Daniel’s arm felt numb as he woke up. He sat up, feeling the stiffness in his back and arms as he stretched. He must have dozed off at some point and fallen asleep on his arm, cutting off the blood flow. It was still the early stages of gray morning outside. It was probably around 6 o’clock. At any other time, Daniel would have gone back to bed, but the thought of those deer from the night before banished all thoughts of returning to sleep
Penny lay curled up next to where he’d sat, breathing peacefully. Daniel moved to wake her, but thought better of it. There was not need to get up just yet. From what Folwor had said yesterday, she would come get them when the time was right. What for he didn’t know. There was so much they still didn’t understand about this whole business, but hopefully today would change all that. He looked out the window at the oncoming dawn, pale against the dark verdant of the trees. No deer with glowing eyes this morning, but he couldn’t shake the feeling they were still there. Somewhere. Waiting.
He pushed the thought aside, resigning himself to ask Folwor about them later. He got off his bed as gently as possible, careful not to disturb Penny, and walked downstairs. The steps creaked once or twice on the way down, but that couldn’t be helped. If the Blairs knew he was up, there was nothing for it. Besides, at this point, they probably thought he was a morning person. The idea made Daniel chuckled.
He threw some leftovers in the microwave as a meager breakfast, not being selective about his choices. He was more hungry than anything else. It was some of the pot roast Pam had cooked earlier and it was a hardy way to start the day. He toasted some of bread he and Pam made the other morning and slathered it with a generous helping of butter. He was till hungry when all was said and done. He was temped to pull something else out from the fridge, but had another idea. Didn’t Pam say they had ice cream sandwiches in the freezer?
Daniel opened the ice box to see a several of the confections sitting right in the middle. One bit of desert in the morning couldn’t hurt. He plucked one from the stack, unwrapping it as he closed the freezer door.
“Not exactly nutritious.” Daniel paused, ice cream halfway to his mouth. Pam stood in the kitchen door, arms folded. “But that’s not really the point of ice cream, is it?”
He stared at her for a moment, mind working fast. But there was nothing for it. He sighed. “Sorry,” Daniel said, but added, “I didn’t get to have one last night and just, well, you know…” He gave her his best pleading face. She seemed to consider it for a moment.
She crossed over to the fridge. “As a matter of fact,” Pam said, opening the freezer. “Neither did I.” She pulled one out for herself and sat down on a stool at the kitchen island.
Daniel just stared at her for a moment, but shook himself out of it as they both set into their ice cream. “What flavor are they?” Daniel asked.
Pam pulled the wrapper off hers. “Mint-chocolate.” Daniel smiled. “You like it?” She asked.
“It’s my favorite, actually,” Daniel admitted.
Pam smiled. “Mine too.” They both took a bite.
“Ah!” Pam said, holding a hand to her head. “Brain freeze.”
“Rub the back of your neck,” Daniel said. “It’ll go away faster.”
“No no,” Pam said, still cradling her forehead. “You got put your thumb to the roof of your mouth.”
Daniel frowned. “Really?”
“Yes,” Pam said, doing just that for a couple seconds. She relaxed after a moment. “My sisters and I always got those whenever we ate ice cream.”
“Sisters?” Daniel asked, taking another bite.
Daniel almost spat his out. “You had seven sisters?”
Pam nodded. “And I was the oldest. The ‘responsible’ one.”
“One of the families I staid with had some kids,” Daniel said. “Two brothers.” He finished his ice cream. “The older one tended to get bossy,” he said, throwing his wrapper at the trashcan.
“Older siblings are like that,” Pam admitted, finishing hers as well.
“He wasn’t so bad,” Daniel said, remembering. “Him and his brother. But living there with their actual parents…” He shook his head, “I felt like I was taking something away from them. I don’t know.”
Pam put a hand on Daniel’s arm causing him to look up. “Daniel,” she said, “We are glad you’re here.” She smiled and squeezed his arm. “Really.”
He offered a weak smile. “Thanks.”
Her smile widened before settling back into her usual stern expression. “Now,” she said, tossing her wrapper in the trash, “I think it’s time I made some proper breakfast. You’re welcome to stick around and have some.”
“Thanks,” Daniel said. “But I already ate and more than just the ice cream.”
“Good enough, although,” she said, “let’s keep that between us. The last thing Charley needs is more incentive to east sweets.”
“What do I need more of?” Charley said, just coming down the stairs.
“Hair,” Daniel quipped, “obviously.”
Charley nodded to Daniel, “You got him in on it now too, huh?”
“What else is a wife for?” Pam said with a straight face although she winked at Daniel.
“Well, you could say goodbye,” Charley said, grabbing his lunch from the fridge. “I’m running late, so I’ll grab breakfast on the way.”
“That’s too bad,” Pam said. “We just finished ours.”
“You missed out,” Daniel said.
“Oh, I see how it is,” Charley said, raising his eyebrows. “Well, which one was better? Hers or mine?”
“Definitely hers,” Daniel said with a grin, sharing a look with Pam.
“Next time, I’ll just make everything out of bacon,” Charley said, getting in Pam’s face. “Top that.”
She just raised an eyebrow and smiled. “However will I manage it?” She gave him a brief kiss, then turned him towards the door. “And you need to manage to be on time.”
“See you guys tonight,”Charley said. He waved to Daniel as he opened the front door and that’s how they heard it: a clear, long howl. “Wow, he sounds close,” Daniel heard Charley say before he closed the door.
“I’ll be in the backyard,” Daniel said, heading towards the back door.
“I think it’s better if you staid inside today,” Pam said, preparing her own breakfast.
“Why?” Daniel complained.
Pam turned to the kitchen window, tops of the trees visible on the other side. “Because I said so.”
“Come on,” Daniel said. “Please?”
“No,” she said, not turning away from what she was doing.
“Why not?” Daniel asked. “I won’t go far. I’ll stay in the backyard.”
“No you won’t,” Pam said.
She had him there. “Is it because of the howl?”
“That,” Pam said, breaking out a cutting board, “And you got lost yesterday.”
“I hadn’t been in the woods before,” Daniel said. “I didn’t know the trail back then. And the…whatever it was that howled can’t be close. I mean, you and Charley even said animals don’t like to come near the neighborhood.”
Pam paused at that.
“And I promise I’ll be back before dark,” Daniel added. He had no idea if that was true, but he needed to go to the woods. It wasn’t really a lie, he didn’t know how long he’d be out, but he felt a bit bad about having to say it. He’d be out as long as Folwor needed them to be. If he could get out at all, first.
Pam turned to him, leaning back against the counter. She’d pulled a wisk out from a drawer and held it in a measured grip. “Alright,” she said. Daniel moved towards the door. “But,” she added, stopping him. She pointed the wisk at him, “if you’re out late again, no going out for the rest of the week. You understand? Be back by dark or you won’t go back until this Sunday. Okay?”
Daniel nodded, practically running to the back door. “Sure. Thanks Pam. See you guys at lunch!”He heard her sigh as he shut the sliding door. Well, there was no helping that now.
He moved around the side of the house and called to Penny. He could see her sitting in the sill of his window. “Penny!” He yelled as loud as he dared. “Penny, wake up!” Her head rose and she looked around. “Down here!” Daniel said. She spotted him and glided off the roof, her flight slightly unsteady.
Daniel extended an arm, but she nearly missed it when landing. She blinked at him with groggy eyes. “We gotta go.”
Penny’s expression was sleepy and apathetic. Why?
Daniel was just about to reply when another howl issued from the forest. The sound woke Penny up as Daniel quickly moved towards the woods, worried Pam might come out having changed her mind.
They walked until they could just barely see the house in sight. Daniel called out to Folwor and no less than a minute later the giant wolf emerged from the brush.
“I was worried you wouldn’t be able to find us,” Daniel said.
Folwor chuckled. “I could have found you simply by the noise you made when walking. Only a human crashes through forest like that.”
Daniel just rolled his eyes. “So where are we going?”
Folwor jerked her snout towards the depths of the woods. “Follow me. What I have to show you is down best away from your kind.” She disappeared a moment later, pushing deeper into the foliage.
Daniel looked at Penny. He took a breath. “Here we go,” he said, following Folwor further into the woods.
“So I have a question.” Daniel asked, pushing a branch out of the way.
Folwor snorted, amused. “Just one?”
Daniel ignored the remark. “Why can you talk and Penny can’t?”
Folwor didn’t answer immediately. “The first thing you both must understand is that your friend is the inheritor of a great mantle.”
“What’s a mantle?” Daniel asked.
“A responsibility,” Folwor said.
“Oh,” Daniel said, disappointed.
“But,” Folwor said, “such responsibility, its duties and burdens, comes with the power to fulfill them.” She glanced at Penny who still sat on Daniel’s arm. “Or at least, it is supposed to.”
Daniel and Penny looked at each other. “What kind of power?” Daniel asked.
“Power from the forest,” Folwor said. “Your friend is the Bright Jay, the protector and keeper of all that lives here.” She paused near a large boulder. Scaling the side, she mounted it and looked out over the brush and plants. “Look around you. Everything lives and breaths here. Each creature and plant is filled with life,” she rested her gaze on Penny. “And a portion of all that life is yours. As tribute to you, to help you keep all things safe, the forest and everything in it, offers up part of its life, its power, its essence to you.”
Penny looked confused as did Daniel. “How does that work though? I mean, shouldn’t she be able to, you know…do things?”
Folwor raised her eyebrows. “Things indeed.” She hopped off the boulder and Daniel felt her landing through the ground as her bulk hit the forest floor. She began to dig.
“What are you—?”
“Hush,” Folwor said, burrowing down. She dug a hole about waist deep before ushering him over. “Come.” Daniel walked over and peered down into the exposed earth. Tan, knotted roots wove in and over each other, like a mess of tightly corded rope.
“The first duty of the Bright Jay is to help the forest grow.” She looked down into the hole and inhaled deeply. “And growth begins at the roots. With this, your friend can heal, change, and shape the forest around her.”
She pushed the dirt back over the small pit, covering up the exposed roots. “The second duty,” she said walking up to one of the pine trees, “is to guard the forest. To defend it. To shield it.” Daniel walked up next to the tree. Its trunk was massive, almost wider than Daniel’s arm-span. “In order to protect the forest, one must be as strong as it.” She turned to the two of them. “With this power, your friend will have the endurance of every oak, the might of every bear, and the speed of every sparrow.”
She looked at Penny. “Now, fly to the top.”
Penny gave her a flat look.
“You must fly to the top,” Folwor insisted. “And tell us what you see.”
Penny sighed, a quiet sound from such a small bird, before flitting off to the upper boughs.
“Why are you still here?”
Daniel blinked. He turned to Folwor. “Me?”
“Stop standing around,” Folwor said, “and get up there.”
“But I’m not—”
She growled at him. “Go.”
“Okay, okay,” Daniel relented, putting his hands up. “I’m going.” He approached the tree. He hadn’t ever climbed one this tall before. He looked back at Folwor but she just pointed her snout upward. Daniel sighed and reached for the closest branch.
The climb was hard. The bark of the tree scrapped his arms and legs as he ascended, his fingers getting rubbed raw by having to hold so tightly to the rough exterior. Sap got in his hair and he had to fight his way past some of the more densely packed branches. But finally he emerged at the top.
He pushed the last branch aside and was met by a clean gust of wind. It felt like the world taking a relaxed breath. The sky blazed bright blue overhead, sharp clouds of pearl dotted the distance, possibly a storm. A fleck of the azure above broke off to swoop down next to him.
“Hey Penny,” Daniel said, grabbing a larger branch to hold himself steady.
She gave him a puzzled look.
“I don’t know,” Daniel said. “She made me come up here.”
Penny bobbed her head back and forth, a kind of Oh well gesture, but her gaze drifted off after a moment. Daniel tried to see what she was looking at but there was nothing there.
“What is it?” Daniel asked.
Penny looked a way for a moment, before turning to him expectantly. Right, Daniel thought. He dug his phone out and being careful to keep his balance with his other hand, held the screen out to her.
It’s not fair that she made you climb up here, she typed.
“Yeah,” Daniel said. “But I can’t say I regret it,” he added looking at the incredible view they had. The roof of the forest shimmered in the clear summer sun as the leaves rippled around them, like a sea of scales from a slumbering dragon.
But it’s dumb, Penny typed. You didn’t need to come up here. I don’t even know what w’re looking for.
“Yeah,” Daniel said. He shrugged. “But I don’t really mind.”
I do, Penny typed. It’s pointless. What am I even looking for up here?
“She’s gotta have a reason,” Daniel said.
Well even if she does, Penny replied, I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t want to come up here. The whole thing is absurd and she just expects us to go along with it I just… Penny paused there, her brow bunched up, but instead of typing further, she just shrieked in furstration.
Daniel looked at her. “You’re not talking just about coming up here, are you?” His expression softened. “It’s all this Bright Jay stuff, isn’t it?”
I didn’t want any of this, Penny typed. Folwor keeps talking about responsibilities and duties and I just want to go back to normal. She waved a wing at her chest. I didn’t ask for this.
“There’s got to be a way to reverse it,” Daniel said, adjusting his grip on the tree. “I mean, that Lamar guy somehow managed to give it to you, so there must be a way you can give it to somebody else, right?”
Hey! Penny brightened up. Yeah, you’re right! Penny looked at him. Let’s go ask her. I’m done seeing whatever it was she wanted me to find up here.
Penny glided down through the branches. Daniel pocketed his phone and moved to follow, but paused once again at the view. The forest stretched on and on far into the distance, shifting and waving in the wind.
“Daniel!” Folwor’s bark came up from below. He snapped out it and began the cautious climb back to the ground.
It felt like it took longer going down than up. That was probably because he now saw just how high off the ground he was. It was slow going, but he made it down, none the worse for the additional scrapes, although the climb had irritated the cuts on his arms. On the lower limbs he passed another bird, a finch that watched him with keen interest. Daniel stoped for a glance and the finch didn’t fly away. It hopped closer, its keen eyes never leaving his.
“What’s up?” Daniel asked as a joke. The finch didn’t respond. It didn’t even seem to breath. Daniel just shrugged as he resumed his descent.
When he finally reached the forest floor, Folwor was waiting for him. “I need your friend,” she said, “to tell me what she saw.”
Daniel pulled out the phone. “I saw,” Daniel read from it after Penny had finished typing, “the forest. It was clear and windy.”
“Yes,” Folwor said, her voice laced with impatience. “But what did you see?”
“That is what I saw,” Daniel read.
Folwor sighed. “Vey well.”
“I have a question,” Daniel continued to read. “How do I change back?”
“Back?” Folwor asked. “There is no ‘back.’”
“But,” Daniel said, looking up from the phone. “She can’t be stuck like this forever. What about that, eh, Lamar guy? He changed back, didn’t he?” Penny gave him a grateful nod.
“Yes,” Folwor said. “An died in the process.”
“But,” Daniel said, “That can’t be the only way to go back being human?” He paused. “Right?”
“The mantle,” Folwor said, “isn’t something to just cast aside lightly.”
“Well,” Daniel said growing a bit irritated. “Seems to me it shouldn’t tossed on someone lightly, either.”
Folwor narrowed her eyes. “If you mean to insinuate Lamar just picked someone at random, you are mistaken.”
“Fine,” Daniel said, crossing his arms. “Then correct us. What did happened then?”
“It’s too complicated for you to understand,” Folwor said, turning away.
“Well we’re not going anywhere until you try at least,” Daniel said, taking a seat on the boulder. Penny hopped up next to him and they both sat, unmovable.
“I would,” Folwor said. “But I can’t tell you what I—” she abruptly cut off, her ears shooting up.
“You can’t or won’t?” Daniel protested. “Is it too much to ask why this happened. Penny—”
“Quiet,” Folwor growled.
“No,” Daniel said. “We deserve some answers, and you can’t—”
“I said quiet, boy,” Folwor snarled, her head cocked to the side.
Daniel was about to say something else but paused. The woods had gotten unnaturally still. No bird songs, no buzz of insects, the wind itself seemed to have gone mute. A sickening sense of familiarity rose in the pit of Daniel’s stomach. I’ve seen this, he thought. This has happened before. In my dream.
Something rustled in the bushes. Folwor let out a powerful growl as something moved around them in the dense foliage. Daniel got off the boulder, putting his back to her. Penny landed on Folwor’s back as they all watched the brush.
Then, silent as the moon rising, twelve deer emerged from the forest, surrounding them. Their fur was matted, stain black in places with strange patches of scales running the lengths of their bodies. They moved with an unnatural fluidity, but their eyes, their glowing golden eyes never strayed from Folwor, Daniel, and Penny.
The circle of other worldly deer just stood in place as if studying them.
“What are they?” Daniel whispered to Folwor.
“The enemy,” she replied, trying to keep an eye on as many as possible.
Daniel swallowed. “T-they don’t look that dangerous.”
The closest deer cocked its head at Daniel in an almost human expression of curiosity. It was more than that. Deep in those eyes he saw something. A swirling of shapes. Leaves? Stars?
Daniel took a step back. “They’re faces,” he said. Faces. Dozens, hundreds of them pooled and slipping over eachother in the depths of those eyes. They darted past Daniel to Penny and they widened. It opened its mouth as if to say something only it got wider and wider. Daniel’s watched in putrid horror as the deer’s head began to turn inside out, strange fleshy tongues, no, tentacles writhed inside of the open cavities.
“Run!” Folwor shouted.
Daniel found himself pulled off his feet as Folwor bit the collar of his shirt and slung him onto her back before bolting through the circle of creatures. Daniel hung on with all he had as Folwor plowed through the copse. Shrubs, saplings, and branches gave way before her as they powered through the thicket.
Daniel dared a looked behind. The deer from hell were pursuing them. They weaved in and out of the underbrush, flowing under and around fallen trees and dense patches like water through a sieve. Over head, he could just barely see a blue dart flashing between the branches as Penny followed them overhead.
One of the freakish creatures broke from the rest, gaining on them. Daniel didn’t have anything to defend himself with. He looked up ahead at the oncoming forest. There, they were coming up on a dead tree and there was a slightly broken branch just a little above his head. He looked back again, the lead deer was almost on top of them, its glowing eyes never leaving him.
He needed that branch. He let go of Folwor’s fur and gripped her back with his knees. As they passed he would try to grab the dead tree limb. If it didn’t snap off cleanly, it could easily knock him off Folwor.
The limb came up fast. Daniel raised himself up as high as he dared, his arms outstretched to catch it. It smacked into his hands, jolting him backward. He held on with his legs, but the impact bowled him over and flattened him on his back. His view suddenly became inverted and he saw the thing nearly on top of them. Upside, its entire head looked even more unerving having mutated into some grotesque mass of exposed flesh.
Daniel reach up and pulling on a tuft of fur, forced himself up into a sitting position. He spun around just in time to see the creature jump towards them. He didn’t have a second to spare. Acting on pure reflex, he swung his branch as hard as he could at the thing’s head as it came at him. There was a sickening snap as the branch broke across what might have been its skull. It landed in front of him, limp. Something told Daniel it probably wasn’t dead and not waiting to check for sure, he kicked the body off of Folwor, it tumbling back into the brush.
“Hang on,” Folwor yelled. Daniel just about fell off, barely getting enough of a grip to stay on as she made a sharp turn to the left.
The hellish creatures didn’t seem to care about their injured friend as the rest chased them down with double vigor. Another one was gaining on them and Daniel prepared to wack it as well, but he realized his branch was too short. The blow with the previous creature had split it in two, leaving him with a stub of a tree limb. In order to use it, one of the things would have to be almost on top of him and he didn’t relish trying to fight it at such a close distance.
He clambered back on top of Folwor and had another idea. He turned himself around and making sure to keep a good hold with his left hand, hurled his remaining piece of wood at the lead deer. He hit it square in the knee and it tripped over its own feet as its weight suddenly had no support.
But he couldn’t celebrate. The creatures seemed to learn attacking solo wasn’t working and this time two of them were attempting to engaged, one on the right and the other on the left.
“We’re about to be surrounded back here,” Daniel shouted to Folwor. The duo of creatures came ever closer, four golden eyes barring down on them. Daniel looked for another branch he could snatch, but the forest seemed to be thinning out.
The two things were working to flank them on either side. Penny came down and bravely tried to fly in one’s face, distracting or disorienting it. An alien tongue erupted from its mouth, swiping at her with wicked speed. She broke off almost as soon as she had come, flying back up into the canopy.
The other one had extended its sickly tongue as well and Daniel could only watch as they unraveled, reaching out towards him on Folwor’s back. He shuffled back, but couldn’t go far before he was sitting between Folwor’s shoulder blades. The maroon, black strings of flesh slithered through the air towards him, glistening with a strange substance Daniel didn’t want to think about. They almost had him when they abruptly pulled away. Relieved, but confused. Daniel leaned forward to see what had caused them to retreat. They hadn’t fully fallen back, but seemed to have stumbled on something. As far as Daniel could see, there was nothing there, just a sunny patch of aspen saplings and ferns.
He wasn’t at ease for long as they quickly chased after them. Daniel again looked for something to fight with, but the trees were so far apart now. There was nothing in arm’s reach he could use.
The two deer were joined by two more as they renewed the chase. Where the other seven creatures kept at a safe distance, the four moved up on them, their disturbing mouths open, tongues beared.
“Folwor,” Daniel said. “Wherever we’re going, we’d better get their quick.” The slime-dripping tentacles glided towards him, their lengths impossibly long coming from such creatures. “Folwor!”
The grotesque tongues closed in on him, inches from his face. Then he was blinded. Brilliant sunlight splashed over everything. Daniel blinked several times, his eyes adjusting to see they had emerged into an expansive clearing.
A wall of trees marked where they had emerged from the forest and from it numerous pairs of eyes watched them.
Why weren’t they chasing them? Folwor looked back and grinned, although her chest heaved from the extended sprint. She let Daniel off her back and Penny flew up, landing on his shoulder. Daniel turned to Folwor, “They stopped. Why would they stop?”
“Sunlight” Folwor said between panting breaths. “The Cull can’t stand it, it melts their skin.”
“It does what?”
Folwor looked back at the woods. The creatures were beginning to fan out, their glowing eyes moving around the rim of the clearing. “This is not the place. We need to keep moving.”
“No,” Daniel said, folding his arms. “We’re not moving until we get some answers.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy,” Folwor said. “Stay here and we cannot escape.”
“Then you had better start explaining.”
Folwor was about to protest, but looked back at the woods. She turned back to Daniel with a growl. “Fine. I will tell you as we walk, but we must go.”
Daniel didn’t object further, following Folwor deeper into the clearing. It was more a of a meadow, really. It was so large Daniel couldn’t see the forest on the other side. The grassland dipped down, cutting off their view of the woods around them as they walked.
“The Cull,” Folwor said as they waded through amber stalks of grass, “came to the forest about a month ago as far Lamar and I could discover. We first heard reports about them near the spot where Lamar first became the Bright Jay.”
“What do you mean where?” Daniel said. “What turned him into it?”
“No,” Folwor said, “and if you want me to keep going I suggest you not interrupt.”
“There were reports,” Folwor continued, “of animals dying without cause. Corpses found without mark of either tooth or claw on them.”
“They got sick, maybe?” Daniel said.
“That was our first thought,” Folwor said. “But we could not have been more wrong.” She was silent for a time. Wind swept through the tall stalks, creating a forlorn whistling that rode over the glade, filling the quiet. Finally she continued. “All of the mysterious deaths were happening in one part of the forest, near the Borne Well.”
“What’s the—” Folwor gave him a look. “Sorry.”
“We thought it a strange coincidence, but one not to be ignored,” Folwor continued. “We went to investigate and that’s when we first saw one of them. It was late at night and had it not been a waxing moon I doubt we would have seen it. What got our attention were the cries, a wounded deer crying out for help only the pain sounded far more horrible than anything either of us had ever heard before. Fearing the worst, we ran to the source.”
She shook her head. “What we found was a helpless doe. But she was enveloped in a strange sprawl of scaled and iridescent tar, its surface like lizard skin. It was feeding on her somehow, draining her life away while leaving her body intact. Once we saw it, it fled back into the woods, but as we gave chase, it separated into smaller pieces that flowed away.”
Daniel shivered, imagining the scene. An animal caught in that black liquid from his dream for he was growing more certain they were one and the same.
“They feed on the living,” Folwor said. “We did not know how to fight them. If we attacked it, it might simply absorb us as well. But if we could not beat it, perhaps we could starve it.” They crested a knoll and a small stream trickled through the grass before them, its water turquoise against the orange meadow around it. “We moved every animal away from the area, employing badgers and moles to dig trenches and dikes around the place. It seemed only to be able to get around as a liquid, so perhaps our ditches could trap it. At least that was our hope.”
“It didn’t work, though,” Daniel said. “What happened?”
“It…learned somehow. I still don’t know. But it figured out how to re-animate corpses. Pour itself into a body and fill its motions with its own.” They came to the stream at the base of the knoll. Folwor leapt it in a single leap, but Daniel had to hop a couple stones to bridge the water. Penny simply flew across. “They began coming in the night,” Folwor resumed. “We knew it was them by their eyes. Haunting golden orbs that would chase you and devour you.”
Daniel shuddered. “So…?” But he caught himself.
“So,” Daniel said, “what happened to Lamar?”
“Over the weeks,” Folwor said, “we learned they feared sunlight. Even in their deceased skins, they could not withstand it for long. But as they killed and subsumed more and more animals, their numbers grew. They would never attack during the day, however. Despite the relative shade of the forest, they seldom ventured out before night fall. Lamar reasoned they must retreat to some place, some bastion of darkness during the day while it was harder to move about. He went in search of it, flying deep into the heart of their territory.” Folwor moved to a stop, growing quiet.
“That was the last time you saw him, wasn’t it?” Daniel asked.
She nodded. “He warned me of the dangers,” she said. “It was just…I didn’t think they would get him.”
“I’m sorry,” Daniel said, laying a hand on her side. Penny bowed her head at the words.
“So am I,” Folwor said. “So am I.”
Stiff gusts rolled across the parchment hued meadow. They stood there, the grass bending low in the wind around them, the sky an empty blue. The breeze etched long ripples into Folwor’s black-silver fur as it tossed Daniel’s brown hair. Neither seemed to notice.
Penny pecked at Daniel’s hand. He nodded. “So what now?”
Folwor lifted her head, coming out of her reverie. “Now we do the work Lamar couldn’t. We beat The Cull.”
“Okay,” Daniel said. “But how? The way you talk about Lamar makes him sound like dragon.” He nodded to Penny. “Not a bird just barely bigger than a blue jay.”
Folwor nodded. “Before he left, Lamar told me things. Secrets of the Bright Jay. The biggest of which was that he was once a man more than seventy years ago. For reasons he didn’t or couldn’t say, it is crucial that a human wield the mantle.”
“Okay,” Daniel said, “but that doesn’t answer my question. How is Penny supposed to fight these things? With bird songs?”
“Have you not been listening?” Folwor said. “What do think I was telling you when I showed you the parts of the forest?”
“Yeah,” Daniel said. “The roots and trunk and leaves and all that. Great.” Daniel pointed at Penny. “But she can’t actually do any of that at the moment, now can she?” He paused and looked at Penny. “You can’t actually do all that, right?”
Penny stopped to think for a moment. He face changed to one of intense concentration for about a minute. Nothing happened. She shrugged.
“So yeah,” Daniel said, turning back to Folwor. “She can’t do any of that, so unless there is a magic word that makes all this stuff happen, I don’t see how any of what you’ve said makes any difference.”
Folwor began low growl. “I didn’t have to tell you anything. I’m doing this, telling you this because Lamar entrusted it to me.”
Daniel threw his hands up, exasperated. “Then give us a straight answer for once!”
Her growl grew louder. “Do not provoke me, boy.”
“I’m sorry honesty upsets you,” Daniel shot back.
Folwor took a step closer and Daniel realized he might have stepped on a nerve when a shrill shriek came from behind him. Both he and Folwor stopped and looked at Penny who gave them both a withering look of disapproval.
Daniel sighed. “Right.” He folded his arms, not looking at Folwor. “I’m…sorry.”
She just gave a huff in response, but seemed to relax.
“Look,” Daniel said, rubbing his forehead. “This Bright Jay sounds like they’re supposed to be powerful, but Penny isn’t.” He turned to Folwor, “Any idea why?”
Folwor thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. He never explained to me how he got his power. I’m not even certain he himself knew.”
“So we have nothing, then?” Daniel asked. He sat on the ground, running a hand through his hair.
“Perhaps not,” Folwor said.
Daniel looked up. “What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know how or why your friend doesn’t have the full set of powers,” Folwor said. “But she does not resemble the Bright Jay Lamar embodied.” She began pacing, ears pinned back, brow furrowed.
“What do you mean?” Daniel said, standing up. “How different are we talking here?”
“Greatly,” Folwor said. “For starters. Lamar was much larger, almost as tall as you are.”
Daniel’s eye brows went up. He glanced at Penny and saw the same bewildered expression. She was about as long as his arm and little more than a hand’s breadth tall. Nowhere near his height. “You sure about that?” Daniel asked.
“Not only that,” Folwor said. “But he looked more…” She turned, studying Penny, looking for the right word. “Noble.”
Penny gave her a flat stare. Gee, thanks.
“How do you mean?” Daniel said. “Like, was he decked out in gold or something?”
“It wasn’t his color,” Folwor said. “It was…” She shook her head with a huff. “It is difficult to describe. It was something like light that surrounded him.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow. “Okay…?”
Folwor frowned. “But there was another thing. Something like…” her head snapped up, ears pointed. “The stones!”
“Uuuuh…” Daniel exchanged a glance at Penny.
Her tiny eyebrows went up as she shrugged. Hey, don’t look at me. I don’t know, either.
“Uh, Folwor…?” Daniel said, turning back to her.
“What your friend doesn’t have is the stones,” Folwor said. “Lamar as the Bright Jay had three stones embedded in his feathers. One on his chest, one on his back, and one on his head, each a different color.”
Daniel began to put the pieces together. “And each a different power.”
Folwor nodded. “It is impossible to know for sure, but I will wager that whenever he tried to transmit his power to your friend, something went amiss and she only received part of the process.”
“And that’s why she can’t talk,” Daniel said, turning to Penny. “You aren’t the full Bright Jay yet, or whatever.”
“Yes,” Folwor said, actually smiling. “This must be it. It’s the only thing that connects it altogether.”
“So the stones are what gave Lamar the powers you were describing earlier.” Daniel said, getting a thought. “Question: where are they, then? I mean, Penny clearly doesn’t have them.”
Folwor looked off. They had walked far enough they could see the edge of the meadow now. “In the heart of Cull forest somewhere. That was where Lamar died and is the most likely place the stones scattered to.”
“We gotta go back?” Daniel said, imagining the horrifying deer waiting for them. “What about the, well, you know?”
“Retracing out path might be our best option anyway,” Folwor said. “They won’t think we will come back the way we came.”
“Alright,” Daniel said, trying to push down his fear. “If you say so.”
They turned around, although as they began their walk back, Daniel noticed Penny’s gaze lingering behind them. “What is it?” He asked.
He proffered the phone.
I know this place.
“Not from a dream, I hope,” Daniel quipped.
What? No. Penny typed. This is where my family used to come.
I was here before any of this started. She looked off towards the east. My family lives over there, up here in the woods.. It was always nice coming here. My brother and I would race around in the grass all day.
She looked at Daniel long and hard then at Folwor. She began typing again. Whenever we get these stones, I’m done.
“Just like that?” Daniel said. “What about…”
I don’t care about any of that. Penny let out a small sigh through her beak. I know that sounds harsh, but I didn’t pick this. I was forced to become this guardian thing or whatever and given the option I’d just as soon not be it.
Daniel didn’t respond. She had every right to be angry, being taken from her family like that. But it sounded so selfish. The forest need her, but was it right to force her to stay? Could it even do that? He wasn’t sure and the uncertainty only grew as they walked the long way out of the glade.
Enjoyed the story? Support Steven Cousler!