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20.5 Ash

# 2228 11 - 15 mins. 8

The house sat on top of the hill looming over the town like a dragon watching over its lair. It was old, with planks of wood siding falling off. Not a single window was still intact and the paint was mostly gone. The roof displayed several arched window dormers and more holes than shingles. It would have once been a nice building—a home for some wealthy occupant of Daegal. But it had long since succumbed to the decay of time.

Tigala had transformed back with the threat of the other wyverns gone, and she joined the rest of us in staring at the building. With the pulsing purple glow of the veins showing throw all of the house's holes, I was a bit intimidated. Even more so than I was in the cave or the treetop village.

Tigala didn't seem to mind though. She walked forward to the front door and shook the handle.

"It's locked," said Klaus. But almost before he could finish the statement, Tigala was crashing through the rotted door. Klaus jumped back in surprise, grabbing his book like it was more important than his own safety.

Tigala brushed the dust off of her arm and said, "Come on. We've got a giant to topple."

The rest of us followed her into a foyer. It was fancy, with bookshelves, a cabinet, and a nice lamp that looked like something the Gnomes would have put together.

Klaus immediately shuffled to the bookshelf, thumbing through books and blowing away dust. Sparr stood behind him, half facing the shelf while keeping an eye on the rest of the room.

The purple veins continued on through the house, but it was hard to tell yet where the center might be. I exchanged a glance with Lolan, and then Tigala. This was unlike any of the previous "beacons" we had found. It was just a regular house. Nothing weird at all.

"Who's there?" yelled Sillius. The short Gnome jumped and backed away from the doorway.

"There's someone here?" I asked.

"He was right there. I saw him. It was a smallfolk. He ran across the room," he said, pointing out the smallfolk's path across the next room with his finger.

I hope this isn't another run-in with Havik. But shouldn't Malcolm be trying to tame the doom drake?

Tigala was already turning tiger. She stalked toward the doorway, as did Kesq with her spear raised. They walked through the doorway slowly. Their footsteps made the floorboards creak. The two lined up facing the wall where the person should be.

Tigala pounced and Kesq charged. Then, after a moment, everything was quiet. Sparr and I went in next to see Tigala and Kesq looking around, confused.

"There's no one here," said Kesq.

"Yeah," said Tigala. "If it was a Gnome, they're not invisible. Maybe they teleported out?"

Sparr immediately headed back to the foyer, where Klaus was still searching through books.

"Who would it have been then?" asked Lolan. "Are there more Gnomes on the island? Or was it...?" He looked at me showing that he shared my fear of Havik's return.

"That was my thought," I said. "I don't know how he would have figured out where we are, or why he would come here instead of taming the doom drake. But if he's here, this could be really bad."

"We need to stay in a group," said Tigala. "No splitting up."

I looked around and everyone seemed to be in agreement. Whoever was here, it couldn't be for good reasons.

"Lead the way," said Sillius looking at the rest of us.

Tigala wasted no time, walking forward with the stealth of a predator. The group followed into the next room. It was a great room, with benches placed in front of a large fireplace. There were a few more books on a wall in this room, which Klaus noticed right away.

As my eyes scanned the room, a fire lit in the fireplace. I jumped back, wondering how it happened, and looked toward Lolan. He was looking in the opposite direction unaware of the fire. I looked back to the fireplace, and there was nothing there.

"Did anyone else see that?" I asked.

"What was it?" asked Kesq.

"The fireplace just lit for a moment," I said.

I looked at the others who all had equally puzzled looks on their faces.

"Come on," said Tigala. "We need to get this over with before anything happens around the veins."

I looked down at them. The purple light pulsed through the veins and glowed on the walls giving the whole house an eerie hue.

We stepped through the hallway, one by one, into what was a kitchen.

"Takar?" said Sparr at the rear of the group. I turned to see him staring into the room we just left.

"Everything okay?" asked Klaus, who had been just in front of him.

"It's her," said Sparr.

"Where?" asked Klause.

Sparr raised a feathered finger at an empty end of the great room behind us. We all looked through the door unable to see anyone.

"But she's dead," said Sparr.

"Are you sure it was her?" asked Klaus.

"It looked just like her," he said.

"Okay, well, maybe that Gnome is playing tricks on us, or maybe someone else is. We need to keep our eyes peeled."

Or maybe it had something to do with the illusion veins that we're creeping past.

We continued on into the next room. This one was a lavish dining room. The table was set in the center of the table with dishware still set out. Some had been knocked to the vein-covered floor and were shattered, half covered by the purple glowing magic.

"Still no sign of the center of the veins," said Tigala. "Maybe it's upstairs."

"We just have to find the stairs," said Kesq.

We stayed together, huddled in a group as we entered the next room. It was some kind of Dining room. The table was set with old food still rotting on the plates. Tigala led the group, but upon entering the room she stopped in her tracks.

"Gatooli?" she said.

I followed her eyes and found only a blank wall opposite her.

"How are you...?" she started.

The others were sharing similar looks of confusion.

The veins pulsed again as if to remind me where we were. This whole house was filled with illusion magic.

"Is it really you?" Tigala said again. Tears were coming to her eyes as she continued to stare at the wall.

Tigala took a step forward and then broke out into a sprint.

She jumped onto the table and then charged out a doorway opposite of us. I ran after.

The next room was a dead end, something like a large storage closet, and Tigala was alone in the room.

"Illusions," she said, angry and hurt by the revelation. "I just watched her disappear through this wall"

I gave her a moment to recover from what she had seen. When she turned to the dining room I did too.

"The house is playing tricks on us," I said to the others. "For whatever reason, I think we're seeing the illusion magic. And it's playing off of our own memories somehow."

Again, there was the added aspect to the magic. Maybe this land was imbued with mind magic or something, giving the treants their personalities and altering these illusions to use our memories.

"Ah, interesting," said Klaus. "This island continues to impress."

"Let's just stay together, just in case," said Sillius.

"Yes, I think that is a good plan," said Kesq.

"Sounds like they are targeting one person at a time," said Lolan. "So if you do see something, you should be able to point to it to make sure it's just magic."

"Good plan," I said.

We continued as a tight group looking throughout the house. Even if they were just illusions, it was scary. What would be around the next corner? What kind of memories was this old house going to stir up? Did it have access to all of our memories or just the strongest ones?

Through the next door, we finally found the stairs. The purple veins climbed up them, making it hard to find flat footing.

"Watch your step," said Sparr, now leading us forward. We tried our best to avoid the veins.

"There!" shouted Sparr, pointing a feathered finger at the top of the stairs.

Others looked around the giant Avian to see what he was pointing at. I couldn't see anything but an empty hallway.

"I just see a wall," said Klaus.

"Me too," I said.

Sparr's pace slowed as he continued up the stairs. He didn't take his eyes off the spot he had pointed at until right before reaching the top. And after that, he looked more shaken than I had ever seen him.

We crept into the upstairs hallway, passing more bedrooms than it looked like they could fit in the house.

"Does anyone see that?" said Kesq, staring into the first room.

"No, nothing," said Sillius.

Kesq spoke slowly. "Okay." She continued down the hall.

"Over there," Lolan said quietly.

"Nope," said Tigala. Lolan was stuck, staring into the empty room.

"You okay?" asked Tigala.

Lolan gulped. "Yeah. Yeah, I'll be fine." His eyes moved from the illusion, whatever it was, and then back to it a few times. Then, he too continued.

The next room was my turn. I knew what to expect. I knew it was playing with our emotions, but nothing could have prepared me for this. In the room was a Gnome with a long white beard and a patchwork coat. Zef stared back at me with a sad smile on his face.

I was paralyzed and barely breathed out his name. "Zef."

Lolan and Tigala stopped and looked too. "Oh," said Lolan. "I see him."

"Yeah," said Tigala.

"Zef," I said, louder this time. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry it had to be you. I wish you were here." I took a step toward him into the room. "We could really use your help now. It's like there is no way to fix this. But I can't help but think you would have something up your sleeve. You would know what to do—how to fix this.

"I'm trying. I really am. But I don't know how we're supposed to stop something that big—that powerful. I don't know how to unite everyone against it. Not without you."

The others had all stopped and were looking into the room that I now stood in with Zef. I knew he had to be an illusion. There was no way he was actually here, but I couldn't help myself. There was so much more to say to him. So much I wish I could have said before that day when the doom drake woke up. I didn't care if the others listened.

I took another step forward, and then another. I reached out to touch Zef on the shoulder, but just before I did, I saw a smirk show on his face—like a message to me, whatever it may be. I paused, and then touched his shoulder. My hand went through it and the illusion dissipated into a cloud of fading purple sparks.

I stood there for a few moments, mourning the loss of my friend again. Then I felt a hand land on my shoulder. It was Tigala. I turned and saw her and Lolan right behind me. The rest of the group still stood silently in the doorway, watching.

I took a deep breath, and said, "Let's do this." We walked out of the room and continued into the room at the end of the hallway, where the veins were at their brightest.

"This must be it," said Klaus.

"Yes," said Kesq. "It is. Let's see what we can do with this."

The memory of Zef still floated in my head and I felt off balance. Even if this worked, even if we could try and convince people to join the fight, I was even less sure now that I could change anything. I missed Zef. I missed my family. I missed Chipry. All of them were casualties of hatred that spread like a disease through the world—no longer in my life.

And now, I have to tell everyone how important it is that we work together, even just this once. But how could I? How would Zef do it?

How would Zef do it?

He would look for the best in everyone, enemies or not. He would give the benefit of the doubt. He wouldn't assume the best, and he would continue on regardless of how his message was received.

I was lost in my thoughts as I thought of my lost friend when I heard someone say something. The words weren't clear. Then they came again.

"Are you ready to give this a try?" asked Sillius.

I looked up at the group. All eyes were on me as they formed a half-circle around the central point of the veins. I looked at Tigala, and then Lolan, who gave me an assuring nod. I looked back to Sillius and a subtle and unsure smirk came to my face.

"Yes," I said. And the smirk became just the faintest bit stronger.

A note from houston

Hey,

It's been a bit. Sorry about that. Writing is difficult, and I'm still learning to balance it with my other responsibilities. But I'm not here to complain. I'm here with good news instead!

I have had the ending of Sprig written for about a year now, and have been dragging my feet on editing and releasing it, letting imposter syndrome whittle away my motivation. But nothing is perfect, and I have a story to finish. So, this chapter marks the beginning of the end of Sprig. Over the coming month or so, I will be editing and releasing chapters again until the story is completely finished. I don't plan on releasing on a schedule because that will likely lead to me beating myself up when I miss a day. Instead, I plan on having the story complete and available for reading by the end of 2022.

For any of you who have been reading and waiting for this ending, thanks for sticking around! I hope I do you proud!

- Huey

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