An Oasis

— Chapter 8 —

A round floating creature, that changes colour depending on its mood. It is orange when normal, red when angry, and yellow when confused. If threatened, the creature will throw itself upon an enemy, its skin is like goo and sticks to its victims. The skin can become as hot as hot coals, prolonged exposure can kill.

Lupen and Eka made a detour to a hollow, despite Nono’s warnings that the place was dangerous. The weather that day was not cooperating, and this particular detour offered better conditions. They were instructed to transit quickly, but their sore feet made walking fast difficult.
    Near the hollow, Hush stopped after seeing spotted round creatures hovering in the distance, they had black points for eyes, long fluttery wings and tiny slits for mouths. The hyroo would not move forward, fearful of the strange beings ahead.
    “Whoa! Look at those!”
    Eka grabbed Lupen’s shoulder, “remember what Nono said.” These creatures were familiar to Eka, but little was known of them because usually people made a point of avoiding them.
    The Verido took a step forward, the creatures turned a solid red colour and flew towards them. Eka leapt onto Hush and reached over to grab Lupen’s collar, but one of the creatures latched itself onto the hyroo’s side and another to Lupen’s chest. Their bodies were sticky like goo, and burned like hot coals.
    In a panic, Hush bounded fast and far into the distance. Eka kicked at the soft gooey body to get it off, but it would just bounce back into shape. Hush landed with a roll, sending all passengers cascading onto the ground before rubbing its side on the sand and clawing at the parasite with its hind legs. Clawing was not enough to get this spherical creature to let go, Lupen even tried hitting it with the butt of a mug, nothing worked. Hush leapt into the air again, as high as Eka had ever seen it jump. The beast became a point into the sky, just another skyrock orbitting the planet.
    There was no way to help Hush now, and so Eka went to assist the other victim. The creatures had burned through Lupen’s vest and undershirt already. Lupen was in agony, twisting on the ground.
    “I can’t get it off!” Eka cried, trying to pry it off using a rock as a barrier.
    Moments later, Hush returned, the parasite was gone but the skin where it had been had been stripped of all fur. This is how they would get rid of them: altitude and cold. Eka whistled for Hush and climbed onto its back, pulling Lupen along.
    “Take us up again Hush! As high as you can!”
    As before, Hush jumped high and fast. The parasite quickly abandoned its host. When they landed again, they were a good distance away, leaving the fluttery fiends behind.
    Lupen lay on the ground, speaking through gritted teeth. “Those things, why did they attack us?”
    “They’re territorial, I know that, but there’s usually not so many together in one place.”
    There was a logical explanation, but right now Eka focused on crushing waterstones over Lupen’s wounds to help reduce pain and swelling. The injury was covered to keep air and sand from the seared surface. Hush received the same treatment. It was nearly dark, and with two wounded it was best to set camp here.

That night, the skin around Lupen’s burn had become red, swollen and sore. Eka prepared some tea laced with herbs to prevent infection, but lacked many key ingredients. Staying out here was not an option and the next town was too far. Tomorrow, Eka would try and search the land for the missing herbs.

Eka prepared nuni nuggets for everyone. Nuni was a starchy stuber with bright yellow flesh, it had a taste and smell that could best be described as being robust. Lupen loved nuni, more for the manner in which it stained the inside of your mouth yellow than for its flavor. They ate many on the trip, and made bets on who’s mouth would be most yellow. Eka placed the leftovers, the skin and tips of the nuni into a jar along with some brine to pickle for a few days.
    The food was divided into three plates, but before breakfast could be served, a plump leaf-tailed orange hound appeared at the entrance of their tent, mouth agape, gushing with saliva. Eka wondered where this leafhound44 came from, but glancing behind the hound, Eka’s eyes locked onto a distant point of colour, a spot of green.
    “Is that where you came from?”
    The hound barked, triggering a series of faint yaps and yips, all coming from the faraway green smudge. A pool of clear slime had accumulated at the animal’s feet, dripping from its long purple tongue. Eka cut a piece of nuni, tossed it over, and watched as their visitor gobbled it up, and waited for more, its antennae-like ears twitching in anticipation.
    “You really like that, huh?” Eka said.
    Breakfast was served, although Lupen was in a feverish state and couldn’t eat. Hush had no problem eating, and despite Eka’s warnings helped itself to Lupen’s portion.
    “Yea, yea. I know. I know you’ve got two stomachs,” Eka said, caressing the hyroo’s fur, “right now you’re the mapa okay? You take care of Lu while I’m gone.”
    Hush’s ears twitched at the word ‘gone’. While not familiar with the letter making up the word it recognized the sound and length and associated it with a moment of prolonged absence, a thing it didn’t like. Hush let out a pained whine, lowering its head into Eka’s hands.
    “I won’t be far, just listen for me,” Eka said, fingers brushing the contours of the hyroo’s large parabolic ears. Hush yielded then, letting out a yip and taking Lupen’s side.
    Eka smirked, and turned to the orange hound. “Okay! Let’s get going!”

Both walked out of the tent and into the desert. The wind was down, and the suns felt extra hot. The leafhound followed Eka closely, well-aware of the existence of a secret piece of nuni, hidden in the palm of Eka’s hand. The leafhound stayed close, as if to make sure no one else would get it.
    Gradually, the point of colour expanded into a row of trees. At its centre there were patches of colour, each colour corresponding to a different crop. There was no way that this place had come into being on its own, this improbable oasis was the work of a devoted carer. Looking further, Eka glimpsed a few of those horrible floaters hovering around the green piece of land. It would be impossible to go near it without them noticing. If one of them did, without Hush or Lupen around to help, Eka and the hound would be in trouble. The orange hound seemed calm, not bothered by their presence. Eka assumed that it had come through here once already, and yet it had not suffered any harm. Had they not seen the hound? Maybe it knew of another way inside. Eka’s eyes were looking out for any movement in the oasis. There were many other leafhounds there, one of them was chasing a floater that had wandered a bit too far inland. The floater turned yellow and backed away, returning to the outer perimeter.
    Eka returned to camp, the faithful leafhound trailing behind. Using the nuni as a lure was brilliant, Eka thought. They would make their way inside with the hound, drawn close by the irresistible allure of the yellow tuber, and keep the floaters away all the while. Hopefully, this hound was scary enough to protect all three of them and grant them safe passage into the oasis. Eka packed the tent and supplies, and the injured Verido was secured onto Hush. The group marched towards the oasis, stopping at the edge, waiting.
    Lupen opened one fatigued eye. “Eka no… we can’t.”
    “It’s okay, we’ve got a guide this time.”
    The hound was at their side, mouth dripping with saliva. The last bit of nuni in hand. Eka stepped onto the grass, marking the entrance to the oasis. The spheres reacted. They raced over but did not attack, not while the orange mutt was there. Eka gave the leafhound half of the piece of nuni, it swallowed it whole and waited for the rest.
    “Mind guiding us all the way in?” Eka asked, “I promise you’ll get the rest, and more!”
    The hound yipped, and led them deeper into the oasis. The spheres had all gathered around them, but left a corridor for them to walk through. Their skin color changed from red, to orange and back to yellow. Lupen was hiding under the fabric of the tent, feeling dubious about the whole idea. The round creatures stared, but did not move.
    Eka was glad that they were safe, but then noticed other hounds in the oasis staring at their little group. None charged at them, or made a sound.
    Lupen breathed a sigh of relief, and Eka offered the rest of the nuni to the hound, caressing its head. “Good job hound!”
    Someone was shouting from the top of the hill, then came running towards them brandishing a rake. A Terin, dark skinned, dark haired, two-toed with thick limbs, head covered by a rimmed hat made from banabo leaves. The hat was secured with a cloth tied under the chin. “Waldek! What did you do? No one is allowed in here! You know this!” Waldek, their guide into the oasis, yipped and wandered off, nose to the ground, searching for more food.
    “I love your green place!” Eka said, brightly.
    “Leave! This is my property!” The Terin said, getting ready to push the group back, but then noticed the hyroo and froze mid-step. “A hyroo? Rare creatures, very few grow… hyroos need lots of moisture, a temperate climate. How is this possible?”
    Eka could see the farmer’s fascination for Hush, but right now they had more pressing matters. “Those things out there attacked us, my friends are hurt.”
    The Terin was distracted, eyes fixed on the hyroo still. “There has been talk of receding genes, of young ones hibernating in the soil and awaiting the proper conditions to grow. Yes, yes. This is what must have happened…” but then a frown replacled the expression of wonder, “staying here? Impossible. You’ll have to go somewhere else.”
    Eka removed the scarf, revealing a red head of hair, “time, shelter and medicine, in exchange for 3 questions about my friend Hush.”
    “How will I know your answers aren’t lies?”
    “You can trust me.”
    Those eyes, and those same rounded ears, the Terin thought, then spoke aloud in a quiet voice, “similar, but different.” Dirty digits scratched at the wood of the rake, nail beds brown with soil, there were bits of it stuck on the clothes too. The farmer then glanced over at the sick Lupen, laying a hand on the side of the Verido’s face, then brieftly put two fingers to the side of Lupen’s throat, grabbed the chin to see the tongue, and then lifted an eyelid to see the eyes. “Umph, your friend had another accident, before this one I mean.”
    “Yea,” Eka nodded, “fell off an Ilk.”
    “Well, that explains a lot. No Verido in their right mind would choose to leave an Ilk. And before that?”
    “I wasn’t there before that, but now that I think of it, my friend is very accident prone. Not a lot of world experience, if you know what I mean…”
    The Terin took a deep breath. “You can stay until your friend’s condition improves, but you can’t wander around my grounds without me saying so, and you can’t touch anything unless given to you. Is that clear?”
    Eka nodded in thanks. Lupen breathed out a weak, but heartfelt thank you. The Verido was sweating profusely, eyelids heavy, drawn down by many tiny invisible hands.
    “I need some medililly herbs to treat my friend’s wounds.”
    The Terin promised to bring some fresh sprigs over later, returning to the house atop the hill.
    Hush started to whine then, with Eka nodding to every grunt and growl, “yes I agree. Our host seems overprotective, but has a big heart! I’m glad you picked up on that.”
    Eka raised their tent, helped Lupen inside and sat down to watch the orange dogs walking through the fields. They looked at every single crop, their antennae prodding them gently, as if they were asking them about their health. The oasis was divided into many parts. The front had fresh produce, like karonins45 and babams, teaweet and other grains sat in between the vegetables and the small house atop the hill. Eka could see a space contoured by tall hedges behind that, but the green fence made it impossible to see what was inside.
    Waldek would come by their tent often to check on them. A very good mapa, Eka thought.

Later that day, the voice of the Terin sounded outside of the tent.
    “Hello Zucca!” Eka wandered out, “you can call me Eka, and that trumpet-eared invalid in there is Lupen.”
    “How do you know my name?”
    “Oh, your leafhound Waldek told Hush and Hush told me because I don’t speak leafhound, not well anyway. I always mix up the subtleties in the yaps. Don’t get me started on the yips! It’s a very tonal language, not easy to master, and there are so many dialects!”
    “I don’t like lies, or jokes. I’m going to apply your friend’s medicine. I don’t want to hear any more nonsense.” Zucca prepared two medililly poultices. The soft, moist mass was applied to Lupen and Hush’s wounds, and wrapped carefully with a clean strip of notcott cloth. “What is the name of the mountain you spoke about, where the hyroos grow? It’s within the Central Rim isn’t it?” Zucca asked, eyes locked on the hyroo. The large-eared creature was resting now, coiled into a tight ball with its head hidden. Its body expanded and contracted with every breath. Zucca put a hand to the hyroo’s side, inspecting its fur.
    “It hasn’t got one, places without names remain strangely unseen.”
    “You won’t say. You think I’ll tell?”
    “I’m telling you the truth. It hasn’t got one.”
    “Okay. Fine.” Zucca was displeased with this answer. “So then, how long do hyroos live for?”
    “Two haty’annums? Maybe? It really depends.”
    “And how old is Hush?”
    “Less than an annum old, Hush is very green,” saying this, Eka turned to caress the back of the sleeping hyroo.
    “They grow that big in just one annum? Remarkable.”
    “That makes three questions!”
    “No, no. That first one doesn’t count. I didn’t get an answer.”
    Eka thought about this for a moment, then shrugged, “okay, you get a redo.”
    Zucca nodded before leaving the tent, that last question needed to be pondered carefully.

The next day, Hush was sitting outside the tent with Waldek, healthy, gnawing contentedly on a stalk of spicy gingin root. Under the cover of darkness, their leaf-tailed guide had snuck a pile of fresh produce for them. Zucca’s words came to Eka’s mind then: ‘Take only what is given to you.’ Zucca had not intended on Waldek helping them. “Technically, we aren’t breaking any rules…” Eka said, eyeing Waldek.
    The orange critter let out a yip before returning to its meal, it had helped itself to some of the items in the pile. Eka smiled, gathered some produce and began to cook breakfast.


    Pan-fried mapple toast


    Two mapples
    One grated sweet root nub
    One avoka nut
    Four teaweet bread slices
    One pureed bonan
    One lanivanil bleen
    One waterstone


    Cut open lanivanil bleen and scoop out insides. Mash bonan with back of spoon, and squeeze one water stone overtop until empty, add lanivanil bleen paste and mix well. Put aside.
    Peel and cut mapples into cubes and grate a nub of sweet root. Put pan over source of heat, when hot crack open avoka nut and empty the oil in the pan. Add the cubed mapple and the grated sweet root, pan-fry until caramelized. Keep aside.
    Dip the slices of teaweet bread in the bonan puree mix, and cook in a pan until the sides have browned.
    Serve the slices with a generous scoop of caramelized mapples.


    “I made you some toast! Eka style!” Eka said, presenting this tasty creation to the bed-bound Verido.
    Lupen was awake, and was looking much better. “Whoa! Fresh mapples! Zucca let you take them?” With eyes now closed, the patient took a bite, as if the momentary absence of one sense could heighten another.
    “It was a gift from our friend Waldek. Our little secret! Oh! You’re going to love this place Lu! It’s full of greens and oranges and purples and—”
    Yesterday, Lupen had been too sick to take in the details of the oasis, but now beyond the fragrant poetry of the mapple toast, this nose detected hints of sweet norcorn46 and teaweet in the air.
    “—and blues!” Eka finished.
    “Looking forward to seeing that,” Lupen said with a smile, before taking note of the poultice, “thanks for taking care of me.”
    “Sure Sure! Zucca made that poultice for you though, that’s what healed you up.”
    “Oh. I’ll thank Zucca too then.”
    “You’d better! Medililly takes ages to grow, it was kind of our host to spare some,” Eka said.
    After their meal, they removed the poultice and checked the wound, the inflammation was down.

Under the midday suns, Lupen and Eka sat in front of their tent, playing the game Nohi’yara to pass the time. They had jars covered with a thin cloth, and each person had to smell and guess the spice aloud. Whoever got the most right won the game. Lupen picked up another jar to smell it.
    “This is a tough one. Rosemeric? I think?” And passed it to Eka.
    Lupen frowned, jotting down their guesses, “no way that’s thymin.”
    Eka smirked, picking up another jar to smell. “Popmeg.”
    Lupen took the jar in turn, and frowned. “Popmeg? Yea right! It’s dilly.”
    “You know, it’s okay to make the same guess as me.” Eka said, grabbing the last jar to smell it, “dilly.”
    Lupen was going to start complaining about how unfair the game was because Eka knew everything about everything always, but then they heard Zucca yelling outside. They peered out through the opening of their tent, spotting the Terin chasing pale winged insects out of a plumpkin field.
    “Oh! You have mosslings47 in your produce!” Eka said.
    “Can’t get rid of them. They hate lemilim grass so I planted some to keep them away, but I’m beginning to think they’ve developed a taste for it. Curse these things, they make everything rot!” Zucca said, breathing hard, tired from chasing after them.
    Lupen had stayed near the tent, sipping tea, content despite the ever-present chest pains. The oasis had a voice, speaking through the rustling of the various plants. A concerto of greenery. There were not many around to listen, a handful of hounds, the caretaker, and Eka. Zucca and the hounds were producing all of this food for themselves, with no one else around to feed, that is unless there was a village of tiny people over there in that walled garden by the house. Lupen brought up the topic later that day, when tasked with peeling babams for their meal.
    “Let’s ask the vegetables!” Eka set the peeled babams down in a pot and wandered over to the fields, stopping near a mossling-infested karonin patch, “hey there, how are you all feeling?” Eka paused, then laughed aloud, “yea, those mosslings are relentless aren’t they?”
    Lupen watched from afar, frowning. “Stop it. You do not speak vegetable.”
    Eka responded with a quick shush, then resumed the conversation. “So what’s the deal with Zucca anyway?” Eka pressed an ear against the side of a karonin, listening for an answer, “oh! A secret you say?”
    Lupen watched, resisting the urge to ask about what the karonin was saying. Asking would mean giving into this prank, but then again Eka knew a lot about the world, perhaps there was such a thing as Vegetable Speak, a language of light and vibrations. After a short conversation, Eka rose and wandered back over to Lupen.
    “So um, what did the karonin say?” Lupen asked.
    “It said that there is something valuable here,” saying this, Eka covered these ruby eyes with two hands and uncovered them just as quickly, “hidden away!”
    “Valuable? You mean like a treasure?”
    “Like a secret,” Eka corrected, pressing the point of a finger hard on Lupen’s nose before continuing to peel some babams.
    The thought of a secret was intriguing, but likely false. Even so, Lupen could not sleep, haunted by the idea of a treasure, drawn by mystery and the unknown. If Zucca had a secret it would be somewhere near the house, that whole area looked very sheltered and private.

The next day, Lupen got up before the first sun. Zucca was awake already, standing in the fields, tending to the crops and far too busy to notice anyone else was up. Lupen knew better than to break into someone’s home, and instead decided to circle it, hopefully this would satiate this Verido’s curiosity.
    Lupen arrived near, but the tall green hedge blocked the way and there was no break in its branches, no way to see through the thickness. Lupen put an arm’s length in it, to see if it was as thick as it looked. “Um, thick indeed,” Lupen said, but then froze. Waldek was here, standing close. “Hey Waldek! We’re friends right? You’re not going to tell on me are you?” Lupen said in a low voice, stuck halfway into the hedge, scarf and hair caught into the branches.
    Waldek let out a quiet bark, and then another.
    “No no no shush, shush!” Lupen begged. Getting out of the shrubbery was harder than getting in, its branches curled inwards and refused to let go, “I can’t get out!”
    Waldek caught the scent of food in the air, from Eka making breakfast and ran off, leaving Lupen alone in the hedge. “Oh good, oh good…” Lupen tried to wriggle out, but the only way out of this would be to break branches, and then Zucca would know someone had been here. Going inside, giving in to the pull of the branches was the best option. With a grunt and an ow, the Verido popped out of the other side, clothes full of leaves, and skin full of scratches. The hedge now had a Lupen-shaped hole, a weird not-quite triangular outline that made the hedge look like it was in mid-cry. This supposedly inoffensive excursion around Zucca’s house had turned into a break-in. The branches of the shrub and its curly fingers made me do it, was hardly an excuse. Lupen could not accuse the karonin either, blaming the words of a rotten vegetable would do no one any good.
    “What am I doing,” the Verido took a step back, but another orange leafhound began to bark and growl from inside the compound. Lupen kept as far away from the hound as the hedge permitted, fitting back in the Verido-shaped hole, and in this instant, Lupen saw what the hedge was concealing. A vast green field full of unborn children. The reason that the hound was so miffed, was because Lupen had almost crushed one. “Oh hey, I’m sorry.”
    The hound’s antennae-ears caressed the near-crushed child gently, all was well, its protector was content. Although it did not approve of the intruder’s proximity, and with a push of the nose, the leafhound nudged Lupen away from the field. This place was full of little green nubs pushing out of the soil. Some had leaves that had different shapes, and colours.
    “This is a nursery.” Lupen said, amazed.
    Lupen had seen nurseries before, they had a small one in Volare, but at most the village had two children growing at once, this place had many more. A nursery this size explained the need for a large and reliable food source. Zucca had planted enough to populate a small city. After circling the field, under the watchful eye of the hound, Lupen moved closer to the house to look at a calendar on a wall, marked with possible birthdates. There were bags of grains, as well as a giant stone bowl with a yukwood mallet. Lupen ran a hand along the insides of the bowl, and tasted. “Granulated teaweet berries!” Teaweet was a widely consumed grain, but this teaweet was different, it had a strong aroma and tasted sweet, clean and fresh.
    Lost in thought, Lupen had only just noticed a figure moving inside the house. It was time to leave. The Verido hurried back towards the bushes. Precipitated by the fear of being discovered, Lupen kicked dirt over the footprints, threw the broken branches back into the hedge, and pushed through the dense thicket before emerging on the other side.

“You do realize I was making fun of you. Zucca does have a secret though, that much is clear,” Eka said.
    “There’s a nursery in there! Full of tiny people like we said! A nursery encircled by hedges. There’s tons of grains, and rows and rows of growing children!” the Verido paused then, “think Zucca’s raising an army?”
    Eka laughed at this, “definitely. They’ll be carving swords from karonins, and helmets from hollowed-out kyabe!”
    Just then, they heard barking outside. The hounds were likely chasing away another floater, but then there were strange voices, followed by Zucca’s classic line: “Get off my land!”
    Lupen and Eka poked their heads out of the tent to look at the scene, Zucca was at the edge of the oasis with a band of leafhounds, barring entry to a vennec-pulled wagon and three travelers.
    “You need to leave!” Zucca said to them.
    One of the travelers raised an empty sac of grains to show that they were in dire need of supplies.
    “Leave now. There will be consequences if you don’t!” Zucca yelled again.
    “You’d prefer we die then?” One of the travelers said.
    Zucca pulled a handful of green herbs out of a side pouch and tossed it at them before pulling away. The hounds, too, backed off as the floaters came rushing in, attracted by the scent of the herbs.
    Lupen watched, cringing as multiple floaters latched onto the skin of the smallest of the group. The victim fell on the ground, screaming, as the others tried to get them off. Lupen’s chest still ached from the recent attack, “we’ve got to help them!” The Verido turned to Eka, who had already left the tent and was now riding Hush. With a quick motion, Eka grabbed the collar of the injured traveler, and together they jumped up high toward the sky like they’d done before. Altitude and cold, two things they knew worked against them. The other two travelers boarded their wagon and ran away, urging their vennec forward.
    Zucca did not fail to see that Eka had helped them, and the farmer’s angry eyes moved to Lupen. “You’re with them aren’t you? They sent you ahead didn’t they? I trusted you!” The leafhounds stayed at the edge of the oasis while Zucca moved toward Lupen, flipping the rake around and aiming the end of the handle at the Verido’s throat.
    Lupen did not move. “You can trust me Zucca!”
    “Then why’s your friend helping them?” Zucca spat.
    “Because Eka is kind.”
    “What about you? Are you kind, Lupen?”
    “I like to think I am, yes.”
    Zucca’s face was warped with rage. “You were in my nursery today. Don’t deny it! I know you were there! What did you see? You stole from me didn’t you?”
    Lupen knew it was dumb to think that their host wouldn’t find out, only a blind person could have missed that large hole in the hedge. “I’m sorry. I did go, but I took nothing.”
    “I’m sick of this! Of people like you coming in here feigning kindness to steal from me!”
    Lupen was afraid of what Zucca would do in this heightened state, then Eka landed back in the oasis with Hush and the injured traveler. “Why did you bring that filth back in here!?” Zucca’s voice was becoming shrill with fury.
    “We need to care for these wounds,” Eka said, carrying the injured traveler, which did not help to suppress Zucca’s growing anger.
    “I made a mistake letting you come in here.” Zucca’s hand dove into the side pouch again, but Lupen grabbed the Terin’s arm.
    “Don’t do it! Please.”
    “That’s sweet grass, that’s what attracts the floaters!” Eka said, hand on Zucca’s pouch of herbs.
    Zucca couldn’t push Eka away, those ruby eyes had a soothing quality to them. Eka and Lupen learned then that the valley around the oasis was full of patches of sweet grass, planted there purposefully, to attract the floaters and to keep people away.
    “You’ve been feeding those things? Do you know how many of us have been hurt?” The injured traveler said.
    “You think I don’t know?!” Zucca’s voice adopted a deep, menacing tone. The caretaker looked tired of fighting and arguing. “I take no pleasure in hurting others, I really don’t, but I don’t have the energy to keep intruders away on my own anymore, I don’t have many hounds left.”
    They convinced their host to let them heal the wounded traveler. It was uncharacteristic of the Terin to trust strangers like this, but Eka inspired trust. Round ears. People with round ears, according to this Terin, were known to be kind.
    After the second sunset, from their camp in the oasis, they could see that the wagon was still out there. A fire danced in the distance, signalling their presence. Eka had sent the woth over, to instruct the other travelers to stay close, to make no attempt to come to the oasis, that their friend would be cared for, and returned to them the next day.
    The woth fluttered back after the message was delivered, “thank you Crumpet,” but alas, the woth did not answer to that name and went to rest inside of its glass house.

Zucca, Lupen, Eka were in the tent. The Terin decided not to rest until all the intruders had gone away. Eka’s nose had discerned all the ingredients used in Zucca’s poultice, and had re-created it using herbs that Waldek had once more secretly provided. Of course, none of this was lost on Zucca. The farmer eyed both Waldek and the poultice with suspicious eyes.
    “All they want is food. Surely you can spare some?” Lupen asked.
    Zucca was busy filling a pipe with dried bonan leaves, after lighting it, the Terin took a few deep puffs. The whole tent was soon filled with the smell of bonan. “They never just want food.”
    The Verido looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
    “Land, food, and seeds.”
    “The children…” Lupen said in a low voice, but Zucca had seen the word on the Verido’s lips.
    “What made you trespass into my home Lupen?”
    “You have so much produce, more than enough to feed yourself and those hounds for annums. I just wanted to understand. Besides, you can’t know that people will want more, the travelers just wanted a bit of help.”
    “You’re right, I can’t know, so I prefer to assume that they’re false, it’s safer for the children and I.” The Terin dipped a finger in some of the pipe ash and drew a symbol on the tent wall, a circle with a diamond shape in its centre.
    Lupen eyed the symbol carefully, but did not recognize it.
    Zucca took another long puff from the pipe, before exhaling again. “You Verido live very sheltered lives, don’t you? It’s the Irideri city emblem,” then sighed, exhaling yellow smoke. “Iridi people are obssessed with chloromyce shroos, a plant with unique properties. They discovered it about a ki’annum ago. Harvesting them was hard work, Iridi workers had to spend days in the dark, digging. They didn’t want their people to do grunt work, so they began to enlist workers from neighbouring cities to do the harvesting for them. At first, there was promise of compensation, they would be housed and fed and allowed to live in one of the fastest growing cities in the Soronan Desert. Empty promises. Workers were confined to the caves, they were not allowed to mingle with the Iridi people in the city. Evidently, as news of the horrid work conditions traveled, few enlisted. The Iridi then decided that their only option was to capture workers. Their first target was Ministe, where I lived at the time. The city was quickly overrun with Iridi soldiers, and many of my friends were taken. Those who could fled to nearby villages, they soon became overcrowded. Many were forbidden from planting their young, but it was just as well because malnutrition was rampant, and not many could produce healthy seeds.” Zucca paused to refill the pipe with fresh bonan leaves.
    “The Iridi had a steady flow of chloromyce shroos, but their leader Moera was greedy, and tired of dealing with Terin workers. My people work hard, but we’re stubborn.” Saying this, Zucca’s hand rolled into a fist. “Moera decided that they would have to grow their own workers instead, only then, would they be fully submissive. Myself, along with a handful of other Terins, built the Suvalba Sanctuary, where a mapa could come and sow their young in a protected environment. It was a secret location, and it worked well for many annums, but then a group of Iridi soldiers got word of it. They raided the sanctuary and took all of the unsown seeds, and detroyed the rest. I escaped with a collection of seeds, and some of the resident leafhounds. Losing the sanctuary was… hard, harder on the parents that had trusted us with their young. We weren’t soldiers, we couldn’t fight back.”
    “Alone, I searched for a place to start fresh, somewhere far and hidden. While on the outskirts of Montore, I met two strangers in the desert who told me about a place that was still invisible to the world and that could host such a project. Tired, and desperate, I followed their instructions. I found the place. It was perfect. There was a great recess in the land, surrounded by large irinwood trees, and rows of fragglebush on the ground. This was no mirage. It was a miraculous remnant of the old world. The trees and shrubs would protect the new sanctuary from sand dunes shifting in high winds and from the eyes of curious onlookers. In the hollow, I found a boundless waterstone pit. But there was nothing growing there, getting it to the state it is now took a long time, and a lot of work.”
    “I’m glad they never found this place,” Lupen said, relieved.
    “The Iridi might have expanded much further, if it hadn’t been for the loss of The Luminary. No one knows what happened, but it was enough to stop the armies from advancing further. The next leader, Bao The Bright, put an end to it, with their newfound source of workers, they stopped the raids and closed their city to the world.” Zucca’s eyes had burned through the tent wall, parted the row of irinwood trees, shifted the sand dunes and split whole mountains to better watch Irideri, to make sure that the Iridi city was still dormant, still closed to the world. “May those brutes never leave the Andenuis again.”

The next day, Zucca allowed Eka and Lupen to view the nursery, while Hush and the hounds were left in charge of the patient in the tent. Everyone on this dust ball was born in the earth, from seeds. A willing, and healthy parent could sow a seed, and eventually the seed would grow into a child. This could take a long time, depending on the state of the soil and temperature. Some could only grow in the dark, others in high-moisture environments, even altitude played a part in the growing process. On their birth day, a carer would sever their roots, helping each child out of the ground. The children needed protection and good nutrition to thrive. The leaves on their heads would fall in time, and like the roots, they left no marks behind.
    Zucca pointed to the markings on Lupen’s face, “those lines are a remnant of when everyone lived in the wilds. The Verido didn’t have colour on their faces then. The colour segregation of your people is unfortunate Lupen, I rather liked the subtleties of the patterns from before, like veins on a leaf. These colours are so vulgar.”
    Lupen wasn’t sure what to say, looking at the patterns on these arms in silent embarrassment. The Verido recalled when these patterns were coloured blue, it was a painful process. The people of Volare were proud of the colour, it was a tribute to Vol, their carrier and protector. The festivities around this event were extravagant, everyone in the city was there baking looma root pies, organizing glider races and whistling contests. For Lupen, the party was even more grandiose given their relation to Volare. Now, thinking of it, perhaps these colours did serve to separate their people…
    Eka put a hand on Lupen’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “It looks nice blue,” saying this, before ruffling up the Verido’s pale head of hair, dispelling all feelings of unnecessary shamefaced-ness.
    Zucca went on to explain that bearing seeds was a complicated matter, anyone could start bearing seeds after a certain age. Though not all would grow into children. A hungry and tired person would produce nothing at all. Greenery too was a rarity, and it was the same for safe planting grounds. Many stopped sowing. For the better part of history, Terins were responsible for the steady, and healthy growth of children. This dependence on outside help was the main cause for the world’s growing depopulation problem. Levi had spoken of a Terin living in Volare, that cared for the seeds, but this was long ago. Growing up, the Verido had no memory of a Terin living amongst them. This raised many questions, had the elders done away with this practice?
    “Have you ever planted one of yours?” Lupen asked Zucca.
    “I owe it to all of the mapas who entrusted me with their young to finish the work I started in the Suvalba Sanctuary. Planting my own would be selfish. These children are my responsibility, their needs and safety are above my own.”
    Conversations with Zucca always seemed to take a dark turn, it would always end with Lupen feeling terrible.
    Eka had wandered to another part of the nursery, accompanied by Waldek who was excited to show how big the leaves of the children in the far end of the field had become.
    “I guess I don’t really want to sow seeds either.” Lupen said to Zucca, eyes on a leaf, part of a row reserved for Aodal children. “My reasons are selfish. I’ve always had pressure to do it. Because of my connection with the Ilk and to Volare… it was always expected of me. I would have to sow a seed, to raise another Voice. It’s kind of a big deal. Now that I left, my branch of the family has ended. I feel bad to say it, but I’m sort of, you know… relieved.”
    “Don’t dwell on it. You would make a terrible mapa,” Zucca said, looking at the leaves of a nearby growing child.
    Lupen laughed, Zucca’s honesty was brutal at times, but correct in this case. “Yea. Maybe.”

Lupen returned to the tent midday, to check on their patient.
    “Can you help us?” The patient was awake and sat up, despite the wounds being fresh. A pair of thin hands shot forward and grabbed onto Lupen, saying it again again, but with more confidence this time. “Help us.”
    “To do what exactly?” Lupen wanted to look away, but couldn’t.
    “We need food if we hope to make it back to Kippu. All the usual places we went to find cactubs or gingin root, were empty… it’s never happened before.”
    “This annum’s been tough, I heard. I’m sure we can convince Zucca to part with some produce.”
    “That would be wonderful. By the way, my name is Laris.” Laris began to relax, releasing the Verido and melting back into the bed. “You’ve been here a while then? Have you seen the nursery?”
    “Why do you ask?” Lupen replied, unsure if it was a good idea to speak about this.
    “Children are such a rarity these days, I’m of bearing age but it just isn’t working out you know? It’s probably for the best, I can barely feed myself.” Laris paused. “Do you think it is cruel to create more life in such times?”
    “I’ll talk to Zucca. I promise.”
    “What about you? Would you bear children, I mean, if you could?” Laris asked.
    “No.” Lupen replied, but was shocked with how quickly this was said. “I mean, I don’t know, really. I feel like I don’t know anything about anything! One of my good friends told me once that I was always underperforming, so afraid of failing to achieve great things that I continued to fail. I lack confidence in a lot that I do, and I’m wondering if my ‘not wanting to bear a seed’ is just another fear I have, of failing.” Lupen noticed then that Laris had drifted off to sleep, and laughed. “Rest well.” The Verido said, smiling, relieved that this little speech had had no spectators.

Lupen decided to go and speak with Zucca again, walked around the property, past the Verido-shaped hole in the bush, and entered through the front door of the house, which was built in the Montore style, a mixture of mud, sand, waterstones and dried grasses. It was a tall cube, with several shorter annexes all around, where several holes had been carved into every side, to allow the air to enter through one end and to flow out of the other. A series of decorative lines, crisscrossing each other, were carved into the outer walls. Lupen noted that the lines were exactly the thickness of Zucca’s finger, the farmer had likely drawn the pattern by hand before the material had set.
    The front door of the house opened onto a narrow passageway, which ran straight through the building, opening onto the nursery in the back. At each side of this passage were spaces bordered by half walls. The space on the left housed large recipients that were integral to the house, filled with soured and salted plumpkins. The pickled food was weighed down by large stones. Lupen could see that a thick, leathery skin had formed on the surface. This skin, Lupen had learned, was a byproduct of the pickling process, it was possible to dry it and to use it as a sponge for cleaning. On the ceiling near the windows wrinkly mapples hung from their stems, shriveled, dusted with the bloom of their natural sugars on their surface. Zucca liked drying mapples, and during their tour of the house yesterday had explained how at a certain stage each fruit had to be massaged once a day to bring the sugar content to the surface.
    Along the walkway stacks of dried norcorn, and several other dehydrated vegetables, were packaged into neat bundles of dried bonan leaves. Each bundle was wrapped using a single leaf, held together without string by a series of tucks and folds.
    Lupen entered the nursery then, and saw Zucca adding waterstones to a large hopper, with its bottom opening onto a set of thick rollers. A windmill overhead would turn the rollers and crush the waterstones, water would then flow down small trenches running through the crops, flooding the area gradually.
    “Can’t you give them supplies?” Lupen regretted the abruptness of the question, but didn’t know how else to ask.
    Zucca continued to work, heaving another armful of waterstones into the hopper. “What did that vagabond tell you, hm?”
    “The same thing they told you. They’re hungry.”
    “And, like I told you and Eka, this is about more than food.”
    “You can’t be sure of that! You may kill them if you don’t help. This is what I know.”
    “Dying, yes. That may be true, but that’s only because they spend all their time begging for food. They should try gardening, or learning to forage, instead of living like parasites.”
    “Laris told me the harvest was poor out there,” Lupen said, “I thought you cared about all life.”
    “I do,” Zucca replied, irritated, “I’ll give them food and they’ll ask to stay, then they’ll ask to see the nursery. The nursery makes everyone lose their minds. Many feel that this world has too many unfed mouths. Mouths. What about minds I wonder? No one wants to learn. Hardly anyone can name all of the plants that grow where they live. Yes, I could teach the younger ones how to sow and care for food. I could do that, but I can’t teach adults.” Zucca’s voice was gentle, even if the words were harsh, the farmer knew better than to be angry in a nursery. The children slept in the ground, their leaves swaying from side to side as they dreamed good dreams. “Nowadays most prefer the comforts and conveniences of a town, rather than finding their own food in the desert. There’s plenty out there, but it takes time, it is difficult, and you can’t be picky. The absolute guarantee of comfort and safety is all anyone ever cares about now.”
    The Soronan Desert had plenty of nomads, but every annum, more and more settled into towns, lured by the promise of stability. Lupen spied a sign on the back of the house.

Wherever you tread, greenery will follow.

    Eat one, toss one, Lupen thought.
    Zucca noticed the Verido’s wandering eyes. “My people used to find all they needed out there. We’d walk from garden to garden, sow as we go. Many don’t like what I do because it is so laborious, but as I said, their lives matter more than mine, I’ll do it even if it means I don’t have time for anything else.”
    “But if you had help?”
    Zucca’s hands were gripping so hard at a waterstone that clear liquid was seeping out of the hard skin, from tiny cracks zigzagging on the sides. “Everyone is false.”
    Lupen swallowed hard, “Eka told me that those who grow up in Montore aren’t taught these things anymore. If they don’t know what’s important, then how is it their fault? I mean, I didn’t know what a cactub was until someone taught me. You said it yourself, you’ll teach the children to care for themselves. Why not teach travelers?”
    “You would have me care for this land and a school for inept gardeners? I’ve got no time for it. Besides, grown adults do not change their ways… they just don’t. They lie, they come to steal, and I won’t give them any more of my precious time.” With this, Lupen was ordered away. At least the hounds couldn’t talk, they only yipped and yapped to report a problem. “You will leave with that vagrant tomorrow. I’ll deal with my own problems. I always have.”
    “You know not everyone is like this. I’m sure you can all live here together. You’ll need help to raise all those children, right? Give them a chance,” Lupen insisted, in a near-begging tone.
    Zucca eyes darkened then, lines formed in places where there had been none previously. “You understand nothing. Get out. Gather your things and go.” With this, the Terin moved away from Lupen and climbed up a ladder leading to the second floor of the house, disappearing from view.

Lupen returned to the tent and told Eka everything that had happened, the conversation with Laris, and the one with Zucca too. Eka was running fingers over Laris’s face, even in sleep, the traveler looked worn-out, near-spent.
    “Zucca wants us to leave,” Lupen said, hurt by the Terin’s indifference.
    “Then, we will do what Zucca says.” Eka replied. “You know, back in the old days, Terins used to do check-ups on the Ilk. They did this every annum, back when Ministe was still standing. The Voices would report to the Terins on the annum, on the pains the Ilk may have mentioned. When Ministe fell, a Terin, Melanza, boarded the Ilk of Volare, taught your people how to care for Vol, and helped to create the Hands, as you know them. Terins can see sickness and health in others, it’s second-nature. They’re the carers of the world.”
    Lupen swallowed hard then, “when the carers are as spent as Zucca, as near-extinct, what does that say of the state of the world?”
    “Get some rest,” Eka said with a smile, “it’s late.”
    All went to sleep, but not Laris, who had overheard their conversation. In the dark, the patient left their bed and went over to the house atop the hill. The strong scent of the medililly poultices covered up all smells, no leafhound could smell Laris. Laris pushed through the hedge, like Lupen had done, and arrived on the other side, where slept, row after row, unborn children with green tops sticking out of the soil. They looked beautiful under the moonlights, casting tiny shadows. To Laris, this field was a thing of cruelty, this land would not keep its promise and would not stay green. Panicked, Laris’s hands dove into the dirt, fingers wrapping tightly around the stem of a child. “You won’t suffer like I did. I won’t allow it.”

Zucca awoke to tend to the usual early day chores. Walking into the nursery, the Terin froze, Laris was sitting in the nursery, hands full of dirt and head hanging low.
    “Why are you here?”
    There was a long silence, but eventually, Laris spoke up. “I wanted to rip out every single one. To spare them of all misery, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.”
    Zucca stepped forward and looked around to make sure that all of the children were safe. Laris had done nothing, all swayed gently in the early first sunrise breeze, calm and content.
    The Terin was relieved, and could resume breathing again. Zucca grabbed hold of the intruder’s arm, but the fingers found a food patch, “you’ve been living off of this crap?” Upon close inspection, there were other food patches decorating this stranger’s skin, all expired, all sucked dry. The Terin took a seat down in the mud, in-between rows of greening leaves, and began to peel the patches off one by one, careful not to hurt Laris. Like a leafhound searching for parasites on a plant, Zucca’s fingers searched around for patches. “No one ever tell you you can’t live off patches? What a ridiculous invention, these are no substitute for real food…”
    Zucca’s tranquility surprised Laris. Despite being handled by gentle, caring hands, these limbs could not stop trembling. “Everyone in Montore uses these.”
    “These,” Zucca began, removing yet another patch “are expired. They can help a little when fresh, but not like this.”
    Laris’s eyes threatened to spill all of their water, “the crew of a passing Beobug sandfin sold us a crate-full.”
    During yesterday’s events, blind with rage, Zucca had failed to notice how thin Laris was, with arms that weren’t the same length. One was visibly shorter, the ears bore this same kind of unevenness. In the old days, keeping children healthy and safe was all a Terin needed to be happy. It was easy to forget that everyone was a greening thing once, small and frail.
    Zucca accompanied Laris out of the compound.
    As they walked through the fields together, Laris glanced at the endless supply of produce. “You have false-mosslings in your produce.”
    “What are you talking about,” Zucca said, hurrying ahead, wishing Laris would not talk—this little walk was painful enough.
    “False-mosslings. They mimic mosslings. They have curly antennae, and are impervious to lemilim grass. They hate mepperpint. I can’t read, but a book saying it was read to me.”
     Zucca froze in mid-step, having never before heard of false-mosslings. Both continued to walk in silence, to the encampment where the others travelers were waiting, a leafhound had come along. The two travelers moved out of the wagon to greet Laris. “Thank you for helping Laris,” one of them said, careful to avoid Zucca’s eyes. Like Laris, the two had uneven limbs, and their skin was see-through and fragile. Zucca was embarrassed to stand there with a fleshy body. The travelers helped Laris onto the wagon, and urged the vennec onward. Zucca went back into the oasis with the leafhounds.
    Eka and Lupen were awake, and noticed the bed was empty, saw the group leaving in the distance. They kept their promise to Zucca, and were now pulling the tent apart and packing away their gear. They did not address their host. Zucca walked to a field of herbs, and picked out a handful of fresh meppermint, then went over to the mossling-infested fields and distributed some in a plumpkin patch that had been plagued by these pesky insects. Zucca waited for a moment, nothing changed. With a sigh, the Terin walked off but then noticed a mossling flying past, and then another. All had curly antennae. The pests began to fly off in droves. “False-mosslings. How elegant.” Zucca laughed.
    Eka saw the insects flying away, looking for another place to nest, and smiled. “You did it! Mosslings are leaving!” Saying it loud enough so Zucca would hear.
    “False-mosslings,” Zucca corrected. “Didn’t used to have these here. It’s something new, something I didn’t know.” A rush of emotions overcame the Terin then. “I thought the world had nothing more to teach me. Not everyone is equipped with the knowledge to save themselves. I mistook this for lethargy.” Terins were supposed to care for others, not just in the growing phase, but throughout their lives too. People never really stopped growing. “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
    Eka held a hand out. “Not yet you haven’t.”
    Zucca and Eka climbed onto Hush, ready to go intercept the travelers aboard their wagon. Before leaving, the Terin looked at Waldek. “You’re in charge. And as for you Lupen,” the Terin smiled at the Verido. A first. “Don’t. Touch. Anything.”
    Lupen laughed, and did as told.
    Hush disappeared into the distance, and later returned, leading the wagon back into the oasis. A meal transformed their faces completely, the three looked less translucent, solid and warm. The Terin agreed to teach the travelers to grow food, in exchange for help around the fields. To start, they would be fed and housed for an annum. It was difficult for Zucca to commit to longer than this, the Terin did not trust others yet, but one annum seemed reasonable and after perhaps they’d be granted an extension, or better yet, permanent residence. The travelers accepted, they had no ties to any city.

The next day, with Zucca’s permisson, Eka and Lupen filled their bags with fresh produce. They all stood over a mapple bush, picking the fruit by hand. Lupen grabbed hold of an oversized mapple, its ribbed skin glistening under the suns. The Verido peeled off part of the outer layer and took a big bite. “This doesn’t taste anything like that other mapple I had, it’s so bitter,” Lupen said, nose wrinkling, resisting the urge to spit out the piece, “it hurts my face.”
    “You really know nothing of the world,” Zucca said, reaching into the mapple bush and picking out another fruit, checking the underside of the fruit, and the area around the stem before handing it over to Lupen, “you’ll like this one. Finish that other one first though, I don’t tolerate waste.”
    Lupen reluctantly swallowed the bitter fruit.
    The Terin glanced at Eka then. “You’re also a carer aren’t you? Do you think that making green places and growing children really matters? On a grand scale I mean… say, you were flying over this rock we all inhabit, or if your head reached high above the clouds.”
    Eka, mouth full of mapples, couldn’t answer right away, so Zucca decided that this is something that would be better left unasked. “What is your favourite food?”
    Eka swallowed the bits of mapple, smiling. “I like noranges48 a lot, bit rare though.”
    The Terin disappeared inside the house, and returned with a small pouch made out of weaved norcorn leaves. Inside the pouch was a single seed. “Plant this seed in a green place. It needs a lot of moisture and shade, when the leaves grow broad full suns is fine. In a few annums you’ll get some noranges.” Zucca explained that this seed had been salvaged from the Iridi raids at the Suvalba Sanctuary. Their host also gave them two fresh noranges from the only tree on the property as thanks. “Keep the seeds,” Zucca made a point to say.
    “It will be planted in the greenest of places, I promise,” Eka said, before eyeing Waldek the leafhound who sat there at their feet, wagging its leaf-shaped tail. “Keep your friends safe okay?”
    Waldek barked, before turning to Lupen, its antennae prodding Lupen’s legs and chest. It let out a whine then, but Zucca stepped in. “Don’t you have work to do?” The orange hound barked again, and moved off into the fields with the others. The Terin handed Lupen a bag of medililly herbs. “Brew a leaf with your tea, a leaf a day,” Zucca paused then, a thick hand coming to rest on the Verido’s shoulder, “make it part of your routine. A leaf a day. Easy to remember. You’ve got enough here for a long while, but come back and see me when you run out… well, before you run out.”
    Lupen accepted the gift, acknowledging how precious the leaves were. “A leaf a day, got it. Thank you.”
    The two left shortly, their bags plump with fresh supplies. They wished Laris and the travelers well, thanked the leafhounds, and the farmer. Zucca watched as the two, led by Hush, disappeared behind the row of canopied trees.

  1. Leafhound. Leafhounds are orange, leaf-tailed and have a set of antennae on their heads. They guard nurseries and crops.↩︎

  2. Karonin. A fruit with a warty assymetrical shape and a hard rind. The inside flesh is crunchy, eatable raw, and has a pungent, slightly spicy flavor, varying in intensity depending on its growing environment. ↩︎

  3. Norcorn. A plant on a stalk that produces inflorescences called nubs that yield bright yellow seeds. With enough heat, the seeds explode into bright orange puffs which are eaten as a snack during special events.↩︎

  4. Mossling. Pale winged insects that like to burrow inside fresh produce, causing them to rot.↩︎

  5. Norange. A near-extinct, sweet, and bitter fruit with a thick rind. It has a fragant smell, and can calm the mind.↩︎

Continue to Chapter 0