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Year 47 AR
A week had passed since the sheer wall of the Atasian cliffs disappeared behind the pine canopy of the Broshan lowland forests. Tall masts now speared into the sky, barren except for the very top, and leaving only a trickle of light for the ground far below. This meant the deep woods had little room for saplings, and instead there was a long gap between the glittering crowns above, and the thick bushes and undergrowth far below. Auri thought it looked so neat in the distance, as if it went no higher than the ankle or knee, as easy to cross as tall grass. Cutting through the dense and flexible branches, the prickly briars and sticky leaves, she knew that was an illusion caused by the scale of the trees all around them.
“I don’t understand how you could have seen this through the trees,” Auri said, poking a loose plank her foot. “I can’t even see thirty feet in this mess.”
They had come to a clearing some fifty yards wide and completely round. The old ironwood tree that had once stood tall at the center lay on its side, just shy of reaching the edge, and had fallen recently enough that its leaves were still littered among tall grass around it. Auri was standing near its stump, or where its stump should have been. It was missing, sheared cleanly through and leaving only a round crater that was filled, perplexingly, with a section of wooden flooring. The planks had been crushed as the mast, cut with the same clean edge but clearly much higher up, had plunged straight down rather than toppling sideways.
“Watch out,” Basia said, “that you do not get a sapling on your shoe.”
“The what now?” Talem was poking the ground with his bone spear as he walked the perimeter of the clearing.
The lost children of Osa,” Auri cut in. “All Ironwood trees come from Osa, or so they say. They grow much bigger there, stronger and older than here. Sometimes, though, they show up in other forests. Always deep in the woods, and there’s always a clearing-”
“That’s just the roots,” Talem stabbed downward with his spear, and there was a solid thunk as it struck something hard just under the surface. “This thing has big roots. It’s squeezed everything else off its turf, barely even enough space for the weeds here.”
“Everything has deep roots in Osa,” Basia rumbled with his deep voice. “That forest is the size of a nation, and the trees are citizens. They say if you look long enough, every forest is in there. You might come out on the other side of Mar, if you come out at all.”
“Yeah,” Auri continued, stepping back from the wreckage and crossing her arms. “Like it all connects somehow. Ir- My brother used to read me stories. Sometimes pieces are stranded, trees like this one, and the spirit inside wants to go back. But it’s a spirit, so it can’t let anyone see it, or it loses its magic. So it grabs hold of travellers who come by its tree, hoping they will take it home.”
“They are small, frail and cold outside of their trees,” Basia was walking up and down the length of the fallen tree, studying the gnarled white bark, a stark contrast to the dark trunks of the surrounding woodland. “So if you get one on your boot, and feel the weight like a child holding your leg, do not turn around or stop walking. Turn toward Osa and hope you can make it there. It will drain your heat until you die, then return to the tree so it can wait, and try again.”
“Spooky,” Talem quipped. “Real spooky, but I’ve never seen any kind of spirit.”
“Maybe,” Auri looked at him with a somber expression. “That’s just because they aren’t as weak as us. That’s what you see, isn’t it? Weakness? Maybe that makes them invisible to you.”
“I guess that’s a decent word for it, but no, that’s not how it works.”
“How does it work?”
“I can’t explain it. I don’t remember what things look like without it.” Talem sounded wistful, almost sad at the admission. “So these lost children, you think one might be around?”
“No,” Basia shook his head. “This tree has been dead for some time. Maybe a month. The spirit would have died with it, if it hadn’t made it home before that.”
“The tree disappears if the spirit reaches the great forest,” Auri mused, without looking away from Talem, who was kicking the dirt where he had disturbed it with his spear. “Can I ask you something?”
“Don’t, Auri. Knowing makes it worse. Let’s change the subject.”
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“It’s fine, you didn’t. Let’s just talk about something else. Like how Basia believes in ghosts.”
“They are not ghosts,” Basia objected. “They are spirits. Magical beings-”
“We’re magical beings,” Talem interrupted. “Me and you and Auri. We’re here, concrete, and we have magic. You can throw fire, Auri can shape metal with her mind, I can see that there’s a stone in your boot.”
“That is just a nail come loose.”
“No, it’s a stone, try looking with your fingers.”
Basia began to grumble incoherently as he sat down on the fallen log and began to undo his boots. Auri took the chance in the momentary silence to pick up a plank from the pile of debris to inspect it. It was cleanly cut, without a sign of scoring or even a splinter left behind by a serrated edge. Auri knew sharp edges, and even she could not have cut so cleanly through it, without even disturbing the wood, as if whatever it had once been a part of had simply ceased to exist.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. It has to be the one we’re after, there’s no way this could happen naturally. There’s no burn, not a mark, it just stops.”
“So what kind of ability do you think does something like that?” Basia asked, turning his boot over and shaking it a few times then sticking his hand inside to feel around with a skeptical expression on his face.
“I think perhaps this portion of the tree was switched with a part of a house. The floor, specifically, and the empty space above it. It’s the only thing I can imagine that makes any kind of sense.”
“Good work, Auri, and I agree.” Basia withdrew his hand, shaking his head and looking at Talem. “It was a nail. Talem was mistaken.”
“Was I? Or is my true power the ability to make you take off your boots in the middle of the forest?” Talem grinned and began to speak, but Auri stepped between them and snatched the boot from Basia’s hands. She stuck her hand into it like Basia had, grimacing at the warm and moist leather while she searched for the errant nail. When she found it, she used it to make a wire that snaked its way between the sole and the boot in a tight seam. Once she was satisfied that the boot was repaired, she handed it back to him, suppressing a chuckle into a wry smile.
“I think we’re close. If I’m right, and our recruit has the power to swap things like that, we should be careful not to startle them.”
“Yes,” Basia grunted as he put his boot back on, taking a moment to wriggle his toes inside it appreciatively before sitting up. “You should not be so flippant, Talem. These places can be dangerous. Old spirits, witches, there are many things out here in the woods that even kozan should respect.”
“There’s nothing here, old man. These trees don’t stop me from seeing, if anything was after us I’d know.”
“Maybe it is not seeing too little that you should worry about, Talem.” Basia got up and adjusted his uniform and backpack, then walked toward the edge of the clearing. “Perhaps it is seeing too much.”
“I don’t know,” Auri chipped in. “He’s pretty dense. I think he doesn’t see as much as he likes to pretend he does. Otherwise he’d wonder why the tree was still here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ironwood is valuable, and this one was felled weeks ago.” Auri waved Talem over with a backward nod, and then stepped out of the clearing to fall in line with Basia. “We’re less than two days from the village, so there’s no way they don’t know about it.”
“So if your theory about the missing section is true?”
Auri turned her head to glance back at Talem, who was striding briskly in order to catch up to her with thoughtful expression on his face. There weren’t a lot of landmarks in the forest, but a clearing like this would be one of them. If the villagers were superstitious they may have been wary of entering, but there was no way they didn’t use it to navigate. With the tree fallen, even the fearful should be racing to salvage the wood.
“Why haven’t they come to pick up the remains yet?”