We All Fall Down: Part Four
The Cruel and the Cowards
Life is a windmill.
There are those times when you smoothly cut through the air with almost no resistance, and then the very next day you find yourself trying to give the wobbly blade behind you a decent slipstream.
That's how I felt as I tried to cater to the feelings of Cerulean, who was getting chilly and... absent. I found myself speaking and bonding with Faith more, but we both wanted him back. Every time he returned tired and bitter, we didn't really have the heart to ask him about it.
"What do you think might cause it?" Faith asked on one of our long talks.
Sometimes we had casual chats punctuated with jokes. But other conversations we had were quiet and sullen and, worst of all, becoming daily.
We were cooking. It was an everyday task, but now, as Cerulean began to spend nights out in the forest and eat off the field, it went by all too quickly. And it was depressing.
Cerulean was never enthusiastic about cooking, and we didn't have to pull his weight for him now.
"I'm really not sure why he's doing this. Either he hasn't told us something, or he's going through a phase. Maybe both." I stopped stirring my broth for a moment so I could pat Faith on the shoulder.
She smiled at me, but her brows were furrowed.
We were in the kitchen, each of us leaning over our separate tasks. Some cabinet doors were left flung open, a few wooden pots and bowls were lying on the counter, and an old recipe book was open to a meal on one of its early pages. Cerulean had been gone all morning and afternoon.
"Oh, wait! I remember something: he started to act like this after we first saw that Huntress a few times awhile back. I think... I think she might have something to do with this. But I'm not sure..." Faith didn't glance up from the potatoes she was mincing.
"...Is he afraid of her? Put those in the pan over there, dear; I'll cook them in a minute."
"I don't know, I think he just hates her. Should I go ahead and add the sauce now?"
"Hmm... Oh, yes. We don't want to forget that."
I heaved the soup kettle onto my shoulder and headed towards the furnace. Faith got the door for me as I slithered into the room, and I carefully hung the pot over some flames. We continued our conversation back in the kitchen.
Faith said, "I don't exactly like her, either. She scares me. You haven't seen her yet, have you?"
"Can't say that I have, but if she's scary and good at hunting, then I doubt I'll care for her any. Now go and set the table, I'll have the potatoes done soon."
"Wait. I think... I think Cerulean should be here."
I set my gaze on her.
She knew I had her attention, and continued, "We cooked enough for the three of us, and he's been gone so much..."
Fallen twigs cracked beneath my feet as I ducked under another low branch.
I'm not entirely sure why I went looking in the Woody Lowlands. Apparently, they had once been a thick river, but a landslide upstream caused it to run dry. Now, it thrived as a lush valley.
Hunters avoided it because it was difficult for them to climb down into. And they didn't even notice that it was a highway for woodlanders: if you were going south or west, they were your safest road. I know it seems stupid to look for a Hunter in a place Hunters have a hard time getting into, but I was feeling paranoid: a dedicated Hunter would go to places with the most potential.
I got hopeful whenever I heard footsteps approaching me, but they always turned out to just be another group of woodlanders. Finally, I climbed out of the lowlands, discouraged.
And then I found her.
She was scanning her surroundings with that look in her eye again. I was barely emerging from some bracken: she didn't see me.
I could've taken my time, but I didn't.
I sprang at her with a yowl, feeling myself unleash my potential. She gasped as I collided with her and brought her down with me — almost.
She stumbled but didn't fall down. I found myself clinging to her arm cannon as we both struggled to find our balance. And then I noticed that her other arm was slung over her shoulder, a sure sign that she was carrying someone.
"You're persistent, aren't you?" she hatefully hissed as she doddered backwards. I shifted my weight to my left in an attempt to throw off her perfect balance, but I failed. She lashed around in an attempt to shake me away, but I hung on to her arm. "How long is this going to last?"
Remaining silent, I sprang at her face. She screamed and someone else gasped as I slipped and found myself clinging to her shoulders from behind.
"Get off of me!"
"Get out of here! Don't make an impossible risk for me! Please!"
The first of the exclamations brought no surprise, just mild satisfaction. But then I found myself staring into Faith's sad gaze, and she mouthed, "Please, just run."
I was enraged.
The Huntress managing to get her hands on Faith was only half of it. Faith trying to make me deny a challenge – as though I couldn't take the Huntress on – was the other two thirds of things. I kicked the winged Huntress in the side several times mostly out of frustration, my feet touching nothing but the cold plastic of Hunter armor. She ignored my efforts and took in a deep breath. And then she bolted.
"You think running will keep me from getting anywhere?!" I shouted, still clinging to her shoulders. Her legs kept moving. And then, as she slowly spread her wings, I realized what she was about to do.
Oh no no no no no... I clung, not willing to jump for fear that I wouldn't be able to gain on the Huntress again.
Then she flapped them once and sent herself three feet into the air.
Ancient law said that you could only take flight if you were going to save another forester from a Hunter, but that didn't apply to the Hunters themselves. She continued to beat her wings slowly but powerfully as the three of us lifted into the air, and then she unleashed her own potential.
We went at the speed of the wind itself, my claws nearly being torn from her armor, my soggy fur sticking up in the breeze.
She did a sudden u-turn, and I let go.
No! My heart froze as I began to fall, and I screamed. Panicking, I hurriedly spread out my own wings, and managed to catch the air when my paws were almost touching the ground.
I'd spread my feathers to break my fall, but then I got other ideas.
The Huntress was as swift as I had imagined: she was already far ahead of me. I channeled my horror and hysteria into my wing muscles, flapping them heatedly, and I really wouldn't have gone faster if I was falling. The wind was whipping madly at me as I felt myself gain on her. It was slow at first, but then I suddenly found myself neck to neck with her.
Faith was frantically shaking her head at me, but I ignored it. All she was doing was causing her net to cling to her face tighter.
I glared at the Huntress for one moment. She sternly stared back for a second, but then she looked away and sharply shot skyward. I had never flown directly up before, but I followed her. Anything for Faith...
As I found myself dodging branches, I discovered it wasn't as hard as it seemed. The Huntress, being so much larger than me, had to dodge frequently and even partially fold her wings to avoid collisions. I flitted about in front of her, big for how old I looked but still a midget compared to her.
I darted above her. She yelped and nervously rolled midair to a branch. Even then, she struggled to get her free elbow hooked around a higher bough so that she wouldn't fall.
We glared at each other.
Faith said nothing, presumably sulking. I couldn't see her.
"This is my first and last warning. Let us both go and I won't bring you any harm," I demanded of the Huntress.
She jumped off of the limb, and took flight yet again. I doggedly pressed on after her, ignoring my condition.
She broke the canopy, and I followed through the hole she left behind.
I would have found the sight of being above the trees breathtaking, but I was too focused on Faith and the Huntress. I built up more momentum, furious now to save Faith, and I strained another few feet closer to them. The Huntress angled her wings and swept down into a dive. I did my best to copy her every move, only be faster.
She tried a sudden turn, but I wasn't shaken. The attempt slowed her enough for me to finally catch up to her. I barreled into her stomach, and she hardly reeled.
"Nobody's tried that before," the Huntress hissed. "You're a fighter, Cerulean."
"Let... her... go," I snarled.
She tilted her head. "...Really, now?"
I sighed deeply.
Faith groaned. The Huntress grinned. And I should have known better.
The winged one's fist uncurled.
As a falling girl's shrill scream stabbed the air, my wings gave out. I don't know whether it had to do with the ancient rule or my own cowardice.
I angled my wings into a dive, trying to align myself with Faith as I stretched my arm out towards her. She had enough time to glance up at me as she plummeted downwards. That second's time was all I spent giving her a look that said, "I'm helping you out here whether you like it or not."
The Huntress was following us.
I barely saw her kick my wing. I gasped and lost all balance. She'd ruined my dive, so I plummeted, barely managing to land on all fours. But the moment after I touched the earth, I felt a pair of feet touch my right wing, and then they were standing on it on the earth. I howled in pain.
My wing was broken.
I felt it and I knew it. The main bone snapped, pain coursing up and down its general area. I glanced up to see nothing but a smug, horned face. Then I winced, the severity of my injury sinking in.
Faith had, thankfully, landed in some bracken. So her fall was broken. Not mine. I had to suffer.
"Get off of him! That's... That's just cruel!"
"I see little reason to."
"Pretty interesting noises your little friend makes when he's hurt."
I heard Faith hiss.
"Oh, he's finally managing to hold it in a little bit."
"Don't make fun of him! He's the bravest person I've ever met!"
I had enough. I leapt at the Huntress from under her. My wing blared with pain as I tore out from under her feet, but I didn't care.
She stumbled away from my attack, buying me the time I needed. But my wing continued to burn with pain. I surged over to Faith, grabbed a corner of her net in my jaws, flicked my head so that she landed on my back with a minor yelp, and I ran.
I siphoned all of my anger and pain into my legs, running twice as fast as the Huntress had chased me. I hadn't gone that fast in my life.
In five minutes, I slammed open the door to our house, rushed down the stairs, and barged into the kitchen with a shout of, "RUBIA!"
She glanced up from a book and gasped.
The Hissi worked quickly, hastily rolling Faith from my back, grabbing me by my good wing, laying the broken one on the table, and rubbing a pain-doubling salve into my feathers. I screamed. And then I found myself calming down as the ointment began to soak into my skin.
"Let it air for a minute and I'll bandage it," the Hissi said with a sympathetic nod. She turned to get Faith out of the net. I was relieved, but how long would it be before I could move around again?
Watching my friends normally eased me, but Faith was in discomfort, and Rubia's focused look betrayed nothing. "Rubia, push that button right there," the Xweetok suggested through gritted teeth. Rubia squinted at the plastic lump and poked it. The entire setup released Faith and she got to her feet, stretching.
"Wish I found that out earlier in my life," Rubia admitted. Then she furrowed her brow. "How'd that Doglefox get in the house?"
Faith and I both looked at the source of the Hissi's query, a yellow Doglefox standing by the door of the room.
"Aww, he's cute!" My fellow Xweetok instantly gushed, forgetting what we'd gone through minutes earlier.
"...How do you know it's a guy?" I asked, somewhat disturbed by her reaction.
"Litehart knows a lot about Doglefoxes; I think she said that yellow ones are always male—"
"Male or female, it's going back outside. Petpets and books don't mix well with each other, unless the Petpet was raised well."
The Doglefox whined in disappointment as Rubia picked him up by the scruff of his neck. She carefully slung the deactivated net over her shoulder and headed out of the room.
With the Hissi and Doglefox gone, Faith gave me a disappointed glance. But... it wasn't disappointment in me.
She sat down by me, hugged her knees and whispered, "I'm sorry."
To be continued...