I steeled myself on the way to the front door. Jokes aside, there was a battle going on out there and I had no idea how well it was going, or any weapons beyond my tiny penknife. Even the cuts on my cheeks had slowed down to a trickle, the blood on my hands too intermingled with Mark’s to risk using it. I rubbed my hands on my jeans again, trying to clean them before I grabbed the doorknob.
The evidence of the battle was apparent as soon as I opened the door. Just a few feet from the door lay one of the downed harpies, its feathers shimmering with a coppery hue in the light of nearby fires. The moment I stepped outside, one of the dark bodies let out a shriek, plummeting out of the sky towards me.
I pulled the door closed as I tucked myself into a roll, landing behind fallen harpy. That was when I noticed didn’t just look metallic. The flesh and blood had been transformed into bronze, its human face frozen mid-scream. I didn’t have long to examine Mark’s handiwork before it’s living sister was striking out at me again. The harpy’s long claws ripped into the statue of its brethren, sending razor-sharp metal feathers to the ground.
I rotated my way around the statue, keeping it between me and the harpy. Around me, I could see the fight illuminated in flashes and bursts of fire. One of them struck close to me, scorching the harpy hassling me. The bird screamed, collapsing to the ground with the smell of burnt feathers and hair. When the fire vanished, Nate was standing where the beast had been moments before.
“Why are you out here?” he asked, staring down the burning bird.
“We need you inside,” I said. With Nate beside me, the fire bursts had stopped. It felt darker than it had when we arrived as well. But perhaps that was because the carefully manicured gardens were much closer than they’d been before. The branches were more wild now, scraping against the sky. “You or Karen.”
“Who’s down?” he asked, kicking a line of fire at the harpy that was starting to rise. He advanced on it aggressively.
“Mark.” I stepped around the harpy statue, brushing against it too closely. The bronze feathers sliced into my burgundy jacket, ripping up the leather. I frowned at the statue.
Nate swore when I mentioned a name, turning my way. “Bad?”
“Would I be here otherwise?” I asked, stooping down to grab one of the fallen bronze feathers. I walked up to the fallen harpy, slicing the feather across the human throat. It parted the flesh easily and Nate looked away as it bled out.
“Just go make sure Mark is fine,” I said, scratching a quick rune into the barely-moving breast of the monster. It looked like a flourished “R”. Nate glanced back at me, scowling.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I said, “You were going to kill it anyways.”
He opened his mouth to protest and I pointed at the door. “Go. Argue with me later.”
He scowled at me, then ran for the door. I looked down at the harpy that seemed caught between life and death. With it as an offering, I could summon something big enough to end this easily. But the battle seemed to be winding down now, at least by the sounds. The other librarian’s would consider it a needless risk. And I had promised to avoid bringing any demons into the mix.
Still, it seemed rude to leave the clean up to Karen and Jeff. I searched the sky but I couldn’t see any more of the birds. Most of the noise seemed to be coming out of the brambled wildwoods that had sprung up from Kinder’s garden. I headed in, ignoring the feathered bodies that were trapped and crushed within the branches.
It was slow going through the brush. The woods were thick, with long, sharp thorns that ripped at my clothes. I was forced to hack at them with the makeshift blade, cursing as it caught on my jeans again.
After five minutes of struggling through the thicket, I had to admit that I wasn’t getting anywhere. I turned around, and my path in had vanished.
“Well fuck,” I muttered. Even the moon had vanished beneath the supernatural forest, the sounds fading away into just those at my feet. Kinder was going to be pissed when he saw what Karen had done to his fruit trees and flowers.
I plunged back into the vines, hoping I was travelling the right way. I thought I was going uphill, at least.
“Karen!” I screamed into the thicket, “Jeff!”
The thorns were going for blood. It only took me a few minutes to figure that out. They buried themselves into my legs, tripping me up, making me question my bearing. One thorn tore across my leg, leaving a bloody scratch from knee to mid calf. A dark curse escaped my lips and a patch of forest three feet wide and ten deep appeared in the forest.
“Of course that’s the wrong way,” I muttered at my cleared path. Already I could see the trees trying to close in on itself, trying to fill in that void. I raced down the path quickly, hoping I was at least heading closer to the house. By the time I reached the end, I’d already lost where I started.
“I get it!” I yelled at nothing in particular. “You’re a spooky, scary forest! Now will you let me out?”
The forest did not seem to be listening. That was never a good sign. I sighed, gripping the feather hard enough to cut open my hand. Fresh blood welled up in my palm.
“Sorry Mark,” I said. Between me and the harpy I’d left bleeding, he shouldn’t get any feedback. I hoped, anyways. When I’d left, Mark didn’t have a whole lot of blood to spare. But I wasn’t sure how else to get out of this forest. Hopefully, one near-dead harpy would be enough.
Before the first words could escape my lips, a section of woods imploded nearby. I felt the moisture suck out of the air around me and a man appeared beside me. I could barely make him out in the gloom, but I recognized that magical signature.
“Jeff!” I said gratefully, letting the spell shrivel like the plant matter he’d burst from. He turned my way, dried twigs snapping in his path.
“Rachael!” he said with surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d come help,” I replied, “only to get trapped in Karen’s infernal forest. How the hell do you get any fighting done in this?”
I heard him more than I saw him come towards me. “I’m at my limit too. I haven’t seen anything but shadows in here.”
“Fuck,” I said, “Not even Karen?”
I picked out his outline, shaking his head. “I was hoping to get her to Mark.”
“Well Nate’s on it now,” I said. “Just need to worry about ourselves.”
“Do you know which way is out?” I asked. He froze as if considering the predicament for the first time.
“Fuck,” he said finally.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “Fuck.”
“I could port into the canopy?” he said questioningly.
I grabbed at his shirt before he could. “Not unless you want to lose me.”
I heard Jeff sigh. “So what do you propose? Demons?”
I looked at the blood dripping from my hand. Mostly my own, but mingled with the harpy and Mark’s by now. I took a deep breath, clearing my thoughts.
“Rachael?” Jeff said, and I held up a finger to shush him, trying to sense the connection back to the house, between the blood I had spilled and the blood in my hands. I could sense the harpy too, with my mark on its breast and its blood neath my nails. It was like tiny threads of shadow in a forest that threatened to rip them apart, but they were there. I pointed a path towards the house.
“That way,” I said, sounding confident. “Can you make a path?”
“I can try,” Jeff said. He sounded exhausted. I didn’t blame him. I’d only fought two harpies and I was already a mess.
“Go slowly,” I cautioned. “The forest is still growing.”
“I guess Karen’s still fighting?” he asked as several trees before us exploded into frozen shards.
I pursed my lips as we walked, still pointing the way home. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” he asked, still clearing the path.
“If she’s still in control, why is the forest fighting us?” I asked.
“Maybe she’s distracted?” Jeff said hopefully.
I shook my head. “You were jumping around, did you hear any fighting?”
Jeff didn’t respond. A larger swatch of forest exploded, and I could see the house lights beyond the clearing.
“I don’t hear anything either,” I said, walking quickly out of the shadows. “Not even the harpies.”
“Do you think she’s still in there?” Jeff asked as we stood on the driveway. “She could be hurt, or dying.”
I looked back on the forest now that we were in relative safety. “Maybe,” I said. “If she was hurt, this might be her cocoon while she heals.”
“Might?” Jeff asked. I had to remind myself he was still fairly new. Not as new as Amber, but he hadn’t been around during the Great Giant War, when we’d all thought Karen was dead. She’d come back a day later, hatching out of a tree just in time to save my ass. It’d been years before she let me live down ‘The look on my face when she skewered that punk’. In her words.
“If it is,” I said, “We probably won’t find her tonight. Let’s get some sleep.”
Jeff looked skeptical but let me pull him into the house. I just hoped I was right.