The Earth Faerie: Part One
There it was. Briony stopped, gaping, as she took in the sight of Illusen's cottage. She'd never seen a building exist as seamlessly with its surrounds as the earth faerie's home. Nestled under the protective arches of two great oaks, only patches of its exterior were visible beneath a lush mass of greenery. Briony's stare focused on how Starflowers had wrapped themselves around the front porch, providing it shelter, while Purple Poppies twined their way up ornate trellises to frame the entrance.
The White Kacheek couldn't help sniffing a flower that waved at her cheerily in the light wind. The floral scent was oddly calming and the ball of nerves in her chest eased as she pushed her way forward. Even so, Briony swallowed before she swept aside a poppy to knock on the front door. This was her first time meeting – let alone seeking out – a faerie and, though Illusen was known to be good-natured, she couldn't fight down a twinge of worry. What if she was turned away?
"It'll be fine," she consoled herself aloud.
Her fear, it seemed, was unfounded. The face that looked out was aglow with welcome, wreathed in a smile as vivid as the blossoms outside. Illusen had a fair countenance with a smattering of freckles similar to Briony's own. In the pale jade eyes Briony could see a kindness that settled her nerves further. The faerie would listen to her, at the very least, she was sure.
An image of her home surfaced in her thoughts and her mouth opened of its own accord. "Illusen, I need your help. Please!" The anxiety in Briony's voice rang clear. Illusen had to help her.
Creases appeared on the earth faerie's forehead as she frowned, ever so faintly. "What's your name, child?" she asked, kneeling to Briony's height.
"I'm Briony," the Kacheek told her. "My family lives on Meri Acres Farm. We haven't had any rainfall for almost three months and," she paused, her voice cracking, "our crops are dying." The last words spilled from her in a rush. Playing out in her mind's eye was a chain of memories that grew worse as the seconds ticked by. Her recollections of wilting corn were succeeded by recollection of the same field browned almost past recognition. Interposed over them all was her father's face. It was the strain on the older Kacheek's plain, hard-working features that pained Briony most.
Illusen's expression softened and she smoothed back Briony's blonde hair. Somehow the Kacheek's curls had escaped from their braid to tangle in long, sweaty clumps. Standing, Illusen gestured Briony inside. "Sit," she invited, pointing to a plush armchair. "I'll brew something up."
Briony's heart gave a jump. Illusen was really going to help! "Can you do something to make it rain?" she demanded, clasping together her paws. That would truly be amazing. She pictured her father's face again.
Illusen shook her head slightly, a small smile playing along her lips. "No, Briony. I'm not a water faerie; my magic is earth-based. What I can do," she mused, now more to herself than to Briony, "is boost the ground's residue magical energy. I'll mix a potion to give it strength."
It was Briony's turn to shake her head. "I don't understand. Magical energy?"
Illusen's lips quirked. "Magic is life. All living things have magical energy of sorts."
Briony followed Illusen to the kitchen. The faerie's garden had certainly seemed magical. "So, you can make a potion to strengthen the farm?"
"To replenish its energy, yes." The faerie nodded, lighting her fireplace with a candle. She bent to rummage in a cupboard as the relief Briony felt shifted to gratitude. The Kacheek hardly noticed the mess on the tiled floor until Illusen apologised. "Sorry about that," the earth faerie said, surveying the jumble of upset pots with a sheepish grin. "I had the teensiest... accident... just now. Be careful as there's some broken glass in the corner."
"Ah! Of course," came Briony's automatic response. "That's fine. I'm sorry for barging in so suddenly." She hoped that her knock hadn't startled Illusen, realising, belatedly, that it had been rather loud. Gazing at the clutter, her attention was caught by a fluid that seeped from one of the broken containers. It was a deep, noxious violet, the sort of shade a dark faerie would love, and riddled with pieces of chopped-up... worms? Briony shuddered inwardly and stepped back until she was only just inside the doorway.
Illusen's profile became cast in shadow as the sun slipped for a minute behind the clouds. The faerie darted a look out the window, her nostrils flaring, as she closed her cupboard and opened the next. Briony had the impression that Illusen was having some difficulty finding what she needed.
"Take your time," Briony implored, seeing Illusen's frown. She didn't want the faerie to feel pressured. "I'll wait. I can help too, if you want."
The faerie's expression cleared instantly. "No, no. I'd forgotten where I'd put something, is all. I've found it now." Illusen chuckled, though Briony thought it sounded a bit forced. "I'll need a dash of this and a dash of that," Illusen murmured, exchange dismissed. She lifted two vials to the light. "A pinch of this," she went on, setting down a jar of crimson powder. The faerie held up a pearl-inlaid flask and winked at Briony as she straightened. "A hair from Turmaculus' head."
Ugh. Briony winced, fixating on the flames heating the faerie's cauldron, before glancing back up. She was thankful for Illusen's help but the things that went in her potions were seriously gross. The Kacheek winced again when she saw what the vial Illusen now held contained. The thick, lumpy liquid might've been mud if it wasn't ink-black and moldy. It looked disgusting. "What's that?" Briony felt more repulsed than she had been by the worms or hair.
"A vital ingredient." Illusen gave no other answer and Briony didn't press; she didn't think she really wanted to know. The important thing, anyway, was that it would help the farm – and, with it, her family.
They both whirled at the sound of a knock. Half a minute later the faerie had ushered in an Electric Wocky whose glance went straight to the fireplace. "Is my potion ready?" he asked, ignoring Briony completely. "You told me to come back in two hours."
Illusen dashed an rueful look at Briony. "Ah, yes. Ethan, was it? This should improve your friend's condition." She held out a stoppered bottle, which the Wocky grabbed with eager blue paws.
Briony stared at the substance within, despite herself. It might've been the strange hue of yellow-green that drew her notice or it might've been the bubbles inside, which reminded her of warts. Were all potions really so repellent? She didn't envy the Wocky's friend his medicine. Yuck, yuck and more yuck.
Ethan left as abruptly as he'd come and Briony turned back to Illusen. The smile on the faerie's lips as she bid the Neopet goodbye lacked her earlier warmth. In fact, her face appeared somehow cold. Hollow. It was inconsistent with how she'd received Briony. "He wasn't very grateful, was he?" Briony observed. He hadn't thanked Illusen for the tonic and she perhaps felt unappreciated.
Illusen started, as though she'd forgotten Briony was still there. "I help regardless." Her tone was almost sour. She must've felt unappreciated. Apparently recognising how she sounded, the faerie cleared her throat loudly, her nose twitching, and took up her ladle. "Back to work."
Briony's brain raced. Opinion of the faerie in Meridell was always good, always positive. Folk respected and looked up to her as she was said to genuinely care for others. It was because of this reputation that Briony had gone to her. These thoughts were on the tip of her tongue when she was distracted by a faint buzzing. Briony looked to her left, noting that she'd drifted, unconsciously, towards Illusen's workbench. A tiny green-and-orange insect was perched on the inside of a bell jar. Moving closer, she heard another noise. The noise of something cracking. Briony jumped, her arms flailing, as she realised that her shoes crunched a pot underfoot. It was the mess in the corner. Stupid self! Her paw connected with the jar and she watched in horror as it tipped over. Though it took only a second to topple, it seemed an age as Briony's world froze.
The jar didn't break but the silence in the aftermath of its fall was heavy. Then Illusen's voice sliced through the air. "I told you to be careful!" the faerie snapped. The glimmer in her jade eyes was icy. Her head swivelled furiously as she spoke and Briony inferred that she was looking for the bug.
"I'm so sorry," Briony breathed, shaking slightly. There was nothing else she could say. The Kacheek felt a spark of pain as she retreated to her initial position and saw that her nails had bitten into the inner flesh of her paws. Though she kept them fisted, the sensation faded in favour of the awful tightness that squeezed her rib cage. Briony felt horrible. She'd gone to Illusen for help, already an inconvenience in itself, and ended up causing her more inconvenience. "I'll clean it up," she promised, on impulse.
"No," Illusen said, in a milder tone. The faerie sighed, massaging her temple, as she composed herself with visible effort. "I'll do it. It's my fault for not cleaning it up in the first place." She dragged a hand through her hair as she scanned or, rather, searched the kitchen, broom in hand. Briony blinked. The auburn-and-green strands appeared to darken fleetingly as her hand raked through their length. It was probably just Briony's imagination.
The buzzing she heard, nonetheless, was not. Near her head, loud in the otherwise silent room, hovered the insect Briony had been eyeing. Briony swatted with a flare of anger but missed. The insect – a fly? – landed briefly on her ear. "Bzz, bzzzz," it buzzed insistently. She whacked it to the bench.
Illusen drew in a sharp breath. Seizing the jar Briony had upended, she slammed the bell-shaped glass back over the bug with some force. "Aha! There you are!" Her broom lay forgotten on the ground behind her.
Briony had also gasped. Between the moment she'd made her second swipe and the moment the bug had hit the workbench, she'd heard a tiny shriek. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind. It was impossible. She was tired. She was stressed. There was no way that the sound she'd heard had been a teeny cry of 'help'.
Illusen turned to Briony with a breeziness at contrast with her former irritation, her mood much improved. "That insect is dangerous," she explained, obviously detecting the shock that the Kacheek felt. "One bite can make you terribly ill." She smiled as she swept the last of the debris on the floor into the trash. To Briony's eyes it was very nearly a smirk. But at what? The bug?
Strange. Briony watched the creature as Illusen resumed her stance by the fireplace. Its conduct was frantic. It actually seemed to fly intentionally into the glass, over and over, as if determined to ram its way free. She had to admire its perseverance, however ill-fated. Its flight was followed by a series of minute rapping sounds. Briony, without meaning to, began to feel quite sorry for it; it was as though tiny fists were beating repeatedly against the glass walls. Her spine stiffened as she took a closer look. Smudged all around the insides of the jar, where the insect had flown, was a peculiar, sticky fluid. It was the same colour purple as the worm-filled liquid from earlier. Maybe it had been what caused the mess.
Noting her interest, Illusen crossed to Briony in two great strides. The bell jar disappeared from view as the faerie tossed a heavy cloth atop it. "Nasty little thing," she commented, her jaw set despite her light tone. "Pay it no attention."
Briony gulped. The words were more an order than advice.
When Illusen finally pressed the potion for her farm into her paws, Briony couldn't help one last flicker of pity. She was sure that, despite the thick velvet, she could hear the insect's renewed, if muffled, efforts to break out of its glass cage.
"Come." Illusen led Briony to her front door and leaned against its frame, arms crossed resolutely, as Briony stepped from the house. "Goodbye." She shut the door with only a half-wave. The Kacheek couldn't stop herself from thinking back to the reception she'd been met with. Had it been this present Illusen she'd first encountered, she wasn't sure she'd have hung around inside after making her request.
Briony assessed the flask she clutched. Though vile in appearance, the inky darkness of the substance inside didn't much trouble her. It was the darkness she'd seen in Illusen's eyes when she'd covered the insect that Briony dwelled on. It was the fury in Illusen's voice when she'd scolded her. Briony was glad she'd come but, in reflection, the earth faerie hadn't been what she'd expected. Illusen was... volatile. Prone to mood swings. Nice one second – and scary the next.
She stopped at the edge of the glade to drink in the scenery. The flowers surrounding the earth faerie's cottage were as lovely as they'd been when she'd arrived and the scent just as soothing. Briony could feel her heartbeat quicken. She'd gotten what she'd come for and it was time to return home.
To be continued...