Folwor snarled from beyond the veil of trees. From inside the thicket, Daniel crouched, making not a sound. Penny sat huddled in an alcove of leaves as they both listened to what was happening outside.

Something spoke. A voice like oil sliding over itself. “Where is he?”

Folwor’s reply threatened a growl at each word. “I’ll not answer to a monsters like you.”

“Monsters?” The same voice said. “You haven’t seen monsters yet.” There was a sickening sound, like that of skin and flesh tearing. Through the thin gaps between the trees, Daniel caught glimpses of the deer molting. Their matted, black stained fur peeled back to reveal grossly mutated flesh that pulsed and writhed in the dim canopy light.

Folwor’s snarl became a sharper as she crouched to face the twelve Cull. There was a long pause, the only sounds where Folwor’s growl and the squish of Cull muscles. Daniel held his breath, watching with wide eyes.

Then a flash of something long flashed through the air, cracking it like whip. Folwor stepped back as several more of the things sprung from the Cull. Their bright red tongues snapped at her legs and face. Daniel caught sight of the end of one of them. Barbs as long as his fingers lined their tips. 

They beat Folwor back against the trees, her trying to shield her face with a leg. But then she let out a wild snarl and leapt at the nearest creature with terrible speed, ripping into it with a ferocity Daniel had never seen before. The other Cull moved in, obscuring Daniel and Penny’s already difficult view of the fight.

“We have to help,” Daniel said.

Penny turned to him like he was crazy. How?

Daniel held out the growth stone. It thrummed in his palm and gave off a faint, but eager green light.

Penny took a step back.

“You have to,” Daniel said, pushing it towards her.

She shook her head. 

“Look,” Daniel said,” I get you didn’t want any of this, but,” he held the stone up, “this is the only way we’re getting out of here and the only thing that can help Folwor.” His face became grave, and his voice like iron. “Now take it!”

With obvious reluctance, Penny stepped forward. Daniel lifted his palm up to her, but she hesitated. Her eyes shown with the soft luminance of the growth stone, a gentle green shimmering across her blue and black feathers. She looked Daniel in the eye for a long, long moment. She sighed and touched the gem.

Brilliant green light exploded from Daniel’s hand and he had to shield his eyes with his other arm. The fighting outside the thicket of tree ceased as all eyes turned towards the fierce light that blazed from within.

It lasted only a couple seconds. Daniel blinked to the present only to feel searing pain in his hand that had held the stone. But It was quickly forgotten by the sight of Penny who stood before him. She was no longer a small. She stood above Daniel now. Her feathers, once a calm blue, were now a rich cobalt, each one like etched crystalline shards. Her dark feathers were no longer dusted charcoal, but deep jet black as they came down to her neck. There sat the growth stone, just above her sternum, at home amongst her brilliant feathers.

“H-how do you feel?” Daniel stammered. She looked magnificent, majestic even. Powerful.

“Taller,” Penny said. Her face lit up. “Hey! I can talk!”

“Blue one!” A voice yelled from outside. Penny and Daniel turned to the outside. “If you value your friend’s life, you will come out.”

“Don’t!” Shouted Folwor, followed by a ferrel growl as the fight resumed.

“She’s not going to last much longer,” Daniel said. He turned to Penny. “So…”

“Why are you looking at me?” Penny asked.

“I don’t suppose you have, I don’t know, any of those powers Folwor was talking?”

“I…hmmm,” Penny said. Her face become one of intense concentration.

“YAAAH!” Folwor shouted from outside quickly followed by the something ripping.

“Any time now,” Daniel said.

“This only just happened,” Penny said. “Give me a sec to figure this out.”

“We may not have a sec,” Daniel replied.

“Well it’s not like I know what I’m supposed to be doing or…feeling here,” Penny shot back. “What powers do I even have now?”

Daniel frowned. “Folwor said it was the growth stone,” he said, wincing at the harsh battle sounds outside. “Maybe you can heal things.”

“Sure. Yeah, that makes sense.” She looked herself, holding out one her wings and scrutinizing it. “But how do I turn it on or whatever?” She waved the wing around, causing a gust inside of their hollow. “Do I flex a muscle or something?”

“Try focusing on something damaged. Like…” Daniel looked around. His attention was pulled away however by his hand. He’d been too excited by their success with the growth stone to notice his hand had been burned in the transformation. Now that he noticed, a pain flooded up his arm.

He took in a sharp breath. “Ahhhh.”

“Oh, that looks bad,” Penny said, craning her head over.

“Try it on me,” Daniel said. He extended his hand towards her.

“Ummm,” Penny said, cocking an eyebrow. She stared at his singed palm.

“Concentrate,” Daniel said.

“I am,” Penny replied.

“Harder,” Daniel added, a fresh wave of pain hit him.

I am,” Penny said. She glared at his hand, her brow heavy with focus. Finally she sighed. “It’s not going to—” She froze and Daniel could feel it. The pain faded away ever so slightly.

“What did you do?” Daniel said.

“Nothing,” Penny said, still staring at his hand. “I just looked at it.”

“You must have done something,” Daniel said.

“Then you tell me what it was,” Penny snapped.

“I don’t know, you’re the one doing it.” Daniel countered.

Penny sighed again. “I have no clue. I was think…healing thoughts and it just—Look!”

Daniel didn’t need to. His hand felt better after a split second.

“I don’t get it,” Penny said, looking at her new body. “What am I doing?”

She turned away and let out an exasperated breath. In front of her, a small flower bud appeared on the tree’s bark.

Breath. “It’s your breath!” Daniel said.

“Yeah, I know it’s bad,” Penny said. “But I can’t exactly brush and floss in this state.”

“What?” Daniel said. “No, I mean, I think it’s your breath that’s doing the healing.”

“Wait, seriously?” Penny said.

Daniel held his palm out. “Try it.” 

She leaned over and gave a long exhale over his hand. Almost immediately, his skin began to reform, re-knitting the burned portion until it was just like new.

Penny’s eye brows went up. “Wow.”

Daniel rubbed his restored palm. He couldn’t even feel the difference. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah,” Penny said, looking around. “But how does that help us get out?” She waved her wing at the dense trees around them. “Too much growth is somewhat the problem here.” At her motion, the leaves around them rustled.

“Do that again,” Daniel said.

“What?” Penny said. “This?” She extended her wing, pointing. It was slight, but they could see the trees around them bend in the direction she’d indicated.

“Now that is cool,” Daniel said. He gave her a look. “Think you can clear a path for us?”

“I can try,” she said, her voice determined. It softened a bit, however. “Key word ‘try.’ I’m still new at this.”

She spread both wings, the feathers at the edges having turned completely transparent like hand-crafted glass. She angled them in front of her, towards the dense tree line. A long pause ensued. Daniel could hear Folwor fighting back outside the veil of trees. It didn’t sound like she was winning.

“Penny…” Daniel said.

She didn’t respond, her face creased with concentration, eyes closed. Then she took a deep breath and slowly spread her wings. There was an audible cracking of bark and groaning of wood. The trees at first only seem to sway as if in a heavy wind, then they began to bend away from each other, parting like blades of grass before a wind. The very roots of the trees wove away, revealing bare ground before them. In but a few moments, a straight, clear path appeared before them leading out of the thicket. And into the fight.

Folwor was in a bad shape. She favored one front paw, the other too injured to be of much use. One eye was bloody, the other swollen closed. Multiple lacerations ran the length of her back, staining her fur a dark crimson.

“Come on,” Daniel said, “we have to help.”

“I dunno,” Penny said. She seemed unsteady. “I think whatever I did took a lot out of me.”

“We have to do something.” Daniel looked around, but what could he do? Grab a rock? Try to attack? Most likely die in the process. He glanced upward. If only they had sunlight, they would be safe. 

“Wait a minute.” Daniel spun around. “Penny, do you think you could do it again?”

She look tired. “I think so, why? Do you want me to grow a barrier between them and Folwor?” She looked concerned. “I don’t know if I can do that.”

“Something better,” Daniel said, pointing up at the green canopy far overhead. “Can you give us some sunshine?”

Penny smiled. Not the comical smile she had when a little bird. This one was bold. “I sure can.” She frowned, however, looking over Daniel’s shoulder. “But it looks like we have company.”

Daniel turned to see that three of The Cull had spotted them. While the other nine focused on Folwor who was refusing to go down easy, a trio broke off, rushing him and Penny.

“I’ll try to buy some time,” Daniel said, having no clue how he was going to do that.

Penny didn’t argue. She raised her wings to the sky and focused.

Daniel looked around frantically, the three Cull bearing down on them. He saw the dead pine they had used to get to the growth stone. He tore as big of a branch off as he could swing, and settled into a crouch. It was all he could do to keep his knees from knocking. 

What was he doing? Here came three monsters and all he had was a stick. He swallowed hard, tightening his grip. His hands were slick with sweat, but the bark was rough. He held it so hard it hurt his hands, but he was so scared he didn’t notice. Gotta buy some time, he thought. Gotta try.

The first Cull came in, it’s tongue whipping out at him. It wrapped around his make-shift club and tried to jerk it out of his hands. He held on too tightly for that to work, but it pulled him off his feet. It didn’t come after him, instead making straight for Penny. It’s tongue unwound from his stick, trying to recede, but Daniel pinned it to the ground with his foot. Caught by the move, the Cull’s head snapped back with a sickening sound as Daniel’s weight refused to release its tendril tongue. 

It didn’t die, but obviously having its head jerked back like that had broken something important. The Cull stumbled forward, its head lulling to the lazily, its tongue still out. Daniel grabbed it with no small sense of disgust, trying not to gag at the slimy limb as the other two Cull came in. 

The one closest whipped its tongue at him having learned from its friend. Daniel dove down, still hold the first one’s tongue. It had meandered a ways away now, disoriented, the other two Cull about to pass between them. On instinct, Daniel pulled the tongue taught creating a trip wire that the other two creatures fell over as they passed.

What small sense of satisfaction Daniel got quickly disappeared as they rose back up. Their heads peeled back, more tongues emerging from grotesque cavity in their necks as they stalked towards Daniel. He raised his club, it wobbling slightly from his shaking hands. He was out of ideas and they were backing him into the thicket, a corner.

So much for that, Daniel said, eyes darting between the monsters, trying to see which would move first.  Thankfully, they never got the chance.

Daniel caught sight of Penny just as it happened. She opened her wings in a majestic arch and the forest bloomed into warm sunlight. It was immediately followed by cries of agony.

The Cull let out screeches that sounded like someone screaming with a mouth full of boiling water. Their already mutated, deceased bodies began to bubble and ooze. Daniel could only look on, disturbed as the two Cull who had just been about to attack him, began to melt. Their bodies disintegrating layer by layer. But even as they died, their eyes, those glowing golden eyes to the last, never left him.

Even as the sunlight seemed to burn them down to nothing, Daniel couldn’t look away from where they had just stood.

Screams from his left pulled him back to the present. The Cull surrounding Folwor had escaped the sunlight, although with obvious injuries. They gathered in the dark beyond the circling of day light.

The nine watched, their eyes alive with frustration. One of them stepped forward. Its face had been partially dissolved and the dim light cast distorting shadows across the melted surface. It lingered at the edges of their cover, scrutinizing them through mutilated sockets.

“Sorry, no loitering here,” Penny said, widening her wings. The circle of sunlight expanded and the Cull shirked back, shrieking in irritation. The broke and ran back into the forest, safely beneath the canopy. All but the one. It stood their, only giving ground at the last second. It finally turned to go but with obvious reluctance.

It wandered back into the dim confines of the forest and only when Folwor confirmed that she couldn’t hear it any more did Penny drop her wings. The branches overhead swung back in place, casting them back into the woodland twilight.

Penny curled up on the ground.

“Are you okay?” Daniel said, rushing over.

“I’m just…tired,” Penny said. “Holding it that long…oof…” She gave a faint nod toward Folwor. “You should check on her, though.”

“I’ll live,” Folwor said, she had been laying on her side. She righted herself onto her stomach, but she grimaced.

“Can you heal her?” Daniel asked Penny.

“I can,” Penny said, looking faint. “But give me a minute.”

Daniel sat down on a stump. That entire day seemed to settle on him. He felt drained. He cast an anxious glance back into the dark recesses of the woods.

“I don’t think they will return,” Folwor said, limping over to sit beside him. A moment later, Penny joined them. “That was impressive,” Folwor said.

“I’m just happy I could do anything,” Penny said. Her shoulders slumped with fatigue as she spoke. “I feel like I just flew a hundred miles in a wind storm.”

“Practice,” Folwor said. “I warrant your strength will improve with time.”

“Yeah,” Penny said, “but I don’t have time for training drills. Those things are still out there.” She turned to Folwor. “Did you say I had, like, all the strength of the forest to use? I don’t feel it.”

“You do not yet posses all the stones,” Folwor said. “They compliment each other. And, in some ways, they are a disadvantage if used separately.” She shook her head. “I can only guess. Lamar only ever used all three simultaneously. I have no idea what each by itself will do.”

Penny held up her wing, examining it. “Wish this thing came with an instruction manual.”

“Or a teacher,” Daniel added.”

“You’ll grow accustom to it,” Folwor said, rising. “You will have to.”

“We’ll see,” Penny said, getting up as well. Folwor’s face betrayed concern at the remark, but Penny ignored it. “I think I’ve recovered enough to heal you up a bit.” She walked over and Folwor proffered her injured paw first. Penny gave out a long breath over the injured limb. The cuts and bruises began to fade until they were altogether gone. Penny stood back, satisfied at her work. She moved up to Folwor’s face, but stopped after a minute as she took a woozy step back.

“Maybe I’m not as recovered as I thought,” she said.

“Don’t heal everything completely,” Folwor said. “Just enough help the most painful wounds.” 

Over the next half hour, Penny healed as much as she could, frequently taking breaks in between injuries. The worst damaged seemed to have been in Folwor’s leg which Penny had completely fixed. Everything looked more than plenty painful, but Folwor had done her best to take the hits where she could. Her impressive strength and size and helped to mitigated the beating the Cull had given her.

Penny stepped back. “That’s all I can see,” she said. “And it’ll have to be enough.”

Folwor rolled her neck and shoulders, feeling the restored muscles move. “It’s more than sufficient. Thank you.”

“No problem,” Penny said. “So what now?”

“We pursue the next stone, that of strength.” Folwor said, already pushing into the trees. “You will need it to face the Cull when the time comes.”

“You mean if the time comes,” Penny correct under her breath. Daniel gave her a troubled look, but said nothing as they trudged back into the brush.

***

The dark, crooked tunnel wound on as Thole and his company trudged forward. He hit his head on the low ceiling for the third time, cursing. They should have make this bigger when they carved it out. He remembered those frantic days. With no where to hide, they had dug this hole themselves. The walls bore the wandering scrapes of fingers and hands that had dug in the earth. Back when they had hands to dig.

The only light came from their own eye. A wan yellow glow suffused the corridor as they gradually descended, rounding corners to head further down, a kind of underground switchback. Every so many feet they chanced upon a black opening in the rock. An entrance to other passages, fated like this one to remain in darkness.

Many of them wove on to sleeping chambers. Dim, vaulted caverns that housed their kind. Or what was left of them. So many were empty now. When they had arrived, they had built over a dozen. Now all of them could fit into two or three. They had only been in this world for a month and already their numbers were so small. 

The air grew colder. The walls and floors became slick with condensation. That, or something else Thole didn’t like to consider. The descending path leveled out into a vacuous room. Lining the edges were dozens of Cull. They stood sentinel in their revealed forms, masses of flesh, knotted muscles, red and exposed to the air. They had imitated their old shapes, but the results were sorry results.

A rank of guards stood in opposite lines promenading from the far wall where a massive breach gaped in the stone. The mingling of the many Cull, their eyes soft lights in the dim confines, offered shaded illumination to the space, but none of it penetrated beyond that breach. Darkness is the absence of light, but something else lurked beyond that threshold. A something that wasn’t just without light, but resisted it.

As Thole entered the space, one the guards from the line stepped up to him. 

“Wlite requires your presence,” it said.

Thole nodded, a grave gesture as he and the others began walking toward the breach. The guard stopped him with an arm. A long, ebony bone protracted from it like a sword, blocking Thole’s path.

“Just you,” the guard added.

Thole swallowed, but nodded again. The rest in his company whispered amongst themselves as Thole walked fatefully toward the dark recess. Glowing eyes turned to him throughout the room and Thole even thought he saw the scout from the prior night amidst the crowd. He turned away in spite. Let them think what they would. Wlite couldn’t afford to punish him. Or at least, she couldn’t afford to kill him. Their numbers were too few now for that. 

His conviction in that notion dwindled as he neared the black breach. The ambient light of the room ran up to its edge and abruptly stopped. He was faced with a wall of pure jet, pitch seemed to coat the air itself before him. With foreleg, Thole put one foot into the absolute mirk. She was there alright. Waiting for him. He took a deep breath which wasn’t easy in his body’s beaten state. He closed his eyes and stepped through the curtain of night.

Nothing. He couldn’t open his eyes, but even if he could have, there wouldn’t have been anything to see.

A feeling like water brush his legs and he shivered.

“The scouts tell me you’re having trouble, Thole,” a sweet voice said in the darkness.

“The blue one has help,” Thole said, standing perfectly still. “The boy and that wolf. We didn’t foreseen them.”

“I see,” Wlite said, her voice like melodies running down a harp.

Thole thought for a moment. She didn’t seem upset, but then one could never tell with her. He decided to risk it. “Perhaps, we might have help in our search?”

“Help, you say?” She said, neutral.

Thole pressed on. “Yes. If there are even but a few who can aid us, then our success will be certain.” He took a step forward, but paused as the liquid at his legs changed direction. “Please,” Thole continued, “We tried to take them, but the blue one’s power grows too strong. She killed three of our group and the others including myself have been gravely injured.”

“Mmm, let me see,” Wlite said.

The liquid began to rise around him. “No, that’s not—” But it the liquid had already rising to his chin. His words turned into a panicked gurgle as he fought to stay afloat. It was pointless, he knew, but the impulse was hard to overcome. The liquid pulled him down and he felt it pour into him through his wounds. Images of others, fair creatures with long hair, sharp ears, and brilliant eyes exploded through his memory before Wlite shut them out.

“Ah, I see,” Wlite said from all around him. “Your body is nearly ruined.”

“No,” Thole choked out. The liquid wasn’t suffocating. Not that his body needed to breath, but having it all around him, so many around him, was a claustrophobic experience. “No, I will live,” he said, frantic, “We just need more help.”

The liquid pulled out of him, but he was still submerged. It churned in idle tides, pensive. “You are one of our finest, Thole.” Wlite mused. “I remembered when I was made the Keeper near the beginning. After those dark days.” She paused. Thole thought back to when they had emerged upon this world. It had been such an alien feeling. It had disturbed him, disturbed them all. 

“It was almost you who stood where I am,” Wlite said. “You and Ivol…” The liquid bent, slowing to sombre streams. “We have lost so many to this place. That the women and children are spared in me is a small mercy.”

“I don’t think any of this is a mercy,” Thole said, shuddering at her words.

“Take what good things we can, Thole,” Wlite said. “There are not that many to go around.”

“So,” Thole said, stiffening. “I take that as a ‘no’ to my request, then?”

“Not necessarily,” Wlite replied. “You make a valid point. In order to retrieve what we need, I’m willing to give you some measure of aid.” The liquid around Thole suddenly turned hard, locking him in place. “However, I can’t spare any other Cull to help you.”

“Why?” Thole said, his voice tinge with fear for what was about to happen. “Can you not reassign some of hunters? What about the scouts or growers?”

“To do so would require essence transference,” Wlite said. “It is too much of an ordeal for them.”

“But not for me,” Thole shot back. “You would withhold from them, but subject me to that abomination?!”

The liquid around hi tightened even further. “You are one of our finest,” Wlite said, her voice becoming multi-tonal, voices overlapping voices. “And just as I must carry these in me, so too must you bear your burden.” 

She then pulled him out his body.

***

“It’s gotta be around here,” Daniel said. He shoved an obstinate branch out the way. They had been hiking for almost two hours now after the run-in with The Cull and still they hadn’t found any sign of the strength stone.

“Keep searching,” Folwor said.

“Yeah,” Daniel said, wiping his forehead. The day was warmer than most and the dense foliage overhead served to trap the humid forest heat in. “But can we take a break?”

Folwor nodded. “There should be a stream just up ahead. We can rest on the banks.”

The pushed through another crowded patch of shrubs and emerged into a break in the trees. An enthusiastic stream bubbled through the woods, a small sandy shower stretching out from it. The pure water played over its river-rock bottom, its splashes like laughter as it ran. A few yards away it rounded a small cliff and tumbled down about twenty feet to a pool below.

The air riffed with the sounds of the stream. Daniel could smell the rich moss and decaying leaves here. Several larger stones marked the water’s course, like parents guiding a timid child. Daniel sat down on one of them, relieved to take the weight off his feet.

Folwor went up to the stream to drink and Daniel fished some of the snacks from his pack.

Penny swooped in through an opening in the branches startling Daniel so much he almost fell of his rock.

“Hey!” he shouted, righting himself.

“Sorry,” Penny said. “This body is so much bigger now, I’m still getting used to it.”

Folwor looked up as Penny also to a drink from the river. “Any signs?” she asked Penny.

“Nothing,” Penny said with a shake of her head. “It’s just more forest. There’s some stone hills to the north of us and I can just barely make out the meadow to the east, but other than that, there isn’t much.”

Folwor paced back to the edge of the woods, thinking. She lay down facing the stream, resting her head on her crossed paws. “The hills might be promising. More so than vainly wandering through the woods hoping to happen across something.”

“The hills it is,” Penny said, fanning her wings. “Let’s go.”

“In a minute,” Daniel said, dusting his hands from his snack. “Can’t we get a second?”

Folwor nodded to Penny. “Go on ahead if you like. We’ll follow in short order.”

“Alright,” Penny said. Daniel watched as with on thrust of her wings, she launched herself back up into the sky.”

“She seems eager,” Folwor noted as they both watched Penny sore out of view.

Daniel’s response was non-committal. “Yeah…”

Folwor gave him an arched eyebrow. “You disagree?”

“No,” Daniel said, not meeting her gaze. “I’m sure she’s excited.” Folwor didn’t say anything, but her expression was skeptical. “It’s just,” Daniel said, tracing his finger along a crevice in the stone, “maybe it’s different.”

Folwor frowned. “Different?”

“Yeah,” Daniel said, trying to be nonchalant. “You know, from the way it was before. With Lamar.”

“Daniel,” Folwor said. “Whatever it is you’re trying so hard not to say, I’m certain I can hear it.”

“Oh,” Daniel said, flustered. “I, uh, I mean…” He paused. She seemed reasonable enough. Maybe he could just teller her about Penny. She would find out eventually anyway when they collected all the stones. Sooner was probably better. Probably.

“Okay,” Daniel said, taking a breath. “The thing is, Penny doesn’t really want to be the Bright Jay.”

“Ah,” Folwor said, nodding. “Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose our path.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said, “but she really doesn’t want to be it.”

Folwor didn’t so much as blink. “Duty cannot be ignored, Daniel. She must fulfill her part.”

“She doesn’t see it that way,” Daniel replied.

“That’s irrelevant,” Folwor said. “The forest needs her. She must stay.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell her, but, you see, she’s got a family. They probably miss her.”

Folwor’s expression grew solemn. “That is the price service must pay.”

“Okay, yeah,” Daniel said, growing a bit frustrated. “But does she have to be the one to pay it?”

“It is her burden to bear.”

“But she didn’t choose this,” Daniel replied. “I mean, I get it. The forest needs the Bright Jay to protected it and whatnot. But does she have to be the Bright Jay?”

“She already is whether she likes it or not,” Folwor said. “Tell me, Daniel, if you held the power to save those around you, wouldn’t you use it?”

“I mean, yes, but—”

“Would you still do it even if it was difficult?”

“Yeah…” Daniel said after a pause. “I mean, I don’t think it would be easy. But that’s still assuming I’m the one to decide this.”

“Whether it was your choice or not doesn’t matter,” Folwor said. “Would you not agree that those who have the power to make a difference have the obligation to do so, regardless of circumstances?”

Daniel frowned, scratching his head. “I…I don’t know,” he said.

“Power,” Folwor continued. “Carries with it the need for action. Whether for good or for ill is another matter, but those with the ability are by necessity called to act.”

“So what if she gave up the power?” Daniel asked.

Folwor starred at him. “What?”

“The Bright Jay,” Daniel said. “What if Penny passed the mantle to somebody else once she gets all the stones?”

Folwor’s tone was strained when she spoke. “That would be…the wrong choice.”

“Why?” Daniel asked. “I mean, if she doesn’t want to do it, then wouldn’t it make more sense to pass it to somebody who does?”

“No.”

“But–”

“No,” Folwor repeated, her tone harshly firm. “It is hers to bear and her’s along until her time comes.”

“But,” Daniel said, his brow furrowing, “that’s stupid.”

“Consider this then, Daniel,” Folwor rose to her feet. “From what you say, she resents having the power foisted on her, correct?”

Daniel’s reply was hesitant. “Yes…”

“Then would it not be hypocritical to have her do likewise to someone else, merely to relieve herself of the responsibility?”

Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but stopped short. She had a point. A frustrating one, but a point nonetheless. “Well,” Daniel said, “maybe she could give to somebody who wanted it. That way it wouldn’t be bad.”

“And do you know such a candidate?” Folwor asked, giving him a pointed look. “Yourself, perhaps? Would you really give up your family for the isolation the Bright Jay would entail?”

“No,” Daniel said, “But—”

“Then the power must stay with her,” Folwor said.

They didn’t speak further. Folwor silently started towards the hills and Daniel followed. Their conversation, however, churned in his head as they walked. He couldn’t rightly argue with her point and yet he couldn’t accept it. Granted, when he’d spoken with Penny, he had been the one to stand by her keeping the power, not giving it up. But the way Folwor spoke about it, that Penny had no say in the matter, didn’t sit well with him. But then what was the alternative? If she wanted to hand off the power, who would she give it to? The only other person who know about this was him and he didn’t want it? He liked living with the Blairs. He like having a home for once. But if not him, then would she just give it to some random person just to be done with it? That wasn’t right and yet how could he tell her off?

The entire affair was a twisted knot and his mental hands were getting sore from trying to untangle it. “There would be time enough to solve all of this, he told himself. Right now, finding the stones was the most important thing. They couldn’t do anything until they had those. But even with that thought, he couldn’t shake the quiet sense of unease his discussion with Folwor had left him with.

The hills were a series of rocky chunks jutting up from the ground. Not quite on par with Folwor’s den, they were no where near as tall, but their uneven surfaces and an untamed look about them, as if even the wind and elements couldn’t rein in their sharp edges. What was more interesting, however, were the bizarre pillars of stone that rested atop several of the hills. At first glance, Daniel could have sworn they were man made. Nearly perfectly straight and noticeably tall, the stood out in stark contrast with the uneven nature of their surroundings.

“What are those?” Daniel asked as the crested the hill. Penny sat atop on of the pillars. She seemed to be studying something on the ground from up above.

“I’m almost tempted to say they’re trees,” Folwor said. “But that seems absurd.”

“How can they be trees?” Daniel asked. “They don’t have leaves or bark or, well, anything like a tree.”

“Look at their shape,” Folwor said. “They’re straight, but their edges are uneven, weathered.”

Several of the pillars had toppled to the ground. Daniel crouch to get a better look and was surprised to see that Folwor was right. Age rings lined the inside of the base pillar like in a tree trunk.

“But they’re made of stone,” Daniel said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“It does,” Penny commented from above them, “if there’s magic involved.”

“You have found the strength stone, then?” Folwor asked.

“I think so,” Penny said, waving them over. “But I can’t get it.”

They walked over to the fallen pillar—tree—she was pointing to. Embedded in its trunk was a brilliant white gem. Elliptical in shape, it was as wide as Daniel’s hand and almost as long as his arm.

“Yup” Daniel said, “that would be it.”

“I can’t figure out how to get it out,” Penny said. “I tried just tapping it with my beak hoping I would just kind of absorb it like the last one, but it didn’t work.”

“We have to free it then,” Folwor said. She circled around the fallen petrified tree. Daniel clambered upon top, kicking the stone idly with his foot.

How could they break stone? Chipping away at it seemed foolish and would take too much time. Daniel didn’t see anything they could use to pry the stone out with, so what did that leave them with?”

Folwor stopped pace. “Roll it.”

Penny and Daniel both turned to her. “Huh?”

Folwor grinned. “Roll it off the hill. When it reaches the bottom, it will break apart, freeing the stone.”

Daniel nodded. “It could work.” He took a step back. “But that mean’s you guys will be doing the heavy lifting. I don’t think there’s much I can do here.”

“Easy enough,” Penny said, gliding down from her perch. She and Folwor put their shoulders to the dense stone tree trunk. “Ready when you are,” she said to Folwor.

“Push!” Folwor shouted. Together they hefted their strength against the stubborn rock. Daniel winced at the sound of stone grinding stone, but they began to push it out of place and down the slope. At the bottom was a low ledge. If they could shove it off that, it would break apart once it struck the ground.

Their combined strength was barely enough shift the pillar’s weight forward, but it turned out that was all they needed. It began to pick up speed. Daniel watched as Penny and Folwor redoubled their efforts, throwing their weighted against that of the petrified tree as it gather momentum down hill. It went faster and faster, begin to roll of its own accord.

“That’s enough!” Folwor shouted, pulled back. It was rolling fast enough now it out stripped them down the slope. Daniel watched as it barreled down the reminder of the hill and careened off the edge. There was a satisfying crack of stone as it shattered down below them.

Folwor raced down the hill and Daniel moved to follow as Penny glided down from the edge. Folwor got there first as Daniel came up behind, breathless. There, amidst the fragmented remains, lay the oblong strength stone, flashing in the afternoon sun.

“That was easier than I thought,” Penny said, settling on the ground. 

She moved to pick up the stone, but Folwor placed a paw on it. “Before you take it,” Folwor said, “I must ask you something.”

Penny gave her an amused look. “Is this a kind of initiation?” She tapped the emerald on her chest. “It’s a little late.” Folwor gave her a hard stare. “Okay, okay, lighten up. What is it?”

“I need you to promise something,” Folwor said. “That you will stay. That you will protect the forest.”

Penny didn’t respond.

“Well?” Folwor said.

There was a long pause. “Give me the stone,” Penny said, her voice quiet.

“Not until I have your word—”

“Just give me the stone!” Penny shouted.

Folwor’s pulled the stone closer. “I must have your word.”

Penny studied her with narrow eyes. “Where is this coming from?”

“It is your duty,” Folwor said. “Your responsibility to guard and protect. Do you mean to up hold it?”

“Why are you ask me this now?” Penny said. “Who did—” Her eyes widened as her gaze swiveled to Daniel. 

“You told her?” she asked.

Silence.

“I…”

You told her?”

“Leave him out of this,” Folwor said.

“No,” Penny snapped. The feathers on her neck and head rose in agitation. She turned to Daniel. “I told you those things in confidence.”

Daniel felt small. “You were just going to leave and, well, I didn’t think it was right to leave—”

“To go back to my family!” Penny shouted. “Why can’t you—either of you understand that?”

Folwor’s tone was unmoved. “You’re needed here far more than—”

I. Don’t. Care!!!” Penny swiped her wing at the strength stone. “Give it to me!”

Folwor flung it away from them. Penny dove after it, but Folwor body checked her with a shoulder slam. Penny gasped, the wind getting knocked out of her as she stumbled back from the she-wolf.

“I cannot let you have it you only intend to miss use its power,” Folwor said, stoic.

“You idiot!” Penny yelled. “I’m not going to ‘miss use’ it. I don’t even want it.” Her tone softened. “I just want to go home.”

“Be that as it may,” Folwor said, “I cannot let that come to pass. You must accept your place here.”

Instead of replying, Penny attack her. He shot forward with a powerful beat of her wings. But Folwor was read. She rolled to the side, taking the strength stone in her mouth. Penny rose into the air, but stayed close to the ground, making a tight turn to come back at Folwor. The she-wolf was read through and dove the side as Penny made another pass at her. Daniel hid behind the remains of the shattered pillar as Penny turned in a corkscrew to dive bomb Folwor. Experience was on her side, however. The great wolf made for the tree line where the dense cover would be to her benefit. Penny seemed to anticipate the move and pulled up out of her attack. She flared her wings towards the forest. Plants sprouted from the woodland soil rising, growing into saplings, soft trunks, and into grand oaks and pines. The new wall of trees blocked Folwor’s escape and Penny began encircling her with new growth, creating a ring of foliage, shrubs, and elms.

He couldn’t stand it any more. “Stop!” Daniel shouted. He ran out form behind his cover, waving his arms. “Penny stop!” But the circling of trees kept growing, closing in around Folwor. Daniel couldn’t even see her any more through the aggressive growing thicket. “Penny!” Daniel shouted. She didn’t noticed him, deep in concentration as she suffused the ground with the growth stone’s magic. If he didn’t stop her, she’d hurt or maybe even kill Folwor. He looked around and spotted small chunks from the broken pillar. He found several good fist sized pieces. With everything he had, he lobbed them at Penny. Most of them missed, but a well placed throw landed one squarely on the side of her beak.

She fell from the air dazed, landing hard on the earth. The ring of threatening trees stopped growing and Daniel could hear Folwor fighting her way out. But he didn’t try to go after her. He walked up to Penny who lay still on the ground.

“Penny?” Daniel said in a quiet voice. “Are you alright? I just…I didn’t want to—”

Penny’s eyes snapped open. She flailed her wings about her knocked Daniel off his feet. She got up and looked around. But Folwor was already gone, deep in the woods going who knew where.

Penny let a frustrated wail. Daniel covering his ears at the sharp sound. She then turned to him, a look of unbridled anger in her eye.

“Why?!” She yelled, stalking towards him. Daniel backed away on only to get cornered against the the steep side of the hill. “Why would you tell her?

“She just asked about you,” Daniel said, trying to keep his voice level. “I didn’t know she would keep the stone from you.”

Penny bent down, meeting him eye to eye. Her body was tense, on the verge of lashing out. “And what did you think was going to happen?” Penny hissed. “She wants me to stay here, trapped here as this thing. And you told her I was going to leave!” Small green vines eked their way out of the rock around them, responding to her anger. “No there’s no way she trusts me and now, because of you I’m stuck here!”

You attacked her!” Daniel shot back. “That wasn’t my fault.”

“I had to take it,” Penny said. “I had to. She would never have given it to me once she knew I didn’t intend to stay. And now everything’s ruined.” Penny looked off into the woods. “Who knows where she is. I could search for days and never find her in there.”

“Then stay,” Daniel said. “Help. She has to give you the stone back for that. Just stay and get rid of the—”

“NO!” Penny slammed her wing into the rock wall send a shower of dust raining down on them. “I’m not staying here. I won’t. I can’t.”

“Just help and you can leave,” Daniel said. “Why won’t you do that?”

She met his eye, her voice growing pained. “Because I want to go home, Daniel. Home. I miss them. My mom. My dad. My brothers. I know their worried and scared and I won’t let anything get in the way of getting back to them.”

“Nothing?”

“Not anything.” Penny shook her head. “I can’t.”

“Don’t you think that’s…” Daniel trailed off.

“What?” Penny said, narrowing her eyes. “Think that it’s what?”

Daniel sighed. “Isn’t that selfish? I mean, you’re putting the whole forest are risk just because you want to see your family.”

“How can you say that?” Penny retorted. “Wouldn’t you…” She trailed off, her expression growing hard. “But no, you wouldn’t.” Penny turned away, walking back towards the forest.

“I wouldn’t what?” Daniel said, standing. “Penny, I wouldn’t what?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” Daniel replied.

To his bafflement, she laughed. “What do you think I’ve been doing? What do you think everything I was telling you was about?” Her expression became inscrutable. “But I guess you’d need a family to understand that.”

And with that, she flew up into the twilight sky and away out of view. Daniel stood alone at the base of the hills, silent. Her words sunk deep, driving through his heart and to his soles, pinning him to the spot as darkness drew on, his only friends having disappeared, himself the only one to blame.

***

Daniel didn’t know how long the walk back took. He didn’t notice how dark it had gotten on the way. He wasn’t afraid on the long journey back. He only felt alone.

He didn’t react as the Pam came out in her bath robe, a nerveous wreck. He didn’t make excuses when Charley questioned where he’d been. The only thing Daniel said was that he’d gotten lost.

He didn’t complain when the Pam said he wasn’t allowed back out in the woods by himself. He didn’t argue when Charley threatened to ground him if he did something like this again. He didn’t notice the concern on their faces as they walked him to his room. He didn’t say any more than yes or no when they asked him how he was. And he didn’t say good night when they shut the door.

He didn’t listen when they talked outside his room. He didn’t notice the worry in their voices.

He didn’t go to sleep right away. He couldn’t He pushed the window open. He couldn’t take his eyes off the dark green forest, hoping to see something. He couldn’t stop listening for the sound of wings or the echoes of a howl.  He couldn’t stop think about his mom, his father. He couldn’t stop thinking about how they weren’t there. He couldn’t stop think about Penny’s words. About how she might have been right.

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