Day 99

“So what can we do?” Alastair wondered aloud.

Ginger didn’t know. She didn’t have time to take back her knives. Alastair couldn’t do his time magic. Tipper couldn’t overdo the fire or else he would burn out without Perceval. She literally had nothing except her legs, pack, and phone.

All Ginger wanted was to play her games. Games didn’t require actual interaction with other people. She could control what happened, and if she died on a level, she practiced until she mastered every little element one hundred percent. Cell phone, computer, and console games had been what she turned to whenever life decided to turn treacherous. She watched game videos. She read game handbooks. Ginger understood games and games alone. Earth was hard enough to sort out. Why did she have to be here in a place where everything was upside down and…a sharp slice of fear slapped the side of her face.

Something happened to Gabbie.

Gabbie was scared. Scared of herself. And, what else? She felt confused. Very, very confused but at the same time happy.

Ginger stuck her hand into her jacket pocket out of habit. She had refused to get rid of her Earth clothes like the other children. Ginger kept every single piece including her dead cell phone. The girl felt the familiar buttons and smooth surfaces of the phone’s anatomy against her fingers and tried to concentrate. If Alastair counted on his father’s watch and Lila utilized her great grand-dad’s shoes…

“No, I don’t think so!” Malefa spat. Instead of using her enormous front fists to deliver a blow, she used the momentum of her arms like a pole and swung her body out. The woman was still very tall despite the size of her fists. Her feet connected with Alastair’s back knocking the boy up into the air. Alastair yelped and curled into a ball to protect his head. His back collided with a low hanging tree branch and he screamed in agony as he fell to the forest floor. His leg crumpled beneath him with a sickening snap.

“Now you can’t run,” Malefa said smugly.

“Alastair!” Tipper ran over to the unconscious boy and checked the boy’s vitals. “Still alive.”

“I meant what I said,” Malefa giggled. “I want to kill you slowly! I want you to learn a lesson!”
“Can you just stop being unoriginal?” Ginger growled. She had taken out her phone and held the screen close to her chest. “You sound like a goading villain in a bad book. I can’t stand listening to you!”

“You rather I just kill you? What an odd little girl. Little human child.” Malefa turned toward Ginger. “You are so fiery, little girl. Mayhap it be a waste to snuff you out. You could be a pet. My pet! You can lure the prey, a pretty thing like you.”

“Yeah, no. I don’t think so.” And without really knowing what exactly would happen next, Ginger clicked the power button on her phone and pointed the camera at Malefa.

A large screen appeared before Malefa. It floated and appeared to be the size of a movie theater screen. Ginger blinked. There was a smaller screen on her phone that resembled the darkened one hovering next to Malefa. A gray play button marked the middle of both screen. Ginger didn’t hesitate. She clicked the play button.

“What sort of sorcery is…” Malefa said when she was cut off.

The screen was playing a movie. There was a little girl on a boat holding her hat down on her head with a small, delicate hand. She watched the expanse of the ocean before her from the safety of the boat’s railing. A woman and man held her shoulders from behind as if they thought she would tip over and plummet into the frothing sea water.

“Where are we going, Mama? Papa?” The girl in the screen asked. She had pale blonde curls and bright blue eyes. Something about her was oddly familiar and it tickled the back of Ginger mind.

“To Soielle. Your Father’s business ventures…this is the only way we can be free, my love.” The woman on the screen wiped some of the dirt and salt away from the girl’s cheek with a yellow handkerchief embroidered with green flowers.

“This is only temporary. Once everything blows over in London, we should be alright to carry on as we did before,” the man commented. “We’ll be near the next predicted Rift soon. Hold on.

Malefa stared at the screen with her single eye bulging from its socket. Her perfect mouth was wide open and she was having trouble holding herself up with her fists.

Ginger knew it. The man and woman on the screen were Malefa’s parents, and that must mean Malefa must be human, too! But how was that possible? Malefa looked nothing like she had what must have been hundreds of years ago. The father said something about London, and the family was dressed in Victorian clothing, nothing that people today or even fifty years ago would still wear. How was Malefa still living, then? Ginger noticed that a skip button appeared on her screen. Did the button appear because she was curious, or was it a part of the magic’s transition? Feeling as though she was beyond understanding, Ginger clicked the skip button.

The scene of the three family members changed. There was a steady house bade of wood and rocks. The mother cooked food over a fire and the father spent most of his time away from the little house. The little girl Malefa wandered around her new home. As time passed in a flurry of fights between the mother and father and another person Ginger couldn’t quite make out, Malefa grew into a beautiful young woman. Young Malefa could climb trees and rocks and mountains with no fear. She teased her friends—the Kitsunes and other creatures Ginger had no name for yet. Young Malefa was happy.

The screen stopped on one scene.

Days 96-97-98

“A river?” Silverskin mused aloud. He had gone pale from overexerting himself and his long pointed ears drooped.

“Worse than a river,” Digitalis tsked. “There’s a gorge. If we keep going, we’ll fall right in.”

“But they’re still sniffing our backs,” Silverskin replied. He grit his teeth and blinked his eyes rapidly as if he had temporarily lost his sight.

“You can’t fly us, Silverskin. Remember? You said you’re not that powerful yet,” Gabbie said. She held onto his arm with both hands.

“I can give it all my might. Kind of like a running leap. I can’t back out, either. If we stop, we’re Bull Fist fodder.”

“Then take off your packs. We need to lighten ourselves up as much as we can if we want to do this.” Digitalis fumbled around and dropped the pack full of provisions and medical gear from sub-queen Faeley. Gabbie followed her example and flung off her pack before realizing that she had just thrown away a Fire Gem. She inwardly cursed. That could have been extremely useful. Regardless, without the burden of so much weight, Silverskin was able to speed up considerably.

“Here we go!” The elf boy screamed.

Gabbie closed her eyes, not necessarily keen on watching if they did end up plummeting down into the gorge and straight down to the churning river. She felt Silverskin tighten his muscles as they flew over the gorge. She squeezed her face onto his shoulder, and felt the ground smash against her right side. A rock stoped her from skidding farther. Gabbie knew that the impact must have broken a couple of ribs. She felt the instant pain constrict her chest and restrict her breathing.

“Did it,” Silverskin moaned.

“Cool beans,” Digitalis dryly said.

Gabbie opened her eyes. She saw that they had indeed crossed the gorge. Silverskin sported a gash along his face that stretched from his forehead to his chin. It bled freely and dripped into a puddle below. Digitalis was treated the same way as Gabbie. Blood soaked through her tunic on her left side and she tenderly held her chest as if touch alone would heal the injury.

Behind the three were the remaining Bull Fists. At least five or six of them did not see the gorge or were too focused on capturing them because the beasts had fallen headfirst to their demise. Gabbie heard their screams and the inevitable splash so far below.

“Yeah! Take that!” Gabbie yelled.

“Exactly, you ugly, chapped buggers!” Digitalis joined in.

“Shouldn’t…antagonize them,” Silverskin moaned. It was clear that there would be no more soaring in the foreseeable future. The elf boy had dark circles under his eyes and he appeared skeletal as if using his magic so extensively had drained his strength and the substance from his body. He pointed to something behind Gabbie. “There’s…there’s a.” He couldn’t finish. He laid down his head and closed his eyes, immediately falling asleep.

“A BRIDGE!” Digitalis yelled.

“You mean we could have used,” Gabbie started before she put two and two together. She turned and saw that the Bull Fists had done the math with her. They clambered the ten or so feet it took to reach the poorly built wooden bridge held together with frayed rope. “No. No, no, no!” Gabbie scrambled around her belt and got to her feet. Her ribs ached with a merciless fervor, but she put that pain aside. She retrieved the throwing knives she kept in her pockets and tossed one to Digitalis.

“Take this. Help me!” Gabbie didn’t have to explain her plan. Digitalis caught the knives and clambered over with the girl. They arrived at the bridge the same time as the Bull Fists. The bridge itself was precarious. There were no rail guards and it looked like one wrong move or a sudden gust of wind would spell out the demise of the crosser. The Bull Fists were fully aware of the danger. They tentatively filed onto the bridge, taking their time. Gabbie took to sawing at one of the ropes that kept the bridge in place. Digitalis focused on the other.

It was a race against time.

“Cut, cut, cut!” Gabbie told her knife. Her blade was made to stick into her enemy’s flesh, not to saw. She had to do this with what she had, and all she had were the knives. The first Bull Fist made its way to the middle of the bridge. It had a good fifteen more feet to cross. Gabbie tasted the salt from her sweat as she licked her lips. She shouldn’t think about the Bull Fists. She had to cut. Cut. CUT! Her blade tore through a bundle of the woven rope, and then another. Just…a few…more.

Digitalis cut entirely through her side. Three of the Bull Fists at the very back fell from the sudden lack of support. The last two had the foresight to hold onto the side of the bridge to keep from joining their falling comrades. The beasts snarled and doubled their speed. Faster and faster still until they were just a couple feet away.

“YES!” Gabbie screamed as her rope finally was cleaved in two. The Bull Fist behind the first howled as the bridge disappeared from beneath its large fist. It careened down.

“Not. Yet.” The remaining Bull Fist hissed. It kept and caught the crumbly ground’s edge.

Gabbie let out a primal yell and flung herself at the beast. She angled her throwing knife at the tender joints between Bull Fist’s knuckles. The girl plunged her blade over and over into the beast’s flesh, hitting the bones and vessels repeatedly. Digitalis followed and attacked the other hand. Brown, sticky blood caked their fingers and blades and yet they persisted. If they stopped, they would die.

The Bull Fist relented and let go of the cliff. It fell and Gabbie watched it until the very end. The river ate the Bull Fist like the beast would have eaten them, and all Gabbie could feel was and horrifying nothingness. She couldn’t cry or think. She just stared at the water.

“Gabbie.” Digitalis held out her arms. Gabbie thought that Digitalis looked even more pretty than usual. The Bull Fist’s brown blood spattered along the Lived Being’s cheeks and hands made her bronze skin seethe with a hidden, coursing energy. Gabbie wanted thought that her eyes sparkled like gems, but scrapped the idea. She scoffed at the eye-being-gem-description in the fantasy books she read before. Maybe her eyes looked like comfort. Greens and browns and the shades of the world cast into the darkness of night. Gabbie let herself be hugged by the Lived Being. She felt Digitalis’s soothing warmth envelope her as the Lived Being rubbed small circles along the girl’s back.

“Feeling a little better?” Digitalis asked. Her voice cracked and she cleared her throat to ask again. “Better?”

“As much as I can.”

“We should check on the elfling. He overextended his power, the fool.” She parted from Gabbie and wiped something off of the girl’s face with the pad of her thumb. “And we were saved because of his overconfidence.”

They used each other as support as they hobbled over to the sleeping figure ahead. Neither of them noticed that their skin began to knit together. The blood upon Silverskin’s face no longer covered split skin. The ribs broken, sealed back. The injuries, taken away.

Ginger ignored the tingling sensation on her right shoulder that usually meant Gabbie was in trouble. Ginger never used to have this odd sixth sense back on Earth. She was told time and time against that twins knew what the other was thinking. If one felt pain, the other did, too. They made up languages. They did everything together. They were inseparable, or in the rarer case, driven mad by each other. Ginger once read about twins who had become insane from feeding off of one another’s negative feelings. The women both climbed onto a highway and jumped in front oncoming traffic. They did survive, but, well…stuff happened after that that gave Ginger the willies.

She never wanted to be bound to someone so completely like she was expected to do with Gabbie. Sure, she loved her sister and brother. She’d even love the new the baby her parents were planning on adopting next spring. Ginger did not want to be tied down, and being a twin made her feelings complicated.

Now that she was in Soielle, there was an undeniable magic that bound her completely to her twin. At first, there were drops of unfamiliar emotions sprinkled within Ginger’s mind. They splashed her back in the Kitsune Wood, but the more time went on, there more the gentle sprinkle became a raging rainstorm. She could feel when Gabbie felt angry. She could feel when Gabbie was tired. She could feel everything about Gabbie. Ginger couldn’t feel who she was underneath the torrent of the ocean of Gabbie.

The best she could do was attempt to ignore everything, even if that meant ignoring herself. That was until the sub-queen of Rockestel bent down and whispered something into her ear, changing absolutely everything.

“Well, this is nice,” Ginger said. She gripped her throwing knives tight, unable to make a move. “I like being trapped.” Ten or so Bull Fists had at last caught up with them. Instead of popping them into their mouths for a salty snack, they formed a formidable circle. Somewhere in the back of Ginger’s head, she could feel that Gabbie was terrified. That she was unconsciously calling for help. Ginger shook her head, clearing the clutter away.

“Why haven’t they done anything?” Alastair said.

“They’re waiting for commands.” Tipper scanned the waiting Bull Fists.

“You’re quite intuitive,” someone said from behind the wall of beasts. “Too bad she doesn’t want you.” The Bull Fists parted. The woman in her ratty yellow dress sauntered in.

“Did she say something?” Tipper glared at the woman with distrust.

“Yeah. She said your brilliance is wasted,” Ginger said.

“Ah, ah!” The woman swooned. She held merrily held her hands together and twirled. Her soiled dress, patched and embroider with dull green flowers on its edges, swirled around her bony legs. The woman was tall and gangly. Taller than Tipper with Perceval on his shoulders. Her straw-like hair was tied into a low ponytail and was the color of the sky at dawn. She had only one eye. Just one. It was set in the middle of her face where her nose should have been. The iris was aquamarine with flecks of dark purple, and her pupil was a hazy red. Her mouth was normal, or as normal as it could be. Her lips were full and a sweet shade of pink. Really, she would have been pretty if she had not just set Bull Fists onto them.

“You really are humans! Oh yes, my dears, I thought I smelled you!”

“How?” Ginger asked before she could stop herself.

“How what, lovely?” The woman’s voice was as tender and as kind as a school teacher’s. She sounded like she cared. Like she was a mother.

“How can you smell us? You don’t have a nose.”

“Ginger,” Alastair hissed.

“Oh no. Oh, no, no, no, dear child. I do not mind.” The woman walked closer to Ginger. The girl could smell the rot of roses invading her senses and forced herself not to cover her nose. “I can smell your magic. Not through traditional means. Ha ha! Ah, no.” Her tone lowered and Gabbie felt chills scatter down her arms and back. “I can smell your weak human bodies through my skin. I can taste you. Your, power. Your, magic. You’d all be mine. Mine and my children’s if she had not ordered your capture.”

“Alright, I don’t know what she’s saying, but it’s not good.” Tipper put his body between the woman and Ginger. “You leave these kids alone before I roast you to a crisp.”
“Child of the Kitsune Woodssss…” The woman mused. “Oh, how I used to feast on your kind’s flesh. Soft and buttery. Aaah. How I miss being young. Taking what I wanted. Eating the human warlocks and those with magic crafts.” The woman wrapped her arms around her shoulders as if she were cold. “But then he forced us into this, this valley. Nothing but scraps. Nothing but what we’re given.” She spat on the ground. “I am Malefa! The Bull Fist matron!”

“So, That didn’t sound like she was going to leave us alone with a pat on our backs,” Tipper concluded.

“No!” Ginger and Alastair said as one.

“What do you want to do with us?” Ginger asked.

“Aaaah, yes! I will take you to her.” Malefa nodded triumphantly. “And I will let my children consume your non-human friends. They aren’t needed.”

“Can you stop with the pronoun game? Who is ‘she?’ And who was ‘he?’”

“Never-you-mind. What use would such information be for prisoners and food?”

“Fine. I got what I needed to know.” Ginger nudged Alastair hard with an elbow. “Do it.”

Alastair furrowed his brows. That all he did. Ginger did see anything else happen. Alastair furrowed his brows and everything else besides Alastair, Tipper, and her, stopped. So this was why Ginger felt Gabbie’s confusion when the Lake God was freed. She understood now.

“I think your pocket is what’s helping you,” Ginger pointed out.

“Really?” Alastair dug around and pulled out his silver watch. It glowed an endearing pure silver, and for reason, that glow made Ginger hungry.

“I saw your pocket glowing and thought that must be it.”

“Cool,” Alastair held the watch tighter. “Go get the monsters, now. I don’t really know how long this stop-time-thing can last.”

Ginger got straight to work. She quickly aimed and threw her knives at the closest Bull Fist. Her two knives landed and snug tight into the beast’s eyes. She had six knives left and used all of them on three more Bull Fists.

Tipper, lacking a substantial weapon, settled for conjuring his black flames and letting the Bull Fists roast. He took out four in total with his diligence.

Alastair hesitantly unsheathed his sword. The Bull Fists were too tall to reach with his weapon, and so all he could do was slash and hack at the last two’s knuckles, If he could hobble them enough so that they could no longer walk when they woke up, he’d make it easier for the other two to fight the beasts.

Malefa watched. She was completely frozen. Her arms were locked tight. Her knees sewn together. She could do absolutely nothing from her side of time. All that could be done was witness the destruction of her brood and her own impending death.

“We have to kill her, too!” Ginger barked when all of the Bull Fists were incapacitated or killed.

“No, we shouldn’t,” Alastair argued. He pointed at Malefa. “She may have tried to capture us, but she’s unarmed. The Bull Fists were weapons in themselves. Malefa has nothing.”

“Remember when you tried to help her before? Whoops, turns out she was the mastermind behind herding us all along. Now we’re separated from the others who for all we know might be dead!” Her voice cracked on the word, dead. “We have to take out Malefa now!”

“We don’t have to kill her,” Tipper offered. “Just a tap on the back of the head. She’ll be out for a few hours.”

“And then she’ll come after us again. We’d be putting everyone in danger.”

“Valid point, dear one.”

“Thank you.” Ginger took a moment and then groaned.

“After what you’ve done to my children,” a very in time Malefa snarled, “I would hunt you all to the ends of Soielle. Never mind orders! I’ll tear your puny fingers off one by one, then your hands, then your arms, and feet, and legs. When I have you down to stumps, I’ll stick you onto a spit and eat you alive one bite after the other, up from your bellies to your chests, to her nose. I want your last sight to be me as I consume you all.”

“That’s mighty pleasant,” Ginger sniffed. “How are you going to do that? If you haven’t noticed, we have swords, knives, and fire. Your just have your hands.” Ginger knew that mentally poking and upsetting Malefa was dangerous, but she had to know what she was dealing with. Malefa just wore a dress. There were no weapons along the belt at her waist. Nothing woven through her silken hair. How could Malefa have so much bravado?

“Ginger, I can’t use the watch! I’m out of watch mojo!” Alastair pointed at the silver watch dangling on its sparkling chain. “I also feel whoozy. Please poke less.”

“Whoops…”

“I think I may enjoy gnawing on your bones for the next month or two!” Malefa threw back her head and laughed. Her laughter attacked her entire body. Her rib cage cracked and expanded. Her long, spindly arms grew and expanded. The soft grays of her skin thickened into large plated scales. Three spiraling bone horns grew out of the crest of her forehead, growing as long as Ginger’s right arm. Her bottom jaw dropped down and clicked into an underbite. Fangs the size of cat tails scissored out from Malefa’s mouth, and her eerie grin at last matched her newly formed oversized fists. Malefa was at least four sizes larger than just one of her children.

“Now that you’re out of tricks you should be easy pickings,” Malefa somehow said between her crooked teeth.

“We aren’t out of tricks!” Shouted Alastair. “We can always…RUN!”

Tipper, Ginger, and Alastair ran past the fallen Bull Fists and did not dare to look back. Malefa roared with the pleasure of the hunt.

“The lady just lost eight, no, ten of her kids and she’s having fun running after us?’ Ginger panted. “How many more kids does she have where that many didn’t shake her?”

“I don’t like thinking about that while running for my life,” Tipper answered.

Day 95

Perceval’s green shield melted away, and the fox collapsed next to Zane.

Pieces of Bull Fists lay haphazard in a messy five foot radius. A few chunks of flesh still burned from the aftermath of the explosion. Brown blood congealed around the dead Bull Fists, releasing a sour stench of foreign blood and excrement.

“I think I might throw up,” Lila said. She covered her nose with the sleeve of her tunic. “Yuck.”

As Glue Pot and Lila inspected their friends and concluded that they had merely exhausted themselves, one Bull Fist still clung onto life. It coughed up bile and salvia and cringed when the viscous liquids touched its burns. There was only one thought left in the beast’s mind—to kill as many of the intruders it could to its dying breath. The burnt Bull Fist shakily positioned its fists into the mucky mixture of mud and blood, lifting its shriveled body into the air.

Lila was the first to notice the Bull Fist move. She didn’t have time to think. The beast thundered over with incredible speed despite its injuries. Lila briefly thought of her magic shoes. No. What use could flying do at this precise moment? And then she remembered the stiletto. She removed the weapon from her belt and held the sharpened point up in defense as the Bull Fist charged right into her attack. The stiletto stuck right into the Bull Fist’s tiny eye, sinking deep into its black pupil up to the hilt. Lila was thrown back, hitting the ground with enough force to knock the air from her lungs.

“Mo,” Lila heard the Bull Fist gurgle, “Mother!” The beast flailed. It could not remove the blade from its eye, and eventually, it too crumpled into a heap. It was dead.

“Mother?” Lila wheezed. “Who’s that?”

“Lila, you’re not hurt too bad, right?” Glue Pot asked. He had trot over to his companion.

“I’ll live.” Lila inhaled and got up. Pain surged through her left hand. “But I think I broke my wrist.”

Glue Pot spent the next five minutes gathering Zane and Perceval onto his back. Lila did the best she could around her broken wrist as she collected Zane’s spilled backpack items. She took special care with his sketchbook. The page that Mr. Terklo walked out of was blank. Lila would have to tell Zane this whenever he woke back up. I the back of Lila’s mind, she heard the Bull Fist’s last words. Mother. Was there another Bull Fist prowling around? We’re these Bull Fists they encountered just the babies? Lila gulped. She hoped not.

Lila and Glue Pot walked back to where they assumed the clearing of trees may be. They thought that if they returned and stayed for a while, the others may be able to do the same. They eventually did find their destination. It took a half an hour or so. Lila did not realize that they had run that far and that furiously from the Bull Fists. Her legs began to ache as if thinking back to that mad dash had reminded them to hurt.

“So, we’ll just wait here?”

“It’s the best we can do. If the others are alive, they’ll either come back here or move straight on to Crat. Those are the only two meeting places,” Glue Pot.

“If they’re still alive…” Yes, Glue Pot was right. Those were the only two meeting places. But that was if their companions still lived. Lila thought of her brother dead. Eaten by one of those beasts. She saw Gabbie and Ginger falling and breaking something worse than a wrist. Tipper, Silverskin, and Digitalis? They were strong, but how much? Could they defeat the Bull Fists? Lila and the others were lucky. If it weren’t for Zane’s sudden magical powers and the Fire Gem, they would have been goners.

“Oh. Oh, Lila,” Glue Pot said. “Oh, d-don’t cry. I mean, you can cry if you want. I-you…” He bit his lip, chewed it, and started again. “I can bind your wrists for you. I’m an expert, you know. When my brothers and I were colts, we would twist our ankles like nobody’s business.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’d like that. Thanks, GP.”

The Bull Fists were closing in.

Gabbie could feel their rancid breath on the back of neck—hot and rotten. Why had this become the new routine? If it wasn’t Batals or a Lake God, it had to be deranged beasts from Hades.

“We’re getting nowhere!” Silverskin yelled. “Take my hands, both of you!” The elf boy grabbed Gabbie’s and Digitalis’s outstretched hands. “Keep as close to me as possible. There are a lot of trees and hitting one would mean it’s all over, okay?”

“Yessir!” Digitalis said.

“Go for it!”

Silverskin conjured the air, and just like the time where he flew down the hallways to the deer he pen, he took both Gabbie and Digitalis across the forest floor at top speed. Gabbie worried that holding up three people would be too much for the air elf.

“Get them! Take them to mother!” The Bull Fists howled.

“Did you hear them? Do you think they want to just catch us or eat u?” Gabbie asked.

“Gabbie, all I heard were sounds from my nightmare,” Digitalis said.

“They said they wanted to take us to someone called mother.”

“All the better to get away!” Silverskin said through gritted teeth.
Gabbie and Digitalis squeezed closer to Silverskin when two clumps of trees appeared as if they just sprouted from the ground. A story branch clipped Gabbie on the shoulder, and their momentum spiraled out of control for a few terrifying seconds. Silverskin hurriedly regained his magical footing and got them through the thickest part of the forest. Soon, the trees began to disappear, revealing an opening ahead. They could hear the rush of fast whitewater from far away

Day 93

They writhed out from their cocoon of cool earth as pebbles and rocks shot out from either direction. Alastair could hear the woman laughing a hearty laugh as the Bull Fists bustled into a half moon formation around them. One of the beasts licked its teeth with a black forked tongue. The Bull Fists immediately charged, leaving no room for the company to think through on how to defend themselves. The beasts split into three groups of ten and attempted to catch any of the company with their oversized fists.

Tipper rounded to the left, angling himself northbound. He still held onto Alastair. Alastair dared not impair Tipper. If he accidentally tripped the Kitsune up by trying to get down, they could both die in an instant. He saw Ginger from the corner of his eye using her long legs to her advantage. He could also see the woman in her disgusting yellow dress follow just behind the group of Bull Fists. She was still grinning as if she ordered a large pizza with extra cheese and was about to watch her favorite television show.

“I can’t shake them,” Tipper panted. He had been attempting to zig zag through a copse of trees to no avail. The Bull Fists were always hot on their trail.

“This is stupid!” Ginger yelled. “Why did sub-queen Faeley give us these weapons if we weren’t going to use them?” She looked over her shoulder, and while still running, threw one of her knives with all of her might. Although she had greatly improved over the past four days, she could not pierce the Bull Fist’s thick skin. The knives hit one of the creature’s jaw and bounced off like a measles gnat. Ginger repeated Tipper’s curse.

Alastair expected Lila, despite running for her life, to correct Ginger.

“Don’t say those words.”

But Lila said nothing. Alastair frantically looked around for his sister. She was nowhere in sight. All he could see was the Bull Fists, the yellow dress woman, and Ginger. The Bull Fists had separated them.

Lila wanted to follow her brother still on Tipper’s back. She felt her feet turn to do just that. A Bull Fist lumbered right in front of her. She yelped.

“This way!” Perceval urged. He flicked his tail, indicating Lila to follow. Lila had no choice but to trust Tipper to keep her brother safe. She gulped and darted over to Perceval.

“Woah! What about the others?” Zane called out.

“They’ll be alright,” Glue Pot said. He didn’t really sound convincing. He galloped over to Zane and Lila, reached down, and picked them both up. “I know I said never again, but I seem to be breaking all of my preset rules lately.” The centaur set the children on his back. “You can keep up, right, Perceval?”

“Give me some credit. I am, how to the Earth people say it, swift as a fox!”

The four dove into the forest. The Bull Fists were never too far away. They broke branches and made the forest floor shudder. Lila hurriedly tried to think of a way out of this. She had the advantage of sitting on Glue Pot’s back where she could think of a plan. Could she use her shoes like last time to fly? No, there’d be no way she could fly through a forest. There were too many trees and she’d more likely make it easier for the Bull Fists to catch her.

“Zane, can you use your arrows to hit those things?”

“My…oh!” Zane fumbled for his bow. “I don’t know how good a shot I can be.”

“Just try it!” Lila examined the closest Bull Fist. It was larger than the other nine following it with heavier muscles and red eyes. The jaw was completely bone and its skin looked tough. “Try and hit the eyes.”

“They’re so small,” Zane replied. Yet he still notched the arrow. He pulled the bolt back.

“Stay still. You’re shaking like a small dog.”

“You try and hit a moving, tiny target while you’re life depends on it,” Zane shot back. He forcibly went still, aimed as best he could, and let the arrow fly. He had the force required for the arrow to sing through the air, however his aim was off. The bolt smacked against the Bull Fist’s tusk. “No, no, no.”

“Try again!”

Zane notched another arrow and let it fly. This time the arrow stuck on the tender flesh next to the beast’s slit nose.

“Look at that, Lila! I got him!”

“I don’t want to ruin your party,” Lila said.

“Tell the truth. You want to.”

“Buuut, that arrow did nothing. It’s still coming after us. We have to think of something else.”

“Perceval, can’t you do something? Throw a fire ball or something?” Zane yelled down to the fox creature.

“I can’t do fire spells anymore. Not in this body. I can only eat access fire and keep Tipper safe with what I collect. Besides that, I can make high level shields—only at full health, though.”

Lila was struck with an idea.

“Shields where monsters stay out but we can still throw things at them?”

“Oh,” Glue Pot said. “Yes, that would be good.”

“Yes, I can design the shield like that,” Perceval panted. “It won’t last long, though. Four or five minutes.”

“Zane, you still have your Fire Gem. You can use that. Glue Pot can make use of his arrows,” Lila said.

“If we stop and we can’t take those Bull Fists out in time, that’s it. They’ll have us surrounded and we’ll be finger food,” Zane said.

“It’s better than them running us to death,” Perceval pointed out. “I’m willing to do it if everyone agrees.”

Faced with this line of reasoning, Zane agreed with his companions.

“I hope they line up like bowling pins. I may be mediocre at the bow, but I play a mean game of bowling.”

(PS: What did I do to myself?)

Day 87

“I don’t want to learn how to use my powers. I want tog et back home,” Ginger said. She was apparently awake, too.

“If we learn them, then we can find a way back ourselves,” Gabbie pointed out. “Besides, why would the Elder want us to see her if she wasn’t going to help?”

“Didn’t you see how those elves thought we woke up all the monsters? What’s to say we haven’t? Do you think that he had the best interests in mind for us, or for his people?”

“Ginger…” Alastair said. She did have a point. Why would the Elder help him out of the kindness of his heart?

“If it will put your mind to ease,” Perceval chirped from his resting place, “The Elder wouldn’t jeopardize Tipper’s prophecy. There’s more at stake when a Kitsune can’t fulfill one than being considered a proper adult.”

“Even if I didn’t have the prophecy, I’m willing to keep you all safe,” Tipper agreed. “I think I’ve grown to like being your nanny.”

Alastair saw Ginger’s embarrassed blush.

“We won’t let you chicks come to harms way, neither,” Digitalis chimed in. She gestured to Glue Pot with her shoulder. “I think my Crisis Point is more than just finding out what happened to Pottsville. I want to see this whole thing through.”

“If we’re going to keep you all safe, then I think we need to improve your archery skills, Zane,” Glue Pot pointed out. “They always fell flat.”

“Excuse me for not going out of my way to be an archery queen in my past life.” Zane fiddled with the wooden bow. “They make it look so easy in movies. The hero picks this thing up and boom, they’re suddenly an expert.” He attempted to stretch the bowstring and his arm visibly shook.

“You need to improve on your arms strength is all,” Glue Pot said as if improving arm strength was something Zane could do overnight.

“I’m not very good with my knife either, Zane,” Lila offered. She wiggled her stiletto between her fingers like one would do to make a pencil look like it’s rubber. Lila put it down when she saw Alastair’s warning. Don’t play with sharp objects.

“The only one of us who has got better is Ginger,” Gabbie commented. Was that a tone of envy there in Gabbie’s voice?

“That’s because I’ve become a walking target,” Perceval huffed. “Knives everywhere. I can barely keep my guard down.”

“I wasn’t much use for my parents.” Silverskin whispered and yet everyone could hear. He refused to speak after the first day of their travel. He would only have fleeting talks with Gabbie. Now he watched the palms of his hands tremble. “No one liked me in Rockestel except for my parents, sub-queen Faeley, and Opale. I couldn’t do anything useful like my father being a guard, and so I was just a burden. I his behind my sub-queen Faeley’s protection and did what I wanted without improving what I could do.” Silverskin scraped a hand across his face. “I don’t want to be like that again. I’ll help you all until we reach the Queen. I’ll deliver my message, and if she can’t send you home, I swear I’ll stay with you until the day you can find your way back.”

“Silverskin, you don’t have to go that far,” Gabbie said.

“I do. I made a mess of everything. I need to make this right again.”

Day 83

Zane assessed his sister. He was surprised from her sudden confidence. What had Faeley told her in order to conjure up such a fire crackling below her skin?

“I can’t wait to get out of these tunnels. They are not built for people like me,” Glue Pot sighed.

“We’re nearly at the exit,” Sannier said.

“Thank the Holy Matron,” Perceval panted.

“Ah, I think I see the end,” Tipper said. A night’s rest had Tipper back into decent shape. He was no longer limp like a puppet on strings and his old, fiery personality was coming back in short bursts. He nearly tumbled into the Royal Guards when they stopped at a dead end.

“Hmn, where is that switch,” Adriei mumbled as they fumbled around along the tunnel wall.

“Right above you. Yes, right there,” Sannier’s husband corrected the Royal Guard.

There was a click, and the tunnel’s dead end fell open. The outside was full of lush vegetation full of green pine trees and tiny yellow ferns. The children’s mouths fell open. Out of all the sights they expected to see, they were not ready for a location that almost resembled an environment on Earth.

“No ebony trees with flesh eating white fungus?” Zane asked when he took his first steps outside. For the first time, the air was cold enough to cause goosebumps to rise along his arms. “No bouncing gray bushes with teeth? Skulls with glowing green eyes and striped spider legs?”

“Your imagination is vast,” Agile commented. “All you need worry about in the Fallen Valley are the Bull Fists.”

“And maybe a few other hungry creatures,” Adriei added.

“As much as I do not want to, this is where we’ll part,” Agile sighed. “I’m not much for goodbyes, so…” The Royal Guard bowed deep at the companions. “Until next time.” Agile turned and vanished down the network of tunnels.

“I actually am fine with them. Goodbyes, I mean.” Adriei, suprisingly, hugged each and every one of them. Was there actually a tear rolling down their cheek? After the tender goodbye, Adriei followed the other Royal Guard.

While Adriei was bestowing bear hugs, Silverskin and his little family took their time to say farewell. The parents encased their son in a group hug, and they boy, despite his bravado, crumpled into hoarse sobs. Sannier and her husband calmed him enough to tell him a few parting words. They stepped back, observed their son, and also left. Sannier looked back, her face wet from Silverskin’s tears, and then they were gone.

“Will you be okay?” Gabbie asked her friend.

“I think so,” Silverskin sniffed. “It’s all very sudden. The Lake God. Leaving Rockestel. Opale.” Silverskin gasped. “Oh no! I didn’t tell father about Opale!” Silverskin’s face crinkled with remembered pain. He must have felt responsible for the death of his loving stead. He was meant to protect her from harm, and yet he lead her straight to the slaughter. “Let me catch up to them real fast and tell them. Please wait for me!”

Day 81

“Would it be asking too much to go to a place filled with candy, rainbows, and unicorns?” Zane asked as if he was half hoping there was an actual location that would fulfill those specifications.

“Unicorns?” Glue Pot stamped his foot in agitation. “Those pompous know-it-alls? Why do you want to meet them?” The centaur crossed his arms and it looked like he wanted to hold his bow tightly in his hands. He did not give onto temptation and settled with looking peeved.

“I’m not surprised. What, are unicorns jerks in this world or something,” Ginger sighed. She threw up her hands in defeat and shook her head. Her short brown hair became disheveled from her vehemence.

“Unicorns are!” Glue Pot started.

“Shh! Adriei was in the middle of speaking!” Digitalis smacked Glue Pot’s side.

Glue Pot bit his tongue and was unusually upset over not having the chance to speak. He was normally happy to be quiet and shy. No one understood what had him riled up, and they wouldn’t have the chance to ask again until some time later.

“Ahem,” Adriei coughed into their hand. “As I was saying. You’re traipsing into doubly dangerous territory. When Agile and myself came to Rockestel, we encountered Bull Fists along the way. That was a few weeks ago. The Bull Fists could have multiplied since then.”

“Bull Fists,” Perceval wearily said. “Did you see a litter or just a couple?”

“A litter.”

“Holy Matron,” the tiny fox yelped.

“That’s why I’m supplying you with a bit more than just food provisions,” said sub-queen Faeley. As if on cue, Sannier and her husband returned with ten pouches. Behind them were some magics Rock Bits carrying other items the group couldn’t see. The two elves distributed the goods. They then procured items the children had never seen up close. “You two. The twins. Come here.” Faeley gestured towards Ginger and Gabbie. Gabbie came when she was called and waved over Ginger.

Sub-queen Faeley took two black boxes from Sannier’s husband. She opened the boxes one at a time to reveal ten neatly lined throwing knives. They were light, and most of all, sharpened to wicked points.

“These are yours. You’re both strong enough to use your upper bodies and throw these. Practice with them fist or die trying them with a Bull Fist. Understand?”

“Alright. Umm, thank you.” Gabbie took her box with a flabbergasted grin, replaced the lid on the top, and held the box to her chest as if it had become her heart.

“Thanks,” Ginger said under her breath. Before she could fully take the box, sub-queen Faeley pulled her and the box close. The sub-queen, who was as tall as Ginger, leaned over and whispered something into the girl’s ear. Ginger staggered back, the box now in her hands. Faeley quirked an eyebrow at the girl and then waved her off. She was ready to give out more items the children had never used or held in their hands to fight off monsters that were well practiced in slicing and skewing with their claws and teeth.

Lila was given a light, silver stiletto. Faeley claimed that with how small the girl was, she could be fast enough to dance around an enemy, weakening the target with quick, lightning fast strikes. Lila sheathed her new weapon rather clumsily.

Zane received a bow and quiver of arrows. Glue Pot danced around, claimed that he could teach the boy all he knew about using the weapon.

“That’s cool. I’ve wanted to be a Young Adult heroine,” said Zane with good humor. He gave the others a lopsided grin that he thought would cheer everyone up. They only saw an uneasy child given a heavy burden.

Alastair held out his hand to take a small sword.