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THE UNEXPECTED GUEST

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Ancient roots delve deep and greedily into a rainbow of Chromatic ore, drawing nutritious colour into themselves and up into the trees, painting each colour with its own light.

Where one such tree stands, a pool clear as a mirror sprawls at its feet. Small fish dart in its waters, their scales iridescent creating a sparkling light which falls upon the glade like a multicoloured snow. Small wildlife drinks from the waters, sending ripples out and across, refracting the lighted scales of the fish as birds of marvellous colour swoop and dive with thirsty beaks.

Out of breath and glowing with exertion beneath her emerald cloak and cowl, eleven-year-old Blossom Jinx startles the wonderful whispering of the wood as she skids to a halt at the foot of this magnificent tree.

‘Hello, old friend.’

A rush of noise and rustling sweeps around her as the tree shakes and quivers at the greeting.

‘Hush, hush now,’ she whispers, stroking the bark and frowning as a top layer peels away revealing bright colours beneath.

As if woken by her voice, distorted howls sound in the distance.

The old tree quiets to a gentle creak but beneath her feet the ground shifts and she lets out a quiet laugh as roots untangle to reform in the shape of a complex rune.

‘I missed you as well.’ she murmurs

Blossom puts her arms across the trunk, her small frame covering about a tenth of its circumference. Eyes closed, she breathes with the forest. For a few moments she can almost hear the trees breathe in and out, as though one being. A piece of dried mud falls from the bark beneath her arms, revealing yet more colours.

‘Well met, my friend. The children of the forest have gathered much soil and are hastening back.’

Blossom opens a large, golden pouch at her side, drawing from it a pestle and mortar and a box. Dipping the mortar into the pool's clear water, she mutters a few words of thanks and opens the rustic box. Within it is a dull, brown soil which she adds to the water, quickly bringing down the pestle and making a thick sticky mud which she swiftly smears over the most colourful parts of the tree, disguising it.

As she works her way around the massive trunk, she notices a thin line of oozing blackness and, looking to other trees, she sees each trunk shares the same corruption as though their roots have drawn some evil into the bark.

‘Is the curse of Curdle Village affecting you even here?’ she muses aloud, pressing her forehead briefly to the trunk.

Another howl, closer at hand.

Blossom’s eyes dart about, taking in the absence of creatures at the water, of how the canopy above her seems to have drawn in, blocking some of the light, putting an end to the dancing light from the fish's scales.

A sudden wind tugs at her cowl and she shivers, hunkering down and drawing her cloak close as she presses her fingers to the ground, concentrating hard, calling silently upon the power of Flora and bringing her to one with nature. A tattoo curling round her elbow glows as her forearm becomes faintly green, and a very rudimentary map shows those who are nearby. She smiles seeing a yellow pulsing dot very close to her, and she breathes a sigh of relief, releasing a shaky laugh.

She rubs her face as a black, pulsing dot appears next to her own fainter dot on the map. Blossom shakes her head and dips her hands in the mortar. A woman, white of hair, elegant and imposing stands behind her, watching as Blossom muddies her fingers.

The tree roots tangle and form a new rune next to the pestle and mortar.

‘Danger?' asks Blossom, tracing it with her fingers.

‘How quaint,’ the woman’s voice rings out in the sudden silence of the wood.

Blossom falls back, clutching her chest and panting in fear.

‘C-Countess... I mean no harm.’

Countess Issadora Curdle lets out a short bark of a laugh and curls her lip as she takes in the muddy hands and general disarray of the girl.

‘Speak not of such foolishness, child. What harm could I possibly imagine you intend?’

Blossom glances at her arm, noticing the yellow dot is much closer. She risks peeking beyond the tailored skirts of Issadora and locks eyes with a young boy - Laramy - hiding in nearby foliage. The Countess quickly follows her gaze but the boy is gone.

Issadora narrows her eyes.

‘Speak, child. Why tarry in these woods?’

‘I-I was on my way home.’

‘But are you not of the Children?’ Issadora sweeps her hand majestically at Blossom’s emerald cloak.

Blossom swallows, moving to her knees.

‘It is clear these Rangled Woods have robbed you of some measure of sense. I am certain your parents are worried sick and will be grateful for your return.’

‘M-my parents aren’t-’ she stops, tears overwhelming her.

‘Ah.’ Issadora takes a rather disdainful knee and pats Blossom’s shoulder. ‘Your parents have succumbed to the sickness, I presume.’

Blossom sobs, heavy tears trailing down her cheeks.

‘You present many a mystery,’ says the Countess, her eyes narrowing on Blossom’s muddy hands and sharply flicking to the tree trunk. ‘But one is solved at the very least.’

Issadora rises and smiles down at Blossom.

‘You are in luck, my child. One of my wards has come of age, setting forth to seek fortune in Ludlam. Perhaps you would be willing to join us for the Feast of Days in their stead?’

Blossom wipes her eyes. ‘A feast?’

‘Why yes! It is marvellous, child. Simply marvellous. We have plenty to go around and many of your very favourite things to eat will be there. There are children your age with which to play. They will be amused by your spells, I am certain.’

Blossom leans towards the Countess who continues to spin tales of the life Blossom would have as a ward in the protection and luxury of Issadora Curdle. She glances towards where Laramy was hiding.

‘What of the friends I have already made?’

‘Why, you can bring them to visit on any occasion you wish.’

Blossom sits forward, eagerly. ‘Could I bring them to the feast?’

Issadora looks deeply saddened. ‘Why, no... Today has been long in preparation. I cannot risk disappointment of those mouths who earned their place at the table. I am sure you understand.’

Blossom bites her lip, looking about her. Her stomach rumbles loudly and she nods.

‘Excellent.’

Before Blossom can speak, the Countess snaps a finger and blue light surrounds them like shafts of light cutting amidst clouds and spilling through water. Just as quickly as it appears, it vanishes, taking Countess Issadora and Blossom with it.

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