Invisible Paint Brushes rock Circulation: 112,409,164 Issue: 224 | 20th day of Sleeping, Y8
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Taking the Long Way: Part Two

by senya


Haunted Steps

"I'm telling you, he died in Virtopia!"

      "And I'm telling you, YOU'RE WRONG!" the Brain Tree bellowed in response to Alexien's agitation, the harsh words rebounding off the thickly-grown wall of trees that stood sentry around him like inanimate guards.

      Arms crossed in open exasperation, face twisted into a murderous scowl, Alexien snapped a reply. "Then maybe you should take that up with the Esophagor. It's his faulty memory, not mine. Why do you request this information if you already know when it's wrong? I think you're about as stable as your grumbling friend over there."

      "Ill-mannered brat. You're the one that came to me," the Brain Tree reminded him with offended dignity, drawing his age-scarred branches up in a manner that suggested he was pulling in the welcome mat.

      "You know why I come here. Even though you're always misplacing those mental files of yours, who keeps better records than you? You're about as omniscient a being as there is in these accursed woods. You're quite useful, especially given the nature of my job."

      "Still spying about, are you? Is Skarl convinced someone else is aiming for his throne?" the ancient tree asked in his huge, rumbling voice. The words thrummed through the wet soil underneath Alexien's feet, causing his very limbs to throb.

      "Skarl would be convinced you were aiming for his throne if you weren't so securely rooted down," Alexien sneered. "And don't touch those!" he barked, whirling to point an authoritative finger at Wiltshire who was bending over a deceptively inviting growth of mushrooms. Immediately at the voiced warning, teeth were bared and the innocuous-looking little fungi snapped at Wiltshire's dangling fingers. Not the most mobile of creatures, Wiltshire yelped and sprawled backward in astonishment, and Alexien turned back to his conversation.

      "So are you here on some sort of mission, then?" the Brain Tree inquired in that smooth way that told that he was gathering his own information, and Alexien could almost see the very fibers in those ancient branches straining for knowledge, for entertainment, for something to store until a later time when it might be useful or profitable. It was like some warped form of photosynthesis.

      "Coming back from one," Alexien corrected, but offered nothing more.

      "From Sakhmet, I assume? Qasala? Some interesting things have been going on over there lately. And it would explain the rumor I heard of an assault on the guards at the south gate. You're not exactly the quiet sort of spy, are you?"

      "As I said, I'm not doing a job at the moment. Trumpets could herald my arrival and I wouldn't care. I'm quiet when I need to be," Alexien answered carelessly, unfolding his arms to wave off the Brain Tree's words. "The fact is, I completed your quest, whether you like the answer or not. Now is there anything I should bring back to my employer?"

      "No," the Brain Tree answered succinctly.

      Alexien blinked golden eyes, sulking into a displeased silence as he recalled the tedious morning he had spent stalking the food shops for the Esophagor's meal request, only to end up with the wrong information, and absolutely nothing of any use. "So you're saying I wasted my time?"

      "Oh, no, not at all," the Brain Tree interjected with an evil leer, "because there is one thing I can tell you, since you are apparently unaware."

      "And what's that?" Alexien asked, voice droning indifference.

      The Brain Tree lowered his tone to a heavy whisper, almost conspiratorial as he revealed, "You're being followed, and by someone who is quite good at masking himself. The only reason I know he is trailing you is because I can feel him treading across my roots along the very same path you took. Rather suspicious, eh? Makes me curious about exactly what you saw in Sakhmet."

      "That story will have to wait for another time, I'm afraid," Alexien said, tone switching to politely regretful, carefully avoiding looking around him at the old tree's warning. "Wil," he called, glancing back at his Quiggle companion who continued to eye the mushrooms with ill-disguised suspicion. "Get up. We're leaving."


      He was counting his steps, and Wiltshire's, and listening. The Haunted Woods stretched over the traveling pair like a cracked canopy, inky grey-purple sky exposed through gaps in the branches, blots of anti-color, gloomy and gray and faded as everything in this place was. Alexien ignored the beady sets of glowing eyes that followed him from perches in treetops, and caves, and burrows, matched sets in yellow and red and orange.

      He had been lax in his attention, and he was annoyed at himself for having needed the Brain Tree to tell him something that was now obvious to him every time he purposefully altered his gait. Whoever was following him was trying to keep to his pace, but he was able to hear them whenever he purposefully took a longer step. This individual's stride was shorter and lighter….

      And, finally, he had had enough. "Wil," he said in a voice that was almost below a whisper, "walk ahead."

      "Huh?" Wiltshire asked, completely oblivious, the voiced confusion sudden and loud enough to prompt a candy vampire to hiss at them as they passed an old, hollowed out tree.

      Exasperated, Alexien simply gave Wiltshire a shove and fell into step behind him, taking a moment to dig through the Quiggle's backpack until his hand wrapped around the fleshy skin of a clawmatoe, squishy near to rotting and identical to the one he had choked down for breakfast. He withdrew it from the pack, waited…and the candy vampire rewarded his patience by making yet another discontented noise. He took that signal for what it was, whirling to hurl the vegetable into the darkness, listening as it struck the dead trunk with a satisfying splatter, followed instantly by three shrieks: one of rage from the candy vampire, one of terror from his trailing shadow, and a croak of surprise from Wiltshire.

      "Alexien! That was disgusting!" came the shrill reprimand as a figure stumbled out from the heavy treecover, a young brown Xweetok dressed much as he was, as though she had just come from the desert. She pulled the hood down from her head, exposing a doe face and wide chocolate brown eyes that looked convinced he had succumbed to madness. Face shriveling up with displeasure, she worked to wipe the overly-ripe clawmatoe remnants from her clothing.

      "Celleny!" Alexien barked the name, frowning in annoyance at this familiar face, and so sound was his confusion that no further words came to mind. What in the world was she doing out of Meridell? She was about as homegrown as a snidberry, and his mind had difficulty wrapping around an explanation for why she would leave her farm, and for the desert of all places. "What are you doing?" he finally demanded.

      She smiled in a rather pained manner, looking as though she was hoping it would soothe his temper. "I was following you…"

      "Yes, I gathered that. Why?" At least this explained why she had been able to shadow him so well; he had inadvertently taught her himself years earlier, when he had been new at the Royal Espionage Division, learning the subtleties of moving swiftly, soundlessly, and she had been a young, captive audience and a guest in his home.

      A pervasive silence descended around them, bringing with it the eerie montage of sounds that came from the ever-present night that ruled these woods. What little light there had been was evaporating and quickly. Celleny's troubled face was fading into the dimness, and so he absent-mindedly took a step forward, watching as her eyes cast themselves downward, face furrowed in an uncertain frown. "I…need your help with something, and I couldn't wait for you to come back," she finally stammered.

      "How could you possibly have known that I was in the Lost Desert?" he questioned seriously, wondering at this appalling breach in castle security that had allowed a mere farm girl to inquire where he was and, worse, receive an accurate answer.

      "I didn't know. I followed Wiltshire. I don't think he ever realized," she murmured apologetically, seemingly feeling uneasy at pointing the finger of responsibility at another.

      "I'll believe that," Alexien responded dryly, casting an ireful look behind him at the hapless Quiggle. He turned back to Celleny, stern words issuing from a face of stone. "And what is this emergency that requires only my help? I cannot imagine that marrow-farming is particularly hazardous, and I can name you at least a dozen people who would know far more about it than I would."

      That same sickly smile crossed her face once more, making her appear quite pathetic in his estimation. "I'll be grateful for the opportunity to tell you everything," she said sincerely, primly folding her hands together. "Over dinner. I'm starving, seriously. I haven't eaten anything since you left your friend's place yesterday."

      "You were at Leto's as well?" Alexien demanded incredulously, feeling as though he had slept through the past two days. "What? Did you skulk about and steal from his food cupboard or something?" At her guilty nod, he pointed a no-nonsense finger at her. "Then you be prepared to write an apology when you get back home. If I have to write him myself, he's not going to hear a flattering version of the story, I promise you. What else did you take?"

      "This," she admitted, gesturing to what she was wearing. "And some food. I wasn't dressed properly for the heat there, and I was hungry. I swear I'll apologize," she agreed instantly, all earnest regret and cajoling words. "But dinner first, right?"

      Annoyed and reluctant to give in to her, Alexien finally grumbled his agreement. "Dinner first."

To be continued…

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» Taking the Long Way: Part One
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