I considered a vine with red leaves on it for a bit. The red was bright, the colors crawling up a tree. But the vine didn’t cast any strange shadows and it seemed to me like maybe those leaves were just meant to be red. It was early in the year for leaves to get colorful, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t. I finally left that one alone without saying anything about it. Maybe it was wrong, but it didn’t look wrong enough to bother me.
The fourth bazkide wasn’t so well hidden. It was disguised as a big cat, sitting on a high branch. I spotted it from the shadow first, but its tail was making a lazy sort of movement in the branches that caught my eye, too. I considered it for a few seconds. Nothing wrong with a cat in a tree. It might belong in a forest.
But this cat was big and golden and had a face surrounded by lush golden fur. The name finally popped into my head. Lion. It was a lion in the tree. Did lions climb trees? Did lions live in forests like this one?
I couldn’t say as I knew much about lions —mostly one from an old, old story my pa used to tell before he went off on one of his merchanting trips, where the lion wanted more than anything to be brave—but I didn’t think this lion belonged in this forest. It was too big for the branch it was on and too yellow for a forest with so much green and gray and brown.
When I pointed it out, the voice agreed with me, chiming Four right away.
When the bazkide transformed back into its proper self, it wasn’t much bigger than its lion self. And it looked at me for a long, long minute.
Well, okay, it probably wasn’t a minute. It was probably more like twenty seconds. Maybe not even that. Maybe five seconds. But five seconds is a long time when you’re being stared at by a magical monster that was just pretending to be a ferocious predator.
I was scared. I admit it. My heart was beating fit to join a band, one of the ones heavy on syncopated rhythm. Maybe one of the ones outside having fun right now. So I narrowed my eyes and said, “You were the one waggled your tail. If you didn’t want me to find you, you shoulda kept still.”
The bazkide’s faces aren’t like ours. Their mouths look sort of like a bird’s mouth would if a bird had a mouth instead of a beak, kinda triangular and straight, instead of curvy and flexible like ours. Their noses are flat, not like noses at all, more just holes in their scales. And their eyes are round and sort of shiny, but they don’t seem to have lids. I don’t know how they blink or even if they do. I sure hadn’t seen one blink or smile. But this one opened its mouth wide right before it leaped into the air, and I sort of thought it was laughing at me.
I wasn’t sure what I thought about that. Did bazkide laugh? Did it think I was funny in a bad way? Like maybe it was laughing that I even thought I could be a hunter? Not that I did, but it didn’t know that. But maybe it was a good laugh. Maybe it thought I was funny. Laughs could be hard to understand. But I didn’t really even know if the bazkide was laughing. Maybe it was yawning to show how bored it was.
I shook my head at myself. No point in trying to figure out the bazkide. Once I failed out of this trial, I wouldn’t see them again for another three years.
The fifth bazkide was even easier to spot than the lion, ‘cause it was pretending to be a gremlin. Gremlins aren’t the biggest or toughest monsters, but they’re mean as anything. They’ve got sharp teeth and they aren’t afraid to use ‘em. Unless there’s a swarm of them, though, you don’t have to be scared. One gremlin can’t do much damage. Not to people, anyway. Some say there used to be a lot more cats in the world before the gremlins came through the doors.
But gremlins do not live in forests. They like people stuff. Ruins, sewers, broken pipes. The things that we built a long time ago, the old cities especially. They don’t want to be out here in nature anymore than I did. So I pointed out the gremlin quick as could be, soon as I got near enough to hear it rustling in the undergrowth and see its orange shaggy head. It transformed into a bazkide almost as pretty as the one I saw in the first tent, with feathers of an iridescent blue that started out light as a daytime sky and shaded down to midnight.
I was starting to feel okay. This wasn’t as scary as it’d felt at first. The forest illusion was kind of pretty even, the ways the branches arched off the trees, the colors of the leaves blending together. Then the voice said, Ten minutes until conclusion of trial.
Ten minutes? I couldn’t tell how far the forest extended and I didn’t have any idea how it all fit into the tent, but it felt like I had a lot more to look at. I wanted to say bad words under my breath. Then I remembered that I didn’t want to pass this weird little test. Last thing I needed was to be out in some real forest, looking for lions in the treetops and gremlins in the grass.
Feeling more cheerful, I kept walking. Maybe I’d make it home by lunchtime after all. I started thinking about what we’d be eating—soup, of course, but if Ma had gotten out of bed, maybe she might be making bread. Her bread’s better than her biscuits, ‘cause she’s got a sourdough starter that we’ve been feeding for years. She’s promised me that when I finally get my job as a cook and have a kitchen of my own, she’ll give me some to take with me. I already know how to make sourdough pretzels. When I was little we used to have sourdough pancakes and I really want to learn how to make those. But they make Ma sad so we don’t eat them much anymore. When I get a job, though, I’m gonna buy syrup, real syrup.
Even though I was thinking about food, my eyes kept scanning, watching the shadows as I slowly followed the path.
The shadows didn’t help me spot the monster, though.