Chapter 12 — Jen
"They'd damn well better be home this time."
"We saw the truck heading this way. They'll be here."
“This lawn is really shit. Doesn’t anyone mow their lawn anymore?”
“Pay attention. We’re about to question a suspect.”
"If I ring this bell and no one answers, you’rebuyin’ lunch."
"Wait. Do you hear something?"
"Do we knock?"
"No, keep listening."
"They've stopped talking. If we don't go now, they'll rabbit."
"Damnit. Okay, let's do this."
It felt as skin-bitingly cold as winter in the forest all week. Not saying it was actually cold out; in fact, the weather was really nice for this time of year. But when you’ve just spent the last couple months in the middle of summer and you suddenly drop right into autumn, even in pretty much the same climate, your body takes a while to adjust. It’s like how two days that are just as hot can feel way different just ‘cause of what season they’re in.
All of this is to say that I was shivering constantly over the last couple days, but I didn’t want to give it away. I wore light clothes like everybody else—although Sara had pointed out I’d been wearing way darker stuff that tended to blend in more. I didn’t want to look like a freak though, wearing some heavy jacket everywhere. I dealt with the chills and the sniffles at school instead.
So when I tell you that even with all that, I still felt the room get colder in an instant, you’ll understand that I mean it was like the Arctic in there.
It didn’t take me long to figure out why. As I glanced away from Matt and Carl, both still on edge, I saw the outline of a hand, just through the curtains around the windows by our front door. My instincts were right on the money.
I got the guys to shut up. We stared at the door for what felt like hours, but only a second later, the first knock came. A sharp tap of a fist on our door.
Matt immediately took charge. “Jen, hide,” he hissed. I didn’t have to be told twice. In my hunting outfit, with the quiver of arrows on my back and bow over my shoulder, I was seriously out of place. I snagged the arrow out of the banister as I hurried upstairs, ripping out a small chunk in the process.
Matt raised an eyebrow. I shrugged, retreating into the shadows of the upstairs landing. The staircase looked so beat up anyway, it didn’t really stand out much.
Okay, it did; there was a big difference between the scratches and scuffs versus the sudden gaping hole I’d just torn out, but what the hell did he expect? I couldn’t just leave it there.
For a brief moment of bizarre jealousy, I wondered why Matt had sent me away, but not Carl. It didn’t take long to reason it out though. Whoever was on the other side of that door had probably heard people arguing—two guys in particular. If Matt answered it alone, he’d just look more suspicious. I could disappear, since I hadn’t been shouting my head off like an idiot, but we needed to seem like we had nothing to hide.
No way in hell I wasn’t gonna listen in though. I laid down just beyond the corner at the top of the staircase, pressed into the carpet with my ears as close as I could get to the corner of the wall without showing myself.
I heard the door click open.
“Hello officers,” Matt’s voice rang out, quite calm. The staircase groaned slightly as someone leaned against the bannister. I assumed it was Carl. He was still breathing pretty heavily, though he was trying to suppress it.
“Matthew Westin?” A typical cop voice, all direct and professional. I decided the guy must have glasses, with a full proper uniform, all perfectly even and pressed. Probably pretty handsome, too.
“Can I help you?”
“Detectives, actually,” said a second voice. Rougher. He’d the off-the-rails guy, the plays-by-his-own-rules cop. Shabby clothes, a devil-may-care attitude. Meanwhile, I had to revise my mental picture of the first guy into a plainclothes investigator. Well-dressed still, but in a business suit instead of a uniform.
Shit, did we just stumble into some kind of buddy cop show? Man, why do I remember TV so well but nothing else?
I could have laughed, if I wasn’t so terrified. Instinctively, my hand slid down to the knife near the small of my back. Not that I was about to attack cops, but there was no way I was getting taken somewhere against my will.
I tried to focus back on the conversation. My mind kept flying off on too many tangents. They still seemed to be on introductions though, so I hadn’t missed much.
“...and we’re here looking into a missing persons case.”
“Missing persons?” said Matt, still the perfect tone of control. I knew he wouldn’t slip up in front of the police, no matter what they might try. I was much more worried about Carl, who still hadn’t gotten his breathing under control. He couldn’t still be tired from the fight, could he? It was like two punches. He wasn’t that out of shape. It had to be nerves.
Carl was scared.
“Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” asked Professional-guy. It was all so calm and polite. The only thing out of place was Carl’s ragged-breaths.
“Of course. Please, come in.”
Carl’s breath sharpened again. He was not ready for this kind of stress, I could tell. Matt, this is a mistake. I know you’re doing the right thing for you, but Carl cannot handle this right now.
They crossed into the sitting area next to the front door. I could just make out Matt’s face in the corner, as he took a seat. The two detectives followed, flitting through the gap, and Carl just stayed on the stairs, watching from the third step up.
“When was the last time you saw Blake Svartholm?” asked Rough-guy. Straight to the point, as expected. He was doing off-the-book perfectly by the book. Even pronounced ‘Svartholm’ wrong.
“Blake’s… missing?” Oh thank the stars. Matt, you’re good. No hesitation at all.
“When did you see him last?” prompted Professional-guy again.
“Uhh, night before last.” No, that’s wrong. Matt, don’t lie to them. You don’t know what they know yet.
“Wednesday the second?”
“No, sorry. I meant Tuesday night.” Or you knew what to do all along. Okay, gonna stop doubting you now.
“So Tuesday the first.” I heard a scratching sound. Probably Professional-guy taking notes on a yellow legal pad, because it always had to be yellow.
“Were you aware nobody’s seen him since that night?” Rough-guy said.
“No, I wasn’t. I mean, I was surprised I didn’t see him at school, but I thought he might be sick or something.”
“What were you two doing that night?”
“Just hanging out. Nothing special.”
Carl was fidgeting on the stairs. These guys were too good not to notice. “You wouldn’t happen to be Carl Stokelson, would you?”
He nodded nervously. I was astonished. To see somebody like Carl—with what he’d accomplished, the power he’d once held—so thoroughly unsettled by a couple of real-world cops was… pathetic. I felt sorry for him.
“Blake was your best friend, wasn’t he?”
“And you were there that night as well?”
“Yeah, I was.” Carl sounded really subdued. Maybe he had a thing about cops? I couldn’t remember, as much as I tried to. I still couldn’t wrap my head around his defeated posture.
“Where did you go that night?”
“Here. And uhh… out for a bit.”
“We drove around for a while, went to a few places,” added Matt. He was trying to deflect them off Carl.
“Anywhere in particular?” asked Professional-guy.
“Not Cyraveil Park?”
Shit. Shit shit shit. We’d been caught in a lie. Well, kind of. It was enough of one to make them suspicious.
I set my bow aside in the nearest room, along with the quiver. My days of watching way too much TV with Sara were about to pay off big time.
“We might have,” said Matt noncommittally, but I could hear his voice falter just a tad. I doubted the cops would recognize it, but I wasn’t going to let this get any further. I was already moving.
“Hey, Matt, what’s going on?” I called, hurrying down the stairs.
“Jen?” He twisted around in surprise. Carl, too, glanced up in confusion.
“You guys cops?” I asked, in what I hoped was a cheerful, upbeat voice. I tried my best to suppress any hint of my accent. Just a normal Oregon girl, that’s me. Unsurprisingly, I had their appearances down perfect. Disappointing, but what can you do? More interesting to me, though, was that Professional-guy looked barely older than I was. I didn’t know detectives came that young.
Barely older than actual-me, obviously. Not current-me. But still, I’d call him mid-twenties, easy.
Professional-guy spoke up. “Yes. Detectives Portman and West.”
“Neat. Mind if I hang around?” I plopped myself into the chair next to Matt. Professional-guy looked taken aback. Wondering if you’re allowed to question us with a minor present, right? For once, I was actually grateful to get de-aged seven years.
It wasn’t the most elaborate move, and definitely just a temporary solution, but it was enough to save off the pressure, give Carl some breathing room. So I hoped.
“If you wouldn’t mind, we’d like to speak to your brother alone, please.” Professional-guy was polite as could be, but I wasn’t gonna let it slide.
“Nah, I kinda do mind. Is he under arrest?” Estek, Mr. Detective. Your move. Will you bluff, or do I take the round?
“Then you can’t compel him to answer anything right now. And I was promised a good lunch, so if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like my brother to get back in the kitchen.” I was deliberately playing up the bratty little sister angle. Anything to get them out of our house, right away. Matt had stumbled hard, and I didn’t want to consider what could happen if they started questioning Carl directly.
Obviously doubting his legal standing in the room, Professional-guy stood up. Rough-guy seemed surprised, but followed his partner’s lead. In typical detective fashion though, Rough-guy pulled out a business card from his jacket and handed it over to Matt.
“You think of anything, you call.”
“Of course,” Matt replied, pocketing it. I felt immensely reassured by the aura of calm that had returned to his voice. The cops were out the door in moments, and I watched carefully all the way back to their car and then down the block and away. Only once they were gone did I turn back to face my brother.
“That was sloppy,” said Matt.
“Masal daphut,” I snapped. “Why did you lie?”
“I—” Matt started.
“We’re screwed,” said Carl. We both looked at him, confused.
“I think that’s a little preemptive,” said Matt.
“They already came to my place once. My dad told me.”
“So they know you and Blake are friends. It’s not exactly news,” Matt reasoned.
“Yeah, but the bit about Cyraveil. They probably got that off a chat between me and Blake. Off Blake’s computer. They’ll know I was involved somehow.”
Matt sighed. “It’s not the end of the world yet, Carl. We’ll figure something out.”
Carl’s eyes narrowed. “Figure something out,” he sneered. “Like you always do.”
“Yes, Carl,” said Matt. His voice was much sharper now. “Like I always do. You guys put me in charge, now you’re going to listen.” I had been about to speak up in Matt’s defense, but his tone reminded me that he didn’t need it. I’d forgotten just what he could sound like.
It wasn’t really a good memory.
“They know we went to the forest,” Matt went on, with both of us totally silent. “We can’t deny that. We’ll just have to stick to our story. After we came home, after midnight, we dropped Blake off. That was the last time we saw him. Jen, you were never there. You don’t know a thing.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t sure how well it’d hold up. It was better than nothing…
“That’s it? We just keep up that lie, forever?” asked Carl.
“There’s literally no evidence,” said Matt. “They can never prove anything.”
“What about Blake’s parents? Our friends? Are they just supposed to believe he disappeared forever?”
“Well, he did.”
“Fuck you, Matt,” Carl snapped. “Blake deserves better.
“And what are you thinking?”
“I… don’t know. Yet.” Carl’s voice fell. He hesitated. “I don’t know if we can do this. Live here.”
“We don’t have any other option,” said Matt. I could tell he was trying to be comforting, but it really didn’t work, and Carl wasn’t taking it. Matt wasn’t the right person to help him. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t, but I couldn’t think of anything better to say. So I stayed silent.
Which meant, of course, that Carl’s face swivelled right over to face me. He looked me straight in the eye. So much for staying out of the conversation.
“What do you think?”
I took a deep breath, trying to get my nerves in order. “I think Matt’s right.”
Carl looked crestfallen. Had he expected me to agree with him? Over Matt?
“Carl, I need to know you can do this,” said Matt. “They’ll be asking you questions, without us around. Can you handle it?”
He didn’t answer, not right away. I could see him processing, calculating. He was a planner, just like Matt. Carl was definitely the smartest of us, the most well-read, the most cunning, and absolutely the most successful of us in Cyraveil. But he lacked Matt’s self-control, his ability to shut out emotion when he needed to. Matt was an iceberg, stable and floating along, hiding so much more under the surface. Carl was an open flame, bright and powerful, but ready to burn down the whole world if he got pushed too far in the wrong direction.
Worst of all, I wasn’t actually sure which of them I really agreed with. My own mind was so mixed up, I just defaulted to supporting my brother. Trusting he had a real plan in mind. Knowing he’d take care of me.
“Jen, can I talk to you?” asked Carl quietly.
I raised an eyebrow. What was he expecting to get out of a private conversation?
“Go ahead and talk,” said Matt sternly.
“Alone, dickhead,” Carl retorted.
“I’m staying right here,” said Matt.
He was trying to protect me. I got that. Normally, I appreciated it, but right now it was all wrong. This was Carl, not the cops or Reynir’s armies or the Vennenport Deathblades. Even if he did mean me harm, I could take out this weaker version of Carl any day of the weak. No sweat.
“Then I guess we’re going somewhere else,” I cut in. Carl glanced over, surprised, but not nearly as much as Matt. “I’ll be fine. Go make us a snack, okay?” After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded.
Good. He still trusts me. At least something’s still right here.
Matt retreated into the kitchen, while Carl and I stepped out into the backyard. Almost immediately, Carl started pacing. Clearly, he was still way too amped up by the cops to stay calm. I walked out onto the lawn, letting my bare feet enjoy the grass. I sat down cross-legged, staring up at the clouds swirling across the sky. They looked like gigantic structures, miles and miles wide. I wondered if I could reach them someday, if I somehow got access to etola again. Maybe some way to use the wind, reduce my weight and let me be carried upward into the sky. I could see myself really enjoying that.
I could also see myself plummeting a couple miles to my untimely death, but hey—nobody ever did anything really cool by playing it totally safe, right?
Not that it mattered. I’d never get that opportunity, unless I decided to take up skydiving. Magic was a thing of the past, forever. I was gonna die young, waste away like a human at eighty-something. I was never gonna get to fly like a bird or swim like a fish or tree-shape or mind-meld or any of the other hundreds of things I hadn’t done yet. It was gone.
“We don’t belong here,” said Carl finally.
I sighed, twiddling my toes in the grass. “What are we supposed to do about that?”
“I don’t know yet. But I’m trying to find out.”
“You’re what now?” I was cautiously interested. That’s not to say I was eager to find a way back. Despite everything I just listed off, there were a hell of a lot of reasons to be happy back here too. The jury was still out. I just liked having options. Anything to feel less confined in the world.
“I’ve been sending out messages. Trying to find anyone who might have gone through something similar. If it happened to us, why couldn’t it happen to anyone else?”
I shook my head. “It’s magic, Carl. It doesn’t have to be logical.”
“I can’t believe that. The universe works on rules. We just stumbled on a new rule no one’s documented yet.”
“So you think you’re gonna figure it out?”
“I’d rather somebody else already did, and is just keeping it secret for the same paranoid reasons we are,” Carl muttered. I started to speak up, but he kept going. “No, I think you guys are right, and I’m not going to go public or anything. Our lives would get way, way worse. But a few anonymous posts on the internet aren’t going to set off any alarms.”
Made some sense to me, I guess. Matt wouldn’t like it though. “Any luck yet?”
Carl shrugged. “Mostly a lot of trolls, or just pure fantasy. But I did get one possible hit. A guy claiming he knows something, and clearly just as scared as we are. I’ve been talking to him.”
I felt a thrill roll through me, coupled with a healthy burst of defensive skepticism. “How can you be sure you can trust him?”
“I can’t. Of course not. It’s the internet. But he seems legit from the couple PMs we’ve traded so far.”
“PMs?” I asked, with a twinge of embarrassment.
“Sorry. Private messages. No one else will see them.”
“Okay,” I said neutrally. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I trusted Carl could stay discreet. Especially with anything concerning the Web.
“If—” Carl started, but he cut himself off abruptly. I glanced over at him, curious. His face was unreadable, a mix of apprehension and hope.
“If what?” I prompted.
“Would you come back with me? If I found a way?”
I didn’t answer right away, because I didn’t really have an answer, and that seemed to open a floodgate.
“There’s nothing left for me. I don’t fit into my family, school is worthless, and I can’t see myself just going through the usual hoops. Going to college, getting a job, whatever. After what I’ve done? It would be such a step backwards. Nothing I could ever achieve in this world would amount to a fraction of what I accomplished in Cyraveil.” Carl’s face twisted into a bitter smile. “I still have so much unfinished business over there. It wouldn’t be right for me to leave it, you know? And I know you still have people here. You’ve got friends and family, But do you really belong here? Can you really be happy here?”
A couple days ago—vack, even a month ago, I could have said yes. Today… I said nothing.
“You should be at my side while we reshape the world.”
The way he said it, the attempt at grandeur, I couldn’t help but laugh. “Sorry, sorry. But seriously. Reshape the world?”
“Dunno. It just seems nuts to be saying that about a couple kids from Oregon.”
Carl shook his head. “It is nuts, but we already did it once. The four of us overthrew the whole empire.”
“We had help,” I said dismissively.
“Tell me you prefer this world over Cyraveil,” Carl snapped.
“You know what? It wasn’t all great,” I shot back. My own temper was rising, and at the moment, I really didn’t feel like controlling it. “Cool as your city and your guilds and daphut were, they treated me like shit.”
Carl’s conviction didn’t seem to waver, so I pressed on. “I’m not talking about the Pit. You took care of that. I mean after we won. They still didn’t want me around. I could walk down the streets and get spat on by any random human that walked by. Just because of where I came from.”
“I didn’t—” Carl started.
“No, you didn’t. Because I didn’t want you to know. I was going to handle it. Hard enough being a girl in a medieval fantasy world, but add on top of that a seriously racist kingdom and my half-Sylf… heritage,” I landed on the right word after a moment’s searching. Hard to give a good speech when I still struggled with the language. “I know you and Matt had plans to try and bring everyone together. But honestly? I was pretty close to just ditching you both and going back to my suunsyl.”
It was something I’d never meant to tell them. If Matt knew, he’d be crushed. I didn’t ever want to hurt him like that. But Carl, with his rose-colored vision of the world, needed a serious wake-up call.
When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and unsettled. “What makes this world so much better?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said honestly, “but I haven’t given up yet either.”
Carl left not too long after that. He confessed what happened at his house, in full, and why he couldn’t go home. I had his cell number though (finally), and we’d promised to meet up again soon. He’d be camping out in public places where he could get internet access until we figured out how to handle the police. I felt like I’d gotten him to calm down for now at least. I could only pray to the stars that we found a more permanent solution soon.
When he left though, I could tell something had been lost. Carl didn’t quite trust me anymore. A bond we’d once held, something forged in shared experience and the many days and nights we’d spent alone on the run outside Vennenport. It was suddenly walled away. I could still feel our connection, but it was weak and fragile, and I didn’t think he’d reach out to me again. Not until he found a real solution, one way or another.
The stars sure weren’t doing much for me anymore. I blamed it on the night sky I no longer recognized, a void full of strange patterns and a single moon that was far too large.
Did I want to return to the sky I remembered? I couldn’t say. Everything I said to Carl was true, and yet…
And yet I’d already found I could barely live in this world as it was, either. As I said to Matt, I was barely hanging on by a twig. I wanted to return, but at the same time, I didn’t want to leave. I was caught between two worlds full of things I loved, and full of things I feared.
Eloquent, I know. If I could write it out in Etoline, it’d sound way better, but then you couldn’t read it, so that’s the best you get.
In that moment, I thought of my mother. She had always flitted around the edges of my life, but for one reason or another, she’d never really been a central piece. She and I were family, and I’d love her until the day I died, whether that was in eighty years or a few hundred. Mom was always closer to Matt than to me. I didn’t resent them for it. Matt had taken care of both of us for years, ever since our dad ditched us. He’d gotten more time to bond with Mom, before she’d been swamped with holding down two jobs to provide for us.
It made me mostly a solo adventurer. I spent most of my time out with friends, hanging out with Sara, being a kid. Home was a place to come back for food and shelter at night. I never brought friends over, I spent as little time there as I could.
I felt so stupid about now, but I’d been ashamed. I never wanted my friends to find out that we were poor. Whenever we went out, I’d do everything I could to avoid looking like I didn’t have money to spend. I’d say I wasn’t hungry if we went for food, and just sip water or leech off Sara while nobody was looking. When we went out for clothes, I’d buy something nice, wear it once, then trek across town alone to return it the next day. Movies? I’d snuck into the movies more than once. Got pretty good at it too, slipping in with the crowd past the ticket guy. Nobody ever came over to my place. I never had to face that judgment.
So ridiculous. So much wasted effort. I couldn’t care less now.
Only two people ever caught on. Matt was the first, spotting my clothes cycling operation one day. After I’d finally explained it to him, he offered to drive me back for the returns, no judgment at all, every single time. That was when I knew I could trust my brother with my life. Kind of a silly reason, but seriously. That moment on, we were always a team.
The other person was, of course, Sara, and we’d been best friends ever since.
Clearly, I should’ve just let more people in on the secret. Worked out great twice in a row.
I got up from the grass and walked back inside, where Matt was stirring something in a bowl. It already smelled great. “What are you making?”
“Well, you said we needed more cookies.” Matt smiled.
“Chocolate chip?” I asked eagerly.
“You got it.”
Okay, maybe today wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
A few hours later, we were munching our way through freshly baked cookies, out on the back patio in our cheap plastic chairs.
“Did you really have to shoot an arrow at us?” asked Matt, grinning.
I shrugged. “Seemed like the quickest way to shut you both up.”
“How do you plan on explaining that hole to Mom?”
“Oh, I figured we’d just blame it on you. This would be what, the third time you’ve broken the stairs somehow?”
Matt raised his eyebrows. I laughed. It was true—twice before, he’d caused some noticeable damage to our staircase. Once, by knocking out a support for that same bannister, tossing a ball around with friends. Heavy basketball and thin aging wood, it wasn’t hard to see that coming.
The second time, he’d tripped and actually knocked his head onto the end-piece, knocking it clean off. That time was less funny in retrospect. More heart-rushing-terrifying. Also, the first and only time I’d ever dialed nine-one-one. It turned out fine in the end, but… vack.
Reminiscing like this with my brother felt good though. I felt… peaceful. Happy, even.
So, of course, Matt had to go and ruin the mood.
“Carl’s getting worse, isn’t he?” he asked quietly.
I had to clear a chunk of cookie from my mouth before answering. “Yes,” I said finally. “He wants to find a way to go back.”
My brother… reacted. I couldn’t say what it meant, but I saw his eyes twitch. His voice remained steady. “What do you think?”
“Me?” I asked, taken aback. Was he asking my opinion on going back? Or about Carl?
“You know him as well as I do by now, I think. You spent more time with him in the last year, at least.” His eyes were studying me carefully. I hated that feeling, but I knew Matt didn’t mean me any harm. “What’s your take?”
I hesitated. “Carl’s on the edge. He could go either way. I don’t know what I could do to send him either direction.”
Matt sighed. “That’s… unfortunate.”
“I’ll try talking to him again.”
“After how well that went today?”
He frowned. “What else can I do?”
“Let him be for now,” I said. I wasn’t sure if it was right or not. It was what I would want though. Time to be alone, time to contemplate. And maybe, just maybe, I was hoping his search would pan out. That he’d find a way home. Options.
“Okay,” said Matt, with an air of finality. He adjusted his chair slightly, then leaned forward to rest on his hands, propped up on his elbow. “Now, about Sara.”
“How’d your date go, hotshot?” I teased. I was more than happy to shift gears entirely… but Matt, of course, was still all business.
“You told her,” he said. It didn’t sound accusatory, but I still felt like he was trying to express disapproval. I really didn’t think I deserved it.
“Yeah, I did.”
“We agreed, Jen.”
“If there was anyone, absolutely anyone in the world we could trust—” I started, but he raised his hand.
“It’d be her. I understand. In fact, I think you probably did the right thing.”
“You should have told me.”
He was trying to be so calm and understanding, and it just made me more angry. It felt so condescending. I threw caution to the winds. I’d had enough of this. We were home now. “Matt, you’re not my father.”
“Telling her was my decision to make. I don’t need your approval on everything I do. We’re in this together, yeah, but as equals. Brother and sister.”
“That’s not what I…” Matt trailed off as I stood up. I needed to leave. I needed some space.
“Think about it for a bit.” I picked up my bow, which I’d brought out to the yard with us. I felt very attached to it right now. It was a symbol of my identity, even if it wasn’t the bow I’d made a part of myself, with my own hands, sweat, and magic. The bow was already unstrung, so I just packed it away in the bag, and slung it over my shoulder. I double-checked the arrows in the quiver, and my knife at my belt, then pulled my jacket back on tight. “I probably won’t be home for dinner, okay?”
I took a bus out to the forest again. I’d covered my bag in a blanket, so that no one would spot the quiver of arrows sticking out. Didn’t need the random looks from other passengers, not today. Plus, the blanket was keeping me warm—and like I said earlier, it felt really cold out.
Even so, I still needed to be out in Cyraveil Forest right now. Something about the place was drawing me back. I’d been out there this morning, of course, just to get away from the world for a bit. I found myself needing to go out there just to get some proper rest. It made a weird disconnect between my mind and my body on that idea.
My mind clearly longed to be in the outdoors, out in nature. In my suunsyl, we usually slept outside, with just a light cover above to block rain and falling leaves, on soft beds built right into the trees. Every single night since we’d come back, I’d had trouble sleeping. The industrial noise of suburbia wasn’t a huge deal—I could shut that out if I needed to. It was the walls. The confinement. Being cut off from the world around me. I felt like I wasn’t able to feel everything anymore, and it disturbed me.
At the same time, when I went out into the woods behind our house, or came out to Cyraveil Park, my body was telling me a different story. It practically screamed at me to wrap up, defend myself against the elements. Only now did I realize it was the lack of magic. I couldn’t use the etovyla to protect myself against exposure, to keep a comfortable temperature and keep away the harsher parts of nature while I slept. My body begged for a bed and a roof over my head, and solid walls to keep away the wind and any other dangers that might lurk just out of sight.
Between the two of them, mind and body, I was trapped and totally helpless.
The bus arrived at the stop for Cyraveil Park. I thanked the driver and took off, bounding through the underbrush with ease. The memory of Sara tripping over the tree root earlier popped into my head. I giggled aloud. Yeah, I admit it, I’d been spying on them. Come on, you would have too, if you had my skills and spotted them wandering around in your forest together.
I’d learned how to get through thick forest without a care in the world. There was always an order to how a natural forest grew, how the roots took hold and shaped the landscape. Once my mind picked out the patterns, I knew exactly where to place every step, where every jut of a branch or root would shoot out. There were a couple surprises, of course, but for the most part, I always knew exactly where I was, and everything around me.
Which meant I spotted the trail on the forest floor instantly.
I didn’t recognize the footfalls at first glance, strange zig-zag lines and evenly spaced grids. It took me a moment to remember that sort of pattern would come off the soles of real world shoes.
Well, this could be fun. I hadn’t tracked anything in a while. Hard to track through cobblestone streets of Candir, after all. A bit of practice would be good.
I set off, following the trail as it faded in and out through the underbrush. I nearly lost the tracks a few times, but other clues kept the chase running. A snapped off branch, trampled undergrowth. An overturned rock in a stream, wet on the wrong side. I followed it like a wolf on the hunt. I was determined to find the other end, if only for my own pride.
Instead, I ended up finding something truly life-changing.
The trail came out to a small clearing, barely wider than I was tall. Still, it was perfectly circular, a brown patch amidst the thick rolling greens surrounding us. It couldn’t have been natural. I stopped to examine it, since the tracks seemed to end there anyway.
There was a rock, pure white, sitting underneath a fern at the opposite end. It almost seemed to be glowing, lit by a beam of sunlight that filtered down through the trees above. I crouched down in front of it, curious.
I nearly fell over in shock. There, unmistakably etched on the surface, were scratchings carved in Etoline—in its native form. There was absolutely no one else in the world who could have read the words inscribed there. I looked up to the sky, to the stars that didn’t even exist in this universe, and I wondered.
The rock described, in perfect detail, how precisely three people might travel to Cyraveil. No more, and no less. Forever.
I sat down in the clearing. My mind was still reeling. As if to remind me I was still in Oregon, a shadow passed over the sun, the scent of petrichor filled the air, and soon the world around me darkened in a drizzle of raindrops, pattering down through the leaves.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” I asked the sky.
The stars, smug in their devious machinations, did not deign to answer.