“Casper, wake up!” Cormac yelled. I hadn’t intended to fall asleep. I remembered sitting down to wait for the sunrise and thinking I’d just rest my eyes for a moment.
“Park employees are coming,” he told me, lowering his volume but sounding almost as urgent.
I scrambled to my feet and ran for the body. My spells still protected it from any scavengers but didn’t do anything to actually hide it. I cast an illusion before the employees came into view on the nearest path. I’d never forget the sight of the withered tree that once stood there. That made it easy to maintain the illusion while I added a repulsion spell. It wouldn’t feel the same as the dead zone if they were really paying attention.
One employee averted their gaze as they walked past—the other locked eyes with me. I prayed the eye contact was a coincidence. They dismissed their co-worker and stepped off the path. Of course, they saw through my illusion. I’d used enough luck to survive my fight with the demon for a lifetime, and it looked like it just ran out. I detected another illusion besides my own as they got closer. It didn’t feel like witchcraft, though. It took me a moment to work out that their illusion hid their fae appearance.
“Are you planning to bury him here?” the fae asked. They didn’t seem particularly concerned with finding a witch and a dead body in their park.
“No, I was about to call the DPI,” I said. They raised an eyebrow at that.
“You trust them?” they asked.
“That’s a complicated question. The short answer is I trust the person I’m calling,” I said.
“And the long answer?” they asked.
“I’m still weary of the organization, but the agent I’m working with is a good man,” I said. Typically, I wouldn’t answer a fae’s questions so freely. Their species lived by different rules than humans, and information came with a price tag for them. But it only took a glance through magically enhanced vision to tell me this fae and park had a deep connection. That made this their territory and me a trespasser. They had a right to this information. If I withheld it, they could complicate things more than I could handle.
“Did you sacrifice him?” they asked.
“No,” I said. I wanted to ask why they thought that but wouldn’t risk asking anything until things felt balanced between us.
“Then what did you do to reverse the blight of this area?” they asked. Would a human sacrifice restore the magic to a dead zone? I doubted it; that seemed like compounding negative energy.
“I fought the demon responsible for the loss of magic and banished it.” They looked me over with a more appraising eye.
“This body was its vessel?” they asked.
“I don’t sense the demon’s power on it,” they said.
“The banishing erased all traces of the demon here,” I said, not knowing how else to explain what happened.
“You may call your associate. I’d like to examine the sapling. I won’t disturb the body; you have my word,” they said. I nodded and stepped away to call Agent Boone. The fae walked around to the other side of the sapling and crouched down to it.
“It’s far too early for you to be in trouble already,” Agent Boone said after the second ring. He sounded happy, despite giving me a hard time. Calling him first thing in the morning was a growing pattern between us at this point.
“You underestimate me,” I joked. I wished I didn’t have to tell him. I imagined the smile falling from his face and hated the thought of causing it.
“I’ll try not to do it again. What’s up, Casper?” he asked.
“I have a body linked to the case,” I said. I kept it vague, hoping only to answer the questions I absolutely had to.
“Send me the address. I’ll get the team moving,” he said. His tone dropped slightly, but at least he didn’t sound crestfallen.
“You’ve already been here. It’s where Flynn dug up the knife,” I said.
“Got it. I’ll see you there in twenty,” he said and hung up.
I turned back to the fae and watched them pluck a leaf from the sapling. They put it in their mouth and started chewing, then smiled. I had no idea what eating a leaf would tell them, but I knew it wouldn’t tell me the same thing. I considered asking them what they had learned about the resurrected area. I’d never encountered anything like the dead zones, but the nature here healing gave me hope of fixing the other one. What could I offer them for their insight, though?
“Witch,” they called to me as if reading my mind. “The sapling has an unusual life force. Tell me about the magic that made it possible.”
“I pinned the body to the tree that used to stand there and banished the creature possessing it,” I said.
“Yes, but how?” they asked.
“I’m not totally sure. I didn’t know what spell to cast, so I trusted the magic and let it loose,” I explained. The fae took a step and appeared directly in front of me. I couldn’t tell if they’d teleported or moved too quickly for me to track.
They sniffed the air in front of me, getting even closer, before saying, “Your magic is present but not alone in this working.”
“That’s an even longer story. But I had access to the magic of a friend of mine, too,” I said.
“The ghost’s?” they asked, gesturing at Cormac.
“He can see me?” Cormac asked. The fae hadn’t acknowledged him till now, so I understood his surprise.
“They see a lot more than the average person,” I said, hoping that Cormac caught my correction. The fae didn’t subscribe to the gender binary as a culture. While they’d chosen a more masculine presentation, addressing them as gender-neutral assumed less. “This ghost is my friend too, but not the one I’m talking about.”
“You borrowed more than magic,” the fae said, sounding uncertain.
“Yes. The demon created a weapon that separated his magic and soul from his body and trapped it. When I freed him, his soul moved on, but he left a lot behind,” I said.
“May I see?” They asked, holding their hand up between us. It was a big ask. We think of the fae as tricksters for a reason. Sharing memories with one without allowing them too much access took world-class protective magic. Hubristic as it was, I wanted to even things between us, and this would be more than enough. I locked down everything except my memories of the demon and rested my hand on theirs. The previous night’s events replayed for both of us. At the end, they smiled, and I understood how people fell in love with the fae. I saw pure joy given a face. They broke the connection. “Ah! He is reborn as something new.”
“But Peter’s soul moved on. I saw it,” I said, not quite arguing but missing something.
“Yes, the consciousness moved to another realm but left behind a life unfinished. That part of your friend lives on in these woods now.”
“So that tree’s got a person stuck in it? It’s not gonna learn to talk, is it?” Cormac asked.
“It is no simple tree. I do not know what will come of it, but it is something new,” the fae said. “I owe you a debt, young witch. You healed my woods and gave me something I’ve never seen before. Return if ever you need the fae’s help.”
“I will,” I said, careful not to thank them. Rejecting the offer would insult them, but thanking them would imply I owed them something. Given how long the fae can live, I imagined they could easily feel like they’ve seen it all. I had no trouble believing their excitement over something they considered new and worthwhile.
The fae looked over my shoulder and then vanished. I turned to see Agent Boone coming up the path. I still felt the fae’s presence. If I used a revealing spell, I’d likely find them watching over the sapling. I didn’t want to explain them to Boone, though, so I let the idea go. As long as we respected the sapling, they wouldn’t bother us. Still, I used my magic to shift the body slowly away from the tree before Boone got close enough to see, just in case.