Voice of the Neopian Pound Circulation: 122,607,461 Issue: 247 | 7th day of Swimming, Y8
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The Price of Faith: Part Four


by mutedsanity

--------

That was the coldest night I had ever experienced. It has all become a numb blur now, a curtain of white and of stinging air. I remember huddling against Radom for warmth. And one thing I can clearly recall is lying on my back, staring up at the canopy of trees, and thinking that the stars were falling until the first ones hit my face and I realized it was snow.

     But I slept. I slept as though I hadn't in months. I was too exhausted to do anything else. I must have slept in to an hour that back in home would have gotten me indignant scoffs and implications that I was a slacker. But this wasn't home. And right now I couldn't care less.

     And I dreamt.

     I am lost in a snowstorm. Sheets of white rage all around me, sending me staggering and knocking me down under their merciless force. I cry out for help, but the roar of the wind drowns me out. I feel so small. So lost. So alone. A tiny ghost with no footprints, no voice, no hope. I cry out again, but this time someone is there. A dark, snaking silhouette framed against endless white. I stagger towards the familiar figure, weak and with an inky blackness closing in all around me. I will fall... I will be lost forever... But then I reach him. I reach out, so close, so close... and I touch his side. And suddenly, there is no more snow. No more cold. No more roaring wind. We are standing together in a lush green field, clear, endless blue overhead, long strands of grass tickling our legs. A Pteri streaks by like a shooting star with a brilliant, shimmering tail that lights the sky. And we are together. Together.

     I awoke to a fresh layer of snow blanketing the forest. Me included. I was numb, curled up against the trunk of the tree. I could have lain there all day if I had any say in it. But I'm afraid I didn't, so I forced myself up with a loud yawn and a stretch of my arms. I brushed clinging snow from my clothes and hair, no doubt looking terribly disheveled by now. I was a mess. I wanted nothing more than a bath and a warm bed right about now. But I was used to disappointment by now.

     I sat with my back against the trunk of the tree, blinking sleep away as I took in the day. It was a cold morning. The frost lay like lace over the frail plants and rocks. The sky was a brilliant blue without a single smudge of cloud, and the sun was so bright it was almost shouting aloud how good it was to be alive. I couldn't help but smile up at the endless blue that stretched out between the branches of trees, like shaking hands reaching up to touch the sky.

     But there was something missing. "Radom?" I whispered, looking to either side. He was nowhere to be found. Just a flattened imprint in the snow where he had been curled up last night.

     A sudden wave of panic swept my sleepiness away. Where did he go? Had he left me? Had he had enough of my anything but safe company? Had he gone off on his own? I could hardly blame him, were that the case. Rash thoughts kicked each other around in my head, and I had become so tense that when I heard the crunch of snow nearby I nearly jumped out of my skin.

     I looked up sharply to see Radom walking towards me, his paws dusted with snow and his ears perked. The crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch of all four paws fell in a steady rhythm, and he had a large leaf fashioned into a makeshift bag of some kind clutched in between his teeth, filled with something. He was grinning, and chuckled through the leaf when he saw my bewildered stare. His voice was muffled as he spoke through his teeth, but I could make out, "Miss me?"

     "Where did you go?" I hated the high note my voice had adopted. Come now. I was just being ridiculous. But could you blame me? It's not often one's stranded alone on a deadly mountain, after all.

     He plopped down in the snow beside me and bowed his head to set the leaf on the ground. I could see his shoulder blades when he leaned over, and was reminded not for the first time of how very wiry he was. He sat back up, his grin ever-present, and I looked down to see that the leaf was unwrapped and served as a plate to a pile of food. "Your breakfast, madam."

     I hadn't realized how hungry I was. Next thing I knew I was shoving fruit into my mouth, relishing how sweet and juicy it was. When I paused to breathe, I inquired, "How did you get all this?" Stolen again, I would venture.

     "It was given to me, actually," Radom replied, tipping his head down at the fruit, bread, and cheese that lay on the leaf. "By a shop owner in town that was apparently related to those two kids we saved yesterday. He said he heard about what happened, and just about forced me to take some food. Quite grateful. Nice guy. I didn't want to take it at first, but he said he wouldn't let me leave until I did." He grinned at me, and I knew he wasn't kidding about that.

     Now that was something else. So he could steal food, but he wouldn't accept some charity for doing something good? Did he have pride to blame? Some sense of honor? I wondered about this fellow an awful lot. "Huh," I mumbled, chewing thoughtfully. "What'd he have to say about what we did?"

     Radom only continued to grin. "He said I was mad."

     I scoffed back a laugh. "Wonder why..." I trailed off, smirking teasingly and shaking my head.

     He returned the smirk and raised his eyebrows. The breeze ruffled his rough brown fur, making his focused eyes look even more steady than usual. "Mm. Well, looks like we'll be really earning that title today. We never got the Crystal thing from the cave yesterday."

     What? Oh! I had forgotten to show him in all the scuffling! "Now that's where you're wrong!" I dropped the slice of bread I had been eating to rummage around through my thick coat. I fished out both shards, as I had tucked them away in different places in the rush. The first sat in one palm, the second in the other, and they were both glowing intensely, one a dazzling golden and the other a blinding white.

     Radom's face lit up and he let out a short, surprised laugh. "Pandora! How did you do that?" His eyes danced up my face and I found myself grinning right back at him.

     "I saw it when the Snowager knocked down all the stuff he was sitting on. It's all kind of a blur now. But I got it." I remembered what Fyora had told me. They were meant to be together. Upon an impulse, I shifted both shards into the same palm and beamed down at them. I could hardly believe we had pulled that off.

     But before Radom could reply, both shards glowed so intensely that I winced and had to look away. I could still see the light from behind my tightly closed eyelids, and it took a few seconds to fade until I could look back at my palm. But rather than the two shards that had just been there, it was one, twice as big as the single Light or Snow shard. They had combined. Now the larger hunk of crystal sat in my hand, translucent and not glowing, but shimmering a very pale golden.

     Radom was staring at it, completely deadpan, his lips thinned and eyes wide. We both just stared at the shard in silence for several long seconds before he looked back at me. "Dare I ask?" he ventured, a confused smile touching his lips.

     "Haven't quite recovered from that yet. Ask me in a week," I replied, rolling my eyes and smiling in a teasing way as I tucked the crystal safely back into my coat. But there was at least some seriousness behind my words. I sill had no idea if I could tell him or not. But I shouldn't. He had helped me, yes, and for that I was grateful. But now I had to leave Terror Mountain and find the rest. Two shards. Five to go. It would take me around the world. So chances were I would never see him again. Though, if I really stopped to think about it, that concept was not one I liked to think about.

     When Radom only continued to watch me uncertainly, I offered a dismissive wave of my hand and picked up my bread again. "You should eat something," I suggested softly, realizing that I hadn't seen him eat in at least a day. He must have been starving. So then why was he letting me have all of it?

     I was just grateful that he didn't press. Instead he smiled understandingly and slumped over to poke his muzzle at some fruit. I was happy to see him take a bite of one of them, happy to see him actually using those fangs of his for more than just those toothy grins.

     We were silent for several minutes, just eating. When the leaf had been cleared, I sat back with a content sigh, leaning back on my hands. Much better. I had slept, eaten, and was going to get off this wretched mountain.

     Radom sat up straight again as well, and I could see that light in his eyes once again as he tilted his head at me. "How are you?"

     I smiled softly. Tiredly. "I'm alive. I'm here."

     "Fair enough," he replied just as softly, returning the smile. And, once again, I found myself wondering about him. He wasn't what he seemed, that much I knew already. But then what was he?

     But what he next asked took me by surprise. "Where to now?"

     I furrowed my eyebrows at him, a faint frown touching my lips. Was he serious? That even stare and questioning raise of his eyebrows was proof enough. Indeed he was. But what could I say to that? "Radom," I started slowly, choosing my words careful. "I have to leave. I've gotten what I wanted here. And now I need to go somewhere else."

     He just nodded as though we were talking about something as trivial as my plans for the day. "And where's that?"

     "I'm... not sure. But this crystal should show me." Still, Neopia was a huge place. How was I supposed to comb through the whole thing until the stupid rock started glowing? That could take years.

     "I'm coming with you."

     I could only stare. Had he honestly just said that? "You don't understand," I stammered, once I had found my voice. "This is incredibly dangerous. I could die. This could take years. This isn't a game."

     "All the more reason for me to come along," he replied, shrugging his shoulders casually.

     I wanted to snap something back, but... he was right. I needed his help more than I would like to admit. He was fast, smart, clever, resourceful, charming... he could fight if he needed to, he could get out of any situation I could think of, he could find anything he needed to, he could charm people into helping or agreeing to things, he knew this planet far better than I did. He was perfect for this job. But... no, I couldn't. I shook my head, almost reluctantly. "No, Radom. You can't come."

     "And why not?"

     But I honestly couldn't answer that. I needed him. I really did. Not just for safety and to make my journey easier. But... well... I just needed someone. I couldn't imagine doing this alone. On the peak of that mountain, I had felt utterly alone. No hope or joy. Just me. And that was the worst feeling I could imagine. Nobody should have to feel like that. Ever. And Radom... Radom made that feeling go away. He made me smile even though all seemed lost for a while. How could I do this without him?

     I should tell him. Fyora had told me to be careful, yes, but I really felt I could trust this Lupe. And after all that he had done for me, didn't I at least owe him the truth?

     I must have said something out loud, because I found him watching me rather blankly, eyebrows slightly raised. His gaze was so even. So knowing. Like he was looking right through me. I found I had to look away. But then his soft voice, so utterly sincere and kind. "You can tell me anything."

     And I caved. I told him. I told him everything. I told him about my family. My adopted mother and her death. Lyth. Fyora. Faerieland. The Crystal atop the queen's staff. It was broken. I was framed for it. My quest. The shards. I told him how each shard was supposed to return to its element and that each would help find the rest. Told him what I had to do. Lyth. It was Lyth. And I had to redeem myself. I told him how dangerous it would be. How I could die... I could die... it wasn't my fault... and I was punished for it... I could die...

     By the time I was finished, a fresh round of tears had overtaken me. I cursed myself for being so weak, for being so pathetic. So emotional. No other Darkness Faerie would break down and cry like this. No other faerie at all would be so hopeless.

     I found I couldn't look Radom in the eye. And before I could let him react to my tale or before I could even think, I was stammering out, "I-I wish I could be like y-you-you would k-know what to do-I wish I was b-brave an-an-and strong l-like you... "

     I lifted my eyes slightly and started as I saw he had moved closer without me realizing it. I could see through a blur of tears that he was now sitting beside me, his head bowed to meet my gaze, an indescribable warmth and understanding radiating from his eyes, which glowed like candle flames through my tears. "Pandora," he said softly, with a gentleness that reminded me of my dear adopted mother. "Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it."

     I choked back a sob, closing my eyes tightly against my tears. I knew he was right. Everyone got scared sometimes, whether they showed it or not. I just wished I could hide it like he could. I wished I could be strong, like everyone else wanted me to be.

     "Strength and courage aren't always measured in medals and victories. They are measured in the struggles one overcomes. The strongest people aren't always the people who win, but the people who don't give up when they lose."

     And I found myself marveling at his words once more. How could one person always say something to make it better? He was so wise. How could he be this way? How could someone alone on a mountain be this way? What had happened to him? Questions were racing once more, but I couldn't get any of them out. Instead I found myself clinging to Radom, burying my face in his chest once more, his even heartbeat against my ear alone enough comfort to slow my crying.

     After about a minute, my sobbing had slowed into silent tears, and I looked up into his face. As usual, he always did the right thing whenever I needed it most. He grinned down at me, ears perked and head cocked, lifting one paw to drape over the crook of my elbow as I hugged him. "And you know what else? The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time."

     And I did the one thing I needed right now. I laughed. It was short and soft, but it was there nonetheless. And suddenly I felt so much better. And again, I was incredibly grateful for that smiling face. "I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once," I replied, smiling faintly and brushing stray tears from my eyes and cheeks with the back of my sleeve.

     He chuckled and rolled his eyes. "Cheers to that," he agreed, smirking as he nudged me with his head. I sat up straight again and let him do the same, my arms slipping away from him. "But that's where I come in. Don't you think such weight would be a lot easier to carry with two? I think if we could divide that load of yours, it wouldn't be so overwhelming."

     And again, he couldn't be more right. With a friend... with someone to share this burden of mine... well, suddenly it didn't seem quite as bad. Somehow it seemed that I could do this. "Indeed it would," I replied, offering a soft smile. "Radom, I... I can't thank you enough." I had no idea how. Where to begin, even.

     "Then don't bother. Wouldn't want you to embarrass yourself or anything," he remarked, topping it with a wink. Then he smirked and stood up, shaking himself off. "Then it's settled. Where to?"

     Now there was a question. I bit my bottom lip and shrugged weakly. "I have no idea. All I know is this thing will glow when we get close to another Crystal. But that's still awfully general."

     "Mm, but that's not all. You said the Crystals go back to their elements, yes?" he inquired, raising his eyebrows until I nodded slowly in reply. "Snow goes to Terror Mountain. Light was in Faerieland. So we should be able to do some logical process of elimination to figure out where the rest went, should we? Not terribly difficult."

     He was right again. I nodded slowly, furrowing my eyebrows in thought. "Yes... but... I hardly know anything about this planet..." But he did. And he didn't even need to say it. "What's the next closest place?"

     "Well, I'll bet we can catch the first boat out of here and wind up in Neopia Central or Meridell. That'd be a good start."

     "Good idea." Neopia Central was the busiest place on the planet, so I wouldn't be surprised if a shard wound up around that mess. And Meridell was so green and lush and even had that one big Earth Faerie... so my bet went with the Earth shard being somewhere around there. Finding it was the challenge.

     "'Course it is." He smirked and inclined his head to the side. "Come on, then. Let's get out of here."

     I nodded and scrambled onto my feet, pausing to make sure we hadn't dropped anything before staggering after Radom. Once again, I was tromping through the snow behind the Lupe, who was just as light as a dancer. He led me through the snow-topped trees that all blended and looked the same to me, the tranquil silence that spread over the forest giving me a few minutes to set my thoughts in order.

     So here we were. Radom was coming with me. We were going to catch a boat and get out of this dreadful place at last. But that's where he lived, wasn't it? Had he ever even left before? Was he really willing to leave his home and life behind for me? But, then again, I hadn't seen or heard of his family, or anything alone those lines at all. And he just kept me wondering. But above that, there was a more relevant question on my mind. "How are we going to pay for the boat ride?"

     I didn't have any money. And I knew he didn't have any. Was he going to steal some? Radom didn't look behind at my question, but I saw his ears perk and then twitch back. "You worry too much."

     "We've been through that already," I muttered, rolling my eyes. I folded my arms tightly across my chest as I walked and sighed, my breath forming a white puff in front of me. "But seriously. We need money."

     "Well, I would imagine the food-dude might be willing to donate to our cause. And the Kyrii girl whose buddies we saved. And I helped that old fellow down the street that one time. And I saved this kid's petpet a while back. And I helped this kid when he hurt himself ice skating once. And---"

     I couldn't help but laugh. He had done all that? Somehow, I wasn't surprised. "Okay, okay, I get the idea!"

     Radom glanced over his shoulder at me, and I saw a grin gracing his face once more and a light dancing in his eyes. "You asked, miss okay-I-get-the-idea."

     I only shook my head, grinning to hold back another laugh. "You're insane."

     "Been called worse." He winked and looked ahead once more as he wove around dead shrubs and mounds of snow. "There's a fine line between genius and insanity, my friend. And I like to pretend that line isn't there."

     I rolled my eyes at him, but couldn't erase my grin. He was something else, wasn't he? "So you're going to go kiss up, is that it?"

     "Oh no. No no no no no no no no nooooo. Well, maybe a little." I heard him snicker when I laughed once more at his response. Then he rather suddenly paused, and I nearly ran into him, but stopped and looked up to see the woods parting and Happy Valley sprawling out in front of us.

     The streets glistened with fresh snow and the sky was a blameless blue. Snow blanketed every rooftop and weighed on the branches of the muffled trees lining the streets. Over night, snow had nudged its way into every crack and gutter. I squinted against the blinding white and saw people and Neopets everywhere, gathered around shops and hot cocoas, building snowmen and chasing each other about, children laughing and squealing, people ice skating on the frozen pond not too far off. I could hardly believe this one place could be so friendly and so harsh all at once.

     Radom looked up at me and smirked. "Well then, time to go say good morning. And let's hope nobody gets the spooks and freaks out on you, hm?"

     I scoffed and rolled my eyes. "Is that some kind of joke?"

     "If you're lucky." He flashed a quick, brief grin, and before I knew it he was loping right out of our shelter among the trees.

     Well, here goes nothing. Against my better judgment, I found myself following his lead and stepping out into the sparkling sunlight. Heads turned and people stared at me in surprise, but Radom only greeted gapes with cheerful greeting and nods. I couldn't tell what anyone was thinking. I was a Darkness Faerie, after all, so why should they trust me in their town? I was certain if it wasn't for Radom, I would be done for.

     And so we made our way through Happy Valley, a surprising amount of people greeting or thanking Radom for one thing or another. I could hardly believe him. He must have lived here all his life, and helped so many people. He only made me wonder more and more. We should have done this sooner.

     We visited several people, and each time Radom presented our case: we needed to catch the next boat to get me home and safe, and we needed some help to do so. I was surprised at the amount of people that gladly donated to our cause. Some people regarded Radom as a hero, others as a nuisance. But apparently there were plenty of the former. Before I knew it, I had a sack of Neopoints in my pockets that could well cover the price of two tickets and then some. We'd have some left over for food or something else fairly cheap.

     And by the time the sun was above us in the sky and our shadows were directly beneath us, we were heading away from Terror Mountain. Money and Crystals tucked safely away, arms folded against the bitter ocean wind, I found myself on a boat for the first time in my life with little trouble. It was cold. I had trouble keeping my balance. The sudden lurches and churns made my stomach roll. But as I leaned over the railing as we pulled out into the slushy water, as I craned my head up to see the towering mountain that sloped into the valley... I was alive. I was still here. And I was moving on. My journey had just begun, I knew. But with each passing minute, as the mountain got smaller and smaller, hope grew in my heart, like snow collecting on a wall, one flake at a time.

     As always, while I was staggering and moaning, Radom was perfectly fine. He swayed with all of the boat's movements, as if he could predict which way the boat would go before it happened. There were a few other people bundled up around us for the ride, and I did get a few wary looks, but people left us alone. Radom smiled around at everyone, an extra broad grin to compensate for me, who didn't even acknowledge their presence. I felt like I was going to be sick. But I knew it would be over soon.

     "How long will this take?" I mumbled, slumped over the railing and staring down into the water that parted on either side of the boat.

     Radom, who was sitting next to me, was staring behind us at the mountain. His ears and fur were whipped about by the wind, but his eyes were as steady as always. "Not long. We should reach shore before nightfall."

     I lifted my eyes and followed his gaze. "That's your home," I said softly, before I could stop myself. "Have you ever been off of that mountain before?"

     He smiled softly. Almost sadly. "No."

     I looked down at him, blinking back my surprise. So this would be a first for both of us. I knew about this planet, but I had never been here. And it seemed he wouldn't know a whole lot more than me about the rest of the world. "So we're just diving right in without looking, then," I mumbled, propping my cheek against my palm and sighing faintly. Great. So we were both clueless.

     "Yup." He smirked faintly. "But you don't always get to test the water first, Pandora. Sometimes you just... jump."

     "Well, you would know." But at least I wouldn't be jumping in alone. At least I would have him to hold on to if I felt I would drown. At least I knew he wouldn't let me fall. And that meant so much to me. But still... I couldn't help but wonder... "If you've never even left that mountain before... why do it for me? What now? How do you know you'll ever see it again?"

     He watched me quietly for a moment. Then he smiled, one of those gentle and knowing ones that made me look away. "I don't," he said simply, shifting his gaze back out to the washed-out blue horizon. "But you can't hold on forever."

     I suppose he was right, as always. Sometimes you just have to jump. Jump and hope with everything in you that you can swim.

      ~*~*~*~*~*~*~

     As Radom predicted, the boat glided into the dock before the sun did. As it was being anchored and a plank lowered for as all to walk across to shore, I leaned over the railing and stared at the land right in front of us. We were in the dock on the very outskirts of Neopia Central, and couldn't see the town from there. Just rolling hills and forests flanking either side. It was all so vast. So green. How in the world were we supposed to find anything in all this?

     "Where are we?" I muttered, looking down at Radom, who was standing to my side. This was already looking pretty hopeless to me.

     "Right off of Neopia Central. If we go to the right, we'll reach Meridell. To the left, the Haunted Woods." He looked up at me as we started to follow the crowd off the boat, ignoring the looks I was getting. Before I could ask, he answered my unspoken question with a smirk. "You're the faerie here. Use your instincts. You pick."

     I frowned slightly. Well, Fyora had told me to trust my instincts as well. And right now anything sounded better than 'Haunted,' thanks. "Meridell," I decided, but couldn't help but sigh. The last thing I wanted to do was go tromping through the woods all day. And yet my feet kept carrying me down that ramp, and next thing I knew I was standing on grass for the first time in my life.

     I stared down at the lush green springs under my boots. Now I was rather over-dressed in all my winter clothes, and was getting hot under the fading sunlight. But it was grass... and trees... I couldn't hold back a smile as I kneeled down to touch the grass, running my fingers through the damp strands.

     Radom just smirked at me. "You don't get out much, do you?"

     "This is my first time out of Faerieland," I replied softly, standing up straight again and gazing around. I smiled weakly at him and decided it best to change the subject before he could ask. I didn't want to talk about that now. "I'm going to need new clothes now."

     "No kidding." He inclined his head to the side, and I trailed after him as he started walking. A cobblestone path led through the grass and over a hill, away from the docks, trees a ways off on either side. Most of the people that were on the boat were going the same way. I glanced back to see the boat sitting in the harbor, rocking lightly with each small wave. "Well, we still have some money left over. Let's get you cleaned up before we go."

     I only nodded in reply. I could hear activity from over the hill, and furrowed my eyebrows curiously. But before I could ask, I got my answer. We reached the top of the hill and I stopped dead. It dipped down and I could see the cobblestone path bow down with it until it reached flat ground and snaked all through the field. Right through the marketplace, which sat directly below us. Hundreds of tents and shops sat in the grass, and there were so many people down there haggling and trading that it all become one mass of color. I couldn't go down there! I'd cause such a stir that it would be insane! A Darkness Faerie browsing around for clothes wasn't exactly a common sight, I would venture. But before I could protest, once again, Radom beat me to it.

     "I don't suggest you go down there. So you should wait in the forest, and I'll buy you some more appropriate clothes for Meridell. And might as well hold on to what you have now. Don't know when you might need it."

     Well, that sounded easy enough. So we went into the forest and found the nearest spring, which I seized the opportunity to bathe in. Radom took the Neopoints into the marketplace, and I stayed in the peacefully still and silent forest and cleaned up in the spring.

     The water was cold and refreshing. I had seen a forest for the first time. As with snow, and grass, and the ocean, and a spring. This was all so unbelievable. When Radom came back, he had significantly more than he left with. He came back all smiles, and waited under a tree with his back turned to me while I changed and looked over all that he had gotten.

     With the leftover money we had, he had gotten me several pieces of clothes more fit for warm weather, plus the clothes I had before, so I would be set for a while. And he had gotten a brown knapsack to carry it all in, which would make lugging the clothes around much easier, plus would give us a place to store food and money when we needed to. He had done quite well, I thought.

     When I stepped back into view, he perked his ears and looked over at me. "Not bad. Not bad at all," I commented, smiling slightly down at myself. I now wore black pants tucked into the same boots I had before-black ones that nearly reached my knees and laced up the front. I wore a black belt with grey studs and a fitting purple sleeveless shirt. My black and violet hair was still damp and was now tied back with a smoke colored ribbon that kept it loosely behind my shoulders and out of my face. I few long plum strands of hair that had gotten lose hung in my pale face and framed my brilliantly bright amethyst eyes. I had the knapsack slung over one shoulder, filled with clothes and the two fused Crystals safely tucked away.

     His vibrant yellow eyes were totally alive, as if searching out every last note of joy in life. They openly and unabashedly displayed his approval as his gaze ranged over the full length of me. The slow grin that followed and the sparkle in his translucent eyes combined to a most disarming degree to make me grin right along with him. "Not too shabby, huh?"

     "Mm. Thanks, Radom." This would do quite nicely. "We ready to head off to Meridell now?" Not that I was looking forward to it, mind you. I just wanted to get this over with.

     "You got it."

     And off we went. As we left Neopia Central and the ocean behind, the forest got thicker and thicker. As we got farther into the forest the trees became so thick we lost the sun completely. The light that did filter through the leaves was stained green and gold by day, cool midnight blue by night. The stillness of the trees seemed to fall upon me like a mist. Pine needles muffled our footfalls as we traveled. To one side, a giant tree long since toppled by wind stretched away into the dimness, its dry roots clawing the air. On the other side, a patch of yellow flowers glowed in a spotlight of sun slanting through the trunks.

     Perhaps I would have thought snow was pretty if it weren't threatening my life. Perhaps I would have thought the same of the ocean if only I wasn't getting nauseous on it. But the forest... now I couldn't deny it. The forest was the most beautiful thing I had seen in a very long time. And it was so peaceful. So quiet and still. So safe. Half of me didn't want it to end.

     We traveled for the rest of the day and well into the night, stopping to eat berries and nuts and fruits that we could find here and there. We slept in the grass under vast trees and the stars above lulled us into a peaceful slumber.

     When I woke up the next morning, I was greeted by cool air laced with the pleasant scent of flowers and trees. I breathed in deeply and a soft smile graced my lips. I just lay there inertly for a few minutes, but when I quite suddenly had a brown Lupe face right above my head, I jolted in surprise.

     Radom laughed and raised his eyebrows down at me as he stood over me. "Good morning!"

     I let out a wheezy sigh and slowly sat up, causing him to take a few steps back to give me room. He scared me half to death! I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand and covered a yawn, quirking a brow at his grinning face. "Oh goodie. You're a morning person, aren't you?"

     "Well, you know. I say begin each day as if it were on purpose."

     I could help but chuckle and shake my head at that, in the face of that flawless smile of his. I rose to my feet and leaned against the nearest tree, gazing up into the lush canopy that sent shadows dancing below. "How far are we now?"

     "We should reach Meridell very soon. In just an hour or so," Radom replied, just watching me brightly as I shook my sleepiness away.

     "Got it. Well, I'm as ready as I'll ever be." Though I'd be perfectly content sitting here and staring at the brilliant blue sky all day, this was something that needed to be done. And quickly, I hoped. But I had only taken a step before Radom's words stopped me.

     "Wait." His eyes were cast down to where I had been about to step. I raised my eyebrows and followed his gaze, and paused at what I saw. Not what I expected. Just a little white flower sitting in the grass alone. "It would be a shame if you stepped on it."

     I looked back at him with a baffled frown. "What's the point? Why bother protecting such a tiny flower?" At the time, that concept was just stupid to me. It was only a flower, right?

     "Why not?" His gaze was surprisingly even, and his grin had faded into a very soft, faint smile. "It's alive too, you know. How'd you like it if somebody trampled all over you while you were just trying to get by?"

     I rolled my eyes and couldn't help but scoff at that. "Oh, please. It's just a flower," I muttered impatiently.

     "And you're just a faerie." His gaze never faltered, even at the look I must have given him. And his voice was just as even as always. "Pandora... I think... that we're mostly too busy living to notice we're alive. But that sometimes we DO. And that's what makes the rest of it matter. And you know..." His gaze finally lowered, and he stared at the flower with a sort of distantness as his voice grew softer. "Sometimes living takes more courage than dying."

     I could only stare at him. He always managed to do that. Leave me staring dumbly and stumbling over my words. How could he seem like such an idiot sometimes, but really be so wise? How could he be so knowing? What... what had made him this way?

     But he only smiled at me. Then he turned and kept walking.

     It took me a moment to follow. But I did. And I didn't step on the flower. We walked for what seemed like ages in silence, nothing but the sound of the wind and forest insects around us. Eventually, the road became narrow, and the shadows of the pines made pockets of cold air that we traveled through.

     Then the forest began to thin out. Before I knew it, the trees grew farther and father apart and we were suddenly standing at the edge of the woods, looking out onto Meridell. There was a pale green haze like a lacy scarf lying over the rich land, and as far as the eye could see was green and lush. It was surrounded in trees and plants, and there were groves freckled throughout the town. In another month or two, crops of scorched yellow weeds would blanket the hillside, but this year the spring showers had lasted longer than usual, and the grass was still apple green, peppered with tangles of wildflowers. Old-fashioned houses and market stalls and shops littered the town, and way out in the distance I could see a sort of darkness floating on the horizon. The Darigan Citadel. I hoped we would never have to go that far. But what stood out the most was the towering castle off to the left of the town, surrounded by a mote and with flags flapping proudly in the wind. It was gigantic, and for a moment I could only gape. This town was amazing. It was gorgeous. Now this looked like paradise compared to that dreadful Terror Mountain.

     "Welcome to Meridell."

     I shifted my stunned gaze down to Radom, who was grinning up at me. "Well," I began slowly, pulling the knapsack off my shoulder and opening it. I dug through it and fished out the Crystal. My heart leapt as I saw it glowing a pale yellowish-white. "There's a Crystal here." And my bet went with the Earth Crystal.

     He looked out at the town, and the citizens milling about and going about their ways. The cool breeze ruffled his ears and unkempt brown fur, and for a moment we just looked down on it all in silence. Then he looked back at me and tilted his head to the side, grinning in his careless manner. "Well then. Here goes nothing."

     And thus the second leg of my journey had begun.

To be continued...

 
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Other Episodes


» The Price of Faith: Part One
» The Price of Faith: Part Two
» The Price of Faith: Part Three
» The Price of Faith



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