Her body felt different. It was not because she was flying, not because her magic grew with every breath. It was more simple than that. Somehow, the world was shifting, and Willow was shifting with it. Flames engulfed her skin, and the tingle of heat had spread into her blood. She finally understood Hepsebah's warnings. The strength of her magic was heady, addictive, and she didn't want to slow the speed with which it pounded through her veins.
"It will tempt you," Hepsebah warned. She handed another bunch of dried feverfew to the little girl. "It will speak to you in your mind and tell you everything you want to hear."
Willow heard its voice clearly now. It called to her. It beckoned her. Let go, it said. Let go and feel true freedom.
"But you must learn control," the old woman went on with the lesson. "That is what I will teach you."
"Sippa," Willow whined, "when will I learn how to use it?"
The old woman smiled. "Ah, little one," she patted the girl on the head and handed her more dried herbs, "no one needs to teach you that. You have a gift with spells, you see," she lied. "You will learn to use your gifts in due time."
"I have learned so much, Hepsebah," Willow whispered. "I am beyond what you could teach now." A sadness gripped her heart as the Drylands castle emerged from within the thick clouds. "Forgive me for what I must do."
Calla crept more silently than the warm breeze, her hands feeling along the walls of the cavern. It should be cold this close to the water, she thought as a faint light appeared on the path below. She followed it quickly, wary and nervous that she might not be alone. Her eyes darted from one side of the broken cave to the edge of the rocky sea at its mouth, but she appeared to be alone. Her feet sank into the wet sand as she emerged onto the beach.
"Don't even think about arguing with me," Ulhetha had pulled her aside shortly before, making certain that no one in what remained of the encampment overheard them. "This is dark magic at work," she had warned the younger woman. "We must do our part to set it right again."
"How?" Calla whispered. "Those things," her eyes wandered to the shadows of the Ancients. They were walking to the Drylands castle, and every man from the battle was following. Those who stayed to tend the wounded and bury the dead were somehow immune to the hypnotic speech of the giants. "Those Ancients are far more powerful than any earth magic we could contrive."
"We will not be fighting them. That is not our place." The old woman busied herself with an assortment of herbs and pastes from her baskets, crushing leaves and powders in her hands before dusting them off into tiny glass vials. "Epic battles are often won by the littlest of people at the furthest edges of the fray," she eyed Calla in a meaningful way, her hands still working with the expertise of decades of knowledge.
Breathing deeply, Calla took the vials as they were handed to her, listening to the order in which they would be used. Ulhetha's recipe was a bit like the stonebread her mother had taught her as a child. She smiled for a moment, remembering the warmth of the kitchen and her mother's soft voice, but the knowledge of her mission grounded her once more. This deed was grim, indeed. "Do you understand?" Ulhetha asked once she had finished the details of her instructions. Calla nodded. "You will be alone, Calla. The rest of us must follow the Ancients."
"How will I find you?"
Ulhetha grinned, but for the slightest of moments, the younger woman thought it seemed more of a grimace than a smile. "Grab hold of his mane. You're going through the Underworld to your destination."
Gritting her teeth, Calla began the hideous rite Ulhetha had commanded her to perform. Her stomach lurched as the knife bit through the horse's flesh and coat, spilling dark, red blood onto her cloak. The sand under her knees was soon thick with the sticky, crimson liquid. Her hands shook as she carved open Darkwood's chest, and her eyes frequently strayed to his glassy eye, now clouded with death. His demise had been gruesome, but Ulhetha's spell was worse. Hands covered in blood, Calla took out the vials of potions the old woman had mixed. One by one, she tipped their contents into the gaping wounds she had ripped open. Green liquid poured from one onto his exposed, white ribs, staining the taut muscles in between. Another coated his tongue in red grit. Calla wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand, spreading blood and herbs across her own skin. Her stomach lurched with each breath, the scent of death and decay invading her nostrils and throat. She coughed, barely holding back the urge to wretch. "Finish it," she whispered, hoping her own voice would endow her with the strength for the final cut. Her right hand gripped the knife, its handle slippery with blood, and plunged it deep into the heart of the mighty warhorse. With her left, she took hold of his mane. "Take me with you. Take me to the other side." The body below her hands twitched with a great convulsion, strong legs kicked out against the heavy sand, and the immense head of the giant horse lifted itself from where it had fallen with its last breath. His clouded eyes took in the form of the girl draped over his back, and an unearthly scream escaped his foamy lips. Faster than she could find her own legs, the horse leapt up from the beach, dragging her with it. Calla never had time to breathe. In an instant, Darkwood plunged them into the sea. She wanted to struggle, to let go as the world was taken from her vision by the icy, black water, but her hand was now firmly caught up in the tangled mane of the horse. She tried to scream, and what little air was still in her lungs floated to the surface as they descended deeper and deeper.
"I thought it was me calling to you," Reza blinked slowly as he took in the changed form of his old friend. "It wasn't, though. It was you all along." His body relaxed in her presence, and his gaze was glassy and dull.
"I need you, Reza," the voice within the red cloud of flame whispered as it ruffled his hair. "Not to tell the story this time," she went on, "no, not for a story."
"You want me to find her." His head nodded gently, obediently.
"You have magic even I do not possess."
Furrowing his brow in concentration, he fought to drive the fog from his mind. "I see what you will not." She was in his thoughts. She was everywhere. He breathed and took her into his lungs. "I see those who will die for the love you have lost."
As though the very sun had fallen from the sky, a great heat pressed Reza down onto the stone floor of the high castle turret. He held an arm over his face, but there was no escape from the scorching wind. She was angry. "Enough have died!" Willow screamed, her voice slowly thickening into lips, a mouth, a face in the black smoke of her pain. Reza rubbed his eyes and withdrew his arm. A cool breeze swept away the heat, leaving him alone with the slim figure of a gypsy girl at his feet. In her face was a resolve he had not the heart to fight. "You think you know what I will do next?" she challenged. "Do you think I will bring about the end of this world?" Reza stared at her, unable to speak. "Do you?" she demanded, her voice making him jump.
When he answered, his voice was so thin, he wondered if the words had left his own mouth. "What is left in it to save?"
Willow's eyes softened, and she brushed her tangled hair from her face. He gaze drifted over their tattered clothing, noticing cuts, dried blood, and singed fabric, and finally coming to rest on a pair of kind, brown eyes. She remembered the first time she had seen him, before his name was known, before the world had become what they now sat above. "Everything," she replied. "I don't know if my life will be part of the price which must be paid to free this world, but if it is, then I will gladly give it."
"We are all prepared to pay that price, Willow."
"All?" she sat up.
Reza smiled. "Did you think we would leave you to raise an Animarus on your own?" He reached out a bandaged hand and took her own firmly. "I simply needed to know that you hadn't let your magic get the better of you."
Allowing herself to grin in return, the young woman helped him to his feet. "Then you knew all along what I would come here for." Together, they began to walk to the stairs.
He squeezed her fingers gently, encouraging her to turn and face him once more. Though she now knew who she was not, Willow still felt a kinship to him as a gypsy. Her heart ached for the simplicity of life before all of this had begun. "I know what she meant to you, Willow." He cocked his head to one side and gazed at her softly.
"How can you? I don't even know what she meant to me." She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. Did he know how much it hurt to breathe?
"Yes, you do," he stepped closer, letting her fall to his chest. She sighed heavily, and Reza felt the tension in her body build once more. There had been no time for grief, no time for anger. He closed his eyes and rested his lips on her forehead. "You've been through so much, and no one has dared to ask if there is strength left in you for the rest." Willow pressed herself closer into his embrace. Reza was different. He understood. He had seen it all, and her grief flowed through him like Tara's blood had flowed through the sand under her lifeless body.
"Perhaps she was right," Willow's voice hitched as she tried to calm her fluttering heart. Sobs crept up into he throat and then were numbed by the realization that Tara might never come back. A dull ache spread across her chest, calming her with its nothingness. "Perhaps this world isn't ready for us."
Tenderly, he lifted her chin with his hand. "It was by the hand of your ancestors that this world was shaped, and it shall be by your hand that it is reformed." Willow held her hands up to her face and watched them tremble. "You fear that side of yourself," he calmly took her hands in his own. "Hepsebah wanted you to respect it."
"Is it wrong to wish it was not mine?"
"No," her friend smiled. "You are human, Willow." Her bright, green eyes locked onto him at those words, as though she had not considered such a simple concept. "You're just a girl from the woods, and I am just a boy from the sand." He brushed a stray lock of hair from her face and marveled at her simple beauty. "Perhaps whoever chose us as heroes thought this was a brilliant joke!"
Willow's eyes smiled back at him. "At least someone is laughing," she quipped. "I doubt everyone else will be so pleased when they see what I must do."
"I think you'll find that more will rejoice than you expect." Reza swung his arm with her hand in his as though they had been best friends since childhood. Together they walked toward the darkness of the castle below. "They won't understand at first, but no one understood the Great Floods either."
"It's too late to turn back," the red-haired Ancient mused aloud. "Their magic was here before me, and they will follow before we are ready."
"I only hoped you wouldn't be too late," Reza joked, instantly regretting his words. The castle beneath their feet rumbled and lurched, sending the crumbled stone to tumble over the edge. They braced themselves against the doorway into darkness, but nothing was solid anymore, and the tremors failed to lessen. "Run!" he pushed her into the blackness. "Don't look back!" Together they ran and stumbled down the narrow stairs, afraid of the destruction behind them, and terrified of the deeds before them.