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Chapter 23: The Reset

Saffron wakes up to uncanny changes in the forest
An image of a gate in a brick wall is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 23: The Reset"

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As the autumn days deepened and shortened, Saffron lived in quiet fear of a threat she didn’t understand.

Professor Burton had always been her friend. She’d had the crown for almost a year now and hadn’t done anything with it yet. Saffron tried to convince herself that her old mentor was using the crown for perfectly benign reasons, but something didn’t add up. She could feel that something bad was coming, and she was determined to be prepared for it when it did.

She spent hours walking the woods and the town, drawing protective sigils around the borders of her territory. She prepared spells for fighting and herbs for healing. She talked to the birds and the squirrels and the insects, asking for any news about strange doings in the forest.

But all was quiet. She continued her usual business of healing and protecting her charges and helping them to the best of her abilities.

Sage and Alistair had not grown quiet and fearful like Saffron. Instead, as Alistair regained his strength, the two seemed happier than ever. They talked loudly and laughed often. Perhaps it was all a show, to hide how they truly felt, but if so then Saffron envied their ability to even pretend not to be affected. She couldn’t hide the way her hands shook or the constant glances over her shoulder, and more than once she woke in the night gasping for breath, certain that someone was lurking outside.

In the end, there was no noise in the night, no one stepping out of the shadows behind her, no great confrontation. She simply woke up one morning and found that everything had changed.

She stepped out of the cottage door to find that the small worn footpath that ran from the town past her home and into the woods had widened and been lined with small stones. The meadow beyond her door was a cultivated field. The trees of the forest stood a little shorter and straighter, and the underbrush was less overgrown.

“Sage!” Her sister must have heard the fear in her voice, because she appeared at her side in a moment. “Do you see this?”

“What… what is this?” Sage sounded as baffled as Saffron felt. “How did this all happen?”

“I don’t know,” Saffron said, “but I don’t like it.”

Bear didn’t like it either. He shrunk back from the path, sniffing carefully along the edge of it and making several false starts at putting a paw down before he actually walked across it. He meowed sadly at the edge of the former meadow and Saffron felt an echo of that sadness in her own soul. The beautiful meadow, home to so many of her forest friends, was gone, replaced with nothing but mud and shorn grass.

“I have to go see,” Saffron said, going back into the house for her coat.

“Not alone,” Sage said. “Let me go get Alistair. We’ll all go together.”

It felt like the longest wait of Saffron’s life, wondering what had happened and whether everyone was safe. She spent the time gathering every useful thing she could think of into her satchel. Bear sat at the door of the cottage and kept a watchful eye, alerting her when Sage and Alistair approached.

She met them outside. “How’s town? Is everyone okay?”

“As far as I can tell,” Sage assured her. “Once I got off the path everything seemed normal. I only saw a few people around but they all looked fine.”

“I didn’t even realize anything had happened until Sage came for me,” Alistair added. “Everyone is carrying on as normal.”

“Okay.” A tiny fraction of Saffron’s tension eased away. “Let’s go.”

Their walk through the forest was one of the strangest things Saffron had experienced. All of the familiar landmarks were there, but everything was slightly different. The forest was groomed and cared for–which wasn’t a bad thing, Saffron reminded herself–but it wasn’t what she was used to. The path beneath their feet really threw her off. She didn’t like the loudness of their footsteps crunching on stone when she was used to nothing but a carpet of pine needles to walk on.

It followed the course of the old path for some time, but where the path would have turned off toward the bat cave, this new trail continued on a new course. One that Saffron knew all too well after the past year. She glanced at Sage and Alistair, and the three of them paused for a moment before carrying on, but none of them voiced what they were all thinking.

The new road led to the centre of the forest.

It was a long walk, but they continued in silence. There was nothing to say. As they drew nearer to the centre, the forest grew less recognizable with each passing step. There were new clearings, there were places where the land had been worked, there were roads and paths that branched off from the main course they followed.

Saffron knew, in her heart, what they would find at the centre before they got there. Still, it was a surprise to see it rise up before her: the house, restored.

Not simply rebuilt, reverted to its state before she had burned it. But returned to its former glory of fresh paint and perfect shingles, glorious gardens and shiny brass doorknobs. They came to a halt in front of it, staring up in marvel. Saffron had never seen such a beautiful house. She flet like could look at it forever.

Eventually, though, she turned her gaze to Alistair, who had a mess of emotions written across his face. He must have felt her eyes on him, because he swallowed hard and spoke. “This is my home. This is where I grew up. It hasn’t looked like this in many years.”

“What do we do?” Saffron asked. No one answered, not even Bear, who sat next to her, pressed against her leg.

She was spared having to make any decisions by the door to the house, which swung open to reveal Professor Burton.

“Ah! The Tash sisters. How good to see you girls. Looks like we’re going to be neighbours. How delightful!”

On her head, gleaming in the morning light, was the crown.

“Professor?” Saffron cleared her throat, which had gone dry. “What are you doing here? What did you do to the house? And the forest? And the meadow?”

“Oh, just a little remodeling. Putting things back to how they ought to be.”

“You.” Alistair spoke for the first time. “You’re the one who cursed my family.”

“Ah, hello. Sorry about all that, but I really did need that crown. It had to be done.”

Alistair was paralyzed with anger.

“What are you doing here?” Saffron begged for answers. “What did you want with the crown? Why do you want this house?”

“Because it’s a beautiful place to live, Saffron. What more could a person want?”

“And the crown?”

“Nothing you need to concern yourself with. Just a little project of mine.”

“No!” Alistair found his words. “You took everything from me. You took my family. You’re not getting the house and the power too.”

Magic bubbled up around him in visible waves. He’d said his family came from power, but it was the first time Saffron had ever seen him use it himself. He gathered the beginning of a spell around himself, a ball of translucent fire forming around him.

“Oh, no no, this won’t do at all. You’ll spoil the garden.” Professor Burton snapped her fingers and the scene changed. The three of them stood behind a great wall, looking at the house from between the spaces of a wrought iron gate. Alistair’s spell fizzled out, powerless, against the wall. “Much better. Sorry about this, I’d hoped we could all be friends, but I guess not. Ta ta!”

She waved to them and went back into the house, the door slamming shut behind her.

They spent the day outside the gate, looking for any way in, but nothing worked. They couldn’t force the gate open. Every unlocking spell they knew was useless. They couldn’t break or damage the wall in any way, with magic or tools. Alistair wasn’t surprised by this; he said it had been heavily protected during his family’s time.

They circled the property, looking for another way in, but the front gate was the only entrance. Saffron tried to scale the wall, but it grew taller and taller as she climbed, leaving her eternally two feet from the top of the wall. Bear tried to squeeze between the posts of the gate, but the space was too narrow and he couldn’t get his head through them.

Eventually, they were left with no choice but to give up.

“We’ll come back,” Sage said. “We’ll go home and regroup and find a solution and we’ll come back.”

It took some time for Saffron to agree, but she couldn’t deny that they were at their wit’s end for the moment. They were tired and cold and hungry and the Professor didn’t seem to be doing any harm for the time being.

“Okay,” she said, turning reluctantly away from the wall. “We’ll come back.”

Bear jumped on to her shoulder and pressed his side against her head, purring loudly in her ear, as they walked in silent defeat toward home.

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If you enjoy serial fiction newsletters, I highly recommend Breakfast Serial by Mia V. Moss. Breakfast Serial follows the blog of Harper Luna, who has recently arrived at the planet Ocasta as part of a new colony, but soon finds hints of something mysterious on the surface of the planet. Each week, you can read the latest updates as she investigates the mystery and shares a new recipe in every post.

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