Harper loped along after the spirit bird who’d promised to take them to her mother when a pressure in her chest built so forcefully she staggered to a stop and dropped over at the waist. It felt like a massive hand shoved her back toward the tree line. With a sharp inhale, she drew herself up and strode after the tiny blue bird, already shrinking on the horizon, but the invisible hand only herded her off to the right.
Harper glanced off in the direction the force pressured her toward. Her blood ran cold, when an icy wind from the gaping mouth of a cavern prickled her skin. It wavered into existence before her eyes and emanated dread. The tunnel was not her goal, following the spirit bird was. The strain of pulling against the force tugging her off course, tore a moan from her chest, but escape eluded her.
“No!” Harper flung her hand toward the hummingbird as it winked out of sight on the horizon. Any hope of finding something to help her mother disappeared along with it.
Brand and Rarn, her hirsute guides, only smiled that damnable calm half smile their people wore day in and day out. Brand tilted his head and looked down at his charge. “Little one, you and your mother may require what lies in that cave. Often we need something for ourselves before we can help anyone else.” He dropped into a crouch before her.
His brother swept a thick hand to the entrance. “Do not be afraid. Nothing can harm you here. That is the Cavern of Lost Children. Travelers we've met here from other cultures have described it, but we’ve never seen it before. The dreamworld wants you to go inside the cave or it would not have appeared to you.”
Harper’s body might be safe and sound in the village, but the sensation of a fluttering heart refused to leave. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in there.”
Brand rose and took a step toward the cave. “You will know once we go inside.”
Harper’s hands trembled. With a dry gulp, she clasped her arms across her chest and followed Brand and Rarn. The moment she took the first step toward the cave the pressure on her chest evaporated.
Rarn gazed over his shoulder. “It’ll be OK, little one.”
Harper didn’t think his optimism was warranted, but she managed a weak smile and trudged along the forest floor behind him. They’d only walked for a couple of minutes when a familiar sound paused her movement. The sound was faint and smudged by the wind blowing across her facee. She tilted her toward the openstone maw. Beside her, the brothers paused. The sound was still faint, so she held her breath to hear it better. Her chilly hand clamped over her mouth. The Cavern of Lost Children. They were weeping.
Her guides motioned her forward. Continuing into that cavern frightened her, but her feet followed along, anyway. The crying crescendoed at the entry to the cave, so loud it made her wince. Despite the chill in the air, her palms sweated. She lifted a hand to her face. Fascinating that her physical body reclined on a bed of fir boughs back in the village, yet her mind insisted on making her feel sweaty and cold in the dreamworld.
“We’re right behind you.” Rarn reassured.
Dread coiled in the pit of her stomach like a venomous snake, and she almost turned back, asked to return to her body and find another way to save her mother. But she’d tried literally everything else over the years. This crazy magical healing ritual thing was the last option. At least she’d brought muscle. She took one last glance up at the enormous brothers.
Best to get this over with fast. Harper took a shuddery breath and plunged over the threshold. The cave immediately turned a sharp corner to the left. She could see a flickering light down a long passage, just barely tall enough for her to stand in. The two brothers had to walk bent in half, thankfully not for long. Almost immediately, the passage ended in a wide cavern.
A strangled cry pried from her lips at the sight. A miniscule wisp of a campfire served as the only heating in the cold room, a comfort barely bigger than a candle flame. The cavern would be beautiful with the fire reflecting off a ceiling of crystals, but this was not a happy or beautiful place. This was the unmarked grave of hope.
Hundreds of children turned grubby faces to her as she passed the campfire. Crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the cavern, they bunched against the back wall, their eyes wide. Some of them gripped their neighbor’s hands and stared wide-eyed at Rarn and Brand.
The pair sat down and lowered their hands to their sides.
There were so many Harper didn’t even think they could all join her companions and sit down without sitting on each other's laps. In here their sobbing echoed off the walls. Tiny voices raised in a chorus of suffering, amplified to almost a roar. Her lip trembled when she noticed many of them were half-transparent, like they were fading slowly away. Her breath made a hiccup in her throat.
“What is this place?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“It is where the souls of children come when their lives are too much for them to bear.” Brand placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“This is better than their lives?”
“The human world is often not a kind place.” Rarn said.
For a fleeting second, Harper thought Badb might be right. Humanity was the problem. The only creatures who caused this kind of pain to children maybe didn’t deserve to dominate the planet. “How do we get them out of here?”
“Then why did this awful dreamworld drag me here?”
“Perhaps one has a message for you.” Brand studied the children and shrugged.
The children shuffled toward Harper, their wet eyes glistened in the firelight. Harper braced her hands in front of her and stepped back, but they pressed forward. Still crying, wiping grimy hands over their haggard faces.
The closer they got, the specifics of their true peril became clear. Most of them were transparent to varying degrees. Some barely had features, others, perhaps newer arrivals, just seemed fuzzier around the edges. These children were fading away, all alone in this dark pit. A sea of desperate arms stretched toward the three visitors.
Rarn and Brand inched forward and spread their arms wide.
“What are you doing?” Harper clutched Rarn’s shoulder, urging him to back away.
“Helping them.” Brand gathered five child souls into his shaggy arms and pulled them close.
“I thought you said we couldn’t save them.”
“We can’t, but we can offer them a moment of comfort.” Rarn said while a small red-haired boy squeezed past two others to fit into his open arms. He wrapped his great furry arms around him. Beside him, Brand had released his first batch of kids and had two black children in a bear hug. Nothing terriblee happeened to her friends. Harper lost some of her fear, dropped to a crouch, and opened her arms. A small, dark-haired boy of about four looped his arms around her neck. The poor child was so clear other kids were visible through him. His ice cold skin sucked all the warmth from Harper, and she shivered.
When she released the boy, subtle heat bloomed on her skin like the sun breaking through clouds. The boy’s dark eyes met hers and maybe it was her imagination, but he seemed much more opaque. The moans and weeping in the cavern slowed.
The boy giggled and hopped through the crowd. A short native girl with large eyes and a torn plaid shirt took his place.
“Come here, sweetheart.” Harper clasped the girl’s hand and held her other arm wide.
Harper and her companions embraced child after child. Each time the cold lanced through her like a knife wound, but each time Harper opened her arms to another lost soul. The brothers beside her did the same. She lost track of time and but eventually the line of children stopped and the trio knelt, ringed by expectant faces. Sobbing replaced by hushed whispers and giggling. A handful of the thinnest souls still kept some level of translucency, but all of them were more substantial following their improvised ritual.
The first little boy she'd hugged pulled on her hand. “My name’s Billy, what’s yours?”
“Nice to meet you, Billy. I’m Harper.”
Billy pointed toward the back of the cave. “That’s Harper, too.”
Harper’s eyes sighted along the boy’s outstretched hand, and her legs buckled beneath her. Jagged rocks jammed into her skin when she thudded to the cave floor on one knee.
The girl had nut brown hair, hazel eyes, and wore baggy clothes. It was her, the way she looked when she was about 12. The girl hovered near the back wall with her hands clasped behind her. Not a single tear track marred the dirt on her face. Harper recognized the hardness that had kept her plodding through an impossible situation day after day. Seeing such world-weariness on her own too-young face stole her breath.
“That is who we are here for.” Brand motioned toward the almost transparent young Harper.
“I don’t understand. That- that can't really be me, can it?” Harper suspected the answer but didn’t want the implications of admitting it to herself.
“She is part of you.” Rarn’s voice was soft. “The part of you that had to leave.”
“Speak to her. See if she will come with us, you will be more whole, and may need her strength for your journey ahead.” Brand had several of the ghostly children playing in his huge lap.
Her feet urged her to run toward the mouth of the cave. The memories speakiing to the girl could bring... Dizziness washed over her brought on by her panting breaths. This was all too weird for her. She willed her legs to carry her far from this heavy place, but something else rooted her to the spot. The girls pain beckoned to her in the slant of her sad eyes. Harper motioned for her younger self to come forward to her. The girl shook her head and stepped behind a husky-looking boy.
“I won’t hurt you.” Harper did her best to sound soothing. The girl squirmed against the back wall. Harper recognized the distrust of anyone and everyone on the girl’s face. She still carried it, herself, and she knew exactly why she depended on it.
Left with little choice, Harper stood and walked toward her child self, wiping her hands against her thighs. The girl slid down the wall and covered her face with her arms. “I don’t want to talk to you!”
Harper sat down in front of her and crossed her legs. “You don’t have to talk to me. How about you just listen?” The girl offered no response, but she didn’t flee either. Harper's gaze traced the tangled hair and bony elbows of her young counterpart. She remembered that Animaniacs t-shirt and the baggy thrift store jeans she was always embarrassed to wear.
“I remember that shirt. And I recall the very last day I wore it. My mom could be really mean sometimes when she drank vodka.” The little girl shifted a little and turned her head on her arms to assess Harper with one eye.
“That used to be my favorite shirt. I had to throw it away though, because it got blood on it and it wouldn’t come out. My mom had a really bad night, and I had a really bad day at school. We were yelling super mean things at each other and she hit me hard. Right here.” Harper pointed to her nose. The sting of her mother's hand, the shock of her blood pooling on the kitchen floor, and the horror on here mother's face had kept the tears at bay. She'd never cried about that day, not even once. Until now.
Young Harper’s eyes simmered with tears, and she lowered her head. “My daddy went away and my mommy doesn’t want me anymore, so I came here.” The young Harper mumbled and hid her head back in her arms.
“I used to think mom didn’t love me because she wasn’t nice when she drank, but we’re both wrong. She does love us. She did want us. But when daddy was taken from us, she couldn’t get better. You haven’t seen her since she hit us, have you?”
Young Harper’s answer was to shake her head.
“Well, she never did that again. She’s trying to get better, I’m helping her do that. Both of us need you.”
Young Harper looked up with her arms still gripping her knees tightly to her chest.
“Come with me.” Harper held out a hand.
The girl didn’t move. She only stared at Harper’s hand.
“Do you want to stay in this place forever? I don’t want that for you. I have a life out there. It’s pretty weird, but I have friends, you could be part of that.”
“This place is always cold and we’re always hungry.”
“My world isn’t always great, but it’s much better than being cold and hungry all the time. Come with me.”
Young Harper stood up and grasped Harper’s outstretched hand. Chill prickles rolled up her arm from the child-spirit’s touch. She pulled the little girl into a hug. “I’ve missed you, little me.”
The ring of lost children gaped in wonder at what happened next. Harper’s younger self glowed so bright Harper had to shield her eyes.
The girl giggled. “It feels like soda pop on my tongue but all over.”
Soon all the girl was nothing but a glowing ball of light that radiated warmth through the whole cavern and sent sparkles reflecting off the crystalline roof, glimmering all along the walls like a million fireflies. In that moment, the cavern was gorgeous.
“What’s happening?” Harper swiveled to Rarn and Brand.
Brand gestured to the light. “She finally believes someone wants her, so she’s ready to come home.”
Rarn’s teeth gleamed in the reflected light. “Invite her in.”
Tears threatened to spill over her cheeks again when she turned to the bright light bobbing in front of her. She dragged a hand across her cheek and beckoned with a nod. “Come with us.”
The glowing sphere that was her young self zipped into her chest. The girl was right. It felt exactly like fizzy pop, but all over when the light bloomed through her body, pulsed along her skin, then faded. When the cave fell dark once more, young Harper was home, and both of them experienced a long-lost lightness of being.
Around them, whispers rose in the dark. As her eyes re-acclimated to the light of the tiny fire in the middle of the room, the feeling of powerlessness pressed her shoulders down and brought an ache to the back of her throat. She knew she had to go if she was going to rescue her mother, but how could she leave these poor souls alone. There were so many fading away down here with no one who remembered them.
Her breath hitched, when she lifted her chin to Rarn and Brand. “There’s really nothing we can do to help them?”
The brothers paused on their way back to the mouth of the Cavern of Lost Children. “Like you, they can only leave if both parts of their soul are willing.” Brand said.
Rarn smiled his slow smile. “The dreamworld is vast. We’d never found this place before, but now we know where it is and can return whenever we wish. My brother and I will look after the lost souls. They won’t be alone anymore.”
Harper beamed and whipped around to the ring of children in the cavern. “Would you like that?”
A chorus of gleeful squeals sounded their response, and the cave sounded more like a playground than the dismal place it had been minutes ago.
“We can play hopscotch.”
“Hide and seek!”
“Camel fight! I get the big one!”
Laughter echoed from every wall and didn’t stop when Harper turned and waved at the mouth of the cave. A chorus of ‘bye Harper’ sent her on her way to find her mother in this bizarre place.