“There you are!” Kera exclaimed upon spotting the object of her quest. The brilliant red-and-purple petals of the Octavia’s Orchid glistened wetly in the sunlight, apparently still dappled with morning dew. She knew that was a lie, of course. The dew was a substance the plant excreted to attract prey. The supposed dewdrop was quite sticky, and once an insect like a fly or bee landed on the plant and tried to sample the offered bounty, it was caught. The broad red petals would curl up and the paralyzed bug would soon be devoured.
Excitement and relief overcame her motor control in that moment and the branch she was holding out of her way slipped free from her hand. The pitchy tree limb slapped her in the face. She stumbled back, sputtering and coughing, trying to wipe away the gooey pine needles that stuck to her hands, cheeks, and nose. She spat several times, somehow having got several in her mouth as well.
Her foot caught a raised root of the evergreen sapling that assaulted her and she stumbled back, finally thumping her butt down on the much larger exposed root of the massive old growth fir that loomed over everything. The unbearable tension of the morning suddenly abated. Her mirth at the ridiculousness of her current situation could no longer be contained. A small chuckle grew into a full-throated laugh. She pumped both hands in the air, sticky pine needles be damned, and exulted with a loud “Yes!”
She’d been looking for a witch flower, as the common parlance would have the thing be called, for two days. Two miserable days hiking without license through the royal reserve to the east of her so-called school. That alone was worthy of a dungeon cell for a few days, or maybe even a visit to the stocks for some public humiliation in the peasant town next to the school, which was never, ever pleasant. Collecting fauna illegally would merit an even harsher penalty, but that was part of the test. Could she, as an apprentice, go where she needed to get the necessary components for her Art and not be caught?
Some of the other students claimed that their parents had paid the sheriff and her rangers to look the other way, but a nobody like Kera didn’t have access to that kind of cash or influence. She was already a mercy case at the school, only kept there by the graces of her mentor and her continued successes.
Kera considered her situation. She had another two days to complete the exercise, but would need at least one to get back to the laboratory at the school to properly process the plant. She would probably need to bribe staff to get access to the necessary reagents, unless she beat everyone else back and could steal their supplies before they stole hers. That was unlikely. Cole Granville probably had and uncle or an aunt with a garden that actually had witch flowers so his Quest into the Wild was a trip down cobbled streets and a knock on a door or two. The stuff-shirted toad.
She was modestly convinced that her own mentor had such holdings as well, but the old maestro was explicit in his instruction to Kera and the others under his auspices. If they couldn’t find their own materials, then their own Artistic endeavors weren’t worth the canvas they were painted on. “No amount of raw talent can be excused for a lack of self-sufficiency,” he’d said, and bid them go complete their trial by week’s end.
Kera reached into her pack to pull out a handkerchief. The fine linen had an embroidered edge that was mostly straight. She’d done it by hand five years ago, so she was still thoroughly proud of the quality her thirteen-year-old hands had made. The cloth was much stained by years of use, the remnants of Art worked upon it. She unfolded the cloth to show yet another quick working. On the linen she had painted several symbols and images with a quick, fine stroke. In the middle was a picture of a steaming bowl of water, freshly poured from a teapot.
With practiced effort she stilled her thoughts, quickly chasing out jealousies over other students, frustrations with her maestro, and difficulties such at a pitch covered face and sticky hands. In the space of several heartbeats she could reach into her inner stillness and tease out the single thread of the Art that she had left unbound in the handkerchief.
The fabric had been used for this purpose before, so the vessel was well prepared and used to harnessing the ebb and flow the energies she was manipulating. Holding the cloth in her left hand, she reached with her right and pinched the invisible threads of power together. The handkerchief seemed to grow in mass, suddenly, the very possibility of it adding weight to her reality.
She reached into the handkerchief and grasped the edge of the bowl, almost losing the working when she grasped the hot surface. She grimaced and pulled the bowl of hot water out and quickly, but carefully, set it in her lap.
A wave of exhaustion flowed over her, but Kera refused its lure. She blinked several times and stifled a yawn. Not giving into that yawn was critical. All it would take is one long, drawn out…
No! No yawning! She thought, angry as herself for almost giving in.
The lethargy passed. Kera inhaled the steam and smiled. With quick hands she pulled a battered tin mug out of her pack and set it on the broad root next to her. She dropped in a tea ball and immediately poured in some of the hot water. No sense wasting it on only the one task.
Next she dipped the handkerchief, now completely missing the painted scene of the bowl of water that sat in her lap, into the bowl and began scrubbing the pine needles and their attendant sap from her face. The water was very hot, just as she’d imagined it would be when she’d painted the cloth and worked her Art into it. She was thoroughly pleased with her forethought and the success of her effort. The sap came away and left her feeling clean and refreshed. Even the pain in her feet was beginning to fade.
She picked up her tin mug with the damp washcloth and sipped at her tea. The minty herbal concoction soothed her senses further, and she allowed herself to smile.
Today was turning out very good indeed.
After finishing the tea and using the last of the water, and stowing the middling quality bowl from the working and her implements back in the bag, she set about collecting the Octavia’s Orchid. She used special gloves for the purpose, as the sap of a witch flower was toxic to normal people. It wouldn’t kill a person, or even render them insensate, but it would leave one itching for days. All over. Even in places where a body never touched the darned thing. In private she’d laughed herself hoarse over the itching fits Granville had got into after the last time he messed up handling witch flower precipitate. Even now that gave her a wicked smile.
Once stored in her specimen bag, she took the gloves off, carefully peeling them inside out and dropping them in the bag as well. They could be cleaned in the laboratory. A good dip in the acid vat would cleanse them nicely.
She just had everything packed up an ready to go, rather dreading the long walk back to the school grounds, when the beast snorted.
Branches snapped to her left and the monster snorted once more. She slowly panned her head to the left and saw the yellow eyes with the square pupils that were staring at her. Those eyes shifted when she looked, making contact with hers.
The creature was huge, its shoulders easily up to her collarbone, and massively built. It hunched forward, its head hung low and swaying ever so slightly. The pelt was tawny brown, striated and dappled. The ivory tusks that waved above the forest floor drew her eye. Each was the length of her forearm. She recognized the beast from the fauna journals of the region. It was a brindlecombe boar.
The page from Natham’s Journal of Applied Naturalism, 1774 edition, with Forward by Louisa Smith, Head of the Order of Hermes flashed up in her memory, with all the relevant facts of the beast condensed into a thin column of text that explained how much it weighed (a lot), how fast it could run (faster than she could), what its predators were (nothing natural), what its prey was (everything), and its proclivities (omnivorous with a taste for meat). At the top of the page floated a sterile and stenciled piece of text. Boar, Brindlecombe.
How in the name of the Seven Heavens did she wind up in trouble like this? It was ridiculous!
A wholly inappropriate giggle escaped her lips. The beast’s eyes narrowed. She clamped her lips together and felt fear sweat run down her back. She was so dead.
The beast was a good fifteen meters away. It hadn’t charged her. Not yet! And it seemed to be puzzled by her appearance. Natham’s insisted that Artists like Kera smelled different to the beasts of the wild. More natural ones like a brindlecombe, even if they had their origins in Art gone out of control, didn’t particularly care for their scent, though they were drawn by it. Several natural scientists speculated that it was a centuries old failsafe worked into the bedrock of the Art that made created creatures easier to control. As such it might not actually come rushing in unless she did something rash like running away in a mad panic.
She wondered if she could test the theory. She moved her left hand slowly into the pouch at her waist. The leather packet hung crosswise, so she could reach in this way, and feel the contents inside. The square shape of the parcel cradled its contents without letting them get crushed or bent. That was especially important with these items. The handkerchief had been meant to be folded, so folding it up and warping the Art on it was insignificant. That was not even remotely the case with the cards in her pouch.
She felt the stirrings of the Art in each lacquered placard as her fingers brushed over them. Each sensation was different, and enough to identify it. Of the fifteen or so she had prepared, two were marginally useful, one was perhaps most, and another was an absolute last resort. That one was actually illegal.
Kera stilled her emotions and thoughts, reaching for the Art in the cards, and pulled out one that bore the image of a serene lake. She felt calm every time she looked at the picture, so she’d painted that onto this one over a month past. It was a fair copy of one of the best pieces of Art in the campus central library. The Reflecting Pond by Adowa Bah, said to be a scene from her village in the Kharkhum before it was destroyed. Kera felt proud that she’d managed to work even a little of the massive emotional enchantment into the card that Bah had worked into her masterpiece.
She put the card up between her and the brindlecombe. The boar tensed, eyes narrowing at her. A foreleg pawed at the forest floor, violently gouging up a shower of dried pines and cones. Fear struck like a viper into the calm of her working. The certain image in her mind that the beast would charge, and charge now, trampling her into the ground, snapping her bones. She would…
No! Control the fear, control yourself. First, breath slow. A slow breath is a calm breath. Now slow the heart. Good. A calm heart is a calm mind. Release your fear and reach for the Art.
The brindlecombe took a single step forward, but she found the threads of power in her placard and joined them. Power flared into the substance. She flung the card toward the beast and the image seemed to grow.
Rather than a shaping of mass and the creation of reality, this was an enchantment. It had no physical presence, only metaphorical. The calm and peaceful relaxation of the Reflecting Pond settled over the forest clearing that she shared with the massive and slightly unnatural beast. Lethargy flowed over her, sapping her strength, urging her to lie down and succumb.
The boar did not.
It’s eyes drooped, then fluttered. They grew wide and it snorted, and she could almost read the defiant outrage in them, but the calming flow of the Art’s working pulled at the beast harder and harder, and its mind, simpler than a human’s and therefore more susceptible to the influence, gave over. The eyes drooped shut and did not open. It heaved a huge sigh and settled down on its belly. A soft rumbling snore emanated from it. The terrifying beast was asleep.
Kera’s breath left her in a rush. She couldn’t believe she’d pulled that off. She took a stumbling step back from the boar, then caught her feet. The after effect of working that much power still dragged at her, but with a spring in her step she hurried away from the clearing.
A compulsive whistle threatened for a moment. She wanted to express her joy at the working, at her success in finding the flower. She finally gave in to the urge. A happy, jaunty tune warbled through the air. Even a copycat robin picked it up and started passing it along.
Everything was going to be okay.
There was a horrendous crashing behind her.
Kera jumped and turned. Charging through the forest at her came the brindlecombe boar. Madder than a whacked hornet hive, the beast broke small trees as it charged, and tore up volumes of dirt and fora, sending up plumes of detritus.
In the middle of its forehead a green rune burned in sickly verdant light.
The rune was her name, her identifying sigil, unique to every practitioner of the Art the world over. No two were alike, and she recognized hers instantly.
It was a weapon. Aimed at her.