“Eight… nine… and ten!” I uncover my eyes. “Alright, I’m coming to find you!”
I looked up in the tree branches all around, immediately spotting the young girls I’m supposed to be seeking. Spreading my large ivory wings, I fly up to the highest branch. I can see my sister, Elis, crouching on the tree limb trying to be sneaky. If it weren’t for her vibrant lavender colored wings and her tiny giggle, I might not have been able to find her so easily. What am I supposed to expect, though? She is only five sun cycles old.
I sneak up behind her and tap her shoulder.
“Found you,” I cry.
She jumps, startled, and nearly falls out of the enormous tree. I catch her in my arms and let her steady herself with her wings. Though she’s been flying for a few years now, she still has trouble sometimes.
“Sissy,” Elis smiles at me, her smile warming my heart like the sun. “How’d you find me so fast?”
“Your wings give you away every time, Elis,” I tell her, giving her a kiss on her forehead.
“Aww,” her face turns pouty, but I know she is just being silly.
“Why don’t you go back to the palace and see if Jessa has any candies for you in the kitchen?” I ask her.
Her face lights up at the thought of the delectable treats the royal chef creates. She kisses my cheek quickly then takes off back toward the palace. I watch her until I can’t see her anymore and resume the task at hand. I still have four more sisters to find.
I fly around the tree some more until I spot my next target – Varissa. I’m surprised to see she isn’t hiding with Elori. Since they’re twins, they’re usually found together.
Varissa is lying on her back on the tree branch, her wings folded into her shoulders. She is lying so still, you could almost miss her if you didn’t know what you were looking for. As I get closer to her, I can see her eyes are closed. From the eyes of a stranger, she appears to be sleeping. I know, however, that she’s trying to commune with the tree itself. She’s only nine and is practicing magic already.
I fly over and land very gently on the branch next to her. Her eyelids twitch slightly, acknowledging my presence. Sitting next to her, my hand absentmindedly strokes her hair away from her face. After a few minutes of sitting like this, her eyes slowly open and look at me.
“You know you aren’t supposed to be practicing magic,” I lightly scold her.
“I’m not,” she sits up to face me, her wings slightly unfolding. “I’m just thanking the tree for letting us play here.”
I look into her eyes, amazed at how beautiful and ancient her soul seems. She’s only nine sun cycles, but she has to be the smartest and kindest out of us all. Any time we play somewhere in nature, she makes sure she thanks the trees and the grass for letting us play there. She thanks the suns and the moons for the light and energy they provide. It’s as though she’s been on this planet for thousands of years, over and over again, just in new and different physical forms.
“What,” she asks, making me aware that I’m just staring at her.
“Oh nothing,” I respond, smiling. “You just always amaze me.”
She smiles back, her cheeks turning pink. She looks down at her dress, the light pink color of the skirt catching the late afternoon sunlight.
“Why aren’t you and Elori hiding together? You two are inseparable,” I wonder, picking a few leaves off Varissa’s dress.
“Elori wanted to hide somewhere that you’ll never find her!” Varissa exclaims, suddenly excited.
“But if I can’t find her, how will I ever win the game?”
“That’s the point! Elori wants to win this time,” Varissa laughs. It isn’t that funny, but her laughter is so infectious that soon we’re both doubled over, our laughter echoing in the forest around us.
“Well,” I say, straightening up. “While I go find the others, why don’t you head to the kitchen and see if Jessa has anything delicious for you? And make sure Elis found her way there, too.”
Varissa jumps up off the branch, her wings spreading behind her. She dives over the side and soars through the trees toward the palace. I stay on the branch for a bit, wondering where Elori could have wandered off to this time. It’s always been good that she and Varissa are inseparable, because otherwise we would constantly be losing Elori. At least when Varissa is with her, Varissa brings Elori back to the palace when necessary.
I can’t blame Elori for who she is though. She just likes to explore. She’s an incredibly curious child, always off on adventures and discovering new things. It’s good for her and her mind, but one of these days it really will get her into trouble.
As I’m looking around the forest for more signs of my sisters, I see something glittering on the ground. I fly down from my perch to see what it is. As soon as I touch the ground, I hear a crack above me. Looking up, I see Cliona falling towards me, along with a large branch of the tree.
Instantly I swoop up to catch her, bringing her out of the way of the falling tree branch. I land on the ground a few steps from where I had just been standing and place Cliona on her feet in front of me. She shakes out her ginger colored hair, twigs and leaves making their way to the ground. When she looks up at me, she seems to be dazed.
“What happened?” I ask her, pulling more twigs out of her hair.
“I was just sitting in the tree, right? All of a sudden, an Ankusu lands on the branch too! Right next to me! I was so shocked I fell backwards off the branch!” Cliona becomes very animated when she talks, so her hands are moving all over the place, nearly hitting me in the face.
“An Ankusu? Really? Heyecan or Pirlanta,” I ask her, suspicious. She’s known for making up wild stories to cover up the fact that in reality she’s just a big klutz who has a habit for falling out of trees, despite the fact that she has a large pair of wings right on her back.
“Umm… You know, I couldn’t really tell,” She responds, suddenly looking evasive.
“Well what color was it,” I press on, determined to catch my thirteen sun cycle old sister in her ridiculous story. Ankusus are incredibly rare, especially here in Calidae.
“It was pretty far away. It was hard to see. You know how it is, those darn birds,” She answers, scratching the back of her neck and looking nervous now.
“I thought you said it landed right next to you on the branch,” My hands move to my hips. She knows I’m on to her now, but I’m not giving up easily.
“Did I?” She chuckles nervously. “Well-”
“You lost your balance and fell out of the tree again, didn’t you,” I ask her.
“… Maybe,” She mumbles.
“Well why didn’t you use your wings to catch yourself, you genius?”
“I was falling too fast. You know my reflexes aren’t that fast, Lia,” Her words spill out quickly.
“Just try to be more careful next time. We all can’t be constantly catching you as you fall out of trees. You have wings for a reason,” I try not to let my voice get too scolding, since I’m just her sister and not our mother.
“I know, I know. You guys remind me only all the time,” She folds her arms, practically pouting like Elis does.
“For good reason! And don’t pout, you’re thirteen, not five,” I tell her, tickling her sides to get her to smile again. She fights me off, laughing.
“Who else do you have to find still?” She asks, wiping a tear of laughter from her eye.
“Just Elori and Lira,” I answer, getting serious again.
It’s just a game of hide and seek, but I don’t always like when we let Lira play with us. She’s only six sun cycles, and I get worried when she’s hiding by herself for too long.
“Elori wasn’t with Varissa?” Cliona asks, her brow furrowing.
“I thought she would be too, but Rissa said El wants to win the game this time.”
“El always wants to win.”
“Well have fun finding the other two! I don’t actually know if they’re in the tree here,” Cliona looks up into the branches, searching.
“Oh don’t worry, I’ll find them,” I assure her. “Can you make sure Elis and Varissa actually went back home? I told them to go find Jessa in the kitchen, but who knows if they actually listened?”
“Sure! See you at home!”
I watch Cliona fly off in the same direction as my other sisters. After a beat or two, I leap into the air. I start to circle around the tree, looking for the last two hiding girls. I search the tree practically inside and out, but still there’s no sign of either of them.
Now I’m starting to worry. The sun is getting lower in the sky, and Dad hates when we’re out in the forest after dark. Suddenly I remember there’s a stream nearby. Maybe they went there to play in the water.
I fly west towards the stream, spotting both Elori and Lira on the riverbank. I land next to them and notice that Elori is holding Lira, who’s crying and appears to be in pain.
“What happened?” I ask, immediately crouching next to them. “Lira, what’s wrong?”
“She was flying and her wing caught on a branch and it bent her wing the wrong way and she fell and she can’t fly back and I’m not big enough to take her all the way back home,” Elori answers me, since Lira is crying too hard to speak.
“Oh no!” I exclaim. “Lira, it’ll be okay. Come here, let me see.”
Lira crawls from Elori’s lap over to mine, allowing me to examine her wing. The injury isn’t too serious, just a minor strain that will take a few days to heal.
“Lira, it’s okay,” I soothe her, wiping her tears off her cheeks. “It’s just a little strain, it’ll fix itself. You just won’t be able to fly for a few days, okay?”
Lira nods, still sniffling.
“You aren’t hurt, are you El,” I ask Elori, checking her over as well.
“I’m okay I came over when I heard Lira crying and I had to make sure she was okay and I was going to come find you but I didn’t want to leave her alone I didn’t think she’d be safe so I just stayed here with her,” She responds, rubbing her arms.
“That was very responsible of you, thank you. It was very smart of you to stay here with Lira,” I tell her, still holding Lira closely.
“Did you find everyone else already because I wanted to win the game that’s why I didn’t hide with Rissa I had a really good hiding spot but I had to leave to be by Lira,” Elori asks me, her wings twitching excitedly.
“I did find everyone else. You did a great job hiding, so you win today!” I exclaim, causing her to smile as wide as she can.
“Lira, I won the game!” Elori rubs Lira’s arm happily. Lira responds with a smile through her tears.
“El, can you still fly? It’s starting to get dark and you know Dad doesn’t like it when we’re in the forest after dark,” My voice takes on a sense of urgency to let Elori know it’s time to go.
She nods and jumps into the air. I clutch Lira tighter and spread my wings. Taking Elori’s hand, we start flying back towards the palace. Luckily we weren’t too deep into the forest, so we don’t have far to go to get home.
We glide through the trees, flying low enough that we avoid the branches. The forest is a beautiful sight in the light of the setting sun. Everything is taking on a golden glow, making the trees look more magical than usual. They’re enormous trees, for many creatures live inside of them. None of the trees out here in the forest were quite as big as the tree that houses the palace, but some of them come awfully close.
When we re-enter Calidae, the Riomhaire guards wave at us. Elori waves back happily. There are many citizens still strolling about the town, enjoying the last rays of the sun. They all glance up at us as we pass, excited to see a few of the daughters of the king and queen flying over town. The citizens of Calidae see us often, but we aren’t usually flying around them.
Before long, we get close to the tree that houses the palace. Dubbed the Heart Tree many years ago, it stands at the very center of the lush forest. Many generations of royal families have lived inside the tree. The palace was built into the tree thousands of years ago by our ancestors who founded Calidae, the Valsare. They were very careful to only use elements of the tree and the surrounding nature to create the palace, so as not to harm the Heart Tree.
Elori and I land in front of the bridge to enter the palace. I nudge Elori to fold her wings in as I do the same. As we cross over the bridge, I glance over the side of the bridge into the shallow water below. There is a shallow stream that runs through Calidae and makes its way around the Heart Tree, providing a natural moat of sorts for the palace. The water isn’t very deep at all, but plenty of animals love to stay in the water around the Heart Tree. The citizens will sometimes come to the water and feed the piscora and catasks.
Still holding Lira close to me, I guide Elori through the enormous ornately carved archway to the throne room. The palace is made of many levels, spanning the entire height of the Heart Tree and even going into the topmost branches. The very bottom level contains the throne room. It is a very large, circular room, covered in greenery, flowers, moss, vines, and everything in between. There is a waterfall that runs from the top of the tree all the way down to the bottom and creates a pool just behind the thrones. All of the thrones are in the center of the room, made of the tree’s roots, other branches, and covered in thick moss to make them soft for sitting on. They’re actually quite comfortable, which makes the throne room sessions more bearable.
I release Elori’s hand when she sees Mom and Dad sitting in their thrones and starts to run towards them. There are several Riomhaire guards in various spots around the room, keeping an eye out for trouble. Arinril is sitting nearby, holding Fini in her arms. Arinril is another younger sister – fifteen sun cycles – and Fini is the youngest of us all, at just two sun cycles. There are eight of us total, and I’m honestly hoping Mom doesn’t want to have another child. Not that I would complain, but seven younger sisters is already a lot to take care of.
I notice Lira starts to light up as I get closer to the thrones, so I put her down and she runs to Mom, jumping into her lap.
“Lira, my darling! Did you have fun playing with your sisters,” Mom pulls Lira in for a big hug, holding her close.
“I did! I hurted my wing though,” Lira responds, her face turning pouty all of a sudden.
“Oh? And how did you manage that?” Mom starts to examine Lira’s wings, searching for the injured spot. I point it out to her.
“I hit it on a tree branch,” Lira says.
“A tree branch,” Mom looks at me. “Where were you all playing?”
“Out in the forest, by the end of the stream,” I reply, sitting on the floor next to Dad’s leg. He lovingly strokes my hair, making me smile.
“I thought you were going to the shore,” She says, looking confused. She glances at Dad for confirmation of her thoughts, but he also looks confused.
“No, I said this morning we were going into the forest and that we’d be back before dark.”
“Well one of you said you were going to the shore,” Dad chimes in.
“It was Cliona,” Arinril’s voice, clear as glass, drifts over to us.
“I don’t know why Clio would say that, she knew where we were going. She was there with us. She even fell out of the tree in true Clio fashion,” I tell them, eliciting a few laughs.
“I’m assuming she’s okay, as usual?” Mom asks, chuckling. Her hands are lightly stroking Lira’s hair, causing Lira to fall asleep.
“Of course,” I laugh. “Did the rest of them all make it back here?”
“We don’t know. None of them stopped in here. Where did you tell them to go?” Dad asks.
“To the kitchen to see Jessa. I knew she was baking today, so I figured it’d be a good incentive to get them home before dark,” I explained.
“Oh, good thinking. Especially with Elori over here, Ms. Wanderlust,” Dad teases Elori, pulling her into his lap.
“Lia, do you mind checking the kitchen for your sisters? It’s almost dark and even though the lumalta are out, I don’t want any of them to get lost anywhere in the forest,” Mom stresses, worry creeping into her voice.
“Sure thing,” I say, getting up to leave but giving both of my parents a kiss on the cheek before I walk out of the room.
I walk past the guards, giving them each a subtle nod of the head in greeting. I exit the throne room then head up the path that gently slopes upward, curving around the Heart Tree all the way to the top. All the rooms are technically open to the outside, and this path will take you to any of them.
I always love nighttime here in Calidae. The light we need to see is provided by different types of plants that glow at night, the lumalta, which are tiny bugs that light up, and the magical lanterns of the citizens. I’ve read stories of far off places that have these things called ‘light bulbs’ and are controlled by switches. Apparently they’re powered by something called ‘electricity’, whatever that is. We just use magic and the nature around us, here.
The path up to the kitchens is lit by hundreds of lumalta, casting a warm glow over everything. I am almost to the kitchens when I hear a creature coming down the path towards me. Soon it comes around the curve and leaps at me.
“Verla!” I cry, embracing my beloved pet. I crouch down, scratching her behind her large ears. She curls herself into my body, practically drowning me in her soft fur. All nine of her tails wrap around my feet and her two front paws plant themselves on my chest. As I pet her, she enthusiastically licks my cheeks. I kiss her on her long snout and stand up, beckoning her to follow me to the kitchens. She bounds along after me, licking my fingertips as we walk.
When we reach the kitchens, I am greeted by the sound of laughter. I see Jessa standing in the middle of the kitchen, using her magic to juggle pumpkins in the air, delighting my young sisters. She is surrounded, as usual, by tables filled with breads, grains, fruits, vegetables, pastries, candies, and everything in between. There are disorganized baskets filled with more foods scattered across the floor, and pots and pans suspended in midair everywhere. They aren’t actually hanging from anything, they’re just floating.
I weave my way through the tables and around the baskets until I reach Jessa. Seeing me behind her suddenly, she jumps and the pumpkins drop on the floor. Somehow none of them break, but they all roll in different directions.
“Oh your highness, you scared me,” Jessa immediately drops into a curtsy.
“Jessa, please. How many times have I asked you to call me Lia like everyone else around here? Even my full name, Lianara, would be better than your highness,” I touch her shoulder, bringing her up from her curtsy.
“Yes of course, Lia, my apologies,” Jessa chuckles a bit nervously.
“I see you were juggling pumpkins again,” I say, gesturing to the pumpkins that have now settled in opposite corners of the large kitchen.
“Oh! Yes,” Jessa wipes her hands on her apron, still looking nervous. “Well, Varissa asked if I would, and I said I shouldn’t, but she insisted…”
She trails off, not quite meeting my eyes. I take a quick scan of the room, wondering why she is so nervous, when I realize Cliona isn’t here.
“Where’s Clio?” I ask, my body going rigid.
“Ah, well, you see…” Jessa starts, but never quite finishes.
“She never came,” Elis says matter-of-factly.
“Shit,” I mutter under my breath.
I run my hands through my mahogany brown curls, trying to think of where she would have gone instead. Then it dawns on me.
“The shore,” I say.
“What?” Varissa asks, looking at me over the top of a particularly enormous cupcake.
“Don’t eat too many sweets, Rissa, you’ll spoil your dinner. Take Elis with you and go downstairs in the throne room with Mom and Dad. I’m going to go find Clio.”
Rissa drops the cupcake, looking practically morose about it. She takes Elis’ hand and heads for the throne room. Jessa walks over to the open fire oven to check on the meal that is baking inside.
“Lia, I’m sorry –” Jessa starts to say as I head for the doorway.
“Jessa, you had nothing to do with it. It’s Clio and her obsession with the Unealta. I should have known I was giving her the perfect opportunity to disappear down to the shore. If anything, it’s my fault,” I tell her before turning away and walking outside.
Once I’m out on the path again, I quickly leap into the air and head east toward the ocean. It’s a short flight to the point where the trees part and the grass-covered ground turns to fine white sand. I land on the very edge of the sand and start to walk closer to the water for a better view.
It’s harder to see out here, since fewer of the lumalta venture out here by the water. I can see shadows of the Unealta farther out in the water, conversing and swimming around. A few of them wave to me and I wave back.
I look up and down the shoreline, but I see no sign of Clio. I do see a male Unealta sitting on a rock on the edge of the water, so I decide to ask him if he’s seen Cliona.
“Excuse me,” I ask when I’m within earshot. He turns to me, surprised I’m speaking to him. “Have you seen my sister, Cliona? She comes down here a lot and I thought she might have come here earlier today.”
“I have not seen your sister today. But she may have been interested in those boats farther up the shoreline,” He points out the boats and I am surprised I didn’t see them before.
Far too large to be just boats, these are enormous ships. Their masts are almost as tall at the Heart Tree, their sails almost as wide. They are all lit up, but the lights are a strange, eerie blue color, nothing like the warm golden lights of Calidae.
“Thank you,” I say to the Unealta, then make my way towards the ships.
As I get closer, I can see the outline of a girl standing on the shore, also watching the ships. I run to her, knowing it has to be Clio.
“Clio!” I call. She doesn’t respond.
“CLIO!” I call again, only louder. Still nothing.
I finally reach her, but when I put my hand out to touch her shoulder, the entire figure fades away into dust and blows away in the wind.
“What?” I turn around, but there’s nothing and no one there.
I look out to the ships again, and they seem to be right on the edge of the water now. They are almost close enough to touch from where I stand. On the nearest one, I can see the shadow of a girl with hair that looks like Clio’s. She is walking across the top deck, oblivious to anything going on around her.
My wings tense, telling me that even if Clio is on the deck of that ship, danger certainly is as well. My heart, however, is telling me that my sister is currently missing and I have to find her. My heart very quickly wins the battle and I leap into the air.
Only moments later, I land on the deck next to the girl. As soon as I touch her shoulder, she too dissipates into nothing. Tears fill my eyes as I turn to look at the rest of the ship. My entire body freezes as I realize I am surrounded by creatures I have never seen before in my life.
Creatures that must be at least ten feet tall, with unclear faces. They look like they are made entirely out of rock, and have jagged claws for hands. Instead of a mouth on their faces, there is something resembling a mouth down on their forearms. Their eyes are never-ending black pits, their bodies vaguely Manniska. The worst part about them, though, is their stomachs. Instead of an actual stomach, there is just an open area glowing with flames.
There are other creatures as well, these ones with dark charcoal skin. Their eyes are pure white and their heads are adorned with huge, curling black horns. They have wings, but they are not wings like mine. Theirs are bony, with thin, leathery skin stretched over them, and pointy claws at the ends. Their legs are covered in thick, black fur and they have hooves instead of feet. They are all clutching strange looking objects that glow with that same, eerie blue color I had seen before.
Suddenly, a door at the far end of the deck slams open. Yet another large creature comes out and saunters toward me, a cruel smile appearing on its face as it gets close. This creature has a face that, if not on a body with strangely horrific features, would be almost handsome. Its head is topped with smaller, pointed horns. Its legs, while covered in fur, are smaller and somehow less menacing. It is wearing a type of copper plated armor on its legs. Its feet remind me of Verla’s paws. It has a long, thin tail, and its hands look like mine, just covered in fur.
The creature stops just in front of me. It is not as tall as the other creatures aboard the ship, but it is still a good deal taller than me. It stares down at me, its glittering crimson eyes looking straight through me, chilling me to my very core. The creature takes in all of me, from my hair to my long ears to my ivory feathered wings to my olive green dress down to my feet. Standing under its gaze, I wish I had worn a different dress. This one is one of my favorites, but it doesn’t cover much of my torso or my arms, and I suddenly feel very exposed.
The creature smiles again, but this time it is a very different smile. Instead of a cruel, soulless smile, now it is a lascivious, lustful smile. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears, and I find myself wishing I’d told my parents and sisters how much I love them, for I fear I won’t see them again.
Somehow I’ve managed to keep eye contact with the creature this entire time, and I watch as it opens its mouth.
“Boys,” it says with a deep voice that feels like silk and velvet when it reaches my ears. “We have company.”