Dark gray crickets, as large as Eva’s hand, tumbled from the sky and bounced as they landed on rooftops and the cobblestone roadway of the nearby village. Shouts and screams began merging with their clatter as more people discovered what had just happened.
Fewer of the insects had fallen beyond the edge of town, where she and Copper stood in front of the run-down shack, but all the crickets scrambled and hopped, making the ground seem to writhe. One leaped on Eva’s arm, and with a strangled shriek she swatted it off.
Copper waved his hands above his head as he faced the town. “Hey, garbage guts!”
The blue coat of her suit rustled again, and for a couple of seconds a green mist swirled around both her and Copper. Nothing appeared different when Eva looked down, but a potent, sweet smell filled her nostrils. Had he stuffed her pockets with fruit?
She looked back up to see the crickets were getting organized. The mottled ocean now swelled in one direction, toward the two of them, and the nearest ones sprang upon them.
Eva gasped as she tried to swipe them off, but Copper grabbed her by the wrist, apparently ignoring the multiple crickets clinging to his coat.
He led her away from the village as they broke into a sprint. Several strides in he released her as they raced down the pebble-strewn path that meandered away from town, crickets scrambling all around them. Several leaped upon her and fell back off. But her cloak jerked on her neck, feeling heavier and then lighter. Some unlucky crickets crunched beneath their feet.
The clatter loomed behind them, but she dared not look back. When Copper veered from the stony route they were following, Eva followed close on his heels. Her lungs started aching and she hoped he had some sort of plan to stop this pursuit before they got dogpiled by hungry crickets.
They neared a grove of sassafras trees, new buds scattered on the branches, and he flung one arm toward them.
A red and yellow mist, sometimes blurring into orange in spots, swirled about the grove. He grabbed her wrist again as they slowed from a sprint to a jog, and turned toward his latest realignment. The green mist reappeared around their torsos.
“Why are we stopping?” Eva gasped as she cringed and swatted at surging crickets.
“Isn’t it obvious?”
The mist about them drifted toward the trees, and the sea of crickets surged toward the grove. The haze evaporated as piles of apples and grapes and peaches replaced the trees.
Despite her relief as the crickets swept toward their new target, his curt response annoyed her.
“I know your range of magic is limited,” she snapped. “But couldn’t you have changed the trees into fruit before we stopped?”
“What’s the matter?” The familiarity of his smirk actually soothed her slightly. “Don’t like being live bait?”
“Not if it leaves me on the hook.”
“That’s a sharp retort.” He grinned and pointed two fingers toward the crickets. “I’ll change them back to normal size.”
But instead, his smile vanished and brow furrowed. And with a pop he suddenly transformed into an enormous, golden eagle.
Copper lunged into the air, and Eva ducked as the gust of his wings swept against her. She watched his rapid ascent and gasped upon spying what – or rather who – was above them.
The person soared upright like a kite, arms thrust down at sides and silver robes billowing. Long, blond hair streamed in the wind. Copper twisted nearly upside down, talons stretched toward the intruder.
A pale darkness, like the gray of twilight, burst from the newcomer. It surged against Copper, striking the eagle back to the ground.
“No!” Eva shrieked as he crashed a couple of paces before her. Some feathers floated around him as his assailant sailed over the chomping crickets and descended.
Eva sprang to Copper’s side even as he rolled over, and a blue mist swirled around him and the loose feathers. The plumage vanished as he changed back into a young man, his hair more tousled.
“Are you hurt badly?” She grasped his arm to help him up.
“Scattering slimy cockroaches!” he wheezed. It was possible changing instantly into an eagle had been as taxing for him as being smacked down. “No, not yet.”
A voice, lower than hers but far from Copper’s bass, rang across the damp meadow. “That was a foolish attempt, realigner.”
The person who was supposed to be their quarry stood several paces beyond the swarming crickets – outside Copper’s sphere of influence – with arms folded over his chest. Blond hair coiled about his shoulders, and his lips were as red as freshly pricked blood. He appeared to be a little older than Eva.
Her companion staggered to his feet and brushed off his coat. “Got your attention, didn’t I, Dyvolik?”
The instigator’s smile was more of a sneer. “You did that by interfering with my agents. And trying to impress the young lady with heroics won’t prevent her from accepting my gift.”
A slight chill rippled through Eva as she stared at him. “What gift are you talking about?”
“The one I’ve given you and your people.” Dyvolik unfolded his arms and raised his hands toward the sky. “Didn’t you notice the green lightning last night?”
She glanced toward Copper, who frowned and muttered, “This can’t be good.”
“Yes.” Eva returned her attention to the intruder. “It was frightening.”
He lowered his hands as he shrugged. “It’s nothing to be frightened about, as you can tell the others in your community.” He glared at Copper. “Although I’m sure this quester regaled you with breathless tales of how dangerous I am.”
“My respiration worked fine,” her companion quipped.
“He’s misinformed you.” Dyvolik turned to one side and raised his chin. “Although he believes his own delusion, he’s more guilty of crime than I am. And we shall prove it by conducting an inquiry of his claims.”
He flicked his fingers toward the munching crickets. They began writhing again, but this time lunged toward each other. Eva could have sworn she heard squeals and groans as they became entangled with each other.
No, wait … they were melding together. The undulating mass broke up into twelve separate mounds. Each mound quivered as it grew taller and thinner. And then twelve creatures with the heads of crickets, but two legs that were almost human, and four arms twitching on their torsos, lumbered toward her and Copper.
Eva cringed as she took a step back. The beings were like monstrosities from a nightmare.
Copper’s calmness offered little condolence. “I don’t call that a jury of my peers.”
“Objection overruled.” Dyvolik sneered again.
Eva stepped back again as Copper, limping slightly, placed himself between her and the approaching abominations. At least the creatures stopped about five paces away. He pointed two fingers at them, and a gray mist began to swirl around the throng, but then evaporated after a couple of seconds.
“Shield spell,” he grumbled.
The abominations stood, grouped together, and seemed to stare at her and Copper.
Dyvolik folded his arms. “Now, young miss, we can set you straight about recent events. In spite of that realigner’s claims, I’ve entered your realm in order to give you and your people an ability that will allow you to flourish.”
Eva frowned. “By frightening us with lightning and attacking us with oversize crickets?”
“You misunderstood what you saw. The lightning was green because I used the storm’s winds to disperse a potion over your community. That’s what affected the color you saw.”
A tremor pulsed through her as she gaped at him. “You poisoned us?”
“Not at all. I improved you. Humans, having no innate magical ability, have to resort to potions when defending yourselves from aggressive arcane beings. But you never discovered a potion like this one. I gave you the ability to tap into enchantments.”
Her attention shot to Copper, who glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. Had he known that when he convinced her to drink a potion before the crickets descended? What did he not tell her about it?
The creatures continued staring.
Dyvolik had to speak the truth for his magic to work effectively, but his explanation still didn’t make sense. “Why would you give us an advantage?”
He wagged a finger at her. “Assistance, not advantage. The crickets have hearty appetites, but they’re no direct threat. I scattered them upon the village to help you learn your new abilities. People who imagined or wished creative ways to dispose of them would’ve seen those impulses realized. They’d learn they could execute magic.”
She glanced at Copper again, who shrugged, and then folded his arms and addressed Dyvolik. “At which point you’d make an appearance and tell them of the wonderful thing you did?”
Dyvolik flicked one hand up. “After they realize I’ve made them equal to our people, they’ll be able to live in safety and strength by fighting magic with magic.”
“Useful idiots.” Copper glanced toward her. “He intends to pit our peoples against each other.”
“Incorrect.” Dyvolik tilted his head. “Humans can finally seek the justice they’ve been so long denied.”
She studied Copper, and he met her gaze. Until today she’d never really met a hexer. A couple of times her family had to apply potions to the house and outbuildings because the goats were discovered trashing the kitchen in the middle of the night, and the chickens laid empty eggs.
But those were inconveniences compared to stories she’d heard about travelers who wandered too far into the wilds. Some never returned, and those that did expressed tales of narrow escape from vicious hexers that attacked with enchantments.
Relying on magic instead of potions did sound more efficient. And … was it possible it could help heal her brother’s illness? What other opportunities might lurk within this ability?
“For how long?” Eva asked. “Potions always wear off after a while.”
“It would have to be reapplied daily. But what I gave you last night is only the beginning. There are many other potions you’ve yet to discover.”
“Like what?” Her heart fluttered. “Could any of them heal sickness?”
Copper’s brow furrowed.
“Whatever your heart desires.” But then Dyvolik sneered at her companion. “Although this realigner would prefer you remain at the mercy of arcane beings. Don’t believe his version of the truth just because he got to you before I did.”
The right side of Copper’s mouth curled. “Ask him how he benefits from giving you this gift.”
“More importantly,” Dyvolik interjected, “ask him how he benefits by denying you my gift.”
Denying? Had the potion he convinced her to drink neutralized Dyvolik’s potion? Was that the spell he claimed it would protect her from? When Copper explained it to her, it did seem at the time he left some information out.
“What about Jordan?” she asked Copper. “Could magic help to heal my brother?”
“Enchantments and potions have something in common. They–”
The creatures trembled, and their long, thin wings fluttered. Eva felt a light breeze across her face as the enchanted crickets leaned forward and uttered one word, their voices creaking like someone stepped on a hapless frog.
It appeared the consequence of their so-called verdict was immediate. Copper’s hands flew to his sternum and his mouth dropped open. His chest heaved as he gasped, and wisps of blue mist appeared and disappeared around him.
Her attention shot to Dyvolik, who cast his sneering smile toward her.
“I told you he was breathless.”
Here is my submission for this round of #BlogBattle, and the word this month is Jury. If you noticed this is Part Three and wonder how it all started, just go to Part One and Part Two. Next month will be the (hopefully exciting) conclusion.
And be sure to catch the other contributions this month!