"Mother?” A tender whisper escapes me as I rub my eyes. “What are you doing here?” A lofty figure hovers in the shadows of my sleeping quarters. The broken shutter the boys have yet to repair reveals a soft breeze wafting through the graceful gown she’s wearing. Tonight, her hair is in a tight braid, the same as she used to style my own. She is beautiful as always. I try to resist, but a dimple forms in my cheeks nonetheless. I brush my thumb across it the same as she once did.
Her back facing me, she peers over her shoulder. Tears meander the contours of her face.
“Mother, are you okay?” I whisper to avoid waking the boys. “What’s wrong, mother? Why do you do this to me? What’s wrong?”
She twirls to face me, and I see it is not my mother at all. It looks like her in every way, except… Except for her eyes. They’re pale. Nearly as pale as the gown she dons and there is a vine strung about her neck. The once beautiful, now haunting figure wisps toward me in silence. I clench down on the frayed linens covering my legs and pull them to my chest.
“You’re not real!” My voice cracks. “Mother? What are you doing?”
“What have you done to me?” she retorts.
My body tightens as the woman advances and places a hand upon my leg. It feels like ice. I’m unable to move, yet I don’t want to.
“You’re dreaming, Jaymes. Jaymes. Wake up.” Stone utters with his cold hand placed upon my thigh.
I open my eyes to find him leaning over me. Without thinking, I slap him on the cheek. “Ugh. What are you doing?” I wail.
Stone retreats with a startle but quickly produces a genuine smile. He shakes his head and ruffles my already unkempt hair. For four seasons I have tolerated his kid sister approach toward me. My lips flatten at the thought.
The robins are serenading us with their regular tune as I roll over in my bed of dried grasses. A sound once blissful to my ears, now merely a wakeup call for which I have no control over the time or volume.
“Are you ever going to fix those shutters?”
The boys ignore my jab, and each loads a bow and quiver over his shoulder and snags his rod and tackle—because they often have lame hunts. They wave farewell to me.
“Wait!” I yell before the door shuts behind them. I throw myself out of bed and stamp my feet on the ground, consequently knocking the haversack full of fruitlets to the ground that I failed to store the day prior. Several scatter and fall through the cracks that plague the floor of our crude yurt.
“What is it? What happened?” Stone rushes back into the yurt with Goose right behind him—but not with the same urgency as Stone.
“Don’t you know what today is?” Stone shows genuine concern, but I see a curse about to slip off Goose’s tongue. I wish he were within swinging distance. “It’s the Summer Solstice!” I exclaim.
“Jay…” Stone narrows his gaze.
“Such urgency. For that?” Goose adds while throwing his hands in the air.
“C’mon, Jay,” Stone continues. “You know it’s never going to be like it used to.”
“Yes it will. It’s the Summer Solstice. Let’s go into town today and experience some of the festivities. They’ll likely have a silver screen showing. Are you not excited?”
“Are you serious?” Goose mocks me.
I scowl at him and look to Stone for a more favorable response.
The silver screen is a tradition I look forward to every season. A specific legend is highlighted during each season’s festivities, my favorite being The Blacksmith, The Warrior, and The Sister, which involves three siblings, all great and wonderful from their mother’s perspective, but the sister feels belittled beneath her brothers’ great achievements. In the end, she overcomes all her obstacles, including her brothers, and becomes the heroine. There’s supposed to be some underlying metaphor about growth and summer, but all I know is the young girl was invincible. The past three festivals passed us by due to our circumstances, but I thought maybe this season, just maybe, we would be able to venture into Greenport and enjoy the silver screen. And maybe some of the pastries too.
“Of course I am. Why not?” I cross my arms and ball my fists. “Four seasons have passed, and we’ve seen no signs of the Taoiseach. Nobody is hunting us! Plus, everyone will be celebrating. They won’t be looking for some long-forgotten fugitive children. And everyone knows we didn’t do it. And look!” I point to his feet. “We can get you shoes! Maybe some for me too if we can panhandle enough. Your leftovers are wearing thin. And the callouses…” I raise my foot to my face and pick at it. “C’mon, let’s go into town. Please? I promise we won’t regret it. It’ll be fun.”
“Jay…” Stone pauses and looks at the souls of his feet.
He moves in closer, draping an arm over me. I know a sympathetic no is to follow.
“…you know we can’t. As soon as we let our guard down, that is when they will find us. It’s too dangerous. It’s to protect you.”
“This forest is more dangerous than the Taoiseach!” I tense and pull away. “You’re only two seasons older than me, Stone. You don’t have to continue acting like my father. I want my brother back. The immature brother of seventeen seasons, the adventurous brother, the fun brother, the experimental brother, the brother you use to be before mother and father were killed.”
“We don’t know that for sure.” He breaks eye contact and stares at the floor.
We both know they’re dead, but Stone won’t admit it to me or himself. I press the matter harder. “Yes, we do. They’re dead, Stone. Just like Elder. We’re not all going to end up like them, you know.”
“Dammit, Jay!” He shouts at me.
I falter and step backward. It’s not often I fear Stone, but his tight jaw and harsh squint are signs of genuine loathing. I don’t know if It’s directed at me or if it’s a self-loathing, but I know I’ve gone too far.
Knowing we’ve landed at a redundant argument, I change the topic. No need to press it further. I’d prefer to make the best of my Summer Solstice. “Fine. If we’re not going into town, then I’m coming with you on your hunt.”
“No way!” Goose silences me with a nasty glare. “You’re a dainty girl. What if we manifest the kill of our lives, a Creature of the Night? What will you do then? You said it yourself, this forest is too dangerous.”
I rush him, but he corrals me and holds me tight. My skin flushes. Knowing my actions are childish and won’t prove my worth, I calm and let him hold me. It’s not in me to let him off that easy, though. Not without at least a jabbing rebuttal. “We haven’t seen a Lost Soul in the four seasons we’ve been suppressed to this wood. I doubt they even exist. Plus, your shot needs a target bigger than that. Not likely you’ll come back with anything that doesn’t have scales.”
As a last hope, I look to my brother for a second opinion. “Stone?” He merely shrugs his shoulders. “Fine! If mother…” I shove Goose away and give him a piercing glare, “…and father…” I look to Stone, “…say so, I suppose the decision is final.” I don’t need their approval. I’ve got my slingshot. I can kill my own meal.
“And that’s another reason why you’re not welcome,” Goose testifies and points down to the mess of berries I created. “You have no patience for the game. You’d scare off anything worth killing before it was in sight. You can’t go, Jaymes.”
“And you know what patience is?” I scoff at him. “Your entire world is an impulse.”
Goose steps toward me with a raised finger. “And impulse is exactly what you need when coming eye to eye with a creature that can tear you apart in less than a click. A bull doesn’t welcome hesitation. You would have to do the same.” His hand snaps forward and flicks me in the forehead.
I clench my jaw and glare at him. It takes all I have to refrain from giving him a bloody lip.
“You need to act on instinct, not thought. Even Stone struggles with this.”
“He’s right,” adds Stone. “Wait! What?” Stone’s gaze darts to Goose, but he moves on with his lecture. We’ve both learned to disregard Goose’s arrogance because it’s a losing battle every time we challenge it. “Plus, Jay, you have your own duties to attend to. You know we need to refuel the lanterns. It’s not a trivial task, Jay. Please, let’s just stick to the routine and we’ll all meet back here prior to twilight.”
“It’s not fair that I have to go collect berries and catch bugs,” I mutter under my breath. “Those are childish tasks. I can serve a better purpose.”
“Jay, you already are serving a good purpose.” Goose smirks. “You’re executing the tasks we don’t want to.”
I grab the haversack from the floor and throw it at him. I would have slugged him, but I know better. I’m a Gloomer that struggles with controlling my talent. Especially when I’m as enraged as this. And I don’t want to inflict permanent damage.
“Goose!” Stone elbows him. “That wasn’t necessary.”
“My apologies, great leader.”
“I’m not your leader.” Stone quails behind those words. He acts as the great protector, but when either Goose or I acknowledge it, he hides like a turtle. Except he doesn’t have a shell to hide in, so it just gets awkward.
Goose continues, “I only speak the truth. I’m too talented and skilled to be executing such insignificant tasks.” I swing my leg out to kick him in the shin, but he easily evades it. “It’s okay, Jay, the world needs people like you. Somebody has to perform the menial tasks. It keeps the rest of us sane.”
“Whatever.” I snatch my haversack at his feet and storm out the door. I don’t want to hear another word from him. He knows too easily how to infuriate me. I just want to… I just want to do more.
I follow a tight game trail through a thicket to where the raspberry bushes grow. I have to replace what I lost before ending the evening with catching bugs. Goose is right. They only let me handle the duties they’re too lazy to do themselves. They put themselves above me and think me a child. Well I’m not. We’ve been living this life of solitude together, but I’m more independent than they think. I don’t need them. This is all Goose’s fault. Why does he taunt me the way he does?
Pondering Goose’s comment, I make an impulse decision to ruffle the dogwood shrubs in the area while gathering. Not my typical routine, but I figure I can stir some thunderbugs while I’m out here. As early as it is, they’ll be difficult to see with a lackluster glow, but still visible. I failed to check the lanterns before I stormed out, but a few dozen ought to be sufficient for the night. They’re far more important than gathering the berries. And if I can get my quota quick enough, I’ll have time to do some hunting of my own. Forget gathering.
While rifling through the thicket, I wince as my legs are being abused by the underbrush, but I push through it. It’s not the first time I’ve made the poor decision to go scavenging in my thigh-high cutoff trousers and a sleeveless tunic. I’ve grown to accept the thrashings from the bush because the heat is far more taxing.
“Gotcha!” I snag a pair of the electrified bugs with the net I retrieved from my sack. I’m lucky I didn’t leave the net behind during my frenzy to get away from Goose. I always pack a few jars, a net, and my slingshot, and I check the contents of my haversack before I leave. But Goose, that asshole, had me so eager to flee the scene. “Argh!” I let out a wale of frustration as I dig through the sack. I shuffle past the slingshot and pull out the only jar to secure the thunderbugs.
Four more thunderbugs take flight. An excited bounce invades my step. Big ones. The bigger flesh burners have a longer lasting and more brilliant glow. Unfortunately, they also have a potent smell of burning flesh. My net flies and I snag all four in one swipe. Carefully, I trap them in the jar while avoiding escapees.
Still distracted by the morning’s conflict, I gaze into the jar and watch as their proximity creates a gentle river of light connecting each bug. It’s mesmerizing. They resemble lightning in a bottle, which I’m sure is why they’re known as thunderbugs. I bet if I asked Goose, he would not only have the answer, but also give me advice on how to be more efficient with capturing them.
“He drives me crazy!” While forcing the jar back into the haversack, it slips my grasp. I react, but not quick enough. The glass jar shatters, and the thunderbugs scatter.
“Argh! Why?” Another burst of anger bellows from my throat.
I watch as the bugs float away, occasionally surging with light. There’s serenity hidden within their energy. It calms me and I realize, just as the boys argued, it is a vital task. Each new batch ensures we won’t be eating in the dark—or be eaten in the dark. So, I must find a way to continue this menial task. I’m not going to be the one to fall short today.
I scavenge through my haversack to be sure there isn’t another jar hiding. Nothing. So, I peruse the undergrowth in search of anything worthy of containing thunderbugs. A nearby tiger palm will suffice. I tear a few palms from the tree and weave them into a small egg-shaped basket that opens and closes at one end with only a bit of pressure. I weave a second smaller basket to utilize as a cap.
After a couple hours of netting, the palm basket proves worthy. I peek inside to confirm my quota is filled, but a quick movement distracts me. There’s a hare bouncing about in a clearing not too far off. Not wanting to risk losing anymore thunderbugs during the hunt, I contemplate heading back to the yurt. But the hare is right there. This is my opportunity.
With my artillery in hand, I collect a handful of ammunition from the forest floor. Mostly pebbles and a few unopened cones. The brown and white speckles don’t offer much camouflage as the hare grazes on a patch of wild blue flowers growing at the base of a cottonwood.
“Easy shot,” I think aloud. The cute little hare, although aware of me, doesn’t treat me as a predator. I load the leather pocket with a pebble and cock it. One shot to the head ought to knock it out, then I can wring its neck. I won’t be refused any hunts after this.
Holding steady… And I release. I respire with the slightest flinch as a tall silhouette appears in the distance. My shot breezes right over the hare with a thwack against the tree behind it. The hare disappears.
I toss my slingshot against the tree and proceed to stamp out the wildflowers the hare was grazing upon. I peek around the tree, and the silhouette has disappeared as well. The noise must have scared it off, whatever it was.
“This should be called the Prey Forest, not the Broken Forest,” I groan. Everything is prey to something else in this wood. “Stupid shadows! Stupid animals!”
I’ll stay focused with the next one. I’ll show Goose what patience means. I swear it. Several hours pass, and I find myself swallowing my words about labeling this place the Prey Forest. Not another form of prey shows face. No hares, no grouse, no deer—not that my slingshot would do any good on a deer. With much shame, I call it quits and trudge back to the yurt.
As I break the thick of the wood and approach our yurt, I look to the sky to check the time of day. The sun creeps lower as Cerise rises beside it. They make acquaintances as they journey to opposite ends of the world. It’s nearing suppertime, but I don’t see any smoke curling from the flue. The boys should be back unless they’re struggling to put food on the dish.
The wafting aroma of a searing steak is what I wish for, but the redundant smell of smoked bluegill is what I expect. Instead…nothing. The only smell in the air is that of dirty pine—a smell that once played a pleasant role in my childhood. My mother and I would curl up by a crackling fire on cold nights, and the sweet smell of the freshly cut pine would waft throughout the common room. It’s a warmth I’ll never experience again, and if I am ever to become my own, it’s time to let those memories fade. Today, that smell only reminds me of the filth I live in anyways. It doesn’t have the same effect it once did.
I light the way to keep predators at bay—they catch the fish to fill the dish. Stone is always feeding me that corny line. They’re expecting me to clean and fry whatever they come home with. I know it. Well I won’t do it this time. I’ve exceeded my tolerance with their laziness, and its time I let them know.
I lunge forward to kick open the door for added effect. A searing pain immediately flows through my leg, and I fall to the ground with an unbridled shriek. The door, built by two of Azure’s most renowned craftsmen, is thatched together with the razor-sharp rune grass. And now it has a window with my leg stuck in it. I thought it strong enough to withstand the force of a young girl’s kick, but apparently not.
I lie on the ground in pain, my leg on the other side of the door, and I wait. Nobody comes. Not even Helios. That cat is getting lazier every day. My awkward position gives me no leverage to free my leg without intensifying the pain. I scream again, swollen with false emotion, to get Stone’s or Goose’s attention. Nobody comes. Good. I’m not helpless. I can figure this out.
The door is aged, making it quite brittle, but most of its rigid dagger-like quality remains. With every subtle movement, the razors slice into my calf. I put my self-pity aside and brave the pain.
“Argh!” I let out a large bellow as I rip my leg free. Excruciating pain explodes throughout my calf. “Damn!” It resembles the product of a meat grinder except for the blades of grass that remain attached to my flesh. With a quick jolt, I pluck them free one by one, grinding my teeth while doing so.
Fortunately, my nearly exhausted footwear protected the soul of my foot, but everything else was wide open for dicing. The lacerations don’t appear life threatening, so I ease to my feet, careful not to put too much pressure on the damaged leg.
“Stupid door!” I mutter to myself. “Why did they build it with blades of grass anyways? This was bound to happen. What a stupid idea.” Well, I’m not going to wait around all evening for those thoughtless boys to come back and help me.
I hobble into the yurt looking for something to use as a bandage. Helios naps on my bed mat. I shake my head at the indolent cat. His eyes open halfway, and his front paws stretch forward, toes spreading wide before kneading the grassy mat with a subtle purr. Then he goes back to napping.
As I rummage through my belongings, I cannot find any spare cloth. Not without having to tear strips from my limited wardrobe. A sly grin works its way onto my face as I look over to Goose’s wad of clothes bunched in the corner.
Not his trousers or his jerkin. He’ll need those come winter. This one. His best tunic. A faded green bandage will look rather nice with my cambric cut-off trousers. I pick up the fabric and set to tear into it when I see an etching on the floorboard beneath it. An old picture from one of the fables he used to tell me when we were first shoved into this lifestyle. His stories eased me to sleep back then. This picture was from his tale of the legendary Everweed. A cure-all plant he claimed originated somewhere in this forest. It’s a reminder of his kinder moments. Holding his tunic in my hands, I hesitate, contemplating whether he deserves this. He’s a dick. Of course he does. I tear a strip near the bottom hem. The sound of fabric ripping is gratifying, like the crunch of snow beneath your feet or the snapping of twigs on the forest floor. I tear a few more strips until I feel I have enough to cover the wound.
While bandaging my leg, I stare at the etching of the plant, and an exciting realization strikes me. I saw that plant earlier today. That hare was nibbling on it—the plant I used as an outlet for my failure.
I’m hesitant to forfeit my current position, though, as the day grows older. We’re not supposed to be out past twilight. Plus, Goose is boisterous and often secretive, so it can be difficult to trust his word at times. In fact, it’s public knowledge why my brother and I are secluded in this wood. The entire region knows of it. As for Goose, he’s never opened up about why he’s here. His father chased him away. That’s as much as we know. At the time of our escape, Goose was a ray of light in the dark. Our only chance at survival. We went out on a limb in trusting him in that moment and it was all we needed to accept him into our deteriorating world. I rub my fingers over the etching and ponder a moment. I want to find it.
I push myself to my feet and limp to the window. The sky holds enough light. Looking at my improvised bandage, I press down on my foot. It offers more pain than I’d like to endure. It could slow me down. It’s not going to stop me, however. Knowing exactly where I saw it, I can venture there and back before twilight. I know I can. I empty the contents of my haversack next to Helios, and I make way into the forest again.
As the shadows grow larger in the undergrowth, I keep an eye out for the smaller predators—the coons, pumas, wolverines, and the like. They don’t prey upon humans, but they’ll try their best to turn me into a savory meal if I cross their path. But when night falls, they’re no longer the concern. The prime reason to stay behind closed doors at night has many names across Azure. Creature of the Night, the Broken Behemoth, the Spirit of the South, and, most commonly, a Cryptid. My family always referred to them as Lost Souls. My father said they were once humans in a past life. Humans who lived a nasty and malicious life and have been reborn as beasts of the worst kind.
Who knows, though? They’re mere legend. In fact, none of us have actually seen one, but the legend originates from this wood, and we haven’t been willing to take any chances thus far. But that’s one of Stone’s many rules to keep us safe. Not mine. There have been a few tell-tale signs we’ve encountered, but we’re not positive. It’s a sight I’ll never forget. Just last Spring, the doe was hanging from a tree, entangled in forest vines, swaying like a dead man from a noose—and it’s unfortunate I can make that comparison. The pelt was draping from the hooves as if it had been peeled away. Judging from the small amount of sinew remaining, a savage tore into it once the hide was flayed with precision. The remnants had turned a purplish-blue color. Part of me was intrigued, but I was mostly terrified something capable of doing that lives amongst us.
We haven’t witnessed anything else like it in all the seasons we’ve been here. It was an isolated incident, which is why I haven’t jumped to the conclusion it was a Lost Soul. It was possibly a drifting mad hunter passing through the wood. We simply don’t know. Regardless, Stone has ground rules in place for our own safety, and the foremost is nobody goes out after twilight. It’s a rule I’d prefer not to bend. But I have plenty of time.
Despite the pain, I make it to my destination rather quickly. I scurry around the forest floor, ravaging bushes and raking through fallen brush in search of the Everweed. I know it’s here somewhere, but the fading light poses a challenge.
I’m regretting having smashed it with the very leg in need of it now. If I recall, Goose mentioned small clusters roughly ankle high with thick leaves resembling aloe shoots and vibrant blue flowering with a radiance about them that shines day or night. But he also said there’s a flower out here that can make others desire you. Yao grass…or yao weed…or something like that. So who knows if he was blowing hot air out of his pie hole or not about this Everweed. Though, the benefits of having a cure-all remedy on hand are countless. I have to at least try to find it. Knowing it’s within reach is tantalizing.
The outlandish variety of plant life with similar features in this damned forest isn’t helping the search. There are hundreds of species of trees from apple and cottonwood to gumwood and araucaria trees. The groundcover is just as overwhelming, including everything from small coniferous bushes to huckleberry bushes and even a variety of different grasses, including the infamous rune grass that caused this disaster. It’s as if all the known species of Azure all conglomerated in one area. I can only hope the plant I saw and the legendary Everweed are one and the same.
“Aha!” I locate the smothered plant at the base of a cottonwood. There’s a small cluster of them. Unsure of which part provides the remedy, I rip out the root and all. An entire crop might be justified with the amount of lacerations I’ve suffered, so I stuff my undersized haversack to the top.
The distance back to the yurt feels as though it has grown immensely with the pain creeping further up my leg. And the rags I wrapped it with are turning a darker shade as the blood soaks through. I’m not typically soft at the sight of blood, but this one seems to be affecting me. I look around and see the trees spinning, so I sit down on a fallen tree to collect myself. The dizziness isn’t subsiding. I just need to get back, and quickly before the twilight captures me.
I press into the log with my hands to aid myself in rising. I only take a few more steps before collapsing back to the forest floor. I’ve underestimated the damage done. My vision blurs, and I can no longer feel the pain. I climb back to my feet. I’m stronger than this. I can do this.
I manage a short distance, struggling to place each foot in front of the other before collapsing to my knees once more. Fatigued beyond reason, I am unable to remain upright. I lumber forward, and my face hits the debris-covered forest floor.
I muster enough energy to roll onto my back, and I see sentinels on guard all around me. Their silhouettes stand tall, and their leaves weep. They tower over me and stare down in mourning as if I were lying in a casket. I fear they are going to bury me. Then she appears, and the sentinels fade behind her radiance. She glides between them, moving closer to me. I wish she could help, but she is only an illusion I won’t let go. She’s angelic, as usual. She places her hand upon my injured leg. Any pain overpowering the numbness that has bestowed me subsides. Just before my exhaustion takes over, her angelic figure is dispersed by an encroaching dark silhouette.