36. Garden Tool

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Ashley woke,* lying on her side, to a symphony of birdsong, gurgling water, and buzzing bees. What smelled like freshly-mown grass prickled against her left cheek, while sunlight warmed her right.

Sunlight.

Hadn't it been nighttime only moments ago?

Her eyes were gummed shut, and her head spun—memories taunting, whirling, as autumn leaves in a raging tornado, recoiling from her reach as she tried to grasp them. What had happened? Where was she?

She snatched something substantial out of the whirlwind. A word. Tortellini? Timpani? Teleportini? That was it. Teleportoni.

With one memory snagged, she could catch hold of a few more, enough to assemble a chain of shadowy events. However, they had the slippery, rippled, dreamlike quality of an underwater domain rather than the solid tangibility of the real world. She remembered a circle of shadow. No, not quite a circle. A dome. Gerald, the guards, and Ruth on the outside, the prince and princesses inside. Then a feeling of intense vertigo, followed by intenser flames, Gerald calling out, Ruth's cries, then spinning into a black void of blissful nothingness.

Spinning into a void.

She'd felt that dislocation before. But when?

Ashley snatched the answer from the whirlwind. It had been that nauseating, utterly disagreeable translocation spell cast by the Cloistered Witches of the Cloister. Teleportini must've also been a translocation spell, but unlike the one cast by the witches, this one was hotter, with an extra dollop of vertigo, and all-around less-enjoyable.

The more memories Ashley harvested, the more the tornado sputtered and ebbed, like a fire deprived of fuel.

Ashley's skin prickled at the memory of the blaze that had enveloped her—searing, blistering, singing. Her stomach clenched. Sometimes it was better to forget than remember.

The scorching heat of the spell had to have destroyed her skin.

She raised her hand, wincing and moaning at the stiffness in her shoulder, but she had to know. Ever so gently, she spread cool fingers across her warm face. The skin was there. Normal and smooth. Ashley bit down a sob of relief, tears welling at the corner of her eyes.

The flames must've been magical ones that hadn't affected her physically. Like dragonfire couldn't hurt dragons. But why? Ashley's blood froze. What of the others? Had they survived Superstorm Druscilla? She'd have to open her eyes to verify their wellbeing, but doing so would risk more dizziness and pain.

She gingerly lifted one eyelid.

As the visual world slowly shifted into focus, she discovered that she lay on a carpet of acid-green grass in a garden beneath a sunlit, cloudless sky. Inky black crows regarded her with that crow-like disdain from twisted branches of nearby trees hung heavy with fruit.

"Hello," she said to the nearest bird in Crow, not wanting to be rude. Also, you never know from whence salvation or a tidbit of information may come.

"Caw," said the crow, black eyes glittering. Typical. Like Marveloni's crow, Igor, who pretended not to understand her. Could this be Igor? He moved sideways along the branch, clenching and unclenching his talons.

Was it rude to ask? She didn't want him to think that to her, all crows looked the same. But curiosity won out. "Igor? Is that you?"

"Caw," said the crow, ruffling its feathers.

"Fine," Ashley said. "Don't need you. I already have friends. I seemed to have misplaced them. Have you seen any other humans show up here, perchance?"

The taciturn crow flew off without as much as a caw, toward the bottom of the knoll where stationed about ten feet apart, there stood a line of boxwood topiary figures in battle position—like a rooted army. Something about the faces and imperious stance of the leafy soldiers jogged at her memory. Wait! They were images of Prince Charming. Yet more effigies to the least charming prince of all time. "Ugh!"

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