It looked pretty cool, though. The cool light was turning more golden, as if the sun was actually rising, and it was angling through the leaves the right way, as if the light had density of its own.
The shadows were wrong, though.
After my pa died, my ma spent a lot of time in the dark. I didn’t much like sitting with her, but I did anyway, ‘cause it felt like if I didn’t, she’d just fade away and disappear. I’d light our old oil lamp or a candle if we were outta oil, and tell her about my day and what happened at school and how the garden was doing and the news from the neighborhood. Eventually I’d run out of stuff to say, and then we’d just sit together.
It gave me a lot of time to learn about shadows.
The illusion shadows were gray, with sort of a bluish tint to them, like sunlight shadows. They overlapped, the way shadows do, different sizes and shapes, so that I couldn’t really tell where one shadow ended and another began. But there was much darker area of shadow pretty near me, a deep black shadow, like it was made by light from a lamp, not the sun.
I didn’t move but I looked real hard at it, tracing it back to its base. It belonged to one of the trees. The tree looked like all the other trees, tall, leafy, your basic plant made out of wood and plant stuff. Except the more I considered it, the more I wasn’t so sure it was like the others. The bark was smooth and sort of shiny and all the other trees had bark that looked rough and scratchy.
I lifted a hand and pointed at the tree. “That tree doesn’t belong.”
One sounded around me. It came flavored with a feeling, sorta surprised. Not mean surprised, though. Just… interested.
The tree shimmered and shook, the gray of the bark melting into a deep royal blue shade. I stepped back, my breath catching in my throat, as the tree dissolved and a bazkide slid into the air, lifting off the ground and driving up in a way that I’d never seen a bird do. It was like it was diving almost, only in the wrong direction, up instead of down. It swooped in a lazy circle, a dark eye on me, and then disappeared.
I swallowed, licking suddenly dry lips. I rested my hand on Benjamin’s water bottle. Long day, I reminded myself. Nothing bad was going to happen to me, at least not yet.
I waited, but the voice didn’t say anything else.
One, huh? Okay, maybe that meant there was supposed to be a two. I started looking around again. Nothing else looked wrong. Top to bottom and back up again, it all seemed to fit together the way things do. Leaves up top and in the middle, trunks down below, scrubby bushes on the ground. A couple trees had vine-y things growing on them, but they didn’t look like they weren’t supposed to be there.
A path led into the forest. The steps I’d taken away from the door had taken me away from it. From where I was, if I tried to walk straight, I’d be walking plumb into a tree trunk. If it was illusion, maybe I’d go right through. Probably I’d go right through.
I wondered if I could find the things that didn’t belong by closing my eyes and staggering around the tent, hands outstretched, feeling for objects that were solid, that were casting real shadows. My lips twitched at the picture. Wouldn’t I look a right fool then? That ought to get me sent home nice and quick. But it would also be humiliating.
Plus, if I’d grabbed at that tree, I would have been grabbing a bazkide. I didn’t know how the bazkide would feel about some kid grabbing at it, but if I was the bazkide, I wouldn’t like it much. I might bite. Or snap off the kid’s fingers.
Instead, I stepped back onto the path. Sticking close to the edge, I tentatively stepped deeper into the forest, letting my gaze slide over everything I could see and paying particular attention to the shadows. Illusion or not, under the trees, it was harder to distinguish one shadow from the next.
A large rock sat next to a stump. I eyed it. Sure looked like a rock. You could maybe even call it a boulder. It was big and solid, yellow with streaks of gray running through it. Nothing strange about it. Just your basic granite. But how did it wind up so close to a tree stump? Wouldn’t it have been hard for the tree to grow up with that rock looming over it?
And why a big granite boulder here, in this forest? Were there other yellow rocks around? The ground was mostly covered in leaves—leaves that didn’t crunch underfoot—so I couldn’t see any other stones, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Still, I didn’t like the rock. I was too far away from it to see the ground around it clearly, so I stepped closer. The shadows were definitely darker, too dark. I pointed at the boulder. “That rock doesn’t belong.”
Two. It was a chime on the wind. It sounded pleased.
In front of me, the boulder unfurled, doubling, tripling, quadrupling in size as its yellow wings lifted. I managed to swallow my eep of shock as dark eyes met mine before the wings drove down and the bazkide shot into the air.
The voice didn’t say anything else, which had to mean that I wasn’t done. I took a deep breath and started looking again.
The third bazkide was a bush, one with green berries on it. Nothing so unusual about green berries—most of ‘em are green for a while before they get ripe and it was too early in the season for any berries to be ripe, not even the earliest of them. But these berries were shaped like strawberries, not blueberries or raspberries or blackberries. I love strawberries. Ma and me had planted them all along the border of our garden, so I knew exactly how they look when they’re growing, little leafy plants with white flowers and the berries hiding right next to the dirt. Not on bushes.