Sunborn Rising: Wake
By Aaron Safronoff
Copyright © 2017 Aaron Safronoff
All Rights Reserved.
Story by Aaron Safronoff
Edited by Someone Not Me
For information address:
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. All resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.
Chapter 1: The Middle Distance
“See anything?” Plicks whispered.
“Nope. Nothing,” Tory stared into the Fall. There may have been nothing there, or not, his mind was elsewhere.
Tory and Plicks travelled to the bottom of the Middens every few buckles to watch the Nebules rising. A little less than half a ring previous, small groups of the gelatinous creatures had begun rising through the boughs, their various colors and shapes rippling through the air like free-floating mirages. Barra used to join the boys, but lately, she’d been hard to find and Tory and Plicks had no choice but to keep the vigil without her.
More than once, Plicks and Tory thought they saw Blue, Char, or even Red, their hopes transforming the shimmering visages into their lost friends, but reality only revealed look-alikes. Plicks greeted the strangers happily, masking his disappointment with a smile. It was difficult to tell if his greetings were ever received, but on occasion, a passing Nebule would emit a flash or wave a tentacle in his direction. Plicks would shiver with anticipation, his scruffs rolling and his whiskers riffling. But nothing more ever followed, “hello,” if that’s what it was. The young Kolalabat held to his hope, regardless, and in spite of the dubious Tory.
Barra’s absence bothered Plicks at first, but Tory explained it away as Barra being Barra. Stubborn. Difficult. Into her own thing. Tory suspected she’d given up any notion of Red appearing in the Loft. He never gave the thought a voice.
“Seems like more arrive every day,” Plicks said, inviting a different conversation with Tory.
The young Rugosic examined the latest addition to his multi-tiered outer-skin, a shimmering mineral that appeared in soft whorls on the palms of his hands and the bottoms of his feet. Skeptical, Tory said, “Yeah, I noticed that too. Maybe we’re still getting back to normal? It’s hard to guess what it was like before the Wither Rings. You know, before we saved the world.” He raised a brow, and tried to elbow Plicks in the side, but the Kolala only swayed out of the way like he’d seen it coming, casting a sidelong glance at his friend as he went.
Settling back on his haunches, Plicks offered, “It’s true we don’t know what it was like before, but after almost a ring you don’t think things have calmed a bit?”
He wrinkled his brow, thoughtful. “All I know for sure is that a lot has changed already, and I don’t see why it would stop now.”
Plicks could tell that Tory hadn’t made up his mind, whether he thought the changes were good or bad. The Loft was definitely a better place. Right? Wasn’t it? Plicks’ confidence softened like dead wood in water. He sat there weighing the changes for himself.
Tory scanned the Middens. The treescape brighter now at dusk than the midday of any day before, back when the Umberwood struggled to carry light and water through the suffocating embrace of the Creepervine. Regardless, the treescape before him entered twilight, night shrouding day, and the visible distance collapsed. Day-blooming flowers closed, odd crepuscular colonies of polyps winked, and Night-bloomers — only barely open — stippled the view with steady pinpoints of light. Evening Watering was upon them. In less than a measure the ephemeral waterfalls would begin. Every Mistspitter, Spoutlily, and Pitcherpetal would spray, splash, or pour its contents out into the Loft, patches of dense fog forming in the air. If Tory and Plicks stayed they’d both be drenched. As funny as a soggy Kolalabat was, Tory didn’t feel much like a shower.
Evening Watering. Tory took a moment to think about it. Watering was no longer an antiquated misnomer referring to an underwhelming once-a-day event. No. Instead, Watering referred to a twice each day deluge the refreshed the Loft. New and Evening Watering. That’s the way it’d been since the Solflare. He and his friends, and a thousand Nebules had caused it. The bright bursts of light had come in powerful waves over the branches of the Great Trees, expunging the Creepervine from the Forest forever, and ending the Wither Rings.
A commotion erupted beneath the two boys, stirring them from their sober thoughts. Soon, a rambunctious group of young Arboreals appeared. Tory recognized a couple of them from the Coppice, and he watched as they travelled the ruins without a care. The Middens was no longer the exclusive domain of the adventurous. All kinds of Arboreals explored and migrated into the once forbidden area beneath the Loft. The Solflare had cleansed the Middens, and the old treescape became reasonably safe for the first time in many rings. Even timid Weavers and Kolalabats could be found dangling their paws down into the once abandoned branches. The Middens possessed an allure with the veil of darkness lifted from it. Exotic, and more popular with each passing buckle, the area had become quite the attraction. Lumenlichens and radiant mosses sprawled over the reinvigorated boughs, and new varieties of castinglilies emerged among them, bathing the expanse in vibrant colors.
The allure was there for the uninitiated, but for Tory the mystery had parted with the shadows. He only realized now that the dusky days of the Wither Rings had been responsible for his fascination with the place. Back then, the shadowy treescape had been a private untravelled pathwood for him and his friends, and more than that, the impenetrable darkness had made the Middens seem limitless. He remembered thinking that it would be impossible to explore all of it, but already — only a ring since the Solflare — he’d mapped every old den and bark on his side of the Umberwood Trunk. In his heart, Tory was sure that they’d saved the Loft, maybe the whole Great Forest, but he thought they’d lost something too.
Maybe. Or maybe he just missed Char. He’d only known the Nebule for a short time, but he couldn’t shake free from the bond they shared. He shook his head to clear the mud-sad thoughts from it. “We should go,” he said to Plicks. “I want to get to the Coppice early tomorrow — I hear Ven Tadafell has been cultivating a new binding vine, and I want to see it before the crowd gathers.”
Plicks felt a shiver run through his whiskers. He heard the meaning between the words; Tory was giving up. The thought made his eyes sting, but he held back his sadness. He would never give up, never stop hoping that Blue would return. No more leaning on Barra, he’d been relying on the ever-steadfast Tory to pick him up whenever he faltered. Plicks wasn’t sure what he’d do if Tory left hope behind — they’d waited so many days together. They used to wait until the buckle, find a dry place beneath a “banana” leaf, and watch the rising Nebules shimmer, fiery with each drop. Plicks would have to wait all by himself if Tory gave up. Plicks hated being alone. But Tory was more concerned with Ven Tadafell’s latest binding than Char returning. Plicks decided he’d take what he could get and said, “Okay, sure. Good idea. We’ll be here tomorrow anyway, right?”
“Right,” Tory seemed a little too quick to respond, but Plicks didn’t point it out.
They started their way back to the Nest. An uncomfortable stretch of quiet endured until Plicks stumbled. Teetering for a moment, he only barely kept himself from falling. He stared, unblinking, with his face wrinkled into an endearing mix of uncertainty and pride that he’d managed to remain upright. Tory nodded, eyebrows lifted, lower lip jutting forward. He tousled his friend’s hair, “Not bad, my friend, not bad.” And the rest of their walk together became familiar and easy. Each arrived home before the rain.
Evening Watering began.
A trickle sounded out its journey as it fell from leaf to leaf to bark. Droplets joined together, and collected in shallow runnels along the various pathwoods. A spoutlily spilled, and then another, splashes echoing all around. Rivulets ran into rivers, pooled, overflowed, and ran again. Misty clouds formed above patches of ferns and mosses, nestled into crooked wooden elbows, and settled in caves of twisted briars. The clouds drifted some but otherwise moved very little. Instead, they expanded, wispy edges wriggling into the treescape as the thin streams and wide falls poured.
The entire Loft from the Reach to the Middens was saturated, but before the boughs would drown, the cascade slowed. Waterblooming flowers that had only just opened, closed, retracting, folding, or curling back into themselves. The cloudy haze remained a while longer, lingering after the powerful shower ended.
Not far from where Plicks and Tory had been waiting, a large waxy blue leaf slowly rose up, water sliding off its edges. Beneath the leaf, two bright emerald eyes peered out. The rigid leaf rose up even higher, and then Barra skulked out from under it. After a brief moment, she uncoiled her tail from the stem, and the leaf snapped back into place with a sharp spray of water.
Barra crouched with her tail rippling up behind her, the bushy tip falling lazily from one side to the other. She gazed into the spaces between the branches, focused on nothing in particular. Alone with her thoughts, she sat for a measure or two. Finally, heaving a sigh, she turned away and headed home. She wasn’t going to get into trouble for being in the Middens after Evening Watering, or for being late. Her mother had stopped keeping track soon after their return from the Fall. Barra simply wasn’t the little bup she was a ring ago. Too much had happened. That’s what Barra liked to think anyway.
Barra made her way toward her family’s den, walking mainly on her hind legs the way her mother would have wanted. When she felt the urge, she dashed and climbed in short bursts, but then, only half-heartedly. Mostly, she walked.
More than halfway home, she paused. Her forearm where Red’s skin was grafted to her own throbbed like she’d bruised it badly. In the ring since the Solflare, Barra had grown accustomed to the persistent pulse of the graft, but this was different, demanding. A soft light shone out through the translucent, slick skin. The light rippled and bent across the surface of the graft as it travelled the length of her arm.
“Well… that’s new,” she whispered. Flexing and massaging her arm, the throbbing eventually eased up, and the light diminished. It wasn’t the first time her arm had felt strange — her arm was strange after all. And now, she was strange too. Preoccupied with the mesmerizing display on her skin, Barra failed to notice the sanguine-colored Nebule passing beneath the pathwood she travelled.
Soon, the glow vanished altogether. Barra tested her arm but it felt as strong as ever, and it didn’t spark again the rest of her way home.
Chapter 2: The Talk
“I’m worried about her. She grows more distant every buckle.”
“It’s not surprising she’s having trouble. Her friends don’t know what to do with her. They mean well, but they’re unsure… she feels it. She knows it.”
Barra eavesdropped, recognizing the voices of her mother and Jaeden as they chatted in the kitchen. The two had met on the expedition to the Root to save Barra and her friends. They’d fought side by side, saved each other’s lives more than once, and had been confidants ever since. Quite a few rings apart in age, they didn’t have a lot in common, but they shared a fierceness that forged a solid bond between them.
Despite the bond, much of Jaeden’s past remained a mystery. Orphaned before she could remember, she claimed to know almost nothing of her lineage. Also, Jaeden hesitated to discuss any details of her youth. In fact, after numerous failed interrogations, the Swiftspurs had begun suspecting that Jaeden enjoyed being cagey and aloof. She defied their curiosity almost like a game — a game she proudly won time and again. Regardless of Jaeden’s quirks, Brace felt comfortable sharing almost anything with her.
Barra didn’t have to listen long to recognize herself as the subject of their discussion. She’d been the subject of many hushed conversations over the last ring, an awkward spotlight ever focused on her well-being and her wounded arm. Barra first tried to hide her skin graft with wraps like Jaeden’s or Tory’s, but that drew even more attention and made her arm itch madly.
After numerous failed and frustrating confrontations, Barra had given up the forthright approach, and spent most of her days spying instead. Friends, family, and strangers, Barra discovered the ease of hiding among them. Stealthing into conversations, she’d only caught whispers and half-sentences for a while, but eventually, Barra picked up enough to know that the Arboreals feared her and her scar tissue.
Pulling Plicks aside one day, she tried asking him what he knew about the rumors. That discussion had turned into a long uncomfortable challenge to see who was more sorry the subject had been brought up, and Barra learned nothing. She decided not to put the anxiety-ridden Kolalabat on the spot again. Spying seemed way easier, and Barra began spending more time each day incognito.
The conversation between her mother and Jaeden was nothing new. They were worried, nervous, hoping Barra would snap out of her reclusiveness soon. Not wanting to hear all of that again, Barra broke up the chatter by noisily entering the den. “Hi, Mom,” she said. Turning abruptly to Jaeden as though surprised to find her there, she exclaimed, “Jaeden! Hello! How are you?” She heard the contrivance in her own voice, and felt the stiffness of her put-on smile.
“Burbur, you’re home early, aren’t you?” Barra’s mother asked before Jaeden could utter a sound.
“Plicks and Tory had to go home, and I didn’t feel like exploring alone,” Barra chose her words carefully, misleading them with the truth.
Jaeden raised her brow, dubious that the young Listlespur had been playing with anyone.
Barra turned away from Jaeden’s skeptical gaze believing the crafty warrior could see right through to the core of her; she frequently knew more than she should. Barra didn’t enjoy keeping secrets from her mother, or Jaeden for that matter, but considering the conversation she’d interrupted, lying was easier than explaining she’d spent the day more or less alone, again. Besides, the guilt was coming either way, secrets or not. At least her mother might worry less this way — she probably couldn’t worry more about Barra.
Brace stepped to the waterfull which held numerous and varied seeds, all soaking. She added a few handfuls of a powdery ingredient from a pouch that rested against her hip. “Well, you’re here in time for dinner. There should be plenty. If you’d like to join us?” Brace’s foreshortened tail, not even as long as her arm, wagged energetically. She plunged her nose into the various herbs growing on the watershelf and selected a few bright leaves and flowers to add to the soaking seeds. Her nose wriggled over the surface of the stewing vegetable meats. Satisfied with the scent, she sharply snapped open a few fireseeds and dropped them into the mix.
“That’s okay, Mom. I picked berries the whole way home,” Barra suspected the two wanted to talk more in private, and she was more than happy to give them their space.
Brace scanned her too-skinny daughter from tip to tail, “You know, you have to eat more than just berries… besides, this is a new recipe.” She gestured to the stew, “Jasmine petals, nibs, heatburs… longchews, savorseeds, and dotted nettlebeans.”
Squinting, Barra affected distaste and said, “Uh, jasmine petals? No thank you. I’ll pass.” She leaned in closer to the waterfull and took a whiff. Her face wrinkled like it might swallow her nose. “Ugh. Why would you ruin nibs with jasmine petals?”
Brace folded her arms. Sardonically, she said, “Fine. Consider the invitation rescinded.” Adding extra volume as she turned to Jaeden, she continued, “There was this adventurous little risk-taker who used to live with me. Young bup used to make me crazy. She wasn’t afraid of anything. I think she would appreciate some flavorful creativity. Have you seen anyone like that around?”
Jaeden rolled her eyes. She wasn’t interested in playing along — she didn’t feel much like the other adult in the room.
Barra jumped into the opening, “Right. That’s settled then. I’ll see you both later. Enjoy!” She scampered off to her nestroom.
Brace sighed and said, “I don’t think she’s getting any better.” She’d seen too much, been through too much to feel the need to cry, but her eyes stung regardless. She hadn’t been able to reach her daughter for a very long time and the void hurt.
“She thinks she’s sparing you,” Jaeden offered with a shrug. “She hasn’t figured out how to get back into a life that isn’t all exciting and adventurous. She’s not sure what to do with herself, and knowing that you’re always worried about her isn’t helping.”
Feeling a sudden twinge of defensiveness, Brace nipped at Jaeden, “What exactly would you have me do? Pretend like I don’t care?” She spoke in a ragged whisper. She told herself she didn’t want Barra to hear them arguing, but in reality, she choked down an unexpected sob.
“I didn’t mean… it’s not that I have an answer,” Jaeden apologized, “I just think that tip-toeing around each other is doing more harm than good. Pretending Barra is normal—”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Brace barked. “Her arm is fine. There’s nothing wrong with my Burbur.”
“I wasn’t talking about her arm,” Jaeden remained composed, calm. “But I suppose that demonstrates my point as well as any other. Barra is different. She’s seen more of the Umberwood, more of Cerulean than most Elders, much more than any other bups. And, she’s got a piece of a Nebule living in her arm.” Jaeden paused to weigh her next words. Her tail waved hypnotically behind her. “She’s different, and I just think it’s confusing to treat her like she’s not.”
Taken aback, Brace faltered. She’d been caught off guard by Jaeden’s matter-of-fact approach to life before, but the blow stung. The stoic Listlespur wasn’t always right but she had a knack for separating the shell from the seed of a problem. Nevertheless, Brace saw more youth in Jaeden than peer, and so, she was hurt by the patronizing reduction of her relationship with Barra. She couldn’t show her frustration properly without her tail which frustrated her even more. Heaving her shoulders, she threw up her hands in exasperation and said, “Well, she’s still my little bup. That hasn’t changed.”
Jaeden realized she’d stepped over a line, and with a nod and a wan smile, she tip-toed back over it. She nodded toward the stew, “Smells amazing, Brace. Mouthwatering.”
Brace beat a pleasant response through her teeth, “Yes, it does smell good, doesn’t it?” Even Jaeden’s tactful retreat was aggravating — Brace had never seen the Listlespur flustered by anything. It wasn’t the first time they’d argued about what was best for her daughter. Only Barra knew what was wrong with Barra, and she wasn’t sharing.
A wretched worrying thing gripped Brace’s chest. Her daughter struggled alone, and she could imagine nothing worse. All she wanted to do was be there for her bup. The Umberwood was thriving, bright and full of life, but it cost them so much. She fiddled with her stubby tail, and toyed with a bauble in Venress Starch’s Thread which had been fastened there.
Brace wanted her Burbur back.
She hovered her nostrils over her stew again and sampled the air. The smell calmed her nerves and she breathed deep. Soon, the two Listlespurs sat down to eat, laughing and enjoying each other’s company again. They talked about many things, everything except what was wrong.
Chapter 3: Isolation
Lounging in her nestroom, Barra realized that she still didn’t quite recognize it. She knew it was her room of course, but it barely resembled the nestroom in which she’d spent the first eleven rings of her life. The family den had been opened up, unravelled by skilled binders to support those Arboreals gathered to recover the lost trio. An entire ring — the time it took for a new layer of wood to form around the Great Umberwood — had passed since then, and it still didn’t feel familiar. The cozy nestroom used to make her feel snuggle-safe, her body belly-down against the ferns and swaddled by the close walls; she used to feel protected, but not anymore.
Attempting to restore her nestroom to its former softness, Barra had transplanted many flowers and mosses into the room. She selected several beautiful and exotic species that had been dormant before the Solflare. The new flora filled the room well enough, but Barra’s lack of experience guiding their growth resulted in a chaotic display of leaves and branches. Beautiful, but inhospitable, she’d had to prune back. She considered buckling the room, shrinking it gradually with bindings, but she lacked the expertise to do it right. Tory would’ve enjoyed the work if she’d ever asked him, but she found the words for help had teeth, and whenever she had the chance to speak them, they bit hard into her lungs, and she couldn’t force them out.
Maybe her room didn’t want to change back? Since the expedition had quartered there, Barra had enjoyed a seamless connection to her father’s old study. More by habit than conscious decision, she padded over.
The study, too, had been dismantled; the clue-seeking archivists had unwoven the bindings, hoping to uncover more. They discovered that Gammel, Barra’s late father, had more than one hidey hole for his private sheaves, and their zeal doubled as the room was reduced. The only vestige of the old study, the way Barra remembered it anyway, was her father’s desk. Barra crouched down in front of it and ran her hand along its surface. The top was worn cheek-smooth from use, and she rested hers against it, closing her eyes.
Often since her return from the Root, Barra had sat and read at that gnarled braid. She’d read and re-read her father’s journals there many times. Whenever she borrowed sheaves from the archives she brought them to the study — the way she imagined her father would have.
Areas of the maze-like archives were closed off to Arboreals who weren’t Elders. Not that it mattered; the Elders didn’t post guards or restrict access in any way. They didn’t need to; the unordered mass of information made it impossible to find anything specific. Barra frequently thought the one sure way to hide a thing was to keep it in the archives. Still, adventurous Arboreals added new sheaves every day, and a few aging archivists struggled to carve right-places for everything.
So many sheaves. So many different subjects. The Great Trees, the Root, the Ocean, cultivating lensleafs, improved binding, how to make doorweaves, anything Barra could imagine, someone had written about the subject. Not just someone, Barra thought, an explorer. She’d never realized that there were so many. She used to think her father was the last. So, the archives possessed an allure, but the daunting task of using them had eventually exhausted Barra from visiting. Nevertheless, she’d turned over a leaf or two about the Nebules, a few passages here and there about Aetherials, and scattered references to the Olwones. But even those few pieces of information lacked credibility; many of the sheaves were written in a kind of legendary prose, clear but exaggerated, blurring the threshold between myth and history.
Barra sniffed at the desk and relished the musky smell before opening her eyes and lifting her head. Not sure she wanted to read anything, she sat on her haunches and stared at nothing. Her hand lingered on the desk affectionately.
Her forearm itched but instead of scratching at it, she held it up to her face for a closer sniff. No fur grew from the graft of Red’s skin. Inexplicably though, if she flexed the tiny muscles that controlled her fur the transplanted skin did its own trick and disappeared as well. It was part of her.
Deep within the semi-transparent skin a point of light sparked to life and began growing. Brighter and brighter, the light seemed to fly toward her like a shooting star rising through the oceanic depth of the graft. When it reached the surface the spark arced across her arm, and created a jagged twist that rolled up and down her skin. The fur surrounding Red’s skin stood up on end. Barra felt thorny pricks up and down her body, like she’d tumbled into a dense briar patch. Without any hint, the twist of light winked out. A feverish heat remained, boiling off her fur. She alternated between licking fur and licking air to cool down.
Barra waited, uncertain. As the dayflower filled, she gained confidence that her arm wasn’t going to pop like an overripe berry, or fall off, or some other such awfulness. She massaged the old wound, and tried hard to think about something else. She reached for one of the sheaves she’d borrowed from the archives, and not yet bothered to return.
Opening the leaves, she found the story of the expedition that rescued her and her friends from the Root. It wasn’t the complete story of course, not in a single sheaf, but instead, an account of the events after Barra and her mother were reunited at the Root. The archivists had done a rigorous job of pulling together all of the anecdotes. The account read like a diary, and the effect was surreal; it didn’t feel like Barra’s friends and Barra’s family, but more like strangers in a story, fictional characters. Her dissociation from the tale was made more vivid by the inclusion of knowledge Barra did not in fact have at the time of the events. When Barra and Tory were clinging to Plicks, descending through the Fall, the nameless flying creature they’d encountered terrified them. The archivists, however, recognized the creature as a Baeldown, harmless and friendly: the selfsame creatures that helped the expedition return home after the Solflare. The account was accurate, but nothing like what happened. Despite it all, she enjoyed the story and liked that the heroine shared her name.
Lately, some of the joy had gone out of her reading time. Barra thought something was missing from the story and it nagged at her. If she could just read the sheaves a little more carefully she might uncover that something, that vitally important something, and she’d know what to do next. It gnawed at her when she went to bed at night, and came to her in her dreams; a feeling that they’d pulled the Creepervine out by the roots only to reveal a darker, deeper malignance farther below. Unfortunately, her dreams revealed no answers.
She flipped through the leaves, but found no comfort in the words.
The Root. The Ocean. Barra thought about the journey there and back often, but her memories had blurred and fragmented over time making it difficult to discern what had really happened. Worse than the weathering of distance and time though, the memories also swam around in her head, slippery and fast, and impossible to pin down. Images of three-eyed creatures, and hearts encased by sanguine jelly, circled each other, collided. Sometimes the creatures became monsters. Sometimes the gel turned green and brown, rotted and withered. The meanings stirred together preventing comprehension. Thinking about it made her fur sing for the Root, compelling her to return with abstract promises.
She rolled up the leaves, tied them closed, and retired to her nestroom. For the first time in a long while she had a purpose. When she fell asleep, it was with a smile — a smile, and the first seeds of an idea to return to the Root.
Chapter 4: Glomming Nebules
Stalking the Thin as she frequently did, Barra spotted Nebules gathering in the distance and made her way toward them, careful to avoid any dry branches or crunchy, loose leaves. The five jellies hovered together, a motley assortment of colors and shapes. Although Nebules often ascended in groups, the individuals tended to wander off alone soon after entering the Loft. She couldn’t remember an occasion that she’d found even a pair together otherwise.
Barra decided she needed to know what the group of Nebules was all about. She had to know.
She snuck up on them. Not an easy task, never knowing which way a particular Nebule might be facing. Barra pretended they could see in all directions, just to be extra careful, but then she realized they might actually see every which way, and she didn’t have to pretend any longer. She picked a large bough that passed near the group and crept along its underbelly in their direction. More cover would have been nice, but the Thin offered few options, and Barra took what she could get.
A mere four or five lengths away from the group, Barra stopped and hugged the branch close. She held her body snug to the curve, only just slipping her eyes around for a view. The Nebules flashed one another at a rapid pace, far too fast for Barra to recognize any patterns, especially from her obscured vantage. Clearly, they had a lot to say. Her tail fidgeted where it hung beneath her, hooking one way and then the other, aimless. It latched onto a small, dried shoot, a reflexive, unconscious action. When she tried to slink up for a better view, the shoot snapped. Not loud, but thin and sharp, an unmistakable alarm to anyone wanting privacy.
The flashing stopped.
Barra buried her head as fast as she could, stealthed, and hoped for the best. Not that she feared the Nebules would do anything to her, but as far as clandestine meetings went, she knew she’d learn nothing more if they found her.
Time passed like sap oozing through a pinhole, fast enough only to confirm it wasn’t frozen. Nevertheless, it seemed forever before the Nebules resumed their fulgurant chatter.
Barra peeked over the lip of the bough again, and tried to commit as many strings of flashes together as her memory could hold. Not that she’d ever been able to translate any of it, but why not give it a shot? Besides, in spying, she’d never been able to guess when a juicy tidbit was about to fall; conversations sometimes diverted wildly from where they began, and surprised her.
The nearest Nebule, a silvery set of rings connected to one another by a deep blue central blob, flashed and spun around. Conversations, if Barra was any judge, began and ended with that one, with the silver-ringed one. Silvering was in charge.
Unfortunately for Barra, her patience wasn’t paying off. She’d already forgotten the snippets she’d tried to memorize, and the flashing sequences had slowed. Maybe the meeting had come to an impasse or conclusion; she’d no idea which it was. Either way, the Nebules broke up and shifted away from one another, and then drifted farther into the treescape. Most went up and away, but not all. Silvering lingered. Barra slunk into the open and revealed herself. She cleared her throat, and said, “Hello?”
Silvering ignored her, as far as Barra could tell anyway. She stood up tall, puffed her chest and poofed her tail, and tried again, “I’m Barra.”
If Silvering noticed Barra at all, she gave no indication. Barra padded close and circled, curious. Never much more than a few flashes ever passed from Nebule to Arboreal since the trio returned from the Fall — nothing at all like the immediate connection the three felt with Red, Blue, and Char. Of course the circumstances were quite different then, necessitating a quick kinship with no time for questions of trust. Barra waved at Silvering, a limp gesture, certain the effort was wasted, but a small price for hope.
Silvering shifted away from Barra, blurring a five-stride distance in a blink. The Nebule started spinning with its rings laid flat, rippling in gentle, coordinated waves, and she accelerated into a dense thicket.
Instinct galvanized Barra’s limbs, and she gave chase without a thought about it. Silvering shifted at a hard angle, but Barra tracked the movement easily and kept on. She raced through the boughs with her tail balancing and hooking, rigid and strong.
The treescape thickened as they flew upward. Barra cut through, bits of bark spitting from the branches wherever she touched. Silvering hastened the pace, and Barra’s chest warmed to the challenge. Not ignoring me now, are you? She thought, smug.
She was close, almost close enough to touch the silvery jelly. They dodged their way through the treescape together, Barra swinging wide at times, but never giving up more than a stride, and doggedly closing the gap again at every opportunity.
Barra hurtled through thickets full of nettles and thorny bristles, thick fur protecting her from most cuts and scrapes. Tufts of her undercoat marked each close call, snagged and held by branches, or left floating in her wake. Her graft nagged, itching madly, but she put it out of her mind.
Silvering feinted right; shifted down to the left. Barra scrambled to change direction, shot her tail out too late to lasso a branch and careened into a nasty clump of briars. At speed, she crashed through the foliage, mostly blind. She glimpsed a splintered stub, twisted sideways, and narrowly avoided impaling herself. Off-balance, she collided shoulder-first with a disused pathwood beyond the briars. Her body crumpled against the unforgiving surface, and all her breath hissed out at once through her gritted teeth. Her arm went numb and she fell, bouncing from one branch to another, until she collapsed in a heap, caught by the scooped arch of a large bough.
Barra groaned as she worked her awareness back into her limbs. She felt like she’d lost a fight. She took a few shallow breaths, uncertain of her chest, her ribs; a bit shaky, but otherwise uninjured.
Sharp and fuzzy, sensation returned to her arm, but the muscles of her shoulder had knotted into vicious, sore bundles that she’d have to unwind before sprinting again. Even if she knew where Silvering had gone, there was no way she would be able to keep up with her. The thought didn’t worry her much, she wasn’t sure why she’d chased the Nebule in the first place. No, she was more worried about her other arm; the skin graft pulsed and sparked, demanded her attention.
“What is it? What do you want?” she demanded of her arm, weariness and frustration dragging at her face.
Barra rolled her shoulders and hips, working out the kinks, pumping blood into her limbs. She stared into the depths of her second skin, of Red’s skin joined with hers, but if there was a message hidden in the light she couldn’t decipher it.
Chapter 5: Tiny Cuts
Tory and Plicks met up early on the outskirts of the Coppice, soon after New Watering. They weren’t the first to arrive in the meticulously pruned region of the Loft; a few eager, long-in-the-Thread Arboreals were already bent over their respective demonstration areas, setting up.
The Coppice had come into full bloom with the end of the Wither Rings, the era of the Creepervine. Many sleeping plants and flowers had woken to the deluge of light and water rushing up through the Great Trees, and previously scarce fruits, nuts, and ferns flourished. Many new and exotic displays had appeared in the Coppice since, so many that Tory had difficulty remembering the way it used to be.
The water had grown strong, and it wasn’t only the plants that benefited. Rugosics like Tory began exhibiting new patterns in their panoplies. New minerals bonded to form their second skins, no longer drab and calloused patches of green and brown, but instead, powerful organic armors. There was true metal in them, metals that had before, only existed as fairytales. Not much was understood about the materials, but like most Rugosics experiencing the change, Tory was fascinated.
“You think Ven Tadafell is here, yet?” Plicks asked Tory, excited as they walked the main pathwood through the center of the Coppice.
Plicks had watched Tory’s panoply develop over several buckles, brilliant orange swirls and steely blue waves appearing, accenting his skin. Nevertheless, the change seemed to happen overnight. And it wasn’t just Tory; all Plicks’ friends were growing up without him. Plicks was still bup-sized, the last of his eleven siblings still waiting for his big moment. He’d reached the right age, and like most Kolalabats of eleven or twelve rings old, he felt like he couldn’t wait much longer. His brothers and sisters had shot up, tall and strong, and though the rapid change was awkward, there was a kind of pride in it; they were becoming adults. Any moment now, Plicks told himself. He tried to be patient.
“Oh yeah, Tadafell’s here,” Tory looked down into a neatly arranged group of branches. Braids of vines, as well as various ferns and fibers, grew in clumps around Ven Gorreck Tadafell’s staging area, loosely outlining his exhibit. “There he is,” Tory nodded toward the elderly Kolalabat who picked his way through the living exhibits, careful not to disturb the experimental bindings. A large pack was strapped to his back.
Tory tried to make sense of the shape, hints in the wrinkles and mounds of the backpack. He squinted so hard, Plicks thought his face looked like a piece of dried fruit with eyes. Plicks whispered, “We could just ask.”
“Nah,” Tory said, “Let’s just find a place to sit. I want to see everything.” He jumped from the pathwood and began sliding and swinging his way down to a closer spot.
Plicks squished his lips up into his nose, frowning. Twitching his whiskers, he mistook louder for faster, and sent his words chasing after, “Sure. Sounds good. Thanks for waiting for me!” but Tory had escaped his range.
Shuffling to the edge of the pathwood, his taloned feet clacking against the use-hardened bark, Plicks plotted his descent. Satisfied, he nodded. He relaxed the muscles holding his scruffs bunched against his back, gripped the ends in his taloned hands, swept his arms wide, and jumped. He glided down to Tory, and landed without disturbing a leaf. That’s the way he envisioned it, anyway, and he was accurate too, until the part immediately after the jump.
Plicks’ scruffs ballooned out, and the leading edge snagged a hook dangling from a clasperberry brush. Caught, he twisted and pulled at his taut skin. Frustrated, he jerked hard, and the hook snapped. He dropped, spinning through the air, tumbling through the leaves, bouncing from the less forgiving branches. His scruffs opened again just before he hit near Tory.
Tory grinned at the loose skin and whiskers piled on the lichen-covered branch. He raised his brow and said, “Well, that was fast… and on target.” He nodded.
The mound of plush fur groaned, and two eyes popped open from within it. Plicks muttered, “Well, that was original. Really… and funny too.”
Tory helped his friend right himself. Plicks spit moss out of his mouth and brushed debris from his face. “Thanks,” he said, and that’s when they both noticed Ven Tadafell staring.
Ven Gorreck Tadafell, a Kolalabat of some stature in the community of the Coppice, was the single living source of advanced binding knowledge in the Umberwood. Sure, some sheaves were buried in the archives, but if an Arboreal sought an understanding of binding, eventually, he or she sought Ven Tadafell. Plicks felt more than a little embarrassed beneath his scrutiny.
Perched, steady on his gnarled feet, Ven Tadafell regarded the youths with affected disdain. White whiskers sprouting from the sides of his nose and the tips of his ears reached almost all the way down to the wood on which he stood. He scratched the top of his head with the tipless end of one thick black talon, likely foreshortened by one experiment or another. The visual effect was surreal; Plicks thought he looked like he was digging around in his own skull with that finger. And then, with Plicks and Tory frozen in his gaze, Ven Tadafell stuck his tongue out, and said in his distinctive, honey voice, “Hello, Ven Mafic. I see you brought a friend, today?”
Tory said, “Yeah, this is Plicks. He hasn’t observed binding much, but he’s interested.” Tory winked, and added, “A little Rush told me you had something special planned for today?”
“Oh, it’s pretty special alright,” Ven Tadafell said. He raised one bushy grey eyebrow, “And you’ll have to wait to see it like everyone else.”
Over the next measure or so, Ven Tadafell set up his demonstration. Arboreals of all ages arrived from the Umberwood and beyond, and took seats, but not one sought the space to either side of Tory and Plicks. Tory tried not to notice, but even as Ven Tadafell cleared his throat to begin, the hollow ring around them persisted. Tory tried to write off their fear as ignorance, but this time, it caught him off guard. It wasn’t that long ago they’d returned from the Fall as heroes, the entire expedition celebrated for saving the Umberwood, but as their story spread, confusion and fear went with it. Most Arboreals had never heard of creepervine, and hearing of it for the first time, even in victory, instilled in them a sudden fear of everything they didn’t know about the Root, including the Arboreals who’d come back from it. Luckily, time had eliminated most suspicions, but the stigma never left the trio, not completely. Tory and Plicks had it better than Barra though, Tory knew.
Barra was unique and visibly so — harder to ignore, and impossible to forget. When Barra started isolating herself, Tory noticed the relative acceptance change immediately, and it was a bittersweet improvement. He would have preferred to stand beside her, a thousand paces from the rest of Cerulean, rather than stand with the rest apart from her, but it had been her choice. Tory hoped — he was sure — that everything would return to normal soon.
A hush ran through the crowd as Ven Tadafell retrieved a thick branch from his pack. Spooled onto the branch was a thin grey strand, the loose end sticking rigid from the top. The wizened Kolalabat began unwinding the material loop after loop.
“I’m sure more than one of you has noticed these odd sprays of material forming out of some of the flora deep in the Middens,” he spoke in a clear, smooth voice. An affirmative murmur rose from the crowd, and then he continued, “Well, just as sap and resin can be rendered into exceptional binding tools, so can these sprays of metal.” Heads bobbed in affirmation like berries on a breeze blown bush.
Ven Tadafell’s nimble fingers pinched vines and fibrous cords from around the staging area, and interwove them with his line of thin metal. His deft hands continued to work as he explained, “There is a trick to the harvesting, winding and pulling into a spool over several buckles...” he trailed off for a moment to focus on a particular tie, and came back, “but it’s not difficult. The persistent weight of the spool encourages the growth, and even seems to speed it up.” He finished with a knot, a flourish of his fingers quicker than Plicks could follow. Tory didn’t blink, agape at the speed.
The master binder held up the coiled rope he’d braided, common except for the lines of metal glinting through it. Several talon-wide loops dangled from one end. “More importantly, this spooling method is the only way I’ve found so far to produce a single, unbroken line. The only way to create this…” He pulled one of the loops, and the rope uncoiled and stood rigid to the oohs and ahhs of the spectators. He inserted his talons into the remaining loops and the rope came to life, wriggling like a Listlespur’s tail. Speculation bubbled through the audience.
“The articulation shown here is maybe nothing more than a New Ring Festival attraction, but the implications are endless.” His bushy eyebrows wriggled up his forehead like a couple furry caterpillars. “And, that’s not all,” he added, “It was Plicks, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Plicks said with a single anxious click.
“If you would be so kind?” He gestured for Plicks to take the rope. “Now, bend the rope around that branch there.”
Plicks tested the rope, inspecting it, and then hooked the branch as instructed.
“Yes, yes. Just like that. Now, slide the end through the widest loop… yes! Perfect. Now, pull down hard!”
Plicks got a good grip and pulled. The harder he pulled the more the grasp tightened.
“Good good, now hang on it,” Ven Tadafell said eagerly. Plicks held on and swung out from his perch. “Tory, care to join him?”
Tory sprang up, climbed down to Ven Tadafell, and eyed the rope. He jumped to it, and held on.
“Yes, yes. More volunteers! I need the heaviest of you, as many as can fit!” After some scrambling and adjusting, several more Arboreals clambered to the rope and found a place to hang on. The branch holding them bent until the glommed volunteers touched down, and when it did, a few excited shouts burst the tension.
“That’s right, that’s right!” Ven Tadafell was delighted. “Some of you more experienced binders understand! That’s four strands! Only four strands! Holding all that weight! And the clasp is only stronger for it!”
A misplaced foot ended up planted in someone’s face, and volunteers fell from the rope in a cascade. Only Tory held on, beaming. He climbed up to the branch, released the rope, and handed it to the closest onlooker, who hesitated, but took it. Tory decided the hesitation had nothing to do with him, but he couldn’t be sure.
The audience cheered. Ven Tadafell bowed, marking the end of the exhibit, and then the crowd dissolved into several smaller groups. They passed around the demonstration rope, and a few queued up to speak directly with the innovative Kolalabat.
Plicks shuffled over to Tory. He noticed a deep fresh rut in the bark where the rope had been hanging. He bent down and sniffed at it. He prodded at it, curious. The gouge was already full with sap. If the cut had gone all the way around, severing the lifeline of fresh growth that carried all the nutrients, Plicks thought the branch could die.
Surprised by Plicks’ sudden fixation, Tory asked, “What is it?”
“That rope is really strong.”
Chapter 6: Abandoned
Barra walked along the withered pathwood, casual, like picking flowers, but her affected carelessness went unseen. Far down in the Middens, and venturing deeper, she travelled alone. She surveyed the treescape one last time, and finding no sign of following Arboreals - namely Tory or Plicks - she gave up her show of having no particular place to go, and dove toward the Thin, the very bottom tier of the Middens, where the branches were fewest, and none could be trusted. Of course, despite everything she’d done to prove herself, the Thin was also the only place her mother forbade her to go.
Barra slid, hooked, and climbed, bounding down through the layers. Occasional sprouts and buds popped from the branches at her depth, the water strong again, but as the branches thickened, they served a different role than those above. Shed bark, dead ferns, and over-ripened fruits littered the crooks of the boughs upon entering the Thin, the last catches before the Fall.
The mainly unremarkable bunches of debris stuck to the boughs only briefly before falling again, and Barra paid them scant attention. A few clumps here and there, however, remained long enough to sprout seeds, roots emerging to hold the refuse together, and stitch them in place. These ribbons and mats draped the Thin, forming odd amalgams of decay and fresh growth. The chimeric assortments lured strange insects, who tended the unique clumps with specialized mandibles, elongated tongues or limbs, and motley camouflage. Like tiny animated simulacrums of the Middens itself, the insects appeared familiar at first, but upon closer inspection, their uncanny adaptations stood out, startling and intriguing Barra. She had wasted measures watching the microcosms flourish and buzz, but that was before she’d found the Pod. Her Pod.
She set herself, sank her claws in, wrung herself out in a twisted shiver from tip to tip, and then, with a flick-snap of her tail, and a fierce spark in her heart, she blurred into the treescape at top speed.
Soon, in the near distance loomed a sagging swathe of debris as large as an Arboreal den. Not really a tattered, clinging remnant of cast-off anymore, this particular swathe had rooted, and flourished at some point, long ago. Layers of growth had interwoven through layers of falling mulch over many rings, thickening and strengthening the mat, but at the same time, adding weight. The branches that held it had been dragged toward the Fall, and the immediate treescape, webbed by the Pod’s ever-reaching roots and clinging vines, had been stretched toward it as well, so that the Pod seemed frozen mid-fall, caught by a giant spider.
For her own take though, Barra thought it also looked like an overripe seedpod, musty and plump, and ready to burst, and preferred to think of it that way.
Thin grey sheets lined the exterior, like the walls of a Thornfly nest, like a vespiary. Barra quivered at the thought of the huge number of Thornflies - aggressive, painful insects! - swarming and working those vast sheets into place, but they’d long since abandoned the area. In fact, Barra guessed several generations of inhabitants, maybe even Arboreals, had worked the Pod into its current shape, and somehow, that made it feel even more right for her.
A hole in the underside of the Pod offered the only way inside, and Barra slid up onto a branch she’d used many times before. She dashed the length, and then stopped just shy of the matted wall. She’d torn a few rents through the grey sheets her first few visits, and so she took her time finding a grip in the spongy moss before transferring all her weight to it. Barra kneaded the material to set her claws. Moisture oozed, and with it, a mixture of scents both floral and sour, life and rot, wafted to her wrinkled nose.
Sections of metallic mesh showed through bald patches in the carpet of moss, wherever the grey sheets had withered away. The sinewy mesh, each length of line made of several braided strands, would have taken a talented crew of Weavers a half a ring or more to lay out, and must have served some important purpose. A net, Barra mused, though for beasts or Arboreals, she couldn’t guess. Deftly, she picked her way around the exposed areas, and clinging upside down, she crawled to the edge of the opening.
Cautious, Barra peered inside. No one. Of course, she’d never even seen another Arboreal in the Thin, much less, anywhere near the Pod. Still, she couldn’t help herself from worrying that one day she’d find someone squatting in her private sanctuary.
Alone as usual, she gripped the edge and hauled herself in.
Inside the Pod, numerous branches penetrated the walls at every angle, and beaded succulents hung from them in dense curtains. Vibrant orange-petaled flowers sprouted here and there, cutting the darkness with sharp-edged prisms of light. A thick plait of flora capped the Pod, holding in heat and moisture, warming the inside. Barra thought the trapped moisture might have been responsible for the Pod surviving the brittle, Wither Rings.
Barra clambered up to the branch she’d previously pruned for sitting, and inspected the nearby watershelf she’d planted: turgid petals from the top down, and a trickle of water, thin but constant, circulating down through the flower-cups, demonstrated that the watershelf was ready! Barra imagined all the nectarsweets she’d soon grow, and licked her lips. But that planting task would have to wait for another day. Instead, Barra stretched, and sharpened her claws. She worked her thick, mature nails into an area of bark she’d chosen for nesting ferns, chewing up the woody flesh. A wave of warmth washed over her face and weighted her eyelids. Barra curled her body, rolled up her ears, and tuned out the ambient sounds of the Middens. She listened for the water pulsing through the bough beneath her.
The Pod. Her secret space. Her home. The perfect place to devise her way back to the Root, or take a nap...
Waking abruptly, startled and disoriented, Barra’s ears spun open. Her eyes probed, and her nostrils fluttered. Her fur rippled, colors shifting instinctively to match the background. She almost disappeared, though her emerald eyes still shone like tiny stars.
After an anxious moment she remembered where she was, and wondered how long she’d been dozing. Barra hadn’t planted a dayflower yet, and the diffusion of light within the Pod was difficult to read, preventing her from intuiting the time. With a sigh and a frown, she contemplated maybe having to plant a dayflower in her hideout before the nectarsweets.
Barra unfolded herself from the bough, arched and noticed a new and peculiar reddish glow filtering in through the entrance below. She didn’t remember seeing any flowers outside the Pod capable of casting such a hue, and as the new light grew more intense, she shrugged back into herself. Her forearm itched madly, the skin graft shimmering in an eerie reflection of the approaching light.
The play of shadows and light blossomed as a strange Nebule broached the entrance.
Barra watched the sunborn creature from her hidden vantage. The nebule radiated a color a few shades darker than Red, but bore a similar shape. Barra counted large tentacles: Red had four before Argus. This Nebule had three.
Out of habit, Barra tried her best to remain hidden. Of course, what she wanted wasn’t always what she got: her arm itched and sparked, and hid from no one.
The Nebule drifted around the Pod, casting rolling shadows onto the walls as she parted one set of beaded drapes after another. She seemed not to notice Barra at first, but then turned sharply, and headed directly toward her. Barra riffled her fur as she stood and became visible. She furrowed her brow at the approaching intruder, and whipped her tail toward the ceiling, where she began dancing it, hypnotically.
This Nebule - this imposter! - wasn’t Red. Of course it wasn’t. But still, the resemblance softened the defiant Listle, so that even as she put on her best, ‘Get out!,’ face, she broke, and a pained-smile crossed it out.
Barra’s tiny shining piece of Red, burned to be scratched, and glowed as bright as this new Nebule. The colors were similar, too, but not the same. Barra’s arm was clean and clear while the intruder’s color was dirty-red with dark branching lines running the lengths of its tentacles like veins through a leaf. The Nebule flashed and Barra’s arm flashed back. A chirp, like a baby Listle makes for mama, escaped between Barra’s lips as a burst of flashes came and went, completely out of her control.
Barra shoved that arm behind her back, and said, ‘Now, just hold on there. This is my place,’ with the other. She put her arm out of her mind, but the flashes came with contractions deep in her muscles, and a throbbing, sore wake followed each. She wanted it to stop. She needed it to stop. She coiled her tail around her arm from wrist to elbow, trapping the light from the graft, and squeezed.
The flashing stopped.
“That’s better,” Barra nodded, and then sighed. The nebule might have shrugged, and Barra squinted at it suspiciously. “Well, look, um…,” Barra tapped a fang with a claw, “Scarlett? Scarlett, if you’re going to hang out around here, and I’d prefer you didn’t, but if you’re planning on using the Hideout, there are rules-”
“What?” Barra interrupted herself at the sight of Scarlett shifting back and forth in apparent alarm. The nebule glowed softly, burned brighter, than dimmed again. “Well, I’ve got to call you something. Rule 1: I call you whatever I want, it’s my hideout. Scratch that, Rule 1: it’s my hideout, Rule 2 through rule ‘forever,’ see Rule 1.”
Scarlett flashed once, brightly, then dimmed on and off a couple of times.
“There you go.” Barra nodded to herself, satisfied. “Now, if I let go of my arm, are you two going to get along?” She wrinkled up her brow as some chatter commenced, though dimly, and then abruptly, stopped.
“Excellent.” Barra grinned and released her arm, and said, “Welcome to my hideout.”
The two spent the rest of that day together and the next, and when Barra was late coming home the third day in a row—long past evening watering, again—Brace noticed, but kept it to herself, holding hope that Barra’s new preoccupation, whatever it was, involved a blossoming friendship. Brace hadn’t had the chance to find out much more than a name, and hoped that this, Scarlett, whomever she was, was helping her daughter break free of her shell.
Barra certainly thought so, standing proudly in her hideout. She’d made it to the Pod in record time that morning, eager to do some more adventuring, and hideout-planting with Scarlett. The last few days had taken a toll though, and the young Listle yawned large, her gaping mouth swallowing her face inside out: eyes squished into her forehead, tongue extended and stretch-tense, curled at the end. She squatted down beside the now well-running waterfull, and waited for Scarlett to arrive. The Nebule had appeared unprompted each day, soon after New-watering, so Barra hadn't expected to be waiting long.
She was wrong.
Midday came and went. Barra paced, and checked all her newly planted vegetation too many times, the day flower, three times as often as the rest.
“Fine,” Barra said to the emptiness, after yet another measure filled, overflowing her patience. She poked her head out from the Pod for the thousandth time. What could have happened to Scarlett? They’d been having fun, right? The hideout—their hideout—planted well and thriving, and though Barra hadn’t planted any food for the Nebule, Scarlett seemed happy with the waterfull alone. Maybe that was it though? They didn’t exactly talk, and even though the occasional flashes passed between her arm and the jelly, Barra based much of what she knew of Scarlett on intuition; it’d worked well enough with Red, hadn’t it?
Barra slipped out of the Pod, sniffed the air, and stared, disappointed, into the treescape she’d help restore to the beauty of her father’s dream.
Disappointed. Alone. Again.
She flexed her fur, follicles bending in ripples over her body until she became one with the scenery, and then she stalked off into the Thin, plotting her return to the Root, a trip she’d apparently be making on her own.