Updated: Oct 6, 2019
We need a new name. Ideas anyone? Our group has grown in members, and these titles are getting ridiculous. Comment with some name ideas!
Our picture this time comes from Jake's Pinterest Monster board. Jake and Andrea joined us for cookies and cheese puffs (jealous? You should be.), and my cousin, Ronnie, Facetimed in from across the country! So, welcome to the group, Ronnie! Sorry you didn't get in on the cookies...
So, as always, enjoy - and vote for your favorite in the comments!
“Okay, we are definitely lost.”
“No, no it’s fine, we’ll be there in like 15 minutes.”
“You’ve been saying that for the last hour.”
“Just trust me, okay? We’re close. I’m sure of it.”
Brianne sighed as she tugged on the straps of her backpack even though they were as tight as they could possibly go. They cut sharply into her shoulders but she hardly seemed to notice. She was too anxious. But what could she do about it? Once Cody got stuck on an adventure it was impossible to stop him. She checked her Fitbit: half past 5. If they didn’t turn around soon it would be dark by the time they got back to their car. “At least I got my step count in,” she thought.
They kept walking deeper and deeper into the woods. Brianne followed Cody’s pace as best she could, but, unlike him, she did not have the athleticism for hiking. Instead, she preferred to take in the sights and sounds of her surroundings. As they walked, Brianne’s mind drifted recalling the events of the day.
It had started out wonderful. They had woken early at their rental cabin enjoying the breathtaking morning and planning what they wanted to do for the day. Cody had been going on and on about a waterfall that he wanted to find. All it was going to require was a short trek into the woods. “It’ll be great! We can grab a bite to eat in town, hike the trail, and be back for dinner!” He’d been so excited for it Brianne couldn’t say no, even though her idea of a perfect day was to shop the little storefronts in town. They’d gone to brunch at a little diner where they had been served the most amazing cup of tea either of them had tasted in their lives. “It’s a new tea we’re trying out,” the waitress had said. “We’re giving our customers samples today to try.” They happily drank the tea and bought a box to take back to the cabin after their hike. They promised each other that they would return for more before they headed back home to more wedding planning.
“Oh! Maybe we could serve it at the wedding?” Brianne had said as they got into the car to drive to the trail.
The drive had been lovely. The sun had been out, shining its light on every tree. A breeze playfully teased the aspen leaves, making them squirm with delight. Brianne admired the beauty of the area, breathing deep from the fresh mountain air. It really was a beautiful day for a hike.
But her impression was quickly snuffed out at the sight of the trail. Instead of the light, airy feel of the forest surrounding their cabin, this area was different. It was dark and eerie. The trees were thick and beautiful and looked terribly old. Their limbs were heavy and ragged as if carrying the weight of a hundred years worth of secrets. They hung over the trail, glaring down at it like dog sneering at an intruder. It sent a shiver up Brianne’s spine as she looked at it.
“Well, we better get going if we want to find this waterfall. Come on!” And in they had gone. Brianne had looked back at the entrance feeling far less optimistic than Cody seemed to be. As they hiked, the forest grew darker, the light obscured by the vastness of the trees. The ground beneath them was littered with leaves and plants and yet, their steps fell silent on the foliage beneath them. Fog slowly rolled in, covering the ground, making it difficult to see the trail. “It’s probably just mist from the waterfall,” Cody had said. “It must be closer than I thought.” Brianne hadn’t really believed him when he said it, but she had continued on trying desperately to conceal her worry.
Minutes had become hours as they mulled their way through this forest with no sign of anything, let alone a waterfall. Not a bird or even a squirrel had been spotted for miles. Brianne shuddered at the realization. She hadn’t seen another living creature apart from Cody since they got on the hiking trail.
At the sudden crunch of a branch underfoot, she snapped out of her memory and looked around.
“Cody?” she asked. He was nowhere in sight. She’d let him get too far ahead while she’d been busy daydreaming.
“Cody, where are you?” she said a little louder. Turning all directions, she couldn’t see any sign of where he might have gone. “Curse this fog,” she thought. How would she ever find him?
She took a few steps forward desperately searching the ground for footprints when suddenly a huge black shape swooped just above her head, causing the ends of her hair to fly wildly in the breeze it created. Startled, she jumped, clasping her hands to her chest and searching for the source of her fear.
“Cody? Was that you?” she yelled. “Okay, Cody, this really isn’t funny. Come out already!” But she received no response except for the blank stares of the trees surrounding her.
As she stood there unsure and frightened, another massive black shape flew above her. Brianne watched it as it soared deeper into the trees followed by another and then another.
“They’re owls.” Brianne thought.
Dozens more appeared from nowhere and flew into the trees. Finally, after several minutes, one owl swooped in and landed silently on a massive tree branch. It sat quietly, its strange, glowing eyes never leaving hers. Brianne stared back unable to break from its gaze. The owl hooted at her, turned its head, and lifted itself into flight once more, following the same path as its predecessors.
“Does it want me to follow it?” She couldn’t understand why, but the pull that beckoned her forward was too strong and, with little hesitation, she took a few steps toward the trees slowly disappearing into their shadow.
As she walked, the forest grew denser, but the owl she had seen flew above her, perching itself in trees along the way so that she could follow it. Finally, as they drew close to an opening in the trees, the owl flew ahead, hooting and landed high in the branches of the trees. But it wasn’t alone. Dozens of owls were perched in the crooked branches, each one staring at her with glowing eyes. But amongst them was the most curious thing of all. There sat a young woman cloaked in a black winged robe, her face completely obscured. She seemed completely comfortable sitting up so high in the branches and was even sipping on something that smelled familiar.
“Hello, Brianne,” she said, taking another sip from her cup. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Brianne froze, recollecting the familiar scent of the tea she and Cody had drunk earlier and bought to take to the cabin. She scanned the trees, searching for some sign of him.
“Oh, you won’t find him here,” the woman responded as if reading her mind. She took another slurp from her cup, licking her lips. “But don’t worry. You’ll be reunited soon.”
Brianne’s heart beat frantically, her lungs unable to catch a breath as the woman slowly lifted her head, revealing glowing red eyes and a grimace of pointed teeth. And one by one, each of the owls perched overhead slowly turned their heads to stare at her, their eyes cutting fiercely through the blackness of their bodies.
“Please,” the being said, “won’t you stay for some tea?”
Hubby's sketch: (extra points if you understand the classic literature reference)
"You're late, Alex."
A church bell rang from somewhere in the distance. Alex nearly jumped out of his skin. It had been more than an hour since he had spoken to anyone. Last he had heard the bells, there were five rings. Now it rang six times. It would have been normal for him to be glad to see someone. But this was not the sort of encounter one gets excited about. Alex looked up, almost straight up above him. There, about twenty feet in the air, balanced perfectly on the overhanging limb of a nearby tree, was a young girl. She sat still, ankles cross, her face obscured by a dark hood. The hood itself had something like ears on top. It covered her shoulders and draped down beside her ending in what looked like feathers beside her dangling feet. The whole image had a weirdly owl-like appearance to it. But not quite enough owl to be adorable. And it certainly lacked in human quality.
"Um...late for what?" He was having a hard time collecting himself. Altogether, this had been a rather unsettling afternoon and it seemed things were not going to get better anytime soon. He waited for a response, but the girl just sat there staring at him. At least, Alex figured she was staring at him. Her face was hidden completely in shadow. In fact, most everything in this forest was hidden in shadow. There were only small points dotted here and there in the leaf canopy above that showed the sky. Not that the sky was much to see. It had been a dull grey the entire time he had been here. In a clear space just behind her head, he could see the clouds rushing windlessly past. It had made him feel off-balance before when he stared too long, so he tried not to focus on it now. Deciding it would be best to keep the conversation moving by himself, he continued, "Look, I just want to get..."
"Shh," the girl whispered. "It's time."
"Time for...huh?" Alex took a step back. He didn't particularly feel safer in doing so, but it was better than standing flatfooted.
The girl simply raised a slender arm and pointed at a space somewhere above and behind Alex. He desperately did not want to look, but something in him compelled him to. Slowly, he turned to the spot. There was nothing behind him but empty branches and dark leaves. He almost would have rathered something had been there. Alex's heart beat a little more quickly as he turned back to the girl. "Uh, as I was..." She was gone. "...saying," he half-mumbled as his eyes wandered directionless for the girls form. Her presence was far from comforting, but, now that he knew she was here, he thought he'd like to keep an eye on her.
Alex had spun almost completely around when he finally spotted her in the branches near where she had pointed. "Oh crap, no more games, please. Is this a game? No, no, no. I just want to get to the Bishop."
"Oh dear goodness, no. No games here, Alex." The way she used his name carried with it the sense that she knew something he didn't, but he should.
"Ok, good. Then can you tell me where..."
"What games did you play, Alex?"
"The games, Alex, which ones were they? There are many games to play, but I want to know which ones you played."
"Look, can you just..."
She interrupted again, but her tone was incredibly cold. "You need to tell me, Alex. It's what one does when one has tea. One talks about one's day." Out of the folds of her coat, or wings, or whatever they were, she produced a small tea cup and tray. She raised it to the shadows and - Alex assumed - to her lips. A small field mouse squeaked and tried to leap out of the cup. Something in the shadow of her hood clamped on the mouse's tail and pulled it in. There was a mixture of muffled shrieks and the crunching of tiny bones. The girl swallowed and continued, "It's. What. We. Do. Alex." He couldn't see, but he could hear her smile just at the end as she said his name.
Alex couldn't decide if being unable to see her face was a good thing or a terrible thing. It left things open to the imagination. Everything about this place where Alex had found himself was off kilter. It appeared normal enough on the outside, but the longer you stared at something, the less familiar it became. He had walked through a patch of giant mushrooms, or so they seemed, until he thought he heard someone screaming in the distance. He stood still and tried to figure out where the sound was coming from. Before long he discovered the sound was coming from the mushroom, or perhaps, from inside the mushroom. Looking closer, he could almost make out faces in the blotchy patterns on the outer surface of the fungus' top. The longer he stared, the more he could make out distinct faces. But when he would focus on one, it would shift and just be a random smudge. Then, at the outside of his vision, another would appear. Then another. Then he could hear the screaming clearer. He could see the faces clearer. Were the faces screaming? The couldn't be, there were...were they? Just as one face started to take on a startlingly familiar appearance, far too much like Alex, he heard a very distinct voice in his head.
At the time, it seemed like good advice, so run he had. But now...
Worried about the girl's reaction should he ignore her, he tried to tell about the "games" he had played a little over an hour ago.
"So, I bumped into this...guy. A tall thin guy." His mind got away from him. There had been a man standing behind a tree just barely wider than his head. He was wearing a suit, and either had the head of a rabbit, or was wearing a rabbit mask. Neither option was very inviting. Two white, crooked rabbit ears protruded from either side of the trunk. Alex had to fight off a shiver crawling up his spine. "He asked me a bunch of riddles. He said it was a game and I had to play or I'd...I'd be late. Hey, what is it I'm late for exactly?"
He had almost forgotten his situation and was starting to feel a little peeved. He glanced up at the girl and was met by over a dozen pairs of glowing eyes that had certainly not been there ten seconds ago. Almost twenty small owls had appeared on every open space next to and around the girl. Alex's throat got stuck between a yell and a gasp and remained silent. When he didn't say anything for a few seconds, the girl prompted him, "What riddles?"
Alex forced himself to respond. "Well, not riddles I guess. I don't know. He said I had to play and started reciting this rhyme. I guess he expected me to say it back or something. He didn't really explain. And then he..."
Alex could feel the air around him grow colder. "Uh, I don't know. I don't know it! I'd never heard it before! Something about...a skeleton and a grave or something..."
As if there had been some silent cue, a hundred tiny whispers started up in every direction.
"How doth the little skeleton Maintain his rotting bones, Communicate, "what have I done?" While speaking all in groans!
How cheerfully he seems to grin How soft he keeps his bed, And welcomes all the peasants in Until they all are dead!"
The whispers faded away. Alex realized his eyes were shut tight and nearly every muscle in his body had tensed. He had to tell himself to stay calm and just answer the girl's questions.
"Yeah, that one." He forced his eyes back open to look at the girl. She was no longer in the tree. Somehow, she had silently moved right in front of Alex and was easily within arm's reach. The hood still obscured her face, but she was close enough he could hear her breathing.
He glanced sideways, not genuinely wanting to see under her hood. His mind brought back the image of the rabbit-man. After Alex had apparently not played the game correctly, the rabbit-man slowly made its way from behind the tree. The head looked like a real rabbit, save for its massive size, but they eyes looked dead and the mouth didn't move when it spoke. "One and two. And through and through," it said with a disembodied voice. The head tilted slightly and a small, dull pink tongue lolled out of the partially opened mouth. It pulled a dagger with a wavy blade from a pocket inside its suit jacket. Without warning, it charged at Alex screaming madly, "One and two! One and two!" It leaped on Alex before he could run and tried stabbing him in the face. Alex put his hands up and kept beating away the rabbit-man's flailing arms. Alex could just make out a line of scar tissue around the thing's neck where it looked like its head and body had been sewn or somehow fused together. His question of whether it had been a mask or a real head had not bee answered to his satisfaction. He didn't want to gamble with his curiosity again now.
The girl didn't appear to move, but somehow she felt closer and closer every second. It felt like she was trying to stare into or maybe even through him. Alex was just about to take a step back when the sound of a church bell rang sorrowfully in the distance. It sounded impossibly far, but he appreciated the break in silence. He counted the rings to keep his mind from how close the girl had gotten.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Sev...
There was no seventh ring. Had he counted wrong?
The girl again raised her arm and pointed toward the sound of the bells. "The Bishop is that way, Alex."
Alex followed her finger and saw a straight path through the trees. It looked - at least from there - easy enough to follow. He dared a look back at the girl, but she was gone. In her place was a small teacup with intricate, faded calligraphy on the side. He picked it up and read aloud, "Drink me."
"Yeah...no." He wasn't sure who he was replying to, but he also wasn't sure it mattered. He set the cup down on the ground and turned toward the path. He hoped this was the way. He had spent enough time here already.
With a dive and a quick swoop upwards I was gliding expertly between the tree branches that threatened to slap me out of the air. One misplaced wing, one wrong turn, and I’d be swatted to the ground below.
And that I couldn’t afford.
I took a chance and glanced over my shoulder and noted the all-consuming darkness racing towards me. Mere yards behind me, I hated to know what might happen if it managed to grab me.
Another dive, another swooping motion. I handled a sharp set of turns by pushing off of trees with my bare feet. The rough tree bark meaning nothing to my well calloused feet.
Foolishly, I dared another look behind me, hoping I was feeding the distance between me and…whatever this was. But no luck. Mere feet behind me, it was devouring the forest with a monstrous rage. I could hear rabbits screaming, the worried cries of deer, and the howls of wolves before they were snuffed out by the black.
Caught in the sight, I didn’t notice the large tree branch that I was headed for. It caught me in the right shoulder and I instantly plummeted to the ground. Shadows and brief shapes swirling around me as I fell, all the while wondering what this type of death would be like.
I curled into a ball once on the ground. Knees to chest, arms around my legs, and exhausted wings wrapped around me completely.
My heart pounded furiously as I listened to the wave of darkness that sounded like a rushing wind coming to engulf me. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited with bated breath.
The rushing noise gained then suddenly stopped. Was I dead?
Hesitantly, I unfurled my wings and to my surprise, I saw the dying light of evening overhead. No darkness to be seen. That is, until I looked behind me.
Where the darkness had raged until disappearing, the world had been blackened and burned away as if in a fire. Grass was gone, the ground was scorched of anything living, and the trees had been squeezed dry until they were withered and crooked.
Miraculously, the darkness hadn’t caught me. A fate most terrible I could only assume.
Gingerly, I got to my feet and felt the weight of my injuries. My shoulder had been dislocated and my one wing hung limp. When trying to flex the wing, a pang shot up my back, telling me it was pointless. Something was broken.
But there was always someone worse off.
“Hey! Somebody! Somebody help!”
I turned in a circle, brief recognition putting me on edge.
“Over here! Is anyone there?!”
Like an idiot, I tried to spread my wings and nearly collapsed at the motion. Walking would have to do for now.
I began running through the harrowing forest before coming upon a figure hunched over while kneeling on the ground.
“Singor? Singor is that…is that you?” I asked uncertainly.
“Aasa?” Returned an excited but terror filled voice. “O Aasa! What was that?”
I neared my friend and knelt beside him. He was clutching something to his chest. Black and grey dust was smudged all over him and I found myself to be similarly filthy when I looked at my arms.
“What was that?” Singor repeated looking at the striking line that marked the living part of the forest and the dead part. I stared at it too.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Are you…okay?”
I looked him over but didn’t notice any real injuries. His brown red hair had been messed and his skin was paler than usual. But altogether, he was in one piece.
“I think so,” he said before looking at me. His slit shaped pupils wide with horror. “But, he’s not.”
He let his arms fall open to reveal a little creature that took me a minute to recognize as a squirrel. It had been attacked by the darkness and its life had been ruthlessly torn away, leaving it darkened, twisted and dead.
“O Singor,” I murmured, unsure of what to say. “I’m sorry but…Your arm!”
I quickly motioned for him to drop the dead animal and grabbed his arm. Beginning in his hand, a shadowy blackness had seeped into his skin. Like poison it was traveling along his veins and promised harm.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“I…didn’t notice it…” he admitted, his voice shaking now, clearly unnerved.
I pushed back his sleeve to find the darkness moving rapidly through his body. Even where patches of his body had snake scales, the darkness was turning their shiny, brownish black a dead, withered grey.
“What do we do?” Singor asked, sounding like a child.
“How am I supposed to know?” I asked, being brutally honest. “I don’t know! I…don’t know…I’m sorry…I…” My chest tightened as I saw my friend, dying in front of me.
The darkness was to his neck now, he lifted a hand to his throat and winced.
“What do I do?” I asked him as if he were supposed to know. “Tell me! What can I do?”
Panicked, I took in my surroundings and didn’t spot anything that might help. What herbs could help? What roots? What teas or foods? It all appeared thoroughly useless. It all made me useless.
I was simply there to watch.
Even when Singor curled into a shivering ball on the ground, I just had to sit there and watch. His skin turned ashy black and grey and the life left his eyes so suddenly I wasn’t sure what happened.
“Singor?” I asked in the dark of the wood. “Singor? Can you hear me?”
“Time heals all wounds.”
What a ridiculous saying. If anything, time gives you more time to think about the wounds – more time to meditate on what hurt you. But nothing really heals. Not completely, anyway.
Even my wing was still bent and unusable. My black and gold feathers were nothing more than a decoration on my back now. (A decoration that ached every time it rained).
But that wasn’t the only wound I held onto. The death of my friend and half of my forest home left me scarred and mangled inside. The darkness hadn’t caught me, but in another real way it did. And the worst part was, after three years, I still didn’t know what it was.
Three years seems like a long time and it seems even longer when you are trying to solve a horrible mystery.
But that time gave me a chance to grow in more ways than one. I wasn’t one of the other nymph creatures that hid in the trees or huddled along the ground. I didn’t scurry at the sight of men or run away from attacking forces.
Now, I was the reason others ran.
“You’re a moron, you know?” one man walking a trail through the forest noted passively. “A real idiot.”
“O yeah, well who is the real winner here?” his buddy replied while raising a bag that jingled every time it moved.
“You think they’re not going to tell? They saw your face for goodness sake!”
The first man pulled a flask out of his coat pocket and brought it to his lips.
“And I told them exactly what would happen if they breathed a word,” the second taunted as he ripped the flask out of the first man’s hand. “You saw how that old lady was crying when I told her how I’d…”
He raised his head to take a swig of liquor and froze at the sight of a large shadow sitting in the tree above him. The flask tumbled out of his head. His partner began cursing before noticing the figure as well.
“Go on,” I said calmly, stirring a cup of hot tea in my hand as I sat patiently in the branches above. “What would you do to her?”
“I uh…I…” both men stumbled over their words before turning around and sprinting in the opposite direction.
I sighed, bored by the concept.
They certainly didn’t make it far. A tall spear flew between them and landed at an angle in the dirt before their feet. Afraid to go further, they each skidded to a halt.
“Now,” I said, letting myself fall out of the tree and landed expertly on the balls of my feet. “Let me tell you what I’m going to do.”
I grabbed the one man by the front of his shirt and ripped the spear out of the ground at the same time. When the other man tried to run, a spun and used my good wing to knock him to the ground.
“Why are you doing this?” the man in my grasp complained. “What did we ever do to you?!”
I shook my head. “It’s nothing personal. Just like taking that bag of stuff from innocent people wasn’t personal for you, I’m sure.”
I brought the tip of the spear closer to his throat and savored the movement.
“What if we could help you?” the man on the ground shouted.
“Help me?” I laughed. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Information!” he explained. “That thing – that wave of death a few years back? We know who caused it. We have a name. You care about that right?”
My eyes narrowed, a shiver going down my spine. “Keep talking.”
“What did you find, darling?” Her smooth voice came from the shadows of her hood as she moved the dirty teacup in her hands, staring into the dark liquid swirling around within it. She shifted her head slightly to look at the owl sitting on her branch to her side.
He let out a short screech in response. His glowing, white eyes finding the darkness where hers would reside on any other human.
“You saw some approaching?” Her hooded head tilted. “Poor souls.” Her head lifted towards the branches higher than her own. An owl nibbling on a branch, two others caught playing with the streamers of a caravan foolish enough to enter the forest. The humans running the caravan got away though. Rather unfortunate if you ask her, her babies didn’t even get a nibble. Another was holding the base of her bone-carved knife in its beak, its blade stained a slight red. There were three hovering around a small saucer with a filthy teacup in the certain, dipping their beaks in and coming out with the tips a slight crimson color. Her own little parliament.
“Shall we go see them?” She lifted her bare feet off into a crouch and propelled herself into the air. The feathers of cloak rustled in the wind as her darling owlet tried to keep up with her. She flew through the branches in the trees and their own foliage as they allowed her and her owlet passage through. “Thank you kindly.” She whispered.
She came near the edge of the woods, finding her place on a branch, her legs dangling off as she looked out towards the pathway from the plains. “You were right, my darling. There are fools about.” She saw a small cart, a rather large man sat at the helm, holding the horses’ reins as it trotted down the path. He had short, brown hair, ratty clothing, but a small, hesitant smile on his round face. The woman had much the same as far as clothing went, both their shirts were torn a smidgen at the end of the sleeves.Poor folksShe thought. No one will miss them.When they cross the precipice, it will be only their own fault. The woman carried…something cradled to her chest, covered in a thin wool blanket. A child.A welcome surprise.
The man’s smile faded a little as they got closer to the woods. If you value yourself, you’ll turn back. He turned around, saying something to the woman and they had a conversation She couldn’t hear. Their cart edged closer and closer to the wood. It is only your own fault. She thought as she pushed backwards off Her branch, floating backwards to her parliament
She watched as the horse struggled to move around the branches and the cart rocked an uncomfortable amount for the apparent mother as she closed her arms ever tighter around her still-quiet child. The woman says something to the man that She can’t quite hear. As they ventured closer to the wood, She heard their hearts beating ever quicker, little beads of sweat running down the man’s face and neck. The mother flinched at each little hoot Her parliament made. Perhaps Her reputation is greater than She is in the human world.
She stood on her branch, gently putting her weight on it so it creaks causing the woman to look around nervously. Your fear is good. You should’ve listened to it.
At Her command, one of her owlets circled overhead, something the man had apparently noticed at he stared up at it. He says something unintelligible to the woman, but they continue. She hears their hearts continue to beat, nearly deafening the small noises that Her owlets make. The rest of the wood eerily quiet, something else that should’ve tipped off the little grouping to find another route.
She commands the owlets to make more noise, little hoots, barks and screeches far enough apart to make the humans believe they might’ve been safe until the reality of their location reared its ugly head again. The man was getting restless, his hold on the reins tight. She knew he was debating cracking the whip so they’d get out of this place as fast as they could. But she couldn’t have that, now could she?
An owl shot out of the leaves, using its, one could say supernaturalstrength to claw the reigns from the bridle. A larger grouping of owls shot out after tormenting the horse, swooping in and out, clawing at the stallion’s skin, its eyes. The horse panicked, picking up onto its back hooves as it seemed to try to fight away the avian swarm to no avail, they won’t be going away, dear horse. The couple yelled, the baby even doing its part.
The horse shot off into the foliage in fear. The man and the woman stared to where their lead had dashed of to as the owls dispersed back into the trees, silence returning to the wood only being broken by the child’s heinous screeching.
“I believe its time, children,” She whispered. She gently shifted herself off her branch. “Seems you’re having difficulties,” She breathed floating downward behind the cart, cutting off the immediate escape back to the plains pathway. The two adult humans swiveled their heads around to see, gently floating before them, her pale legs extending out from beneath her feathered cloak, small ivory hands escaped the cloak, a saucer in one hand, a dirty, chipped teacup in the other. She saw her owlets forming behind the now turned backs of the humans.
“It’s the witch! The Raven Queen!” the mother pointed accusingly at the cloaked figure.
“Raven Queen? My dear, your stories are quite inconsistent to reality,” She lifted the teacup in front of her face, or at leas where it would’ve been if it wasn’t being covered by the cloak’s bulky hood. “Owls make much better company,” Her head tilted upwards, behind the humans, who followed the shifting of Her head.
Black-feathered owls sat perched on branches, eyes glowing an otherworldly and ethereal white one still nibbling on its branch. Another, larger one sitting stoically next to a decrepit, dusty teapot. Some had even strung up the streamers they pillaged across the branches, giving the dullness of the wood a bit of a pop of color. She hadn’t yet decided how she felt about it. She floated over the heads of the stunned humans, joining her parliament in the center of the lowest branch. “Don’t you think?” She finished.
The man took a stuttering hop to the back of the cart, putting his hands protectively around the woman and child. “Don’t make this harder for yourself, darling.”
“You won’t take her!” He shouted with hollow bravery in his voice, easily betrayed by the fear in his eyes and the delicious pounding of his heart. She tilted her head one side, then the other, contemplating. She set her teacup down onto the saucer, extending a pale finger forward, pointing to the small huddle. “But, do leave the young for me.”
The owls shot out of the trees towards the humans. She averted her gaze in a way one would describe as humans closing their eyes, enjoying the sounds. The screeching of her owlets, the shrieking of the humans, the ripping, clawing and squishing of flesh. “Bring it to me.”
The child had been left miraculously untouched by the horde. The adults were mostly unable to be seen, the flight of owls covering what was surely a quite decadent feast for them. Two owls carried the shrieking child up to Her, their claws digging into its skin, small droplets of crimson running down.
She looked down upon it as the owlets let go, hair matching the man, eyes matching the woman. If they really wanted you and they to live, they would’ve listened to their stories. She ran her pale, hand down the side of its face. She pushed her nail into its cheek, entering the bloodstream. She pulled out, admiring its color and pushing the finger into the shadows of her cloak. Not bad, child.She hoisted the child, hands around its waist sideways closer and closer to shadows of her hood.
It disappeared into the darkness; a faint squishing being heard over the much less faint squishing of the mob making its own meal of the adults. The head came first and with it, relative silence, then the shoulders. Those were always a little difficult. The waist and hips, then the legs and feet disappearing into darkness. She could feel herself being rejuvenated, power maintaining, power even growing.
Then, she felt it come back up smaller, she choked and coughed allowing it to pass through her and land into her cupped hands in her lap all at once through the darkness of her hood, a small, owl chick with feathers black as night and glowing silvery eyes. “Welcome to our little family, darling,” She laid the chick in her lap, picking up the saucer and empty teacup. “Sweetie, I need a little more,” as she said that, the large owl, carried the teapot up to her and it poured the thick, crimson liquid for Her.
She took a small sip. Their child’s was better.
Shana’s wings ached.
She dragged herself up the tree, using her clawed toes to support the climb, flapping feebly to keep her balance and grasping the bark with calloused fingers that were scratched and bruised.
Owlets were not supposed to fight, but it’s not like she could help it. When the Foxes came at you like that, there really wasn’t much she could do – at least not if she wanted to keep her pride.
“Fat lot of good pride does you,” she chided herself under her breath, “Aches and cuts everywhere, and you can’t even fly after that vicious Vixon knocked you into that elm tree.” She cursed herself silently for caring about the insult that had brought her down from her perch into the fight. If she could just learn to let some things roll off her feathers, she’d be much better off. And she’d already be peacefully asleep with her kin in her home tree, too, she added grimly to herself, and not clawing her way up a strange tree just to get a few winks of sleep before night began and she could call some kin to help her home. She didn’t look forward to the conversation with her mother – maybe she’d stick with the non-talkers for awhile – at least till her wings got stronger again.
A coyote howled in the distance, making her shiver, just as she reached a semi-hospitable branch and yanked herself into the hollow, curling her wings around her body and pulling her cloak snugly over her feathers. Tucking her head into her arms, she tried not to think about the foxes – or coyotes – but fixed her mind on the sparrows that were starting to wend their way home now as twilight threatened. Fitfully, she fell asleep and napped.
When she woke, the stars were starting to peek out of the dark, velvet sky. The moon was a clear-cut crescent with no clouds to hide its sharp edges. Shana peered miserably out of her folded wings. The few hours of sleep had just settled the aches further into her bruised body. She tried to stretch and stopped, biting her lip in pain. Rolling her shoulder back, she discerned that her left wing was still out of commission, perhaps enough to warrant a visit to the Herb-Grower. She groaned.
Squinting, she saw one of her non-talker kin swooping after mice on the forest floor not far away. She hooted, softly at first, then louder and more urgently. The silent arrival of several non-talkers was not a surprise to her, but she was struck suddenly by their loyalty to her kin, and her lack of sleep plus the pain in her wing drew tears to her eyes as they clustered around her, hooting softly in concern. She swallowed the tears back and choked out a couple hoots in answer to their questions. Hopping regally around and on her, they held a quick conference, and then two flew off to the north, and two stayed with her, keeping her company with their soft and comforting silence. They nestled into her on either side, and the feel of their smooth feathers and warm little bodies brought her a sense of peace that she hadn’t felt since the fight. She drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly.
When Lenor and Baon arrived, she was more emotionally prepared for the inevitable questions and sighs that came when she meekly told her story.
They each took an arm and supported her as the trio headed home through the darkness.
“Shana…when will you learn?” Lenor said in a longsuffering voice.
“No need to engage,” Baon said gruffly. “No need at all.”
Despite their rebuke, Shana was grateful for the warm pressure on her arms as they flew. She may be a reckless Owlet, but she had good kin.
“It’s so hard to let that pass,” she argued in a whisper. “After what they said, I just couldn’t keep flying by.”
“You could, though,” Lenor urged. “You really could. It’s not that hard to just ignore it.”
“Yes, it is.” In her mind, Shana shouted it back. “Yes, it is! You just don’t understand, because it’s not your…”
“I know it’s your sister,” Beon said in his deep voice, “but you still need to learn to ignore them.”
Shana felt tears come to her eyes again, but this time they were tears of anger. No one understood, though they acted as if they did. Yes, Ghada was her sister, but everyone acted like her problem was not really an issue.
If the foxes knew it, then the whole forest knew it, and that means it wasan issue. How would she ever find a mate? Who would want to bond with her? What would happen if she ever got lost and had to fend for herself? Not being able to hunt like a real Owlet, not having wings, meant that everythingwas different for her. Shana felt the fury of the foxes’ insults return to her and clenched her fists. Kin of wingless spawn, they’d taunted. Might as well be dead – she’s too weak to be one of us and too flightless to be one of you! What good is an owlet without wings? Wingless! Wingless!
It was unbearable.
They arrived home a little too soon for Shana: she hadn’t quite prepared to face Mother or Ghada yet. Father was out hunting, but Mother’s pursed lips as she set aside the tea set and thanked Beon and Lenor boded ill. Ghada was all sympathy. She pulled Shana into their tree-top hut and sat her in her nesting corner on a pillow so she could inspect Shana’s wounds and put salve on her cuts.
“Does it hurt much?” she asked softly, raising light green eyes to Shana’s face.
“Not the cuts,” Shana replied shame-facedly, “but my wing…”
“Beon is fetching the Herb-Grower,” their mother said tartly, kneeling next to them after having seen her escort off. “Shana, what happened this time?”
Shana avoided their eyes. “Just some stupid foxes, Mum. Saying nasty thing…you know how they are…”
Shana’s mother snorted. “Nasty enough that you had to fight with them when you knowtheir fangs and claws make it an uneven fight? Think, Shana! Think!”
“Ye-es…that nasty,” Shana said tersely, meeting her eyes and nodding slightly toward Ghada, hoping her mother would take the hint.
She did. Her lips drew in more tightly than before, and her eyes grew flinty. “You’ve got to learn to ignore them, that’s all,” she said through clenched teeth and got up to get bandages.
“Youwouldn’t,” Shana muttered under her breath.
Ghada covered her mouth in amusement, her light eyes sparkling with mirth. Their mother was famous for entering uneven fights on the basis of honor – Shana had received that trait honestly. Though, to be fair, her mother never lost. Their father always said proudly that her temper might be hot, but her head was cool as the wisest of the Owls in the Parliament. Foxes didn’t taunt her. They might be obnoxious and malicious, but they weren’t stupid.
Her mother pretended not to hear.
“Shana,” Ghada whispered, “Shana, you weren’t fighting about…aboutmeagain, were you?”
Shana looked away, “Noo-o…”
Ghada looked reproachful. “You really got beat up this time, Shana. You know I don’t want that. It’s not worth it to me.”
Shana took her sweet, younger sister’s hands. She looked so small, so vulnerable, without wings. Shana felt a surge of protectiveness.
“It is to me,” she said fiercely.
Ghada smiled a watery smile. “I’m going to be fine,” she said quietly. “You know that, don’t you?”
Shana didn’t answer, just hugged her hard. I’ll find a way to protect you. She vowed. I swear it.
After the Herb-Grower inspected her wing and gave her a revolting concoction to drink twice a day till it felt normal, Shana went to bed. Her mother and sister left her to nap, but she wasn’t ready to sleep yet. Her mind was busy with her vow. Finally, she fell asleep, a much deeper sleep normal.
The dream met her halfway. She knew she was dreaming, but the Dream was very real. She was walking through a place that had very few trees and soft ground that shifted under her feet. Nearby, water splashed against the ground, and from where it met the ground, the water went on as far as she could see. A young man was calling to her, holding out his arms, and Shana was shocked to see that he had no wings, either, though he had the claws and horns of an Owl. He held a stick in one hand, and he looked strong and determined. He beckoned to her, and she woke suddenly, knowing what she had to do.
“Nipha,” she called, knocking on the door of a nearby tree house. “Nipha!”
“Yes?” the wizened Owl came to the door. He was broad for an Owl, and his wife was starting to worry that he wouldn’t be able to fly much longer because of his aging bulk. His brows were bushy, but he was a kind elder, and more importantly, he had traveled farther than anyone she knew.
“Nipha,” she said again, bowing, “I have a question.”
“Ask away, my dear,” he said kindly, ushering her inside.
“Are there lands with much water and shifting ground? Ground that is white instead of brown? With very little grass?”
He gave her a strange look. “Why, yes, Shana, these lands exist. They are a week’s journey past the Fox territory. Their inhabitants call it the Shoreland. The water there is strange-tasting and bad to drink, but the sky is clear, and it is beautiful. How do you know of this?”
“I…I had a dream,” Shana said, feeling silly.
Nipha’s face cleared, and he smiled. “Ah. Yes.” Then his expression grew curious. “Shana, what did your dream tell you?”
“That I must go to that land,” Shana said firmly, thinking of Ghada. “It has something to do with my sister, I know it. I must take her there.”
His expression serious, Nipha laid a hand on her shoulder. “Fly well, my dear. Dreams-with-a-purpose are not to be denied. I wish the best to you and to Ghada.”
Though it took two nights of convincing her father, Shana knew they’d be going as soon as her mother heard of the Dream. She was a great believer in dreams-with-a-purpose, and Shana could see that she worried about Ghada as much as she herself did, knowing that her current situation could not improve if things continued the same.
The night came for the sisters to leave, and after many tearful goodbyes – for they didn’t know if either of them would return – they set out on foot, heading south.
The night they came to the Fox’s territory, Shana became very tense. Ghada stayed close to her and tried talking to lighten her mood, but Shana didn’t have the heart for conversation. Just as the land started to change, marking the end of the territory, she started feeling less worried – and then the Vixon appeared.
Shana immediately stepped in front of Ghada. “We’re just passing through,” she said sharply.
The Vixon circled them, looking delighted. “On foot, are we?” she asked with pretended innocence. “Isn’t that a bit…odd…for little Owls? Oh,” she said, pretending surprise with a nasty grin, “I see, it’s the flightless one. Still odd, though…but – right – you’re not really an Owl, are you, dear?”
Shana hissed and stepped toward her, but Ghada held her back. “I’m an Owl, and you’re a Fox,” she said calmly. “I’m glad you get amusement from my lack. You benefit from something I didn’t think had any good to it.” She bowed.
Shana looked with awe at her gentle sister.
The Vixon laughed. “Ah yes! I get much amusement from you, Flightless One! You look so, so vulnerable.” Her grin showed her fangs.
Shana clenched her fists, but Ghada again held her back. “And you are so accustomed to being invulnerable, so it must be a delightful difference for you. I’m glad to provide such happiness for you.”
The Vixon laughed loudly.
“With your blessing, we’ll be on our way now,” Ghada smiled.
“Ah, but you haven’t given the toll,” the Fox said quietly, chuckling. She bared her teeth.
“Is that a threat?” snarled Shana.
The Vixon leapt forward in reply.
Before Shana could do anything, Ghada met her in midair. Two quick jabs in the neck and side, and the Fox lay gasping on the ground.
Shana gaped, but Ghada took her hand.
“I think it would be best for us to leave now,” she said softly, and tugged Shana into a run.
“What was that?” gasped Shana as they left Fox territory behind.
“Beon gave me a few lessons,” Ghada said calmly. “If I can’t fly away from a fight, I must be able to use my claws effectively.”
Shana’s spirits lifted, and for the first time in a long time, she threw her head back and laughed. It was a laugh of relief.
The nights flew by after that. They spent the days tucked into trees resting, and during the nights, they alternated running and talking as they walked.
When they reached the Shoreland, they both stopped and stared in awe. The water sparkled under the moon. They could see no end to the gentle waves. Shana hugged herself with her wings, feeling small and vulnerable, but Ghada drew in a deep breath and threw out her arms.
“It’s so free,” she said, a light entering her eyes. “I didn’t know I could feel so free!”
Then she stopped, and her eyes grew wide. Approaching them from farther down the shore was a young man.
“It’s him,” Shana whispered.
Ghada stepped forward. Shana looked at her, and looked at the expression on the young man’s face as he caught sight of her and started running toward them. Suddenly Shana knew. This is where Ghada would stay. This is where she belonged.
“My name is Hu,” the young man said, holding out his hands to Ghada. “I, too, come from an Owl family, but I call myself Man.”
“Hu-Man,” Ghada whispered. “My name is Ghada. I think I would like to take your name as well.”