Another sort of transitional chapter, but things are starting to heat up! Thanks once again for reviews, favs, follows, and the like. :)
Letters from the Stars
Molly didn't know it was possible for a frog to look so indignant. Not until that afternoon, at least, when she found herself in the Witch Princess's swampside hut.
"I know," she told the fuming frog, "I know. I'm sorry, I really am. I couldn't get the last ingredient until the Blue Bell was rung, and-"
The Witch interrupted her with a loud ribbit and an angry stomp of her slimy feet.
"If I could have done it earlier, I would-"
Another irritated ribbit. Molly sighed and hung her head.
"Do you understand what she's saying?" Finn asked.
"No, but I can guess. I'd be upset too, if I was stuck as a frog for so long..."
The Witch didn't ribbit this time. She looked up at Molly, strangely solemn, before she lowered her head and fixed her gaze on the countertop. Molly reached out for a moment to pick the Witch up, to comfort her, but thought against it. The little frog wouldn't be happy with that at all. Not until she was safely back in her human form, at least.
"I have the other two ingredients. I just need the hibiscus, and I can get that very soon. I'll leave for Toucan Island first thing tomorrow morning, and then I'll give the Wizard everything he needs for the antidote," she promised the Witch. "I won't let you down again."
The Witch graced her with a frustrated ribbit, and Molly took that as her cue to leave. She stood, stretched her stiff muscles, and headed back into the silence of the forest.
"I hope the Wizard doesn't mind a little project," she said to Finn. "The sooner the Witch is back to normal, the better. I feel awful for leaving her as a frog for so long."
"She did this to herself, didn't she?"
"Yes, but... I don't think I'd like being a frog, would you?"
"I'm perfectly fine being the Harvest Goddess's sprite! Frogs are always mistaking us for flies, anyway. I don't like them one bit!" he said, sticking out his tongue. Molly laughed, and he came to rest back on her shoulder.
They were deeper in the forest now, far enough away that she couldn't smell the deep, earthy stench of the swamps anymore. The cool air beneath the treetops was a relief after the scorching summer heat; she almost considered staying for the rest of the afternoon - maybe she could collect some materials to sell later - but Cocoa and Brandy were waiting for her back at the farm, and she didn't want them to stay out any longer than they had to.
"What's that?" Finn suddenly asked. Molly shook away her daydreams and listened.
Chop, chop, chop. The sound reverberated through the trees. Chop, chop, chop. Molly followed it, and before she saw him, she knew exactly who it was.
Molly considered leaving without saying hello to Luke, who was hard at work with one of the stumps in a corner of the woods. She was still a bit iffy after the incident at the Summer Festival. But he turned around before she could leave, and greeted her with a smile that left her feeling guilty.
"Hey, Molly!" he said, swinging the axe over his shoulder. His hair clung to the sides of his face in wet, messy clumps. "What're you doing out here?"
"Just...thinking," she said after a moment's hesitation. It wasn't completely a lie, after all.
"Cool. Are you going back to town?"
"I guess. I have the animals to take care of. And crops, and..." She trailed off. Rambling again; no one cared about this. But Luke was watching her with friendly interest.
"Were you sick at the Summer Festival?" he suddenly asked.
The question caught her off-guard. "Sick? No, of course not. Why?"
"You left before it got dark! Who'd leave the Summer Festival before the fireworks? They're the best part! The explosions look cool and sometimes they even let me light a few!"
"I saw them," she started to say before she stopped herself. She'd promised to rejoin them later, hadn't she? And she just up and left.
It was for Wizard, though. I promised to go with him.
"Are you feeling okay?" he asked again, concerned now.
"I'm fine. Sorry about that. Wizard...he wanted to leave, so I went with him."
"Yeah," Luke said with a hint of a frown. "He didn't look like he was having fun."
"I think he was. Swimming just isn't his idea of fun," she said with a nervous smile.
"Oh. That's weird. I thought everyone liked swimming! And fireworks, of course."
Molly shrugged, forcing a crooked smile. "Everyone has their own interests."
"Yeah. I guess that's true." Luke started to heft the axe again, then paused. "Did I make you mad?"
Mad? No, she thought, I'm not mad. Just confused. But Luke didn't give her time to respond.
"I didn't think he'd mind! No one's ever been mad about being pushed in the water before... Sorry if you didn't like that though," he continued, though he looked more sheepish than apologetic. "I don't want to make anyone mad. I just want everyone to have fun!"
"I know! It's okay. He's... We're fine," Molly said, feeling awkward. She was more than ready to put the first few hours of the Summer Festival behind her. Wizard insisted it was all fine, but she still felt bad about it.
"Is there something I can do to make it up to you guys?"
Molly started to say no, then reconsidered. There was still the hibiscus flower to retrieve, after all, and she had no idea what she was getting herself into. She thought it better to prepare for her missions before she blindly set out on them, like she had with the Watery Caves.
"And I'm thinking about heading to Toucan Island since the water's improved," she said after a thoughtful pause. "Have you been there before?"
Luke's brow furrowed. "No, I don't think so. My parents went there on their honeymoon. Everyone does that, though."
"Oh. I'm not going for that."
"I figured," he said with a laugh. "What's up?"
"I'm just... I have to look for something that I can only find there."
"Sort of like the black pearl?"
She hadn't expected him to remember that. "Yes, exactly. Kind of."
"Is what you're looking for dangerous?"
"No, not this time. At least I don't think it is," she added with a giggle.
"Want me to go with you just in case? I'm always up for an adventure! Who knows what we'll find?"
"A-Are you sure? I don't want to take up your time-"
But Luke plowed right on. "I've never been to the island before! They might have cool food, like tropical curry! Or tropical mayonnaise!"
"I don't know how good tropical mayonnaise might be..."
"I'll make up for the Summer Festival! Promise. It'll be fun!"
She thought about it, but she already knew her answer. Luke's energy was a fun change from the normal, and who knows? Something as simple as searching for a hibiscus flower could prove more difficult than she was anticipating.
"Sure, all right," she said, her smile more genuine than before. "If you really want to, I could use the company."
Luke pumped a triumphant fist in the air, nearly dropping his heavy axe in the process.
The Wizard's mind swam with dark images he hadn't seen since his early days as an apprentice, when he was still unsure of how to control his new powers. They swirled through his thoughts with arms like black tentacles, twisting and turning and whipping him all about. When he finally woke at noon, his skin was covered in sweat and his sheets were in a rumpled heap on the floor.
Wizard spun to his crystal ball. It was still there, safely at his table. But the darkness at its edges was pulsating, so strong that he thought he could feel it alongside his own heartbeat.
He moved faster than he had in years. There were books to consult, spells to prepare and perform. Would he need a cleansing ritual for this? Or something much stronger? Wizard flipped through a few of his weathered tomes, seeking out incantations while he kept a close eye on the crystal ball. It didn't move, didn't so much as twitch, but he could still feel the power there beneath the surface. It was toying with him.
Damn it all Jake, he thought with a rare twinge of anger. If you hadn't been so tempted to steal it...
A tentative knock at the door cut through his thoughts. The Wizard's gaze shot to the clock over his bed. It was long past Molly's usual time to visit, and she actually hadn't been back since the night of the Summer Festival.
"Come in," he said, slower than usual.
The door creaked open.
He held his breath.
"Hello? Mr. Wizard?" Maya poked her head in, all smiles. Wizard felt strangely disappointed, but suppressed it and returned to his table.
"Good morning... Would you like another reading, or...?"
Maya seated herself across from him, her hands folded neatly on her lap. "A heart reading, please! And same person as before."
"Very well..." Wizard focused on his crystal ball, and for a moment, he wondered if the darkness was strong enough for Maya to see. If she did, she made no comment; the girl was staring at him with a mixture of wonder and awe.
The image that appeared in the crystal ball was a muddled mix of colors and shapes, but Wizard could still interpret it perfectly. "His heart is the same as before," he said, "and it will take some time to break through to his core... I am sure you already know, but he likes oranges..."
Maya seemed to deflate. "Yeah... I'll keep trying, then! Thank you!"
"It's not a problem..."
The girl started to stand - then paused, her expression sly as she turned back to face him.
"Did you and Molly have fun at the festival?" she asked. Curiosity bubbled from her in thick waves.
A thought struck him.
"Have you seen her since the festival, perchance...?"
Maya put a finger to her chin. "Hm, not at the inn. I think it's a pretty busy time at the farm, though. Harvesting crops and all that. Hasn't she come to see you?"
"I'm sure she's busy, if that's the case..."
Maya grinned again, but it was gentler now. "She'll be back soon! I'm sure she misses you too."
Wizard blinked, but the young waitress was already skipping for the door. "Thanks again, Mr. Wizard!" she said, giving him a quick wave before she left.
So Molly's whereabouts were still a mystery, even to one of her closest friends on the island. Wizard sighed and started to slump forward on the table. Maya was probably right; she was just busy with her crops and her animals, and those certainly took precedent over visits to the town.
Wizard returned to his books. Molly would visit when she could. He had a long day of research ahead of him anyway, thanks to Jake and his-
Molly was attacked with one of Jake's spells.
The thought hit him like a ton of bricks. What if the attack hadn't been as small and harmless as he assumed? What if something was growing inside her, like the dark energy in his crystal ball? She had to be warned. He had to keep an eye on her, make sure she was safe.
But how could he get in contact with her if she hadn't been to his house in several days?
And what if she hadn't shown up because something happened to her? What if she was hurt, incapacitated, and he hadn't heard the news?
No, he doubted it. He would have felt it, or seen something in his visions. They were connected now by a string of friendship and some trust.
But still. Wizard paced back and forth, back and forth, until he feared he'd worry a trail right through his wood floor. Why wasn't their relationship like his and the Witch's? He could contact her with a simple spell. But humans had to be so closed off, so...unmagical.
He could always head to her farm. Yes, that might do. It was a nice walk from the town to the hills, and he wouldn't have to speak to anyone on the way if he moved quickly enough.
But what if she wasn't there?
Wizard rushed back to his crystal ball and recited another incantation. This was all so troublesome.
A watery image appeared in its depths. He could sense now that Molly's heart was troubled, but hopeful. And busy. Maybe even a little bit confused.
But not hurt. Not in pain.
She was all right, then. That was good.
But he felt something else before he could breathe a sigh of relief. It was faint, so faint that he had to concentrate long and hard to really shape it out.
There was a darkness in her. And not the normal kind that most humans toted around. This was different. Magic-based. And it worried him, despite the fact that it seemed so small, so insignificant.
Specks and smudges of magical darkness in humans weren't common - but they weren't rare, either. He'd known a few others in his time who had accidentally contracted them, but they were usually cured before they could grow and flourish. He didn't know what happened if they weren't.
And something deep down told him that he didn't want to.
The darkness in Molly would have to be taken care of too. The only problem was, Wizard had no idea how to begin. Curses and cleansings were his master's forte, and something he hadn't touched upon in many years. He'd have to dip back into his old teachings, his old tomes. It would take time.
They had some time, fortunately. Molly seemed all right for now.
Wizard leaned forward on his table, until his chin was resting on his arms. He should have been excited; this was his first real project in a long, long time. For the last few decades, he'd done little aside from heart readings, fortune tellings, and astronomy work.
But those were all recreational, things he did to pass the time because he enjoyed them. This was very real, and very serious.
Serious enough that people might suffer if he didn't act quickly.
Your work has kept you busy, I see. I hope all is well. The night of the Summer Festival was different, to say the least; I have not had the privilege to view the fireworks with anyone else, nor did I think that I would enjoy it so much. Thank you for inviting me to join you.
I have an important question for you though, and I hope that I won't be interrupting your work if I ask you to come as soon as possible.