Radcliff froze at the sight of a bristling monstrosity. At twice his height, this tree looked more like a prickly waterfall. Each finger-width branch sprang upward from the crown of the central trunk and fell in twisted arcs to the ground. However, instead of leaves, each branch was packed with two-inch long spines.
Amira came to a halt beside him and stared, open-mouthed. “That wasn’t in my vision.”
No, her vision showed them a world similar to their own. Yet, as they walked deeper into the forest, it became stranger and stranger. “Do you think we should worry that all these plants are so well armored?”
Amira shrugged indifferently, but he could feel a rising tension across their bond to match his own. “I haven’t seen any animals so far,” she whispered, as if afraid to summon whatever this spiny tree was guarding against.
“No birds or insects either,” Radcliff observed. At least none that they hadn’t brought with them. The eerie silence throughout the lush forest felt wrong. “Do you think we made a mistake coming here?”
“Heh. Where else could we go? It’s not like I was shown alternatives.”
While that was true, it didn’t make Radcliff feel any better. “I fear I’ve led everyone from certain doom to a hidden one.” Running across disturbing things like this spiny tree bush thing only reinforced the feeling of disaster waiting to happen.
“Hey.” She nudged him. “We’ll get through this. We’re alive thanks to you.”
“It was your vision that saved us.” Radcliff pulled her into a hug and let the comforting embrace soothe his worries. They were safe now. Emperor Calydus had sacrificed himself to close the portal so the abominations couldn’t get through. Their old world was gone, but they had a new one to explore. Soft fingers caressed his cheek and Radcliff leaned into the added comfort. Still, thoughts swirled in his mind of things that needed done and problems yet to solve.
Radcliff kissed Amira and reluctantly pulled back. “We should probably return.”
“Think you can find the way?” Amira teased.
Radcliff stiffened in mock indignation and planted his hands on his hips. “How dare you question your emperor’s skills?” The corners of his lips twitched, but otherwise he gave her his most thunderous glare. Amira’s eyes glinted with mischief and he fell a little more in love with her.
“Madam,” he said while waving his hands around in circles for added emphasis, “I’ll have you know I can find my way from any place to anywhere.” He paused and waggled his eyebrows. “Even blindfolded.”
Amira laughed, but Radcliff maintained his overly serious façade. He was still weak from his earlier feat of mass summoning, but felt recovered enough for a quick look at this world through magical eyes. With another exaggerated flourish, he opened his mage sight. The game quickly ended when thousands of miniature suns bored holes into his brain. He cut the flow, but the brief encounter left him blind, dizzy, and quite awestruck.
“What’s wrong?” Amira slid an arm around his waist to hold him steady.
“Everything here is bursting with magic.” He waved his arm around enthusiastically. “There’s more magic in this simple forest than in the entirety of our old world.” And that included the mountain fortress reservoir and the Shae forest. Radcliff was at once eager to test the new limits and terrified at the sheer magnitude of power available all around.
“Is that a good thing?”
Well… Now that she asked, perhaps there were a few potential problems.
“Maybe?” he amended.
“You don’t seem so sure,” Amira prodded.
“Spells will be stronger,” he clarified. “Until people get used to the new power levels, there might be accidents.” He’d have to warn everyone about this new development.
“Is that what happened to you just now?”
Radcliff’s face heated up. He should have tested the magic levels instead of making assumptions.
“Yes. I should have known better.”
Amira stroked Radcliff’s back in a gentle caress and said, “Hey, don’t beat yourself up about it. I have a feeling we’ll find a few more surprises.” She pointed to the spine tree as a prime example. “This world isn’t what I’d envisioned.”
“Well, it’s our home now. We’ll manage.”
“I know we will. How are you feeling?”
“Better.” Radcliff raised one of Amira’s hands and kissed it. “You, my dear,” he said with a smile, “make a wonderful tree to lean on.”
She playfully shoved him. “Careful. Maybe I’ll sprout thorns like these.”
He cocked his head as he considered the idea. “It’s possible.”
“Not really. The Shae forest back on Caladon changed everything living in it in odd ways. This place will certainly change us.”
Amira’s eyes widened. “But surely not spikes?”
“Why not? You’d look good with spikes.”
She punched his arm. “I’ll spike you!”
“Ow!” Radcliff clapped his hand over the pretend wound and cried out, “Not the spikes.” Then he shuddered in pretend fear. Amira giggled and it wasn’t long before he joined in. When Radcliff could finally catch his breath, he said, “Ok, no spikes and not right away.”
“Well, that’s a great relief.”
“C’mon,” he wrapped an arm around Amira’s shoulder. “Let’s head back and see what new troubles have developed.”
After taking only a few steps, Amira said, “That’s not the way back.”
“No, look here.” She bent down and pointed to a green, moss-like plant. “See the outline of the heel?”
Radcliff bent down and examined the specimen. “Hmm,” was all he said. The plant had definitely been crushed, but he couldn’t see anything else.
Here, let me show you.” Amira took his hand and gently placed it on top of the moss. “Run your hand over the surface and feel the shape of the imprint. See if you can figure out which way the boot was pointed.”
He gently brushed the surface of the unusual moss. It was as soft as the stuff in their old world, but littered with thin, flexible spines that reminded him of fish bones. He picked up a broken piece and studied it. The fragment was lighter green in color than the surrounding moss and shaped exactly like the spines on the bushes. He showed it to Amira and said, “I guess we shouldn’t go barefoot.”
She took the piece from him and tested the pointy end with her finger. It drew a tiny drop of blood with only minor pressure. Amira sucked her fingertip for a few seconds, and then tossed the spine away. “Definitely not going barefoot.” She shifted her attention back to Radcliff. “Now, which way should we head?”
“You’re going to make me do this, huh?” He had hoped she’d forgotten about that.
“Sure. It’s good practice.” Her sly smile indicated she was enjoying this.
He groaned. “I didn’t even know this was possible.”
Amira tittered. “Tracking is the first thing all Westspire hunter-born children learn. If they can do it, so can you.”
“If you say so.” This didn’t look as easy as she made it sound. After several attempts to feel the shape of the imprint, he thought he had a direction. “That way?” He pointed away from the spine tree at a slight angle.
“Yes! I knew you could do it.” Amira beamed at him.
It did feel good to succeed at such a normal task, but he definitely preferred using magic. For one it was much faster. “At this rate it will be dark before we get back.”
She chuckled. “You’re probably right. I suppose that’s enough for today, but once things settle, I’m taking you out for intensive training.”
“I would never say no to more alone time with you.” He winked.
“You are such a flirt.” She stood and pulled him up.
Radcliff snatched a final hug and kiss before they departed. Amira made it look effortless as she led them back to the shouts and noises of their people trying to organize chaos in a strange new world.
He paused at the place where old Radcliff had left him. Amira gave him a concerned look but he waved her on so she could collect her staff. Radcliff waited until she was out of hearing range and whispered, “I wish you hadn’t left me but I hope you find peace.” He felt stupid talking to the wind and water, but he needed to say farewell. Especially since his final words had been spoken out of fear and anger. “I’m sorry about that.” If he had known what his other had planned, he might have tried talking him out of it. Taking a deep breath, he made a vow. “I’m not you, but I will do my best to take care of our people.” He stood a bit taller at the declaration. He might not be a natural leader, but Radcliff would do whatever was necessary to protect his people and see them settled in this new world.
Amira returned with the staff but she was looking at it like it had sprouted a second head.
“It doesn’t feel right.” She held it out to him.
He took it. Mindful of his earlier mistake, he opened a tiny trickle of his magic. The staff did feel somehow… less. Lighter maybe? No, that wasn’t it. The peculiar feeling it gave him the last time he’d held it was gone. Gripping it tighter, he used it to summon a small pebble. A blurred projectile shot straight at his head. He barely ducked in time.
“Did you just try to hit yourself with a rock?” Amira’s hands flung up to her mouth, suppressing giggle-like sounds.
“It wasn’t supposed to do that,” Radcliff mumbled under his breath. “Here.” He slapped the staff back into her hand. “Obviously it still amplifies magic.” Amira couldn’t hold back any longer. Her belly-deep laughter was contagious and soon Radcliff joined in. Despite all his worries and misgivings, it was good to be alive with her at his side.