Here's the next installment of our Metallum Nocturne story. If you need to catch up on any of the previous episodes, click here.
Vines in the tree came undulating towards Claire as she sat in the wet leaves. Carl growled, lunging as they came near, but there were dozens hanging from the canopy of the enormous tree.
Dawn was on her feet. A gout of flame came rushing from her hands, crisping the approaching vines, turning them to char. She continued her advance, blasting the nekyia tree with elemental fire. Claire joined her friend. Now that they were out of the Veil, their magic had returned. If there was an element that students of Metallum Nocturne had well-trained, it was fire. Years of practice in the foundry made her feel part inferno herself. Claire added to the flame that jetted from Dawn's hands, washing over the wide trunk, where the hole at the center glowed with the greenish light of the Veil.
"She's keeping the gate open," said Grayson climbing to his feet. His voice was raw from being strangled. "We have to close it, or we're all dead."
The urgency brought more flame, which licked up the trunk, climbing into the limbs like crimson snakes.
"Close the gate and release him or we'll turn you to ashes!" screamed Claire.
A low, guttural moan came from the nekyia tree. Between the gap, Claire could see faint shapes threatening to push through. The near-dead were almost upon them.
"Now! Or I'll use the night metal!"
The gaping hole creaked shut like an eye closing. Screams followed, but quickly faded to silence. Claire let the flame fall from her fingers and touched Dawn's shoulder to do the same. The air smelled like smoldering flesh.
"You have to free him, or we'll start burning again."
Grayson fell to his knees with a cry and Claire was afraid that he was being choked again. But then a shadowy mist floated out from his chest and was absorbed by the tree. When it was finished, he collapsed forward sobbing. Carl nudged him with his wet nose.
"Let's get him out of here."
Between the two of them, they managed to get him onto his feet. Within a dozen yards he was walking on his own. Nothing bothered them on the way back to the cabin. Claire fell into a chair the moment they were inside, exhaustion hitting her like an avalanche while Dawn took the spot opposite. Grayson collapsed in front of the fire next to Carl, tears streaming down his cheeks.
No one spoke for at least an hour. Not until Grayson managed to sit up in front of the fire, wiped his face with the back of his hand.
"Thank you. I don't deserve what you did, but thank you."
"People do awful things in grief," said Claire.
"I almost agreed to kill you. What kind of person even considers it?"
"If they're being honest, probably everyone."
Carl put his head in Grayson's lap. He scratched the furry beast's ears which brought satisfied moans.
"At least someone wasn't too traumatized by tonight's events," said Dawn, chuckling.
"Was I right about what I said?" asked Claire.
"More or less," said Grayson. "I'd always known about the nekyia tree. It was a place to be avoided, but after she was diagnosed, I didn't know what to do. I went to the tree in weakness."
"And resisted its worst impulses in strength," said Claire.
Dawn nodded towards her shredded shirt. "What was with the night metal thing?"
"It's from the accident."
Dawn approached, kneeling down. "Can I?"
Claire lifted her arm, giving her friend access. She ran her fingers over the dark striations.
"You have night metal imbedded in your skin?"
"Something like that."
"Is it dangerous?"
Claire sighed. "I wish I knew."
Dawn looked like she was going to ask another question and then she leaned closer, reached out, and plucked something that had been tangled in the shreds of her shirt. A cluster of wispy pale fibers were squeezed between her forefinger and thumb.
Dawn's mouth hung open. "Nekyia filaments."
"Are they useful?"
"Useful?" asked Dawn incredulously. "These are super-rare because you have to get them from inside the Veil. You can't just poke around on a nekyia tree, never mind it trying to strangle you, and collect them."
"At least we got something out of it," said Claire.
"No, you don't understand. You came here for ghost owl downy, but nekyia filaments are like a nuclear grade version of it."
"They are?" she asked. "Shit."
Claire borrowed a small bottle that had once held a prescription to hold the filaments. Despite the time, no one felt sleepy. As the hesitant light of day formed in the sky, Grayson moved to the kitchen and started cooking them a breakfast of bacon, eggs, hashbrowns, and homemade buttermilk biscuits.
"It was her favorite," he told them when he served their plates.
"What's her name?"
Claire smiled as she slipped a piece of crispy bacon into her mouth. "That's a pretty name."
Grayson stared at his plate before sopping the yellow egg yoke with a broken piece of biscuit. Tears welled in his eyes.
After helping him clean the dishes, Claire gave a sleepy Carl her goodbyes which consisted of ample ear scratches. Grayson walked them back to the path, which would set them on the trail back to the parking lot where her truck was waiting. He waved them goodbye as they headed away, the words never quite reaching his lips.
"I hope he's alright," said Dawn when they were on the bottom half of the hill.
"It'll take time," said Claire, thinking about her own experiences with grief. After her parents died, it'd taken years for the anger to subside. "If it ever does."