Demons of Desire (Half-Breed Series Book 1)(4)

By: Debra Dunbar

There was a serene majesty to the place that captivated me in an instant. Gray Spanish moss draped from the trees. Instead of mown, manicured lawns, the foliage was a mix of indigenous plants. Water flowed throughout the park — as it did all over New Orleans. Ducks and other waterfowl loudly pestered visitors for food, waddling along as they begged. I was enchanted.

“Audubon Park was once a plantation. In addition to the usual trails and play areas, it harbors a huge selection of indigenous birds. Named for the famous James Audubon… .”

Jordan’s voice faded away, and all I heard was the sound of the trees — a low, soothing hum. Huge oaks, some over six–hundred–years old, spread thick, moss–draped branches low to the ground. Lagoons wound their way through the park, a reminder of the city’s below–sea–level elevation. The ironwork bridges and fountains irritated me by their presence. This was a place for earth and water, not human–wrought embellishments. Reaching out, I placed a palm against the thick bark of an oak, feeling its song through my skin. Something inside me shifted, and I felt myself sing back to the tree, achieving that sense of peace and alignment that always came when I worked with plants.

You may be old, but I’ll outlive you, I thought. I’ll watch your seedlings rise and fall, watch the waters nurture countless generations of your saplings.

Jordan had fallen silent, and I looked up to see the woman watching me, a quizzical expression on her face. Darci was over by a fountain, texting into her phone.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Jordan asked, walking close to put her palm on the bark alongside my hand. Her energy merged with the oak’s, strong and rich. “Wisdom and protection. The old gods whisper in their leaves.”

“Fertility and prosperity,” I replied, giving the tree one last caress. I had a few Wiccan friends in college and back home and recognized the reverent tone. Maybe Jordan was simply poetic in her passion for nature, but I got the sense her dedication delved into the spiritual.

“Do you practice?” she asked, confirming my suspicions.

“No, but I have an affinity for all things green.”

It was a weak explanation. What I felt wasn’t in the realm of religion or belief — it went into my very bones, into the blood that flowed through my veins. When I was in a forest, everything came together. I felt like I could lie upon the moss and melt into the earth itself. It was the one place where my crazy succubus side relaxed and stopped pestering me with her incessant needs. It was wonderful to know this place existed right here in New Orleans — a spot I could retreat to when I felt out of control and needed to center.

Jordan and I continued the tour while Darci lagged behind, still fiddling with her phone. I didn’t mind if she was playing Candy Crush or posting on Instagram. All this tree stuff wasn’t really her thing. It was a testament to our friendship that she was enduring this for me.

There was a parade of oaks, cypresses and other trees. I loved the Live Oaks the best — how their horizontal spread was nearly twice their height. They were the largest tree species east of the Rockies, from the red oak group of trees.

“Unfortunately, this one isn’t going to make it. We’re scheduled to take it down tomorrow, although there’s no real guarantee the disease won’t spread to the others.”

I felt it before I turned to look at the tree — a thick, sickeningly sweet aura. Black spots, like burns, dotted the bark of the Live Oak, and its leaves showed similar brown and black marks. It was as if someone had held a torch to the tree. I placed my hand on the bark — it confirmed what my eyes told me, and I jerked away in horror.

“Phytophthora ramorum.”

Sudden oak death. The plant pathogen was fungus–like in how it spread, covering the tree with cankers that bled thick sap. Under the bark would be discolored tissue and black lines. It was a death sentence, and the bane of every arborist. Removing the tree and surrounding soil was the typical response, but it often didn’t halt the spread. I worried for the old grove, but my greatest sorrow was for the sick oak.

I reached a hand toward the oak then hesitated. My supernatural green thumb had its limits — or did it? All I’d done so far was correct mineral imbalances in soil and adjust absorption rates. I’d never removed disease. I’d never cured. The oak was dying before my eyes, forgiving me my limitations. Noble. Accepting of its fate.

I couldn’t turn my back on this tree. My hand touched the damaged bark. A sensation of black sludge rocketed through me, twisting my stomach into a knot of pain. I pushed back, fighting my way through the haze of death, into the heart of the tree. The blight fought back, angrily defending its prey and stealing my breath with a smoky scent. A faint shout barely registered in my mind, along with the sensation of something on my arm. It felt strange, as though my body were coated in layers of wool, or as if I were buried deep inside another. Gold pushed back the black, expanding with a flash of light and heat.