warning for: descriptions of old prey carcasses.
It wasn’t that Cassius, or the others for that matter, had never heard the horror stories of the Wilderlands. But the forest outside the citadel, that surrounded the village like a cradle, had never moved or attacked before. It was a place of peace.
Well. It was a place of peace when they weren’t running around and climbing trees, shrieking like vultures.
“Didn’t I tell you how good it would be for you to get outside more?” Rowan said behind him. They weren’t actually paying him much attention, staring up at the trees. The birds were coming back, and their songs filled the forest. It felt awake for the first time since the cold of the Moon’s Vigil had set in.
“You should have brought your crossbow,” Ember added. She kept picking up stones and seeing how far she could throw them. At some point, she had wrangled Alanna into the doing the same. “You coulda practised.”
He laughed and did not think hard about bringing his crossbow out with him. “On what? The trees?”
“Yeah, otherwise he’d have to hurt one of the animals out here, and that wouldn’t be nice,” Alanna said. She threw a stone that knocked Rowan’s hat off their head.
Ember began to giggle, Rowan turned in confusion, and Alanna glanced towards him, looking for help. He grinned and held out his hand to her. She happily slapped her own against his. He pretended it didn’t hurt— when did she get so strong? She was ten.
They hadn’t gotten any chances to come out into the forest, let alone any farther, since it had gotten cold. He’d noticed that some of the trees looked different. There used to be a huge oak near the village, one they could all climb into and watch everyone from afar, that he wasn’t able to find anymore. There’d been a boulder too that was missing.
It was enough to notice, but maybe he was misremembering. Or maybe they’d fallen prey to the cold.
He glanced up to see two birds chasing each other through the canopy above, and grinned. “Whoever runs out of breath first loses!” he shouted and took off towards the east.
“That’s not fair!” Ember shrieked. “Head start!”
“Says the one with lungs for days!” he called back. Then, ignoring the cries of protest behind him, focused on weaving through the trees and not doing something stupid like tripping on an exposed root. It wouldn’t have been the first time, but it was ridiculously embarrassing.
He didn’t last long, but whether he stopped because his chest began to burn or the sudden appearance of a large crest that rose just above the treeline, he wasn’t sure. He skidded to a halt, doubled over with his hands on his knees, and stared at the hill.
That had never been there before. There was a fence around the perimeter of the forest, a fence they weren’t allowed past. It wasn’t like they’d never gone past it, but it was leagues and leagues away from the start of where the mountains rose to touch the sky. They’d never gone close to the mountains. Even the rocky hills at their base were too far.
This was new. It hadn’t been there last they’d come out to the forest.
Ember stopped beside him, breathing hard, but not nearly as much as him. “Whoa.” She said.
Alanna and Rowan caught up soon after. Rowan didn’t seem to have even bothered trying to run after them, but Alanna was blowing out puffs of air as she stared out at the crest.
Along one of the sides was a stone-covered terrace that disappeared into moss and the forest. From this angle, he could make out a huge, gaping cave mouth.
Ignoring the ache of his lungs, he began to jog forward.
“Don’t run too far ahead!” Rowan called after him. He barely heard it.
There were feathers scattered around the area outside the cave, and even some leading into it. A tree nearby was half broken, one face of it completely barren of any branches, like something large had scraped them all off. There were some white gouges in the stone, where something sharp had scratched imprints.
This was not an idle cave. He slowed to a careful walk, trying to wrestle his breathing into silence, and edged his way into the yawning darkness.
It was noticeably colder inside. There looked to be sections of the stone that had been dug out, to make it bigger. Something awful sharp must have done that.
Something repugnant filled his nose and he buried his face in the crook of his elbow to cough. He’d never smelled anything that bad, except the time he’d tried turning his dinner into a chocolate pastry. But even that hadn’t been as horrible.
He saw the nest first, and the bones scattered across the floor second. The nest was huge, built of branches and leaves and what looked like hides and tattered fabrics. There were long stalks of grass and what looked like dried, caked mud to hold it together.
Next to the nest, he saw a rotted, hollowed out carcass that might have been some kind of deer. It was impossible to tell now. Nearby, a ribcage picked clean, with only some blackened or red marks staining the glistening white bone. He swallowed hard, trying no to gag.
Then something creaked from the nest, and he froze. It was much too tall for him to see inside.
Well, he was already all the way here.
He began to climb the nest, testing each branch before he grabbed it to make sure it wouldn’t break off from his weight. Behind him, Ember called for him. He paused to turn. She, and the others, were standing closer to the mouth of the cave, all with hands or clothes covering their lower faces. Alanna looked pale.
“Shh!” he said. Then he turned back and hauled himself up the rest of the way into the nest.
It was warmer, from the furs and fabrics, than it had been on the ground. That was what he noticed first.
What he noticed next made him dizzy, and his breath caught in his throat.