Chapter 1 Freshly Baked Bread
I can't see around the next bend. I'm outside. It's raining. It's dark. I'm walking on a path. I've been walking on this path for a long time. That's the only thing I can remember. The path is made of bricks, cracked and worn. Wild weeds and dull flowers shoot through to the surface above. Nothing can stop the green vines, streaming out of the ground and pouring out of the trees. There are trees all around me, except on the path. I can't see any animals, but I can hear them. There is a howling, a cackling, a moaning echoing in directions unclear to me.
The smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the air. I think a house has to be near, but the smell has been lingering for hours now, or what seems like hours. The smell doesn't grow weaker over time, either. It's as strong now as when I first remember it. I can almost taste it in my mouth, but I'm not sure what it tastes like. For some reason, it doesn't taste like bread. I glide my fingers across every tree that stands too close to the path, taking in their rough textures. This one is smooth and covered with the rainwater, just like I am.
The path doesn't change. I keep walking. The trees, the vines, the flowers, the rain – none of it changes, nothing except me. I feel different with each step, but I know everything is the same. I keep a hope inside of me that I will find the end of the forest, that an opening will appear and I will walk into something new and exciting. Perhaps I'm just walking in a giant circle. These seem like the same trees I already passed. I stop, smelling the warm, wet air. I don't have to walk on this path. There are no rules to do so, but it feels strange to walk away from it. I haven't known anything besides it. I know something different will happen if I step onto the forest floor.
For one, my feet will get dirtier than they already are. I will have to watch my step more closely. There may be wild life dangerous to me, such as poisonous plants or territorial animals. I could find that bread though, wafting through the air so strongly, and the people responsible for making it. The smell is a compelling enough reason by itself. I turn my body to the side, staring between trees that curve towards each other as they rise into the night sky. I lift my foot, preparing for the journey on a new path.
“Wait!” A voice screams out at me through the trees, warning me with a ferocity and velocity inciting urgency and passion. “There are rules in this place and you better be careful to follow them.” The voice, which becomes slightly calmer, comes from a blue fellow with a long and skinny frame. His head is small with wide features. He scares me at first and without noticing, I've already taken two steps back. I do not know what to say at the stern man sticking out behind the tree. His clothing looks more like a slinky, covering up to his chest and down to his knees, made of pure white, and kept remarkably clean. “Looks like a stubborn one,” the blue man says when I have yet to respond.
“I didn't know there were any rules,” I think to myself, but the voice comes out of me involuntarily.
“Well there are, so you better learn them fast.” At that, the blue man disappears.
I peek around the trees, but everything is full of darkness. So there are rules here, but he didn't tell me a single one. Maybe I'm not supposed to go off the path, but he never said it himself, or what consequences come for one who breaks them. I look down at my hands, curious, and realize that I'm also blue. I feel my head, my eyes, my mouth. I seem remarkably similar to the creature, but I don't recall being blue before, although I never thought to check. Now it seems a major part of me. This must be important. There must be a place to go to find out these rules. They have to be explained orally or understood verbally or no one would know to follow them.
Maybe there's no other way to know a rule until you break it. I turn to face the opposite side of the forest and slowly lean my head into it. Several bushes spider out into the pitch black. I listen to the forest. It's predictable yet random. I reach out to the nearest tree. It seems so far away, but I try to touch it anyway. My blue feet are planted firm. My long arm stretches out. Actually, it's possible. As far away as it is, I know I can touch it. I stretch my ankles forward, standing on my toes for the final reach. I got it!
I lean against the tree, only my feet remain on the path. The rest of my body arches into the tree. Three yellow people roll down the side of the tree, off my back, and tumble onto the path. They must be just a fourth of my size. I throw myself off the tree and return to the path to see who they are. I stare at them in shock. They are the same height as I am, with the same clothing and long bodies. The only obvious difference is their color. They are yellow. I am blue. Their noses are especially large, flaring out with each breath.
“Looks like you saw Yellow.” One of them looks in my direction, using past tense. The other two wipe something sticky off each other and put their fingers in their mouths. They seem distracted and satisfied. “Did you follow the rules?” He asks me and puts his hand out to grab me.
“Who is Yellow?” I ask, staring at his hand moving in slow motion towards me and resting on my shoulder.
“Well... we are yellow, but we're not Yellow.” He puts his hand down and looks to the other two like it's time to move on.
“Do you know where the bread is?” I quickly ask before they run off.
“The bread?” One of the other yellow men says, flaring out his nostrils with a deep breath.
“What do you have with you?” The yellow one who spoke before asks me.
I haven't thought to look. I feel around in my clothes, looking down to see if I have any pockets. It's the strangest thing. I'm no longer blue. I'm green. When I look up, they are already gone. I look all around. I search in between trees, but there's no sign of them. They probably went after the bread, but I don't know which way they left. I have a sense that I'm missing a lot, especially of what I can do. I look down to see if I changed color again. I'm still green. I need to discover something new. They all traveled within the forest. They look like me. It's my turn to see it for myself.
I look out to the same tree they came from and squat down. I throw my arms forward and with one motion, back again to lift myself off the ground into the tree. I must have jumped high because I'm lost in the leaves. Everything is green and dark. My arms and legs blend into everything else and that everything else starts shrinking. When I look up again, I'm over the path again, the tree, this time, bending towards me with all its leaves and branches small enough to fit into my hands. I pluck them out of the ground like I would a berry and even the trunk comes with it. The leaves and branches remain small and stay in tact in my hand.
The yellow man's question repeats in my head. 'What do you have with you?' It's not much, but now I have something. Now I have to find out what to do with it. I sniff it. It smells like a concentrated dose of nature, glistening from the rainwater in the moon light. Preoccupied with my new discovery, I don't notice another man walking behind me on the path. I turn around at the sound of footsteps and a soft whistle and see it's not a man at all. It's a woman, made obvious by a different body shape and her slinky clothing coming up to her neck and extending out slightly into the air around her chin line. She has a smaller build than the others, taking away the longness and giving her a pleasant richness. She is blue as well, like the first man, but seems too content in her walking to even notice me.
“From roots to branches.” She says nonchalantly as she walks right by me. She sways her long wavy hair in the rain, unconcerned, it seems, by anything going on.
“Excuse me,” I run after her, “do you know the way to the bread store?”
She turns around so casually and then looks like a robot for a few seconds before forcing the gasses out of her stomach in a stream of flames. They extend out so close to me I can feel their heat and in that moment, the whole of the path is lit up with a beautiful orange and red. The end balls up into a flame and hovers next to me, blinding me as it gives light all around it. I put my hand up to shade myself from it, noticing I'm not green anymore. I've become the color of the flame. When I look down though, my legs and feet are still green even as my arms and hands are a shade of red-orange. I take a step back and the flame follows me. It seems so vulnerable, having no source of fuel, but even in the rain, it doesn't burn out.
Finally, I lift my hands up, pretending to carry the flame but without touching it and it lifts up above my head, providing the right amount of light for the path in front of me. The blue woman is gone. I continue on along the path, watching the flame stay right in front of me. I still have the leafy branches in my hand, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with them. I play around with them in my hands while I'm walking, twisting them like they can open. I can hear them snapping under my fingers. I don't stop, even though I feel like I should. I twist and snap them in both hands and then they break in two, with one half in each of my hands.
I get ready to throw them away like they've lost all value but instead of falling to the ground, they grow into the ground. They grow so thick and strong that they lift me off the ground, high above the trees, and my flame still follows me, growing larger as the branches did. I look out into the forest from above. It's incredible. My eyes follow out to the horizon, and in the moon light, I can see an outline of what's out there. The forest looks like a green ocean, spiking up with waves. It's covered by dark clouds with unrelenting rain. To the left I see nothing but barren land, probably incapable of producing life. To my right I see the opposite, like rivers running vertically but without any clouds. In between them both is jagged spires shooting out from the ground.
As I turn to my right, there is a condensed sprawl of vines spreading out horizontally next to the rivers. And further to my right, I see purple glowing objects moving around, probably coming from the ground that is touched with the same purple hue. The next part is so bright and white I can't make out a thing. Finally, there are what look like moving liquid mountains, all yellow, next to the barren land. I figure the best place to go is the smell of bread, to get some food and some answers, but the forest doesn't share any of its secrets with me. It's too dark. I'm a stranger.
When I feel as lost as I can get, a flock of crows swoops in from behind me, knocking me off the branches giving me support and extinguishing the flame giving me light. I fall back into the forest, catching a glimpse of the bird on the way. Its eyes are shut. Its wings are a series of black feathers that fan out of it. The beak looks as if it carries a smile; a rather strange smile, hinting at something eerie within the forest it wants me trapped within. I bounce through tree branches and fall straight to the forest floor, though I don't seem to be hurt that badly. I get up immediately and search for the path, for the leafy branches, for the flame of fire, but all of it is gone, hidden in the maze of a forest that doesn't seem to have an end.
Chapter 2 Far Reaching Rules
If there were an end on that path, actually, I would have found it already. There are no turns, so there's no way to get lost. This must be the only way out, but I feel I'm not supposed to wander out here, indicated by the blue man. He was out here, though, so maybe I am allowed. And then all I see is yellow.
“You didn't follow the rules.” The long man in yellow talks too loudly right in front of my face. He looks oddly familiar, but I can't tell where I know him from.
I respond aptly, “It wasn't my fault.”
“It was your fault. Who else is here for you to blame it on?”
“It was the vultures, gathering around with closed eyes and pushing me out of the skies.”
The yellow man stares at me, squinting his eyes into two wrinkles that blend in with the rest of his face. His mouth grows so wide I think it might grow beyond his face and he opens it to speak again. “So you admit to using the tools. There's nothing more for you to say. Wait here a moment.”
Before I can say another word, he's gone, and I'm left alone again in the dark forest, still raining as hard as it was when I was lost on the path. When I look down at myself, my color has changed again. I'm yellow. The ground is sticky, trapping my feet as mud squeezes between my toes. I feel frustrated beyond what my limits of control can properly contain. I'm angry. “I don't care!” I scream out, letting my emotions work their way through my body and hover around me in a blanket of smoke.
I pick a direction away from the yellow man and make a dash, splashing awkwardly through thick mud and over tree roots. I run, knowing I'm stronger than those people I've seen, strange as they appear. The wind picks up, blowing me forward; tripping me up, and then it comes. A rushing whirlwind too strong to resist. It picks me up over the trees and I scream out staring back at its source. It's a disgusting creature, not strange like everyone else I've seen.
It's pure ugly. It looks like a contorted mask without human features. It contains every color, shaded and darkened in shadow. The mask changes until it comes to a pattern I find the most despicable, and the howling winds around it sucks the life from everything it passes over. I want to run or escape or fight, but there's no power in me to do so. The mask rushes so fast at me, knocking right into my head, bursting it open, and sending me spiraling out towards the ground. On the way, the winds from the creature pass over me, stinging the wound on my head and bringing me away from myself. I have lost all sense of living and joy and hope. I crash to the ground, unable to see or smell or hear. All is dark.
A small brightness, just a speck, flickers out towards me. I blink hard twice, trying to bring it into focus. It twists in the air, following the breeze and somehow evading every drop of rain. I see it. It's a feather, pure white with light emanating from it. Every turn it makes, a flash of the rainbow appears and is gone again. I'm not sure if there's a relationship, but there's a new voice inside of me suddenly, calling out to my mind something so foreign compared with that of the masked creature. There is happiness inside of me. I'm happy to the point of laughter. Even if I'm alone, and desperate, lost and confused, I can't help but laughing.
This is incredible, I can't begin to explain it. Actually, I don't need to. I pick myself up and pluck the feather from the night sky. The ends of it start folding together and I realize it's not actually a feather, but more of a leaf. It seems to be moving itself forward, beckoned by some force I can't see. I hold it lightly, letting it guide itself up to my head, which, I have forgotten, is still bleeding. The vein-like tentacles of the leaf-feather attaches all around the wound, digging into me and sealing itself with me. It bends and moves until it becomes completely flush with my head, as if it's a picture that's been drawn there. And then, as though they are led by one composer, the yellow men start appearing all around me with faces of awe glued to them.
They crowd around, staring at me like I'm supposed to do something, but not one word is spoken. While there are varying heights and physical features, the overall appearance and clothing is consistent in each of them, and now in me. Seven of them step forward even closer, whispering out loud, but not looking at each other. My forehead starts itching from where the leaf-feather attached itself to me. I claw at it on instinct and it immediately withdraws from my skin, which seems to be totally intact now. The leaf-feather floats in the air, for just a second and then gets lost in the wind and rain. In unison, the seven men before me start calling out with the same rehearsed words.
“Freedom with forests of knowledge and mirrors. Thanks for the day of the highest of pleasing. On toward the dawn of the newest of mornings. Come with it rain and the quenching of powers. Now is the new day for the run and its rising.”
“What is your name, stranger?” One of the yellow men speaks, but I didn't see which one. My name. It's a basic question, but I have no idea. It's been lost, along with my past and who I really am. I stare out at them, trying desperately to remember. 'What is my name?'
“He is the bringer of curses. His identity is hidden and so should our trust of him be.” This time, I recognize the voice. I search until my eyes find him. This is the same one I saw earlier.
“There is more here than just curses, Yellow.” I lay eyes on the other one speaking. He seems to be a darker shade of yellow with the same long frame and slinky clothing. “He was marked with light within the dark fortress. He's an attractor of curses, but wielder of strength. We will listen to what he has to say.” With the last word spoken, each person surrounding me lets out a breath of fire, forming a ring around me, blinding me to anything beyond my own words. The questions begin, fired out from different locations around the forest.
“Where did you com from?”
“I came from the path,” I feel myself answering instantly.
“Who are you with?”
“Where are you going?”
“I'm going to the bread store.”
Suddenly the questions stop, and I can't see or hear anything through the ring of fire. And then one more comes.
“What do you know of Neshira?”
“Neshira?” The flames extinguish. The cover of smoke slowly lifts, revealing just one man in front of me. It must be the one who argued with Yellow before, but he looks like he has a green tint now.
“My name is Plikto. Why don't you tell me what happened to you.” He appears very gently, undoubtedly shaped through time and packed full with experience, and running throughout that, wisdom. The longer I stare at him, the more I see his color changing, but his features stay the same. His eyes are wide and inviting and I feel that he can understand me somehow.
“I can tell you what I remember.” He steps forward and I start my story from the path. I tell him about Yellow, and the leafy branches, and the flame of fire. Finally, I tell him about the masked creature and the leaf-feather. I stop as soon as the last thing I remember is out of my mouth and simply stare at him, hoping for some explanation for all of this.
“That's it? That's all you know of yourself? You can't even remember your name then?” I stay silent. It's true. I've lost everything. He continues. “You may know nothing of anything, but you were marked for an attack and survived without injury by the lord of the forest. I don't know anyone with that kind of power. If there's a reason behind all of this I'm sure you're meant to do something extraordinary.”
“It must be about the bread store.” I say. Plikto, now green, laughs as if I tried to tell him a joke.
“We are the bread store. Go ahead. Take a sniff.”
Plikto points at me. I look down and see that I've changed yet again, back into the same green color Plikto is. Hesitantly, I lift my arm and sniff myself out. It's true. It seems my body is producing the sweet smell of baked bread. I don't understand.
“His name is Neshira. He is a sickly creature who has dominated the entire forest by force for hundreds of generations. We survive by obeying his rules and staying out of sight. One of those rules is to stay below the tree line, which you unknowingly defied.”
“How many rules are there? How can I break them if I don't even know about them?”
Plikto's wisdom dresses each one of his words. “There are three sets of rules, actually. Originally, there was one, called the Far Reaching. These rules were based on the morality of right and wrong, focusing on how to care for each other and the environment. The next set developed naturally and are uniquely different for every person. They are called the Mind Making. Only you will know what these are, and you are in control of the punishments, if you break one.”
I think about the path and how I tried my best to remain upon it. This must be one of the Mind Making rules Plikto is referring to.
“The last set is the Impeding. It's unclear who created this set, but Neshira enforces them here. I can't tell you how many there are since they can change, but right now there are four major ones that must never be broken. The first, as you know, is to stay below the tree line. The second refuses us power to build or use tools.”
It seems I have broken both of them so far, even though I did my best to keep them.
“The third says we must maintain the path to keep it free of any branches or leaves and the fourth says we must stay within the confines of the forest. They are not hard to keep, of course, but the enforcer is the one who decides if you've been following them, which is why it's best to stay hidden and do what pleases him”
That's what Yellow was referring to then. He wanted me to maintain the path, not simply stay on it. “What could please something so hideous?” I ask him.
“Our suffering.” Plikto says it without a flinch of emotion. I know it's true because that's the only thing I felt when I looked into that mask. A single encounter made me lose all hope, like it forced myself to only see the torture of the mask. “But I have a feeling that he cannot hurt you, or you wouldn't be standing right now.”
“I experienced plenty of pain that I never wish to relive.”
“You have no choice. None of us do. We must relive it everyday.” Plikto's eyes can tell stories. I stare into them as they turn and change, reformed into pictures that show me a glimpse of what he's seen. “Will you help us?” he asks me. It's a strange thing, the first time you hear someone ask for help. I feel willing, but powerless. It's not a small feat he is requesting of me actually. He's asking me to help him take back the dark forest from the vilest creature imaginable. I just want to push it off on someone else. I've nearly just arrived. There must be others that can help, others willing to help.
But he's asking me. It's not just a call to help. He's asking me. Without taking an answer from me, he's dragging me through the forest, giving me directional cues. I glance back once, watching the trees and plants phase by with a blur, and see a flash of blue behind us. It must be Yellow. We make our way around a large enough tree to hide behind and sink to the ground, waiting. There's no sound above the drops of rain and howls of the animal world. But we weren't fast enough.
“Plikto, why do you need to run from me? We are on the same side, aren't we?” Yellow, a shade of dark blue, peeks out behind the tree, addressing us forcefully.
“There are ears everywhere Yellow. We all have to be careful. Are you ready to be free again? This time is our time. The signs are here. You know kingdoms don't last. This one is waning.” Plikto tries to create his own argument, but I don't really understand it.
Yellow must have different opinions. His wide eyes shrink, wrinkling his face. “Then let it wane. Don't bring the punishment on us. The others will be notified. Have your answers ready.” Yellow disappears behind the tree and Plikto maintains the same expression as before. “And Plikto,” Yellow says from beyond the tree, “do follow the rules.”
Chapter 3 Ring of Fire
“What's happening?” I ask, not sure how much of an answer I'll get. Plikto doesn't seem troubled at all. Perhaps he is more powerful than Yellow, but that doesn't explain why he was running. No, it must be something more simple than that. It is Plikto's wisdom, clothing him like an aura and protecting him from even the harshest critiques.
“We all want the same thing, but Yellow believes there's only one way to get it. I believe there's another way.”
“He wants to follow the rules.”
“Yes,” Plikto affirms. “It would seem he's created a Mind Making rule forcing him to obey the Impeding rules. This is the hardest rule to break, since you are the master of it.
“Has it worked so far?” I ask, knowing the answer.
“There's no way to fight the dark creature, so it seems reasonable to submit to him, but I think you've already seen there is yet another alternative.” Plikto seems to be dragging me along in his mind. It's working.
“We stand up to him?”
“There's only one way to do that.” Plikto keeps directing me with his words. We stay seated under the big tree, soaking wet, but it feels like I'm running around in the giant world formed in his mind through years of toil and hard-earned knowledge. “It's about the Far Reaching rules.” I look confused, waiting for more. “If we can follow the Far Reaching rules instead of the Impeding ones, then we can attach ourselves to a more ancient and more powerful form of practice. This is our new form of standing: obeying.”
“We obey the Far Reaching rules, and the power over us will be broken. Then Neshira will be forced to leave.” I sputter out the words and look to Plikto for confirmation.
“There's only one problem.” Plikto pauses, allowing his words to sink in before he drops the issue. “We don't know exactly how to follow the Far Reaching rules. They've actually been lost to us for many generations and there's no one left who can teach them to us.”
“Maybe they're related to the Impending rules. What if we just do the opposite of what they say?” I try to think out loud, hoping there's still a chance.
“No, that's the point of the Impeding rules. They are just meant to keep us lost. They are not in violation of the Far Reaching rules. Take the first rule, moving above the tree line. There's nothing actually wrong with staying under the tree line, but it prevents us from looking out to the skyline where a different life is available. That's why we can't use tools, or build, or leave. We're all meant to be distracted, so we stay inside these confines and eventually create our own Mind Making rules that will reinforce the Impeding rules.” That's exactly what Yellow did, and why he can't think of another way to find freedom. I'm starting to get it.
“The ultimate form of our imprisonment here is the path.” Plikto continues sharing. “As you can already tell, it's a bounded loop, meaning there's no beginning and no end. The work of cleaning it can never be finished just like escaping it isn't possible. The Impeding rules are absolutely nothing like the Far Reaching.”
“Then...” I can't think of any way out of this. I don't know what he's asking of me, or why I'm even here.
“There must be something that can be done. But first, let's eat.” Plikto picks himself off the muddy ground and starts climbing the large tree as easy as if he's walking. I should wait down here. I don't know how to climb, especially like him, without even the need for branches.
“You're not going to get anything from down there,” he yells out from high above. He expects me to just climb after him. I don't believe it. I look down at my hands and realize they are rather rough looking. They are a muddied green and I can see my nails growing beyond my fingers. Each one is slightly pointed at the end and hardened with a thickness. It seems I must have done this before. All of us must do this. This is how we eat; how we survive. I run my hands along the bark, full of divots, creases, and history. I press into it and can feel inside myself how its done.
One hand after the other, I claw into the tree and lift myself off the wet ground. My feet follow naturally, digging into bark and supporting my body. It takes a few steps repeating itself until I feel more natural at it, and I finally look up to find Plikto, sitting on one of the branches and biting into the tree. The thick juices of the tree start forming around the wound in the bark as I catch up with him. Without even looking up to me, he starts divulging himself, filling up on the syrupy substance.
“What are you waiting for?” Plikto asks me like I've seen this hundreds of times.
“What are we supposed to do?” I ask, unsure what he's trying to teach me.
“You are hungry, aren't you? Go ahead and start.”
“Can you explain this one to me?”
“You don't remember how to eat?” Plikto asks. “But you remember how to walk, and talk, and use tools. Unless...”
“I've never done it before.” This would make sense if I've never done it before, but if this is how they eat...
“No wonder you're a threat to Neshira. You could be from brightness itself.”
“It's a nickname. I'm sure you saw it, when you were above the forest line.”
Of course I did. Each area surrounding the forest was so distinct, but the light coming out of one was too much to make anything out at all there.
“Quick, take some of this sap before it dries out.” Plikto directs me towards the gap jarred into the bark with the sap oozing out down the side of the trunk. “If it's true... If you're from the white light... There is a chance, but it's dangerous. Come on, follow me.”
Plikto makes his descent without me even noticing. The sweetness of the sap is overwhelming and I cannot release myself from its grip. The craving only increases and I bite into the gap further, deepening the wound and bringing more sap to the surface.
“Uh... hey... Ah... Stranger!” Plikto starts screaming out different sounds. I take myself away from the tree and stare down at him. “I don't know what I can call you, but we have to go. We've been here too long already.” I remember Yellow telling us about the council and what kind of answer we'll have to give to them. I start climbing down backwards and Plikto makes his howling calls again. He's already instructing me before I can turn to look. “It's going to be awhile if you intend to get down that way. Jump out and grab the tree branch above you and use it to throw yourself into the next tree.”
I look up to the branch above me where we were both sitting. It doesn't look thick enough to hold me, but that must be how Plikto got down so fast. I'm scared, but I jump. Arm over arm, I brush passed leaves further out on the tree limb until my weight is too heavy and it starts bending down.
“Jump now!” Plikto yells out again, but I'm frozen on the ride, bouncing up and down on the branch. I hear the scurrying through the forest and flashes of yellow in my peripheral. Before my hands can obey Plikto's order, I start shrinking down to the ground. It's like something is guiding me to the ground. The tree branch loses its consistency in my grip, finally disappearing and dropping me the rest of the way down. I look back to see what happened.
Plikto, in much the same way I did earlier, shrunk the tree into another set of leafy branches. I hear another command in my ear and am dragged through the forest. I mimic Plikto in front of me, running down in a squatting position and crisscrossing between trees. Everything starts moving automatically. The forest is dark and wet with more and more colored flashes flying passed trees. They can see us. I try to keep up, but I fall a little more behind with each change in direction Plikto makes. I keep moving, becoming another line of color in the forest portrait covered with a grim darkness sweeping over all of us.
The light turns on. The wall of fire stands before us, surrounding the area and stopping us both. The blurs of color become forms, become people, filling the trees and outside perimeter of the ring of fire around us. Yellow jumps down from above. He's not smiling and I can see the leafy branches Plikto made in his hands. Plikto turns to meet his stare. He is calm. There isn't any fear or guilt in his eyes. I can feel the stillness in everything around me. The only sound is from the constant falling of rain. It's the only sure thing I've expected here.
“This is reason enough,” Yellow says, looking down at the leafy branches in his hands, “to turn you over to Neshira.”
“You know you can't turn one of us in. If you give him one, then he'll take everything else with the one.” Plikto speaks with a level voice, in stark contrast to Yellow's.
“Maybe, but loyalty does reap its own rewards.”
“I broke the rule. I'm willing to face the penalty.” Plikto says it so coolly it doesn't seem the penalty can be so harsh. I still don't know the penalties for breaking the rules, but breaking something like Neshira's rules must be serious. Three more men fall into the circle. Two of them are blue, and one is yellow, just like Yellow's current shade. I recognize them from before even through they all wear the same slinky outfit over their long, thin bodies. They lick their long fingers before speaking. The other yellow one speaks first.
“There will not be any decisions made without us. I'll allow Cachet and Faary to speak for themselves, but I see no logic in turning Plikto over to Neshira. We have not given up the hope of freedom.”
Before the other two blue men can speak, Yellow takes back the ring of fire with aggression. “That's because you forgot we've already been freed. We are not in bondage. We have an unlimited supply of food and we can go wherever we desire. A few basic rules is no bondage, it's protection.”
I look to Plikto, still green like myself, and wait for him to speak up and defend his actions, but he remains quiet, allowing Cachet and Faary to have their turns.
“I cannot condone Plikto's actions, but we can't simply throw him to the darkness for wanting to escape. Plikto, you have to see that what you're attempting will affect all of us, and affect us to our detriment.”
“I also agree with Onglo and Cachet. I'm sure there's a way to find reason in Plikto and the stranger. It's not too late to keep everything hidden out of sight.”
That must be Faary talking now. It's hard to remember all of their names, but I'm starting to recognize more faces among the similar structures of all of them.
“Plikto,” Onglo looks at Plikto. “Will you stop this? Will you give up this time, for us, for the sake of all of us?” Onglo must know Plikto well the way he's staring at him. He must know how determined he is. He must know his answer already.
“For the sake of all of us, I cannot give up.” Plikto's eyes don't even flinch. And somehow I'm caught up in his plan, but I don't even know what the right thing to do is. Maybe I need to listen to all the voices around me. I should figure out who I really am before I trust the first person who drags me along in their own plan. If I say no to all of this now, he will have to back down.
“He made his choice.” Yellow twists his long fingers around the leafy branches, squeezing and cracking the branches until they separate into two halves. He throws his hands forward and every branch in his hands extend out right under Plikto. They submerge in the wet mud and immediately arise out of it with thickened branches, lifting Plikto out of the ground and high into the tree line.
“Stop this now.” Faary takes a step forward, using an authority he didn't show before.
“If you do this, you have no more community.” Onglo threatens, but it doesn't stop Yellow. I can see it now. They're all just following their own Mind Making rules. The problem is they are all very different. I wonder if I have my own Mind Making rules. They're lost now. A shadow creeps across the sky. I can barely see Plikto, up in the tree line, exposed to the rain. The faces in the forest around me disappear with the ring of fire trapping me. Onglo, Cachet, and Faary all quietly move deeper into the forest.
There is a somber feeling in the atmosphere. I can still smell the freshly baked bread, but it's lost all its appeal. It's frightening to think about what Plikto is getting ready to face. I suddenly have the feeling of going home. I want to see that familiar setting again and know that everything moves along with a purpose. There has to be a reason I'm here, but it's lost to me. I've been to emerged in this world and now I can't even tell which way I'm supposed to go, or how to get back to where I came from. It seems so easy, so right to give everything away and backtrack into a world that's lost to me now. But Plikto is up there. He needs someone to believe him.
Without having to tell myself to, my feet start moving towards the branches that are lifting Plikto up into the darkened sky. I still don't know what to do, but I wrap my arms around them and squeeze as hard as I can. They feel rather soft, actually, and I can see a tear start forming in the smooth bark. I'm not sure if it's unexpected, but sap starts squeezing out. I remember the last time we fed together and how wonderful the sap tasted. It's all I can think about, like someone is pushing a button in my head to devour all of it.
“He's been spotted. You're not going to scatter with the rest of them?” Yellow's voice is sounding out behind me, but I can't pay attention to it. There's something important I have to do. The smells overwhelm me. The smell of freshly baked bread. The smell of the sugary syrup. The insatiable desire to fill myself. This feeling is all I've known. I've been trying to get to the bread store this whole time and haven't realized it's actually a deeper desire for food. It's much too strong, though. The last time I ate, it was consuming, like there was no stopping point. There was no way to have enough. It smells so good. It's right there. It's right in front of me. I have to at least try it. I'll regret it if I don't.
I reach forward with my nose, letting my own instincts guide me. The dark shadows above deepen, and a familiar presence comes near. I remember it from when I was up there like Plikto is now. I wonder if I brought some type of punishment on everyone in my ignorance. I grab hold of the last bit of a rational, selfless thought inside of me and squeeze the branches with everything I have. All at once, the power escapes from them and they return to the source from where they came: Yellow.
Plikto plummets back to the ground. He's all I can focus on. It's like he's floating down, like he's in total control. I put out my hands to catch him. I'm yellow now, but just as long and thin as before. Just as he gets close to the ground, I see Neshira flying down and engulfing the forest. The fears I saw in his mask from our first encounter start flooding my mind. Every thought is caught up in his reality. It's similar to the hunger for that tree sap, but more powerful.
The only difference is my innermost parts are succumbing to the darkness within him. The power is stronger, but my mind is clearer. I understand it. I have a choice. I couldn't see past my own hunger with the tree sap in front of me, but now, with Neshira, I have hope. I don't have to run or fear because I am not under his rules. I have my own rules: Mind Making. I will not give up on my friend. I straighten my back out and look up. Plikto's stopped right there, like he just halted in mid-air. I can't see his face. His back is facing me, but I look passed him to see Neshira, also stopped in the same way, although it looks like he is still moving, exerting all his energy to press on.
It must be me who's doing all of this. I really do have power over this darkness. I have the power to stop him.
Chapter 4 From Roots to Branches
The path. I'm on the path again. I can't remember. The path. It must be morning, but everything is still so dark. It's a shade brighter, though. The sun must never come out here. The rain must never stop here. All I've known is a deep wetness. I lift my head off the path I'm laying on. I stretch myself out and roll onto my side. The path looks especially clean, except for the part right around me. As soon as I put my bare feet on the ground, yesterday comes flooding into my mind, one event after the other, up until the last moment with Plikto.
He's not here. My mind starts racing with a hundred different thoughts all at once. I have to find him. I feel lost. Maybe he wound up on the path, too. I want to go home. I have to think about it logically. I'm on the path again. This is where I woke up last time as well. One of the Impeding rules is to keep the path clear. That must be why I keep waking up on the path. It's Neshira's way for me to follow the rules. That might mean, if I am waking up on the path, then Plikto is too. It's worth a shot. It's too easy to get lost here though. I need to mark my place first to save time. After one loop, I can find out how long this path really is and whether Plikto is here or somewhere deeper in the forest.
I can think of one sure way to mark the path, but I'm not sure it's possible for me. If everyone else can do it though... I feel my insides grow hotter and I get a gagging feeling, and then it just happens. A ball of fire throws itself out of me with a burst of heat evaporating the rain and wetness around me. It immediately shoots into the tree in front of me and leaves a searing burnt mark on its bark. This will be my starting point; my ending point.
“From roots to branches.”
The voice behind me tenses my whole body, jolting my head around to face the blue woman, the same one from yesterday.
“You won't have much of a chance on your own,” she says and looks right at me. She looks the same as yesterday. She is still blue with her long slinky outfit wrapping around her female figure.
“How do you know?” It's like she's reading my mind. There's no other way I can think of for her to know my situation.
“The rain doesn't stop here,” she says plainly and walks off again.
Maybe she's just crazy. “Err... Lady, how would that have anything to do with this?” I can't expect much of an answer from her, but I have to ask before she completely disappears again.
She turns around half-way and without even stopping, says, “Wet wood doesn't burn.” And she's off again. She really is crazy. I turn around and walk in the opposite direction around the path, hoping to forget the pointless conversation. It's easier to walk here than through the forest. The problem is that it doesn't actually lead anywhere. I keep thinking of that blue lady as I go. My own color has also changed. I'm the same shade of blue as her, and as Yellow, the first time I saw him.
I'm not sure why, but my mind comes back to that last phrase. 'Wet wood doesn't burn.' It makes sense. Even with a ring of fire in the middle of the forest, nothing was catching. Everything is too damp, soaked all the way through. The only reasonable explanation is she thought I was trying to set the forest on fire. I bet it has been tried before, trying to erase the nightmares of Neshira. She is a little different though. She's the only one I've seen to just walk the path for no reason. There could be a deeper meaning. I shouldn't look too far into it. I pick up speed. This is taking too long.
The faster my bare feet smack into the drenched path, the more my hunger grows, taking my mind off my goals and focusing them on my appetite. It grows more unbearable with each step until it finally overwhelms me. I jump off the path into the forest and follow the scent. There's a large tree a little deeper in with several trunks twisting around each other and small vines tangled up and tying them all together. I can see a few people up in the branches, already feeding. I take another step forward and then a picture of Plikto flashes in my mind. I know I won't be able to stop eating once I start. I'll be stuck to that tree like the others up there. I have to get back to the path. I need to find Plikto.
“Coming to feed?” I hear one of their voices in the tree, but it sounds different than usual, different than the way Plikto talks. “Come here, stranger. This tree was blessed by Neshira. It's the best kind in the forest. You can smell it can't you?” They talk about Neshira without any hesitancy or negativity. It's almost as if they're grateful to him; a being so full of suffering. “Trust me, just get over here, quickly.” I see them whispering to each other, and then a few of them start climbing down the tree together. I immediately turn my back to them. I've lost all my appetite and know I have to get back to the path. “I want to see what it does to him,” I hear mumbling behind me.
As soon as I turn passed the last tree at the edge of the path, I make my final jump to safety and start running. I'm too frightened to look back, knowing they intend to use me, to corrupt me. I hear a thumping noise behind me and a burst of laughter. I take a quick glance back and see they've all tumbled into each other and are just laying there, laughing on the ground. There is something strange about the sap they were feeding on. I don't want to feed ever again, but I have to eat something. Plikto knew how to control himself. It had to have taken him a very long time to develop it. If I can find him, then I can eat safely.
I don't stop running. I'm still anxious from encountering those people in Neshira's tree and I'm more desperate to find Plikto. The farther I run, the more everything looks the same. I just keep moving, ignoring the burn in my muscles and my shortness of breath. I feel so free, running as fast as I can, like nothing can stop me. Finally, I can make out the blue shape coming around the bend on the path. It must be the blue lady. I must be close to my starting point. As I get closer, though, I realize it's not her. It's a him. It's someone else; someone else who's cleaning off the path. I slow down on approaching him and see if I can't find anything else out. “Hey,” I blurt out and take a couple more deep breaths. “Did you see anyone pass by recently?”
“Lot's of people,” he says. He is blue like the lady, but particularly tall. His wide eyes seem to stretch out his face, giving him a large, smashed-in nose. “In charred beginnings, find your first feed.”
“What is that? What did you say?”
“Don't worry. It's just a greeting.”
I don't believe him. There is something different about him. The others all have the same type of look in their eyes and their fingers are always stuck together from the sap. Maybe he knows what happened yesterday. “Have you cleaned the entire path on your own? I haven't seen anyone else cleaning so far.”
“We're always watching the path. It's our honor to carry out our duty. You will feel the same if you stay here long enough, stranger.” He goes right back to brushing dirt and leaves from the path. The rain continues to fall down on us, but it doesn't even bother me. It's mundane. It's feeling like home, but it is anything but my home. I have to remember that. I'm a stranger here, and this is not my home. I keep moving, more slowly now than before. I feel lost, but that's impossible. Everything looks identical and I haven't seen any sign of the blue lady.
It's possible I passed the place I started already. I feel like just taking a risk, putting myself up above the tree line and seeing something happen. I'll keep moving a little further and then I have to do something. I have to feed. My first feed. I know it's safe to feed there. 'In charred beginnings, find your first feed.' That's what he meant. It's not a greeting, it's a code, and I know just where to find it: the tree I charred. That must be the area Plikto and I fed together yesterday. So that guy was helping me. He knows where I woke up and about the charred tree. There wasn't anyone in sight, though, except for the blue lady.
It's so obvious now. Of course Plikto isn't the only one working to bring Neshira down. Even Onglo, Faary, and Cachet admitted they wanted their freedom. There's a team already assembled. Plikto has to be safe, and I know exactly where to find him. With my new motivation, I can run even faster, scouting every tree I pass for the one that's charred. I replay every event and encounter again in my mind. I try to find every little clue that I've been given. I realize there have been little signs along the way, but I wasn't able to recognize them at the time. There are differences among people here. You can feel it when you talk to them. You can even see it in how they act and what they do.
Some people are just playing along, waiting for the time when they can finally find that break-through. They haven't given in, not like the others, like those yellow men I just encountered. They were so lost, totally consumed with themselves and pleasure to even notice me. This is the result of the Impeding. As soon as they become Mind Making, people are lost. But, Plikto believes there is a way to break that power. I know it would be worth it; any sacrifice or feat of strength would be worth the price to break the power of Neshira.
And finally I hit it. I remember this is where I woke up this morning. The path is already cleared of the debris I slept in. It feels like I know the way I'm supposed to go and even have the right direction, but now that I'm here, I'm lost. There's no more clues except to find a tree I barely remember anymore.
“You're still here?”
I turn around to the place I came from and see the blue lady standing tall and looking right at me. This must be it. I just need to follow her.
“I found the charred tree.”
She doesn't say a word; she just hacks up her regular fireball and blows it towards a different tree further in the forest and keeps walking. That's the clue I need: my direction forward. I jump into the forest and make as straight a line as possible in the same direction, weaving in and out of trees. My feet leave the ground as I jump into the air and cling to one of the trees. It starts bending into the forest under my weight, separating a path with its long trunk. All the other trees in front of me curve out of the way and the tree I'm on hangs over the forest floor, making a parallel path for me to walk on.
The end of the tree is barely recognizable through the branches and leaves at the top, but I can see it. The tree Plikto and I fed on is just ahead of me. I look down again to see the tree I'm on start shrinking back towards the base I came from. I run, but it's shrinking too fast. As the top comes closer to me, the trees all curve back to their normal positions, then it shrinks back under my feet, throwing me to the ground and flipping me onto my back. Every tree in the forest pops back into place and I sit myself up to look back at what happened. Peering between different species of trees, I see him, but this time he's green: Yellow.
Chapter 5 Wet Wood Doesn't Burn
He's holding the leafy branches in his hand with a wide smile cut into his face. I start to get up, but he doesn't hesitate, he shoots the leafy branches out toward me, covering the area in thick branches that act like tree trunks sticking into the ground. Everything is so dark; covered by leaves and branches. I know it's just a tool he's using against me. There must be a way to break it. I grab hold of every branch over me, looking for a weakness, but it's like they're still alive. It's a living tool actually. I'm fighting two entities: Yellow and the leafy branches. It's like a prison I'm stuck in. He actually can't get away with this, though.
Neither the council nor Neshira will allow him too. That means this is an act of desperation. There are two desperate parties: us and Yellow. Only Neshira has the upper hand. We're all being kept busy to keep us from seeing the real person holding all of us down and pinning us against each other. It's always been Neshira, but right now, that's going to change. It's time to break the second rule. It's time to turn Neshira into a tool. I lay down on my back and take in a deep breath. Then, I sing. I sing with everything I have. I sing without knowing a song to sing. I sing loud and proud and unashamed and let the words fill the air.
“For tonight, tonight is the way.
Ride into flight, gone is the day.
Making the hilltops, making the valleys.
With golden scepters and town-filled valleys.
Heat in the mountains, rising and mounting.
Making its way in forests with shouting.”
I can't hear a sound when I stop. Everything is completely quiet. Maybe nothing worked. I could be too quiet or Neshira too far to hear. Either way, I'm still stuck here, so it didn't work. That means it's time to try again.
As soon as I start, every leaf and branch recedes back to where Yellow was standing. I only see a flash of green and I'm alone once again. The leafy branches are laying on the forest floor. If Neshira's close, I need to move quickly, but I can't go to the feeding tree now. It's too dangerous to risk Neshira finding Plikto again, disobeying the rules. I need to find cover from Neshira and stay out of sight long enough to find Plikto again. As soon as I turn to leave though, it hits me. It's a sharp, rolling pain, fogging my vision and sucking all the energy out of me: The smell of freshly baked bread; hunger.
It must have been twenty-four hours since I ate anything. I need to find a feeding tree that's safe, but there's only one that I know of. It could be dangerous, but it's only one time. Only one time won't affect me that much. I can just feed a little now and then fill up when I'm with Plikto. This will work. This will be amazing. I walk to the nearest tree and scratch into it. My mouth fills with water and it's all I can focus on. The syrupy sap starts oozing out and I go in for it. Neshira. Before my lips can touch, the black shadow of the shadowy figure hovers over me.
“Feed.” The shadowy figure's whisper covers the forest. The sugary syrup drips down the side of the tree and my head starts pounding out any independent thoughts I had. My head leans closer and closer with unconscious thought. With dual passions, I lift my hand and swing it right square into my face. The shock wakes me up and I realize I've been thinking with nonsense. I can resist this urge. I can wait until I find Plikto. I look up to find the shadow gone. Neshira is gone.
This is my chance to find Plikto. I turn towards the feeding tree and then feel the darkening presence. He's still near. I turn back towards the path and see the creature screaming with no voice coming out. Suddenly, I have an idea. It's just a simple thought. I need to feed to gain my strength. That's the only way I can face Neshira. That's strange. That thought seems absolutely foreign to me. Perhaps I'm warning myself of the danger before me, remembering what happened last time. It's wisdom, but it wasn't from me. Of course it wasn't. I look back at the creature. He's still in the same spot as before. He's not moving. This is from Neshira. It's his idea, not mine. There's something missing. I see a weak spot. I've already faced his worst. There's nothing more he can hit me with. I already won. I'm stronger.
I start to take one step forward, and it's like whatever was holding Neshira back is released. With a growing mass and speed, the black crows with no eyes hurdle toward me while radiating fear into my mind. The circumstance changed that fast. Frozen in place, I feel lost without hope or direction. And then there are two blue flashes that fly in between us and I'm thrown out of the way without even seeing what happened. A fire ignites. The heat sears against my face. I'm moving without moving. I can see the flashes of green below me. It couldn't be Yellow. He was the last green one I saw. The bouncing continues for a while before everything goes pitch black and completely silent except for the rain.
I feel like I'm supposed to be quiet, so I don't move. I have to know who dragged me in here though. It will only take a second. I build up the pressure in my belly, getting just enough, and roll my body up to let out the smallest flame I can manage. It barely illuminates the area around us, but it's enough to put the green image in front of me into shock. Plikto smashes down on the flame and instantly covers my mouth.
“We're at the end. I'm getting you out.” Plikto continues whispering in my ear, barely audible enough for me to hear him. “Something is missing. No one has ever held back Neshira like that before, but something was missing.” With each sentence he shares, I have more to process. I found Plikto, but the circumstances are too desperate. If he saw Neshira, then he must have been watching that whole time. “You must return to the white light. It's there you can find what we're missing to become completely invulnerable to Neshira.”
Plikto is still covering my mouth. He's not discussing the mission, he's sending me on it. He still believes I'm that important, that I can find a way to bring peace to the dark forest. He continues whispering to me. “We're close to the border of the forest now, but the closest area is the desert; it's the easiest place to crossover, but it's still a long way from the white light. Be sure to avoid the yellow slime. Go by way of the spires and don't do any business in those areas. Time cannot be wasted, especially for the treason we're committing now.”
Plikto lets go of my mouth and puts his ear right in front of me, expecting me to respond to everything he just said. As soon as my face is exposed to the air, the scent of baked bread rushes into my nose. It steals my attention away and all of Plikto's words are lost to me.
“I must feed!” The words pour out of me without command, bringing out a desperate urge to escape. I crawl out under Plikto, searching for the way out. I can hear a low groaning reverberating inside of me.
“If you leave now, Neshira will find you. Think, stranger. Who are you?”
I feel against the walls. They are made of dirt, cool and damp. We're underground. I put Plikto's words in second place behind my main objective. He has no idea how desperately I need this. My survival depends on it. I jump up as high as I can and stretch my arms out on both sides. I can feel it; the rough fiber texture. We're in a tree. We're in a tree under the ground.
“You don't know what you're after, stranger. You've forgotten. We've all been through this. You fight this now or you become like Yellow with the Impeding rules imprinted over your Mind Making rules.” I don't know how, but Plikto's voice is as calm as it always is. There is no act of coercion or violence in his tone. The choice is mine to make; only I can know what I really need. He's always given great advice, but I must do this.
I kick forward, breaking through the bark in front of me and bringing in the outside light. I can see my feet, dangling over the shallow pit that Plikto remains hidden in. My feet are as green as he is. If Neshira wants me to feed, he'll get what he wants. I throw myself at the small hole and roll out into the rain. I look around for signs of anything. There's nothing; only the smell of freshly baked bread. There are trees everywhere. Any of them will do. If Plikto is going to remain hidden and refuse to help me...
“There's still time.” Plikto's voice is so close. He's following me. That means he's risking himself just as I am. There is something much deeper happening here. I turn to face him. It's like looking at years of wisdom. He's so calm; so sure of himself. I know he bears scars of pain somewhere on his body; somewhere inside of him. And yet, he is as consistent as ever; the one who let me feed before, who believes in me so deeply. I have to ask him.
“Who were the two blue flashes that jumped in between me and Neshira?”
I can see a smile on Plikto's face, covered with the rain and mud. “You met them before, didn't you?”
I knew it. “The blue lady and the path sweeper.” I say it with certainty. They risked themselves to save me and I'm throwing it all away. “I have to feed though. My body needs it. You must understand.”
“Your needs bend with your will. You've set your mind on this one line of thought. There is strength beyond your perceived need. Don't let it determine you. Don't let it limit you. Fight through this.” Plikto's voice is low and deep. I trust him and I know he's trustworthy.
“But how? It's too late.”
“Go for the extreme. Do what is irrational and insane. Deny your hunger. Fast. Fast from food until you leave this forest and don't feed any temptations to do otherwise.”
There's no need to ponder his words. He's right. It's as obvious as Neshira's words being corrupt and wrong. I feel like I've been brought back to myself again; brought back to truth. This is what I'm supposed to do. “Okay. I'll do what you say. I'll escape into the desert. I will find out the truth. I will discover who I am and do whatever I can to set you free from Neshira's power.” I can tell Plikto looks relieved. Even in his calm composure, he was also battling his own feelings within himself.
“First, we must remain in hiding until Neshira is past us. Let's return underground.” Plikto turns back to the tree; back to our hiding place; back to safety. He moves quickly and I follow behind him. I see him slide under the hole in the bark and the shadow immediately hovers overhead. It's too late. We've been spotted. It's Neshira. I slide under the hole and fall back into the pit, hoping there's still a chance we made it in time.
Plikto already realizes it. “We split up. Follow the tree up as high as you can. Use your claws. It's hollow most of the way up. I'll distract Neshira while you make your escape. You are getting out of this forest.” Plikto's whisper is fast.
I barely have enough sense to realize that he's going to risk himself for me again. That can't happen. “I'm not afraid. You climb. I'll face Neshira.” Once the words are out of my mouth, the tree is thrown to the ground and the shadowy figure looms in the air above us. We've been exposed. I jump out of the pit and stare right into his mask. I stare into the horrors beyond it. I stare into every one of my fears; the ones I collected here and the ones I don't even know about. He's not being held back like he was before. I feel scared.
He comes. He crashes down with speed and shadow. Things get blurrier and blurrier in the darkness, causing the creature to grow more and more strange. I fall to one knee and stare at the ground. There's a weight on my shoulders that I cannot bear. It's bringing me down; back down to the pit where my friend lies helpless before the dark oppression of the forest. All feels lost, like a bad dream.
Branches and newly formed leaves grow up around me, increasing in speed. They tangle me up within them, becoming thick and strong. I take a glance back and see the image. It's Plikto. He's holding the leafy branches from the dead tree and he's blowing fire at the roots. 'Wet wood doesn't burn.' Each branch extends out, running from the fire that's consuming every new growth the leafy branches create.
I'm shot out into the forest in a blaze of fire; shot out away from Neshira and away from my friend. I can see the desert out in front of me with the end of the leafy branches shrinking back behind me. Their shrinking back signals the victory of Neshira and something awful for Plikto. I land with a thud in the heat of the sand with the sun overhead. The rain is no more. I'm out of the dark forest, but I feel more alone than ever. Plikto; I'm coming back. I must.