I realize it’s been over a month since I last posted, but I hope to post more frequently beginning today. For starters, here’s the next installment of my multiple-part story “A Discovery in the Snow.” Part of the idea for this story comes from this prompt. You can read the previous installments here and here.
The bird-boy had taken up residence in Cassandra’s room. Wrapped in an old blanket and nestled in front of the fireplace, he lay in an uneasy sleep. As the afternoon wore on, he curled more tightly into himself, until only the tip of his feathered head peeked above his wing. Henri had been banned from entering the room to avoid an unfortunate and potentially disastrous tussle. He meowed louder outside the door, both pathetic and angry, as Cassandra and Abel argued, with Florence occasionally chiming in from her station at the foot of the sacred basket.
“I’m telling you,” Abel insisted, sitting back on his heels in near defeat, “It’s the only way! Don’t you feel that…that stuff around him?”
Cassandra narrowed her eyes at the feathered bundle next to the fire. Her hair had begun to undo itself again and curled around her face in wisps, as if poised for the next big event. “I told you, those wishes are dangerous. If we use one for the wrong reasons…”
“But we would be using one for the right reasons,” Abel said. “We’d be using a wish for someone else. That’s good, isn’t it?”
The ensuing silence bristled with tension. The three children felt the hidden wishes tugging at them, throbbing like their own heartbeats.
“He moved!” Florence shrieked. “He turned over all by himself!” The first of her telltale moths fluttered from the folds of her wings. They vanished in a swathe of darkness that had begun to snake out from the bird-boy’s nest.
As that darkness grew and pooled like a cloud of ink, the room dimmed and turned chilly. The sound of melting snow ceased. Cassandra paused, listening. Abel shuddered and pulled his blanket closer. His stomach knotted with a sudden realization.
“It’s coming,” he whispered. “It’s found us! We have to decide now!”
“What’s coming?” piped Florence. But Cassandra understood. She glanced at her brother, then at the windows, then at the figure whose feathers now trembled. “All right,” she said at last. “It’s our only choice. Stop with the moths, Florence! I’ll get the wish bag.”
She crouched and pulled up the rug, revealing a square of wood a shade darker than the rest of the floor. Her sister gestured the moths away with a few peculiar swirly movements. They settled around the edges of the basket like tiny sentinels.
“Don’t let him our of your sight!” she ordered. The bird-boy began to thrash, caught in a web of magic growing thicker by the minute. Abel glanced over, afraid to look lest he start to feel the creature’s fear on top of his own. He had heard the thoughts of trapped animals before, had felt their terror. And they weren’t even cursed.
“Ready,” he said, grabbing a corner of the trapdoor.
“On three,” Cassandra announced. “Heave!”
With a creak the segment of floor shifted to one side. The dark hole underneath yielded to Abel’s reaching hand a small leather bag about the size of an eggplant. Stains covered its surface, ink and filth and some blotchy patches that look suspiciously like old blood. Abel held the bag with care, the warmth of the wishes contained inside both welcome and sinister. Without saying a word Cassandra reached in and pulled out a stone made of ruby fire.
“What do we say?” Florence whispered. “How do we use it?” A tiny flurry of moths escaped in her excitement. Cassandra, cradling their wish, closed her eyes in concentration. Her straggly hair floated upward in a pulsing glow of light. The little moths flocked around it, casting faint shadows on the wall.
With the darkness pressing around them the children knelt in a tight circle, eyes squinched shut in a desperate appeal for the wish to work. “Grant us please this wish we speak,” Cassandra chanted, “now this foul enchantment break, free the boy and through him tell how we defeat this wicked spell.”
The ball of ruby fire exploded in Cassandra’s hand, blinding all of them with a flash of red light. Through the smoke—was it smoke?—Abel could just see the fire now diminished to a weak flame, and the basket in front of it. Now, however, the basket was empty. Beside them on the rug lay the boy in his true form, bony, ghost-pale, and—
Abel snatched up a blanket and threw it over the boy. In her right hand Cassandra held a tiny pile of ashes, which tumbled in a grey rivulet down her lap as she scooted forward.
“It worked,” she whispered. “We broke the curse.”
“You did that?” the boy whispered back. His voice, high and rusty from disuse, held the same uncanny chill that the air did. “But…you can’t have…I thought it was stronger…”
Abel suddenly realized that the sense of peril hadn’t vanished with the curse’s breaking. In fact, he felt surer than ever that something was coming for them.
“Wait, stop,” he said, getting up and scanning the still-dim room, “do you feel that?”
“Feel what?” said Florence, not listening properly.
A number of things happened at once. The door burst open in a violent gust of wind, sending Henri yowling into Cassandra’s lap. The ashes that were the remains of their wish coiled into the air, forming the ghostly likeness of a face. And the three children each felt a pang in their chests, as if burned by their wish itself.
“Your wish has rooted out the truth,” intoned the disembodied face. “You were warned not to use them for yourselves. Now you must undo what had been done.”
The ashes dropped to the floor and the voice ceased. Stunned, the children looked around at each other in horror.
“But we didn’t use it for ourselves!” Cassandra whispered, as wide-eyed Florence nodded solemnly. “We used it to free him!” She gestured at the boy, still clothed in his borrowed blanket.
Abel stared at the patch of floor at his feet.
“How did you break that curse?” the boy asked, struggling to his knees to face them. “The sorcerer said…he said it was unbreakable, that only his own magic could lift it. But you…” He started to cough. “
The last piece of their predicament slid into place in Abel’s mind. “He’s following you, isn’t he.”
“How did you know?”
“Abel knows lots of things,” said Florence, and gathered all of her errant moths back into the folds of her wings.
(to be continued…)