From the journal of Melanie McAfee, Patient 011915.

Three

One is the base of all things. Our individual perspective originates in the one. No matter the name, all things begin with one. One is the base of all things.

Two is the recognition of other. A baby recognizes her father and they become two. Two separates and establishes duality. Night and day, heads and tails, hard and soft, wet and dry. One has an ever present equal opposite, and together they are two. Two is the recognition of other.

Three is the sacred number. It is the height, width and breadth of all things. It is the here in which one and two exist. It spreads like lattice throughout all creation always returning to itself. Three, in all its derivatives, has been, is and always will be. Three is a recurring theme one and two will recognize around them always. Three is the sacred number.

 

“Melanie?” Dr. Schnell asked after reading the section from her journal aloud. “Will you please explain to me, again, what that means?”

“Um…” Melanie appeared distracted and avoided eye contact. “What now? Explain one, two and three?”

She tilted her head in thought and stared at the ceiling tiles. Eleven long and seven wide. Two primes, absolutely perfect. And, of course, added together they made eighteen, a multiple of three. What would I say if I were still taking my meds?

“Did I write that?” She asked. Of course, I did! It is the way of things. “It sounds odd to me.”

“Don’t you recognize it?” Dr. Schnell asked. He scribbled some notes in his book and looked at her over the top of his glasses.

“No sir.” She ignored the urge to shake her head vehemently while answering. That would be a clear indicator I am free again. Am I getting the midwestern accent right?

Dr. Schnell smiled. It was clinical and clean, plastic with no emotion behind it. Only the intent to calm the patient while he continued his evaluation. He licked his thumb and forefinger, then turned the page to his notebook.

“How about this next part?” He said as he adjusted his glasses to read again.

Earth, Sea and Sky

Unlearn your understanding of the four elements taught to you in modern schools. Earth, wind, fire and water certainly all exist, but they do not make up all things in the universe. What they have come to be recognized as were born in the belly of creation, their meaning changed as mankind’s understanding evolved.

Remember, three is the sacred number which grows from the one and the two. One is the fire of creation, the base of all things. That fire is at the center of all we are and all we know. It is the very spark of life. From this foundation grew the world tree.

The world tree is the other first recognized by the sacred fire. Its roots are fed by the fire and it grows to all realms, in all times. The world tree brought forth the three realms in which all life is held, the Earth, Sea and Sky.

The Earth is the world you know. Filled with ever evolving life and reaching out as far as the senses can perceive it. It is more than the planet on which you stand, it is the very dimension in which that planet exists. The planet was simply named after the realm by the first men, as they understood the nature of all existence.

The Sea lies just beyond the Earth. Like the oceans to land on our planet the Sea is always one tiny step from the shore. The great veil separates Earth and Sea, but those who know how and when can travel between them. The Sea is the birthplace of magic and the realm of creatures great and small. Magic spills over from Sea to Earth like tides washing up to the shore.

Surrounding it all is the Sky. Just as the air we breathe provides us with oxygen, so too does the Sky stoke the sacred fire of creation to provide for Earth and Sea. This is the place of gods and goddesses, those forces constantly circling Earth and Sea to impact all things. The Sky dances around Earth and Sea like children around a May pole, ever weaving the energies of creation and altering the destiny of life.

 

“Do you recognize that?” He asked.

“No sir.” She lied. Yes! I will always recognize truth when I hear it. “Sounds a little, coo coo, if you ask me.” She made a twirling motion with a finger next to her temple.

“Are you saying you think you are crazy?” Dr. Schnell sat forward in his seat, slightly.

“Not me.” Melanie said. “But the whackadoodle who wrote that should be put up here with us!”

“Melanie, you wrote this.” Dr. Schnell said.

“Oh, did I?” She asked with a perplexed look. “I don’t remember that. I guess I am in the right place then.” Her last sentence had the slightest lilt. The doctor didn’t seem to notice.

“If you will, Melanie, I would like you to hear one more entry.” The doctor turned the page and read, not waiting for permission.

The Veil

A thin mystical membrane separates Earth and Sea. As the mystical forces and creatures of the Sea cross over to Earth they bring with them magic itself. Religion, legend, folklore and myths of old were inspired by mankind’s perception of these forces at work on Earth. This thin membrane is called the veil.

The veil varies in thickness and intensity depending upon a variety of factors. Some places around the world have become sacred for the ease of passage from Earth to Sea and back. This is also true for some seasons and some specific dates. These have evolved into holidays, in many cases.

There are also specific plants and animals whose aura and perception easily pierce the veil. Mystical creatures have been known to travel from the Sea to Earth during the first light of day in the small area beneath the branches of a Hawthorn tree. Cats can see clearly through the veil at all times and have therefore become companions to many Earthly magical practitioners.

The most prolific points of access from Earth to Sea and back, for those who know how to cross, are called Moon Paths. When the moon crosses between our world and the sun its shadow pulls a tear in the veil. This tear eventually heals itself, but for 81 years the veil is thin enough to pass through freely in both directions provided certain circumstances hold true. This has had enormous impact on folklore in our world.

A Moon Path is only created during a total solar eclipse, and only where the moon’s shadow was absolute. The duration is another example of the sacred three. Three, multiplied by three a total of three times gives 81. All things return to three.

 

“Any thoughts, Melanie.” Dr. Schnell asked.

Melanie furrowed her brow as if contemplating. She bounced a finger in the air and incorrectly mouthed some of what he had read. My first thought is that it proves my point you read me three parts of my own journal, boyo! She smiled.

“I got a little lost in there, sir.” She said. “Did the author say you could travel to another place if you were under a Hawthorn tree at sunrise?”

“Yes.” He said abruptly. “And Melanie, you are the author.”

“If I didn’t trust you so much Dr. Schnell, I would call you a liar.” She smiled. “I couldn’t even follow all of that. I am surprised to hear I wrote it.”

“So, I want to be clear.” Dr. Schnell put on a very serious face. “None of these passages made you feel anxious in any way?”

She shook her head.

“They don’t make you worry about goblins and elves coming to get us?” He continued.

She snorted and shook her head again.

Dr. Schnell closed his notebook and sat back. Relaxation washed over him and he began to straighten his files and tidy up the desk. He packed everything into a briefcase and stood. A genuine smile took his face as he offered a hand to help Melanie rise from her seat.

“After your episode right before the eclipse last month, some were worried you would be on the verge of panic.” He said.

“I bet.” Melanie laughed as genuinely as she knew how. “I’m terribly sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me, sir.” Yes, I do! It was a full eclipse that cut a Moon Path right across the country. It’s been a fecking month, all manner of beast is like to be walking through. And that’s the least of it! We’re, all of us, in fecking danger!

“I understand, Melanie.” Dr. Schnell put his hand on her shoulder. “Sometimes we all have a bad day. I’m just glad you pulled through it all so nicely. I am very proud of you.”

“Thank you, sir.” She said.

Dr. Schnell straightened his jacket, took his briefcase from the table, and turned for the door.

“You have a relaxing weekend, doctor’s orders.” He laughed. “Today was the last day of summer. Can you believe how fast it flew by?”

“Is it now?” Melanie said while laughing at his attempt to be funny. “What’s the word for that? Sol-something?”

“Solstice.” Dr. Schnell said smugly.

“Ah, yes. Solstice.” Melanie smiled.

 

 

“What the fuck kinda name is Yochanan?” asked Todd louder than necessary. Cursing was still a pretty new expression for him, so he was careful to enunciate the word very clearly. So much so it sounded misplaced among the gentle Midwestern slur flowing beneath the rest of his words.

“Shut up, Todd!” Eric shouted. He hated when other boys wanted to join their Saturday quests. Todd would always try to show off for them like he was auditioning for a part in their play. And so far, none had ever worked out. Always too much posturing and not enough commitment to their role.

“My name’s Eric you big jerk. Everyone knows it.” He said.

“Bull shit!” Todd hit the T extra hard to make sure no one mistook it for any other word. “If your name is Eric why does your mom call you Yoyo?” He punctuated his question with a harsh laugh and mocking points at Eric. He looked back to the two new boys for acceptance.

“I think it’s a pretty badass name.” said Mike. He was the tallest of the new boys and a 7th grader, so he knew way more about cool than any of them. “Can I call you Yoyo?” he asked in earnest.

Eric looked at the others uneasily, not sure how to answer. He couldn’t tell whether Mike was being serious or if this was a subtler mockery.

Mike’s little brother nodded in agreement as he pushed glasses back in place up the bridge of his nose. His name was also Tod but in the neighborhood they called him Single D to avoid confusion. Todd proper, with two Ds, looked at the brothers dumbfounded. Eric guessed from Todd’s confusion Mike’s question wasn’t sarcasm.

“Um, yeah, I guess so.” he said.

“Yochanan comes from the Hebrew language and means ‘God is Gracious’, which is quite unique and outstanding in my opinion.” Single D always used twenty words when two would do. If he ever spoke at all, that is. Most of the time he stood by quietly and nodded in support of his brother. Sometimes he would even add a gesture with his nod.

“It’s cool.” said Mike. Single D nodded to indicate the affirmative while pointing at his brother with a thumb.

“Fucking A!” Todd hadn’t heard his own voice for a while, nor had he cursed. Never one to let too much time pass between either he thought he would rejoin the pack and kill three birds with one phrase. He was, of course, very careful to correctly and distinctly pronounce every syllable so make certain he was understood.

Eric stood a little straighter knowing he had the favor of the new boys. Maybe letting them join the quest this week wouldn’t be so bad. He looked at Todd with an expression of “What do you think?” and gave a shrug. Todd replied with a nod of “Yeah, they’re cool.” Which he hoped wasn’t so enthusiastic it made him look over eager.

“So, we’re gonna go get our gear and meet back at the angel.” Eric scratched the back of his head and looked at his feet. “You guys wanna quest with us today?”

“Yeah man.” said Mike. Single D nodded in agreement, giving his glasses another push up his nose while Mike continued. “What professions are you guys?”

“I’m a rage fueled mother fucking Barbarian, man.” Todd beamed. “And Yoyo is an expert tracker. He knows the woods better’n anyone.”

“I’m a Ranger.” Eric clarified.

“Shit yes!” said Todd.

“How about you guys?” Eric asked. He hoped that at least one of them used magic. A healer would be ideal. That and maybe another fighter of some sort. HIs train of thought turned full wish list for a moment before Eric realized he didn’t really care as long as the new members were into their roles. Saturday quest was about the adventure and the role play. If it was just going to be a couple dudes hanging out while he and Todd were questing the whole day would lose all its magic.

“I’m a Paladin and Single D is a magic user.” Mike stood as tall as he could. Single D nodded with a grin and took a breath as if about to speak. Then shrugged and nodded some more.

Eric smiled broadly. They couldn’t be a better fit for the party. A fighting healer and someone who could cast. What a great balance they had. This would be the best Saturday quest yet!

“So then, the angel at 1:30?” asked Eric. “Enough time to gear up and have some lunch?”

“Sounds good.” said Mike as Single D nodded.

“Fucking A right it does!” Todd got in his last curse before lunch and the boys disbanded until 1:30.

Eric ran in the door, past his mother, and into his room with a practiced grace. He waved and made the shape of a heart with his hands as he passed her. She smiled and blew him a kiss. Still smiling as he closed the door to his room he took a deep breath in preparation.

The room was meticulously clean for a boy Eric’s age. There was an order and structure to his space that gave him comfort. Not in an obsessive or compulsive way, rather, as a balance to the chaotic structure of the outside world. Nature was not to be tamed, but the den was.

He kicked his sneakers into their corner and pulled his boots from beneath his bed. Jeans were already a part of his uniform so there was no need to change them. He pulled a green hooded sweat shirt on over his Star Wars t-shirt and fixed the sleeves the way he liked them, with three cuff rolls on the right arm and four on the left.

From his wall he took down the Bear re-curved bow his father got him for his 12th birthday. He had petitioned his parents, at length, to let him take actual arrows on quests but he was denied repeatedly. Eric didn’t let it fester into an argument or a sore spot. The bow was enough to help him be in character.

For finishing touches he threw his khaki messenger bag over his head and shoulder to hang on his left side.

As he ran into the kitchen to grab a couple sandwiches for his bag his mother made it a point to get eye contact. When she was sure he was watching she spoke to him using American Sign Language.

“You and your friends are going on your Saturday quest?” she signed.

“Yes ma’am.” He said while nodding.

“Be safe and keep dry this time, please.” She signed.

Eric was secretly very happy his mother spoke using sign. She never seemed to harp on him like other boys’ mothers. There was a gleam in her eye and smile on her face with every word. It gave him a very clear sign of her love for him.

“I will mom.” He signed.

She liked that Eric spent time outside actually playing instead of cooped up with some video game. So many boys his age were wrapped up with their Xbox or smart phone and hardly saw the light of day. Eric played games like that some, but he mostly preferred the outdoors. It warmed her heart.

“You have your watch?” She asked. After he nodded, pointing to his bag, she continued to sign. “And you will be home by 5:00, in time for dinner, right?”

Eric nodded again and gave his mother a loving hug. She dropped a chocolate bar into his messenger bag when he wasn’t looking and waved as he hopped out the door. With fluid agility he bounded around a gate to the back yard and over some railroad ties used for landscaping. He landed with a spectacular pose next to his dog Boomer.

Boomer was a chocolate brown labradoodle. A bumbling ball of hyperactive, slobbering and loyal energy so devoted to Eric he could barely contain himself. Eric knelt down to say hi with scratches and unhooked Boomer’s leash. It was entirely possible Boomer liked Saturday quest more than any of the boys did.

Once unhooked he frolicked around Eric with glee. Never moving more than ten or twelve feet away from him before coming back and checking in. He vigilantly watched for squirrels, villains, monsters and other dogs, not necessarily in that order.

Eric’s yard was bordered by a fence with a thin tree line in the back. On the other side was a five-acre field at the front of a cemetery. The field routinely flooded so no plots were sold here. Instead it was well groomed and served to make the cemetery look more open and inviting. Behind the field was a small hill rising about 20 feet up to a plateau on which plots were laid out.

Eric and Boomer sprinted across the field and up the hill into the cemetery. They followed the fence line which continued from behind Eric’s house on up the hill. The thin tree line slowly expanded to a finger of woods about 50 yards across for a quarter mile. There the fence ended with the property line of the last house on Eric’s cul-de-sac. The cemetery bordered bare woods from this point on to the back.

Just beyond the end of the fence was a beautiful headstone carved in the shape of an angel. It stood, looking at the heavens, with its arms raised up in praise and its wings spread majestically. As it came into view Eric noticed Mike and Single D had already arrived. Todd wasn’t there yet so Eric decided to save his breath and stop running.

Eric was in awe. Mike was actually wearing armor. His shins and knees were covered in baseball shin guards painted silver over heavy boots and blue jeans. His thighs and mid-section were covered with hockey leg guards customized to allow for movement and also painted silver. Small shoulder pads covered his chest and shoulders painted the same silver. Over it all he wore a tabard, belted at the waist and a red cloak attached to his chest in front using the laces of the shoulder pads. In his right hand, point in the ground, was a large wooden sword fashioned in the style of a bastard sword and on his left arm was a trash can lid made into a shield.

It was amazing.

Single D was decked out in character too. He wore layers of red and maroon robes with a black and maroon cloak. Across one shoulder he carried a red leather bag shaped like a giant book. It was adorned with feathers and had various sigils painted on it. Around his neck was a pendant with a red stone in the center. His hood was drawn up over his head and he leaned on a staff made from the heavy handle of a mop.

Single D noticed Eric approaching and tapped his brother’s shoulder with a nod to let him know. Mike turned slowly, head held high and shoulders back. He smiled at Eric with approval as he and his hound approached the brothers.

“Well met, Ranger.” Mike said. “Who is your companion?”

“Hail Paladin. Mage.” Eric gave a slight bow of respect to Eric and nodded to Single D. “He is called Boomer. My longtime friend and partner in protection of these woods.”

Single D nodded with a smile before dropping to one knee to meet and greet Boomer. Boomer took the queue and happily approached the hooded boy. Tod gave copious scratches behind the ears while Boomer wagged his body and kissed the boy a wet greeting. He stood with a giggle and gave Eric a thumbs up and a smile.

“What’s up bitches!” Todd hopped a fence to join the group. “Are you fuckers ready to start mother fucking Saturday quest?”

Single D shook his head.

“Todd, while I appreciate the correct pronunciation of your curse words, I would like to point out that none of us are impressed by either your ability to say them or the carelessness with which they flow from your mouth.” Single D said.

“Yeah man, uncool.” Mike followed.

Eric just smiled to himself. These guys just might work out after all. They were a good fit for the party, they didn’t take any of Todd’s braggadocios crap and they were entirely immersed in their characters. Sadly, Todd probably wouldn’t change his vocabulary based on their observations. It was more likely he would dismiss it entirely.

“What-fucking-ever, man.” Todd said. “I’m cool as shit, man.”

After the group eye roll at Todd’s proclamation the new members sized up his gear. He carried a reclaimed tree branch he had stripped the bark from. The ends were crudely cut and beaten into the shape of a club. He had wrapped dark leather straps around the handle area for grip and effect.

He wore leather boots with brown fur cuffs just below his knees. His cut off jeans shorts were well hidden beneath a tan leather apron fashioned into a long loin cloth gathered with a thick brown leather belt. None of the tones matched, which gave a natural and worn feel to it all.

On his upper body he wore an old fox fur coat with the arms cut off and buttons removed. His mother made him wear a shirt beneath it so he chose one as close to flesh colored as he could find. Topping everything off was a coon skin cap that would make Davey Crocket proud.

“Nice gear though, dude.” Mike said. Single D nodded enthusiastically and fixed his glasses.

“Let’s head out then.” Eric said. “Boomer and I will take point.”

He ran out ahead of the other boys a few paces, careful to stay in earshot. Boomer inspected headstones and benches near them and kept an eye toward the woods. Mike held up his shield and nodded his head to the rear of the line. He stepped behind Single D and gestured for Todd to take the position behind Eric in line. Todd nodded with a barbaric grunt and stepped in front of the diminutive magic user. The party moved out to follow the white rocked cemetery road to the rear where fewer plots were in use.

At the very back of the cemetery the manicured grounds extended twenty yards beyond the road and then abruptly turned into untended prairie. Two trails led off at opposite angles through the tall grass. The left was in the direction of train tracks a couple hundred yards to the southwest and the right led northwest to a corner of woods poking into the prairie. They took the right path.

At the edge of the woods there was a very slight incline to the trees. A few quick steps up and they were into the canopy. In the woods the trail was just wide enough for one. No one maintained the trail but it was well worn. Local kids and some smaller woodland creatures used it regularly.

It was early September and summer still hung in the air but the bugs were starting to thin. Everything was beautiful and green, no sign of the approaching autumn. This was Eric’s favorite time of year to quest. It wasn’t sweltering like the summer. Plant life was mature and lush, unlike the youthful budding of spring. And the turn to fall was still a couple weeks away.

Animals frequented these woods regularly. The land was owned by the cemetery all the way back to a healthy creek and hunting was banned. On the west side of the creek was a nature preserve maintained by the county and some privately-owned land where hunting was also discouraged. All told there were nearly 250 acres of woodland free of hunters. Animals flocked here as a result.

About 80 yards in on the trail the woods thinned slightly. The party neared the top of a hill the boys called junction knob. From here there were two paths down the hill that led to different sides of a large clearing below. Five larger trails and half a dozen smaller ones led from the clearing to different corners of the woods. Sometimes the older kids would be here smoking pot but today they were absent. They must have been getting high in someone’s basement instead.

Eric stopped with a gasp and held up a single fist to silently signal the group to stop.

“I found a track.” He said excitedly, belaying the need for a silent signal. “Come look, it is wicked cool.”

The other boys crowded together to view what turned out to be two sets of tracks. The older of the pair were canine, likely that a fox or a small dog. The newer set looked like deer tracks but something wasn’t quite right. They were huge.

“Holy shit!” This time it was Eric who swore. “These are deer tracks but they are way too big. I’ve seen tracks left by a big buck with my dad. Like, a ten pointer, and they were only about this big.”

He held up his hands between three and four inches apart. Eyes wide he moved them down to the tracks to show that they were easily twice that size. The tracks didn’t show the telltale zig zag of a deer in flight, rather, they were evenly spaced indicating a slow and steady gate.

“And it’s just weird that they are actually following the fox.” Eric didn’t really know if the canine tracks were that of a fox, but he was certain his character would.

“We should fucking investigate.” Todd said with the most grizzled voice he could muster.

“Agreed.” said Mike with a slight accent. “If this is some unnatural creature it could put travelers in danger. We mustn’t allow that.” Single D nodded with a grim expression.

The four followed the odd tracks further north toward the creek. Eric and Boomer stayed out front and kept an eye on their surroundings as they identified sign for the trail. It was quite easy with the double sized deer tracks. Boomer was the first to notice the smell.

He shot off into the woods barking protectively. Eric scrunched his nose when the smell hit him. It was something dead. He started to follow Boomer but stopped when he lost sight of him. He looked back at the others and held up his fist to hold. They complied with silent nods and Eric turned and rushed off into the thick.

Todd neared the point where Eric left the trail and looked in the direction the Ranger and his dog had run. The only sound were the steps of Mike and Single D as they slowly caught up to him. There were no longer birds calling. Even the wind seemed quiet. The three squinted, trying to make out any movement of their friends. Single D fixed his gaze in the distance and was about to speak.

“You guys!” Eric screamed from deeper in the woods. “Come quick, this is messed up!”

There was almost panic in his voice. Mike started toward Eric full speed with no hesitation at all. Single D looked at Todd, then followed. Todd gripped his club and ran beside Single D. His head was on a swivel, nothing would escape his notice while he protected the mage. Single D was secretly impressed.

Mike was the first to catch up to Eric and Boomer. Eric was looking down a small hill at Boomer as Mike stepped beside him. The curly brown tail wagged the dog as he sniffed the grounds around something Mike couldn’t quite make out. He craned his neck for a better view as the other boys arrived. When he realized what he was looking at his eyes went wide. The animal carcass was ravaged. Torn apart by claws, bites, or something wild.

“Is?” Mike stammered. “Is that a?” he stopped to wretch, holding back the sick as the smell finally hit him too. “Is that a coyote?”

“No fucking way!” said Todd as he and Single D caught up.

“I find that difficult to believe as a coyote is both larger, and arguably more fierce and formidable than either a red or gray fox. It is unlikely there are any predators that would kill one in this part of the state other than man.” Single D said.

“It’s a coyote, Tod.” Mike said.

Single D gasped at his brother’s use of his given name. He immediately scanned their surroundings and it finally occurred to him that no birds were singing. Eric noticed the brothers’ escalated level of worry and looked at Todd for a quick read. There were no curse words, no chest puffing, no club waving. Todd was scared, and it had manifested in absolute still silence for him.

“We need to investigate more.” Eric said. “See if we can figure out who or what did this.”

Mike gave a slow sigh of resolve and stood tall. He gripped his sword and adjusted his shield. He surveyed the area with a squint and a grim expression. Single D leaned his staff against a tree and pulled a heavy-duty wrist rocket slingshot from his book bag. He secured it to his arm ang pulled out a bag of marbles with his free hand.

“Are you guys fucking nuts?!?” Todd screamed. His voice nearly squeaked and his normally careful annunciation evaporated. “Something fucking killed a coyote in our fucking woods and you want to fucking investigate?”

Eric didn’t stick around for the debate, he went down to the carcass and studied it. The first thing he noticed was that the longer lacerations weren’t claw marks like they had originally thought. They were wider and shallower gashes than a claw would make. Instead of four parallel cuts for each strike there were two. They almost looked like the same hooves that made those giant prints could have done this.

That didn’t sync up with the other wounds though. There was bite damage all over the coyote. Not bites like any large cat or wolf would make though. Some weird hybrid bites that had deep cutting severs from front teeth in combination with tears and rips from large lower teeth lake that of a boar. All the bites were from above the coyote indicating a predator that was at least five feet tall, possibly taller.

“Um, guys.” Eric turned and made a silent sign to Boomer who came to his side immediately. “I think Todd is right, we should leave. I don’t know what did this but whatever it was it was…”

Eric was cut off by the terrified scream of Todd who backed into Mike and Single D. Tod and Todd alike tumbled down the hill to stop at Eric’s feet. Mike was knocked off balance and tried to keep his feet as he slid down toward the other boys. He held up his shield defensively and readied his sword for what Todd had seen. No one could have guessed what that was.

Above them on the ridge was an enormous beast that resembled a stag but with serious differences. The thing was over six feet tall and built more like a heavy war horse than a lithe and agile forest creature. Its antlers were an ivory white nearly five inches in diameter at their base and spreading up to a majestic, and bloody, sixteen points.

Its coat was black along the spine, not that the boys could see its spine, and slowly turned auburn and then scarlet as it met the ground. Large teeth framed the beast’s sneering mouth. Long curving chisels from the top looped over the lower jaw like a devil beaver. Four tusks pushed up, two on each side of its snout, just outside them. Razor sharp and stained with blood.

It huffed aggressively at the boys as it stepped to the hill’s edge, eyes locked on Mike’s shield. It tested the ground and the crest and backed, agitated, from the loose dirt. It rose into an angry rear and made a noise that was part scream and part howl. That’s when the boys saw that its tail was on fire. No, it was fire.

“OH MY FUCKING GOD, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!?” screamed Todd.

“Don’t use the lord’s name in vain dick hole.” Mike scolded while keeping his eyes on the beast and his shield up.

Single D put a marble in the sling of the wrist rocket and pulled to aim. Todd raised his club and stepped beside Mike, urine running down his leg. The beast came down from its rear with a thud and scraped at the loose dirt in front of it. Eric made a gesture to send Boomer back home but the pooch was looking up. Not at the beast though, he was looking behind Eric and into the branches above.

The little mage let his glass bullet fly as Eric turned to look up. The marble shattered on the ridge above the beast’s right eye and made him recoil. Mike raised the point of his sword toward the stag in case it charged downhill and Eric caught sight of what had Boomer’s attention. It was a great horned owl swooping toward them. It was strange.

There were plenty of raptors in this part of Illinois. Hawks and kites, maybe even an eagle now and then. But not a great horned owl. Maybe if one escaped from a zoo or something, but this one didn’t. Owls like this one wouldn’t fly straight at humans and most certainly wouldn’t fly at a monster like the demon stag. But none of that was the strange part. What was strange is that it was carrying three arrows in its talons.

The beast was bleeding now above its eye. Bleeding and angry. Any caution it had about its footing for a charge had now vanished. It reared again and lowered its head toward the furry urine scented creature and charged. Todd held his ground, screaming, and swung his club down toward the beast’s lowered head. Mike managed to get his shield in front of the beast’s antlers to protect Todd as his club came down hard on its head. It glanced off Mike’s shield and shook its head dizzily as it stumbled to their right.

The owl dropped the three arrows at Eric’s feet and landed between the beast and the boys. Single D let another marble fly, this time striking the beast directly in the eye. It let loose another scream and charged the tiny mage. Eric fumbled to get an arrow nocked and had enough time to get off one shot that stuck in the monster’s face but did not drop him. Boomer jumped in front of Single D, but he wouldn’t stand a chance. Eric thought all was lost but then the volume on crazy on this day went all the way up to eleven.

The owl transformed into a grizzly bear in less time than it would take to say, “turn me into a bear.” The grizzly stepped in front of the charge and soaked the antler damage meant for Single D. With a determined grunt and no shortage of anger it gashed both sides of the monster’s neck. Although surrounded by large and dense muscles, the claws found both the carotid artery and jugular vein. It then laid on the monster’s head until it blead out.

“What the fuck is happening?” Todd was in tears now as the adrenaline started to fade.

Mike got to his feet and stepped between the bear and his brother. Eric knelt to check on Single D who had been knocked to the ground with Boomer in the fray. He was weeping silently and staring at the dead monster beneath the bear. Boomer licked the tears from his face trying to assure him all was well. Eric, in shock, stared at the second arrow he had picked up. He looked up at the bear, trying to piece it all together.

“It’s a druid.” he said. “That’s the only explanation.”

“Aye.” Mike said as Single D nodded through tears.

“What fucking ever.” Todd wept.

The bear slowly pulled itself from the monster’s antlers. It let out grunt part sigh and part growl and sat back heavily onto its haunches. Pawing at the puncture wounds on its belly it cocked its head to the side like a confused dog and looked at the Ranger. Slowly, as all four boys stared in amazement, the animal turned from grizzly to human. A naked, bleeding, human woman. Mike removed his cloak and draped it over her shoulders to modestly cover her exposed lady parts.

“Níl tú ach buachaillí beaga!” The lady scolded. You aren’t but wee boys! She waved a finger at the boys sternly. “Is dúr leis an óige, buachaillí beaga bídeacha. ” Stupid with youth, wee tiny boys. She held up her thumb and fore finger in a manner to indicate something small.

The boys stared at her in shock. Boomer was the only one paying any attention to the felled demon stag now. He sniffed and pawed at it, not noticing the woman at all. Single D pushed his way to the front of the group and cleared his throat.

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but we do not speak Irish. I hope that you also understand English as I would like to extend our thanks to you for stopping that unnatural beast from shortening our lives.” He smiled and extended his right hand while his left pushed his glasses back home on his nose.

“Yeah, thanks.” Mike said.

“Not so stupid that ye don’t know Irish when you hear ye hear it though.” She said with a smile. Her accent was so thick the boys had to concentrate to understand her. “Ye’re welcome lads.”

“You were a fucking bear!” Todd screamed. “How the fuck?”

“Aye, I was a fecking bear.” She smiled as she stood. “And ye are fortunate I was.” Her scolding tone returned with a face to match. “A Totanaki is no beast for wee boys t’be fightin’!”

She brushed the cloak to make sure she was covered and knelt to the stag’s head. She grabbed the arrow protruding from the meat of its face and plucked it out with a twist. As she turned, Eric saw that the punctures on her stomach were closed and seemed to have healed some. She noticed his gaze and pulled the cloak to cover her skin.

“I’ll be fine, wee Ranger. When I shift it heals me some.” She held the arrow out to him. “Me brudder’s a Ranger, lad. Ye’ll need these arrows if’n ye want to protect yer mates.”

Eric took the arrow with a silent smile. He studied the three of them closer now the impending peril had passed. They were ash wood stained a sage green color. The fletching was owl feathers bound with fine cotton thread. Each shaft had a series of hand carved runes. Eric made note too look up their meanings later. He was most impressed with the arrow heads. Each was made of stone, two red jasper and one forest agate. He ran his thumb along one’s edge and found it razor sharp, slicing him with barely any pressure.

“Careful lad, those are my handy work. Very sharp.” She took his hand gently and inspected the cut. Keeping his hand in hers she knelt and pinched some dirt with her free hand. She closed her eyes and lifted her chin. The air seemed to follow her queue and blew her hair back as she took a deep breath. She then rubbed the soil into his cut. He watched in awestruck shock as she brushed the dirt away from the perfectly healed thumb.

“Wait, no!” Todd was having a hard time keeping it together. “You are a real fucking druid?” Tears rolled down his face and his breathing quickened. His gaze darted from the stag, to the woman, to the arrows and to Eric’s thumb. He was on the verge of a panic attack when Mike put a hand on Todd’s shoulder.

“Todd, it’s OK. We’re here and you are safe.” Mikes words were calm and peaceful. Todd looked at Mike’s eyes and began to calm. His breathing slowed and with it, his mind. The warmth of Mike’s touch spread through his body until he was fully relaxed.

“I’m good man.” Todd said. “Thanks Mike. I’m good.”

Eric stowed the arrows in his messenger bag and turned his attention back to the woman. She was scratching Boomer behind the ears while he kissed her face. Who was she? Where did she come from? Were there more druids? Her brother is a Ranger. What does that mean?

“Um, miss?” Eric asked. “I have some questions. If I may.”

“Of course, wee man.” She said. “We can talk while I walk you boys back out of the woods.”

“Wait, no.” Mike said. “If there are more of these beasts out here we need to stop them.”

“I like yer pluck, lad.” The lady stood and approached Mike as she spoke. “Ye’re all lucky, this Totanaki was young one.”

“Wait, young?” Eric asked. “But it has sixteen points.”

“Aye Ranger. Young.” She smiled. “Beasts of the Sea and Sky don’t behave like they do here on the Earth.”

“Sea and Sky?” Single D seemed confused. “This creature has neither gills nor wings, ma’am.”

“Melanie.” She said. “Please call me Melanie, lad. Or Mel. Ma’am is what ye call yer mum. I dinna mean sea like in the water, lad. It’s a mystic Sea.”

She saw confusion on all the boys faces. Knowing she had their attention she began to walk toward the cemetery as she explained. The boys followed without question, mesmerized by her story like she was the Pied Piper leading them from Hamelin.

“There are three realms of this life, lads. Three is an important number, remember it. Recognize it. All things, good and bad, come in threes. Like the Totanaki, back there. It is the third I have slain in these woods.”

“What do you do with them.” Eric asked.

“I ask the ground to take them. We are old mates, the ground and me.” She said.

“Three planes.” Mike said.

“Aye, lad.” Melanie came back to her topic. “They are the Earth, Sea and Sky.

They all intersect at the sacred fire and spread out to the realms of all life. Human, beast, plant, stone and spirit all dwell on Earth, Sea and Sky. The sacred fire, Brighid’s grace, unites us all.

The Earth is home of humans, you and me, as well as the plants and animals ‘round the world. It’s the common world where most of us spend our entire lives. Each playin’ our part in the great braiding of things. Weaving together the knotwork of our stories and purpose best we know how.

Then there’s the Sea, the wild waste that lies outside our common land. It’s just behind the veil and teaming with life, different from us. It’s the place of the Otherworld Isles, the home of the Sidhe heroes and the land of the young. If’n ye know where to look you can travel to and fro twixt Earth and Sea.

And last but greatest of the realms is the Sky where Light and Shadow are born. It’s the place of the Shining Ones. It soars above the Earth and Sea just as the sight of the Gods and Goddesses watches of all. It turns, ever waxing and waning like our moon, dancing with stars like a may pole ‘round us always.

And in the midst of all these worlds is found the Sacred Grove united by Brighid. The place of flowing together where she keeps the Sacred Fire burning by the Well of Wisdom beneath the World Tree.”

As Melanie finished her story the six of them emerged from the woods where the boys had entered. No longer shaded by the canopy light bounded from her strawberry blonde hair and ice blue eyes. The boys stood, slack jawed, in awe of both she and her story. Boomer leaned heavily against her leg, his version of a hug.

“Now, off with ye wee lads.” She made a shooing motion toward their homes. “Yer parents’ll be worried after ye and I have more work to do.”

“But we can help.” Eric pleaded.

“Yeah.” Mike said while Single D nodded in unison. “It’s our duty.”

Todd just stared longingly at Melanie. Since experiencing the Paladin’s calming influence after their battle the Barbarian was living less loudly. He sighed as she made eye contact with him.

“Aye, and ye will.” She said. A serious look on her brow. She knelt and brought the boys in closely for a huddle. “I need the four of you, and Boomer, to patrol these woods after today.”

All four stood as tall and proud as they could.

“What if we find something?” Eric asked. “Like more Totanaki tracks, or something worse?”

“I’m glad ye asked, wee Ranger.” Melanie said. She cupped her hand behind Eric’s ear and pulled a Blue Lace Agate from her palm as if it had been back there all along. “Speak into this stone and leave it by a Hawthorn tree just before sunrise, and I’ll hear what ye said to it.”

The boys made sounds of awe and crowded Eric for a closer look at the stone. Melanie stood back up and walked up the slight incline to the trails mouth at the wood line.

“If’n ye need me, lads, I’ll come runnin’”

With a wink and a smile she pulled her hands under Mike’s cloak, to her sides. Her beautiful face shifted into the great horned owl they had seen earlier. She sloughed off the cloak and beat her wings to take flight. A quick circle and a mighty screech later and she was gone. Back into the woods where they found her.

“You guys.” Todd said. “Melanie is a really for real Druid.” He smiled.

“You didn’t curse.” Single D said as he pushed his glasses back into place. He smiled with approval as Mike picked up his cloak and the five began their trip back to hearth and home.