Meadows pull a significant amount of narrative weight, and with very little recognition; or, more specifically, this is done by the meadow’s juvenile counterpart, the clearing. Say you are an adventurer marching through a dense wood, weary from your day of travel, when up ahead you spot a break in the trees—a wide meadow like a saucer of golden setting sunlight. Where do you expect your next plot point will assail you? By all metrics the likely answer is the meadow, which is already surrounded by a troop of bandits or beastly wild things or other unfavorable new acquaintances.
Perhaps the plot point won’t assail you so much as nuzzle into you and pucker softly against your lips. Meadows make great fighting grounds, but they’re also quite the romantic stop for a starlit night between a lover’s thighs.
Or, in another tale, the plot point may slumber just under the dirt, waiting to be found: a long-forgotten artifact that should never have passed beyond the recollection of the world. Yet even the most powerful and mystical artifacts are powerless in the face of a clumsy bearer who doesn’t do the “gentle pocket tap to make sure everything is still where it belongs” nearly often enough. Of course, if there’s anywhere such a token should fall, it’s certainly in a meadow. Meadows are for events—like the stages of a forest, perfectly situated in view for all to see.
They’re also the classic stomping grounds of frolicking. It’s hardly worth frolicking if there’s no nearby meadow to do it in. Though this is hardly notable enough to constitute a plot point unless there is singing involved.
These meadows—these clearings, these blips of interest in the otherwise uninterrupted forest landscape—are quite a critical part of the temporal ecosystem. How else would events be coaxed into happening?
Their construction, too, is a bit of a marvel. All around, the trees and underbrush grow unimpeded, yet suddenly they stop at these bounds—why? There’s a remarkably simple answer, and it has to do with the history of the ground. Sometimes, in the depths of the forest, things, er, happen. Unfortunate things, that the trees would rather not talk about. Trees, of course, hold markedly steadfast grudges, and when something ill happens on a bit of land, they will vacate that plot promptly and cease to grow there for… well, for the rest of time, as has so far been the case. And so the forest is marred by the pocks of spite.
The opposite of this can be seen as well, in the case of a copse of trees like a wad of terrestrial lint on a wide stretch of grassland. In these instances, the trees inhabit the only speck of land that they don’t despise, all clustered tight together with no avenue of escape like a family cowering as they’re surrounded by a pack of wolves. Trees found in these formations are always a good deal more anxious than trees found elsewhere; you can detect this by the odor.
This segment of the group’s journey was chiefly concerned with meadows—five of them, specifically, the five that they’d determined had the potential to be the one spoken of on the page given to them by Ophylla. The meadows dotted the forest like freckles hidden beneath grizzle and thistle, shrouded deep in the trees that clung to the northern reaches of the Shundren Mountains like an unkempt beard on a bony chin.
The first meadow was unremarkable and clearly not what they were looking for.
Dawn had not long passed when they arrived at the edge. They’d traveled northeast from Yevel for two full days to reach their first stop. The plan had been to arrive at the first meadow by nightfall the evening before, but after a few hours of wandering in wider and wider circles trying to orient themselves on the maps and locate the tiny landmark, they’d eventually called it a night with plans to resume the following morning. Thankfully, they stumbled upon it quite suddenly after less than an hour of walking on their third day.
It was not a very big feature, nor particularly notable, save for some oddly shaped rocks to one side, which was what put it on one of the maps they’d bought in Yevel. “Boulder Meadow,” it’d been labeled in a win for candid cartographic accuracy.
Vit led the way into the middle of the meadow. Long grass parted before them, rustling against Root’s pant legs and giving her wary images of imbedded, engorged ticks. Vit didn’t seem to mind. Of course, they would probably just snack on them like bursting goo candies, being a spider and all.
Root paused. Hopefully that wasn’t an offensive stereotype. She’d never seen Vit eat a bug at all. She made a mental note to check herself later for ticks and subconscious biases.
Near the center they stopped and looked around. The meadow was longer one way than the other and vaguely bean-shaped, or perhaps shaped more like a rotting pear that slumped to one side. The trees leaned in and drooped towards the grass, which was a greyish-green as if covered in stubborn ash that wouldn’t rub clean. In the light of Enyn, the stalks looked like a field of needles.
“Anyone see a monument?” asked Vit, looking back and forth from the page in front of them to the landscape as if the fourth or fifth glance would suddenly introduce some monumental reveal.
Azriah stooped low to the ground and ran a hand through the rocky soil. “Remember, that book is old. Even if there was a monument here fifty years ago that’s since been lugged off, it could still be the right spot.”
Root looked about. “Wouldn’t there be flowers, too?”
“Fifty years. A hundred, even.”
“You ever tried to get rid of wildflowers?”
“Let’s spread out,” suggested Vit. “Look for any lasting marks in the ground.”
They fanned out and swept the meadow.
“Think we’ll see Ophylla again before we get to the crypt?” asked Vit as they walked, eyes cast down.
“I doubt it,” said Azriah.
Azriah didn’t answer immediately. “Well, I didn’t expect to see her the second time.”
“No? Is it not typical for the boss to… tag along?”
“No. Not usually, at least. Some can be more overbearing than others. Sometimes you’ll find bosses who use those… what are those things… the little spirits that float around people and report on their every move? Domineering parents use them to watch where their kids go.”
“Oh, those—they’re a type of ter spirit. Hell-eye cop ters, right?”
Azriah snapped his fingers. “Right. Hell-eye cop ter parents.”
“Except they don’t like the name,” said Root. “Too much ‘hell’ and ‘police state’—so they just call them Eon 359s.”
“That’s a weird name,” said Vit.
“They would be 360s—like a circle—but the little eyeball bits can’t actually turn all the way around because they’ve got those little… veiny cord things that attach to the backs of eyeballs. Most kids learn the workaround pretty quick and just do the things they don’t want their parents seeing around that side. I used to get drunk with a girl who had one. We both had to stand sideways to fit in the blind spot. Made the quickies kind of cramped.”
“Anyway,” said Azriah, “some bosses use those, or so I’ve heard. I would never take a job like that. But Ophylla’s method is new to me.”
“How do you think she knew where we were?” asked Vit.
“No idea.” He kicked at a patch of dust near the foot of a boulder. “There’s nothing here. It’s not this meadow.”
Vit scratched a note onto one of their maps. “Good thing we have four more to go.”
The second meadow was much more interesting in the worst way.
It was smaller—half the size of Boulder Meadow and a near-perfect circle. There was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a monument, if that was the term one wanted to use. “Statue” might have been more fitting, but even then the term carried too much connotation of art and beauty that, realistically, was nothing but dead weight. Root picked her way halfway to its base and stopped.
The statue stood tall in the middle of the clearing in a way that suggested the trees were not so much making room for the idol as averting their gaze and holding conversations behind its hulked back. It was vaguely wolflike, but also vaguely bearlike, perhaps with a hint of vague monkey-ness. It was also unsettling, but certainly not in a vague way. There was such a lack of settling, in fact, that no one but a colonialist could look at the thing and smile, and still only then through the lens of opportunity.
Root, certainly, was no exception. She looked up at the indistinct face and scowled. Even its teeth had teeth.
“It’s probably alive,” whined Beel from behind her, shrouded in the safety of the tree line.
“And hungry,” said Azriah. He stepped past Beel and entered the clearing, eyes on the statue, one hand sliding Orne Tyn from his sheath. Though his quip and subsequent grin let on to nothing short of confidence, there were very few ways for a confident man to pull a sword on a lump of stone, and Azriah didn’t seem to know any of them.
“Any inscription or anything?” asked Vit, coming over to join them. They’d all made the casual and semi-conscious decision to stop halfway to the statue.
Azriah turned to them. “Wanna go look?” They shrugged and closed the remainder of the gap.
Root didn’t know what she expected; it was only a statue. It wasn’t just going to jump up and lunge for Vit’s throat, or shatter into a thousand razor fragments, or vanish altogether. There was just something about it, something that kept her eyes glued to it in the same way one watches a venomous snake while slowly backing away.
The statue did nothing as Vit approached and, hesitantly, rapped a knuckle against its granite pelt. They wound around the figure once, eyes flicking down and then up, down and then up, down and—hastily—up, meeting the fierce immobile eyes on the last trip. Then they retreated without turning aside their gaze.
“No inscription. Nothing at all. The ground around the bottom is not newly disturbed, so the thing has been here a while, but the stonework looks freshly carved. Though there’s no rubble around the base either.”
“Sounds like even the weather is afraid to go near it,” said Beel.
“I don’t blame it,” said Root.
“It’s not the right landmark,” said Azriah, gesturing to Vit’s map. “And no flowers, see? Can’t be ‘the meadow of flowers where her monument stands.’”
“Might’ve scared them all off.”
“This isn’t the meadow, then,” said Vit, crossing it off on their map.
“Glad that’s unsettled,” said Beel, and promptly turned to leave. The others were not far behind.
It took Root another mile to shake the feeling of eyes on her back.
The third meadow was just trying to stall them.
They reached it in what Root assumed to be the afternoon. Or rather, they reached part of it. A narrow lane of open meadow started at their feet and ran southeast, about the width of a small city block from tree bough to opposite tree bough. In the distance, over squat, rolling hills and through patches of wildflowers and tall grasses, the meadow curved east. Through the tree line to their left, past a few layers of trunks and underbrush, they could see more of the meadow, continuing to wind its way inward. Past that, they could just make out another strip coiling still tighter toward the central point.
Suddenly it made a great deal of sense why the meadow was labeled “Spyrall Meadow.”
“So…” started Root slowly. She pointed to the far end (from their current perspective). “Do we go down this way… and then all the way out around and then to over here…” she pointed through the thin strip of trees, “… and then around again through there… to over there… and just keep going… until we get to the middle?”
Azriah scratched his head. “Uh, yeah. Probably.”
“That’s going to take ages,” grumbled Beel.
“But look—there are flowers!” said Vit. “Halfway there.”
And so they started walking.
“Don’t you think the book might’ve said something about this?” asked Root as they walked along the spiral of grass, scanning the landscape ahead for a monument and the ground at their feet for other clues.
“What do you mean?” asked Vit.
“Like, it says ‘the meadow of flowers where her monument stands,’ making note of the flowers. Don’t you think if the meadow was also shaped like a fucking corkscrew that might be a detail worth sharing? Might be more notable than flowers, which are kind of everywhere.”
“There were no flowers in the last two meadows.”
“No, but you know what I mean.”
“Hmm.” Vit turned their attention back to the book.
“Makes it too easy?” suggested Azriah. “If Affodell wanted this place to be a secret, I think plotting its relation to a gigantic spiral-shaped meadow would be a dead giveaway. No pun intended.”
“I don’t think Affodell wrote the book. Or had anything to do with it,” said Root. “Right? I mean, if you actually don’t want anyone finding your grave, you don’t leave clues. People leave clues when they do want others to find something, but they want to be able to act surprised about it when someone actually does. Plausible deniability.”
“Who wrote the book, then?” asked Azriah.
Vit met Azriah’s questioning expression and flipped loudly through all of the pages that were no longer part of the book.
“Nothing else in here mentions Affodell at all. I imagine some of the other pages around ours might have, but they’re gone. Everything else is seemingly unrelated. I told you, the book is about ‘mote periapts.’”
“So, like, a bunch of necklaces? That are, uh, really small?” asked Root.
“Sort of. But I think these periapts can be anything—just old trinkets and such. One of the pictures just shows a rock.”
“Well, hang on,” said Azriah. “How do we know whoever wrote this book didn’t already unearth the crypt and take all the stuff? If they wrote about the location, they surely found it long before us.”
“Except they wrote about the mirror being there,” said Vit. “Would be pretty weird to write vague clues in your diary on the whereabouts of something and then go move it the next day.”
“Hm. I suppose.”
“What’s that?” Root pointed ahead to a stone shape. They hastened towards it.
It was a cairn, as high as Root’s chin and conical, constructed from the varied stones of the meadow and nearby woods. There were no other markings around its edges or beside it. A patch of wood lilies surrounded it.
They stood in a semicircle beside the marker and stared at it for several long moments. Eventually, Vit spoke.
“Do you think this counts as a monument?”
“Hard to tell,” said Azriah.
“I think hikers make these sorts of things sometimes.”
“Why?” asked Beel.
“I don’t know. ‘Cause they can?”
They continued to stare at the pile of stones.
“It’s not much of a monument, is it?” said Root.
“No,” agreed Azriah. “But if she had need for secrecy…”
“The monument and the crypt could be unrelated. Sort of. It could’ve been erected before her death or a century after. There’s no telling whether it was placed there intentionally in proximity to the crypt, you know? Maybe she just liked this area.”
“Not worth speculating about, I suppose,” said Azriah. “I’d vote no, this isn’t the monument.”
“Same here,” said Root.
Vit and Beel nodded their agreement.
Before they moved away from the cairn, Root reached out and plucked a stone from the pile. Several others clattered to the ground with a kackAck!ick ock, udd.
“Why did you—”
“I didn’t think that would happen,” said Root. “Uh, Vit, is this the rock in your book?”
They furrowed their brow. “No. Why?”
“It was funny in my head before the other ones fell.”
They kept walking.
Around another turn in the spiral meadow, they came to a second cairn. Just the same, they inspected this one for any inscription or polished placard or perhaps a big arrow pointing in the direction of the crypt. The cairn offered nothing, and so they continued, until after another hour and a half of walking they arrived at last in the center of the spiral. There was no monument there, only patchy grass and dust.
“Not here, then,” said Vit, and made another mark on their map. Two meadows to go.
Beel pried a stone out of the dirt. “Is this the rock from the book?”
They continued on.
The fourth meadow was a joke.
It was the smallest of the meadows they’d come to so far, and neighbored the first sign of civilization they had seen since leaving Yevel two days prior: a small, single-story farmhouse just away down a short path between the trees. The windows were dark, and nothing stirred inside or out as far as they could tell; it was getting late in the day, but it was not yet so deep into the night that any but the elderly would have tucked in—and this was Atnaterra besides. The elderly were rare and the day-night social construction didn’t exist. They resolved to make a quick check of the meadow and then be off before they disturbed the locals.
Farm tools scattered the ground—a wheelbarrow here, a rake there. Having grown up on a farm, Root liked to think herself familiar with the tools of the trade, but whether these were Atnaterran farming tools or the craft of someone living several days out into the wilderness who had evolved a culture of their own in isolation, she couldn’t tell. They looked like torture devices. But such can be said of most traditional farm tools anyhow.
They stepped into the meadow and looked around.
“No flowers,” said Root.
“No monument,” said Azriah.
“Hey, you guys?” came Vit’s voice from off to the side. “Come look at this.”
They joined Vit beside a crate with its lid removed and propped against its side. Two rows of cotton sacks filled the interior, each one stamped, in big letters, with the word “FLOUR.”
“Right out in the open?” said Root, looking to the sky and the trees all around. “Good way to get weevils…”
“Must be doing a lot of baking. Is there a holiday coming up?” asked Beel, scrunching up his brow. “I lost track while I was in the desert.”
Vit just stood there, scanning their faces, an unspoken question hanging in the air. Only after a slow several seconds did it begin to reveal itself to Root.
“No…” she said. Incredulity gripped her by the throat.
“Wha—” started Azriah. “Oh.”
“I mean…” said Vit.
“There’s no way… it’s not like this is permanent…”
“I don’t know, I mean, you know how these things are—treasure hunts, that is. The clues can have weird alternative meanings. You’re meant to really think.”
“That’s true,” said Azriah. It was hardly more than a whisper. He pulled at the hair under his lower lip.
They stood around the crate, staring down at the flour, deep in thought. It did make some sort of sense, right?
“No,” said Azriah at once, snapping them all from their independent thought. “No. This is stupid.”
“There’s no monument,” said Root, agreeing.
Beel looked between them. “Isn’t the word, er, written? On the page?”
“Fucking hell,” said Root. They were so stupid.
“Let’s go,” said Azriah. Vit scribbled out the fourth meadow on the map. Root lifted the lid back onto the crate as a parting act of courtesy.
They left the meadow without another glance.
The fifth meadow was particularly ordinary.
It was a wide stretch of land—bigger, perhaps, than the others, though calculating the area of the spiral meadow would’ve taken a bit more involvement than Root was willing to spare for the cause. Number five was not enormous and sprawling, but it reached over and down a low hill and tapered off into a sort of grassy inlet that gave the whole plot a teardrop shape. It had been marked on only one of the maps they’d acquired, and unlabeled, but noted with a symbol that, according to the key, meant “Possible location for Jogbar Icktime’s Oceanic Resort and Crumpy Hall,” whatever that meant. It was an old map, found amongst an enormous trove of useless documents inside a dusty chest in a corner of a pawn shop. They’d had low hopes for that particular map, but nonetheless, the fifth meadow made the list. At the very least, they all shared a faint and unspoken desire to find out what a “crumpy hall” was.
Flowers shivered beneath a gentle gust, asters and daffodils and the blossoms of a low carpet of bunchberries in scattered patches up the hillside and in the lower light beneath the shadows of the tree line. The group wound between them on their way to the hill’s crest.
At the top was a swath of daffodils, golden yellow on reedy stems of green. Hunks of marble joined them, scattered near the broken base of a plinth, silver-white amongst the gold.
“There was something here,” said Azriah, stooping to run a hand over the jagged rock.
“A meadow of flowers and a monument,” said Vit. “This must be it.”
“Not so fast. This could be anything. If a couple flowers had grown in the meadow with that… statue, we could’ve said the same thing then.”
“This is the last one on our map,” said Root. “It has to be.”
“We hope. Here, help me check the rubble.” The others knelt in the grass and got to work.
“This stuff is old,” said Root, prying a chunk out of the dirt. Something wriggled in the damp crater it left. She brushed flecks of dirt off the sides and held it in the light. “There’s a Y on this one. I think.”
“A Y is good,” said Vit. “I have a W here.”
“W isn’t good,” said Beel.
“Do you know what it said?”
“No. But her name doesn’t have a W in it.”
“Probably said more than just her name,” said Root as she ground two chunks together trying to make them fit. It was like a jigsaw puzzle that had been left out in the mud during a monsoon until it was horrendously water damaged and the paint had all crumbled to dust—the colors reduced to nothing alongside half the pieces as well as the picture on the front of the box that shows you what you’re meant to be aiming for. Root scraped a bit of lichen off one bit with the edge of another.
“I think this is the glyph for water…?” said Vit. “Wait, no. It’s just an F with a worm stuck to it. I was wondering why it moved.”
Root scanned the ground. They’d picked up all of the biggest pieces; those that remained were pebble-sized or smaller. She turned her gaze up to the mountain peaks looming tall just to the south.
“This could take hours,” said Root, tossing the two chunks she held back to the ground. “We could sit here all night just to find out it’s an advertisement for the clump hall or whatever it was called. If this isn’t the monument, it’s another dead end, and we will have to figure something else out anyway. We know what direction we would go from here, so why not just start walking? If we come to it, we come to it, and if we don’t, we’re fucked anyway.”
“That’s true,” said Vit. “All right, I’ll go.”
“It’s a fair point,” conceded Azriah.
“This seems like a good sign,” said Root, gesturing to the smashed monument. “So let’s head south.”
They walked for another two hours into the night. Soon, the ground underfoot tilted and led them uphill, sometimes at a gentle roll, other times sheer and boulderous. The trees turned from upright, tree-looking things into stunted, scraggly masses, and then even those began to give way as they climbed higher up the slope. The path grew difficult, and more so by their strict adherence to a southward path. Even when confronted by a steep stretch or treacherous gravelly incline where smoother paths beckoned them off to the left or right, they spurned the alternatives and kept on. Cruel fate would see them stray east or left-east and end up circling around their destination altogether. They wouldn’t allow it, and that meant oftentimes following the path of most resistance.
They came at last to a wide ledge that turned down into a small valley, bordered on the opposite side by the steepest cliff they had yet seen. Tired, they spoke briefly of making camp there and continuing the next morning until Vit spotted something up ahead.
It was a narrow cleft in the cliff, the perfect height for forehead bruises and a scraped scalp. The inside was dark, but when they peered inside, it seemed to continue a good ways deeper into the mountain.
Root spoke a silent word of thanks to Jogbar Icktime for selecting some other location for his crumb hall, if he ever built it at all.
Though the hour was late, they voiced a unanimous agreement to venture inside before stopping to rest. Unanimous, that was, except for Beel, who voted that they should not explore the cave at present nor at future. Aside from the lone voice of dissent, the finding of the cave had sent a wave of excitement through the group that slashed through their weariness and gave them the adrenaline-fueled energy to go on. If they’d reached the end of their journey, they wanted to know it, and curiosity would make it terribly hard to sleep besides, like the expectation of a child trying to sleep on the eve before their birthday.
Plus, the sight of a cave does that to the mind. There’s a certain urge that comes with finding a cave in the woods, an immediate and all-consuming desire to know what’s inside. Usually it’s just dirt and bugs and maybe a wild animal, but the imagination soars in the face of such encounters.
And so, after fashioning a torch and setting it ablaze, they stepped single file into the yawning mouth of the mountain.
There were other meadows, too, beyond the five—meadows they crossed off their list before setting out, deeming them unworthy of note and not possible contenders for the particular meadow they sought. The reject meadows.
The sixth meadow was insignificant. It was labeled on only two maps, both of which read: “Insignificant Meadow (There’s nothing here).”
The seventh meadow was cause for concern. There were very many fish in it, all in varied stages of decay like a biology textbook’s figure series detailing the ecological process, but there was no body of water for several miles around. No one could say for certain how they got there; no one saw them arrive.
The eighth meadow almost made the cut. It had flowers and a monument, but the monument was well documented as “an obelisk that makes your bones flood.” They debated for almost an hour about what this threat might entail, anatomically, but came to no consensus save on one detail: nonsensical threats are, without a doubt, just as frightening as any, if not more so.
The ninth meadow did make the cut, at first. Then it got disqualified after a shopkeeper described its monument to Azriah. “A woman sitting…” he had started, but Azriah cut him off right there. The wording of the book made the monument’s degree of verticality quite clear.
The tenth meadow was elusive. No two maps put it in the same place, and one even drew it as a raised bed of earth atop a horde of tiny legs from a zoo’s worth of species. They decided it wasn’t worth their time.
The eleventh meadow was a pool of quicksand. It’s not a proper treasure-seeking adventure without a bit of quicksand, but when it’s labeled clearly on a map, it’s wise to just avoid it, even at the cost of sticking to the paradigm. Sticking, of course, was exactly what they didn’t want to be doing.
The thirteenth meadow was growing. In fact, it had consumed the twelfth meadow only three weeks prior.
The fourteenth meadow was shaped like an enormous X in the woods. Though seemingly a good sign, Root rejected this one swiftly and urgently, sensing that it surely must have been a trap. It was. But before they died, they would’ve discovered where all the fish were coming from.