A few Vundi pass by, their eyes glued to the smoky gryphon that stalks along behind us.
She doesn’t seem to fault me for my eagerness. “Your stone was a gift.”
“To whom?” I feel like I would have remembered a glowing old lady with pointy ears handing me a magical necklace at a birthday party.
I stop, confusion gumming up my works. “What?”
“Given to her upon her ascension to the throne. Yes. A gift of the Vundi, one that should have cemented good relations between us. And I suppose it did for a while.” She nods and pulls me with surprising strength. “Keep up.”
I force myself into motion. “If you gave it to her, how the hell did I wind up with it?”
“That’s a good question.” She laughs again, and her gryphon caws lightly behind us.
Here I was thinking I’d finally get answers. Turns out, I just have more questions. Did Queen Aurentia see the necklace when I was there? Why didn’t she say anything about me wearing one of her jewels?
“Do you know what I am?”
“What are any of us?”
I pinch the bridge of my nose.
“Don’t do that. Wrinkles.” She smiles again, and despite her age, she’s still beautiful. Also, mischievous.
“So you aren’t going to tell me?”
“I have suspicions. One such as you was foretold, but how can anyone know the object of a prophecy until the prophecy comes true, eh? No one, that’s who.”
“You remind me of a witch I met.”
Her white brows furrow as we turn again, the underground corridors a maze. “Is that an insult?”
“Not at all. I rather liked her. And she helped me out.”
The air becomes heavier, humid and with an earthy scent. We must be getting close.
“I saw Cenet with an Obsidian blade. Was it the witch who gave it to you?”
“Yes. She also gave me a pea that dimmed my sparkle.”
“Hmmm. I did notice your aura is muffled, like someone threw a black blanket over you.” She sucks on her teeth. “She’s the one you should’ve asked all your questions. She’s danced with the magic of the otherworld even longer than I have, and on top of that, has the devious intelligence bred by the Spires.”
“Well, she went back to her cave and she told me to be scared of TMI—too much information.”
Delantis nods. “She was wise, and I’m impressed you made it out of that encounter with all your skin intact.”
I shudder. “I’m good like that, yeah.”
“Can you tell me about the prophec—”
“Here we are.” She turns into a wide carving in the rock and leads me along a walkway a few stories above a wide, flat cavern. Several football fields worth of dirt and crops expand into the distance, and light shines through shafts from above that hit the rows of plants perfectly.
Vundi workers walk along the rows or group around work stations placed at intervals.
My mouth may be hanging open a bit. “This is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“We can’t survive in the plains anymore. This was working for a while, but now we can’t produce enough to feed ourselves. Not since the plants began to die off.”
“What happened to them?” We ease down a set of stone stairs, and the gryphon takes flight and lands below us, its smoky white tail high in the air.
“We don’t know. Mainly because we aren’t farmers by nature. Centuries ago, we sent spies to the western farmlands who brought back basic farming knowledge as well as seeds and a few plants. From that, we were able to thrive. Until it all went bad.” She frowns at the wilted plants all along the rows we approach. “We keep ourselves hidden, never allowing outsiders to enter our caverns, so there’s no help. Only what we can do. And—” She motions to the failing greenery. “As you can see, we’ve reached the limits of our abilities.”
“You let us in. Surely, you could let the western farmers you mentioned come to help?”
She cocks her head to the side a bit. “The king of the winter realm is a little different than just anyone, especially when his changeling is the one thing that could save our people. You’re an exception. The rule is that we hide our numbers. It’s safer that way. No outsiders.”
The scent of rot is heavy here, the withering green stalks limp and barren.
“May I?” I gesture to the nearest plant. I don’t recognize it, but I assume horticulture works the same way here as on earth. After all, the plants grow in dirt, need sunlight, and have a rough irrigation system via narrow water ducts running in a grid through the fields.
“Go ahead.” She reaches out and strokes her gryphon’s feathers.
“What’s your gryphon’s name?” I kneel next to the nearest plant.
“Delantis.” She runs her finger down its beak.
“Oh.” I try not to sound as confused as I am and focus on the withered yellow leaves.
“She is me. My feral.”
I turn back to her. “That’s your feral fae?”
“She manifests physically now. The older a fae, the stronger its feral. It seems your mate is on the verge of manifesting his own. I can hear it inside him, desperate to claim his mate.”
I swallow hard. “Wow.”
“Indeed.” She points to the plant. “This is supposed to produce dwarfberries. It’s a vining plant but hasn’t been able to branch out.” Looking at her white-tipped fingers, she frowns. “All this power, and I can’t do anything about it. Life is its own particular magic, and not one I can control.”
“Let me take a look.” I dig into the dark brown earth at the plant’s roots. Rotted ooze covers its damp roots.
“Delantis.” A woman approaches, her hair tied up in neat knots, and her face something like a deer’s. “I didn’t know we’d have such an honor this day.” She bows low.
“Chatara, I just brought Taylor by to see if she had any thoughts on our problem. She’s an alchemist.”
“Chemist,” I correct and peer more closely at the goo on my fingertips. It stinks like decay. “Are they all like this?”
“The plants? Yes.” Chatara eyes me curiously. “It started in the back reaches of the fields and spread in a matter of months. We eventually set fire to everything in an effort to stop the plague and planted new seeds, but they still fell ill.”
“Did you treat the soil?”
“Treat it?” Chatara blinks, her doe-like eyes big and brown. “It was on fire. Nothing survived.”
I stand. “Do you have a microscope?”
Chatara blinks even harder. “A … A what?”
“It’s a …” I chew on my lip and hold my dirty hands out in front of me … like an idiot. “It’s where you use glass lenses to magnify something.”
“Magnify?” Delantis peers at my fingers.
“I need to see what this is. But up close. Like the tiny stuff it’s made of.” I hold up the dark green sludge. “If I can see what’s in here, I can maybe figure out a solution. I’m suspecting fungal by the looks of it, but I can’t be sure.”
“But we can all see it.” Chatara points. “It’s rot.”
“The rot is a symptom. There’s a microorganism attacking the roots, which results in the decay. Like when you have a skin infection and a sore shows up. The sore is the symptom. That’s what this rot is. I need to see the tiny organisms of this in order to tell what it is.”
“Ahhh.” Delantis nods. “I see.” She holds out her hand and touches the tip of my finger, then looks up at the stone ceiling far above. The white light grows so bright around her that I wince, but then she holds her hand to her face and blows on the bit of rot on her fingertips. It floats on a phantom white wind and expands, filling the space above our heads as it grows and grows. From unintelligible dark green mush, it stretches and expands farther and farther.
Some of the workers yell and run toward us, cowering as Delantis’s magic unfurls. She’s created a microscope larger than an iMax theater, zooming in until I can see the fine detail.
“Holy shit.” I stare at the strands of plant matter that float huge and bright over my head. Her white light shines through all of it, highlighting everything wrong. “Whoa, Delantis. Stop there.” I point to a particularly nasty spot. “Fungus. Like I said. Looks like fusarium wilt, though it could be any number of other fungi. Can you go deeper, Delantis? I’d like to see the cellular level.”
She obliges, not even breaking a sweat as she increases the magnification.
“Yep. That’s it.” I walk down one of the rows and point over my head to a patch of cells. “This here? These are vascular cells, but these dark spots are paired arbuscules.” I look back at Chatara.
Her silver eyes are blank. “I don’t know what—”
“It means the rot is affecting the plants’ vascular systems. Basically, the water processes and eventually photosynthesis. The fire didn’t work because this fungus hides in the soil. You can’t stop it because it’s everywhere down here.”
“In the soil?” Chatara wrings her hands. “But we spent a century moving this dirt here from the Misty River. If we had to remove it and start over, we wouldn’t survive.”
Delantis blinks and lowers her hand, the image above our heads fading.
“That was kind of amazing.” I walk back to her.
“I have tricks, young one.” Her silver eyes twinkle.
“We’re doomed.” Chatara leans against the damp wall.
“Not at all.” I shake the dirt from my hands. “We can fix this. Do you have more seeds or seedlings?”
“We do but we’ve been holding them back because of—” She gestures at the dying fields.
“Good. How about shovels, pickaxes, laborers?” I didn’t think Chatara could look more confused. I was wrong.