Cozy Flash: “The Last Night”

Keralda trudged through the forest, her back arched under her heavy pack. The faint blue light of the twin moons shone down through the canopy of leafless trees. Her cloak swished behind her and frosted moss tickled her bare toes. All around her the forest was silent, like it was collectively holding its breath, waiting for a sign. Tonight, on the Last Night, Keralda needed to spread hope.

As the moons approached their peak overhead, a clearing opened before her. Here the moss gave way to light snow. A piece of slate lay in the center of the clearing, round and flat. Keralda shrugged off her pack beside the slate and stretched her back. With a quick twist, it cracked easily. The crack echoed off the trees and Keralda’s pointed ears twitched, but heard nothing more.

With great care, Keralda uncinched her pack and began assembling her altar. She laid out sticks she had collected from every corner of the forest in a line. Ash, holly, yew, elder, bramblewood, and birch. All different lengths and thicknesses. She piled leaves next to them, one leaf from every type of tree, bush, and plant in the forest. Finally, she produced a large wreath of dried vines, her pack seeming to deflate as the wreath pulled free.

She placed the wreath in the center of the slate, nestled the leaves in its hollow, and built an egg-shaped cone over the leaves with her sticks. Keralda took a moment to admire her altar, recognizing every piece and their shared origin. They had all been given willingly by the forest, an essential ingredient for her spell to work.

At the moons’ zenith, Keralda took out her hazel wand and waved it over her head in large concentric circles. She felt eyes on her now, watching from the darkness in anticipation and awe. With her mind, she reached out to the vast forest until she found a seam of magic. She smiled as she tapped into the natural energy, feeling its warmth grow inside her. She took just a drop and channeled it through her wand, swinging it faster and faster as the energy surged through her. The air crackled and the wind rushed towards her, flapping her cloak. She muttered a few words to finish the incantation, driving the last of the energy into her spell. With a flash, a green flame ignited at the tip of her wand and the forest went still again.

Keralda cradled the mystical fire, bringing it down slowly to her altar. The dry leaves ate the flame hungrily. The clearing filled with a warm, green light that drove away the shadows of the surrounding trees. Keralda slumped down in the snow, leaned against her pack, and waited.

It only took a few moments for Keralda’s first visitor to arrive. A fairy circled the clearing’s edge on moth wings, wearing a silk dress and carrying a single oak leaf. Tiny creatures were often the boldest. Keralda hummed to the fairy, beckoning the little fey forward. The fairy approached warily, its tiny black eyes peering deep into Keralda’s soul, searching for intention. Keralda continued to hum, unmoving. The fey hovered a few feet away for a long moment, then began twinkling like starlight. It fluttered around Keralda, flew over the fire and dropped its leaf into the flames.

Soon, the edge of the clearing filled with eyes of every size and shape. The forest folk came forward eagerly now, each carrying its offering to the flames. A white hare brought twigs in its teeth, a family of halflings carried a huge stump, and a wyvern circled above, showering down pine cones. They joined the revelry, their calls echoing all around and drawing more creatures to Keralda’s flames. The clearing filled with all manner of beings, singing and dancing as the fire grew from their offerings. Even the trees leaned in, giving whatever twigs they could spare and swaying to the rhythms. On this night, all were at peace and chanted in harmony.

The night wore on, but the flames continued to burn, so the creatures never lost hope. With Keralda’s remaining strength, she concentrated their hopes and used their power to enhance her spell. Long after the moons had set and the stars were all that remained above, they sang on. Even when the light of the fire grew dim, the forest folk stayed together and huddled in close, watching until the last flame wicked out. Just as the last ember faded, a green wave rippled out from the ashes, filled with the love and energy Keralda had gathered that night. The instant the wave hit the horizon, rays of scarlet light shot up into the sky and the sun rose again. The rays cut through the trees, warming all the forest. The forest folk cheered the end of the Last Night and welcomed the new day. Keralda nuzzled her head into her pack and fell asleep, the warm light of the new year sending her into a peaceful reverie.

— Gregory Kilcoyne

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