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Authors: J. A. White

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BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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“But he's trapped!”

“Yes, and for now that's the safest place for him. In time, he'll realize what's going on himself, and it will begin to drive him mad. No need to rush the process. Once you escape the Thickety, you can figure out a way to break the spell. For now, let's focus on your training.”
She nodded toward the thrumbeetle. “It's getting easier, isn't it?” she asked.

“A bit,” said Kara. Though she was still weak from her encounter with the sledgeworm, building a mind-bridge to the thrumbeetle had posed no challenge; she simply recalled an afternoon spent splashing in calf-deep puddles. All the thrumbeetle wanted to do was play, and once Kara built a bridge from this simple memory, the insect crossed it willingly.

“The bridges I build to communicate with these creatures,” Kara said, “are made up of memories. Images. I think that once I build the bridge, I can go back to it. So from now on, when I see a thrumbeetle, any thrumbeetle, I won't need to make a new bridge. It will already be there.”

“You're learning fast,” said Mary. The compliment was at odds with the somber expression on her face, however, as though Mary knew what was coming next.

“But when I think back,” Kara said, “I can't remember
the memories I used to make the bridge in the first place! Even this thrumbeetle. I built the bridge just a few moments ago, but when I try to think about the memory I used . . . nothing.”

Mary nodded sadly. “That's because it's gone, Kara. You can't use a brick to build a house and expect to keep the brick. You've used the memory up completely.”

“So every time I build a mind-bridge I lose a memory?” Kara asked. She thought about the bridge she had built to the sledgeworm; though she couldn't remember the specific images she had used, she knew they must have been something disturbing. “I suppose that could be good, in a way. There are definitely some memories I'd rather forget.”

“No!” Mary exclaimed. “Never think that! Memories—
especially
the bad ones—make us who we are. You must be cautious. Use too much magic and you'll forget all the experiences that made you Kara Westfall.”

Kara's hand began to shake, and the thrumbeetle,
which had been curled contently in her palm, found steadier ground on her shoulder.

“Magic always has a price,” Mary said, “but you knew that already, better than most.” She cleared her throat. “Let's focus on your lesson right now. Something simple today. That insect in your hand—send it to me.”

Kara found the place in her mind where the thrumbeetle had come to visit and asked,
Do you mind gracing my friend with your presence?

The beetle did not move from Kara's shoulder. It was comfortable.

“She doesn't want to leave,” Kara said. “And I don't want to force her. I'm afraid I'll hurt her by accident.”

“It's just a thrumbeetle.”

“It's a life,” Kara said.

Still, she didn't see how dancing on Mary's hand would harm the insect, so she reached more aggressively into its mind, feeling perhaps a slight nudge but little other resistance. It trusted her completely.

This two legs is the same as me
, Kara thought, sending an image of Mary standing next to Kara along with other images of safety (
twig, mud, leaf
), helping the beetle to make the connection.

Dance on her hand
.

The thrumbeetle crawled onto Mary's palm.

“That was . . . unexpectedly easy,” Mary said. Kara tried to hide her smile at the little girl's look of disgust. She shook her hand to get the beetle off her, only to have it crawl up her arm. “Kara. Please. If you would?”

Kara severed her connection to the thrumbeetle, knowing the mind-bridge would be there again if she needed it. The insect spread its sapphire wings and glided into the morning air.

“Well done,
wexari
,” Mary said. “There is a meaning to that word, you know, in the Lost Tongue. ‘Creator.' Other witches need to channel their magic through the grimoire. But you can create magic out of nothing.” Mary laughed slightly. “The grimoire needs
you
.”

Kara thought about how the spellbook had worked differently for her, the spells appearing in the book only
after
she had cast them, as opposed to the other way around. The way the pages had grown wings and vanished after she had cast the Last Spell.

Oh no
, Kara thought.

“I was feeding it magic, wasn't I?” she asked. “I was making it stronger.”

Mary Kettle smiled. She was missing an upper tooth and looked fairly adorable.

“There's a mind behind the talent, I see. A powerful combination.”

“The grimoire took what I gave it. All those spells. And then when I was done, the grimoire sent them . . .”

“To other grimoires,” said Mary, nodding.

Kara's stomach lurched, disturbed by the implications.

“So you're saying that somewhere a girl with the talent might be tempted to use a grimoire—because of a spell that
I created
?” she asked quietly.

“I suppose it's not beyond the realm of possibility, though it would have been more likely centuries ago. Now she'd have to find a grimoire first, a difficult task indeed.”

“So, they're rare?” Kara asked. “Even in the World?”

“When magic was at its height they were
rare
. Now I'd say they're closer to extinct. As Timoth Clen waged his war on witches almost all the grimoires were seized by his soldiers and buried deep within the earth, where they couldn't do any harm.”

“Some grimoires are good, though,” Kara said. “Right?”

Mary shook her head. “They are inherently evil. Every one.”

“But my mother's grimoire helped me save Taff. It—”

“—was perhaps
less
evil than most, only because its influence had been held in check by your mother's extraordinary will for so many years. That's all. Darkness and temptation are what bind the pages of any grimoire together. Only a witch with a truly pure heart can resist its call.”

“Like my mother,” Kara said.

Mary nodded. “But she would be the exception more than the rule.”

“So what you're telling me is that grimoires are evil, and since I'm
wexari
, every time I cast a spell I'm
helping
them seduce new users.”

“You're not using a grimoire anymore, so it's
helped
, not helping. And only in a very minor way. Like adding a single log to a massive pyre.”

“Fires can't burn without logs!”

“And logs are harmless without fire.”

Kara pictured a girl her own age in some distant land, innocently opening a book and seeing one of Kara's spells inscribed inside, no doubt something simple to start—
how to conjure a rat—
the strange words forming on the girl's lips without her even knowing. The first step down a dark and wicked path.

“Why didn't the Last Spell kill me, like other witches?” Kara asked.

“Because as
wexari
, you're much too important. It hopes you'll pick up another grimoire, start the process anew, add even more spells to the library. Now if you were just a common
tay'lom
like me, you would have been dragged to Phadeen, the Well of Witches. There you would have suffered for all eternity, your life force supplying the grimoires with the power they need to ensnare new souls.” Mary pulled at her pigtails, considering. “It's actually an interesting word, ‘
tay'lom
,' often mistranslated. Most scholars think it means ‘user' or ‘tool,' but that's not quite right. Its real meaning is something closer to ‘fuel
.' It reminds me of the story about the greedy baker's children who ate all the fruit in the forest, only to find out that the forest was actually a Rath'nuw that was trying to fatten them up. That's what the grimoire does to
tay'lom
. Swells them with magic so they will burn longer in the end.”

Kara imagined Grace Stone chained in some dark well, screaming in unimaginable pain.

It's not my fault
, Kara thought.
She chose her own path
.

Such thoughts were little consolation.

“That blackrobin in the branches,” said Mary, pointing to a nearby tree. “See if you can make it fly over here. They are notoriously stubborn creatures, so this will be a good challenge.”

Reaching into the mind of the beautiful creature, Kara allowed her guilt to spread outward, trying to build a bridge. But guilt was not an emotion that animals understood, and the bridge collapsed. Instead she reached out with the fear that someday—
wexari
or not—she would find herself in the Well of Witches, where Grace would be waiting. She pictured the white-haired girl, standing above Kara and taking the grimoire in her hands for the first time. . . .

In a few moments the blackrobin landed on Kara's outstretched hand. The mind-bridge she had created between them held strong.

All animals understood fear.

They traveled at night in order to make better use of the phosphorescent leaves that hung from the canopy. Kara learned which plants were safe to eat and which fruits were indeed fruits and not the hiding spot for a laxid, a parasitic worm that waited for its prey to take a bite so it could slide down their throats.

She missed Father, though she did not have any more dreams about him. She missed Lucas and wondered if he missed her too.

She missed her bed. She missed the monotony of life in De'Noran.

For a few days Mary tried to teach Kara how to use her slingshot but gave up quickly, Kara's aim being “impressively irreparable.” Taff, however, continued to practice his swordwork when Mary's age allowed him to do so, despite her insistence that he was not destined to wield a blade.

There was no sign of Sordyr, which meant that
Watcher had successfully led the Forest Demon astray. Kara knew the bird was clever, but she worried about her friend nonetheless.

If Sordyr finds out that Watcher is helping us . . .

One morning, just before they broke camp, Kara caught a glimpse of a tan-furred animal lying at the edge of her vision, its chest rising and falling in sleep. Curious what it would be like to build a mind-bridge to a sleeping animal, Kara closed her eyes and listened carefully for its true voice. At first she heard nothing.
Perhaps it's Blighted
, she thought. Creatures that had been infected by Sordyr's plants were difficult for her to make a connection with, sometimes impossible. She listened harder and identified a faint whisper, unlike anything she had ever heard before. . . .

Mary grabbed Kara by the shoulders and shook her.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice frantic.

“Practicing!”

Without releasing her hold on Kara's arm, Mary
dragged her over to the creature. The smell hit Kara first. And then, looking down, she saw that while the stomach of the creature was indeed moving, it wasn't from the steady breathing of sleep. Beneath its flesh swelled a pond of feasting maggots.

“You must
never
use your powers on the dead,” Mary said. “You understand me? There are
rules
.”

“Why?” asked Kara. “Will it hurt me?”

“No. But the others will.” Mary released her arm and said no more.

At last the forest opened up and a sea of boulders spread out across the horizon. Without a canopy of trees to block their view, Kara saw sky for the first time in weeks, a single white cloud drifting across a glorious expanse of blue.
Was it always this beautiful?
she wondered. The sun caressed her back and face. Though she longed to stare into its welcoming yellow light, Kara was forced to shield her eyes, which had long since acclimated to darkness.

“Come on!” Taff exclaimed, jumping on the first
boulder, but Mary—graced with the speed of a woman in her midtwenties today—quickly grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“Wait,” she said. “We have to prepare first. The journey across the Draye'varg presents particular dangers.”

“What's out there?” Kara asked. “Another monster?”

“Nothing so simple, unfortunately. Perhaps it will be easier if I show you.”

She bent down and picked up a twig, then cracked it in two, tossing away one piece and keeping the second, which was about the size of a pinkie.

“Watch,” she said.

Mary leaned over and placed the twig on the nearest boulder, then gave it a gentle push so it fell through the crevice between the rocks.

“There are many stories about the history of the Draye'varg,” Mary said. “Many attempts to explain its origin. Some people believe that these boulders around you are the pieces of a stone god who fell from the sky.
Others say that this was a playground constructed by a court wizard for a particularly demanding prince. And of course others claim that this is Sordyr's work.”

Beneath the boulder, Kara heard something begin to scratch its way to the surface.

“But I don't believe any of that,” Mary said. “I think this place simply
is
.”

An insect crawled out of the crevice between the boulders. Its antennae and segmented exoskeleton were the precise same hue as the broken twig.

“It turned the stick into an insect!” exclaimed Taff.

“Yes,” said Mary.

Kara reached her hand out for the twig insect, then thought better of it, remembering how Grace had used the grimoire to return Simon to life—or rather, something that had not really been life at all.

“This is wrong,” Kara muttered.

Mary nodded.

“Can it bring anything to life?” Taff asked.

“Anything,” Mary said. “Living or dead. That's why we have to be so cautious.”

“Can I make a rock insect?” Taff asked, snatching a medium-size stone off the forest floor. “I really want to see what a rock insect looks like.”

BOOK: The Whispering Trees
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