Gertie and Bridget take a wrong turn

Photo by Tim Collins on Unsplash

“Oh my goodness!” Vivien shouted, waking everyone in their motel room.
“Viv, what?” Gertie asked, groggy. She rubbed her eyes clear and saw Vivien staring wide-eyed at her phone.
“It’s the professor from the Intro to Necromancy class that I tried to get into!” Vivien said as she read. “She found out that I was a student at Flories and wants to meet me. She says if I impress her, she’ll make an exception and let me into the class.”
“Wow!” Gertie said, sitting up and taking Vivien’s phone to read the email.
“Does everyone know what time it is?” Faye groaned.
“Yes, it’s time to get moving,” Vivien said, starting to pack up all her belongings. “I have to be back in Wespire in two days. Let’s go!”
***
They devised a plan that would cut the four day trip in half.
The first part was to drive past every motel or bed and breakfast they could have stopped at and travel through the night.
The magical auto-driver made this much easier than it would have been in the days before it. The car drove itself, without the driver needing to do things like steer or brake. But for legal reasons, and in case of failure, a licensed driver needed to be awake and sitting in the driver’s seat.
Bridget and Faye, who weren’t licensed yet, and Charlie, who as a young man in ostrich form couldn’t steer, got to sleep soundly while Gertie, Peter, Vivien and Ernest traded off in two hour increments.
The road was devoid of almost all other cars as the minivan drove. Gertie actually found it somewhat relaxing as she listened to the quiet breaths and snores of her friends. She rolled down her window and held her arm out into the moonlight.
She could feel the power radiating down from the sky. Moons and stars and the sun were great places to get magical power when one wasn’t born with it in their veins. She would spend hours back at home meditating to soak up sunlight and the warmth of the earth and the breath of plants, turning it into magic power that she would store in her various keychain accessories. Some were better at storing certain sources of magic than others, and now the crystal stars and moon charms she carried sparkled with the essence of the power she filled them with.
The purple minivan pulled into the parking lot of the West Victor Bay docks at just after four o’clock.
“One day left,” Vivien said, pulling the keys from the ignition.
Everyone dozed until an alarm on Bridget’s phone rang at six.
The ferry had pulled up to the dock. It was a giant white ship with a large base for cars and cargo.
Vivien moved the van in line and waited to drive onboard. There weren’t many cars that chose to come this direction. Most tourists would take the mountain pass to the north and add a full day onto their journey, since on the other side of the bay was the dock and then the Old Woods. But despite the short line, it still took nearly an hour to drive up the flat bridge between the dock and the ferry that would take them across Victor Bay.
Vivien started to grouse as the wait dragged on, even once the car was deposited in the hold of the ship and the group had gone to the passenger waiting area.
“It’s faster than the alternative,” Gertie assured her.
The bridge that had folded over from the dock onto the boat started to lift. It was the slowest moving thing Vivien had ever seen, she was sure. A snail would have been able to pull it back faster than the ancient machinery.
The ferry waited until the bridge was clear and finally began to move.
Despite the incredibly lumbering speed that the ship moved at, the wind whistled around the group’s heads, knotting their hair and making them shiver in their summer attire.
Charlie, in his ostrich form, honked at the water and flapped his wings.
“What is it?” Bridget asked, as Faye was off dozing on a bench and couldn’t translate.
Charlie honked again and Bridget leaned over the railing. She could just make out a shape in the depths of the water, keeping up with the ferry.
A head popped out of the waves with large fish eyes staring at her. Its body seemed to be that of an eel, with large spiny fins attached all the way down, rolling back and forth as it swam to stay next to the ship.
It tilted its head to the side, seemingly just as astonished with Bridget as she was with it. She smiled.
The eel-like sea creature giggled and spurted blue fire from its mouth. Bridget jerked back behind the railing, despite how far down the ocean was.
The sea monster slid back into the bay, splattering some water up with its tail as it dove.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Gertie asked, staring at the Old Woods, dark and foreboding with just a glisten of wild magic.
Ernest yawned in response. “I guess.”
Vivien, who had already emptied the contents of her stomach over the side of the ship, just covered her face with her hood and leaned her head back.
The ferry ride lasted over an hour, and the disembarking sequence took just as long as boarding, but eventually the group was back on the road.
There were many routes from the docks through the Old Woods that bordered the city of Wespire. The main highway had wards against all sorts of magics that had seeped into the forest. The trees that made up the Old Woods could grow hundreds of feet high, so driving along the main road felt more like weaving through a canyon than it did traveling through a forest.
“We’ll be back with plenty of time for you to sleep and be ready for tomorrow morning,” Bridget told Vivien after checking the route and traffic on her phone. Vivien gave her a weary but grateful smile. She still hadn’t recovered from the seasickness.
Ernest was at the wheel and everyone else, exhausted by their night and the ferry ride, found themselves sleeping once again.
***
“Manual override necessary. Manual override necessary.”
Bridget was awoken by the sound of the car yelling at them. The first thing she realized was that it was pitch black outside the car. The second was that the minivan was no longer moving.
Ernest started, his hands gripping the steering wheel as he woke up along with everyone else.
Bridget checked her phone. It still read the middle of the afternoon, so it wasn’t the darkness of night that had come over the car. She peered out of her window, and realized with growing outrage where they were.
“What happened?” Vivien snapped, leaning forward to look at the dashboard over Ernest’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking around wildly. “We’re not moving.”
Faye, sitting in the passenger seat, reached forward to turn off the magical auto-driver that was still requesting manual override.
“Did you…?” Gertie stopped, utterly baffled at Ernest. “Did you fall asleep?”
“I...uh…” Ernest didn’t have an escape. “Yes?”
Vivien got out of the car, slamming her sliding door closed with a noise that echoed through the forest. She yanked open the driver side door.
“Get out,” she said to Ernest, her voice terrifyingly quiet. She took the driver's seat and scrolled back through the things the auto-driver had been speaking out loud as they slept.
“Traffic incident,” she muttered and clenched her hands into fists around the wheel, trying to cool her frustration. Because they had chosen the option that speed was the most important thing to take into consideration, the car had rerouted them into another road through the Old Woods to avoid delay. But this one was rarely used except by professionals, and it was unprotected. The magic of the forest had interfered with the magical auto-driver and it had stopped dead.
“It’s going to be okay,” Gertie said, sounding hopeful. “We couldn’t have gotten far. We’ll just go back.”
Vivien agreed silently and started the car up again.
Ernest buckled his seat in the back of the car, guilt coloring his face as Bridget glared at him.
“Hey, it’s not your fault,” Faye told him, even if everyone else was silent in anger. “We were all tired. It could have happened to anyone.”
“Thanks,” Ernest whispered.
Vivien made a U-turn and followed the path backwards. They were on it for an hour before realizing that whatever way they had gotten into the Old Woods was long gone.
Bridget groaned. “Are you freaking kidding me?”
Gertie looked at her sister with worry. She didn’t get worked up often, but when she did, it was best to get out of the way. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Can anyone get a signal?” Vivien asked, holding her phone against the glass of her window.
Everybody had been checking their phones. None of them were working beyond stating the time, and each phone was saying something different. Peter’s phone appeared to be ticking off minutes as if they were seconds, and the analog dial on Faye’s display was inching backward.
“We’re doomed,” Bridget muttered.
Everyone looked out into the empty forest, no plans that would help coming to mind.
“Fine,” Vivien said. She U-turned again. “Then we go forward.”
They hadn’t been traveling twenty minutes on the road before they encountered a giant tree, as tall as a skyscraper and so wide they couldn’t see around it. It was straight in their path, cutting off their way forward.
Vivien stopped the minivan, a look of hopelessness coming across her face.
Bridget was the first to get out of the car, leaving her door open. She stared at the tree, her fists clenched. She struggled to lock down the resentment that built inside of her, but couldn’t stop tears of hot anger from rolling down her face.
“Bridget-” Gertie started, having climbed out of the car after her.
“You!” Bridget turned, pointing an accusing finger at Ernest, still sitting in the car. “This is all your fault!”
“I-I’m sorry,” Ernest said. “I was just so tired.”
Bridget went to the minivan and dragged him out by his arm.
“You need to get us out of here,” she said. “You’re going to find a way to fix this.”
Peter hurried out and yanked Ernest away from Bridget. “Calm down, everyone. We’ll figure a way out of this together.”
Bridget crossed her arms, still fuming.
Vivien turned off the car and got out. She looked up at the giant tree and collapsed against it, holding her arms up around her face to try to hide the fact that she was sobbing.
“I’m not going to make it to my interview,” Vivien sobbed. “My whole future is ruined.”
“Not your whole future,” Gertie said in a joking tone, trying to cheer her up. 
Vivien just stared sadly, sniffing.
“Hello?”
Everyone turned.
A pale woman dressed in white stepped out of the darkness of the forest. She took a few hesitant steps forward.
“Who are you?” Peter asked, starting towards her.
“I live here,” she said, her eyes wide and unblinking.
Bridget rubbed her enchanted eye. The woman looked so bright and strange, it was giving her a headache as she stepped closer.
“Can you help us?” Ernest asked. Peter turned away from the woman to look at his roommate. “We got lost, we need to find a way out.”
Peter shifted back to look at the woman and she lunged.
Her arms were on him, forcing him to his knees before anyone else could stop her. Peter moaned in pain and the woman snarled a victorious smile.
Charlie honked from inside the car and Faye screamed and charged the woman. “Stop!” Faye cried.
She tried to tackle her and passed right through, like the woman was a ghost, except she still held Peter.
Bridget was dumbstruck. She could see the magic of Peter’s blood being sucked out of him. But it went straight through the woman, flowing into the earth.
The giant tree, seemingly dead, started filling with new life.
“Sunlight never reaches here anymore,” the woman shrieked. The roots of the tree moved, growing and stretched to crawl around Peter. In their wake they left the bones of the tree’s previous victims. “All I have left is those that come through! That the road leads here!”
“She’s the tree,” Gertie realized. And she needed magic to survive.
Gertie fumbled for one of her keychains - one of the bigger, heavier ones. It had been a necklace pendant before she borrowed it to store magic. It was a polished geode, the size of a grape, and excelled at filtering in power from the earth.
Gertie pulled it free and ran for the tree’s trunk, gathering what magic she could from each step and filling the geode.
Roots started to rise to stop her, but she ducked and dodged and managed to climb up one to reach a knothole in the bark.
“No!” the woman cried.
But instead of hurting the tree, Gertie placed the charged stone inside, filling the knot with light.
“Here!” she shouted. “Take it. It’s yours. Just release him.”
The woman stumbled back, away from Peter, in a daze. She took a deep breath and the tree came to life. Leaves sprung from the branches and became a bright green. The bark softened to a rich brown, closing over the stone Gertie had gifted her.
“Thank you,” the woman breathed, and vanished.
The roots had pulled away from Peter, but he was still curled up on the ground, shaking.
Faye hugged him, and Charlie squawked from his confinement in the trunk of the minivan.
Ernest apologized over and over for getting them all in this situation.
“Not your fault,” Peter said.
“Everyone get in the car,” Vivien shouted and they all obeyed. Bridget slung Peter’s arm over her shoulder and Gertie put her hand on his back, transferring some of the magic in her keychains to him. She didn’t have magic flowing in her veins like the Nessings or Ernest did, but that meant she wasn’t weak when it was gone like they were.
Faye helped Peter into the back seat, where Charlie preened at his hair with his ostrich beak.
Vivien started the car up and they began to drive all the way around the tree. What choice did they have?
As they watched, it started to bear fruit.
By the time they made it 180 degrees around, the tree had begun to glow, releasing light into the forest around them.
And there, illuminated on the ground in front of them, was the road they had been following.
“All right, we’ll take this,” Vivien said, starting to drive down the road again. “It’ll get us out of here. Even if it’s not in time.”

To be continued...

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