Sunlight bathed the patio. Gene sat at one of its many ornate tables, frowning slightly as he concentrated on braiding a flower crown. He’d never been good with his hands, but his mother had always said the best gifts came from the heart. So, today he was doing his best to handcraft something.
After tying off a knot, Gene made a furtive glance across the patio. Abi and Mislav were on the other end. Abi was in the middle of making grand, flourishing motions as he acted out one of his countless stories while Mislav’s back was turned to Gene.
Good. They—Gene and Abi—had planned on Abi distracting Mislav while Gene secretly worked on the crown. Satisfied their plan was working, Gene turned his attention back to his task.
Abi’s voice continued rambling as Gene grabbed the last flower from the table and wove into the crown. Finished, Gene triumphantly lifted it in the air with a grin.
It was a mess of flowers from hedges around the patio. Pink rosebays, purple petunias, and thornless red roses tied together in a slightly-crooked crown. Even though it was crooked—imperfect—Gene was proud to have managed to make this by hand.
Abi had suggested all this. Gene had been lamenting that he didn't know what to give Mislav, so Abi encouraged him to make something for him and pointed out the flowers. It made Gene feel guilty to pluck them, but they’d be able to regrow them soon. Besides, Mislav would be impressed Gene made it so quickly!
Before he could think better of it, Gene hopped from his chair.
“So, then I froze time and flipped them over on their heads!” Abi bad been saying. He was miming the process of grabbing someone by their torso, flipping them in the air, and slamming their head onto the ground. At the same time, an illusory, translucent figure resembling a person wiggled in his arms.
But a SCREEEEEEEECH interrupted the story as Gene’s chair dragged across the concrete.
Abi’s expression immediately emptied as he tensed and quickly scanned the area. Gene’s heart skipped a beat, but he managed to hide the flower crown behind his back before Mislav could look back.
“So–sorry!” Gene said. He tried to raise his voice, but it was a struggle to make it louder than a whisper.
Abi was still tense, but he plastered a fake smile on his lips.
“That was just you?” he asked, an edge to his voice. He’d always been really jumpy.
Struggling to smile, Gene gave an awkward nod and grabbed his cane from the table. It didn’t take long for Gene to cross the patio and stop beside them. He stood at an angle—almost certainly looking suspicious—to hide the flower crown behind his back.
“Ye–yeah, but, um… what story was Abi telling you, Misha?” Gene asked.
The instant Gene said the word “story”, exasperation flooded Mislav’s face. Eyeing him with the most unimpressed look Gene had seen in his life, Mislav deadpanned: “Something about beating up an entire bar of people with N̴͛͆ĩ̶̕k̷̟̒i̸͚͘t̷̨͆í̶͉̿s̸̛ after they insulted your mom.”
Gene had to fight a laugh, but smiled slightly as he looked over to Abi.
“Yeah, he’s told me that one, too,” Gene began happily. But his smile dropped as he saw the fake smile on Abi’s lips.
He’s still upset about the chair, Gene thought. But he didn’t blame Abi; Gene hated loud, ear-grating sounds like that as well. Only, he hated them for different reasons.
Abi was weird—he was a tall, pale man with shock-white hair, tattoos all over his body, and was built like a horse. Although he looked young, he claimed to be much older than even Gene’s mom. But he also told a lot of ridiculous, over-exaggerated stories about things he’d done. At least, the stories were probably exaggerated.
Gene had to give Abi credit: he was good at keeping his answers consistent with those things.
But it didn’t matter whether or not they were true. Gene loved listening to Abi tell his stories and watching the magic shows he added to them.
“But, um,” Gene faltered, chin dropping as he lowered his eyes to the ground. Something landed on Gene’s head, startling him.
Gene took a step away, jerked his head up back, and saw Abi grinning down at him. His shoulders were still tense, but he otherwise looked relaxed.
“Whatcha got behind your back, kid?” Abi prompted, letting his hand fall to his side.
Gene swallowed, but put another smile on his face as he turned to Mislav and brandished his flower crown for Mislav to see.
“Ri-right!” Gene started. Mislav’s face flickered, but before he could say anything, Gene blurted, “I made a flower crown! See?”
Mislav grinned brightly and hugged his giant stuffed sheep.
“It looks great! You should put it on!” he said.
Gene froze. His cheeks flushed as he struggled to find the words to explain—
“I think he made it for you, Mislav,” Abi said dryly, smirking.
Mislav looked to Abi uncertainly at first, but quickly looked to Gene in shock.
“What?” Mislav asked.
Cheeks burning, Gene ducked his head so his hair fell in his face, hiding it. Gene stared hard at the swirling, thornless roses of the crown as he struggled to speak.
“Ye-yeah,” Gene said, wincing slightly at his own stutter, “sin–ce you like flowers—”
A bell’s chime rang over him.
Shocked, Gene looked over his shoulder to see someone stepping through the inn's patio door. It was a familiar-looking woman with tan skin, softly waved brown hair, and a kind expression.
Then her features morphed.
Her smile twisted into a snarl, her hair grew curly and long, and she suddenly looked a lot like someone else he knew—
“Eugene,” she said. Her voice was different, though.
Struggling to breathe, Gene quickly took a few steps away from her—
His back ran into a sharp, uneven wall.
Panicking, Gene quickly looked behind him to see the once-hedged rose bush suddenly towering far above him. Its stems crept over his shoulders, digging into them and trying to pull him into the brambles.
Abi and Mislav were gone.
Throat closing up, Gene yanked free from the thorny bush and desperately looked around for Abi.
“Abi!?” he shouted.
But his f̵̀̓ṟ̷͋ȁ̵͂o̸̿͆t̴̏̆h̷̡͌e̴̋̂r̸͌ was nowhere to be found.
“MISLAV!?” he screamed at the top of his lungs.
A sharp, stabbing pain in his wrists made Gene jerk back and look down. Where the thornless flower crown had been was a bouquet of roses. Their thorny stems now snaked around his wrists, curling and growing around them like a series of bracelets.
Gene shrieked and tried throwing them away, but they were stuck fast. As he struggled to shake and tear them off, they quickly bound his arms in a hobble knot, snaked down his entire body, and anchored themselves—and him—to the ground.
A tight, sharp-fingered grip jerked his head up by his chin.
When he was forced to look up, he locked eyes with the woman from earlier. Except now she looked different; instead of soft features and a kind demeanor, his chin was now clutched by a witch with golden-brown skin, hazel-green eyes, and a face twisted in disgust.
“What?” she demanded. “Did you really think they cared about you?”
The thorny restraints curled tighter around him, piercing into him as they dragged him closer to the woman. A different voice spoke over hers when her lips moved.
“Gene!” Mislav’s voice hissed. Something was holding him by his shoulders and shaking him.
Nothing resisted when Gene jerked away, opened his eyes, and tried taking a look around. But the bright light blinded him, making him squint to see.
And he saw hazel-green eyes in front of his face. The woman’s.
Throwing his arms up, Gene turned away and tried to shove the woman off of him. But his arms only hit empty air as he frantically swiped his arms and legs out to hit her—wherever she was.
His flailing limbs hit nothing, but he continued sweeping them through the air as he slowly regained his eyesight. He wasn’t by the inn anymore.
Instead, Gene was in a library. One he knew well.
Gene's arms and legs slowly fell to the ground as he scanned the area one last time, heartbeat throbbing in his throat.
There were rows of bookshelves lined with books, candles, and viney plants stretching around him. Everything was bathed in soft hues of oranges and browns as countless candles flickered from within and atop of the bookshelves, illuminating the library.
There was no worry of the candles lighting anything on fire, though. Nothing here would catch fire unless it was meant to, as this library was part of Rholvny’s church.
Rholvny, the Glavni goddess of fire, the sun, and countless other “good” things.
Not that Gene thought anything good of her.
Breath slowly evening out, Gene finally turned his eyes to the figure at his side. It was a boy with fluffy blonde hair and familiar hazel-green eyes. Mislav, who had a stuffed polar bear almost as tall as himself clutched between his arms and chest in a tight hug.
Gene's heart twisted—he'd swiped at Mislav—but he couldn’t help the wave of relief he felt at the sight of his only friend.
“You were having a nightmare again,” Mislav whispered, watching Gene as he hugged Misiu.