In the great forest, the Arktoi stand at the portal, waiting for the veil between the worlds to open. It’s been a very long time since they have seen mortal girls. Although they themselves were once mortal, they have long since joined the ranks of the naiads, Artemis’ handmaidens who live in the woods and serve her as friends and helpers.
Sylvia: I see them!!
Iris: Oh they are CUTE! ...but what are they wearing?!
Nyx: Focus, Iris! This is going to take everything we’ve got. Are you ready? Let’s call them in.
Kory felt her body slam to the ground. She was disoriented. It felt like she had just stepped through water and fallen off a cliff. All around, her friends were similarly sprawled as though they had been knocked over by a giant. Gingerly, Kory pushed herself up to her hands and knees. “Is everyone ok?” she asked.
“Ughhhhh” moaned Sage. “Yeah, we’re ok.”
“Yeah, But where ARE WE?” Stella chimed in, heaving herself to her feet and looking around.
One by one the girls stood, brushing dirt and leaves off of their jeans. They huddled together, taking in their surroundings. They were in the woods. The trees were tall with wide trunks. They were in a small clearing. There was no sign of the white dome, or Tara.
There was also no sign of the three girls who had stood on the other side of the glowing doorway. They had looked so real, so solid. Kory remembered that one had been tall and golden-haired and muscular, with a look of delight and mischief on her face. The middle girl had very long dark hair, olive skin and a wide, friendly, mouth. The last girl had an intensity about her that had caught Kory’s attention. She had curly black hair, brown skin and golden eyes. She looked like a hunter who had spotted her prey. If Kory had to guess, the three of them were about 13 years old. They all carried weapons, and wore short, white, tunic dresses. Kory recognized them instantly as the girls from her dream. She had taken a step toward them. Just one step. And then, here she was...but the dream girls were gone.
They stood in silence, taking in the scene. The forest seemed quiet. They could hear birds, but that was it. If someone was going to attack them, Kory guessed they would have done it by now. Finally, Mixch broke the ice, “Guess we’re not in Kansas anymore, or whatever that line is from Wizard of Oz.” They all laughed, nervously. “But what are we going to do?” she continued. “Like...where’s the good witch and the yellow brick road?”
For the next half an hour, they argued. Mixch and Kory were fans of staying exactly where they were so they wouldn’t get lost. Sage, Melika and Stella pointed out that were already lost, and epically lost, since they weren’t even sure if they were still on the same planet, or in the same time in history. At least if they went into the woods they could look for help. Or shelter. This logic eventually overcame Kory’s resistance, even though the thought of going into the woods terrified her. Sage took pity and grabbed her hand. “Come on,” she said, “we’ll stick together. It’ll be alright.”
From the cover of the trees, Iris, Sylvia and Nyx watched with fascination. These girls were different than girls of their time had been. They wore pants and shoes and bright colors. A few had metal on their teeth. Iris desperately wanted to go and help them. “Imagine how we would feel if we got sent into their world with no warning!” she hissed, quietly.
“I know, Iris. I feel bad for them too,” Nyx agreed “but this is the first test. If they don’t pass it, they’ll wake up tomorrow back in their beds and just think it’s another dream. But if they pass...just imagine. This could save us all!”
“COME ON GIRLS!” Sylvia encouraged, under her breath. She was endlessly optimistic, unless she was in one of her doom and gloom modes. But most of the time, she could be counted on for keeping them all hopeful.
“COME ON GIRLS!” Nyx and Iris added, in voices barely above a whisper.
They had been walking for what felt like hours. They were tired. They were scared. They were hungry. They had long ago split up the last of the snacks in Sage’s backpack. “At least I thought to bring it! Where are the rest of YOUR backpacks? In Tara’s house?” she grumbled when Stella gave in to a whining complaint that Sage should have packed more food. It was getting dark. Kory was on the verge of tears. She had been camping plenty of times with her parents and always considered herself a nature girl. But now that she was out here with no flashlight, no tent, no fire, no food...she realized what a city girl she was. They all were.
They had, at least, stumbled onto a small path, leading to a period of relief. “Hallelujah there’s someone out here!” Stella celebrated. But they’d been on that path for most of the afternoon, and still hadn’t seen any signs of people or houses or even litter on the ground. But they kept following it, because it seemed like the only chance they had at finding help. As they walked they sang songs. Told jokes. Picked up sticks and whacked them against the lowest tree branches and tried to stay brave.
Dusk started to settle. The sky turned from bright blue to a soft periwinkle. Stars began to emerge. “Guys?” Kory said, “can we just stop for a while?” She sank to the ground just off the path and leaned against a thick tree trunk. As if admitting to their exhaustion, no one argued. They sat close together, heads dropping onto each others shoulders. Kory closed her eyes and felt herself start to drift toward sleep.
“You guys! Do you hear that!?!?” Kory was startled back into wakefulness by Melika’s voice.
Melika had been mostly quiet all day. As a general rule, Melika’s big eyes took in more than most and she was often paying attention and listening rather than talking. But even so, she would usually get silly and pull pranks, or get into a deep conversation with friends. Today though, she had barely spoken. But now her voice was sharp and clear. Kory sat up straight and listened. Sure enough, she DID hear something. She and Melika’s eyes met, and Kory nodded, slowly. “I think it’s voices” Melika went on, when she saw all the girls alert with attention. “I’ve been hearing tiny sounds all day, but I couldn’t figure it out. I thought maybe it was just squirrels or birds. But just now when we were all quiet, It was definitely someone talking.”
They all listened with every ounce of their bodies. But it was Melika, again, who said “I think it’s coming from over there” and she pointed across the path, out into the woods. Twilight was falling in full now. The sky was getting purple and blue with a few streaks of pink starting to fade. There was an almost-full moon rising, thankfully, giving them a little bit of light. But the idea of going off the path NOW seemed dangerous to say the least. “I think we should try and find them” Melika insisted. And because they couldn’t think of any better ideas, the girls agreed, rising to their feet and following Melika toward the sounds.
“Thank Goddess!” breathed Nyx, with relief. “I was just about to give up on them.”
Sylvia nodded, “Me too.”
“Don’t they know anything about the forest?” Iris asked “They are so noisy.”
“Thank goodness for that one who listens” Sylvia said. “They’re gonna make it!” and she did a little dance. Nyx rolled her eyes. Iris laughed. And they all watched.
The voices were getting louder. Now they could all hear them. Kory was tense with nerves. They saw the light of a fire flickering off of the tree branches above. Finally, as they came around a particularly ancient and wide pine, they saw figures gathered around the fire. Four figures, to be exact. And as Kory’s stomach did a flip, she realized only one of them looked human.
She wanted to run. She wanted to scream. But she felt frozen to the spot as the largest figure rose up from the fire. “Welcome children” rumbled the deep voice of a giant female bear. “You have made it to the council of the forest. In doing so, you passed the first task. Come forward and sit.”
For a moment none of them moved. The bear raised her eyebrows and settled herself back by the fire. Kory couldn’t say exactly why, but she had liked the bear’s voice. It had been kind, and held a touch of humor. She took a breath, and started moving toward the fire. Next to the bear, was a stag with a large rack of antlers. His body was on the ground with his graceful legs tucked underneath him. His big eyes had long lashes and a serious expression. A silver grey wolf was next, big and strong, sitting upright. Kory couldn’t tell their gender, and felt instinctively that this was probably intentional. And finally, next to the wolf, was a human girl.
She was beautiful in an untamed way. Her dark brown hair was messy. She wasn’t particularly feminine, though she was wearing a short, white tunic dress like the dream girls had worn. She had an angular face, toned muscles, and bare feet. She leaned back casually in a comfortable sprawl, though her face was serious and her eyes intent. She looked at Kory and a wave of recognition and shock flooded through her. This was Artemis. THE Artemis. The goddess herself, sitting here on the forest floor as though it were a living room. Kory felt her face flush. She felt like fan girl. She didn’t what to do, so she just sat down with a bit of a thunk. She could’ve sworn she saw Artemis crack the hint of a smile, but she wasn’t sure.
Her friends had all joined her by the time she gathered her thoughts. Melika, Sage, Stella and Mixch looked just as stunned as she felt to be sitting around that fire. Kory thought one of them should probably say something. But for the life of her she couldn’t think what that would be. After a while, the bear spoke again.
“Children, we know you have had a difficult and confusing day. You may as well know now that your challenges are just beginning. But first, let us introduce ourselves, and tell you a bit more about why you are here…
“I can see that you have guessed who this is” Bear continued, pointing her paw in the direction of Artemis “and you are right. Artemis is a bridge between the forest and the humans. She has always existed to help you understand that the forest is essential to the wellbeing of the planet. To really understand the role of the forest, you must feel and respect the wildness within your souls. At this council, Artemis represents the trees, plants and fresh water.”
Wolf spoke then; “I am Wolf, and this is Deer and Bear. Along with Artemis, we are the guardians of the forest. We are the forces of balance. We represent the animals, their needs and their ways.”
Deer and Wolf looked into each others eyes for a long time. And then Deer began, “for most of the history of the planet, your people - the human people - lived in balance with our people, the animal and plant people. The wild was vast and healthy. The places that humans cultivated were sometimes very welcoming to the plant and animal people. Humans, in fact, took great care to help our council protect the balance of life.
Kory cringed uncomfortably. She could tell where this was going. Earlier that year, she and her friends had joined a group of youth climate activists to protest at city hall. They made signs and chanted and demanded that the government and corporations stop doing the terrible things that cause climate change. But they all knew how bad it was. Fires and floods and pollution and whole species of animals, insects and plants going extinct every day. All because of humans.
Deer had paused speaking, and Wolf spoke again. “I see in your eyes that you know how bad it is. Humans left our council long ago. Those who wanted to stay were blocked by others through force and dominance and trickery. And now, all of our people are in danger as a result.”
“Children,” Bear spoke “this is not the time for despair.” She looked directly into Kory’s eyes, and Kory felt as though she was really looking right into her soul. “This is the time for bravery. And it is time for humans to join the council again. You are here because you listened to the wild within yourselves. And even from your places in the city, you listened and heard our call. This is a good sign for all of us.”
At this, Artemis finally spoke “I came to your city. I was only able to come because of you. At first, when the portal opened, I felt like you did when you got here. I was scared and confused and I felt lost. I could see you then, but you couldn’t see me. It’s been a long time. Thousands of years, actually, since human girls have been able to see me.
But here’s the thing. Just because you can see me doesn’t mean you can help me or I can help you. Just because you believe in the balance of life and you want to help...it isn’t enough. We need humans on this council. But we need you to show us that you are ready to fight for the protection of the planet. We can’t just take your word for it. We need to see it.
Kory felt a million things happening at once. She was overwhelmed as she tried to process everything she was hearing. She was angry at her fellow humans, and ashamed. But she was also excited. She knew she would do anything to protect the earth. And Artemis... she was amazing. Kory wanted to be her friend. She wanted Artemis to look her with pride and admiration, not the guarded uncertainty that was on her face now.
“What do you want us to do?” Mixch asked. Kory could imagine that Mixch, who was an animal lover through and through, was feeling a similar desperate desire to earn a place of respect with this council of beings. In fact, Kory was picturing Mixch flinging herself into Bear’s arms, stroking her ears in an ecstasy of furry snuggles.
“We want you to go on a quest” Wolf’s voice broke through Kory’s vision. The water spirit in your city has been taken captive. We want you to set her free.”
“Uh….” Sage’s voice began. “We totally want to do that, but I’m pretty sure we have no idea how.” She looked around to confirm, and saw vigorous nods from each of the girls.
Artemis did crack a smile this time. And it was a fierce smile that was both inviting and dangerous. “Oh we know.” She said. “That is why we have planned for you to get some training.” She lifted a hand and beckoned toward the woods. Kory squinted her eyes to see past the firelight and into the dark trees.
It was them. The three girls from the dream. There they were. Solid, clear, exactly as Kory remembered.
“These are the Arktoi” Artemis announced. “Sylvia” the tall blonde stepped forward. “Iris,” the petite girl with long hair gave a big grin. And “Nyx,” Artemis finished, and the golden-eyed girl nodded at them all in greeting.
“We have made arrangements that you will be able to use the portal to come here, and they will be able to cross over to you. When you are together, you will be in an out-of-time place. This will allow you to learn what you need to learn without being missed by your families.” Deer informed them.
Your training will start immediately.