The Void Beyond the Forest

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Prologue 

It began the way most painful experiences started, with pandemonium and fear. 

“Naiara!” screamed a disgruntled man, his voice full of panic. He was not thinking clearly as he wavered through the foliage, chopping down leaves and bracken and any little creature that stood in his way. His machete sliced through the air, silent and deadly and with unrestrained purpose. In his haste, he nearly cut through the back of his companion.  

“Ah!” hissed the man in front, clearly annoyed. “Careful Gyatso, or you’ll chop her down too!” 

Gyatso ignored the man’s comment and pushed him out of the way to continue on his path. Anan, who had uttered the warning, followed behind carefully. He knew that a panicked parent was impossible to reason with. He also knew they needed to regroup, retrace their steps and search for the lost child by observing what was around them; leaves close to the ground bent out of shape, disturbed soil and tiny footsteps would be key information. 

Yet the problem was Gyatso, a man of the ocean who did not understand the subtle language of the forest. If he paused and looked around clearly, he would see the obvious signs pointing in the right direction; he would hear the gentle whispers from nature telling him where to go. Naiara’s life depended on it, and Anan knew that time was running short. 

Anan shivered, less from the cold and more from the exertion. Goosebumps filled his arm, and he rubbed the hairs to calm himself down. Static jumped between his fingers, electrifying. And yet it spoke to him of a storm coming in. Overhead, the clouds had blown in on a westerly wind, bringing with them darkening shadows and the promise of snow. 

Short of jumping on Gyatso’s back and screaming reason, Anan felt helpless about what to do. How to logic with an unreasonable and panic-stricken man? Luckily, his fear was abated the moment the little girl’s mother showed up. 

“Gyatso,” growled Darya, the man’s partner. She sauntered up to him, gliding across the underbrush and vegetation like a ripple over water. “You must stop this, it will do no good.” 

The manic look left his eyes, and softened with anguish and worry. “It’s been so long,” he croaked, “and you know how fearless she is.”  

“Yes,” replied Darya, “I know all too well. That’s why we need to stop and think this through rationally. Where was she last seen?” 

Gyatso glanced desperately at Anan, who in return looked directly at Darya. “I saw her heading into the forest, to somewhere just beyond the baku enclosure. She looked…” he paused hesitantly, unsure whether it was wise to mention things in case it was just his imagination.

A cold look from Darya prompted him on.

“…it looked as if she was chasing something. Like smoke, but instead of being dark, it was reflective and shimmering.” 

The two parents exchanged glances curiously, and Gyatso furrowed his brow, imagining all sorts of disastrous situations. A superstitious man, his mind went straight to spirits and tales of wandering souls. Darya knew better than to speculate on the imaginary. Before either of them could respond, a voice from behind drew their attention.  

“She went this way.” Everyone turned towards the voice and were greeted by Naiara’s eldest sister, Alayna. “While you were discussing this, I found a partial print of hers.” Without waiting for their approval, Alayna took off, walking away from the group without further indulging their furtive stares.

The adults moved consecutively after her, observant and watchful. They followed through the trees and bushes, careful not to make too much noise, knowing some creatures they would scare away, and others they would attract. A gentle dampness settled on the air as the weather grew cold and snowflakes fell forcefully from the clouds. Not before long, the snow would become dense and cover up any tracks, smothering all chances of seeing Naiara again.  

Alayna came to a sudden stop, the adults behind almost walking into one another from their irregular, fervent movements. Darya hissed through her teeth, annoyed, but more so at herself and her blunder. She wasn’t concentrating and it was showing. Her absentminded worry would get none of them anywhere, especially not to their lost daughter.

She craned her neck past Alayna and saw the obstruction in the way. Kneeling down in front of them was another girl, who was quietly observing her surroundings. It was the third and second-youngest sister, Moriko.

Placing her hand on her shoulder, Alayna asked softly, “what do you see, Ri?” 

Moriko clenched her teeth, and concentrated hard. “It looks as if she was in pursuit. The footsteps, normally light and even, are pressed in near the front, like when someone rolls onto the balls of their feet to start running. There are deeper depressions in the ground closer to her toes. She… she must have seen something,” she paused.

“Instead of stepping around the bushes, she barrelled through them, snapping stalks and ripping leaves in her haste. If you look carefully, all that is disturbed is around her height. No more than three feet. It looks as if she was running haphazardly around the place." 

"Let's continue," interjected Alayna, but was stopped from progressing when her mother's arm extended in front of her.  

"If," mused her mother, "she was chasing something, what is it? And, more importantly, why doesn't it leave any tracks?" Darya was no hunter, as she too was born of the sea like her husband, yet she was not a stupid woman and could deduce simple facts from her environment.  

"Probably a winged creature, or something that traversed the trunks of all the trees," suggested Moriko, only for her face to redden upon hearing Alayna tut her disapproval. 

"The vegetation around here is too thick. Anything with wings flies above the canopy,” snapped Alayna. 

The firstborn sister brought her fingers to her lips as she studied the clues around them. “She would not be able to see and pursue something this far down. It couldn't have been anything on the trunks either. Again, she's too close to the ground, and, as you can see all the plants reach higher than three feet, they would totally obscure her world above.” 

Pondering the facts for a brief moment, she continued: “Whatever it was, it would have had to have been at least at eye level, if only part of it."  

"It doesn't matter what it is," barked Gyatso, making Alayna flinch from his reprimand. "We're losing time standing here debating." 

Normally, he would have been very impressed to see the level of wit and observation his children were exhibiting, but with one missing he had no time to concentrate on their achievements. Nodding in support, Darya motioned for the younger members to lead the way.  

They maintained course steadily as they followed Alayna and Moriko through the labyrinth of trees, stopping occasionally while the girls made their deductions and changed direction. The evening was wearing thin, and the snow was coursing through the forest thicker now, riding a stiff wind. 

Snowflakes were frosting Darya's eyelashes, the weight of the crystalised water obscuring her vision. Snow around these parts was very rare; while the weather dipped in temperature, it had been many years since frost and ice graced the landscape.

She lifted a hand to wipe her face and rub warmth back into her cheeks. She was feeling a deep, unsettling cold nestle into her, both on the outside and the inside. 

Known as a hard, unbreakable woman, Darya was revered in her line of work for being calculated and meticulous. As a famed and prestigious captain, while on every voyage and excursion into the sea and beyond, she aimed to leave no living man or woman behind. However, when someone died they died and that was that. No time to return to the body, no search parties, no mourning. Just time to move on. And she always knew when they were dead; she felt it deeply. 

‘Sense of the sea’ as her crew members called it. 

Just now, she was feeling her daughter’s presence slip further and further away. She shivered, a motion originating in her shoulders and making its way down to her knees. It wasn’t from the weather, but rather an internal knowing, deep and foreboding. Just as the sea had taken her colleagues in the past, so too had some force in the forest taken Naiara. 

Foreboding in the forest? She prayed she was wrong.

Suddenly, without any warning, her husband bellowed a roar so loud and deep, it shook the frosted sleet off the surrounding plants and jostled their souls in shock. 

He took off in an almighty leap and charged through the undergrowth like a berserker enraged.  

For the briefest of moments, Darya saw something glisten and shimmer in the distance before disappearing. Without hesitation, she swooped in line after her partner and followed blindly. 

It must be...had her prayers been answered? For the sake of the ocean and tide, let it be.

Gyatso's fervent pursuit made him difficult to keep up with. While she lost sight of him, the only thing preventing her from losing complete track of his location was the soft jingle of the bells from his earrings, singing harmoniously alongside his stride. Normally, hers would have been a distraction too, but she had remembered to take them off and place them gently in her pocket for safe keeping. 

Somewhere ahead, she heard the playful giggle of Naiara, laughing giddily to herself. Or was it herself she was laughing too? The mysterious apparition plagued her thoughts as she teared along. Just as she was beginning to tire, especially as she was not used to running long distances on land, she heard a yelp from Gyatso, not far up ahead. 

The sound gave her a newfound strength and she exploded through the bushes, expecting to see her partner embracing their lost daughter. Instead, she found nothing. She searched wildly, all rational fleeing her once calm and measured disposition. Where could they have gone? And why was everything so silent? 

Alayna, Moriko and Anan sprinted as fast as they could after the other two, but, regardless of Gyatso and Darya being sea-faring folk, they were lithe and strong and fit, and the trio struggled to keep pace. Although the mother and father would claim to be useless on land, their fitness, doubled with their parental instincts, gave them an almost supernatural speed. 

While Alayna and Moriko were young, they hadn’t quite grown into their bodies yet. Their legs shook as they strained to keep an eye on their parents, but lacking the decades of physical labour that their peers had gained left them slow and awkward. Anan, meanwhile, was older and frailer, and the sisters didn’t want to leave him behind, and risk losing both parties.  

For what felt like an age, the rest of the members caught up. At first they didn’t even realise they had reached their destination, as Alayna almost barrelled in the wrong direction past Darya. It was Moriko, lagging behind somewhat, who spotted a figure lying on the ground.

Tentatively, Moriko approached her mother. “Darya…mom…are you OK?” 

A lone tear walked down Darya’s cheek, leaving a moist and glistening trail on her skin. 

In the background, Alayna called out for Gyatso and Naiara. 

“Did you lose them?” Moriko asked Darya, softly, while continuing to look for an obvious path in the brush. “Did you see what direction they went in?”

Anan stood back, his face ashen. 

Moriko, perturbed by her mother’s unusual silence and inaction, knelt in front of her to meet her gaze. While seemingly looking at her, yet truly looking through her, Darya whispered, "they're gone." 

Like the way most painful experiences started, this one ended in heartbreak and devastation. If Moriko had only known where this would all lead, she would have paid better attention to the forest.

For the ocean and tide

The day began the same as it always did for Moriko. She woke to the sounds of ocean waves breaking over jagged rock, salt fresh on the ocean breeze as it trickled through an open window. Light filtered in fresh and new, only having just broken dawn minutes ago. Sunbeams kissed her face, soft and gentle like the touch of a mother waking her daughter in the morning. 

Not that her own mother would have done that. She groaned with early morning regret, rolling away from the light to face the wall, bones creaking with stiffness and lethargy.

The lingering smell of haze floated around the room, trapped under surfaces and nestled into material fabrics. While she only smoked a small bit before bed, to help her relax, the piney skunk scent was as natural to her abode as wetness was to water.

Instead of falling back to sleep though, she listened to the sounds of the world around her.

Down below her room, she could hear the seafarers preparing for a standard day of fishing. Ropes creaked against wooden mounts, straining from the heave of the boat and the pull of the wind. Waves sloshed underneath the vessels, a frothy foam kissing the edges. Men and women walked about the deck, barking commands and setting up their gear for hauling in the catch.

She could hear bells tinkling, a rhythm of tings she had gotten used to very quickly at an early age. It was a tradition in her village to wear the bells as good luck charms and was especially common among the fisher folk, who spent most of their time away from land. 

They believed the musical instruments would placate any malignant spirits lost at sea, or seafarers who had lost their lives to some calamity while out on the ocean. The ghosts would hear the different notes bounce over the waves and deep into the watery depths, and would follow the ship back to shore where they could lay to rest. 

The folklore claimed that any crew who did not wear their bells would bring misfortune, as the spirits would grow malevolent with rage and envy, and, with no melody to follow back home, would attack the sailors instead. 

Of course it was just a sea shanty told to scare children with wild imaginations. Most people wore them as routine instead, rather enjoying the melodic spell it cast over the deck on quiet nights and early mornings. 

As was tradition, the captain wore bronze bells which had a deeper tone, a resonance rich with base and commanding of a higher stature. Habitually, Moriko touched her earlobes in reverie, setting off a tiny jingle from the two aluminium bells in her ears, emitting a softer and more delicate sound. She never grew tired of hearing them sing.

A soft rap on the door jostled Moriko from her semi-dream, and she cocked her head towards the entrance, wiping away a small line of drool that was beginning to form at the corner of her mouth.

“Hmn?” was all she could muster in response.

To this, the door creaked open gently and in tread her sister as soft as a moonbeam touching the earth. Her lips twitched upwards, baring the corners of her teeth. The smell of salt and water drifted in behind, carrying with it the subtle warmth of the morning.

“It’s not like you to still be asleep,” her sister mused, sarcastically. “I thought a sea wraith had wandered in from the ocean and strangled you in your sleep.”

Moriko turned to face her sibling, moving her torso in an awkward twist while her legs stayed completely still. Her hair was tangled through itself, like a war had raged on her scalp and fell over her face in resignation and defeat. 

“Or maybe,” piqued her sister, “maybe a wraith did try to strangle you, but got scared of your face and fled in fear.” She chuckled in response to her own joke, finding her disgruntled sister quite amusing. 

“My visiting hours are between not now and come back later,” retorted Moriko, though she sat upright and started to weave the tangles out of her hair. “You almost killed me with all the work yesterday Lana, you think you could give me a lie in?”

“Oh for the sake of the ocean and tide Ri, you are so dramatic.” 

Alayna smiled tenderly and hovered at the end of her sister’s hammock. She opened her mouth as if to say something and paused momentarily, then, changing her mind, snorted in derision and pursed her lips. 

“You’re better than this,” she said instead.

Moriko frowned, puzzled by Lana’s bizarre mood, and in response the eldest sibling spun on her heel and moved back towards the door. Before leaving the room, she looked once more at her sister and grinned wildly.  

“Move your ass; we’ve got hunting and preparations to do.” 

With that, she was gone. 

Alayna’s attitude had changed some over the last few days. Normally, she was a hard-working, razor-edged leader who allowed no slack, especially from her younger sister. She was the first to rise at dawn, the one leading the hunters on their daily excursions, and the last to settle down to sleep. 

Moriko was convinced she never slept and instead got all her energy from shouting and ordering others around. 

When she was younger, she would tease her relentlessly about this, bowing in sarcasm at requests Lana made, moving her equipment to the most obscure spots or hiding away at the end of a hunt, when the tools needed cleaning and tending too.

Alayna always knew where to find her no matter what, which was what made her the best hunter in the village, among other reasons. Of course, Moriko would receive a severe slap to the back of the head and get dragged out by the cuff of her neck. 

Although Moriko gave her a hard time, she secretly admired her sister’s vigour and natural leadership skills, as well as her undisputed ability to hunt. Although she was decent in comparison, she could never measure up, as a natural laziness beset her personality. This would have to end soon, as Alayna was no longer going to be around to keep her in line.

Moriko sighed at this, rolling out of bed and onto the wooden floor. She walked over to the window and embraced the sharpness of the air, refreshing her tired and worn face. 

Normally she was never this exhausted, but the last few days had really been a strain. Her sister, along with many members of the community, were to travel north tomorrow to meet with the mountain tribe of Nithyafjoll, where Alayna would be reunited with her future husband, his family and her new clan. 

To do this, though, they needed days’ worth of provisions, all the proper travelling impedimenta tailored specifically to every single person going, sleeping equipment, cooking utensils, weapons sharpened and strengthened – and this was just what was at the top of the list. There was plenty more to do; an endless number of tasks.

As she stood there, pondering the days ahead, hands weaving through her midnight brown hair, pulling it into a strict braid, her thoughts wandered to the aftermath of Alayna’s departure, of her duty to assume the role of headhunter. Regardless of having upwards of twenty years of experience, ever since turning ten and being thrust into the world of hunting, this did nothing to turn the tide of foreboding thoughts of being in command. 

Pulling her hand away from her finished hair, she stared hard at her palm, criss-crosses of cuts and scabs scattered over her golden, tawny beige complexion. They were a reminder of where she had come from, and where she was headed.

Pushing away any further intrusive thoughts, Moriko closed over the shutters to keep out any unwanted sea spray, and quickly wriggled into her clothes for the day. She slipped into a tight-fitting, khaki green vest that ended just as it met her soft, brown leather trousers. She affixed a sturdy belt with a small carving knife, a simple yet effective unadorned dagger.

This was her hunting apparel, which she paired with arm guards made from the hide of a taniwha for additional protection, and a long strip of cloth which wound around her head and ears to stop the bells from sounding, while keeping her hair back and out of her face. 

To finish this off, she slipped into an aged pair of beige boots, which travelled no farther than her lower calf and tied with laces up the front.

Leaving her room, Moriko grabbed an apple and some grapes from the fruit bowl, which consisted of a woven net holding together a collage of various-coloured produce hanging from a hook on her wall. 

She exited her abode through the only door in and out, and stood on a small platform with nothing below except for jagged rocks and instant death. She was greeted by the same view every morning, a sight she never grew tired of. 

Before her, spanning the great horizon and blanketing her world was a massive ocean, a shimmering body of azure blue, flecked with frothy white and spots of green. 

The first sun, having emerged defiantly from its bed below the skyline, was gradually making its way up into the sky. She could feel the heat from it already and knew today was going to be particularly hot. 

Her home and that of her entire village nestled comfortably down the side of a massive cliff, known to all as Okeanus. It was a sight to behold, a complicated structure of wood, steel and rope. 

Its foundations had been established over time, and with strict and careful planning, architects had engineered the insertion of massive metal rods into the side of the precipice, forming a sustainable structure interconnected by lightweight boardwalks, rigid stairs and rope bridges. It cast a formidable shadow on the waves below, hanging magnificently in the air as locals and merchants, families and tradespeople, as well as visitors and neighbours, walked along each level with confidence and assurance.

For added safety though there were vines wound tightly together to form handrails and to give the unstable a place to lean, although they were only ever used by foreigners. The locals, youthful and elderly, and even those that were sick and injured, still maintained a low centre of gravity, as controlling balance was imperative from the day they could walk.

The living quarters of the town were grouped together on the outskirts of the façade on either side, a myriad formation of wooden rooms suspended close to the top while others took up location halfway down the rock face, and the bottom few stopped well above a safe distance of the waves, even in the case of a storm. 

Some were small, rectangular-shaped homes while others were single-room, cage-like structures dangling from metallic overhangs on the surface. Thick beams fastened these hanging cages to the wall, preventing swinging in fierce winds. Although tenants claimed that the floors vibrated and the walls occasionally shifted.

In the middle of Okeanus, shops, merchants and places of business remained centralised to the hanging town, so that all the amenities and goods were closer together. And with that came an abundance of smells, stock and mischief. Teens spent their youth dashing past stalls and stealing fruit (an unofficial right-of-passage for those growing up there), aggravating their elders and putting to the test the patience of strangers who, in brief moments of weakness, felt it their just duty to throw them over the side and let the ocean pass its ruling, although they never did. 

However, regardless of youthful deviancy, safety was paramount throughout the town, and anything that could cause havoc was strictly banned, including alcohol, fights and fire. Although the list was more extensive than those three items, the saying amongst folk goes for most things: If you’re going to do it, do it on land.

Moriko was the exception with her night-time smoking. It was frowned upon, but she only smoked a little, enough to soothe her but not too much to dampen her senses. That, and she lived further out the rockface than most residents, meaning the scent of haze was obscured somewhat by distance.

Topside, the surface was where some of the harder tasks took place, as well as offering a refuge from those suffering from vertigo, or those who simply refused to walk the suspended beams below. It was here where there were huts built on the naturally protruding shelves. Some had up to three or four huts on one, while others had singular abodes.

The most impressive by far, and that’s to the standards of the people who live out of one-room suspended cages, was the long and centralised visitor’s building, or, otherwise known as, their one-and-only restaurant. This, along with the other land structures, was made out of wood collected on land.

Some of these buildings were set lower than others, but most stayed close to the top. Paths wound around ledges and sloped up towards ground level, but there were also carefully crafted ladders that made for a quicker ascent or descent. These were built entirely for travellers and were present in the overhanging cliff-town also. Some people could not stomach the climb over the side of the village and down the ropes and pulleys to the makeshift homes. So, as a courtesy, the ladders were built to accommodate non-residents.  

Moriko's haven was one of the suspended cages secured by a rope above. It was a small room, containing her hammock, an inbuilt, lightweight chest to store her clothes, and little shelves dotted around the interior to hold any valuables such as jewellery, books, parchments, quills and everyday items. Any gifts she had received overtime, whose function only served aestheticism, hung from the roof, creating strange pattern-like stars as mimicked in the night sky.

Typically, the smaller hanging cages were for single members, travellers or for short-term rental agreements as they could only accommodate one person sleeping in them at a time. Families preferred to have their own homes topside or a string of interconnected hanging cages, allowing them to have more than one room.

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