Chapter 29

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Ben breaks through a thin veil of clouds within the sequoia canopy, landing his gryphon at a stream with sunlit water, mossy stones, and a collapsed beaver dam

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Ben breaks through a thin veil of clouds within the sequoia canopy, landing his gryphon at a stream with sunlit water, mossy stones, and a collapsed beaver dam. Tiny, electric blue frogs leap for cover as Lutz descends behind Ben, swerving at the last moment to bring their mechanical mounts side-to-side.

I follow with Lilli near my shoulder, my gryphon clunking into slowness only after I turn it in right circles along the forest bed. For a moment, I think it'll never stop—how will I ever get off?—but it sputters and complies like a disgruntled animal, whirring and whistling before it reaches stillness.

Lutz looks at me like he can't understand why I struggle with such basic machinery, which just balloons the embarrassment already thundering in my chest, but what can I say, or do, to feel less like a fool? My skin and hair reddens as I try to reason my way off of the back of this metallic beast. By the time I slide from the gryphon, and return to the hard earth, I'm blossoming pink, my hair crimson like fire, even the fuzz on my arms and legs feeling as hot as embers.

"You okay?" Ben asks, Lutz between us.

I gesture at my gryphon, several yards from where they left theirs. "I'm no good with technology," I tell him, my body still shuddering with frustration, clumsiness, everything.

Lutz looks to Ben. "Where's your house?"

Ben grins before leading us across the stream, down a slope, through a thicket of fallen branches, where a tortoiseshell cat is crouched in the leaves, in a hunter's pose, eyes widened into black orbs.

"Buttercup," Ben says in a milky, childlike voice I never imagined coming out of him. But even humans and cyborgs know how to shift into different guises, in their tone, behavior, attitude—internal gears, recalibrating.

The calico-colored cat whips her head around as she meows huskily, then strides to to her human companion, her tail curved into a curly cue. Ben kneels just in time for her to leap into his lap, and they nuzzle their heads together. If he could purr along with her, he would.

Lutz approaches carefully, his hand outstretched. When Buttercup glances up at him, then leaps wildly into the brush, he retracts his hand, looking pained.

"I think she wants to show you her digs," Ben says.

Lutz's face softens. "Digs?"

"He means his house," I say from behind both of them.

They glance to me as Ben mumbles, "Well, I don't really live in a house..."

"Elly lived in a shack," Lutz says. "And I lived in a pile of leaves."

Ben smirks to hide the sadness that creeps into his wrinkling forehead. He sighs as he stands, parting the brush. Lutz heads into through the gap in the boughs and leaves, leaving us there, flickering with shadows from Lilli's lime-light.

"After you," Ben says.

I walk right up to the brush, pausing at Ben's side. Since playing cards with him in the carriage—or perhaps, after I caught him filling his chest with potions—or that time when he grinned across the table, in the glittering glass forest of Stilettos—as he drank from a mug at the tavern in Riverport, and left a foam across his upper lip—ever since these moments, it's become harder to spend time close to him. Yet through these experiences, I've remembered by life with the fey, and my life with the elves, so I've kept my cool.

"Elly?" he whispers, stirring me from the place I hide within myself.

I lift my eyes so I'm looking into his dark gaze, which reflects the blue glow of my fey-magic so brilliantly, I'm certain he sees somewhere deeper within me than I'd ever like him to go. Not wanting to figure out how this feels, or what this means, I duck my way through the clearing he holds open in the brush.

On the other side, Lutz is playing with Buttercup in front of a monstrous redwood—a tree at least thirty feet wide, an elder even among the elders—with a rounded door carved out of its center.

"I don't live in a house or a shack," Ben says. "I live in a tree."

🐆

Author's Note

The second time I tried to write this novel—my Wattpad draft being my fourth attempt—I finished 100ish pages of a manuscript called Forgotten Wings, which started in a blood red woodland, with mahogany shrubbery and maroon canopies. The first scene was Melidor and Benito in a treehouse, interrupted by shadow monsters on the hunt for Eleanora. Ben and Mel try to save her, yet she's the one who defeats the greatest shadow-beast, before she passes out, lost in a deep dream. While the story's changed significantly since then, some poignant similarities remain.

First draft: November 18
Second draft: May 19
Word count: 827 (total 49763)

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