6. Guardians of the Harvest

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Regina awoke with a start. It was a jolt from lucid nightmare that left her breaching consciousness piercing past the oily surface of deep and choking darkness, gasping for breath. Warm, safe, linens and downy pillows embraced her little body now. She found the edge of the blankets and rolled onto one side, pulling the heavy sheets tight around herself, and pretended the embrace was that of her mother's embrace.

Wakefulness grew into heavy sadness in the pit of her heart. Regina sniffled. She could almost feel her mother's body snuggled up against her. Could almost hear the gust of breaths, feel the slow and subtle expansion of lungs against her backside. Hear the gentle song of the Harvest in her ear.

"Mama..."

She buried her face into the blankets and did her best to block out the rest of the world. But behind closed eyelids awaited loss and destruction, canines and the deaths of loved ones.

Regina's eyes opened and focused on where bright morning rays cast a deep silhouette of the window's decorative bars against the bare wall, on the other side of the bed. It took a moment for her to remember where she was: Astral's cabin – the bedroom. He'd brought her to his little cabin in the woods after she'd gotten separated from Dwain.

...Dwain.

"Dwain!" Regina shot up, throwing the blankets off of her completely. He wasn't in the bed with her, where she'd left him the night before. His scent was faint – no thanks to the light wind that came in through the open window. Instead, the smell of dewy summertime filled her nostrils as the sounds of distant bird-song over cicada buzzing filled her twitching ears. She glanced about the sparsely-cluttered bedroom and found no sight of her injured friend.

"Dwain...! Mister Ages! Dwain!!"

But no one answered.

Regina sat there amidst the pile of linens, frozen in place with her gaze locked past a wide-open bedroom door that gave view into the centre of the kitchen, but her eyes refused to focus on anything past the foot of the bed.

Where are they? Did – did the canines come, and—?

Regina stifled a cry of horror and immediately threw the covers away from her. She dropped to the floorboards with a dense thud and rushed out into an empty kitchen. The table was bare, its seats tucked neatly into place. Atop the kitchen counter, a lone tin cup rested by the sink, with a teabag string matted and tangled round the handle. Little puffs of steam rose from the rim, barely noticeable except for the catch of the sunlight past the window directly above the sink.

Regina spun around, threw herself into the study, and was greeted only by a mess of musty-smelling books and harvest tables home to shrines of pillar candles, a darkened fireplace, and the sounds of summer through the other open window.

She rushed back into the kitchen, took one of the table chairs, and skidded it across the hardwood floor until its unpadded backrest bumped against the edge of the countertop. She scurried up onto the chair and threw a searching glare out the window, scanning the Hollow's property for Dwain and Mister Ages, for anybody. A muffled donkey bray brought her attention to the hooded stall, peeking out the edge of the windowpane. Regina crawled across the counter, nearly knocking over the teacup, and pushed her nose and paw pads against the glass to see if she could get a better look.

Phalanx was there making a racket, neck stretched past the bars of the stall door, swaying back and forth in a grand address to whatever wildlife scuttled or flitted by.

"Oh, give it a rest, old boy." Regina's ears perked just as Astral shuffled into view from around the corner of the stall with a gardening hoe in tow and the hem of his dark blue robes splattered with mud. He stopped before the mule and gently patted him on the nose. "We'll stretch our legs soon enough."

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