Hazel and Holly — A Love Tempered in Death…
Previous: Odd Possibilities II
Holly sat up on the bed and cradled her head in her hands. That man… could he have been her father? Holly never knew him, he had left just as she had been learning to walk—or so she’d been told. She’d never mourned his absence. Why would she? He was someone she’d never met and never loved. Why would she mourn someone she didn’t know?
But now, seeing a man that so clearly resembled Hazel, Holly, for the first time in her life, felt as if her heart had cracked with an emptiness she’d never known was there.
Hawthorn handed her a tall glass of water. She gulped it down, only then realizing just how thirsty she was.
“Easy,” Hawthorn said. “Slow down.”
She ignored him, drinking down the water like a man drowning. She was so thirsty. Then her stomach constricted, and she bent over and threw it all up onto the floor.
“I did the same thing,” Hemlock said. He sat in a chair in a corner of the room. His face looked waxy and pallid.
Holly blinked at him and then at Hawthorn, the events from the potion floating in her memory like a distant, disturbing dream.
“What happened?” she said. “Did it work?”
Hawthorn shrugged. “How should I know?”
“Did I change it? Did it work?”
“Did what work?”
“Hazel, is she here?”
Holly slumped her shoulders as she stared at the floor. Nothing had changed. It had all been an illusion.
But it hadn’t felt like an illusion. Even now, as the memories clung to her in a dream-like haze, it still felt real. She looked at Hemlock. “What did you see?”
He frowned and shook his head. “Lots of things. It was all kind of jumbled. Mother was there, and Father, and Hawthorn of course. But, a lot of the time, I was alone. I switched to Hearth magic at one point.” He stared off into the distance. “I’m pretty sure a gnome had taken up residence in my cellar…”
“But what about Hazel?” Holly said.
He shook his head again. “I never saw her. It was like she didn’t exist in that world.”
“She must have existed.”
“She may have, but our paths never crossed.” He ran a hand over his face. “I didn’t much care for that world, truth be told.”
“With a gnome in your cellar,” Hawthorn said, “who could blame you?” He wiped his hands together as if dusting them off. “Well, it sounds to me like this whole affair was a magnificent waste of time. But that’s Hearth magic for you—withered, anemic witches and warlocks tinkering with worthless potions. Ludicrous. I honestly don’t know why the Conclave still sanctions it. Let me know when either one of you comes up with a plan that will actually produce results.” He left the room.
“I hate to say it,” Hemlock said, “but I think he’s right this time.”
“Hearth magic is perfectly respectable!” Holly said.
“That’s not what I meant.”
Holly flopped backwards onto the bed and stared up at the ceiling. She wanted to tell him he was wrong, it had worked, somehow. Only Holly couldn’t see how it did, and so she didn’t say anything at all.
The carriage continued to navigate through the field of blue light. Neither Hazel nor Verrin spoke, which was well as thoughts weighed heavily on Hazel as she gazed out the carriage window. What was she supposed to make of all this? Those couldn’t possibly be souls out there. Souls were non-corporeal—an indescribable element that could not possibly take shape in this world as blue lights, or anything else really. And yet, as Hazel sat there staring out the window, the realization unfolded for her that there was more in this world that didn’t fit within the realm of her understanding than what did, and she no longer felt so certain that these weren’t souls at all. That maybe necromancers understood more about the world and universe than she would have liked.
The night sky shone above them—a sea of silver stars that rivaled the sea of blue stars below. In the distance, a great shadowed silhouette of a mountain loomed on the horizon, blotting out the stars as if someone had stolen them from that part of the sky. It towered ever taller the closer they got, eventually coming so close that Hazel could see man-made elements upon its natural surface.
Tall, rough-hewn pillars supported crags of irregularly shaped stone, into which tiny windows had been carved. Some of them glowed with pale light, but most stood dark. Lanterns of flickering blue-green light illuminated narrow stairways that criss-crossed up the mountain face before disappearing into darkness. Tall trees stood atop the mountain itself—a living crown upon the domain of cold stone.
The carriage stopped at the very base of the mountain and Verrin hopped out. Hazel remained a moment, trying to get her nerves under control. Then she followed him out, and she walked behind him as he led her to one of the narrow sets of stairs.
Verrin spoke a spell and a ghostly apparition took form. It looked child-like in size, but it was nothing more than a shifting haze of flowing ribbons, like silk swatches caught underwater. It emitted pale light and, as it moved up the stairs, illuminated the path for them.
The stairway was only wide enough for one person, so Hazel trailed after Verrin in silence. The stairs themselves were perilously narrow, and slick with moisture so that Hazel dared not take her gaze off them. Ferns and other small, leafy shrubs grew out of cracks in the stone, thriving in the small rivulets of water that dripped and dribbled along the rough rock.
They came to a little landing before the stairs switched back in their ascent of the mountain. Next to the landing stood a dark door, reflecting the light of the apparition in its polished surface.
Verrin spoke a spell and the apparition dissipated like morning mist, and he pushed open the door. They walked into a snug stone chamber illuminated by sconces of the same green-blue light she had seen in Sarnum. The air was bitingly cold and smelled of minerals and dirt, like rocks pulled up from a riverbed. On the other end of the chamber stood another door similar to the one they just walked through. Hazel went up to it. It gleamed in the light, looking almost like polished stone, but when she put a hand to it, it wasn’t as cold and felt slightly sticky.
“Nightwood,” Verrin said. “It grows only atop this mountain, and secretes a resin that is repellant to water. Useful, given the surroundings.” He opened the door and walked past her into the other room.
The chamber beyond was different in that the stone walls of the mountain were not smoothed or tamed. Crags of rough rock jutted from the walls, casting irregularly shaped shadows from the flickering sconces. Most remarkable, though, was the pool in the center of the floor. It was fed from a narrow stream that trickled from one of the walls and collected into an indented basin that was encrusted with crystalline formations. The overflow continued onwards in a series of rivulets that snaked across the uneven floor before disappearing back into the stone.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Verrin said.
It was remarkable, but Hazel didn’t want to admit it aloud. It didn’t seem right that such beauty could exist in a place like this, where necromancers congregated and worked their dark arts.
“Why are we here?” she said.
He gestured to another black door on the other end of the room. This one led back outdoors, but onto a narrow pathway with cliffs of sheer stone on either side. Sheets of water glided down each sheer surface polished by what she could only assume were centuries of water passing over it. They crossed the narrow walkway, coming to yet another door that they then passed through and into a tiny cramped chamber that was lit only by the moonlight above. The chamber led to a set of stairs that disappeared into the darkness of the mountain. Hazel started up the stairs, and the mountain above them blocked the moonlight and everything went completely black.
Hazel’s breath quickened and she was about to summon the little glowing moth Hemlock had taught her, but Verrin beat her to it by summoning his ghostly apparition yet again.
It started up the stairs, and Hazel stood aside for Verrin to follow it. Instead, he indicated for her to go first. She hesitated long enough for the apparition to cross several steps, when finally she followed.
She ran a hand along the stone wall, partly to keep her balance, but mostly to let its solidity reassure her. Where were they going? What would happen to her when they got there? How would she find her way out again if this all turned out to be a dreadful mistake?
Ahead, the apparition crested the stairs and rounded a corner. The stairwell darkened, but Hazel was close enough that a portion of its light still reached her. She reached the top a few moments later and rounded the same corner and gasped.
The room before her was vast and open. To the right, the room retreated deeper into the mountain. The walls had been smoothed and polished. From the far end a vast hearth had been carved out of the wall, within which a lively fire burned. Bookshelves and tables carved out of black nightwood furnished the room, along with a comfortable-looking sofa and chairs, while carpets padded the cold stone floor. But what pulled Hazel’s attention the most was the left side of the room that opened up to the clear night sky. Great stone columns held up the stone ceiling, but beyond those was an overgrown balcony that stretched out into the star encrusted night.
Verrin came and stood behind her.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said a man who was not Verrin.
Startled, Hazel spun around and then staggered back.
There, smiling at her as if nothing were wrong, stood her father, Ash.