more or less by accident, when enough participants decided that it would. There were no official
winners. Some Strikers scored more points than others. Some Saviors prevented more from being
scored. There were varying degrees of success among the more modest ranks of Smackers, Goal Hunters
and Ball Gatherers. The Flower Pickers were supposed to run out of petals, signifying a victory, but often
the flowers selected had so many petals it was practically impossible to pluck them all.
Teams were formed by happenstance during the inter-season sessions of drawing up sides. There were
moments of excitement, certainly, especially when Strikers struck and Saviors saved, but considering
that a season could last for years, and games within it endured for weeks or months, you could never
say it was much of a spectator sport. In truth, there were no fans, only players. There was no field of
play except the forest, and a goal could be anywhere at any time. A ball, likewise, might be any thing. It
was the duty of the Goal Hunter to discern what might be an actual goal and the job of the Ball Gatherer
to determine the other. Once those objects had been decided, it was up to the higher ranks to carry out
the efforts of accumulating or denying points. It was only rarely a contact sport. Often, team members
did not even see each other for days at a time, as they went about their various assignments and since it
was no one's job to keep track, it was never quite clear what the state of the game or the season
actually was, at any given moment. The whole enterprise tended toward chaos, and that was just fine.
The players had nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. All of them were in the same boat, or, to put it
more plainly, in the same eternal exile.
They were literally exiles, all of them, cast out by society, forbidden to ever escape from these woods.
Those who tried to leave discovered there was simply no way to get out or even to see the containment
field alleged to be erected all around the wide forest. They weren't criminals. They had done nothing
wrong, as anyone would confess, but their kind could not be tolerated within the world of civilization.
Every one of them shared a common curse. All of them had been cured of death. No one still living was
even sure how it ever had happened. Legends persisted of a witch and a potion, of a mad scientist and
experiments, of a nasty God and His revenge, but whatever truth there was to any of it was lost in the
weeds of history. Every so often another one was detected. Hide as they might try to, they could not
stay hidden forever. Sooner or later their secret was rooted out, they were exposed and, as soon as
found they were delivered to this forest, cast in and left to be forgotten by the world outside. There
were those who would say it had been going on for centuries but the truth was known by none for sure.
Baudry was one of the cursed.
No one knew when precisely when this accident happened first, and no one knew why it operated as it
did. Those who were afflicted would continue to age normally until the next binary value and then they
would stop maturing, forever. If it struck when you were a baby, you would grow to be eight, and then
grow no more, ever. Those a little older would mature until sixteen, and then stop. So it was there were
for all practical purposes only four ages in the Canopus Forest: 8, 16, 32 and 64. Although The Hidden
One was rumored to be 128 or even 256, no one really believed in it. No one admitted to ever having
seen her in person. There were no known cases of anyone hitting the curse past the age of 64. Baudry
considered himself unfortunate. He'd been struck sometime in his mid-forties, he later came to believe,
and then he hadn't realized it for another forty years or so. It wasn't obvious at all that he'd stopped
changing at 64. He felt the same at 70 and that was not too unusual. When he felt exactly the same at