Torch in the Darkness: Part Five
Art by ellbot1998
“Again, thank you.” I smiled warmly.
“You are most certainly welcome! It’s the least any woodlander can offer to an exhausted traveler, let alone a life saver. Follow me, and call me Monty, by the way,” he said as he took to running.
It never actually occurred to me where the woodlanders went. After you lost them, you lost them. My curiosity was piqued as I followed Monty.
I stumbled my way along the pathways. They were familiar, sure enough; only I wasn’t used to walking them without a pair of weatherproof, Grade-A hunting boots. Whenever we came to a river, Monty jumped it with ease. I, on the other hand, had to struggle to clear them. How was it possible to go that fast under those conditions?
At last, Monty paused in front of a tree. My eyebrow rose as he ducked under a bush and beckoned me to follow. His claws met a seam in the bark and he started to pull a piece of the tree out.
He didn’t pull it out completely; it swung open on rusted hinges. I gasped. Their homes were in trees? I thought that he would just take me to a nest or something.
“What, never seen a good ol’ forester home around here?”
“Amazing,” I mused to myself as we stepped down into a stairwell carved from dirt. I breathed in the earthy air of the underground room. Inside, stubs of the tree’s giant roots had been made into various pieces of furniture, namely a few chairs around a table and two higher tables. At the high tables, a white Zafara appeared busy ripping up some bark and herbs.
Monty set down a basket of berries on the low table. The Zafara turned around to see him, and exclaimed, “Oh!”
“This bright young Xweetok has saved my life. She triggered a trap before I stepped onto it. If it weren’t for her, I might not be here with you, Whitney. I offered her a night’s stay and a hot dinner with us tonight, if you don’t mind.”
“Any life-saver of yours is welcome in this household. What’s her name?”
“Faith,” I said. “Thank you for your kindness. I am sure this is one of few chances I’ll get to rest inside a real house.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Faith. Most of the foresters around here let others stay in their homes for rest since the hunting is so heavy, although you might have to forage for your own food. You’ve heard about that one named Cerulean, haven’t you? He recently led a patrol against the infamous Huntress... and succeeded! In fact, he has such as reputation, I’m sure they’ll pardon you for being a Creator’s Age Xweetok,” Whitney said as she began putting dough into a few different pots. “Besides, I’m sure that, even if their homes aren’t normally open, they’ll appreciate a traveler. Travelers mean fresh stories, and I’m sure we all appreciate those. Got any?”
“I’d rather not share them.”
“That’s too bad.” She yawned. “I cleaned the entire house today, top to bottom. I’m so exhausted.”
“Oh, honey, you shouldn’t have. You aren’t a janitor of a Zafara, you know.”
“I know. I just got on a roll, and didn’t realize how tired I was until I stopped.”
Several seconds passed without anybody saying anything, which would have been silent, had there not have been the sound of lids lightly clanking onto pots as Whitney’s nimble hands prepared the doughy substance she made to be heated. It fascinated me to see how they lived and cooked. It all worked perfectly. It feels good in here. Forest life might not be that bad... I could live like this. I could live like this! I could live, not survive!
“The door to your left is the bedroom, sweetie. You can sleep in one of the beds near the table, those are for guests. Dinner will be ready soon, so you can have some time to sleep or read,” Whitney said without looking up from her work.
“Thank you,” I said. I went into the bedroom. Another root-carved table and four round beds (made from especially thick roots) were in the dimly-lit room. I curled up in one near the right side of the room happily, and dozed off within minutes of lazily watching one of the torches carved into the wall flickering.
I was very grateful for a small puddle in a corner of the cell to use as a water supply. My small tongue thirstily lapped at it, greedy for liquid. A deep sigh escaped my mouth. No food, though. I was lucky for the water.
“What, hungry?” mumbled a certain Brown Lenny around a peach he held in his beak.
“I would actually accept that, but you probably poisoned it or something.”
“I can’t believe you thought I was going to offer it! Ha!”
“But that reminds me of the time that...” He got carried away in another of his tales. I interrupted him before he got too far.
“Admit it, Rachroth. You’re as bored as a plank.”
He stared at me for a moment before he got the metaphor. I had been spending the hours thinking up jokes, so I had a pretty good arsenal of them. So maybe when I see this ‘Boss’ guy, he’ll hire me as a jester, as humiliating as it would be for a Creator’s Child.
Desperate for something to do other than think, I began licking my wings clean. The bird sneered.
“Oooh, how very entertaining. Cerulean is preening himself.”
I rolled my eyes.
“It’s not like you ever stop watching me, or that I have anything better to do, or that you never preen.”
“Eh, you’re right. And I am, indeed, bored,” Rachroth said, deciding that, as a free (?) Lenny, he had other businesses to attend to. That was the only thing we agreed on for a very, very long time.
Probably a full twenty-four hours later with no break, I was completely exhausted. While the steaming dinner and rest in an actual bed (well, according to foresters) had gone far, I had felt like I had been dashing my way along the woodland paths for a matter of weeks. Every day, it was almost the same. I would wake up and start running, as fast as possible, until sometime in the evening. Then, I ate off of the field whatever was edible, I’d rest for a little bit, and then I would force myself to run more. After I couldn’t take the self-slavery anymore, I would have a full night’s rest, which sometimes fell into the daytime.
I never mustered up the courage to find a door to knock on and sleep in a real home. They didn’t know who I was; at least, not who I had been. It felt terrible to get free lodging when they had no idea that I was an ex-Huntress.
I found a part of a tree that wasn’t too wet and began gathering fallen limbs to make a nest in it. Whitney’s words echoed in my mind as the structure began taking a shape. Most of the foresters around here let others stay in their homes for rest since the hunting is so heavy.
As if on cue, the sound of steady footsteps began resonating through the air. Not again.
I immediately accelerated to a rush, but I only stumbled more. The steps behind me grew more rapid, and everything went wrong when my paw got stuck in a curly root and, due to momentum, I was flung head over heels. Everything else went wrong when I felt the net close around me. I attempted to grab two sections and pull it off of myself. It got even more tangled around my paws as a result. I shut my eyes tight, not wanting to see what was happening, as a Hunter or Huntress lifted me up by the corners of the net and slung me across his/her back.
It couldn’t be happening. I had looked at a map belonging to Monty, and I was already almost from Deepwood (Cerulean’s county) to the sea. Cerulean needed me, and I failed him!
I failed him.
I failed Cerulean. I failed this Creator I was just starting to believe existed. I failed Monty and Whitney and all the other foresters who I were just starting to believe had lives. I failed this wonderful world that I was just starting to like.
Don’t struggle, Faith. It will only be worse. If only this Hunter knew I was on a mission.
If the mission had, indeed, been crucial; then the forests were doomed. Then there won’t be any more hunting. I’ll have failed Ruth, Arty, Intao and especially...
“Engar,” I sighed out loud, just to bring out my feelings and satisfy myself somewhat. Key word: somewhat.
The figure carrying me stopped short.
“How do you know my name?”
Engar? He had been my captor? I opened my eyes. Struggling to look over to him, I noted his green stripe and familiar posture.
“Engar! You have to let me go!”
“Why should I? You foresters have tried this before.”
“But somebody needs me, I’m on a mission, and I-“I started, and finally uttered the last words. Those last words which would change everything. Those words would save me.
He stood still, hardly showing a sign of emotion.
“Tell me something no forester would know, but Chix would.”
“I remember when you first introduced hunting to me. You were helping me pick out a suit to order, and told me I should pick camouflage because the foresters can’t see it as well. But I insisted on pink and purple.”
He gasped and laughed at the same time, which caused him to choke a little bit until he got over it.
“How did you get this way?”
“I don’t know. Please, if you believe me, don’t tell anybody back home.”
“Chix, I can take you home! Come with me!”
“I’m different now. Don’t call me Chix. I am Faith.”
“But you are Chix! Come on, I’ll take you home! I won’t stun or display you, and you probably can’t hunt now, but we can be together! Come on, Chix, I-“
“It’s Faith. Let me go.”
“Chix, if you were anyone else, I wouldn’t be doing this... Fine. Have it your way. And quit pretending that your name is Faith.”
He dropped me and ran off. When he was out of sight, I reached over on the net to a place on it which I could reach from where I sat, and pressed a tiny button on a lump of plastic. The net’s hold instantly let me go.
He could have at least set me down gently.
And then, I continued my lonely path, which I knew would lead to my ultimate challenge.
My eyes once again fell onto the grim sight of my stomach. My ribs’ outline was becoming more and more visible by the day. Rachroth happened to pass my cell often, but his insults were gradually increasing in subtlety, until he merely snorted at or altogether ignored me every time he passed by.
Usually, every time I slept, what woke me up was my stomach growling. My mind was growing restless, anxious.
None of them will see my face again. I’ll leave something dangling; I set out on a mission, and this is what it’s come to. I won’t return and this mission will go unfulfilled.
I curled up on the damp, cold floor and shut my eyes as hard as I could. It was too late to do anything about the situation. Every time I tried thinking about a happy subject, my mind was lead back to the fact that the vast woodlands could be in deep water, and it was my fault.
A matter of hours ago, I had long decided that Faith would never carry through with the duty. The ex-Huntress didn’t have the will and strength to travel a long distance, all the while dodging Hunters. As if she would bother in the first place to complete the objective rather than try and find a way to return to the Distance.
I wished to the highest degree that I would never see the result of my failure.
For the umpteenth day in a row, I had been running (technically, stumbling) as fast as I possibly could. My legs were weary, but I had always ignored them and kept running until they finally could take it no longer.
When that happened, I forced them to run even faster.
My eyelids were practically sagging to the ground. Not only was it from running, but also from the bad sleep I had the previous night. I had rested in a high cluster of tree branches, and it had clearly taken its toll on my back.
Why had I taken the mission on in the first place? I wondered. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. It was because of the key at first, and then in defense of this hidden glory.
When I first attempted to walk away from the task, a theoretical shade of guilt had blocked my path. At first, it wouldn’t be difficult to walk through it, but it would nonetheless take its toll eventually. Something inside of me made me do what I did. It made me take the long way. By walking around, it would be better in the end. The key which was still around my neck had been like a sign, pointing the only path which lead around the shade.
For the first time, I noticed that the rain and trees were gone. I gasped.
I was standing on one of many tall cliffs, which overlooked numerous bounds of colorful, exotic plants that were divided up into many sections by rivers whose waterfalls cascaded from the bluffs. All my suffering, my darkest hours which had almost entirely consisted of pain and discomfort and struggle, were all worth it when I took in the sheer beauty and absolute perfection.
If Cerulean could see me now!
An energizing aura hung in the air. I instantly felt like I had slept for hours on end the previous night, and like I was well-fed as opposed to starved. Excited to see more of the splendor, I ran along the edge of the cliff until I found a low point. Then, I truly entered the paradise.
Palm trees freely grew in the delta, as a stark contrast to the same old thing you would experience in the woods: oak, ash and rowan. Maybe even beech. But bright, huge purple flowers and strangely-shaped ferns that you would never see in the woods were everywhere you looked.
I ran freely through the flora. I don’t know how much time I spent marveling at the variety of plant life. It was something that always held more and more promise for you; anything you missed earlier was always just around the corner.
Finally, it all ended. I was on a muddy beach just as the day was ending, with the tropical forest behind me. The sky was orange, and the waters reflected its color.
Silhouetted against the sunset, a miniscule-appearing island was on the horizon. A gut instinct told me that it was my destination.
To be continued...