V. F. Sharp
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously and not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by V.F. Sharp. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by V.F. Sharp Publishing.
Except as permitted under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission from the publisher.
First Edition, January 2018
Printed in the United States of America
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Ezstasia was ready, her fists clenched with determination as adrenaline pumped through her blood. She gripped the reins tightly as she sat mounted on Tia. As far as giant, long-eared rabbits went, Tia was one of the strongest, her soft brown fur covering a deceptively muscular frame. Ezstasia swallowed as she felt her long, loosely braided, brown hair blowing from side to side with the shifting breeze, tugging gently at the back of her head. She glanced down to make sure the tip of the braid didn’t get caught on Tia’s saddle. She remained still as she waited for Fin to draw his nine-arrow bow, launching the pointed weapons into the sky. Even after all these times playing, this part of the game still gave her a thrill—the calm before the storm.
There were nine riders, all friends that had known each other from childhood. She looked to her right to see the other eight lined up beside her, mounted on their bear-sized rabbits. Like her, they were all getting ready for the moment when they’d hear the loud call, “Arrows!”—the single word that would begin the game.
“Are you sure you checked this place out?” she said to Fin, without turning her eyes from the forest ahead.
“I’m telling you, it’s perfect,” he said. “There’s no way anyone will see us here. We’re hours away from The Cottages. Or anything else, for that matter.”
She turned to him and noticed he was delicately smearing the light blue powder on the arrow tips.
“What!?” she said, loosening her grip on the reins. “You’re just putting the powder on now?”
“We can’t play without it,” said Fin.
She watched in disbelief as he applied the powder to the arrowheads with a small brush, like the great painters from the upper kingdoms.
“I can’t believe you brought that whole bag of powder,” she said. “You were supposed to apply it back at The Cottages. What if someone saw you with it?”
“Trust me, they didn’t. Besides, this is the weakest kind of magic there is.”
“It’s still forbidden,” she said, glancing around the perimeter for signs of prying eyes.
“Hey, I’m an artist,” he said. “I felt like working in the fresh air.”
“Since when were you an artist?”
“Since today.” He smirked.
She shook her head, and then rubbed Tia’s soft head. It was sad to think the giant, beautiful rabbits were the last remnants of a bygone age. She would’ve loved to have lived during the days of magic and magical beings.
“Do you think the Magiclands are real?” she said to Fin.
“Of course, they’re real,” he said, still painting.
“How do you know? Nobody’s been there for ages.”
“Do you see the wind?” he said.
“Of course not. Nobody can.”
“Then how do you know it’s real?” He laughed.
“That’s stupid,” she said. “I can at least feel the wind.”
Just then, she felt an odd breeze, partly warm and partly cool.
“Did you feel that?” she said.
Fin’s forehead crinkled. “Feel what?”
“The wind. It was coming from straight ahead, where that big forest is. It was cool. But warm.”
“Just like me,” he said, grinning. “Cool, but warm.”
“I’m serious she said, you didn’t feel it? It blew my hair back.”
He looked up from his arrow painting and tapped his head. “The power of suggestion,” he said. “You didn’t know I have magical powers, did you? All I had to do was mention the wind, and then you felt it.”
“Okay, great magic one, then I guess you don’t need to be putting that powder on the arrows. You should be able to make them fly on your own, right?”
Fin laughed and bowed to her, as if to acknowledge his defeat. “You win the debate, my lady,” he said, jokingly. After a brief pause, he turned to her again.
“But I’ll win the game,” he added, grinning.
“We’ll see about that, Mr. Magic,” she said. “Seriously, nobody’s winning this game until you get those arrows done.”
She watched as he returned to his painting.
“Seriously,” he said, half mocking her, “the wind is nothing to get all mysterious about. Happens every day in these parts.”
“Not this kind of wind,” she said, partly to herself.
She once again glanced at her surroundings. The field ahead was just as Fin had described, a massive green pasture in the shape of an hourglass. Behind her to the south lied the green, rolling hills that led back to farmlands of The Cottages.
She returned her gaze to the dense, unknown forest ahead, and noticed some unusually tall trees. Though still far in the distance, the odd beam of light could be seen escaping through the canopy, illuminating the mysterious place with a soft glow. Intertwining vines wound their way from the treetops down to the trunks of the massive trees. She wondered what manner of ancient secrets hid within its thick brush.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” yelled Fin, shaking her out of her daydreams. “We’re ready!” There was a smattering of cheers from the other riders.
It was showtime. Ezstasia resumed her grip on the reins, remaining still and ready as Fin slowly brought up his bow, aiming directly toward the sky. Then, with only the slight whisper of the wind for music, he slowly drew back the bowstring, adding the stretching sound of the wood to the natural symphony. She followed the line of his aim to a small crack in the clouds up above. Silence… then the loud whisk of the bowstring as he released his fingers, sending the nine arrows speeding toward the small crevice in the sky.
The arrows traveled higher and higher into the air—a glistening rainbow mist following behind each arrow like a tail.
“Arrows!” Fin shouted, as she watched him quickly mount his rabbit.
She and the group instantly rode off into different directions; each rider going as fast as their rabbit could go. Ezstasia raced straight for the forest, hoping that when the arrows eventually came back down, at least one would travel in her direction. She noticed a few other riders heading in the same direction as her, including Fin.
As she held on tight to Tia and darted forward, she looked up into the clouds. At first, she couldn’t find the arrows. Then she spotted the faint lines of the weapons high up in the sky, still soaring upward till they were nearly out of sight. She returned her focus to the forest ahead and then glanced up again just in time to see the arrows run out of momentum as they turned and dove back down toward the earth.
The arrows plummeted, their speed accelerating and the magic colors streaming from their tail, growing brighter and brighter. Just as the arrows were about to hit the ground back near where Fin had originally released them, all nine arrows changed direction and began flying horizontally in different directions, chasing the various riders. If all went as planned, each rider would have an arrow of their own to chase. Sure enough, a few of the arrows were headed in her direction toward the forest.
Now the game was on! She frantically squeezed her legs together to drive Tia forward. She glanced back to see the leftmost arrow headed her way.
“Come on, Tia,” she said, leaning forward for maximum speed. “It’ll be caught up in no time.”
The rabbit raced forward at lightning speed as the wind blew against Ezstasia’s face, making her gasp for air.
The arrows were faster than the rabbits, passing some of the riders overhead or beside them. Fin’s arrow was about to pass him. She noticed Meldon to Fin’s right, the sun reflecting off his oversized glasses. A third arrow was flying just above him. Knowing Meldon, he was probably calculating his arrow’s weight and exact rate of velocity.
Ezstasia glanced back to see an arrow quickly gaining ground behind her. She readied herself to lock in, just as she knew the other riders were doing. The chase for the first one to grab an arrow had begun. She wasn’t sure how many riders were headed toward the forest with her, but had noticed that a few of the others had headed the opposite way toward the hills.
All she knew was she, Fin, and Meldon were about to be engulfed by the trees as they were rapidly approaching the end of the open, grass pasture and heading full speed into the thick, mysterious forest brush—each in pursuit of their own arrow.
Just as Ezstasia entered the forest, her left ear buzzed as her arrow whizzed right passed her.
“There it is, Tia!” she shouted. “Come on, you can do it. Let’s win this game.’
Tia sprinted faster and faster, disturbing leaves and dodging branches—one just brushing Ezstasia on the cheek, leaving a small cut.
She maneuvered Tia as quickly as possible through the forest, avoiding anything that could slow down their speed.
“C’mon Tia! Stay focused on the arrow’s tail.’’ She gave Tia a light tap with her right foot.
Just as Tia sped up, the arrow did the same. Its magical tail grew further and further away and then made a quick turn to the right, disappearing into an especially dense part of the forest. Ezstasia tugged the reins and turned her rabbit in that direction, but the arrow was nowhere in sight.
“Oh no, we’re going to lose it!”
Fin was determined. One way or another, he was going to catch his arrow. After all, he had a reputation to uphold.
“Come on, Zon, there it is!” Zon, was the largest of all their rabbits, and was missing an eye. Still, it didn’t slow him down any. He was fast!
Zon was right on the arrow’s tail, the magical colors glistening almost within reach. Fin could feel his heart racing, but his focus was unrelenting. He knew he couldn’t allow one obstacle to slow him down.
He shifted from side to side with Zon as he dodged trees, sometimes having to duck as the branches barely passed over his head. He was so intent on catching the arrow that he barely paid attention to the scratches he knew were accumulating on his face and arms.
Finally, they were approaching the speeding arrow. Carefully, he released one of his hands from the reins, reaching to grab the arrow as Zon came closer and closer to it, the tips of his fingers only a few feet away from the arrow’s tail. He stayed in that position as they continued at high speed, dodging one tree after the other. His fingers were getting closer to the arrow, but then the arrow inched ahead.
“I am not… losing… this… game!”
As he steered Zon through the brush, damaging everything in their path, he could hear the crackling of branches breaking as falling leaves rained down upon him. Just then, a large leaf flew out of nowhere and stuck to his face, obscuring his vision.
“Ah!” he yelled out, brushing it aside.
Finally, his fingers were mere inches from the arrow.
“Go Zon! Go!” he yelled.
With one final push from Zon, Fin grabbed the arrow with is right hand, closing his fist tight around it.
As soon as he’d touched the arrow, he knew just what to expect. After all, this wasn’t his first win. Within seconds, a huge flash of bright, colorful magic permeated the entire forest around him. He knew at that moment, all the other arrows would be falling to the ground, their magic instantly disabled.
“We won, Zon! You did it!” Fin always liked to give Zon credit for the win. He was convinced it made Zon perform better.
He began to slow the tired rabbit down, as he raised the arrow over his head for nobody in particular. It just felt good to do.
“Yay, us,” he said quietly to his imaginary cheering section.
“I knew we had this,” he said, bringing Zon to a stop. “You get extra carrots today. Good job buddy!”
Fin dismounted and let Zon eat some of the greenery off the ground cover, along with some berries that were in a nearby bush. It’s amazing how many berries a five-foot tall rabbit can eat.
He grabbed the faded silver, dented canister that was tied to the saddle, and after taking a few large gulps, shared some with Zon.
“Okay Zon, lets head back to receive our glorious welcome,” he said, as he began laughing, petting the rabbit’s head.
Fin tied the canister back to the saddle, got on his rabbit and headed to the open pasture where the game had begun.
Ezstasia had been so close to finally grabbing her arrow when it had suddenly dropped like an anchor into a bush and a huge flash of light appeared through the trees. She knew what that meant the moment it happened. Someone else had won. They’d beaten her by a split second.
“Oh Tia, we were so close!”
Ezstasia began to gently run her hand across the top of Tia’s head, as if the rabbit had any sense at all of what just happened. Tia was still raring to go.
“It’s okay girl, time to slow down. We’ll get it next time.”
As Tia slowed to a gentle hop, Ezstasia began looking around for the arrow.
“Where did it fall?” she said aloud, as if Tia would suddenly answer.
Just as she said that, the powdered magic twinkled in a bush on the right, just long enough for Ezstasia to spot it before the colors faded away in an instant.
“Oh, there it is,” she said. “It fell in that…really…thick…bush over there.” She winced as she saw the size of the thorny bush. “Of course it did. Why would it have fallen in a place where I could just easily grab it?”
She dismounted as she got to the bush, allowing Tia to feed on the grass.
It was at this moment when Ezstasia noticed just how mysterious this forest was. Not just mysterious, but weird. Nothing looked like a normal forest. Its beauty was breathtaking, and yet parts of it looked oddly out of place—and certainly not natural. Just then, a soft breeze in the distance made a slight whistling sound, and she could feel the fine hairs on her arms standing up.
“Why does this place seem creepy now?” she said to Tia. “And why am I talking to myself?”
Tia began to shimmy a little further away toward a small bush that had purple berries on it. Ezstasia had barely noticed her, as she was too mesmerized by the forest. The bright flowers and berries seemed oddly out of place in the midst of the endless, winding vines and the giant tree trunks that spread out into ghostly formations. There were areas of shadowy darkness that were oddly punctuated by brighter patches, with lush green foliage that formed natural archways in different directions. Dark turned into light and light turned into dark, as if death and life were intertwined.
“I can’t decide if this place looks enchanted or haunted. It’s like it’s two different things at once!” Indeed, it resembled her most beautiful dreams and her darkest nightmares.
Ezstasia stood still, slowly gazing around at the forest that now surrounded her. The ground below her feet was dark and slightly damp, and she noticed a soft, thin mist of steam delicately and slowly coming up from it. Had it been there the whole time? She wasn’t sure, as this was the first time her eyes met the surface of the forest.
She walked under a vined archway until she came to a moss-covered area surrounded by a variety of bushes and trees with no commonality whatsoever. A few of the trees looked dead, but then she saw one that was lush and full of leaves. She noticed some of the bushes were scraggly and full of thorns, while others were green and thick, with small, bell-shaped red and purple berries.
Her curiosity piqued, she proceeded to another clearing that was much larger, and her mouth dropped. There were endless shades of green all around her. The moss that covered most of the ground was a bright green—the brightest she’d ever seen—punctuated by the darker grass that grew in large tufts throughout.
As she looked closer at some of the surrounding trees, she marveled at the sheer size of some of the trunks, many which ran together, forming a thick base. As they rose higher, they resembled a bunch of large snakes, twisting around one another all the way to the top, as if each one were trying to be higher than the next.
She noticed three trees to her left that looked like giant arms coming out of the ground, each with a hand at the top; the palm facing upward. Each palm had several finger-type branches that seemed to extend out in different directions as if to grab the nearest prey. The trees had no leaves at all, and appeared pretty much dead except for the odd patches of moss that traveled up all the way through each ‘finger.’
She walked further and came upon a couple of the largest trees yet. They stood majestically, as if they were the grandfather of all the trees. They were the width of several cottages and extended up so high they seemed to reach the clouds. She felt so small, she half expected one of them to just step out of its roots and crush her. These trees, too, had snake-like roots twisting from the ground all the way up the trunk for as far as she could see. The climbing roots clung to the tree like parasites that had no fear of anything or anyone, for they knew who they grew on. Indeed, these majestic trees, beautiful yet imposing, were to be revered and respected. The roots knew it, and she knew it.
She turned briefly to look for Tia and noticed something else she hadn’t seen before—a misty blue fog off in the distance. As she looked around, she could see between the trees that it surrounded the forest in all directions. Either her eyes were playing tricks or the blue mist created shapes that looked like millions of dancing silhouettes around her. She started to walk and noticed the silhouettes always kept the same distance from her, as if they were moving with her, off in the distance.
Between the strange trees, the blue mist, and the visions of dancing figures, being inside this perplexing forest—beautiful as it was—was beginning to flood her senses. She was starting to feel nervous and anxious. Besides, she’d have to get back to the open field. The others must have been waiting for her by now.
“Tia! Tia, where are you?”
She was so wrapped up in the forest that she nearly forgot about her. Worse yet, she wasn’t even sure what direction she was facing now. Just as she started to get that panicky feeling in her chest, she heard a rustling of leaves behind her. She turned around quickly and looked through another moss-covered archway of vines. She could make out a familiar figure up ahead.
It was Tia.
“Tia, there you are!”
To get to Tia, she proceeded through the archway, and that’s when her heart nearly stopped. This area was much like the one she just came from, except for one startling detail—a handful of trees that simply gave her chills. These particular trees were almost completely black, and looked like the harbinger of death itself—or worse yet, the thing that you send to scare the harbinger of death. Almost immediately, she felt a solitary, cool wind blow past her, which made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She wasn’t sure why, but it felt as if these particular trees were sucking the life out of her just by looking at them. She felt frozen. They were big, for sure, though not like the majestic ones. No, these trees were intimidating in a whole different way. They appeared to be dead and somehow had a dark presence about them, even more so than any of the other dead trees she’d seen.
Though she wanted to back away, she remained still as a rock, studying the trees in more detail. There were all different sized roots coming up from random spots in the ground, with no design or formation, just a mess of roots, all entangled, almost as if they were lost or rebellious, refusing to grow how they were designed to.
Some roots grabbed onto other ones, as if fighting to kill, fighting for breath, fighting for power, as they climbed over one another all the way up the tree. Others remained separate and alone, each one standing straight up from the ground with a perfectly vertical posture and a point like a dagger. The branches that grew atop the trees also came to a sharp point, as if each tree had an assortment of knives and swords at its disposal to ward off any visitors. And it must have worked, because there wasn’t a single sign of green life—or any color for that matter—growing on it or near it. Even the grass kept its distance. Maybe she should, too.
Indeed, these trees brought a fear that was different than what the majestic ones commanded. There was a sense of the darkest of forces being entwined and harbored in these trees. It seemed like pure evil was there.
A shuffling sound nearby brought her out of her stupor. She turned to see that it was Tia’s reins dragging on the ground as the oblivious rabbit stopped at each bush to graze for berries. Ezstasia picked up the reins and climbed up on Tia.
“It’s time to go, girl. This place is starting to freak me out. We need to leave, now.”
Heading back, as she was passing one of the bushes on her left, she spotted a small sparkle of colored, twinkling magic—no doubt from her arrow.
“The arrow! How could I forget that! If anyone found that, we’d be in serious trouble.”
She jumped off of Tia and ran toward the bush, not wanting to spend another moment in this forest. Just as she was about to kneel down and reach into the thick brush for it, she thought she saw something moving out of the corner of her eye to her right. As she turned toward it, she swore she saw one of the black, dagger-shaped roots make a sudden movement from the ground behind her. It was pointed right toward her and was connected to one of the largest of the deadly-looking, black trees. She would have seen that before while she was riding. It wasn’t there before! She was sure of it.
She felt her heart pounding, and was so afraid, she couldn’t move. The chills that ran down her spine before were now permeating her entire body, as she felt paralyzed with fear. Unable to move, she stood there like a statue, listening to all the sounds around her—her senses now elevated. She could hear the slight breeze whistling in her ear… the gentle rustling of the leaves….the songs the long grass made as it gently swayed… and… a chewing sound. She turned to see Tia up ahead in the distance, chewing on more berries.
Tia looked up at her, tufts of greens hanging out the sides of her mouth. She stopped chewing as she stared at Ezstasia, almost as if she was confused by Ezstasia’s mannerisms. Then she resumed her normal rabbit duties and continued chewing as she searched for more berries.
Just then, Ezstasia heard a branch crack behind her. She didn’t even look to see what it was. She just bolted toward Tia as fast as she could.
“Forget that arrow! We’re getting out of here now!”
She leaped onto Tia and wasn’t about to waste another second in this place.
“Let’s go! Hurry!”
Just as she was about to grab the reins, Tia darted forward, causing her to lose her balance. As she started to fall, her foot got caught on a branch as the rabbit took off, causing her to tumble backward. It happened so fast, she wasn’t exactly sure what was going on as she fell, but the next thing she knew, her head hit the ground hard. Her vision grew blurry and her head began to throb. She thought she heard Tia’s footsteps racing off into the distance, and then everything faded to black.
All Fin could think about was everyone’s reaction to his grabbing the arrow first. They were always amazed how he managed to pull off victory after victory, no matter how tough it seemed. He loved the praise. It made everything worth it. Truth be told, he even impressed himself, and he was a hard one to impress. He kept playing the picture of his winning grab over and over in his mind as he began to slowly ride Zon back through the dense forest.
Soon he could see the bright sunlight through the cracks of the trees, and caught a glimpse of the familiar field up ahead, its green grass glistening. Good. He was almost at the pasture. He dismounted and decided to give Zon a well-deserved rest from carrying him. He held Zon’s reins as he walked beside him.
“I can’t wait to see their faces, Zon! It’s been a while, my friend.” He lifted the arrow up in victory again. “Just remember, today is our day, you and me. When we’re together, nobody can—”
In mid-sentence, he noticed a weird movement at the top of one of the trees up ahead. Two small vines that climbed up the tree seemed to extend out in quick movement, twisting around one another.
“Did you see that?”
He pulled the reins for Zon to stop as he gazed up at the tree. Nothing up there was moving now. Not only that, but he couldn’t even find the twisted vine he saw, no matter which angle he looked from.
“I could’ve sworn I just saw those vines move. At least one of them, or a branch or something. Strange.”
He stared at the vines and branches for a moment and then glanced over at Zon, who was standing there looking like he was waiting for a treat—a rabbit’s priorities, as it were. With no treat forthcoming, Zon began searching for something to munch on in the nearby greenery.
“You know, Zon—I really wish you could talk.” The rabbit looked up at him again, as if he knew he was being addressed.
“Hey don’t look at me like that. I’m seeing vines on trees move, so why not a talking… giant, one-eyed bunny.”
He took one last gaze up at the tree and then shrugged his shoulders.
“Ha! I’m definitely seeing things. Let’s go Zon. It was probably a squirrel.” Fin mounted back on Zon and steered him toward the sunlight and out unto the open green pasture.
He was halfway toward the middle of the field where the game had started when he looked around and saw the other riders emerging. Some had their arrows on their backs, some had them in their hands, and some had them tied to their saddle. He couldn’t stop grinning as he held up his arrow to show everyone. He felt like one of the great knights from the kingdoms.
When he got to the center of the pasture, he stopped, dismounted and waited for the others to catch up. He was mentally preparing his victory speech when he noticed that two riders were missing.
One by one, he looked at each of his friends’ faces as they got closer. Everyone was there except for Ezstasia and Meldon. Knowing Meldon, he was probably still somewhere calculating exactly how he lost. But Ezstasia should have been back by now. He’d seen her enter the forest just before he did. Besides, her rabbit, Tia, was one of the fastest. Oh well, she’d turn up sooner or later.
Meldon couldn’t find the arrow he was chasing, even with his new wide-view glasses, which he made specifically for this game. He thought he’d seen it land in the tall grass to his right. In fact, he was sure of it. But now that he was looking there, it was nowhere to be found.
As he kept scanning the area to no avail, he was getting more and more frustrated. He didn’t like when things defied logic, like this arrow not being where he’d seen it land. He was a planner by nature, and always liked to think of every possibility. As usual, he’d tried to warn everyone about the risks of playing Arrows in an unknown place. In hindsight, it would’ve been best if he’d declined to play at all. Besides, who knew what could happen in a forest? A heavy branch could fall. A grizzly bear could show up. Or who knows what else?
Some people liked adventure, but to him, if there wasn’t adequate planning, it meant foolishly taking risks. Well, this was the last time he’d do that. Of course, he’s said that at least three times before, but this time, this was it. Didn’t they know, the littlest thing can cause chaos? Like this arrow not being where it was supposed to be. Who could’ve predicted that?
After looking a few more minutes, he decided to dismount his rabbit, Mr. Feet, a name he’d chosen because of the bunny’s extra-large feet—appendages that were massive even by giant rabbit standards. He wrapped Mr. Feet’s reins around a branch from one of the tall bushes. Reaching into the bag on the rabbit’s saddle, he pulled out the can that had the word water etched on the side of it, which he’d marked up to differentiate it from the can of hydrated lime and hemlock root he’d concocted in case anyone got hurt. Scanning the ground, he spotted a perfect piece of fallen bark that could be used as a water saucer. The sides from the bark were slightly lifted, so it no doubt came from a knot in the tree’s trunk. He brushed all the dirt and leaves out of it with his hand and placed it on the ground, filling it with some of the water from his can.
“Drink up while I find that arrow, Mr. Feet.”
He reached in the bag again and pulled out two carrots with the greens still attached, just like he and Mr. Feet liked. Everyone had always teased Meldon for how well he organized his bag, but that’s just how he liked to operate. Each time, he’d take pleasure in telling them, “I only know one way how to do something. The right way. And that means proper planning.” Fin would then roll his eyes, but, big and heroic as he was, he’d still listen. Even Fin had to give him some credit. He was usually right.
Content with his organization skills, Meldon held the two carrots next to one another and examined them.
“Here, you can have the bigger one,” he said. “You rode well. But we can’t always win, can we? No, we can’t. I always tell you that. But we’d sure beat them all in Kingsman’s Chess now, wouldn’t we?”
He placed Mr. Feet’s carrot right by his saucer of water and kept the smaller one for himself. Munching the carrot, he began to look around for his arrow. He examined the surrounding bushes, looked on the sides of some nearby fallen trees, and trudged through all the tall grass in the area. There was still no sign of the arrow.
One thing he hadn’t noticed before, though, was just how unusually beautiful this forest was. A tremendous variety of plants, with varying levels of intense greens and bursting with flowers of every shape and color, were scattered as far as he could see. The colors were more vibrant than any he’d ever seen, even more than in Mr. Codsworth’s garden—which, incidentally, everyone paid good money to see. As he looked up, several thick vines seemed like they were hanging from the sky, ready to be swung on.
“Sweet carrot sticks, will you look at all this! I’m actually glad I haven’t found the arrow, Mr. Feet. Otherwise, I might never have had the chance to see such beauty. It’s exquisite! And a child’s dream, I might add. Those vines would be a delight to swing on. Well, not by me, someone else of course. And I don’t mind saying, without some sort of stability check, whoever that someone is would be asking to hit the ground like a melon. Ew. No, thanks.”
Just as he was devouring the last piece of his carrot, something caught his eye. A blue mist rose in the distance, and when he squinted his eyes, it appeared to contain dancing shadows of something—or someone.
“Astounding! That fog looks like silhouettes of people. How did I not notice that earlier?”
He stared at the mist more intently, trying to make out what it could be.
“You know, Mr. Feet. If I hadn’t been privy to the ancient stories of powerful magic—especially the… well, you know which I speak of, I dare not even say it. But if I didn’t know about all that magic being seized all those years ago, I’d say this place had some very strong magic put upon it.”
He stood there a few moments longer, just staring at the distant fog. It was mesmerizing, watching the smoky silhouettes slowly dancing, swaying from side to side—each one vanishing to make room for another to appear. This was one beautiful, ghostly dance.
“There must be hundreds, possibly thousands, maybe even millions of silhouettes all around us. It’s strange, they keep disappearing and reappearing every second. It’s like we’re surrounded by a massive army of… fog soldiers.”
That made him think of something.
“You know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of how the clouds continuously form a shape, and then another, as—”
He realized Mr. Feet was paying no attention, too busy munching on the remaining piece of his carrot.
“I guess it doesn’t matter what it reminds me of, does it, Mr. Feet? But I know one thing. If we don’t hurry and get back, everyone’s going to be pretty concerned!”
He took one last look around, calculating whether the risk of losing the arrow was less than the risk of staying too late in the forest.
Just then he noticed a sparkling in the tall grass.
“What?! There’s no way it’s there. That was the first place I looked.”
He made his way toward the tall grass.
“Maybe it’s some kind of sparkly insect.” In truth he couldn’t think of any insect that sparkled like that.
As he approached the area, lo and behold, the arrow was sitting right on top, causing a large dent of its shape in the grass. It wasn’t even hidden and would’ve been impossible to miss. He stood there staring down at it in disbelief.
“I know I looked here. I specifically made a point of looking section by section in this very spot. I’m very methodical. I looked there, Mr. Feet. I looked there.”
He could feel his face getting red. Now he wasn’t just confused; he was angry. Clearly, something was amiss here.
He picked up the arrow and stomped back to Mr. Feet, hurriedly grabbing the reins from the bush. He tied the arrow securely to his sack, using one of the loose ropes that was hanging from the saddle. As he mounted Mr. Feet, he slowly took one last look at the forest around him and shook his head.
“I’m no fool,” he said, studying the trees once more to reassure himself he wasn’t crazy. Frustrated, he rode off.
As beautiful as this forest was, he was ready to leave this place. He didn’t like having his mind played with. If there was one thing he could count on in this world, it was being able to count on things that could be counted on. And now he couldn’t even count on that!
As he rode back toward the pasture, he went over the situation in his head. He knew he’d checked the area and had seen nothing, but then when he went back he saw the arrow resting there, clear as day. At least that latter part was something he witnessed with his own two eyes. That was a certainty. The only question that remained was about his initial search. He began to doubt himself. Maybe I didn’t look there. Was it another piece of grass that I thought was that one? I could’ve sworn…
But then he remembered, he’d specifically mapped out the sections as he’d searched. No, there was nothing wrong with him. It was this forest.
Finally, he saw the light of the open green grass pasture ahead and sped up to exit the forest. The group was just ahead on their rabbits. They looked like they were arguing about something. Then someone pointed his way and they all yelled his name, rushing toward him on their rabbits.
“Meldon, what took so long?” Fin yelled as he approached. “Are you okay? Did you find the arrow?”
“Yes, of course I have it,” said Meldon. “You know I’d never… I was just enjoying the beauty of the forest. Was I gone that long?”
“Is Ezstasia with you?” said Lanzzie, trotting up behind Fin.
“Your sister’s not back?”
“No,” said Lanzzie, “she was in the forest, same as you.”
Meldon stood mesmerized by Lanzzie’s beauty. She was one of the most stunning girls he’d ever seen. She always wore ribbons in her long, dark, hair, with small dainty trinkets placed at precise intervals. Her hair was always styled in something beautiful like that, and he especially admired her precision. As she stared at him with a funny look, he couldn’t avoid noticing her hazel-green eyes.
“Meldon!” said Lanzzie, snapping him out of his trance. “Did you see Ezstasia in there?”
She dismounted her rabbit and began walking past him toward the forest.
“I didn’t see her,” he said. “But she may still be exploring. That’s a pretty crazy forest.”
“Crazy how?” said Fin.
“Well… uh… beautiful crazy,” he said. “There’s a lot to see.” He didn’t want to get into too much detail or they would’ve thought him mad. And he especially didn’t want Lanzzie to think he was bonkers.
“I’m gonna ride along the tree line and call her,” said Lanzzie.
Meldon watched as she climbed back up on her rabbit, Jewel, the whitest and fluffiest of all the rabbits. Everyone knew Lanzzie always cared for Jewel like it was her own child.
He stood silent as Lanzzie grabbed Jewel’s white reins, which were fittingly lined with different colored jewels, and rode off, calling Ezstasia’s name as she rode along the tree line.
“I’m gonna join her,” said Fin as he mounted Zon. “It’s getting dark soon and it’ll be harder for Ezstasia to find her way out.”
“Yes,” said Meldon, “calling her may help if she’s confused about which direction she’s facing.” He steered Mr. Feet beside Fin to join him.
“Let’s split up,” said Fin. “We can all ride along the tree line, but don’t go back in the forest unless you see her. We don’t need to lose anyone else.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” said Meldon. He knew all too well what kind of weird things were in that forest.
He followed Fin along with the rest of the group, as they all split into different sections along the forest line.
As he rode back and forth along the tree line shouting out Ezstasia’s name, Meldon began to grow worried as he was mapping out in his mind what could’ve happened to her. There could’ve been so many reasons why she wasn’t back yet, compounded the possibility that there might be magic in that forest. He gazed at the others along the forest line as they each waved a hand horizontally to indicate they hadn’t seen any sign of her yet.
Soon, more time had gone by and still there was no sign of her. She should’ve been out by now with all the yelling. He felt a gnawing in the pit of his stomach as he began to get the disheartening sense that something was wrong. After more time had passed, the skies were growing darker, and his outlook along with it. Always one to contemplate the risks, he began planning for the worst. If they had to go back into the forest, what approach should they take so they didn’t all get lost? And what if they still didn’t find her? How could they possibly return to The Cottages without her? And what would they even tell the townspeople? After all, they’d been playing with magic, which presented its own set of problems. Even with weak magic, they could all be thrown in dungeons.
This whole situation had the makings of a disaster. And poor Ezstasia. Such a sweet girl, much like her sister, but even more innocent and curious, almost naïve in a way. He sure hoped her curiosity didn’t get her into trouble in that forest. The one hopeful thought he had was that Ezstasia was resourceful. That girl didn’t give up. She’d have to turn up eventually.
After what seemed like hours, and with the sun quickly setting, there was still no sign of Ezstasia. He watched helplessly as Fin rode up and down the forest line, telling everyone to meet back in the center of the pasture. It was time to make some decisions.
Fin was nearly at the center of the pasture when he saw Lanzzie rushing to him like she was about to kill someone.
“Fin!” she yelled as she approached. “We’re running out of sun. We have no time for this. We need to get back out there now and keep looking. Every minute counts.”
He knew she’d be upset. Of course she was, it was her sister.
“We can’t leave her there Fin! Not in that dark forest. There’s nothing to discuss.”
“Lanz, calm down, we can’t fall apart right now. We have to be strong and stick together.”
“What does sticking together have to do with going to get her? I’m not leaving without my sister.”
Before he could reply, she turned her rabbit around toward the forest and began heading away.
“I’m going,” she yelled back at them, “no matter what you all decide to do.”
“She’s right Fin,” said a female voice from behind him. It was Jezreel. No surprise there. Jezreel was about as sensitive as they came, always caring for everyone. Though she was meek and dainty, she never hesitated to speak up when it came to someone’s well-being. It always sounded funny to him when she did, because usually everyone was more worried about taking care of her.
“I’m going with her,” she said, steering her rabbit around toward Lanzzie. “Come on, Buttons,” she said to the grey rabbit, which, like her, was the runt of the litter.
Fin heard someone else moving behind him, too. It was Ithron.
“You’re going, too?” said Fin.
“If I must,” said Ithron, who sounded completely indifferent, though his concern for Jezreel wasn’t too hard to miss. She was about the only thing he seemed to care about, though he’d never admit it. It was obvious to Fin, though, and pretty much everyone else. Ithron was a hard one to get to know—a true loner, and about as unpredictable as a snake in a barrel.
“Will everyone please stop for a minute,” said Fin.
Fin gazed out at Lanzzie, who was still riding away.
“Wait!” he yelled, loud enough for her to hear.
Lanzzie halted her rabbit and turned to face him.
“I have an idea!” he yelled. He motioned for her to come back, but she put her hands on her hips in protest.
“Just hear me out,” he shouted. “That’s all I ask.”
He watched as Lanzzie raced back.
“You better hurry,” she said as she approached. “The sun’s setting. I don’t have much time.”
“Everyone gather around,” he said. “We all need to hear this.”
He looked at Meldon as people approached. “Is everyone here?”
“I count seven of us,” said Meldon.
Fin looked around. Lanzzie, who was looking like she was ready to dart away any second, Jezreel, and Meldon all stood around him, while Ithron was outside their small circle, only half paying attention as he sharpened a stick with his dagger. The twins, Zander and his overprotective, slightly older brother, Randin just arrived. There was one person missing.
“Pallu is missing,” said Meldon, reading Fin’s mind.
Finally, Pallu, pudgy and red-faced, came meandering into the circle, holding a giant loaf of bread.
“Do you ever stop eating?” said Zander, who was always needling Pallu about one thing or another.
“Why?” said Pallu, crinkling his brow as if Zander had asked him if he ever stopped breathing.
“Guys!” said Lanzzie. “I’m about to leave here in two seconds.”
Fin gave one last look to make sure he had everyone’s attention and took a deep breath.
“Okay,” he said, “I don’t have to tell you all, if the people from the cottages find out we were playing with magic, we’ll be locked up—or worse.”
“Locked up?” said Zander. “We could be beheaded!”
“Zander,” said Randin, “Beheadings are just for dark magic. We’d be hung at worst.”
“What’s the difference?” said Zander.
“Gentlemen,” said Meldon. “The treaty clearly states that frivolous, harmless magic—which this is—warrants a minimum of ten years in the dungeons. The laws haven’t changed in hundreds of years. You should read it sometime.”
“Is it?” said Ithron.
“Is it what?”
“Is the magic harmless? It seems to me we just lost someone while using it. That is why we’re standing here discussing it, right?”
“He’s right,” said Zander. “She could be missing her arms and legs for all we know. And—”
“Not helping, Zander,” said Randin.
“That’s it!” said Lanzzie. “I’m out of here.”
“Wait, Lanz,” said Fin. “Can we all agree that being locked up in the dungeons would not be a good thing? And that if we are locked up, then we can’t be out here looking for Ezstasia?”
“What’s your point,” said Lanzzie.
“My point is, if we go back in that forest, everyone will know we’re all missing by nightfall, especially when we don’t check in the rabbits. They’ll come looking for us, and what’ll we tell them?”
“How about that we’re on a camping trip?” said Pallu. “I brought plenty of food for us all. They may even believe it. I always pack lots of—”
“That won’t work,” said Fin. “We have to report that to the stable keepers way ahead of time, which means when they get here it’ll be goodbye rabbits and our only way of maneuvering through the forest quickly.”
“He’s right,” said Meldon. “You know the rules, Pallu. We have to have the rabbits checked in by night and overnight trips must be reported in advance to get approved.”
“Exactly,” said Fin.
“So, if we can’t go in the forest,” said Meldon, “what is your plan?”
“We go back to The Cottages now, and—”
“Without my sister?” said Lanzzie. “You brought me back here for this?”
“Hear me out,” he said. “We need to show our faces back there so there’s no attention drawn to us. We check in our rabbits, and we meet in the morning at the stables and come back here first thing. Ezstasia’s a strong girl, you know that better than anyone.”
“That’s not a plan!” said Lanzzie.
“Listen, Pallu still lives with his parents. What do you think will happen if he doesn’t come home?”
“He’s right, you know,” said Pallu. “They’ll have a search party out here in no time.”
“And trust me, that search party will make sure we’re all accounted for,” said Fin. “But if we all go back and check in our rabbits, and people see most of us, they’ll assume we’re all back. Plus, it’ll give us a chance to hide these arrows. It’s the safest plan. It’s the only plan at this point.”
“Did it ever occur to you,” said Lanzzie, “that the search party can help us look for her?”
“Lanz,” said Fin, “they can’t catch us with these arrows, and even worse—this!” He held up the bag of magic powder. “Think and listen to what I’m saying.”
“What about Tia?” said Meldon. “If we do go back now, that might draw attention toward Ezstasia if her rabbit’s missing.” Leave it to Meldon to think of every angle.
Fin thought for a moment.
“I know,” said Jezreel. Everyone looked at her. She wasn’t usually the one with the answers.
“We can say Ezstasia felt like sleeping with her rabbit tonight,” she said.
Zander threw up his hands. “Yeah, sure, they’ll believe that,” he said, not hiding his sarcasm.
“No, she’s right,” said Meldon. “It’s better than nine rabbits missing. At least they’ll have eight checked in and a report of where the last one is.”
“There you have it,” said Fin. “If it’s good enough for Meldon, it’s good enough for me.”
“Won’t she get in trouble?” said Randin. “I mean for not checking in her rabbit?”
“Yes, but she’ll be alive,” said Fin. “And just as important, we won’t all be in dungeons for using magic.”
“Always a good thing,” said Ithron.
“I like this plan!” said Pallu.
Lanzzie cleared her throat.
“What about the part where my sister spends the night alone in the forest? Are you all forgetting that part?”
Fin put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, and spoke softly. “Lanzzie, it’s hard for us all to leave her. You’re her sister, but we all care about her. Can’t you see we have no other choice? If we get caught, then none of us can help her. You get that, right?”
“You’re over-complicating this,” she said. “Why can’t we just go find her and if they come looking for us, we just tell them we were exploring and lost her?”
“You’re forgetting about the arrows,” he said. “We can’t ditch them. It’s nighttime, and the powder doesn’t completely wear off. You’ve seen it yourself, it can take days. And what about this entire bag of magic?”
“Then why’d you bring it?!”
“That’s kind of irrelevant right now.”
Lanzzie paused for a moment and took a deep breath, apparently trying to calm herself.
“Okay,” she said, “then what if we go back, check in the rabbits, and come right back here?”
“On foot? It would take forever. By the time we got here it would be the middle of the night. Or even later. Besides, it wouldn’t be that different from coming in the morning, except it would be dark and we’d never see a thing. Plus we’d be on foot.”
Lanzzie held her head down. It looked like she was finally getting it. He felt bad for her though, and couldn’t imagine what she was going through.
He leaned in.
“Remember,” he said. “We all pack plenty of food and water for ourselves and the rabbits, so she at least has food for the evening. We’ll come first thing in the morning. I promise we’ll find her.”
“Some of us,” said Zander, patting Pallu on the belly, “pack excessive amounts of food.”
“The smart ones do,” said Pallu. “You just never know when your stomach will call out that it’s hungry.” Pallu was about to take another bite from his loaf of bread, when he stopped and looked at Lanzzie.
“Lanz,” he said. “Fin’s right. She’ll be fine. Do you even know how many crazy adventures Ezstasia has gone on alone? I do, because she tells me. I’m her best friend.”
“She tells me, too,” said Lanzzie.
“So then you know.”
“Yes, but then why hasn’t she come out by now?” Lanzzie looked back at the forest. “She’s tough. She’d have found a way.”
“Maybe she fell asleep. Or maybe she got lost, and decided it was safer to camp out for the night. We shouldn’t assume something bad. I’m just saying—”
Pallu paused to take one last bite from his loaf of bread before tucking it back in his food bag. Unlike the others, he always brought three saddle bags—two just for food and one for supplies. Fin thought Pallu was clumsy and forgetful, but that curly-haired, freckle-faced, roly-poly bear had a heart of gold.
Speaking of forgetful, Fin noticed something seemed to be missing from Pallu’s saddle bag.
“Hey, Pallu?” said Fin.
Pallu looked up with the face of innocence.
“You do have your arrow, right?”
“Oh, my arrow,” said Pallu. “Um, yeah… so… about that.”
“You don’t have it?”
“Pallu!” said Lanzzie. “You’re kidding me, right? Please say you’re kidding. We don’t have time to deal with this.”
“It’s okay,” said Pallu. “I—”
“This isn’t happening,” said Lanzzie. “This really isn’t happening.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” said Fin.
“Hold on, well, wait,” said Pallu, “I was going to, and then all the talk about Ezstasia made me forget. Well, I didn’t forget exactly, but my arrow just didn’t seem as important at the moment.”
Fin shook his head.
Pallu opened his saddle bag again and took a piece of bread out, probably out of subconscious stress.
“Pallu, did you lose it?” Randin said calmly.
“You probably lost it when you stopped to eat,” said Lanzzie, smacking the bread out of his hand. “Do you and your fat rabbit always have to be eating?”
Startled, Pallu quickly pet his rabbit as if to comfort him. “She didn’t mean it, Thumps. She’s just upset.”
Fin glanced at the overweight rabbit as Pallu petted his light-brown fur to calm him—as if the rabbit had any idea of the name calling. Though Thumps had fat round cheeks and an ever-growing double chin, he was really cute. And, like the other rabbits, he was completely oblivious to what was going on.
“Ugh!” said Lanzzie, as she turned her rabbit around and headed toward the large rolling hills that led back to The Cottages.
“So you’re okay with going back?” Fin said, relieved. He knew he was annoying her.
“We don’t have a choice, remember!” she shouted without turning around.
Fin watched as Lanzzie and Jewel rode off. Most of the others began to do the same. He shrugged and turned to Pallu, who was always the last to leave—or arrive—or to do anything for that matter.
“What were you thinking?” he said. “You knew how—”
“Fin, I didn’t lose my arrow.”
“You what?! You didn’t?”
He watched as Pallu walked to where the bread fell, grabbed it, and looked at it for a few seconds. He gently brushed it along his shirt a couple times to shake off the grass and dirt, and took another bite.
“It got tangled in some bushes on the hillside,” said Pallu, as he attempted to mount his rabbit, which took a few tries. “I just needed help crawling in there and cutting it loose. My… uh… manly size limited my ability to get it.”
Fin laughed and rustled up Pallu’s auburn hair. “Well, you manly-sized, curly-haired beast, let’s go get it.”
“You’ll help me?”
“Of course. We wouldn’t want Lanzzie throwing you to the dungeons, now, would we? At least not this time. Next time, maybe. But not this time.” He chuckled.
“Shut up, Fin,” Pallu said, laughing, as he rode towards the direction of his arrow.
“Lead the way,” said Fin. He followed Pallu as the others made their way toward The Cottages.
“You know what I’m thinking?” said Pallu.
“Is this about dinner?” Fin said, smiling. It felt good to smile amidst all this worry. Pallu tended to have that effect.
“Dinner?” said Pallu. “No, of course not. I’ll just munch on my way back.”
“I figured you would,” said Fin.
“It’s about breakfast. I can make us the best breakfast tomorrow so we’ll have lots of energy for the road.”
Fin grinned and shook his head.
“Hey,” said Pallu.
Fin looked at him and raised his eyebrows.
“We’ll find her, Fin. Don’t you worry.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Fin. He gazed ahead at Lanzzie in the distance. “Especially for her sake.”