Torch in the Darkness: Part Four
Art by ellbot1998
During the split second that Rachroth spent knocking Faith out, I let go of his leg, only to allow my paws to meet the sides of his neck. He immediately squawked and tried flying off, but I then grabbed each of his wings. As he tried flying off with me once more, I heaved my hind legs onto his shoulders. With the position he was in, he could flap but not see. A struggle took place.
I let go of one of his wings for just a second so I could swat him.
He tried a beak jab, but I dodged.
I lunged forward for a chance at getting a good taste of his wing, but couldn’t make my jaws get close enough. Nonetheless, the action sent us both careening to the ground. Just before the crash landing, however, his bill jabbed a spot on my forehead very harshly.
Creator, let me live to complete my task.
That was my last thought before the world around me blurred, before disappearing entirely.
The darkness that cloaked my vision gradually was replaced by a dusty grayness as my body temperature rose only slightly. I woke up, and I lay there, panting. My eyes surely had bags under them and my fur was drenched from sleeping in the open.
The den’s scene was exactly as Cerulean and I had found it in the first place. All footprints had been smoothed over by the rain. He was gone, and so was Rachroth. I crossed my arms, my teeth chattering.
“Cerulean? Cerulean!?” I desperately hoped for a reply as I poked my head into our den. Enemy or not, I needed someone. Nobody was in the burrow. A deep sinking feeling was in my stomach.
Wisps of morning mist rose around me as the name faintly echoed back to me from the bodies of the trees. No reply came. I changed my mind about needing anyone.
Good, he’s gone. This is his little caper. He doesn’t need me for anything. I felt like I was intruding on his life a little, but not any longer. Besides, now I don’t have to worry about spilling my past to him. All I have to do is keep on living.
There was a tone of uncertainty in my thoughts, though. My heart wasn’t in it. I tried convincing myself to forget about Cerulean.
I did something that always comforted me: walking in circles. In fact, for the occasion, I even got on my hind legs. The digits on my forepaw instinctively wandered up to around my neck. When I hadn’t been hunting, I usually wore a favorite necklace. It had been a locket that Engar gave me as a present back when I hunted, but I had always forgotten to put a picture in it.
It occurred to me, even though Engar and the locket were both gone, my paws came around something anyways.
I looked down at the stringed key that lay in my open palm. Realization and guilt both washed over me at the same time. Cerulean DID need me. The key unlocked some door, somewhere. It was more than just a gift: It was important.
I was cold because of my completely drenched fur. I was tired out of lack of sleep. I felt insecure because big, muscular Cerulean wasn’t beside me anymore.
Big, muscular Cerulean needed me.
Cerulean was who-knows-where, dead or alive. The mission was still hanging in the air; I could feel it. And I was the only one left for the mission.
Putting aside all my pains, I ran; the key was dangling from its twine every step of the way.
“Look at big, muscular Cerulean now! Oh, I’m sorry, I mean pitiful, jailbird Cerulean! Oh, I’m sorry!” A voice cackled.
“Wh-who’s there?” I said, blinking sleep from my eyes. Immediately, I regretted my action and groaned. As my blurred vision cleared, I noticed Rachroth standing in front of me, a set of metal bars being the only thing separating us. By his dialogue, it was very obvious who was on which side of the bars. He had a front-row seat of his old rival’s suffering.
“Goway, ‘kay? I’m tired and I have a splitting headache.”
“Why should I go away now? I waited five hours for you to wake up, just to sit here and torment you. It was pretty hungry work, pacing the halls for five hours, so I did I very good job of helping myself to your traveling provisions.”
“When I get the chance, I’ll....”
“’When you get the chance?’ Might I ask when exactly that will be? Perhaps it will be when one of your pretty little gemstones falls off. Then you could smash it against the bars until the copper breaks!”
“Hey, that’s actually a pretty good-” I looked down at my stomach, where two emeralds were supposed to be. There weren’t any gleaming sapphires on the sides of my legs, either. “...idea.”
Rachroth laughed as he tossed one of my sapphires in the air and snatched it back with his bandaged talons.
“Where am I, who’s your employer, and where did you put Faith?” I demanded, snarling at him through the bars.
“Ha! So, is Faith your little friend’s name? Well, I’m afraid that you can’t be in a cell together; I had to leave her behind.”
“Who do you work for?”
“Don’t worry, you’ll meet the boss before you starve to death,” Rachroth mocked as he stepped closer to my cell.
A little too close, in fact.
My claws came around one of his bandaged legs and I pulled it into the small cell. He surely experienced déjà vu as I chomped down on it as hard as I could.
“Let go! Let go!”
“Mmmm, gnaw,” I mumbled the pun around his leg.
“I’ll tell you everything. Just let go!”
“Talk now, and when I feel you’ve given me sufficient information, I’ll let you go,” I said, allowing my teeth to lose grip. My claws still had a hard clench on him, though.
“Okay, okay. We’re currently on a place off the east coast called Sunset Shadow. Shadow’s tiny--In fact, the Sunset Chamber is below sea level, it can’t be a sprawling floor or two since there’s such little room on the island. It probably has a couple hundred stories.”
I raised an eyebrow upon hearing that it was off the coast. The ocean! I had made it in an unexpected way.
“How did you reach some place in the middle of the ocean so fast?”
“It’s not the middle of the ocean. Shadow is visible from the shore.”
“Well, how did you reach the shore so fast?”
“I flew, of course!”
“But isn’t that impossible unless we do it to save another forester?”
“That only applies to silly little woodlanders who choose to abide by the Creator’s laws. There are two types of us: The ones who are on the Creator’s side and then there’s us dirty ones...”
I decided I had enough details and let Rachroth’s leg go, and he began ranting on about his experiences. Fifteen minutes passed. I didn’t complain; it was my only entertainment.
“And so, BAM! I used my last resort, my trump card, my last-choice go-to option! He didn’t stand a chance against the infamous bill drill on the head! Out like a light, works every time. I know just the spot for every species.”
Tapping my claws on the hard dungeon floor out of the fact that I knew hours of boredom were ahead of me, I asked, “Well, how do you know about the spot for Xweetoks?”
“I practice on the Hunters, of course! Such a shame that it only works once on most individuals. Evidently, a scar forms there or something, and it gets hurt instead of the brain.”
“Yep! Although, after ‘just once’, most are pretty scared to try messing with me again.”
Two thoughts raced through my mind at the same time: People don’t mess with you first, you mess with them and it won’t work on Faith or me again. It seemed like a very long time of listening to my rival’s lecturing before a shout rang through the chambers.
The Lenny stormed out of the room, anxious for food (even though he already ate all of my provisions). Once he was long gone, I pleaded to a certain somebody out of desperate hope, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me.
“Faith, I forgive you for everything! I need you now! Please, please tell me you aren’t going to abandon this!”
Freezing, starved and heavily fatigued, I decided to curl up between two branches of a tree for a quick nap. It couldn’t be too long; Cerulean still needed me, and I had been running all day long, not stopping for meals. It had not occurred to me, though, that I had no idea whatsoever where ‘Rachroth’ could have taken him. I had been running where we were originally headed, but I may have been running away from him the entire time. Although, maybe Cerulean wouldn’t have wanted me to rescue him as much as he would want me to carry out the mission and complete it.
Yawning and lifting a still-weary eyelid some time later (which happened to be much longer than I intended to rest), a slight glisten caught my eye. It appeared that a web was laid down on the forest floor, made of nearly-invisible string. Some Hunter had laid a net-style trap. Moments later, a Checkered Kacheek was heading in its direction.
“Stop!” I shouted as I jumped down from my perch, picked up a fallen stick and threw it onto where the trap was set. The clear threads brought the stick into the air and closed on it. The Kacheek’s jaw dropped.
“How in the Creator’s name did you see that?”
“I know that glint when I see it. There’s no way I could have actually fallen for it.”
“Well, you know what they say: Xweetoks never fall into their own traps. I would’ve been just another victim if you hadn’t saved me!”
I gained a little more insight on what it was like for the ‘victims’ from his words. The Hunters were a serious threat to them, and foresters weren’t utterly mindless things that just inhabited the forests. I never thought about it that way...
“How come you don’t seem very surprised at me being a Xweetok?”
“Oh, there are tales going around about a blue one, named Cerulean-”
“Cerulean? Say no more, I’ve met him. You’re welcome, by the way, for me saving you.”
The Kacheek smiled. Then, he gasped.
“Look at your eyes! You seem as though you’ve been awake since yesterday!”
“I haven’t been under very... comfortable.... conditions recently.”
He wasn’t the kind of person who asked questions, apparently.
“I insist, come with me! You can come to my house for the night. My wife is making a dinner of warm berry bread, I’m sure she’ll let you have a few slices, as well as some tea and soup. Then you can help yourself to a good night’s sleep after a hot bath. How does that sound?”
Even if it was freeloading, I knew that I couldn’t say no. But I did.
“Thank you for your hospitality, but I really do need to get going. See, somebody very far away needs my help as soon as possible.”
“But a hungry and tired forester is a Hunters’ easy target, anybody knows that! If you come with me in exchange for setting off that trap before I did, you can come back out energized and refreshed. I’m sure that you will travel much faster after that, to make up for lost time.”
For the first time that day, I smiled.
“The Creator have mercy on you,” I blessed genuinely as I started getting in the whole ‘Creator’ state-of-mind. Getting used to the customs early on will probably help in the long run. “Being what I am, I’m sure this is one of the few chances for true rest I’ll be able to get.”
When the Kacheek had pointed out the consequences of trying to go any farther in my current state, I truly understood how hard it was for foresters sometimes. They were more than little creatures that would scurry across your path, that you had to track down and net in time before you lost them. Hunters were as much of a hazard to foresters as foresters were completely mindless, collectable animals to us.
To be continued...