Under the Trees

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

This Week’s Inspiration: Giant Centipede

Having recently lost his mother, and now having lost a precious locket that belonged to her, Damon and his friends venture beneath the enormous branches of their city-sized hometree to retrieve it. To recover the locket, they’ll have to search the strange and dangerous world of the forest floor.

With some of my longer stories, I’m happy for you to grab yourself a copy of an ebook version to take away and read it in your own time if you prefer! So, feel free to click this link and do just that.

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Tree dwellers had several different methods for disposing of the dead. There was a sky burial, where the body was taken to the very top of their hometree and hung from the thinnest, slenderest branches. Birds and insects and other flying predators would make short work of the corpse. There was a ground burial where the body would be wrapped in a shroud and taken out on one of the bridge branches, and then consigned to the dark world below the canopy. There was more ceremony to it than that of course, same with the sky burial, but in the end it amounted to tossing them over the side of the branch and letting them fall into the blackness below. And then tree burial, which involved carving a niche in one of the branches big enough for a body. Hometrees healed quickly. The body was placed inside the niche, packed down, and a kind of plug placed over the top. Wood closed around the body as the tree healed and the body would be entombed then ground down by the encroaching tree. Flesh colonised. Bones pulverised and turned to dust. Eventually, the corpse disintegrated and became completely absorbed by the tree. All that would be left was a knot in the wood where family members could leave flowers or remembrances.

Damon watched his mother’s body lowered into the wood, wrapped in an untreated and unpainted ceremonial shroud. The fresh cut glistened with sap. Her body was packed down with mulch, thick, coiling shavings of it, the woodsy smell hanging in the air. Material stiff and scratchy, the collar of his shirt itched. Although the graveyard was on a lower branch, above the industrial branches but below most of the living tiers, enough sunlight soaked into his dark suit to make him uncomfortably warm.

Keep it together, Damon told himself. No one else was shifting or fidgeting even though most of them were probably just as uncomfortable as him. Over fifty people gathered around the grave, heads bowed.

Damon felt for the lump of metal in his fist. Living in the trees, any piece of metal was a precious thing. The small, heart-shaped lump was a locket, his mother’s locket. Rather than wear it around his neck, he’d wound the thin chain several times around his wrist so the locket would dangle into his fist whenever he wanted to grasp it.

“From nature we emerged, and to nature we return,” the gothi with the long, white beard said at the head of the grave.

The plug was placed over the top of the grave, fitting so perfectly it sank seamlessly into place. Grave attendants sealed it with sap. Damon’s father rested a heavy hand on his shoulder, for support and also, like Damon and his locket, for comfort. Damon’s father was tall and thick through the shoulders, with dark hair and dark eyes. Damon looked a lot like him, just slimmer and with longer hair. Alongside him were Damon’s friends, there in support as well.

“Take as long as you need,” Damon’s father said.

The other funeral guests filtered away. Damon hovered over the grave, aware his father and friends were watching or at least waiting for him. Aware of the itchy and damp heat of his suit. He wondered how long he should stand there to be respectfully mournful. To express the right level of grief. But the body was only a vessel, wasn’t that what the gothi taught them? Not that Damon or many other people were particularly pious these days. The body was only meat and bone, on loan from nature and to nature returned when we were done with it. Swallowed, digested, pulverised. That spark of life, the soul, whatever you wanted to call it, moved on to wherever such energies moved on to. Damon squeezed the locket in his fist, fingernails cutting into his palm.

They hiked back along the graveyard branch and caught a gondola lift to the mid-tier region of the hometree. Damon felt like things should have at least slowed down for the occasion, like in the sombre air of the graveyard, but as always Oakridge was a hive of activity.

The trunk of the hometree known as Oakridge was so thick that it would have taken a thousand people linking hands to surround it. Vast, broad branches spanned from the trunk, lined with streets, yards, and houses. Sunlight sifted through the tremendous canopy of the upper tiers to create a shifting pattern of dappled gold and green over everything in sight. Balconies and walkways ringed the trunk, and pathways and stairs spiralled back and forth. Elevators and gondolas threaded up and down the rough funnels of bark and between branches. Farmers abseiled to harvest from vertical gardens running down the trunk between people’s balconies. More farming went on overheard, among the branches in the sunshine of the upper tiers or on bridges strung between them like spiderwebs.

“Anything you want to do now?” Mary asked.

Damon’s friends hung back after they’d all piled out of the basket of the gondola lift. Mary was small, trim, but had a wiry strength to her. Her auburn hair pinned back, she wore a grey dress under a short jacket that looked suitably mournful. Patrick, too tall, too thin, too quiet, wore a suit like Damon but his was too short at the wrists and ankles. He struggled to relate emotionally to other people at the best of times so after the funeral he was well outside his element. Damon’s best friend, Cohen, also struggled to find the right balance of support and detachment. Compact, dark haired, small and slim, Cohen was the only one who looked natural in his dark suit, but Cohen had a tendency to look natural in anything. Fearless and fun, always ready for an adventure, Cohen was just as out of his depth as Patrick when it came to serious emotion. All of them were seventeen and in the first years of their apprenticeships, like Damon.

“If it’s okay with you guys, I’m just going to go home,” Damon said. “Thanks, I’m really-, thanks for coming. I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

Mary nodded fervently and hugged him, holding back tears. Both Cohen and Patrick awkwardly said their goodbyes. Damon and his father headed for home as his friends left in the opposite direction.

Houses grew along both sides of their branch. Frames were planted in the wood and then walls and roofs coaxed out of the branches, constructing themselves. The structures were knotted, lumpy and alive. If you cut them, they would bleed sap. Leaves bristled from their eaves.

“Do you want something to eat? Can I get you anything?” Damon’s father offered.

“No, thanks dad, I’m alright.”

Damon jogged up the knotty stairs, grown into the house and sanded smooth. Stripping off his jacket, he returned to his bedroom and fell on the bed. For a while, he just lay there and stared at the ceiling, shirt still itching. Feeling the weight of the locket on his wrist, Damon lifted his right arm and unwound the thin chain. He let it dangle from his fingertips, swaying from side to side. They had a house full of stuff obviously, his mum’s clothes, her books, her odds and ends collected over a lifetime, but somehow the locket felt like the only thing he had left. Damon had a thousand memories featuring her with the locket resting against the hollow of her throat. The locket helped solidify those images in his mind and keep them there.

Eventually, Damon got hungry enough to get up. The light behind his curtains had shifted considerably. Still in his funeral pants and shirt, Damon padded out of his room and down the stairs. Friends and family had dropped off plenty of food so Damon knew he didn’t have to worry about cooking or getting his dad to cook something. As he approached the kitchen though, he could see his dad sitting at their table. A bottle of sap whiskey rested on one side. His father’s shoulders hitched and fell, shaking as he silently cried. Feeling for the locket in his fist, Damon backed away and retreated upstairs without being heard. He’d prefer to go hungry than to confront his father with tears in his eyes.

xXx

Damon got up the next morning and dressed in the dark. Leaving the house, he walked to the post office where he was apprenticing. Oakridge Post Office was responsible for the sending and receiving of mail up and down the trunk, a sometimes treacherous job, and arranging mail runs between hometrees. As soon as he saw his apprentice, however, Postmaster Morton looked horrified. He insisted the young man take another few days to grieve before he even considered returning to work. Damon assured Morton that he wanted to return but Morton refused to hear it. He told Damon to return in another week and they would discuss it then. Damon recognised Morton was acting out of kindness but bitterly wished he would allow Damon to distract himself by returning to work.

Over the next couple of days, Damon and his father haunted their family home. While it was Damon’s mother who had died, it felt like it was the two of them that had been reduced to shades. In spite of their best efforts, they had little to say to one another. They ate when hungry, slept when tired, and otherwise existed the minimum amount possible.

Morning of the third day after the funeral, Damon answered a knock at the front door while his father slept. People kept coming to check on them and offer condolences so he didn’t really wonder too much about who would be stopping by so early. He was surprised to see all three of his friends, Cohen, Mary, and Patrick, filling the threshold.

“Hey, man, come on, we’re dragging you out of here,” Cohen said.

“What do you mean?” Damon asked.

“We’ve all got the day off, we thought we’d take you over to Maplethorpe,” Mary said. “You know, get your mind off things.”

“No, no, you don’t have to do that.”

“We don’t have to do anything, we want to,” Cohen said. “Get your swimwear, we’ll get some breakfast and head over.”

Damon badly wanted something to distract him since his apprenticeship with the post office wasn’t an option. A trip to Maplethorpe was a pretty regular occurrence for the four of them yet Damon worried he’d somehow be a burden. The other three insisted though, so Damon went upstairs and dressed to go out. He wore swimmers under his clothes and carried a rolled towel in his satchel. On the kitchen table, he left a note for his sleeping father. Hesitating before he left, Damon wound the chain of his mother’s locket around his right wrist. He didn’t want to lose it over on Maplethorpe but the risk of that was pretty small and he couldn’t imagine going anywhere without its comforting weight.

First, the four of them headed to a diner jutting from a nearby branch. Grown organically, it stuck out like a disc or a giant bracket fungus. Glass windows rested in frames that had filled in around the panes. It looked out over the vast forest of hometrees, branches thick with cities, as golden light filtered through the canopy.

“How are you doing, Damon?” Patrick avoided meeting Damon’s eyes but that was normal for him regardless of the situation.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m-,” Damon felt for the locket hanging around his wrist. “I’m doing about as good as you’d expect, I guess.”

All four of them had bacon and eggs on crusty rolls, and bark coffee. Cohen, Mary and Patrick did their best to get Damon’s mind off the events of the last couple of weeks. Damon didn’t say much, just listening, but feeling a lightness rising in his chest.

Bridge branches stretched between hometrees. They turned the forest into a web of intertwined hometrees, branches from each tree aimed and then guided so that they interlocked into one another. Then, inhabitants of both trees could cross from one to the other. After breakfast, Damon and the others headed up the trunk to the bridge branch to Maplethorpe.

Maplethorpe’s main attraction was its bowl branch park. Bowl branches were hometree branches that formed natural abscesses where water collected. In most cases, bowl branches were used for water supply and fish farms. Maplethorpe had picked one bowl branch, however, to dedicate to a kind of park and lake for swimming, complete with boardwalk.

Barricades knotted along the sides of the bridge branch, draped in leafy vines. The branches extended far over the lower sections of canopy, above an abyss that fell all the way to the forest floor. Overhead, in the upper canopy, were hometree farms. The golden fur of treewheat fields, and animal pens webbed between branches. More vertical gardens cloaked the trunks and branches. Between trees, a couple of flyers rode oversized finches laden with leather satchels and saddlebags. Some finches carried mail, or trade. Cohen’s apprenticeship was as a flyer, a job that required considerable courage and ability. They took on very few apprentices, only those that excelled in all requirements. Mary apprenticed at the hospital where Damon’s mother worked before she died, so the two of them had been close. Most people thought Pat was apprenticing as a farmer but the truth was he was an engineering apprentice looking at the maintenance of the hometree’s farms and working to improve the vertical gardens and pens across Oakridge as a whole.

“I don’t believe it,” Cohen said. “Is that Henry and his pals?”

At the very centre of the bridge branch, where the branches of both trees met and twined together until one became imperceptible from the other, was a small guard shack. The treeguards located there didn’t really do much guarding, mostly they tracked the numbers of people coming and going, and made sure no one was taking fruit and vegetables or other agricultural goods across. It was often a job for apprentices. As Damon and the others approached, they could see there were three of them in light leather armour and those dumb helmets. Henry, Nathan, and Cotton, three guys they’d gone to school with. Spotting Damon’s group, Henry’s face split into a malicious grin.

“Well, well, what do we have here?” Henry said. “State your names and business.”

“You know who we are, Henry,” Cohen said. “Nice hat.”

“What’s your business then?” Henry’s taller pal, Nathan, said.

“We’re just going over to Maplethorpe for a swim,” Mary said.

“Slow down, slow down, can’t have you all talking over one another.” Henry pointed at Damon. “I want just one of you to do the talking. You.”

“So this is what you’re doing now, Henry?” Damon asked.

Henry’s face darkened, as it did when his mood switched unpredictably. “You got a problem with that?”

In times of emergencies such as fire, storms, or threats from the ground, treeguards served an essential purpose, and were responsible for generally maintaining order. But outside of emergencies, they didn’t have a lot to do and work had to be made for them. Apprenticeships as treeguards were often dismissed, fairly or not, as for those who didn’t really have any other skills or ambitions.

“I didn’t mean anything by it, Henry.”

“What did I hear you were doing? Oh, yeah, working as a mailman. What a wuss of a job.” Henry jabbed Damon several times in the chest.

“Come on, Henry, we’re not in school anymore.”

No, they weren’t in school anymore. In fact, nowadays Damon stood a good half a head taller than Henry even though Henry once towered over him when they were kids. Henry was still heavier but Damon had been building a lot of muscle since starting his apprenticeship, given all the walking, climbing, and carrying it required. But patterns that they’d followed since childhood were hard to break. Henry was a natural bully and Damon had been a natural victim. Cohen started forward but Patrick stopped him. Cohen was smaller but had whipcord muscle and fought like a wolverine. Both Nathan and Cotton backed Henry, both tall, lean but strong.

“Can we cross?” Damon asked.

“Maybe we’d better check your bags, make sure you’re not smuggling anything,” Henry said.

“Yeah, smuggling,” Cotton interjected.

“You don’t need to check our bags, you know us,” Mary said.

“Why aren’t any of you at work? Like us?” Henry said.

“We all took the day.” Patrick avoided meeting Henry’s eyes. “We wanted to do something nice for Damon.”

Damon burned with embarrassment and Henry leered, sensing an opening. “That’s right, I heard about your mum, Damon,” he said. “I’m real sorry, I wish I could have made it to the funeral to pay my respects.”

While there was nothing necessarily wrong with what Henry said, the tone with which he said it made it sound salacious or even downright filthy. Behind him, both Nathan and Cotton sniggered. Tears threatened at the corners of Damon’s eyes. It would be foolish to get into a fight with Henry and his friends. Even if they were only apprentices, being treeguards gave them a measure of authority. In spite of that, Damon felt his hand bunch into a fist. Stiffly, as if he were fighting himself, Damon started to raise it. Henry caught the motion and his eyes widened but it didn’t look like it was out of fear.

“What is that? Is that jewellery?” Henry laughed and encouraged Nathan and Cotton to laugh with him. “I always knew you were a woodpecker, Damon, but are you spending your mailman money on pretty jewellery now?”

Damon froze, and looked down. Emerging from his sleeve was the silver chain of his mother’s locket. The heart-shaped lump of metal lay against his fist. Before he could really react, Henry stepped in and snatched at his wrist. Damon tried to pull away but that only seemed to anger Henry, and his grip was strong.

“Hey, let him go!” Cohen said.

“Back off, treeguard business.” Nathan inserted himself as Cohen started forward.

“Treeguard business,” Cotton echoed.

“Come on, Henry,” Mary said.

“It was-, it was my mum’s,” Damon said.

“Oh, I see how it is,” Henry smirked. “Mama’s boy.”

Snarling, Damon tried to tear his arm loose. The two of them tugged and shoved, Henry’s fingers digging into Damon’s forearm. Finally, Damon ripped free but Henry snared his mother’s locket chain and the clasp snapped. The locket swung freely from his grip.

“No!” Damon grabbed for the locket.

“Back off!” Henry hurried to the side of the bridge and extended his hand out over it. “Back up!”

Damon froze. The locket swung, glinting in the sunlight, below Henry’s fist. All of them seemed hesitant about what to do next, even Henry. The bridge branches, of course, extended further than any other branches on the hometrees so that they could meet tree to tree. Little lay below them except a gaping abyss into shadow, only the impression of distant lower tiers and branches, and the blackness of the forest floor.

“What now, mama’s boy?” Henry said.

“What-, what do you want? I’m sorry, please!” Damon said.

“You always go too far, Henry,” Mary snapped. “You’ve always got to take things too far!”

Henry’s face darkened. “Too far, do I?”

Henry released his grip and the delicate chain slithered free. Damon threw himself after it, crashing against the barricade, but he wasn’t fast enough. Winking in the light, the locket fell. Away, away into the abyss. Damon lost sight of it a long time before it would have had any chance of hitting the ground.

“Go and get it, mama’s boy,” Henry sneered.

“You asshole!” Cohen yelled.

Cohen threw himself at Henry. Nathan and Cotton intervened and a scuffle ensued between the three of them. Damon was too devastated to join in, and Pat and Mary weren’t much for fighting, so Cohen was easily outmatched. Henry grabbed Damon and hauled him around, flinging him back the way they’d come. Nathan and Cotton shoved Cohen away while Mary got between them to make sure things didn’t get any worse.

“Get out of here!” Nathan’s voice broke slightly. “You’re lucky we don’t arrest you!”

As apprentices, everyone was aware Henry and the other two were just as likely to get in trouble as Damon and his friends if they tried to arrest anyone. Damon, Cohen, Mary and Pat all retreated though. Damon stumbled as if in a state of shock. The others guided him to a nearby balcony.

“Why? Why?” Damon gasped.

Suddenly, Damon couldn’t breathe. It was like a huge weight had fallen on his chest. Sinking backward against the hometree’s trunk, he sounded like he was choking.

“Damon, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Mary took over, holding up her hand. “Look at my fingers, I want you to count and as you count I want you to breathe as deep as you can, okay? One, two, three, four, five. And now exhale, through your nose, one, two, three, four, five.”

Mary continued until Damon calmed and could breathe normally, using training from her medical apprenticeship. Cohen and Patrick hovered nearby. Damon fought against the impulse to break down sobbing in front of the others.

“The locket, it’s all I had. It’s all I had left of her,” Damon eventually managed.

“I’m sorry, Damon, I’m so, so sorry.” Now that the moment of panic had passed, Mary fell into self-recrimination. “Stupid, I’m so stupid, I shouldn’t have said anything like that to Henry. I should have known how he’d react.”

“What do we do now? Should we tell someone?” Pat asked.

“We should go back there and throw Henry off the bridge too,” Cohen said.

The four of them retreated to a nearby cafe. Unlike the diner where they’d had breakfast, the cafe was bored into the trunk of the tree and lit by sap lamps. Pat got them all tea brewed from hometree leaves. Damon calmed down but he felt a gaping wound after losing the locket, like the pain of losing his mother all over again.

“I’m really sorry, Damon,” Mary repeated.

“It’s not your fault, you didn’t know what he would do,” Damon said.

“Should we tell someone?” Pat asked.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s gone, nothing we do will bring it back.”

“Unless,” Cohen said. “We get it back ourselves.”

“What do you mean?” Mary squinted.

“I mean we go down and get it back.”

“Leave the tree?” Pat looked aghast.

“I couldn’t ask you to do that, that’s crazy,” Damon said.

“But you’re not asking, I’m the one suggesting it!” Cohen said.

“That’s insane, no one goes under the trees.”

“That’s not true, smugglers do, criminals, scavvies, and people who aren’t treefolk.”

“Could you take a finch? Fly down there and back?” Mary asked.

Cohen shook his head. “No, no way. If I could I would, but I can’t just borrow a bird as an apprentice. They won’t even let me fly by myself for another year. And if I could, even I’m not that stupid. Too dangerous.”

“But us going down there by ourselves, that’s not dangerous?” Pat said.

“Of course it’s dangerous, but it’s doable,” Cohen smiled.

A ray of hope cut through the gloom of the cafe for Damon, and he looked up at each of his friends. “You’d really do that for me?”

“Of course!” Cohen said.

Damon looked to Mary and Pat. “You don’t have to come, Cohen and I will go,” he said. “I just-, it’s all I have left from her. I know it doesn’t make any sense.”

“We could use a medic though,” Cohen said. “And, a farmer, I guess.”

“I’m not a farmer,” Pat said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a farmer.”

“I’ll do it, to make sure you guys don’t do anything stupid,” Mary said.

“I’ll-, I’ll do it too,” Pat said.

Damon didn’t know what he was feeling. Gratitude, trepidation, hope. Of course it was dangerous, and he hated the thought of putting his friends at risk. And the ground was such a foreign world, dark and strange. There was a good chance that even if they searched for days they’d never find the tiny locket. But even though Damon knew the locket was just a piece of metal, he couldn’t let go of the thought of getting it back. Not when there was a chance.

“What do we do now then?” Mary asked.

“Leave it to me, I’ll get what we need,” Cohen said. “We can’t be seen leaving so we’ll set out tomorrow morning, before dawn.”

Over tea, the four friends worked out the plan and what they would need. Cohen, as a flyer, would have access to equipment the others couldn’t easily get their hands on. Both Damon and Pat had some tools from their own apprenticeships though, and Mary would have medical supplies. In spite of the seriousness of Damon’s loss, the talk began to sound like plans for a grand adventure.

xXx

The early, early hours of the morning were dark and cool, with moisture dripping off millions of leaves in the canopy overhead. Damon and his friends agreed to meet at three AM at the base of the Chip Avenue branch. Damon hardly slept. Instead, he’d written a note for his dad and left it under his pillow. If he failed to return, he figured his father would find it there eventually. But of course, he did intend to return. He didn’t want to cause his dad any more grief so soon after losing his mum.

Damon dressed in thick clothing, and carried gloves and ropes and climbing equipment. Cohen had a bulky backpack for each of them. They were big and heavy enough that Damon wasn’t sure how his friend had managed to carry all four.

“We’ve got ropes and climbing spikes, lanterns and torches, and climbing axes.” Cohen showed off a slender axe with a wooden handle and a serrated spike of a head made of curved chitin. “The packs also have camping gear and some dried meat, fruit and nuts, as well as water flasks.”

“Are we really going to be spending more than a day down there?” Pat said, looking nervous.

“These are standard packs for flyers travelling long distances. I figured it would be better to have them than not. The lifts and stairs and ladders only go down so far to the lower tiers, then we’ll be free climbing. We’ve also got machetes, flare guns to signal in case of emergencies, and, well, I got us these from the flyer armoury.”

The machetes, like the climbing axes, also had wooden handles and blades of sharpened chitin. Given the limit on metal, insect armour was often used instead. The material kept an extremely sharp edge and was almost as strong but it could be brittle. The flare guns were short and stubby, with fat, brass barrels that flared at the ends like trumpets and came with several thick tubes, the flares themselves. In addition, Cohen unravelled and revealed four pistols in a length of padded cloth. The flintlocks were crude in manufacture, made of hard wood and iron mined a long, long way from the hometree. Hinged mechanisms fanned from the guns’ handles.

“Guns? Oh, no, what do we need guns for?” Mary said. “Who are we going to shoot?”

“Not who, what. They’re not for people, obviously! Look, we all know how dangerous things are down there, these pistols are just in case. They’re all unloaded, all of them come with these little rolls for powder, bullets, and whatever. If you don’t want one, you don’t have to carry it.”

“You sure you’re not going to get in trouble for taking all this stuff?” Damon asked.

“I’ll be fine, as long as we replace anything we use and I get them back when we’re done.”

Damon looked at Mary and Pat. “You don’t have to come, really. I told you yesterday, I won’t be upset, I won’t think any less of you.”

“I’m coming,” Pat said.

“I can’t let the three of you go, and go telling people the story about whatever happens for years without me involved.” Mary shouldered one of the packs even though it looked almost as big as she was. “And I really want to make sure you get your mum’s locket back, of course.”

“Come on, then,” Cohen said. “We want to get past the lower tiers before sunrise so no one sees us and reports us.”

Damon, Cohen, Mary and Pat all strapped on the packs, transferring some equipment to their belts and jackets, and set off. Branches and walkways winding around the trunk were empty. Saplamps lit the way but the mist was thick as a cloak and the yellow lights seemed to hang in empty space, unsupported by anything around them. Leaves rustled and the sound of night creatures cut through the quiet from time to time.

None of the cable cars were running and the four teenagers could only operate some of the pulley lifts themselves so they were forced to take a long and circuitous route down to the lower tiers. The walk took them past the cemetery branch where Damon’s mother was interred. Damon almost felt compelled to stop, to go to her, to explain what they were doing and apologise for losing the locket in the first place. But the wooden gates were closed and Damon knew his mum, dead or alive, would tell him the risk was foolish and not to go. Averting his eyes, steadying his breathing, he moved on with the others.

Toward the canopy of the hometree were farms. It was risky work up there, exposing farmers and animals to insects and other flying predators, and to storms, but it meant they got plenty of sunlight. Mid-tiers were where most people lived, more protected but still with plenty of sun. The lower tiers were home to more industrial areas, where any waste could be dumped to the ground far below. At that time of night, the factories slept, empty and silent. Travel became more utilitarian, ladders and narrow walkways, sometimes without barricades. Saplamps spread further and further apart so the group lit a couple of lanterns. The air remained misty and chilly.

“We’re coming up on the lower border, look out for guards,” Cohen said.

As Cohen predicted, dawn started to peek through the canopy as they reached the bottom region of the lowest tier. A spiked barricade ringed the trunk. Thorny vines had been deliberately grown across the barrier. Huts for treeguards to keep watch over the forest floor, still far below, had been built so that they stuck out over the barricade but they weren’t constantly populated outside of danger times like during ant season.

The four of them affixed climbing spikes to their boots. Having grown up on Oakridge, all of them were experienced climbers. With spikes, ropes and climbing axes, they picked their way over the barricade and continued down the trunk.

“Careful, careful!” Mary said.

Cohen led the way down, showing the greatest level of confidence. All four carried lanterns clipped to their packs. In addition to his axes, Cohen drove spikes into the tree and laced rope through them. The four of them were linked together. Damon, at the top of the foursome, collected the spikes again as they made their way down. The spikes strapped to the toes of their boots gave the climbers a decent grip when they kicked them deep into the bark.

In spite of the breaking dawn, it remained dark for much longer this deep under the trees. Dimly, the world took shape. Hometrees and other tremendous trees came into view across the misty forest. Without buildings, walkways and gondola lifts to break up the view, Damon and the others took in the true enormity of their hometree’s trunk as they climbed.

Flapping wings and shrill cries echoed out of the shadows. Glancing over their shoulders, the four of them glimpsed pale shapes arcing and sailing through the disappearing night.

“Ghastbats!” Cohen said.

Ghastbats were about as big as people, supported by wings the size of bedsheets. They stayed away from the occupied tiers, knowing they would be shot, but the open space below the lowest tier was their domain. They snatched insects out of the air as they flew but would occasionally attack prey as large as the four humans. The group of friends cringed against the trunk every time one got too close.

“There’s a ledge down there, we should make for it!” Mary said.

The ledge Mary pointed them toward was the stump of a massive branch that had probably broken off decades ago. Its base was big even by their standards, easily wide enough for a full avenue with houses to either side. The wood was uneven underfoot though, and rotten in patches. The group sheltered there for a few minutes and caught their breath. Only half-seen, ghastbats swooped and shrieked overhead.

“You want this now?” Cohen offered Mary one of the flintlock pistols.

Scowling, Mary accepted the gun along with its ammunition and kit. They were well outside the city limits now, into the wilds. Cohen handed out the other guns as well. Holsters went on their right hips, except for Pat who was left-handed. Sheaths for their machetes went on their opposite hips.

“We should rest here for a while and have some breakfast, until the bats go to sleep,” Damon said.

Taking food and water from their packs, the four of them ate and replenished some of the energy they’d used climbing. Ghastbats shrieked and flew circles above but didn’t bother the four, and as day became more and more certain they filtered away. A grey twilight brought the hometree’s enormous trunk and rest of the forest into form. Mist lifted. Everything felt strangely peaceful but Damon hadn’t forgotten the reason they were doing this. He felt the pull of his mother’s locket from the forest floor, like a call from the abyss. The call was strong enough that he felt with certainty that he’d be able to find the tiny piece of jewellery when they reached the bottom, even though he couldn’t even say with any certainty what side of Oakridge they were currently on. Looking up, the world above of branches and houses and walkways looked unfamiliar from this angle. Damon didn’t know what he would do if they reached the forest floor and searched and searched for hours but didn’t find anything.

“Alright, everyone ready?” Cohen stood and pulled his gloves back on.

Cohen led the way again, returning to the trunk and making his way over the lip of the broken stump. His axes and boot spikes bit into the wood, sinking deep enough to support him. Rope played out behind him, attached to Mary, Pat, and Damon. The four of them were careful with each movement.

The vertical route they took down the trunk was not direct. Patches of ferns and thorny brambles blocked their path. Some of the basket ferns grew as big as buildings. They descended past one snarl of brambles that had been broken and pushed back, growing in a whorling pattern to create a sort of cave. Cohen went to investigate.

“It’s a nest, a shrike nest!” Cohen said.

Given the nest appeared silent and unoccupied, the four of them ventured closer. They avoided the spikes surrounding the entrance and directed their lanterns into the nest. Bits of shiny and colourful junk were picked up by the lamplights. Impaled on thorns protruding into the nest were the bodies of desiccated insects, some almost as large as Damon and his friends, and the bones of various animals. A larder, seemingly abandoned and rotted. Toward the back of the nest, a ribcage dangled off the hook of a large thorn, held together by dried sinews. Below it were a jumble of other bones including an undeniably human skull.

“Who do you think they were?” Damon said.

“Wonder if they were alive or dead when, you know, it took them,” Cohen said.

“I think we’d better get out of here, just in case it comes back!” Mary said.

They hurried onward, away from the nest. As they continued to descend, the sun rose higher. So while the canopy filled with light, Damon and the others’ surroundings became darker and greyer. They were far below the canopy now, which blanketed the sky. There were no branches or even stumps protruding from the trunk, just patches of plants growing on the bark. The distance below the lowest hometree branches and between hometrees was large enough that a suburbopod could walk through the forest without brushing against them.

Something rolled like thunder through the forest. The four teenagers automatically hugged the tree trunk, making sure they had secure holds. They felt the impacts vibrate through their fingers.

“What is that?” Mary asked.

“Moose!” Cohen shouted back.

An impossibly huge, dark and shaggy shape moved through the dark forest, too deep in shadow to be fully seen. Against the creature, Damon, Cohen, Mary and Pat would have looked like fleas. Tremendous antlers, the size of hometree branches, curved from the sides of the moose’s massive skull. Each footfall rippled through the forest. As it walked away, the giant let out a low bellow that must have echoed across an immense distance and the group felt it reverberating in their chests.

The moose moved on and the group kept heading for the bottom of the tree. Dull orange discs of fungi the size of houses and forests of white polyps grew on the trunk. The group sheltered briefly on one of the discs. Roots began to fan out at the base of the tree, ridges that broke the monotony of the tall, straight trunk and buried themselves deep in the ground. Damon had heard hometree roots went at least as deep into the ground as the trees were tall, or even deeper. Some said they burrowed all the way to the planet’s molten core.

“We made it. I don’t believe it, we made it,” Mary said, as the four of them reached the bottom and climbed off the tree.

Although it was mid-morning, the quality of light at ground level was as dark as the night had been when they first set off. All four of them lit both sap lanterns and flaming torches. Under the torchlight, the ground looked black and rotted. Uneven and mushy with mountains of leaves, bark, and other bits of plantlife. Fallen branches and trees, not hometrees but still enormous, formed ridges and hills. There was no sign of actual soil although presumably, if one dug down, they’d come to a layer where the rotting plantlife officially disintegrated into dirt.

“We made it,” Damon agreed.

“We’re a long way from finished yet,” Cohen said. “We have to figure out where to start looking.”

“How do we do that?” Pat asked.

Cohen retrieved a compass from his pack and studied it by firelight. “I’m going to put us right under the branch bridge.”

Cohen orientated them and they started to hike around the roots of the tremendous hometree. Their lights were tiny specks against the tree and the black forest. Damon felt like they were walking on some alien world or in some otherworldly dimension. This place was under their feet all the time, far, far under their feet, but in some ways it was stranger than other places he knew of that were halfway around the world. He knew other peoples lived on the ground, or at sea, on the backs of living animals like suburbopods or city-turtles, but as far as Damon was aware they lived normal, relatable lives. The undergrowth, under the trees, was the region of criminals and smugglers at best, or horror stories of psychotic outcasts and cannibals, as well as monstrous animals and other dangers.

Building-sized mushrooms and other fungi fed off the decomposing plantlife. The mushrooms were bloated and pale but recognisable as the same type they farmed inside the trunk on the upper levels of Oakridge. Other fungi looked like corpse fingers, grey and green, reaching for the sky, several times taller than any of the teens. The air was almost chokingly thick with moisture and full of the rich smell of decay. Footing could be treacherous, with some sections of ground as soft as a featherbed and threatening to give way into wet muck that would swallow their boots or legs. Strange sounds chittered through the trees and the forests of fungi.

“What kind of animals should we be watching for?” Patrick asked.

“Doesn’t really matter if you’re watching, you probably won’t see them coming,” Cohen said. “Insects, obviously, and bats. Foxes would probably be the worst of them.”

“Maybe we should climb up on one of these mushrooms and get a better look?” Mary said.

The four of them strayed further from Oakridge’s roots, into the muck and mire. Eyes open, they threaded through a jungle of giant fungi. Torchlight glanced off the sides of the pale mushrooms and the wet rot.

“We should be under the bridge now,” Cohen said.

Damon craned his head back, feeling it in his neck. He, like the others, had grown up over the abyss beneath the branches in the mid-tier of Oakridge’s canopy, so heights didn’t affect him much. Looking up, however, a sensation of vertigo rocked him hard enough that his legs wobbled. At the midpoint between hometrees was a sliver of sky. Banded around it were thick layers and layers of leafy branches. Far, far overhead was what must have been the bridge branch, near the canopy’s ceiling, looking as thin as a string.

“So we start looking?” Mary asked.

“It’s small, it could have drifted,” Damon said.

“We should split the search area into a series of grids,” Pat said. “That way we can search them and cross them off one by one.”

“Should we split up?” Mary asked.

“No, no, too dangerous.” Cohen shook his head.

Waving their torches over the cluttered ground, they looked for a glint of metal. Damon turned over some putrefying leaves with his boot and cringed. Puddles of dark, gritty water dotted the ground everywhere he looked. Something as small as his mother’s locket could fall into one of those and disappear completely, never to be found again. It also could have landed on one of the mushroom caps well above their heads.

After an hour they were filthy and sweaty, struggling to walk through the mud, and they still hadn’t found the locket. There was a lot of ground left to cover and they hadn’t been as organised as they probably should have been, like Pat suggested. Damon despaired a little. That ‘pull’ that had drawn him to the ground and filled him with certainty that they would find the locket had evaporated as soon as his feet hit the dirt.

“What about getting a higher view now?” Mary asked.

“Sure, let’s try it,” Damon said.

The flesh of the mushrooms was too soft and easy to tear for them to climb the way they’d climbed the hometree. Their spikes and climbing axes ripped through the meat and wouldn’t support their weight. Instead, they tied one of the axes to the end of a rope like an anchor and hurled it over the top of a mushroom. Mary, as the lightest, tied the other end of the rope around her waist and cried out when she was ready. The three guys hauled her from the other side. Mary walked up the side of the fungi and clamoured over the lip of its cap. Spores covered her gloved hands. Grubs as long as her arm poked in and out of the mushroom’s cap. Mary’s sap lantern remained clipped to her pack, and she lit her torch again. She cast around with the flame, looking out over the forest floor. She could see plenty of mushrooms, pools of water, and several suspiciously round clearings that she realised were massive hoofprints from the likes of the moose they had seen. No glint of metal, however, that would give away the location of Damon’s locket.

“What if I fire off a flare? For more light?” Mary shouted.

“Too risky!” Cohen replied from the ground. “Someone above might see it and think it’s an emergency, and send a rescue team!”

“Okay, okay.”

Mary scanned the tops of the mushrooms she could see by firelight, and the dim twilight filtering down from the treetops. There were some shapes that didn’t belong in nature amongst the biological chaos of rot and fungi. Trash and bits of furniture that must have fallen or been dumped from the trees for whatever reason. Mary even spotted the broken cabin of a fallen gondola lift. Polished ivory, she made out a massive skeleton in the distance, half-buried in the dark.

“I see a clearing that looks like it’s directly under the centre of the bridge!” Mary said. “I think it’d be the best place for us to look.”

Damon, Cohen and Pat helped Mary to the ground again. Mary wound the rope around her torso and they gathered their torches to weave their way to the clearing. As they reached the outskirts it was obvious the gap was the result of a gargantuan footprint, as Mary had thought. The work of a moose like the one they’d seen that morning, although it wasn’t as fresh as that. There was room for a dozen houses within the footprint. Everything within its borders, mushroom and other fungi, debris, and rotten wood, all of it had been smashed totally flat and compressed by unimaginable weight. The borders of the clearing were marked cleanly by fungi and masses of rot cut in half by the descending hoof. Batches of skinny mushrooms and some piles of leaves had started to regrow. Damon felt a swell of hope, seeing the relatively uncomplicated search area directly beneath the bridge.

“Spread out, and we’ll work our way in,” Cohen said.

They took off their packs, leaving them in a heap to one side of the clearing, and each took a quarter of the large circle. Eyes lowered, they moved their torches from side to side. Damon, starting at the edge and working his way inward, plodded slowly. He nudged aside the stems of a bushel of skinny, lamp-shaped mushrooms growing over one rich patch of muck. Looking up, he saw his friends searching and felt a wave of intense gratitude. For the three of them to come all this way for him, to put their lives on the line and search just as carefully and intently as he was without complaint. He had lost his mother but he couldn’t ask for more loyal friends.

Working his way toward the middle of the clearing, a glint of reflected firelight caught Damon’s eye. He didn’t react much at first given the amount of puddles also throwing back reflections, but he fixed on the point and moved closer. His breath shortened as the glitter took on a shape. A lump, and a loop of thin links. His heart began to beat faster.

“I’ve found it!” Damon yelled to his friends. “I don’t believe it, I’ve found it!”

Damon hurried forward as if the locket might disappear if he blinked. He wasn’t paying attention to much of anything else around him. Just as he reached for the locket, his foot came down on something that shifted underneath him with a crunch. Damon tripped, nearly rolling his ankle, and fell within an arm’s length of the locket.

“Are you okay?” Mary and the other two jogged over.

Damon laughed, lying partly on his side. “Yeah, I’m fine, I just tripped. Look, I found it!”

Damon’s laugh and the sound of joy in his voice surprised him. He hadn’t heard it since his mum got really sick, and his friends looked surprised as well. It hadn’t even occurred to him to see what tripped him. As he picked himself up, however, the ground shifted. Rising a couple of hand spans in the air, it lifted and then fell. Damon scrambled backward. The ground bulged again, separating him from his friends, and from the locket.

“What-, what is that?” Damon said.

Soil and muck crumbled off chitinous plate. Two dark red antennae, as thick as Damon’s wrists, whipped free and flung themselves around in circles. The bulge that emerged from the soil stretched across the clearing. Had all four of the teenagers laid down next to it, head to feet, head to feet, head to feet, it still would have been almost twice as long. As it straightened, it revealed and supported itself on dozens of jagged legs ending in knifelike points.

“Terrorpede!” Mary yelled.

The terrorpede exploded out of the dirt, thrusting the first third of its body upright with a horrible hiss. Antennae cut through the air, whipping, searching. Damon threw himself backward, falling over with his torch beside him, and the antennae lashed the air above him. Luckily, the long appendages, thick but tapering to twisting points and extremely sensitive, didn’t brush against any of them.

Terrorpedes hunted by feel and sound. The four of them understood that well enough to wheel backward, out of the range of the antennae, as silently as they could. They unclipped and tossed aside their lanterns and torches. While the terrorpede couldn’t see very well, it picked up on the light and movement. Hissing, the monstrous centipede hurled itself at one of the torches. Its claws slashed apart the ground surrounding the torch. Its movements were lightning fast in spite of its size, crossing a dozen paces in a split-second and striking like a snake. Finding nothing edible, it twisted and hunted out the other torches and lanterns. When its antennae sensed the heat they backed off but continued to search around the general area. Looks of horror engraved on their faces, Damon’s friends moved slowly and carefully to stay clear of the terrorpede’s movements.

Black plates of chitin, like the stuff the group’s machetes and axeheads were made of, overlapped down the length of the terrorpede’s body. Striations of dark red webbed through the plates like molten cracks. It held the front third of its body upright and its underbelly was the same dark red colour. Four scythelike claws tucked against the front of its body, long and hinged with serrated blades like those of a praying mantis. Other limbs, pointed and covered in chitin, fanned down its sides and supported its lower body. A couple of antenna-like protrusions sprouted from its rear, giving it the appearance of having two heads, but its actual head was splashed with white. Gaunt, bony, with a hinged jaw, its head gave the impression of a horse skull at first glance. Its lengthy antennae grew from where the eye sockets of the horse would be. Its jaws were filled with rows and rows of jagged teeth, shaped like black thorns.

The terrorpede twisted on Damon, antennae searching and flailing. Damon had thrown his torch and lantern aside but still lay on his back in the compressed debris. Antennae groped around the lantern, finding nothing. They felt for the torch and flinched at the flames then continued to hunt. Damon stared, paralysed. He struggled to control his breathing and clamped down on a panicked whine that threatened to escape his chest. Seen from the front, the terrorpede’s white face was even more ghastly, like some kind of monster makeup. Damon shrank as the feelers wavered in the air above him. If they found him, recognising him as prey, the terrorpede would be on him in less than a second, with teeth and claws shredding his vulnerable flesh. He couldn’t move, aware that the slightest shift might give him away.

A gunshot rocked the clearing. The bullet shattered against the side of the terrorpede’s chitinous head without penetrating. The terrorpede shot upright. Cohen stood with his flintlock extended, smoke wisping from the barrel. For a moment, everything seemed frozen in amber and then the terrorpede launched itself at the source of the sound, hissing. Cohen hurled himself sideways, ducking and rolling while clutching his pistol to his chest. The terrorpede knotted in on itself, catching empty air where Cohen had just been standing. Its dominant claws slashed and stabbed, jaws gnashing.

“Shoot it!” Mary said.

Lifting her flintlock, Mary fired blindly at the terrorpede’s tangled coils. It immediately uncoiled and threw itself in her direction. Mary was slower than Cohen and might have been caught if moments later Patrick hadn’t also fired his flintlock into the back of the beast. The bullet did no harm against the thick black and red plating but the creature was disorientated by so many thunderous claps one after the other.

Damon scrambled to his feet and fumbled his heavy flintlock pistol out of its holster. His friends scattered, trying to run clear without their footfalls drawing the giant arthropod. Damon raised the pistol unsteadily in both hands, thumbing its lock backward. He trained it at the creature’s head and fired. The hammer shot forward, sparked, and the gun erupted against Damon’s hands. Damon’s arms were thrown backward as the shot slammed the terrorpede in the skull just below one antenna. It appeared uninjured but the creature went wild, hissing, gnashing, tearing up gouts of dirt and rot while its feelers whipped above its head.

Cohen recovered and shoved his empty flintlock into its holster. Pulling one of the climbing axes off his belt, he lifted it behind his head in both hands and flung it forward. The weapon spiralled through the air and chopped into the ribbed red armour of the terrorpede’s underbelly, landing point first and sticking. It didn’t penetrate deep enough to actually injure the beast but the terrorpede hissed at the intrusion.

“Stay apart! Keep hitting it from different sides!” Cohen yelled.

The terrorpede flung itself at the source of Cohen’s voice but he’d already thrown himself sideways. He rolled and rapidly crawled across the dirt, the terrorpede knotting behind him. Mary and Pat hurried to reload their guns. Damon’s hands shook so badly that he holstered his flintlock and withdrew his chitin-bladed machete instead. The blade was black, much thinner than the terrorpede’s plate but made of the same material, and razor sharp.

Scattered torches and lanterns dimly lit the clearing. Among it all, the glint of his mother’s locket caught Damon’s eye. The reason for them all coming here, so small. The terrorpede backed up, feelers threshing. Its knifelike feet stabbed and ruined the soil all around the locket, tearing up sprays of dirt and muck, but managed not to stomp on it.

Mindful of the noise his feet made, Damon threw himself at the terrorpede’s tail section. Those two whiplike protrusions searched the ground behind it. Terrorpedes had plates of armour all along their back but they overlapped and hinged over the creatures’ sinuous bodies, allowing them to move as quickly and freely as they did. If Damon could slip his blade between two of them, he might injure the creature. He moved with it, around its rear section, as scuttling legs pushed it sideways. Seeing an opportunity, he struck. The blade slid between two plates, into flesh, and Damon wrenched it sideways to inflict as much damage as he could. The beast squealed and pulled away. Damon tried to withdraw his blade but brittle as it was it snapped off just above the handle. He was left staring at the broken weapon and hesitated a moment too long. The terrorpede’s tail came up and around, and it slammed into Damon’s stomach. Breath knocked out of him, Damon was picked up and thrown across the clearing. He fell just short of one of the big mushrooms cleaved down one side by the monstrous footprint.

“Over here! Hey!” Mary yelled.

Before the terrorpede could go after Damon, Mary aimed and fired at its head. Thunder and a plume of smoke from the barrel threw her arms back. The bullet cracked off the terrorpede’s bony skull. Mary threw herself sideways but the terrorpede was slower to react this time. It was figuring out their strategy. The way they would shout or shoot and then move rapidly out of its path. It moved quickly toward the spot where Mary had fired from but didn’t pounce. Head swinging, it hunted the area on Mary’s side of the clearing with its feelers while watching for movement.

Cohen fired into the back of the terrorpede’s head. It turned, hissing, but rather than be distracted it swung around and continued to scout for Mary. Damon’s friend barely avoided its antennae, and moved with enormous care. Only when she saw an opening did she lunge, reach down, and snatch one of the torches thrown on the damp soil.

“Yah! Yah!” Mary shouted.

The terrorpede loomed, on the verge of snatching Mary. Its feelers whipped around. Mary batted at the sensitive appendages with her torch. It recoiled from the heat and flame. Hissing in anger and pain, snaking around in circles, its head bobbed high and low as it tried to work out an angle of attack on the defiant little animal holding the source of light.

Meanwhile, Pat briefly knelt over Damon. He felt for Damon’s bruised chest and stomach. Damon’s head swam from the sudden loss of oxygen the blow had caused. Wheezing, he struggled to sit up and Pat pushed him back down.

“Stay down, I’ve got this,” Pat said.

Through his own struggle to draw breath, Damon could hardly believe what he’d just heard. Patrick had this? Pat hardly ever had anything. Okay, he always aced his schoolwork, he was brilliant in his own way, but in every other situation, social or physical, he struggled to assert himself. And yet, calmly, Patrick straightened and hurried to where the four of them had dropped their packs.

Cohen moved in, drawing his machete. Mary looked tiny in comparison to the beast, as did Cohen. Terrified, Mary knew she was only a single slip and seconds away from a horrifying death as the terrorpede tried to figure out a way around her torch. She kept moving, swinging the torch to keep it between herself and the creature. The flames guttered, getting less bright.

“Hey! Hey!” Cohen tried to distract it.

Throwing himself at the terrorpede, Cohen swung his machete. He aimed at the creature’s underbelly. The terrorpede’s reach was much better, however, with its four predominant claws. Cohen’s first blow only connected with the tip and glanced off. One of the terrorpede’s claws lashed out and nearly took Cohen’s head off before he ducked. He got closer, trying to get inside the reach of the creature’s claws and antennae. Hacking at the terrorpede’s side, he connected at the very base of one of its limbs. The leg fell free and the arthropod hissed in fury, leaking a greenish fluid, but it had dozens more legs where that one came from.

The terrorpede lashed out with another claw, catching Cohen across the arm and drawing blood. The machete spilled from his grip. Cohen grabbed for his bleeding arm and threw himself backward just in time to avoid the terrorpede’s follow up blow, which would have skewered him through the chest. Mary swatted at the creature’s feelers again but the torch was beginning to go out. The terrorpede pushed forward with its jaws open, serrated claws extended.

Damon staggered to his feet, sucking air. Following a cue from Cohen, Damon grabbed one of his climbing axes and threw it. The axe spiralled across the clearing and glanced off the terrorpede’s back. Damon grabbed his pistol and went to reload. Cohen and Mary were seconds from being ripped to pieces.

Something bright red and burning sizzled across the clearing, trailing a plume of white smoke. Although it appeared to be composed entirely of light it bounced solidly off the terrorpede’s side. Exploding, the flare filled the forest floor with a clap of sound and expulsion of red light. Smoke billowed, surrounding the terrorpede, Mary, and Cohen. The terrorpede flailed, hissing in anger. Mary helped Cohen to his feet and the two of them fled. The smoky meteor fell to the ground, burning fiercely in spite of the damp. The terrorpede turned to investigate, antennae whipping at the light.

Across the clearing, Patrick strode forward with a flare gun in each hand. The trumpet barrel of the one he’d just fired wafted smoke. He dropped it and pulled his loaded flintlock from its holster. As the terrorpede inspected the burning flare, Pat trained the flintlock at its head, measured the distance, and fired. The bullet rocked the terrorpede’s bony plate, annoying but not injuring it once more. It turned in Pat’s direction, slowly, deliberately, feelers waving.

“Hey, ugly! Over here! Over here!” Pat’s voice was louder than Damon had ever heard it.

Pat moved deliberately as well, letting his feet crunch and squelch in the muck. The terrorpede steamed toward him, jaws open. Dropping the flintlock, Patrick swapped the second flare gun to his left hand. Flares burned bright and hot but they wouldn’t do anything against the terrorpede’s hard shell. Nor did the flare gun have sights to make it easy to aim.

“Pat!” Cohen yelled.

Pat stayed utterly calm as the terrorpede raced toward him. He trained the flare gun, waited, and fired. With a bang, the flare bloomed from the barrel and sailed straight into the terrorpede’s jaws. It jolted backward, the searingly hot light lodged in its wet gullet. A secondary explosion blasted out of the terrorpede’s mouth, shockwave rippling through the creature’s head, causing its mouth to glow even redder and brighter.

Screaming, the terrorpede lashed its head from side to side. Finally giving up, it turned and fled. Antennae whipping, it shot between two large mushrooms and disappeared into the forest. The flare behind its teeth continued burning. As it ran, Damon and the others could hear its tea kettle scream fade into the distance.

Amazed, Damon, Cohen and Mary thanked and praised Patrick for what he’d done. They didn’t want to linger for long though, fearing all the noise might summon the attention of something worse than the terrorpede. They collected their packs, any of the dropped equipment that was recoverable, and the torches and lanterns.

Damon, still recovering his breath, stopped and returned to where he’d first spotted his mother’s locket. It still lay, pristine, beside the furrow where the terrorpede had buried itself, the ground torn apart by the terrorpede’s feet. Both a predator and a scavenger, the terrorpede must have come by after the footprint was made to feed on some of the freshly crushed nutrients. Then, it had buried itself like a trap waiting to be sprung. It couldn’t have imagined its trap would end up baited by something so small that had fallen such a long, long way. Damon picked the locket up and wound the thin chain around his wrist, letting it drop back inside his sleeve.

They returned through the fungi forest to the base of their hometree, where they’d first descended. Nestled among the canyons of its roots, they weren’t really safe but they felt safer. They reloaded pistols and flare guns, and Mary bandaged Cohen’s forearm. The gash was bad, bleeding heavily, but the arm wasn’t broken and it didn’t seem to affect Cohen’s ability to use it. Damon’s chest and stomach were bruised but he otherwise recovered.

“Do you think you’ll be okay to climb?” Damon asked.

“I’ll be fine, but someone else should take the lead just in case,” Cohen said. “Patrick, Pat, what you did was incredible. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

Pat had returned to his normal, quiet, reserved self, and avoided meeting Cohen’s eyes. “I just did what needed to happen, it was nothing.”

“You were amazing, Pat,” Mary said.

It took the four of them the rest of the day to return to Oakridge. They crept past the barricades and made their way up to the treetop proper. Their weapons and equipment returned to their packs, which Mary and Pat offered to help Cohen return.

“Guys, I can’t thank you enough,” Damon said. “Without you-, I don’t know, I don’t know what I would have done.”

“Don’t worry about it, it was nothing,” Cohen said, clearly tired no matter how much he tried to grin through it.

“No, it wasn’t, it was-, no one else would have done that for me. Most people, I don’t think they’d do that for anyone.”

The others went on and Damon returned home. His street was quiet and lit by sap lanterns. Compared to the oppressive dark under the trees, it felt warm and homely. Damon let himself in the front door, exhaling a held breath.

“Damon? Is that you?” his father’s voice floated across the house. “Where have you been?”

Damon’s father lumbered through the living area to the entry and wrapped him in a hug. His breath smelled like sap whiskey but he didn’t seem drunk. He gave Damon a deep hug and then pulled away.

“You stink, what the hell is all this you’re covered in?”

“I’ve been out with my friends,” Damon said. “I’ll-, uh, I’ll explain later.”

“That’s good, that’s really good. I’m sorry, you know, I haven’t been-, around. I want to be better.”

“We’ll both be better, dad, it’s okay. Give it time.”

Damon’s face and clothes were covered with dirt and sweat. After taking it all in a second time, his father’s eyes fixed on the gleam of metal poking out from the end of Damon’s sleeve. His face split into a smile.

“Your mother’s locket, you’re still wearing it?”

“Yeah,” Damon laughed. “Yeah, still wearing it.”

Damon’s father reached out and fingered the heart-shaped lump of metal. Unhitching its catch, he hinged it open. Inside were two framed photographs, tiny, smudged, sepia, so small it was hard to make out any features. One of them was Damon’s mother with his dad, young and smiling, from back when they were still dating. The other photo was of all three of them, his mum, dad, and Damon himself when he was just a baby. She beamed out of the photograph, even with the blurry details. Damon, as a baby, looked totally confused about what he was doing there.

“She would like that,” Damon’s father said. “Go! Go upstairs, get in the bath. I don’t know what you kids were up to, I’m guessing you went up to the farms with Pat, I know he’s doing some kind of farming thing, but I think you’re going to have to burn those clothes.”

xXx

Damon saw the others, one at a time, over the next week. He went back to work with Postmaster Morton, enjoying the return to routine. Things around the house were quiet but Damon no longer felt like he and his father were nothing but shadows left haunting the place.

The next day that Damon and all three of his friends had free together, they decided to make up for their aborted trip to Maplethorpe. Patrick was still the hero. All four of them couldn’t stop talking about the trip below, since they hadn’t told anyone else. As they approached the centre of the bridge branch, Damon saw three guards on duty again. He hadn’t been expecting Henry and his pals but he wasn’t surprised. Some of the cheer went out of the group but they kept moving.

“Are you okay?” Mary asked.

“Yeah,” Damon said, and he felt surprised at how true it was. “Yeah, I’m good.”

As Henry saw Damon and the others approaching, there might have been a flicker of something uncharacteristic. Guilt, nerves, maybe even a little fear. He smothered it quickly, however, with a wide grin that he played up for his friends, Nathan and Cotton. They moved to block their path in their light armour and helmets.

“Look here, the mama’s boy, back again?” Henry said.

Looking down, Damon realised how small Henry looked. Henry’s eyes went to Damon’s collar and he saw the locket now chained around Damon’s neck. Damon had figured it was safer there, and he no longer needed to hold onto it as often.

“You got another one?” Henry said.

“It’s the same one, we went down and got it.” Damon nodded toward the others, who glared at Henry.

“Yeah, right.” Henry reached out as if to touch the locket again.

Grabbing Henry by the wrist, Damon wrenched his arm sideways. Twisting, he got behind Henry and steered him toward the side of the bridge. Nathan and Cotton started forward but hesitated at the unexpected turn of events. Henry squirmed and cried out but couldn’t break free. Taking Henry by the back of the neck with his free hand, Damon forced Henry’s head down so that he was staring into the abyss.

“There are monsters down there, Henry, just like they tell us about in school,” Damon said. “Would you like to see them?”

“Let me go! Let me go!”

Damon pulled Henry backward and released him. He spilled to the feet of his two cronies, who still didn’t know how to react. Damon and the others slipped past them, smirking.

“Come on,” Damon said. “Let’s not waste our time. We’ve fought bigger than these guys, right?”

======

Sean: Sometimes we battle with grief. Sometimes we battle with a giant, monstrous centipede. Sometimes it’s both.

As I mentioned last week, this story is a part of the setting shared with several other stories I’ve already released this year! It’s a setting I’ve really enjoyed, obviously this is the last one for the year and I don’t have any other short stories drafted for it but I have a couple of ideas and I think it’s fair to say you’ll probably see more taking place in it next year. I hope you’re enjoying them as well. There’s one of the stories I’ve already released that I’m trying to expand into something longer, but I shouldn’t say too much or I’ll jinx myself.

Shout out, the cover / banner is the work of Tithi Luadthong, an artist I have knocked things off from before (all perfectly legally, I have a Shutterstock account, I’m not just taking things from Google). Honestly their artwork is absolutely incredible and just vibes with me. I think I could be inspired to write stories from so many of them but they tell such brilliant stories all on their own.

Thanks for reading!

Next Week’s Inspiration: Oni

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