Hazel and Holly — The Sea of Severed Stars
Previous: Enshrined, Part Two
Hazel walked towards the coach. The silver scrollwork and stars caught the flickering blue lights on the walls, making them look as if they had been wrought from water.
Verrin came up behind her. “I’m afraid there is one condition for this arrangement.”
Hazel turned and Verrin held up a black strip of cloth. “You will need to be blindfolded.”
Hazel’s heart quickened as her apprehension intensified. “And if I refuse?”
“Then you are free to leave by way of the front door. That you have been granted access to the Sea of Severed Stars without first being initiated is a great honor—one that has been extended to you solely upon your father’s reputation and good standing with us. But our goodwill can only go so far. You will go blindfolded, or you will not go at all.”
Hazel swallowed and nodded. She had come so far; she couldn’t go back. She turned around and Verrin put the blindfold over her eyes and tied it snugly behind her head.
With his help, Hazel climbed into the carriage and sat down on a soft, pillowy seat. The carriage smelled like anise seed and singed rose petals. Verrin sat down next to her and, after a few minutes, the carriage started moving.
“The problem with your plan,” Elder said as Holly, Hemlock, and Hawthorn sat in his living room eating freshly-made sandwiches, “is that you overestimate my influence within the Shrine. I could get you in, but little else beyond that. As soon as they realized your intentions—which would be rapid, I assure you—then you would be thrown out, and I along with you. Orange trees are lovely, but not if the cost is permanently losing my position in the Shrine, nominal though that position may be.”
“Could you get us in without them knowing it was you?” Holly said. This time Abby had made a selection of different sandwiches, and Holly grabbed one filled with honey and soft cheese.
Elder took a bite of his own sandwich—spiced salami with marinated olives and fresh herbs and greens. “Possibly. But to what end? What are you going to do once in?”
“Find Hazel,” Hemlock said, “and convince her to leave.”
“And if it’s already too late?” Elder said. “What if she’s already made her vows? What if she’s not even there? She didn’t tell you she was going there, did she? You’ve just been working on that assumption. What if she came up with a completely different plan than what you’ve expected? So, what I want to know is what do I do about the aftermath of this plan that might end up being a complete waste of time.”
“She’s trying to get to the Sea of Severed Stars,” Holly said.
Hawthorn covered his face with his hand. Elder choked on his sandwich. He set his food down on a plate and took a big swig from his glass of sour cherry cider. “You shouldn’t even know about that.”
“Then you should tell your fellow necromancers to stop drinking wine,” Hawthorn said. “They get entirely too chatty.”
“And if she’s not at the Shrine,” Holly said, “then she’d be at this Sea.”
“Would it be possible for a new initiate to gain access to the Sea?” Hemlock asked.
Elder scoffed. “Possible? Yes. Probable? No.” He waved his hands at them. “I mean, you shouldn’t even know about it, yet you do, so at this point I’d say anything’s possible.”
“We need a two-layered plan,” Hemlock said. “One that accounts for us finding Hazel at the Shrine and one that…” He cleared his throat. “One that doesn’t. If she’s not there—and she’s not at the inn—I think we should assume she’s found a way to get to the Sea. And so we need to come up with a back-up plan to get us there.”
Elder shook his head. “Getting you into the Shrine is one thing, getting you to the Sea of Severed Stars is quite another. I cannot help you.”
“We’ll make sure they’ll never know it was you,” Holly said. “We promise.”
Elder chuckled, but it sounded forced and nervous. “You don’t understand. I’m not at all concerned with the other Necromancers finding out. Not when compared with the real threat.”
When everyone stared at him, he continued. “The Shapeless One. She will know I led you there. There aren’t any secrets in the world that she does not know. And I don’t think she will take kindly to me leading a band of trespassers onto her sacred grounds.”
“What utter rubbish,” Hawthorn said. “So now you’re suddenly pious when a few moments ago you were a sceptic?”
“I don’t take chances where it concerns the Siphoner of Souls, and neither should you. I think you should leave, now.”
“But you said you’d help,” Holly said.
“I promised nothing.” Elder’s voice had taken a hard edge, but there was a tremor underneath the gruff that matched a slight tremor in his hands. “I’m sorry, but you are on your own.”
Hemlock ran his hands over his face as they left Elder’s home. “This can’t be happening.”
Nobody said anything for a long while. In the distance, the sky began to lighten with the coming of dawn.
“I… might have an idea,” Holly said. “But you might not like it.”
Hemlock shook his head. “At this point, I’ll try anything.”
“Well… I have these potions…”
The carriage didn’t jostle nearly as much as Hemlock’s and Hawthorn’s carriage. The thought of them brought a painful lump to Hazel’s throat. She coughed. “How far is it until we get there?”
“That would be telling,” Verrin said. He sat a little too closely to her than Hazel was comfortable with. Not that she was comfortable with much of anything in this situation. The carriage seats were soft and cozy. All comfort ended there.
“You’d be surprised how much one’s perception of time is altered when one cannot see,” Verrin continued. “I’m sure you understand.”
Hazel had absolutely no perception of time. Despite her frayed and tensed nerves, the gentle swaying of the carriage and the even clattering of the horses’ hooves had quickly lulled her into a slumber. She had no idea how long she had slept. She knew day had broken—she could see cracks of light seeping in around the edges of her blindfold—but she didn’t know if it was morning or afternoon.
“You seem young,” Hazel said after a long bout of silence. She didn’t want to drift off to sleep again; talking helped keep her awake. “How long have you been a necromancer?”
“I was eight when I first started to learn, much like yourself I assume. Don’t Grove warlocks and witches join their first school of magic around then?”
“Yes, we get to choose our first discipline at that age. What made you choose necromancy? Or did you have a choice?”
“Oh, yes, I had a choice. Not all magic practitioners in Sarnum are Necromancers.”
He chuckled. “A fair amount, yes. The truth is that we excel in Necromancy. Those who are interested in the other disciplines are better off pursuing them in the Grove, rather than in Sarnum.”
“Except we don’t take in outsiders.”
“You sure about that? You’re selective, yes, but it’s not unheard of for people to go there, make their case—ardently so, perhaps—and be accepted. It usually involves a name change, to adhere to your quaint naming convention of trees and flowers. But I know of two people who have done just that.”
Hazel scowled. “Who?”
“That would also be telling. But surely you can’t be surprised about this. You know of people who have left the Grove for Sarnum, why wouldn’t it be possible for people to do the opposite?”
Except it did surprise her, as obvious as it all now seemed. She had honestly never heard of people coming to the Grove who were not born there—she never even considered it. Then again, she’d never been one for local gossip. She wondered if Holly had known.
The carriage rattled on. Hazel dozed in fitful bouts of shallow slumber. The light creeping in around her blindfold faded until everything was once again as dark as the sable fabric that covered her eyes.
Holly, Hemlock, and Hawthorn stood in Holly’s room back at cat-clad Sensi’s Contemplation. She held out the box of potions that Odd had given her in what now seemed like ages ago.
“What will they do?” Hemlock asked.
“I don’t know,” Holly said. “Odd said they will show us the decisions we haven’t made, and that they might help us change the decisions we have made.”
“Wonderful,” Hawthorn said. “Except the only decision that needs to be changed is Hazel’s, and she’s not here.”
“I told you you might not like it.”
“Let’s bicker about it later,” Hemlock said. “We need to try something.” He took a vial and, turning to Hawthorn said, “You got any better ideas?”
Hawthorn tightened his jaw and shook his head.
Hemlock uncorked the vial, brought it to his lips, and downed the clear liquid in one big swallow. He gave the empty vial back to Holly and sat down on the edge of her bed.
Holly studied him a moment, but nothing seemed to be happening. She turned to Hawthorn. “You next?”
He shook his head. “If we’re going to be experimenting with suspicious, gnomic concoctions, I think one of us should abstain and keep a sober eye on things. You go ahead.”
Holly nodded. She took a vial and drank its contents, then sat next to Hemlock.
Holly frowned. She got to her feet, intent on finding Tum to yell at him about the untrustworthy nature of gnomes, when the walls rippled like raindrops on water. She lost her balance, and Hawthorn caught her before she fell to the ground.
“You have to hand it to us,” Hawthorn said as he helped Holly back onto the bed. His voice sounded oddly distant, as if he were at the bottom of a deep chasm, and not right next to Holly’s ear.
“Things are never dull around here.”
The carriage was still moving when Verrin reached behind Hazel’s head and untied the blindfold.
She blinked, but the interior of the carriage was too dark to see anything other than Verrin’s shadowed silhouette. “What’s happening? Are we there?”
He reached over her and pushed aside the curtain covering her window, and Hazel gasped.
Night had returned to blot the sky in an inky blackness. Stars filled the void, and along the blackened ground hundreds of soft, flickering blue lights stretching to the horizon echoed the ones in the sky.
“There is nothing like it,” Verrin said quietly. “Witnessing the Sea for the first time. I envy you.”
Hazel opened her mouth to reply, but her throat clenched shut. The beauty of the softly glowing lights gnawed at her heart, exposing a raw longing she never even knew existed. “Are those souls?”
“Depends who you ask. Some fervently believe that to be the case, and that these are sacred grounds to The Keeper of Stars. Others will argue it is merely a natural, though unique, phenomenon.”
“What do you believe?”
He was quiet a moment. “I believe not everything needs to be explained.”
They fell back into silence. She had so many questions, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask them. Not here. Here, surrounded by starlit sapphires, speaking seemed like a perverse intrusion. She folded her hands and leaned back in her seat, letting the cool lights pass across her gaze until it was as if she floated among them, weightless and unseen.
Next: Odd Possibilities II