Taking the Long Way: Part Two
"I'm telling you, he died in Virtopia!"
"And I'm telling you, YOU'RE WRONG!" the Brain
Tree bellowed in response to Alexien's agitation, the harsh words rebounding
off the thickly-grown wall of trees that stood sentry around him like inanimate
Arms crossed in open exasperation, face twisted
into a murderous scowl, Alexien snapped a reply. "Then maybe you should take
that up with the Esophagor. It's his faulty memory, not mine. Why do you request
this information if you already know when it's wrong? I think you're about as
stable as your grumbling friend over there."
"Ill-mannered brat. You're the one that came
to me," the Brain Tree reminded him with offended dignity, drawing his age-scarred
branches up in a manner that suggested he was pulling in the welcome mat.
"You know why I come here. Even though you're
always misplacing those mental files of yours, who keeps better records than
you? You're about as omniscient a being as there is in these accursed woods.
You're quite useful, especially given the nature of my job."
"Still spying about, are you? Is Skarl convinced
someone else is aiming for his throne?" the ancient tree asked in his huge,
rumbling voice. The words thrummed through the wet soil underneath Alexien's
feet, causing his very limbs to throb.
"Skarl would be convinced you were aiming for
his throne if you weren't so securely rooted down," Alexien sneered. "And don't
touch those!" he barked, whirling to point an authoritative finger at Wiltshire
who was bending over a deceptively inviting growth of mushrooms. Immediately
at the voiced warning, teeth were bared and the innocuous-looking little fungi
snapped at Wiltshire's dangling fingers. Not the most mobile of creatures, Wiltshire
yelped and sprawled backward in astonishment, and Alexien turned back to his
"So are you here on some sort of mission, then?"
the Brain Tree inquired in that smooth way that told that he was gathering his
own information, and Alexien could almost see the very fibers in those ancient
branches straining for knowledge, for entertainment, for something to store
until a later time when it might be useful or profitable. It was like some warped
form of photosynthesis.
"Coming back from one," Alexien corrected, but
offered nothing more.
"From Sakhmet, I assume? Qasala? Some interesting
things have been going on over there lately. And it would explain the rumor
I heard of an assault on the guards at the south gate. You're not exactly the
quiet sort of spy, are you?"
"As I said, I'm not doing a job at the moment.
Trumpets could herald my arrival and I wouldn't care. I'm quiet when I need
to be," Alexien answered carelessly, unfolding his arms to wave off the Brain
Tree's words. "The fact is, I completed your quest, whether you like the answer
or not. Now is there anything I should bring back to my employer?"
"No," the Brain Tree answered succinctly.
Alexien blinked golden eyes, sulking into a
displeased silence as he recalled the tedious morning he had spent stalking
the food shops for the Esophagor's meal request, only to end up with the wrong
information, and absolutely nothing of any use. "So you're saying I wasted my
"Oh, no, not at all," the Brain Tree interjected
with an evil leer, "because there is one thing I can tell you, since you are
"And what's that?" Alexien asked, voice droning
The Brain Tree lowered his tone to a heavy whisper,
almost conspiratorial as he revealed, "You're being followed, and by someone
who is quite good at masking himself. The only reason I know he is trailing
you is because I can feel him treading across my roots along the very same path
you took. Rather suspicious, eh? Makes me curious about exactly what you saw
"That story will have to wait for another time,
I'm afraid," Alexien said, tone switching to politely regretful, carefully avoiding
looking around him at the old tree's warning. "Wil," he called, glancing back
at his Quiggle companion who continued to eye the mushrooms with ill-disguised
suspicion. "Get up. We're leaving."
He was counting his steps, and Wiltshire's,
and listening. The Haunted Woods stretched over the traveling pair like a cracked
canopy, inky grey-purple sky exposed through gaps in the branches, blots of
anti-color, gloomy and gray and faded as everything in this place was. Alexien
ignored the beady sets of glowing eyes that followed him from perches in treetops,
and caves, and burrows, matched sets in yellow and red and orange.
He had been lax in his attention, and he was
annoyed at himself for having needed the Brain Tree to tell him something that
was now obvious to him every time he purposefully altered his gait. Whoever
was following him was trying to keep to his pace, but he was able to hear them
whenever he purposefully took a longer step. This individual's stride was shorter
And, finally, he had had enough. "Wil," he said
in a voice that was almost below a whisper, "walk ahead."
"Huh?" Wiltshire asked, completely oblivious,
the voiced confusion sudden and loud enough to prompt a candy vampire to hiss
at them as they passed an old, hollowed out tree.
Exasperated, Alexien simply gave Wiltshire a
shove and fell into step behind him, taking a moment to dig through the Quiggle's
backpack until his hand wrapped around the fleshy skin of a clawmatoe, squishy
near to rotting and identical to the one he had choked down for breakfast. He
withdrew it from the pack, waited…and the candy vampire rewarded his patience
by making yet another discontented noise. He took that signal for what it was,
whirling to hurl the vegetable into the darkness, listening as it struck the
dead trunk with a satisfying splatter, followed instantly by three shrieks:
one of rage from the candy vampire, one of terror from his trailing shadow,
and a croak of surprise from Wiltshire.
"Alexien! That was disgusting!" came the shrill
reprimand as a figure stumbled out from the heavy treecover, a young brown Xweetok
dressed much as he was, as though she had just come from the desert. She pulled
the hood down from her head, exposing a doe face and wide chocolate brown eyes
that looked convinced he had succumbed to madness. Face shriveling up with displeasure,
she worked to wipe the overly-ripe clawmatoe remnants from her clothing.
"Celleny!" Alexien barked the name, frowning
in annoyance at this familiar face, and so sound was his confusion that no further
words came to mind. What in the world was she doing out of Meridell? She was
about as homegrown as a snidberry, and his mind had difficulty wrapping around
an explanation for why she would leave her farm, and for the desert of all places.
"What are you doing?" he finally demanded.
She smiled in a rather pained manner, looking
as though she was hoping it would soothe his temper. "I was following you…"
"Yes, I gathered that. Why?" At least this explained
why she had been able to shadow him so well; he had inadvertently taught her
himself years earlier, when he had been new at the Royal Espionage Division,
learning the subtleties of moving swiftly, soundlessly, and she had been a young,
captive audience and a guest in his home.
A pervasive silence descended around them, bringing
with it the eerie montage of sounds that came from the ever-present night that
ruled these woods. What little light there had been was evaporating and quickly.
Celleny's troubled face was fading into the dimness, and so he absent-mindedly
took a step forward, watching as her eyes cast themselves downward, face furrowed
in an uncertain frown. "I…need your help with something, and I couldn't wait
for you to come back," she finally stammered.
"How could you possibly have known that I was
in the Lost Desert?" he questioned seriously, wondering at this appalling breach
in castle security that had allowed a mere farm girl to inquire where he was
and, worse, receive an accurate answer.
"I didn't know. I followed Wiltshire. I don't
think he ever realized," she murmured apologetically, seemingly feeling uneasy
at pointing the finger of responsibility at another.
"I'll believe that," Alexien responded dryly,
casting an ireful look behind him at the hapless Quiggle. He turned back to
Celleny, stern words issuing from a face of stone. "And what is this emergency
that requires only my help? I cannot imagine that marrow-farming is particularly
hazardous, and I can name you at least a dozen people who would know far more
about it than I would."
That same sickly smile crossed her face once
more, making her appear quite pathetic in his estimation. "I'll be grateful
for the opportunity to tell you everything," she said sincerely, primly folding
her hands together. "Over dinner. I'm starving, seriously. I haven't eaten anything
since you left your friend's place yesterday."
"You were at Leto's as well?" Alexien demanded
incredulously, feeling as though he had slept through the past two days. "What?
Did you skulk about and steal from his food cupboard or something?" At her guilty
nod, he pointed a no-nonsense finger at her. "Then you be prepared to write
an apology when you get back home. If I have to write him myself, he's not going
to hear a flattering version of the story, I promise you. What else did you
"This," she admitted, gesturing to what she
was wearing. "And some food. I wasn't dressed properly for the heat there, and
I was hungry. I swear I'll apologize," she agreed instantly, all earnest regret
and cajoling words. "But dinner first, right?"
Annoyed and reluctant to give in to her, Alexien
finally grumbled his agreement. "Dinner first."
To be continued…