Chapter 2: Shadowforth
Our home was one of the two-story houses, but it also had a deck area set aside with some cloths and shelves that held herbs and bandages. Our mother was not only the head of the largest family in the village, but she was also the village’s healer, and was the person who discovered the most effective treatment for minor illnesses caused by the dust. When we arrived, she was sitting outside, with our smallest sibling, who was around a year old, on her lap wrapped in a soft cloth as she slept. Mother had long, soft black hair that was longer and more straight than mine. Her skin was smooth and a tanned pinkish color, darker on her cheeks and nose. Her amber eyes almost always looked unfocused, but always, without fail, lit up when she looked at one of her children. This was especially true when she had been as worried about one of them as she had been about Rune.
“Rune, where did you go?” She asked, glancing down at the baby to see if she’d wake up if she stood up. The three of us rushed to her side so that she wouldn’t have to. I sat down on a chair next to her, Rune sat on one of the cloths as he started talking, and Storm sat on the floor next to me, putting his wing around my back. That was something that I never understood. Our mother didn’t have wings, or horns, or a tail, and her hands and feet were soft and fleshy, and her ears were hidden by her hair. She told me and my siblings that it was because she was once human, like the dungeon guards. But she hadn’t given birth to a single child who had all of those same human features. I was the closest, and even I had a furry tail, hooved feet, and thick fur growing on my arms and legs, not to mention the black birthmarks all over my face, neck, torso, and arms. Storm was the same as me, except he also had leathery wings and curved horns. No two of our siblings looked alike- not even the ones who were born at the same time, like Storm and I. Sentinel had said that it had something to do with what the humans did to our mother. It made sense… but at the same time, it felt like there was something missing about that explanation.
I was snapped out of my thoughts by my mother placing her hand on my shoulder. “Gray? Are you alright?”
“Yeah, mom,” I said, putting my hand over hers. “Sorry, I was just thinking.”
Mom nodded. “Can you hold Silk for me while I look at Rune?”
I nodded as she put Silk in my arms. Even through the blankets, she felt so soft and fragile. Her eyes opened and she looked at me, pouting a little bit as she looked after mom. I watched as mom started to boil some water and prepare some blackberry leaves. “I’m going to make enough tea for all three of you.”
“Storm and I weren’t out there for long enough to get sick,” I said. Mom looked up at me, her eyes seeming a little harder than usual, though her voice was still soft.
“I have more than enough to be able to do this as a preventative measure, Gray.”
I narrowed my eyes, but nodded. Rune coughed again, and mom frowned, walking over to his side, kneeling, and putting her hand on his abdomen. “Try to take a deep breath.”
He opened his mouth and tried to take a deep breath, but it got caught in his throat, and he coughed loudly. Mom stood up with a sigh. “This is why you need to be careful when you leave, Rune.”
“I’m… going to be okay, right?” The panic in his voice gave me a pang of guilt.
“Yeah. You’ll need to take it easy for a day, though, and try to drink the tea I’m making while it’s still warm. While it’s cooling, though, try to breathe in some of the steam from it.”
Rune nodded, leaning back. Silk started to get fussy in my arms, whining and flicking her fox-like ears and kicking my arm lightly.
“What do you need, sis?” I asked, putting a finger on her nose. Silk just started whining louder. I took a deep breath. If she was any indication, it was a good thing I didn’t end up being a mother…
“She may be hungry,” mom said, glancing at the water. It had yet to boil.
“Do we want to try giving her real food again?” I asked.
Mom nodded. “Torchlight’s oldest child came by earlier with some roots and vegetables that can be mashed easily and said her mom thought of us.”
“I’ll have to see if I can get dad to go hunting with me so that we can give them some meat in return,” Storm said.
“Hey, don’t leave me behind,” I growled. He pushed me a little with his wing and smiled.
“The only dreams you get left behind in are my nightmares, Gray.”
As Storm and I were talking, mom was pulling out a bowl, some root vegetables, and some cooking utensils. She started to chop them into smaller pieces.
“Do you want some help?” Storm asked, standing up.
“It would be appreciated.”
“Mom?” Rune suddenly spoke up from the blanket he was lying on.
“What do you know about the dust?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. Just that blackberry leaves can help if someone gets sick from it, and that there was a lot of it in the dungeon, especially when the humans were running their tests. Why do you ask?”
“I want to know more.”
I took a deep breath again. “Rune… that’s really dangerous…”
“I know, I’m the one who feels like it’s tearing my throat apart. But what if there were a way to start fighting back against it…?”
We were all quiet, except Silk, who was still fussing. I held her a little closer, hugging her to my shoulder and gently stroking the back of her head. Mom seemed to be thinking while she put the blackberry leaves into the cauldron and put the roots into a net to dip into the water and cook. Eventually, mom broke the silence.
“I think that’s reasonable, though still dangerous. If you’re going to try to learn more, I would start by talking to Sentinel, and telling him what you’re up to.”
“He’s… not going to be mad that I left on my own?”
“No. He’ll be concerned, but you won’t get in trouble. The dust itself is punishing you for not being careful.”
Rune nodded, covering his eyes with his hands. “Yeah…”
“Even with Sentinel’s permission, you’ll need someone to protect you, Rune,” I said. “I can help with that, as long as I’m not needed elsewhere…”
“And I’ll come with you as well,” Storm said as he used a ladle to pour out some of the blackberry leaf tea into three different copper mugs and wrapped them in cloth so they wouldn’t burn our hands. Mom pulled the roots out and tested how soft they were, before starting to mash them. Her brow was furrowed a little bit, and I felt a pang of sorrow for her. If all three of us left for even a day, that would mean three fewer people to help her with the rest of our siblings… not to mention how much she’d worry over us...
“At the same time, would it be more helpful to the village for us to go search for answers we might not find… or stay here and help find food, and take care of the younger kids…?” I asked.
“You really don’t have faith in me, do you, Gray?” Rune growled. My tail thrashed in irritation.
“Rune, I never said that. You’re a smart guy. But we don’t know if there’s even a way to stop the dust.”
“And we’ll never know if we don’t try…”
“But maybe it would be best to wait a little while, at least for more of the younger children to grow up and be able to help out.”
Mom put a hand on my shoulder, and sat down near me. I let Silk rest in my lap as mom fanned the roots to cool them off, testing the bowl every few seconds to see if it was cool enough. “Gray, I know what you mean, and I understand it. But those children will also start having children of their own, and we have no idea if it’ll actually get easier for us to live. This may be the best time for us to figure that out.”
I sighed, nodding resignedly. “I… guess you’re right. I’m more than willing to help you, Rune. I’m just worried about the village in general…”
“We’re not the only hunters, Gray,” Storm said with a genuine smile, folding his wings and sitting next to me, setting our two mugs down at our feet. He had already given Rune one, and Rune was bent over the cup, trying to breathe in as much of the steam as possible.
“But losing even one hunter is a blow to the whole village.”
“But they’re not losing us. Besides, I doubt we’ll need to go too far from the village. If what we’re researching is dust… well, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place without it around here,” Storm said with a laugh. Rune paused, wincing a little bit.
“But that’s exactly what I might need,” Rune muttered. I glared at him, and Storm deflated a little bit. Mom saw it and shook her head.
“You can all discuss this later. Rune, you need rest. Storm, Gray, one or both of you can help me prepare a meal for the family as soon as we’ve fed Silk.”
I nodded, and held Silk close, sitting slightly upright, as mom tried to get her to eat. It didn’t feel long until we were all done, and Rune fell asleep, and the rest of us went inside.