Daniel stood stock still as the wolf watched him from atop the edge of the crater. Penny clung to the collar of his shirt, hiding behind his head. Daniel’s mind raced as he tried to think of something, anything they could do to escape. He was low to the ground, the hill being fairly steep and the wolf wasn’t too far above him. He had a crazy idea.

“Penny,” Daniel said as quietly as he could, “When I give the signal, run.” She seemed to nod her head although she was shaking a lot so he wasn’t sure if it was that. He moved slowly as he knelt to the ground and grabbed a fist full of dirt, the wolf all the while eying him with a strange expression of curiosity.

Daniel took a deep breath. He was fairly sure he could make it. Three, two, one. He threw his handful of dirt at the wolf’s face. It backed away, shaking its head and growling as it tried to get the dirt from its eyes. Meanwhile Daniel had bolted down the hill, Penny having flown off somewhere. The farther away she was the better. He raced down into the clearing, his mind going as fast as his feet. Maybe he could climb a tree and wait out the wolf. If he could just make it the opposite tree line, then he might just have a chance.

Pounding feet from behind told him the wolf hadn’t been distracted as long as he’d hoped and Daniel redoubled his pace up the other side of the crater. He just had to get to the first tree, there was a good sized one right next to the edge with plenty of low hanging branches. If he could just manage to stay ahead for a few more steps.

The footsteps behind him suddenly stopped and Daniel in a frenzied state cast a glance behind. The wolf had leapt toward him, a distance of almost twenty feet. Daniel screamed as the giant beast landed on top of him, its forepaws pinning him to the ground. He cried out, trying to wriggle free, but its massive paws kept his arms anchored in place. He kicked out with his legs landing a solid blow on its hind leg which made the animal grunt.  He raised his leg, hoping to maybe knock the animal off.

“Boy, if you kick me again, I swear you won’t have a leg to kick with.”

Daniel froze.

“Better,” the wolf said. “Now, if I let go, do not run off.” Slowly, the wolf lifted its paws off of Daniel’s arms and no sooner did he jump to his feet and bolt towards the tree line. Something immediately swept out Daniel’s legs and he landed hard on his back.

“Oof,” Daniel wheezed as the hit knock the wind out of him. He started to get back on his feet, but stopped as the wolf stood over him.

“Do I need pin you down again, or can I trust you to stay put?” Daniel sat back down. “Good.”

“Y-you can talk?” Daniel asked.

“Proficiently,” the wolf said. The voice was feminine, deep with its edges rough, like every word might drift into a growl. “Now, call back your friend.”

“What friend?” Daniel asked, playing dumb.

The wolf gave him a droll look. “I could bite you. That might bring back some memories.” She stepped forward.

“Go ahead,” Daniel said, surprised at the courage in his voice. “Then she definitely won’t come back.”

The wolf paused for a moment, studying him. “What is your name, human?

“Daniel,” he replied.

“And how, Daniel, did you meet that friend of yours?” She asked.

“And why should I tell you?”

“Because there are things in motion,” the wolf said, “that concern her and if you care about her, they concern you as well. It is too late for either of you to recede from the matters at hand.”

“And what’s that?” Daniel asked.

The wolf smiled. “Call her back and I will tell you both.”

“How do I know you won’t kill us?” Daniel asked, thinking of the dead man he and Penny had found minutes before.

The wolf laughed. “If only you knew who I am.” She met his eye. “I swear I mean neither of you any harm. Now, would you please call your friend?”

Daniel narrowed his eyes, weighing her words. She hadn’t actually hurt him or Penny, so there was merit to her words. But she was a talking wolf so who knew what she wanted.

“Take a step back,” Daniel said. The she-wolf raised an eyebrow. “If you want her to come, I need some space.” The wolf sighed, but she backed away.

Daniel watched her for a moment before calling out. “Penny! I think it’s safe!” There was a long moment where nothing happened. “Penny?” Daniel called again.

There was a rustle overhead as Penny finally remerged from the forest. She didn’t land immediately, however, but circled overhead. “It’s okay,” Daniel said. “She seems alright, come on down.”

With obvious reluctance, Penny descended, landing atop Daniel’s knee. She gave him a raised eyebrow. “I don’t know,” Daniel said. They both turned to their canine companion. “What do you want?”

The wolf chuckled. “I can’t think of a worse introduction.” She gave them an amused smile. “Believe it or not, I was sent here to help you.”

“Sent by whom?” Daniel asked.

The wolf looked off to the side, her face growing forlorn. “Him, actually.” Daniel followed her gaze to a patch of ground where a limp, pale hand could be seen poking out from the grass.

“Who are you?” Daniel asked, fighting back a chill at seeing the dead man again.

“My name is Folwor,” the she wolf said. “And his name was Lamar, or better known to the rest of the forest as the Bright Jay.”

Daniel and Penny looked at each other. “And what exactly,” Daniel asked, “Is that?”

“A guardian,” Folwor said, “a protector of the forest.”

Daniel gave her a skeptical look. “And how’s that supposed to work, she’s just a bird.” He turned to Penny. “No offense.” She just shrugged.

“For starters she isn’t just ‘a bird’ as you say,” Folwor said. “As the keeper of the forest, she possess all of its most powerful traits.” She cocked her head, measuring up Penny. “Only something doesn’t seem to be right.”

“Nah really?” Daniel said. “She was a person and now she’s this Might Jay or whatever, how’d that happen?”

Bright Jay,” Folwor corrected, “And it’s complicated.”

Daniel folded his arms, Penny standing stubbornly beside him. “I think you owe us to at least try.”

“I supposed I do,” Folwor said. “But there is so much to tell.” She glanced behind her at the fading sunlight rising up the pine trees. “We can’t talk now.”

“But—”

“Not here,” Folwor cut him off as she stood up. “The Cull might be near by.”

“The who?”

“The creatures who killed Lamar,” Folwor said, nodding to the dead man. “And unless you feel you can brave their furry, which not even Lamar could, I suggest we leave.”

Daniel glanced behind him, measuring the time until it was dark. It was already dusk. “I’m not going to make it back,” Daniel said.

Folwor sighed, laying down. Daniel looked at her, confused. “Get on, boy.”

“You mean…ride you?”

“Is that a problem?” Folwor said. “Because I can try to ride you if that would make you feel better.” Daniel wasn’t sure what to say. “Just get on,” Folwor snapped.

Daniel clambered up between her shoulder blades and she rose up onto all fours. “Now,” she said, turning to Penny who had alighted from the ground and hovered nearby. “What is the way back to your den?”

Instead of a reply, Penny flew about a yard away and nodded after them. Follow me, she implied.

“Good enough,” Folwor said as she broke into a run with Penny flying ahead.

The trip back was surreal as they blew through the woods during the onset of night. Daniel had to cling to Folwor’s fur in order not fall off as they strode in a matter of minutes what had taken him hours to walk. Soon enough, he could spy the dim winkings of street lights ahead through the thicket. They scattered a group of deer as they came to a halt just inside the the brim of the forest behind Daniel’s house. The deer mingled nearby for a moment, before Daniel jumped off Folwor’s back which seemed to startle them away.

He dusted himself before turning back to Folwor. “So this is your home?” Folwor asked.

“Sort of,” Daniel said. “For now.”

“Is this not where you sleep?” Folwor asked. “Where you eat and where you family is?”

“I don’t really have any family,” Daniel said.

“Then who are they?” Folwor asked, raising her chin toward the wide back window. Pam and Charley both sat in the living room, he with a book and she with a newspaper.

“They’re…” Daniel started, but trailed off. “It’s hard to explain.”

“Hard to explain your parents?” Folwor said, amused.

“They’re not my parents,” Daniel said. “Mine…aren’t around anymore.”

“I don’t understand,” Folwor said. “Do you they feed you?”

“Well, yeah,” Daniel admitted. “But it’s just food, anybody can do that. A lot of people have,” he added, thinking back to his previous foster homes.

“You make it sound like they don’t care,” Folwor said.

Penny landed on Daniel’s shoulder. Both bird and beast looked at him and Daniel just shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve seen it all before.” He looked up at the house. Pam had put her paper aside and was just going into the kitchen and Charley had stepped up to the window. “You get used to it,” Daniel said.

“Lamar once tried to explain humans to me,” Folwor said. She shook her head. “You don’t make sense to me. If one is a wolf, to be fed is to be loved. It’s simple.”

“That’s people for you,” Daniel said. He frowned. “Wait, Lamar could talk?” He pointed at Penny. “Why can’t she?”

Folwor winked. “All will be told tomorrow, but the night is an unkind time to secrets.” She cast a glance over her shoulder. “I know better than most.”

Unsatisfied, but letting the matter rest, Daniel wished Folwor farewell as the great wolf sunk back into the woods. He emerged from the forest and in the brighter lights from the back porch, he saw just how dirty he was. The Blairs would have questions about that for sure. Penny poked him and Daniel pulled out his phone.

Can you spare me some food? She typed.

“I can,” Daniel said, frowning, “but don’t you eat bugs or something as a bird?”

She shook her head. I can, but they’re gross. I miss real food.

Daniel smiled, “I can get you some, but it will have to be after dinner. I’ll sneak some up to my room later tonight.

***

Charley had his back to the sliding door as Daniel crept inside. Penny had flown up to his room and Daniel had watched Charley from beyond the reach of the porch lights, waiting for the man to leave the living room. When it became apparent that he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, Daniel had decided to risk coming in whenever Charley wasn’t looking. Just when the man went to look at something sitting on the hearth, Daniel had made his move.

Pam was still in the kitchen. Daniel took tentative steps he quielty unlatched the back door and snuck his way across the living room. It wasn’t easy. The polished wood flooring threatened to squeak every time he set a foot down. He was sweating by the time he made it to the entry way and   heard a creak behind him. He looked, fearing Charley had seen him, but he had only moved from the hearth back to the window.

“Whew.” Daniel let out a pent up breath, turning back to the entry way only to come face to face with Pam standing in his path, arms cross.

“And where have you been?”

Daniel didn’t answer.

“I’m just watching to see if he gets by,” Charley answered from behind them.

“Well, dear,” Pam said with a flicker of a smile. “I think you might have failed on that count.”

“What are you—Daniel!” Charley came over. “How in the world did you get in the house?” He glanced at the front door, frowning.

“I think he just snuck by you,” Pam said.

“Did you, now?” Charley said, turning back to Daniel. “Well, isn’t that something.” He folded his arms, however. “As is where you’ve been for the last two hours.”

“I was in the woods,” Daniel said.

“And what were you doing?” Pam asked.

Daniel paused for a moment. “I got lost.”

The Blairs looked at each other. “Lost you say?” Charley said, a note of skepticism in his voice. “And, uh, did you run into anything while you were lost?”

“Uh…” Daniel swallowed. They couldn’t know about Folwor and Penny, could they? “No,” Daniel said, fighting to keep his voice level.

Charley cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Then,” Pam said gesturing at the dirt on his clothes, “where did all this come from?”

Daniel shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Charley said. “Is that the answer you going to stick with?”

Daniel frowned. “Maybe it got windy. I don’t know.”

“And these?” Pam said. Daniel followed her gaze to his exposed arms. There were several long scratches running crosswise between his wrist and elbow. It was probably from when Folwor had pinned him to the ground. He hadn’t even noticed until Pam pointed them out. “I, uh, don’t know.” Daniel finally said, idly rubbing the scratches which stung slightly. “Maybe it was a bush or something, I didn’t even notice.”

“Hmm,” Pam said. “Well that ‘bush’ made you late for dinner.” She put a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Come on, it’ll be getting cold. Daniel go upstairs and wash up, okay?”

Daniel didn’t complain, although as he left, he could tell they weren’t quite satisfied with his explanation. But they seemed content to leave it at what he had said, which was fine. Daniel scrubbed the dirt off his arms in the bathroom upstairs, taking care not to irritate the scratches as best he could. When he came back down, the dinning table was set. Daniel noticed most of it was leftovers from the first night although in the middle sat a couple fresh loaves of bread, courtesy of the dough he’d made with Pam that morning.

They sat down and after the Blairs said their customary grace, they dug in.

“How do you like the bread?” Pam asked Charley.

“Mmm,” Charley said, his mouth full of said bread. He gave a thumbs up, reaching for a second slice.

“You can thank Daniel for that,” Pam added, serving herself some potatoes from a nearby plate. “He helped make it this morning.” She passed the potatoes to Daniel who accepted them with gusto. Their trek threw the woods today had made him famished and he was more than willing to make up for last night’s dinner.

“So,” Charley asked, “You see anything interesting today in the woods?”

Daniel froze, his hand suspended above the platter of bread. “What do you mean?” He asked, feeling the blood drain from his face.

Charley shrugged, stabbing piece of broccoli with his fork. “Pam and I grew up around here and spent a lot of time playing in the woods. There are some cool spots to check out if you know where to look.”

“Oh,” Daniel said, relaxing. “Yeah. I mean…” he thought back, trying to find something normal over the course of the day to talk about. It wasn’t easy. “I saw some animals today while I was in the woods and that was pretty cool.”

“What kind of animals?” Pam said, taking a sip from her glass.

Daniel drew a blank. “Uh…” He tried to think of something innocuous. “A deer. I saw a couple of those.”

“There’s always a bunch of them around this time of year,” Charley said. “We don’t see too many of them around the neighborhood, though. They really don’t like people.”

Daniel frowned, remembering the group of deer they’d seen hanging around behind the house when riding Folwor. “Are you sure?”

“Mmm hm,” Charley said, drinking from his cup. He set it down with a satisfied sound. “Can’t remember the last time I’ve seen any of them around. You have to get pretty far away to see any of them.”

“But be careful,” Pam said. “You don’t want to get stuck out there like we did.”

Daniel and Charley both looked at her. “You remember,” she said to Charley, “when we got lost as kids and had to camp in that old shack?”

Charley’s face brightened up. “Oh yeah, now I remember. We were, well…” He nodded to Pam. “I’ll let you tell the story.”

“We were playing around in the woods,” Pam said, “pretending to be wanted outlaws, hiding from the authorities. Well, a storm blew in and it started getting nasty. Wind and rain chased us down the trail as we headed home. It got so bad, it actually washed out part of the way back. We’d see this old pioneer shack back up the trail aways and hunkered down inside for the night.”

Pam leaned back in her chair, a nostalgic smile on her face. “What a fierce night that was. The wind hammered on the side of the rundown building like a war drum. And the rain was an absolute torrent. I’d have thought it was a hurricane if we weren’t miles from the ocean.” She shook her head.

“It flooded the place,” Charley said. “The worst storm anybody has ever seen around here. Lightening, thunder, the works. “

“And the meteor,” Pam added.

Daniel perked up. “Meteor?”

Pam nodded. “They were are, huddled up in that dilapidated shack with what sounds like armageddon raging on outside when we hear this great big explosion. We can feel it in our shoes it was so powerful. Everything vanished for an instant in this blinding light, and then it’s all went back to normal.”

Charley wiped his mouth his napkin. “There weren’t any fires from the impact thanks to the rain, but it was an intense experience, I’l tell you.” He took a drink. “I can take you to the shack some time if you want, although on foot it takes most of the day to get there.”

“Maybe,” Daniel said. The conversation moved on, and Daniel made the occasional comment, but his mind was on what they had told him. A meteor or something had made that crater in the forest. The place he had dreamt of was real and was decidedly unnatural. Something or someone had made that crater, either a meteor or some other powerful force and given the growing number of magical things he’d had to deal with today, he wasn’t ruling anything out.

They wrapped up dinner and Daniel helped wash the dishes. As he left the kitchen, something in the backyard caught his attention. But when he stepped closer to get a better look, he didn’t see anything. It must have been a trick of the light reflecting on the window panes.

He closed the door to his room and sank to the floor. He didn’t remember having ever felt so tired. He stood up only to let himself fall face first onto his bed. Almost Immediately he began to drift off.

Tap tap tap

“What?” Daniel asked, his head buried in the covers. Why would the Blairs come talk to him now? Unless it was about the woods again.

Tap tap tap

“Hang on,” Daniel mumbled, pulling himself off the bed and slogging toward the door. He opened it. “What?” He asked. No one was there. Daniel frowned. He glanced down the hallway, but it was empty. “Did you want to ask me something?” Daniel said into empty air. He stood there a good minute, scratching his head, trying to figure it out. Maybe it was just how tired he was. He was hearing things.

He went back to his room, but just before closing the door, he heard the Blairs coming up the steps and they were talking. Curious, Daniel closed his door nearly all the way, but left a sliver of space open so he could peek out.

Charley’s bald head rose into view as he and Pam climbed the stairs. “I don’t know.”

“So he got a little dirt and had some scrapes,” Pam said. “You and I had far worse at his age.”

“It’s not them themselves,” Charley said as they mounted the top steps. “It’s…” He ran a hand over his bare head. “I can’t explain it.”

“He’s just closed off,” Pam said. “You know what Mrs. Burrow said.”

“I know,” Charlies sighed. “I just want him to feel he can trust us. That we want him here.”

Daniel turned away from the door as the Blairs moved out of earshot. They were trying to be nice to him. Really nice. And he’d lied to them.

But what was he supposed to tell them? The truth? That he’d befriend a bird and had met a wolf that could talk in a crater he had dreamed about? That would be absurd. If he’d said that, there would be no way they’d believe him.

But did it matter? Daniel sighed, leaning his head back against the wall. He didn’t plan on staying here for very long, so what did it matter how well they liked him, how well he felt he belonged? This wasn’t his real home.

So what was?

The question stopped him. Did he even have a real home? He’d been bounced from foster home to foster home so those didn’t count and the group home with Mrs. Burrow was okay, but it wasn’t home home. No place he had ever staid had felt like it truly wanted him there. The D’Croixs had been rosy and cheerful, them and the two other kids that vied for attention. Or maybe that was just what siblings were like. Well, the Smouldersons had done him in, them and their rigid curfew and rules. He’d broken every single one of them. For months he plowed through their discipline and rigor until it was pointless.

But he had done that. He had gone against the grain. He had chafed at those restraints to the point of being moved back to the group home. He thought of the other foster homes. For each one, he’d been the factor that butted himself out the door, not the families he’d staid with. He had pushed them away, not the other way around.

It was his fault.

He didn’t want to believe it, but at every turn, at every opportunity, he turned down the possibility of being accepted. But perhaps that was just because he truly wasn’t worth it.

Daniel huddled his knees against his chest. If all of that really was true, then perhaps he truly didn’t deserve a home. If the only thing he did was push others away, hurt and avoided them when all they wanted was a chance to help, then maybe he deserved what he’d gotten. To be alone.

Tap tap tap.

Daniel nearly jumped. Startled from his revere, he knelt down and peeked through the crack between the door and frame. No one was there. Again.

Tap tap tap.

He finally realized that the sound wasn’t coming from the door. He turned around and saw Penny standing on the window sill ouside, glaring at him.

“Sorry,” Daniel said, opening it for her. She hopped in and pecked him on the hand. “Ow! Hey, I said I was sorry.”

He got out the phone for her. I tried to get your attention, but for some reason you went to the door, she typed. Then when you left, I flew around the house trying to find where you were. It wasn’t until I gave up and came back here that I saw you again.

“Sorry,” Daniel said again. “I was tired from today.” He sat down on the bed, but she pecked him again. “What?” He asked, beginning to get annoyed.

Did you bring any food? She asked.  I’m starving from all the flying today. Her stomach actually growled. Daniel almost laughed, but she shot him another glare.

“Hang on,” Daniel said. “I’ll be back in a second.”

He poked his head out the door and at seeing no one, slunk down the stairs. The fridge was still stockpiled with leftovers, they’d hardly made a dent in last night’s dinner. Daniel grabbed a hunk of bread, some preserved fruit, and container of garlic potatoes. It was so much he needed both hands to carry it all. He closed the fridge door with his foot and crept back out of the kitchen. He was just heading up stairs when he saw movement out in the backyard through the windowed wall.

Curious, he stepped back down the steps and towards the rear door. The porch lights were still on and they cast a dim pool of illumination out towards the woods. Daniel squinted into the near darkness, adjusting his grip on the items of food and that’s when he saw it. A pair of yellow disks floating in the night. Parallel to each other, they bobbed slightly as they moved from right to left. Daniel thought again it might just be a trick of the light, but as he stepped to the side to see if the reflection moved, it remained rooted to the spot.

Daniel kept his eyes on it as he slowly moved towards the sliding door. The twin glowing disks peered back from the nether as he carefully moved his hand towards the door’s lock. With a flick, he undid the latch and at the same instant, the strange apparition disappeared. Daniel slid the door back and poked his head outside. He looked from left to right, but there was no sign of whatever it had been.

It was still on Daniel’s mind as he relocked the door and quietly walked back to his room. He closed his own door to find Penny giving him a look that could only say, What took you so long?

“I saw something,” Daniel said. He lay the nights spread out on his covers, popping the containers open for Penny who readily took to the food. “Two glowing circles…” Daniel said to himself. “What do you think they were?”

Penny didn’t reply, still fixated on eating. Her only response was to give him a shrug.

“Yeah, I don’t know either.” Daniel rubbed his eyes, the fatigue from earlier returning in earnest. He stifled a yawn, leaning back against the wall, his feet resting on the bed. They’d learned a lot today. Folwor had seemed to say she would tell them more when they met up tomorrow, but that could wait until then. At least now they had someone who could explain things to them, before their walk into the woods had been nothing short of a stab in the dark. But now they had a lead, a solid first step and that was good enough for now.

Penny actually couldn’t eat much being a small bird. She polished off a small piece of bread and a potato before getting full. She flitted up to the window near Daniel’s head as they both began to drift off. Tomorrow would take care of itself, right now they could simply rest and sleep. It would—

Something sharp poked Daniel’s ear. “Ow,” Daniel said, rubbing his ear lobe. He turned to Penny, “What’d you do that for?”

She jerked her head out the window. Groggy, Daniel sat up to see what she was looking at. From this angle, the back porch lights shone all the way out to the edge of the forest. But even if they hadn’t, they would still have been able to see them.

Deer. At least a dozen all milling around in the backyard. Daniel’s eyes widened in wonder. What were so many doing here so close to the house? His excitement began to fade, however, as he noticed something off about the animals. Their movements didn’t look right. Their legs bent in strange ways as they walked and their heads undulated up and down as if in a rhythm. They were all doing it. In fact, they were all doing it together. In time with one another, their heads bobbing as if to some silent music.

Daniel straightened his back, feeling uneasy at the sight. Perhaps it was simply the poor lighting, but he couldn’t shake the impression something was wrong about the animals. He and Penny watched them for a minute before a long wolf howl sounded in the distance. They looked at each other, not saying it, but both thinking the same thing. Folwor was up and about and from the sound of it, she wasn’t too terribly far away. Daniel feel a bit better knowing that. Odd that a giant wolf should make him feel safer, but hey this was a world with magic in it. What did he know anymore?

The strange deer did not feel the same way, apparently. At the sound of the howl, they all began to wander back into the woods until only a single straggler was left behind. As it passed beneath the star touched boughs of the forest, it chanced to look back at the house.

Eyes. Glowing, golden eyes. Daniel shuddered as those gilded orbs raked the house until they settled with eerie clarity right upon him and Penny. It didn’t blink, it didn’t move. The deer stood in place, watching them with a gaze far too knowing.

Another howl sounded, closer this time and the deer broke off the stare and glided back into the woods. Daniel let out a shaky breath. What had that been? He and Penny bristled with fear as they both sat watching the woods, hoping to never see what they were looking for.

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