Kaia scratched her back where the claw marks from the deranged fairy were healing. Days old, the blood had dried, but could easily be broken if she wasn’t careful. Rasmus’s face was much more focused—twisted and annoyed, absorbed in the dark forest before them.
“Alright. Let’s take bets,” Kaia said. “Twenty to one odds it’s a trap.”
Rasmus shook his head. “Something suspicious is happening, but it’s not a trap.”
“You have to shake for it to be official.”
He walked away.
“Rasmus,” she said. “You can’t continue to be upset about this.”
“I don’t know what they did with her!” he spat, angry at himself. “I can’t see what their motives are. I have no idea what kind of trick they’re pulling. I don’t even know if she’s really in danger.”
“Well… if she is… do you really care?”
Rasmus spun back. “There’s a reason they wouldn’t let me see the mother,” he said. “There’s a reason they sent the father away.”
“Probably because they don’t exist,” she said. “Come on. Let’s go back. We can figure what they’re planning from there.”
When Rasmus had first headed out, he’d been determined. The thought of the young girl held by a goblin or spirit, left alone in the woods, waiting for someone to help her, struck him deep. It was the tale that he feared and depended on the most. But the more questions they asked, as he took a deep look into the eyes of the village men, he realized Kaia had been right, and something was wrong after all. But a part of him wasn’t sure what.
“I rather waste my time looking for a holy grail than abandon a child to the hands of some monster,” he said, taking a strong step into the woods.
“It’s not about wasting your time, per se, it’s about getting your head hacked off,” Kaia corrected, following.
They didn’t get far in before Kaia held back.
“I don’t suppose the word ‘please’ would have any effect,” she said.
He ignored her, continuing.
Rasmus had never been afraid of the dark, nor really the woods, nor really anything in the woods, but he knew full well of his sister’s paranoia, and thus could only concern himself with the tightlipped face she was giving to the area.
“Lovely place,” she muttered, her feat crunching as they walked along the bramble. “How quickly it gets dark.”
Rasmus glanced up to the leaves fluttering above them, the bright light sparkling on their branches. Farther off before them the foliage combined, sending thicker and thicker shadows as they went. Though the light was still luxurious at their spot, the future appeared bleak, and the open dirt that made an easy path was quickly being swallowed.
Kaia tripped on a branch and stumbled forward.
“Ah-ha!” she said. “The attacks are already starting.”
“Here’s how I figure it,” her brother said. “They claimed the little girl was taken last night at around sunset. Spiriting away hours.”
“Uh-huh,” Kaia replied, uninterested.
“But the men seemed more angry than worried.”
“Common for men.”
“When I asked what had happened, they told me that she was fetching water from the well out near the Wyrd. Then they said a ghostly form bubbled up from the grass, swam up to her, gathered her up in its arms and swooped her away, rushing towards the forest.”
She nodded rhythmically, looking for critters.
“However, there were no tracks, and when I asked the men who saw this, they couldn’t tell me.”
She looked at him. “Wait. What do you mean they couldn’t tell you? Like they said, ‘I donno’?”
“They said it was one of the children. They couldn’t tell me who.”
“Because they’re making it up,” she insisted.
“I heard the mother crying,” he said. “But they wouldn’t let me in.”
“Women can lie too,” she replied.
He frowned at her. “What are the options here?”
She sighed, racking her mind. “It’s either a trap, a mislead, confusion, or apathy. Or maybe even the truth.”
“They may be trying to trick us, which I stand by, in order to get rid of us. We make people nervous after all.”
The bramble below them grew thicker. Rasmus lifted up his boots higher to step over it as Kaia stumbled through.
“But if it’s the truth…” he said.
“Well,” she grunted, growing annoyed at keeping her balance. “Possibly, they are confused as to what happened. The kids may have been where they shouldn’t’ve been and gotten lost, making up the story to keep out of trouble, or a kid lied to get the attention. Or it was a man who came up and took her—you know, randomly, in the middle of the wilderness—and they thought we wouldn’t do anything about it if it wasn’t a spirit.” She shrugged. “That I also doubt; doesn’t explain their lack of panic. Or it might be the truth and their silence was because they didn’t like the child and they don’t care. Or, more plausibly, this happens all the time and they’re pretending
to care… poorly. Maybe the opposite, and they don’t trust us strangers, so they’re not revealing much.”
“I don’t think I remember people getting kidnapped when we were children,” he said.
“You don’t remember anything,” she replied.
He caught her as she fell. She released a frustrated huff before flicking back her strands of hair and continuing, “And maybe I’m being suspicious, but do you remember the time that we had to deal with the idea of the Pied Piper’s Ghost?”
He laughed at the mention.
“Sheer panic! The inkling that a myth could come true threw the villagers into such a hysteria that they couldn’t even contain themselves. It didn’t even behoove us to continue the lie.”
He shook his head.
“And do you remember the candle light vigils?” she asked. “The curfew enforced? The near witch trials? Why is it that they cared so much more than these people? I’ve had little experience with actually worrying about children, but I really don’t believe they’re acting right.”
“That was different.”
“How? How was it different?”
“Well, for one thing, we were certain
from the beginning that it wasn’t supernatural. It didn’t even matter if we chose to take it or not.”
“Different for us, you mean. But the villagers don’t know that. They should be just as concerned.”
“But, what I mean is, the father had complete reason to spread lies. He kept trying to keep the hysteria up.”
“Bastard,” she shook her head.
“Hey. He wanted his son back. I don’t blame him.”
“But leaving his wife like that? He should have taken the kid in the middle of the night and left.”
Rasmus smiled. “But then she would have followed him.”
“Anyway, that proves my point!” she said. “The asshole made a point of hiring us because we happened to be there. He spent a good amount of money for something that everyone else in the world has been skeptical about until we proved ourselves or lied well enough, and he went out and shoveled the money. How is that any different from what the towns people are doing here? They are sending us out here only because it looks suspicious if they don’t!”
He didn’t say anything, pushing a few branches so he could pass.
“I don’t think they care at all, and, by the way they were talking, it looks like they hope you will fail.”
She tried to shove away the same twigs but found herself not able to grab them all at once. She struggled with the tangle as he scoffed.
“You didn’t hear the way they were talking,” he said. “You stormed off.”
“I meant in general,” she spat, tumbling out as a branch whipped her in the arm. “There were only two times in which I’ve seen such a lack of compassion in a group of people, and that was when they were trying to kill us.”
He looked at her. “You’re asserting that this happens all the time?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. But I think there’s several things we can do before we go tearing about here. Do you even know where you’re going?”
“I’m taking a look around. If this forest habits strange things, it will show.”
A bush root jutting out of the dirt caught on her foot. Hands first, she plummeted to the ground and landed in a thorny patch.
She screamed in frustration.
“Are you alright?” Rasmus asked, rushing to her side.
She got herself to her feet, staring at her hands in painful manner before saying, “Goodbye,” and turning.
He whirled around to face her. “Where are you going?”
“Back!” she shouted.
“Kaia! Help me look around!”
“No. This is stupid. You’re bored and you’re taking out on me.”
He stood there, knee deep in a level of offense that he had never quite experienced, mouth agape. “God, you don’t get it. There is a child at risk!”
She whirled back around, shouting, “If you aren’t bored then you’re an idiot! Because you skipped probably the easiest step that we could have taken in finding her.”
“What step?” he demanded.
She waved him away, skipping over the high bushes in an exeunt.
“What are you talking about?” he shouted again.
But she was gone, leaving him alone in the dark wood, left to his own concerns. He grunted and shrugged her off, trudging forward in determination.
The further he walked into the woods, the more furious he grew. Of course he knew what he was doing. Of course he had some sort of plan.
Rasmus stepped over bushes and roots, peering into the most shadowy of areas. The sun still shone, the fallen leaves and colors of the world vivid, but dark sheltered movement, not easily defined when needed.
He gripped his dagger loosely for preparation more than comfort. So far, as he meandered into the depths of the woods, he saw nothing.
The gray dirt changed to a dark brown, the yellowing brush turning to a rich forest green. The cold and fallen world looked like a peaceful summer’s day.
He was searching for a glow. Deep in the recesses of the dark where the creatures tended to linger, glowing seemed to be a common factor.
He’d never had to contend with anything like this before.
The more he contemplated what Kaia said, the more resolute he grew, bombarding his way through the thickening plant-life.
Their senses had been on the same level. Both he and his sister knew that something was wrong. But Rasmus could not rule out that it was merely something that was completely out of their experience.
A surge of guilt overwhelmed him. Guilt that he hadn’t felt since they first started this life of lies, guilt that he’d thought had gotten rid of by legitimization and right. Now, he expected, it had become more of an out of sight, out of mind thing.
He couldn’t even imagine what that little girl was going through now. He didn’t even know where she could be, or what could have taken her. He felt as though he was wading around a dark room, attempting to find a match, trying to solve a puzzle that he had claimed to have solved a thousand times before.
His dealings only really related to ghosts, and he could only hope he would not have to contend with a ghost child yet.
The sound of his own walking deafened him. A sudden trickle ran down his spine. Suddenly he stopped, frozen.
Something was watching him.
The sound of the forest held a breeze, the fluttering of the leaves dancing echoing in the lonely wood. He now unsheathed his dagger and stared, listening.
The chill of wind nipped at his shoulders, though they were fully shielded by cloak and all.
He felt the air bite at his neck and a vague familiarity rushed over him from long ago. Suddenly, he remembered the woods, and he remembered being terribly afraid of them. The shuddering across his spine proved that this was the land of the Wyrd.
He turned around.
The search through the tree limbs resulted in nothing, his listening proved completely inept. He frowned, considering his options. Finally, he continued forward, hoping whatever it was was merely interested in the intruder.
“Hello, little liar,” a voice echoed from the treetops.
Rasmus sighed and stood erect. He looked nowhere, staring forward. He waited.
“What are you doing in my wood?”
“I am searching for a little girl,” he said, his words foreign in the quiet. “Have you seen her?”
The voice did not respond for a moment, the childlike tone lingering on the leaves.
“That would be a first,” he said. “I’ve seen many looking to leave them but not many looking to fetch. Could you tell me what she looks like?”
“Have you seen a human girl or not?”
“No. Almost never,” it said.
Rasmus ruffled through the options of what this creature could be.
“Well, little liar,” the voice said. “I suppose you must be in the wrong neck of the woods.”
“I will be out of your way soon,” the man said as politely as he could muster. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I was passing through.”
“Am I making the impostor nervous?” the voice laughed. “I don’t mean to insist you leave. My home is my tree, nothing more. Do what you wish with anything else.”
Rasmus paused, thinking. “Do you know where I should be headed?”
“I only know of my place and what passes by. I am very lonely in the world.”
Rasmus thought then spun about, again looking for the direction the creature spoke in. “You said that you’ve seen many leave little girls here. Is that true?”
“I thought those who told falsehoods the most were the ones who could tell the difference the best.”
“Is it common,” he said sternly, “for the people of the nearby village to lose their children here?”
“No,” the voice said.
“This is a first?”
“No either,” the voice said.
The man frowned. He swirled about, still searching. “Is your kind common?”
“My kind?” it asked.
“Would I know what you were if I saw you?”
“I do not know what I am when I see me,” it said. “Do you know what you are?”
“I’d like to think so,” he said. “A liar, you called me.”
“I thought your kind couldn’t recognize yourselves,” it said. “So, I don’t believe you.”
“Then stop calling me that,” he said.
“You are the one who claims that’s what you are. I call them by the names they give themselves.”
Rasmus thought. “You can sense emotions.”
“If I knew what that was, I could tell you if you were right.”
Silence. Rasmus gave up on finding him. “Please. I need help. Do you have any idea of where I can find this girl? Any at all?”
“I’d ask those who sent you searching.”
His gut heated. His insides fell.
“They know where she is?”
“No,” it said.
He paused. “But they know where to look.”
“Yes,” it said.
“To start looking.”
“Yes,” it said.
“How do you know?”
“I watch,” it said.
Rasmus stared at the shadows from the corner of his eye. “I thought you said you didn’t see little girls.”
“I don’t see the children, but I do hear the men.”
Rasmus thought. “The men come in here.”
Rasmus gritted his teeth.
“They are loud and destructive. If they found their way through every so often there would be no forest left.”
Raiden chewed this over. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“Not unless there’s anything else you can ask.”
Rasmus nodded slowly, turning. “I will leave you alone now. I thank you for your hospitality.”
He turned to go.
“Stop!” the creature shouted.
“You owe me thanks for my gracious gifts and answers, do you not?” it demanded.
“Uh…” he said.
“Can you leave me without giving me anything in return?”
His grip tightened on the weapon in his hand.
“What can I give you?” he asked. “To pay you back?”
Rasmus’s ears perked for a warning.
“There are some things that the forest does not abide me with. There are some things that I long for. The sweetness of humanity is something that is owed to me, and I want you to bring it.”
Rasmus said nothing, searching again through the treetops.
“In the village a smell rises up every so often. It is faint, but thick for those of us who try to find it. It is the smell of baking, and I want it.”
Rasmus stood up. “What?”
“Pie. I want pie.”
Raiden cringed. “You want what?”
“The tarts that the humans make. Sweet apple tarts. Bring me back some tarts and we shall be friends forever, and I can help you to continue in your quest.”
Rasmus blinked. “Are you serious?”
“Do you think that I would speak with you without some sort of motive? Go. Bring me back pie. Continue to bring me pie and I shall be your scout.”
The man squinted, unable to depart certain amount of suspicion, and yet assured by the alleged peculiar nature to the creatures that never parted from the Wyrd to terrorize the human.
“Uh, alright,” he said. “I can bring you some.”
“Oh, thank you gracious, Master!”
He tilted his head. “And you’ll help me find the child?”
“I have already told you, the greatest help you can receive is from those who want you to help them.”
He paused. “Alright…”
“But when I see, you will hear.”
Rasmus nodded. “How do you want me to find your tree again?”
“Walk into the woods. If you carry the tart, I will be able to find you.”
Rasmus couldn’t help laughing as he ambled off. He didn’t know why.