Chapter thirty-one of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
Sophie giggled as she was chased through the trees. Henry made a scrambling lunge and caught Sophie’s arm, forcing a surprised squeal from her.
“Gotcha!” he panted.
The moment passed and Sophie’s face faded from joy to the same dour expression she’d been wearing when Henry suggested tag in the first place, to try and cheer her up.
“What’s up, Soph?” he wondered, standing straight and smiling. “I thought you loved being here in person.”
“I do… Only you got me thinking. We can’t wake up.”
“Look,” he said softly, moving over to her and speaking in a confidential tone of voice. “You don’t have to lie to me. What’s really up?”
Henry paused and Sophie met his eyes, nodding almost imperceptibly.
“We’ll find Ana-loop. You know that, right?” he asked.
“How?” she snapped, her eyes flickering apologetically; she hadn’t intended to be so gruff. “You know she would have met us by now if she could have. They’ve arrested her, Henry! How are we supposed to find her?”
“I can help,” a light voice said evenly. It was a hushed sound, like a leaf tickering over concrete. Both children tensed. Henry looked terrified.
“Who said that?” he demanded. In front of them, a jagged wedge of felled tree, six or seven feet tall, shuddered and moved, exposing arms and legs the color of bark that creaked like leather.
“I did,” the figure said in a strange voice that fluted in chords over an uneasy harmony. “My name is Dajenour. I can take you to Ana-loop.”
Henry and Sophie backed away a step, their hands reaching into the air between them, trying to find each other.
“Are you… the Golgantry?” Henry wondered, trying to hold his voice steady.
It was difficult to hold a conversation with the being before them: It had no discernible eyes to look into, nor even a proper head to approximate where the eyes should be. There was a head-like hump between thin, branch-like and handless arms, but that was it.
“We are,” Dajenour answered.
As they watched, massive wings unfurled behind the creature and it stepped forward. Henry stepped back, but this time Sophie held her ground. Henry glanced at her and could tell by her set features that she’d had enough. It was the way she sometimes looked at school when the older kids picked on her, and it was the look that shut them up and made them go about their business.
“You were chasing Ana-loop,” Sophie charged, sounding much braver than she felt.
“I did as I was asked, as I have to,” Dajenour responded, his voice a high-pitched trill that trilled higher as he spoke, like the sound of breaking glass shelves.
Henry winced and covered his ears, his stomach roiling and his heart pounding: It didn’t take a linguist to tell you the thing was upset.
“That doesn’t make it right,” Sophie observed.
The Golgantry beat its wings once, the force of the air buffeting the grass and ruffling Sophie’s hair.
“Ana-loop can explain. I will take you to her. She asked to see you.”
“No!” Henry cried out, missing as he reached out to grab Sophie before she stepped forward. Henry didn’t move after her, though, trapped as he was between heroism, self-preservation, and the gut feeling that Dajenour didn’t mean Sophie harm. He watched in disbelief as Sophie took another step forward.
“Do you want to see her?” Dajenour asked in a much more subdued tone that reminded Henry of screws rattling around in an empty coffee can. The Golgantry extended its arms and wings wide.
“How?” Sophie whispered in awe of the now-looming presence. Bat-like wings, she would say later—massive bat-like wings made of tree bark and leather.
“We will fly.”
Sophie shook her head.
“No—I don’t like heights.”
“Sophie!” Henry pleaded as she took another step forward anyway. “Sophie! No! Don’t!”
Dajenour wrapped its arms tightly around the small girl, her face completely hidden against the thing’s chest. Its massive wings beat and in two swoops they were too high for Henry to grab for, even with a running jump.
“Sophie…!” he gasped quietly.
Behind him there was a rustling in the brush, then Bransen burst through to the space where Henry stood, watching the canopy above. Bransen was followed closely by Luci and Mouse.
“Where’s Sophie?” Luci demanded. “Is she hiding?”
Henry could tell by her panicked tone that she knew damn well Sophie wasn’t hiding.
“He took her,” the boy answered robotically. “The Golgantry.”
“Oh my God,” Luci breathed and withered to her knees with her hands covering her mouth.