- Story by Kelsey Adams for the Sandra and Woo and Gaia Artwork Contest 2016
“Up next, Alissa and …” Faye, the fighting teacher, paused as she checked the list. “Lilith.”
Alissa glanced over at the willowy girl with long brown hair whose eyes were firmly fixed on her feet. Alissa knew who Lilith was, of course; everyone did. People were already convinced that she would end up being one of the greatest wizards of Cania. Alissa had never actually spoken to Lilith before, though. Lilith looked up and smiled quickly at Alissa before dropping her gaze back to the ground.
“All right,” Faye said, “choose your weapons.”
“Bow and arrow,” Alissa said without hesitation, grabbing a quiver and her favorite bow from the pile. Half the reason she’d even come here was to learn archery. Her parents hadn’t been exactly thrilled by her choices of study at the Academy—stubborn, they called her. Alissa called it knowing what she wanted, or at least knowing what she didn’t want, which was settling down and marrying some rich merchant’s son. But in any case, a bow was a good choice for this task. They were supposed to collect the mushrooms from a gramut, a fleshy, blobby creature that protected itself by wrapping thick dead vines all around its body and using six thick vines as arms, whipping and restraining anyone who got too close. The gramut itself wasn’t valuable, but the small white mushrooms that dotted its vines were useful in many different potions. The gramut couldn’t feel any pain from attacks to the vines, so it was a perfect training tool for the kids. Faye also always put an extra protective magic spell around the gramut itself in case any blade or arrow managed to make it through the tangled mass of vines on the outside.
“And Lilith?” Faye asked.
“Oh, um, I guess sword.”
The two girls squared up against the creature, which remained perfectly still until Faye called, “Go!”
And then everything happened very quickly. Lilith charged right at the thing. Alissa called, “Lilith, wait!” but Lilith was already deep within range of the vines. She was throwing her sword around in wide arcs and not hitting much of anything. Alissa quickly cocked an arrow and loosed it toward the center of the mass, aiming for the base of one of the vines, as hitting a vine’s base temporarily paralyzed that arm. She managed to get three arrows off, two hitting their targets. But then Lilith was too close, and Alissa couldn’t get a good shot.
She was about to shout to Lilith to get out of the way and grab mushrooms from the paralyzed vines, but before she had a chance, a vine arm whipped around and smacked Lilith to the ground, knocking her sword out of her hand in the process. “Oh!” Lilith called, scrambling backward from the thing. She wasn’t fast enough, though, and two vines wrapped around her right leg, hoisting her into the air upside down.
With two vines holding Lilith and two paralyzed, though probably not for much longer, Alissa figured this might be her best chance to collect some mushrooms, having to dodge only two whipping vines. A smattering of giggles broke out, and Alissa snapped a quick peek over her shoulder at the group of girls, some of them her friends, huddled together pointing up at Lilith and whispering behind their hands. She frowned and turned back to the gramut. She aimed her shot carefully and hit the base of one of the vines holding Lilith. Lilith instantly dropped several feet down as one of the vines went limp and shrieked. Alissa lined up her second shot and hit the second vine. Lilith tumbled to the ground.
Faye blew a small whistle, and the gramut went completely still. “You have some work to do before the competition at the end of the week,” she told the girls.
“Yes, Faye,” Alissa said.
Lilith nodded as she got up from the ground.
“I’m sorry,” Lilith whispered to Alissa as they walked off the training ground.
As the two of them passed the group of girls, another round of giggling broke out. Lilith blushed slightly but said nothing.
“Hey,” Alissa said, elbowing Lilith gently, “you did all right.”
Lilith smiled. “Thanks. That means a lot coming from you.” Then she broke off to go stand with her friends, Ryn and Ilias, giving Alissa a small wave.
What does that mean—“coming from me”? Alissa wondered. The next pair had already taken their places to fight the gramut, so she shook her head and focused on them, hoping to pick up some tricks for her next chance at the creature.
* * *
Back at the dorms, Alissa found she had a letter from home. She groaned inwardly. The Academy thing was still new, and her parents hadn’t given up on trying nudging her onto a different path. She tore the letter open and read it quickly to get it over with as soon as possible. She paused halfway down and snorted: “Janos has been asking about you. He is becoming quite handsome, and he’s started helping his father out with the business. He’ll make a fine husband for someone someday. That could be you, dear. He seems to fancy you quite a bit.” She rolled her eyes. Besides that, the letter was pretty tame, just one line about her poor grandmother worrying herself sick about what dangerous things Alissa was doing and another about how they had the finest tutors in all Cania just begging to teach her.
Besides the letter from her parents, she had one other letter. She groaned out loud when she read the name on this one: Janos Baltor. She considered just tossing it in the trash, but that seemed too rude. She ripped it open. It was a love poem. God, it couldn’t get any worse.
I miss thy sparkling eyes.
Each day without thee,
part of my heart dies.
Return soon, I plea.
I miss thy auburn hair,
my maiden fair.
And I shan’t sleep
but only weep
until you return to me.
She cringed at nearly every word. She supposed she should take it as a compliment, but his crush was mostly just annoying to her at this point. She tossed the two letters in the drawer with all the other mail she’d gotten, which wasn’t much.
She headed to the washroom. Some cold water on her face sounded good right about now. As she scrubbed her face dry, she glanced into the mirror. She’d always loved the color of her hair, but she hated how it got in the way. She’d tried a million different braids, but strands of hair always managed to slip out and get in her eyes. Well, not any more, she thought as she grabbed a pair of scissors. She quickly chopped off half a foot of her hair. She tried to make it even, but it was harder than it looked. Despite the choppiness, she rather liked her hair short. She felt lighter now, faster.
Her friend Janelle came into the bathroom to get her for dinner and gasped. “Oh no! What happened?” she asked.
Alissa shrugged. “Just felt like a change.”
“Okay … It’s kind of cute I guess. Well, let’s go.”
Alissa got similar reactions from her other girlfriends at dinner, though they were all quick to compliment her once they realized the haircut had been intentional: “It’s … unique!” “I could never pull it off, but you can.” “So edgy!” Alissa patiently waited for it to blow over and for the conversation to shift to something else. She was popular mostly by default, thanks to the wealth and status of her parents. Her friends weren’t bad people; they were just … exhausting. It often felt like work hanging out with them.
“So what’d you think of the gramut today?” one of the girls asked.
Alissa perked up, glad the conversation had shifted to something she was actually interested in. “I loved it!” she said. “Our first real creature to fight!”
The girls playfully rolled their eyes at her, and Janelle said, “You love every fighting class.”
Alissa shrugged. Janelle wasn’t wrong.
“I love fighting class too,” another of the girls said. “It’s the one class I’m better than Lilith in.”
“Did you see her today?” another girl chimed in. “How embarrassing!”
The conversation began to move at a rapid clip that Alissa couldn’t keep up with.
“It’s good for her. She has such a big head already.”
“She probably just fakes being bad at it to get more attention from the boys.”
“Yeah, they’re always offering to help her ‘practice.’”
“And she just strings them along! It’s not fair to them.”
“Or us! I’d like a chance at Ilias.”
There was a round of wistful sighs.
“And poor Alissa!” Janelle said.
All the girls turned to look at Alissa. She stared blankly back.
“Having to be partnered with her,” Janelle explained.
“I like Lilith,” Alissa said. She glanced over at where Lilith was sitting and laughing with Ilias and Ryn. Though she’d only exchanged a few words with Lilith, she meant what she’d said: she liked Lilith. Lilith had never struck her as cocky or bigheaded. And while more than a few boys surely had crushes on Lilith, she didn’t “string them along.” What was Lilith supposed to do, stop being friends with boys to ensure they didn’t like her? Stop talking to them completely? With how cold some of the girls were to Lilith, she’d be left without any friends at all. Besides, Alissa knew firsthand from Janos that sometimes it didn’t matter what you did; some boys would still love you.
Alissa stood from the table. “I’m gonna get a head start on our homework tonight. I’ll see you guys back at the dorm.”
* * *
That night, once the other three girls in her room had fallen asleep, Alissa snuck out to walk the grounds. She snuck out nearly every night. It was her favorite part of the day. It was cool, quiet, and peaceful at night. Everything even seemed to smell better to her at night.
She meandered toward the willow fountain. The fountain was nearly twenty-five feet in diameter, with a big white marble tree trunk shooting up from the middle. A few large marble branches stuck out from the trunk, and streams of water cascaded down like a willow tree’s branches and leaves. It was Alissa’s favorite part of the grounds. During the day there were always lots of people around, but at night, there was no one. The moon reflected off the water, and it was quiet enough you could hear the hundreds of tiny rushing streams hit the surface.
Alissa was lost in her thoughts as she walked and didn’t notice that someone was sitting at the edge of the fountain until she was just a few yards away. It was Lilith. Several sheets of paper filled with line after line of messy handwriting sat in her lap. Alissa froze.
“Hello,” Lilith said.
“Sorry,” Alissa said quickly. “I didn’t realize anyone else was out here.”
“Yeah, I come out here sometimes to be alone,” Lilith said.
“Right. I’ll go somewhere else,” Alissa muttered, turning around. She didn’t really want company, but she still felt disappointed for some reason.
“Oh no! That’s not what I meant. You can stay.”
“I don’t want to interrupt or anything.”
“I was just reading a letter from my little brother,” Lilith said, folding the pages and putting them to the side. “For the third time. It’s not like he’s a brilliant writer, so I doubt I’ll get anything more out of it than I did the first two times. I guess it’s just a homesickness thing.”
Alissa sat down and decided to just ask Lilith what was on her mind. That was another thing about nighttime; it seemed easier to just say what were you thinking, instead of beating around the bush. “Earlier today, what did you mean when you said ‘That means a lot coming from you’?”
“Oh.” Lilith wrinkled her brow. “Because you’re the best in our fighting classes,” she said as if it were obvious.
“You mean the best girl?”
Lilith looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well, maybe some of the guys are better than you with a sword, but you’re definitely the best with a bow, even better than Ilias, and he’s been shooting a bow since he was five.”
Alissa blushed. “I’ve—”
Lilith suddenly looked off to their left and shushed Alissa. “Someone’s coming,” she whispered.
“What? How do you know?”
Lilith waved her hand at Alissa to stop talking.
“I dare you to jump in the fountain!” a boy taunted from not too far away.
Lilith relaxed. “Ilias,” she said. She turned back to Alissa and explained, “It’s a spell I’m working on. Pretty soon I think I’ll be able to tell not only when someone is coming but who is coming.”
“Cool,” Alissa said, genuinely impressed.
As Ilias and Ryn turned the corner into the courtyard, Ryn said, “No way, man. Blue is not my color.” It was rumored that there were charms on the fountain that made all your hair turn blue if you jumped in.
“Hi, Ilias; hi, Ryn,” Lilith said sweetly.
The two boys jumped, unaware of the girls’ presence until that moment. They both stood up very straight, and Ilias scratched at the back of his head. “Hi, Lilith,” they said in unison.
Alissa cocked an eyebrow at them.
“Oh, hi, Alissa,” Ilias said. “New haircut?”
“I like it,” Lilith interjected. “It reminds me of Faye.”
“I wouldn’t mind being able to fight like her,” Alissa said.
“Me either,” said Ilias.
“Yeah, well, you’re gonna need more than a new haircut to beat Ilias and me in the gramut competition,” Ryn said teasingly.
“Oh really?” Alissa asked. “You wanna bet on it?”
“Uh … well …” Ryn stuttered.
“Yeah, come on, Ryn,” Lilith teased. “You’re not afraid of being beaten by a couple of girls, are you?”
“Lilith,” Ryn said in disbelief, “you’ve been beating me at just about everything my whole life! I hardly think I can be afraid of it at this point.”
The three friends laughed, and Alissa couldn’t help but join them. Ryn had a point; besides fighting, Lilith was the top of the class in every other subject. Ryn and Lilith had been going to school together since they were little, so Ryn knew better than anyone.
“We’ll take your bet,” Ilias said. “Losers have to jump in the willow fountain.”
“Deal,” Lilith said firmly. “Now we should be getting back. Come on, Alissa.” She hooked her arm in Lilith’s and led them away. The two boys remained at the fountain, arguing over whether the blue-hair curse was real or not and which of them would look better with blue hair.
As soon as the girls were out of earshot, Lilith whispered, “You gotta help me practice if we have any chance of beating them!”
“Okay,” Alissa said. “As long as you help me with our magic classes.”
“I’d love to!” Lilith beamed. “And actually, I was just thinking that I know a spell you could use to cut your hair if you want. It’ll be faster and easier than doing it by hand.”
The girls had reached the dorms. “Tomorrow then, after class,” Alissa said, and they forked off toward their rooms.
* * *
After classes were over, Lilith and Alissa met at the fountain and then headed into the woods nearby for more privacy. They didn’t have a gramut, but Lilith enchanted some dead vines to whip around in a pretty similar manner. Lilith’s first three attempts didn’t go too well. On the first she tripped on a vine and landed on her butt. On her second she managed to chop one vine, but then another vine wrapped around the wrist of her sword arm, immobilizing it. On her third attempt she landed on her butt again. “Maybe I should just change the spell to make these vines easier to fight,” she muttered.
Alissa laughed and jumped off her perch on a low-hanging tree branch, from where she’d been watching the action.
“It’s hopeless, right?” Lilith said, her hair already wet from sweat.
“Not at all,” said Alissa. “Fighting’s not like spells, though. If you mess up, you can’t just start back over from the beginning. You can’t make it perfect. You have to just keep going and get to the end the best you can. So if you fall down, you get back up. If you drop your weapon, you get it back. If your arm gets immobilized, use your other one.”
“I think that’s easier said than done.”
“Most things are.” Alissa handed Lilith her sword back. “Let’s try again, but let’s change tactics a bit. You’re charging straight in right now, and you don’t need to do that.”
“Because we’re supposed to be a team. You don’t have to do it all yourself, you know. If you can distract the gramut long enough for me to paralyze all the vines, we’ll be able to pick the mushrooms off with no hassle. So think more about defense than offense.”
They practiced for nearly an hour together, until they started making sloppy mistakes from being tired. They were definitely not good enough to beat Ilias and Ryn yet, but they were much better than they were in class the other day.
As they rested in the shade, Lilith helped Alissa practice some of the spells they’d learned that day and also showed her the spell to cut hair. It worked wonderfully and evened out all the jagged chunks from Alissa’s handiwork.
They headed to dinner together, and Alissa sat with Lilith, Ryn, and Ilias instead of her usual group. The four of them had a magic food fight, enchanting their food to march across the table. They made Lilith fight with milk as a handicap, as it was difficult to keep the liquid in a confined space, but she still managed to win. As winner, she got a bite of everyone’s dessert. Ryn was the first to lose all his food men—made of apples—so he had to take a bite of the amalgamation of food all mixed together on the table, the remnants of battle. It was the most fun Alissa had ever had at dinner.
* * *
Lilith and Alissa continued practicing all week. They’d agreed to keep their strategy secret, fumbling around during class so Ryn and Ilias wouldn’t realize how good they were getting. The night before the competition, they snuck out after curfew together just for fun. They went to the willow fountain and chatted, at first about various things that had happened in class that day and then about their homes away from the Academy. Lilith told Alissa about Oakdale and her parents and her little brother and their farm, and Alissa told Lilith about all the fights she’d been having with her parents.
It was getting late, and they should get their sleep if they wanted to kick Ilias’s and Ryn’s butts tomorrow. As they were headed back to the dorms, a blue orb appeared in their path.
“What the heck?” Alissa muttered.
They tried to go around it, but it followed their every move. It started to glow more brightly. The girls glanced at each other and took off running at the same time, in different directions. Alissa glanced back over her shoulder and saw that the orb was following Lilith. She screeched to a halt and reversed directions. Before she could reach Lilith, the orb wrapped itself around Lilith’s ankles, morphing into shackles of soft light. Lilith tripped and fell to the ground. Alissa hurried over and helped Lilith into a seated position.
Suddenly Lilith snapped her head around, peering intently into the darkness of the path behind them.
“Someone’s coming?” Alissa asked.
Lilith nodded. “You should go,” she said.
Alissa could just make out some voices in the dark. She recognized Faye’s and a couple of other teachers.
“Seriously, go,” Lilith said. “They obviously know I’m out past curfew”—she gestured to her shackles—“but you can still get away.”
“No way,” Alissa said firmly. “Friends stick together, right?”
Lilith smiled. “Yeah, they do.”
The teachers, four of them, rounded the bend and stopped. Faye snapped her fingers, and the shackles disappeared from Lilith’s ankles. “Do you care to explain yourselves?” Faye asked.
Lilith suddenly looked close to tears. Alissa guessed she wasn’t used to getting in trouble. Luckily, Alissa had plenty of experience with it. “We’re sorry, Faye,” she said. “We know we shouldn’t be out past curfew. We just wanted to get some last-minute practice in for tomorrow’s gramut competition.”
“Then where are your weapons?”
“We were practicing dodging.”
Faye looked around. “Dodging what?”
“Lilith can enchant vines to make them whip around.”
Another of the teachers, Ars, perked up. “How will she cast such a spell?”
Lilith, who was no longer close to tears, quickly cast the spell as demonstration.
Ars clapped his hands. “Ars will be impressed. This will be difficult spell for one so young.”
Lilith smiled at the praise.
“That may be,” Faye interjected sternly, “but you still broke the rules. A week’s detention for both of you.”
Alissa and Lilith nodded contritely. They headed back to the dorms with Faye as escort. When they got there, several girls were awake and gathered in the hall, including Janelle.
“Alissa!” Janelle exclaimed in shock. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you’d snuck out too!”
Why would Janelle be apologizing? Alissa wondered, and then she understood. Janelle was one of Lilith’s roommates. She must have realized Lilith was gone and then alerted the teachers.
“You told on Lilith!” Alissa accused her.
Janelle stuttered, “Well, I … I …”
“It’s okay, Janelle,” Lilith interrupted. “I shouldn’t have snuck out. And what if something bad had happened to me? You telling the teachers could have saved my life then.”
Alissa figured Janelle’s reasons for ratting Lilith out had more to do with jealousy than concern for Lilith’s safety, but if Lilith could look past it, so could she. Besides, she was tired and just wanted to go to bed. She and Lilith had a big day tomorrow.
* * *
“Alissa and Lilith!” Faye called out.
“We’ve got this,” Alissa whispered as she and Lilith took their places in front of the gramut.
Lilith nodded tightly, her face grim.
“Go!” Faye shouted.
The gramut sprung to life. Alissa quickly cocked an arrow and sent it into the tangled mass of vines. One vine went limp. Lilith jumped in front of Alissa to block a swinging vine and then ducked out of the way. Alissa loosed two more arrows, paralyzing two more vines. Lilith quickly picked a few mushrooms off a nearby paralyzed vine as Alissa shot her fourth arrow. This one missed its mark.
“Lilith!” Alissa called as a vine whipped toward Lilith.
Lilith looked up from her mushroom picking and tried to dodge out of the way, but the vine hit her square in the chest and knocked her backward. Her sword clattered against the ground and fell out of reach. She immediately rolled over onto her stomach and started to crawl toward her sword.
Confident Lilith could handle herself, Alissa returned to her own task and put yet another vine arm out of commission. She then glanced back toward Lilith, who had gotten hold of her sword. Before Lilith could get back on her feet, though, a vine wrapped around her right foot and yanked her toward the center mass of vines. Lilith tried to twist over to hack at the vine holding her, but the other remaining vine wrapped around her sword arm.
With Lilith held right in front of the gramut’s center ball of vines, Alissa couldn’t get any good shots, so she dropped her bow and ran to help free Lilith.
“No!” Lilith shouted. “Mushrooms!”
Alissa hesitated a moment but then did as instructed. She quickly stripped the branches of as many mushrooms as she could, shoving them into the pouch at her side. Suddenly one of the vines began to stir slightly, the paralysis ending. Alissa was too close to the center; she couldn’t run out of range in time, and she had no weapon. She locked eyes with Lilith, who seemed to instantly understand the predicament. Lilith glanced frantically around for a few moments and then seemed to reach a decision. She twisted as much as the vines would let her and punched the gramut. The vine holding her leg went limp. Alissa nearly cheered. Lilith then kicked at the gramut until all the vines were paralyzed. Both girls worked to get as many mushrooms as they could before their time was up.
Faye blew the whistle and counted their mushrooms. “Seventy-six!” she announced. It was the highest number so far by over twenty. “Looks like your practice paid off,” Faye whispered to Lilith and Alissa.
Lilith and Alissa high-fived and headed over toward Ryn and Ilias, who were suddenly looking much less confident.
“So, uh, about that bet,” Ryn said. “Let’s say we just call the whole thing off, huh?”
Lilith and Alissa exchanged a look. “No way,” they said together.
* * *
Ryn and Ilias had blue hair for a week.