The stranger advanced towards them, opening his smiling mouth to reveal two long, snake’s teeth, dripping saliva. Wasting no time, Larch grabbed Lily by the arm and bolted in the direction of the forest. She gripped the screaming child tightly in her arms, looking back in terror at their pursuer, who was gaining on them fast.
“Where are we going to run?” she asked.
“Away from him!” Larch gasped. They careered through the trees, zigzagging this way and that way in a desperate attempt to shake off the intruder. Catching a glimpse of the council circle, Larch adjusted their direction towards it, but within seconds – and with a blinding flash of light – he found his path blocked again. It was hard to decide whether this apparition was more or less frightening than the last. Its skin was certainly a more familiar shade, yet its whole being appeared adorned with ominous lights; its eyes
reflected the void from which it had apparently descended and it came armed with a device that the PlantSims did not have the knowledge to comprehend. Perhaps most disturbingly of all, in its other hand the being carried what was unmistakably the fried and twisted remains of Moss‘s shovel and glasses, fused into a deformed, hybrid mess. After standing motionless for a while it lashed out a cold, reptilian hand and clamped it on to Cherry‘s nearest available limb.
“Sssimm…” it rasped. “Give mee, plant man.”
“**** off, lizard!” shrieked Lily in blind panic. She wrenched her baby out of its grasp and she and Larch darted either side of it. Behind them they heard the reassuring thud of the two attackers colliding.
“Oh Larch, what have we done?” Lily sobbed. “Can it get any worse than this?” A scream answered her call, echoing from the lake. “Holly!” Lily rushed in the direction of her sister.
“Wrong way! Lily, are you insane? We’re running away from danger.”
“That’s my sister you heartless worm!” Lily pressed her lips together, heading determinedly away from Larch. He cursed and shook his head, but followed her nonetheless. It seemed he might as well know the worst, now that it had descended upon them. It didn’t take long to ascertain what the cause of Holly’s screams had been. Before they had even reached the cabin, the wolfish stranger had caught the scent of flesh and
came bounding towards them, scraps of leaves and beads of sap swinging from his snarling jaws. Enemies gaining on three sides, Larch realised he had only one option left to take. With a heavy heart he heaved his companions into his arms and sprinted to the top of the garden. Straining, he put on a final, desperate burst of speed and crashed through the door of the elders’ hut. Flinging Cherry onto one of the beds, Lily and Larch dragged the family bookcase across the room and barricaded the door.
Willow and Oak stared at them, mouths agape. They certainly were a sight to behold, covered in dirt and sweat with a flesh-baby in their arms, having rushed in with no explanation and rearranged the furniture. Willow bowed her head and walked slowly to the window. Oak took one look at Cherry, glanced sorrowfully out and groaned. Every suspicion he had been suppressing was forcibly dragged from the recesses of his mind.
“Oh, you fools,” he said. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” He put one hand on his head, the other on his heart and promptly collapsed in the middle of the floor. The pair were still too out of breath to speak, but they exchanged a worried look.
“Well, who’s this then?” said Willow, turning around. Lily bowed her head, shame flushing her cheeks as red as her daughter’s name.
“This is Cherry,” she replied. “Our daughter.” Larch ran his hands through his leaves, barely suppressing his irritation at giving the whole game away so soon. Part of him had somehow hoped he could worm his way out, despite his assertion that he wanted
to confront the elders and leave in a blaze of glory. Willow sighed, as if this was something she’d been expecting to hear for some time. Great-granddaughter and great-grandmother sized each other up, carefully. Willow turned back around. Out of the window, she watched the strangers approach, stalking, marching and prowling their way ever closer.
“What are they?” Larch asked finally.
“Consequences,” she replied. Larch rolled his eyes and began to glare at the elders each in turn.
“What?!” he exclaimed. “That’s the line you’re going to take here? I’ve just been running for my life from these, these things and you’re turning it into a condescending little teaching moment? Let’s take another opportunity to tell Larch how much he’s screwed up, how he’s ruined our perfect, boring little bubble of rules and regulations.”
“Not for you, for me.”
“Because I’m telling you, – wait, what?”
“Larch, you have always raised a lot of questions. I think maybe it’s time I answered them.”