair. It still hung flawlessly past her shoulders, ending in delicate peachy waves. Miphie hated that too. She swatted a strand of her own hair out of her eyes. “You ought to try using your anumatum spell on them.”

Miphie's headache intensified. All afternoon, they had teetered in this strange cooperative tension. Everything Edith uttered hid an edge of condescension, and while Miphie wasn’t sure if it was intentional or if she was imagining things, the way that Edith commanded them around grated on her nerves. She exuded airs of wealth and refinery which clashed heinously with the earthy, humble environs. And while Edith had never gone so far as to scoff at Miphie, her incessant suggestions—‘we must find the epicenter of the disease, have you thought to look for it?’ and ‘the mushroom balm doesn’t seem to be working, Miphie have you yet considered a permanent cure?’—made the Draik feel altogether stupid.

“It was the first thing I did when I arrived,” she sighed. “I tried to reach them here, and here,” she pressed her hand against a trunk, then along a low branch and its fronds, “and nothing.” The bark was riddled with mysterious sprouts, and she brushed her hand along them.

Edith watched the gesture, frowning. “Perhaps we should find a bit of vegetation not so congested with the blight,” she mused, “surely somewhere, there is one plant not covered in those sprouts.”

“Do you think that maybe the sprouts are… interfering with your ability to speak to the trees?” Acacia suggested. The Lutari offered a sympathetic smile. Earlier, Miphie had learned that Acacia came from a hamlet in the Northern Altador mountains. Her humbler origins mirrored Miphie’s, and so they had developed a subtle kinship. Miphie sighed and turned her gaze to the darkness of the woods. They all mimicked her, each quietly searching for a patch of greenery or a section of wood not afflicted with the moss-like growth.

“Even if—at this point—we did find a tree not covered in too many sprouts,” the Draik said, “it may be that even one such sprout prevents me from…” Well, there was one place where the sprouts could not reach. Miphie inhaled sharply and glanced down.

In Saint Garfir, the soil was often parched in summer, becoming so dry and packed it was impossible to turn without a heavy spade. But here, in the perpetual shade of the forest, the ground was soft and rich with moisture. It encouraged all sorts of growth.

She crouched beside a juvenile patch of wild ginger at the base of a cypress. She had often harvested ginger to help with Augusto’s cooking, and the plants weren’t too difficult to identify. Cool, heart-shaped leaves brushed softly against her fingers. Sprouts clung to their stems. Her hands sank into the soft earth, feeling for the shallow roots below.

While still small, the ginger had already developed a canvas of rhizomes, a network of stumpy roots which anchored the above-ground stems to a single core. Carefully, she curled her fingers around it.

Miphie closed her eyes. She slowed her breathing, imagining the ginger’s vascular system radiating with water, nutrients, and life. By now, Edith, Acacia and Flute had ceased their own search and were observing her. Miphie felt their eyes on her, but she forced all of her attention onto the sensation of the roots. The sound of chirping Moaches faded away. She imagined her fingers were roots, and the roots were her fingers.

“Anumatum, Radici,” she murmured. She would not expect anything. Her spell could not work, after all. In fact, it was altogether likely that the plant wouldn’t react… But then, she felt it rustle, the roots twist ever so slightly. Power flowered up her fingers, tiny fractals of light. Her hand prickled at the sensation.

Oh, the feeling was ineffable. It had been so long since she had performed any magic, and knowing she could recreate what she had done on Presentation Day filled her with relief, which cascaded from her shoulders and into her belly like a cool stream. Distantly, she wondered if Edith was impressed.

And the energy. In the school conservatory and even during her presentation, Miphie had only been able to perceive whispers from the plants. She had had to coax and coo to establish the thinnest threads of communication, the act taking up every ounce of her concentration. Perhaps it was the way the ginger was packed into the earth, its voice magnified by the network of roots it was a part of, or perhaps it was the sheer nature of these magical woods, but the plant seemed to burst with power. It wanted to speak to her, to divest its magic and its essence into her veins. She needed only to ask.

Miphie did not have a clue what to do.

“What—” she cleared her throat, “what should I ask?”

Edith crouched beside her. Her bright eyes were locked onto the animated plantling, an invisible current running between them.

“Can it tell us what the invasive sprouts are?” she hissed, transfixed.

Miphie wasn’t sure how to convey such a question to ginger. She finally decided on: “do you know what is hurting you?”

The heart shaped leaves shook in agitation, but no one knew how to translate that.

“Perhaps, telepathy?” Flute approached Miphie and folded his reedy frame into a crouch at her other side.

“Try it,” she answered. They all held their breath while the Gnorbu adjusted his glasses and creased his brow, staring intently at the plant. Incredibly, the ginger stilled, listening.

After a few minutes, Flute released a harsh breath. He shook his head. “I think it heard me, but whatever sounds it made to answer is not a language I know.”

“It was a great idea,” Acacia said. “But, that rules out verbal and mind communication.”

“The plants obviously sense that the forest is sick,” mused the Draik, “they can communicate with each other.”

“The mycelia network…” Edith said, eyes widening. “The roots are constantly exchanging information and nutrients with one another.”

Miphie had indeed heard of mycelia. Networks of fungal roots could branch out across an entire forest floor, creating vast roads of connections underground. Plants and mushrooms could exchange resources by way of these paths. They turned a forest into one single organism. Realization dawned. If she could act as an extension to the ginger’s own roots, she might be able to tap into the forest network. She could find out—if not what, then where the tree sickness was emanating from.

Not once did Edith drag her sights from Miphie as she shut her eyes again. The low discussion between Acacia and Flute immediately stopped as well. They all leaned in to watch.

Her fingers were the ginger roots. They grew out in a tight and shallow cluster beneath the leaves. She stretched her consciousness further. Roots from the ginger and the cypress interlocked. The ginger was frantic, it prickled her fingertips. But the cypress was steadier. She could feel a lower, soothing pulse radiating from its heartwood. She thought of Augusto. Cerulean fractals kaleidoscoped outward from the middle of her vision. Following the thread, she willed her senses to stretch further, from root to root to root. Their energies echoed and overlapped, each bringing distinct sensations. And then…

She felt it a few paces away. A sluggish, chilling presence. Diseased. Cold creeped up her arms, trickling into her chest like ice. Her mind became fuzzy, her head lulled. Her heart rate dropped and for the first time in days, Miphie felt blissfully, utterly at ease.

Her hands were yanked from the ground.

“WHY would you do that,” she shrieked, stumbling to her feet.

Edith’s gray eyes were wide with rage. “That was wildly reckless, Miphie! You suddenly slumped forward, we didn’t know what happened!”

“It was RECKLESS of you to rip me out!” she hissed back.

Miphie curled her hands into fists to stop their shaking. She could still feel an echo of that infinite, spindly cold from the dying tree. She was dizzy, her headache now hammering viciously into her temples. There was dirt caked under her nails, smudges of it on her skirt and on the starched white of her shirt. And yet she had sensed it. The thread. The path.

“There was something, just then, ”she said, breathless. “The mycelia network—it’s like a map. I can track the somnolence, and it’s bound to get stronger the closer we get to the epicenter.” She stilled. “I think I have a way into the forest.”

Edith straightened at the implication. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“What—just because it wasn’t your idea, you don’t want to hear my suggestion? What happened to being at my disposal?”

“What happened to being justifiably concerned,” Edith snapped, “that you are grossly misusing a power you barely know how to use!”

A shard of anger pierced Miphie’s breath. Acacia and Flute were forced to take a step back from her tail, which lashed from side to side in irritation. This was exactly who Edith had always been around her. Her superiority, in rank, in skill, in everything made her queen at Academia Magika. Miphie would always be nothing to her.

It shouldn’t have surprised her in the least, but she felt a pang of something sour curling in her throat. Was she really disappointed in the Kyrii’s reaction right now?

“Don’t pretend like you know how to use this power any better,” she hissed, “you don’t study transmutation, what makes you think you know anything?”

The Kyrii pressed her lips into a thin, cruel line. She clenched and unclenched her hands. “Miphie, think about it,” she insisted, looking away. “Your intention is to plunge into the woods and feel the roots to find your way. But you said it yourself: the somnolence will only grow stronger the closer you get. You could barely stay awake after touching the ginger” She exhaled sharply through her nose. “How do you think this is going to work out for you?”

And there it was. The cool edge of contempt in her voice. Miphie felt an icy tension stretch between them. In that moment, she would have liked another clay figurine to smash against a tree.

“She’s right, Miphie,” said Flute, his hands twisting together nervously in a hopeless attempt to diffuse whatever was happening right now. “Let’s regroup. The sun is already setting. I can prepare more mushroom medication, and we’ll make a plan tomorrow. One that doesn’t harm you.”

But Augusto. And Vaso. She thought he’d have more time.

The somnolence overwhelmed him so quickly… How long would she last? How long would any of them last? Miphie pushed her palms against her eyes and groaned. The blackness behind her eyelids fuzzed into swirling shapes. It was a comforting sensation, and one she wished she could plunge into forever. Only— “there’s no time.” She lowered her hands again and turned towards her partners. Edith clamped her jaw when their eyes locked.

“The Earth Faerie Mushrooms lost their potency days ago,” she said. “And Vaso is… He’s…” she couldn’t form the words. Miphie shook her head helplessly.

“He’s fallen asleep, hasn’t he?” There was a new softness in Edith’s voice. Miphie bit the inside of her lip. If he hadn’t yet, he would in a matter of hours.

But, for the first time in weeks—months—a spark of clarity shimmered before the Draik, a bright pinpoint in her vision. So much of her time at Academia had been wasted winging things and scraping by. Her stroke of luck at Presentation Day had been the result of an accident at the conservatory. The only reason she had ditched her finals for Saint Garfir at all, she realized, had been because Vaso had given her no choice. But now, at last, her resolve sharpened. Yes, she could return to the inn. Prepare mushroom poultices. Care for her ailing father and her best friend before she too inevitably fell into this corpse-like slumber. Or she could dare to break through the forest barrier once and for all.

“The trees are all sick now, and so is most of the village. This will be our last chance. I sensed the way, and if the sprouts at the blight’s epicenter are totally mature, then we can identify the plant that is causing this.”

From the corner of her eye, she sensed a glowing light. The ixi specter had returned.

“You can go back if you want,” she said sharply, looking at each of them. Then, she turned her attention back to the ginger. Surely, she could tap into the plantling’s guidance without falling to the somnolence. Delicately, she lifted it up from the soil. A spicy aroma and the scent of freshly-turned earth puffed into the air. Though its roots were now separated from the forest network, Miphie could feel a lingering connection.

When she turned around, the ginger nestled in both hands, Edith, Flute, and Acacia had not left. She felt the tiniest, faintest, ghost of a smile tickle the crook of her mouth. “Thank you,” she breathed.

“This is still beyond reckless,” Edith huffed. She didn’t turn to leave.

They ventured into the forest, and this time, the forest did not push them out.

To be continued…

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