Cinnamon and Vinegar: Part Five
Stupid Lost Coward Who Wants a Soul
"That is a very strange story," she said.
"There is another part. A few people say that before the betrayal happened, the Creator actually tried to heal Valence's torn soul. I'm unsure about some of the whole details about what that was, but it was possibly the root of what caused him to do that," Rubia added.
"I've never heard that bit before," I confessed, intrigued.
"The story isn't told often among those who know it, and certainly not by me, so I decided to tinker with it some," the Hissi replied, aiming her motherly smile at me. "And I think I heard the torn soul from Tor once."
I briefly felt grief for my brother, but got over it before showing sadness.
"Have you really never heard at least the backbone of this before?" I questioned Faith as I inched closer to her. She was calming down to our presence, but I sensed confusion within her.
"Not a word of it."
"In that case, I want to remind you that if you feel like you're being watched or you hear something from behind you, run. As fast. As. YOU. CAN."
"Alright, alright. When... was all this?"
"I don't know. Uncountable years before any of us were born. The Hunters have been chasing us down for pretty much the whole time."
"Are they the big Xweetoks?"
"Yes. Have you seen one?"
"No, but I heard about them."
"From who?" Rubia interjected. Faith said nothing at all.
"Look. We're your family, despite our lack of being related to each other whatsoever. We need to know where you've been for the past week, why you've been beaten up... And for the sake of sweet stewed Marbluk eyeballs why we finally came across you in the middle of a frozen wasteland."
The red Xweetok stared at her for a few seconds. And then, "Well, is there any reason why you wouldn't?"
The very next day, an awful lot changed.
The sun streaked a scarlet glow across the flat, grey stone plains. I awakened with a yawn, prior to shivering. My thick pelt of hair seemed to do little against the frigid air — why had I been so oblivious to it before? The winged Xweetok and the Hissi were speaking to each other a few feet away.
"...Cerulean, this is reminiscent of a miracle. Just last night after you and Faith fell asleep, I was stargazing. Then I realized where we were in comparison to the Ember Star, our brightest star, and it turns out that we're much closer to home than I thought. I had no idea we covered so much ground yesterday... If we keep at it today, we can probably make it home by nightfall."
I approached them and took a moment to breathe in the morning's scent.
"Oh, you're awake. Did you hear what I just said to Cerulean?" Rubia asked.
"That we can make it home today?" I questioned, tilting my head.
"Yes, yes. We couldn't find anything to eat, Faith, I'm sorry. But we can make it home."
Cerulean moved towards my side. "I hope it helps you to remember something."
"If it doesn't, will you let me go?"
"...Well..." He glanced at Rubia. "We kind of know you're her."
"We've got physical similarity to go on," the Hissi added. "For Serace's sake, that's the shawl I loaned to you!"
My jaw fell open. "The... what?"
I was familiar enough with traveling to know that when you went too far north or south from the forests, you reached the Silent Lands.
For the most part, the plant life was too sparse for anyone to live there, but there were exceptions. Wherever the conditions were exactly right, flora could grow, so whatever managed to live completely thrived. Also, there was Cloudpoint, an absolutely unusually large hotspot of a mountain where everything was as overgrown as in the forests.
As you went from the Silent Lands back towards the woodlands, of course, things grew back. Trees appeared, but they were petty excuses of ordinary mesquite, as well as being few and far between. The weather gradually seemed to heat up, a relief to my freezing self, although my cloak had helped. And of course, Faith allowed me to rest my wing on her again, so her body heat felt good.
Finally, the forests truly began. The massive trees warmed my heart with familiarity. We had to cross a couple of counties until we returned to Deepwood, but it wouldn't be hard. And getting Faith to stay with us at home would hopefully not be difficult, either.
So I thought...
I lived in fear that it was all a trap.
Master needed me, and I had put my own needs first. I felt the sudden need to break away from Cerulean and Rubia — I felt as though Master had warned me about them. But who was Master? I couldn't even get his image in my head... Had I ever seen him?
What does Master want me to do, though? I... arrgh... can't remember... Why'd I have to hit my head somewhere? Can Cerulean and Rubia help me with whatever my goal is?
My pelt was waterlogged in rain. My stomach was little by little smoldering away with hunger. My heart stung with distress.
And so, I held a sour breath of air as Rubia opened a door inside of a tree coated in vines as she sighed, "Home sweet home."
Two thrones and two chairs sat against the wall. A table was near the other side of the foyer, with a bed quite near to it. I noted a couple more doors other than the one I had entered through.
"Finally, we're home and we have you back," Rubia purred in relief. I stiffened with tension. That was phrased terribly for someone I was just beginning to trust.
"Faith, do you remember this place?" Cerulean asked me. I shook my head.
"Maybe a little," I said. But it was more than that. I could feel something somewhere at the center of me. I already knew what was behind the other doors. I already knew where the furnace and bedroom were. "I have to go!"
I suddenly burst towards the front door. I couldn't stand that sense of familiarity. I just had to get away from that place. I needed to be outside, away from these people. But two firm paws gripped my shoulders just as I grappled for the knob.
"No, Faith. I'm not letting you go again," Cerulean said, and turned me towards him. "You disappearing once without leaving behind a note was one time too many. I don't know what happened to you or who got you banged up like this, but I'm not letting it happen twice."
My breathing was slow and heavy, as was his. His eyes stared into mine for several long, silent, almost calming moments. He put his hands back at his side as nodded. He wouldn't let what happen to me twice? Is this... pity? Why do I feel like I don't deserve any of his kindness?
"I seriously think someone's been messing with her," Rubia theorized. No, I thought. I was born this way... I need to find Master! But what did he want again?
"How so?" Cerulean questioned. My head was spinning.
"Someone could have done any number of things to her with magic."
Oh yeah, the sap...
"...Including wiping her memory?"
"Yes, I think that's the only thing which could have happened..."
Their conversation faded from my head. I felt so out of place between them. They thought I belonged, but I didn't. I wasn't anything like them. Wait... No, that's not right. I have the color of one and species of another. Why is that? Why do I only notice that now?
I knew I wasn't related to them. I knew they should've hated me. I knew that I'd done something terrible to both of them – I just couldn't pin what that thing was.
Why'd they both been so nice to me?
"Yes, Cerulean, I know that we can't leave Faith home alone because she still might try to sneak off, but I'm out of this medicinal fungus, it only grows this time of year, and all of it that's close to the ground has already been picked by now. I need you to climb the tree it's on, and you don't know how to get there on your own... Listen; have you ever seen me climb a tree? I don't want to take her because she could feel intimidated and less likely to remember us. And besides, we'll be fast. She'll never know we were gone."
I awakened to the pain of my broken legs, and moaned.
But it was a little less fierce than it had been before, and I realized that the cold had numbed the swollenness. Could my magic-using abilities finally be unhindered enough for me to heal myself?
I waved my hand over the wound. Black sparks flashed across the skin, and mended my legs within instants. So I got up on my own and went down to my quarters so I could study.
Here's hoping Nature Girl gets back soon... I need that blasted Xweetok for my plans.
I managed to sneak away.
I had been curled up in bed, heated by warm water. Despite my physical comfort, however, tempests wracked my mind as usual. Will Master live without my help?
And then I decided that it was the time to act. I could outrun Cerulean. I knew I could, because I really, really wanted to. I'd be out the door before he could rise from his throne to block my path. I didn't mentally grumble at leaving behind comfort — my everlasting desire quenched personal wants. Someone depended on me.
And so, I threw the sash of my canteen around my arm, headed into the corridor, and braced myself. I barged into the foyer, and faced no resistance whatsoever as I plunged for the room's other end. As I put my hand on the front door, it hit me. I slowly turned my head and saw two empty thrones.
I furrowed my brow, but shrugged it off and headed out. I recalled Master telling me something — the Creator's Breath tree seemed to be made of gold. I walked for an hour, stumbling along for a yellow tree. How rare were they, or was there only one? If there was only one, would Master have given me specific directions?
It occurred to me that I knew nothing about Master besides his general appearance. Did he care about me as a servant, or was my mission for his own gain? No, no, of course this was for his gain. I was but a stepping stone, a permanent tool he kept at his side.
I was permanent, right?
And then I somehow realized that I wasn't.
I realized so much as I stopped short in the middle of the path.
I was nothing. I was to do this and be done and... and... leave. Be disposed of. Crumble to dust. I don't know how I knew that. But if I was nothing, did I have a soul? I supposed not. I wanted one an awful lot. Perhaps I had done nothing wrong after all, but I began to wish so hard that I had been a convict girl rather than this soulless nothing... someone insignificant, a coward and an idiot, and I had no idea where I was exactly.
Great. I'm playing the lost girl, tin man, scarecrow and Noil all at once.
I quickly unsheathed my claws and scaled the nearest tree. It was nothing but another common oak. Glad to at least have a place to rest my paws, I crawled into a niche formed by two branches twisted around each other, curled up, and started to cry in something more painful than silence. The gushing, splashing downpour didn't stop around me: it drowned out my quiet sobs.
I half-buried my head in my chest fur, clutching my knees tightly to myself. Rainwater started to run off of a leaf so that it poured on my forehead in a rather irritating manner, but I ignored it. The world had just run me over. Time passed agonizingly slowly as I sat there getting wetter by the second from not only the rain but also my tears.
I opened my eyes and figured that I might as well stand up again. I jumped down from my perch, my heart stiff with apprehension as I began to walk. But then I suddenly stopped, turned around, and looked back at the tree.
Master had been right.
Gold. A tree of gold. It was beautiful, from the bottom to the top. The bark was so shimmery and seamless, the leaves so crisp and delicate and the twisted roots so smooth. The willowy branches of it arched to the ground with their own weight. I felt like I was entering a dome as I stepped forth. A wind stirred, and large seed pods rattled like frail maracas. The entire tree would have shimmered if the sun ever came out. How... how had this changed all of a sudden?
The ground beneath its boughs was blanketed with gold leaf quite literally. I picked up one of the spade-shaped fronds to inspect it, but half of it limply flopped over. And then it snapped, returning a portion of itself to the forest litter. Realizing that I really should get my business done, I hastily removed my canteen from where it had been at my side.
I manage to smile as I noticed fat drops of amber sap sticking to the sides of the tree. Using my claws so that it wouldn't leave an eternal mess on my hands, I scraped several off of the trunk and against my canteen's rim. More and more beads of it were deposited before I decided to head back.
But when I lifted my foot to leave, I jumped at my name (well, the name used by Rubia and Cerulean, at least) being called by a deep voice. I prepared to run but noticed that there was nobody there. A sigh of relief escaped my mouth and I started to saunter out from under the tree again. I'm getting paranoid...
'I've finally caught up to you! Where have you been?!'
"Who's there?!" I shouted, whipping around. "Come on, now, show yourself!"
At first I considered raising both of my hands in a pose of surrender. But instead, I picked up a fallen oak branch, and wielded it threateningly. My eyes darted around the area, but I saw nobody. The bough shook in my hands as I nearly exploded with stress and adrenaline.
"What? Who are you? Are you invisible?"
'Alright, I guess we've got some catching up to do. It's me, the Creator...'
The voice sounded slightly exasperated.
'What?! Where are you? You mean, THE Creator?'
'Yes, yes, THE Creator. Really, the way I'm reading your train of thought like I always do, you'd probably recognize me... Well, my messenger, where have you been?'
'Wait, things are getting weird, I don't believe you. And calling a Creator-forgotten ex-Huntress like me your messenger is insane. Well, at least if you're calling yourself the Creator at the same time...'
I don't know what I had to do with being a Huntress, but it made my blood run cold all of a sudden. I said those words and even worse, I believed them.
'Faith, are... Are you serious? I haven't forgotten you. I've been looking for you.'
'Great, as if I need another person to say they've been looking for me!'
It barely registered to me that she was responding to my words before I even said them, but I ignored it and started running on all fours.
'Faith, it's me, I can prove it. I've possessed you, remember?'
'That's crazy. Leave me alone already.'
'Don't you remember losing reception with me? It was caused by dark magic, wasn't it? OH! Faith, where did you get that canteen?'
'Ninety-nine goblets of root beer on the wall, ninety-nine goblets of root beer...'
'Are... you... trying to drown me out? Faith, this isn't you!'
'TAKE ONE DOWN, PASS IT AROUND, NINETY-NINE GOBLETS OF ROOT BEER ON THE WALL!'
'Agh, easy, minds are more sensitive than ears... Wait just one second. Did someone put the goblet back?'
'Listen to me, Faith! Someone has done something to you, and if I have to possess you to prove that I am your Creator, then I will!'
I gasped and started running faster.
'And I know exactly what I am going to do while you're possessed! I will get that canteen and... And... Those are chains! It's the chains! Faith, you did not put those on yourself for the last time someone's been messing with you just let me show you the way out! I won't have anyone messing with MY messenger!'
'There's still dark magic on you! The telepathy's back, but I can't possess you! Faith, listen to me! GET THAT CANTEEN AND THOSE SHACKLES OFF!'
I jumped over a fallen log, panting heavily but not stopping.
I felt my heart pounding in my ears. Part of me wanted me to stop and apologize to her. But the part of me controlled by Master said no.
'I need this canteen!'
'You haven't used it; it's been empty up until this very minute! Tell me, my messenger, where are you going with that sap? Faith, you're getting too far away from a light magic keyhole, if you don't get rid of that darkness, then soon—'
Her voice fell silent. I stopped for a couple of seconds. And then I backed up a few steps.
'...AAAITH! Faith, please tell me you're there, Faith, can you hear me?!'
I trotted off and her voice vanished.
The conversation softened me somehow, even though I'd been so irritating to her. I didn't know what had just happened, or why I felt guilty about what I said. Maybe I was just ready to go back to my family...
No, no. I don't have a family. I don't have a soul. I just need to keep on walking. To find Master and crumble back to dust.
And then, I heard Rubia's genuine cry of, "Faith! Get back here!"
And that was that.
"Cerulean? Can I talk to you for a second?"
It was the evening of the day Faith tried to run away, and she had already gone to bed — at least she was still a heavy sleeper. I glanced up from my reading at the sound of Rubia's voice. She looked serious, so I closed my book and gently nodded.
"Is it about Faith?" I asked.
"Well, yes. I'm worried about her."
We sat in silence. Something felt different.
"I miss her, Rubia. I mean, the real Faith. The one who knew everything we've been through."
"What do you think might trigger her memory?"
"Well, I noticed that she doesn't have her key with her. I think that's odd, for something she wears around her neck every day."
"Rubia, the string broke."
"How do you know that?"
"The string broke. It makes sense."
The Hissi shook her head sadly.
"If your voice alone didn't bring anything back... I'm not sure anything will. I managed to get her canteen away from her; she'd really have to dig through the storage room to find it now. I think it's stopped her from trying to run off again. And I just put two and two together: those awful chains are around her ankles, and they're the kinds prisoners wear. It means that she was chained to something by her feet. I'm no prison expert, but it'd be kind of odd for it to be something on the ground. The poor soul must have been hanging upside down."
I sighed. "I think I'll get some tea. Might help me sleep, but if I'm restless this time of day, it might not change anything."
I got up, heading for the corridor. It was too short to be a hallway; it was really that room in-between the furnace, foyer, bedroom and storage room. I was mentally noting as I closed the door behind me that a couple of torches had gone out.
And then I bumped into someone — her identity was more obvious than a Hunter yelling for some foresters to go outside so he can chase them.
She softly yelped in surprise as we both lost our balance and fell to opposite sides of the room. I heard the rattle of chains. I got on my feet and took a step towards where I thought she was. Although, the room had very few torches normally, and as only two small ones were still lit, I could barely make anything out.
"...Faith?" I questioned, to be replied with by a small gasp from my left.
"Please, I'm sorry. Don't hurt me!"
"Faith, I wouldn't— "
Something within me stirred.
"I wouldn't dream of hurting you. You know that."
She suddenly clenched my arm, burying her face into it. It took me by surprise a little: she never did that, and if she did I would have started comforting her first. Besides that, she'd forgotten I was someone she'd seek for consolation. Slightly flustered, I put my arm around her.
"Someone else... I don't know who. Everything's blurry," she whimpered, looking up at me.
"Literally blurry?" I asked, furrowing my eyebrows.
"No. My mind..."
I briefly imagined what it would be like to have a blurry mind. If my emotions didn't have the clarity they did, my every action had no definition of right or wrong, or there were no lines between friend and foe, I'd be ruined and never know it.
"Faith, please just tell me what you're thinking right now."
She closed her eyes, finally learning to trust me again.
"I need... I need to return to Master..."
"...Master?" I leaned closer to her. "Faith. I need a word with this master of yours."
"Do you know him?"
"Do I? What is his name?"
"I... I don't know... I'm so confused... Why have you been using my name so much?"
For a moment, I started to rub my palm against the back of my neck. That was one of my two nervous tics; the other was calling someone by name repeatedly.
"You've stopped objecting to it," I said as she gasped in disbelief.
"I can't believe it... It feels like it's mine... If it isn't, please forgive me... I... I..."
Faith, as I discovered then, had her nervous tic. As she spoke further, she anxiously wrung her fingers.
"Cerulean, I can't explain it."
To be continued...