Toad couldn’t stop gibbering over the roc talon and Melena couldn’t stop grinning. Becky left shortly after the end of game, snatching up her umbrella and closing the door with a loud bang, making Joe jerk out of his daydream and look around in surprise.
“Is the game over?” he asked. “Who won?”
“I hope we didn’t upset her too much,” Melena said to Izzie.
“Don’t worry about Becky,” said Izzie as Becky’s silhouette marched further from view through the window. “She’ll get over it. Eventually.”
As if the Shards were celebrating too, the morose clouds blew clear, sunlight streaming through the windows. But Hazel was impervious to it all and the sight of the dragon still silent, still sickly, dampened Melena’s happiness.
“How much longer?” she asked Izzie, bending over the fireplace.
“I can’t believe it!” Toad cheered behind them, holding the talon aloft. “I can’t believe it!”
“It’s been almost three days,” said Melena, growing worried all over again. “Can you tell if she’s getting better?”
“I said it would take time,” said Izzie unhelpfully. “But her scales aren’t so pale anymore. What was her color originally?”
“Emerald green. But how much time?”
“I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!”
“Maybe we should change the dressings again?” Melena offered.
“Toad!” Melena snapped, losing patience.
Toad spun in a circle, arms in the air, jubilation etched all over his face when he stumbled, mouth open in a silent exclamation. He pointed frantically at the fire. Melena whipped around.
Hazel was awake.
Melena couldn’t imagine feeling more happy than she was right then, watching Hazel sniff her bed of coals in an exploratory fashion. The little dragon didn’t attempt to rise from her cocoon of cloth, instead shimmying more comfortably into its depths with a soft yawn. No longer were her scales bleached white, but a light pea green.
Melena felt as if her heart had swollen three times its size. After Izzie assured her that Hazel was in a much better condition now that she had awoken, Melena happily joined Toad in exploring the traps Izzie had set up for crabs in the shallow, rocky pools along the beach.
The path that led down to a strip of white sand was just ten minutes from the cottage and its vine-covered roof was in clear view from the shoreline. They took off their shoes and dug their toes into the warm sand. Toad rolled up his pants and together they splashed through the shallows. Twenty minutes later, Izzie joined them on the beach with Hazel in her arms, still wrapped in her protective cocoon, though smelling the salty air with interest.
Izzie’s traps were heavy with blue-shelled crabs and Toad and Melena had a wonderful time digging for clams. As the sun sank into the ocean, bathing the sky scarlet, a great flapping made them look up: five rocs soared overhead, enormous, intimidating, and majestic. They watched until the birds disappeared into the fiery sun, and then, with Hazel beginning to shiver in her wrap, they hurried back up the steep path.
The trip down to the beach had been good for Hazel — her color was brighter than ever — but the evening chill sent her curling back into her nest of hot coals. In the morning, however, she ventured out of the fireplace on her own and ate a few left-over steamed clams from dinner for breakfast. After close inspection, Izzie pronounced Hazel well on her way to a full recovery.
“But I won’t be content until I’ve seen her flame,” she said, giving Hazel a scratch under the chin. “Once she’s done that, we’ll know she’s fit as a fiddle.”
So Melena and Toad spent the day with Hazel, taking her outside to explore the garden (making Izzie’s chickens scatter with angry squawks) and down to the strip of beach below, waiting for the once ever-so-present smoke to curl out of Hazel’s nostrils like it had done so very frequently before.
“Ain’t this how it is,” Toad grumbled, watching Hazel claw at the sand for clams. “When you need a dragon to breath fire, they don’t.”
Hazel cocked her head to one side as if listening for the hidden clams before burying her snout into the sand.
Toad shot Melena a tentative look. “We’ve got the talon now. Don’t you think we should be moving on?”
“You heard Izzie,” said Melena quickly. “We can’t risk Hazel relapsing if we push her before she’s fully recovered.”
“And I’m for that,” Toad agreed. “All I’m sayin’ is when she’s ready, we should head out sharpish. Deadline, and all that.”
They sat in silence, watching Hazel shake sand from her face. The idea of leaving the Shards was not a pleasant one. Melena had never felt so peaceful and safe as she did right then with her toes buried in the sand and the sun warm upon her back; the prospect of continuing onward to the winter-blasted Blackens and the terrors that waited there was uninviting to say the least. But that night as dinner cooked, she and Toad put their heads together. Clustered around the fireplace, bent low over a piece of parchment, Melena and Toad brainstormed what they would need to survive in the Blackens.
“Why ever are you going there?” asked Izzie, startled, after she overheard them.
It was the first personal question she had asked. Izzie had never questioned them about how Melena and Hazel had gotten in the state they had been in when they were dropped unceremoniously on her kitchen floor. Melena was grateful for Izzie’s lack of pestering, though it did seem odd.
“Mirg water,” said Toad promptly.
Izzie looked floored. “Springs of Mirg?” she repeated, looking from Melena to Toad and back again. “You’re planning on going to the Springs of Mirg? They’re restricted. You can’t travel there. Not legally. They’re dangerous,” she said, voice growing hard at Toad and Melena’s lack of consternation.
“Not legal? That’s annoying,” said Toad. He turned to Melena. “Does that mean we’ll have to go on foot?”
“Most likely,” Melena nodded, not excited at all by the prospect.
“But — ” Izzie opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and then, deciding it best not to say anything, returned to chopping radishes.
Tentatively, Melena asked, “Do you know anywhere we can buy supplies for the Blackens?”
“I would try East-of-Burg” said Izzie shortly, her back stiff.
It was the fourth day after the triumph of the roc talon and Melena woke very early. She rose from the nest of blankets on the floor — Toad’s rumpled hair just protruded from under them — and softly crept out of the house.
Izzie was already up. Melena spotted her in a chair beside her garden wall, overlooking the rushing sea, a fat brown hen pecking around her. The dawn was chilly and Melena shivered slightly. Something bumped into her ankle and she looked down: Hazel had followed her. Melena scooped her up and headed toward the garden wall.
“Morning,” Izzie greeted, a cup of tea cradled in her hands. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”
Melena shook her head. She sat down on the wall.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” said Melena. “We would have died if you hadn’t helped us.”
“I told you, it wasn’t a bother,” said Izzie.
“But still. Letting us crowd into your house. Cooking us food.” Melena wanted to express just how much Izzie’s kindness meant to her. “Not everyone would have been so willing to help.”
Izzie didn’t respond but continued to smile benignly at the ocean.
“Even Joe’s been well-behaved,” Melena added with a laugh. She could see the mug through the window, winking and mouthing something at her.
A silence stretched between them. Melena watched the hen scratch for worms; Hazel slipped from her arms and walked farther down the garden wall, swishing her tail; steam swirled from Izzie’s cup.
“Why do you want it?”
“Sorry?” asked Melena.
“The Seeking Solution. What are you looking for?”
Melena stared. “I’m sorry, I don’t—”
“You don’t need to tell me,” Izzie said quickly, looking suddenly apologetic. “It was rude of me to ask. Forget it.”
“No — what did you mean?”
Izzie’s eyes met Melena’s.
“You tried very hard to get that roc talon and you’ve been talking about the Springs of Mirg and moonflowers. I assume you have the moss and unicorn hair already? It’s obvious that you’re collecting ingredients for the Seeking Solution.” Izzie narrowed her eyes, suddenly suspicious. “Aren’t you?”
Melena could only stare.
“Well … actually —” Melena fumbled, “Toad and I … we weren’t told the specifics about the potion… you think it’s called the Seeking Solution?”
“You’re gathering ingredients without knowing what they make?” asked Izzie, sounding extremely confused. “They’re incredibly difficult to get.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Melena with a weak smile. “We were hired to get them.”
At this Izzie looked horrified. “But you’re children!”
“It’s a long story.” And because Izzie looked like she was going to ask for the details, Melena said quickly, “So, what does the Seeking Solution do? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It is a potion that will lead you to what you seek,” said Izzie, still frowning in consternation. “It isn’t very well understood and many practitioners of the Cauldron believe it’s pure fantasy because of the complication of the Vessel and the rather unorthodox instructions.”
“Vessel?” asked Melena, puzzled.
“The Vessel. It is a special cauldron, specifically designed for the potion. You should know that whoever you are gathering the ingredients for must have the Vessel as well. It will not work without it. Many attempts have been made to create the Seeking Solution and none have succeeded, because, I suspect, no one has yet used the correct Vessel.”
“And this potion,” said Melena, her heart suddenly racing, “can find anything?”
“Anything,” Izzie agreed. “Theoretically speaking, of course. It’s never been tested.”
“And you believe it’s real? The Seeking Solution?”
Izzie pursed her lips. Slowly she said, “The Seeking Solution is seen as folly by most, but I do … or perhaps, I like to think that it’s real. Though I would never say that at the Potions Guild,” she added with a wink.
The Seeking Solution. That was what they were gathering for Mr. Owl? She felt light headed. A potion that could find anything? Would it possibly … Could she dare hope? … Would it find Milo?
But the potion was for Mr. Owl, and — with a deflating sensation — Melena realized that Toad would never let her keep the ingredients. But could she convince Mr. Owl to let her have just a little of the finished brew? How much did the Vessel really need in order to work? And what was this Vessel? If it wasn’t a simple pewter cauldron, what container did Izzie mean? She was about to head back to the cottage, rouse Toad, and ask him whether Mr. Owl had mentioned any Vessel when he’d given Toad the job, when Hazel started to cough.
Melena darted forward, concerned, but Izzie held her back.
“I think …” Izzie murmured. “Excellent!”
For Hazel had just let out a belch of fire, singeing the tips of a nearby bush; the hen (who’d been coincidentally underneath the bush, poking at fallen leaves) let out a terrified squawk and flapped to safety behind the tool shed.
“I’m not your parent nor your guardian,” Izzie continued, as if Hazel hadn’t interrupted, “so I can’t stop you, but I implore you to be careful and to think whether getting these ingredients is worth the possible cost.”
“We’ve come this far,” said Melena stubbornly.
Izzie’s smiled wryly. “Common attitude of adventures.” She wriggled the fingers of her right hand, flaunting the missing digit.
“You mean … you’ve …”
“You didn’t think I’d always just gardened, did you?” said Izzie, shrewdly. “I was an explorer, once upon a time.”
“But not anymore,” Melena guessed, wondering why Izzie had chosen to live on the Shards, an isolated and lonely island.
Izzie’s smile was soft and rather sad. “No. Not anymore. I ran into some trouble. Fingers aren’t the only things that can be taken away. Just promise me that you’ll be careful and that you’ll look after each other.”
“Of course,” said Melena, with conviction. “Always.”
Toad was ecstatic to discover that Hazel had recovered her fire-breathing abilities and kept trying to temp her to do it again, dangling radishes in front of her nose. With laughter around her, Melena was free to return to the mystery of the Seeking Solution and the Vessel that paired it. What was its size? What was it made of? What made it so uniquely fitted for the Seeking Solution in particular? She knew of potions that behaved better if brewed under certain conditions. It was always best to boil fairy wings in a silver pot. The Sleeping Elixir was more potent when brewed during the hot months of summer. This Seeking Solution was similar, only so extreme as to only work in one particular container. The cauldron must be made of some rare, expensive material, Melena thought. Diamond-lined and such.
It was more than an unparalleled interest in potions that was making Melena’s chest tight with excitement: the possibility of learning the truth once and for all about Milo was at Melena’s fingertips. Shooting a glance at Toad as Hazel let out a playful shot of fire, making him duck, Melena knew she needed to keep the identity of the potion to herself. Toad knew how much she longed to find Milo. If he learned of the potion’s true purpose, he would grow wary. If he ever once suspected that she wanted to use the potion for herself, he might take the ingredients from her in order to get his promised gold from Mr. Owl.
She couldn’t let that happen.
They stood outside Izzie’s house, Melena’s knapsack packed with provisions from Izzie’s cupboard. Hazel lay curled around Melena’s shoulders. Joe was safely tucked away in Toad’s coat.
“It was wonderful to meet you,” said Izzie, giving Melena a hug and Hazel a gentle pat. “If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Yeah, if we ever get poisoned again, we’ll know where to head,” Toad joked, allowing himself to be embraced by Izzie.
“Now, Agatha will take you to East-of-Burg where you should be able to get everything you need and the train will take you the rest of the way.”
“I still don’t see why Ags can’t just take us straight on to the Blackens,” Toad grumbled as Agatha put the finishing touches on a new archway.
“She’d freeze instantly, Toad,” said Melena.
“But if I put her in my pocket …”
Melena rolled her eyes as Izzie said, “I think she’s done.” She hugged Melena and Toad once more. “Good luck, both of you.”
“See ya ’round, Ags!” Toad called to the orange spider sitting on a leaf.
They took a firmer hold of their possessions, Hazel dug her claws deeper into Melena’s shirt, and with their hands clasped together, they strode underneath the webbed archway and were swept away in a swirl of color and sound.