My piece for a writing challenge that had given characters, theme and setting. The idea belongs to my brother.


Beyond the Brambles

Alto reaches his hand further into the large crevice between the roots. His hands are bruised and marred with dirt from scavenging but he can't go home with only scraps of cloths and a cluster of herbs. He hasn't yet found anything of use among the litters of junk that decorate the bottom of the Travelling Toadstool.

His hand brushes against something smooth and firm. Alto fishes it out to find an object weaved from vines holding together hundreds of large green leaves. It was a book. The cover is embroidered with patterns of blooms and buds, dancing with rainbow colours.

He had never seen something so bright and beautiful. The intricate woven vines that hold each leaf together twirled and twined around its edge. Alto can't read the words on the cover. He's only a boy of eight, but he's determined to one day learn the meaning of those squiggled letters.

Alto looks up to the petals of fungus that cling to the mushroom stalk. The highest petal sits barely within his sight, way beyond where his wings could reach. A book of such beauty could only have fallen from up there.

He knows he doesn't have any more time to scavenge when he feels the first tremor rock the ground.

"Alto!" His mother calls from where she's standing on the edge of the lowest petal. "The mushroom is going to walk. Come up quickly before you fall off."

Alto puts the book into his straw satchel and unfurls his bonsai; the leafy fungus wings upon his back. He flutters slowly and sloppily to his mother, his wings unable to properly function due to the living conditions of the lower petals.

He just has enough time to jump into his mother's open arms when the Travelling Toadstool moves, shaking the petals and crawling its roots through the forest floor. His mother brushes her callused hands throws his bonsai, smoothing out all leaves and brushing off dirt. His eyes are drawn back to the Canopy; the highest petal under the toadstool. He wonders what life would be like up there, where everyone could fly and soar, where their wings were strong enough to glide and dive. He wonders what it would be like if his own wings could do more than just flutter unsteadily.

The autumn sun shines through the cracks of the cabin as Alto trims one stray leaf off his bonsai. Grooming was a culture foreign to the lower petal societies and proper technique was needed to pull it off effectively. It's only because Alto managed to collect a small array of books about it that he's able to do so. It's far more difficult than the words on the leaves make it sound but he's learnt that grooming your bonsai is essential for being able to fly. And because of that knowledge, his wings work a little better than everyone else that lives on his petal. Of course, the small amount of information his books provide will never be enough for him to fly to the Canopy or any of the high-rise petals.

Not that they would ever welcome him. Those who dwelt on the higher petals had wealth and riches, knowledge and power. They didn't like to associate themselves with the folk underneath their flowering cities.

Alto sighed, placing the thorn knife back in its case and stretching out his wings. He shook off the trimmings and carefully returned the book on grooming to its place on his bookshelf. His bookshelf was meagre with only twenty or so books but they were the fruits of all his hard earned efforts scavenging in the roots. His mother would've been proud of how skilled he had become at it. If she had still been alive. Lifespans are short on the lower petals.

Alto lived on the lowest petal, which was big enough for a small town. The houses there are crumbling and the streets are filled with litter dropped from above. Though Alto was thankful he didn't have to live on the roots, he didn't appreciate the fact that those who lived above them prospered in plentiful gardens with bonsais that bloomed flowers while those below struggled to live, let alone fly.

They were all human. They all had wings. They all lived on the Travelling Toadstool. Yet why were they're lives so different? They were all supposed to be human. So what did it mean to be human?

Alto pulled out the leftmost book on his shelf. It was one of woven vines and iridescent colours; the book he had found all those years back when he was a child. It was the very book that started his hunt for knowledge, his desire to learn. But the most interesting thing about that book, was that it was a book about magic.

He had read it over and over, throughout the years. Each instruction on welding sorcerous materials called 'metal', and each detail on how to weave wires that could house the natural element of electricity were memorised to the last word.

Maybe today, Alto thought, maybe today I'll use this magic.

With a satchel of tools and supplies, Alto set off to the roots for scavenging, working his bonsai to glide downwards.

An entwinement of briars and blossoming flowers, Akira's wings were the most beautiful of all bonsai. They were the strongest and best groomed. Akira's parents wouldn't allow anything less of their only daughter. She was born into the leading family of the Canopy and she was being raised to one day become its next head.

The handmaiden to her left braided a crown of pink rose thorns into the shadows of green hair while the stylist to her right sowed seeds of bluebell and dandelions into her wings, sprinkling them around the spores of fungus and blades of summer grass. Behind her, another handmaiden tied an obi over her flaxen spun furisode, tight enough that she could barely breathe.

Her appearance was to be well-kept and graceful everyday as her mother had declared. Akira didn't really like sitting still for so long but she would heed her parents as good children do. She would smile gently at visitors, recite poetry to them and listen to their talk until she was taken outside to fly. Exercise was a vital part of keeping bonsai healthy after all. Only after the pleasantries and lessons would she be given her free time, and that's when she'll sprawl in the library without an ounce of grace to immerse herself in the world of books.

There was so much to learn and so much to see. Each lefty page told Akira tales of wonder and adventure that lie beyond the wooden walls of her own home. She was forbidden to leave the house unless she was having lessons for flight or taking part in parades. There was nothing within the flowery mansion that could satisfy her curiosity except for the wealth of books in her family library.

But apparently not all books were for her eyes. Akira remembers a time long ago when she had chanced upon of book with writing that shimmered gold. It was a book about metallic magics and sorcery made by hand. The images mesmerised her and the possibilities astounded her, but her mother had shrieked the moment she saw that book.

It was the first time that had seen someone throw something unwanted over the petal. There had always been plenty of rumours that things with no place in the Canopy were thrown over the edge, so that other petal dwellers may make better use of it. However that had been the very first time she was to witness it, and with one of her own books too.

Akira had minded her actions around her mother from then on. It wouldn't do to incur her temper lest Akira have even less time to see the outside world than the few hours she has for flying. It's always a marvel to look down at the busy city streets when she glides. Everyone is out and about, busying themselves with plucking flowers and collecting spores to decorate their houses. Some are tending their gardens while others play among the chanterelle and cremini groves.

Those sights had always made her wonder, what purpose did she have? Unlike those who planted flowers or harvested growth, unlike those busy and working or those flying freely, Akira was shut away at home. Her wings may have been the most beautiful, with the largest variety of flowers, with the strongest and sharpest thorns, but she had nothing to do but sit and greet, to smile and be pretty. Akira was human just like everyone else in the Canopy. But then why didn't she have anything to do at all? Akira was supposed to be human like everyone else. But what did it mean to be human?

The day her questions would be answered came far sooner than she expected. Akira has been out flying with her instructor when the commotion started. Many people had come to crowd at the edge of the brambles that surrounded the Canopy petal. The brambles were to keep out the dangers that lie beyond, they had told her. And now it seems that one of the dangers had found its way in.

Akira dove down to the crowd before her instructor could stop her. Her bonsai were faster and stronger than anyone's, for they had been groomed to be the very best. She fluttered above to see an old man with haggard wings; his bonsai were overgrown and mucked with dirt. Akira had never before seen someone so… unkempt.

The city guards were holding him down as he struggled. He screamed and shouted, cursing at them with words that could curdle milk. It was so peculiar to see such a person. Akira didn't know these kinds of people lived beyond the brambles. Did not everyone outside the Canopy groom themselves properly? Did they not all have people to teach them manners and courtesy?

"Wait!" Akira called out, as she landed, the crowd parting for her.

Everyone could recognise her, not only from her wings but from the crown of thorns that symbolised her family crest. People stepped aside as she stepped forward. Some murmured quietly as she passed while other bowed their heads.

"Young Miss," One of the guards addressed her. "It's best if you stay away from this outsider. He's dangerous."

"Dangerous!?" The man screamed, "You are the ones that make our lives dangerous! You hoard all the greenery and blooms to yourselves. You leave us scrabbling at scraps that you've thrown out and think we have to be grateful for it? You are the ones that are dangerous to us!"

"You see," the guard said, pulling at the man's bonsai to hold him back, "They spout nonsense at us with uncouth speech. Your parents would surely not want you near such a creature."

Akira agrees that her parents would have never allowed her to be near him. They don't even allow her to speak to normal Canopy dwellers so of course there would never be a day where she could come near an outer petal dweller. But she can't help but be curious. How on the Travelling Toadstool could a person become so dishevelled? Just what was it like beyond the brambles of the Canopy?

"Sir, where do you come from?" She asked the man directly, "Why has your bonsai been neglected? What kind of petal do you live on?"

He glared at her furiously. "I have no words for a child of thorns."

The guards herded him away before she could ask him anything more.

That night, Akira wasn't able to sleep. While her instructor didn't reveal her misadventure to her parents, she couldn't get the scene out of her head. How could someone have neglected their bonsai so much? And where did he come from? Were lower petals different to this one? There were so many questions and not enough answers.

A thought came to her suddenly. It had never once occurred to her before to defy her parents but, if no one ever found out, what if she went beyond the brambles? It was a daring and daunting idea, one that her parents would definitely not like. But there was no other way to satisfy her curiosity. She really must find out. And perhaps if she does go beyond, then she might find the answer to the question she had always been asking. What does it mean to be human?

Come the next morning, just when dawn peaks and before everyone has left their nests, Akira crept through her house, careful not to disturb her relatives or run into any servants. She made it to the roof without yet any hitches and while her plan was not all that well-thought out, she was determined to find what lies below this petal.

With a running jump, she lifted into the air, her bonsai catching on the wind and pulling her higher. She soared as high as she could go, almost until she could brush her wings on the gills underside the Travelling Mushroom's cap. From there she could see the whole stalk, and every petal that circled it. She could see the giant roots far down below, where even the houses and gardens looked like specks.

It was breath-taking.

Below her, the Canopy dwellers were waking up, some talking flight and some looking for herbs. It would only be a matter of time until her parents would wake too. It was now or never.

Akira took a breath. Then she took another. With a swoop of her wings, she dived down. Down below the city and the brambles, below the highest petal where she had spent her whole life.

The wind rushed around her and spores got stuck between the leaves of her wings. She would really need a good grooming after such a dive. But for now, Akira let the rapid current tousle her hair and crumple her haori. She felt so free.

It's only when she's getting rather close to the roots that she realises she really needs to land somewhere before the mushroom starts to move. She's been warned of the dangers of the roots, and one could be flung off it, if you happened to be down there when the Travelling Toadstool walks.

She managed to ride an up-draft and parachute her wings, gliding towards the lowest petal. Her straw sandals land on dusty ground, unswept of falling spores and littered with scraps of things Akira can't recognise. The sight around her is astonishing.

There aren't any rosewood houses with gardens of blooming flowers. There aren't any leafy thickets or bushes of thorn and rose. Instead there were small huts all lopsided and held together with twine. Junk and debris lined the roads, all cluttered and curved. The people here are covered in dirt with clothes of knotted grass. Their bonsais are untrimmed and rumpled, stained with slime and smudge. Akira can't believe her eyes. How can such a place exist?

Everyone stares at her in bewilderment, the same way she stares back at them. She'd thought herself untamed with wind-roused hair and spore-stuck wings but now it was apparent that there was much worse a fate than being a little untidy.

Akira hadn't thought this far into her plan. She was now on a petal so far from the Canopy and before her eyes was a place she could never have imagined. Her questions were still unanswered, only more appeared to bloom. She had to decide quickly, what was she to do now?

A nettle hairbrush half buried by wreckage reminded her of what is thrown down here. The book. Perhaps she could find that book of magic down here. It gave her a reason to speak to the lower petal dwellers and even an excuse to inquire what she wished to know.

However it didn't seem like the people here were pleased to see her; some even looked at her with spite. Akira didn't think she had done anything to warrant such emotions, she hadn't even met them before. Most wouldn't answer her questions, running just at her sight or shutting doors in her face. It was so peculiar that people were so rude down here. At least they were honest, she supposed.

Finally, a middle-aged woman sitting at the edge of the petal gave a reply.

"A book? There ain't many of those round here." She was knitting together strands of apple grass into a children's dress. "But there's one strange guy that collects those sorts of things. He might have what you're looking for. He lives at the western edge, in a cabin that's bigger than most of the houses round here."

"Thank you." Akira said gratefully. It was nice not to be shunned for once. She really didn't understand why everyone here disliked her so.

"You be careful." The woman warned, "People round here aren't fond of folk like you. No one's really seen one of you before."

Akira didn't understand what makes her so different but she thanked the woman again and headed towards the book collector's house.

The cabin was secluded from the rest of the town. It was built on stilts and made of coarse fungi fibres all strung together with dried ivy. There were also various trinkets and items melded into the house, some serving as joints and others as scaffold or cushioning. It was the most bizarre-looking building that Akira had ever seen.

Steeling her determination, Akira pulled her haori tighter over her shoulders as she knocked on the door. No one responded. Feeling braver, Akira knocked again with a bit more force.

Someone grumbled inside and the door creaked open to reveal a looming figure. There stood a young man that seem too tall for the doorway. His hair was short and scruffy. Glass framed with wires sat over his eyes and he wore a sweater of crocheted juniper yarn. His bonsai though, while not exactly well-groomed, were in much better shape than the rest of the people here. No stray leafs stuck out of the fungus frame nor were they overgrown in anyway. It wasn't decorated with flowers or strengthened with thorns but they could probably fly rather well.

His eyes narrowed as soon as he saw her. "You're not from around here."

"I've come from the Canopy." Akira replied.

He looked even more repulsed. "What's a brat like you doing down here then?"

Akira brushed off his barbs and smiled at him, because one had to be on their best behaviour to ask for a favour. "I'm looking for a book. My mother threw it off the edge when I was a child. I wasn't to read such things. But... I believe it may give me the answer I'm looking for."

His eyes lit up when she said books but he didn't budge.

"And what sort of answer is that?" He sounded bored.

"The answer to what it means to be human."

He seemed hesitant once she answered. After a pause he disappeared inside but left the door open. She wasn't sure what it meant so she continued to stand there, waiting.

"Are you coming in or not?" He called from within.

"Am I allowed?" Was she supposed to? He didn't say she could.

"Obviously. Now hurry up." It wasn't obvious at all but she did as she was told and carefully slipped inside, mindful not to touch the walls lest she dirty her clothes.

The cabin was small and piles of junk obscured most of the floor space. There was a kitchenette in one end, next to a wooden table made for one. A screen of twigs partitioned off a sleeping area with a hammock made of spider thread. However what caught her eye was the strange creation, only partially finished that stood in a shadowed corner of the room. It spurred on Akira's curiosity but she knew it wasn't her place to ask.

"Umm," Akira stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do. Was it really such a good idea to follow a stranger into their house? "May I have your name at least?"

"No."

"Oh. Okay." Akira wasn't sure of how formalities worked in this place so she wouldn't impose. What she knew about the world didn't seem to apply here.

He huffs. "You ought to give your own name before you ask, shouldn't you?"

"It's Akira." She replies, a little hopeful he'll return her gesture.

"Alto." Alto responds, as he pulls the cover sheet off what seems to be a small bookshelf. "Now come and see if any of these are what you're looking for."

"Um, Alto?"

"What?"

"If I may, can I ask why no one grooms their bonsai here?"

He has that look of scorn in his eyes again and Akira can't understand why.

"You're lucky you're just a kid. Well I suppose I can humour you for now, since it really seems like you know nothing at all." Alto sits down on a bench beside the shelf.

"Down here, no one has the necessary supplies or tools for grooming. No one's got time for it either. We're all struggling to survive, trying our best with either scavenging or farming. Sometimes our wings even get chipped or damaged during work but there's no time for repair."

"Then, why don't you ask for resources? From the higher petals." Akira supplied. There was no reason for everyone here to suffer like this if they shared their resources.

"You really don't understand a thing, do you?" This time the look in Alto's eyes are pity. "I'm not sure what you've been told but the folk from the higher petals hate us. They're proud to be better than us, especially those from the Canopy that you come from. They only throw down things they don't want, and it's not even through sympathy for us. It's just because it's in their way."

Akira doesn't know what to say. Everything she had known and believed in was just a tiny part of the world. The thought that people didn't groom their bonsai hadn't even occurred to her. It had been something so essential, so necessary that it never needed a second thought.

"So tell me, why does a well-groomed, well-dressed, wealthy young miss from the Canopy want to know the meaning of humanity so much that she's flown down to this lowly commoner's petal?"

Akira isn't sure if she should just reveal her thoughts to a stranger but Alto has been kind enough to enlighten her with so much knowledge that she had never heard of. It would only be polite to return the favour.

"I've always been forbidden from going outside." Akira begins. "The only times I'm allowed out of the house are when I have my flying lessons. And every time I go out, I see everyone else going about their lives. I've always wondered what made me so different from them. My bonsai are groomed by the best stylists and I've been taught how to take care of them on my own too. But is there really much point to having the best wings when all I do is spend my time indoors? It made me wonder, if I was human just like the rest of them… then what did it mean to be human?"

Alto stared at her silently, his expression unreadable.

"Can you tell me then?" Akira asked, unable to stop her curiosity, "What does it means to be human?"

"To struggle." Alto answers without missing a beat. "Humans struggle to survive. They struggle to escape their own humanity."

He stands up and brushes a hand across her left wing, tracing the clusters of flowers along the thorny frame. "You might have beautiful wings," he continues, "but you don't seem human at all. You've never struggled before. You don't even get to go outside. You're just a doll; a trophy to show off the prosperity of the Canopy."

"Then," Akira starts, eyes going to the figure-like structure in that shadows, "the human you've been making- there in that corner. It's the one made with the magic from the book my mother dropped. Will that human struggle too?"

Alto retracted his hand and turned to the mechanical creature in the back of his house. So that's the book you've been looking for, is muttered under his breath.

The creature is made from fibres called steel, a material stronger than any plant. Akira remembers this from glimpses of the magic book's pages buried in her memories. The magic-made 'human' is almost a copy of Alto in appearance except for its half-finished part where wires and cords are visible. Its bonsai too are made from steel, giving it the strength to soar and glide without the need for trimming and tending.

"It's called a 'robot'." Alto explained, "It's made from magical fibres that are far better than even the strongest thorns. It's supposed to be like me but with wings that can actually carry it to the top of the Toadstool."

Akira thought it was amazing that Alto had managed to use magic to create this robot but it presented her with yet another question.

"Is this robot human too?"

"No." Alto said, looking as if he's only come to the realisation. "I made this robot to be perfect. It doesn't need to struggle."

"What is its name?" Akira asks.

"Alto Ego."