O Most Wonderful

Nobody was there to see the young woman strip and plunge herself into the clear, cold waters of the lake. There were many men in the Realm that should probably have liked to. At only 17, the girl was extraordinarily beautiful, with long, golden hair and captivating, cool, bright eyes. Yet she carried her beauty with a calm indifference unlike most pretty girls of her young age. She knew she was good looking. And it was of no consequence to her, because it brought her no joy. Those that had dared approach her in the past had tended to do so for shallow reasons. She had rejected them all, of course. And now, there were none. Chris was always fun to flirt around, and she seemed to have formed a special sort of bond with Sean, but nobody had made a romantic advance on her since they had come by that violent accident into the Realm. It made sense, of course. They were so fly-by-night, no stranger they met ever had chance to so much as draw breath before they'd have to leave again. And she'd seen first hand how much that wrench away from a romantic entanglement with a native of the Realm could sting. She just didn't have time to be that cut up. And as for Chris or Sean, well... that would be too complicated, given her situation.

She ducked her head up from the water, wringing out her hair and sighing.

Sean... God, she wished that boy wasn't so damn shy! Perhaps if... no. That wouldn't work.

There was a small cough from the bank. Jess turned to see the Witch sitting, cross legged, on the bank, averting her eyes.

Jess smiled through her aggrivation. 'Can't a girl wash her hair in peace these days?'

The Witch nodded to herself, sympathetically.

'Just a little warning. You are nearing Myra's forest...'

'You've already warned us about that,' tutted Jess, 'and we all agreed - if it's as Chock Full of portals as you say, it has to be worth the risk. One of them has to lead home.'

Jess noticed the small frown on the Witch's face, which was consumed by a broad smile just as quickly as it had appeared. 'Very well, Young One, but remember. You have been warned.' The Witch shot her a strange glance. 'Bear in mind that you do not know your companions as well as you may think you do. Not to mention you, yourself.'

'Uh-huh.' Jess rubbed her eyes. 'Listen, could I just get dressed...?'

But the witch had gone.

Jess was used to it by now. She shook her head silently, climbing out of the lake and groping for her clothes and weapon. Pulling on a thin undershirt, she remembered that she had left her tunic to warm by the campfire. She didn't bother putting on her boots yet, but ran, shivering, towards the small orange glow in the depth of the woods.

Bella lay back, supporting the back of her head in her hands, wiggling her naked toes towards the fire. It felt good to be barefoot after all that walking... and in such uncomfortable shoes, too. Back on Earth she'd hated being forced into heels for formal occasions - it wasn't as if she wasn't tall and slim enough to pull off flats - but cast iron boots... now that was just too much. The others had given her quite a bit of space, as they often did whenever she kicked her boots off to relax. The comments were bound to start soon, which wasn't really fair. Cast iron gave the skin no way to breathe, and it appeared that they were currently tramping around a world that had yet to invent Odour Eaters. And Jess had swanned off with the soap before she'd had a chance to wash. Her head still felt uncomfortable. She reached up and pulled her hair out of its usual high ponytail, tying the ribbon around her wrist and allowing her glossy dark locks to fall about her shoulders. She lay back again and watched the others. Sean was quietly poking at the fire with one hand and ruffling little Frankie's hair with the other. Chris was stretched out, all velvet skin and bulging biceps, damn him, smiling faintly at the two siblings. Bella scowled. She had her legs out! Could he not see her legs? She shifted again, crossing one leg over the another, allowing her skirt to fall slightly away from her thighs. This time, Chris looked at her, but did so with the back of his hand against his nose.

'Ecch... Bella, is that your feet?'

Bella frowned again, sitting up self conciously as Sean and Frankie turned from the fire to grin at her.

'Poo!' laughed the little girl as she and her brother also held their noses, 'take a bath, Bella!'

Bella arched an eyebrow at the others. 'Well, I would, if only our Bathing Beauty would finish making herself pretty...'

'My ears burnin'?'

Bella's eyes followed her pointed finger to see the damp blonde pick her way into the clearing. She allowed Jess a quick, cold smile.

''Bout time, too.' Bella held out her hands for the soap, which Jess tossed to her, eyeing the campsite as she did so.

'Where are the others?'

'Fire's running low.' Sean flashed Jess a glance before returning his attentions to the small fire. 'They went to get a bit more wood.'

Jess pulled a concerned face. 'It's getting dark. Will they be OK?'

'They didn't go far,' added Chris. He tossed Jess her tunic. 'Here. You're freezing.'

Jess held the fire warmed tunic to her cold chest for a moment. 'Thanks. But you don't...'

'They're fine,' interrupted Bella, flicking her hair.

'Hmm.' Jess still didn't seem convinced.

Sean stood at last, and strode over to the half dressed young woman.

'Hey. What's the matter, Jess?'

Jess looked down at the hand that Sean didn't dare place on her shoulder.

'DM turned up while I was taking my bath.'

Bella huffed. 'Really. And what did that old hag have to say for herself this time?'

'That's the thing,' shrugged Jess, 'it was nothing new. She just wanted to warn me about Myra again.'

The pale, soft spoken young man frowned. 'Really? But she never warns us about anything twice.'

Jess nodded. 'That's what I'm worried about. This Myra character must be pretty dangerous.'

Chris joined the huddle, biting down on a thumb, worriedly. 'You mean, worse than... You Know Who?'

'I really don't know,' replied Jess, 'but I'd prefer if I knew where the others are...'

There was a loud snap behind them. They all spun around to see a teenaged girl in green robes, carrying a small bundle of sticks. The snap had come not from her, but from the little unicorn by her ankles, struggling to free itself from a bush without dropping the oversized branch that it was lugging in its mouth.

'See?' smirked Bella, 'told you they were fine.'

The stick bearing girl shifted a hand up to push her glasses back up her nose, moulting twigs and dry leaves as she did.

'These were the dryest I could find,' she told them, nervously, 'I think it might've rained recently, but I might be able to magic up some...' the bespectacled girl blinked. 'Hey. What're you guys all so worried about?'

Jess shook herself out of it. 'Nothin', Presto. It's OK.'

'Huh.' Presto tossed a couple of dry twigs into the fire, still watching the others' faces with concern as she did.

Jess shivered again, and decided to put on her tunic.

'Early night tonight, guys,' she told them, pulling her long blonde hair free from the neck of her green leather tunic. She fixed the dark girl with a stare. 'And an early start tomorrow, Arabella. I want as much sunlight time as possible while we're in that place.'

The black haired girl fluttered her eyelashes at Jess, meeting her with a sarcastically sweet smile.

'Just guard my stuff while I'm having my bath, Jessica. We'll talk about my wake-up call later.'

Jess didn't bother watching the brunette pick her way, barefoot, towards the lake, but turned towards the West, narrowing her amethyst eyes at the forboding darkness of the Forest of Myra. Luckily, Bella had done her usual job of distracting the others.

It was little Frankie who spoke first, once the dark girl was out of earshot.

'Why is she always such a bitch?'

'Frankie!' chastised Sean and Presto in unison.

'Well, she is,' huffed the little girl, skulking over to the comfort of the fire and her pet unicorn.

'There's no need to...' began Sean.

'Hey,' interrupted Chris with a warm pat on Sean's shoulder, 'if she spent her time deliberately irritating you half as bad as she does Frankie and me, you'd have much worse things to say about her...'

Jess tried her best to drown the conversation out. She stood, watching the dark, silent trees to the West, thinking about DM's words the first time they had been warned about Myra.

Myra does collect portals, but many of these are simply reflections. She will try her best to confuse you. You may find yourselves further from home than ever before. Your heart must decide where you really belong.

And she had looked at Jess. She had definately looked straight at Jess. And then she had turned up again afterwards that other time, when they were alone, and given her that second warning.

Jess still said nothing. She shivered, and pulled her bow closer to herself, and watched the forest.

After all, isn't that what a Ranger is supposed to do?