Dagra hated being interrupted while he was chronicling.
“One would think,” he told his mate Naltia as she staggered into the temple babbling some hysterical nonsense, “that I could be afforded a bit of privacy as I carry out one of our most sacred of tasks.”
“Oh, shut up,” Naltia snapped at him. “I’m concerned about Muarr.”
“What about him?”
“He went out hunting this morning and hasn’t returned. Morning fog’ll burn off soon–he’ll be detectable!”
“Oh, calm down, woman, He’ll turn up before long.”
She punched him in the shoulder. “How can you just sit there chiseling away at that stupid wall while your son is in danger of being harvested?”
He spun ’round on his stool to face her. “Stupid wall? Do you hear yourself? Why, without the stories on these walls we wouldn’t know who we were, or how we came to be. Take it back at once.”
She ignored his request, instead seizing him by the shoulders and giving him a good rough shake.
“Get up and help me find him!”
He eased her back, brushed off his robe and turned his attention back to the wall.
Tink. Tink tink tink. Tink.
“If he is lost,” there is nothing we can do but wait. We’d never find him in time to do him any good, and we’d be taken as well.”
Tink tink tink tink tink. Tink tink.
“And if he has been taken, I’ll have to chronicle it.”
Tink, tink, tink tink… tinktinktinktinktinktink
She grabbed him by the arm. “I hate that sound, she hissed between gritted teeth.
He shrugged and jerked his arm away. “Then why,” he said, “did you come in here?”
Tink. Tink. Tink.
She screamed, picked up an urn from its pedestal and hurled it against the wall. It shattered, erupting in a cloud of dank-smelling dust.
“That was Dengus the Brave!” he roared. “Do you know what you’ve done? Get out! Muarr will find his way home because he’s smart, unlike his foolish mother! Out!”
Sobbing, she ran out of the temple into the arms of Sovan, her brother, jolting her even further.
“There you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for… Say, is something the matter, sis?”
She told him, between gasps, sniffles and snorts, about Muarr, and about Dagra’s appallingly lackadaisical outlook on the entire situation.
“Oh, Naltia,” he said into her hair as she wrapped her arms around his waist and melted into him, “Muarr is a smart boy. He’s probably already back inside Firewall. Most likely got caught up stalking some particularly elusive skrone and loss track of time, I expect. I was the same way at his age. Never came home empty-handed.”
She seemed to relax a little, but just a little. “I suppose you’re right,” she whimpered, “but the thought of him being taken… somewhere else, for the rest of his life, never to return…”
“I know, Naltia, I know. If it will bring you piece of mind, I’ll go out and search for him. Although, I believe he’ll be back before me.”
“Be careful,” she whispered, gazing into his reassuring eyes.
He squeezed her hands and smiled. “Don’t worry. I will.”
He took his leave of her and returned to his dwelling to retrieve his best sword. It was all he’d need.
As his cave was only two levels up from the ground, it didn’t take him long to climb up and down the ladder and be on his way across Firewall’s dimly-lit rocky crags in search of his nephew.
Rockbears flashed and glowed in shadows and crevices, their luminescence more than once sparing him the indignity of tripping and falling on his face.
When he’d almost reached the Whispering Woods that separated Firewall from the rest of Galenia, he was joined by Pugna, a scrappy young fellow who was well-known as a seeker of excitement and adventure–often to his own detriment.
The morning light was now filtering down through the night’s flowerfog haze, its beams shining through the tangle of thick, ancient vines that formed a massive canopy across Galen’s Gorge.
“Come on, let me go with you,” he pleaded. “I bag Kray all the time. I know my way around these woods.”
“How can you know your way around woods that change and become unrecognizable from one moment to the next?”
“Easy,” Pugna replied, as if the answer were obvious. “You have to listen to the trees.”
Sovan laughed and walked faster. “You’re one of those, are you?”
Pugna scowled. “They do speak. Except they don’t talk–you only hear their voices inside of your head.”
“Well,” said Sovan, “I’m glad you’re going to be along to translate for me, because they’ve never spoken to me.”
“That’s because you don’t believe.”
“Believe that the spirits of our ancestors live on in those trees and offer guidance? You’re right, I don’t. Do you know why? Because it’s ridiculous.”
“They’re trapped there because they ate the fruit,” said Pugna. “They want others to eat the fruit and join them. That’s why when you can hear the voices, you have to be strong enough to resist the urge to take a bite.”
Sovan stopped at the edge of the forest, turned around and gave the boy a pitying look. “I’m beginning to think you actually believe this nonsense you’re spouting,” he said.
“Why do you think we don’t eat the fruit? One bite and poof! You’re one of them.”
“We don’t eat the fruit because it’s poisonous. The story you speak of was concocted to keep stupid people from eating it, because apparently a protracted, agonizing death by poisoning wasn’t a good enough reason for them to avoid doing so.”
“Hey, whatever keeps them from eating it,” said Pugna. His eyes grew distant, as if her were straining to listen to something far off.
“I can hear them,” he whispered so softly that Sovan could barely make out what he was saying. “They know where Muarr is. But they want us to eat the fruit before they tell us.”
Sovan gave him a lopsided grin and sniffed. “They do smell amazing, don’t they? Brilliant natural defense, that is. Every creature indigenous to this region knows instinctively to avoid them, except us. And we think we’re the smart ones.”
“Fog’s burning off,” Pugna reminded him.
“Yes, it is,” Sovan replied, hacking his way through the dense, weblike vines blocking his entrance to the forest. “And you’re wasting my time.”
Pugna withdrew a rather large dagger from a Krayhide sheath around his and leg and helped. Within minutes, they were inside and navigating the dark maze that had been called, as long as anyone could remember, the Whispering Woods.
An even more tightly woven canopy of vines than the one covering Firewall rendered these woods almost pitch black. Still, the soft, multihued glow generated by the thousands of mushrooms sprouting from the dank, rich soil of the forest floor lit their path well enough.
“Can you not hear them?” asked Pugna. “So many voices.”
“Stop it,” said Sovan. “We haven’t the time for this sort of superstitious nonsense.”
“They say he went that way,” said Pugna, pointing to his right.
Sovan sighed. “Well, I suppose it’s as good a direction to go in as any. Lead the way, treetalker.”
“You won’t make fun when they lead us to Muarr.” Pugna closed his eyes and frowned. “Shut up! I don’t want to eat the fruit!”
“I didn’t ask you to,” said Sovan. “What’s the matter with you?”
The boy pointed at a nearby tree, one that had produced so much of its deadly, sweet-smelling yellow fruit that it was buckling under the weight of it all. “I was talking to them.”
Sovan shook his head and marched across the soft ground in the direction Pugna said the trees had indicated.
Pugna trudged along behind him in silence for some time, until Sovan stopped and held up his arm.
“Wait.” He pointed at a rippling stream of black water, about six feet in length. “We’re going to have to find a way across this.”
“Afraid of getting your shoes wet?”
Sovan walked over to the nearest fruit-beating tree and plucked one. He tossed it into the water, and the stream sparked, flashed and steamed as it boiled the fruit into a gelatinous glob.
“I’m afraid of getting turned to mush by the electrical current running through this burnt sludge,” he said. “I thought you were an experienced woodsman. How is it you’ve not died?”
Pugna shrugged. “I always hop over these. I don’t like to get my boots wet.”
“They are nice boots.”
“Thank you. They’re Corralis hide.”
“I can see that. Let’s drag that fallen limb over here and use it to cross.”
As they cut through the vines that had overtaken the limb, Sovan thought he heard the trees whispering.
“You’ve gotten inside of my head,” he told his young companion. “Now I’m imagining that I’m hearing your voices, too.”
“It’s not imagination,” he said as they dragged the heavy limb over to the stream. “You’re starting to believe, so they’re talking to you now.”
They raised the limb upright and allowed it to fall across the stream. It hit the ground with a soft, muffled thud. Sovan tiptoed across it and turned around when he reached the other side.
The Whispering was getting louder. And it wasn’t his imagination. Perhaps, he mused, the juice of the fruit had seeped into his skin, causing mild neurological disruption.
Sovan knew that the fog on the other side of the forest had burned off by now, and if Muarr was still out there, beyond the protection of the forest, he was as good as dead. He hoped, for his sister’s sake, that the boy had already returned home and was safe in her arms.
The whisper grew louder, loud enough to rob him of the luxury of dismissing it as a figment of his imagination.
Get me out of here! Help! Help! Get me out of here!”
They followed these words to their source, and to a horrifying discovery.
It was a girl–a little younger than Pugna–or at least what was left of one. The rest was all roots, bark and wood.
With arms outstretched and mouth frozen wide open, she looked like a sculpture. At first, Sovan thought that’s what he was looking at, but then the eyes moved.
“Do you know who that is?” hissed Pugna. “That’s Cústa!”
Sovan peered closer at the girl/tree thing. Its outer covering was both rubbery and bark-like, and thick, protruding veins pulsated with a thick, dark fluid. It was like blood, almost, but not really. It was more like sap. The entire monstrosity radiated am overwhelming sense of despair, and was clearly in agony.
“I think you’re right,” he said.
Cústa had vanished without a trace some time back. She’d gone out into the woods with her brother Caspian, who’d come back alone claiming she’d been seized by a tree. People were suspicious of his account, but had little choice but to accept it.
Not Sovan, though.
“She must’ve eaten the fruit. I can scarcely believe my eyes, but it would appear that the trees here do act as some sort of parasite, with human beings as the host. I can’t dispute what I see before me. Caspian must’ve dared her to eat some and left her here.”
“There’s no way to free her,” said Pugna. “Look at her, she’s got roots where her legs should be. They’re all tied up underground with the roots of the other trees. That’s how they communicate. We have to kill her.”
Sovan spun around, a look of horror on his face. “How can you even think such a thing?”
In his heart, though, he knew the child spoke the truth. Essentially, Cústa was already dead.
“I’m not sure I can hack it down with my sword, but we’ll have to try. If we leave, the vines will have moved by the time we return and our path will be lost. We’ll never find her again.”
“They say when you’re turned into a tree, you can still feel pain,” said Pugna.
Sovan drew his sword. He looked into Cústa’s eyes and saw pure terror staring back. He swung. She screamed. He swung again.