The Oracle's path was little more than a dirt path through a thick patch of undergrowth. When they were kids, it had been the road to destiny, fraught with adventure and romance.
Lizzie had named it; the whole idea of the family craft was romantic back then. The Oracle's path had been her favorite route into the woods and probably the section she took the greatest care of in her time as the Keeper.
Ket stumbled on a set of roots and cursed herself for not bring a flashlight. Years change the paths we tread in our youth, making the familiar just different enough to throw us as adults. After she stumbled a second time, she realized the issue wasn't with the path.
She stopped and stood in place while the darkness grew more profound and her eyes adjusted. Her brief exchange with Michael had thrown her. Emotions had always been that way for her. Difficult.
She concentrated on slowing her heart-beat, on breathing in the slow heady scents of cedar, the rich embrace of leaves and loam. Then, when she felt she had regained her center, she visualized the great brick wall of her internal defenses and, one by one, started taking the bricks down.
In a room full of strangers, Lizzie could make friends of everyone within minutes. Kehtrin had always had difficulty in crowds. Opening herself to the Grove was like walking into a room full of excited people--friends, relatives, strangers--all of whom were bursting at the seams to talk. Lizzie loved it. Ket wasn't so appreciative. And, the Munin excited. The spirits of the dead were always excited when Ket came home.
Judging her eyes adjusted enough, Ket started moving down the path again, this time more certain in her steps. The whispering around her grew to a dull chorus on the verge of her consciousness. Then, before she knew it, she was at the final loop of the Oracle's path. At the enormous Oak--the Mother Tree.
Other trees grew around it, but none so strong as Mother Margaret Khyme. She'd been the original Keeper of the grove some seven generations back. The first--the only one that Ket knew of--to bring the craft to the colonies.
She'd chosen Oak as her tree, and the giant of a tree that loomed from her burial overshadowed others with it's girth and sheer presence. Yet, at the very forefront of the Mother Tree's copse, a tiny Ash sapling stood with a small chicken-wire fence around it.
Everything appeared to be in order. Ket felt some of the tension drain from between her shoulder-blades. It was a black ash, not a hazel as she'd expected. But, it was tiny but well cared-for. And the ground around it was heavy with moisture and manure. Mike must have been tending it every day.
Ket held her breath for a moment and gathered her will. She tilted her head back and gazed up at the black and grey pattern of the canopy above.
"Elizabeth." She said quietly, sinking down to kneel before the sapling. Dampness soaked through the denim at her knees. "Elizabeth Margaret Horovenko McAllister. It's Kethrin. Your sister. We need to talk."
Then Ket waited for Elizabeth to manifest.
The wind picked up and Ket got colder. But still Elizabeth didn't manifest. The knot between her shoulderblades tightened. The Memory Trees acted as an anchor to the Munin--the spirits of the interred. It didn't matter how new the sapling was. Lizzie should have manifested.
Ket closed my eyes and extended her senses outward. She felt the maternal presence of the giant Oak, Mother Margaret, the gruff sense of duty and pride of her husband, Aldon. She felt the tactical mind of Lance Corporal Wexler and the muddled brilliance of Dr. Edel Essenbaum.
But she didn't feel Lizzie.
And if Lizzie wasn't there, than it meant one of two things. Either Michael had screwed up the burial or Lizzie had done something really really bad before she died and the Fallen refused to accept her.
Ket needed answers. So, she gathered her will again, held her breath and shaped the calling into a gift, and willed it into the Oak.
"Margaret Joanne Elizabeth Khyme." Ket called, this time more strongly. "Come to me please. We need to talk."
"Of course, dear." a scratchy alto said from behind Kethrin. "We've been expecting you."
Kethrin turned, too fast and her senses narrowed the way it did before a fight broke out. But the woman on the path offered no violence. She wore a grey and white pelisse robe with a white crocheted shawl wrapped around both shoulders. She had a conservative hat and gloves and not a spot of dirt on her. She was of average height and had a mass of hair piled on top of her head in loose ringlets. She wasn't pretty so much as striking. She was the very picture of Victorian elegance and propriety, however.
Meanwhile, Kethrin was knee-deep in crap.
"There's something wrong here." Kethrin said. "Lizzie--Elizabeth. My sister. She should be here."
Margaret took a measured step forward. "Shall I tell you what you already know?" Maragaret nodded. "Your sister is not here. I would recognize the taste of her spirit."
"Then what is this?" Ket gestured at the Ash sapling. "Did Mi--was it done wrong?"
"Child. You know I can only answer of things I knew before this form."
"But you know all the fallen." Ket responded, sounding more petulant than she wanted to. Her eyes had started to tear up and she was closer to wailing than she'd wanted to allow herself.
Margaret reached out as if to comfort Kethrin and Ket recoiled instinctively, landing on her side in the circle of manure around the Ash. Margaret withdrew and Kethrin cursed herself for her silly apprehension. Shades couldn't touch the living.
This was why Lizzie had became the Keeper and Kethrin the Hunter. They each had a part to play. It's how the Valkyor keep the Groves. Kethrin claimed the spirits of the dead. Lizzie bound them to the trees.
Margaret crossed her arms, going semi-translucent. "When last she walked among us, she was troubled. She asked of lore of the fair folk. She seemed confused, unfocussed."
"She's dead." Kethrin said after a long pause. She felt the hot tears spill over ont her cheek as the reality hit that she'd never see her sister again. "Cancer ate her up from the inside."
Kethrin cried then, deep wracking sobs that that came from her belly. She couldn't wipe her eyes for the fertlizier on her hands. All she could do was cry.
When she'd finally stopped, Margaret was gone.
Kethrin felt a new resolve. If Lizzie was gone, then she had to discover what had happened. Mother Margaret said that Lizzie had asked about the fae. And there were avenues open to her that weren't open to others. Not even to Lizzie.
If the remains beneath the Ash weren't Lizzie, then it was Kethrin's duty to find Lizzie's remains and bring her back to the grove.
There'd be one more calling before the night was over. But this one was a little more complicated. Calling the Fae was never something to be taken lightly.