Lupin and Eka arrived near a hollow, they did not have to come through here to go to Montore but Eka had insisted on it. This place, Nono had said, was wrought with strange creatures. They were instructed to transit quickly, but their sore feet gave them much trouble. The two experimented with walking fast, making much distance but getting tired faster, or walking slow, making little progress but with more energy to spare. When Hush was in a good mood, they would do a few long leaps ahead, this too, helped to shorten the trip.
Near the hollow, Hush sighted round creatures hovering in the distance, its ears perked up, attentive to the faintest of sounds. Something was wrong, the hyroo would not move forward, fearful of the strange beings ahead. The creatures had two black points for eyes, long fluttery wings on the sides of their bodies and tiny slits for mouths.
“Whoa look at those! Had ballons just like that on my last Green Day.”
Eka grabbed Lupin’s shoulder, “remember what Nono said.” These creatures, these floaters were not unfamiliar to Eka, but little was known of them — people made a point of avoiding them.
Lupin did not believe they could be dangerous and took a step forward, as if to prove the rest of the group wrong. It was instinctive to associate roundness with passiveness, a being with points though, would be cause for concern. Determining levels of hostility according to shape did not prove to be convenient in this case, perhaps it could be useful in a world of all-geometric animals.
The creatures reacted to the intruders that stood near, they turned a solid red colour and darted towards them. Eka leapt onto Hush and reached over to grab Lupin’s collar, but one of those creatures splattered onto the hyroo's side and another to Lupin’s chest. Their bodies were sticky and soft like goo, and burned like hot coals.
In a panic, Hush bounded off, fast and far into the distance. Eka kicked at the soft gooey body to get it off, but after every hit the skin would just bounce back into shape. Hush landed with a roll, sending all passengers cascading onto the ground. The poor beast was rubbing its side on the sand and clawing at the parasite with its hind legs. Fingers and nails were not enough to get this spherical vampire to let go, Lupin had 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.
There was no way to help Hush now, and so Eka went to assist the other sufferer. The creatures were very hot to the touch, and had burned through Lupin's vest and undershirt already. Lupin was in agony, body twisting on the ground.
“I can’t get it off!” Eka cried, hands and nails digging at the balloon-bodied demon.
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 Lupin up along.
"Take us up again! As high as you can!”
Like before, Hush jumped up high and fast. Within seconds, the creature abandoned its host. When they landed again, they were a good distance away, leaving those fluttery fiends behind.
Lupin lay on the ground, speaking through gritted teeth, “I should have listened to you. Those things - why do they attack people?”
"They're territorial, I know that, but there's usually not so many together in one place." There was some logical explanation, but right now Eka focused on a more important task: crushing waterstones over Lupin's wounds, to help reduce the pain and swelling.
After a few minutes of this, the injury was covered with a dressing to keep air and sand from the skin’s surface. Hush had the same treatment. It was nearly nighttime, and with two wounded it was best to set camp here. After that ordeal everyone needed to have a good long rest.
Lupin's condition worsened in the night, Eka made some tea laced with herbs known to help in the event of infection, but was lacking many key ingredients. Most of the stocks they had were from Tiputa, but it being a small village meant that they had few herbs to spare. Their travel party needed a place to stay for a while, staying out here was not an option and the next town was some ways away. Tomorrow, Eka would try and search the land for the missing herbs, this was the only solution available to them.
Come daytime, Eka prepared breakfast for everyone: nuni nuggets. Nuni was a starchy tuber with bright yellow flesh, it had a taste and smell that could best be described as being robust. Orin had prepared a parting gift of tubers and other roots for their journey, this had been part of it. Lupin was especially fond of nuni, Eka suspected that the Verido enjoyed the way it stained the inside of your mouth more than the taste of it. They ate quite a few of them on the trek over here, and made bets on who's mouth would be most yellow. The skin and tips of the nuni were placed into a jar along with some brine (prepared earlier that morning), the left-overs would be left to pickle for a few days and would be enjoyed as another meal.
The food was divided into 3 plates, but before breakfast could be served, a plump leaf-tailed orange hound appeared at the entrance to the tent, mouth agape, gushing with saliva. Eka wondered where thisleafhound c ame from, there was nothing out here - or perhaps there was? Glancing behind the hound, these red eyes locked onto a distant point of colour, a spot of green. Red smiled, relieved.
“Is that where you came from?”
The hound barked, and this triggered a series of faint yaps and yips, all coming from the faraway green smudge. By then, a pool of clear slime had accumulated at the hound's feet, dripping from its long purple tongue; it was cruel to ask so many questions, without the promise of compensation. Eka cut away a piece of nuni and tossed it over, the hound gobbled it up, and waited for more. “You really like that don’t you?" Eka said.
Breakfast was served, although Lupin was in a feverish state and could barely consume any of it. Hush had no problem eating its breakfast, and despite Eka's warnings, it still helped itself to Lupin's portion.
"Yea, yea. I know, I know - you've got 2 stomachs," Eka said, caressing Hush's fur. "Right now you're the mapa okay? You take care of Lew while I'm gone."
Hush's ears twitched at the word 'gone', while not familiar with the etymology of the word it recognized the sound and length of it and associated it with a moment of absence, a thing it didn't like. Hush let out a pained whine, its head coming between 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 Lupin's side.
Eka smirked, and turned to the orange hound. "Let's get going!"
Both walked out of the tent and proceeded into the desert wilds, the wind was down, and the suns were extra hot. The leaf hound followed Eka closely, well-aware of the existence of a secret piece of nuni, hidden anyway in the palm of Eka's hand. Leaf hounds had a keen sense of smell, this particular one was dying to get at this last bit of nuni goodness, and would keep close as if to make sure no one else would get it.
Gradually, the point of colour expanded into a row of trees, and beyond that, was a vast hollow in the ground. At its center, was an islet of greenery interspersed with 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 seemed impossible to near it without them noticing, if one of them did, without Hush or Lupin around to help, they would be in trouble. The orange hound seemed calm, not the least bit bothered by their presence. It was clear that it had come through here, and yet, had not suffered any harm from those winged monsters. Had they not seen the hound? Maybe it knew of a way inside, one unseen by them. Eka's eyes were fixed on any movement in the oasis, there were many other leaf hounds 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 edges.
Eka had an idea then, the leaf hound was their key to the oasis, and the morsel of nuni, was the enabler.
The red head returned to camp, the faithful leaf hound 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 thusly, keep the floaters away. They feared the orange guardians. Hopefully, this hound was frightful enough to protect all 3 of them and grant them safe passage. All was packed away, the injured Verido was secured onto Hush and the group then marched towards the oasis. They stood at the edge of it, Lupin opened one fatigued eye, "Eka no, we can't...!"
“It’s okay, we’ve got a guide this time,” their fleshy guide was at their side, mouth dripping with clear juices. The last bit of nuni in hand, Eka's foot came to press on the carpet of grass, the spheres raced over but did not attack, not while the orange mutt was there. Eka gave the hound half of the piece of nuni, it swallowed it whole and waited for the rest. They began to walk further into the oasis, the spheres had all gathered there, skin switching from red, to orange and back to yellow. Lupin was hiding under the fabric of the chute, dubious about the whole idea. To their amazement, the round creatures stared, but did not try anything. They walked further inland, to a point they knew would be free of the threat of those things. The other hounds in the oasis looked at them, their cheeks puffing up, holding back their bark. Though none made a sound, one of their kin was leading them in, and so they concluded that they weren't a threat. Lupin breathed a sigh of relief, and Eka offered the rest of the nuni to the hound, caressing its head “Good, good hound!”
Then, they noticed shouting from the house up the hill, one that in all this excitement, they had failed to notice. A dark-faced creature, wearing a patchwork of clothes came running, brandishing a rake. “How did you get past the hounds?!” But then, all was made clear: Waldek, the round hound, was eating a nuni. “Waldek, your insatiable hunger has doomed us all,” Waldek panted happily and wandered off, nose to the ground, searching for more food.
The creature before them now, was a Terin, dark-skinned and dark-haired, two-toed and endowed with thick limbs. A large rimmed hat shielded the wearer from the sun, a hat made from banabo leaves, secured to the head with a cloth, running along the top of the hat and tied under the chin.
Eka stared at the rake-wielding farmer, "I love your green place!".
Zucca was so furious that these words fell on deaf ears. "Leave at once! This is my property!” the owner of the oasis said, pushing Eka back with the tip of a rake. The hyroo growled and Zucca jumped backwards, rake and all. "A hyroo?" Zucca said, eyes aglow, "such creatures are rare, very few were grown. Hyroos need lots of moisture, a temperate climate to sprout! How is this possible?" This was a creature of the old world, Zucca thought the hyroos had died with it.
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."
"There has been talk of receding genes... sprouts hibernating in the soil and awaiting the proper conditions to sprout, yes, this is what must have happened—" Zucca paused, a frown replacing the expression of wonder, "staying here? Impossible!” Those words seemed forced. This fascination with hyroos came attached with a string of complications: more time with the hyroo, meant more time with others, with strangers. Curiosity and fear were at war with each other inside Zucca's head, but the battle was lost before it even began. "You'll have to go somewhere else," and with these words, came the death of curiosity.
Eka removed the scarf, revealing a red head of hair, “time, shelter and medicine, in exchange for 3 questions about my friend Hush."
"How do I know your answers aren't lies?" Zucca spat out.
"You can trust me."
Zucca was busy inspecting the red's features carefully. The Terin then froze, eyes wide upon noticing the creature's vibrant hair, those eyes, and those same rounded ears. The Terin was deep in thought and spoke in a quiet voice. “Same... but different.” Dirty digits scratched at the wood of the rake, nails brown with soil, there were bits of it on the clothes too. The dark-skinned creature then glanced over at a pale Lupin, the Terin put a hand to the Verido's face. "Umph-" Zucca said, pulling away, "your friend had another accident, before this one I mean."
Eka nodded. "Yea, fell off an Ilk."
"Well, that explains it. No Verido in their right mind would choose to leave an Ilk... and before that?"
Eka shrugged. "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."
Zucca took a deep breath. "You can stay, 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, Lupin breathed out a thank you as well. The injured Verido was sweating profusely, eyelids appeared heavy, drawn down by tiny invisible hands.
"Pomparu for president!" Lupin said.
Eka was concerned. "My friend is delusional. I need some medililly herbs to treat the wounds, and fast!"
Zucca promised to bring some over later. "Don’t. Touch. Anything.” After this, the grouch returned to the house atop the hill.
Eka looked pleased. If one took note of the subtleties in Zucca's mannerisms and speech, they would conclude that the Terin was a mess of contradictory emotions; a reluctant, overprotective and intermittently sympathetic character. Staying here, meant that they would have to respect the rules of the oasis and its master.
Eka raised their tent, helped Lupin inside and sat down to watch the orange dogs walking the fields: they looked at every single crop, their antennae prodding them gently, as if they were asking them of their health. The oasis was divided into many parts, the front consisted of fresh produce, like karrots and bams. Fields of teaweet and other grains sat in between the vegetables and the small cabin atop the hill. Eka could see a space contoured by tall hedges behind that, making it impossible to see what was inside. Zucca was a busy fellow, there was even a large building being constructed all the way on the northern edge of the field.
Waldek was around still, despite the absence of nuni. Perhaps its visit to their camp that morning, was due to curiosity, or maybe kindness. Maybe the hound knew of the attack, and had purposely come to lead them to a safe place. Eka visited the patients often, Hush was handling it well enough, although, it too, was not its usual self. Then Zucca's gravelly voice sounded outside: “Hey-” there was a pause, they hadn't introduced each other by name yet, “—hey uh. Hey you, in the tent!"
Eka wandered out. "You can call me Eka, and that trumpet-eared invalid in there is Lew-pee-lew.”
“Lew-pee-lew huh? That sounds made up."
Eka nodded, "I'm sure you know how eccentric Veridos can be Zucca, you've heard the stories. Beads in their hair and all—”
"How do you know my name?!"
"Oh your hound Waldek told me. Well, through Hush 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 you see, not easy to master, and there's so many dialects."
"I don't like lies, or jokes," Zucca began, "I'm going to apply your friend's medicine. I don't want to hear any more nonsense."
Zucca had two medililly poultices in hand, and applied one to Hush, and the other Lupin. The soft, moist mass was applied to the wounds and wrapped carefully with a clean strip of cloth.
"What is the name of mountain you spoke of, where the hyroos grow? It's within the belt isn't it?" Zucca asked, eyes set on the hyroo. The large-eared creature was asleep, coiled into a tight ball with its head hidden, its back 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,"Zucca paused, "You think I'll tell? Whom shall I divulge this to I wonder?"
"I'm telling you the truth, it hasn't got one."
"Okay. Fine." Zucca was displeased with this answer. "How long do hyroos live for?"
"A hundred years? Maybe?"
"-and how old is Hush?"
"Less than a year old i'd say. Hush is a very green sprout," saying this, Eka turned to caress the back of the hyroo.
"They grow that big in just one year? Remarkable."
"That makes 3 questions!"
"No, no - that first one doesn't count. I didn't get an answer." Zucca said.
Eka thought about this for a moment, then shrugged, "okay. Fair enough. You get a redo."
Zucca nodded, before leaving the tent - that last question needed to be pondered carefully.
The next day, Hush had recovered and was sitting outside the tent with Waldek, gnawing on a stalk of gingin root. During the night, their leaf-tailed guide had rounded up a pile of fresh produce for them. Zucca’s words came to mind then: "Take only what is given to you." Eka smirked at this, the Terin hadn’t intended on Waldek bringing food over, but technically, they weren’t breaking any rules. 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 gathered some produce and began to cook breakfast.
“I present you toast! Eka style!” Eka said, presenting this tasty creation to the bed-bound Verido.
Lupin was awake, and was looking much better than yesterday, “whoa fresh mapples! Surprised 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.
“Was a gift from our pal Waldek. Our little secret! OH you’re going to love this place beetle! It’s abundant with greens and oranges and purples and—”
Yesterday, Lupin had been too sick to really take in the details of the oasis, but now, beyond the fragrant poetry of the mapple toast, the nose detected hints of sweet norcorn and teaweet in the air. These smells, in turn, summoned an approximation of what the oasis looked like in Lupin's brain.
“Looking forward to seeing that," Lupin said with a smile, before taking note of the poultice, "thanks for taking care of me."
“Zucca made that poultice for you though, that's what healed you up."
“I’ll give Zucca my thanks.”
“You'd better! Medililly takes ages to grow, 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. Hush was in perfect health and walked around the tent, cheeks full of food. A stomach full of fresh, colourful food may have played a part in its recovery.
Later that afternoon, they heard the farmer yelling. When they peered through the opening of the tent, they could see the Terin chasing pale winged insects out of the field, "get out of my property!” But these creatures, yielded not to these demands.
Eka wandered out of the tent, “whats going on?” Zucca jumped in surprise, it was likely that their host had forgotten there were others here, “oh! You have mosslings in your produce!”
“Can’t get rid of em’. They hate lemoni grass so I planted some around to keep them away, but I’m beginning to think they’ve developed a taste for it. They're like super mosslings. Curse these things! They make everything rot.”
Lupin sat in front of the tent, sipping tea, at peace and content despite the ever present chest pains. The oasis had a voice all its own, speaking through the rustling of the various plants in the field - a concerto of greenery. There was not many around to listen, a handful of hounds, the caretaker, Eka... it occurred to the Verido then, that there wasn’t anyone else here, and that this large orchestra of an oasis sang for too few - surely it deserved a larger public. They were producing all of this food for themselves, no one else was here to eat it - that is, unless there was a village of tiny people over there in that modest-sized house. Lupin tried to bring up the topic later that day, when tasked with peeling bams for tonight’s dinner, Eka too, thought it strange.
“Let’s ask the vegetables,” Eka set the peeled bams down in a pot and wandered over to the fields. The red head stopped where Zucca had been earlier that day, to that mossling-infested karrot head, and tried to pose it a question: “what’s the deal with this Zucca fellow anyway?”
Lupin watched from afar. “Stop it. You do not speak vegetable."
Eka replied with a shush! Loud voices may incite the ill-tempered landlord to come back over here again with that rake. After laying an ear against the side of the karrot, Eka waited for an answer, “oh! A secret you say?”
Lupin watched, resisting the urge to ask about what the karrot 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 tongue. A language that could not be spoken with words; but with light, or vibrations. After a short conversation, the vegetable whisperer rose and wandered back over to Lupin. There was some silence, but it did not last. “What did it say?”
“It said, that there is something valuable here-” saying this, Eka covered those ruby eyes with two hands and uncovered them just as quickly, "-hidden away."
That got the Verido's attention, “valuable? You mean like a treasure?”
“Like a secret,” Eka corrected, pressing the point of a finger hard on Lupin's nose. Then, the peeling of the bams continued, tonight's dinner was bam soup with slices of muckwheat bread. The idea of a secret was intriguing, but it was probably false.
That night the Verido could not sleep, haunted by the idea of a treasure. It wasn't interesting because of its potential value, but because of the air of mystery that came with it. If there was a secret, it would be around the house, that whole area looked very sheltered and private. It was likely that Zucca did have something hidden over there.
The next day, Lupin was feeling much better and got up before the sun. Zucca was awake too, standing way out there in the fields, tending to the crops and far too busy to notice anyone else there. Lupin knew better than to break into someone’s home, and decided to circle it, hopefully this would satiate the Verido's curiosity. Upon arriving on the eastern side of it, a hedge blocked the way, the area at the back of the house was surrounded with it. Lupin put an arm in it, to see if it was as thick as it looked. There were noises nearby just then, Waldek was standing close, but had not yet alerted their host.
“Such a good guard hound! We’re friends aren’t we? You’re not going to tell on me are you?” Lupin said in a hushed voice, stuck halfway into the big hedge, scarf and hair caught up into the branches. Waldek let out a bark, and then another. Getting out of the mass of shrubbery was harder than getting in, its branches curled inwards and refused to let go. It was decided then, that forward was better, better than facing an angry Zucca. The Verido popped out of the other side, clothes full of leaves and bits of branches. A person-shaped hole was there, a weird, not-quite triangular outline that made the hedge look like it was in mid-cry. This 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. Lupin could not accuse the karrot either, blaming the words of a vegetable would do no one any good. Also, one had to remember that if the root veggie could speak, its mossling-infected mind would be susceptible to telling untruths.
“What am I doing.” The Verido took a step back, but another orange dog began to bark and growl from inside the compound. Lupin kept as far away from the hound as the hedge permitted, and in this instant, gazed upon a most wonderful sight: there was a vast field, contoured by a tall fence of greenery. There was music playing, a soft tune, consisting of bells and whistles. Then a thing most noteworthy came into view, on the ground, just a short meter away, was a leafling.
The reason the hound was so miffed, was because this intruder had almost crushed it, "oh hey I’m sorry.” The hound's antennae ears caressed the leafling 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, nudged Lupin away from the field. This place was full of fragile leaflings, rows of little green nubs pushing out of the soil. Some of the leaves had different shapes, others, bore other colours along with the base green. This place, was a nursery.
Lupin had seen nurseries before, they had a small one in Volare. At most, Volare had 2 leaflings growing at once - this place had many more. The presence of a nursery this size, justified the need for a large and reliable food source. Zucca had planted enough leaflings here to populate a small city. After circling the field, under the watchful eye of the hound, Lupin moved closer to the house to look at a calendar on a wall, marked with the possible harvesting dates. There were bags of grained food, as well as a giant basin made of rock with a large flat-headed hammer of matching size. This is where the grains were ground-up, made small for tiny mouths to chew. All was planned ahead for the coming of the younglings. Lupin ran a hand along the insides of the bowl, and tasted some remnants of the grain in it. "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. Zucca and the hounds were skilled at farming, that much was clear, no one else could produce such sweet-tasting teaweet.
In Volare, the grain was bland and needed to be augmented with spices. Adding spices to something as perfect as these grains would be criminal, they had no need of it. Lost in thought, Lupin 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, in a clumsy fashion, dirt was kicked over footprints and branches were scattered about in a seemingly natural way. There was no time to make peace with the shrub, Lupin pushed through the dense thicket and emerged on the other side. The Verido then hurried back to camp, to tell Eka of this discovery.
“You do realize I was making fun of you last night. Zucca does have a secret though, that much is clear,” Eka said.
Lupin didn’t care about that, “There’s a nursery in there! Full of tiny people like we said!" Then came a description of the place, how it was encircled by hedges, the stone bowl, immeasurable bags of grain, the rows and rows of leaflings... the Verido paused then, “think Zucca's raising an army?”
Eka laughed at this, “definitely. They'll be carving swords from karrots, and helmets from hollowed-out kappages. A veil of teaweet arrows will blot out the sun!"
Just then, they heard barking outside. The hounds may have been chasing away yet another floater, but they heard strange voices. Then, came Zucca's scratchy throat organ, “get off my land!”
Lupin and Eka poked their heads out of their tent to look at the scene outside: Zucca had that trusty rake in hand, and was accompanied by a collection of hounds. A covered wagon pulled by a vennec stood at the edge of the oasis, the 3 passengers were speaking to Zucca. They were covered in layers of light fabric, to shield their skin from the sun and sand no doubt.
"You need to leave!" Zucca screamed at them.
One of the travellers went to grab an empty sac of grains from the wagon to show that they were in dire need of supplies.
“Travellers,” Lupin whispered to Eka.
But still, Zucca yelled for them to leave, caring little for reasons and pleas for aid, "you have 10 seconds to leave this place, there will be consequences!"
Another traveler, depleted of energy, could not stand for this, "You would let us die then?"
Some of Zucca's hounds let out a growl and charged forward to get them to back away, they had been taught well, if they sensed anger they had been instructed to attack. The travellers knew nothing of leaf hounds, all they saw were teeth. They pulled out, for protection, what looked like short pikes from the inside of their robes. Again, the hounds had been trained to retaliate when threatened with objects. The leafy caretakers could be quite mean if they wanted to, they bared their pearly whites and bit at their legs and in the wood of their weapons. Zucca reached into a side pouch, pulled out a handful of green herbs and tossed it towards the attackers. The hounds pulled away, just as the floaters came rushing in, attracted by the scent. The red spherical parasites chased after the intruders, now covered in those herbs.
Lupin watched, cringing as multiple floaters latched onto the skin of the smallest of the group, while the others tried to get them off their friend using their pikes, which upon close inspection, would be revealed to be simple broomsticks. The victim fell on the ground, screaming for aid, the end of the broomsticks did little to help given the gooey construct of these animals. Lupin’s heart ached, something had to be done. The verido turned to Eka, but the red head was already gone.
Eka was riding Hush and grabbed the collar of the injured. They jumped up high into the sky, like they’d done before to get rid of the floaters. Altitude and cold, two things they knew repelled the spheres. The other two travellers had boarded their wagon and were running away, urging their vennec forward, thankfully they had been spared.
Zucca did not fail to see that Eka was helping them, angry eyes moved to judge Lupin next, “you’re with them aren’t you!? They sent you ahead didn’t they? I trusted you!” The leaf hounds were manning the edge of the oasis, while the master of this green land strode over to the tent towards Lupin. With surprising speed and abruptness, Zucca flipped the rake around to show another more pointy end, and aimed it for the Verido's throat. Lupin did not move, having no desire to upset their host further.
“You CAN trust me Zucca!”
“Then why’s your friend helping them?” Zucca spat, pressing the point against soft skin.
“Because Eka is kind.” Lupin stayed perfectly still, uncertain if Zucca would believe it, or purposely choose to ignore the words.
Zucca must have known the Verido wasn’t lying, because those lips found no suitable rebuttal; though there was an air of suspicion in those eyes still. “What about you? Are you kind Lew-pee-lew?”
Lupin nearly laughed at this; Eka liked to give people ridiculous nicknames, but this jest was ill-timed. This situation was delicate, a laugh would be most unwelcome, and most unwise. “I like to think I am, yes. And if you don't mind, I'd rather you call me Lupin."
Zucca's face was warped with rage, “I bet you like to think that you’re a truth-sayer too? 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?”
Lupin knew it was dumb to think that their host wouldn’t find out about that visit to the nursery earlier, only a person without sight could have missed that large person-shaped hole in the hedge. “I took nothing.”
“Im sick of you people! Coming in here, feigning kindness to steal from me!”
Lupin was afraid of what Zucca would do in this heightened state. Just 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, speaking low and slow, holding up the injured traveler.
Speaking in a tranquil manner did not help to suppress Zucca's growing resentment though. “I made a mistake letting you come in here-” a hand dove into the side pouch, Lupin remembered this from before. That pouch was full of herbs, something the floaters could not resist, just a bit of it in the air and these things would come rushing.
Before Zucca could do it, Lupin grabbed the Terin's arm, "Don't do it!" Eka stepped in as well, a hand set on the pouch of herbs; yet another obstacle.
“That’s sweet grass-” the red head said, catching the scent of it, "-the floaters like sweet grass.”
Zucca couldn’t push Eka away, those ruby eyes had a soothing quality to them, “Y-yes. It is." Both learned then that the valley around the oasis was full of patches of sweet grass, planted there with purpose, to attract the floaters and to keep people away; but the creatures ate it up so fast, the keeper of the oasis always had to plant more. Because they had a dependable source of food, the floaters became greedy, and even more territorial. Zucca had gone through a lot of trouble, to keep this place hidden.
The injured traveler could not believe that the Terin was responsible for these floaters being here, “you’ve been feeding those things? You know how many of us they’ve hurt?”
“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. I just don’t have the energy to keep intruders away on my own, I don’t have many hounds left anymore-” saying this, these yellow eyes saddened, they had endured much pain in the past. Zuccaloved the leaf hounds deeply, Eka could tell.
They convinced their host to let them heal the traveler - that they came to know as Laris - and that they would keep watch. It was uncharacteristic of the Terin to trust strangers in this way, to allow them to tend to yet, another stranger. Eka inspired confidence. It was also because of the round ears, people with round ears, according to this Terin, were not known to lie.
That night, from their encampment in the oasis, they could see that the vennec-pulled wagon was still out there. A fire danced in the distance, signalling their presence. Eka had sent the woth over, to instruct the other travellers to stay close and to make no attempt to come to the oasis. This, with the promise that their friend would be cared for, and returned to them the next day. The woth had returned to the oasis to inform them that the message had been delivered, "thank you tumbleweed," but alas, the woth did not answer to that name and went to rest inside of its glass house. Zucca, Lupin, Eka and the patient were in the tent. The Terin did not trust anyone on this property, and had decided not to rest until all had gone. The wounded traveler had quieted, poultices lay over the injuries, Eka had learned the recipe just by smell alone, and made the medicine using herbs that Waldek had once again, secretly provided.
Lupin's eyes wandered over to Zucca. “All they want is food. Surely you can spare some?”
Zucca was busy filling a pipe with fresh bonan leaves, after lighting it the Terin took a few puffs, the whole tent was soon filled with the smell of bonan. “They never just want food.”
The Verido looked puzzled, "how do you mean?”
"Land, food, and seeds."
"The sproutlings," Lupin said in a low voice, but Zucca had seen the word on those lips.
"What made you trespass into my home Lupin?"
"You have so much produce, more than enough to feed yourself and those hounds for years. I just wanted to understand. Besides, you can't know that people will want more, the travellers just wanted help."
"You're right, I can't know. So i prefer to assume that they're false, it's safer for me and the sproutlings. I've had too many deceivers here, too many to count." Zucca sucked at the pipe, smoke pushing out of these nostrils.
Eka looked at Zucca, “there are so few of you left.”
The Terin took another long puff from the pipe, before exhaling again, “we have the Iridi to thank for that.”
The next day, Zucca allowed Eka and Lupin to view the nursery, while Hush and the hounds had been left in charge of the patient in the tent. Everyone on this planet was born from the earth, from seeds. A willing, and healthy parent could sow a seed, eventually the seed would grow into a sproutling; this could take a long time, depending on the state of the soil and temperature. Some races could only sprout in the dark, others in high-moisture environments; even altitude played a part in the growing process. Come time for harvesting, the sproutlings would be taken out of the ground, the roots severed, and they would be put into the hands of a carer - often, a Terin. During the first days of life, the younglings needed protection and good nutrition to thrive. The leaves on their heads too would fall, in time, and like the roots, left no mark behind. The young grew fast, and even faster in good conditions.
Zucca pointed to the markings in Lupin’s face, “those lines you wear 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 Lupin, I rather liked the subtleties of the patterns from before - like veins on a leaf. Colours are vulgar."
Lupin wasn’t sure what to say, looking at the patterns on these arms in silent embarrassment. The Verido recalled when these patterns were coloured in blue - a painful process. The people of Volare were proud of it, it was a tribute to Vol, their carrier and protector who bore this colour in its hairs. The festivities around this event were extravagant, everyone in the city was there and prepared food and activities: Looma root pies, glider races, whistling contests etc. For Lupin, the party was even more grandiose, given the relation to Volare. Now, thinking of it, perhaps these colours did serve to separate their people - no other race did this.
Eka put a hand on Lupin’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze.
"It looks nice blue," saying this, before ruffling up that pale head of hair; thusly, ridding the Verido of this unnecessary shamefacedness.
Zucca went on to explain that bearing seeds was a complicated matter, anyone, after a certain age, could start bearing seeds. Though not all would sprout younglings, these were ground-up into fodder for other seeds for nourishment. Events of the world also made seed-bearing difficult, a hungry and tired person would produce nothing at all. Greenery too was a rarity, as were good planting grounds, for this reason many simply stopped sowing. For the better part of history, Terins were responsible for keeping a steady, and healthy growth of leaflings. This dependence on outside help, is the main cause for the world's depopulation problem. Levi had spoken of a Terin living in Volare, that cared for the seedlings, but this was long ago. Growing up, the Verido had no memory of a Terin living amongst them, this raised many questions, did the elders do away with this practice?
"Have you ever planted one of yours?" Lupin asked.
Zucca's face made it clear to Lupin that doing such a thing was unthinkable. "I owe it to all of the parents who entrusted us with their young to finish the work we started in the Suvalba Sanctuary. Planting my own? That would be selfish. These seedlings are my responsibility, their needs and safety are above my own. Rather die than to fail them in this."
Conversations with Zucca always seemed to take a dark turn somehow, it would always end with Lupin feeling terrible. Eka had wandered to another part of the nursery, accompanied by Waldek who was excited to show how big the leaflings in the northern end of the field had become. Eka's presence usually helped to keep dark thoughts a good distance away, now thoughts of Volare, of Levi, being Voice - all of that, was re-surfacing in this Verido's mind.
"I don't really want to sow seeds either-" Lupin said to Zucca, eyes on a leafling, part of a row reserved for Aodal sprouts. "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've gone, my branch of the family has ended - I feel bad to say it, but I'm sort of... relieved."
"Don't dwell on it, it's for the best. You would make a terrible Mapa," Zucca admitted, looking at the leaves of a nearby leafling.
Lupin laughed at this. Zucca's honesty was brutal at times, but correct in this case. "Yea - I think so too."
Lupin returned to the tent in the afternoon, to check on their patient. Laris was awake, though weak still. “You live here?” Laris asked.
“Just passing through.”
“You should help us-” the patient sat up, despite the wounds being fresh. A pair of hands shot forward and grabbed onto Lupin's, slippery palms, wet with sweat. Laris said it again, but with more confidence this time, "-you will help us." It was more of a demand then a suggestion, from here, the Verido could make out hints of jade amongst the red streaking those gleaming, gelatinous orbs.
“To do what exactly?” Lupin wanted to look away, but couldn't do it, it would be rude to do so.
“We're starving, we need supplies if we hope to make it back to Kippu."
"I'm sure we can convince Zucca to part with a few items."
"That would be wonderful." Laris began to relax, releasing the Verido and melting back into the bed. "So you've been here a while then? You've seen the nursery?"
“Why do you ask?” Lupin replied, unsure if it was a good idea to speak of this.
"Sproutlings 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. Don't you think it cruel to create more life in such times?"
Lupin knew why Laris couldn't bear seeds, it was probably due to some deficiencies. "Ill have a talk with Zucca. I promise."
Laris smiled at this, and drifted off to sleep.
Lupin felt terrible, and decided on going to speak with Zucca again. This time, the front gate, rather than the bushes, was used as means of entry. The Terin was in the nursery feeding the seedlings, crushing wet stones over each one. The stones lay folded into an apron, it was a lot of weight to carry, this worker did not shy away from laborious tasks, especially if small lives depended on it.
“Can't you give them supplies?” Lupin regretted the abruptness of the question, but didn’t know how else to ask.
Zucca continued to work, “What did the vagabond tell you hm?”
Laris, it seemed, would always be a fiend in the Terin's eyes, but this didn't deter Lupin. “The same thing they told you, they're hungry.”
"And like I told all of you, this is about more than food."
Lupin wished for a way to communicate these thoughts better, "you can't be sure of that! You may very well 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, instead of living off of others like parasites.”
“I thought you cared about all life,” Lupin said, sourly.
“I do!" Zucca replied, irritated by all of these accusations. "I'll give them food and they'll ask to stay the night, then they'll ask to see the nursery. The nursery makes people lose their minds, many feel that the world has too many unfed mouths. Mouths. What of minds? I'll teach the young ones how to provide for themselves, how to sow and care for food - you know, everyone wants to live in a field but no one wants to break their backs working the soil, they want the comforts and conveniences of a city while people like me do all of the grubby work. That's all anyone ever cares about."Zucca's hands were gripping so hard at those waterstones that clear liquid was seeping out of the hard skins, from tiny cracks zigzagging on the sides. "I've seen it happen enough times to know, I may not look it but I have many years on me Lupin. The world has not turned me into a bitter old thing, I'm quite happy, but I can't abide lethargy." It's true that the Terin did not look old, though those hands were cracked with age and wear.
Lupin swallowed hard, Zucca was making a whole lot of assumptions about people, it was hardly fair. “Deficiencies and fear will do that to a person, you need to help them! You said it yourself, you'll teach the kids to care for themselves, why not teach travellers? Why keep those skills to yourself?”
“What would you have me do? Take care of a farm AND a school for inept gardeners? I've no time for it, and grown adults do not change their ways, they just don't. I'm living proof of it,” with this, Lupin was ordered away. This conversation was tiring, but soon the strangers would leave and take their questions and unpleasantries along with them. At least the hounds couldn't talk, and only yapped to report a problem. "You will leave with that vagrant tomorrow. I'll deal with my own problems. I always have."
"You've created all of these possibilities of things that could but may never happen. It's unfair. I'm sure you can all live here together happily. You'll need help to raise all those sproutlings, just give them a chance," Lupin insisted, in a near-begging tone.
Zucca eyes darkened then, lines formed in places where there had been none previously, like that mask of youth had suddenly cracked off. "I have no need of help. No need of it you hear?!" With this, the Terin disappeared inside the house and slammed the door to a close.
Lupin returned to the tent and retold everything that had happened, the conversation with Laris and the one with Zucca. All of it recounted in a voice most somber, it was the death of hope, the Verido wanted to help everyone but this was not possible. Sitting near the wonder offered no comfort today, Eka was running fingers over Laris's face. Even in sleep, the traveler looked worn-out, dark heavy crescents hanging under a set of puffy eyes. Lupin too, had a face fit for wear at a funeral. Eka threw an arm around the shoulder of this downhearted companion, and squeezed it tightly.
"Zucca wants us to leave," Lupin said, hurt by the Terin's indifference. Even Eka's presence did little to assuage this pain.
"Then, we will do as our host wants, we can't force anyone's hand-" Eka replied. "You know, back in the old days Terins used to do check-ups on the Ilk. They did this during their yearly stops, back when Ministe was still standing. The Voices would report to the Terins on the year, on the pains the Ilk may have mentioned. When Ministe fell, a Terin, Melanza, boarded the Ilk of Volare and taught your people how to care for Vol. Melanza helped to create the Hands, as you know them."
"Yes, I remember that. Maliss learned a lot from Melanza, especially for the nursery. We had population problems then, but not since."
Eka nodded. "Terins can see sickness and health in others, its second nature. They're the carers of the world."
Lupin swallowed hard then. "When the carers are near-extinct, as they are now... what does that say of the state of the world?"
"Get some rest Lew." Eka said with a smile, "It's late."
All went to sleep, all, but Laris who had overheard their conversation. In the night, the patient left the sick bed and marched over to the house atop the hill. The strong scent of those poultices covered up all smells and so the hounds did not sense the stranger walking about, besides, all were tired after today's events. Laris pushed through the hedge, like Lupin had done, and arrived on the other side. Just ahead, slept row after row of sproutlings with green tops sticking out of the dirt. They looked beautiful there, lighted by the moonlights, casting the tiniest of shadows. To the person standing here now, this field was not a bringer of joy, but a thing of cruelty. This body had suffered much, a layer of skin spread thin over a skeleton, it never had the chance to thicken to better protect the fragile organs inside. Laris feared that these beautiful sprouts too, would suffer the same fate, that this land would not keep its promise and would not stay green. Panicked hands dove into the dirt, fingers wrapping tightly around the stem of a sproutling. "You will not suffer as I have, I wont allow it," Laris said, getting ready to pull.
Some later hours, Zucca awoke to tend to the usual morning chores. Walking into the nursery, the Terin froze - Laris was sitting in the nursery, hands full of dirt and head hanging low.
"Wh-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 frantically began to look around to make sure that all of the sproutlings were safe. Laris had done nothing, but the mere presence of another in this place was frightful still. Nurseries were delicate, and reacted strongly to their environment. Under stress, sproutlings could grow up to be anxious creatures, and if they suffered harm whilst still in the ground they could have deformities. Though despite this person being here, none of them looked stressed, as if they knew that they would not be harmed. The Terin was relieved, and could resume breathing again. Zucca grabbed hold of the intruder's arm, but the fingers noticed a strange texture under them. Right there, on Laris' arm, was a food stamp.
Zucca looked at Laris. "You've been living off of this crap?"
Upon close inspection, there were other foodstamps scattered about this stranger's skin; all expired, all sucked dry of their nutrients. The Terin sighed and took a seat down in the mud, in-between rows of greening leaves, and began to peel the stamps off one by one. Like a leafhound searching for parasites on a plant, Zucca's fingers searched around for stamps, "no one ever tell you you can't live off stamps? What a ridiculous invention, these are no substitute for real food." The Terin was gentle, even if the face betrayed other emotions. The sproutlings really could sense anger in a voice, the gentle carer did not wish to trouble them with it and kept calm.
This tranquility surprised Laris, and despite being handled by gentle caring hands these limbs could not stop trembling. "Everyone in Montore uses these."
"These-" Zucca began, removing, yet another stamp "-are expired. They provide some nutrition when fresh but not like this."
Laris's eyes became wet with tears, "the crew of a passing Beobug sandfin sold us a crate-full." It was evident that these desert travellers were the unfortunate victims of a scam.
During yesterday's events, blind with rage, Zucca had failed to notice how thin Laris was. Not just this, the arms were not the same length, one was visibly shorter, and even the ears bore the same unevenness. During growth, maybe someone had stepped over Laris and caused these deformities, not everyone was lucky enough to be born in a sheltered place like this. This saddened Zucca, many years ago, the only joy to be had for a Terin was in keeping younglings healthy and safe. It was easy to forget that everyone was a sprout once, small and frail. The errors of others had turned this carer into a terrible grouch, and now these hands had hurt an innocent, a sprout that had long been ignored.
Zucca decided to sit on those feelings, there was no room for weak creatures in this world, and accompanied Laris out of the compound. They walked through the fields together, Laris glanced at the endless supply of produce, but did not ask for any, but did mention something else: "You have false-mosslings in your produce."
"What are you on about," Zucca said, hurrying ahead, this little walk was painful enough.
"False-mosslings. They mimic mosslings, they have curly antennae, and are impervious to lemoni grass. They hate mepperpint. Read that in a book once."
At these words, Zucca froze in mid-step, but then shrugged it off. Both continued to walk in silence, to the encampment where the others travellers were. Two hounds had come along, to ensure their master's safety. They arrived at the wagon, the vennec raised its head and peered at the strangers, it became nervous at the sight of the hounds. The two travellers heard the cries of their friend, and moved out of the wagon to meet their visitors. Both were happy to see that Laris was safe and moved to meet their friend, they dared not to glance at Zucca, they had learned their lesson. Like Laris, the two there had uneven limbs, and the thinness of their skin was alarming. Zucca was embarrassed to stand there with a fleshy body, there are things that the Terin wanted to say, but it was too difficult. The travellers helped Laris onto the wagon, and urged the vennec onward. And so, these words were left unsaid, and the caretaker went back into the oasis with the hounds.
Eka and Lupin were awake, both were afraid for Laris when they'd noticed the bed was empty, but they saw the group leave in the distance. They kept their promise to Zucca, and were pulling the tent apart and packing away their gear. They did not address their host, not out of fear, but because of the Terin's apparent sadness. 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 around. A sprig of it lay atop a plumpkin that had long 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 curled antennae. Laris was right, the pests began to fly off in droves. Zucca laughed, a sound most curious coming from such a grouch, "False-mosslings. How elegant."
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, "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. I let some wicked few corrupt my view of others." With those last words, the dirt-encrusted hands covered the Terin's eyes. Terins were supposed to care for others, not just in the sprouting phase, but throughout their lives as well. 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 travellers aboard their wagon. Before leaving, the Terin looked at Waldek, "you're in charge, you are the wisest one here. And as for you Lupin-" the Terin smiled at the Verido - a first. "Don't. Touch. Anything."
Lupin laughed, and did as told.
Hush and its passengers disappeared into the distance, and later returned, leading the wagon back into the oasis. Zucca did not voice out an apology, but did fill their bellies with fresh foods. It transformed their faces completely. The 3 looked different somehow, less translucent, they were fading away but now they had regained solid shape again. The Terin decided to teach the travellers to grow food, in exchange for help around the fields. They would be fed and housed for a year's time. It was difficult for this grouch to commit to longer than this, the Terin did not trust others completely just yet; but one year seemed perfectly reasonable and after that time perhaps they'd be granted an extension, or better yet, a permanent residence. The travellers accepted. Laris, most of all; they had no ties to any city.
The next day, Eka and Lupin spent time filling sacks with fresh produce, Zuccainsisted on it. They stood over a mapple bush, picking the fruits by hand. Lupin grabbed hold of an especially large mapple, its ribbed skin glistening under the suns, carefully, 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," Lupin said, nose wrinkling, resisting the urge to spit out the piece of precious fruit in front of Zucca. "It hurts my face."
"You really know nothing of the world," Zucca said, reaching into the mapple bush and picking out another fruit. Zucca smelled the fruit, then scratched lightly at the skin and smelled it again before handing it over to Lupin "you'll like this one. Finish that other one first though, I don't tolerate waste in my garden."
Lupin was going to whine aloud but decided against it.
It's then that the Terin decided to pose the last question to Eka: "You're also a carer aren't you? Do you think that making green places and growing sproutlings really matters? On a grand scale I mean, say, you were flying over the planet - or if your head reached above the clouds."
Eka had a mouth full of mapple and couldn't answer right away; but just then, Zucca decided that this is something that would be better left unasked. Instead the farmer asked this: "What is your favorite food?" Hopefully that wouldn't count as two questions.
Eka swallowed the bits of mapple, smiling, "I like noranges a lot, bit rare though."
The Terin disappeared inside the house, and returned with a small pouch of fabric, inside, was a seed. "Plant this seed in a green place, in a few year's time you'll get some noranges." Zucca explained that this seed had been salvaged from the Iridi raids at the Suvalba Sanctuary, with it, their host parted with two fresh noranges for the trip to Montore.
Lupin thought about the mossling-infected karrot then, and of the treasure of the oasis. Perhaps Eka had known there was something important here, and communicated it via a most terrible joke involving a rotten vegetable. The nursery, while important, was the secret; but a being who can create life in the desert, now that, is a treasure.
"It will be planted in the greenest of places, I promise," Eka said, before eyeing Waldek the leafhound who sat there, at their feet, tail waggling. "Keep your master safe okay?"
Waldek barked, before turning to Lupin, its antennae prodding Lupin's legs and chest. It let out a whine then, but Zucca stepped in. "Don't you have work to do?" The hound barked again, and moved off into the fields with the others. Then, the Terin handed a bag of medililly herbs to Lupin. "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."
Lupin accepted the gift, knowing how precious it was; Eka had said that medililly was hard to grow.
The two left shortly after the afternoon of vegetable and fruit picking, their bags were plump with fresh supplies. They wished Laris and the travellers farewell, and thanked the landlord. Zucca watched as the two, led by Hush, disappeared behind the row of canopied trees.Continue to Chapter 9