It’s all clear, Penny typed into Daniel’s phone. He believed her, but scanned the edge of the woods himself just to be certain. The monstrous deer or The Cull as Folwor had called them, couldn’t be seen anywhere. It looked as if they had thought he, Folwor, and Penny had tried to cut straight across the meadow to the forest on the other side. They’d been chased through the forest into the clearing where the sunlight had deterred their pursuers it being apparently lethal to their kind.

“She says it’s clear for now,” Daniel said to Folwor, pocketing his phone. Penny sat perched on his shoulder. Folwor nodded and they pushed through the underbrush back into the dense canopy of the woods. Their chase and subsequent hiding in the field had taken a long time and the long shadows that grew out in front of them signaled how late in the day it had become.

“We need to go back,” Daniel said.

“We are,” Folwor said. “Once we are back inside Cull territory, we—”

“No,” Daniel said, “I mean back to my house.”

“Very well,” Folwor glanced back at the deepening amber shades of the meadow’s grass. “Home would be best.”

“Can yo give me a ride?” Daniel asked.

“Absolutely not,” Folwor said.

“Come on,” Daniel whined.

“No, boy,” Folwor said with a huff. “I am not some beast of burden to be used to ferry from one place to another.”

“But it’ll take us forever to get back on foot,” Daniel said. “And if I’m not back in time, my parents are going to kill me.”

Folwor looked aghast. “They would do such a thing?”

Daniel blinked. “What?”

“Kill you,” Folwor said, “for simply returning beyond when asked?”

“Uh…,” Daniel said. He got an idea. “Yeah, they’ll kill me if I’m late.” He made a chopping motion with his hands. “They have these big knives and I was to scared to asked what they were for, but…” He shivered. “Please. Just help me get back before it gets dark.”

Folwor seemed to consider it for a minute. “You,” she finally said, speaking to Penny. “Is what your friend says true?”

Penny glanced at Daniel who mouthed the word Please. Penny rolled her eyes but nodded to Folwor. The large she-wolf huffed. “Very well then. I will give you a lift back to your den.”

“Thanks,” Daniel said, climbing on her back. “I really appreciate it.”

“Make no mistake,” Folwor said as Daniel got a good seat. “This is not to be a regular assurance.”

“Sure, sure,” Daniel said. “Now let’s go!”

“I am not at your beck and call, boy,” Folwor snarled.

“Okay,” Daniel said, putting up his hands. “Whenever you want to go.” Folwor didn’t move. A minute passed. “Uh…” Daniel said, “Are you gonna…”

“Curse you, boy,” Folwor said. “I will go when I am ready.”

“Fine, fine,” Daniel said.

They didn’t move.

“Are you ready now?” Daniel asked.

“Gah!” Folwor barked. “You do not decided when I go.”

“Then,” Daniel asked, confused. “What are we waiting for?”

“FINE!” Folwor snapped as she started to walk.

“I didn’t mean to…” Daniel said.

“Shut up,” Folwor growled.

“Wait!” Daniel said.

“Boy, I  swear I’ll rip your leg off.”

“Sorry,” Daniel said. “But I have to ask. What are we going to do about The Cull?”

“We’ve lost them,” Folwor said. “By the time they double back to this spot, we will be far away.”

“No,” Daniel said, worry beginning to gnaw at the pit of his stomach. “I’m not talking about here. I’m talking about my house.”

“What of it?” Folwor said.

“They were there last night,” Daniel said. Folwor paused at that. “The Cull, after you left, they emerged from the woods and watched Penny and I.” Daniel continued. “They know where I live. What are we going to do?”

Folwor didn’t immediately reply. The thrum of forest life began to die down around them as evening fast approached. Daniel looked at the time. It was an hour before sundown. They need to get back. But what then? The Cull would eventually figure out they’d been fooled and simply come back to his house.

He was so deep in thought that he jumped when Penny pecked his hand.

We could split up, she typed into his phone.

“Split up?” Daniel ask.

Folwor raised her head. “What does she mean?”

If Daniel and I split up, Penny wrote, that might draw attention away from his house.

“We don’t necessarily know if they’re after you,” Daniel noted. “It might not help at all.”

True, but I have a hunch they want me,  Penny typed. They probably think I’m the Bright Jay. I’m the bigger threat and that’s what they want to get rid of.

Daniel read the text to Folwor. “What do you think?” He asked her.

“It makes the most sense,” Folwor replied. “They killed Lamar. Here they see another bird bearing his colors and think it’s another version of him. In theory at least.”

Daniel scratched his head. It did make sense. If they were truly after Penny, then parting ways would be the best answer. “Okay,” Daniel said. “We split.” He looked at Penny. “Where are you going to go?”

“With me,” Folwor said. “She can stay at my den until next we meet. The Cull don’t know where it is and it’s not too far from here. I can show it to her on the way to your home.”

Penny agreed to the idea and Daniel nodded. With that settled, they set off. Folwor ran through the forest although not at the break-neck pace they’d had when being chased by The Cull. Wildlife scattered before her powerful frame as she raced through the woods. Squirrels darted out from under the brush and birds squawked in surprise as she ruffled the foliage beneath them. Daniel panicked when he saw a couple of deer up ahead, but as they glanced in their direction, he saw they were ordinary. They glided away into the forest as Folwor passed. It was good to see normal life in the trees. Normal birds and animals just moving about. Ever since he had entered the forest, he hadn’t seen anything resembling the typical fauna.

But even as they went, that notion didn’t stay with him for long. There were a lot of animals here, they couldn’t go two minutes without seeing a deer or elk. There were several dense groups of raccoons they passed along with a startling number of badgers. The sheer number of creatures living so close together didn’t feel right. Several of the animals also seemed to watch them a they ran by. One even seemed to lock eyes with Daniel, its expression bordering on human until it was lost in the trees.

They soon arrived at Folwor’s den. “Lair” might have been a more accurate term. Daniel could tell something shifted as Folwor began to run up a gentle incline. The soft forest soil gave way to stone and chipped rock that rose up around them. It proceeded to get steeper and steeper, the trees growing more sparse until they broke open like a vault revealing a rocky pinnacle on a hill ahead of them. It was as if something had smashed a giant boulder to pieces then put them it together the wrong way. Dark cliffs and sharp crags outlined the gray mass of stone. As they got closer, Daniel could see the edges of each rock were covered in lichen, small tufts of grass finding purchase on the barren outcroppings.

They ascended the foreboding stone mass by way of something that would barely qualify as a path. Being no more than two or three foot holds at a time, Folwor scaled the side with a dexterity that bespoke practice and familiarity.

Finally, they reached a level area of stone that ended in a sheer cliff. Daniel climbed off Folwor’s back and looked out over the woods. It wasn’t a mountain, but the cliff they were on still stood higher than the forest roof allowing for an impressive view.

“You can rest here whenever you wish,” Folwor said to Penny. “Until we find a way to keep your friend from harm, this will have to be your home.” Daniel turned around and noticed that the level section of rock pushed back into the stone forming a kind of recess or cave.

“I’ll steal you some breakfast,” Daniel said, “so you don’t have to live off bugs and stuff.”

Penny gave him her bird-smile before flitting from his arm to a small rock that jutted from the wall.

Daniel turned back to the woods. A ways away, a flock of crows burst from the verdant canopy, their ebony feathers catching faint shimmers in the waning light. “Folwor,” Daniel asked, “why do so many animals live around here?” He turned to her. “I feel like we saw every creature in the forest on the way over.”

“It is a number of things,” Folwor said. “Because The Cull control a large portion of the woods, many have had to relocate to other sections, putting strain on the animals already living there.” She stepped up beside him, watching the flock of crows search for another perch. “Another reason is for this place specifically.”

Daniel frowned. “Why? What is it?”

“As my home, I think some of them feel safer merely being close to it. Additionally, Lamar used to live here as well.”

“Oh,” Daniel said.

“They miss him,” Folwor said, her voice becoming somber.

“What was he like?” Daniel asked.

“Earnest and kind in his own way,” Folwor said. “Although he had a tendency to tease. Whenever we would patrol the woods, he would find almost any excuse to irritate me.”

“That can’t have been too hard,” Daniel said.

Folwor turned to him and Daniel was afraid he’d misspoken again. But Folwor merely smiled. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. In that way you remind me of him.”

Daniel just rolled his eyes, hiding a grin.

She turned back to the view. “He was always the lighthearted one. He told me before he left that he was an old man underneath his feathers. A withered human that had held the mantle for close on forty years.”

Daniel whistled. “He was the Bright Jay a lot longer than you made it sound.”

“It never showed, however,” Folwor said. “The only thing that betrayed his age was how wise he could be. At least when it was demanded of him.” She narrowed her eyes at the horizon. “Speaking of wisdom, it would be bet for us to depart soon if you wish to avoid the brutality of your parents.”

“Oh, yeah,” Daniel said, his mind still on Lamar. “I almost forgot.” Folwor gave him a shrewd look, but Daniel ignored it as she lay down in order for him to climb on. He waved to Penny. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She raised a wing in farewell and Folwor began the hair-raising descent back down to the ground.

Along the run back home, Daniel’s mind kept returning to what Folwor had told him of Lamar. From the sound of it, he had been middle age-ish when whatever happened turned him into the Bright Jay. If he’d held the power for forty years and was an “old man” when he died, then he had to have been around thirty or forty when he’d received it. What had happened all those years ago?

They reached the house with a trace of daylight still remaining. Charley stood out on the back porch so Folwor let Daniel off within the edge of the forest. She turned to go, but Daniel stopped her.

“Folwor,” he asked, “do you know how Lamar became the Bright Jay?”

“I don’t,” she replied. “The only thing I know is that whatever happened to him occurred in the Borne Well, the crater where I found you.”

She began to walk back into the woods again when Daniel spoke. “Can I ask you one more question?” She turned around and after a moment nodded. “How did you meet him?” Daniel asked.

Folwor paused, cocking her head. “It was a long time ago now. I was a different being then.”

“Like, you couldn’t talk?” Daniel asked.

Folwor shook her head. “No, although…” She frowned. “I can’t remember a time I couldn’t speak, and yet I feel as though there was such a point.”

“What about when you met him?” Daniel prodded.

“It was a different time for me,” Folwor said, sounding distracted. “I possessed incredible strength and size. I was a terror to the other animals, the mute and dumb fell before my prowess with ease.”

“That’s…nice I suppose,” Daniel said, feeling awkward.

“I was a scourge upon this forest,” Folwor said. “Until Lamar confronted me. He learned I could speak and he gave me a choice. Curb my malevolent appetite and use my greater power to help him. Or be beaten down.”

“And you took his offer?” Daniel asked.

Folwor laughed and shook her head. “I was not so wise as that. We fought, but with the blessings he possessed against my blind fury, he won.”

“Oh,” Daniel said, surprised. “I would have thought that, well, you know…”

“Hardly,” Folwor said. “I may have been in pain after our bout, but my pride was the only thing that broke.” She chuckled. “Looking back, that had probably been his goal the all along.”

“So then what happened?” Daniel asked.

“Oh he helped me recover,” Folwor said. “I killed only enough to eat and even then I could stand to fast if need be.”

“You mean,” Daniel said, “You still kill things to eat?”

Folwor gave him a surprised look. “Of course.”

“But aren’t you, like, the protector of the forest?” Daniel said. “Isn’t that, you know, bad?”

Folwor smiled at him. “Part of protecting the forest is to keep it in balance. I am not the only wolf in these woods, Daniel. Things grow, things die. A tree rises and a tree falls. Game may run and they may be caught. To prevent one from overruling the other is what it means to protect.”

“Okay…?” Daniel said, confused.

“One day you may understand,” Folwor said. “But right now, I think it best if you head to your den.” She nodded to something behind him. Charley was still outside, but was pacing back and forth across the porch.

“Oh, right,” Daniel said. “Thanks for the ride.

“A necessity,” Folwor said. She bent her head to look him in the eye. “We wouldn’t want your parents to ‘kill’ you, now would we?”

Daniel gave a nervous laugh. “Ha ha, yeah…” He stopped at a thought, however. “What about The Cull? What if they come back here tonight?”

“We shall simply have to hope our ruse works,” Folwor said. “I will patrol tonight, pull their attention away. More than that, I can’t offer.” She straightened up. “Tomorrow, we search for the stones and I may have an idea to start us off. Farewell boy. Until the morrow we meet again.”

Daniel believed their plan would work, but as Folwor disappeared into the thicket, he couldn’t help but think about what could go wrong.

“There you are,” Charley said as Daniel walked up to the back door. “You barely made it.”

“Sorry,” Daniel said. “I just found some cool places today.”

He waved Daniel inside. “Come on, dinner’ll be on in just a few and you can tell us all about it.”

The food was as good as always, but Daniel hardly noticed. What would he do if The Cull came tonight? What if they attacked? They had seemed reluctant to even approach the house before. But Folwor had said they didn’t like sunshine and just earlier that morning they had been attacked in broad daylight. What would they do now that it was dark outside? Daniel glanced back into the living room, the long wall of fragile glass the only thing separating their home from the woods outside.

Something touched his arm and he flinched. “Hey, you okay?” Charley asked. “You’re looking a little pale.”

“I’m…” Daniel said, his mouth dry. “I’m just tired. You know, out in the woods all day.” He forced a smile. Charley didn’t buy it but a look between he and Pam seemed to restrain any questions.

“Charley said you found some interesting places today,” Pam ask, buttering up a potato.

“Yeah,” Daniel said, grateful for the change of subject. “I was just walking around and then saw this huge field. It must have been three square miles or something.”

“Oh, yeah,” Charley said, his mouth full of food. He chewed it down before continuing. “Yeah, that’s McDel’s Meadow. Beautiful place.”

“My sisters and I used to go to picnics there,” Pam said. She smiled. “It would nice to go back. The weather shouldn’t be too bad this weekend if we…”

“It was boring,” Daniel interrupted. “Super boring.” He shrugged, feigning indifference. “I only staid for, like, five minutes.”

“Oh,” Pam said, her tone polite. Daniel winced. She only seemed to do that when something bothered her. She had probably wanted to revisit a place from when she was a kid and he had just blown the idea out of the sky. But for as guilty as it made him feel, he couldn’t risk The Cull finding them. Not the Blairs.

“Well,” Charley said, trying to pick up the mood. “A picnic still sounds like a great idea. There as some great places further up north. It’s a bit of a drive to some of the best spots, but I’d say it’s worth it.”

“Cool,” Daniel said, not looking up from his plate.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Pam asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Daniel said, but reconsidered. “Actually I have a weird question.”

“Okay,” Pam asked, confused.

It already sounded stupid in his head. “What if a bear attacked us?” Daniel asked.

Charley smiled, amused. “A bear? What made you think of that?”

“I, uh, saw one today,” Daniel said, mind racing for a believable answer. “At least, I think it was a bear. I think somebody said there were bears around here. Is that true? It’s true, right?” He realized he was talking fast, but he couldn’t unsay anything. His fingers fidgeted under he table as he hoped they didn’t notice.

“Is that what you’re worried about?” Pam asked. “Bears?”

“Eeeee…yes. Yes,” Daniel said. “I just really don’t like bears.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Charley said. “A bear wouldn’t wander this close to the neighborhood.”

“But what if it did?” Daniel asked. “I mean, we do live the closest to the woods.”

“It’s never happened. It…” Pam gave a look and he seemed to take the hint. “Relax,” Charley said. “There’s nothing to worry about. If for whatever reason a bear did try to break into the house, it’d have a hard time fitting up the stairs and even if it did, I have an old hunting rifle we could use.”

“Hunting rifle?” Daniel asked.

“My dad and I used to go elk hunting every once in a while,” Charley said. “I haven’t fired the thing in years, but it should still work.” He sighed, giving Daniel a relaxed smile. “The point is, that even if something, bear or otherwise, got in here, you’d be safe.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said, unconvinced. “Okay.”

The Blairs didn’t push the matter and Daniel felt a little bit better after what Charley had said. But only a bit. From what Folwor had told him, The Cull inhabited dead corpses, so would shooting one, even in something vital, really make a difference? He couldn’t help but dwell on it as he went to his room. Shadowy images of those demon deer floated through his dreams as he fell asleep.

***

He could not find them. Around and around the field they had gone, but there had been no sign of the wolf, the boy, and the blue one. Thole’s head still throbbed with a thundering pain at the blow the boy had landed. He wasn’t sure this body would last much longer, but the thought of having to transfer, to be formless again for however brief a time wasn’t an option. It could be done. He had seen others inhabit second bodies. But they were not right afterward. Not right at all. None of this was right. Being this slime, this ooze when they had once been so much more. Sometimes that was all he had to hold on to, all that got any of them through this fever dream existence.

The others were tired, he could tell. They didn’t venture out during the day much and now having had to risk that and being up all night, what little strength they had was bent on getting back to the pit.

A pit. It seemed like such a long time since they’d lived anywhere else. Once crystalline realms with pure air and gentle light. Now this brusque stuff in their lungs and blazing fire overhead.

They had rounded back to where they had started when one of the scouts dropped down. A small body, a minuscule bird of some sort although Thole didn’t know what this world’s name for them was.

It didn’t stay small, however. Its mouth stretched open, growing wider and wider until its insides slithered out. Growing in size until it was nearly as tall as Thole. The scout’s undulating flesh settled again into a fixed shape, albeit a grotesque and awful one. Its wings were crimson membranes, sharp veins visible beneath the thin skin. Its torso looked like flayed meet layered on top of itself and its head had become mass of churning fingers of flesh.

“Your search?” The creature asked. Blunt and easily irritated, the scouts were heavily disliked.

“Nothing,” Thole said. “We searched all day. I don’t know what happened to them.” His words slipped over each other, like a hand trying to grasp oil.

“Excuses!” The scout shouted. Thole winced at the loud tone, his head ringing. “Wlite will not be satisfied.”

“Then it’s your fault as well,” Thole shot back.

“Impossible,” the scout replied.

“You saw them the same as us,” Thole spat. The others nodded in agreement, their glowing eyes scowling at the little bird. “We were limited to the ground. You had the air, what reason do you have for not spotting them?”

“Do not think you can shift the blame to me,” the scout shot back, the tendrils around its head shifting restlessly. “It was not my assignment to bring the blue one back.”

“You’re assignment,” Thole replied, “is to help us all return home at any cost. Whatever that implies.”

“Only Wlite has the authority to direct our actions.”

“Then let’s go talk to her,” Thole said. “We’re exhausted. The night grows long and we need rest.”

“Rest is not yours to have yet,” the scout said. “Chiding you was not my purpose in coming here.”

“Then out with it,” Thole said, growing weary of the conversation.

“There are reports of something strange to the south-west,” the scout said. “Investigate.”

“Tonight?” Thole asked. “That’s absurd.”

“It is Wlite’s command,” the scout retorted.

“What about the boy’s dwelling?” Thole asked. “The blue one was there last time, we could end this there right now.”

“No,” the scout said

“No?” Thole said, his face threatening to peel open. “We have a chance to fix this, fix everything, and Wlite says ‘no?’”

“Matters have emerged that are more pressing,” the scout said.

AAAH” Thole shouted, his head briefly erupting into a tendril mass, “How can anything be more important than going back? Going home?”

The scout leaned in and said with something of a smile. “Ask Wlite.” Thole could do nothing but scowl as the contorted scout flared its wings and launched back into the sky.

Thole turned to the others. “We go no where until we rest.”

“But what of Wlite?” One of the others asked.

“There are only so many of us,” Thole said. “And we can only do so much. She knows that. If it is so dire, she can send one of the other groups to search this new place.” He looked back into the sky. “For now we sleep.”

“What about the boy?” the same Cull asked.

Thole turned to the east. He was tempted, but they had only stood a chance against the giant she-wolf in their large group. They would have to kill her in order to take her body and given how tired they all were, he doubted they could do that any time soon. “We will meet him and the blue one again before long.” He turned back to the others. “Get some rest. We move north at daybreak.”

“During the day time?” Another asked. “Again?”

“It’s either that,” Thole said, “or we march now.”

There were no more complaints as they rest of The Cull settled down in the under brush. Thole chose a patch near where the forest bordered the meadow. He reflected on the scout’s words, however. They had failed to some degree. The blue one had been within reach, his reach and he had bumbled it. No one had expected the boy. Fewer still had considered him a potential problem but that was quickly proving untrue and in Thole’s case, painfully so. There was nothing to be done at present, however. Nothing but to head north tomorrow for whatever Wlite was worried about.

***

Daniel had a late start the next morning. His sleep had been fitful at best and he’d lingered in bed until nearly noon, skipping breakfast. The Pam was surprised to see him come down so late.

“Charley’s already gone,” Pam said from the dinning room table. “I know you didn’t want to go to the meadow, but Charley and I wanted to ask you if you’d like to hike out to the Old Shack tomorrow afternoon? He gets off work early and wanted to see if you’d be interested.”

“Mmmm, yeah, that’d be cool…” Daniel said. From the story, the Old Shack sounded like it was deep in the woods, away from the Cull. Daniel rubbed his eye with the butt of his hand. “But can we go Saturday instead?”

“I don’t see why not,” Pam said. “But you should ask him when he gets back.”

She offered to make him something for lunch, but Daniel said he’d manage with just the leftovers. He wanted more of what they had for dinner last night before Charley ate it all later. Pam grinned and went back to her own meal. Daniel ate lunch quickly and when Pam wasn’t looked, smuggled some bread and fruit upstairs.

In his room, he pulled out an old backpack he’d brought some of his things in. There wasn’t much, what had been in it he had already set around the room. He tucked the snacks inside and was about to head out the door when he realized it might look strange if he brought a pack down with him to go play in the woods. He’d been fortunate so far in how the Blair’s let him do whatever he wanted during the day, but he’d been pushing his luck these last nights and didn’t want to risk it. It probably wouldn’t do that much harm and they might just be trying to give him some space, but that wouldn’t last forever. But did he want it to?

For the first time in his stay in a foster home, Daniel could see a path, a possible slim sliver of a semblance of a future with the Blairs. He liked them. He wanted to be here. They made him feel comfortable, at ease. At home. Nobody, not Mrs. Burrow, not any of the other foster families, no one had ever managed to make him want to stay. Now that he had that, he wouldn’t loose it for the world.

Still, if Pam saw him trying to tip toe out the back with a bag over his shoulder, that might lead to some questions. He thought about telling her the truth, but only for a split second. She’d think he was nuts, and maybe he was. Here he went, helping a talking wolf help a magic blue bird that had once been a girl hunt down some mystical stones while trying to avoid some evil monsters. The thought made him laugh. Maybe that was why he felt so different here; he’d never been on a quest at the other foster homes. It was nice.

But still he had to deal with the pack. He glanced around the room, eyeing the window. Just maybe…

He popped it open. The roof rolled away at a gentle slope and the ledge was about three feet wide. Could he throw the pack into the pack yard? No, Pam might hear it, and besides it would squash the bread and fruit inside. Maybe he could just set it on the ledge and then grab a branch or something to knock it off once he was on ground level. That being the best idea he could come up with, he put a cautious foot out his window and placed the bag as close to the edge as he dared. It hung off a bit, about one third of the bag hanging over the edge.

He ran downstairs. “I’ll be back later,” Daniel shouted as he undid the lock on the sliding door.

“Be back before dark,” Pam said. “And stick to the trails.”

“I will,” Daniel hollered as he stepped outside.

The sun was bright overhead and the faint touch of cool air tied the midday together with refreshing grace. Daniel took a deep breath, an unconscious grin on his face. He stood there a moment, simply enjoying the day when he noticed a shadow overhead. The fruit must have rolled around inside because the bag was now dangerously close to falling off the roof.

Daniel dashed to the woods, trying to find a branch to get the bag down with, but there were no fallen trees this close to the house. The longest stick he could find was no bigger than his arm, not nearly enough to touch the roof, much less the backpack.

A bird called overhead. Daniel looked up to see two small, sharp blue eyes looking back at him.

“Penny!” Daniel said as she swooped down to land on a sapling in front of him. “How was Folwor’s?”

He offered her his phone. Five stars, she typed. Daniel laughed.

A rustle off to his right. “Ah,” Folwor said, emerging from the brush. “You’re already here.” She turned to go. “Come on, then.”

“Hang on,” Daniel said. He looked to Penny. Maybe… “I need your help with something.”

Penny wasn’t very big and the backpack ended up being far heavier than Daniel had thought. But after grabbing hold and beating her wings as hard as she might, Penny successfully managed to shift its weight enough to send it falling right into Daniel’s arms. He doubled back to Folwor in the brush and gave her an enthusiastic thumbs up. She just rolled her eyes, motioning with her head to climb on.

“Where are we going?” Daniel asked, taking a firm hold of her fur once on her back.

“North,” Folwor said, standing up. “Near the Borne Crater where Lamar died. It is the best place to start.” Daniel nodded. Penny took flight as he and Folwor sprinted deeper into the woods.

The journey was shorter than Daniel remembered from the first time they had gone in search of the crater. He also remembered he hadn’t been riding a giant wolf on the way there last time. They arrived in short order.

Daniel jumped off, not waiting for Folwor to come to a full stop.

“Alright,” Daniel said. “What are we looking for?”

“Lamar was trying to send his power to a new host,” Folwor said. “At least that seems to have happened with your friend.” Penny lighted on a nearby rock.

“Penny was in the meadow,” Daniel said, “when, eh, ‘it’ happened,” He looked around. “What direction is that from here?”

“East,” Folwor said. She looked down into the large depression. “The transfer was incomplete. Lamar must have died before he could finish it.”

“But Penny ended up here anyway,” Daniel said. He sat down next to her, scratching his head. “That means at least some part of it worked.” He frowned. “Although I guess that’s obvious.”

Penny tapped his hand. Maybe, she typed into his phone, the stones were trying to come to me, but because Lamar was stopped, they got lost somewhere along the way.

“What does she say?” Folwor asked.

“She thinks,” Daniel said, “that maybe the stones were trying to get to her, but they fell somewhere in between here and the meadow.”

Folwor’s arched her eyebrows. “It is possible.”

If we trace a path from here to the meadow, Penny typed, we might find them just sitting there. Daniel read it aloud.

“Then we have plan,” Folwor said as they re-entered the forest in the direction of the meadow.

“That was a good idea,” Daniel said to Penny in undertone. “I didn’t think you had wanted to help given…well, the whole thing really.”

She sat on his shoulder as she typed. I still don’t.

Daniel frowned. “Then why the…”

The sooner we find them, Penny said, the sooner I can go back to normal.

“I mean, yeah,” Daniel said. “But don’t you want to maybe help out here?”

I didn’t ask for this, Daniel. I’m not going help this place when its holding me hostage.

“That’s hardly fair,” Daniel said. “It’s not like Lamar meant to hurt you.”

No, he just didn’t care enough to think about it.

Daniel didn’t respond.

I just want to go home, Penny typed. I just want to see my family.

“But to just leave the forest just on its own?”

They have Folwor.

That’s not the same.”

Why not? She can do it. You can see her just as well as I can. She’s a giant wolf for Pete’s sake.

“But she doesn’t have power like you do.”

Penny gave him an arched eyebrow. What power? I’m a neon sparrow. Not exactly the most potent thing in the world.

Daniel rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”

No, Penny typed. I don’t. And when did you start caring so much?

“I don’t really, I just…” he sighed. “I don’t think it’s right to just abandon everything like that.”

Oh, so it’s not right to go back to my family, but it’s okay to be taken from them?

Daniel frowned. “That’s not what I said!” But Penny had flown off.

“She has the right idea,” Folwor said as Penny passed her. “We can see more if we spread out, but stay with in earshot.”

“Fine,” Daniel said, trudging off to the right. He couldn’t get over his conversation with Penny, however. She was being unreasonable. She just wanted to leave everything behind without a care.  She had an obligation to help this place and she just wanted to toss it off. Those responsibilities were important. She had to deal with them.

But she also had a family. People waiting for her to come home. They were asking her to leave that behind.

Daniel rubbed his forehead, the situation giving him a headache. There was no good way out of this. The best option was for her to stay and protect the forest. The right option was to get her back to her family. What were they supposed to do?

He was so consumed by his thoughts he walked straight into a tree. His shoulder caught on a branch, fwapping him across the face.

“Ow,” Daniel said, rubbing his cheek. “What the…?” He looked up to see they’d come to a dense cluster of aspens. Actually it was more than dense. There was less than a hand’s breadth between some trees they were so tightly packed together.

Folwor came up behind him, stepping over a dead pine. “You found something?”

“I have no idea,” Daniel said, still massaging his face. That branch had hurt. “Take a look for yourself.”

Folwor poked her snout at the packed trunks. “I have yet to see trees grow in such a manner.”

Daniel craned his neck to the side. “This patch must be huge. I can’t see around it.”

They both looked at the tops of the aspens. Penny circled overhead.

“Penny,” Daniel shouted. “Can you see what’s in the middle of this stuff?” She didn’t respond. “Penny?” She didn’t seem to hear him.

No, she was ignoring him.

He sighed, “You’d better talk to her,” he said to Folwor.

“Why?” Folwor looked up. “Has there been a discord between you two?”

“A what?”

“An argument,” Folwor said dryly. “Did you come to a disagreement?”

Daniel looked up. Penny had landed on a bough and was pointedly not looking at him. “You could say that.”

Folwor shook her head, but spoke up. “Small one, Penny, can you see what lays in the middle of this thicket?”

Penny looked down. She nodded and flaring her wings, rose up over the treetops. She came back a moment later, gliding down to them so fast she almost didn’t land right. She pecked Daniel so hard it made a pinprick on his arm. “Ow. Alright. Alright.”

He laid his phone out for her. There’s something glowing in the middle of all that.

“The stone!” Daniel cried.

“Wait,” Folwor said. She turned to Penny. “Are you certain?”

It’s a big glowing gemstone, Penny typed. Yes I’m certain.

Folwor smiled. “Then all we need to do is retrieve it.”

That might be a bit harder, Penny typed. It’s too dense for me to get down there. I can see it, but the tree branches are so close together I can’t get anywhere close to it.

“Really?” Daniel said. “We find one but because of some trees we can’t get it?”

“Be calm, boy,” Folwor said. She lay down and set her head on her paw. “We just need to think.”

“We need a chainsaw,” Daniel corrected. He sat down on the dead pine. “There’s no way we can push our way through, it’s too thick.”

“Then,” Folwor said, a tinge of irritation in her voice, “focus on ways that will work and stop saying every which one that won’t.”

“Fine. Fine.” Daniel rested his head on his knuckles and studied the compact foliage. They couldn’t get in through the top. There wasn’t a way to cut through the trees either, unless he could convince Folwor to gnaw through an acre’s worth of bark.

He shifted in his seat, lacing his fingers together and set his chin on top. It was what smart people did on TV when they needed to think. At the very least he didn’t think it could hurt. No way over, no way through. Under maybe? With what? Folwor could dig, but there was bound to be as many roots as there were trees. It would be just as impossible. The whole thing was just impossible.

“I got nothing,” Daniel said. “You guys?”

Penny shook her head.

“If need be,” Folwor said. “There is a colony of beavers up stream that could chew their way through.”

Daniel’s brow wrinkled in skepticism. “And how long would that take?”

“About two days.”

“Ah!” Daniel said, throwing up his hands and lying back on the dead tree. “There’s no way to do this!”

“Hmm.” Folwor cocked her head at the cluster of trees. “It must be the growth stone. It would explain the proliferation of plants and how close together they are.”

“Great,” Daniel said. “At least we know what we can’t reach now.”

Folwor gave him a flat stare. “You’re critique is not helping.”

“Sorry,” Daniel said, sitting up. “But I just can’t think of anything. We can’t get in through the top or underneath. We don’t have time to cut it down and besides,” Daniel said, leaning forward. “That feels wrong somehow.”

Penny cocked her head.

“I don’t follow you,” Folwor said.

“I mean,” Daniel said, motioning at the obstinate trees, “it’s the growth stone. It, well, makes things grow. Don’t you think chopping stuff down to get to is, I don’t know, a bit hypocritical?”

“Yes,” Folwor said slowly, “but have you an alternative?”

Daniel frowned, trying hard to think of anything better. Maybe this was all the wrong way to view this. They didn’t need to get rid of the trees, they simply needed them out of the way. As if that were any easier. Still, if there was a way they could, say, bend the trees apart, the stone would be easy to get. But how? They’d need something heavy they could force in between the trunks. As they would push down, it would force the trunk apart. Where could they get something like that? Something like…

Daniel felt the roughness of the dead tree beneath his hand. It clicked.

“Folwor!” He shouted, jumping up. “Help me with this tree.”

“What?” The great wolf asked, standing up.

“Help me get it up there,” Daniel pointed up five or six feet where there was slightly more space between the trunks. “If we can force this in between the trees, we can bend them out of the way.”

“I don’t understa—”

“Just help me,” Daniel ordered.  To his surprise, she did. She crawled underneath the dead tree and using her back, lifted it up. With Daniel helping to balance it, they slowly walked it over to a small gap in the branches. Using Daniel’s weight to angle it and Folwor’s strength to drive it home, they shunted the end of the dead pine in between the other trees. There was loud cracking in the air as bark met bark, grinding along the length of the wood.

But it worked. Folwor dug her heels into the dirt using her shoulder to drive the old tree further into the dense patch. Once they had it all the way in, she took a running start then leapt onto their giant wedge. A small opening appeared deep in the thicket. Daniel crawled under Folwor and through it. There it was. A brilliant sea-green emerald the size of his fist and shining like the noonday sun.

“I got it!” Daniel said. Penny flitted in behind him, swirling around him in excitement. He was about to reach for it when the log he was laying on suddenly jerked upward. He was thrown forward, flipping over onto his back. “Hey!” Daniel shouted. “Folwor, what are you doing?”

In response, he only heard a growl. What was she doing? How was he supposed to get out now— He paled as he saw moving lights in the crevices between tree trunks. Always in pairs. Always bright gold.

The Cull had found them.

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