Conrad’s cry rattles me to the brink of consciousness, fracturing the dream that played on repeat through the night; Father and Mr Tanaka paused in stalemate, the former standing sentry in front of the tree, the latter simply watching, torch flaming indefinitely. I cling to the fading scene, trying to hold the pieces together with sheer willpower. I need to know how far either of them will go. I’m certain that the dream will eventually play to the end, one of them will make a decision, and it will somehow represent what is happening back at home.
“Hen, we have to help!”
A sharp jab to my side finally jerks my mind back to my body. My eyes crack open to the unwelcome sight of Conrad kneeling over me in the bow of the boat, prodding me with the tiny oar, each abrupt movement upsetting our buoyancy.
“What’s your problem?” I yell, swinging my sore legs back into the boat. The sky framing Conrad’s head is a jagged mosaic of powder blue and yellow shards—I hadn’t wanted to sleep until morning. I hadn’t really wanted to sleep at all. Not in such a reckless situation, floating along a river without an idea of its destination, nor the ability to see past its glossy surface. I half-heartedly bat Conrad’s oar away, which he continues to poke at me despite his clear success of already waking me.
“We have to help!” Conrad pleads. He points behind me with the oar, though his guidance is unnecessary; a bone-shuddering, guttural roar wrenches my attention to the source of his alarm.
We’ve left the radiant forest well behind; the landscape in all directions is flat, blanketed by luminous grass and the very occasional tree. Not the glowing types from the forest, but rather what could easily be standard oak trees from home. They look rather unimpressive amid the eye-watering grass and the vibrant sky as a backdrop.
It’s beside one of these oaks that the commotion is taking place. I might’ve thought it’s a bear, if not for its pale green coat, the colour of dying Earth-grass that has not quite withered to hay, and its enormous paws, each the size of a bath tub, unnecessarily large for its body. The beast, having reared onto its hind legs, throws its weight against the oak tree with enough force to send splintering cracks through the air like a whip.
“You want us to help that thing tear down a tree?”
“No, look!” Conrad says, jabbing the oar skyward. “There’s something up there.”
On the uppermost branch of the oak, a small, white something clings for its life—which doesn’t seem destined to continue much longer. The splintering of the tree grows louder as the green beast-bear slams itself against the trunk, sending a judder all the way to the white creature’s branch, making it sway precariously. A feeble squeak pierces the air.
“Absolutely no way.” I snatch the oar from Conrad and paddle for all I’m worth. “We need to put as much distance between us and that entire situation as possible.”
Conrad’s reaction—to grab hold of the oar in an attempt to stow my frantic rowing—while quite predictable, is mitigated by the fact that I’m much stronger than he is.
“Please, Hen!” he wails. “We can’t just leave it!”
“The heck we can’t,” I say, my words punctuated by the loudest crack of wood yet, followed by another squawk of the white creature. “That thing is toast. Let’s not jump onto that bear’s dinner plate along with it.”
Conrad releases the oar, the sudden shift of force making me overcompensate my next stroke and almost throw myself overboard. I think, for one second of blissful naivety, that Conrad might’ve given up the treed creature as a lost cause. Until—
“I’d like to return to land, please!”
Before I can even evaluate who or what he is talking to, the river swells beneath us, a mighty wave lifting us up, so that for a second or two I continue to row like an idiot, the paddle sweeping through nothing but air. The wave curves, cradling us in its grasp, and veers off to the riverbank to deposit us with a crash of water. Our landing is surprisingly graceful—at least enough so that Conrad is able to hop from the boat and bolt towards the oak tree before I can grab hold of him.
“Are you insane?” I yell, tripping over the rim of the boat and stumbling onto dry land. “Get back here!”
Conrad takes off as fast as his legs will carry him, which is about twice as fast as mine can carry me. He doesn’t break his pace until he’s somewhere near the range of where the oak tree will land if the bear succeeds in toppling it, which, judging by the ferocity of shredding wood and the dangerous angle the tree now leans in our direction, seems imminent.
“Hey bear, stop that!” Conrad yells, waving his arms pathetically as he jumps up and down.
“Time to go,” I say, seconds from sweeping him up and throwing him over my shoulder.
“Hey bear!” Conrad screams, his voice sharper than the creaking tree and the creature squawking atop it. I know immediately Conrad has made a grave error. Mid-push, the bear pokes his head around the side of the tree, then turns it sideways, a clear sign of curiosity. Black eyes scan the field to find the source of the yelling, and quickly lock onto us. A thick string of drool globs from between bared fangs
“Conrad, what have you done?”
“It’s not attacking that animal anymore,” Conrad says, voice trembling.
The ground reverberates as the bear drops its huge paws back to the ground. The tree swings from the release of pressure.
Then the bear closes in on us slowly, as if daring us to run.
“Quick!” I say, so fast that each word is merged together. “Ask the river to do something!”
“Like what?” Conrad whimpers.
“Conrad!” I hiss, mind scrambling for a plan as I place a hand on his shoulder and guide him into a backwards walk, eyes trained on the beast as it stalks closer. This is the wrong thing to do, for the bear charges, grass and mud flying everywhere as its paws chew through the ground in its desperation to get to us.
“Stop!” he yells at the bear as it rampages closer, growling and snapping at the air.
“Is that seriously your plan?” I yell, preparing to dive in front of him. Maybe if the bear eats me first it will give him a chance to run.
But Conrad steps in front of me instead.
“I said . . .” He lifts his hand and points his palm at the solid wall of bear that is almost upon us. “STOP!”
A dazzling blue symbol flashes from his hand and strikes the bear on the chest, causing it to skid to a stop, a hair’s width away, jaws open, suspended over my head like a vicious, toothy umbrella. I can feel its hot, angry breath ruffling my hair.
“I’m dead,” I say, closing my eyes and steeling myself. “I’m dying.”
“You’re not dead,” Conrad says with a newfound confidence. “But you should get your head out of there, Hen.”
I open my eyes. The bear’s jaws are still suspended over me, as if someone has hit the pause button. I back away slowly, until I can fit the entire bear in my field of vision.
“I really am magic,” Conrad says, admiring his hands. “It feels really . . . weird.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can feel the spell.” He strokes the bear’s chest, running his hand along the symbol stamped there, flattening the green fur. “It’s not like when I ask the world for stuff. This magic came from me. The spell is a part of me. But it feels weird, like . . . like holding water in my mind.”
“How did you know you could even do that?” I say, half in awe of the situation, half wanting to get out of there.
His answer brings a wave of heat to my face. “You realise you just blindly risked our lives for . . . for . . . “
As if to complete my sentence, a streak of white glides from the tree. The creature has wings, and the reason it didn’t use them to escape becomes clear as it wobbles perilously in the air on its way down—one of them is badly damaged, stuck at an odd angle. It lands on the bear’s shoulder, folds its wings to its sides and scurries along the green beast’s neck, onto its head. It looks like, well, it looks like a bit of everything. It has the head and ears of a rabbit, the wings of a bat, the forelegs of a monkey and the hind legs of something duck-like. To finish off, it has a long, coiled tail like a corkscrew. Though each body part appears to belong to a different animal, or swiss army knife attachment, everything is covered in snow-white fur, making the odd creature seem more . . . intentional.
“Conrad,” I hiss, pointing at the mutilation perched on the bear’s head. “Does this seem worth our lives to you?”
“I love it!” Conrad chirps. The white creature hops onto his shoulder and glares back at the bear with what I would swear is indignation in its beady eyes.
“You really are insane, you know that, right?”
The symbol on the bear’s chest flickers, stealing our attention. A crack appears in the centre of it, a jagged line of diffused light. It flickers again. My mind flashes back to the cave, when the symbol Conrad cast upon the tree shattered, and the door he spelled open began to shut as a result. Is that what’s happening now? Is the spell failing? Would that not then mean . . . ?
Another crack fractures the symbol. It flashes again, growing dimmer all the while.
The bear grunts. Still suspended in animation, its black eyes swivel in its head and land on us.
“Conrad,” I say, backing away again, eyeing how the bear has started to flex its paws. “RUN!”