It was late in the forest.
The trees, usually bright-wooded and orange-leafed, were a misty grey-and-brown blur in the thick mist. Light filtered in parts, but most of the forest was kept in deep shadow.
A silhouetted figure swept silently from tree to tree, stopping at a stump. Without turning, it signalled with a wave of its hand and a twitch of its small wings.
Crunch, went the leaves that were scattered across the grass.
Crunch, under the foot of a dull-skinned, sickly little child.
The little girl was almost human; at a glance the only difference between her and a true human child were the tiny, useless wings sprouting from under her shoulder blades.
She cursed with each step. Words a child should never know— but words this child knew far too well.
“Shh! Hush up!” The figure turned as the child stumbled into a low-hanging branch. “Mako, keep your eyes up and your feet sweeping! You’ll wake the entire island with those leaves crunching!”
“T’yeah, Tuka!” Mako gave an exaggerated shrug and pulled a twig out of her hair. “You think I don’t know?”
“Hush!” Tuka hissed. “You want to be a hunter, don’t you? If you want to hunt for the tribe, you have to-”
“-hunt a kill today,” she finished. “I know, Tuka. I know. You’ve not been off it all day!”
Tuka’s voice grew indignant. “I’m trying to help you, Mako-”
“For your own selfish reasons, father said to his Gyro,” Mako fluffed out the downy little nubs on her back in an upset manner. “He said- He said you want to overthrow him and take the tribe for yourself, but you need to have an apprentice before you can challenge him!”
“Hro said that, did he?” Tuka couldn’t help but lean into the light to show Mako his grin. “And what would you say if I said I was?”
Mako didn’t hesitate. “Can I be your Gyro? I’d be the most loyal second-in-command ever!”
“Well! I’m not going to say I’ll do it,” Tuka gave a wink before he hid himself back in the shadows. “No. That would be treason; but if I were to somehow become the leader of the Tribe? Yes. I wouldn’t want anyone else to have that responsibility! Now, Mako, use your head; what comes out this late at night?”
It took a moment for Mako to decide on an creature, but when she did, she was certain she was right. “Spiders.”
“Spiders?” Tuka repeated. “Well, yes... They do; but they’re not edible.”
“Why the hell not? They’re big enough!” Mako’s tone was blunt and her question rhetorical. She didn’t wait for Tuka’s response. “Mum used to get us spider meat all the time. You can’t always eat the body; but the legs are never bad! The bigger the spider, the more meat! Mum said-”
“Your mum was from the Shadowfeather Tribe, Mako,” Tuka interrupted. “They know which spiders have venom and which don’t. That’s how things are done here.”
Frustrated at Tuka’s dismissal, Mako let her voice grow loud. “But if you eat the legs it doesn’t matter if they’re ve-”
“Mako! Hush!” Tuka lunged at Mako and held her mouth closed.
The grey-painted symbols on his hands should have been washed off hours ago; their waterproof seal had worn away and they rubbed off on Mako’s face, leaving smudges on her chin and lips.
“Do you want to warn every animal on the island that you’re hunting them?” He said through clenched teeth. “Do you want to be a gatherer?”
Mako nearly screamed in shock. NO! She didn’t want to be a gatherer. She shook her head as much as she could through her teacher’s hand, smearing the marks into her skin.
“Then make a kill tonight! Successful hunters leave for the Hunter’s Shrine tomorrow,” his voice was scarcely a whisper as he pulled Mako into the shadows beside him. “Gathering is all that’s left. It’s an honourable duty, but you’d never be happy with it.”
“Hell naw,” Mako pouted. “You sister’s one, yeah?”
Tuka nodded and gave Mako a shove in the direction he wanted her to go.
“She’s boring. I don’t want to be boring like her. You’re the only interesting one in your whole family.”
Tuka couldn’t think of how to respond to such a backhanded compliment, so he just shushed Mako.
The misty air floated around them gently, and they shared a silence. It wasn’t an awkward silence; but it wasn’t a special one either. Just a shared silence as they thought to themselves.
“Mako, you go on your own,” something seemed to click in Tuka’s brain. “I’ll... Catch up.”
It was almost morning. The mist had cleared from the chilly air and the trees seemed friendlier in the light of the three moons overhead. The stars were so beautiful; like a million spirits dancing in the sky. It hardly looked like it was the same night; what a few hours could do!
But the beauty was nothing for Mako; she staggered through the trees, exhausted and defeated. She dragged her feet through the dry leaves and hung her head in shame.
She just wanted to go home.
It was all too hard. Hunting. It just wasn’t worth it, was it? Maybe she should be a gatherer; though she’d probably never be able to find any food that way either!
Tuka should have been here with her. It was his responsibility to teach her to hunt.
“Draw the weapon; jump the prey,” Mako whispered her teacher’s instructions under her breath, almost in tears. “Get the meat, but respect the kill.”
She looked around, her vision obstructed by the water in her eyes. Everything seemed so blurry and distorted. It was just too much.
“You have to stop making so much noise. You’ll warn every animal on the island,” she mumbled. “You’ll never be a hunter. You’re useless. At least you sister has brains.”
Mako stopped walking, and let the tear that was rolling down her cheek drip to the ground. She raised her head higher and took a deep breath. Those last words weren’t from her teacher; he’d never talk to her like that. Those last words were from her father. Great Hro of the Swiftwing Tribe. Chief of Swiftwings. Failure of fathers.
She put her hand on her left hip and felt for the soft, scarred skin that had joined her to her sister at birth. They had been born together; the skin on their hips had fused while they were still in the womb. That’s what the healers said; born as one, and split to be two. They still looked like the same person though. They looked identical in every way… Except their scars. Those were special; they were their link to each other.
When Mako touched her scar, she knew her sister Moka could feel it. She knew because when Moka touched her scar Mako could feel it too. Her sister’s hand would press against her hip like she was next to her...
She felt it now.
Somehow, knowing she had a link to Moka made everything seem that little bit better. She was able to stop crying.
Mako looked around, trying to get her bearings as she wiped her eyes. She wasn’t sure where she was exactly, but she knew she’d followed Northfinder, the bright blue moon that could always be followed to the far North of the world.
She looked to the sky and saw the three moons shining brightly. She noticed for the first time that Stargiver — the small pink moon — was nothing but a tiny sliver of light in the sky. Had Stargiver been so dull earlier in the night? Mako couldn’t remember, but she looked at silver Harvestguide and decided that would be the best moon to follow home. It looked South enough.
She started following Harvestguide with careless steps. The child was so cold she couldn’t even move her wings; she just wanted to curl up with Moka and sleep on their shared bed of pelts.
She was done. She was going to be a gatherer, and there was no way to change that now. It was almost morning; even if she did make a kill, by the time she returned to the tribe it would be day and they’d never believe she caught it in time.
A shadow in the corner of her eye moved and she froze. She thought she’d seen something.
Right there by the tree! It wasn’t an animal. Was it? A figure of some sort- a person, maybe? She couldn’t tell.
It was waving to her.
“He... Hello?” Mako managed. Her voice was hoarse from her late night. It didn’t sound much like her at all.
The waving stopped.
“Tuka?” She gave a cough to clear her throat, and sounded like herself again. “Tuka if that’s you I’m gonna be so angry!”
“Can you see us?”
The voice was unlike anything Mako had ever heard before. It was coarse but soft and wavered in pitch as it spoke.
“You... You can...”
Now it sounded like a hundred voices at once.
“T’yeah I can!” Mako knew she should have been scared, but she was too caught up in her own failure to feel anything but anger. “You think this is a joke?” Her voice rose on the last word. “To follow me around and watch me cry?”
“No. Of course we don’t,” the shadow slowly crept from behind the tree. “We would never think the pain of a child funny.”
Mako held her breath. She’d see who it was now. They weren’t anyone from her tribe... She’d recognise the voice. They were probably from one of the neighbouring tribes.
There, they were coming into the moonlight!
Mako nearly fainted. It was like seeing a hundred faces at once!
“You flinch when you see us,” it whispered, and retreated back into the shadows. “Have we really become so ugly?”
Mako quickly shook her head. “Not ugly!” She corrected. “Overwhelming!”
“Overwhelming...” It repeated. “We are overwhelming.”
Mako didn’t know what else to say.
It was a spirit. A very sad spirit.
“I am here to give you a message, Moka,” it began.
“Moka? Hell naw I’m not Moka!” Mako said bluntly.
“You... You are not Moka...”
“Naw; Moka is my sister.”
The spirit shot out from its hiding place and stopped barely an inch from Mako’s nose. “YOU THE OTHER TWIN?!” It shrieked.
Mako nodded her head, too shocked to speak. She could feel the cold air around the spirit touch her cheeks.
The spirit backed away and began to pace in the foliage. Its features changed almost constantly, a strange coloured mist trailing behind it as it shifted to look like a hundred new people.
Mako thought to warn it of a log before it tripped, but couldn’t find her breath. The spirit simply phased through the log without noticing.
“Oh no... No... That’s no- There’s been- mistake! Th- Wr-” The voices jittered as the spirit’s faces faltered and it began to fade. It looked to the rising sun in panic and gripped Mako’s shoulders in an icy vise. “If you can- us- Moka- she’ll take the wrong child! She’ll take Moka and not you! Lis-”
“Who will?” Mako managed, finding her voice as the spirit lost its own. “Who will take my sister?”
There was a shriek; somewhere deep off in the forest something screamed.
The spirit vanished and Mako was left standing wide-eyed and alone. The morning air felt warm where the spirit had touched her and she shivered. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. Had that spirit been warning her or threatening her? She didn’t know what it had meant.
All she knew was she was tired, and her sister was going to be taken somewhere...
“Mako!” Tuka called, breaking the terrifying silence. “Mako hurry up! We have to get back!”
She turned and ran as fast as she could towards Tuka’s voice.
She wanted to go home! She needed to go home!
Mako broke through a rough patch of foliage and came face to face with Tuka.
Tuka and the dead boar-tiger cub.