Alternate Summary:

Temple servitude was all Labriella knew…until she met another orphan living in the forest. She abandoned Rome to protect him, but he didn't see it that way. Now they're grown up, and Labriella is the one who needs saving. But at what cost? With their friendship compromised, and with Rome unstable, will coming back together only make things worse?


AUTHOR'S NOTE:

This is Inhuman, the revised first installment of The BeastKing Chronicles. It was previously entitled "Beauty and the Beast" or "To Belong to a Beast," so if you are looking for that story, you have found it.

For those of you who read through the story awhile back, since then I have grafted in content from the old volume 2 of this series, and have written entirely new chapters to fill in the gaps. The original version of the story remains posted on MediaMiner as Beauty and the Beast (see my profile for the link).

This is a "Beauty and the Beast" story, although different from the original or from Disney. This is not a children's story, and has been rated M for multiple reasons, including sexual themes, psychological issues, coarse language, and mild violence. Genres include Romance, High Fantasy, Psychological, and Angst. There will be more magical realism than outright fantasy in this volume.

The story has two main characters, and is told from two alternating points of view: female and male.

The first two chapters of this story take place in the characters' childhood years, and do not have any mature content in them. The third chapter concerns teenage years, and the rest of the story occurs during adulthood. You can skip ahead if you want, but you'll miss some background.

PLEASE NOTE: This story is not meant to reflect any pre-existing worldview.


Key:

The separators signify a change in character perspective, meaning a different character is now speaking.

Space between paragraphs denotes the passage of time.

Italicized sentences distinguish the character's thoughts.

The "Glossary" (only for some chapters) contains words that I made up for the purpose of this story, to give it an otherworldly feel. The full glossary is available on my website, accessible via my profile.


- THE FOLLOWING STORY HAS BEEN REVISED -


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Chapter 1
Forbidden Forest

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All living beings are governed by relationships. But sometimes one relationship does not just affect two beings, or create a small ripple in the sea of time. Sometimes one relationship affects the world.

Neither of us was destined for great things. We were outcast, pariah, hidden away from the world. But the winds of change lulled me away from my assigned path, to the childlike feet of perhaps the most dangerous man alive. Had I ignored the wind's guidance, or stood like stone, my life would have been a very different story.

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I was a very unremarkable child, ordinary in appearance and unnoteworthy in ability. The temple drafted me into service at a very young age, offering me food and shelter in exchange for a life of monotonous dedication. I doubt I thought much on the offer of whichever magnanimous soul deemed to reach down into the dirt and rescue my scrawny form from starvation, though truthfully I cannot remember back that far. The temple became my life, and it was not for me to question the ways of it.

Until the day I met him.

It was, of course, Pandora who retrieved me that day for my fateful errand. Such was my incessant luck. There I was, dutifully minding my assigned task, when Pandora graced me with her violent presence.

"Oi, brat!"

Busy chanting "scrub" in my head over and over again, I did not register her intrusion right away as I pushed and pulled the old wooden handle up and down, watching the stiff bristles scrape over the worn stone floor.

Eventually she grew impatient and broke my hypnotism with a sharp kick to my side, sending me sprawling to the floor. "You are s'posed to answer when your superior speaks to you!"

I lay silently where I had fallen.

She grabbed a fistful of my hair and forced me to look up into her face. "Look at me! You are s'posed to listen when your superior is talking!"

I gazed blankly at her beautiful countenance, my eyes devoid of emotion, my face carefully expressionless.

Pandora growled at me in frustration. "Listen, you! The old healer asked for you for the rest of the day. Though, I am sure no one knows why she would want you." With that, she thrust me backward and stalked haughtily away, her nose high in the air.

Absently I ran a hand through my stringy short brown hair, combing down with my fingers where she grabbed. I replaced the brush in the bucket and wiped my hands on my already-soiled shift as I stood, tucking my bucket in a vacant dark corner to begin my journey through the endless winding halls. Layered blocks of gray stone made up the entire structure, walls sprouting up from the floor to arch overhead into a high domed ceiling littered with glass skylights for natural lighting. Most transitions from one room to the next were simple arched stone doorways, though heavy wooden doors guarded a few. The whole structure felt ancient, instigating a sense of awe and wonder and power, making it seem more a fortress than a glorified temple.

I tread barefoot down the cold stone hallways of the massive, majestic building, passing other temple wards who either sneered at me or ignored me completely. At long last I came to an arched doorway graven with the remains of a language long dead, punctuated with imprints of flowers and herbs. I entered, stopping just inside the doorway. The room inside the arch was small, barely large enough to hold the many shelves of old books and various herbs that it contained. A heavy wooden table divided the room, half covered in books and parchment, half bare but for a burnished silver scale and a few carefully chosen samples of herbs. On the side of the table nearest me sat a worn wooden bench, and on the opposite side an old woman stood hunched over the table, consumed by her work. Her red-trimmed white robe and red leather boots stood out amidst the muted tones of the room.

I called to her softly. "Mistress Healer, I haf come as requested."

The old woman looked up immediately, her elegantly arched left eyebrow twitching in slight irritation at being interrupted. Straightening, she quirked a smile in recognition. "Come hither, child. I have a task for thee." I stepped up to the table obediently. She held out a sheet of parchment. "Doth thou knowest yon plants, child?"

Fed up with what she called "the triviality of children herewith," this woman had resolved to teach me about the different herbs and their uses, as well as the names associated with them, and a little on how to prepare them. I could not read, but I could recognize the arrangement of the written characters and pair them with the herbs they represented. I scanned the list of various herbs. "Yes, Mistress Healer."

The corner of her mouth twitched, a subtle sign she was pleased. "I requirest more of yon plants. Ye must venture unto yonder wood to retrieveth them. Bringeth them hither upon thy return." She handed me the list, along with a worn leather box divided into multiple small crosshatch sections.

"Yes, Mistress Healer."

As I left her quarters and continued down the hall once more, I pondered where the healer was sending me. There were many legends about the forest that bordered the small village, but no one truly knew anything about it. None but the bravest or the most foolish ever entered it; few returned. If they did return, either they told ridiculous stories, appearing to have lost their mind, or they isolated themselves and kept quiet. But Mistress Healer was not sending me into the forest itself; it was said nothing good grew there. She had previously sent me into the grassy field, and now she was sending me into the wood. I must be careful not to venture too far into the wood, lest I find myself in the forest.

Exiting the great wooden doors marking the only entrance to the temple, I descended the wide stone stairs on the outskirts of the growing village, eyes fluttering closed to take in the comforting sounds and smells of the everyday hustle-bustle. There was no path to the wood, as few went there for fear of the forest. Near the outskirts of the village the small houses became fewer and farther in between, until at last they ended completely. I continued through the empty field bordering the village, the long grass tickling my calves.

I would be lying if I said I did not feel a sense of foreboding as I drew steadily nearer to the wood. With the faint sounds of the busy village drifting to me on a slight breeze, and the solemn silence of the wood before me, I was sorely tempted to turn back. As I stood on the brink of the wood, staring up at the near-barren trees towering impossibly high above me, I felt the breeze begin to blow harder, as if the wind was pushing me toward the wood. I did not want to go in, but the wood beckoned to me, drawing me in, and soon my feet moved of their own accord.

I do not know how long I trekked through the wood, my feet following the path the wind set for me. When I finally awoke from my trance, it was to a startling revelation: the scenery had changed. I stopped to take in my surroundings.

It was darker. The trees still grew close together, but their branches were now closer to the ground, their crowns thick and green. The higher branches locked together to form an impenetrable canopy, blocking out all but a few stray rays of light from above. An odd vine climbed the trees, midnight green with purple veins. The ground was no longer bare but for the occasional plant; dead pine needles coated the ground in thick layers, littered with the leaves of plants I had never seen before. It was almost like a…

No! I willed myself not to finish that thought, but my mind did not listen. …Like a forest.

Dread seeped into me as I came to terms with the implications of my current surroundings. I was lost in a haunted forest, by myself, with no food or water. How would I ever find my way out? Would the spirits find me? Would they attempt to lead me out, or would they view me as a snack? Panic began to settle in as I realized I had no idea where I was, and no one would come to find me. I whipped about frantically, paranoid and hopeful at the same time.

Suddenly realizing what I was doing, I closed my eyes and took deep breaths, focusing on squashing the feelings of panic. I stood that way for quite some time, until a light breeze ruffled my hair. Opening my eyes at the gentle caress, I looked about me, but there was no sign of any wind; the vines remained still, the trees almost eerily silent. I jolted back to attention as the little hairs on the back of my neck began to prickle.

I was being watched; I could feel it.

Slowly I turned in a circle, taking in everything around me, careful not to startle whatever watched me. As my gaze passed on, a shadow flashed, and then it was gone. I had no idea what it was, but it might be my only chance at leaving this forest alive. Hesitating only a moment, I dashed after it.

I do not know how long I chased after that shadow. Every time I got just within sight of it, the shadow flashed in a different direction. I ran as fast as my short legs were able, stumbling over invisible rocks and running my feet raw over those pine needles which once seemed so soft, the box Mistress Healer gave me banging repeatedly against my thigh.

All at once my foot caught on something and I sailed through the air, somehow managing to turn my head just before my body hit the ground. I lay panting, legs throbbing. Craning my neck back, I saw my ankle hooked across what appeared to be part of a tree that had been ripped free of its trunk. After catching my breath, I crawled painfully to my knees, examining myself. I was covered in scratches, and my shin retained a small gash where it made contact with the trunk fragment. Finally I glanced up, and my eyes grew large.

There was a path.

No, I corrected myself. It was too wide to be just a path. It was a dirt road, in the middle of the forest.

I stared at it in disbelief. It was just like any other dirt road, a little rocky and wide enough for a single carriage. Pine needles and leaves and even branches were strewn across it—evidence the road had not been maintained—but it was a road nonetheless. I sat stunned. There was not even a road from the village to the wood, and surely that route saw more travelers.

I pondered which direction to go, but to my astonishment, the road to the right simply ended. I rose slowly, wincing at the pain in my leg, and dusted myself off. Raking a goodly portion of pine needles out of my hair, I started down the road.

I must have walked several miles before I reached the edge of the forest. I do not know what I expected, but it was not what I found there: an endless field. It looked like the other side of the wood, if the village never existed. Grass extended as far as I could see in all directions, until it met the trees of the forest in a straight line to the horizon on my left and my right. The only wrinkle in the grass before me was a speck in the distance, straight ahead and slightly to the left. Seeking some sort of sanctuary, I began the trek across the grassland to reach it.

After walking for some time, I came across another black dot in the landscape, this one low in the grass and significantly closer. At first I thought it was an animal. Happy to see another living thing for the first time in what must have been hours, I crept forward slowly, cautiously, not wanting to frighten it. Not until I stopped just a few yards in front of it did I recognize it for what it was: a boy with dark brown hair, tattered clothes, and soulful eyes.


I watched her approach warily.

Sensing her panic in the forest—a place no people and few animals dared live—I had gone to see what nagged at my senses. It was a girl, homely and dirty, carrying a strange leather box. She looked lost. For the first time in a long while, I felt a streak of compassion, and something told me to lead her back to the safety of her village, where she belonged. I attributed this to never having seen a girl in the forest before, as well as not having seen a girl for so long that I did not even remember what one looked like.

Apparently she sensed I was there, because she stopped suddenly and turned in a slow circle, as if looking for whatever might be stalking her. I hopped trees a couple times, landing just outside her line of vision. To my surprise, instead of giving up her search, she ran toward me. I had lived alone for a long time and became an animal of solitude, of instinct. So I ran, primal instincts overtaking me like an animal in danger. I ran from tree to tree, hopped from branch to branch, my feet barely touching down on the bark of one branch before springing to the next. I hoped to lose her, as I knew the forest far better than she could ever hope to know. But she just ran faster, her footsteps thudding dully on the ground behind me. At one point I heard her trip and hit the ground. I took that as my cue to escape, continuing my dash through the trees until I leapt and landed softly in the grass.

I forgot about the road. After all, I never used it. Nobody had used it for a number of years.

And now this creature—this girl—stood only a few yards from me, scratched, bruised, and bleeding, looking upon something no one even knew existed: me.

She looked uncertain, surprised even, but unafraid. She took a slow step in my direction.

I coiled, ready to spring if need be. But I did not move.

The girl took another step toward me. I tensed further, but remained still.

She took another step. I growled, and she hesitated.

Another step. I snarled, baring my teeth in warning. The girl paused then, seeing me as the animal I am. She stared into my eyes, her large light brown eyes boring into mine, staring straight through me to the shattered remnants of my soul.

Another step. One more step and she would be right next to me. I let out a low whine. Her expression revealed confusion. Then, to my surprise, she sank down to my level, squatting in front of me, and reached out a hand as if to touch me.

I flinched backward, putting another step of distance between us.

The girl seemed to wake then, as though she reached for me unconsciously. She pulled her hand back but stayed at my level, holding me under intense scrutiny. I felt caged.

"Wha's yer name?"

I started. I had not heard the voice of another person in so long. No one had spoken even a word to me in countless years, and I stopped speaking during that time.

I struggled with my thoughts. Name. My name. Did I have a name? If I had a name, why would she want to know it? What was a name, anyway? I opened my mouth to give voice to these questions, but nothing came out. I could not remember how to speak.

The girl waited, but I did not speak. Her brows furrowed. "Do ya…do ya lif here?"

Yes. Just say yes. This time I managed a small noise in the back of my throat.

"This means yes," she said, nodding her head. "This means no," she said, shaking it. Allowing me to process that for a moment, she tried again. "Do ya lif here?"

Following her demonstration, I nodded.

"By yerself?"

I nodded again.

"Do ya haf any family?"

I flinched at the word "family." I did not know why, but it made my chest constrict and my head hurt.

She noticed and rephrased the question. "Do ya haf any parents?"

The word "parents" sent a ripple of pain through me and I cried out, holding my head in my hands as it began to throb.

Parents.

Images flew before my eyes one right after the other, memories long forgotten, horrors better left buried. I saw my childhood, my parents, my home. And I knew who I was.

My father was a nobleman. My parents were slaughtered in the night. And I was reborn as something else entirely.


I knew I said something wrong when I asked him the first time, so I decided to try a different word. Apparently the second word was worse than the first. His whole body went rigid and his eyes grew unfocused. I watched helplessly as alternating expressions of traumatized horror played across his face, until whatever thought surfaced proved too much for him, and he collapsed in an unconscious heap in the grass.

I felt surprised at first, then afraid, then guilty. I hardly met this boy, and already I caused him such obvious pain. Crawling over to him, I rolled him gently onto his back, finally getting a good look at him.

The boy had a strong nose and square jaw, softened by flawless skin and the soft curves of youth. His hair was permanently askew, his clothes worn and ripped and torn, as though he had been roughing it for quite some time now. I kneeled and lifted his head onto my lap, hoping to provide some small comfort. On impulse I ran a hand through his messy hair, marveling at its softness, combing the dirt, leaves, and grass out of it with gentle work-worn fingers.

At last his long, dark lashes fluttered open, and his startled eyes stared up into mine. Without any doubt, they were the deepest, darkest, most beautiful eyes I had ever seen.


When next I opened my eyes, it was to see the girl who followed me directly above me, staring straight into my eyes. Light lashes accentuated her eyes, intensifying them until direct contact was almost unbearable. Her slight soft smile surprised me.

Then I noticed my head was resting in her lap.

I jumped back, relieved to be out of her grasp. But the relief was short-lived, followed closely by sadness born of being parted from her warmth. Blinking in confusion, I attempted to sort my thoughts.

"Are ya alrigh'?"

I glanced up at her, reading concern on her face, and then stared at the ground. "Fine," I grunted.

"So ya c'n talk?" I could hear the smile in her voice.

I shrugged my shoulders dismissively.

"C'n ya tell me yer name?"

Thinking hard for a minute, I shook my head. "No."

"Ya dunna remember?"

I shrugged again.

It was quiet a moment. Then, "How long haf ya been out here?"

I knew what she meant; I had already been trying to figure that out. Slowly I shook my head. "I know not."

Again there was quiet.

"Ya haf really purdy eyes."

My head snapped up before I quickly looked away, feeling my cheeks warm. "Nothing special," I mumbled.

"Only nobles haf colored eyes. Eferyone else's eyes are dull earthy colors. I haf nefer seen eyes like yers though."

I stared at her. Although I grew up knowing my parents to be wealthy, I never viewed them as nobility, let alone myself. And I certainly did not resemble nobility now, in either appearance or conduct. I snorted. "Noble I am not, so do not bother."

The quiet returned. Then she stood. "Well, ya know yer way through the fores', doncha?"

I eyed her suspiciously. "Yes."

The girl fumbled with her strange box. "Well, c'n ya please lead me back ta the wood? I'm s'posed ta gather herbs there fer Mistress Healer."

Taken aback, I stared. Lead this girl-creature through my forest? "Mistress Healer?"

"Yes. Ya see, I'm an orphan, so I lif at the temple. I came ta the wood on an errand, and I go' los' and somehow ended up in the fores'."

Still I continued to stare, though I could tell I made her nervous. "The temple? In the village?"

She nodded, eyes suddenly brightening. "Yer an orphan too, right? Ya could come back with me!"

Wincing at her reference to me as an "orphan," I allowed my eyes to drift away. "I have no desire to go to your village or your temple." She looked crestfallen. I stood. "However, I will take you as far as the edge of the forest. You may find your way back from there."

"Thank ya." The girl smiled, but I sensed sadness.

Is she sad that I won't go back with her?

Wordlessly I headed toward the forest.


I will never understand how he knew his way through the forest. The road was helpful, but after was an endless trek over pine needles and around trees. Everything appeared more of the same to me, but evidently it was not, because at first glance the boy knew which direction to turn. After what seemed an eternity, he finally stopped.


I stopped at the invisible boundary where my forest ended and the wood began. "Here is the border."

Do not let her go. It was breathy sound, soft enough to be a whisper.

Seeing no one in front of me, I turned. "Pardon?"

The girl answered. "I said 'thank ya.' I nefer would haf been able ta find my way ou' on my own." She paused. "Are ya sure ya dunna wan' ta come back with me?"

"No." My answer came short and immediate. Just because I remembered how to speak, did not mean I wished to join a village.

She fell silent again. Turning, I began to walk away.

"Will I see ya again?"

I turned my head slightly, acknowledging that I heard her, but kept walking and did not answer. Not long after, I took to the trees and did not stop until I was out of sight. When I did stop, I glanced back the way I came, musing over the strange girl who wandered into my forest.


I was truly disappointed when the boy refused to return to the temple with me. I feared what may happen if a more fearsome adventurer came upon him in the forest and mistook him for one of those spirits the forest was famous for. I wonder, when others thought they saw a spirit, was it him they saw all along?

I gathered the herbs for Mistress Healer and headed back to the temple. It was dusk by the time I returned. Mistress Healer gave me a warning look. "Ye cannot honestly expect me to believeth, child, that ye returneth justly."

I lowered my eyes in deference. "Yes, Mistress Healer."

"Wherewith hast thou been, child? 'Tis nearly time for supper!"

"I go' los', Mistress Healer."

"Doth not lie to me, child! The only way thou couldst becomest lost was if thou enterest yonder forest." I bowed my head. She paused. "Didst thou enter yonder forest?" The question sounded almost hesitant.

I knew I could not lie to her. "Yes, Mistress Healer. I-I'm sorry, Mistress Healer. I was jus' following the wind," I finished lamely.

She raised a skeptical brow. "The wind."

I glanced up at her hopefully. "Yes, Mistress Healer. The wind. It pushed me through the wood, in ta the fores'. And then it jus'…stopped."

Her eyebrow twitched. "Art thou telling me, child, that yonder wind forceth thee into the forest?"

Feeling my prospects of escaping to supper unpunished slip away, I closed my eyes. "No, Mistress Healer. I chose ta follow it."

"And didst thou gatherest yonder plants before, during, or after this grand excursion of thine?"

"After, Mistress Healer." My voice had grown soft. I knew now that she would never believe me.

"And didst thou meetest any spirits?"

At least I had a little believability on my side. The general consensus of the villagers was that countless spirits wishing harm upon humankind haunted the forest. My teacher did not readily believe in such "nonsense." "No, Mistress Healer," I said, peeking up at her.

Her face was unreadable. "Then how, child, didst thou managest to escapeth yonder forest?"

I hated when she used that tone. So condescending, as if she were explaining something simple using juvenile logic to someone who was completely oblivious. I hesitated, reluctant to share my secret with anyone else—even Mistress Healer—but at last I spoke in a small voice. "There was a boy."

The old woman was silent a moment. "In yonder forest?"

"Yes, Mistress Healer. He led me ou'."

Silence again, longer this time. "Art thou certain thou wast not imagining such a thing?"

"Yes, Mistress Healer. I dunna play games." Truly, I did not play games—imaginative, physical, or otherwise.

"How dost thou know t'was not a spirit, child?"

"He was solid, Mistress Healer."

"Didst thou toucheth him?" she pressed.

"Yes, Mistress Healer."

She paused. "Wast there anything…odd…about him?"

Sensing the worst of the conversation was over, I opened my eyes, tilting my head slightly. "His eyes, Mistress Healer. T'were an unusual color."

"'Unusual,' child? What colour werest they?"

"Green, dark green. Like jewels. But he insisted he wasna noble."

The healer turned her back to me, her long gray ponytail swishing down her back as she moved. "Didst he giveth a name?"

"No, Mistress Healer. He said he couldna remember." I noted her tense posture. "Do…do ya know him, Mistress Healer?"

She swung back around to face me. Her steely ancient eyes bored into mine. "Speakest not of this to anyone, child. 'Tis of the utmost importance that ye keepeth this from others, lest ye puteth the boy in danger. Dost thou understand, child?"

I was excited. She believed me! "Yes, Mistress Healer."

"Good. Now, off to supper with ye!"

Part of me wanted to bolt out of Mistress Healer's small packed quarters the moment she released me, but the sensible part of me, armored with years of habit, won out. My last meal had been an early breakfast, only a couple hours after the first rays of dawn stretched their fingers across the sky. Now over ten hours later, it was a wonder my stomach did not make more of a ruckus. But hungry as I was, I knew better than to run in the halls. Not only was it forbidden to run within the temple, but there was also a chance I would run into someone, thereby heaping more punishment upon myself, and possibly miss supper altogether. So I padded silently down the halls, noting with relief that others were still walking in the direction of the kitchen. I followed them between tall walls of cold stone, hoping the complaints of my stomach were not loud enough to earn me the disapproving glares of those around me. It was always better to go unnoticed than to stand out.

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As I left the mess hall with comfortably full stomach and warm insides, my mind absently drifted to the boy in the forest. Would he have a warm meal tonight? I could not help but wonder. Would he have a meal at all? Surely he would; obviously he found a method of obtaining food before I met him. Where would he sleep tonight? Surely he would sleep as he always slept. But where was that? I could only wonder at how he had survived alone in the forest for so long. I remembered him leading me through the forest. He knew exactly which way to go, where to look, what to look for. He knew the forest better than anyone else could ever hope to. Of course he knew how to find food. Of course he had a place to sleep.

Evening rituals flew by. What was once my favorite part of the day, and what remained my favorite aspect of temple life, lost some of its luster and its draw in light of the day's adventures. It was all I could do to maintain my prone position, kneeling with head bowed to the floor, as priests and priestesses chanted and lit the candles. My mind strayed badly from the thanksgiving prayers, and I barely raised my head in time as the rituals came to a close and all the wards rose as one. A priestess pronounced the blessing, and we filed out of the room in order of rank—priests and priestesses first, then maidens, and servants last—followed closely by the doorkeeper. Each group split off in the direction of their quarters, in separate wings and floors of the building (or so I once was told, for temple wards rarely had cause to see one another's quarters).

That night I lay on my mat wrapped in a thin blanket, as I had every night before, head pillowed on my elbow, and dreamed a new dream. When I closed my eyes, eyes of bejeweled green hung suspended in my mind's eye, shadowed by dark uneven bangs. I fell asleep gazing into their depths. I heard leaves in the trees, smelled rich earth and deep pine and thick musk, gripped bark under my fingernails, felt soft mud ooze between my toes. I dreamed of clear sparkling water and of deep dark. And as I breathed in the wild and the strange, something woke deep within me, and I was never the same.


I waded through the cool spring, reveling in the force of the fast current against my toes, listening to the faint chorus of insects in the night. Things I had seen and heard and felt a thousand times before thrilled me with the fascination of a newborn. Experiences once so natural and expected, now exploded in a riot of colour. Every tree manifested its own life force, every plant grew in its own preferred pattern, every insect sang with its own unique voice. The leaves whispered together overhead, the stream bubbled and tumbled on its merry way. A bird called out a single throaty note. The forest brimmed with life, with energy. The night held secrets yet to be discovered, long taken for granted.

Wading out of the icy stream on curiously numb feet, I leaned against an overhanging tree, digging my fingers into its bark, inhaling deeply its spiced scent. Slowly I began to scale the tree, gripping with sharp little nails and callused palms and soles, until I reached the first branch. Testing its strength, I climbed up to the next branch and then the next, until I was reasonably far off the ground but a good distance below the wild, thick interlocking canopy. Leaning my back against the trunk, my legs stretched out along the branch, I listened to the silent footsteps and the soft chattering of the beasts above me. The monotonous livelihood of the stream hypnotized me into joining with the dragging tides of sleep.

The night of my first awakening, I dreamt of stale air and cold stone, endless mazes, imposing arches and towering walls, cold faces and hostile emotions. Noxious spices and centuries-old dust clogged my nose. Rituals and rules crowded me, and I wondered how such a spacious place could be so closed. But a great power slept there, and just when I thought hope was lost, it cradled me in its arms, and my senses went blessedly blank but for a warm comforting tingle in my chest.

.

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A/N: Labriella has an accent/lisp that she picked up from the villagers, so as a child her 'v' sounds like an 'f,' and her 't' at the end of a word may disappear entirely. This is not permanent. Rome, on the other hand, speaks very proper, because that is how he was taught by his parents. Each speaks in the manner they do because that is all they know at this point.

Chapter revision posted 10/19/13.