As if summoned by his crystallizing sense of defeat, a strange spark fizzed to life in front of Darwyn. At first, the will o’ wisp was just a formless sparkle, dancing madly about in the dark. But after a moment, it started to take a shape. The light sculpted itself a pair of legs, then arms. A head lifted out of the center and a pair of wings out of its back. Its contours warped and suddenly, it was the shape of a small, winged sylph. It extended a beckoning finger and then darted deeper into the murky wood. When Darwyn did not immediately follow, it stopped midflight, turned, and placed its diminutive hands on its hips.
Darwyn unsheathed his sword and pointed it at the luminous spirit. It simply cocked its small head and zipped back over, hovering near the point of his brand, as if considering it. It landed on the blade and began to gingerly tip-toe its way toward the hilt. When it arrived, it looked him in his eyes–now wide with astonishment–and pointed emphatically the direction it had come from. He flung the blade quickly to the side, trying to throw the creature into the brush, but the fairy merely resumed its flight as the blade dropped out from under it. It shook its head in disappointment and again pointed.
Darwyn slowly resheathed his sword and considered his options. He finally nodded, and the sprite flitted forward. He followed the path it lit for him, stumbling over rotting logs and ducking between criscrossed branches. He followed it for what seemed an eternity before it shot ahead like a bolt of lighting, illuminating a clearing in the distance.
As he broke the threshold, he found himself in a well-maintained garden. None of the the forest’s heavy, sentinel trees, none of its wild, scraggly underbrush marred the pristine grounds. The sprite darted about, flying in wide arcs around the garden, illuminating all manner of exotic flowers. He approached one that was a deep lavender in color, its magnificent petals unfurling like heavy tapestries. It was gigantic, and gave off a sweet, citrus smell. He leaned toward it and one of its stamen whipped violently and unexpectedly about his wrist and pulled him in.
“I wouldn’t mess with that one if I were you.”
He looked behind him as the plant continued to tug. There was a picturesque cottage tucked among the flowers, and framed in its doorway was a woman, her face lit by the hovering fairy, its features placid and unimpressed. The woman was holding a bottle and she continued to stir its contents while she watched Darwyn.
“Is it poisonous?” he asked.
“Goodness, no. But it is carnivorous.”
He looked back toward the flower as it greedily inched him closer. He recoiled and quickly cut through its tendril with his sword. The tension released and he stumbled backward and fell to the ground, throbs of pain shooting up his tailbone.
“What are you doing?” the woman snarled. She rushed out not to his aid, but the plant’s. She knelt by it and tenderly examined the cut. Her head swiveled and her furious gaze grasped him with the sharp, swift precision of a raptor seizing a rodent. “Do you have any idea how long it took to cultivate this specimen?”
Darwyn picked himself up out of the dirt and dusted himself off. “It was trying to eat me.” He looked back at the cottage and saw two new faces staring at him from the door. One was framed with waves of flame-red hair that swirled like the patterns of a finely illuminated manuscript. This face wore an expression of curiosity, of anticipation. The other was outlined with raven-black hair and its eyes were equally dark to match. They sat behind a pair of spectacles, and perhaps because of this, Darwyn felt as though this woman was observing him with a sort of detached, scientific interest.
“Why have you come here?” Ophelia asked, stepping out of the cottage, her arms folded in front of her like an aegis.
“Do I stand before the Ladies of the Coven?”
“He’s even more handsome in person,” Lilith said. She motioned for him to approach, and the luminous sylph mimicked her movement.
“Did you send the sprite?”
She smiled and held her hand out, the sylph resting on her palm. “Wouldn’t want you to get lost in the woods at night. Not safe.” She closed her fist and the light was instantly snuffed out. Darkness washed over the garden like a blight.
“Why have you come here?” Ophelia repeated.
“King Edmund requests your assistance.”
“And why, pray tell,” Beatrice said, rejoining her sisters, “should we care in the least if Edmund needs our assistance? He’d sooner abdicate the throne than deign to help one of us.”
“He is the king,” Darwyn said, his voice steady and resolute.
“Was that a reason?” Beatrice wondered. “Or just a dull observation. I honestly can’t tell.”
Ophelia smirked–Darwyn was a much easier read than Rolfe’s prose. “I think it was a threat.”
“He seems very into authority,” Lilith mused. “I can work with that.”
“Please, do not resist. Make this easy on all of us.”
“Tell us more,” Ophelia said. “What does Edmund need of us?”
Darwyn shook his head, unsure of the particulars. “I would struggle to even say.”
Beatrice was relieved. “Very well, then. Say no more, indeed, and leave.”
“I understand that His Majesty is in need of a master alchemist.”
Ophelia turned to Beatrice and smiled sympathetically. “Looks like this will be your burden after all.”
“A nuisance,” she said. “What does he need with an alchemist?”
Darwyn shook his head again.
Ophelia’s arms dropped limply to her side in frustration. “Useless.”
Darwyn held his hand out. “Please. It is apparently a very rare potion. They don’t know how to mix it.”
Lilith strode out of the cottage, her dark, silk robes fluttering behind her. She placed her hand on Darwyn’s side and swung around him–her movement liquid–to face the others. “How can you say no to a face like this?” she asked, as she laid her head gently against his shoulder. “Let’s help him. Pretty please?”