“Stupid moving shade,” Kevin muttered, looking up from his book to discover that he was no longer lying in the full summer sunlight; the tree that shaded Deanna was now casting its shadow across him as well.
He picked up his book and the lightweight green blanket he was lying on, and moved three feet or so to one side. With a sigh of contentment, he stretched out again in the direct sun, feeling it soaking in through skin so pale it was all but translucent, the warmth reaching right down to his bones and giving him strength, power, life.
“Happier now?” Deanna asked in amusement, the notebook she'd been writing in so intently still braced against one raised knee. No blanket for her; she no more liked having something between her and the earth below her than Kevin liked having anything shading him from the sun. She was far more comfortable leaning against the old red maple that, for her sake, brought them back to this clearing to camp, over and over.
She reminded Kevin more than a little of the maple itself, her skin soft brown, her long heavy mane of hair dark auburn, her whole body what he thought a perfect mix between muscle and softness. The comfortable pants and loose short-sleeved top he'd made for her, woven out of sunlight, were even various shades of brown, adding to the impression. It wasn't so hard to see where the idea that dryads were bound to a single tree for life had come from.
“Until the sun moves again, yep.” He opened his book back up, and crossed his arms in front of him, the book pinned in place. It was only mid-afternoon, and it was August; he should have time to absorb a lot more sun before it got too low to be helpful.
“Solar-powered elvenmage,” she teased.
“Hard to argue with the truth.”
He could feel laughter against his mind, and glanced off to his right, where a huge wolf with long dense chocolate-brown fur lounged in the shade of a smaller maple nearby.
*Too bad you aren't a bit more literally solar-powered,* he heard in Bane's thoughts, the laughter threaded through the words. *It would certainly help with the grocery bills.*
All they needed for this to be perfect was for their two absent coven-mates to be here. But Flynn was with his mother, who was under strict healer orders to minimize movement until her ankle had finished knitting back together; that would take far less time under healer care than it would without it, but it still needed to be looked after. Cynthia was wrapped up in something she and two other witches, close friends, were doing together, and had promised to come join them when she finished. Kevin let his eyes close, though he wasn't sleepy. He could never feel sleepy while the sun was on him, especially so strongly. But he could relax, let himself really feel it, as if he could just let go and melt completely into the heat and the brightness.
Unfortunately, it could only last for so long. The sun dropped ever-lower, and finally the trees blocked out the direct light.
Deanna stretched and got up. “Mm, that's better. Maybe it will start to cool off a bit now.”
“Yeah,” Kevin sighed. “It probably will. Well, time for food.”
Bane echoed Deanna's stretch, and shifted to human where he lay, tanned and brown-haired, his currently under-dressed state showing off all the muscle that came from spending so much time running the forest on four feet. “Imagine that. An elvenmage who wants to eat.”
“We did bring a ton of food,” Deanna said. “I don't eat all that much, and I bet at least half your meals while we're camping will be stuff you hunt. So I guess Kev gets to make sure we don't have to carry it all home.”
“It's a big responsibility,” Kevin said solemnly. “But I'll try to live up to it.”
They settled near the green nylon dome tent to each fill a plate from the wide range of foods that Kevin had prepared and packed. Nothing was going to go bad inside coolers that Kevin and Cynthia had worked on together—Kevin with his affinity for heat and light, Cynthia with hers for all four elements and all the natural world. Those coolers were every bit as good at preserving food as the fridge at home, which certainly opened up the options on what to bring.
Kevin held a hand over Bane's cold roast chicken and channelled a little of the sun's heat to it, warming it to the kind of temperature his werewolf coven-mate preferred. Bane gave him a quick smile of thanks, and bit into a strip of meat. Deanna preferred potato salad and fresh vegetables, which was typical for a dryad; vegetarianism came easily to them, though it wasn't a necessity. Kevin himself constructed a pair of sandwiches with a little of everything on them; a rapid metabolism forced elves to be aware of what they ate and keep meals balanced between what would digest quickly and what would keep them going for a while, and for a mage like him, it was all the more delicate a juggling act.
The prices of power didn't mean he couldn't use it for fun, though. As the sunlight faded, he wove an image in the air, a glowing butterfly with wings of emerald and amber, then another of ruby and amethyst, and more, creating them one at a time and keeping the earlier ones dancing lazily in the twilight as he crafted each new one. Finally, though, he had to stop, feeling his concentration beginning to stretch too thin; he let the ones already in action keep flitting around at random, brilliant in the dim light.
Deanna smiled, her pleasure warm and familiar against his inner senses. “That's beautiful, Kev,” she said softly.
“That's, what, nine?” Bane said. “That's a new record for you.”
Kevin nodded, still carefully keeping most of his attention on the illusory butterflies. “My control with little stuff is getting better all the time.”
“You're one hell of a mage already, phoenix. It would be scary to think how good you're going to be in a decade or three, if I didn't know you'll use it well.”
Kevin glanced at him and smiled, aware that Bane could see him perfectly well in the eerie illumination of the butterfly light though he couldn't say the same in return. “Thanks to my very forgiving and endlessly supportive coven.” He reinforced a sapphire and silver butterfly that was starting to fade, brought it back to full strength.
Deanna giggled. “With great power…” she began the quote.
She didn't get a chance to finish; Kevin sent the butterflies at her in a multi-hued cloud, all at once. Deanna laughed and ducked. “Attack of the killer butterflies!”
Kevin let go of the butterflies, and they melted into nothingness, leaving them in twilight that might just as well have been midnight to elven eyes. Being an elf, though, he could see his companions as thermal images, Deanna a bit cooler which was normal for a dryad. With the extra effort of invoking mage-sight, he could have seen them in yet another way, as well as the bright glittery cords of energy that bound a coven together, but it hardly seemed worth it right now. “Well, I guess I'm about done for the day. I never did get much reading done today, I'm going to just curl up in the tent with my book. You nocturnal types can do what you like.”
Bane chuckled. “I'm off for a run, then.”
“Summer evenings are wonderful,” Deanna said, “except for the mosquitoes. I suppose I could get someone to rub repellent in all over for me, but there's not much point if I'm going to be all by myself. I'll just come inside.”
“Don't wait up,” Bane said, and shifted back to furform—Kevin saw the heat-image flare briefly and then settle into an altered outline. He nuzzled both coven-mates affectionately before trotting off, probably to see if any of his pack or other potential hunting companions were out and about yet.
Kevin created enough light, in the form of a hovering glowing golden sphere, that he could see to help Deanna clean up, although there really wasn't much that needed cleaning up. No wildlife would brave both Kevin's wards and Bane's scent. Then they retired to the tent. Since it was intended for six, and had held their coven of five more than once, there was plenty of room for the two of them to get comfortable; Kevin sent the sphere to melt into the supporting ribs, causing them to glow with gold-tinted light. He'd done it so often that it didn't take much power to set up or sustain anymore.
There wasn't really any need to talk. They'd known each other practically all their lives, had been together through wonderful times and real-life nightmares. It was enough just to relax and enjoy the company and the peace.
* * *
Rebecca drove a bit farther along the highway, and then turned left onto a dirt road that must be just a nightmare in the winter. It wound its way through the trees and up and down slopes and once over a small bridge with a wide stream underneath.
Finally, she pulled over in a spot where there was a grassy area right next to the road.
“Moira and Avryl have the tent and all,” Rebecca said, pulling back the side door of the van. “All we need to bring is my sleeping bag and the cooler.”
Jesse hefted the cooler, which wasn't really all that heavy, and he was stronger than people tended to assume when they saw him, no more than medium height and less than medium build. “No problem.”
Rebecca slung the sleeping bag on one shoulder, locked the van, and led him into the forest.
He would have expected her lightweight, loose pants to be more of a problem in this than his jeans were, but somehow she moved through the brushy stuff without difficulty, while trees and bushes tried to trip, slap, and otherwise abuse him. Rebecca was sympathetic and did her best to help.
They stepped out into a small clearing in the middle of the trees. He could see a blue and white dome-shaped tent set up at the far side; closer, on a spread blanket, were two more women around Rebecca's age. One was very slender and probably very tall, with shoulder-length brassy-blonde hair and very white skin and the kind of high pronounced cheekbones that a modelling-wannabe would cheerfully commit murder for, looking quite out of place in a soft-looking long dress of multiple swirled shades of blue. The other was much more softly curved, with longer tawny-brown hair neatly confined in a long braid, rounder features, her eyes with a faintly Asian slant, and she was wearing khaki shorts and a well-worn white T-shirt with a faded picture of flowers on it.
“This is Jesse,” Rebecca said. “He's having some bad luck right now. Jesse, the blonde is Moira, and the brunette is Avryl. Have a seat, make yourself comfy.”
Jesse shrugged to himself and joined the women on the blanket.
As it turned out, it was past time for lunch but they'd been waiting for Rebecca, and Moira had a cooler that held an astonishing amount of food. There was also lots of orange juice and vodka, with Moira usually making the drinks, and no one asked his age. Avryl had a small compact stereo and apparently there was at least one radio station that could be picked up around here.
Compared to the parties he was used to, this was pretty tame… but the vodka was better than nothing at all, and the company was friendly and easy on the eyes. To say nothing of being his best chance not only of a place to sleep that wasn't under a tree and more to eat than a chocolate bar, but also of finding a way to get back to the city. At least with nothing but vodka, he was unlikely to have another blackout that would leave him up in the Northwest Territories or something.
By the time the sun began to edge down below the trees, Jesse was definitely feeling a lot more relaxed. Moira had started a small campfire in an area she and Avryl cleared of grass and then ringed with stones; Jesse didn't see how she started it, only that it didn't seem to take her nearly as long or be nearly as difficult as he'd thought campfires usually were.
Avryl, giggling, told them about something she'd heard about, that if everyone joined hands and concentrated on gazing into the fire, then they'd all see the answer to their greatest question. By that point, Jesse didn't much care whether it made sense, and would have gone along with weirder things to keep from disrupting the mood. He found himself across from Rebecca, with Moira and Avryl on either side.
Something about this felt wrong, though, as he joined hands with Moira and Avryl. There was something about it that felt vaguely familiar, and for some reason that created enough nervousness to reach through the haziness. Why was he so foggy, anyway? He hadn't had that much to drink all that quickly…
Before he could figure it out, Avryl began to speak in a kind of sing-song rhythm. “Just look at the fire, slow your breathing down, in, now out, in, and out… look at the fire, don't look away, let everything else just go away, relax and be open to whatever's going to happen, don't fight it… just breathe, in, out, and look at the fire...”
Automatically, Jesse obeyed, ignoring the sense that something was just not right about this situation. The flames seemed to twist into odd shapes that he could almost recognize, but they were always gone as soon as he focused, and he could never quite get a clear look.
With no warning at all, pain slashed across him, pain that was beyond anything he'd ever imagined. Avryl and Moira both tightened their grasp on him, kept him from pulling away, as every nerve in his body came screaming awake, and yet it ran deeper still, on some level that he couldn't even really identify, let alone name.
On the heels of the pain came the pleasure, the most incredible high he'd ever felt. Yet the agony was still there, twined around and into the high, a brutal reminder of mortality even while the ecstasy tried to convince him otherwise. Trapped between the two, all thought stopped, and the universe became an eternity of waiting for an end, yearning for it and fearing it at the same time.
Abruptly, Avryl and Moira let go, and the high vanished, leaving only the pain that made him want to scream except that too many muscles were locked tight, made him curl in on himself moaning.
“I wouldn't worry about getting home,” Rebecca said. “That's the least of your problems right now. But then, I hardly think it's going to make the world a lesser place, to no longer have someone like you in it, now is it?”
He heard them move, heard them simply walk away. Somehow, the blanket that had been under him wasn't there anymore, he couldn't hear the fire anymore, it was just him and the grass and the trees around him, and the overwhelming pain.
He heard something bark nearby, and hoped vaguely that it was someone's dog, not a wolf or something looking for an easy meal.
“Oh gods,” someone whispered; cool light fingers brushed his cheek. “Oh, Rebecca, what have you done this time?”
The pain went away, but it took the rest of the world with it.