Djarret was hardly older than her. Melissa guessed he was between twenty and twenty-two. Under different circumstances, she would have thought him attractive. His muscular upper arms, his broad chest, his body and legs were wrapped in black leather partly adorned with small iron plates. A helmet decorated with silver concealed most of his black hair. The rest stuck to the suntanned, sweaty forehead. The gaze of his ice-blue eyes went right through Melissa.
“You could have told me that I can’t be harmed. I was scared,” she said to the bodiless voice.
“Sorry. I forgot that you don’t know the basic principles of controlled visions.”
“Can we go back now? Please.” Melissa was fed up with unpleasant surprises. In addition, her friends were in danger, and she did not want to let them down.
“One more visit,” the voice murmured.
Melissa found herself on the beach of the Baltic Sea where she had sunbathed a few days ago. The full moon shone on a group of men. Two of them dragged a lifeless body to their leader. It took Melissa a moment to recognize the pink beach dress.
“That is Aunt Freya!” Without thinking, she ran to her aunt and grabbed her arm. Her hand went through without resistance. “Darn! I have to get used to that.” Melissa watched what happened without the voice telling her. Immediately, she recognized the leader. He seemed slightly less worn than in her last vision.
“Djarret.” She clenched her hands. “What does he want with my aunt? And why isn’t she in the hospital with my uncle?”
“She came looking for you, because she loves you.” The rustling of the voice drowned out what Djarret said to his magician, but Melissa understood the answer.
“She is related to the bearer of Korosadja.”
Djarret grinned, and his bared teeth reminded Melissa of a wolf. She longed to protect her aunt. Djarret said, “What are you waiting for, magician? Change her into something that’s easier to take along than a woman. A dagger would be practical.”
After a short exchange of words, the magician put his left hand on Freya’s arm and mumbled to himself. Melissa noticed pearls of sweat on his upper lip.
“Magic seems to exert him,” she said to the voice.
“Magic is never free. But Ceres’ magicians pay a particularly high price, when they work magic in other worlds. They don’t draw their strength from the world they live in but from their selves.”
Melissa looked more closely at the magician and discovered that new wrinkles appeared on his face with every minute. He aged visibly while Freya shrank. She became smaller and smaller, a fur grew and her ears became bigger. Nose and chin merged into a muzzle. The fingers bent to claws, and after but a few minutes, Freya had become a dormouse. The little creature slept peacefully on the magician’s palm. Melissa shuddered. Getting changed into an animal seemed even crueler to her than being killed. She would have loved to put Djarret into his own purse instead of her aunt.
Melissa opened her eyes. She lay on her belly under the crippled cherry. Images from her visions flittered through her mind, anger and grief crushed her heart. When she recalled her uncle’s pale face or her aunt’s helplessness, it rubbed in her chest like a stone. For the first time since she had lost her family, she did not try to suppress the memories of the accident.
She remembered the firemen who cut her dead brother from the car wreck, and she remembered the moment she realized that she was the sole survivor. She felt the emptiness that had made her life unbearable ever since. Suddenly, she realized that the quarrels with her aunt had been a sorry way to cope with the loss.
Tears ran down her face and dripped from cheek and nose into the grass. More and more followed. They washed away the emptiness in her chest and soothed the pain, leaving behind a sore but living heart. While Melissa mourned, her ears registered the soft rustling of leaves that became louder with every sobbing breath. Only when she had cried away most of her sorrow, she became aware of the noise. She looked up into the crown of the cherry. It had grown new leaves and stood in full bloom.
“Thank you, Melissa! I had to wait for you so long, so unbearably long.” The cherry showered her with petals.
Melissa’s tears dried up with wonder. “You are … Are you a Talking Tree?”