Stooping Low: Part One
Author's Note: This is part of the Shadow of the Xweetoks saga, but I'd consider it more of a mini-story in it than anything else. It's much shorter than the other installments. Consider it a tidbit that didn't belong at the end of the last series, nor at the beginning of the next. I advise reading Tyrants and Heroes and Torch in the Darkness first, if you haven't already.
Imagine being marooned, and later discovering that the person who marooned you really saved you. Imagine your enemy twisting into your closest friend, as though you had never done wrong. Imagine never knowing that you had done wrong in the first place.
The tide of the world causes things to change. Many of us are heavy enough to resist the tide, but those are also the ones who are planted in the right spot. Yet many of the times, when we let the tide caress us, we change for the better...
A heavy rainfall was drenching the forests. I barely winced from it. Faith was walking beneath my wing, trying to hide from the rain, however.
The Creator's words still echoed in my mind. We had just exited from her forest into Deepwood County; my home, and Faith's now, too. Another two dozen bounds and we'll be at Rubia's. Home. Finally. Rubia, finally.
"I take it that you're fully redeemed, so to speak?"
Faith stopped. It took me by surprise and I walked a few more steps before realizing she was behind me. I turned my head to look at her.
"I've seen everything. Val. The Creator. You."
"Yes," she said, her voice dropping a little. I took a good glance at her, to be somewhat startled by the fact that she was blushing enough to be visible beneath her dark brown fur. My stomach flipped a couple of times. "I mean, only now I discovered that this is a world."
"But what do I have to do with it?"
"Everything. Nobody from a world without life and soul could-"
Her eyes widened and ears twitched. I, too, recognized the feeling. We were being watched together. Targeted.
I broke into a run, hoping that Faith had already learned to avoid Hunters well. She seemed to be coping, as she zigzagged and darted around trees at the same time; a classic technique. The rhythmic footsteps of a Hunter soon could be heard as Faith and I happened to wind our passages around each other. I didn't wince as I heard the charging sound of our pursuer's arm cannon, but I instead accelerated to an insane gallop which I had perfected during my first few months of life. Faith's dash, too, rose in speed until she was merely a quarter-bound behind me.
Someone tripped. Faith didn't. I didn't.
After another few minutes of running (just for sure), we had made it out alive. Unfortunately, we had also made it thirty bounds away from Rubia.
"Inconvenient," I muttered between two pants as we awkwardly stumbled to a stop.
"What?" She blinked.
"We ran in the opposite direction from home, Faith."
"Oh. Could we rest for a minute? I know we didn't go that far, but..."
"I'm tired, too. And the Hunter back there could get his bearings any second now. We can't rest in the open, and a bush isn't much better for more than one person. I think I see a cavern over there."
Faith nodded and got by my side again as we walked in the direction I had looked. She seemed as tired as she was wet, but of all that, she wasn't sad. I felt good for her; foresters can't be cynical with their lifestyles revolving around running from Hunters.
Indeed, soon we came to the opening of a moderately-sized cave with moss hanging off of the entrance. The mouth was somewhat bigger than I was; typical for forest caves. Folding my wings against my back, I entered, with Faith right behind me. It was a tight squeeze and not too big, but probably held hidden gems in the walls which we didn't care to search for.
"Let's lie down next to each other; foresters always do it for the sake of body heat," I said as I stretched out by the back wall of the cave and settled down. In response to my suggestion, the red Xweetok was pressed against me when she flipped over on her side. She sighed with relief.
If it was Callie or Bronco who had been with me then, I wouldn't have asked to rest so closely to them, but Faith was special—it occurred to me that she hadn't objected to my idea whatsoever, and had taken to it quickly enough for it to cross my mind that she was happy to be in such close quarters to me. We let a few untroubled moments pass for our strength to return to us as I pondered the events of the past few minutes; I had no doubt that she was thinking about the same things I was. When I finally opened my mouth to speak, I at first was about to ask her what she was saying when the Hunter had interrupted her, but changed my mind when I recalled that she'd blushed.
"You still have your key," I pointed out instead.
"Why wouldn't I?" she asked, surprised.
"I'm not sure; I just noticed that you're still wearing it."
"I like it."
I tucked my head into my collar fur and closed my eyes. Faith yawned.
"I feel kind of sorry that you had to go through that, Cerulean. One week without food."
"Honestly, I think it was worse that I had to endure it alone."
"That reminds me... Who is Rachroth, and why did he separate us?"
"All I know is that he worked for Val, and he was probably sent to capture me before we got close to him. I don't doubt that Val ordered him to try killing me last year, either."
"Several months back, he appeared out of nowhere and tried murdering me. I didn't know him, let alone provoke him. He's why I have those scars on my back."
"I didn't notice those before."
"They're kind of hard to see."
I let her crane her neck a little to get a good look at them. After a few seconds, she returned to her natural position and spoke.
"That's awful... I wouldn't have made it out alive. I'm honestly pretty impressed."
"Actually, when that Hunter was chasing us, you were going pretty fast. I bet that you could've outrun him."
A blank expression overcame Faith's face, which I barely noticed in the dim light as she glanced up at me. I wouldn't have seen it if it weren't for the fact that she was nearer to the entrance to the cave.
"I knew him. He taught me how to hunt."
"Of all the odds..."
"I'm sure he recognized me. He had caught me when I was on my way to Sunset's Shadow, and I had to tell him who I was before he released me. By then, I was starting to lean towards the forest way of life, and refused his offers to take me back to the Distance... You guys do call it the Distance, right?"
I affectionately nuzzled the top of Faith's head, and was replied to by her purring as Creator's Age Xweetoks are wont to do subconsciously—so I knew from the times when Rubia would hand-feed me during my first month of life, and she said I purred. Inside, I was somewhat stunned by what she said. She knew people, had leftover instincts, was familiar with hunting technology and would probably manage to make her way out of many tight situations across the years because of all that.
"Ah, yes, it's the Distance... Are you rested enough to make it home, Faith?" I assured her.
"I am," she said.
"You look shaky."
"I'm nervous, and a little excited. This Rubia of yours will probably be shocked that you brought home another Xweetok."
"I mean, one other than you."
Faith rose and stretched. I got up and we walked out of the cavern, side by side.
"I forgot about the Hunter. Let's be quick," I said as I began to sprint, taking care to not step on anything crunchy. Faith clipped along at a fair pace right behind me. Soon enough, the predictable happened.
We were on Rubia's doorstep.
I was trembling by Cerulean's side. It was noticeable that he was taking measures to calm me, such as resting his wing across my back (reminding me of his comforting presence), but I knew that Rubia (whoever she was) would be in for a jolt. In the forests, if you were a Creator's Age Xweetok, then you were one for a reason. You were always that way naturally, you were made that way on purpose, or you were changed.
And she'd have to know the truth about me eventually. How would we break it to her?
That thought had the word "we" in it. Cerulean. He was on my side. I felt blessed to know that such a caring person was there for me.
Right then, he stopped walking. I looked at him, and he flashed that signature grin of his at me.
Leaving my side, he dashed up to a vine-coated tree that had a lopsided rafflesia on one side. Some feeling inside of him that I didn't understand was working its magic as he disappeared behind a bush. My heart was warmed by seeing his enthusiasm at return. What I like about this world is that so many things have already made me happy.
Interrupting my thought, his face appeared from around a fern.
"C'mon, Faith!" He beckoned in a way that was more teasing (not in a mean way) than angry. I obliged. In the small, plant-shaded clearing behind the fern, many tiny herbs grew off of the solid oak, covering its side. There was a bare spot in the form of the barely-noticeable outline of a door. Raising a paw, Cerulean knocked.
One moment passed.
Two moments passed.
The door was opened by a red Hissi probably in her late twenties or early thirties. She lurched back a little in shock as the knob escaped her grasp. Fortunately, she was looking at Cerulean, not me—so I noted after a few seconds. Taking note of her entirely gem-embedded underbelly, an eerie wave of familiarity washed over me.
My. Final. Catch.
Okay. She would really not like who I was.
Her wings were thrown around Cerulean in a tight embrace. When her grip finally loosened, she took him inside, jittering with excitement, and she closed the door. Had she really not noticed me? It was as though she had seen right through me; or even worse, she knew what I was somehow, and she knew that I wasn't worthy to even be spoken to. I didn't catch a glimpse of Cerulean's expression.
From indoors, I heard her voice asking a myriad of questions that I couldn't make out. Then his voice interrupted. There were a few moments of silence, and the door opened up again. I probably looked miserable, alone on a doorstep, soaked with rain.
"Please, don't take this personally. I'm sorry..." She slithered up to me and gently patted my shoulder. Cerulean must have told her that she left someone outside. The way she moved, the things she said, what she did right then told me what she was: gentle and welcoming in the humblest way. It made me feel worse for having captured her when I was the infamous Huntress of Deepwood County. But she was oblivious to that, and kindly took me inside.
Cerulean was partially sitting, partially curled up in what appeared to be a dirt-carved throne. There was another throne and two similar chairs right next to it. I climbed onto the chair next to him. Every moment, I felt more and more comfortable; it was like I was still enveloped by the Creator's body heat.
This is her world, and these homes are part of it. Everything in the woodlands inherits their life and soul from the Mother herself. It seems like, because of that, her presence is everywhere at once--as if that's a bad thing.
"What am I thinking? You two need to dry off!" Rubia said as she got up from her throne. The words "two" and "you" (that's in random order) made me feel a little better.
She flicked one of the room's doors open, and then another. When my fellow Xweetok and I went through them, we ended up in a chamber with flaming leaves lacing the floor in spots, and wooden pots hanging from the ceiling. The woodwork not catching on fire made me curious.
"The furnace," Cerulean quietly said to me. Steam rose from our matted fur as we stood in silence, savoring the heat. Warmth is a strange thing; you can crave its comfort after you've faced cold, but when you have too much, you can burn yourself. But we were only in there in silence for a minute. Then, Rubia carefully removed two pots from the heat. She dumped a steaming loaf of bread from it into one wing, broke it in two, and gave Cerulean and I each a piece.
I reveled in the earthy flavor as I tore through the half given to me. Cerulean seemed already used to eating forester bread, but considering I only had a taste of it before (when I had stayed with Monty and Whitney), I couldn't help but flat-out savor the chunk I was eating then. Rubia was steadily asking questions to Cerulean, and he gave solid answers.
"Who is she?"
Rubia knew something was off about me. She referred to me as though I wasn't in the room.
"Faith," I mumbled through a mouthful of bread. She hissed somewhat out of annoyance at me answering for the room's other Xweetok.
And Cerulean told me that I'd like her.
"Was it successful?" she asked him, making it clear that the question was directed at him.
"Yes," he answered.
"Who did you fight?"
"Valence. The Valence."
Rubia stumbled back somewhat, as much as a Hissi can stumble. I heard the word "impossible" escape her lips.
"He was banished..."
"No. He was imprisoned, but had escaped."
To be continued...