As Ashlyn made her way from the deep part of the wood, she stopped at the sight of a beautiful flower standing by its lonesome. It struck her as odd that there were no other blossoms of its kind, though it did appear noble in the way it rose above the grass.
"Hmm." Her face lit with delight as she bent down to brush its petals. "You are a lovely one, aren't you?" Unable to sever its connection to the earth, she left the flower where it was and pressed on. But the sound of lurking feet slithering against the grass had her scanning her surroundings.
"Who's there?" Ashlyn made a full circle. Though no one was visible, her senses told her someone was watching. She called forth a gust of wind to rustle the leaves. It blew a few meters out from her elongated arm, sweeping the area with it. Sure enough, a figure made himself visible from behind a tree, cursing at Ashlyn for her clever trick. "Damien?" she frowned. "What do you think you're doing?"
Damien seemed to crumble under the girl's frustration. "I tried to stay at the house but-- I couldn't let you face this on your own."
"Well, that's very sweet of you but I don't need your protection. Girithane already left."
"That quick, huh?"
"Yes. I was just on my way back."
"You're sure he's not watching you even now?"
"Damien," she rolled her eyes. "Please, don't worry about it. I have everything handled."
Damien took a step forward. "So, what did he want?"
"I just told you not to worry about it." Her eyes stung at him. "Now please, let's go back."
Damien followed her through the wood on a nonexistent path. He had grown so used to the marked paths throughout Gumber that not traveling along one seemed odd. Still, there was a bit of refreshment seeing the wild and open stretch.
"Do you come out here often?" he asked out of curiosity.
Ashlyn winced at him. "No, this is Girithane's territory. And he doesn't like visitors."
"So each animal druid has their own territory?"
"More or less. The only times I see the animal druids socializing amongst each other is during the mating rite."
She glanced over at him, stifling a blush. "Their tradition," she explained. "Every two years or so they all gather in the heart and...you know. It's essential to their survival."
"Right, right. And you attend these mating rites? "
"Well, it is part of my duty as a Sorceress," she said. "I try to honor all traditions here in Gumber."
"Sorceress?" he squinted. "I thought you were a mage."
"I am a mage."
"This confuses me. How can you be both at once?"
Ashlyn laughed, letting it echo about the trees. "Sorceress is merely the common name for what I am. I'm a child of the Sepheras, which means I have authority over all of Gumber."
"Wait, what? You're part of that thing the elves worship?"
"That's right. A few centuries ago, the Sepheras first manifested itself in a mortal form. She was
Silmé, the first child of the Sepheras. After her came Agronan, then
Ithilié, and now...me."
Damien gripped his head. "This whole time, and I had no idea who you were. I've studied a bit on the Sorceresses, but the books never explain how each one died."
"Legend has it the Sorceresses don't die, they just return to the Sepheras when their time comes."
"I can't believe I'm talking to you," Damien said. "You're so young. The Sorceresses I've read about were all in their prime."
"This is difficult to take in, isn't it?" Ashlyn's face fell. "I didn't tell you all this when we met."
"I wouldn't have understood it anyway," he said. They both fell quiet, letting the drifting ambience of the forest take over as they walked side-by-side. It was a while before Damien spoke again.
"So, what does a Sorceress like to do in her free time?"
Ashlyn blushed. "I already told you this. Back at the river."
"Right. Reading and walking."
"You listened," she smiled.
"I still have the rest of the day off," he shrugged. "Maybe we can go back to that place you like so much? Look at pointless stones."
"Pointless? The stones are not pointless, Damien."
"I don't understand why you enjoy it," he said, pulling out the rock Ashlyn had tossed to him. "They're just pebbles at the bottom of an unforgiving river."
Ashlyn stopped, taking the object from his hands and holding it up. "The river may be unforgiving, but the stones are better for it. The deepest ones have the smoothest skin, and I enjoy how they feel."
Damien rolled his eyes, snatching the rock back. "I feel like you're teaching me another one of your mysterious lessons."
"I am nothing if not mysterious," she grinned.
They were nearly out of Girithane's domain when he appeared once again, flapping in circles before landing. His call seemed to rattle in Damien's bones, giving him goosebumps.
"Oh, not this again," Ashlyn cursed, putting up her guard. When Girithane shifted into his human form, he peered at his guests with black eyes. "Girithane, I told you my answer now leave me be!"
"Silence, child." Girithane came close, gripping the bottom of Damien's jaw. The boy reacted by slapping his hand away. "Fascinating," Girithane remarked. "This is the one who is tainted?"
"What do you mean tainted?" Damien sauntered forward.
"Don't speak to him, Damien," Ashlyn said beside him. "It's not worth it."
"Hm." Girithane flashed a grin at the boy. "I suppose this would be well met, if not for your Sorceress."
Damien felt his fist clenching tightly. Judging by Ashlyn's mood, she felt very unsafe. "You need to leave," he said. "And that's asking nicely."
"You misunderstand, child, I do not mean to harm you."
"Then what do you want?"
"Come to my hearth. I have the means to give you all the answers that you seek. I understand you have a powerful nature."
The words made Damien let down his guard. "Really?"
"Please, don't listen to him," Ashlyn warned.
"Why not?" He craned his head.
"Because his methods are not pure."
"And yours are? Ash, I think he might actually help us."
"He wants you to think that," she said. "The reality is we don't need his tools or his methods. Girithane specializes in working on dead subjects, not live ones."
"I assure you he will be a living subject," Girithane said. "He is under your protection, after all."
"I don't think it can hurt, Ash." Damien faced her. "Let's just see what he finds."
Ashlyn sighed. "This is your decision?"
"Mhm." He steeled himself while turning to Girithane. "Lead the way."