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The woman watched the crescent moon above from the vantage point of the little bridge. Below, the waters of Westwind River ran swiftly, swollen with the gift of the spring runoff, running (impossibly) uphill from Whocate’s Valley. With a chill still in the air this early in the season, the straw white blonde gathered her spring green cloak around her.
She also shivered with anticipation. Her mentors, chosen by her from among the adepts of the Dragonfly Temple, had warned her she would have to pass a test of fealty and she was nervous.
“What if I don’t pass?” she whispered to the dragonfly that had alighted on her bracelet, attracted, she thought, by the shiny silver metal. “I love him. This is his life now. I can’t be without him, but is that the right decision, for me to stay because of him?” She looked around, taking in the landscape, the soft lights glittering off her insect friend’s red wings. “I know that’s not a reason to be here. A rational one, anyway.” She laughed. “Oh Goddess, where is my head? Here, talking to a dragonfly on the banks of the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen, in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, about the – “
” – most wonderful man you’ve ever known,” came a woman’s voice behind her.
She turned, startled. The dragonfly held fast to her elaborate bracelet, a gift from the man she loved, the man she wanted to be with forever. The man she had lost in a diner in a little town at the bottom of the mountain.
*You are Misery Chastain, child,* the woman seemed not to ask, but to confirm her identity.
Misery lowered her head in respect, her cloak’s hood falling over her face, swallowing her vision. *Yes, yes ma’am,* she replied, trying to pull the cloak hood back, failing utterly to keep her hair in check and out of her face.
The newcomer laughed. *You will get the hang of wearing one of these in time,* she advised. *You do not have the advantage I have of having worn one ever since I could walk.*
*No, I guess not, I. What is your – oh, wow,* Misery stopped short, seeing the color of her cloak. *I – um – well, what does black mean – * she asked, uncertain.
*Sarlayna, Miss Chastain,* the older woman replied.
*Sar…it means – ?* poor Misery was even more confused now than ever.
*My name is Sarlayna, dear,* she was corrected. *and you will not see many cloaks of black here, and only two others with blue highlights.* Sari gazed out over the bridge railing, enjoying the view, taking her time in the conversation.
*I wasn’t told about black…what it means, I mean,* Chastain pursued. *I know green are acolytes, the lighter blue ones are intermediate, the orange moreso and the red adepts – *
* – and we are the Whoticores,* Sari interrupted. *Well, black are, and those who are their Seeresses, bonded into the bloodline, have the bejewelment added – * she paused, seeing Misery back up slightly, knowing it was partly in fear, partly in awe at Sari’s black eyes.
She smiled. *You have nothing to fear from me, dear. I am not mad. That is the exclusive territory of the males.*
Misery tried to relax, succeeding only partly. *Oh, I guess it would be wrong to assume an entire family’s mental stability based on one individual.*
*And normally you would be right, but in this case, 81 generations of direct male descendants have fallen prey to the Burning – the madness,* she corrected herself.
Misery couldn’t help but gape. *Excuse me, but did you say ‘81’?*
*Yes, I did. Eighty-one. Only my husband, Erik, has thus been spared, but there will be an end to it – soon,* Sari confirmed.
*How do you know?* Misery breathed.
*I am not sure I should tell you. You are, after all, a reporter,* Sari said measuredly.
*I’m not here for a story, ma’am,* she said a little too quickly. *Originally I just came to see Zach. To tell him I’m sorry. It wasn’t my fault! Pippi followed me to the diner – *
The black-cloaked woman straightened. *You do not need to convince an old woman of what you already know to be true, dear.* She held out a hand and the red dragonfly flew from Misery’s bracelet to her finger, perching there, studying it. *He knows and you both have your own reality.*
Misery leaned back against the railing. *But does he believe me? He didn’t at the diner.*
*He was scared,* Sari told her. *And rightly so. We have been burned in the past and there is too much at stake now to risk getting caught. The women you live with are dangerous. They will never rest until they have hunted us, never stop until they kill us.*
Misery’s eyes went wide. *Pippi would never – *
*That is not why you are here, though, I think.* Sari interrupted. *You are wise enough to let people work things out in their own time. I see that about you. This is more about you and your motives.*
The reporter’s shoulders slumped slightly. *I’m not sure I am even thinking straight,* the MWHO reporter admitted. *Zach is just – dazzling! I don’t know how else to explain it. His energy is so – vibrant, yet he’s so quiet. Though sometimes he drags into work half-asleep,* she laughed.
*There are – reasons for that,* Sari said cryptically.
*I know, and that’s what Zach’s said. I haven’t pushed him. I know he’ll tell me when he’s ready.*
*More like when you are ready, dear,* the Seeress counseled her.
*Am I?* Misery sniffed. *Or is my head so confused by love? Is that why I am here? He says I am a Child of Whocate. I don’t even know what that means.*
Sari placed a hand below the distraught woman’s collarbone, indicating her heart. *You do. In here. And because this is so new to you, the safest place for you is here, with us.*
*But how do I know for sure?* Misery asked, tears running down her cheeks. *How do I know I don’t just love what he’s become, not what he is inside? Or, or how do I know he really loves me?*
*It is times like this that test us, dear,* Sarlayna counseled. *And he IS inside what he is becoming. They are one and the same. And if you were not a Child of Whocate, then how could you even understand me as we speak?*
The reporter looked up, realizing she had been speaking the Sacred Language the entire time. *I guess you’re right about that,* she admitted to the Seeress. She gazed over the water where dragonflies were hunting for their evening meals, catching mosquitoes, diving with them under the water to drown them. *But Zach – *
She looked back up. The Seeress was gone.
The red dragonfly danced before her with a black one who had joined it from the river. The new companion darted off, back over the waters to hunt. Reflexively Misery put out her hand and the red one came to her, landing on the same fingertip as before. She gazed into its faceted eyes, light reflected off the torches that lined the little river bridge. Tears filled her eyes. *Tell him for me,* she pleaded it. *Tell him I’m sorry. Tell him I love him, no matter what happens, even if he never wants to see me again. I’ll never stop loving him!* She broke down at the thought. The dragonfly took off, zipping back and forth over the waters below, diving underneath, disappearing.
Misery pulled her cowl off, longing to feel the cool air dry her tear-stained face. The dragonfly broke the surface, zipped up towards her and landed quickly and neatly next to her on the railing. She ignored it in her pain.
*I’m sorry too.*
“Zach?!” Misery looked wildly around at the sound of Zach’s voice, but there was no one else on the bridge, only the red dragonfly. A peculiar light below caught her eye, reflecting off of a stalled eddy of water trapped between rocks that spun only slowly, draining slower into the rest of the babbling river.
Her eyes flew wide. Zach’s image leaned casually on the railing next to her in its reflection. She jerked up. He was next to her, golden eyes regarding her quietly…
Continued in the paid chapter Bittersweet. To read the conclusion, subscribe here.
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