If a Tree Falls in the Forest
By Donna Smith
“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Trace sat in a corner booth far away from everyone else in the restaurant, watching the people around him. It had been about three years since he’d left his hometown. He’d had no intention of ever going back to Greensborough, Washington, but all the things he’d seen and done as a Sentinel Warrior had made him realize how short life was. Somehow, someway, he needed to make peace with his father and brother. He didn’t know if he’d ever completely forgive them for what they’d done, but he needed to at least talk to them. The town hadn’t changed a bit. He hoped his family had.
Trace took a bite out of his burger. He noticed that the manager and waitress kept glancing his way. Sure he looked a little scruffy, but he didn’t think he looked like a troublemaker or a vagrant. Maybe they recognized him. It was a small town after all. Everyone knew everybody else. They were probably busy speculating on where he’d been and why he’d come back after years away. Small communities were hotbeds for gossip. Being from one of the most prominent families in the area had always made him prime fodder for busybodies.
Trace felt uncomfortable under their scrutiny and ate faster. As soon as he finished, he left the money on the bill with a nice tip, grabbed his jacket, and headed for the door. Once outside, he breathed deep, taking in the crisp, clean air.
“Excuse me. Trace Morgan?”
Trace had been so preoccupied that he hadn’t noticed the two men who’d walked up to him, blocking his way. “Yes?”
“We’d like a word with you, please.” The man and his friend pulled out their wallets and flashed two badges at him. “Detective Leo Johnson. This is my partner, Detective Frank Manfredy. We just want to ask you a few questions.”
“About your brother, Jefferson Morgan.”
“What about him?”
“We’d rather not talk about this in public. Could you come with us to the station? It’s very important that we clear this up.”
“Um, sure. Ok.” What was going on here? What had Jeff done?
Trace sat in what looked like an interrogation room. Detective Johnson stood nearby, watching him casually. Detective Manfredy looked angry for some reason. They were a strange-looking pair. Johnson was a tall, young African-American with a GQ kind of style. His partner reminded Trace more of Columbo—an older, rumpled man. Except he didn’t seem to have anything resembling Columbo’s easygoing manner.
Johnson’s voice was friendly, calming. “Would you like a lawyer present?”
“Why? You’re not arresting me for anything are you?”
“No. We just want to ask you a few questions. That’s all. We’re supposed to ask if you want one anyway.”
“No. I guess not.”
Manfredy sat down hard across the table from him. “So, Morgan. You left town in a hurry about three years ago. Why’d you run away from home?”
“Where’ve you been all this time?”
“Hiking, traveling, visiting friends. Why?”
“We’ve been looking for you. Incidentally, we’ve been looking for your brother, Jeff, too. Where’d he go?”
“Jeff? I have no idea.” Jeff had left town?
Manfredy slammed his hand down on the table. “Don’t lie to me, punk! You were the last one to see him alive!”
Johnson came over and handed Manfredy a coffee. “Easy, Frank. Look, Trace. We know you and your brother didn’t get along. Just before the two of you disappeared, you had several very heated, very public arguments. Several workers and the foreman at your father’s logging company say Jeff went up to Whispering Ridge that day and you followed him, intending to confront him about something. That was the last anyone saw of either of you—until now. You show up in town all by yourself. You have to admit, it looks odd.”
“He never went back home?”
Manfredy scowled. “Don’t look so surprised, kid. It would’ve been hard for him to do that if he were dead.”
“Dead? What are you talking about?”
“Did the two of you argue the day you left town?”
“Did it get physical?”
Trace shifted in his seat. “We fought.”
“You and Jeff fought a lot didn’t you?”
“A lot of nasty verbal exchanges and a few bad fistfights, huh?”
“A few, yeah.”
“You have a real temper, don’t you, kid? Everyone says so. You’re also into martial arts. I hear you’re pretty good—more advance than you’re brother. How badly did you beat him that day?”
“Enough to kill him?”
“Was he dead when you left him, or did you just leave him to die of his wounds?”
“He was alive when I left!”
“Maybe you were just negligent. Did he need an ambulance?”
“No, maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t think…”
Manfredy leaned closer. “We found an awful lot of Jeff’s blood up there during the investigation, but no Jeff. What did you do with the body?”
“I didn’t do anything with it! I mean there wasn’t a body to do anything with. He was alive.”
“So which is it? Was he dead or alive when you left him?”
“He was alive. He seemed fine. He was yelling at me.”
“What was he saying?”
“He was angry. He said a lot of things.” A lot of things Trace didn’t want to talk about.
“Maybe a few words about you being crazy?”
Trace just stared at him.
“Yeah, kid. We know about that. We’ve been hearing quite a lot about it, in fact. You tried to convince your father to stop logging up on Whispering Ridge because there were ghosts that didn’t want to be disturbed hanging out there. Do I got that right?”
Trace looked at his hands. “Tree spirits.”
Johnson spoke encouragingly to him. “Speak up, Trace. We can’t hear you.”
“They were tree spirits, not ghosts.”
Manfredy snorted. “Oh, well. That’s good to know. Wanna know what I think? I think you and you’re eco-terrorist buddies…”
“They were environmentalists!”
Manfredy ignored him. “…were up on the Ridge scaring the superstitious loggers away yourselves. Doing a pretty good job, too, until Jeff went up there to cut down some trees himself and prove to the men there was nothing to fear. What was so special about that one area of the Ridge? You and your buddies have something going on up there? Maybe a drug pick-up site?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Johnson offered Trace a coffee. He wasn’t interested. “Folks say you went up there an awful lot, Trace. Always came back with a smile on your face and a spring in your step. You meeting someone up there? A girl maybe?”
“No. Yes. She wasn’t exactly…” Trace stopped himself before he said too much.
“Did Jeff know about her?”
“I told him, but he didn’t listen.”
“So he didn’t approve. Maybe she was from the wrong side of the tracks—not good enough for the Morgans?”
“It’s not that. She…” Trace knotted his fists in frustration. How could he explain? They’d never believe him.
Manfredy got up in his face. “Maybe Jeff knew her, too. Knew her real well. Was she the reason you fought that day?”
“Did he love her, too?”
“Maybe sleeping with her?”
Trace laughed bitterly at that. “No.”
“Did he want to keep you apart? Is that why you killed him?”
“I didn’t kill him! What is it with you guys?”
“What about her—was she there that day?”
“Did she kill him?”
“How can you be sure? Maybe after you left?”
“She couldn’t have. She was gone.” His voice trailed off.
“Did she leave with you?”
“Where’d she go?”
“Don’t you know?”
“She didn’t go anywhere.”
“You said she was gone.”
“She was!” Trace turned away. He didn’t want them to see the moisture glistening in his eyes.
Johnson finally understood. “When you say she was ‘gone’, you mean ‘dead’, don’t you?”
Manfredy sneered. “Did you have an argument with her, too?”
“Did you kill her?”
“NO!” He’d saved her, saved her from the pain!
Manfredy thought he was on to something. His eyes narrowed in anticipation. “Did Jeff kill her?”
Just then the door swung open. The captain came in with an older man in an expensive business suit. The captain looked uncomfortable. The older man fixed the two detectives with a cold stare. “Are you questioning this young man without benefit of counsel?”
“He waived his right to a lawyer.”
“I’m sure that was before he realized you were going to try and pin a murder rap on him. I’ve been hired by Thomas Morgan to represent his son. If you have any further questions for Mr. Morgan here, you can contact my office. You’ll also be hearing from me about this little interrogation stunt.”
Manfredy got in one last shot before Trace made it to the door. “You say you didn’t kill Jeff, but you wanted him dead, didn’t you?”
It was plain to see in Trace’s eyes.
“That’s what I thought. Don’t leave town, Morgan. We’ll definitely have more questions for you.”
As they left the police station, Trace ran an exasperated hand through his hair. “I see you still work for dad, Mr. J. How did you know where I was?”
Martin Jacobi smiled. “You know a squirrel can’t pee in this town without your father knowing about it. Practically the whole town knew anyway twenty minutes after you set foot in Lacey’s Diner.”
Trace sighed. “It’s
good to see you—and not just because of that mess back there. Do they really think I killed Jeff?”
“I’m afraid they do. I should warn you, you won’t get a warm reception in these parts. Jeff wasn’t well liked, but people don’t take to suspected murderers.”
“So it’s not just the police, then. Most everyone thinks I killed him.” Trace looked up at Mr. Jacobi, unsure of what he’d see in his expression. “Do you?”
“I’ve known you since the day you were born, son. You always had a volatile temper you couldn’t control. All that martial arts stuff was supposed to teach you control, but it just made you more dangerous. Do I think you could hurt someone? Yes. Do I think you killed your brother? No.”
Trace visibly relaxed. “Maybe Jeff ran away like I did.”
“No one believes that for a minute. That greedy boy would never leave his life of luxury behind—especially when he thought he had a chance of taking over the company whenever Thomas dies. Unfortunately, you’ve got more than one motive in the police’s eyes.”
“What about Dad? Does he believe I..?”
“He believes you and Jeff finally went too far—mostly because of your crazy notions about Whispering Ridge. He wishes he’d have had you committed again before things got out of hand.”
“So he thinks I did it. From what the cops said, there isn’t even a body! Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad.” Trace turned to the man next to him, an old anger burning in him. “And I’m not crazy, Mr. J! I’m not now and I wasn’t then. Don’t tell me everyone knows about my little forced vacation in Seattle, too?”
“No. Your stay at the mental hospital there was one secret the Morgan family was successfully able to keep from the rest of this nosy town. Let’s hope it stays that way. We don’t need to give the police any more ammunition.”
Trace’s anger abated somewhat. He was glad Mr. Jacobi didn’t think he’d killed his brother, but he noticed the man never said whether he thought Trace was crazy or not. He knew if he asked, Mr. Jacobi would tell him the truth, but quite frankly, Trace didn’t want to know. He wanted to hold onto the belief that at least one person here thought he had all his marbles. It was odd that people who’d known him his whole life wanted to lock him away when he talked about the tree spirits, but if he told the Sentinels or Ronins, people who’d known him only a few years, they’d never question it. Maybe it was because of all the crazy things they’d already seen. Tree spirits didn’t seem so strange after gods and goddesses, nether-dimensions, snake men, and magic armor. Trace just shook his head sadly. “You know what? I don’t care anymore if people believe me about the spirits up there or not. I didn’t talk about them for years because I was afraid of ending up back in that nuthouse in Seattle. That place was a nightmare. The spirits are probably all dead now anyway thanks to Dad and Jeff. Why did Dad hire you if he thinks I did it?”
Jacobi sighed, hesitant to answer. “Because you’re a Morgan.”
It was harsh, but it was one of the reasons he liked Mr. J. The man had never lied to him or misled him. He was one of a select few he’d trusted growing up to give him a straight answer. Trace nodded, understanding. “He didn’t send you because he was worried about me, he sent you to protect the family name—just like he always sent you to smooth over any trouble Jeff and I ever got into that might make the family look bad. I came back here hoping…well, hoping things would’ve changed. People would’ve changed. It sounds like dad’s still the same. I guess it was stupid of me to think things could be different.” Trace pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a major headache coming on. Too many bad memories were getting stirred up and now all of this. It was too much, just too much.
Mr. Jacobi put a hand on his shoulder. “You look tired, son. Come on home with me.”
“That’s ok. I can find a hotel or something.”
“It’s not ok. If I don’t bring you home, Maggie will skin me alive. She’s been worried sick about you these past few years.”
“I’m sorry about that. I should’ve written, called, something. I just didn’t know what to say. And for a long time I didn’t even want to think about Greensborough at all. Then some other things came up that kept me pretty busy.” Understatement of the year.
“That’s alright. You’re here now and you’re ok. That’s all that matters. Maggie, on the other hand, will probably give you a very large piece of her mind.”
And she did just that when they got to the Jacobi residence. Then she hugged the daylights out of him and stuffed him full of food.
The next day Trace went with Mrs. J to the store while Mr. J went to his office. If Trace were going to stay with them, he wanted to help out. He didn’t have a lot of money because he hadn’t started the paperwork to claim his trust fund yet, but at least he could do stuff like chores and carrying groceries. As they headed out to the parking lot, Mrs. J suddenly stopped in her tracks, dropping her bags. Someone had spray-painted words all over the side of her car. “Murderer”, “killer”, “lunatic”, and some things Mrs. J was too embarrassed to read. Three young men stood off a ways, snickering.
One of them walked over to Trace with a smart-alec grin. “Nice artwork.”
Trace snorted in derision. “Real original. It takes a brilliant mind to plan and execute a juvenile example of vandalism like that. Tell whoever did it, we’re not impressed—especially when he spells ‘psycho’ wrong.” He put his bags in the car and then picked up the ones Mrs. J had dropped. He helped the older woman into the car and opened the door to get in himself. One of the guys grabbed his arm.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“None of your business.”
“You used to be some kind of tough guy, Morgan. Think you’ve still got it?”
Trace grabbed the guy’s arm and flipped him over with one fluid motion. “I know I’ve still got it.” He got in the car.
“You’d be sitting in jail now if it weren’t for your rich old man, Morgan! Think you’re better than us because your daddy’s loaded? Come back here and fight!”
“No thanks. I’ve got better things to do with my time.” He and Mrs. J drove home.
That night after Trace had gone to sleep, the Jacobis pondered the changes in him. The Trace they’d known before would’ve thrown his bags down and jumped those other boys. Then he would’ve beaten them bloody or until someone pulled him off. What had happened in the past few years to turn that hot headed boy into a controlled young man?
The next day, Trace couldn’t help but notice how the Jabobis kept watching him. By lunchtime he was exasperated. He loved them like an aunt and uncle, but they were driving him crazy! As they watched him eat while pretending not to, Trace decided he’d had enough. “What? Why do you keep staring at me? Do you think I’m going to suddenly grow an extra head or something?”
Mrs. J blushed. “Oh, Trace. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we were so obvious. It’s just… We couldn’t help but notice how much you’ve changed. You seem so much more at ease with yourself, so calm. You’re all grown up.”
Trace sighed and looked out the window. “It didn’t come without a price.”
“Do you want to talk about it, son?”
“Yes, I do, because a lot of it has to do with what happened on Whispering Ridge. But you’re not going to believe half of what I tell you and I need to find out what happened to Jeff first. I need to go up to the Ridge.”
Mr. J frowned. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. The police are keeping an eye on you. You don’t want to give them a reason to be even more suspicious.”
“What does it matter? They think I killed him anyway. The really pathetic part is that I wanted to. I almost…” Trace got up from the table, very aware of the uncomfortable atmosphere he’d just created. “I need some air. I’ll be back later.” He saw the look of concern on their faces. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything stupid. And when I get back, we’ll talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know about what happened that day. I promise.” Yeah. Then he’d have to listen to them try and convince him how much he needed professional help.
Trace got in his car and sped out of the driveway. There was only one place he wanted to go now—Whispering Ridge. Everything started there. How much had ended there? He drove out to the edge of town and turned off into the wilderness. He followed an old dirt service road up until it came to the flat area of the Ridge. He stopped the car with a jerk, taking in the barrenness of the land around him. It hardly looked like the same place. Slowly he got out of the car, shaking his head. So many trees gone. He closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of nature. It was so quiet. He thought maybe he could hear a few spirits around somewhere, but their voices were so weak and scattered. Not like before. Not like when he was a boy and the Ridge was filled with the laughter and music of the forest spirits. Trace’s thoughts slipped back into the past to the day he first met them. The day he first met her. Arborea.
Trace ran up the trail into the woods, heading for Whispering Ridge. His dad told him never to go there or he could get lost. Maybe he wanted to get lost! He sat down in the grass, wiping his bloody nose on his shirt. Just wait ‘til he was bigger! Then Jeff wouldn’t be able to beat him up anymore! He’d learn how to fight and then his brother’d be sorry! He hated him! He was always so mean. Trace tried not to cry, but couldn’t stop his sniffles.
<What’s wrong with you?>
Trace jumped up from the ground, looking around for the voice. “Who…who’s there?”
A little girl came out from behind a tree. There was something weird about her, but he couldn’t tell what. She was standing in the shadows. <I’m Arborea. Who are you?>
“I…I’m Trace.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I didn’t think anyone else was here.”
<I’m always here. This is where I live. I haven’t seen you before. Don’t you live here, too?>
“You live here? That’s stupid! Nobody lives up here.”
<What do you mean? Lots of people live here. But just on the Ridge. It’s a special place.> She warily stepped closer to him, out of the shadows. Suddenly, she jerked back in fright. <You…you’re human! But you can see me! How can you see me?>
“Duh! You’re standing right there!” It was then that Trace noticed he could see through her. “You’re a…a…ghost!” Trace almost tripped over himself as he backed away.
<I’m not a ghost! I’m a tree spirit. Don’t you know anything? But how can you see me? Humans can’t see or hear tree spirits! You’d better come with me. We have to tell Elder.>
“I’m not going anywhere with you!”
Several other ghostly people came out to see what was going on. <Are you ok, Arborea?>
<I’m fine. But Xyla! He can see me! Look, he’s human!>
<Oh! Oh, my! Humans never see us! It just doesn’t happen. Maybe he’s not human. Maybe he’s some other kind of creature. You, boy! What are you? Are you a demon?>
“I’m…just a k-k-kid. Please don’t hurt me!”
<Hurt you? Good heavens, why on earth would we do that? You’re safe from us, child. We’re tree spirits. Some people call us hamadryads. That means we each live in our own tree and don’t stray far from it our whole lives. We don’t interact with humans because we can’t. They can’t see us or hear us or touch us—and we can’t touch them.>
“But I c-can s-s-ee you.”
<Yes, well. I don’t know why that is.>
Arborea was jumping up and down with excitement. <Can I keep him, Xyla? Please?>
<Don’t be silly, girl. You can’t take in every stray that wanders onto the Ridge. Besides, he’s human. They’re people like us, not pets.>
<I know that. But he’s my age! We could be friends. All the other tree spirits are lots older than me. Can he come and play sometimes?>
<I don’t know. We need to ask Elder about all this.>
<You wished to ask something of me?>
A large ghostly man walked closer to Trace, looking him up and down. Trace wanted to run away, but he was so scared he couldn’t move.
<So you can see us, boy?>
Trace nodded, his mouth hanging open.
<Definitely human. But there’s something else, something special about him. A past and a future that tie him to nature. He already feels its pull. A most unusual human.>
Arborea’s eyes were big and pleading. <Does that mean I can keep him?>
Elder laughed. <It means he is welcome here. Whether or not he wishes to visit is entirely up to him, however.>
Arborea looked at Trace. <You want to come and play with me, don’t you? Please! I don’t have anybody my own age to play with. Come on and I’ll show you some really special places that the humans never go where lots of magic woodland creatures live.> She reached out to grab his hand only to pass through him. <Sorry. I forgot.> When he didn’t move, she just glared at him with her hands on her hips. <Well, are you coming or are you just going to stand there like a rock all day?>
Trace slowly followed her, too stunned to do anything else but obey. Eventually his growing curiosity won out over his fear and he started to have fun.
For seven years he went to Whispering Ridge, learning the secrets of the woods, all the wonders and mysteries of nature—things few humans had ever known. She introduced him to the strange hidden creatures that moved unseen through the wild. In those years, Arborea became his best friend…and something more. Even though he couldn’t touch her, just being with her was enough.
He’d tried to tell others about the spirits at first, but they never believed him. No one he ever brought up there could see or hear them. People started avoiding him, saying he wasn’t right in the head. Even his dad and Jeff. Then dad had him sent away for several months. After that, Trace stopped talking about the spirits—until his dad decided to cut down some of the timber on the Ridge. Trace did what he could to stop him: organizing environmentalists to protest, sabotaging the equipment, flooding the service trail. He even got the trees to help. With some effort, they were able to manipulate a few of their roots and branches to move equipment and scare the loggers. But it had all been in vain. He remembered going into his dad’s office that day. The day he left Greensborough.
Thomas Morgan looked at Trace, shaking his head in exasperation. He sat down at his desk. Trace remained standing. Trace didn’t like the way his dad was looking at him, like he was judging him.
“We need to talk, Trace. This obsession of your has gotten out of hand again. I thought we’d cured you of that. It was bad enough when you were always going on to your brother and me about those trees of yours, but now the townspeople are starting to talk again. I won’t stand for it.”
“That’s what you’re so mad about, isn’t it? The Morgan family name might get tarnished. You don’t care about the spirit people living up there! Each one is attached to his or her own tree in a symbiotic relationship. When you kill the tree, you kill the person. You’ve been chopping down their trees. You’re killing them!”
Will you shut up about those ‘spirits’! I’m sick and tired of hearing it! I’ve tried everything to get you to give up these unhealthy fantasies of yours. It’s out of my hands now. I’ve talked to a doctor in Seattle. Dr. Vidan specializes in helping people with problems like yours. He advised us to cut down all the trees right away to help you cut your ties to these spirit fantasies. We’re driving up tomorrow to take you to his hospital there. You’ll get the best treatment. And this time you’ll stay until we know you’re well.”
Trace didn’t even hear the last part. Cut the trees down right away? It was then that he noticed Jeff was nowhere around. “Where’s Jeff?”
“Don’t worry about him. He’s doing what should’ve been done months ago when you started all this craziness again.”
His father inadvertently glanced out the window towards the Ridge.
“No! NO! What have you done?” Trace bolted for the door, grabbing his dad’s keys off the key rack before he flew out of the room.
“Trace! You come back here! Don’t make this any harder on yourself!”
Trace hopped into his dad’s jeep and drove to the base camp at the bottom of the trail where the workers had set up. The foreman told him Jeff had taken some equipment and already gone up to the Ridge. Trace took off as fast as he could, spinning up a cloud of dust with his wheels.
A scream pierced the air—a long agonizing scream. When he got to the Ridge he squealed the jeep to a stop, practically running as soon as he jumped out. He could see Jeff standing next to a tree, cutting into it with a chainsaw. Arborea’s tree.
“NOOOOOO!” He ran at Jeff, knocking him away from the tree, the chainsaw falling to the ground. He looked at the tree, tears welling in his eyes as he saw that he was too late. His brother had cut most of the way through. The tree would die. And so would Arborea. She lay beside the tree, her ghostly form shaking violently as she screamed in pain. He ran to her, kneeling on the ground. He wanted to hold her, to comfort her, but he couldn’t touch her intangible body.
She gasped, making an effort to speak. “Please, Trace. Cut the tree the rest of the way through.”
“Don’t ask me that. I couldn’t hurt you like that!”
“You’ll be hurting me more if you don’t. The tree’s dying. I’m dying with it, slowly, painfully. Please, Trace! I’m going to die anyway. Stop the pain.”
“Please! If you love me at all, don’t let me suffer like this!” She curled up in a ball, holding herself tightly as pain overwhelmed her.
In a daze, Trace picked up the chainsaw. He was crying so hard, he could barely see what he was doing. Arborea held her screams in somehow to make it easier on him, but he could see her agony as he sliced into the trunk of her tree. In slow motion the tree began to fall. Trace watched in a silent state of shock as it took forever to hit the ground. Arborea looked up at him and smiled, her face relaxing in relief. And then she was gone.
Jeff looked at him wide-eyed. “Man, you really are crazy! Dad said you should be put away, but I just thought you were a little weird. He was right! You’re nuts! You’re talking to yourself and crying over a freakin’ tree! A lousy tree!”
Trace turned to look at his brother. Jeff had seen him mad before. This was beyond mad. His eyes were blazing, dangerous. Jeff backed up a step. “Come on, Trace. Calm down. Let’s go back to dad’s office. Everything will be ok. The doctors in Seattle will help you.”
Trace ran at his brother, grabbing him by the throat. Jeff pushed him away before he could get a good grip. Trace caught Jeff across the face with a backhand fist. Jeff fell to the ground, blood dripping from his mouth.
Jeff scooted back, not wanting to fight Trace. He knew his brother was a better fighter than he was now. And the look in his eyes… He really did look crazy! Trace was coming towards him. Jeff got up and put himself in a defensive stance.
Trace struck out wildly at his brother. He didn’t care anymore. Jeff blocked his attack and surprised him with a kick to the stomach. Trace growled with fury and ran at Jeff again. Jeff tried to keep up with all of Trace’s moves, but he was slowing down while Trace’s anger seemed to give him more energy. Tracee got a hand past his brother’s defenses and grabbed Jeff by the arm, cracking it backwards.
Jeff screamed as his arm snapped. Trace wasn’t going to stop! He was going to kill him! Jeff managed a desperate roundhouse kick that knocked his brother away. Then he fell to the ground cradling his limp arm.
Trace looked over to Arborea’s broken tree lying next to him. He snapped off a branch and stalked towards his brother. Jeff was in a lot of pain and didn’t notice him quickly enough. Trace slammed the branch down on his other arm. He whacked him in the shoulder. Once he started he couldn’t stop. “You killed her! One of the only people who ever cared about me!” *Whack! “You made her suffer!” *Whack! “I think it’s only fair she gets to make you hurt, too!” *Whack! *Whack!
Jeff looked up at him, slightly dazed. “Who are you talking about? I don’t understand. ‘Her’ who?”
“What are you doing, man? You’re gonna kill me! Think about what you’re doing!”
Trace was about to hit him again when he noticed the look in his brother’s eyes. Jeff was terrified—terrified of him! Trace wanted to... He was going to… He almost… Trace dropped the branch like it were a hot poker and started to back away from his brother in horror, horror at what he’d been about to do. “Jeff, I’m… Please, I didn’t mean…”
Jeff lay on his side, coughing up blood. An ugly purple bruise marred his face as he looked up at his brother. Anger was quickly replacing fear. “Didn’t mean what? To almost kill me? I didn’t want to believe it was true, but you are crazy! You should be locked up so you can never hurt anybody again!” Jeff’s voice rose steadily until he was shouting. “They should put you in a straight jacket and lock you away for good, you nutcase! When dad hears about this, he’ll make sure they throw away the key. Maniac! Freakin’ Psycho!”
Trace turned and ran into the woods, the sound of his brother’s curses following him until he was out of range of Jeff’s voice. But he could still hear his words in his mind, threatening to drown out the sound of Arborea’s screams. He ran deeper and deeper, getting further away from Greensborough with every step. And he kept running.
“Well, well, well. You owe me twenty bucks, Johnson. I told you he was headed up here.”
“Guess you were right, Frank.”
Trace spun around at the voices behind him. Manfredy and Johnson.
Manfredy took a puff on his cigar and blew out a long stream of smoke. “It’s an old cliché, the criminal always returning to the scene of the crime, but you’d be surprised how often they actually do just that. They get scared and start thinking maybe they left some evidence behind. You looking for anything you missed, Morgan?”
“I’m looking for anything that will tell me what happened to my brother—beyond that is none of your business. You had your chance back at the station when you caught me off guard. You want to grill me some more, you talk to my lawyer first.”
Johnson walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Easy, kid. We want to know what happened to Jeff as much as you do.”
Trace shrugged him off. “One, I’m not a kid. Two, nobody wants to find out what happened to him as much as I do. And three, the good cop/bad cop thing is getting old. Maybe you guys need to get some new techniques that haven’t been seen on TV cop shows a million times.”
Manfredy violently threw his cigar stub away. “Look here, you…”
Trace stared at him wide-eyed. “Are you some kind of an idiot, Detective? You never throw a lit anything in the woods! Are you trying to start a forest fire? I know there aren’t a lot of trees around here, but it looks like it’s been a dry season. Everything is tinder. I can’t believe you grew up around here and would still do something so stupid.” Trace rushed past the man, searching for the cigar butt. It looked like he had thrown it a little ways down the hill. He went down to get it. Trace dug a hole in the dirt and buried it, all the while mumbling about irresponsible smokers. That was when he heard it. A sound, a voice. It was faint and pleading. He went a little farther down, sliding into a small ravine as he followed the sound.
<Can’t anyone hear me? Please. Help me.>
The voice was tired and hoarse, as if it had been calling for a long time with no answer. It also sounded…familiar. Trace had a strange gnawing feeling in his gut as he let the voice lead him to a spot where one small, lone tree stood. A ghostly form sat under the tree, its head hanging low.
<Please. Can’t anyone hear me? Please. I want to go home.>
Slowly the spirit raised its head. Its face was drawn, its eyes sunken and dark with misery, but there’s no way Trace wouldn’t have recognized his brother.
<Trace? Is that you? You can hear me? And see me, too?>
Trace nodded, dumbfounded. “I don’t understand. Are you dead? Are you a ghost?”
Jeff was crying now, great sobs shaking his insubstantial body. <I don’t know. After you left, they attacked me. The trees. They were everywhere. Roots all over me, dragging me into the earth. Then I was here by this tree. I want to go home, but I can’t leave this tree, can’t go far from it. I yelled for help. Some people came looking for me. They couldn’t see me. I screamed and screamed but they didn’t even know I was here. How long have I been here? You look different, older. It feels like forever. I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep. Tell me I’m already asleep and this is just a nightmare. Tell me anything to make it go away. I just want to go home. Please take me home.>
Trace was beginning to understand what had happened to his brother. “I think…I think the tree spirits used their magic to make you one of them. I didn’t know they had the power to do that.”
<I don’t understand.>
“That’s why no one could see or hear you. They turned you into a tree spirit. Humans can’t see or hear tree spirits—at least none that I know of except for me. They did it to punish you for killing Arborea.”
<You’re not making any sense. I didn’t kill anyone!>
“Tree spirits, or hamadryads, are each bonded to his or her own tree. They take care of it, growing as it grows. And when it dies…”
<But I only chopped down a tree! One tree… It was…just one…tree.>
Trace could see comprehension dawning on his brother’s face. “I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. Her name was Arborea and that was her tree, just like this one is yours. She was my friend—more than that. And when you cut her tree…”
<When I cut her tree…I killed her? I…I killed her. Trace! I didn’t know! You’ve got to believe me! I didn’t see or hear anyone. I would never have…not if I’d known. But I didn’t see her! I didn’t know she was there.> Jeff was staring at his hands, tears streaming down his face. <I’m sorry. So sorry. I thought you were crazy. I thought you needed help. Now I know why you were so mad that day. You should’ve killed me. You could still do it. Cut down my tree. That’ll kill me, right? It’s what I deserve.> His shoulders shook with sobs. <I killed someone. I can’t believe I killed someone! I’m a murderer. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.>
Trace wanted to still be angry. He wanted to hate his brother. But he couldn’t. How could he blame his brother? He only went up there because dad told him to. There was no way Jeff could’ve known Arborea was there. Trace wished his family had believed him about the spirits, but could he honestly hate them for thinking he was crazy? It even sounded crazy to him to talk about the hamadryads out loud. Dad only wanted to protect the family name, but maybe Jeff had worried at least a little bit about him personally. “I’m not going to do anything like that. I think you’ve been punished enough. I want to help you if I can.”
“Who are you talking to down there, kid?”
He looked up to see Johnson gaping down at him. Manfredy stood beside him.
“You know the insanity plea is one of the oldest dodges in the world. You gonna try and tell us you’re crazy and that’s why you did it? Maybe tell us where the body is?”
<Trace? What’s going on?>
“The cops think I killed you and buried your body on the Ridge somewhere.”
“Crazy. I know. Please don’t use that word. I think I’ve heard it enough for one lifetime.”
“Come on, son. We’ll take you back into town and get you some help.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you!”
“No one’s going to hurt you. We just want to help you.”
“You can help me by going away.”
“Yeah, so you can get rid of whatever evidence you found down there you don’t want us to see. Not gonna happen, kid. We’re coming down there.”
If Trace were going to do something, he’d have to act fast. The cops were probably going to make him leave the area and he might not get a chance to come back. There had to be a way to use his Armor of Gaea to help Jeff. His was the power of nature. Surely he could do something. Trace closed his eyes. “ARMOR OF GAEA!” Brown and green tendrils of energy swirled up around him, twining like vines. Then they disappeared in a burst of green light as leaves fell around him. He stood in the ravine, clad in his full Sentinel armor. The two detectives stopped cold, staring at him in disbelief.
Manfredy was the first to regain his composure. “What are you trying to pull with the magic show, kid? It doesn’t change anything.” He started to slide down into the ravine.
Trace tapped the ground with his magic staff. “RAGE OF THE WILD!” Plants suddenly sprung up from the ground, encircling Detective Manfredy’s body. Another bunch of plants entangled his partner before he could get away.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, but you’re in some serious trouble now, you little punk. This is assaulting an officer! When I get out of here…”
“What’s going on here, Detective, is far more than you realize. Whether you believe in them or not, the hamadryads are real! And they lived here. My brother killed one of them and they punished him for it. Now I’m going to see if I can bring him back. I can’t have you interfering.”
“You need help, Trace. If your brother’s dead, you can’t bring him back with some mystical ceremony. You need to talk about what happened to him and you need help.”
“Will you be quiet already? I’m so sick of people telling me I need help. Maybe you’ll understand when you try and tell people about what’s happened here. They’ll want to lock you up, too. Now keep it down. I need to concentrate here.”
“My partner may buy into that crap, but I…”
“I said be quiet!” Trace waved his staff at Manfredy. The vines crept up to cover his mouth.
<Trace? What’s happened to you? Why do you look like that?>
“It’s a long story, Jeff. The short version: I was chosen by the forces of good, along with several other people, to wear mystical armor and protect the world from evil. My armor is tied to nature. That’s why I was able to see the wood spirits and hamadryads. I just didn’t know it then.”
<I’m sorry I asked. I’m still trying to understand this tree spirit thing. I don’t know if I’m ready for more than that yet.>
“That’s ok. All you need to know right now is I’m going to try and help you. Do you believe me?”
<I didn’t before. I wish I had. Things would’ve been so different—for both of us. And for…your friend.> Jeff looked away. <If you told me the moon was made of green cheese, I think I’d believe you now.>
“I won’t go that far, but your world is going to get a lot stranger with me in it again.”
Jeff’s eyes widened in surprise. <After everything, you still want to..? Why would you want to have anything to do with me?>
“Three years is a long time. A lot of things can happen in three years. I want to… Maybe this time we can get it right. That is if you want to. It’ll be strange, but…”
Jeff smiled tentatively. <I think I can handle strange. Just maybe give it to me in small doses, ok?>
Trace smiled in response. “No guarantees.” He sat down on the ground and held out his staff. He plunged it into the ground, trying to make contact with the earth’s energy—the energy that flowed through all living things. He could see Jeff’s energy, how it was different from a normal human’s, but not quite the same as a hamadryad’s. He wasn’t totally one of them, but in some kind of hybrid state. Trace was sure that if he could change the energy itself, it would force Jeff back to human form. He reached out with his own power to touch Jeff’s.
Everything suddenly went crazy. The ground shook as the trees swayed and groaned. Roots and vines shot up from the earth, grabbing at Trace’s legs. He jumped up and reached for his staff, but he couldn’t pull it free from the ground. He gestured at the plants, trying to control them. They ignored his commands. What had happened? Why weren’t they obeying?
<Trace! It hurts! Everything hurts!>
“I don’t know what’s wrong! I’ve used the power of the earth lots of times and nothing like this has ever happened! I don’t…” He’d used the power before, but he’d never tried to change it. He’d borrowed from it, manipulated it, enhanced it, and healed with it, but he’d never actually tried to change it. He never altered the energy of the earth to create plants to do his bidding, either, merely accelerated the growth of what was already there. His armor, his power, came from being in harmony with nature. What he was doing was wrong. He was trying to force his will on the fundamental essence of nature itself. Trace sat in the grass again, powering down to just his sub-armor. The vines and roots quickly began to overtake him, growing over his body. He closed his eyes and didn’t move.
<Trace! What are you doing? They’re going to trap you like they did me! Get out of here! Run! Trace!>
Trace remained still. He felt a strange warmth come over him. He opened his eyes only to find himself in a different place, surrounded by a nature unspoiled by man. “Where am I?”
Three ghostly forms shimmered before him. <You are in the Verdent. The place that binds all magic creatures of the woods and forests.>
<We remember you. You’re Trace, the human who could see us. Arborea’s friend. It’s been a long time.>
Trace nodded. “I couldn’t stay here anymore. I had to go away. The Ridge has changed so much since then. Are you three the only ones left?”
<Yes. There are other special forests in other places of the world all connected by the Verdent, but we’re all that remain of the hamadryads that once called the Ridge home.>
<Someday our kind will be completely gone.>
<We’re not as prolific as humans. Children don’t grow easily or often for us. And the humans kill us faster than we can multiple.>
Even in this shimmery state, Trace recognized them. “But, Cloro, instead of growing more, can’t you make more? You turned my brother into one of your kind, didn’t you?”
<It requires too much power. You must understand. Arborea was especially beloved by our people. She was the first child to survive in so long. And she was our last. She was dear sister, good-hearted friend, and cherished daughter to all who knew her. Her death was a terrible blow. When she was killed, two of our number who were very close to her decided to punish her murderer. They figured we were all doomed anyway, so they used all their life energy to entrap your brother and transform him. So you see. It takes the death of two strong tree spirits to create one. Not a beneficial trade.>
“I’m sorry for all you’ve lost. I couldn’t stop them. I didn’t have any power then. I do now, though. I can stop them from cutting your three trees down. I can…”
<If they come, let them come. We three are old and are ready to go. There isn’t anything keeping us tied to this lonely world anymore. Do not trouble yourself for us. We know our fate and embrace it.>
<But that’s not why you’re here. You wish to help your brother.>
<You tried to change the great energy of life. Mother Earth will not allow that. I’m glad that you finally understood.>
“Yes. I tried to force the earth to bend to my will—and I was working against the power of my own armor. I needed to be in harmony with the Armor of Gaea and the earth itself. But if I can’t change the energy, how can I make my brother human again?”
<He can be unmade the same way he was made. He wasn’t truly transformed into a tree spirit. Nature would not have allowed one such as he to truly become one with it. His energy flows have been enhanced. With gentle persuasion, we can smooth away those enhancements. We won’t be changing the energy itself, only altering its path a bit.>
“You could do that? Yes, please, I want him back. But why would you do that?”
<We have no energy left for hate and vengeance. We’ve listened to his cries for three years. He’s been punished enough. Maybe he’ll teach others from what he’s learned.>
<It is time, Phylla.>
<Yes. Reach out with your armor and we will guide you.>
He could feel their power mingled with his own, guiding him as he gently pushed the energy in the right ways to undo what had been done to Jeff. He watched as his brother’s energy slowly took on human traits.
<Goodbye, Trace. You were the nicest human we ever met.>
<You give us hope that maybe somewhere in the world, humans protect hamadryad trees.>
<It’s time for us to leave.>
“I don’t understand. Where are you going?”
<We were already old and weak, Trace. We gave you what energy we had. We have nothing left.>
<Don’t be sad. This is what we wanted. A painless way to enter the next world.>
<Live always in harmony with the green, child.>
Trace jerked out of his trance-like state. He was no longer in the Verdent. He heard a melancholy sigh and then silence. Arborea?
The sound of gasping brought him back to his surroundings. He looked over to see his brother lying in the grass, shaking like a leaf. He rushed over to him, gratified that he could touch his brother’s arm. “Are you ok? Jeff?”
Jeff’s teeth were chattering. “S-s-sore all over. T-t-tired. C-cold. Am I..? Is th-th-this real?”
“You’re back. You’re real. And I’m going to take you home or anywhere else you want to go.”
Manfredy and Johnson, who were now free, walked over to them. “What the devil is going on here, kid? The plants go crazy and then this guy pops up out of thin air. You’ve got some explaining to do.”
“Whatever. But first I have to get my brother home.”
“Your brother?!” They looked at each other. That was Jeff Morgan?
“As you can see, he’s very much alive. So now you can stop harassing me and go chase muggers or something.”
“You’ve got a smart mouth kid.”
“Ya think?” Trace was still wearing his sub-armor, which increased his strength. He picked his brother up and leapt out of the ravine, leaving the stunned detectives behind. He didn’t care what they told people. Let someone else be called crazy for a change.
Trace put his brother in the car and powered down into his regular clothes. Then he took off his jacket and wrapped it around his brother to keep him warm. Just as he was about to get in the car, he heard something that sounded almost like laughter. Then it was gone. He felt compelled to go in the direction it had come from. His feet carried him to one spot, a spot well known to him. It was where Arborea’s tree once stood. He looked down to see a little tree sprouting up from the same place. It was bigger than a seedling, but not yet a sapling. A warm energy seemed to come from it, familiar and comforting. He didn’t know what it meant, but he rushed back to the jeep and found an old rag from under the seat. He went back and carefully dug up the plant, carrying it back to the car as if it were as fragile as glass. It was important somehow. Maybe it would be a new hamadryad, maybe something else, but he would take care of it. He got in the car and headed for the Jacobi’s. Boy, was he going to have some explaining to do to them. His brother had stopped shivering and was silently looking out the window.
“Jeff? I know I said I’d take you home, but I’d rather we went to the Jacobi’s. I’m kind of staying there right now. Is that ok?”
Jeff saw the tension lines in Trace’s face. Something was bothering him. Why wasn’t he staying with dad? Jeff wasn’t going to ask. He had no right to ask Trace anything. If his brother wanted him to know, he’d tell him. “I don’t care. Anywhere warm and quiet. The Jacobi’s would be nice. We spent a lot of time there as kids anyway so it’s just like home. Besides, I don’t think I could handle talking to dad right now. I want to sleep for a while. Just sleep. And dad’s so…you know.”
The Jacobis had a doctor friend of theirs come and examine Jeff discreetly. He wouldn’t say anything to anyone if they asked him not to. Except for suffering from exhaustion, Jeff seemed to be fine. It never occurred to him that Jeff didn’t look a day older than when he’d vanished.
Jeff slept almost continuously for four days while Trace tried to explain everything to Mr. And Mrs. J. They didn’t believe him. They had that “let’s humor the nutcase” look on their faces as they listened to him—until he showed them the armor and what it could do. After he grew them two large, new shade trees in their front yard in mere minutes, they decided to reexamine their convictions. When Jeff seemed rested and more at ease, Trace told him everything about the hamadryads and his armor. Jeff and the Jacobis were a silent and awestruck audience to Trace’s incredible stories about where he’d been and what he’d done.
Manfredy and Johnson came by to talk to Jeff. They didn’t like the story he gave them. How were they going to explain it in a report when they weren’t sure they believed it themselves? And they’d seen what Trace had done. Trace could tell Manfredy still wanted to get him for something, maybe assaulting an officer at the least. But would anyone accept that Trace had assaulted him and his partner with plants that sprung up from the ground by magic? Trace didn’t care what they put in their reports as long as they got off his back. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stay in Greensborough, though. There would probably always be a cloud hanging over his head there. That wasn’t really a problem. He had no intention of staying. But what about Jeff? And how were they going to tell their dad?
Trace didn’t have long to wonder how to tell him. Somehow news about Jeff’s return got out and spread like wildfire around town. For once, Thomas Morgan wasn’t the first to know something. Two days later, their dad came blazing up the drive in his SUV. He stormed up to the door and burst in without knocking. “What’s going on here and why am I practically the last to know?”
They were all eating breakfast at the time. Their dad’s arrival had practically given an already shaky Jeff a heart attack, and put Trace in a defense posture. Mr. and Mrs. J were outraged. “Next time ring the bell, Thomas! That’s why it’s there.”
“Don’t lecture me, Martin! When I hire you to do work for me, I expect to be kept informed. Why do I have to hear about Jeff from Chuck McCade at the hardware store? What am I paying you for?”
“You wanted me to represent Trace. I’ve been doing that. You told me you didn’t want to see him or hear from him so I didn’t think you wanted to know what he was up to.”
“You know perfectly well I’d want to be informed about something like this.” It was then he noticed Jeff. “Where have you been? Do you know how long and hard the people of this town searched for you? And here you were alive the whole time somewhere. Did you and your brother think this would be a great prank to pull on the old man? Make him look stupid in front of the whole town?”
Trace noticed the panicked look on Jeff’s face and stepped between them. “This isn’t the time or place. Jeff’s been through a real traumatic experience and he needs rest and quiet.”
“I don’t want to hear another word from you! I know you’re behind all this somehow, you and your crazy ideas. If Jeff needs to go someplace for peace and quiet, I’ll handle it.”
Trace snorted. “Yeah, right. Send him to a sanitarium I suppose. He’s fine where he is if you’d just back off and let us tell you…”
“Tell me what? That you got your brother involved in something crazy? That’s why you both disappeared for three years?”
“You’re the one who sent him up there to…”
Jeff jumped up from his chair. “Stop it! STOP IT! Both of you! Dad, Trace didn’t do anything wrong. We screwed up. You and me. We didn’t listen to him. We should have. Everything he said about the trees, the spirits… It was all true.”
“Jeff, you don’t know what you’re saying. Trace has got you all confused.”
“But it’s all true! We should’ve listened to him!”
“Stop it! I don’t want you going around telling people insane nonsense like that. Do you want people to think you’re like your brother? They’re already talking behind my back about you. The town thinks I’ve got one crazy son already, I don’t want them thinking our whole family’s nuts. We’re Morgans, son! We have to be better than that. You’re going to be head of my company someday, Jeff. I’m not going to hand it over to someone who’s not fit to run it.”
Jeff’s face lost all expression. “I’ve been missing for three years and the first things you think of are the honor of the Morgan name and the company. So that’s all I am to you? A Morgan? Part of your grand dynasty? I guess Trace was right about a lot of other things, too. He told me years ago that you only cared about us as long as we made the family look good, as long as we were strong. I thought he was just jealous because you’d chosen me to take over the company. But you only chose me after Trace started rocking the boat. Was making me your heir my reward for being the obedient son, or his punishment for being different?”
“He’s filled your head with all sorts of stupid ideas, son. I’m taking you home now and we’ll get this sorted out properly. Then I’ll call someone who can get your head on straight and…”
“And what? You’ll send me away because I’m an embarrassment now, too? When will you let me come home? When I turn myself back into your little clone? I can’t do that. I’ve seen too much. I can’t be what you want me to be anymore.”
“Jefferson Morgan! We’ll discuss this at the house. Get your things.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not going with you. You should be happy, Dad. You love the company so much, now you’ll get to spend the rest of your life with it because I don’t want any part of it.” He turned to Trace. “I…I know you don’t owe me anything, but… Take me with you.”
“But you don’t even know where I’m going.”
“It doesn’t matter. Anywhere away from here! As soon as possible. Please.”
Trace was thinking of the letter that had magical materialized in his room the night before—an invitation to Astarte and Gilgamesh’s wedding. The wedding was in a few days. He figured they’d been trying to locate him, but since he’d been traveling around, they’d kept missing him. Mia’s house would definitely not be a quiet place, but he had an idea. “How about right now? Is that soon enough for you?”
Jeff was slightly confused, but he shook his head in agreement. He had nothing he wanted to stay in Greensborough for anymore.
Trace ran to the guest room and grabbed his stuff, carefully picking up the plant he’d taken from the Ridge. He and Astarte were connected somehow through their power (see SW1: Sentinel Warriors and SW3: Lord of Storms). If he concentrated hard enough on reaching her, she would be able to sense him and teleport to his location. Now seemed like a good time.
He went back into the kitchen with his stuff. “Do you trust me, Jeff?”
A bright red light flashed in front of all their eyes. It vanished, and in its place stood a tall, bronzed woman with fiery red hair. “You have need of my assistance, Trace?”
“Astarte, this is my brother, Jeff. Jeff, Astarte.”
Jeff shook her hand, his mouth hanging open. Trace smiled. “She has that effect on lots of people. Just don’t let her fiancé see you looking at her like that.”
Thomas Morgan scowled at the interloper. “Who is this…person?”
Astarte looked him over as if he were something on her shoe. “I am Astarte, Goddess of Life, Goddess of War, little man. Who are you?”
“This is a family matter, lady, and…”
“Then it is well that I am here. Trace is very much family to me.” She turned to Trace. “What did you need?”
“Could you give Jeff and me a ride to Mia’s? Otherwise, I’ll never make it to your wedding on time.”
She gave him a wry smile. “That would be extremely unfortunate since you are to stand with us as we exchange vows.”
“I know. And I’m honored.”
“It is we who are honored. Are you ready to depart?”
Trace hugged Mr. and Mrs. J and thanked them for everything. This time he promised to write and call often. Trace turned to his father. “I was going to explain everything to you, but you wouldn’t even give me a chance. Nothing’s changed for you. I never could talk to you and I can’t now. If you want to know what happened, ask the Jacobis or go up to the Ridge. But I’d be careful if I were you. The tree spirits may be all dead, but there are other things up there on the Ridge—things that know who you are and what you’ve done to their habitat. They may not be very forgiving. I hope your happy with the material things you have, because they may be all you’ll ever have.”
Jeff didn’t even look at his father as they turned to Astarte. “We’re ready.”
She raised her hand in the air, a ruby red glow flashed from the jewel at her throat. The light blinded the people in the kitchen for a moment. When they looked again, Trace, Jeff, and the mysterious woman were gone.
Trace went to Gilgamesh’s room to make sure the groom was ready. Gilgamesh was completely dressed and waiting for Mia to come tell him when they were going to start the ceremony. Trace’s good friend was nervous, though he would never admit such a thing.
Trace had checked on Jeff a few hours ago just to make sure he was ok all alone. Jeff seemed more timid to him now than he did before. And now they were both physically the same age. When he’d brought his brother back, Jeff had returned at the age he’d been when the spirits transformed him. It was weird being the same age as his older brother.
Trace knew Jeff would never get any peace and quiet at Mia’s house with the wedding and all the Ronins, Sentinels, and Warlords coming and going. It would probably not be a good idea to expose him to all that magic and otherworldly stuff so soon, anyway. Zane was nice enough to let the two of them stay at his uncle’s isolated cabin with him for a while. That was where Jeff was now while everyone else attended the wedding.
He and Jeff had talked, haltingly at first, but more comfortably as the hours passed. He didn’t know if he’d ever be as close to Jeff as a brother should be, but maybe he could be some kind of friend now that they had both stepped out from under their father’s dark cloud. Dad hadn’t always been like that—not until after their mom had died. Maybe someday they’d go back to Greensborough. Maybe someday their dad would want two sons instead of two heirs. Maybe someday…
Gilgamesh noticed the shadow of sadness that clung to his friend. “Something troubles you. You have not spoken to anyone of what occurred in the place of your birth. Many times in the past you have listened to my uncertainties or Astarte’s concerns. We are both here for you in your times of trouble, as well. Tell me what weighs on your mind.”
Trace smiled reluctantly. Maybe being dysfunctional was a prerequisite to wearing the magic armors. Most of the Ronins, Sentinels, and Warlords had either no families, odd families, or messed up families. Had any of them lived a good, normal life without tragedy before being chosen? “The offer is appreciated, but I can’t take you up on it right now. I don’t want to ruin your happy day with my baggage. Maybe another time.”
Gilgamesh knew Trace’s habit of keeping things to himself. Most likely, he had no plans to ever trouble his friends with whatever had happened to him in the place called Greensborough. “There is no ‘maybe’, my friend. I know better than most the burden of silence…and the price. We will speak of this again. Mark my words.” He clapped Trace good-naturedly on the back.
Trace shook his head in exasperation, smiling at his friend’s gruff but concerned insistence. They would talk, but not today. Today was a festive day and he would not ruin it.
Trace sat in a beautiful clearing in the woods on Mia’s property. The sun was shining and the air was fresh and clean. He put his shovel down and gently set the young tree into the hole he’d dug. He packed the dirt in around it and sat back, satisfied. Trace watched the tree, wondering what would come of it. He knew it was something special, but just what he did not know. Maybe a new tree spirit, maybe an offshoot of Arborea’s tree, maybe… It would take several years before it would be old enough and strong enough to manifest a hamadryad. Until then, he’d just have to wait. But Trace was a patient person. He could wait forever if he had to.
1) Sorry. Almost no action in this one. And I just noticed how depressing this story is. Must be the winter blahs. At least Wedding Bells had some humor in it (I loved the barfight!). The next one-shot will have more action and maybe humor, too (just in time for spring!).
2) I borrowed the names of the two cops from my most favorite movie in the world: Stalag 17. Manfredy and Johnson were two POWs that were caught and killed trying to escape the Stalag. Someone in their own barracks had ratted them out. I just liked the sound of the names so here they are.
3) Maybe being from a dysfunctional family (or not having any family at all) is a qualification for those who wear the armor. It certainly seems that way (especially with the background stories I’ve been writing for the Sentinels and Warlords). Tragedy just makes for a more interesting story I guess.