All the unstable confidence that I had distilled over the course of the long night evaporated when I saw my father. His body was limp and colorless, stuck to the gnarled roots with a foul sticky substance. My breathing became frantic as I dropped my concentration and raced towards him.
As I made my way further into the clearing, I saw the rest of his original traveling party. They all lay on the ground, wrapped individually the same thick green goo. The members of my own party rushed in, each kneeling at the side of one of the fallen Plumerians while I tended to my father.
“Please, please, please be breathing,” I whispered as I cradled my father’s face in my hands. He was cold, but when I held my hand up to his mouth, I felt a faint warm exhale. I sighed with the small relief and turned my attention to his bindings.
The goo was unnaturally tacky. It adhered to my fingers as I tried with all my little strength to pull it apart. It was tough, too, about as elastic as a taut rope. The only way to break it seemed to be by cutting or slicing. I glanced down at the forest floor, puzzling, and noticed the green vines and dark roots that covered it. An idea materialized in my head.
Stepping back, I focused on my breathing again and summoned the Heart-Blossom’s energy. I reached out to the plants on the ground with my magic. The stubborn roots resisted my pull with vigor. But the green, rope-like vines obeyed, and they curled up towards me, like a pet leaning into its companion’s touch.
Carefully, I maneuvered the end of a vine down to where my father’s feet dangled out of his wrappings, and guided it upwards. I could feel it catching on the adhesive as it snaked between my father’s body and the inside of the cocoon. After some difficulty, the vine peeked its end out of the top of the bindings, where my hand was waiting to grasp it. Mustering all my physical and magical strength, I stepped on the vine where it lay on the forest floor, anchoring it as I pulled the end back towards me. For a moment I struggled against the tensile strength of the substance, feeling the vine’s energy weakening as it stretched. I poured all my will into the plant and caught myself encouraging it, actually coaching it under my breath. Finally, I broke through. The binding began to rip at the apex where I pulled, and I yanked downwards with all my might. The vine severed the wrappings all at once with a loud snap , and my father’s limp body began to fall.
I barely caught him before he hit the thorny ground. His weight dropped me to my knees. On the forest floor, I chose to ignore the thorns pushing against my skin as I held him close to me. Please, gods, moons — mother, if you’re listening — don’t let this be our last moment together. I pressed my forehead against his shoulder. The edges of my vision began to blur with tears. But before I could collapse into grief, as if my prayer had been answered, I felt my father heave with a deep breath. He gasped and coughed for air.
When I lifted my head, my father’s eyes eased open, and color returned to his cheeks as his breathing steadied. He squinted for a moment, then glanced down to my neck, carrying the pendant that he had given my mother, and my shoulders, draped with the pink dress she had made for me. He furrowed his brow with confusion, his mouth forming around Lily’s name before his eyes alighted with recognition. His lips were dry, but nonetheless he opened them to speak. “Lily’s necklace… and that dress…” he managed faintly, “Chrys, I—”
I smiled through my tears and corrected him, gently but confidently. “I’m Perfuma, now. Princess Perfuma.”
His mouth closed into a gentle curve and his dark eyes shimmered. “Perfuma… That’s beautiful.” His hand came up to cradle my cheek. “Thank you, Perfuma. I owe you my life.”
I layered my own hand over his. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, my… daughter.”
Our sentimental reunion came to a swift halt as a massive crash echoed through the Whispering Woods. I shot up to look out into the brush, but the impenetrable darkness beyond the trees hid whatever made the sound. I gently laid my father on the ground, avoiding the thorns, then steadied my mind and body in preparation for what was surely coming. As I raised both my arms at the ready, I felt a new wave of confidence and magic as the vines around me followed, hiking up like snakes about to strike. I scanned my surroundings for threats as the members of my party began desperately trying to lift their paralyzed comrades over their shoulders.
“Perfuma!” my father called out hoarsely, “Be careful! There’s a—”
His warning was cut off when the source of the loud noise revealed itself. Two pairs of barbed legs, thick as trunks, crashed through the trees and into the clearing. The beast had a giant triangular head with eight glowing red eyes and mandibles the length of my arms surrounding its gaping maw, full of needle-like teeth. Two more pairs of awful legs followed as the creature pushed itself out into the clearing, revealing the length of its round, iridescent black abdomen.
Oh, perfect. A giant spider. My inner sarcasm helped me compensate for the fact that I was quite literally shaking in my boots. I looked down at my father lying on the ground, helpless. Judging by the fear etched into his features, this was the beast that had attacked him, that had almost stolen my father from me. I wanted to show the monster that I wasn’t going to let that happen. Alright. Time to be a princess.
The vines in the clearing responded as I envisioned them curling together into thick cables and rising to face the beast. I closed my fists at my waist. Looking back at my stunned father, I shot him a quick wink. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’m always careful.”
The arachnid let out a dissonant screech as I thrust my arms forward and the vines lashed its eight legs down. I looked frantically at my compatriots, who were preparing to flee with the unconscious party members in tow. They froze in place and trembled, gripping their spears uselessly. I admired their non-confrontational instincts — in fact, I felt slightly embarrassed that my first thought was to fight. But, I reasoned, if this thing had managed to take out my father, not to mention most of his party, there wasn’t any use in running. “I’ll hold it down!” I shouted encouragement at them. “Use your spears!”
They glanced at each other, then one by one, each broke into a sprint towards the creature, spears first.
My vine restraints stretched and strained to subdue the creature, but as it sensed the oncoming charge, it snapped every fiber of the green cables. I scrambled to gather more vines, channel more magic, but too many things were happening at once, too many sounds and sights and feelings of terror.
As my concentration faltered, my thoughts darted around, first to my mother. I sorely wished her spirit would reach out again with some kind of counsel. I can’t do this alone, I admitted to myself. Maybe Sylvia was right. Maybe I should have stayed behind. I only just started using magic, and I don’t think it was meant to fight like this. I felt that ball of lead forming in my esophagus again, sinking down and filling me with dread. Oh, gods. I’m going to fail. I’ll die and my father will die and Plumeria will be left without a leader and it will all be because of my immature teenage whims.
Just as my grasp on the magic failed and the vines dropped to the ground, I felt my father’s firm hand gripping my shoulder. He pulled himself up to stand on his own at my side. His smile was weary, but his eyes were steady. “I suppose it’s time for your first real magic lesson, Perfuma.”
I watched as my father centered himself with a single, purposeful breath and glared towards the creature, now knocking over the party members like piles of pebbles. He lifted his arms forward with another deep breath in. Instead of the fibrous green ropes of vine I had been using, the thorny black roots that covered the ground creaked and groaned, rising shakily. He twisted his palms upward and a pair of roots cracked like whips in the spider’s face.
It was a spectacle that I hadn’t imagined was possible, my father taming those stubborn roots. However, after just one flick of his wrists, he heaved with exhaustion. “Perfuma…” he panted, “You have to help me. I don’t... have all my... strength back yet.”
Still in shock from witnessing his power, I hadn’t registered that we shared the same magic. “What? How? That was amazing, I can’t do that!”
“Just concentrate... on the way the energy flows... through the roots,” he managed between labored breaths. “There’s a pattern there... a rhythm. Don’t try to interrupt it or control it; just... play along.”
I turned back to face the scene before us. The monster had managed to shoot its green webbing, capturing two of the seven party members. We had to do something. Okay then. Rhythms. Patterns. I reached out with my magic to find the streams of energy. Behind the erratic, ferocious magical torrents, there was a steady tidal motion. The roots appeared to pulse slowly. Vitality ebbed and flowed from the forest into the clearing, to the central column we stood near, then back out again. It was almost as if they were breathing. In. Out. In. Out.
I synchronized my respiration with the gangly root system. Breathe in. Breathe out. I could feel my magic joining in with the rhythm.
My father must have sensed that I had found the pattern. He joined me in my breathing and then turned to me. “Okay.” His voice was gradually returning to its familiar soft baritone. “Now, just guide the flow where you need it. Tell it what you want .”
Visions flashed through my mind: my father and I, safe at home; my true self reflected in the Heart-Blossom’s surface; a peaceful life. Happiness. I sucked in one more breath through my nose, deep and even.
We extended our arms together, and the whole clearing came to life. Knots of roots and vines erupted from the ground, bearing flowers of all colors. Even the branches on the trees heeded our call and lurched towards the great beast. With a forceful exhale, a wave of flora at least twice my height surged forward. The swell gently pushed the remaining party members aside, but the spider was shown no such mercy. The sudden impact threw the monster off its balance, its legs flailing as we flipped it and sent it tumbling end over end into the brush, leaving a wake of fallen tree limbs.
The arachnid lay there on its back, its legs scurrying but finding no purchase. I beamed at my father, awestruck. He made a fist and pulled his arm backwards sharply, causing a sizable tree to fall squarely on the spider’s abdomen. It squealed and struggled to escape the trunk’s weight. When the beast finally managed to slip out, it hurried away from the scene and back into the Whispering Woods as fast as its skittering legs could take it.
My father rested his hands on his hips. “That ought to show them not to mess with us , huh?” He glanced over to me, but I rushed him and wrapped him in an embrace before he could react.
“I love you so much, Dad. Thank you.” I buried my words in his shoulder and he patted the back of my head.
“I love you too. Always will.” His smooth timbre was a salve for the turmoil of the past few days. I found my eyes watering at the sound of it. He ended the embrace and held me by the shoulders at arms length, meeting my teary eyes with his own. “Hey, Perfuma?”
I sniffled. “Yes, Dad?”
“Is this,” he motioned to my dress, “what you wanted?”
My heart lit up my face with a smile as wide as a sunflower. “Yes. It is.”
He brought me back into his arms, safe and warm. “I’m so proud of you.”
We managed to free the rest of our parties with relative ease, my father and I working together to snap the sticky green restraints open with my vine trick. Once everyone was back up and accounted for, we stood side by side, father and daughter, at the edge of the clearing. With one fluid motion, our hands parted the foliage once again, clearing our path back to Plumeria.
I looked back one more time at the clearing where I had rescued my father and honed my magic. The thorny black roots still covered the ground, but where they previously formed a thick trunk in the center, they now had receded and left only a small knot, just tall enough to reach my chest. As we walked back into the Whispering Woods, I could have sworn that, among the tangles, I saw a sliver of gold gleaming in the daylight.