“It’s gotta be around here,” Daniel said. He shoved an obstinate branch out the way. They had been hiking for almost two hours now after the run-in with The Cull and still they hadn’t found any sign of the strength stone.
“Keep searching,” Folwor said.
“Yeah,” Daniel said, wiping his forehead. The day was warmer than most and the dense foliage overhead served to trap the humid forest heat in. “But can we take a break?”
Folwor nodded. “There should be a stream just up ahead. We can rest on the banks.”
They pushed through another crowded patch of shrubs and emerged into a break in the trees. An enthusiastic stream bubbled through the woods, a small sandy shower stretching out from it. The pure water played over its river-rock bottom, its splashes like laughter as it ran. A few yards away it rounded a small cliff and tumbled down about twenty feet to a pool below.
The air riffed with the sounds of water. Daniel could smell the rich moss and decaying leaves here. Several larger stones marked the water’s course, like parents guiding a timid child. Daniel sat down on one of them, relieved to take the weight off his feet.
Folwor went up to the stream to drink and Daniel fished some of the snacks from his pack.
Penny swooped in through an opening in the branches startling Daniel so much he almost fell of his rock.
“Hey!” he shouted, righting himself.
“Sorry,” Penny said. “This body is so much bigger now, I’m still getting used to it.”
Folwor looked up as Penny also drank from the river. “Any signs?” she asked Penny.
“Nothing,” Penny said with a shake of her head. “It’s just more forest. There’s some stone hills to the north of us and I can just barely make out the meadow to the east, but other than that, there isn’t much.”
Folwor paced back to the edge of the woods, thinking. She lay down facing the stream, resting her head on her crossed paws. “The hills might be promising. More so than vainly wandering through the woods hoping to happen across something.”
“The hills it is,” Penny said, fanning her wings. “Let’s go.”
“In a minute,” Daniel said, dusting his hands from his snack. “As the only non-magical person here, I need a second.”
Folwor nodded to Penny. “Go on ahead if you like. We’ll follow in short order.”
“Alright,” Penny said. Daniel watched as with a thrust of her wings, she launched herself back into the sky.
“She seems eager,” Folwor noted as they both watched Penny sore out of view.
Daniel’s response was non-committal. “Yeah…”
Folwor gave him an arched eyebrow. “You disagree?”
“No,” Daniel said, not meeting her gaze. “I’m sure she’s excited.” Folwor didn’t say anything, but her expression was skeptical. “It’s just,” Daniel said, tracing his finger along a crevice in the stone, “maybe it’s different.”
Folwor frowned. “Different?”
“Yeah,” Daniel said, trying to be nonchalant. “You know, from the way it was before. With Lamar.”
“Daniel,” Folwor said. “Whatever it is you’re trying so hard not to say, I’m certain I can stand to hear it.”
“Oh,” Daniel said, flustered. “I, uh, I mean…” He paused. She seemed reasonable enough. Maybe he could just teller her about Penny. She would find out eventually anyway when they collected all the stones. Sooner was probably better.
“Okay,” Daniel said, taking a breath. “The thing is, Penny doesn’t really want to be the Bright Jay.”
“Ah,” Folwor said, nodding. “Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose our path.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said, “but she really doesn’t want to.”
Folwor didn’t so much as blink. “Duty cannot be ignored, Daniel. She must fulfill her part.”
“She doesn’t see it that way,” Daniel replied.
“That’s irrelevant,” Folwor said. “The forest needs her. She must stay.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell her, but, you see, she’s got a family. They probably miss her.”
Folwor’s expression grew solemn. “That is the price service must pay.”
“Okay, yeah,” Daniel said, growing a bit frustrated. “But does she have to be the one to pay it?”
“It is her burden to bear.”
“But she didn’t choose this,” Daniel replied. “I mean, I get it. The forest needs the Bright Jay to protected it and stuff. But does she have to be the Bright Jay?”
“She already is whether she likes it or not,” Folwor said. “Tell me, Daniel, if you held the power to save those around you, wouldn’t you use it?”
“I mean, yes, but—”
“Would you still do it even if it was difficult?”
“Yeah…” Daniel said after a pause. “I mean, I don’t think it would be easy. But that’s still assuming I’m the one to decide this.”
“Whether it was your choice or not doesn’t matter,” Folwor said. “Would you not agree that those who have the power to make a difference have the obligation to do so, regardless of circumstances?”
Daniel frowned, scratching his head. “I…I don’t know,” he said.
“Power,” Folwor continued. “Carries with it the need for action. Whether for good or for ill is another matter, but those with the ability are by necessity called to act.”
“So what if she gave up the power?” Daniel asked.
Folwor starred at him. “What?”
“The Bright Jay,” Daniel said. “What if Penny passed the mantle to somebody else once she gets all the stones?”
Folwor’s tone was strained when she spoke. “That would be…the wrong choice.”
“Why?” Daniel asked. “I mean, if she doesn’t want to do it, then wouldn’t it make more sense to pass it to somebody who does?”
“No,” Folwor repeated, her tone harshly firm. “It is hers to bear and her’s along until her time comes.”
“But,” Daniel said, his brow furrowing, “that’s stupid.”
“Consider this then, Daniel,” Folwor rose to her feet. “From what you say, she resents having the power foisted on her, correct?”
Daniel’s reply was hesitant. “Yes…”
“Then would it not be hypocritical to have her do likewise to someone else, merely to relieve herself of the responsibility?”
Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but stopped short. She had a point. A frustrating one, but a point nonetheless. “Well,” Daniel said, “maybe she could give it to somebody who wanted it. That way it wouldn’t be bad.”
“And do you know such a candidate?” Folwor asked, giving him a pointed look. “Yourself, perhaps? Would you really give up your family for the isolation the Bright Jay would entail?”
“No,” Daniel said, “But—”
“Then the power must stay with her,” Folwor said.
They didn’t speak further. Folwor silently started towards the hills and Daniel followed. Their conversation, however, churned in his head as they walked. He couldn’t rightly argue with her point and yet he couldn’t accept it. Granted, when he’d spoken with Penny, he had been the one to tell her to keep the power, not give it up. But the way Folwor spoke about it, that Penny had no say in the matter, didn’t sit well with him. But then what was the alternative? If she wanted to hand off the power, who would she give it to? The only other person who know about this was him and he didn’t want it. He liked living with the Blairs. He like having a home for once. But if not him, then would she just give it to some random person just to be done with it? That wasn’t right and yet how could he tell her off?
The entire affair was a twisted knot and his mental hands were getting sore from trying to untangle it. There would be time enough to solve all of this, he told himself. Right now, finding the stones was the most important thing. They couldn’t do anything until they had those. But even with that thought, he couldn’t shake the quiet sense of unease his discussion with Folwor had left him with.
The hills were a series of rocky chunks jutting up from the ground. Not quite on par with Folwor’s den, they were no where near as tall, but their uneven surfaces had an untamed look about them, as if even the wind and elements couldn’t rein in their sharp edges. What was more interesting, however, were the bizarre pillars of stone that rested atop several of the hills. At first glance, Daniel could have sworn they were man made. Nearly perfectly straight and noticeably tall, the stood out in stark contrast with the uneven nature of their surroundings.
“What are those?” Daniel asked as the crested the hill. Penny sat atop one of the pillars. She seemed to be studying something on the ground from up above.
“I’m almost tempted to say they’re trees,” Folwor said. “But that seems absurd.”
“How can they be trees?” Daniel asked. “They don’t have leaves or bark or, well, anything like a tree.”
“Look at their shape,” Folwor said. “They’re straight, but their edges are uneven, weathered.”
Several of the pillars had toppled to the ground. Daniel crouch to get a better look at one and was surprised to see that Folwor was right. Age rings lined the inside of the base pillar like in a tree trunk.
“But they’re made of stone,” Daniel said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“It does,” Penny commented from above them, “if there’s magic involved.”
“You have found the strength stone, then?” Folwor asked.
“I think so,” Penny said, waving them over. “But I can’t get it.”
They walked over to the fallen pillar—tree—she was pointing to. Embedded in its trunk was a brilliant white gem. Elliptical in shape, it was as wide as Daniel’s hand and almost as long as his arm.
“Yup” Daniel said, “that would be it.”
“I can’t figure out how to get it out,” Penny said. “I tried just tapping it with my beak hoping I would just kind of absorb it like the last one, but it didn’t work.”
“We have to free it then,” Folwor said. She circled around the fallen petrified tree. Daniel clambered up on top, kicking the gem idly with his foot.
How could they break stone? Chipping away at it seemed foolish and would take too much time. Daniel didn’t see anything they could use to pry out the stone, so what did that leave them with?”
Folwor stopped pacing. “Roll it.”
Penny and Daniel both turned to her. “Huh?”
Folwor grinned. “Roll it off the hill. When it reaches the bottom, it will break apart, freeing the stone.”
Daniel nodded. “It could work.” He took a step back. “But that mean’s you guys will be doing the heavy lifting. I don’t think there’s much I can do here.”
“Easy enough,” Penny said, gliding down from her perch. She and Folwor put their shoulders to the dense stone tree trunk. “Ready when you are,” she said to Folwor.
“Push!” Folwor shouted. Together they hefted their strength against the stubborn rock. Daniel winced at the sound of stone grinding stone, but they began to push it out of place and down the slope.
Their combined strength was barely enough to shift the pillar’s weight forward, but it turned out that was all they needed. It began to pick up speed. Daniel watched as Penny and Folwor redoubled their efforts, throwing their weighted against that of the petrified tree as it gathered momentum down hill. It went faster and faster, begining to roll of its own accord.
“That’s enough,” Folwor said, pulling back. It was rolling fast enough now it out stripped them down the slope. Daniel watched as it barreled down the reminder of the hill and careened off the edge. There was a satisfying crack of stone as it shattered down below them.
Folwor raced down the hill and Daniel moved to follow as Penny glided down from the edge. Folwor got there first as Daniel came up behind, breathless. There, amidst the fragmented remains, lay the oblong strength stone, flashing in the afternoon sun.
“That was easier than I thought,” Penny said, settling on the ground.
She moved to pick up the stone, but Folwor placed a paw on it. “Before you take it,” Folwor said, “I must ask you something.”
Penny gave her an amused look. “Is this a kind of initiation?” She tapped the emerald on her chest. “It’s a little late.” Folwor gave her a hard stare. “Okay, okay, lighten up. What is it?”
“I need you to promise something,” Folwor said. “That you will stay. That you will protect the forest.”
Penny didn’t respond.
“Well?” Folwor said.
There was a long pause. “Give me the stone,” Penny said, her voice quiet.
“Not until I have your word—”
“Just give me the stone!” Penny shouted.
Folwor’s pulled the stone closer. “I must have your word.”
Penny studied her with narrow eyes. “Where is this coming from?”
“It is your duty,” Folwor said. “Your responsibility to guard and protect. Do you mean to up hold it?”
“Why are you ask me this now?” Penny said. “Who did—” Her eyes widened as her gaze swiveled to Daniel.
“You told her?” she asked.
“You told her?”
“Leave him out of this,” Folwor said.
“No,” Penny snapped. The feathers on her neck and head rose in agitation. She turned to Daniel. “I told you those things in confidence.”
Daniel felt small. “You were just going to leave and, well, I didn’t think it was right—”
“To go back to my family!” Penny shouted. “Why can’t you—either of you understand that?”
Folwor’s tone was unmoved. “You’re needed here far more than—”
“I. Don’t. Care!!!” Penny swiped her wing at the strength stone. “Give it to me!”
Folwor flung it away from them. Penny dove after it, but Folwor body checked her with a shoulder slam. Penny gasped, the wind getting knocked out of her as she stumbled back.
“I cannot let you have it if you only intend to misuse its power,” Folwor said, stoic.
“You idiot!” Penny yelled. “I’m not going to ‘misuse’ it. I don’t even want it.” Her tone softened. “I just want to go home.”
“Be that as it may,” Folwor said, “I cannot let that come to pass. You must accept your place here.”
Instead of replying, Penny attack her. She shot forward with a powerful beat of her wings. But Folwor was ready. She rolled to the side, taking the strength stone in her mouth. Penny rose into the air, but stayed close to the ground, making a tight turn to come back at Folwor. The she-wolf was dove the side as Penny made another pass at her. Daniel hid behind the remains of the shattered pillar as Penny turned in a corkscrew to dive bomb Folwor for a third time. Experience was on her side, however. The great wolf made for the tree line where the dense cover would be to her benefit. Penny seemed to anticipate the move and pulled up out of her attack. She flared her wings towards the forest. Plants sprouted from the woodland soil rising, growing into saplings, soft trunks, and into grand oaks and pines. The new wall of trees blocked Folwor’s escape and Penny began encircling her with new growth, creating a ring of foliage, shrubs, and elms.
He couldn’t stand it any more. “Stop!” Daniel shouted. He ran out from behind his cover, waving his arms. “Penny stop!” But the circling of trees kept growing, closing in around Folwor. Daniel couldn’t even see her any more through the aggressive growing thicket. “Penny!” Daniel shouted. She didn’t noticed him, deep in concentration as she suffused the ground with the growth stone’s magic. If he didn’t stop her, she’d hurt or maybe even kill Folwor. He looked around and spotted small chunks from the broken pillar. He found several good fist sized pieces. With everything he had, he lobbed them at Penny. Most of them missed, but a well placed throw landed one squarely on the side of her beak.
She fell from the air dazed, landing hard. The ring of threatening trees stopped growing and Daniel could hear Folwor fighting her way out. But he didn’t try to go after her. He walked up to Penny who lay still on the ground.
“Penny?” Daniel said in a quiet voice. “Are you alright? I just…I didn’t want to—”
Penny’s eyes snapped open. She flailed her wings about her, knocking Daniel off his feet. She got up and looked around. But Folwor was already gone, disappearing deep into the woods.
Penny let a frustrated wail. Daniel covering his ears at the sharp sound. She then turned to him, a look of unbridled anger in her eyes.
“Why?!” She yelled, stalking towards him. Daniel backed away on only to get cornered against the the steep side of the hill. “Why would you tell her?”
“She just asked about you,” Daniel said, trying to keep his voice level. “I didn’t know she would keep the stone from you.”
Penny bent down, meeting him eye to eye. Her body was tense, on the verge of lashing out. “And what did you think was going to happen?” Penny hissed. “She wants me to stay here, trapped here as this thing. And you told her I was going to leave!” Small green vines eked their way out of the rock around them, responding to her anger. “Now there’s no way she trusts me. Now, because of you I’m stuck here!”
“You attacked her!” Daniel shot back. “That wasn’t my fault.”
“I had to take it,” Penny said. “I had to. She would never have given it to me once she knew I didn’t intend to stay. And now everything’s ruined.” Penny looked off into the woods. “Who knows where she is. I could search for days and never find her in there.”
“Then stay,” Daniel said. “Help. She has to give you the stone back for that. Just stay and get rid of the—”
“NO!” Penny slammed her wing into the rock wall sending a shower of dust raining down on them. “I’m not staying here. I won’t. I can’t.”
“Just help and you can leave,” Daniel said. “Why won’t you do that?”
She met his eye, her voice growing pained. “Because I want to go home, Daniel. Home. I miss them. My mom. My dad. My brothers. I know their worried and scared and I won’t let anything get in the way of getting back to them.”
“Not anything.” Penny shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Don’t you think that’s…” Daniel trailed off.
“What?” Penny said, narrowing her eyes. “Think that it’s what?”
Daniel sighed. “Selfish? I mean, you’re putting the whole forest are risk just because you want to see your family.”
“How can you say that?” Penny retorted. “Wouldn’t you…” She trailed off, her expression growing hard. “But no, you wouldn’t.” Penny turned away, walking back towards the forest.
“I wouldn’t what?” Daniel said, standing. “Penny, I wouldn’t what?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” Daniel replied.
To his bafflement, she laughed. “What do you think I’ve been doing? What do you think everything I was telling you was about?” Her expression became inscrutable. “But I guess you’d need a family to understand that.”
And with that, she flew up into the twilight sky and away out of view. Daniel stood alone at the base of the hills, silent. Her words sunk deep, driving through his heart and to his soles, pinning him to the spot as darkness drew on, his only friends having disappeared, himself the only one to blame.
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