We All Fall Down: Part One
Customary SotX Author's Note: To understand this story, you must bother reading several others. The previous Shadow of the Xweetoks installments are, in order: *inhales* Hot Herb Tea and a Happy Ending, Tyrants and Heroes, Torch in the Darkness, Possessed and Cinnamon and Vinegar. There. I've got to finish that prequel...
More Than Ever
A lone Hunter strolled through the woods, wide-eyed, light-footed and all ears.
He slipped behind a tree as a blip appeared on his helmet's radar. Something – the Hunter didn't think of it as someone – was approaching. The Hunter waited, and listened to brambles rustling with life and leaf-litter crackling beneath stony hooves. The Hunter heard the breathing of a big-lunged creature, and the wind overhead, and a chorus of Moaches striking up the band.
I've always believed that there's only one thing a Hunter has trouble hearing.
A beating heart.
The Hunter peered around the tree, and hit a trigger on his arm cannon.
Arm cannons. All I knew was that I thought of them as weapons.
A whirring noise started. The purple Uni half a bound away immediately sprang out from the bushes and broke into a gallop.
The net shot out and hit nobody. The Hunter had already begun to dash after the Uni. The plastic web was left behind.
For every net that catches a forester, a hundred others are wasted, left to be washed away in the rain and become a problem for the ocean dwellers.
To the Hunter, nothing existed but him and the Uni. He couldn't breathe. He didn't have to. He just needed to run, run, run until he had the Uni.
Then he'd forget all about the day he caught it.
The Uni ran with vicious speed. His emotions pulsed from him with the strength of an army of twelve hundred soldiers. He needed to get back to his family and help his wife care for their infant son. He needed to teach his daughter how to whistle, or he would be breaking a promise. He needed to fix his brother-in-law's pocket watch.
He needed to lose this Hunter quick.
The Hunter didn't see the Uni slip behind a tree. He muttered a curse under his breath, but continued to run in the direction the Uni had been heading. A river up ahead snarled and screamed with falling rain.
The Hunter figured he could make it.
He jumped, and his foot slipped on the opposite bank. He fell in the river.
His head briefly appeared on the surface, but a gush of water consumed it again. He began to struggle, not to swim. The deep river was sweeping him away. I sensed his failing breath and slowing heartbeat.
I saved him.
I let the stream wash him up on a safe, muddy shore. I let his weapon become lost in the stream. I let myself wonder why I saved an enemy.
Because if you never wonder, then you never learn.
I told myself that maybe he had potential. Potential as a forester, not a Hunter. I'd done this once before.
Some choices are harder to make the second time.
I clenched my eyes shut tighter. What had I gotten from the once before?
Well, a loyal messenger, that's a start.
And just between you and me, she went from an emotional wreck to a serene young lady in two weeks.
But I had doubts about this one. His soul felt thick and stubborn. His heart was callous. Still, if Deepwood's Huntress could change so much so quickly...
And besides, I could get this Hunter would finally leave her alone...
I briefly shook the ideas away, but they just came back. I gently kneaded the ground, unsure. What was I doing? I knew that I had to put my magic to work when I realized the answer:
Saving my Messenger a world of trouble, that's what.
Yesterday, we watched our house burn down.
Now it was a pit full of charcoal and ashes, with cascades of thin smoke rising from it. The night's rain took a while to put it all out. Thank Creator it didn't spread to the rest of the forest. I know she sent that rain, a few minutes after Amadeus was gone. There was still a slight drizzle, but nothing more than that.
"A year ago, I never thought about what it'd be like to move, really," I murmured.
"A year ago, you were too concerned with finding anywhere to call home to think about anything else."
"...Rubia, it's not like you could blame him—"
"I'm pretty sure you weren't there, Faith."
"Well yeah, Rubia, but I wouldn't have blamed him."
They carried on as I took another step towards our new home.
Daunted, I stared at the giant oak we were about to enter. Herbs were spilling out of their tipped over and broken clay pots – they had given seed to a legion of plant life sprouting from the dirt porch. The rich scents of mint and thyme filled my nose. I was the first to step onto the doorstep of it and realize that a tendril of sage drooped onto the face of whoever walked on it. Then I opened the plain door.
I'd never seen such pitch blackness, but I was too assaulted by a wave of dust to even notice that. The cloud of dirt made me burst into a coughing fit. I felt my eyes begin to water, so I hastily closed them.
"You're alright, aren't you?" Faith called.
"It's only dust," Rubia answered her, and then: "Try to use your wings to blow it off."
I quickly took her advice, but as I couldn't see, I mistakenly blew the filth in the girls' direction. They both began to hack and sneeze uncontrollably.
"And that was just the door," I gestured.
"Hrmph," Rubia grunted.
"Are you sure it's safe in there?" Faith questioned.
"Dust never killed anyone. I'm going in," I declared, and took a proud step inside on my hind legs.
I wasn't very graceful on my hind legs, or on staircases, or spiral staircases, or steep staircases, or slippery dust-coated staircases, or staircases in complete darkness.
My feet slipped out from under me. "Aah-aah-aah-aah--"
My man-scream was interrupted each time I bumped a step lower. It was punctuated with a few woodland curse words which probably made Rubia cover Faith's ears.
I finally slid to a stop on level ground, rolled onto my feet and shook off the dirt from my body, shaking out my cape a few times for good measure. "I'm alright! I think I got off most of the dust from the stairs, but you might still want to be careful. Oh, and it's steep."
"I'm going to get something to light the torches with," Rubia called. "Faith, if you decide to go down now, take it steady."
A small yelp punctuated the air as my fellow Xweetok took her first step down, but she didn't fall. For several moments of silence, I waited peacefully. Then I felt a something touch my wing. I whipped around.
"...Faith?" I asked. I was still hearing footsteps.
"I'm almost there," the real Faith said from behind me, still a little ways away. I lashed around again. What the... Then who was that?
I sat in shocked silence, becoming more determined by the second to flush out the stranger. Faith's footsteps approached me. Still nervous, I jumped around when my other wing was tapped.
"Cerulean, it's just me. I was trying to find where you were," Faith assured, her voice easing me. I rested my wing on her back, partly because I didn't want another false alarm. From the staircase, a flame began to descend. I heard slithering.
Rubia reached the bottom. Then, one by one, the circular room lit up with its six shoulder-height torches. The room was small and barren. A passageway opened up at either side of the staircase. Rubia beckoned to the left one and we went on through. A pile of logs and scrap wood smoldered in the center of it.
"Is this a furnace?" I asked, meandering over to the barely-smoking mound of burnt wood. Rubia nudged a few pieces of firewood with her stick, and it burst into revived flames.
"Nope. Different kind of bedroom," she explained.
I stared at the raised five-foot-wide holes carved in the walls. They were short, but went far back enough for any normal-sized forester to stretch out comfortably.
"Those aren't beds, are they?" Faith questioned.
Rubia said, "They are. There are six; the previous owners must have had a big family."
"I'll see the rest of the house in the morning. I've barely slept all week."
The Xweetok yawned, walking out from under my wing and climbing into the first bed on our left. Just then, I noticed that the room only needed the fire to light it. No torches.
"There's a door at the back," I pointed out to Rubia as Faith drifted off within seconds.
The Hissi stood to the side a little as I opened the door and a new wave of dust hit me. I sneezed multiple times and had to use my feathers to blow it off.
I lowered my wings and stepped into a dark, narrow hallway. Feeling along with both hands, I couldn't find a door. There was nothing at the end, either. I backed up, lacking the room to turn around.
"It's a hallway that doesn't lead anywhere," I said as I edged out into the bedroom again. "That's weird."
"Huh," Rubia said. "Well, I guess we can use it for storage. Let's go see what's at the other part of the house, and then I want to go to bed."
We did so, and discovered two more rooms. One was a room that was part storage and part kitchen... with a bath in one corner. The other was the furnace.
For the first time in the long week, I fell asleep to Faith's dream-mumbling.
The next morning was the most relieving one of my life.
As I yawned, I padded in a few circles and then jumped down from the raised hole in the wall.
I warmly noted that I had been allowed to sleep in. I chose to go back through the door I entered through, and went through the foyer to enter the wing of the house which I hadn't checked earlier. The room I entered was a hodgepodge of things — well, technically, it was fairly barren, meaning it could be anything.
The back half of it was clearly reserved for storage: towers of stuff were piled almost to the ceiling, but the rest of the room had a blank floor. I took note of the just-polished wooden counters all along the edges of the clean part.
For once, Rubia wasn't thumbing through a spell-book or dusting down the furniture or sorting through cabinets. My jaw popped open.
She was still making breakfast.
The soft blob of water and bark was briefly abandoned as Rubia approached me. I was given a gentle embrace and I returned it very sincerely. We let go.
"I'd like for you to stay inside until I'm certain you're completely capable of running well. And try to stay off your feet for awhile, you look weak. I sent Cerulean outside for some herbs. Bye the way, your ocarina's intact," Rubia explained, one of her wings still around my shoulders. "We've got a lot of cleaning to do, but food's our first — Good grief, Faith, when in the Creator's name did you last feed yourself?"
I opened my mouth, but all that came out was, "Umm..."
"These were going to be for breakfast, but you need something now, anything."
She removed a pear from a lumpy, half-filled sack slouched against the table and handed it to me. The pear, not the table.
One day, I had awoken to her loudly scolding Cerulean for sneaking food before we could eat together. And here she was, letting me eat the first bite before blessing and all.
At first, I nibbled the fruit, but after the first few tiny bites, I realized how hungry I actually was and began to tear at it.
"I'm planning on cooking a big breakfast, and when it's ready I'm not going to let you leave the table until I can't see your ribs anymore."
A stem and several seeds were now in my hands — nothing more. I smiled sheepishly.
"You've got some nasty scrapes. If they get infected, it'll be bad... May I doctor them up, so to speak?"
Her words surprised me. Rubia and I had gone a long way. I remembered our rough beginnings with each other: we got along after she agreed to let me into the family, but that was about it. Whenever she glowered at me, I still knew she cared.
Gradually, we got along fine. And then something clicked. We stopped bickering. I showed her respect without thinking about it. She'd occasionally give me a light pat on the shoulder when we passed by each other. When I thought about it, we really did blend well: I was fairly calm and quiet, while Rubia was confident and talkative.
But now, confident and talkative had actually needed to tell me something which anyone would have a hard time explaining. I didn't know how to reply. I considered a "yes ma'am" or a meek nod, but since she had said more than "let me dress your wounds," I instead settled on,
"I think I'd like that."
Within two minutes, she was making good use of some bandages we'd discovered in the haphazard, stockpiled storage area. I felt partly embarrassed. Did Rubia think I was taking advantage of her? But I hastily swept away those feelings.
I was sitting on the floor, leaning against the counter, one arm resting on top of it. Rubia was gently working at my cuts and bruises with a cream she'd whipped up from some well-preserved herbs. They had been in the back of the room, the leaves cracked but not rotting. She wrapped a clean bandage around my forearm.
"Here, give me your other arm," she requested. I obliged.
"Rubia, thank you so much," I admitted. "I mean, this feels so nice. The morning after the most miserable week of my life, I wake up, and you're there for me."
"Darling, you know you can talk to me anytime." She reached for another clean piece of cloth to swathe my wound. My heart prickled with joy. Rubia had never called me darling before. "Faith, what did that man do to you? Your skin wouldn't be more damaged if you had fallen from a cliff!"
"Awful things, Rubia. Awful things."
My heart stung with memory: all my real torture had been inside of me. It was more than just a kidnapping. I had been separated from my only friends, my only foundations.
"Faith, if we ever see that nasty man again, I promise you I'll have a very strict word with him."
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Rubia was nursing the nasty bruise that Amadeus had given me.
"What did he do to you? How did you even survive like this?" she asked.
As I inched closer to her, I murmured, "He kept me alive with the Crystal Boomerang. He wanted to use me as a ransom to kidnap Cerulean."
"Why didn't he just kidnap Cerulean to begin with, then?"
"I'm not sure, but he said that even the Crystal Boomerang has its limits... That does seem stupider, now that you say it. I guess that I was just so much easier than Cerulean... Weaker..."
I realized that I was sniffling back tears.
"I was weak. I shouldn't have let him make me weaker."
"No, Faith. Things like this strengthen all of us."
I furrowed my brow as I realized that I was hugging my knees with my spare arm.
She continued to massage the balm into my skin. I felt at ease for the next several moments. I realized that Cerulean must have been sent out for an awful lot of herbs and supplies... That made sense, though. We needed to stock a new pantry. Open a new book.
"Rubia... is it wrong to depend on people?"
"No. Depending on others is the best thing you can do for yourself."
She started to check over my battered tail. I felt awkward not being able to see Rubia without craning my neck, but her voice lessened the discomfort.
"What did he do to you to give you these scars?"
"He used his magic to send me flying through the air. He'd crash me into things on purpose..."
"Why did he want to put you through this?"
"I was his only source of entertainment."
"Source of entertainment my foot!" Rubia exclaimed with a tinge of anger. I opened my mouth to correct her because she had no foot, but she continued: "Faith, I assure you, no living soul especially someone like you is merely a source of entertainment."
The phrase someone like you rang in my mind again and again. I sighed.
"Rubia... Thank you. I mean, it feels good that you know what he did to me."
"Oh, you poor thing..."
You know, even if "poor thing" essentially can mean "pathetic mortal," I found the first to feel a whole lot better.
"Erm, could you not tell Cerulean about this? The flying, I mean? I can't help but think he'd end up hating himself."
"Well, Amadeus — that man, I mean — was sort of Cerulean's accidental twin. It's kind of hard to explain."
"I'm curious now. Can you try?"
"I guess... Well, he described himself as a sort of magical reverse of Cerulean, because of the energy that came from him when he was born. So, Amadeus wouldn't exist without Cerulean. And Amadeus will only die when Cerulean does. Which hopefully isn't anytime soon."
"I believe Cerulean has a long life ahead of him."
Rubia tied one last bandage, and we stood together in silence.
Cerulean. He brought us together. Rubia raised him, and he saved me from becoming an outcast, back when I first became a forester. At first, Cerulean was all Rubia and I had in common. But we had trouble sharing him for those first few weeks. Then things picked up. I guess we just... clicked.
"I think Cerulean knows about the flying. He dreamed the future before we came to find you. He didn't see Amadeus once, but he saw you in danger plenty," Rubia explained.
"He'll still hate himself. I'm going to tell him he shouldn't, though. He's the reason I had anything to lose."
"You had the Creator, didn't you?"
"I prayed, Rubia. I prayed and pleaded whenever I had a moment's thought to myself and not Amadeus. Amadeus heard half of it. The Creator didn't hear a word."
"She wasn't there inside your mind?"
"No. From the very second the Boomerang had a grip on me, I heard nothing from her."
We were silent for several moments.
"Are you sure there's nothing I can do to help out now?" I asked as I got up.
"Actually..." Rubia began, gesturing to a familiar folded-up cloak. "Cerulean found it outside from, y'know, last night, and he brought it in. He said that he couldn't get it on, though. It's too tight now because of the bits which got torn off. I found a sewing kit, too, but my stitches are more crooked than that Lenny who tried killing Cerulean awhile back. You could probably fix it, though, couldn't you?"
As I allowed myself a brief smile at her reference, I furrowed my brow. I could sew alright... Wait! There's something that Rubia isn't good at!
I opened my mouth to say something about it, but changed my mind and wondered still.
Cerulean had just saved my life... again. After I disappeared from home... again. After I somewhat-indirectly caused our house to be burned down... for the first time, actually. If we were keeping score of things like this, then I'd have no chance of ever catching up to him. And now, the three of us had a ton of work to do on this new house, and I was the one who couldn't help with it.
I smiled as Rubia handed me the sewing kit. New beginnings, I reminded myself. New home. New heart. But your same old friends love you more than ever.
To be continued...