Chapter Six: In Which Trees Teach Lessons and There is Much Sheathing
Some people glorify traveling through the wild, savoring nature, and living off the bounty of the land. They enjoy watching the clouds and taking in every detail of the wilderness around them. To them, a journey is not just a journey, but an exploration of the Self. Every droplet of dew, every blade of grass, every mushroom, and badger, and owl, and fucking—
Shauna struggled to calm himself as he wiped the remains of the seven mosquitoes off his face and onto his dilapidated, filthy pants. He hated nature. He hated this never ending trek across the wild lands, following some snippet of a girl—a sickly, knowledgeable, condescending little tart—who seemed to know just about everything about just about everything. He ground his teeth together as he trailed after her, her confident strides eating up the track ahead of them. Water squelched happily in his leather boots.
She turned her head to give him a knowing smile. Was it just him or were her lips just a little bit pinker...somehow more feminine? Her skin even seemed a little tanned in the shadows of the forest. Too bad he knew her skin was really as pale as a fish's belly. "You know, Shauna," she drawled dangerously, softly, "You are ever so fortunate that I decided to come with you and guide you along these secret paths...Too bad you will probably catch malaria before we make it out of the woods. If only you would duck under the clouds of mosquitoes so I wouldn't have to listen to your petulant sighs."
The worst thing about this journey was that she was one of them, the witless, nature-savoring journey-mongers.
He slapped at the five new mosquitoes on his face and bit back a curse. Two weeks like this was enough for any man to call it quits.
When they finally stopped for the night Shauna's face was a mass of pink, mosquito love bites. He hunched near the fire he'd made and prayed for the end. This was unendurable. All those epic tales about a band of heroes gallivanting across the countryside had to be made of horseshit, and yet somehow he'd made it to Valencia's temple. He'd done the same thing. Did that make him a fool?
Sighing, he looked across the fire at Valencia's curled up form. "Spatula..." he heard her murmur, and then giggle in her sleep. A snort, "Shauna's got it." He sighed again, and then went to sleep himself. He didn't want to think about how much of a fool he was anymore.
Morning was heralded with a boot planting itself firmly in his stomach. Valencia stood glaring down at him again. Instead of kicking him for a second and third time like she always did—for which he had pre-flinched—, she turned away with a sniff of disdain. The sunlight caught her hair in such a way that it looked like it had a faint greenish tinge. Shauna blinked and shook his head. Well, she was poisonous enough to deserve green hair, if she had it. When she stepped back into the shadows it was merely a dull black again. Maybe he had a concussion. Or he was finally dying.
Shauna's head lolled to one side. Green hair...was it possible for a person to have green hair? They niggled at him, those thoughts of greenness and hair. Why was she so...green? Green eyes, too, hidden under that drape of hair, if he recalled correctly...He rolled onto his back so he could lay in the dappled sunlight that filtered through the trees. With a deep sigh he stretched his arms above his head and cracked a yawn.
"Shauna," Valencia muttered. Her eyes, focused on his outstretched form, moved away to trace the shadows in the forest. Her cheeks looked hot and pink. Did she have a fever? Thoughts splashed through his brain, leaving inanimate mush in their wake. She rubbed at her nose angrily, leaving a little smear of brown dust across the bridge of her nose. "Shauna!" she barked sharply.
"Wha...oh. What?" It was an effort to drag himself back to reality.
"I believe we are being pursued by something..." She narrowed her eyes and peered into the forest. She seemed to be looking beyond their immediate surroundings to something further away. Perhaps miles away.
Shauna's eyes drifted to the spatula on the other side of the quenched fire and he shuddered.
All for a spatula.
All of it.
If he died, it was because of that stupid, useless, inanimate, rusted piece of—
He pulled himself to his feet. All of his joints creaked and groaned. The perpetual moisture of the forest was going to kill him. Looking at his pants, he suspected that they would begin to molder off his body before too long.
"Shauna! We need to leave, now! Get the spatula!" Her usually cool demeanor had cracked and she seemed frantic.
He started toward the spatula and came up short, mouth gaping and eyes wide. His subconscious shrieked its fear. "I can't..."his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. "I...I can't..."
He couldn't pick it up. Hell, he couldn't even get near it. Fear gnawed at his heart like a ravenous, giant squid: purple, ugly, and very, very squishy. The beak of the squiddy fear dug deep, drawing the strength from his heart and limbs.
Valencia stared, agitated but patient. "Well?"
The thought of touching the spatula made him ill. "I can't touch it." It was then that he realized that he had developed a very real phobia.
Valencia sighed, something like condescending pity in her eyes. "Very well." She hefted the spatula in one hand before thrusting it up one elongated sleeve where it promptly vanished leaving nary a lump or blemish in Valencia's mottled, colorless dress. Noticing his horrified, bemused expression she said easily, "Self-contained, symbiotic vortex. Now, we need to leave."
A hungry, piercing howl exploded from higher up on the mountain.
"Oh, my," Shauna commented.
"Indeed," Valencia shot back.
They took off sprinting. Their feet beat frantically against the soft loam in time with their hearts. Adrenaline swam leisurely through their veins like jellyfish, stinging and pricking muscle into action with the faintest touch.
Ten minutes into their sprint, Valencia felt exhaustion kick in. She wasn't anywhere near as fit as Shauna. Gradually she began to slow, falling further behind. Whatever wolf-like creature had howled earlier had gotten much closer, seen as flashes of gray in the spotted shadows of the forest whenever she glanced back.
"Sh-Shauna!" She called frantically. She wasn't going to make it. She wasn't going to—
In a flash Shauna had spun around, face grim and feet planted. Valencia tried to stop but she was still going too fast. Just as they were about to collide, Shauna neatly sidestepped her, caught her up in one arm, and took off running perpendicular to the slope. Shauna's speed could only be considered breakneck and she thanked her lucky stars that she weighed so little, or else he wouldn't have been able to snatch her up. Of course, to her horrified estimation, she didn't weight absolutely nothing either. She gave him twenty seconds tops at his current speed. She vaguely vowed to treat him better if they managed to survive.
Oh, gods. Twenty seconds.
His steps made her teeth click together with the speed of a rattlesnake's tail rattling.
He lunged forward and leapt high in the air, higher than Valencia could have jumped on her own. The ground kept falling further and further away. She started to reach toward the ground with one hand until she spotted the silvery teeth reaching for her hand.
Shauna and Valencia caught on something and remained high up in the air. The silver teeth plummeted back to earth, a mass of pustulant gray fur and yellowed eyes.
"Oh, shit. Wow." Valencia fumbled mentally. Shauna remained silent as she stared down at the wolf. "Like I was saying: wow." She swallowed uneasily. "Hello there wolfie."
The arm around her waist was like a vise and the torso pressed against her hip heaved in and out like the bellows in a forge. Her eyes traced the torso, skittering away from Shauna's face and instead up to the singular arm keeping them in the tree and dangling from a tree branch. Eyes wide, she looked down at the circling, leprotic wolf.
"Oh." As fast as she was capable, she grabbed a hold of Shauna's scanty leather armor and slithered up him and onto the tree branch. After hanging thankfully for a few moments with two arms, Shauna climbed up too. They exhaustedly peered down at their stalker.
"Is it…dying?" Shauna ventured hesitantly. He struggled to slow down his breathing and swallowed.
"I don't know. It still looks pretty spry," Valencia snapped sarcastically. She'd already forgotten about her promise to be kinder to her fellow traveler. "Sorry, sorry," she continued acerbically, "Uncalled-for snark, I know."
"Just…just shut up. I saved your life. Be grateful and shut up." Shauna didn't even bother to look at her as he said the words, or else they probably would have hurt a lot worse.
They stared impassively at the wolf that sat directly below them. It, perturbingly enough, was equally impassive. Valencia's lip curled back. How disturbingly intelligent.
Valencia and Shauna perused the wolf's sharp, yellowed eyes. No stupidity there. None at all.
"Do you think that the KEDT actually sent it?" Shauna finally muttered.
"Sure?" Valencia hedged. She wasn't positive, but the odds were pretty good that it was.
"Great." Shauna sighed and ran a dirty hand through his dirty hair. "Well, I guess we can just stay up here and wait it out. Or, I guess we could wait until nightfall then sneak down…I mean, it's not like the wolf can get up here."
The tree creaked again, this time in frustration and rage.
And then came the most opportune moment of their lives: a window of incalculable potential, small and virtually invisible, but there. Most beings never realize that there are such windows of opportunity and that in them, anything is possible--that even the most ridiculous attempts at the impossible become possible. A man, choosing to fly at such a moment, would actually find it possible. At any other time in his life, he would die.
The tree was pretty damn tired of seeing it wasted by blind, naive individuals. There was always someone hiding in its branches, pursued by some vicious nothing. The tree felt its ire flame even further. The end was always the same: either the predator climbed up the tree and dined on its prey, or the prey tried to sneak down at night and got eaten anyway. And it was just awful. Whenever the predator climbed up it always left gouges in the tree's sexy, sexy exterior before dining and leaving a bloody mess that attracted those nasty flies that it hated. And the pained screaming of the prey as it was getting eaten was just annoying.
There was a window of opportunity and the tree damn well took it.
The tree branch snapped like a whip and went tumbling down to earth. The branch, combined with the weight of Shauna and Valencia, flattened the wolf.
They frantically scrabbled to get off the branch. Valencia felt terrible, looking at the wolf. Now that it was dead, it looked like it was just an old wolf, not something controlled by the KEDT. Even Shauna looked a little remorseful.
He shrugged his shoulders uneasily. "I'm starting to disapprove of the KEDT's methods."
"I am as well," Valencia agreed softly as they started to head west again.
"I suppose that was their Thing that they talked about sending?" Shauna mused, finally ducking around a cloud of mosquitoes.
"They said Things. More than one. This is just the second of many." Valencia said flatly. The detour, surprisingly, had brought them much closer to their first destination than she expected. She walked even faster. Hopefully they would make it to the village in time for dinner. She ran a hand through her greasy hair. And a bath.
Sometime later their trip took a turn for the worst. They had a found a path just a little bit after lunch that would lead them directly to the village and the way seemed clearer than ever. Their discussion about Valencia's past made it the exact opposite.
"Look, Val, it's alright." He murmured soothingly. His hand hovered above her shoulder, not sure whether to touch her or not.
"It is not alright!" She wailed. Going from shepherdess to priestess was unheard-of and completely untraditional. They were doomed.
"I started out as a potter's apprentice," he offered consolingly, "and that didn't make me any less worthy of—"
"You started as a potter's apprentice?" Her voice turned sharp and curious, masking her pain.
"Yes," he smiled as they trudged on, "And I—"
"Don't heroes usually start out as the apprentices of carpenters or…or blacksmiths, or wizards?" Her voice had gone up an octave.
"Well, yes, but—"
"Oh my god. We were doomed from the beginning." Her voice was damningly soft.
Shauna's mood soured, and he scowled. "Kindly shut up, please. Potting is a respectable trade. I'll have you know that—"
He was once more cruelly cut off when both of them managed to collide with the same person. Shauna and Valencia hit the ground hard. The world danced about, cackling gleefully before solemnly taking its proper place and perspective.
As one, their eyes met large feet sheathed in thick, black leather boots. Apparently the individual they had collided with had not fallen, impressively. Stunned, they continued their collaborated perusal of his body. Their eyes met large, powerful calves sheathed in black leather, heavily muscled, masculine thighs sheathed in black leather, slender, manly hips sheathed in black leather, a muscular, manly abdomen sheathed in—
Tired of all the sheathing, they gave up and jumped straight to his—for clearly it was a man's—face.
And were promptly blinded.
Grimacing, Valencia fastened her eyes to the mud she sat squelched in, her cheeks burning. He was beautiful.
Shauna beamed up at the man. "Greetings, good sir. I am Shauna and this is Valencia, the Priestess. We are on a que-…journey."
"Oh, indeed?" The man's voice was a deep, rumbling purr, warm, rich, and friendly. He offered Shauna a hand, which he gladly accepted with his significantly muddier one.
Valencia's face continued to burn. A gloved hand appeared in her line of vision. Not wanting to offend, she tried to wipe her muddy finders on her dress, but it too was muddy. The gloved hand did not retract itself.
Reluctantly she placed her hand in his larger one and was pulled to her feet.
"T-thank you," she managed to stutter as Shauna and the man chatted like old friends.
"They call me The True Hero." The large slice of amazingness said pleasantly.
Valencia's eyes bore into the ground, unwilling to look up, She felt extremely embarrassed and flustered.
"And who is this young lady with you, again?" There was something odd in his voice, but Valencia couldn't place it. The True Hero had fumbled around the words 'young lady.'
"Oh, this is Valencia."
Valencia shuffled in the mud.
Both were silent as they waited for her to speak. Her tongue felt like it was seven sizes too big.
After a few minutes Shauna spoke, "Val, you have to look up and speak sometime, you know."
"Is it peasant born?" The True Hero asked, surprised and sounding a little sickened at the idea.
It? Was she no longer viewed as a woman?
"I have no idea," Shauna offered helpfully.
"Hmph, that would explain its disrespectful reticence."
Valencia suddenly felt like she was about to explode with rage. She glanced up sharply, eyes blazing. She was going to—
"Yes, definitely peasant born," The True Hero confirmed dismissively, cutting off Valencia's nasty retort. He turned back to Shauna. "There is a pleasant little village but a short jaunt from here. Shall I accompany you?"
Valencia wanted to gnash her teeth and scream.
Finally an update. This chapter's is a little bit more serious than the other ones. And almost 3000 words.
See any errors? Let me know! I don't have a beta-reader after all.