Cinnamon and Vinegar: Part Three
We were still in a waiting period, only now, we had a little more of a purpose.
Most of our journey was spent in silence: a silence which Rubia and I seldom broke, for we were each drowned in our personal concerns for Faith. It was somewhat soothing to pace over things which had happened. Flashbacks didn't even begin to fill up the bottomless pit which had been created within my heart, however...
I shuffled inside, and the door closed behind me with a click.
I had tripped over a root while running from a Hunter, but hastily regained myself and fled successfully. When I had taken a moment to catch my breath on the doorstep, however, I discovered that I had developed a slight dodder to my walk.
"Cerulean! You're limping! Y-you're all right, aren't you?"
My ears pricked up at Faith's voice. She had only been living with us for a couple of weeks at the time. An hour earlier I'd left home in front of Faith to do my random forest lurking. The temptation to leave decreased in strength whenever she was home, but I couldn't keep my woodland instincts suppressed for long.
"I'm fine," I replied, settling down in my throne, which happened to be next to the stool she always perched atop. "Where's Rubia?"
"She told me she was going to pick some more oric berries. She's always running out of those, isn't she?" Faith asked with an amused smile. I nodded. And then I noticed that something just felt... different about her. She had seen me more hurt than this.
"Faith, have you been... Crying?"
I got up and stood very near her side, lowering my wing and pressing it against her back. She looked away some. But then I shuffled closer to her and asked, "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing," she muttered, looking away more.
"Go on and tell me. Trust me. You'll feel better."
And then she realized that I was telling her the truth, and hurriedly said, "I-I'm just feeling a little guilty. About everything that happened before I really met you."
She calmly sniffed a couple of times, and I gently consoled her further by fluffing up my feathers. "There, there..."
"There's nothing I can do to change the past. I can't go back and erase it all, no matter how much I want to."
"Faith. You've done everything you can to make up for it. And you keep making up for it every day, just by being another forester."
She smiled at me with another quiet sniff. "Thank... you..."
"So, you said Faith is being taken south, right?" Rubia queried as we journeyed away from Deepwood County, effectively bringing me back to the present. My ears twitched.
...Nobody interrupts a flashback like she does.
"That's all I know, asides from the fact that someone can't hurt me."
Rubia was silent for a few moments. I felt a chill go up my spine. The Hissi hated seeing me harmed as much as Faith did. In an attempt to soothe both of us, she changed the subject.
"I still can't believe that we already crossed Deepwood, and we're probably halfway through Runwood now. This is a tiny place; we'll make it to Firewood in no time."
"Runwood? Why's it called Runwood?"
"Awful lot of Hunters for a small County."
"Cerulean, this isn't a joke."
I barely heard Rubia's words, for I was already a few yards ahead of her. Her tail slid out of the way just in time to avoid a net. A yellow Hunter in brown armor came crashing through the undergrowth. Rubia caught up to me as we fled as fast as we could.
Fortunately, the inexperienced Hunter tripped and fell onto the ground a few bounds into the chase. I ran back up to him and quickly bit his ear. He looked up at me and then ran off, screaming. A tubby, monochromatic ball curled up in a net was all he left behind.
"Monster! Let me go!!" the short pirate Grarrl wailed.
"Alright, go on," I fiddled with a lump of plastic stuck to a section of the net. My claw poked into a small hole, and the entire thing released.
"FREEEEEDOM! I, Kilamee, am of FREEEDOM!!" He victoriously cried and ran off. Rubia and I stared after him as he flailed his forelegs off into the horizon.
"How did you do that with the net?" Rubia then queried me.
"It's what Faith does. Or... Did."
"She isn't gone. She's just south."
And then I felt my heart lift up a little. I remembered that Rubia went on this journey without a second thought. She considered Faith to be a family member — nobody could replace her, and we were both willing to travel to find her. And we would do so, for as long and far as we needed to, and sacrifice as much time and energy as we needed to.
And if we needed more time and energy than we had, then we'd just throw our fates to chance.
I was stuck with a madman.
It had been another long day of him dragging me through the woods before we found ourselves at the southern Silent Lands. I couldn't help but notice he was muttering incomprehensibly under his breath that night. I lay sleepless behind a dead bush: he had remembered to cast a spell on me so that I couldn't move away from the spot.
I glanced at my still-aching shoulder — a large bruise had formed on it over the past few hours.
Master Amadeus was lying in a safe, dry burrow a few feet from me. It had been abandoned by the same person who had made it. I bet it had only been used once or twice. But if it were in the right place, maybe other people could find shelter there. I was feeling a lot like that burrow right then.
"Master Amadeus?" I asked with guts.
"What?" he groaned.
"I hate you."
How long had I gone without sleep? I had lost track of time.
The shock of encountering him to begin with was starting to wear off, but now I had realized something. He was slightly afraid that I knew something. He wouldn't have told me anything himself which he wanted to keep secret... At least, not on purpose...
What had I discovered about him? Not much other than his appearance. He had magical capability of which I did not know the extent of, he hated me, and had a fear of the name Cerulean.
Something hit me.
It was more of a freak hunch than anything else. Deep down inside, this stranger was closely entwined to someone whose heart was very, very near mine... I knew it.
"You. What do you have to do with Cerulean?"
He was so taken aback by my question that he again forgot to say anything about my addressing him informally.
"PATHETIC MORTAL! HOW DID YOU KNOW?"
"I guessed. What do you have to do with him? Answer my question."
"We're linked, alright? Shut up!"
I was a little less afraid now, but not much.
"How do you know everything naturally?" I questioned, furrowing my brow. He replied in a gentler manner this time.
"I use magical links, Faith. Cerulean is linked to the Creator, who is linked to you. I don't care what type the links are, I can worm my way through them. I find you to be a very useful specimen in particular..."
I don't know why he explained something to me clearly right then. He let every one of the smoke and mirrors down for a single moment and just explained something to his captive. And why did he use my real name by itself instead of adding a sarcastic "dearest" or my much-hated name from the past? I did find "specimen" bone-chilling, however.
"Please don't refer to me as a specimen."
"You used to use that term all the time."
My hunch guided me further: he was downright afraid of Cerulean, and I knew it. For the moment, I downplayed it, wondering what he'd say next.
"Things were different back then. I didn't understand."
"Understanding the new life was hardly worth the price you paid. You were foolish to give up on returning to the past. Only then did I see your true self: an idiot."
His voice hurt me so much that I decided to wait on inquiring him further. I merely buried my head in my chest fur and sighed. And then I finally managed to do something which I had taken for granted earlier. It was something I had loved to do, and was as natural as life itself – sleeping. I doubt that I would have pulled it off without the precious warmth from Rubia's shawl.
I dreamt more than I ever had before that night.
Listening to rain from underground, my name on Rubia's tongue and being cradled in the Creator's paw were some of the many wishful visions.
But Cerulean appeared in the final image alone of my fool's fantasy. I felt his hands on my shoulders in a relay of that first time back in the Valence incident; that first time he showed a single sign of benevolence towards me. And then he took flight and carried me over a mass of Valence's guards: that happened so slowly, even this second time... I glanced down at the awed faces of the workers as they jumped and grabbed up at us, but they only received a few of my tail-hairs...
I snapped awake at the moment my feet were supposed to touch the ground. My heart was still pounding from the adrenaline rush which I had just re-lived. I didn't get to see the Creator or be hugged by Cerulean that time around. I only made it past the first few hurdles: a stressful enough achievement, but you can't win a race if you stop a foot away from the finish line.
But then I noticed that Amadeus was still asleep. I knew I couldn't walk away this time: I was restrained. My dreaming had inspired a plan which probably wouldn't work, however. And if I had insane luck, it'd follow through.
"Cerulean," I whispered, "Cerulean, you're the one person he'll never hurt... You're my friend, please, help me somehow..."
"A week and we'll be at the south tip. See, it's already desolate."
Rubia was correct: actually, desolate was an understatement. The ground was barren of even the scrubbiest grass. Occasionally, we would pass by a midget skeleton of a tree. Nothing fell from the plain grey sky. No rain, nor snow, nor hail. Nothing but immortal, level grey stone for as far as our eyes could see.
"What will we eat? There isn't anything to eat off of the field," I inquired, lingering closer to Rubia.
"We'll just have to make it to the end. Wintery plants will be growing a little bit more to the south, and we can eat those. But by then, food should be the least of our worries..." she shook her head.
"I get what you're saying."
We walked in silence for a few seconds. And then I spoke more.
"I've been thinking about my dream, Rubia... Why would this he not hurt me? Well, assuming that he'd be able to attack any random person."
"Who managed to defeat Val?"
"Well, Faith freed me, and Evre did most of it anyways..."
"Orchestrated a mission to free a few dozen from the Huntress?"
"Look, Rhubarb was the one who—"
"You very well know that—"
"Alright, maybe I do. But you tackle Hunters daily, and ever since you started doing that, no one was caught. Except for me, but you then decided that it wasn't too late."
"You're right... And when was the last time that anything's stopped me?"
Master Amadeus was in a sour mood that next morning.
He entertained himself by irritating me: different spells, constantly referring to me by my former name, and dragging me around on the barren ice. I was starting to get sick to my stomach and spirit.
A new wave of guilt came over me as I recalled something — I never got to say goodbye to Cerulean. I'd have been alright with a simple "bye" laced with the false knowledge that I'd return. But when I saw him last, when I was leaving home, he'd wordlessly grinned at me. I only waved at him.
His final grin began to appear to me in my dreams. I would be falling, falling through an endless tunnel, helpless, and that grin would follow me. His eyes never accompanied it — I had last seen him with his cloak over his eyes but not his mouth.
Thinking about it felt terrible, so I changed the subject.
I remembered a proverb then that Rubia had told me once. The gist of it came to me immediately — something about flowers — but I had a hard time with the exact wording. And then I realized,
"You haven't lived until you've watered the flowers by the windmill."
The Blumaroo stopped dead in his tracks. "What?"
To my horror, I found that I'd actually said it out loud. "Nothing, nothing... Just something someone told me once."
For days after I'd been told about the flowers by the windmill, I wondered what it meant. I thought about what the flowers could be: dainty trinkets, savory moments, and then I realized — good intentions, and the people who have them. Watering the blooms could mean multiple things, too; but I'd been sitting among the flowers for some time. There wasn't much for me to do but be friends with Rubia and Cerulean.
That was something I enjoyed doing.
Now, I walked on all fours behind my captor, slouching. There was a time when I didn't have my head so low to the ground, but those days were far behind me. I'd been happy once, happy to just sit out of the race and have it easy. But now, I was forced to run faster than time, because just now I was far behind. And I had no idea what I was chasing after.
Returning to my family was something I couldn't do. Even if I could find a way home, I would merely lure this evil man to my friends. Wherever I went, he would find me. There was no way for me to please him. No matter where I ran off, he would traipse after me, and begin to drag me in his own direction once more. And then it hit me.
All I needed was a path he couldn't follow.
"Where are you taking me?"
I already knew the answer — away from the flowers by the windmill.
"South. You'll find out where. In the meantime, let me talk to you. You have underestimated my magical strength. Not enough fear is holding you back. Now, wretched mortal, allow me to show you fear. I have kept it invisible this entire time..."
What was he speaking of? I was already scared stiff of him. There was nothing he could possibly do – or show – that could make me go below zero. Or so I thought.
He took his time undoing the buttons on his jacket. It seemed to take him forever as I stood there, expectant and slightly afraid. He purposefully fumbled on the third, fourth and seventh buttons. Right after the eighth one, he stopped and yawned.
I glared at him.
"Who unbuttons their clothes from the bottom up?" I remarked, turning my empty palms upward.
"Clearly, I do," he hissed.
I rolled my eyes and sighed. He continued dragging his heels all the way through the remaining five buttons, trying to make it look like his fingers were fumbling because of the cold. I saw right through that one.
You know, if that was Cerulean toying with me, I would have let him.
My adversary's thumb kept slipping on the twelfth one. I made my yawn as loud, obvious and nonchalant as much as I could right then. He glared at me like I'd glared at him when he yawned. I pretended not to notice. He shook his head and undid the twelfth and thirteenth. His joke was about over: he took about fifteen seconds fishing around in an inner pocket. But then he truly tired of the game. He went ahead and pulled out his prize.
I gasped, and nearly choked on the clean air.
The diamond object glittered in the dim light of the clouded sky. It had many edges and surfaces, yet was completely symmetrical. And it was a flattened-out V shape... a boomerang.
"Imagine. I found it completely unguarded at the top of Cloudpoint. By someone else killing the beast, it was free to be taken. Too easy..."
"But yes, mortal. The Crystal Boomerang. And with your and Cerulean's memories, I found it."
He looked smug. Above me. Grimly delighted.
"No... No! No!"
"I must give you some credit... It was the chance I had been waiting for."
Why?! Why did I ever feel the need to make the Cloudpoint Monster revert to an ordinary forester who knew better than to take a tainted artifact? Someone who didn't care about protecting it? Anyone could possess me now for all I cared, just so that there would still be something between the boomerang and the outside world...
My actions back then influenced my fate now.
I thought when I had gone to Cloudpoint, I had been digging into the ground for sacred jewels; yet in the end, I got too absorbed in those precious gems to notice that the hole was caving in. Right as I almost crawled out from it, my handhold crumbled within my grasp, and I fell into the rockslide. Now I was too buried to make it out alive — I was running out of air, and I didn't have the strength to get myself out from under.
"But... I thought... How... Are you uncorrupted?" I stuttered as he mockingly waved it an inch from my nose. Whenever I anxiously stepped back, he'd just take another step forward. "Or did it make you this way?"
His expression was unwaveringly self-righteous during those first few of my nervous words, but then he stopped.
"You impudent little rascal!" he snapped, raising his empty hand and flicking it once. I was sent flying ten feet away from him, gritting my teeth as I skidded across some ice. "My form is no work of the Crystal Boomerang!"
And then, he spoke more, and I discovered something.
"As a Creator's Child — more or less — I have enough external light magic to deflect the will of the Boomerang itself. So even if it wants to make me have three heads, it can't."
His only true passion was for explaining things. If he knew something I didn't, he couldn't keep it secret forever without giving in to the urge to explain it. In fact, I realized with a start that he was willing to briefly put aside his hatred of me just to satisfy this craving.
But my fear phased away again. I was starting to realize that my emotions were repeatedly switching between apprehension and adamancy. I sat up with a snarl.
"Fact of life: I will get in your way as much as is humanly possible. Deal with it."
"Well, seemingly as anything I do isn't humanly possible, what is humanly possible around me shouldn't be all that much since you're opposing me. Where do you get all that hot air from in this weather? That tatty rag you've been clinging to this entire time? Here, I think you'll be a bit more comfortable without it."
"No!" I shrieked as he wagged one finger and Rubia's shawl began to drift from my shoulders. I grabbed at the garment and pulled it near me.
"Well, I guess I'll have to try catching you unawares, then. Like the fable goes, the storm only made a man hold his coat closer to him, but the hot sun got it off of him easily."
He put his finger down, and the shawl limply fell over my upper body again. I mentally sighed with relief: I could not stop hoping that I would see my family again. Besides that, it was all I had for comfort. Rubia had gone as far as putting it on me. I didn't forget that.
When you only have one piece of hope left, you cling to it tightly.
Faith's absence began gnawing away at me. I slowly waned into a nervous wreck. We were also reaching her and I was worried. How would we get her back?
I need her, I lamented, sighing to myself. Rubia's head was hung low as she slithered beside me. My stomach... I would rather be starving with Faith and Rubia than be starving with Rubia... If only...
I looked up just as a wispy dust of snow began to fall. The powder gave a white hue to the stone it fell on, but it always melted in our tracks. We carried on, and eventually plenty of it accumulated. But that was still delicate enough to melt as soon as we trod on it.
More snow. Spots of ice. Bigger flakes. Occasional lump of hail.
I was thankful for my cloak in the bitter cold. Also, I was certain it was the reason Rubia was clinging to my side, as even she could use a little heat in the Silent Lands. The plains were a couple dozen degrees colder than Cloudpoint, her birthplace. Degrees Fahrenheit, not Celsius. Celsius is evil.
My heart panged for Faith in silence. In the distance, that may have been a floating silhouette, or it could have been the snow in my eyes...
"His Arcaneness? May I sleep somewhere warmer tonight?"
Master Amadeus stopped walking. He muttered something under his breath, and I felt an immense headache come over me. I groaned, helpless, as I slogged behind him.
"You know, for an ocarinist, I would expect your voice to not strain so easily. But I suppose that is why you play a wind instrument instead of sing."
My determination was beginning to fade away into timidity again.
I heard him snicker. A simple request and he treated me like he would a dire enemy. Why? Why treat a stranger off the street with such cruelty? A miserable whine escaped from me.
"I could leave you like this all day, Faith, dearest... If I wanted. You are rather a fun plaything, and I'm not going to immediately leave you in the ice to perish. As I said before... All the worse for you."
He turned to me to grin evilly. His expression terrified me. My Creator... Let this madness end... If you're still there, take me to you. Save me. Please. I'll do anything. I... I love you! I know I don't have many friends, but you're one of them! Bring an end to this if you can hear me!
My silent wishes were futile. Mother Forest was not there to hear them. Master Amadeus' strong laugh surfaced inside my mind. He had heard my plea, and he was delighted at my heartache.
I tried so hard to ignore that anxious energy which was caused by the Crystal Boomerang. Ever since Cerulean entered my life, I had heard the tales of how that artifact marred so many people just by touching or having a hold on them. Why wasn't it deforming me? I suppose that corruption in my general direction isn't in Master Amadeus' priorities now; I have some light magic from the Creator anyways. Probably. Okay, well, if I still have magic in me, it's working.
I wanted to get away from Master Amadeus so badly... I wanted warmth, comfort and my family. I wanted the Creator. I wanted home. I wanted the suffering to stop forever.
What I wanted was for someone to just send the hurt away. I was tired of being dragged on by this awful person. I wanted for someone to be there: the Creator in my head and Cerulean by my side. I wanted Rubia, my mother. I wanted to shake the guilt that she might need her good shawl. I wanted my life back.
"His Arcaneness. Let me go. Please."
Master Amadeus sighed in exasperation and tossed me against the ground with a flick of his hand. I yelped.
"You deserve a lot worse, but I'm assuming that should keep you quiet for a while. Oh, look, we're here."
Another wave of fear washed over my heart as I looked at something hovering over the southern ocean. Chunks of ice crust floated in the waters, but those weren't it.
"...An iceberg," I blinked at the giant lump of ice in the distance.
"Oh, brilliant deduction. Ten points. Woo-hoo."
"A giant, floating iceberg..."
"Technically, all icebergs do float..."
"A giant iceberg floating ten hundred feet in the air."
"It appears that my former conclusion about you was slightly incorrect. In addition to playing the ocarina, your other absolutely useless skill is estimating: something you still aren't that good at. I believe that would be one thousand, five hundred feet in the air."
He raised his hand and levitated me off of the ground. I shuddered at the feeling as I clawed at the ice, but just like the doorknob back at home, my fingers wouldn't touch it. He jumped and flew forward; evidently, his wings were useless, as he appeared to be using magic and was not moving them at all. Or was he lazy?
Holy Kau Holy Kau I don't like this I don't like this...
The cold clung to me bitterly as the air flowed around us. A fixed expression was on his face, his eyes trained on a particular ledge of the iceberg. I closed my own eyes as I tried to keep myself steady. The ground seemed to be moving away when I opened them, but I knew I was rising.
I hadn't been this far above ground since... since half a year ago. I had climbed trees and scaled Cloudpoint, but I was still connected to the ground back then whether by means of wood or stone. Now my feet were on nothing. I did not feel airsick: I had been airborne many times over in Hunter ships. The familiarity was what caused me discomfort.
He landed on the iceberg's ledge by slowly setting himself on his hind legs, but he harshly tossed me onto the ice.
"We're here," he said with a grim smile, lifting me to my feet.
I could see twenty feet to my left and twenty feet to my right before the iceberg ended on either side. The surface of it was almost so smooth it was eerie, as though he had leveled it with a giant knife... but there were two or three kinks, as though the knife hadn't been sharpened. There was little of significance: an oaken stairwell leading down a few feet to my left, and a bluff rising up a few yards away from where we stood.
And then I noticed several sets of metal shackles hanging in a row ten feet high on the cliff.
"Oh no," I said, my spine prickling with tension as I felt the Crystal Boomerang's hold on me. "Oh no, oh no, oh no—"
"Shut up," he demanded as he raised me into the air and jerked me towards a pair of the chains. "Yes, I know this sort of thing is a bit stereotypical, but like they say, there are no new ideas."
"Why are you doing this to me if I never did anything?" I accused. He snapped his fingers, and the shackles popped open. "I'd understand if you were trying to get back at me for hunting you – but I never saw you when I was a Huntress."
"I thought you already knew how much I hated you," he explained as he turned me upside down and the cuffs clicked around my ankles with another snap of his fingers. Rubia's shawl fell over my head. "Oh, how stereotypically evil of me."
"Surely friendship feels better?" I mumbled as I awkwardly managed to adjust the cloth so it was more of a scarf.
"Love is Cerulean's thing. I am his opposite."
He smirked as he looked at me: a thin girl dangling by her feet. The ground was much too low for my liking.
"I'm not sure those fit quite right. Allow me to adjust them for you."
Another cry escaped my mouth as the cuffs tightened suddenly, although it hardly increased the amount of suffering I was in.
"Well, bad night. I need to go and study... We will be getting awfully busy pretty soon."
...Busy? Should I even dare to wonder what we'll be doing?
I couldn't get to sleep for several hours. Master Amadeus had retreated down the dark stairs, and I could have heard his loud snores from the shore: but lucky me, I wasn't on the shore. I got to listen to them up close. It took him all of five minutes to start snorting and snuffling. But I wasn't even touching solid turf, my shackles dug deep into me and I was freezing then more than ever. Ice crystals had formed in the shawl – I should have bothered to wring the now-frozen rainwater from it back in the forests.
It only made me colder now.
To be continued...