7 min read

Chapter 11: The House

Saffron goes back to the centre of the forest
An image of an overgrown house is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 11: The House"

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Saffron shivered as she stood before the house. She’d been harried by flurries the entire way into the centre of the woods. She was no closer to understanding the problem. But the mushrooms continued to spread, growing closer to the town, and she was worried for both her human and animal charges. The only thing she knew for sure was that she had to eradicate the problem at its source.

Her sticking point was what to do about the beast. If the storyteller was right, there was a human heart in there somewhere. Could she really kill it?

What choice did she have?

Bear mewed and pressed against her legs. She’d wanted to leave him home, just this once. This was no place for a cat. He hadn’t let her leave without him, though, dogging her steps as she attempted to get out of the cottage without him.

So here they were, together as always, ready to face whatever awaited them inside the house.

The place looked the same as it had the last time she’d been here. She wondered if the creature was still inside or if it had escaped into the forest.

There was only one way to find out.

With a kerchief tied around her face to protect her from inhaling any spores, she thrust open the door and stepped inside. The interior, too, looked the same--every inch covered in the toxic mushrooms. She quickly through the rooms. She feared that if she slowed down she would be overcome by uncertainty. The only way she could get through this was to act decisively.

There was no sign of the beast on the ground floor. She was working through the second floor when a noise came from down the hall. She froze, waiting, listening. Was it the creature?

She heard it again: a great scraping sound like claws dragging across the floor. It came from the room at the end of the hallway.

Bear leapt from her shoulder. Saffron lunged after him, trying to scoop him up before he could get in harm’s way as the door at the end of the hall flew open and the creature came roaring out.

Saffron pulled a bundle of sage and sweetgrass from her pocket and swept it through the air in front of her, whispering a spell of purification. The creature paused, watching her motions, before it lunged again, its massive jaws snapping inches away from her hand.

Bear hissed and leapt onto the creature’s back, digging his claws into the soft fungal growths that covered its body. The beast howled and reared back. Saffron took advantage of the distraction to chant another spell, trying to force the creature back to its true shape. It snarled and tried to reach its claws around to its own back to shake Bear free, but he jumped down and ran for cover behind Saffron.

Her spells didn’t have any effect. Free of Bear’s claws, the creature charged forward, snapping at Saffron. She grabbed Bear and turned to run, fleeing down the hallway toward the stairs. The beast was faster than she’d bargained for, and she didn’t have much of a head start. She could feel its hot breath on her heels.

With her spells falling useless, she was forced to go to plan B. As she ran, she started activating the sigils that she’d drawn as she’d wound her way through the rooms the first time. The spell wouldn’t take full effect until she’d activated the first sigil down by the front door. She just needed to time it right so that she and Bear got out safely while the creature was trapped inside.

Her heels slid on the stairs as she raced down them with one hand on the railing and the other on the wall to steady herself. Bear crawled onto her shoulder, hissing at the creature as it barreled down the steps behind them. The wood splintered underneath its claws. When it reached the bottom, its momentum carried it forward so that it slammed into the wall below.

Saffron fled through the house, gaining a little ground as the creature recovered from its tumble. She managed to stay one step ahead of it until she was in sight of the doorway. She activated her last sigil a moment early, and bursts of flame went up in every room.

Water may be her weakness, but she was very good at fire spells. She was able to time it perfectly so that she and Bear made it out the front door just as a wall of flame closed in behind them. The creature howled as the fire rose up around it.

Saffron came to a stop outside, puffing and panting, and turned to watch the house burn. If she was going to kill this creature--this thing that had been a person, once--the least she could do was watch. She wouldn’t let herself turn away from the consequences of her own actions.

The front door was wreathed in flames. Beyond it, the hulking shadow of the creatures reared and writhed. It was trying to find a way out, but by then everything was burning and there was nowhere for it to go.

Behind the creature, there was another figure. A human figure.

“Oh, no. No no no.” She had reconciled herself to killing the beast. His humanity was long gone, and he had resisted her attempts at purifying and transforming him. But she couldn’t kill an innocent bystander.

She pulled the handkerchief more snugly over her face and muttered every protection spell she knew as she dashed back into the house. Bear meowed behind her, but for once he stayed back.

Her protection spells kept the fire from burning her, but it was still dreadfully hot. The bigger problem was that she had to get past the creature, which was now terrified and enraged on top of everything else. She hit it with a stunning spell, but between the fire and her protection spells her powers were stretched almost to her limits.

She dodged past the creature and made for the figure standing behind it. A tall figure with long blond hair stood amidst the fire, unperturbed by the flames as her own personal raincloud hovered overhead, keeping the fire at bay.

Now Saffron was the one who felt stunned.

“Sage? What are you doing here?”

Her sister turned toward her as though looking across a great distance. “What have you done, Saffron?”

“I could ask the same of you. Come on, we need to get out of here!”

“That is no concern of mine.” Sage swayed on her feet.

“The place is burning down around us, we have to go!”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Your rain clouds won’t protect you when the building collapses.” Already, burning debris was falling down around them as the upper floors began to disintegrate.

Sage sighed. “You don’t know what you’ve done.” But she swayed again and this time she fell. Saffron dove to catch her before she could hit the floor.

Her sister’s rain cloud dissipated when she lost consciousness, and Saffron expanded her protection spells to try to keep them both safe. She could only hope that the creature wouldn’t cause any trouble on the way out, because she had no strength left to fight it.

She heaved her sister onto her shoulder and dragged her out of the burning house. The flames roared around them now. She didn’t have much time.

The beast lay on the floor, twitching as its body was encased in flames. Getting through the room was a simple matter of dodging its flailing limbs, and then she was at the front door and out of the house.

Outside, she laid her sister out on the grass and knelt beside her, coughing up the smoke that had made its way past her protection spells.

When she had recovered, she checked Sage over. She was breathing, her heart was beating, and she didn’t have any obvious injuries. Saffron was a little worried that she might have inhaled some of the poisonous spores and that was why she’d fainted, but she didn’t show any signs of fever or swelling of her throat.

She knelt there, keeping watch over her sister and the burning house, with Bear pressed close against her side. The fire raged on until the building collapsed in on itself with a great crash. She kept stray sparks and coals at bay until the heap of debris burnt down to the ground and went out.

When the last of the flames had gone out, she left Sage under Bear’s watch for a few minutes while she went back to examine the wreckage.

The coals were still warm under her feet. She’d rested enough to have a little power back, and she cooled off the ashes as much as she could. A forest fire was the last thing she needed.

There was no sign of the beast. Nothing but coals and ash and soot. She checked over the house carefully but didn’t find a trace of it. Finally, she left the rubble and went back to Sage and Bear. She placed a hand on her sister’s forehead for the millionth time, but she still showed no sign of a fever.

“Where have you been? What were you doing here?” she murmured. But Sage, still unconscious, had no answers.

It was Bear who meowed a reply and Saffron could only nod in return. “Let’s get her home, then.”

Sage didn’t wake the whole journey back. It was a long trip with Saffron carrying her weight and stopping frequently for breaks, but they made it. She laid Sage in the bed and carefully dribbled a little water in her mouth. Bear curled up on her chest and promptly fell asleep.

Saffron left them both sleeping and sat in her chair by the fire, staring into the flames as she slowly rocked herself to sleep.

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can find her on twitter or instagram.