The leaves were turning wrong.
When you lived in a wooded area for a while, you got so you could feel the rhythm of autumn. The leaves closest to the road, closest to the prevailing wind, closest to anything that chilled them down, turned first. The biggest trees turned slower. The middle of the woods turned slow and last.
But in the forest behind Erato’s house, there was an almost circular place where the leaves had starting turning quickly, almost before the little maple that faced the wind all alone to the west of her house.
She hiked out there, muck boots for the mud and flannel for the cold, and paced around the area, but there appeared to be nothing wrong with the trees. There wasn’t any sort of blight, no illness, just a sense of chill in the air heavier than out in the wind and a circle of trees turning red and yellow too early.
The chill was wrong. It offended Erato, who had spent a long life learning the way that the weather and the world moved in harmony. There shouldn’t be a cold patch there. That was the sort of thing that led to legends of ghosts, to teenagers drinking beer in your forest, to mess and ridiculousness. There weren’t any hot springs in the area; she’d have found them by now. A patch of ground did not grow chilly overnight when it had been the same as the surrounding forest forever.
Erato stomped around the area day after day, muttering to herself and looking for patterns. The color was slowly moving outwards, scooting a little further to the east than to the west, touching some trees – in lines, if curly ones – and not others. She brought out thermometers; they agreed with her senses. She brought out her tablet; it froze up and refused to work again.
Finally, she muttered a quiet fuckit to her science and dug into her grandmother’s books. She brought ginkgo and eyebright, cannibis (bought from a local student) and coleus. She brewed a tea that tasted nasty but left a strange tingling on her tongue and drew circles with the crushed herbs, following the path of the cold.
She should have been surprised when she found herself looking at the shadowed, translucent image of a long, ice-blue dragon. She found she wasn’t surprised at all.
“You,” she huffed, “are not from around here.” But it wasn’t like it was the only invasive species in the area. “Well… do you think you could nap in the Smith’s forsythia? They are a truly ugly specimen.”
She was going to have to study this thing and its effect on local flora and fauna. She might as well start with the awful forsythia.