Elliott stretched lavishly from his favorite spot in the courtyard, like a cat preparing for a mid morning nap. He sipped the hot chocolate from his steaming mug and offered a rare smile as the warmth warded off the morning chill. For a moment there was blissful, dreamy peace. And then the feeling fizzled and a bell-like voice chimed through his skull like a cascade of fireworks.

**ELLIOTT! What are we going to do today? Stop bad guys? Issue violations? Patrol the city? Please tell me it's something fun!** He rolled his eyes and pretended he couldn't hear the nagging voice inside his head. **Oh! What about we help pen those new wanted posters? With your artistic ability and my eye for design, we'd make a perfect team!**

There was a time when Elliott would've thought twice about speaking out loud in public with no physical form sitting beside him to respond to his seemingly one-sided conversations. But now he spoke freely to the disembodied voice regardless of the locals around him. He found it scared people away, which fit nicely with his reclusive lifestyle.

"It's my day off, so I plan to do absolutely nothing. You can make a fuss about it all you want, Justine. I don't really care." The officer took another sip from the mug in his hand then leaned against one of the archways adorning the courtyard entrance, watching the ebb and flow of busy merchants and townsfolk pass by. Justine, as predicted, huffed and he heard the faint rustle of leaves. If she had physical form, he was sure she'd be crossing her arms and giving him a reproachful glare.

**You have to get out and meet people! You've been hiding out for weeks now. You're an officer, Elliott! You've got a badge and a sword—at least use them.**

"Forgive me if I don't want to surround myself with friends while living with a nymph trapped inside my head," the officer retorted bitterly. The curse Elliott refused to speak about lay unspoken between them. That was the real reason why he avoided social interaction. The wound was still fresh.

Two months ago a broken mirror, caused by a nameless band of petty thieves Elliott had been chasing during one of his patrols, released a curse that resulted in Justine's imprisonment within Elliott's mind. In a bizarre twist of fate, the curse completely spared the guilty party that had shattered the mirror during the attempted theft and unleashed its full fury on Elliott instead. The only way for him to obtain the life he'd had before and free Justine was to complete a series of good deeds as penitence. For Elliott, as a trained officer of the law, it should've been easy; helping people came with the job description. But he'd lost his passion for helping others, viewing it as a condemnable fate.

"Like it or not, you've got to do SOME good today. I'm NOT spending another night being chased by bees, sick with fever, or mistaken for a common criminal and put in the stocks. Again," Justine quipped. The broad shouldered man winced at the memories.

This powerful curse came with a seemingly cruel sense of humor. Every day Elliott had a quota to fill: one good deed. Of course, he'd occasionally tried taking the easy way out by simply tossing a coin or two into a beggar's cup as a way to pay his due, but there were consequences for such actions. If the curse decided that Elliott's attempts at completing his good deeds weren't satisfactory, it would punish him with a run of bad luck until the next deed of substantial value quenched its thirst. That nasty loophole had left Elliott and Justine in a few scrapes before, the bees being at the top of the list of things the officer would rather not repeat.

"Don't worry, I've got it all figured out. I'll swing by the old seamstress's place and take thirty minutes out of my morning to write letters to her family for her. She's illiterate and has been asking people about it for weeks," Elliott said and, with a final swig, finished off the last dregs of his hot chocolate. "Then I'm free the rest of the day to do whatever I want. It's foolproof."

**It's BORING.**

"Call it whatever you want. As long as I get this act of goodness done and over with, I can relax. Shall we?" He ambled off at a brisk pace, only briefly stopping by his humble abode to return the mug to its sink alongside the dishes he'd put off cleaning. The place was void of the usual comforts besides some basic furniture that came with the abandoned shoe shop. As always, there were no mirrors adorning the walls, something Elliott found reassuring but caused constant distress for Justine. She was concerned about how unkempt he'd started to appear. However, with no mirror to reflect his image, it was easier for Elliott to evade that subject altogether. He glanced at his badge lying forgotten in the corner, suffocating under a thin layer of dust. It was his badge before the curse; sometimes he wondered if he'd ever have the nerve to wear it again…but that was a fool's dream. Nothing of his past life seemed to matter anymore. He turned on his heel and shut the door behind him smartly. He was sure Justine noticed his small bout of frustration but she was polite enough to let it run its course and keep silent until they reached the heart of the city.

**OHHHH! Look at all the flowers!** Justine cried, awestruck by the bouquets, vines and potted plants that transformed the town square into a mini garden of vibrant colors and soothing aromas. This city loved its festivals, and today it seemed the majority of the merchants were selling flora of every size and shape. Elliott ran a hand through his hair in annoyance.

"All these scents are going to give me a headache! Forget it, I'll think of another way to fit in my good deed today."

**NOOOO!** the little nymph begged. **Please! Let's stay for awhile! It reminds me of home.**

Elliott groaned. In Justine's defense, she never complained about spending her days trapped with the officer behind city walls, away from the forest where she felt comfortable and safe. Despite his distaste, he reluctantly agreed, although his steps were sluggish.

"We're only staying for five minutes, so enjoy it while you can." He doubted Justine heard him over her own cheers of celebration. He drifted through the streets until the dogged voice inside his head talked him into entering the main tent to peer at the exotic blossoms inside. He was greeted by a fair-haired woman with an obnoxious bow adorning her hair. She was pretty but there was something unnerving about the emerald eyes that peered at him with interest.

"Hello, there! Welcome to Viperion Blossoms! Made possible by the Viperion sisters. We arrived just this morning," the chipper blonde said. The large bow nestled in her hair swayed as she bobbed her head enthusiastically. Her sister, a brunette with the same piercing green eyes, waved from behind a makeshift counter piled high with bags of seed.

Elliott grunted a reply and made his way around the main table. He pushed some fronds and plate-sized dandelions out of his face and bit back a curse.

**Buy that one, Elliott! No, that one! Ohhhh, I can't choooossseeee!**

"Good because I'm not wasting my money on any of this," Elliott replied and swatted a large fly away from his face. "Are you done now? I'm ready to go."

"Is there anything I can help you with, young man?" the brunette asked politely but her face was twisted in confusion. Oh, right. He'd been talking to himself again.

"Just browsing," Elliott said. A flood of new guests arrived through the open flap, forcing him deeper into the folds of the tent. He was tired of socializing and wanted to leave this stuffy greenhouse without exchanging words with another living soul. "Is there a back door to this place?" He pushed a bouquet aside overflowing with wild, unkempt flowers that glowed like shiny pearls. "There's too many plants in the way. I can't get out over here. Justine, any ideas?"

**Elliott! Look!** she exclaimed. He paused and swiveled around, looking for signs of trouble.

"Talk to me, Justine."

**The flowers! Look at the ones you just touched!** Before his eyes, the pearly blooms that brushed against his skin shuddered and morphed into an eye-popping shade of royal purple. **This is bad, Elliott! Try to hide them!**

Elliott panicked and grabbed the pot, holding the flowers close to his chest.

"What? Are they poisonous? What happened?" he tried to get a good look at his arms while blocking the flowers from view of the casual shoppers loitering around the tent. "Am I getting boils? Rashes? I TOLD you I didn't want to come in here!"

**I've heard about these flowers before! It's called the Hypenzius. It reacts to magic—the curse must be affecting it somehow! Cram it with some other flowers, whatever you have to do! It's fine if people think you're crazy, but you'll be shipped off and imprisoned if they find out you have magic!**

"I know, I know!" Elliott scowled as he dumped the rapidly transforming flowers into a cluster of multicolored roses. People didn't look too favorably on magic weavers, even if its users were victims of circumstance. And, more often than not, the hapless individuals who couldn't hide this simple fact usually disappeared. "There. Finished." He paused to look at his handiwork. It looked like the entire display had been mauled. Broken tendrils of flowers drooped over the sides of their pots in withering defeat. "Perfect. Time to leave." He made it halfway to the entrance before a piercing scream crippled his ears and both Viperion sisters were cradling the vandalized mess and choking back tears.

"Who would do such a thing?" the brunette howled and buried her face in the broken blooms of the rose bush. Elliott winced in disgust, hoping that she was aware of the thorns. The patrons standing beside the officer murmured their condolences. One even patted one of the sisters on the shoulder in comfort. The blonde shifted her tear-filled eyes across the crowd and sniffled.

"They destroyed our beloved Hypenzius flower! It's so rare and treasured that few people in this corner of the world have access to its seeds."

**That's a lie,** Justine snorted. **It's illegal to sell the seeds. I've heard of some native cultures in the forest that revere this flower because of its qualities to change colors…How did they even get their hands on it?**

"Not my problem," was the gruff response. Thankfully the cries of anguish drowned out his reply to Justine. He pushed his way through the crowd, almost free from the sweltering heat of the tent when someone yanked his arm and pulled him back into the hotbox.

"Please! You're an officer, right? Do something!" The obnoxious bow smacked his face as the straw-haired beauty trapped his arm in a vice-like grip. At first Elliott wondered how she knew about his profession; it was his day off, after all. Then, he remembered. He'd thrown on a random jacket this morning from a pile of clothes on the floor. It just so happened to be one of his spares for work, complete with the city coat of arms sewn on the sleeve.

"Hey, easy!" he said as she tugged harder, fearing his shoulder would pull from its socket. She relented, but only a little. "It looks like the work of some kids. That's part of the risk you take when you set up a public stall. I can write up a statement and turn it in to our main office, but city ordinance states that we can't be held responsible for the damages—or vandalism—of your property."

"But…But…what if someone saw something?" the dark haired sister asked, suddenly appearing at his side. Her lower lip trembled. He tried to wrangle his arm away from her sibling while asking the crowd, "Did anyone see anything? Any witnesses?" He didn't bother to wait for a reply. "It appears they were too busy looking at your other wares. And I would appreciate the use of my arm now." He thought he saw the blonde smirk and give his arm a final, crushing squeeze before releasing him. Then she crumpled into the arms of the other Viperion woman, sobbing loudly for all to hear.

"Stop by the office if you find any new information," Elliott said mechanically. He finally stumbled out of the tent, into the open air and breathed deeply.

**That was close!** Justine said and muffled a squeak-like sneeze. She wasn't the only one suffering from the after-affects of the flowers. A headache pounded through his skull and he rubbed his temples fiercely. **Good thing you've got that silver tongue of yours.**

"They're hiding something. And the blonde definitely knows," Elliott said. He flexed his arm. "She could've ratted me out but she didn't. Why?"

**You don't know that, Elliott. You saw how upset she was. Maybe she was just…overreacting?**

"I read people, Justine. That's my job. She knows I'm the one who touched the Hypenzius. I've gotta find out what the Viperion sisters are up to. And something tells me it's not gonna be good."

The rest of the day went by without incident. Elliott stopped by the seamstress's shop and penned ten letters to her son, Donovan, who, according to the elderly woman, was "a strapping young man, much like yourself, who set off to find adventure in the mountains."

"He'll be back any day now," she carried on while Elliott wrote as fast as he could across the mottled paper. "Such a kind fellow. Always thinking of others. You look just like him!" She chuckled to herself and eventually settled into a cozy alcove to knit a pink, shapeless blob. With a final flourish of the quill, he bid his goodbyes to the seamstress, glad to be rid of another good deed. She sent him away with a basket of cookies, a light pat to his cheek, and a promise for him to address her as Gertrude for his kindness. Justine, meanwhile, mocked him the entire way back to the abandoned shoe shop.

**GERTRUDE! My, my, what a hit with the ladies!**

"Enough, Justine. We have to focus." He threw the basket on the table. "We know nothing about the Viperion sisters."

**Except that they're dramatic.**

"Yes."

**And loud.**

"Well…"

**And did you see that bow?**

"Not helping!" Elliott threw his arms up in the air and paced across the scuffed floorboards. "Their eyes were green. Does that mean anything to you?"

No matter how much the duo swapped ideas back and forth, centering around the strange emerald eyes, no new clues surfaced as to who…or what…they were dealing with. Eventually he sat in a sagging armchair and proceeded to clean his sword.

"You wanted an exciting day, Justine. And I think you just found it." Justine's silence was answer enough.

They waited until nightfall before taking to the streets. Elliott tucked a short knife inside his belt to accompany his sword. The flowers and buds that converted the town square into a place of beauty created the opposite effect in the moonlight, casting ghostly shadows across Elliott's feet. He crept toward the large tent and drew the flap aside.

**No sign of the Viperion sisters.**

"Yet." Elliott passed by a row of flytraps and a bouquet that reeked of vanilla. "They're here. I'm sure of it." He picked up a glass jar on the counter crammed beside the bags of seed and studied the transparent object inside. "Snakeskin?"

Something clocked Elliott across the back of the head, enough to send him sprawling into the counter. The glass jar went crashing to the floor.

"Back to get my statement, officer?" a soothing voice hissed from over his shoulder. He spun around and unsheathed his sword in one fluid motion, but saw no evidence of the blonde woman he was expecting. In its place was a pair of glowing emerald eyes embedded in a gargantuan head. The viper's body filled the entire length of the tent, its tail flicking back and forth like a pendulum.

"So this is what your ugly mug really looks like," Elliott spat and angled the tip of his sword to pierce the glossy scales. "Might want to fix those bags under your eyes." Even before the blade landed and glanced off the rippling muscle with ease, the horrific face split into a wide smile, revealing a pair of protruding fangs. The officer withdrew his sword with a curse.

**It didn't work! It didn't even leave a mark! Elliott, get out of there!**

"On it," he replied. He may be headstrong but he knew better than to combat an invincible monster. Better to retreat now with his tail between his legs and return later knowing how to take it apart for good. He turned on his heel and made a break for the exit. The serpentine cackled behind him, her honey-coated voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Well, that's no way to treat a lady. Isn't that right, Liliana?" A second diamond-shaped head blocked Elliott's path while in mid-stride. He buckled as the coils ensnared his right knee and tossed him to the ground like a doll. He cringed at the pain rippling up and down his spine and reached instinctively for his sword that skidded across the floor upon impact. A muscular mass of scales lifted the broadsword from its resting place and snapped the metal in two.

"That was my favorite sword!"

**SHUT UP AND RUN!** Elliott didn't have to be told twice. He tried to fight his way to the exit but the serpents forced him back until they had him cornered against the ledge of a table. In an instant, the scales lengthened into colored fabric, the eyes now adorning youthful, human faces. The brunette smoothed the wrinkles from her pleated dress while the other twirled her flawless hair. The immediate transformation left behind two gorgeous ladies in its wake. In fact, one of them poured herself a cup of herbal tea from a kettle perched on one of the shelves and took a small sip from the delicate china in her hands.

"Well, I'd love to stay and chat but I prefer to stab monsters, not gossip over tea and crumpets," the officer said sarcastically. It was a weak attempt to buy him some time but, fortunately, the femme fatales didn't seem too keen on killing him…yet.

"Didn't I tell you? I saw our precious flower react to your touch. It's a special flower," the blonde said.

"And illegal. What are you after? Money? Fortune? I have none of that."

"Magic, of course," the brunette replied and stroked the teacup in her hand. She blinked and, for an instant, the pupils transformed into vertical slits. "The flower proves you have it coursing through your veins. Your sacrifice will be a noble thing, officer."

"I think you're confusing sacrifice with murder."

"Murder? Oh, we won't kill you." The one with the bow lifted up one of her hands to inspect her painted nails. She peered at him over the mini talons. "We'll just take the magic away. I'm sure it would be a relief for someone like you."

"Well…" Elliott could almost imagine Justine taking a rolled up newspaper and smacking him upside the head.

**DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.**

"Take it easy! I'd never put my trust in their hands…or lack thereof," he retorted to his companion. "And did I mention they broke my favorite sword?"

"Do you realize what the people in our shop said behind your back the moment you left?" the sister harboring the teacup continued with a smirk, ignoring his complaint. "How you talk to yourself, hiding away in that old shoe shop. How bad things tend to happen when you're around. Magic turned you into a freak. Wouldn't you like to get rid of it?"

"You want me to negotiate with a snake? I'll pass."

"Sorry, love. It's non-negotiable. And we're VERY, VERY hungry…"

There was no escaping the deadly divas that sauntered forward in their shimmering dresses.

**That's it! Let's shut them up for good or die trying.**

"You said it, partner," the officer said wolfishly and charged at them like a mad man. For all of their talk of him being a freak, the sudden change of pace surprised them and presented an opportunity. He caught the auburn with a right hook, leaving a small red mark upon her cheek. Unfortunately, he didn't get the chance to try it again.

The blonde grabbed the collar of his jacket and sent him careening through the air until a table laden with pottery broke his fall. "You're very cute when you're angry. It would be a shame to cut up that perfect face." Elliott staggered to his feet amid the broken shards. She followed up with a powerful kick aimed at his abdomen. He dodged the attack and swiped her legs out from underneath her before the dainty footwear touched the ground. The movement sent her sprawling with a frustrated hiss.

"That was for my sword." The fallen woman shifted form in the matter of seconds. Her coiled body sent the shards beneath her scattering in all directions as she lunged at the source of her humiliation. He chucked a potted plant at her open jaws while he ran and she crushed it with enough power to grind the splintered edges into dust. Her sibling watched with amusement and set the china on a small saucepan with a clatter.

"Go easy on him, sister. Last time you lost your temper, someone lost their arm."

"THEY WHAT?!" Elliott gasped. He flipped a table over to delay the serpent trailing at his heels. Her massive bulk shattered the obstacle with ease. He felt the fanged mouth clamp over the tail of his jacket, thankfully missing the skin, and shook him helplessly like a dog with a toy. By a stroke of luck, his outstretched hand smacked one of the lidless, emerald eyes and the creature slammed him against a series of metal shepherd hooks in retaliation.

**ELLIOTT!** Justine screamed but she was helpless against the pain that wracked his body. He doubled over and gasped for air. The flaxen beauty, once more in her bipedal body, advanced with a smile void of warmth.

"All yours, Bianca," said the dark haired sibling. She picked up the kettle and refilled her teacup. "You know how much I hate confrontation. Fighting is so unbecoming of a young lady."

"I take it back. Is it too late for that tea party?" Elliott wheezed. The vixen's puffy, red eye said otherwise. But it was enough to provide him a crucial key of information; the vipers could be wounded and have their injuries carry over between forms. He just had to know where to hit.

"Try not to struggle. We have very big plans for you," Bianca purred. Her hand enclosed around his throat and squeezed until he thought his head would burst. With each breath, the grip tightened. Eventually Justine's voice faded from his mind, replaced by the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears. Every inch of his body struggled as Bianca pulled him upright until their faces nearly touched. "Do you know what the Hypenzius flower can do? It responds to magic weavers. Whatever you're hiding from us, we'll find out what it is. Then rip it from you. Piece by piece." Elliott's vision blurred, a ring of black enclosing around his consciousness. He heard the pair of them burst into laughter at his misfortune. Liliana then gave a small sigh and he heard her footsteps ring louder as she stood by her sister.

"It's too bad. He's very attractive," she said, adopting a faux pout and puckering out her lip. In response, Bianca squeezed Elliott's neck even harder.

"It's the way it has to be, dear sister. It's either them or us. Just think, by this time tomorrow, we shall be more powerful than we've been for months! Thanks, in part, to our knight in shining armor." Elliott was losing the strength to combat the inevitable void. His body screamed at him to fight; anything to resist falling unconscious. His hands wrapped around Bianca's slender wrist but the vixen was steadfast, the touch like frost against his palms. His right hand slipped from its grip and brushed against something under his jacket, a small pommel…his knife! Such a basic weapon had gone unnoticed by the Viperion siblings who chortled at another joke made at his expense.

"Sleep, officer. We'll take care of you." The darkness almost won but he managed to grab the hilt. Now or never.

With the last ounce of his strength he shoved the knife at the hazy form in front of him, praying to the stars that his efforts hadn't been in vain. The deafening scream that followed nearly split his head in two and the icy hand released its cruel grip. He crumpled to the ground and gasped for air like a fish out of water.

"WHAT DID YOU DO?" the beauty above him demanded. The same hand that tried to choke him now grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked his head upward. "LET'S JUST KILL HIM!"

"Peace, sister!" Liliana cried. She lowered Bianca's outstretched hand that wielded Elliott's knife, preparing to slit the throat of the man who outwitted her. "We need him. Just like we need the others. Please, go now and shed your skin. I'll handle the officer." The fair-haired sister took her leave while clutching her side and cursing as she strode from the tent.

Elliott rubbed his neck gingerly and progressed to all fours. Justine's voice was still beyond his reach. If he strained, he thought he could catch a hint of her presence. As much as he tried to convince himself otherwise, he'd never wanted to hear her so badly. Liliana, meanwhile, giggled and watched him struggle.

"This is my favorite part. When the little mouse still has some fight left. It's almost as fun as seeing him lose the will to live." Elliott barely heard her. He was still simmering over the fact that the monster he stabbed was going to cheat death by shedding a layer of skin. He knew the wound went deep. Still…they were vulnerable. "I'd love to play with you some more, but duty calls. There's much to do before the ceremony. Sweet dreams, officer." She slammed an empty vase into his temple with a flick of the wrist. The wounded man let unconsciousness steal him away at last. A beautiful green light greeted him from the darkness and cloaked him in a blanket of warmth. It was nothing like the emerald, doll-like eyes of the Viperion sisters.

"Thank the stars, I've died. That was absolutely miserable."

**No, Elliott! You're still alive! It's me! Justine!**

"….Oh."

**Well, you don't sound too happy about it! I've been worried sick! I couldn't get through to you! What happened? We lost our connection…It scared me. I thought that I was all alone.**

"Yeah, you had it SO bad. While you were hiding out, staying comfy and reading a book or whatever it is you do, I was kicked, choked and thrown around like a pretzel. But you were alone, so you're right. That's WAY worse." The green light faded a little and trembled.

**That's not fair.** He thought he heard her sniffle. Great. Now he'd made her cry. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck while her sobs grew louder.

"Okay, okay. I crossed a line. I'm sorry."

**And?**

"And what?" Elliott spat. The disembodied voice broke into another round of sobs. "Fine. I was a jerk."

**And?**

"And it won't happen again. Are we done now?" Justine's cries subsided but were soon replaced by a bout of hiccups. Elliott found that he was content standing in the warmth of the green light while she collected her thoughts.

**It's just…if something happens to you, where do I go? Do I disappear? What if I don't come back?** Elliott couldn't resist rolling his eyes.

"Trust me. You ALWAYS come back. I can't get rid of you even if I tried!" And he had. Many times. But nothing seemed to keep her away. Ironically, this made the little nymph feel better and the light seemed to grow in strength.

**You're right. How could I ever get away from a blockhead like you?**

The scenery around him shimmered and brightened, replacing the endless void that stretched in every direction. He walked through a clearing surrounded with flowers more beautiful than the captive ones lining the shop. A gurgling brook meandered past his feet and the sound of wildlife blessed the forest with song. It nearly took Elliott's breath away.

"Justine! Look at this! Are you sure we didn't die?" He put his hand against the bark of a towering oak and felt the rough ridges with a smile. "It's amazing."

**This is your consciousness, Elliott. It's where I spend my time,** the tree spirit replied. He heard the flutter of leaves from above him and tried to peer into the branches.

"Hey, are you up there? You actually…have a body?" A clump of leaves glided down and hit him in the face. Justine's laughter filled the clearing.

**Of course I have a body! I look human, Elliott. Well, there are a few differences, but close enough.**

"C'mon, show me! Get down from there! I promise that I won't freak out if you have two heads or something." The officer waited but his closest confidant refused the offer.

**I, uh…well, humans aren't supposed to see us…It's kind of an unspoken rule—** It was Elliott's turn to laugh.

"You're embarrassed!"

**No I'm not!**

"Yes, you are! You don't want me to see you! Justine, there's nowhere for me to hide. Look where we are—inside my HEAD! At least let me see what you really look like." But no matter how hard he pleaded, Justine remained invisible. He huffed and leaned against the tree in defeat. "Fine. You win. Stay up there. I'll just take a stroll around and see the rest of this paradise. You were lucky to get stuck in my head, Justine. This is probably a palace compared to the forest you came from."

**Elliott, wait!** Justine said but the broad shouldered man was already on his way, loping through fields and mountain passes with waterfalls at every turn. He hadn't enjoyed himself like this in a long time and broke into a fit of laughter. He found it odd that his companion didn't seem to be sharing his enthusiasm. "Live a little, Justine! C'mon, I'll race you! Try to keep up!" He bounded away before she could issue another warning. It was exhilarating—like nothing could stop him. He rounded a hill, elation building inside his chest, but what he saw next contorted that joy into a twisted knot of fear.

Acres of land lay wasted, piles of it still smoldering in ashy ruins. The sky, once pulsing with golden light, loomed gray and empty over the scene.

"What is this? What happened here?" For a long time the tree spirit didn't answer. "I know you can hear me! Talk to me!" He felt a presence on his shoulder as though her hand was giving it a comforting pat.

**This is part of you, Elliott.** Justine's voice was calm as she spoke the words.

"You've got to be kidding me! The woods, the mountains…I saw that! I was just there!" Elliott kicked at the mess that crunched beneath his boots.

"And that was another part of you. The part that believes in justice and would go out of his way to help another person. The part that remembers all the happy memories. The part that laughs and likes to have fun. But not all of your memories and thoughts are happy ones."

"Are you saying that I did this?" Elliott demanded. He kneeled and ran his hand over the charred remains. "Look, I know I live like slob in the shoe shop and don't do the laundry or wash the dishes but I would never let myself go like this!" He paused, waiting for the poised voice to agree with him. After a beat or two of uncomfortable silence he added, "Right? I mean, I haven't fallen this deep, have I?"

**After the curse you lost hope. You lost friends. You lost family. It really hurt you, Elliott. A spiritual wound like that just takes time to heal.**

"Time. Right." Elliott reflected on the past few months. Justine was right, the curse had taken its toll on him and the results weren't pretty. He was always angry, pitying his situation and pushing people away. If he pushed people far enough then maybe he wouldn't be hurt again. The banishment left a hole in his heart—he missed his family and was homesick for something familiar. And, unfortunately, Justine just happened to be part of the ride.

An overwhelming sense of guilt overtook him. Beneath his feet the ground shook and wide chasms split across the terrain. Justine never complained about being trapped with him. Not even once. And yet here she was, held captive inside his head, also banished from the home she loved. Maybe they weren't so different.

"You're a prisoner," he managed to say between breaths. "You never had a choice but to be confined to this miserable place." Not only that, he'd also been mean to her—A LOT. That fact didn't escape Justine, either.

**So…does that mean you'll take walks in the forest more often? And go to festivals? And I want to go horseback riding…OH! OH! And did you know that they offer glow worm cave tours a couple towns away? I saw a sign for it once. Can we just do more on our time off? PLLLEEAASSEEE?**

"UGHHHHH. FINE. You're so demanding, you know that?" Elliott said, but there was no bite to his words. The little nymph understood what he really meant—I'm sorry. He felt something turn him from the horrid view of the crippled earth and lead him back to the beautiful foliage of the forest.

**I never liked that view anyway. Want to see my favorite waterfall?**

"Sure. Why not? Lead the way." They were there within minutes. The magnificent cascade poured into a pool with a surface that glowed like a thousand floating diamonds. It was breathtaking.

**You created this after your first good deed,** Justine said proudly. Elliott skipped a rock across the shimmering top and the boyish elation he felt earlier started to return.

"Oh yeah?" he skipped another rock. "And what was that?"

**Taking me in!** The next rock he chucked slipped from his hand and fell into the water with a dull thunk.

"Wait. WHAT?"

**After the mirror broke, I had no physical body, barely the strength to make it through on my own. But you allowed me to stay with you! Remember?**

It had been his first trial after the curse. Help Justine or leave her to die in the forest.

"Yes, I remember. I was WAY nicer back then. Too polite," Elliott said with a smile. "You know, you're not half bad, Justine." The words made her squeal with delight.

**Well, every good deed you complete helps the forest grow. So, the more we work together, the more we'll be able to drive the curse back and return the burnt fields back to the way they were before.**

"You're right. Besides, it's not just my life on the line. You'll be able to return to your physical form after this is all over, too." A comfortable silence fell between them and he reached out his hand. "Our partnership is only official if we shake on it, which means you're gonna have to show yourself sooner or later."

**Elliott, your hand!** The officer's body glowed with a strange, dark blue light. He let out a sigh.

"Time's up. Guess I gotta go back. Maybe next time." Before Justine could reply the world fell away, and when Elliott opened his eyes next he was waking up on a patch of woven grass. He tried to get up and groaned when the various bruises protested the movement. "Remind me why I entered law enforcement again?" He was expecting Justine to answer, but a familiar voice beat her to it.

"Oh, Donnie, you're awake! Be a gentlemen and hand me the butterscotch colored yarn from the bag? There's a good lad!" The elderly woman was sitting on the other side of the enclosure with knitting needles clicking together in a steady rhythm.

"GERTRUDE!" Elliott and Justine cried out in unison. A large bag overflowing with yarn sagged under his head as a makeshift pillow. He had a feeling the old woman was to thank for that. "How did you get here?"

"What was that, dearie?" Gertrude asked. He grabbed the butterscotch yarn and tossed it into her lap before repeating the question.

"These lovely young ladies invited me for a mid-morning brunch after I visited their shop yesterday." Elliott waited for her to continue her story but the content woman hummed a little tune to herself before launching into another topic. "You look just like a handsome young man I met who helped me write a few letters to you! Did you ever get them, Donovan? I must say, though, his handwriting was very untidy."

"Ma'am, hold on second—" Elliott was about to correct the grandmotherly figure but thought better of it and sighed in defeat. "Yes, it's me Donovan. Now, listen to me because this is very, VERY important."

"Oh, one moment, Donnie. I messed up on my pattern—what were you saying?"

"Something VERY important, so pay attention. How did you get here? Did they do anything to you?" She didn't seem injured, but he had to be sure.

"Those little peaches brought me here this morning," Gertrude said. She gave Elliott a kind smile. "And then I saw you lying on the ground, poor thing. I managed to fix the cracked rib and the nasty cut on your head, but I got a bit tired after that. Did they invite you to brunch, too?"

Both Elliott and Justine slipped into a stunned silence. Elliott prodded his chest, feeling nothing but the usual aches of a scuffle. He eventually cleared his throat to get Gertrude's attention who was busy working on the pink project in her hands.

"You…healed me? By yourself? Without medicine?" She hummed another song and tapped her foot to the beat. "Well, thank you. I mean it," Elliott added. Gertrude waved the compliment aside with a smile. In moments she was lost in her own world again, looking as comfortable as if she were curled up in a blanket on her favorite chair.

**I take back what jokes I said earlier about Gertrude. She's the best!**

"And a liability." He ran a hand over his face. "We can't leave her here. But I don't know how we're gonna fight off a snake army and keep her safe at the same time." Elliott surveyed the tiny prison. He was confined inside a cell of some sort with Gertrude; a tiny clearing matted with crisscrossed fronds and surrounded with walls of interlocking thorns. There was no way he'd be able to break those down himself.

"Gertrude…when you met up with the Viperion sisters this morning, did you meet them at the shop?" Elliott paced in front of her hunched form deep in thought.

"They picked me up at my house this morning. They only live a few miles from town in a quaint log cabin. Cutest little thing!"

"This doesn't look like a log cabin to me."

"And they had the biggest garden I've ever seen! They said they'd give me a tour later—did you get the tour, Donovan?"

"So, we're in the Viperion garden. Great."

**What do we do now?**

As if on cue, a deep chuckle echoed from within the small chamber. Elliott flinched in spite of himself. He heard someone snap their fingers and after a shower of harmless, green sparks the owner of the voice appeared standing opposite of Elliott's form. His once immaculate clothes were worn but the blonde, slicked back hair remained intact. It was the emerald eyes, however, that caught the officer's attention.

"This is much more than a garden. This is where they take their prey," the stranger purred and the inflection of his words confirmed what Elliott already knew to be true. He grabbed the ruffian by the front of his suit.

"You're one of them! Are you a spy? Or here to finish the job? Which is it?" The man lifted his hands in surrender with a roll of his eyes.

"I'm RELATED to them. But I'm not ONE of them. Can your dim-witted brain figure out the difference?" he sighed. "Now are you and Mothergoose over here going to help me or ask stupid questions?" Elliott released his grip reluctantly.

"Fine. But let's begin with Viper 101. What are those…THINGS…and what do they want with us?"

"They go by many names. Most commonly known as psychotic." Elliott glared at him and the reasonably dressed man shrugged. "What? It's evident they relish misery and pain. Just because they're Serpantin doesn't mean anything. Yeah, they use it to their advantage, but non-human status alone doesn't make you a bad egg."

"Save me the lecture. I just want to know what Serpantins are and how to get Gertrude out in one piece." The stranger smoothed back his hair and straightened the jacket that Elliott crumpled only moments before.

"Serpantins are members of serpentine tribes, dwelling in marshes and other foul places. We tend to lure in our catch while walking around in human form. Some of us develop gifts to aid in the hunt, like invisibility, for example." He snapped his fingers and the sparks returned, engulfing his features until he vanished from sight. Another snap later and the snarky man reappeared. "Unfortunately, my sisters also inherited the invisibility part. But, trust me, they are WAY worse at it than I am." Elliott snorted in disgust.

"Those two are your sisters? And you expect me to believe anything you say? They practically killed me and kidnapped an old lady!" He thought Justine would back him up on this, but she only sighed dreamily.

**His hair is so pretty…like a model…**

"Justine! Pay attention!" The man snickered at his outburst.

"Hey, I'm not thrilled with this scenario, either, but it's our best chance of getting—who did you say?—Gertrude out in one piece. Or, we could just leave her here. Look how happy she is knitting!" Elliott gave him another piercing stare. "KIDDING. Okay, so first step is getting out of these thorns. From there, we have an entire marsh to cross. That's where they'll be preparing for the ceremony."

"Ceremony?"

"Serpantins are vain. And, if you haven't noticed, we like to keep ourselves in human form for as long as possible. After all, living among your kind is much more enjoyable than the disgusting swamps we have to retreat to. Besides, have you ever had to shed skin before? Not fun. That's what the ceremony is for," the Serpantin native said. He stifled a yawn and stretched his arms skyward. "They suck the magic out of magical folk and put it in a nectar drink. One or two cocktails later, and my sisters have the human beauty they've always wanted—for a few months, that is. That means they can live day to day as attractive maidens without having to revert back to their ugly snake counterpart. Once the magic runs out, they resume the hunt for more magical creatures and start the whole process all over again. And, just so your low intellect can comprehend, the ceremony is an ancient ritual banned from use by the Serpantin Council. No one's allowed to even speak about it, much less go through with it." Elliott scowled and continued his restless pacing. The enclosure was so tiny he was forced to walk circles around Gertrude and her large bag of knitting yarn.

"That doesn't explain why you're here. If you're not ONE of them, then what did you to do tick them off?"

"Oh, that one's easy," came the suave reply. "I tried to stop them. Unsuccessfully, as you can see. Serpantins police themselves and, lucky me, I was tasked with bringing them in. They caught me and put me in here with a fun wristband to match." He lifted his right hand to show off the knotted root coiled around his wrist.

**Snapsprout,** whispered the bell-like voice inside Elliott's head. He was surprised that the little nymph wasn't still swooning over the blonde devil. **It's a common plant found near the woodland where I grew up. It's not poisonous.**

"Maybe not to humans. But I wonder what it does to Serpantins," Elliott replied. The blonde eyed him curiously.

"Am I interrupting something?"

"You don't get to ask questions. I know that's snapsprout. What does it do? Talk." The man huffed but complied with the officer's request.

"It prohibits me from going into snake mode. Serpantins and snapsprout don't mix. Something about it burns our scales—call it an allergic reaction. So we're going to have to think of something else in order to break out of this thorny cage." Gertrude merrily burst into another folksy song while Justine squealed excitedly.

**I can help! I can help! I have a great idea, Elliott! Please, please, PLEASE let me try it!**

"Keep it down, Justine. Snake boy and I are trying to figure out how to escape and destroy the murderous girl scouts outside. Just sit in a bush somewhere and draw in the mud or something. I'll let you know what we come up with."

**But I can do it! I can get us out of here!** Elliott lifted an eyebrow in amusement.

"Is that what they taught you at Nymph Academy? How to walk through thorns?"

**I'm serious, Elliott! Now, hold out your hand and touch the wall.** Elliott didn't move. He tried to argue but the voice cried, **DO IT!** and he reluctantly followed her lead.

"Now what?" he grumbled. "Justine?" The familiar voice didn't answer and instead chanted a soothing melody in an ancient tongue that calmed his shattered nerves. His outstretched palm relaxed against the thorns and he felt warmth spread from his fingertips and into the interlocking brambles. Slowly, the thorny rods stretched and twisted from his reach, shriveling and retreating into the muddy earth. The serpentine male broke into hearty laughter.

"You can manipulate plant life? Boy, I was starting to think I was trapped in here with a pair of loonies. First cat lady and then you—"

"Her name is Gertrude," Elliott snapped. He lowered his hand as the last of the thorns fell away and revealed a large hole burrowed through the thick wall. The marshes lie just ahead. Justine's chanting softened until she was panting proudly from the effort.

**See? I told you I could do it! I usually sing songs to awaken plants, not put them to sleep. And I've never tried it on an ugly thorn bush before. You could say I learned it at the Nymph Academy.** If Justine had been standing beside him he would've pulled her into a one-armed hug. But she was more or less a soldier now, and should be treated as such.

"Nice work, Justine. You did good."

**Just DON'T make me do it again. The chants are SO hard to remember! In fact, one wrong word or tone of voice and—"

The blonde man cried out as the thorny tendrils started to grow back and lock in place once more. He dived through the opening with his ragged suit trailing behind him like a tail. Elliott lifted Gertrude from the ground like a child. The elderly woman had enough sense to hug her knitting bag to her chest before Elliott fought his way through the narrowing path and emerged on the other side with the woman giggling from the bumpy ride.

"Can we do that again, Donovan?" she asked with a smile. "That was so much fun!" Elliott set her down on a patch of grass before turning on his heel and clocking the man across the face. It was the second Serpantin he'd punched within the last twenty four hours and a part of him wanted the man to fight back. He was ready for a good brawl.

"You spineless, worthless, pathetic snake! You were going to leave her behind!"

"We all got out. What does it matter who saved who? Quit complaining about it and get the old crone on her feet. We've got some Serpantins to hunt. And my name is not 'snake.' It's Declan."

"I could care less what your name is," Elliott snarled.

"Fine. Call me whatever you want. But at least get this miserable thing off me first." Declan proffered his shackled wrist while Elliott gingerly lifted Gertrude to her feet. She patted the side of his face with a good-natured grin.

"Forget it. You're staying human."

"This is gonna be way easier if I can fight them off as a serpent. What can I do looking like this?" Declan cast his arms out in frustration.

"Improvise." With that Elliott stalked off, supporting his elderly sidekick among the marshy swamplands. He heard the Viperion brother groan but slosh his way behind him. "Now tell me more about what makes your kind tick." After a long discussion, the duo reached a plan. A shaky one, at best, that Declan was more than happy to complain about. He wheedled, begged and argued with Elliott to touch his wrist and break the snapsprout from its hold, but the officer refused. He didn't trust the Viperion brother, preferring to fight off two vipers instead of one if Declan decided to switch alliances. Besides, he didn't want to give the sisters any reason to change from their temptress forms. He needed them human. They were weaker that way.

"You know what to do," he said to Declan as he crouched in a thick bush of fronds with Gertrude. "Move when I give the signal. And remember to stay invisible."

"I got it, I got it! Just make it fast. I don't want to have to babysit cat lady longer than I have to."

"Gertrude."

"Whatever."

Elliott turned away and walked across the marshes alone.

**Ready, Elliott?** Justine asked. Despite the danger, she hummed with excitement for the battle to come. He smirked.

"Of course I am. Time for a little payback." He approached the beauties tending to a boiling cauldron glowing hot at its base. The cauldron sat atop an island surrounded by swampy water. In the distance he could make out the image of the log cabin through the fog. "The Viperion sisters. Just who I wanted to see." At the sound of his voice they hissed and glared at the source of the interruption with piercing eyes. The stench of the marsh was enough to make him gag but the sisters seemed at home in the disgusting wetlands. The blonde, Bianca, was the first to leave the cauldron's side.

"How did you escape?" she demanded. She sauntered toward him in her violet dress. The train dragged behind her legs, wet from the terrain. Elliott shrugged.

"Luck, I guess. I left the old bird behind, right where I found her. You can have her if you want. As for me, I'm here to negotiate." One side of Bianca's pursed lips lifted into a smirk.

"With what, your life?" she simpered.

"Why bargain one life when I can bargain hundreds?" Elliott spread his arms wide in surrender and took another step closer to the siblings. "I have access to the biggest institutions this side of the world has to offer. Jails. Prisons. Juvenile centers. Anything you can imagine. I give you a steady supply of sacrifices from the worst lot of society and you give me my freedom and a nice, fat money reward for my efforts. You stay beautiful and I stay wealthy. Everyone wins." For the first time, both women paused and mulled over his offer. Liliana gave the cauldron another stir but the movement was automatic and her mind was obviously elsewhere.

"You could smuggle people out—just like that?" Bianca ventured. The officer nodded.

"Easily. You really think they'd be missed? The wardens will be glad to rid themselves of the criminal underworld. Think about it. No one realizes they're missing. No one asks questions. Flawless, safe. But, as you know, it requires me to keep my…magical abilities intact."

"How so?" Liliana inquired with a snap of her jaws while she continued to man the cauldron.

"I escaped from that little cell you put me in. It's part of my talent. I can break in—or out—of whatever strikes my fancy. That includes locked doors and thorny walls, just to name a few. It wouldn't take too much effort to break out a few inmates when the opportunity arises." This caused a buzz of excitement with the duo who exchanged glossy-eyed glances.

"Think about it, Liliana! We wouldn't have to choose random sacrifices like leftover table scraps, just to get by! We can have him sift though the best of the best, providing us with the strongest magic weavers for the ceremony!" Bianca exclaimed with a twirl of her sodden skirt. Liliana, the more levelheaded sister, shook her head.

"And what stops you from running away and not keeping your end of the deal?" In response, Elliott pulled a tattered piece of paper from his jacket and a corresponding quill.

"It's called a contract. I break my half, and you can take my magic, kill me, put me through the ceremony, whatever you serpents like to do in your spare time. You break your half and stop collecting, and I turn you in. But before we make this little plan official, I've got a right to know my limits."

**Fantastic, Elliott! Keep it up!** Justine intervened. He hid the satisfaction from his expression as his captors took the bait.

"Limits?"

"How many people do you need for a ceremony? Namely, how many do you plan to kill? And how often do you need victims? I've gotta plan my trips to the prison wisely. Too often, and it'll be suspicious." Liliana waved her hand dismissively, giving Bianca permission to divulge their information. She was more than happy to oblige.

"We complete the ceremony every three months. Five or more people for the ceremonies are sufficient. As you can see, we've had slim pickings lately—magic weavers are disappearing from society, leaving us scrounging like rats."

"And do they survive the ceremony?" Elliott inquired. He rested the paper on his arm and scribbled something with the quill. "I need to document our trade agreement so that everyone understands our…partnership."

"Not if we can help it," came the mischievous giggle. "Most of them die shortly afterward. The ones that survive live a bit longer, but they're weak and fragile. We throw them in the swamp. Can't have anyone sneaking back into town and tattling on us."

"And how long has this been going on?" Elliott asked. He maintained his professional façade and resisted the rising nausea. This question provoked Liliana who added another round of curious spices to the mixture.

"Is that question really relevant, officer?" she purred. He nodded.

"I have to know how good you are at your job."

"You don't trust us?"

"Can you ever really trust a snake?" he replied and tapped his parchment. "How long?" Liliana remained quiet. After a glance at her sister, Bianca answered.

"One year. And we've NEVER been caught!" She said this with a source of pride as though the information should impress him.

"How many?"

"Fifteen people. Possibly more. Hard to keep count. Those humans are like insects. Useless. And the ugly ones are even worse."

**FIFTEEN PEOPLE? Elliott, I think I'm gonna be sick.**

"So, five people every three months. Preferably ones capable of strong magic. Attractiveness optional." He held out the quill to the violet-clad sister. "And finally, a signature to seal the deal." Bianca took a step toward his outstretched hand but Liliana left the cauldron's side and brushed past her.

"I'M signing it," she declared with her head raised. "We can't afford any mistakes, can we, officer? And your name would be nice." She reached out her hand and took the quill.

"Officer Elliott Valenfield," he said and held up the contract. "All yours." She scribbled a name in cursive.

"What next?" she said curiously. He stuffed the parchment back into his jacket.

"This." He slipped the knitting needle in his hand tucked behind his back and speared her between the ribs. She screamed and writhed in pain. "I know it won't kill you. Your buddy Declan filled me in. But I sure bet it hurts like—" He didn't get the chance to finish. While Liliana collapsed to the foul smelling muck of the marsh, Bianca's dress rippled and contorted into glistening scales. Her diamond shaped head opened its jaws and reared back in preparation of the strike. He lunged to the side and nearly tripped over his own feet as the large snout missed his legs by mere inches.

**Get to the cauldron! NOW!** Justine shouted.

"I'm going, I'm going!" Elliott growled. The serpent hissed and cut a path through the mud with practiced precision. He was almost at the cauldron's floating island and trampled his way through a foot of murky water. The snake laughed eerily from behind him in a distorted, gravely voice.

"Run, run, run little insect! I'll make sure to kill you nice and slow!"

"NOW, DECLAN!" Elliott cried and flung himself as far away from the cauldron as he could. The invisible specter pushed the cauldron off its base and, with a satisfying thud, the sapphire liquid poured into the marsh and coated the scaly beast in its glittering contents. A piercing scream erupted from the fanged mouth as the body shuddered and smoked. With a snap of his fingers, Declan appeared beside Elliott with a smug grin.

"Burns, doesn't it, sis?" He prodded Bianca's tail with the tip of his boot. She hissed defensively. "That's the risk you take when you dabble in snapsprout. Too bad the cauldron wasn't able to burn long enough to cleanse the poison from the batch." Liliana, with an arm wrapped around her human wound, limped toward the duo.

"Stop right there," Elliott said and pointed the knitting needle in her direction. "I'm not gonna have you shifting forms and healing yourself. But, as I understand, shedding skin takes time. An hour, I think your brother said. And you have to be asleep for it. Either way, you're not going anywhere. So I suggest you find a nice place to sit down and make yourself comfortable." Liliana scowled but didn't argue. Bianca, meanwhile, moaned and clamped her jaws in frustration.

"I was curious why you had snapsprout on hand," Elliott continued. He paced around the serpentine body while Declan leaned casually against the knocked over cauldron. "You weren't expecting the Serpantin Council to send anyone. So why would you need it if it caused you so much pain while in snake form?"

"Because you were using it in your ceremonies," Declan added. "It must've been listed as one of the ingredients for the ceremony in that ancient manuscript you stole from the royal coffers. The one that brings "lasting youth and beauty." But, in the end, you're both ugly, inside and out. No potion can make a murderer beautiful."

"You won't get away with this. No one will believe you," Liliana choked. Bianca hissed and twisted her head in agreement. Elliott procured the parchment from his jacket. One side showcased the random scribbles of a loving parent asking about her son, Donovan. The other side had a curvy signature adorning the bottom of the page.

"Really? Because I have a confession right here that says otherwise. It explains your methods, your preferred victims, how many people you've killed…Everything. Complete with a signature by one of the murderess scum that did the deed."

"I'LL KILL YOU, ELLIOTT VALENFIELD!"

"Go ahead and try. But I doubt the Serpantin Council will be letting you go anytime soon. Your wounds may be non-threatening, but your fate is out of my hands. Whether you live or die after today is up to your tribe."

"And there are plenty of fates worse than death," Declan added. He smoothed out his blonde hair for dramatic effect. "Time to call the cavalry."

Elliott fetched Gertrude from her temporary abode among the fronds. As always, she was delighted at his presence and tried to show off the pink bundle in her hands.

"Oh, Donovan! Look what I made!" she said sweetly. She'd been able to continue knitting through the charade by pulling out a spare knitting needle from her bag after Elliott confiscated one of her own for the attack. He decided it best to chuck the bloodied one in the mud far from her view.

"That's great, but we've gotta move. C'mon, Gertrude, take my hand." He helped her through the marshes and, after searching every nook and cranny of the log cabin, determined it safe for the elderly woman to sit inside and rest until their work was done. He presided over the injured sisters while Declan set off to alert the Serpantin about their latest catch. An hour later and the Viperion brother returned with a handful of Serpantin soldiers outfitted to tow the criminals back to their territory deep within the everglade. Elliott shook the hand of his unlikely benefactor while Justine's lullaby separated the snapsprout bracelet from his hand. Declan rubbed his free wrist.

"Thanks, officer. I'm sure I could've figured out a way to defeat them without you, but I won't say no to free help."

"Free help? I'm all about completing good deeds, but it comes with an asking price," Elliott replied. "Besides, who's gonna pay for a new uniform?" He tugged at his tattered jacket for emphasis. Declan clapped him on the shoulder.

"KIDDING. Don't worry, Valenfield. I've got just the thing. Ta-da!" He shoved a bulky necklace into his hands. A large, blunted fang dangled from the cord. Engraved on the fang was a peculiar pattern embellished with blue paint. "It's the Serpantin Council's seal. If you ever need help, present this to one of our kind. We know what it is. And we also know who it belongs to. Every token we give to a non-Serpantin is recorded. So, don't worry. If someone steals it and tries to get inside our fortress, we'll kill them if they're not the legendary plant-speaking officer."

"That's a comforting thought," came Elliott's retort as he put on the necklace. "Who knows? Maybe I'll call on you to come fix the rodent problem at my place." Justine chuckled at the joke.

"Don't push your luck," Declan said. He signaled the officers. "Take the criminals away. Their trial starts tomorrow morning." Elliott handed him the confession.

"Make sure they pay for all the senseless deaths."

"Don't worry. They will. Like I said, there's always something worse than death. And the Serpantin aren't shy about passing judgment." Liliana, clutching her side, and Bianca, now conscious enough to revert back to human form, strode past them shackled and ragged at the hands of the soldiers. The vixens spat at his feet and the string of insults they hurled at him contrasted with their dainty, gorgeous features.

"WE'LL COME AFTER YOU! WE'LL ESCAPE AND TEAR YOUR HEART FROM YOUR CHEST!" The duo screamed over the clanking of their chains. Elliott crossed his arms in amusement.

"You're welcome to try, but I might have another knitting needle hidden in my jacket." The ladies were tugged away and they continued to ridicule and mock him as they marched through the muddy wetland and toward their Serpantin prison. Elliott and Declan gave each other a brief nod before going their separate ways.

**I wonder if we'll see him again,** Justine said. Elliott groaned.

"I hope not. I've had enough of snakes to last me a lifetime. C'mon, let's get Gertrude and go home."

**Agreed!**

Elliott entered the cabin and found Gertrude quite at home in a large, squishy armchair. She smiled so wide that her eyes crinkled warmly.

"Donovan, I've had such a lovely time with you today! You make an old lady very happy!" She eased herself up from the armchair and Elliott did something that neither him nor Justine expected. He hugged her.

"Thanks, Gertrude," he said warmly. He picked up her knitting bag for her and escorted her to the front door. "Hey, you hungry? I'll treat you to that brunch when we get back. How does that sound?" She nodded vigorously and sighed.

"What a great end to a perfect day! Oh, Donnie! Did I ever show you what I made?" They exited the log cabin and started the long trek back to the city.

"No. What is it?" Gertrude lifted something that she'd folded in her hands. It was the pink blob she'd been working on all this time. She offered it to him. "Huh? Is this for me?"

"No, silly goose! It's for your girlfriend. You know, the one you talk to all the time." Elliott paled, his hands gripping the knitting bag tightly to his chest.

"Gertrude, you can…You can SEE her? You know about Justine?"

"Well, of course, dear! You must miss her so much. Long distance relationships can be so difficult. No wonder you pretend to talk to her. Tsk, tsk. She must be someone very special!" She patted Elliott's arm knowingly. Justine, meanwhile, burst into a fit of laughter.

**HAHA! OH GOODNESS! THIS IS GREAT! GERTRUDE IS AMAZING!**

"Stop it, Justine," Elliott murmured. His face flushed red with embarrassment. "Really, she's just…we're partners. We have each others' backs. That's it."

"Now, now, dearie. You know that's not true. Please, have this," Gertrude pressed the pink, knitted project into his hands. "It'll keep her warm when she visits you this winter. No one wants to be alone during the holidays."

"It's…a hat. Thanks, I guess. I'm sure Justine will wear it someday."

**YOU BET I WILL! You're not allowed to throw it away! Once I get my body back, I'm SO wearing that EVERYDAY! Even in the middle of summer!** Elliott laughed and pocketed the gift.

"She'll love it. I can already tell." The rest of the walk was filled with light conversation discussing her love of knitting and cats with periods of humming and folksy singing in between. They dined in the local café and he walked her home "like a true gentlemen" Gertrude pointed out. Once he knew she was safe and sound, he walked back to his shoe shop. It had been so long since he'd actually had company and the thought of going back to the shoe shop alone saddened him. But, he wasn't alone. And with Justine around, he never would be.

**Hey, look, they have those new wanted posters up. Want to take a look?** Justine asked. Elliott walked up to the freshly printed parchment. A fox-like, snarky face looked back at him with hair pulled into a small ponytail.

"Great. First snakes and now foxes. Next it'll be owls!" Elliott turned away from the poster with a yawn. "I'm bushed. Let's head back, eat the rest of the cookies on the counter, and get some rest."

**You said it, partner,** Justine replied before turning to look back at her favorite waterfall. Gertrude was right. It turned out to be a wonderful day after all.