The murder of crows glared at Jerek Haelin from the tree branches as he surveyed the forest, dark and imposing as the sun set red behind him. He glanced warily at the ten or so birds, black bodies blending into the trees’ shadows, and clenched his fists. Every instinct screamed to leave, his blood crawling at the idea of entering the forest at night, but Jerek had no choice. Every rumor he had chased, small though it was, said she only appeared at night. Most people Jerek had spoken to believed it was because the sun’s light burned her skin, but he doubted the truth of that. The night was merely a good place to hide. With a sigh and another glance toward the crows, whose unnerving gaze had not left him, Jerek shifted his knapsack onto his back and pushed through the sharp branches and rough bark that crowded the only possible trail he had been able to find.
The path was faint, no wider than the width of one of his boots, with a few broken branches here and there, and dead leaves that had been crushed by something’s foot. Probably just a game trail, Jerek thought, but it’s better than nothing. A chill wind ruffled the edges of his cloak, and he frowned as he pulled it closer. The seasons were changing and he dreaded what was coming. Winter storms could, as they had before, delay his hunt for months. As he walked softly forward, Jerek noticed the new grass that was beginning to push through the trampled down path, as though it hadn’t been used recently. Perhaps it was only an old game trail, but the tracker in Jerek thought not. The branches, rather than having been broken at random, had a pattern to them. Scrapes on the tree trunks that could have been mistaken for antler rubbings were clear trail markings to Jerek’s trained eyes. As he pressed forward into the brush, he felt a rising excitement in his bones. Surely this is the place.
The sentiment, though noble, was somewhat lessened a few hours later, when Jerek’s tunic was ripped to shreds, torn by the grasping branches, and his arms and bare face were scratched and scraped, while his shaggy brown hair kept catching on branches. His boots, though a welcome barrier to the thorns lining the path, were a hindrance themselves, getting caught in the roots that seemed like they were trying to consume his feet if they strayed even a bit off the path. Despite all his years of exploring harsh environments, Santuarie Forest made Jerek feel as though he were a young boy on his first trek through the woods again. The anticipation was still there, but was growing smaller and even less obvious, and every step Jerek took felt like sloughing through quicksand. The wind had not lessened but grown more bitter, tearing through his clothes and body, freezing him to the marrow. It was as though the forest itself was fighting Jerek’s intrusion, and the weary, cold, and pained part of Jerek wished it would win.
With every step his pack grew heavier, and the crows, rather than remaining behind, had elected to follow him like scavengers, watching and circling as if they were waiting for him to fall. In every journey he had taken over the past five years, trying to fulfill his uncle’s dying request, never had he encountered such creatures. It was as though evil itself had settled into the night, watching him through beady, reflective eyes. The closest he had come to this feeling before was in the northern mountains.
But the worst by far was the shadow that had descended on Jerek’s mind. It was insidious, creeping through his thoughts, draining all strength and motivation from his steps. It took everything in him to continue forward, and even then only the memory of his father and the echoes of his lectures on familial responsibility were the only reason his feet moved. His father had valued nothing so much as family. Never had he allowed anything to stand in the way of helping where it was needed. Jerek remembered one particular evening when his father, weary from a day’s work in the fields, took him to his aunt’s orchard and together they spent four hours picking the apples from the trees. As they were returning home in the wee hours of the morning, Jerek had asked his father why. His father said merely, “Because she’s family and she needed it,” and that was that.
Even with all the memories crowding into Jerek’s mind, urging him forward, exhaustion beat at him, battling his resolve. He had never felt such a burden, and in the end, was helpless against it. Weariness finally won, bringing Jerek to a stop at the edge of a clearing, where his shaking legs threatened to collapse.
Suddenly, the crows, which had been circling ever closer to their prey, shrieked and flew off, but not without one final dive towards Jerek. The beating of wings startled him, causing him to trip and fall forward onto his knees. But as the crows retreated he expelled a lungful of air, feeling the shadowing of his mind recede as well. As the noisome birds flew farther and farther away, he could feel his depleted energy returning in slow waves. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in the cool, clean night air. What was that? he thought, a chill crawling up his spine.
When he opened his eyes, there was a pair of brown boots in front of him where there had been none before. Jerek jumped up quickly, his gaze flashing over the small frame clad in dark hunting attire, until his eyes met the assessing brown gaze of a young woman. She was frowning slightly as she sized him up, and her small pale hands tightened on the hilt of a dagger sheathed at her hip. For a moment, Jerek was silent, his hands instinctively searching out the hilt of his own weapon. Her sudden appearance gave rise to a startling thought: Maybe this was the one he had been looking for? But he shook it out of his head. This girl was far too young to be the Daemira. According to the few details he had been able to cobble together through rumors, the Daemira had to be at least twenty-five, and this girl couldn’t possibly have been older than sixteen, though why a sixteen-year-old was wandering alone in these cursed woods was beyond Jerek’s ken.
“Why were the crows following you?” The harsh and urgent tone of her voice cut through the unnerving silence that had fallen over the forest since the crows flew away.
“Why do you care?” Jerek’s flippant remark caused the girl’s eyes to narrow and her frown to deepen. Inside, Jerek heard his sister’s voice scolding him for his rudeness. She had sworn that his sarcastic attitude was going to get him into trouble one day, although, according to Megana, it was because she was going to kill him.
“They haven’t come this far into the forest in years. Why were they following you?” Her growl rubbed against Jerek’s already harrowed nerves, so, rather than answering, he ignored her strident, demanding question and looked past her into the clearing. As he did, hand still on his knife hilt, he took a small step forward, attention caught by what was being illuminated by the emerging moonlight.
In the middle were four stones, and Jerek could tell that they weren’t there by accident. Carved and polished in a way no natural stones could be, weathered a bit but well taken care of just the same, the stones stood as tall as Jerek’s waist and were evenly spaced apart. Surrounding each was a plethora of wildflowers in four different colors, each stone surrounded by one singular color. The moonlight made the stones gleam and the shadows around the flowers dance. Jerek, entranced by the beauty in front of him, took another small step forward, but the sound of the girl’s dagger being drawn stopped him instantly.
In an instant, she swung her hand around toward him, blade flashing. Jerek managed to stop her blade with his, and the clashing of the knives echoed through the clearing, disturbing the peace. He added a little extra shove at the end of his arm motion so the girl stumbled back a step. Her dagger still unsheathed but lowered slightly, she said, “I’ll ask you again, what do you have to do with the crows? Why were they following you?”
Wary and guarded now, Jerek countered, “What is this place?”
At the mention of the clearing, the girl’s eyes, which to this point had not left his face, dropped away, following the motion of her arm as it finally fell back to her side, dagger falling unnoticed from her suddenly weak fingers. “It’s merely a remembrance,” she mumbled, retreating toward the stones. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and clenched her hands into fists, a tightness that was mirrored on her face. “Why are you here? And why were the crows following you?”
It was the slight hint of desperation in her voice that finally caused Jerek to answer. He had never been able to tease his sister past this point, and although she looked nothing like Megana, something about the girl’s current behavior reminded him of his little sister. In the church, after their mother had died, Megana had been speaking with one of their neighbors, standing the same way. It wasn’t until later that Jerek had learned that the neighbor had been talking to Megana about their uncle’s death.
Jerek took a deep breath and sheathed his knife, trusting his instincts. “I’m looking for the Daemira. As for the crows, I have no idea why they were following me.”
At the mention of the Daemira, the girl’s eyebrows snapped downward and her scowl deepened. “Why were you looking for the Daemira?” The growl was back and her right hand dropped to her dagger’s sheath as if to grab it.
“I’m still looking for her, and it’s because I...well, I’m sure this is going to seem strange to you, but I need her help.”
The girl looked away and whispered, “The Daemira doesn’t help anyone, so you had best return to where you came from, and forget about her.” As if to end the conversation, she knelt down to pick up her knife and sheath it.
Jerek shook his head slowly, a grim expression on his face, although his voice was kind when he replied. “I can’t. I need her help. You must know where she is, though, if you know so much about her.”
The girl blanched. “I didn’t say I knew her,” she said harshly, but her eyes exposed her words for lies. She shifted her weight apprehensively and glanced around the forest as the wind began to pick up.
“She lives in this forest, doesn’t she? And before it comes up, I’m not leaving until I find her.” Jerek went on as if the girl hadn’t said anything.
She opened her mouth as if to respond, but before she could say anything, a gust of wind blew through the clearing, causing goosebumps to rise on Jerek’s arms. Carried on the wind were howls the likes of which Jerek had never heard before, but the girl obviously had. Her face, pale before, grew even whiter. “The Midnight Wolves are out. They shouldn’t be hunting for another few hours at least.” She stared at Jerek in apprehension. “Who are you? First the crows and then the wolves?”
Jerek held up a hand to stop her. “Honestly, I have no idea what you are talking about. I’ve never heard of these…what did you call them, Midnight Wolves? I’ve hunted wolves before, what makes these ones so special?”
“Midnight Wolves are creatures of the dark. They are completely blind, and hunt solely by scent. They rarely hunt this early in the night. It’s only when they’ve caught a special scent or…” She trailed off, looking toward the sky.
“The crows that followed you…they aren’t normal crows. It’s quite possible that…but no, that would be crazy. She wouldn’t be able to…but of course she could. They are creatures of the dark, after all.” After muttering the last part to herself, the girl ground her teeth together and exhaled heavily out of her mouth before taking Jerek’s hand. “At least the crows have left,” she said under her breath as she pulled Jerek out of the clearing on the opposite side of where he had entered.
“Where are we going?” Jerek asked as another unearthly howl echoed through the woods, closer than before. He sensed that this girl was not easily frightened, and so he was willing for the moment to just follow her. At least she seemed to know an easier path through the woods. There were not as many thorns and cruel branches scraping his skin, for which he was grateful.
“Somewhere safe. Protected. That’s all you need to know.” She dropped his hand and moved in front of him, leading Jerek single-file through the trees. The strange shadow that had plagued Jerek before the clearing didn’t return, although he sensed it waiting, as if the girl’s presence was keeping it at bay.
So distracted by this idea, Jerek was startled as they passed through an invisible wall of intense cold. After a sharp intake of breath, he asked, “What was that?” The girl looked at him. “That was the only thing that keeps us safe from the crows and the other creatures of the dark that roam the forest.” She continued walking in a curving path that seemed to lead nowhere.
“Us? What do you mean us?” Before she could answer, however, Jerek’s eyes were blinded by a sudden onslaught of bright light as they turned a corner and pressed through a dense clump of trees. As he blinked away the spots in his vision, Jerek began to make out the wall of a structure, although as his vision cleared he decided a more apt word for it would be fortress.
It was made out of a dark wood, and stretched deep into the shadow of the forest around it. Most of it was only one level, but there was a shadowed tower in the back on one side, and a large slanted roof towards the back on the other side. Jerek couldn’t tell from the front how long it was, but from the roofs, he imagined it had to be over a hundred feet long. The bright light was from the torches set in increments on the side of the house and at the entrance to the forest path where they were currently standing.
Jerek stood there, gaping at the incongruous sight in front of him. That such a structure was hidden in the middle of the forest, and so well that even rumors of it were nonexistent, was unbelievable. The girl didn’t pause, however, and was at the wooden door before she turned around to make sure he was following.
“Are you coming?” Her voice, a whisper that had echoed in the silent clearing, was louder here, near her house, and it startled Jerek out of his befuddled stillness. He hurried to the door and gladly entered the warmly lit front room after her. After the journey he had had, and the nerve-wracking trip through the forest earlier, even the idea of shelter was more appealing than remaining in the forest any longer. The atmosphere within the house was far louder than the forest outside, although muted and In front of him stretched a long hallway, with lanterns hanging along the walls in various places. He could barely make out a room at the end of the hall that seemed brighter and cheerier than the rest of the house, and the source of the noise.
The girl cleared her throat and, when Jerek looked at her, indicated that he should take a seat on the couch against the wall. He sat, breathing a sigh of relief at the comfort that he hadn’t felt in weeks, and leaned back against the soft cushions, his exhaustion expelling any possible concerns about where he was.
“I’ll be right back. Stay here,” the girl commanded before disappearing down the hallway. Jerek tilted his head back and closed his eyes, grateful for the rest. He had been traveling long days with only short rests at night for weeks, since he had left Megana and their home of Trenion, chasing yet another rumor, although this one seemed to lead somewhere more promising than the others he had followed.
Jerek jumped at the hand on his shoulder, sitting straight up and flushing as he realized he had fallen asleep. He stood up to face the man who had touched him. Although Jerek was a little over six feet tall, his eyes only came level with the man’s bushy beard. It was peppered here and there with white and matched his slightly scraggly, shoulder-length black hair. His crystal blue eyes were kind and sympathetic, though his mouth formed a frown.
“Vivvia says she found you wandering in the forest. There aren’t many who’d brave the dangers of Santuarie.” The old name for the forest sent chills up Jerek’s spine. It was the name the old woman had used when she had pointed him toward it. In the tongue of the Brotherhood of Stars, the name meant more than cursed, more than haunted. It was the birthplace of demons.
“I’m searching for someone. The girl who brought me here, Vivvia did you say her name was? She knows her, the woman I’m searching for.”
The man’s eyes bored into Jerek’s. His deep voice came out soft and calm as he asked, “Who were you looking for?”
Silently, Jerek laughed at the subtle way both the man and Vivvia had tried to dissuade him from his quest. “I am searching,” emphasizing the “am”, “for the Daemira.”
The man’s eyes widened a fraction. “And Vivvia told you she knows her?” He sounded skeptical.
“She didn’t volunteer the information, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m fairly good at reading people, and she is not very good at hiding.”
The man chuckled before gesturing for Jerek to follow him down a dimly lit hallway off the far end of the room. “My name is Lew, and if you need anything, come find me. Tomorrow morning, after you’ve had a chance to rest, I’ll introduce you to my wife Milli and a few of the others around here. As long as you’re here, you’ll be expected to help out. If you don’t like that, you’re free to leave at any time.” He paused at the first door on the right and pushed it open. It was empty except for five or six single beds and a torch beside the door.
“You’ll stay in this room while you’re here. Right now, you are the only one who’ll be staying here, but that may change, depending on how long you stay.”
Jerek nodded gratefully. “Anything I can do to help, please let me know. However, I do have a mission to complete,” he reminded Lew gently. The man tilted his head in acknowledgment before turning to leave the room.
“That will happen when, and only when, the Daemira chooses. Oh, and one more thing,” he said absently, turning back to Jerek. “The room at the very end of the hall is off limits. No one is allowed there.”
“Thank you again,” Jerek said, exhaustion suddenly overwhelming him. Lew shut the door and Jerek dropped his knapsack to the floor next to the closest bed before collapsing on it, barely managing to kick off his boots before his eyes were drifting closed. Tomorrow, he thought as he nodded off, tomorrow I’ll find her...