May the fourth be with you!

I’m the antithesis of “outdoorsy.” I cut, scrape, or bruise myself on plants and rocks. Biting insects, especially mosquitoes, find  me incredibly tasty, and I, in return, get incredibly itchy. People find how quickly I burn in the sun quite astonishing.

In short, I suspect that nature is out to get me, and Darwin would label my continued survival as an anomaly. Some of my characters in Witch of Atlas have the kind of nature skills I can only gaze at longingly from my side of the window. This character falls somewhere in between. He can name a few dozen plants, if they’re so helpful as to be highly identifiable, local, or poison ivy/oak/sumac. He spends time outdoors, is healthy and tanned (if a little clumsy), but if you dropped him in the Amazon unprepared he’d need a great deal of luck and help to make it out.

How’d you label yourself? Do you have a green-thumb or a black one? Do you hike over rough terrain, or drive a vehicle over it? How well do you think you’d do it an unfamiliar forest, far from home?

Note: On this Earth, there are three types of humans: 1) those who can’t see magic (spells are cast as glyphs) at all, only the effects; 2) those who can see magic, but can’t cast spells; 3) those who can see magic and cast spells. Generally speaking, humans know that magic and the fey (magic species from another world) exist. Their level of belief and knowledge varies.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Something crashed through the branches above Nelson, making as much noise as his sister’s two boys did right before bedtime. He backed away from the sound, picturing wildcats and carnivorous monkeys, and tripped over a shallow depression in the ground. Laughter—definitely non-human laughter—sounded from above.

Nelson wished that he knew what was out there. While he was at it, he wished he hadn’t walked between two shaded oaks into another world. Next time, he was sticking to the path, even if it was clogged with women pushing baby strollers.

He’d immediately tried to return, stepping back through the gap, and circling around to enter from the other side. None of his attempts had worked, so he’d stopped to think and look around. Clearly it wasn’t his favorite park, but his surroundings looked less alien than he expected. It was just a forest, with trees, dirt, and plants. And then a vine with bright pink flowers growing on a nearby tree grabbed a squirrel-like animal. The resulting ear-piercing squealing ended with a muffled snap, and Nelson had almost hurled. When the vines rustled, flowers turning toward him like eyes, he ran.

Now he was lost and about to be lunch for a leopard. The branches bounced, and a gray and black spotted bird hopped out from behind the leaves. It tipped its head from the side to side, and then laughed again.

“What kind of freaky bird’re you?” Nelson asked. “Do you eat eyeballs, or seeds?”

The bird didn’t answer.

Nelson turned, trying to angle himself so he could watch the bird and get away from it without tripping a second time. The bird watched him pass underneath it, swinging its head from side to side like it was trying to decide which eyeball to eat first. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed the bird hadn’t moved, but Nelson kept checking until he couldn’t see it anymore.

Nothing swooped down at him from above, so he started to relax. His stomach clenched and grumbled, reminding him that he’d probably missed dinner with the boys, though the warm, bright light filtering through the trees hadn’t changed. He bet his buddies would figure he’d just forgotten to text that he wasn’t coming, again. How long would it be before someone noticed he was missing? Jeanine always called a million times when he forgot a date, a fact he was suddenly grateful for. She’d realize he was missing sometime tomorrow. But what were the odds that someone who could see magic had been there in the park when he disappeared? He had to find help, or he wouldn’t be in for work on Monday, or ever again.

The trees to his left rustled.

Turning in that direction, Nelson muttered, “Stupid birds.”

Glowing hazel eyes peered down at him.

Nelson jumped, swore, fell against a tree, and cursed some more when he scraped his arm on the bark. From the tree branch, a nearly-human face floated from the leafy shadows, too small even for a child.

“You’re not a bird. What the heck are you?”

The creature didn’t respond.

“Great. Another dumb critter.” Nelson started to edge around the thing. “Frickin’ creepy the way everything keeps an eye on me.”

“Trees toss their heads/ whisper secrets to each other/ waiting for rain,” the creature said in an ordinary-sounding male voice, the contrast making the thing even creepier.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nelson demanded.

The creature vanished into the tree without answering.

“Great.” Nelson trudged on. He went jogging every day, but now his feet ached from walking, pain radiating up his legs and stabbing his spine. Tree roots, plant tufts, uneven ground, and half-hidden rocks were a far cry from raked gravel paths. Leaning against a tree, he stopped for a short break, and then a longer one, sitting on a fallen tree trunk. He caught himself dozing off, and jumped to his feet, pacing nervously. He needed to find shelter, but where?

When he heard the trees sigh as if from the wind despite the still air, he decided he was too tired to care about laughing birds and nonsense-spouting monsters. Light gleamed off eyes at waist-height, and something four-legged ghosted from the shadows of the bushes in front of him. All Nelson could see was enormous paws, wicked teeth and a curve of pink tongue, and brown eyes locked on his. Heart hammering in his chest, Nelson froze.

From behind him, he heard a low, rumbling cough.

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About Caitlin Stern

I have a MA in English, and have so many fantasy/urban fantasy WIPs it's not even funny. I'm an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, biography, fiction, and anything else that catches my interest. I collect books, and bookmarks I find that are visually appealing and useful.

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  1. […] the Witch of Atlas category),  including a story about two witches fighting a deadly curse, and one about a non-magically talented human who ends up stranded on a magic […]

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