A Run Through the Woods
By Kyla Chapek
I already didn’t like our potential new father. Wolves didn’t like him either. He didn’t smell right, and I didn’t like how his beady dark eyes roved over me and my older siblings like pieces of candy. My siblings didn’t seem to mind, though. I tried to stand straight, quiet, and not fidget, despite my discomfort with being lined up and put out on display. Mario had told me that it was very important for me to behave during the interview today. He had said that we had to make the man who came to see us today happy if we all wanted to stay together.
My six older siblings and I stood in a row in the middle of the white walled and windowless interview room. Most of the white brick walls were covered in colorful posters depicting children wearing toothy grins with things like puppies and cats. Maybe the caretakers thought the posters made the room look cheery. However the phrases the posters also sported like, Assimilation is a Citizens Duty, and, Conformity Leads to Permanent Placement, failed to create any cheery feelings inside of me. The only furniture in the room was the director’s desk and chair pushed up against the far right wall along with two chairs probably meant for guests.
My siblings and I stood in order from oldest to youngest with me at one end and my sixteen year old brother, Mario, at the other. Mario stood straight and tall with his hands behind his back like a soldier at ease. I copied his stance.
“And you say that they’re all Gifted?” asked our potential father. He stood by the director’s desk and his eyes roved over us. The man had pasty white skin and thinning dirty blonde hair. He wore a fancy blue suit with gold cufflinks; he must have been a rich man. He had to be a rich man to be able to adopt seven kids.
“Yes, Mr. Dornbeck, all of the Whistler children are confirmed Gifted. Their father was a sorcerer with natural elemental capabilities and all have shown signs of inheriting his gifts,” said a weasel faced man wearing a blue government uniform. He was the director of the re-education camp that we had called home for the past two years. “There is potential that a few of them have inherited the abilities of their mother as well, who was classified as a Kresnik, but only the youngest has shown any signs.”
“A Kresnik? I’m not familiar with that classification.”
The director swiped his finger across the holographic screen hovering above his desk. “It is a rare Gift that allows the subject to communicate with animals and even be able to possess and control them at times. The classification is so rare that the limits of Kresnik abilities have yet to be confirmed.”
“Are any members of your family Gifted or have Fae lineage?” asked the director as he stood from his chair.
“Of course not,” said Dornbeck quickly. “My wife and I relocated to Reservation City for work reasons only. We try to make a point of giving back to those less fortunate, however, whenever possible.”
Who’s he calling less fortunate? Snow, one of my wolves, growled in the back of my mind. I fidgeted and tried to ignore the feelings of hostility that were suddenly pulsing through me.
Mario said we need to be good, I silently growled back at Snow. The feeling of hostility subsided some, but didn’t completely disappear.
I don’t like how he smells, Slim, stay on your guard, warned Night, my other wolf, in the back of my mind. Despite her distrust of the rich man, Night helped me mentally wrestle her brother into submission. The feeling of hostility subsided to nothing, but Night’s wariness pulsed through me just as strongly as Snow’s hostility had. Night studied the rich man intently through my eyes.
“Well, it’s indeed very gracious of you to consider taking in such a large family, Gifted as they are. We try to keep the families together whenever possible,” said the director. He activated a device on his wrist and a holographic tablet appeared hovering above his hand. He walked over to Mario as he swiped a finger over the holographic screen that seemed solid under his touch. “Let me make proper introductions. Starting at the left we have Mario, sixteen years old, and his twin sister Athena.”
“What a lovely young woman,” said Dornbeck to my eldest sister. Athena remained silent, she stood straight like Mario, but her brown eyes stared blankly past the man at the posters on the wall.
“She’s a little shy,” said Mario with a nervous laugh, “but we’re all very excited to meet you, sir.”
Dornbeck nodded with a thin smile and moved on down the line to my next sibling and looked him up and down as the director read off his name and information. All my siblings had jet black hair and light brown skin like my father. Thor, my fourteen year old brother, stood straight with a big smile on his face; just like Mario had told us to do. Dornbeck looked him up and down and gave him an approving nod. Kaiden, Thor’s junior by just a year and a half, looked like he could be Thor’s twin, but his demeanor was completely opposite. He stood hunched over with his hands in his pockets and a sour look on his face. Dornbeck frowned down at him.
A cold breeze suddenly whipped through the windowless room. The whole line of us stood a little straighter, Kaiden included. It was Mario’s warning; he had told us we couldn’t screw this one up, or else. I tried to stand up straight and plaster a smile on my face. It was hard though, Night and Snow were arguing about something. Their growls and mental nips and scratches at each other sent prickles up and down my spine. I scratched at my left ribcage where their markings were, what my wolves called the physical manifestation of our bond.
“And here we have Leaf and her twin brother Shadow, both ten years old,” the director continued introductions.
The twins smiled sweetly up at the rich man. I could tell that Leaf’s was genuine and Shadow’s was forced. Like me, he had no interest in having a new father, or mother. Mario said we had to get out of here though. Athena hated it here, I didn’t like it here either; I couldn’t let wolves out to run here.
Night and Snow continued to argue in my subconscious. I couldn’t understand everything, they blocked me from most of it, but by their emotions I got the general gist of it. It seemed like they agreed on something important, but were arguing over what to do about it.
“Lastly we have young Slim, eight years old,” said the director. “She’s very…mature for her age.”
I tried to block out Night and Snow and focus on the rich man who now stood over me. With great effort I twisted my lips into a smile and reached out a hand to shake his.
“Very nice to meet you, sir.” I looked him straight in the eyes.
Dornbeck’s eyebrows rose in question and his smile thinned. I was doing something wrong, though I wasn’t sure what it was, but it wasn’t making the rich man happy. I glanced at my other siblings. All my brothers stood tall like soldiers. Leaf, however, was slouched and rocked back and forth from her heels to her toes. She twirled her bangs between her fingers as she rocked. I should probably be acting more like her. That would be more normal.
I copied Leaf’s posture and began to twirl my curly hair with the hand I had reached out to shake with. “Are you going to be our new daddy?” I copied Leaf’s stupid giggle for full effect.
Snow scratched at the back at my mind, trying to get my attention. I continued to block him out and looked the rich man in the eyes, steady and unblinking.
“What beautiful red hair you have…” said the rich man, his smile turned wide and toothy. He took a knee and came down to my level, “…and such interesting mismatched eyes.”
The man reached up to stroke my hair. Run! screamed Snow, shattering through my barriers. I jerked away from the man’s touch, crouched back on all fours defensively, and growled. The man stared dumbfounded.
Why?! I demanded, before I took further action.
He smells like he wants to mate, growled Snow.
He wants to hurt you and the pack, confirmed Night. Run or fight, Slim.
Protect the pack! growled Snow. I nodded before letting out a feral growl. Then I attacked, biting and clawing at the man with everything I had.
The locks on the isolation room door engaged with dull thud. I cowered in the corner of the padded cell until I heard the caretaker’s footsteps echo to nothing down the hallway. I used wolves’ enhanced senses to ensure that we were alone and wouldn’t be disturbed anytime soon. Once satisfied, I sat up and crisscrossed my legs.
I straightened my back and folded my hands like a Buddha statue; just like I remember Momma doing when she would give form to her beasts. Taking a deep breath, I focused all my will and pushed Snow and Night into physical form. A stinging sensation began in in my left ribcage. It was a good kind of hurt, like peeling a scab. The sensation spread to my shoulder blades and then down my skinny arms.
When the feeling reached my elbows wolves’ markings became visible from under the short sleeves of my camp uniform. Two distorted images of wolves slithered down my arms; one black down my right arm, and a pure white one down my left. Kaiden called them my liquid tattoos. Just before the wrist bone the markings peeled away from my skin and took on their own physical form.
Two young wolves, far too big to be pups but not quite full grown yet, took shape before me. One pure white with red eyes, and one black with deep blue eyes. Snow and Night, my wolves, my best friends, my literal soulmates.
They scampered to my side once paws were on solid ground. They jumped on me and licked and nipped playfully, happy that I was okay and that they could get out to move around. I giggled and scratched behind their ears and rubbed their bellies. The isolation rooms were one of the few places I could let them out without being seen by the caretakers. Athena said the caretakers might do bad things to me if they found out about wolves.
Isolation rooms were one of the few places in the camp that didn’t have cameras. Mario said it was so the director could always have plausible deniability, whatever that was. He said I was too young to worry about that, though, and that wolves would protect me from any sickos. Athena hated the isolation rooms, she was always real quiet after coming back from them. I loved them though, it was a relief for all of us when wolves could get out to stretch. We couldn’t be apart for too long, our bond was what kept them alive, but it was always nice for us to have our own bodies to do with what we liked.
After we snuggled and wrestled around for a while, Snow started to chase his tail and Night restlessly circled the cell. The desire to be outside of these walls filled me. To be near the earth and under the open sky. My limbs ached to run as far and as fast as I could. I remembered back to my earliest memories when my family would all go on runs together through the woods. My father and older siblings would use their elemental Gifts to climb the trees and leap from limb to limb, while I would ride strapped to Momma’s back with Mother Wolf always at our side.
Suddenly the memory wasn’t a vague memory anymore. It was fresh, clear, and full of understanding, but not from my perspective strapped to my mother’s back, it was from Mother Wolf’s perspective padding along at her side. I closed my eyes and let myself get lost in what I called the dream memories. Athena called them ancestral memories, I liked dream memories better.
As I trotted beside my best friend/mother, Nissa, I could smell the damp earth beneath my paws. I could feel the crisp air of the early morning sting my nose. The pups/my siblings swung from the trees above me like a pack of wild monkeys. I could see myself strapped to Nissa’s/Momma’s back, a ball of pink squishy flesh. My muscles were taunt, ready to run fast and wild, far ahead of them all, but I held back to keep vigil over the pack. Besides, I needed to take it easy, my own pups were beginning to grow inside of me.
This memory faded and a series of memories cascaded through my mind. On all fours I ran through a green forest with a teenage Nissa struggling to keep up at my side. Then I was a different wolf, an older wolf, running through snow covered mountains in search of an injured caribou. Warm blood flooded my mouth when my fangs found soft flesh.
I opened my eyes and the padded walls of the isolation cell replaced the forest around me. My mouth tasted like copper coins and I tried to lick the taste out of my mouth. It was hard to shake off the over bearing urge to run. My muscles were tense and ached to move free.
Snow and Night wined and scratched at the padded walls, feeling the same urges as me. Night walked up to me and snuggled into my side.
We want to run, Slim, we need to run, she said.
“I know,” I said out loud, wrapping my arms around Night’s neck. “I want to run too.”
“The wolves are making her crazy, Athena,” Mario’s frustrated voice leaked through the thin walls of our family cell unit. “You saw her, she was totally rabid. Maybe we should tell the caretakers about them. They’re not puppies anymore, we can’t keep hiding them.”
“Absolutely not!” said Athena sternly.
She sounded like Momma when she used that voice. I was the only one who looked like Momma though, with my red hair, lighter skin and green eyes. At least my eyes were green when I wasn’t completely bonded with wolves. When we were bonded my left eye was red and my right blue.
“At best she gets shipped to the lab and becomes their new science project. At worst they might try to separate them.”
I cringed at the thought, and wrapped my blanket tighter around me. The small bedroom I shared with my sisters was dark. However, with my enhanced senses along with the small amount of moonlight that filtered in through the barred window I could see just fine.
“And that would be a bad thing?” Mario was starting to raise his voice.
“Snow and Night would die! Slim probably would too!” cried Athena. “I’ve seen hosts separated from their spirit animals at the lab. It’s horrible what happens to them. Most go insane.”
“She’s already going insane!” yelled Mario. “They’re parasites. They were never meant to be attached to a human soul. Let alone two of them.”
I’m not crazy, I growled to myself. In my mind Night gave me an affirmative yelp and a comforting nuzzle.
He knows nothing, growled Snow. He wants us to sell out. We won’t sell out. Mothers would never want us to sell out.
Memories of my mother and Mother Wolf filled my mind. They lived by a code of honor. They would never bow to the unworthy, they would never go back on an oath. I had sworn the day they died I would never give in to their murderers. Easier said than done for a six year old. For the past two years the government had ran every aspect of my life. I hated it. I hated them; the caretakers. I hated the locks and the fences. It also annoyed me that at eight years old everyone still treated me like a little kid and acted like I couldn’t take care of myself.
I did little things, though, to keep my freedom. To show myself they didn’t own me. I took needless risks; like stealing extra desserts, and sneaking out with Kaiden and Shadow after curfew. Every now and then I would even sneak under the fence and go for a run in the woods that surrounded camp.
“Mother Wolf raised Mom. She practically raised us, and you want us to just sell out her kids. Not to mention who knows what it’ll do to Slim.” Athena and Mario continued to argue.
See, sell out, grumbled Snow.
“She had no right to bond her offspring with Slim.”
“She was dying, she had no choice. Slim asked her to do it.”
“She was six then, she wasn’t capable of making that kind of decision.”
I rolled my eyes at Mario. I never regretted my decision. I loved Night and Snow more than anyone else in this world. In the end I could always count on them. They would never leave me, and would always love me. My wolves knew me like no one else could. I couldn’t really remember what it was like not being bonded to them.
“Do we get any say in this?” Kaiden’s bored voice.
“No!” yelled Mario and Athena at the same time.
“Whatever,” Kaiden grumbled, “come on, Shadow, their rolling some dice a few cells down.” The main door to our cell swished opened and then closed.
Athena and Mario were quiet for a while. I got up and walked over to the small window. Standing on tip toes I peered into the night. Our cell had a good view of the main yard. The cheery sports fields and playground equipment where brightly lit by the spotlights mounted on the tall chain-link fence that surrounded the yard. A razor sharp spool of barbwire lined the top of the fence. Both the fence and the barbwire were made of a special silver-iron alloy that helped keep in all the variously Gifted children and Fae haflings that populated the camp.
“Her sentence has been extended.” Mario spoke much quieter this time. Probably to make sure I couldn’t hear them; none of them realized how good my hearing was.
“How long?” Athena’s voice wasn’t surprised, but it had an edge of panic to it.
“She won’t be eligible for placement for another six months. That’s if she’s on her best behavior. If the rest of us wait for her for placement we’ll be bumped to the bottom of the list.”
I stared out the window as I eavesdropped on the twin’s argument. Beyond the lights mounted along the fence there was an open field of perfectly manicured grass. The field was a twenty second sprint wide from the fence to the tree line. Even with my good senses the forest was nothing but blackness. The need to run coursed through me again. I gripped the windowsill so hard my fingers hurt.
“I can’t wait that long,” said Athena. “I have to get out of here, Mario. Word of what happened with Zach has got around. Now all those caretaker pigs think they get a go.”
“I’m not going to let that happen.” Mario practically growled like wolves.
“You can’t protect me! I’ve filed the emancipation paperwork.”
“You’re leaving us!” Something twisted in my gut. “What will you do? Live on the streets?”
“A firm offered me a position. There’s high demand out there for a talented elemental. I’m leaving in two weeks.”
“I can’t believe this, I can’t believe you.” The anguish in Mario’s voice made me wince.
“You should take the old widower’s offer. Go work on her farm. That Gifted couple wanted to take Leaf and Shadow, and Thor wants to go off to the Military Academy. Kaiden and Slim will be placed sooner or later. We all have to take our out while we can get it.”
I stopped listening and turned away from the window. Blinking tears out of my eyes I found my leather satchel and gathered supplies for a run. I spread my stash of ultra-bars, a baggy of tobacco and marijuana cigarettes, a piece of red string, and a bent metal fork out on my bed. All of my ultra-bars went in my satchel along with the fork and I counted out how many cigs it would take to get through the fence.
Lastly I closed my eyes and called for Nigel. Within minutes I heard the familiar scratching in in the walls and then the large pack rat emerged from under Leaf’s bed. Leaf was curled up under her covers fast asleep.
Hi, Nigel, I thought to the rat. I scooped him up and placed him on my bed.
What’s up, Slim? asked Nigel.
I tied the red string around Nigel’s middle. Take this to Jared. Then meet me by the bathrooms. I set Nigel back on the ground.
Sure thing, thanks for the treats you left me last night. Nigel scurried back under Leaf’s bed.
“You’re welcome,” I whispered out loud. Then I went back to gathering my things.
“Are you going to the woods?” Leaf’s sudden voice made me jump.
I spun around and found her sitting up in bed. “Go back to sleep.”
“Are you going to the God’s Wood? Mario and Athena say it’s dangerous.”
“Wolves will protect me,” I said with a shrug.
Leaf looked unconvinced. She reached under her pillow and removed something black and shiny. “Take this. I found it in the woods when the caretakers took us for our walk the other day. It’ll protect you from mean Fae.”
I took the offered stone. It was smooth with sharp edges. Obsidian, my dream memories told me. Then Poppa’s voice, The only thing that hurts a Fae as much as cold iron is lava glass, obsidian. Both Momma and Poppa had always carried obsidian knives on their belts.
“Thanks, Leaf.” I smiled and put the stone in my satchel. Leaf beamed, it wasn’t often she was able to act the role of big sister. I was usually the one taking care of her. “Now go back to sleep.”
“Was Dornbeck a bad person? Is that why you went nuts?” She settled back under her blankets.
“Yeah, he didn’t smell right. Wolves didn’t like him. Don’t worry, the couple that liked you and Shadow smelled right. I think they’re good people.” I tucked in my big sister and kissed her on the forehead. “Now go to sleep.”
I waited until just before dawn to leave. Everyone sounded like they were asleep. I slipped out of my bed and slung my satchel over my shoulder. The non-automated door that divided the girl’s room from common area of our family cell was silent as it slid open and then shut behind me.
Athena caught me before I made it to the main door. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Going for a run. I need it,” I mumbled, both me and wolves were embarrassed that she caught us.
“Do you plan on coming back?” she asked simply, eyeing the satchel slung over my shoulder. I was rarely gone more than a day.
“Why should I? You’re leaving, everyone is going to leave me,” I snapped.
Athena winced from my harsh tone. “The caretakers will hunt you down if you’re not back within a few days. Don’t let it come to that or you’ll never get out of this place. Take a coat with you. Be careful, Slim, and for the Goddess’ sake stay away from that freak with the violin.”
“But I like Gump,” I pouted, though I was happy she was resigned to letting me go. Athena seemed to be the only one that understood how badly I needed to run. “He’s fun to play with.”
“You can’t trust those pure blooded Fae, you never know what they want. He’s also a Founder. It’s their fault we’re trapped here. They control the barrier.”
“Gump says the barrier is the only thing that keeps the humans from slaughtering us outright,” I countered. This was an old argument, but I was feeling aggressive.
“It’s also what traps us here. Don’t forget the Founders sold out our parents.”
“Not Gump, wolves remembers. He tried to save them.”
Athena rolled her eyes. “Just please be careful, Slim. You’re just a kid.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. Stop wasting your time with this one, Slim, huffed Night. She’s leaving us behind.
Bitterness towards my sister burned in me and I turned my back on her. I typed in the bathroom code on the key pad left of the door. The door swished open and lights illuminated on the floor of the dark hallway leading me towards the bathrooms. Without looking back I headed down the trail of yellow lights.
Technically the camp wasn’t a prison since the vast majority of the occupants had never committed a crime. Most were children of imprisoned or dead criminals or political dissidents. So the government did everything they could to make it seem less like a prison. You could freely come and go from your rooms even after lights out, as long as it was for something the caretakers deemed important that is, and that you returned to your room as soon as possible.
I met Nigel in the bathroom. He squeaked in greeting and nuzzled my foot. A black string was tied around the rat’s waist confirming that Jared had gotten my message. Everything should be set up.
I reached in my satchel and removed the bent fork. I sat down and pulled up my pant leg to reveal my security anklet. It was how the caretakers kept track of us. It could also send a neuro shock through my body that would disconnect me from my Gifts for a few moments if the caretakers so chose. It hurt like hell.
With some fiddling with the fork and a little electric shock of my own the anklet snapped off. I quickly removed it and attached it around Nigel’s belly. Just go back and hangout in my bunk for the rest of the day, I thought to him. I left half a doughnut under my bed for you.
Thanks, Slim, squeaked Nigel as he scurried out of the bathroom. I waited five minutes before I left and stuck to all the shadows and camera blind spots I knew on my way to the exit.
Jared waited at the exit to the sports fields. “Hey, Kid,” said the blonde haired teenager with a smile. “You got the goods?” Jared was always right down to business.
I removed the bag of cigs from my satchel and handed them over. Jared did a quick count and nodded. “The guard will be looking the other way. When the lights switch off you’ll be clear to the fence.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, and made to walk past him through the door.
“Should I have your return set up for this evening? I heard that your sister is taking off and all.” Jared seemed to know everything that went on in this camp.
I paused, not sure of the answer. Part of me just wanted to disappear into the woods and never come back. Another part of me wondered if I could really ditch my siblings like that. “Have it set up, just in case.”
Jared nodded and lit up one of the cigs. “You know, Kid, my offer is still open. I could use a partner like you. Making the camp your home ain’t so bad if you know how to work things.”
I shrugged, “I’ll think about it.” Jared wasn’t family so I didn’t completely trust him. On the other hand wolves thought he was solid, and he seemed like a good kind of guy.
When I walked out the door his offer was pushed to the back of my mind. Fog hung over the yard as the first light of dawn peeked over the trees to the East. Dew that clung to the grass soaked into my sneakers. I pulled my coat tighter around me; my breath made mist clouds in the air.
Snow and Night’s excitement for our run made me feel all jittery and shaky. They pawed the back of my mind, restless. Just a little longer, I thought to them. Stay focused on getting out of here.
I pressed my body to the wall next to the door until the lights shut off with an electric snap. I ran to the fence, and knelt down on the ground just inches from the chain links. Then I pressed my bare palms down on the dewy grass and felt the earth like Poppa had taught me.
I closed my physical eyes and opened my inner eye. Awareness beyond that of my enhanced physical senses flooded into me. I could feel the life-force in the ground beneath my palms. It was in every blade of grass, in every microbe and insect that called the ground its home, it was in the soil itself. Once I had a sense of the flow of power I pictured what I wanted to happen and pushed with my mind. The mental muscle that opened my inner eye flexed and strained with effort.
A cracking followed by a sucking sound told me that I had been successful. I opened my eyes and looked down at my handy work. The ground had opened up in front of me and a tunnel had formed that ran under the fence to freedom. Almost there, I thought to my gleeful wolves.
We were finally free. My heart pounded in time with my labored breathing. I pumped my arms and legs as hard as I could in a vain attempt to keep up with Snow and Night. I knew the bond with wolves made me much faster and stronger than a normal eight year old girl, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with Snow and Night’s full speed. If they wanted to I would be eating their dust. They held back, however, and trotted just behind and on either side of me. We didn’t like being far apart even when they had their own physical forms.
Twigs and leaves crunched beneath my bare calloused feet as we ran in a loose triangle formation deeper into the woods. The earthy smells and natural sounds of the forest assaulted my senses. I smoothly ducked under low hanging branches and dodged around and leapt over logs and shrubs. By the Goddess it was amazing to run and really feel the earth beneath my feet. With every step it was like the earth whispered to me.
I was halfway up a ridge top and over a mile away from camp before I stopped for the first time to catch my breath. Night and Snow playfully pounced on each other and thoroughly rubbed themselves into the mossy earth. They wanted the smells of camp off of them. I took a whiff of my arm; smoke, spicy magic, chemicals, and human.
We’ll scare off game smelling like this, said Night.
Following wolves example, I lied down and rubbed myself into the moss and leaves. I grabbed hands full of leaves and rubbed them all over my braided hair and satchel just to be sure. Snow and Night padded over and rubbed up against me to make sure I smelled more like wolf than human.
When they were satisfied they began to whine about running again. “Go ahead,” I said, “I’ll catch up.”
Night and Snow bolted, melting into the forest as if they were ghosts. I could still feel them in the back of my mind. They were more distant than when we were completely bonded. Our connection was still there, but it was foggy; their thoughts where whispers I could easily block out. They were already on the trail of a buck in his second season.
I got to my feet and then looked back in the direction of camp. The sun was a palms width above the trees now and from where I stood I could see most of the valley. Camp, sitting at the base of the slope I was climbing, was a dull grey square cut out of a green ocean of trees. The forest continued for a few miles before it abruptly ended and was replaced by Reservation City. A steel and concrete jungle whose skyscrapers stood four times as tall as the tallest trees of the forest.
Res City dominated the valley. It was the only Gifted refuge on the west coast sanctioned by the federal government. If you were classified as Gifted or Fae you needed to have a special permit to travel outside of the refuge. I looked up to the sky and opened my inner eye. The purple sheen of the barrier partially obscured the clear blue sky. The purple dome extend in all directions as far as I could see completely encircling the refuge.
My parents had made the mistake of thinking we should have the right to come and go as we please. They thought we should be allowed to live safely outside the barrier without a permit from the government. I had dream memories of all the things they had done to try and change things. The government killed them for their troubles.
I shook off the sad thoughts, closed my inner eye, and turned my back on the city. Snow and Night were calling for me to catch up. They were gaining on the buck, but didn’t want to leave me too far behind.
The sun was nearing its midpoint in the sky. It was getting hot and I had shed my jacket. We were over twenty miles away from camp deep in the wilderness that made up the rest of the refuge. Snow and Night were far ahead of me still running off their excess energy.
I had slowed to a casual stroll, walking with my hands in my pockets and my face upturned to the sky to feel the sun’s warmth. My stomach rumbled and I fished around in my satchel for one of my Ultra-bars. The brownish chewy glob tasted like cardboard, but contained all the necessary vitamin and nutrients as well as enough calories to rival a three course meal. It was plenty to calm my rumbling stomach. The fresh hot meat of Snow and Night’s kill from earlier had seemed far more appetizing, but Athena and Mario said raw meat was still bad for me so I had passed on my portion.
The eight Ultra-bars I was able to scrounge together wouldn’t last me long. I got hungry fast when I gave form to wolves. With any luck I would soon track down Gump. Or he would track me down, which was how it usually worked. Gump always had good food to share and sweet drink that made my head feel dizzy. He always played music for us that made both me and wolves want to do nothing but dance and play for hours on end.
Over the morning we had followed the ridgeline and steadily made our way west towards the God’s Wood and Gump’s territory. Several Fae creatures and Gifted humans who couldn’t or chose not to live in the city called the woods home. The most ancient Fae lived in the area known as the God’s Wood. I didn’t know exactly where Gump lived, but he always seemed to find me when I was looking for him. Athena said that the God’s Wood was dangerous, but I didn’t care what she thought anymore. Maybe I should ask Gump if he wanted to adopt me. I didn’t know if they would let a pureblooded Fae like Gump adopt a Gifted human like me.
For the fun of it I tried to climb a tree like I remembered my father and siblings used to do. I walked up to an old growth red cedar and placed my hand on the bark. I closed my eyes and sunk into one of my dream memories.
I was Mother Wolf curled up in front of the fireplace. A tinny me sat on the ground next to me playing with building blocks and making gurgling noises. The baby me thumped my fists on Mother Wolf’s head and pulled at patches of her fur, but she didn’t mind. She just playfully nuzzled me and steered me away from the fireplace every time I tried to crawl towards it. The couches and chairs were pushed up against the walls of our living room. My father and the older kids stood in the middle of the room practicing their Gifts. The younger ones sat on cushions near the fire watching.
Nissa’s male/Poppa’s deep voice resonated through the house. “Gaia’s power flows through all living things. At our smallest level we are made up of building blocks. Tiny pieces of life make up of everything around us. The building blocks are all the same, it is only how they are put together that determines the form they ultimately take.” My siblings/the pups sat or stood silently, engrossed in our father’s lesson.
Nissa’s male, David, stood in the middle of the living room of our log cabin house wearing nothing but dear hide britches. With his light brown skin and long black hair pulled back in a ponytail he looked like one of the Native Indians in the History Vids and old cowboy movies. My father walked up to one of the log pillars that held up the second floor of our house.
“Our flesh and bone are no different than the bark and wood of a tree.” He placed his palm on the wooden pillar. “If we feel those blocks, those particles of life, we can change their form. Or, we can rearrange the particles of our own body to match that of another object.”
The color and texture of Poppa’s hand changed to match that of the wooden pillar. He placed his other hand on the pillar and it changed to match the wood. David/Poppa began to climb up the pillar as if he were an insect climbing a wall. The pups cheered and clapped their hands at the display. Poppa climbed all the way up to the second floor balcony.
“Your turn,” he said.
Nine year old versions of Mario and Athena happily began to scurry up the pillars and joined my father on the second floor. A seven year old Thor and a six year old Kaiden attempted to do the same. They only made it a few feet up the pillars before they would fall to the ground. Momma was always there with a thick cushion for them to fall onto, or she would just snatch them out of the air. Every time the boys made it a little farther up the pillars all the pups would cheer and clap their hands. Little me would squeal and clap my hands as well even though I didn’t know why we were clapping.
I opened my eyes and the dream memory melted away and was replaced by the woods. My cheeks were wet and my eyes watery. I wiped away my tears and tried to focus on my mission. Taking a deep breath I focused and tried to feel the tree like Poppa had taught my siblings.
A cold vibrating feeling started in my palms and I began to climb. Or try to climb that is. My skin wasn’t quite bonding with the bark. I tied to scurry up the tree, but I kept sliding down after just a couple feet. Maybe if I got a running start.
Stepping back about twenty feet I sprinted towards the tree and then up it. This time I got a good fifteen feet up before I fell backwards. There was no one there to catch me. I landed funny on my wrist, pain shot up my arm, and I heard a pop. I hissed at the pain and tried to sit up.
Slim, are you alright?! cried wolves in unison. Their presence filled my mind as they fully bonded with me. They pumped their magic into my body and the pain in my wrist disappeared. The bruising that had already formed on my wrist melted away.
That was a stupid thing to do, Slim, admonished Night. You know you can’t climb like that yet.
“I know,” I grumbled as I stood, embarrassed at my failure.
Come on, the river is this way, wolves directed my attention to my right. I walked in the direction they indicated and dug around in my satchel for another Ultra-bar. My stomach was starting to rumble again. Hopefully Gump would find me soon.
After a few minutes of walking I came to the river. The God’s Wood didn’t have any boundary markings I was aware of. I knew the river wasn’t the exact boundary, but I also knew pretty much everything on the other side of the river was within the God’s Wood. The river, known by locals as the river Styx, was only a narrow stream this far up in the mountains. It flowed all the way down into and through the valley, cutting the city in nearly equal halves.
Taking a deep breath, I thought cold thoughts and stepped out onto the swiftly flowing water. The water froze beneath my bare feet. The ice spread and formed a bridge. As I walked across the bridge I extended my arms and gave form to Night and Snow. They yipped happily at first, then whined as their paws slipped on the ice. I giggled at them as they struggled across.
Not far past the river the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Snow had ran off ahead after a squirrel, but Night remained by my side. She stopped and looked around, baring her teeth. I balled my fists and looked around for the danger. A hissing growl drew my attention to a rotting stump about twenty feet away. There stood a red fox, with his ears folded back and his own teeth bare.
This fox was different from any I had ever seen before. It was big, nearly as big as Night. The creature had multiple tails extending from its backside, there were at least four or five.
Danger, growled Night.
“It’s okay,” I said to the fox, holding my hands up in a calming gesture. “We don’t mean no harm. We’ll stay away from your den.” The fox just growled. I tried to reach out to him with my mind, but there was nothing. It felt like I hit up against a brick wall. An uneasy feeling ran up my spine.
He doesn’t smell right, Slim, let’s get out of here.
The fox crouched and lunged in our direction. Surprised, I stumbled backwards, but Night met the threat head on. Night and the fox turned into a jumble of red and black snarling fir. After a short scuffle the fox managed to pin Night down and sank its teeth into her throat. Pain shot through my left side, making me wince and cry out. Night’s physical form melted away and the fox turned his sights on me.
That’s not a normal fox! cried Night, retreating to the back of my mind to lick her wounds. It’s some sort of Fae. We need to get out of here.
I turned tail and ran. Snarling came from behind me. The fox leapt over me and landed in my path. I tried to veer to the right, but the fox was in front of me before I made it three steps. It swiped out at me as I skidded to a stop, but just missed. I turned again and ran back towards the river. The snarling continued close behind me.
We can’t outrun him for long. Can we climb a tree? I looked around, no low enough hanging branches. A fir tree loomed ahead of me that had a branch I might be able to reach even if I couldn’t quite bond with the bark.
Both Night and I focused all our power and we scurried up the tree. There was a little bit of tug in my feet and hands, but not enough for a solid hold. It was like trying to run up a vertical sand dune. With my speed and strength I made it farther than I had before, but I lost momentum and started to slide back down before reaching the branch. This time I kept my hands at least partially molded to the tree so I slid down at a safe speed instead of free falling.
The fox was waiting for me on the ground. I scrambled for some sort of weapon. My hands found a large stick and I turned to face the fox. It didn’t attack me even though I was a sitting duck. It just growled and swiped at the air. Night and I growled right back and took a swing with our stick. The fox easily avoided it, but it stopped growling. It caulked its head at me and looked surprised.
A growl came from my right and a white blur pounced onto the fox. There was a flurry exchange of sharp teeth and claws before the two creatures parted. Snow stood between me and the fox.
About damn time, growled Night to her brother. She was almost healed enough to take form again. Where have you been?!
Just shut up and run! Snow didn’t take his eyes off the fox. Get Slim out of here. If she dies we die, remember.
Night growled back at Snow in reply, but I could feel her relief at the arrival of her brother. We took his advice and ran. The fox couldn’t permanently harm Snow as long as I was safe.
For a few minutes we ran so fast I felt like I could fly. Night’s concern for Snow tugged at the back of my mind. She didn’t like him facing whatever that thing was alone. Go to him. Still running, I extending my right arm and gave Night form. My pace slowed.
Night continued to run by my side. Are you sure? She was torn between seeing me to safety and helping her brother.
I’ll keep running. Make sure Snow is okay. Catch up to me when you can. A feeling of gratitude filled me as Night fell behind.
I ran until I was out of breath; paying little attention to what direction I was going. Then I ran some more. Snow and Night had all their attention on fighting the Fae fox; I could only get vague impressions of what was going on far behind me.
Finally I stopped to catch my breath. My stomach cramped with hunger. I dug around in my satchel for another Ultra-bar; only one left now. I also found the obsidian rock Leaf had given me. Between bites of my Ultra-bar I sucked in air. Sweat dripped down my face and stung my eyes. As I forced down the chewy muck I wiped the sweat from my face and contemplated going back to help wolves. Maybe I could make a difference with the obsidian.
I was in a part of the God’s Wood I had never been in before. It was an ancient part of the forest. All the trees around me were giants; some of their tangled roots that protruded out of the ground met me in height. The ground was a thick carpet of moss covered with orange spotted mushrooms the size of my head. It seemed unnaturally quiet here as well; no buzz of insects or chirps of birds.
When I finished my Ultra-bar I stuffed the rock into my pants pocket and decided to head back towards wolves. Every injury they sustained sent a chill down my spine. It was more of an assumption than fact that they couldn’t be permanently hurt as long as I was safe. So far all the times Night and Snow had sustained fatal wounds in their physical forms they had automatically re-bonded with me so they could heal their aura. If I ever got hurt all they had to do was bond with me and their power healed me. They couldn’t bring me back from the dead, however, and I didn’t know if a powerful Fae could harm wolves in their physical forms.
Keep running! wolves growled in unison before I could move. In my mind their voices seemed far off. I let out my own growl and turned back towards safety. Frustrated tears filled my eyes as I began to run. I hated being so useless.
The tears blurred my vision and I tripped on one of the roots. I went down hard. My shin hit a rock and I hissed from the pain. The sound of flapping wings came from above me.
“Cacawww, cacaww.” I looked up and blinked the tears out of my eyes. I was expecting to see a crow, but instead I found a woman. She sat on a large moss covered rock ten feet away from me.
The woman was definitely Fae; she reeked of spicy magic. She had jet black hair and greenish skin. Her features were sharp and beautiful; her ears were slightly pointed. The woman’s eyes were as black as her hair and a black cloak was draped over her shoulders.
“And what brings you to these woods, my child?” asked the green woman.
I scrambled to my feet. “I, I, I came to visit Gump. Then this fox with a bunch of tails attacked me and wolves.”
“A fox you say? Akira must be up to some sort of mischief. Come, sit by my side and I’ll tend to your wounds.” The green woman brushed aside her cloak and patted the rock beside her.
Something about her voice drew me in and I took a step towards the woman without thinking. I paused before I took another step. “Who are you?”
She gave me a toothy smile. Her canine teeth were long and sharp. “I am the Morrigan, Slim Whistler. Come, sit by my side.”
My suspicion spiked but I took another step towards her. “How do you know my name?” Morrigan seemed very familiar, something stirred in my dream memories, but it was unfocused and distant. “Have we ever met?”
“Once, but you were far too young to remember I’m sure. I was a friend of your mother.”
“You knew my mom?” My interest was piqued and I took another step towards her. Gump had known my parents as well and had all kinds of stories about them. I loved his stories.
“Oh yes, Nissa and I were…very close once.” She patted the rock next to her again. Her fingernails were long and black. “Come, sit beside me. Your leg is hurt. I will heal and protect you. Just like I promised Nissa.”
Part of me was still unsure of Morrigan. Yet I soon found myself standing next to her. I hesitated before I sat; something about the way she looked at me made me uneasy. Her eyes looked hungry.
Morrigan’s smile was soft and kind, however. She reached up and gently took my hand. Usually I would have jerked away if a stranger tried to touch me, but I didn’t have any urge to with her. A warm tingling sensation started in my hand and spread up my arm and then down to my hurt shin. The stinging throb there disappeared.
“Wow!” I sat down next to Morrigan and pulled up my pant leg to inspect my shin. It was perfectly healed. I had never been healed by anyone else besides wolves before.
A sudden hot pain sliced into my ribcage. I cried out, doubled over, and hugged my ribs.
“What’s wrong?!” The woman grasped my shoulders, which was the only thing that kept me from falling to the ground and rolling around in pain.
“The fox hurt wolves real bad!” I said through clinched teeth. Every muscle in my body was tensed from the pain that was coming from my left ribs. “They came back to me to heal. It hurts real bad, but it will go away soon.”
“I will take your pain, my child.” Morrigan draped her cloak over me and the pain vanished. My muscles relaxed and I slumped into the green woman. She hugged me close to her side. Her cloak was made of hundreds of tiny feathers that were soft against my skin.
Who the hell is this! snapped Night, deep in my mind. She drew power from my aura to recharge her own and scanned my memories to catch up on things.
She smells like crow and Fae, noted Snow. She’s warm and pretty. I like her.
Shut up, Snow. You think we can trust all pretty girls, grumbled Night.
“Slim, your eyes have changed.” A green hand raised my chin and she looked into my eyes. Something about the woman’s completely black eyes made me not want to look away.
“It’s because wolves came back to me. They see through my eyes,” I said, staring into her eyes unblinking.
Don’t tell her stuff like that! growled Night, but I ignored her. The black eyes had all of my attention.
Morrigan looked confused for a moment and then nodded in understanding. “I see what you are now.” She stroked my cheek gently with her long nails. “You are far more than you seem. The wisdom of a thousand lives within an eight year old child. You will be the perfect familiar.”
I felt sleepy. My eyelids were heavy and I was forced to break eye contact to blink.
“Sleep, I will protect you.” Morrigan cradled me in her arms and pulled her cloak tighter around us. I felt warm and safe and exhausted.
Don’t fall asleep, Slim, came wolves’ voices from somewhere far off. I ignored them again; I was just too tired to listen.
Morrigan stroked my hair and rocked me back and forth. “I will protect you, just like I promised Nissa. You will be mine forever, just like Nissa should have been. My sister will be so jealous I got to you first.”
“What?” I mumbled. My sleepy mind couldn’t process everything she was saying.
“Just go to sleep.” Morrigan began to sing a lullaby I remembered Momma singing to me.
Wake up, Slim! She’s using binding magic! Sharp claws raked across my thoughts. A sharp pain sliced through my side.
“Owwww!” I shot upwards, now wide awake. A panicked need to run away filled me.
“Calm yourself,” cooed Morrigan. Her grip tightened around me.
I tried to push away from her, but she was too strong. “Let me go!”
“Don’t fight it. I promise you’ll like being my familiar. I’ll treat you well.”
“No, we don’t want to belong to you.” I kicked out with my feet and hit her with my balled fists. The blows seemed to have no effect. I tried to give form to wolves, but they weren’t healed enough to take shape.
Morrigan let out a cruel laugh. “You’re just like Nissa. She always tried to fight our bond, but she always gave in at the end. That is until your father took her away from me, and then got her killed. At least they left me behind you.”
I remembered the obsidian stone in my pocket. My right hand dove into my pocket and wrapped around the stone. I felt the smoothness of the stone and its sharp edges. In my mind I pictured it with perfect clarity. A cold vibration started in the tips of my fingers and spread part way up my forearm. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and swung it at the Morrigan with everything I had.
My blackened fist collided with her cheek hard. Morrigan let out a cry of surprise and pain. She released her grip on me and grabbed her face. I scrambled away and took up a defensive crouch a good ten feet away from the scary woman.
I couldn’t move my fingers so I looked at my fist. The obsidian had totally melded with my flesh. My frozen hand was entirely black, smooth and hard.
Cool, thought me and Snow together. We’ve never done that before.
Let’s get the hell out of here! growled Night.
We turned to bolt. Hysterical laughter came from behind me. Curiosity made me look back. Morrigan was laughing. She held her hand over a cut on her cheek that oozed blue blood.
“You made me bleed, child,” she said gleefully. “Do you have any idea how long it has been since a mortal has managed that?” She removed her hand from the small cut and licked the blood off of her fingers. Locking her black eyes with mine she gave me a cruel smile. “You will be most fun to tame.”
Run! yelled wolves. I turned and sprinted.
I thought I had ran fast away from the fox. This time the forest around me was just a green blur. The only thing in focus was the path directly in front of me. Still the beating of wings followed me.
“Cawwcaw, cawwcaw.” A stone rose from the earth directly in my path. I was going too fast to avoid it. My foot collided with the rock and I tucked and rolled as I went down. I was on my feet in seconds. Wolves heeled my small wounds as I turned to face the threat.
A giant crow, big enough to be an eagle, perched itself on a root of one of the ancient trees. I can give you power beyond your wildest dreams, Slim. Morrigan’s voice penetrated into my head. The things I could teach you. Don’t run from your destiny.
Despite the fact that nearly every instinct I had said to keep running, something deep within me made me want to go to the crow. If it wasn’t for wolves’ strict refusal I probably would have. A hissing growl was our only warning before a snarling mass of red fur pounced on the crow.
All strange feelings to go to the crow disappeared. I turned and continued my escape. The surrounding forest turned into a green blur again. We ran for a good five minutes.
Stop! cried wolves in unison. My body was jerked to a halt. Snow and Night forced themselves into physical form. The suddenness of it surprised me.
We need to run! I growled.
Mother?! They asked in awe.
What? I asked looking around. Images of Mother Wolf and Momma filled my mind. There was a flutter in my chest.
We stood in a large clearing. The clearing was ringed by five trees that dwarfed the ancients I had seen so far. In the center of the clearing was a tree that was bigger than them all; it rose far above the canopy.
Standing at the base of the tree was a massive grey wolf. Mother! they said with more certainty.
The grey wolf approached us. As it walked it changed form and turned into a woman. The woman had bluish skin and white hair. She wore a white shift dress and a grey fur cloak. Alarm bells rang in my head; the woman’s features were strikingly similar to the Morrigan.
That’s not Mother Wolf, I warned, sending wolves memory images of their real mother.
No, she’s the mother of mother’s, said Snow. They began to walk towards the woman despite my objections. I didn’t understand what he meant.
She’s the First Mother, explained Night. Images of a long linage of Spirit Wolves flooded my mind. At the very beginning, when the first was created, there was the woman that walked towards us. She’s our Goddess!
Snow and Night were enraptured, but I had learned my lesson with the green woman. I tried to pull wolves back into me, but they refused, which had never happened before. They went to the woman and happily nuzzled and licked her hands. I couldn’t believe they weren’t listening to me.
“Do not try to part us, Slim Whistler,” said the blue woman. “My children have never known their birth mother, with me they find peace. It pleases me to find a pair of my creations so healthy and strong; there are so few left in this world. You have cared for them well.” Wolves were overcome with a sense of loving bliss.
“Who…who are you?” I asked. It was hard to resist my own urge to run to the woman’s arms. Part of me wanted to feel for myself that bliss wolves were feeling.
“My name is Artemis. You look just like your mother. I knew her well; she was raised by one of my children. Come closer, let me get a better look at you.” Artemis extended a hand towards me.
She’s so soft and warm, encouraged Snow. He rubbed himself against Artemis’s thigh.
We can trust First Mother, confirmed Night.
I always trusted wolves instincts, so I reluctantly joined them next to their goddess. Something stirred in my dream memories giving me a sense of warning, but again it was distant and unfocused.
“You are just like my children, Slim,” said Artemis. She fussed with my hair a bit. Tangled wisps of red had escaped my tight braid. “You are without a mother. Someone to care for you and protect you. I could be a mother to you.”
Artemis cupped my cheek with her hand. Her blue nails were short, but sharp. A feeling of comforting bliss that I had only gotten a taste of through wolves’ bond filled me; it wrapped around me like a warm blanket. An image of my mother Nissa holding me in her arms came to mind that was so vivid I felt like her arms were actually around me. My eyes blurred with tears and I took another step towards Artemis. I never wanted this feeling to end.
“Cawwcaw, cawwcaw.” A flurry of black feathers appeared out of the corner of my eye. Sharp talons cut into Artemis’ outstretched arm. Artemis withdrew her hand and hissed in pain. The bliss disappeared and I stumbled backwards.
The giant crow landed in-between me and Artemis. The crow blurred and then reshaped into the green woman form of the Morrigan. Besides their coloring and clothing the women looked nearly identical.
“Bitch!” yelled Artemis, clutching her forearm.
“She’s mine, little sister,” said Morrigan. “You’re too late, as always.”
Wolves growled at Morrigan. A feral rage pulsed through me. I sprang towards her, swinging with my blackened fist still melded with the obsidian. She easily dodged my wild attack. Morrigan grabbed my arm with a vice like grip. “Fool me once, child,” she spun me around and pulled me close to her, “but not twice.”
Wolves lunged at the Morrigan. She raised her other hand and pointed her open palm towards the wolves. “Down, doggies.” Snow and Night fell to the ground with a pained yelp. Their physical forms disintegrated into nothing and I felt them fully re-bond with me. Pain shot through my ribs, but it was quickly washed away by a wave of sleepy warmth.
“Get your hands off of her!” cried Artemis. She grabbed my other wrist and pulled. I moved away from Morrigan, but she kept her grip and I came to a stop in-between the two Fae sisters.
“I claimed her. She is Kresnik; her kind belong with me!” shouted Morrigan. My body was jerked to my right.
“She is bonded mind, body, and soul with two of my own creations. Only I can ever teach her how to exist in such a state, and reach her full potential.” My body was jerked to the left.
“It was your stupidity that drove Nissa away. I won’t let you steal this one from me.” Morrigan wrapped one arm around my torso and hooked her other under my right armpit. She lifted me off the ground and tried to pull me out of Artemis’ hold.
“You are still a greedy bitch. It is no wonder we settled a continent apart. If only it was still so.” Artemis gathered up one of my legs and continued to pull.
“You are the one that never knew how to share, little sister. Both you and Apollo needed a piece of everything, but all is at an end if one takes from you.” An arm wrapped around my neck.
“Don’t you dare say his name!” Both my legs were lifted off of the ground.
I felt like I was the rope in a tug-o-war match. My limbs were being pulled out of their sockets and the arm around my neck choked me. In a confused panic wolves and I lashed out with all our strength, but we couldn’t free me from the strong hands. I was going to be torn apart.
Stop, we thought in unison. Stop! Stop! Stop!
“Stop!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.
A familiar hissing growl came from far off. One of the women cried out and my legs fell to the ground. “How dare you touch my sister, you damn rodent!” yelled Morrigan.
The rest of me was dropped to the ground and I scrambled to safety. I took refuge behind one of the huge roots and then looked back at what had saved me. The giant Fae fox stood in-between me and the sisters. Its red fur and many swishing tails made it seem like the beast was on fire.
Morrigan helped her sister to her feet. “Did you bring your bow?”
Artemis let out a sardonic laugh. “Am I ever without it?”
“I’ll go left.” The sisters seemed to abandon their feud and focused all their attention on their new enemy.
Part of me wanted to run, part of me was too scared to move, and another part of me was too curious to take my eyes off what was happening. “You’ve had this coming a long time, Akira,” hissed Artemis. From beneath her fur cloak she withdrew a golden bow and quiver of arrows. Morrigan slowly circled to her left. Her sharp black nails extended into long talons.
The fox let out another hissing growl. A jingling sound came from somewhere and the fox mutated into a human-like form. It took the form of a man that was much more human looking than the sisters. He was dressed in black robes and had strong Asian features. The only thing that visually seemed Fae about him were his long pointed ears. In his hand he held a red staff. At the top of the staff was a large ring and several smaller rings were looped around the larger one.
“Shame be upon you both,” said Akira with a deep voice full of disgust. He held his staff out in front of him as if it were a shield. “How dare you break your oaths. We all swore to Nissa and David to protect their offspring and to never take advantage of them.”
“I swore nothing to that man,” sneered Morrigan. “To Nissa I merely swore to protect her children. I have every intention of doing so.”
Her black eyes locked with mine for a moment before they refocused on Akira. Their dark hunger sent a chill down my spine. Something stirred in my dream memories again, this time it was clearer. Images started to fall into place, things started to make sense, but understanding was still just out of reach.
“I swore to protect Nissa’s children.” Artemis notched an arrow to the string of her bow. “I swore never to take advantage of them. This one came to me willingly. I would never do anything to her without her permission.” She drew back the string and took aim at Akira.
“You use your power over her Oni to gain her trust!” shouted Akira. He practically shook with rage. “Both of you have tried to bind her to yourselves. She is far too young to give consent to such a thing. This is the greatest betrayal of her mother.”
“You are one to talk.” Morrigan was slowly approaching Akira’s side. “She was running from you when she took shelter with me.”
“I was trying to scare her out of the God’s Wood. The Whistler children are safest away from us. The affairs of gods only bring mortals suffering.”
Artemis let out an icy laugh. “He’s just mad it wasn’t one of the boys that wandered into our woods, Morrigan. If it had been, he would have scooped them up faster than us. Our Nissa stole away his favorite butt boy after all.” Morrigan laughed.
“I cared for both Nissa and David deeply,” snarled Akira. He crouched, ready for attack.
My dream memories finally cleared. I recognized all these Fae now. They were all Founders, protectors of the peace treaty between the normal humans and the Gifted and Fae. They were the ones that powered the barrier. My parents, being both forest children, had known all the Founders and had been mentored by them at various times in their lives. My parents had met when they were both pupils of Akira.
What my parents’ relationships with these Fae were exactly was more confusing. Some things I saw confused me, or were still out of focus. A chaotic mix of love, trust, and gratitude, along with a deep seeded anger and sense of betrayal filled me. Wolves and I were all confused; we delved deeper into our dream memories for explanation.
“Not all things are meant for children’s eyes,” said Morrigan. Her eyes locked with mine. That sleepy warmth filled me. The dream memories I had been examining blurred and then disappeared.
“Hey! Give those back!” I cried out. I stood up from my refuge behind the tree root.
“Come and get them.” Morrigan gave me challenging smile.
“Give the girl back her memories,” said Akira.
“They are not her memories. Besides, the girl does not need to know all that went on between all of us and her parents. Don’t you agree?” Morrigan turned her challenging smile on her sister and Akira.
The three Fae shared a look. Artemis lowered her bow and nodded. “Very well,” said Akira.
Wolves growled in the back of my mind; they felt betrayed by their goddess and didn’t like the fox man. I didn’t like that these people thought that they could make these decisions for me.
“Give us back our dream memories!” I demanded. They’re all we have left.
Standing tall, I marched towards Morrigan, ready to go another round with my obsidian fist. Akira stabbed his staff into the ground blocking my path.
“Beware, child.” He looked down at me. “You do not have the power to beat her, and the more contact you have with her the stronger her power over you becomes. They have both already left their mark on you.” His warning sent a chill down my spine.
“Time to die,” growled Morrigan.
There was a loud twang sound and Akira’s staff turned into a red blur. A strong wind hit me. It picked me up and set me down several yards away. When I touched down onto the thick moss I scrambled to my feet and looked back at the Fae.
Akira and Morrigan were in a heated dual. Morrigan had acquired a staff that looked like it could have been a random stick from off the ground. She wielded it with expert skill, however, as she twirled it and struck out at Akira. Artemis periodically shot her golden arrows at Akira, but didn’t approach. Akira managed to parry all of the Morrigan’s attacks, and dodged or parried all of the arrows.
“ENOUGH!!!!” boomed a loud deep voice. A blinding white light flashed. When my vision cleared all three of the Fae were on their backsides. Between them a tall tree stump had sprouted out of the ground. Next to the tree stump was a bare chested boy with stubby horns and brown furry goat legs.
“Gump!” I cried, and ran to my friend’s open arms. He wrapped them around me and scooped me up into a hug. Gump might have looked like a boy not much older than me, but his arms had the strength of several grown men.
“It is good to see you, Slim,” he said with his usual raspy voice.
“How did you do that?” I asked as he set me back down.
“It wasn’t me.”
“It was me,” said a deep voice from above. I jumped, startled, and looked up at the stump. It was about twelve feet tall, covered in moss and conks, and was talking to me. Three quarters of the way up the stump the grooves of the bark formed a crude face, the stump’s two remaining broken and twisted branches began to move and became very arm like. “Welcome to my God’s Wood, Slim Whistler. Though I know it is not your first time here.”
One of the branch arms extended down to me and I shook the twig fingers. “Nice to meet you,” I finally managed to stammer. I had seen a lot of crazy things before, but never a talking tree.
“That was uncalled for, Green Man,” said Artemis. She picked herself up off the ground and her bow and quiver of arrow disappeared beneath her fur cloak.
“What is uncalled for is the three of you making moves upon the Whistler child the moment she wanders into the God’s Wood when my back is turned. Then you dare try to make violence in this sacred place!” The Green Man sounded angry and the trees around us swayed and groaned as if in a strong wind, but there wasn’t the slightest breeze.
“I was just trying to scare her away from them,” said Akira defensively.
“You should have just let Slim visit me,” said Gump, he put a protective arm around my shoulders. I let him, both wolves and I trusted Gump. Our dream memories of him weren’t blurry either. He had been my parent’s friend, plain and simple. “The twin bitches were only able to intervene because she sought shelter from you, Akira.”
“Like you are any better of an influence. She would be half drunk off your wine by now and exhausted from dancing to your song.”
“I’m extremely careful with Slim.” Gump petted the top of my head. “I never make her dance too long and feed her well. I never permanently bind her with my magic, nor stop her when she wishes to leave. I remember my promises.”
“The girl sought shelter with me,” interrupted Morrigan. “I gave the gift of Kresnik to the humans. She should remain with me.”
“I was the one that gave humans the gift of the elemental. Your claim is no more than my own,” said Green Man. “Being the mother of the Kresnik does not give you dominion over her soul. You made this false assumption with Nissa as well.”
“She is bound to my children. She will not leave this Wood until my claim is recognized!” Artemis folded her arms and stamped her foot like a child throwing a fit. “I will not risk letting her leave and never return.”
“Don’t I get a say in this.” I folded my arms and took up a similar stance as Artemis. I didn’t like all these people arguing over me like a pack of wolves over a prized piece of meat.
The talking tree chuckled. “I am so glad you asked. You have the right to choose to whom you pledge service. By no other way can any of us completely bind you. Just like you had to give your Mother Wolf permission before she bound you to her offspring.” I nodded in understanding, this was a relief.
“Then she must choose!” Morrigan’s eyes locked with mine. I shivered and snuggled closer to Gump. “She has taken shelter in our woods often enough. It is time she chose one of us as a teacher and guardian.
“I have seen into your heart, Slim Whistler. You wish for a home and a family. I can give you all this and more, and I will not abandon you like your siblings. You know you belong with me, remain here as mine.”
A strong longing to run to Morrigan washed over me. I fought it with all my will. A mental image came to mind of Snow and Night digging their paws into the dirt and bracing against black cords that were wrapped around us and pulled us towards Morrigan.
“Don’t be absurd!” sniffed Akira. “If she does not return to the camp we will have our woods overrun with government men within days. The peace is fragile enough without us kidnapping children.”
“The humans owe us,” said Artemis. “They will give us the girl as a reward for our continued cooperation. I agree with Morrigan. Slim must choose. This child is more powerful than any of you realize. She would shake the earth with every sneeze if my children did not feed from her aura. We cannot risk her becoming indoctrinated by the humans and ending up as their puppet. We cannot let her return to the camp.”
Wolves screamed at me to run to their goddess. They had mixed feelings towards her. Part of them didn’t like that she was trying to bind me against my will, and that she had allowed Morrigan to take our dream memories. A deeply ingrained instinct still drew them to her, however. They would rather belong to her if we had to choose.
We won’t belong to anyone! I silently yelled at wolves. My forehead was sweating and I felt dizzy from the effort of resisting the opposite and intense pulls. I felt like I was the center of their tug-o-war match again.
“Resist their influence.” Akira stamped the end of his staff onto the ground. The rings at the top of the staff jingled. The nearly overwhelming pulls diminished, but didn’t completely disappear. My body sagged with relief. Gump held me upright. “Choose me, Slim. I will see you safely back to the camp and there you will remain. You will have a life free of the strife of gods.”
I looked Akira up and down. Both me and wolves could sense his sincerity, but we didn’t want to choose him either. He reminded us of my brother Mario. They both wanted to keep me safe, but they didn’t really understand what we needed, and probably cared little about what we wanted. Akira didn’t understand what it was like living in camp. He wouldn’t let me come to the woods to run.
Artemis, Morrigan and Akira quickly fell into another argument. I ignored them and looked up at Gump. “Can’t I choose you?”
“You could, Slim, but I am no high god. I am the least of the Founders, and have the smallest influence with the humans. I fear I would not be able to protect you from both humans and other Fae.”
I looked up at Green Man. “I would not bind you even if you gave your consent, Slim Whistler. Such was my promise to your parents. Though I am happy to be your guide anytime you wander into my woods.”
Choose First Mother! said wolves. They tried to force themselves into physical form so they could run to Artemis. It took all I had left to restrain them.
We would never see the rest of the pack again, I reminded them. Despite not wanting to return to camp, I didn’t want to never see my brothers and sisters again. I sent them mental images of my siblings. Both Night and Snow shunned these images. All they cared about was me and being with their goddess.
The fox would never let us return to the woods to run, retorted Night. We can’t live caged in camp forever.
I like First Mother best, but the crow lady wouldn’t be a bad choice either. She’s strong and pretty. Snow had to give his two cents.
Shut up, Snow! snapped Night and I together.
The Fae continued to argue the various reasons I should choose them. It reminded me of the annual evaluations they did at camp. Special agents from the government would come and ask all kinds of questions to assess our assimilation status. When it came to religion they would give me a list of all major world religions to choose from. They kindly explained to me each one and talked about their benefits and histories. I had refused to choose; Gaia hadn’t been on the list. I never scored very well on those tests.
We choose none of them, I told wolves.
I looked up at Green Man. “Can I choose Gaia. I want to serve Mother Earth and her husband Father Sky, like my parents did. I just want to be able to come and go when I want. To be able to run and feel the earth whenever I can.”
Gump clapped his hands together gleefully and Green Man let out a deep chuckle. “You choose the Gods of the gods,” said Gump. He patted my head again. “You are a clever one.” I smiled up at him, it must have been a good choice.
“I object!” cried Morrigan.
“As do I,” said Artemis, “she was to choose one of us.”
“You said she had to choose. You did not specify further,” noted Akira. He wore a crooked grin.
“This isn’t fair!” Artemis stamped her foot; the ground shook.
“Enough!!!” yelled Green Man. The ground stopped shaking, but the trees around us swayed and moaned. The massive trunks seemed like they would snap at any moment. “These are my woods! As long as you take refuge in them you shall obey my decree.” All the Fae shuddered and the spicy smell of magic filled the air like a thick cloud of perfume. “Slim Whistler has made her choice and we shall all honor it.”
“She is so young for such a decree to be made permanent,” said Morrigan. “She may yet change her mind. To serve the Unseen Gods can be a far more lonely and perilous life than she would have in my service.”
“You are one to speak of her lack of years,” hissed Akira.
“I declare her to be a forest child in service to Mother Earth and Father Sky,” continued Green Man. “She shall remain as such at least until her eighteenth year. I shall not have any of your influences corrupting her judgment until she is old enough to see through your wiles.”
A static shock danced across my skin and my ears popped. Artemis pouted her lips; Morrigan harrumphed and rolled her eyes. They both transformed back into animals.
We will see each other again, you will be mine, said Morrigan’s voice in my head. The giant crow took to the air and disappeared into the trees.
Do not let this keep you from visiting, Slim Whistler. Artemis’s voice this time. Snow and Night still need their mother. The massive grey wolf gave us one last look before trotting off and melting into the brush.
“Finally that is settled,” said Green Man. The woods were calm and the trees were still. He looked down at me and I think he smiled. “You just might be the savior of us all, Slim.”
“Three souls in one, touched by five gods, but servant to one, and slave to none. Could it really be that old prophecy?” asked Gump. He looked at me with knew interest in his eyes. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You mean that legend about the one who could expand the barrier? Impossible!” Akira shook his head. “It’s a myth and the child isn’t touched by five gods. Only the twin bitches left their mark on her.”
“You forget, Akira, she is elemental. All of her kind are touched by Green Man. She has some of you in her as well,” noted Gump.
“What are you talking about?”
“Were you not with her parents the night of her conception?”
Akira fidgeted uncomfortably and crossed his arms. “David is her father,” he said bluntly.
“Even so, she didn’t just get this red hair from her mother.” Gump petted the top of my head.
I looked up at him, totally confused now. “What are you talking about, Gump?”
He smiled down at me. “We’ll talk about it next time you visit.”
“Akira, take the girl back to the camp. You have something to give her, I think,” said Green Man
I opened my mouth to protest; I had so many questions. Akira tapped the butt of his staff into the ground. The rings jingled and my vison blurred. “Be well, Slim. Visit again soon.” Gump’s voice was the last thing I registered before everything went black.
When I came back to myself I stood at the edge of the woods that ran along the south edge of camp. I looked around, but Akira and the other Fae weren’t there. In my right hand I held the obsidian stone, no longer melded with my fist, I tucked it away in my satchel. In my left hand I held a necklace, I recognized it as the one Momma always wore. It was a leather cord with at least a dozen tiny silver charms dangling from it. Each charm was in the shape of a different animal.
Your wolves can teach you how to use them, Akira’s voice rang through my head. I slung the cord around my neck.
When the sun set I snuck in the same way I had snuck out; it wasn’t hard. As I made my way down the corridors towards my family’s cell a few people whispered about my disheveled appearance, but no one asked questions or made to stop me. They all knew my reputation of going feral on people I viewed as a threat. I had to wrinkle my nose against all the harsh smells of camp; plastic, chemicals, and the stink of too many people being confined in too small a space. It had a spiciness to it from all the confined magic in the air that tickled my nose.
Both wolves and I already wanted to be running again. We longed for the green woods, the wide open spaces, and the clean earthy smells. Part of us regretted not staying in the forest with Morrigan or Artemis.
We need to stay and protect the pack, I reminded Snow and Night. Even if they leave us in the end, we can make sure the people that adopt them aren’t like that Dornbeck creep. Night and Snow grudgingly agreed.
We should think about Jared’s offer, encouraged Snow. We would be stuck here until you’re eighteen, but we could sneak out whenever we wanted. He promised.
For once you might be right, said Night.
I met Nigel in the bathroom and retrieved my security anklet. Wolves sent me images of choke collars around their necks. I don’t like it either, I said, as I returned to my family’s cell.
I typed in the code, the door swished open and swished closed behind me. The common room was filled with my siblings. They all relaxed when they saw it was me.
“Finally!” cried Kaiden, throwing his arms up in the air. “The crisis is fucking over!” He stalked towards the door. As he walked past me he lightly punched me on the arm. “Good to see you, Kid.” The door slid closed behind him.
Most of my siblings dispersed into different corners of our cell, or followed Kaiden out the door. Mario and Athena remained standing in the center of the room. I could tell that they had been arguing.
“Where have you been?” asked Mario in his stern voice. His eyes narrowed in on my new necklace.
I covered my necklace with my hand protectively. No one was going to take it from me. “I went for a run,” I looked Mario in the eyes, “and found my new family.”
Mario and Athena shared a concerned look, but I didn’t stick around to hear their opinions. I marched to the room I shared with my sisters and curled up in my bunk. After eating my very last Ultra-bar I passed out.
I dreamed of my mother that night. Completely naked, Nissa/Momma sat cross legged on the ground next to a crackling campfire. She held her charm necklace in her hands. Momma closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The charms melted into her skin and each became a liquid tattoo slithering across her skin. She did a series of hand motions with deep breaths and the liquid tattoos one by one peeled from her skin and took on their own form. I was now joined around the fire by a massive grizzly bear, a black panther, a red hawk, and two hissing snakes.
Nissa opened her eyes. She smiled and her green eyes looked at me. “I finally did it, Mother Wolf.” A feeling of pride towards my adopted pup filled me.