Chapter 1 - The Waterfall
The beginning is always the hardest when you have a story to tell. How to start? That's the question. Was there a significant event, a trauma, or an epiphany that began the saga? Or was it hundreds of insignificant events that, when all put together, set the story in motion? One significant event or a cascade of insignificant acts, you never know until you look back, if you are able. I am lucky. Call it wisdom, age, or pure dumb luck; I lived long enough to reflect back on the events of so many years ago and realize that it all began with a picnic.
"When are the rest of the guys going to get here? They were supposed to be here ten minutes ago!" an agitated Puffball said to herself. "This was planned days ago! We were so busy with exams, and it's almost summer. We need to hang out, let loose and have some fun! Why are they late?!" she muttered under her breath.
Now, the term "let loose" can have many meanings. For some, it means doing something reckless and dangerous; for others, it involves dancing and imbibing all night long, but for five late teens and early twenties nonmagical creatures in Aurora Centori, it involved a hike and a picnic.
I'm not saying we couldn't have fun or be even reckless, but as a matter of course, my friends and I were basically boring. We were good kids. The kind parents were proud to talk about. Even I dare say brag about. We never got into trouble, well, almost never. Some of us pushed the envelope a little, but never Puffball. She was perfect. As the next in line to be the leader of the Sheppard Dogs, Puffball had a lot on her plate, and she did it all well. She was quiet and serious and was always, always, always on time. That is why when we (especially me) were late, she got very irritable.
That morning we agreed to meet at the Tavern in Dodgeloosa Junction. It was one of our favorite places to hang out. I had been going to the Tavern since I was little. Growing up in Dodgeloosa Junction, there was not a lot of options, but the Tavern made up for it. It was always filled with folks singing and laughing and the aroma of delicious food. That was where I met my two closest friends, Cassidy and Light Note. Cassidy's mom Apache was the star of the Tavern. She was an amazing singer, beautiful, sweet, and filled with energy and love that permeated through her feathers. And her voice was hypnotizing. I could listen to her sing for hours.
But Puffball didn't care about all that right now. At that moment, all she cared about was the fact that we were late. She was not happy. Sitting alone in the Tavern made her very uncomfortable. She was basically an introvert, and being in this mix was painful. She loves to read and hates loud noises. Well, she is a flying sheep, and if I think about it, I have never met a flying sheep that liked loud noises. And on that particular day, the Tavern was bustling more than usual. With the first days of summer approaching, folks are looking forward to some fun in the sun. You could feel the excitement in the air, and you could definitely hear it in the voices rising over one another to be heard.
Even though Puffball hated the noise, she stayed and put up with the ruckus. She wanted to see us. She missed us. We were her friends, the creatures she cared for deeply. She especially wanted to hang out with Viola Wooddust, her best friend. She hadn't seen the Fawn Hopper in what seemed like ages. After exams, she had to head straight home to Prismia Falls. Her father, Prince Mystery Star, who was the Royal Prince of Prismia Falls and its ruling leader, summoned her back immediately after exams were finished, so she barely had time to say a quick goodbye. Being next in line to the throne of Prismia Falls had its perks, but it also had a lot of drawbacks. She had responsibilities that she really didn't mind, but sometimes she wished she could be a normal kid and live a somewhat boring life.
So, there she sat, a white feathered sheep in a pink cloak with blue piping along the edge and a hoof print on the side, waiting rather impatiently. Next to her stood a dark blue shepherd's crook with a sparkling teal crystal at its end. She was trying to read but was having a hard time concentrating. She absentmindedly flipped through her book on Crystal Magic. "I can't believe they are not here yet. What could be taking them so long??" she said out loud, probably louder than she would have liked. She looked around, embarrassed by her outburst. She was not accustomed to expressing so much emotion, especially what she termed "negative emotions." She always tried to exude positivity and control her feelings. But today, the environment of the Tavern was testing her resolve.
Normally, she could lose herself in her magical studies and the pursuit of knowledge. She was studying Crystal Magic which is a very powerful form of magic. And as a non-magical creature, she needed to learn how to use and control that potent magic by harnessing the crystal attached to her crook.
While Puffball was given a crystal embedded with Crystal Magic, her parents were gifted with Light Magic. Historically, the royalty of Prismia Falls would be given the same type of magic so their magical heritage could be passed down to the next generation. But she was unique. She chose Crystal Magic because she wanted to do more. She would have to learn something completely different than the Light Magic she was surrounded with while growing up. But as a curious and intellectual creature, she knew she could do it, but was worried that it would affect her as a leader because her magic was different than her ancestors. But as it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. She eventually learned that her gift would play a very important role in her future and the future of Aurora Centori, but I shouldn't get ahead of myself.
Puffball and her family weren't the only ones with magic here. There is magic all around us in Aurora Centori. Some of it is naturally occurring. Other times, the magic is embedded into an object by a magical creature. Those objects are not usually as powerful as naturally occurring magic, but they can hold their own.
Like Puffball's crystal, the crystal at the end of my staff is naturally occurring. It's a Cosmic Stone that was found in a comet that crashed into one of Aurora Centori's deserts. Puffball's crystal came from the Crystal Caverns, which are guarded by the Crystal Canines. Their job is to protect the magical crystals from being poached and used by creatures that are not supposed to have them and they are very good at their job!
Puffball took great pride in studying and trying to learn to control her magic. In fact, we were all trying. That is why we attended the Magical School for Non-magical Creatures to learn to control and use our magic for the good of our community.
Some of us did a better job than others. I was lucky. My parents taught at the school, so they had worked with me since I was little, preparing me to use my magic. Our friend Light Note, not so much. He had been entrusted with fire magic and always seemed to be accidentally setting something on fire.
Puffball, on the other hand, spent a lot of time studying and learning about her gift. She was so serious. She definitely needed to lighten up some. She was always working, trying to prove herself to her father. She desperately wanted to follow in her father's footsteps and be the leader of the Sheppard Dogs, the guardians, and protectors of her home, Prismia Falls. That was probably why this outing was so important to her. I wish I had realized it then. She needed to relax and hang with us and be carefree, even for just a day. Looking back, I wish I was more thoughtful and on time because, as a friend, I should have paid attention and respected her needs, even if I had to compromise and be on time.
Over the buzz of the Tavern's bustling crowd, two wooden half doors could be heard swinging open, followed by the clopping of eight hooves. Puffball, immediately recognizing the hoof steps of her friends, looked up from her book. “Finally, what took you guys so long?” with a raised tone to be heard over the clamoring of the tavern around them, an exasperated Puffball shouted. "You guys are late!” she said to two individuals, one a cow covered in purple and white fur with glowing green eyes. She had two massive purple and white feathered wings that folded tightly against her back. She was wearing a purple poncho trimmed green and lined with black cloth. White spots along the edges match the white spots on her purple tail. Her friend, a gray male horse with a blond mane and red hoofs wearing a bolo tie containing a red pendant with a paw mark on it, was standing next to her.
The purple and white cow froze, feeling Puffball's irritation. She said, "Sorry, Puffball, we got caught up with getting everyone together. You know how they can be.” She didn't mean to make Puffball upset but rationalized their lateness by thinking, "Puffball needs to lighten up." But she would never say that out loud. Cassidy was too nice. She could never make anyone feel uncomfortable. She came from a long line of feathered cows who had been entertaining and caring for the inhabitants of Dodgeloosa Junction for centuries.
“It's fine, Cassidy. I know how it is. Did Levin give you any trouble?" Puffball asked in a more relaxed tone. Her level of agitation had dropped significantly after seeing her friends.
“No more than the usual. We are all just excited for today. It's been a while since we could all hang out.” replied Cassidy, slightly winded. In truth, they were late because of me. But Cassidy would never say that. She was too nice. Cassidy was so friendly and was always trying to make people feel comfortable and at ease. It was obvious that she was having that effect on Puffball.
Puffball got to her hoofs with a sigh and said. “So, business as usual then.” It was then that she noticed the Aurora Pony standing next to Cassidy. “How about you, Light Note? How are things going?”
Bobbing his head, Light Note responded. “Everything is going fine so far. I would just prefer to get out of this crowd.” Light Note hated crowds, which seemed kind of crazy because he loved to perform in front of them. He wanted to be a professional musician. When not in school with us, he could be found at the Tavern playing piano for Apache, Cassidy's mom. All the chaos, noise, and people never bothered him when he was playing his music. He always said that even though he was shy and a bit nervous around people when he was on the stage, it was all about the music, and he forgot about the people and just played! And I'm telling you, he really could play.
With a quick look around, Puffball nodded her head. “All right, let's go out and meet the rest.” With Puffball taking the lead , the three of them, walk out of the Tavern into the heat of Dodgaloosa Junction. As they pushed through the swinging wooden doors and made their way to the cobblestone path, they squinted as their eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight.
"Hey, Puffball. How's it going?"
Puffball looked down to see where the voice was coming from. She followed the sound and saw a small green and brown fawn hopper flutter up from the orange sand and land on her cloak.
“Pretty good, Viola. Are you ready to go?" Puffball smiled at her best friend Viola Wooddust. Viola is a fawn hopper. His species isn't magical, but he attended the School for Nonmagical Creatures to learn how to cast plant magic. As a woodworker by trade, he carved his own magic wand along with his viola. Both of which are imbued with magic that he was trying to learn to control. He was studying Plant Magic which wasn't as powerful as Puffball's Crystal Magic, but it was tricky nonetheless.
"Where is Levin anyways?” asked Puffball, noticeably calmer since she left the hustle and bustle of the Tavern. She loved being around her friends. She felt safe and calm with her "herd."
“He’s going to meet us at the Bakery,” replied Viola. He was thrilled to see Puffball and to be able to finally spend time with his friends. Finals were really tough that year. As a second year, the courses were no longer introductory levels. The professors were expecting them to really be in control of their magic, and that so far had eluded him. Viola was thrilled to put all that behind him and spend a relaxing afternoon with his favorite creatures, Puffball, Light Note, Cassidy, and even me, the one who was holding up the show that day and, if I am, to be honest, always.
“Cool beans.” chimed Puffball. And with that, the four friends headed to the Bakery to find me. Now I wasn't trying to be difficult. I really did want to spend time with my friends. I just would have preferred to do something that wasn't hot and dusty. Hanging out at the Tavern - yes! Getting ice cream at Charlotte's Ice Cream Parlor - perfect! Even just grabbing some sweet treats and sitting out on the porch of The Bakery would have worked, but a picnic - no way!
Since I wasn't properly motivated, I was properly late.
They walked silently down the path, the only sound being the clopping of their hooves on the cobblestones. The rhythmic sound created a meditative, relaxing mood that calmed everyone down. By the time they reached The Bakery, Viola, Cassidy, Light Note, and Puffball were smiling and joking around. That would soon change.
“I’m really not sure I want to go. It’s going to be soooo hot," was the first thing out of my mouth when I saw my friends. It was probably not the best greeting I could have offered them, but I think they expected nothing else.
Puffball's response was equally curt. “Stop complaining, Levin, we’ll have fun.” Puffball was not going to put up with any of my nonsense. I could always count on her to call me out. Most people might be annoyed by that, but I knew it was her way of being a good friend to me and to the rest of the gang. To be honest, I deserved it. I tended to get into trouble a lot. I liked to push the envelope and see how far I could get. I wasn't trying to be a jerk, but sometimes it happened. I didn't always think it through. Puffball was one friend I could count on to make sure I knew when I crossed the line. Today I was pretty close.
“It’s not complaining; it’s just pointing out the negative attributes.” I quipped.
“No, it’s complaining,” but that was not Puffball's voice. I turned and saw Light Note leaning against the wall of The Bakery with his front legs crossed and a smirk on his face. I expected that kind of snarky remark from Puffball, but Light Note? I really must have crossed the line. Light Note was usually pretty chill with my antics, but not that day.
I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. I could honestly say I didn't have a comeback. Luckily Viola interceeded with, “Come on. Let’s go inside, at least. It’s cooler in there.”
We walked into The Bakery with an awkward silence hanging over us, but that quickly changed.
The smell was the first thing I noticed. A mixture of cinnamon, sugar, yeasty dough, sweet apples, and peaches. It was a combination that washed over me and made me forget everything. I could see that the sweet scent had a similar effect on my friends.
I muttered a quick "sorry" for being such a snarky jerk. My friends immediately smiled back. I think they all secretly hoped that I would learn from my mistakes and try and become a better sparrow hare. I wanted that too, but sometimes it was tough to do.
As we sauntered up to the display case, Cassidy happily exclaimed, “Wow! These treats look so delicious!" The Bakery was indeed a special place. If the Tavern was the heart of Dodgaloosa Junction, The Bakery was its soul. Folks came here to relax, to sit quietly and enjoy a refreshing drink and a pastry that tasted like something your grandmother would make - creamy, sweet, and totally decadent.
Cassidy was right. The apple tarts, cinnamon buns, boysenberry pies, and orange tarts glistened through the crystal clear display case. I could almost taste those yummy morsels.
Light Note shook his head like he was waking from some tasty dream. “I know. The cinnamon buns are to die for, " he responded.
Folks would come from other lands and territories for a taste of those cinnamon buns. First thing in the morning, creatures lined up outside The Bakery, waiting for Butterscotch, who had owned and operated The Bakery for as long as I could remember, to open the doors for the day.
Luckily, we arrived after the morning rush but before the afternoon crowd had arrived. But that being said, all the tables were filled with happy patrons. I saw a few folks I recognize; Pansy Blossom Buns from the Crystal Caverns and Strawberry Fluff and Candy Cotton from Prismia Falls. They were all either sitting quietly reading or engaged in meaningful conversations. I could see why Puffball loved this place.
My resolve had been broken. “If this is our snack, I guess I’m going. I’ll do anything for those apple tarts!” At that moment all my friends turned to me and began laughing! They all knew that my bolstering and blustering were no match against Butterscotch's treats!!! Butterscotch was a culinary genius. His pastry shells were so light and fluffy that it felt like you were eating a cloud with a dusting of sugar. And the fillings were truly magical. His ability to combine seemingly unrelated flavors and produce an explosion of tastes that walloped your taste buds was unparalleled in Aurora Centori.
I remember when I was young, my dad, Prickle Root, would bring me here. I was maybe four or five the first time we came here. It was the first day of school. I wore a brand new purple and green velvet top hat. It was my first grown-up hat. The ones I would wear before were for play or cute little baby hats. My new hat was special. It was so soft, and the colors were so vibrant it felt like it was glowing on my head. We walked into The Bakery, and the smell was magical. They were smells I had never experienced before. As we made our way to the counter, I remember my dad saying "hi" to what felt like millions of folks. He would introduce me and tell everyone it was my first day of school. Everyone was so kind and made me feel like I was the most important Sparrow Hare in all of Aurora Centori. When I reached the display case, my mouth just dropped open. The pastries glistened like tiny pieces of edible art. There I stood, my nose touching the sparkling glass of the display case staring at the most delectable apple tart I had ever seen. The crust was a golden brown circle, and in the center were apple slices coated in a brown sugar and honey glaze that formed a spiral pattern I would sometimes see in a shell. The entire tart was sprinkled with sugar crystals that reflected the overhead lights and reminded me of the stars I would see on a clear Dodgalossa Junction night. My mouth still waters thinking about that apple tart. But surprisingly, the most vivid part of that memory was not the tart, but the imposing figure who stood over it, Butterscotch.
Butterscotch was the largest Sparrow Hare I had ever seen. He looked down at me, messing up his immaculate display case with my wet nose. I thought I was going to get yelled at, but not Butterscotch. He said in the most gentle and kind voice, "Welcome, Master Levin. I am so honored that you are starting your most important day with us here at The Bakery. What can I get for you today?”
I was dumbstruck. I just stood there. I am sure my mouth was hanging open. A sudden tap on my shoulder from my dad made me come to. “Levin, Butterscotch is speaking to you.”
Yes, I knew he was speaking to me, but I was so in awe of him that I just stood there. Somehow I gathered my wits about me and muttered. “Apple Tart, please.”
I remember Butterscotch chuckling to himself as he handed me this scrumptious apple tart that was almost too beautiful to eat. But I was five, so I devoured it.
“Levin, the usual?” asked Butterscotch.
Not much had changed since my first visit. “Yes, please. How have you been, Butterscotch?”
“Can’t complain. Business is booming. I can’t seem to bake the tarts fast enough. I’m usually cleaned out by midday. Good thing you got here early.” he said with a smile. He knew me too well.
"You know me, an early bird," I said, laughing.
"Right, Levin. Only in your dreams are you ever early." chirped a very familiar voice.
"No, she is right," added Light Note with a smirk.
"I am not always late."
"Yes, you are!" all my friends said in unison.
I knew this was a losing battle, so I immediately changed the subject. "How are you, Custard?"
"Frazzled, but good," said my older sister. Custard had been working at The Bakery for the last ten years. She worked her way up from dishwasher to dough maker to bakery bench hand to pastry chef, and finally to Butterscotch's right-hand hare. She loved The Bakery almost as much as Butterscotch, and there was much to love.
The Bakery has been operating in the same location for generations. I think it was started by Butterscotch’s great, great, great grandfather. The family recipes were tightly guarded secrets passed down through the generations. The problem was that Butterscotch had no one to pass The Bakery down to. A confirmed bachelor, Butterscotch's only true love was The Bakery. But the thought of it closing or being taken over by some outsider scared Butterscotch. That is where Custard stepped in. It is no secret that Custard is the heir apparent. And there are no better paws for Butterscotch to hand his precious bakery over to than Custard's.
"So, what brings you here so early on your summer vacation?" Custard asked us.
"We are going on a picnic! And we need some sweet treats as a snack!" responded a giddy Cassidy.
"A picnic, really? Levin, you hate going on picnics," a shocked Custard replied.
"I know, I know, but you also know I'd do just about anything for an apple tart."
"And we told him we would buy him two," added Viola Wooddust, who was perched on Puffball's shoulder. Everyone burst out laughing.
"How true is that! So what can we get you guys?" Custard said, taking over for Butterscotch, who had to handle a delivery in the kitchen.
"We'll take four apple tarts, two cinnamon buns, and a boysenberry pie. Could we also get two root beers, an apple juice, and two sparkling waters? To go." said Puffball in a polite, proper, and somewhat authoritarian voice.
"Of course, Puffball. And how is your father?" asked Custard.
Puffballs's dad, Prince Mystery Star, was well-known and admired throughout Dodgaloosa Junction and Aurora Centori as a kind and just leader. He also had made quite a name for himself as the leader of the Sheppard Dogs and their many exploits in defending Prismia Falls from the dark elements of Aurora Centori.
"He is doing well. Thank you for asking," said Puffball. Her formal tone, stoic look, and posture had all intensified with the mere mention of her father.
"Tell him 'I said "Hey' when you see him again. Will you?"
"Yes, ma'am, I will be happy to relay your message to the Prince." Some might believe that Puffball's demeanor changed because she was scared of her father. It was the exact opposite. She was so afraid of disappointing him. She never wanted to say or do anything that would make her father look bad by having a daughter who was not perfect.
Puffball loved her father. She was always trying to please him. And by all accounts, he loved her deeply. The trappings of the throne and the responsibilities of the office kept him from participating in her life as much as each would have liked. But when you are a child or even a young adult, lack of parental involvement is internalized by the child that they are inadequate or lacking. If they were smarter, prettier, more responsible, or more attentive, their parents would want to be more involved with them—most of the time, that is not true. Life just has a way of mucking things up. Somehow, the urgent supersedes the important, and the important takes a back seat to the latest matter demanding their attention. I don’t think Puffball realized it then, but her father was sincerely doing the best he could given his obligations.
Custard placed two carefully wrapped packages containing our sweet treats and a tray of cold drinks on the counter. Cassidy picked up the packages and drinks and placed them neatly in a large circular brown wicker picnic basket. She lifted up one side of the lid and arranged the pastries on that side and the drinks on the other. She carefully closed the lid. Light Note grabbed the handle of the basket with his teeth. We waved our goodbyes and headed back out into the hot Dodgeloosa sun.
The air was hot and dry, typical for Dodgeloosa Junction. I always found it odd that the Aurora Ponies conscientiously chose this area to set up their town. I mean, Sparrow Hares, Coyote Hawks, and Feathered Cows always lived here, but why did the Aurora Ponies pick this hot, dry, desolate place to call home?
Legend has it that generations ago, a small group of Aurora Ponies, traveling in a wagon train, were looking for the perfect place to live. They were originally from a small little place called Mystic Village which, in my opinion, was the perfect place to live. The Mystic River and Midnight River bordered two sides of the town, allowing trade and commerce to flourish. At the same time, Midnight Peaks and Green Fern Hills provided natural protection on the other two sides. The species that lived in Mystic Village prospered and grew. Unfortunately, the geographic constraints didn't allow the village to expand with its growing population. Because of the lay of the land, several groups decided to venture out to new unexplored areas of Aurora Centori. The Aurora Ponies were one such group.
After traveling for a few months, some of the Aurora Ponies fell ill. A small group of volunteers set out in search of help. They met up with the indigenous creatures living in and near Sunset Canyons. They helped the sick Aurora Ponies get better. The leader of the Aurora Ponies, Bramble Spade, asked the locals if there was any available land for the Aurora Ponies to settle and build a town.
They showed them an area that would become Dodgeloosa Junction. This area was a vast desert inhabited by indigenous creatures; Sparrow Hares, Coyote Hawks, and Feathered Cows, all spread out and living a nomadic type existence. After the town was established, the locals began to interact and trade with the Aurora Ponies, and soon a vibrant and inclusive community grew into today's Dodgaloosa Junction, deep in the heart of Sunset Canyon.
Sparrow Hares had always called Sunset Canyon home. Enjoying the hot arid conditions, generations of Sparrow Hares have thrived and prospered. I love Sunset Canyon, but the heat I could do without. That had put me in a quandary with my friends. It wasn't that I didn't want to spend time with them or wasn't happy to see them; I just hated being outside. Although having a picnic inside defeats the purpose of having a picnic! Looking back, if I had my way, we would never have embarked on the most important adventure of our lives, but I'm getting ahead of myself in the story.
As we headed out of town, we walked in silence. I did everything I could to keep myself from talking. I find silence annoying. It is not that I like the sound of my voice though I have been accused of that. I just enjoy the banter and the connection that comes with conversation. But to be perfectly honest, I talk to myself when I'm alone too. So I guess the main reason is that I hate silence. I'm just not comfortable being quiet. Maybe it was all those time-outs I got growing up, or maybe it's just me, but all I wanted to do at that moment was shout, "When are we going to get to the spot?!" But I didn't. Thankfully, Cassidy saved me from me.
"Isn't it a beautiful day!" Cassidy said. She was always so upbeat. She was the kind of Feathered Cow who makes lemonade from lemons—always seeing the bright side of even the most dismal situation. She was incredibly outgoing and friendly. One of the things I admired the most about Cassidy was her ability to make friends with just about anyone. She was really into entomology, which is the study of bugs, and her goal was to someday become an entomologist. And because of her love all things, she had even been able to make friends with the insects she met. I mean, I had a hard time making friends with the creatures I could easily see and communicate with. Now to be perfectly fair, she was a student at the Magical School for Non-magical Creatures, and the magical stone on her cloak allowed her to communicate with insects. It also allowed her to shape-shift into any insect she wanted, which did help with the communication process. So I guess what I really admired was her desire to connect with any creature, to communicate, to learn, and especially to understand them. That desire to connect made her so special and dear to me.
"No snarky remark, Levin? You have been unusually quiet. How's the heat treating you?" remarked Light Note. Leave it to Light Note to bring me back to reality and remind me of the thing I had been trying to ignore.
"Just contemplating the mysteries of the universe. For example, Light Note 'Does anyone really know another's true nature?'" I mused.
"Oh, shut up." joked Light Note.
I was not going to be goaded into spoiling everyone's fun by complaining. Plus, I didn't want everyone to get on my case. I was trying to be nice, something that does not come naturally to me. But Light Note knew that. That was Light Note's "nature." He enjoyed the chaos he created. Maybe that was why he was entrusted with the fire crystal. Chaos is a necessary part of life. The Kirins have a saying that "Before there can be greatness, there must be chaos." Fire magic is extremely powerful. It can be destructive if placed in the wrong hands, but it also can be used for tremendous good. It is usually entrusted with a pure soul, and Light Note was that. He had a strong moral compass and was a champion for good and the underdog, but he was more complex than that. He sometimes liked to create a little excitement. For example, he would tell folks that he was still trying to learn to control his magic just like the rest of us because he occasionally had some small little "accidents" and started things on fire. Nothing major, but I sometimes wondered if they all really were "accidents". I mean, I know how good he was with his fire magic, so I guess that was our little secret. I protected that secret which is probably why we are still such great friends.
All of a sudden, Cassidy started trotting. She unfolded her purple and white feathered wings. As she began flapping her wings, her body lifted off the ground. She folded her legs under her as she rose higher and higher in the sky. She circled twice and came in for a landing, stopping precisely in front of us.
"Follow me!" she exclaimed. Surprisingly, feathered cows are excellent flyers. They are graceful and aerodynamic, given their size. Sparrow Hares dread flying. Not to say there are not great Sparrow Hare fliers; there are. But for most Hares, it takes a tremendous amount of energy, so we usually only fly when it is absolutely necessary.
"I found a nice shady spot, Levin!' Cassidy said with a smile. If anyone else had said that, it would have been a dig, but not Cassidy. She was being sincere. She was genuinely concerned about my comfort level. Cows like her make me think that there is hope for Aurora Centori.
"OK, let's follow Cassidy," a take-charge Puffball said. We automatically responded to her. We fell in line and began following Cassidy. For a small petite creature, Puffball has a commanding presence. I could picture her being a formidable leader someday. I just didn't think she realized how much impact she had on others. Her sincerity, her air of authority, and her selflessness; all made us want to follow her without question.
Viola Wooddust fluttered up and landed on my shoulder. "Why walk or fly when I can ride?" he said with a smile.
I smiled back. Viola was one of my favorite creatures. I really hadn't spent a lot of time with him. He tended to be more solitary. Not in a bad way. He was not standoffish or rude. He just preferred being by himself. He enjoyed the solitude and especially the solitude of nature. He would always be off walking the forests and pastures, looking at trees. He loved trees. Wood, wood grains, and what could be made from them. He would see a tree and immediately know what could be carved from the wood. He was a talented woodworker, but it seemed that what he created from the wood was not only part of his creation but also part of the destiny of the wood.
“This is a perfect spot for a picnic,” Cassidy said proudly. She was right. It was perfect. A shady grove of sycamore, juniper, and mahogany trees, lush green grass nestled next to Sunset River's cool, silver blue-green waters or, in our ancient language, Nizhoni Toneel. The actual translation is beautiful wide water. I guess our ancestors didn't believe in being succinct or obvious. Sunset River makes more sense since it flows through Sunset Caynon. While beautiful wide water is lovely, it doesn't help determine your location.
"Look at the trees," said Viola Wooddust in awe.
I never understood Viola's fascination with trees. I mean, trees are nice. They provide shade. They look pretty, and some smell good. But beyond that, they are just trees. But not to Viola. He saw something in them, their potential. He once told me that the grains in the wood told the story of the tree's life. What it had seen, what it had experienced, what it had felt, and from that combination, what it was and what it could be. He could understand them and recognize each one as a unique individual. "No two grain patterns are alike. They are like our paw prints or hoof prints or hand prints, all distinct and special."
He knew which wood would be perfect for the item he was carving, be it a wand, an instrument, or a piece of furniture. And he was always right. He said that when he found the tree he used to make his viola, he could tell it would be perfect because when the wind blew through its branches, it created a beautiful melody. Viola was very judicious with the wood he obtained from the trees. He never just cut them down or destroyed them. He used a piece or pieces from them. This way, the trees continued to grow but also fulfilled their destiny by being transformed into something that could help the creatures of Aurora Centori.
"I have never seen anything like this. They are incredible." Viola was right; the trees were amazing. Because among the sycamore and mahogany trees, there were junipers the likes I had never seen before. There wasn't a large number of them, but those that were there were simply magnificent.
"Why do they look like that?" asked Cassidy.
"I'm not sure," Viola replied.
Puffball came leaping over. Flying sheep can be extremely playful. However, I had rarely seen Puffball in a playful mood. Being with her friends, taking a leisurely walk, and leaving all the stress of school and family behind her had made her downright giddy.
"See, it’s not too hot, Levin.” Puffball teased. "What are you guys looking at?"
"The trees," we said in unison.
"What about the trees? They are just normal..." Then she saw them. There were about seven of them. They were scattered among the sycamores and mahogany trees in what appeared to be a random order, but they were strange looking. That was the first word that came to mind, strange. They had leaves and branches and a trunk. By looking at the leaves and bluish berries, I could tell they were Junipers, but that is where the similarity stopped.
"They are twisted." The obvious never escaped Light Note.
"Yes, they are," said Viola. "But the question is why?" Viola fluttered to the closest tree.
"Junipers. Right?" I asked.
"Very impressive, Levin. Yes, they are Junipers. You can tell by the cataphylls."
"The what?" asked Cassidy.
"The flat scale like leaves, but their shape is all wrong," Viola continued. He really knew his trees. The Junipers I was familiar with grew straight and tall like the point of a spear. Those looked nothing like these trees. "Their shape is fascinating," he said.
"What could have done this? It's not especially windy here." Light Note was completely enthralled by them.
"I'm not sure Light Note. There may be an energy vortex nearby," said Viola, somewhat distracted. He was closely examining the bark, the leaves, or I should say, the "cataphylls." He then fluttered high above the trees and looked down. He came in for a quick landing. "They are not random."
"What do you mean?" asked Puffball, who had joined the group examining the twisted trees.
"The trees look like they are randomly placed, but when you look from above, they form a spiral pattern. The twisting only affected the junipers, but it affected every one of them. They are all twisted, and the placement of the junipers forms a giant spiral inside the grove." He drew a picture in the sand.
"Really?" Puffball and Cassidy took off to see the trees from a vantage point high above the grove. I would have joined them, but flying is too much work, and it's not that I didn't care, but Viola's drawing was sufficient for me. Plus, I didn't want Light Note to feel bad because he couldn't fly.
"Aren't you going up look? " asked Light Note.
"I'm good. Viola's drawing makes me feel like I've already seen it."
"Too tired and hot?"
"Yeah, pretty much." I could never slip anything by Light Note
"Ok, Viola, What do you mean by vortex?" I did really want to know. The trees looked so cool. Each one was different. Some stood straight, but their trunks were completely twisted like a cruller, those delectable twisted deep-fried pastries covered in a sugary glaze. Some were so bent over that they looked like they were growing sideways. Others swirled upward like a wooden wave. They were all very distinct and all very beautiful.
"A vortex is a place where energy enters or exits a plane. They are considered sacred spots and extremely rare." Viola lectured. I felt like I was back in school.
"Couldn't it be caused by the weather?" a skeptical Light Note asked.
"Maybe, but it would need constant, intense wind to cause that much change. And if it were the weather, it would have affected all the trees to some degree, and as you can see, the other trees are fine."
While this was an interesting discussion, I was distracted by my stomach grumbling. I was starving. The only reason I agreed to go on this picnic was for the apple tarts, and we hadn't even opened the picnic basket.
"Can we continue the discussion of vortexes and twisted trees while we eat our snacks?" I pleaded.
"Really, Levin?" Puffball questioned, rather disappointed in my lack of interest.
"Look, it's not that I am not interested. I'm just hungry."
"I could use a drink myself." Cassidy comes to the rescue again. She was always the first to help me out. I'm not sure if she felt sorry for me always being a screw-up or if she was genuinely thirsty. Either way, I was grateful.
"Alright, let's set up for our picnic. I could use a drink and a sweet treat too." Puffball relented.
Everyone got busy. A striped burgundy wool blanket was carefully spread out on the soft green grass. The picnic basket was placed in the center. Cassidy and Puffball carefully unpacked the pies, tarts, and beverages. There was a cool breeze coming off Sunset River. The blanket was placed close enough to the river bank to maximize the river's cooling effect. My friends did care about my comfort. We all picked a spot on the blanket and settled in for a relaxing and educational snack. I sat closest to the river in between Puffball and Cassidy. Light Note sat to the right of Cassidy, completely covered by the shade of a large mahogany tree. I guess I wasn't the only one who was hot. Viola settled in between Puffball and Light Note.
I couldn't wait any longer. “OK, OK. Pass those apple tarts!”
"Here you go, Levin,' Cassidy said with a smile. "Now, what were you saying about the vortex, Viola?"
"I don't have much more to say. I haven't had the opportunity to study them because they are so rare,' finished Viola.
"But why does it only affect the juniper trees?" asked Light Note. "By the way, these cinnamon buns are as good as a dandelion sandwich with petunias." Light Note, a staunch vegetarian, exclaimed as soon as he bit into the tasty treat.
"I can answer that,'' I said with a mouth full of apple tart. My friends obviously couldn't understand me. I swallowed hard and repeated, "I can answer that."
Puffball had a look of disbelief on her face. "I pay attention in class, plus it's plant magic, my specialty," I said with a smile.
"Junipers are highly magical plants." I continued. "They are used for protection, to attract love, and to cleanse your energy field. That is probably why the energy from the vortex is attracted to them. The energy is probably pulled through the tree and was cleansed. The power of the vortex combined with the remnants from the cleanse must have warped the trees like that."
"Wow," a stunned Light Note said.
"What? I study. Sometimes. When I'm interested."
"That is quite impressive and very plausible," said Viola, equally impressed. I like it when I can surprise my friends. And surprise them, I did. We all sat in stunned silence.
Luckily, Cassidy brought us out of our awkward silence. "So, how has everybody been?"
"Pretty good. I am just glad finals are over! They were brutal. Professor Loveheart seemed exceptionally picky." Light Note lamented.
"I know. That was the hardest exam all year. I thought Crystal Magic, A History was supposed to be an easy class." added Cassidy. "My mom is so glad I am home. She made me my favorite meal the first day I was back. I haven't been doing much, though, just hanging around the Tavern. How about you, Puffball? You left so quickly after exams I didn't get to say goodbye. Is everything ok?"
Most might think Cassidy was being nosey, but she was genuinely concerned. Cassidy was an only child and lived with her mom Apache over the Tavern when she was not at school. Not much was known about her Dad. I once asked her about him, and it was the first and only time I saw her get incredibly distraught. She said her mom never spoke about him. When she asked her about him once, her mom got so angry it scared Cassidy. She said she never asked again. I felt terrible for bringing it up. She was always so happy and fun to be around. To see her like that made me feel like a total jerk. I quietly apologized for upsetting her, but true to her outgoing and caring personality, she told me not to worry about it and apologized to me for making me feel bad!
"Yeah, everything is good. My father needed me home to help with some Sheppard Dog business." She never called her father - Dad or Daddy or even Pops. It was always Father or Prince. It must have been exhausting, always having to be so formal and secretive. But it made her an expert at answering questions without really answering them.
It was Cassidy again who saved the day. "How about we play a game?" She always liked to play different games with us, and her insect friends gave her great ideas for unique games to play, which were surprisingly fun.
"What do you want to play?" asked Light Note.
"Can we make it a stationary game? I'm really enjoying the breeze!"
"Sure, Levin! I was actually thinking about a game my praying mantis friends taught me last semester. It's called statute."
"How do you play?" asked Viola.
"Well, the object of the game is to blend into your surroundings and stay as motionless and quiet as possible. The mantises teach this game to their young to help them learn important survival skills."
"Levin just quit now. You'll never win!" joked Light Note.
"What? I can be quiet and sit still!" I replied indignantly. I knew they were probably right, but I was not going to let them know that I knew that they were right. "Let's play. I'll show you!"
Everyone laughed. "Ok, Ok, big guy." chuckled Light Note. "Let's play!"
We all got up. I was particularly dramatic about it and found a location nearby. I picked a large sycamore tree near the river bank. With the combination of the shade and breeze, I could have sat there all day! Light Note followed suit, finding an equally shady mahogany. What was surprising, though, is that everyone stayed away from the Junipers. I think those twisted trees spooked us. Viola got the best spot, a grouping of leaves that created a hammock for him to rest in. This really was a perfect game for a lazy afternoon.
The breeze gently rustling the leaves put me in a very mellow mood. My eyelids were growing heavy. I felt as if I could fall asleep. Just as my eyelids fluttered closed, I was jolted awake by a noise, or maybe it was a sensation. I'm not sure what it was, but it affected me.
“Do you hear that?”
"LEVIN!!! You lost!" all my friends cried in unison.
"Seriously, you didn't even last 10 minutes," an exasperated Puffball sighed.
"No, listen. There is something out there."
“Levin, stop trying to scare us,” Viola said in a rather annoyed tone. He was definitely put off having to leave his comfy hammock.
"Seriously, Levin, do you always have to be the center of attention?" a much more irritated Puffball chimed in.
I didn't wait for any more comments from my friends. I left. I had to find the source of that sound. It was beautiful and serene, yet at the same time riveting. I had never heard a Shirin song from the Silver Sea Shore, but from the stories I heard, this sound was as captivating. The Harpskies, who lived in the northernmost area of Auruoa Centori, were shape shifters who used magical crystals to transform themselves into Shirins (part shark/part Sirin). Their songs were legendary, mesmerizing, and captivating. The effects on the listeners were well documented. They were sought out because their songs resonated at a frequency that helped heal the body, mind, and soul. The thought of a Shirin in Sunset Cavern was both crazy and thrilling. It was way too hot for them here, so what else could be making that amazing sound?
I should have flown. It would have been faster. But the midday sun was too much for me. It felt like the sun was blazing down on the canyon. Plus, selfishly, I wanted to leave tracks to find my way back. But I have to be honest; I did fly a little when I crossed the river. I guess I could have swam across, but I'm not that good of a swimmer. I am nothing like Light Note. He swam at school, and he killed it. He was one of the fastest Aurora Pony swimmers that ever competed for Magical School for Non-Magical Creatures. He even put some Ahuizotl in their places!
Once I crossed the river, I kept following the noise, actually the melody. It looked like it was coming from a giant rock formation of overlapping boulders. As I approached the formation, I realized that the rocks were not stacked on top of one another but placed slightly in front of each other, creating a pathway in between the boulders. As I weaved my way through the maze-like rock formation, the sound began to grow louder. When I reached the end of the path, a giant burnt orange and red stripe sandstone boulder stood directly in front of me. I could hear the Shirin song reach its crescendo. It was then I saw a small opening behind the boulder. I squeezed through and stopped dead in my tracks. I just stood there with my mouth agape. The noise that I heard now made perfect sense. It came from the most beautiful turquoise-green waterfall I had ever seen. The water cascaded down from the cliffs above, crashing onto the rocks below. Surrounding the waterfall were hundreds of twisted juniper trees. Their shapes were more complex and exotic than the trees on the other side of the river. The sound came from a combination of the water swooshing over the cliff, hitting the rocks below, and the rustling of the juniper leaves. It was magical. Understanding the mundane nature of the source didn't diminish the mystical quality of the sound.
"I'm alone," I said to myself, not out of fear but disappointment. I wanted my friends to see this, and I completely forgot about them. I got so obsessed with finding the source of the sound that I didn't include them. "I wish we could have found this together," was my first thought. My second was they were going to be worried. I just disappeared. They might have thought I was upset with them, which was farthest from the truth. I had to get them here.
"You guys shouldn't have been so mean, " a concerned Cassidy said. She rarely confronted anyone, much less her friends, but she was worried. "There are Shadow Creatures out here. He could get hurt."
"Cassidy, Levin will be fine," Puffball tried to reassure her, but her voice had twinges of guilt and remorse. She knew she shouldn't have been so mean, but Levin could be so infuriating at times. He just couldn't sit still. But that was his nature. Hares are not sedentary creatures. They like being part of a group. It keeps them safe.
"Levin must have been really upset to go out on his own," she thought to herself. Her agitation had transformed into full-blown worry.
"Levin!" Puffball and Cassidy shouted together.
Viola, an expert tracker, joined them. "Let me see if I can locate his tracks." Viola began hovering, looking for disturbed ground.
"I think I found something." Light Note did not sound right.
The three friends join Light Note at the river bank.
Viola, still airborne, saw it first. "Oh."
"What??" an anxious Cassidy shouted as she ran toward the riverbank.
"Oh no!!! Levin!" she screamed.
"His tracks stop here." Light Note pointed with his head.
"Maybe he crossed the river?" Puffball said hopefully.
"Sparrow hares are not good swimmers. They are too bottom heavy." Light Note said in a monotone voice.
"He could have flown," said Viola. All the friends simultaneously turn to look at him in disbelief.
"When was the last time Levin flew anywhere? He hates to fly. 'It's so exhausting....' he would say, and he was always so dramatic about it." said a concerned Light Note.
"Levin! Levin!" they all began shouting at once.
I made my way back to the beginning of the path. Luckily the acoustics in the Cavern were amazing. I heard my friends calling my name. I simply shouted, “You have to see this!"
"See what? We can't even see you!" they all yelled. It was clear the panic in the voices had changed to relief as they realized the worst of their fears were unfounded.
"Follow my voice and my tracks," Levin shouted back.
The four friends looked at each other and laughed. It was that or cry in relief. Their friend was safe, and he sounded excited, not scared or injured.
"I guess he doesn't mind flying," chuckled Light Note as he plunged into the river to make his way across. He met Cassidy, Viloa, and Puffball on the other side. Shaking his coat dry, he queried, “Where did he go?”
Viola was already scouring for his track. "I found something."
He found where I landed hard and scurried off toward the towering mountain.
“Can you see him?” said Cassidy. "That is just a big mountain. He is nowhere in sight."
"Don't worry, Cass, we'll find him. Just keep following those tracks, Viola. " a take-charge Puffball said reassuringly.
Puffball will be a great leader someday. Calm under pressure and empathetic to her friends and subjects, she just needed confidence to believe in herself. She once told Viola that she got teased a lot at home because of her lanky legs and body. She was so sick and tired of her siblings and cousins teasing her that all she wanted to do was prove she could be a good leader.
With Viola in the lead, the gang reached the rock wall. "Where do we go next?" asked a nervous Cassidy.
"This isn't solid rock. They are layered. There is a path that leads between the boulders. Look, Levin's tracks," Viola pointed out.
"I see them, but where is he?" said an exasperated Light Note.
"Levin, where are you??" Cassidy cried out.
"Keep coming, guys. You're almost here. You will freak out when you see this." said Levin excitedly.
When they finally reached the end of the path, Levin was standing there smiling.
“There you are!" Cassidy said as she ran up to give him a huge hug. "You had us so scared. We thought you fell into the river and got pulled downstream into the rapids."
"What? No, I'm sorry for frightening you guys. I got transfixed by the sound. I had to find the source. I was obsessed. I didn't mean to get you guys all upset. But can you hear it now?" asked Levin.
"Yeah, I can. It's beautiful," said Puffball.
"Wow. If I didn't know better, I would say it's a Shirin song," said Viola.
"Yeah, that's what I thought, but the Shirins wouldn't stray this far away from the Silver Seashore. Plus, it's too hot for them here."
"Maybe it's Tide?" said Light Note.
"Who?" Levin, Cassidy, Viola, and Puffball said in unison, turning to look at Light Note.
"Tide, you know the water spirit. She is one of the spirits that our ancestors used to pray to. There is also a fire spirit- Scorch, a sky spirit - Gust, and a land or keyah spirit - Terra. Don't you guys pay attention to Butterscotch when he talks about this stuff?"
"I guess not," said Levin. "It's not Tide either. Follow me."
As they turned the corner, Cassidy gasped, "Wow!”
"I have never seen anything like this." echoed Viola
"I know, isn't it breathtaking?" said Levin.
Before them shimmered a magnificent turquoise waterfall, its water sparkled like blue and green crystals. A small pool of water at the base of the falls looked like a sheet of teal-blue glass.
"Where is all the water going?" asked Puffball.
Levin just shrugged his shoulders.
"The trees." Of course, they would be the first thing Viola noticed.
"I know there are hundreds of them."
"This must be the source of the vortex." Light Note added with a proud smile on his face.
"I think you are right," Viola concurred. "I really want to explore this space and see if I can find definitive proof of the vortex."
"What about the picnic?" asked Cassidy.
Our picnic. We abandoned our delightful spread when I wandered off in search of my obsession.
"We can have our picnic here. This way, I have more time to closely examine these trees," said Viola.
"OK, I'll fly over and pack everything up and bring it back," Cassidy volunteered.
"I'll help you, Cass," added Puffball. The two proceeded through the opening and down the path to return to our original picnic site.
Viola fluttered off to investigate the trees, which left me with Light Note.
"So what do you think about this place, Levin?"
"I think it's amazing. I find it incredibly peaceful."
"Yeah, I get that, but there is something else."
"What do you mean, Light Note?"
"I don't know. I can't put my hoof on it, but there is something else. Something about this place that feels, I don't know, familiar, maybe."
I looked at him, but before I could respond, Puffball and Cassidy returned.
"We got everything!" a jubilant and slightly breathless Cassidy said.
I guess flying was exhausting for other species, not just Sparrow Hares.
So we once again began setting up the picnic, laying down the striped woolen blanket, carefully removing the sweet, tender morsels from the picnic basket, and placing the not-so-cold beverages on the blanket.
"And you said you didn't want to come, Levin." said a smiling Viola.
I couldn't help but smile back. Sitting with my closest friends in a beautiful and potentially sacred spot, enjoying their companionship, the cool breeze blowing through the leaves, was bliss. A perfect day. As I turned my head to look at the waterfall again, little did I know that our world would be turned upside down, and our carefree innocence would soon cease to exist.
"What is that!" I shouted.