Raven’s Journal – August 2199
“I think about death a bit more than I’d like. My death. Seems a terrible thing for one not even age twenty. I’ll turn 17 next month, I think. I lose track of time more lately, with the way life has become such drudgery. When I imagine my last days, I know it will be a time of mixed feelings. It will be a relief of sorts, since we all know the future of the world is bleak. But, of course, I’m afraid to die. While I want to believe there could be something more after this life, I’ve been told so many conflicting things, I don’t know what to believe.
Life has gotten more difficult for all of us. Well, I should say for the few of us left. When I was a child, it seemed there was still reason for hope, some shreds of optimism. But in the past several years, everything became more hopeless. The air is tainted. The water, too. If not for our protected springs, we would never have survived this long. But, that supply can’t last forever. Then, we’ll have no choice but to relocate and it will be the end of Ironwood settlement. Where will we go when that day arrives?
The land to the north is steeped in radiation. We’ve heard stories that the regions to the east are aflame and the fires will eventually work their way toward us. To the west there is nothing but desert and the poisoned river. The only known possibility is the Teardrop Forest in the valley directly below us, but the witches who control the area are headhunters who practice vile magic. There must be fresh water in the region to sustain them, but they would surely be hostile toward any strangers who try to stake a claim to it.
I feel trapped. There are no carefree days anymore. We toil in the gardens constantly, just trying to produce enough food to keep our people alive. Lord Greyson is so strict, more than he used to be. He and his puppet, Kroh, don’t really seem to believe their own words. They preach to us that hard work is our only course for survival. But, they brush aside any of our concerns about the dwindling water supply. They act like our worries are nothing but paranoid fears.
The rest of us know it won’t be long before the springs dry up. We’ve seen the receding levels of the underground well. We can taste the bitter chemicals that have gradually seeped in. Why they try to fool us is something I don’t understand. I know they have our best interests in mind, but they won’t talk about future plans. They just say we should trust them. I used to blindly accept whatever they said. Not anymore. I can’t. I feel a crisis coming.
More and more, I think about my own end point. And what I feel most is regret. Never to have met my own parents is sad enough. But knowing I can never bear a child of my own makes me wonder why I go on. I need something to pin my hopes on, something to give me reason to live beyond working the soil and hoping to see another sunrise.
From what I’ve been taught and from the few books we’ve discovered over the years, the Earth was once teeming with life. It was a lush and vibrant world and there were billions of people and countless breeds of animals. Then the first big nuclear war started all the suffering. So many died. The soil absorbed far too much radiation, as did the water. Much of the wildlife became extinct or mutated to survive. Humans became less and less able to produce children, and now I wonder if any babies are being born anywhere. The youngest person I know is almost 11 years old. Maybe in a land far away people are still fertile, but we’ll never know. Travel is nearly impossible now.
There are fewer and fewer people with each passing season. We are as barren as the Earth is now.
These are ugly times.”
Chapter 1: The Moon, the Stars and a Boy with No Past
“I wish I could have known him as a young boy. To see how he reacted to the sight of his first butterfly, his first sunset, his first shooting star. Those moments when life’s humblest miracles are presented in little vignettes. I would have so enjoyed seeing these discoveries reflected in those magnificent eyes.”
A solitary figure infiltrates the forest campsite, obscured by darkness. Pungent liquid is sprinkled next to two men, asleep beneath diffused moonlight. Satisfied, the interloper melts into the forest undetected.
Hours later, a displaced teenage boy awakens in the same woods to a strange potpourri – morning dew, animal musk, dampened ashes. Shaking moisture from his tangled mane, his eyes are greeted by a ground-clinging milky fog. Blinking changes nothing, his surroundings as murky as his memories.
Foreboding howls and bird calls herald dawn. The song of the forest compels him to move despite the lingering gloomshroud. Flanked by dense woods and a stone barrier at his back, he has no choice but to grope his way toward the cacophony. A timely appearance by a cluster of prysmflies helps illuminate a path through the dense vegetation.
Eventually, the boy spills from the dew-drenched thicket to a horrific event – a full-grown Ironwood Bear in furious pursuit of two men.
Flaunting agility equal to its power, the beast backs its terrified quarry against a rock outcropping. Fear momentarily paralyzes the boy, but the direness of the situation triggers latent instincts. In eerie synchronization with a jagged bolt from the slate-colored sky, he leaps into the clearing, arms waving wildly. The frothing beast whirls around, startled by this strange creature summoned by the lightning.
The bear’s intended prey seize the opportunity to hide behind thick vegetation.
The enraged beast attacks. A violent swipe to the legs sends the boy tumbling headlong into a ravine, where he becomes obscured by the fog. His pursuer returns to its original targets, quickly picking up their scent. Upon them swiftly, the beast mercilessly executes Nature’s plan. A burst of slashing claws and gut-wrenching screams… and two heartbeats are forever silenced.
The boy peers from the embankment. The behemoth ransacks its victims’ supplies rather than feasting upon their remains. It rips a wicker basket from the back of one corpse and scatters its contents about the clearing. While the animal ruts about the scraps with its thick snout, the boy is violently yanked from the ravine and dragged behind an immense tree. A calloused hand quickly covers his mouth while his wrists are bound together with coarse twine. Powerful arms secure him in place.
A moment later, a commotion erupts from the site of the attack. Rhythmic yelping accompanies loud drumming to create an ear-piercing racket; as though a veritable army had sprung from the glade’s moss-covered soil. The frothing creature rises on powerful haunches, only to be assailed by a barrage of rocks and spears. The deafening assault forces the bear to retreat to the forest’s dark recesses. Silence is restored.
Hands are withdrawn from the boy’s parched lips as bindings are loosed from his wrists. He remains frozen in place, eyes shut tight. Against his bare neck, he detects the warm breath of one, then two… and then more. He tentatively turns to face his rescuers.
Before him stand a group of women clad in animal hides and leather bindings. They brandish spears and longbows and three hold small, hide-covered drums. The tallest of them breaks the silence. “On return from our morning patrol we stumbled upon the Ironwood Bear stalking your brethren. Synchronicity smiles upon you. While grateful we were chosen to preserve your life, it saddens us that we arrived too late to save the rest of your clan.”
Still in shock, the weary boy responds, “You… you just saved my life. If you hadn’t scared that thing away …”
Piercing gray eyes study him from behind long strands of dark hair. The middle-aged woman firmly announces, “We’ll escort you to Sanctuary, where we can properly tend to your injuries.”
“But, I… I’m not wounded”, the boy meekly states.
The group’s leader kneels to inspect his right leg. His calf has been slashed open, the skin torn asunder by the bear’s razor-sharp claws. A crimson puddle blossoms beneath his naked feet.
Myrana takes firm grasp of his tanned shoulders while a petite young girl wraps a damp cloth around his lower leg. As she efficiently dresses his wounds, the fair-haired pixie quietly reassures, “The salve steeped into this wrap will lessen the pain… and slow the bleeding.”
He counts six females of various ages. Most are clad in simple cloth or fur tunics adorned with leather accessories – armor protecting shoulders and chests. Some wear high boots bound to their calves. The youngling who tended his wound is barefoot, draped only in flimsy muslin cinched at the waist by a green vine. Her long hair is kept from her face by a band of tiny white flowers. When their eyes meet, she promptly turns and scurries away into the forest.
Myrana whips her head around. “Away flies Aeryn – impetuous as always! We’d best catch up quickly. She’s sure to be heading home, but will find some sort of trouble if left out here alone.”
The blood loss exacts its toll and the boy slumps to the ground, unconscious. Without hesitation, two of the more mature women unfurl a thick leather wrap and lift him into it. In silent coordination, the clan makes for the forest’s southeastern quadrant.
Chapter 2: Bathed in Moonshadow
“I’d heard tales about the ‘Witches of the Woods’ since I was old enough to understand. Mostly in the form of warnings from the settlement’s elders. We are never allowed to leave the confines of Ironwood without escort, let alone venture deep into the forest. The stories told of a band of savage women living in seclusion in Teardrop Forest. They would drop down from their hiding places in the treetops and kill us if we dared trespass in their territory. I never knew if it was true, but have been deathly afraid of them my entire life.”
The forest is oddly silent outside the clan’s hidden dwelling. Two women tend to the boy’s lacerations as he lay unconscious on a humble wooden bed. Employing a needle crafted from animal cartilage, the gray-haired woman binds ravaged flesh with boar bristles. The younger one paints the wound with thick balm and then bandages his calf. Her efforts earn an approving nod from her elder.
The boy mumbles incoherently just as his attendants turn to walk away.
“Sounded like… ‘I hear you… father?’”, Aeryn offers.
A dozen years her elder, Oera speculates, “Perhaps it was the boy’s father slain by the bear… and the younger one blood-related, as well. The time to ask and answer will present itself soon enough. Come – we must prepare broth for when he wakes.”
Aeryn peers over her shoulder at the sleeping boy as they walk toward the adjacent chamber within the Ironwood Trees’ base. The clan had established their sanctuary within a cluster of the immense trees, carving out chambers connected via archways. This enormous variety of oak had mutated during the Post-War Era, as had many surviving organisms. This strain commonly reached gargantuan size in the fertile forest, typically growing in clusters of three, trunks melding together as they matured.
Night dissolves into early morning. The boy awakens to unfamiliar surroundings. Inspecting his bandages, he notes the eerie silence. An oil lamp casts a soft glow across an array of herbs hung along the wall to dry, but there are no signs of his rescuers.
“Hello? Anyone there?” he calls out to the darkness. No response.
Moments later, distant rustling is followed by soft footsteps across the adjoining chamber’s dirt floor. Aeryn enters through the archway. She carries a dark-brown earthenware bowl, a trail of steam in her wake.
“Good morning, stranger… are you able to take some broth now?” The boy nods and eagerly accepts the offering. “You’re safe here. I’ve broth and water for you.”
“Call me… Sage. And can you tell me… where, exactly, is ‘here’?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m lost. These woods are unlike any I’ve ever seen… and, believe it or not, I have no idea how I got here.”
Aeryn replies, “You’ve suffered physical injury as well as personal loss. When the others return, you may ask questions of Myrana.”
“Who’s Myrana? And… what’s your name?”
“I’m Aeryn. Myrana is Clan Mother. I’m not sure I should be answering…”
Sage interrupts. “Clan Mother? And what clan is this?”
“We belong to the forest. Outsiders chose a name for us long ago. They refer to us as ‘Butterfly Naiads’… because of nearby Butterfly Falls.”
“Butterfly Falls. The name’s unfamiliar. Is that a village or a natural landmark?” Sage probed.
Aeryn gestures for him to take the earthenware spoon. “Our Falls is a great Wonder of Nature – and one of the few sources of clean water. We established this sanctuary near the base of the Falls. It’s nearly a full day’s climb to the top.”
Through a mouthful of hot vegetable broth, Sage asks, “What is this word… ‘Naiad’? A religious sect? How many live here?”
“There’s nine of us now. All from different regions. Naiad is a very ancient… uh… mythological term. According to legend, long ago, angelic beings took up residence deep within Ironwood Forest. The stories tell of emissaries sent from the gods to guard the springs and live in harmony with the forest animals.”
Intrigued, Sage asks, “You’re… the offspring of… angels?”
Aeryn giggles. “No… we’re as mortal as you are. It’s only a nickname.”
Sage manages a weak smile. “Lucky you discovered me when you did. That creature would have made a meal of me for sure. I don’t intend to be a burden for long, though. Soon as my leg heals a bit, I’ll be on my way.” While taking another sip he explores her beautiful light-blue eyes.
Embarrassed by his lingering glare, Aeryn softly states, “Your wounds are quite deep. It’ll be several days before you can walk without risk of the stitches separating. The clan offers shelter and food until you’re well enough to return home.”
Sage’s furrowed brow reflects great confusion.
“What is it?” Aeryn asks. “Did my words upset you?”
“N…no,” he reassures. “I just… must’ve struck my head when I was knocked down. Having trouble remembering my… uh…”
Aeryn swiftly reacts to his eyes glazing over and catches the half-emptied bowl as he releases it. Sage slumps over, seated at the edge of the bed. She steadies him with her free arm. After setting the bowl on the floor she carefully swings his legs onto the bed and covers him with a blanket.
The rest of the clan returns, entering another chamber nearby. During their early-morning expedition they gathered enough fruit, herbs, roots and nuts to last for a week. After shedding and storing protective leathers and weapons they begin preparing the bounty.
Nathyn, a dark-haired teenager, is at the center of the activity. They soak roots in a large basin and pack various fruits inside Terracotta containers. In short order, the entire harvest has been processed and stored within a cramped antechamber that serves as a pantry.
Chore completed, Myrana inquires of Aeryn, “Our young guest; has he taken nourishment?”
“Not all of it, Mother. His eyes rolled back and he fell unconscious again after only a few sips.”
“About his eyes…”, Myrana mused.
“Yes. I detected what you warned of. But, he barely had them open long enough…”
“And have you shared words?”
Aeryn nods. “He’s having trouble remembering… claims never to have heard of Butterfly Falls.”
“Shock may cause confusion or memory lapse.” Myrana raises an eyebrow before adding, “Then again… he may simply be trying to deceive.”
Aeryn quickly responds, “I believe he’s being truthful. Perhaps he struck his head when he fell.”
Myrana calmly lectures, “Let me remind you, this boy suddenly appeared during Moonshadow, and such rare celestial events are often harbingers of doom. His eyes reflect that which the prophesies foretold. Remain wary until we understand his intentions.”
Hours pass and the clan members execute routine duties. As evening approaches, the wounded boy gradually regains consciousness. His head aches and he feels a burning sensation from his wounds. He wills his eyes to open, only to discover a large, gray-bearded man hovering over him. Flickering light from the nearby lantern outlines the man’s silhouette as the boy inspects the object presented within his extended palm.
“Take this. Eat it now,” Yussaf prods. “Aeryn is fetching water… to help wash it down.”
The boy accepts the peculiar item and smells it. He warily asks, “What is it?”, unable to identify the strange paste rolled up inside the leafy, green wrap. “Is it safe? Who are you? Your name…”
“I’ve taken the name, Yussaf. And do you believe we would nurse you to health only to poison you? The steamed Echo Root inside this leaf will speed healing and renew your strength. The wrap is mostly for flavor – a rather delicious strain of silkweed. Your energy will rise quickly.”
With that, the boy tentatively places the morsel into his mouth and begins chewing. A symphony of unfamiliar flavors flows over his tongue. “Mmm… oddly delicious!” he exclaims.
Yussaf chortles, “Ha! Once the Echo Root serum enters your blood you’ll feel a pleasant, warm sensation. That will quickly fade. Within a few minutes, you’ll be ready to move mountains. Remember, that wound is laced together. Resist the urge to jump to your feet, which you will likely feel compelled to do.”
Before he can scoff at the outrageous claim, tendrils of warmth course through the boy’s body. The sensation spreads from his mouth to his throat, and then into his chest. His heartbeat races. An overwhelming feeling of power overtakes him. The urge to spring to his feet and run through the forest is too great to resist! The old man had already placed his hands firmly atop his shoulders and applies gentle pressure to secure him to the edge of the bed.
“Aha!” exclaims the old man. “Everyone experiences a fleeting sense of immortality. It will pass. One… two… and now?”
“I… I believe it has passed, yes. I still feel much stronger, though! Can I stand now?”
“Slowly. Be mindful to avoid unraveling Oera’s handiwork!”
Aeryn and Yussaf slowly assist him to his feet. Sage asks, “Is Oera the one who stitched me up?”
Myrana lurks in nearby shadows just beyond Sage’s range of vision.
Yussaf strokes his long beard. “Oera is Clan Healer. She drew upon her great skills and experience to mend your leg. But Nature requires a predetermined length of time and no less to complete the healing…”
Sage interrupts, “I… I appreciate all you’ve done. It’s just that I feel strong and full of energy after eating that… that…”
“Echo Root,” Aeryn helpfully whispers.
“Echo Root!” Sage parrots. “That stuff is a miracle of some kind!”
Myrana enters his field of vision, her wry expression hinting at the depth of her wisdom. “We are surrounded by ‘miracles of some kind’, child.” While Sage cautiously tests out his rejuvenated legs, she turns and whispers to Aeryn and Yussaf, “Stay vigilant and avoid gazing directly into his eyes… as forewarned.”