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“I can’t believe we wasted the whole day licking our wounds,” I said angrily, staring out the window Kinder had sat at all night. I could see why he’d been here, from his perch there was a clear view of the front yard and the massive, dark forest that had taken it over.

“You don’t have to stay,” Mark said quietly from the couch. His shirt had been a lost cause, and he was wearing an old t-shirt from Kinder. The sleeves didn’t quite cover the large puncture wound on his arm, where dark red, twisted scars twisted out of the dime-sized mark. I’d seen the other three holes last night, while they were still bleeding. He looked a lot better today, thankfully.

“I do have to stay,” I said bitterly, “You drove last night.”

I turned back to watching the forest for any sign of Karen. It was too dense to see anything, but sometimes I thought I saw motion inside. Was that Karen emerging? Or just the forest twisting on itself? My watch was broken when a handful of jangling metal hit my head.

“Ouch!” I said, as the car keys fell to the ground in a clump. I looked back at Mark, who was rubbing his arm with a grimace. “Did you just try to throw that with a dislocated shoulder?”

“No,” he said, despite the obvious evidence. “They fixed it.”

“Of course, we’re just keeping you on the couch for fun.” I bent over to pick up his keys. I wasn’t even sure Nate had healed his shoulder. Popped it back in, sure, but surely he’d put most of his focus on stopping the bleeding. Nate hadn’t even woken up yet to ask what he’d done. Healing was exhausting work, for all parties.

“Well, now you can go,” Mark said grumpily.

“Are you sure?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer. I tossed the keys in the air, catching them with my unbandaged hand. The once white bandages were soaked in blood by today, but it had stopped bleeding over night.

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “I shouldn’t drive anyways.”

“Too right,” I said, pocketing his keys and looking outside. The forest was still foreboding and intimidating. I had hoped it was a cocoon last night, but with the clock approaching 5 PM, that was feeling less and less likely every moment.

“Do you think she’s okay in there?” Mark asked.

I shifted in my perch, checking to see if there was anyone lurking in the hallway. I didn’t see anyone, they’d all gone off into the basement to figure out how to remove Kelcie’s cast. According to Kinder, healing her arm was the last thing Nate had done before passing out. Of course, trying to remove the cast was a trick in itself and a welcomed distraction.

“No,” I said, answering Mark’s question. “I don’t think she’s okay.”

He frowned, adjusting his position on the couch. “This isn’t the first time she’s done something like this.”

“It’s too big,” I said. “Last time she had what, five trees? I walked around it earlier, it goes all the way to the road. Like, a full acre, at least.”

“Is bigger a bad sign?” he asked. “I know almost nothing on Nature magic.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s also malicious.”

Mark snorted. “Of course it’s malicious. You trained Karen enough to see it’s demonic.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” I muttered.

“Mhm,” Mark said. “They tell me most of your wounds are self-inflicted.”

“Only some of them.” I didn’t want to look at him, so I held up my leg instead, pointing out the long scratch through my jeans. “Her forest did this.”

“Ouch,” he said sympathetically, like he hadn’t just been bleeding out on the floor less than 18 hours earlier. “You should get something on that, it’s still oozing.”

“It’s what?” I leaned over to look. Sure enough, the scratch was still bubbling up around the clotted blood. I touched the pinpricks of blood and the small scab peeled away and a tiny river of red spilled out. The cut was a long one, wrapping around my calf, but it had been shallow. Definitely shallower than the slices in my cheek. “That’s worrisome.”

“Scared of blood?” Mark drawled. “Who are you, and what did you do with Rachael?”

I half laughed, poking the bandages on my hand to see if I could peek underneath. It looked like it was healing fine, though it was hard to see what was fresh blood and what was not. I poked at my face instead, rubbing my thumb over the self-inflicted cut.

“Spell it out for me Rachael,” Mark said wearily from the couch. “I’m too tired to play twenty questions.”

“These cuts aren’t still bleeding, are they?” I asked, pointing to my face. Mark shook his head. I grunted. “They were deeper. This…” I pointed at my leg, “I’ve had worse cat scratches. It shouldn’t be bleeding today.”

Mark shrugged. “So what’s that mean?”

“I don’t know,” I said, standing up. “Watch the window for a bit?”

“Do I have to get up?”

He sat up on the couch, still looking too pale for my tastes. I shook my head. “I’ll be back soon.”

Kinder’s basement was dark and unfinished, a sharp contrast to the polished finish of the upstairs. Jeff’s back was to me when I came down, too focused on Kelcie, her opened cast and several power tool that sat on the workbench beside her. I could see the angry red lines on his neck, poking out of another borrowed t-shirt. He jumped when I touched the cuts, smearing blood over his golden skin.

“Jesus, Rachael!” he said, grabbing the back of his neck. “Warn a guy before you sneak up on him.”

“Did you get those cuts in the forest?” I asked, rubbing the fresh blood between my thumb and forefinger.

“I… What?” He pulled his hand off the back of his neck slightly, tracing the cuts. “Yeah. Those thorns are nasty.”

“Is anything else still bleeding?” I could see the blood on his hand now. Not much, but significant.

Jeff pursed his lips, looking at his hand. “I don’t think so. But it’s not bleeding hard.”

“No,” I said in agreement. Everyone else was staring at us now. I could see the question forming on Kelcie’s lips and cut it off with my own. “Does anyone want me to pick up something?”

Amber perked up, looking at me hopefully.

“You’re going out?” Kelcie said, flexing her freed arm.

I nodded, jiggling Mark’s keys. “I’m going to go crazy in here. Figured I’d drop by home and the library for some essentials.”

“We haven’t even discussed the missing books yet!” Kelcie said, getting to her feet. “That was the whole purpose of coming here!”

“I think the plans changed when the flock of harpies attacked us,” I said angrily. “Besides, unless you want to go wake up Nate up, we’re still waiting on people.”

“He’s still asleep?” Kelcie said, looking at Kinder. “Is that a bad sign?”

I sighed. “We’re surrounded by bad signs, Kel. I’m going out before they get worse..”

I headed back up the stairs before I could listen to her protests.

I poked my head into the living room on the way to the front door. “I’m going out after all,” I said to Mark. “Did you want anything?”

“Root beer,” he said. “Any protests?”

“The usual ones,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll pick up pizza on my way back to make amends.”

Mark snorted, “I know you’re getting old, but they have this crazy thing now for pizza. It’s called delivery.”

“It’s not nice to mention a woman’s age,” I said teasingly.

Mark laughed as I headed out the front door. The forest loomed overhead, a dark reminder of last night’s brawl. I walked right past Mark’s car, stopping a bare foot in front of the thicket.

“Are you in there, Karen?” I asked. The woods writhed in response. I sighed,kneeling down beside a large, thorny branch. “Unfortunately, I don’t speak tree,” I said, unwrapping the bandage off my hand. “So I’m just going to hope I’m reading your other signs right.”

The cuts on my hand glistened darkly, still oozing blood when I curled my fingers. I wrapped my hand around the branch, letting the barbs sink deep into my hand.

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