The dead forest of the Ašjiri Crescent was an impassable, irradiated waste of blasted sand and scorched trees that stretched for 260,000 hectares from the walled fortress of Kyr Adža’meturhit, which stood at the forest’s northern border, to the southern desert city of Ašjr’enet, the sprawling industrial center which, six hundred years ago had launched the test which had given the crescent its name.
While once the region’s lushest woodland, hosting an estimated seventy percent of all local wildlife, at least according to the long-dead scientists who had chronicled the forest’s former life, only the most resilient of species made their home in the crescent now. Burrowing insects with hardened carapaces and blind eyes, small, migratory birds with mineral-rich scales on their skin, and glowing ivy with blue leaves the color of the moon were just a few of the forest’s residents which could be glimpsed from a safe distance. Sora often wondered what other creatures there might be wandering the inner wilds of the forest, where almost no humans had gone for more than half a millennium.
It was the blue-leaved ivy that drew them close to the forest today. The hunters of the crèche called it moon leaf, and harvested it in quick, carefully-coordinated parties, while wearing layers of protective equipment and a radiation gauge. The leaves contained an antiseptic sap that doubled as a numbing agent. And while the plant usually grew on toxic soil, the roots absorbed those toxins, making the leaves and stems safe to use.
All along the forest’s northern border ran a metal fence. It was terribly old, and had rusted and fallen over in many places along the northern trade-way, but at its best, it stood nearly five meters high, with jagged metal barbs, and an intricately woven lattice. Faded signs bearing the words “DANGER: HAZARDOUS RADIATION EXPOSURE BEYOND THIS POINT” were welded to the fence at regular intervals.
At first, the history books read, the fence had been manufactured with the intention to keep humans on one side of the divide, and whatever species still remained in the forest on the other side. But intervening centuries had tugged at the fence, worrying its clasps and plates and bending its hinges, until the line between both sides blurred. Every few years, there were reports of some wild thing from the other side, emerging from the rasping, rusted jaws around the forest into the world that humans could still inhabit. When she was younger, a wild ungulate with four horns and a sticky yellow foam clinging to its chin had leapt over the walls at Žasurik, the crèche’s winter residence. The hunters shot it, and gave the meat to the local dogs and faravi. And last year, news bulletins from the northern capital had described a large cat, its fur black, its eyes golden against the night-time lights, that slipped into the darkness of the hills surrounding the Kyr.
Humans, too, had started to pick away at the barrier around the forest. Whatever the risk of radiation exposure, some dared to cross the border. Sometimes, they never returned. Sometimes, they came back sick. But sometimes, they came back with stories, songs, or strange specimens.
She didn’t know the identity of the first human who had decided to brave the crescent wilds for a handful of ivy leaves, but Sora was grateful for the knowledge. Since leaving their hut, she and Kiri had walked north through the snow along the fence for three days, looking for a promising gap in the metal. After a quick lunch on the fourth day, Kiri had spotted an ivy-festooned tree trunk which had fallen onto the fence, buckling it neatly, and protruding so far over the other side that Sora didn’t even think she needed her radiation gauge, though Kiri held it out to her in his fuzzy paws and looked at her imperiously just the same.
“All right, all right,” she whispered, taking the gauge from him and switching it on. She walked slowly, carefully around the trunk which lay on this side of the fence, her feet crunching in the dry snow.
The northern snows had been deeper when she was a child, Sora remembered. At midwinter, the drifts would stretch above her head. She built forts and sculptures from the snow when she traveled in the hunters’ crèche with the other children. Kiri hated the snow as a kit; he would always stay tucked in the sack on her back, occasionally peeking out cautiously to lick an ice crystal from her cheek.
This snow was soft and light. It dusted fallen tree trunks and ivy leaves alike with a glittering powder that made the dead forest look like licorice sticks topped with sugar. Even the fence seemed to loom a bit less under snow that sparkled in the winter sunlight.
The gauge was silent, its green light didn’t flicker.
She returned the gauge to Kiri and pulled a knife from her belt. Carefully, she snipped several shoots of ivy, and gently retrieved them from the tangle of leaves which heavily carpeted the tree trunk. The process, like everything these days since getting infected, took much longer with only one good hand. Kiri helped her store the leaves in one of the pouches they kept in their cooking bag. He wrinkled his nose as they did so; faravi didn’t much care for the scents of greenery, even if Kiri recognized the importance of this particular plant.
“Now all we need is a snow-hopper, and we can make camp for the night,” Sora whispered, smiling at her friend.
Kiri opened his mouth to show her his pink tongue, a rakish grin spreading across his furry face.