I groaned. My body ached. Someone shifted beside me.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Noel, “but I think I twisted my ankle.”
I cursed under my breath. Looking around, I couldn’t see anything. Noel tugged at my shoulder and twisted me around a little by the tunic. There was a faint point of light in the distance, so dim it might have been one of those things that swims in your eyes before you blink it away. I reached out my hands, carefully, and found a rocky surface. Leaning against the wall, I picked myself up, before helping Noel up as well. She winced. Right, she’d twisted her ankle. I leaned into her side, grabbed her arm, and put it over my shoulder. Then we started tottering towards the light, tripping, stumbling in the darkness.
We didn’t discuss what we’d seen outside. I didn’t stop to think of it too much, except for making the obvious connection between the story we’d heard from Starry around the fire last night. The God of Evil and the God of Madness—what a wonderful combination.
The light grew larger and larger, and brighter and brighter. In fact, it was so bright we couldn’t see ahead of ourselves, having to gingerly walk forward while feeling around with our hands and feet. My foot hit a rock, which moved a little, and the brightness, the stillness, the silence was broken.
In front of us were birds. Lots of birds. All kinds of birds. Small birds, large birds, flying birds, flightless birds. Birds with muted colors, birds with ostentatious plumage. Each of them was different, each of them was strange, and each of them was staring at us like we’d crashed a wedding.
“Uh,” I stammered, “hi?”
The birds blinked. It was creepy how they all blinked at the same time. All thirty of them. Wait, thirty? Why was it such a specific number and how did I count them up so fast when I hadn’t even been trying to?
“Are you lost?” asked one bird, as it hopped of off its perch. It was only then that I noticed that each of the birds was on a wooden perch inside this large, rocky cavern. The perches looked like branches, but since we were under a giant tree, I figured they could be roots too.
This bird was about ten inches tall and had a vertical crown of reddish-orange feathers. Its beak curved down a little, and its wings had black and white stripes. I knew what kind of bird this was, but I couldn’t quite recall what it was called, which was strange because I had an absolutely amazing memory. And no, humility wasn’t my strong suit.
Hang on, why did I know what kind of bird this was in the first place? All the birds I’d seen since I came to this world were different, which made sense because this was a different world! I looked around and realized that I could recognize all of the birds, but I couldn’t remember any of their names. Even the ones that I thought I should really, really remember, like the one with blue and purple eye-like patterns on its feathers.
“Yes, we’re lost,” said Noel, breaking me from my thoughts, “we fell in here from a hole in the tree.”
“A hole in the tree, you say,” said the bird, “there shouldn’t be any holes large enough for you to come through. Except of course, for that one.” The bird pointed up with its beak.
There was no roof, which explained why everything was so bright. Somehow, there was an open sky above us. Was the entire tree hollow or something? And did the birds come inside to do… whatever it was they were doing.
Why was a bird able to talk?
Noel and I seemed to have arrived at this question together as we took a step back. The bird tilted its head.
“I know you didn’t fly in,” said the bird, “we would have seen you.” The other birds nodded. The bird continued: “There is no hole in the sides of this space. And neither of you seem to be powerful magicians, so tell me again, how did you get in here?”
Somehow, this tiny little bird was exerting a great deal of pressure. Or maybe it was the strangeness of this whole ordeal. First with the moon and red star appearing in midday, then the door that brought us here, and now a group of weird talking birds that seemed like they were a step away from pecking out our eyes!
“I see,” said the bird with the vertical crown, “you saw the moon and the red star.”
My eyes widened.
“Read minds? Yes, yes I can. But do not worry, children, it seems we are not enemies. In fact, we are the ones who should apologize. It seems you were sent here to deliver a message,” said the bird.
“A message?” said Noel.
“Yes,” said the bird as it looked at the sky, “a love letter from a guy who can’t take a hint.” The birds chirped, all at once, in a sound that could have been indignation if it wasn’t a burst of high-pitched notes. The birds looked at us again and the bird with a crown said: “you can leave back the way you came.” It pointed behind us with its beak. “But I would like to offer you a gift to make up for having caused you so much trouble.”
It pointed its beak at Noel and a burst of light surrounded her ankle. She slid her arm off my shoulder and took a step. Then all the birds flapped their wings and started chirping. Startled, Noel and I took a step back, but a gust of wind brought us right in front of the birds. The birds flew around us, surrounding us on all sides like a feathery tornado.
They flapped their wings and sang their songs, making a ton of loud noise that began to hurt my ears. A single note cut through the din, piercing into my mind like a needle. I grabbed my head and screamed, but I was drowned out by the noise. Thumping and flapping, and chirping and cooing, and so many other sounds and noises filled my ears. Wind ruffled my tunic, wind that was created by thirty birds flapping like crazy. I closed my eyes.
The wind stopped. The noise faded, but my ears still rang. My breathing was fast and short and when I opened my eyes, my vision was blurry. I cursed as I felt a sharp pain in my head. I looked at my hand, and it was trembling. I looked at Noel, who looked at me, presumably after having checked her own senses. She was in good shape, all things considered, and there was no blood coming out of her ears despite all the noise.
The birds were gone and so was the room. We were back on the grass in the shade of the massive tree. The wall of root-like branches was visible from here, as was the sun, shining bright through the canopy.
Despite the pain and discomfort, I was incredibly happy. I looked at Noel and she had a massive grin on her face too. We hugged each other, before breaking off immediately because our bodies were still sore. We leaned back on the grass and looked up at the sky beyond the canopy of leaves that topped the giant tree.
“I’m glad they told us we shouldn’t say that poem aloud near this tree,” I said, “but they could’ve just told us that instead of imprinting it in our minds.”
“I guess they don’t want us going back inside the tree again,” said Noel, “since they’re using it to hide from the world, I guess.”
“Didn’t they say they were hiding from someone who was sending them love letters?” I asked.
“Yeah, they did say that, didn’t they,” said Noel.
“Still, I’m glad we came here. Thanks for showing me your favorite place.”
“You’re welcome, Cas. Although, don’t expect to get this kind of reward from my other favorite places. Most of them just have a pretty view!”
I laughed; I laughed with relief and joy. Relief that we’d survived a supernatural encounter between what were probably gods or godlike beings. And joy that the thirty birds had impressed in our minds the foundational secrets of magic!
As I looked up at the sky, a drop of liquid splashed onto my cheek. I wiped it away with a hand. “Is it going to rain?”
A shadow fell over us. I didn’t think much of it because the leaves on top of the giant tree had been casting strange shadows all morning. Another drop of liquid splashed on my cheek. The shadow shifted. I leaned a little further back and looked up.
A drooling beak appeared above my head. I rolled out of the way just as the beak drilled into the ground where my head had been and Noel screamed and then I screamed and then the massive godforsaken Farro Bird belched out a frightening cry and Noel and I began running for our lives!