With beady eyes and a sharp-looking beak, Seth did not agree at all that the bird was his new friend. “And who exactly is – er, was this?”
“Hmmm.” Serena glanced down at the bird as though she expected it to squawk out a name. The bird, likewise, made an upward turn with its body to gaze up at her. Seth felt like he was watching the beginning of a very bizarre puppet/ventriloquist act. His hostess resumed her attention to him. “I believe this was one of the stable hands in Sylvia’s village. Or maybe a bartender, I don’t know.”
Seth tried to shake away his image of the bird riding on the saddle of a horse while mixing drinks with its feet.
“Regardless of who it was,” continued Serena, “it is now one of our many loyal subjects. And this particular one will keep watch as you journey back to your friends. After a brief reunion, you will kill Sylvia and bring back our stolen belongings.” She nodded to him. “And then you will have your life back.”
“I don’t know where they went,” lied Seth.
Serena smiled. “Oh come now. Two of the less annoying members of your group were vampires. I’m sure it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to consider fleeing off to their queen in the Kingdom of Fools for protection.” She stretched her hand toward him, apparently urging the bird to fly-hop over to his shoulder. “Your feathered friend will allow us to see whether you have fulfilled both of your assigned tasks. Fail to complete them in four days and all of it’s feathered friends will die.” She looked up. “One girl, Seth. Or over a thousand innocent souls. It’s your choice.”
Seth followed her gaze, scarcely being able to imagine every single former villager dying. “But why? She’s a magician, like you. You offered her the opportunity to join you just a while ago, now you want her dead?”
“She’s not like us!” Kirkaronus’ sudden decision to rejoin the conversation after being a silent observer so long surprised Seth more than his whiny rant. “She’s undisciplined and uncultured, a fluke of talent! And as I recall, she made her decision to not join us.”
Seth motioned upward. “If only you’d shown her the amazing opportunity of becoming a bird herder awaited her. I’m sure she would have never thought to turn you down.” He raised a brow at Serena. “And how do I know you’ll even keep your word in this deranged little agreement? How can I be certain you won’t simply turn me into a bird when I return and then kill all of us?”
“You can’t.” Serena shrugged. “But you have absolute certainty of what will happen without your return. And if you need added incentive for the first part of your duties, know this-,” she made a plucking motion and pulled a single stem red rose out of thin air, “-if you fail to kill Sylvia, she will still die. And it will be a much slower and torturous death that you will have bestowed upon her.”
Sylvia groaned with impatience. Her uncle and the rest of the group now lallygagged on the outskirts of the swamp, searching for cattails and other brush to shove in the metal boat’s fuel tank so they could resume their journey. Not that heading in the direction of the desert and the Kingdom of Fools was what they needed to be doing. They should be going back to the castle of the Keepers to find her mother and the rest of the family. If she had her way, that’s what she’d be doing right now. She could use magic against magic if only she were a little more (or perhaps a lot more) trained. She peeked at the ship, presently deserted aside from Bastiick sleeping on one of the seats. On the seat in front of him rested the Keepers’ medallion. Or if only she were more powerful.
Sylvia strolled over and snatched the medallion after a quick look around to make sure everyone else was still focused on hunting for weeds. She sat on a rock, going through loosely memorized spells in her head. She needed to try this beauty out to make sure it could amplify her magical skill as well as the Keepers. She began spitting out words that would hopefully give her a vision of where her family was. Instead of seeing an image of her mother or anything that remotely made sense, she suddenly saw a rose directly in front of her. A crimson rose in full bloom, sitting by its lonesome among a gaggle of tall grass and reeds.
Sylvia blinked several times, thinking the rose must be some sort of hallucination or trick of the eye. She bent over to smell it and closed her eyes at the impossibly sweet perfume. Reaching out to touch the rose while still keeping her eyes closed turned out to be a less grand idea as she managed to prick her middle finger on one of the thorns.
“Ouch!” Sylvia stuck the assaulted finger in her mouth, wincing from the throbbing pain. And then almost as quickly as it began, the anguish subsided. She pulled the finger out to inspect the damage, finding only the tell-tell tiny prick mark of a thorn. Her mouth dropped open as she looked back at the rose to find it in much worse condition. The bright, cheery petals now littered the ground around the stem, all of them shriveled and dried. The stem itself now bore a sickly brownish hue instead of the fresh green of just a moment ago. All except for one of the thorns, which remained green aside for a small drop of blood covering it.