Penny wove between a storm of attacks as Wlite threw a million spiked tenticles at her. She soared around in the dark air, the light from her gem stones the only thing to see by as she tried to swoop in close for the wind stone.

But Wlite was too fast, too strong, to everywhere. Her ebony limbs formed meshes and webs in the air, trying to trap Penny. All she could do was remain on the defensive against the Cull Mother and evade her barrage of strikes.

It is said you are a guardian,” Wlite’s voice boomed in the cavern. “Is it not your duty to help us?

“Not when it’s at the expense of others,” Penny said, nose diving to dodge another flury of attacks. “And especially not when you have to kill your own.”

They need the light,” Wlite said. Several of her tendrals braided themselves together, forming a vertiable cat o’nine tails that spun towards Penny. It had her pinned against another set of pitch limbs with no way out. She flung her self into a reckless spin, wings wide, eyes closed as she spun like a top into the oncoming mass of Cull tendrils. She sliced through them she was going so fast, but spining like that made her disoriented and she almost careened right into another string of attacks.

Accept it,” Wlite said, closing in around Penny. “Accept it and help us.”

She had formed a wire mesh around Penny who looked about, desperetly trying to find an exit. But the tendrils were too closely woven together. She couldn’t cut her way through for fear it would leave her exposed. But then she saw it. Bright in the swirl of darkness, the wind stone’s blessed blue shine sat wedged right in the middle of Wlite’s oozing torso.

“Fine,” Penny said, not sure what she was doing. She tucked her wings and shot towards the stone. Wlite didn’t respond immediatly, too suprised by Penny as she with the oilly surface of the Cull. But she had missed the stone, it drifted away in the waves of tar as Penny was pulled further into its depths. She flailed about trying to reach the gem, but the liquid was up to her neck now and rising too fast.

Come on, Penny through, straining with her wing to where she could just barely see a speck of blue. Come on.

The pitch swallowed over her head and she was lost in a gelatinous current of jet. An assult of voices rose around her. Children, mothers, old men and women wailing in the dark. It was insanity, the chorus of distress and pain and confusion was unlike anything she had ever heard. Her mind was overwhelmed by the cocophany as the ooze threatened to drag her deeper still. Then a light. Blue and clear. It peaked through the watery, onyx curtain like lightening in a storm.

Just touch it, Penny screamed in her head, trying to drown out the myriad, cry voices. Just a little further, just a bit more– The edge of her wing glossed the surface of the gem.

All it once it felt like her viens had been replaced with ice as a fountain of energy shot into her. It was like a dam had been breached and a flood of strength and awareness poured into her mind and body.

Wlite’s chest exploded with light and she stumbled back, rocking the cave with her weight as Penny rose into the air, the Bright Jay fully formed.

While the other stones had given her endurance and strength, this was something else. She felt like she could sense everything around her, that the world had been laid out like an open book. She sensed the air tremble around her and effortlessly dodged away from Wlite swining arm. She did the same as more followed, futile in their efforts to capture her. It was as if the wind stone had given her an extra sense, she was connected to the air around her, able to dicern the slightest disturbance.

She danced between attacks, untouched, a new found sense of weightlessness. But if it gave her a connection to the air, could she do more than just react with it?

Evading another wave of strikes, she reach out with the power and could feel the air it self. She gave it a nudge and the atmosphere in the cave stirred. She smiled and then threw her weight against the wind. A torrent errupted in the cavern akin to a hurricane. It whipped Wlite’s tendrils around, there efforts to reach Penny pointless in the gale. She for her part was unphased by the tempest as she hovered in place.

But despite the added power, the abilities of all the stones, how was she supposed to defeat Wlite? The massive Cull was held at bay by the winds, but Penny couldn’t do that forever and doing so wouldn’t stop her. There were no plants around, no seeds she could make grow, but would that even work? The only way to defeat a Cull before was destroy the body it inhabited. But Wlite didn’t have one.

 

Daniel and the Blairs sprinted into the wide antechamber before the veil to find Folwor neck deep in Cull he had nevre seen before.

“There everywhere,” Pam exclaimed, flare held before her. The room looked like strobing lights what with the glow from the Cull’s eyes constantly throwing shadows against the walls. Several them seemed to notice the trio and rushed them.

Charley took the lead, hurling his flare at the nearest one and striking it square on the side. It burst into flames, howling in pain. Pam and Daniel did likewise. The aflame Cull ran around in a state of pain and panic, colliding with their fellows and setting them ablaze as well. 

Retrieving their flares, the three pushed into the throng which had become a hell show of fire and heat as the Cull around them burned to a crisp.

Using the flares like knives, they stabbed and shoved their way towards the other side. Daniel could see flashes of light beyond a dark, ominous veil of black smoke and was sure that was where Penny was.

Ahead of them, a Cull was flung from the ranks, tossed half way across the room. “Trouble ahead,” Charley said as he jabbed his flare into another Cull. Most of the group was on fire now. They didn’t so much worry about being atttack by them, but by getting trampled and burned by the wild horde. Another Cull went sailing over their heads and when they broke through the next line of monsters, there was Folwor, back against the wall. She didn’t look good, but she had a grim look of satisfcation on her face. Around here were littered dozens of bodies, Cull bash and broken, not unlike Folwor herself.

Daniel was about to speak when Pam and Charley went charging at the she-wolf. “No, guys, she’s not—”

Folwor side-stepped their attack, knocking them off their feet with her tail. She placed her to fore paws on their chests and gave them a stern look. “Do that again and I might not be so friendly.”

“It talks,” Pam said.

She,” Daniel said, coming over, “Is a friend.”

“You parents?” Folwor asked, letting the Blairs up.

Daniel nodded. Around them the Cull ranks had either fled into the tunnels, or had collapsed, burned alive. “Where’s Penny?” Daniel asked.

“She’s–watch out.” Folwor dove over his head, tackling a Cull to the ground and tearing into it with a frighteing savagery. The Blairs hudled together  as the Cull stopped moving and Folwor returned to them. “She’s beyond the viel.” Folwor said. She looked at what he was holding. “What is that?”

“A flare,” Daniel said. “Turns out, it isn’t just the sun Cull can’t stand.”

Folwor nodded. “She might need that. I will stay out here, take care of any stragglers. Go help her.”

“Now wait a minute,” Charley said. He looked to Daniel.  “What-eh-who is this? What are these things? What is going on here?!

Daniel gave him a sympathetic smile. “I’ll explain it all later.”

“I don’t think so,” Pam said. “Tell us what—”

Later,” Daniel said. “It’s complicated and weird and scary and just…” He sighed. “Trust me. Okay?”

They looked unconvinced. “Your son,” Folwor said, “is an honorable one.”

 

How to stop Wlite?  Penny couldn’t let Wlite leave. She had to trap her here some how. But with what? They were underground, burried under tons of rock. The only plants she could sense were the tips of roots, high, high above them. The roots. Could she bring the roof down using them? That’d trap Wlite in a pile of granite, but would it work?

Stretching out with the growth stone, she pull on the labyrinth of roots above. They groaned in protest as she dragged them down to her, but they came all the same. Penetrating through the crevices of stone, through the fissues in the rock until they were pocking through the ceiling. She dragged on the stone, too, using all the might the strength stone could lend her to pulled the roof down.

At first it was just pebbles, sand lost in the storm she was using to hold Wlite back. But then chunks, boulders, whole slabs of stone began break off, hurled about in the maelstrom she had created. It wasn’t long before the cracking of the cave ceiling began to drown out the wind.

No,” Wlite said, realizing what she was doing. “NO!” She screamed in a thousand voices, lunging forward, trying to seize Penny in one last frenzied attempt to stop her. But Penny redoubled the wind buffeting the Cull Mother, pushing her back just as the roof began to cave.

“NOOOO—!” A hunk of granite the size of a car plumeted from above, slamming into the monster. It was quickly followed by others as it began to rain stone.

Penny couldn’t take any satisfaction as she now had to weave and dodge falling debris. Even with the help of the wind stone that gave her almost precognative timing, she struggled to swim through the hail of boulders, fighting to get to the surface.

 

The ground shook just before Daneil reached the veil. A waft of dust washed out from the dooway, covering him from head to foot. Coughing, but ignoring it, he stumbled past the veil.

It was initially too dark to see. The air was thick soil and dirt and his flashlight and flare did pitiful work trying to cut through it.

“Penny!” he shouted into the dark. He held his shirt over his mouth, clambering over debris. The chamber seemed to be nothing but massives stones pilled atop each other. Daniel mounted another as he pushed deeper into the chamber when he heard a soft click overhead, like a pebble bouncing over a cobblestones. He looked up into to dive for his life as a slab of granite the size of a bus pulveriszed where he had just been standing.

“Penny!” He called out again. The mountain of stones just kept going higher and higher as he climbed. Beyond each boulder was another, larger. Up he went and he notice everything started to get lighter as he ascended until he almost didn’t needs his flash light anymore.

He crested the top of the mamoth rock pile and looked up. Far above him, but very much visible, was the moon, shining gently at an angle down into the pit. He was surprisingly close to the surface. There was no way this could have been what the chamber was like, the Cull wouldn’t have had a giant sink hole in their den.

He began to think about it more, but was cut short as stone a few steps away began to wobble. Daniel rushed over. “Hang on,” he called, throwing his weight against one of the rocks. “I’ll get you out.” He wedged himself against another stone and using his legs, leverage the rock off of Penny. It clattered down the side of the rock pile with a frightful crash.

“There,” Daniel said, offering a hand to her, “Come on, we gotta—”

He was siezed by black fingers, thick with jet ooze. Daniel yelled, trying to pull away, but it only pulled whatever the thing was out of its hole. He finally shook off the slimy grip. The thing vaugly resembled a person, maybe a woman.

No,” it said in a course, femanine voice. “Everything is undone.” It–she–beat the stones with muddy fists. “They’re all gone.” She jerked her head up. There was no face, only cascading folds of pitch. “You all did this. She did this.” It rose on all fours. Despite its human shape, it crept like an animal. “Well now she will know what it is like to lose all.” It shrieked, lunging at him. It pinned him to the ground, grabbing a nearby rock and trying to beat him with it.

Just then Penny swooped down, tearing it off of him. But the she-demon was wild and slippery, dropping from Penny’s grasp back to the stones where she charged at Daniel, manic and insane.

“Daniel!” Penny cried, looping back around. But the thing was ready for her and spun around, landing a rock square to Penny’s head. Caught off guard, Penny drifted in the air, dazed while the Cull spawn leapt for Daniel.

He scrambled over a rock, trying to get away, but it had his foot. He tried kicking it in the face, but it didn’t seem to do anything as it hauled him over the rocks. It pulled him to the ground, but he took a rock, a bashed its head with it. It didn’t let go, merely pausing at the attack. 

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a howling wind flattened them both agains the rock, knock the creature off of Daniel. Certain it had been Penny’s doing, he didn’t intend to waste the opportunity. He took his flare in an underhand grip and jumping on top of the hellish nightmare, drove the flame into the thing’s heart. It exploded in a blaze, writhing around on the stones, throwing Daniel off. Even then, it still tried to get him, but the flames began to consume its body. It walked, then lurched, then stumbled, and finally fell at his feet, nothing but charred remains and dusted ashes.

Daniel watched as specs of soot flitted away in a gust and finally let out a breath, clutching his chest. Penny landed next to, her face worried and concerned, but rather than let her say anything, Daniel just hugged her. She wrapped him in her wings and they both just stood there for a long moment, glad the other was alright. 

 

They both emerged coverd in dust and looking a wreck. The viel had evaporated to nothing as they had come down and they stepped into the antechamber just when Folwor and the Blairs had been about to go charging in after them.

Charley and Pam ran up and took Daniel in huge hug, but it wasn’t long before they noticed Penny.

“Um,” Charley said, “Are you…?”

“Penny,” she replied, smiling. “Has Daniel told you anything about me?”

“Not nearly enough,” Charley quipped.

“So this is who you spent all that time with,” Pam said.

“Yeah,” Daniel said. He and Penny exchanged looks, feeling the same thing. 

Wow, we did it

“There should be no more,” Folwor said, “We defeated the last of them, I think.”

“Then let’s get out of here,” Penny said.

They were cautious on the way back up, but it soon proved pointless. The Cull had utterly fled The Pit and there wasn’t any sign of them as they mounted the tunnel to the surface. On the way, the Blairs asked Daniel a thousand questions. What were those things? Had Penny always been a bird? Who was this giant wolf? He did his best to answer everything and Penny and Folwor chipped in where he missed details. 

“Wow,” Charley said, shaking his head. “You and all this…just…wow.”

 Crickets chirped around the remains of the Old Shack as they remerged into a low moon night. The brisk scent of pines drifted in the air along with a faint smell of rain.

“It’s so nice to be above ground again,” Penny said, stretching her wings.

“Hmm,” Pam said. “If only we can find the trail back to our house. Do you have the map?” She asked Charley.

He padded his pockets. “Nope.”

“Nope?”

“Give me a break,” Charley said, rolling his eyes. “We were just down in a dungeon with a bunch of monsters.” And they began going back and forth, and Daniel just looked on smiling.

“Are they okay?” Penny said in his ear.

“They always do this,” Daniel said. “They just like to tease each other.” 

“Ah, okay,” Penny said, her tone sombre.

“What’s the matter?” He asked, turning to her.

“My parents used to do something similar,” Penny said with half a smile.

Daniel looked between her and the Blairs, comprehension dawning on him. “Hey,” he said, resting a hand on her wing. “I still have a promise to keep.”

She looked at him, amused. “How?”

In that moment, he knew what to do. He glanced at the Blairs, remembering their home, his room, their talks over dinner, making breakfast with them both. He would miss it.

“Give it to me,” he said.

She frowned. “Give what?” He gave her a look and her eyes went wide. “No. No no no, I can’t—” she lowered her voice. “I can’t take you away from your family. That’s what happened to me. It’s aweful.”

“You’re not taking anything from me,” Daniel said. “I get it now, I really do.” He looked back at the Blairs. “And I know how hard it is to be without them, but I had to learn what it was like to accept them first.” He turned back to her. “You gotta go home, Penny.”

“You mean it?” She asked. She was tearing up.

He nodded, a content.

She grinned, but it faultered. “You need to tell them, Daniel.”

“I know,” he said, dread building in his stomach. “Mom, dad?” He called to them.

They stopped their banter, coming over. “What is it?”

Daniel swallowed. “I’m…I’m gonna have to go.”

Pam frowned. “Go where?”

“Well, actually stay. Here. In the forest.”

Charley gave him a confused look. “What do you mean?”

“Penny,” he said, gesturing to her. “Wasn’t always like this. She was forced to do this and it took her away from her family.”

“That’s terrible,” Pam said. “But does that have to do with you?”

Folwor stepped up beside them. “Because someone must always hold the mantle. It must always have a bearer.” She looked at Daniel. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Wait, hold on,” Charley said. He turned to Daniel. “So you’ll take her place?”

“Yes,” Daniel said.

“No.”

“No?” Daniel asked.

“No,” Charley said, folding his arms. “We were fighting, well, the hell knows what down there. And if it’s her job to do this sort of thing, I don’t want you to have any part in it.”

“I’d be fine,” Daniel said.

“Yeah,” Penny replied. “I’m practically immortal, really.”

“Immortal, shmortal,” Charley said. “You can’t do this.”

“I have to,” Daniel said, surprised at the calm in his voice.

“No, you can’t,” Charley said.

“She has to go home dad,” Daniel said stoping Charley’s next comment. “If I were out lost, wouldn’t you want me to come back?”

“That’s not fair,” Pam said.

“Yeah it isn’t,” Daniel said. “But it’s right.” He gave them half a smile. “You guys could still come see me out here. It’s not like I’m totally gone.”

“Partially gone is still too much,” Charley said, pained.

“I have to do this.” Daniel looked them both in the eye. He saw all the warmth they had. The kindness, the laughter, the peace. He saw home and he was giving it up. But he was doing it so Penny could go back to hers. His home for someone elses. “Beside,” Daniel said. “I made a promise.”

Pam gave a shuddering sigh. “Alright,” she said, getting teary eyed. “But visit as much as you can.” 

Daniel said he would and looked to Charley who bit his lip. After a moment, he kelt down, resting a his hands on Daniel’s shoulders. “This can’t be right, and yet it is. So how can it feel so wrong?”

Daniel blinked away tears. “I know.”

“But it’s still not right,” Charley said, angry. He let it go after a second. “I promised we would always come find you, Daniel. No matter what, we would make sure you have a home.”

Daniel threw his arms around him. “You did. I never had a home until here. Unitl I was with both of you.” He drew back. “But that’s why I have to do this, dad.” He smiled, keeping the tremble out of his voice. “I have to give back to Penny what you guys gave to me.”

Charley’s face fell and he pulled Daniel close. “I’m gonna miss you, son.”

“I’m gonna miss you, too.”

They broke apart and Daniel whiped his face with his sleeve. Folwor stood on the side, watching with a resolved, but fallen expression. “Are you ready then?”

“I am,” Daniel said, sniffling a little.

“Do you swear to protect this forest?”

“Yes,” Daniel said, standing tall. “And all that is within it. Big or small.”

Folwor nodded, solemn. “Then that is all we can ask.”

Penny stepped up in front of Daniel, an awkward pause between them.

“Hey,” Daniel said, “You ready to see your family again?”

“Yeah, but…” she said, trailing off.

“I’ll drop by,” Daniel said. “I promise.”

She laughed. “You’d better.”

“So,” Daniel said, “how does this work?”

“I think I can just give it to you,” Penny said, placing her wings on his shoulders. “Ready?”

Daniel looked over his shoulder at the Blairs. They looked on, proud and mournful. He took a deep breath, turning back to her. “I’m ready.”

 

Her dress tattered and her har was a mess. She looked back into the forest. Daniel stood amongst the trees, grinning.

“Go on.”

“But what if–?”

“No buts,” Daniel replied. “Just go already.”

Taking a deep breath, she walked around to the front of the house. What she was nerveous about, she had no clue. But she had been gone almost a week. They were probably worried sick. Or would they be angry? No, but then why did she have butterflies in her stomach?

She shoved those feelings down as she stepped up to the front door. She rapped on the knocker twice before it opened.

“Yes?” Her father said as he pulled the door wide. “Who’s—” but he froze.

“Dad?” She said, “I’m—”

He swept her off her feet, pulling her so tight it hurt. “You’re back! My baby girl is back!”

“What’s going on?” Her mother called from deeper in the house. She came out of the bedroom, holding a book. It dropped to the floor at the sight of her daughter. “Penny!” She cradled her face, tears of joy streaming down hers. “You’re back!” She kissed her on the eyes, on her forehead, just holding her. “You’re back.”

“Who’s at the door, mom?” A familiar voice said form inside. Penny broke from her parents as her brother came into the living room. His eyes lit up and he yelled it delight. Penny picked him up and spun around the room.

Daniel saw no more as the front door was soon closed, but he could here the sounds of joy in the house even as he took to the sky, a wide smile on his avian face.

 

He lay starring up at the moon. There was not much mroe he could do in his present condition. The refugee Cull milled around him. He could hear Keltos and some of the others arguing over the hill. They had no where to go. They had gone back to check The Pit several days ago and it was nothing more than a massive sink hole now. The blue had gone and destroyed the place.

He closed his eyes, tuning out the conversation. He just wished he could walk again. At every turn, someone had to help him get up, eat, move, anything. It was a massive humiliation.

But at least they were alive. That beat everything. But it didn’t give them a place to stay. Wlite was dead and whatever magic she possessed to get them back to their land had perished with her.

What was the point in thinking about it? He opened his eyes to watch as stray clouds clothed the moon for moments at a time. Strangers in strange land that wanted them dead. What was the use of all that arguing, all the debates? Couldn’t they see it was all for naught?

Something caught his attention above. A dark shadow against the lunar light. It was acting against the wind, spiraling in circles. Even the very winds here were bizzare. But even as he watched, the dark shape grew closer and closer. It wasn’t dark at all, it was a deep navy blue, and it—

“Above us!” He shouted. Heads turned at his cry. “We’ve been found. Above us!” Cull scrambled about, the strongest of them rushing in from around the camp as the blue one dropped to the ground, sending up a ring of dust. Quickly there was a circle of the largest Cull surrounding him.

“Wow,” the blue one said. “You guys are hard to get a hold of.”

A pair of Cull helped Thole to sit up. “What do you want?” He asked. “You have torn down our home, can you not let us be?”

“No,” the blue one said. “My job is to protect the forest and what’s in it and I can’t do that with you running about like this.”

“Then let us make it an end,” Keltos said, stepping forward. “If you wish to be rid of us, then we will not go without a fight.”

“I had something different in mind,” Daniel said. “I know about your lost home. I’m sorry, really. But like I said, my job is to protect the forest and everything inside it.”

“They have done already!” Thole shouted. “Dispatch us then.”

“I don’t want you to go,” the blue one said. A murmur of confusion ran through the Cull. “I will protect everything in the forest and since you can’t leave, that includes you.” He looked around, surveying the wounded and weary Cull who stood about him. “You don’t have your home anymore, but maybe this could be it.”

“You would have us live in this hell?” Thole said.

“Can you leave?” the blue one asked, eyebrow raised. Thole just gave a brusk huff. “I only wished to make the best of things,” the blue one continued. “It isn’t perfect, but I welcome you here.”

“This is not our home,” Keltos shot back.

“Is home a place?” The blue one asked. “Or is it a people?” No response to that. “I can be of help to you. We can livve peacefully here if you’ll let me work with you.”

“And what help could you be?” Thole spat. “This land has made us monsters, devils and demons to possess flesh. What can you do for that?”

The blue one stepped toward him. The others barred his way, but he didn’t press through. “I mean you no harm, I only wish to show you.” Slowly, they parted at his words. He walked up to Thole and crouched down. Then, with a long breath, he exhaled over Thole’s back.

“What are you—”A bolt of feeling shot through his body. First it was seering pain, but it vanished as soon as it had occured. 

There were gasps around the camp as to their and Thole’s own amazement, he stood. They all looked to the blue one, dumb founded.

“I’m here to help,” he said, “if you’ll have it.” He turned to address the onlookers. “This is not your home. I know, but together, maybe,” he glanced at Thole and gave half a smile, “just maybe, it could be.”

 

“Honey,” Charley called from up stairs. “Have you seen my tie?”

“You left it on the chair,” Pam called back. Feet on the stairs as he came down.

“You were right,” he said, stepping into the kitchen. She was wrist deep in a kneading bread. “I can never remember where I put anything anymore.”

“To say that you did at some point,” she replied.

“Hey my memory is not what it used to be,” he said. “Although what it used to be I can’t remember.”

She smiled, looking up from the dough. She caught sight of the trees out the window, however, and her smile faded.

Charley stepped up next to her. “I’m sure he’s fine.”

“Of course he is,” Pam said, turning back to her work.

“He’s probably off saving something or other.”

“I’ll bet.”

Charley put a hand on her shoulder, rubbing her back. “Yeah its one of those days for me, too.”

She stopped, resting her hands on the counter, her shoulders hunched. “A year ago….” She shook her head. “A year ago.”

“He’ll be around some time,” Charley said, himself sounding unconvinced. “We just gotta be pat–”

“Don’t say it,” Pam said.

Charley sighed. They both looked back out the window. Early autum had settled over the forest with the trees displaying their best golds and maroons. It had nearly gotten cold enough for a frost last night. Already the days started to get gloomy with gray, insouciant clouds filling the sky. 

“Well,” Charley said. “I’m running late.” He kissed her on the cheek as he left.

She stared at her ball of dough for a moment, remembering the morning they’d made it together. Stop thinking about it. It didn’t help anything and just made her worry. She shook her head and was about to get back to kneading when she noticed the tie on the kitchen counter. He’d left it behind by accident. She laughed to herself.

“Charley,” she said, washing off her hands. “You left your…” A flash outside. Amongst the amber and yellow leaves a spark of color. She moved to the window. Had she really seen it? No surely it couldn’t be.

Bright blue soared over the trees and large shadow glidded towards the backyard.

“What was that, Pam?” Charley called from the second landing. But Pam was already running to the back door.

 

THE END


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