Cinnamon and Vinegar: Part One
(Dear Readers: Well, I guess it's time for, guess what, another of my typical Shadow of the Xweetoks author's notes saying that this won't make any sense whatsoever to those of you who have yet to read the previous main installments, which are Hot Herb Tea and a Happy Ending, Tyrants and Heroes, Torch in the Darkness and Possessed. The first may be skipped. Time to write the story!)
Nothing is Alright
Some of my dreams are the future, but all the rest are nonsense.
Except for one... One which was half truth and half lie. A vision in which I could feel emotions.
I dreamt I had a petpet that night.
I could never see it, though. It was silent, too.
But I still loved it. It enriched my life, sweetened my role and only cheered me up when I wanted to be happier. That dream was too realistic. I remember every detail about it, but I would still have felt it in my heart if all my senses were dull.
The grey blur faded right in front of me.
I felt my emotions crumble away with it. All the peaceful times and shared laughter were replaced with... with... nothing.
The next thing I knew, I didn't find it. It found me.
We were plunging through the forests, hand in hand, running desperately from something.
And then the song began.
"Thou of precious, yet of might;
"Lift your wings from the ground and learn to fly;
"The invisible, the unheard; all will change once awakened.
"No breath, no words: those are the things only you can do;
"See the invisible and hear the unheard
"Bring forth this legacy when needed most;
"Wield the blade which is too heavy for the rest,
"Allow your fire to blaze above the best."
I had heard that masculine and aged voice a million times before, but couldn't tell who it was, even after I woke up... The catch is that I remembered every last detail of that dream...
The tune echoed off of the oaks of Deepwood after rustling through the upper foliage. It sounded like it was coming from above. The melody was gorgeous: rich and flowing, like a cup of tea with a spoonful of honey in it. But I was desperate, fleeing from this beast, worried that my companion wouldn't escape unharmed. There was no way that I was going to stop running so I could tiptoe around the tulips and enjoy the aria.
"The brave when needed, then calm and pleasant,
"She is drowning, so seems;
"Yet the truth is she's being keelhauled.
"See the invisible and hear the unheard.
"Sink the ship, free her spirit,
"Be wary when she nears you;
"She has yet to be saved.
"He has her rope in one hand,
"Your terror and hatred in the next.
"Remember these words,
"You will hear them again,
"But only by your own accord.
"See the invisible.
"Hear the unheard."
I was almost expecting a sitar solo after that, but then the voice fell into silence along with the rest of the world. Suddenly, not even my own footsteps were audible. How long was this dream going to last? This... Is a dream, right? Or have I stepped outside of my own world?
A new voice pierced the eerie quietude with nothing but more silence. Yet it was a silent voice; no words came, and I knew it was that of my friend. Somehow, I sensed its despair as my hand was pulled in a new direction by its force.
I managed to sneak a single glance behind to see a blazing, roaring, indescribable beast of albino shadows chasing after me. Its form shifted every second, but had the tendency to maintain the appearance of a monster Garfir. Somehow, the white fur didn't reflect any light; it absorbed all that neared it. That's not what white anything does... Is it? I really should pay more attention when Rubia lectures me on science...
My petpet tripped, and I was brought tumbling to the ground with it. But neither of us tried getting up: we knew that our days of fleeing were over, and we turned to face the beast. It bunched up its haunches, crouching down, and sprang into the air over us with an evil smirk which wasn't accompanied by eyes. The mouth was nothing more than a sideways crescent moon of blackened fangs.
We were under its thumb.
Its shadow loomed over my creature and I for a very, very long second before gravity finally kicked in and it undeniably fell on us both, crushing us with the weight of its clunky paws.
But the very moment before it came in contact with either of us, I was caught unawares. Don't get me wrong, though. The packed dirt of our house was a sight for sore eyes.
I was lying down, legs still slowly spinning in the air with the momentum of my dream-run. I had somehow escaped my own bed at one point in the nightmare. My heart was drumming furiously, my breathing thick, my wings sore. I rolled onto my feet with a deep sigh, and shook the dirt particles from my feathers. My back hurt.
It was too real to be useless, but also too absurd to be a lie.
Five minutes later, Rubia told me that it was my birthday. I'd turned a year old in the middle of the night.
I had jumped slightly, somewhat startled by the fact. Had one year really gone by that quickly? It seemed that only the previous day, Rubia had kicked me off her doorstep. That was back before she had accepted me...
But when I stopped to think of all that had happened since then, I supposed that it really must have been three-hundred and sixty-five days.
I don't know why that I dreamed that dream the very night I turned one year old, but I did. And only the next day, that dream was set in motion.
It started off as nothing more than another rainy day. Cerulean was sitting in his throne, reading. Rubia was poking about in a cabinet. I hadn't talked with the Creator yet. It was just a typical, mundane, humdrum, routine day.
Yup. Almost ironically boring.
"Does one of you think you can pick me some berries real quick?"
I glanced up from my ocarina when Rubia spoke. Cerulean's wing twitched.
"I'll do it," I said before Cerulean could reply. "What kind?"
"Oric berries. It should be enough if you fill this bag up. Don't be long, and keep away from the Hunters. Come right home if you see one."
"Yes ma'am, Rubia," I said as she handed me a small burlap sack. I turned to Cerulean, and waved at my fellow Xweetok. He briefly tugged the hood of his medium-length cloak down, grinned at me, and then pulled the hood back up again.
The Hissi paused and listened for a moment — the only sound was the steadfast, powerful rushing of a heavy downpour.
"Take my shawl, dear. It sounds awfully rainy out there."
My ears twitched with surprise as she took her patched shawl and wrapped it around my shoulders. It fell down to my elbows: forester clothes tended to be short. I gripped two sections of it, snuggled it tighter to myself with a curt thanks, and I was out the door.
I slunk about, keeping close to the muddy woodland ground. The sack dangled from my jaws while I kept to using all four of my legs. All fours felt natural for me now: when I'd first discovered that I was a forester, I had a hard time looking (and feeling) like one. Now my posture was natural for a Creator's Age Xweetok.
Really, I had come to know the woods well. The trees were my companions when I left home, but Rubia and Cerulean were always there when I returned.
A cave yawned in front of me, and then behind me as I passed it. The familiar soft terrain and long grass squished beneath my paws as I hopped over a set of trickling streams, and then I crossed the Blank.
The meager stumps of trees and sparse, mutant plants passed before me completely ignored, although the ruins of my old Huntress ship were harder to avoid. At first, the landing site had regularly saddened me, a reminder of my wasted years as a Huntress. However, it was easier for my pride to take it if I paid it no heed, so I always diverted my thoughts from it. I looked to the side the whole time, knowing that if I glanced in the other direction, I'd see my shuttle's ruins: a metaphor of my ruin, a metaphor that lied.
I reached the meadow after crossing a few dozen bounds. It was a long stretch of land, absolutely coated in bushes asides from a single spindly tree. That twisted oak had evidently acquired the nickname of Zap Me due to the tendency for lightning to strike lonely trees. Lightning very seldom struck the forests of Creation despite the constant storms, however — some said that it was because electricity feared the Creator's anger. Sometimes I wondered if the Forest Mother actually would respond to that one tree being hit...
'I'm not entirely certain that I would bother.' Her voice immediately echoed inside my mind.
After a moment of contemplation, I responded with, 'I know that I wouldn't.'
As a bit of a joke, someone had come by and stuck a wooden pendant onto a low branch of it; nobody had seen it happen, but it became the topic of typical murmured conversations for awhile. Rubia had identified it as a worthless and powerless storm charm that supposedly brought more rain and lightning. Rhubarb, the woodcarver Cybunny, eventually confessed that he'd placed it there.
The trinket swayed in the wind as I ducked between two shrubs. I started picking the azure berries one by one and dropping them into the sack. All was calm. My hands worked swiftly and smoothly as my arms moved beneath the warmth of the shawl. It'll be good to get back to Cerulean and Rubia... I know I'm safe with them.
That was my mistake. I shouldn't have looked forward to coming home. A house is so much more than home sweet home to a forester.
It's a safe place.
My hand froze, and the contents tumbled from my sack as it slipped from my grasp. The bag's sizeable indigo berries hit the ground, bounced an inch high one after another, and quickly rolled off in succession. The bag limply flopped to the ground beside them. My thumb and forefinger's grip on my current berry died as the plump sphere fell to follow its brethren.
It was as though they had been scared away...
My heart instantly began pounding...
I could barely move...
'FAITH, RUN FOR IT, NOW!!!!!'
I had never, ever heard her use that tone before in front of me or inside my mind, and I certainly doubted that she had used it five times in all her life —quite a staggering feat for anyone who'd been around anywhere from three centuries to uncountable trillions of years.
I was startled into dropping onto all fours and I began to dash, more afraid of the Creator's volume than whatever it was I was supposed to be running from. I was being stupid enough to think she was merely warning me to flee from a Hunter. Stupid, idiotic, absolutely oblivious me.
I didn't run ten feet before I spilled onto my stomach.
The fall came out of nowhere. I had been running perfectly fine until my balance was suddenly ruined. I felt an internal battle: the Creator was trying to possess me, but somehow, she couldn't. I was ready to give her control over me. In fact, I was doing my best to push it into her grasp. Why didn't she at least say something?
Try as I might to rise, I couldn't budge beyond my useless thrashing to get my forelegs untangled from Rubia's shawl. It was magic keeping me down: when there's no other explanation, it's always magic. That was one of the first things I figured out as a forester. But who was doing this to me? Certainly not the Creator...
"That was easier than I expected."
I felt my freedom slip away all at once as the suave voice chuckled. My skin prickled with tension as a jolt zipped up my spine. Just that voice alone... It made my heart turn cold. It made my soul fall apart.
"What are you doing to me?! You have the wrong person! Let me go!!"
I shrieked, my fingers finally getting free of the shawl and digging into the ground, making eight identical holes in the mud.
"Oh, nature girl... I assure you, I have exactly the right person. Are you absolutely terrified of me already?"
My adversary followed this with another hearty, mean laugh.
"Show yourself!" I demanded, the volume coming from clear weakness and fear rather than confidence. The words were nothing but a hollow, desperate, hopelessly-hopeful plea.
"You're too pathetic. Oh, very well, then... It's so annoyingly stereotypical in the books to reveal myself right away, though..." He murmured the final words, and then seemed to materialize out of thin air like... like... like nothing. There was nothing to compare him to then. I thought that people like... like that didn't exist... They weren't supposed to.
Rubia's berries would have to wait.
Rubia sighed deeply, massaging her temples.
"Where the dickens did Faith run off to? She's been gone for almost a full day now, and I had to cancel two appointments yesterday because I didn't have the berries which she was supposed to be getting."
I glanced up from my book. I knew she was venting. We both knew that I wasn't why Faith was going to be home late, and that I didn't know where she was either. Rubia and I hadn't talked much for the past twenty hours. We had gone into a waiting period.
I said, "I wish I knew. I was kind of expecting her to be back by bedtime, at least... I'm a little more concerned that something happened to her, although I can't imagine what. She can get out of Hunter nets easily, and she actually knew the one who frequents here. She can talk her way out of things."
The Hissi mentally paced this over for a few seconds.
"There's a chance," she said in a hushed voice, "There's a chance she got lost. There's a chance someone hurt her because of her species. There's a chance that she's sheltering from a Hunter. There's a chance she fell out of a tree or something. There's four acceptable chances right there. And then there is one improbable chance of her getting caught."
"She has to be sheltering somewhere, she just has to! Please, Creator, just let her be hurt or lost and not caught!"
I buried my face in my hands, effectively suffocating myself for three seconds. But then, I collected my senses, and looked back up at Rubia.
"Look... I know you have some more appointments to cancel today, so I'll go out and see if she's at the house of anyone we know. This isn't like when she went to Cloudpoint. This time, she disappeared in the middle of the day with no note."
Rubia nodded gravely at my suggestion.
"I wish so much I could help, but I need to see my clients off. I still don't have any oric berries, so I have to cancel all my gem-embedding appointments until this clears up. I honestly didn't worry that much when the Creator first possessed her and she went to Cloudpoint... She left a note and all... But now, she's left — and gone — when we thought she'd be back. When I thought she'd be back. When I told her to be back. But now she's gone. And it's my fault."
I opened my mouth to try offering some words of comfort, but none came as I realized that she would see past a white lie of "no, it's not." When someone's too strong for that one, then there's really nothing you can say. I approached her and gave her a quick, consoling hug before I made my way outside.
Sometimes, you really shouldn't bother straining your precious vocal cords.
"Don't slam the door, now, I never did get new hinges from Latchet—"
I undid the round wooden pin on my cape, pulled the cloak tighter around my chest, and fastened it again. So much forest... She could be anywhere. I glanced around uselessly for a few moments until I grasped the fact that she'd definitely be farther from home than anywhere visible from the doorstep. I broke into a brisk sprint as I made sure to be as silent as possible; what point would it be to get caught while searching for her?
"Faith?" I called as I approached the oric meadow, daring to break the silence. I knew that there were plenty of hiding places in the underbrush I could slip into if a Hunter were near. The large shrubs would also be great for sheltering in if she was hurt, so I looked inside each and every one of them. I was calling her name the whole time.
I found an abandoned sack half-filled with berries. Realization jolted through me. "Maybe she just dropped it because a Hunter startled her, yeah, that's it... She just got scared and went to someone's house to wait it out..."
I turned around and decided that she could be at Tor's place. As the yellow Lupe heartily encouraged anyone to come in and rest, woodlanders often sheltered at his home overnight. It was a likely place for anyone with a broken leg to be found, too. After dashing across the Blank and over to where his home was, I knocked on his door.
I waited. And waited. I knocked again, harder. And I was still waiting...
"What the hey, he wouldn't mind if I just came on in," I muttered and opened the door. Tor never locked it. "Tor? Are you home?" I asked as I entered his large foyer.
And then I realized something that, to this day, I wished I hadn't.
I said a very nasty word.
My blunt claws unsheathed completely and dug into the dirt a little. I took a huge sigh, tucked my head into my aquamarine chest fur, and clenched my eyes shut. I thought of Deepwood County, and the Blank instantly came into my view. I hastily chased away that scene and instead saw the meadow where I'd lost her.
The place was still and quiet, aside from the occasional howl of a blustery gale. Flailing in the wind was that mold-covered hunk of wood which a brown Cybunny had placed on that persistent tree. Not a soul was lingering... Until my son came onto the scene.
"Faith?" Cerulean called. He repeated this several times, glancing under every bush and even the branches of Zap Me. And then he found the discarded berry-bag. I saw him actually grit his teeth in realization. He thoroughly double-checked the meadow in distress before he moved on, disappointed.
He was looking for her. I buried my face in my paws. He's looking for her! That's so... so sweet! This must mean that Cerulean doesn't know where she is, either... At least I'm not the only one searching.
"Ma'am?" A speckled Ogrin questioned as he entered the room. "Some of the younger ones have heard you say, um, a certain word. Your voice tends to carry through the walls. Is everything alright?"
"No," I hissed in exasperation, with a complete disregard for my previous language. "No, nothing is alright. I have lost all connection with my messenger. I cannot even pinpoint where she is. I sensed dark magic right before we were cut off, but my warning for her to run came too late."
Losing a messenger always caused me some agitation until the new one came along. It tended to only take a few days at most to discover a new link. But Faith couldn't be gone. Faith was a loving messenger. Someone that sweet only came along every few centuries. The luxury's absence made me feel... alone.
"Do you think she deserted you?"
I felt my fur bristle with fury at the suggestion. The nerve of my own butler... Someone who didn't even know my messenger...
"Deserted? Deserted?! My Faith wouldn't dream of deserting me! She's the most willing messenger I've ever had! She thinks of me as one of her few close friends!"
My Ogrin backed off a little.
"I-is there anything that your humble servants can do to retrieve her?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I must work my way through this myself."
He quickly bowed with a nod of his head. As he moved his hand towards the doorknob, I had an idea.
"Wait! Send out Evre. She'll be able to do something about this sooner or later."
He nodded. Then he left the room, and I was alone.
To be continued...