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|Chapter 1: Exothermia, Part Two|
January 21, 2014
Chapter 1: Exothermia (2/4)
The forest was dark, but just enough moonlight filtered down through the leaves to light the tops of plants and allow us to make our way. Three or four frogs croaked nearby, which meant we were approaching water - hopefully the stream close to our camp. Aside from our footsteps, the only other noise was the occasional sound-off of a catowl somewhere in the trees. The forest was already forgetting the battle. A few scorch marks on some of the trunks at the forest's edge remained, but that was almost nothing compared to a potential forest fire. It looked like some good had come of last week's downpour after all.
I stepped carefully between the plants, avoiding breaking their stems and crushing their leaves. Duon and the others followed behind me, walking in single file. The rushing of the steam grew clearer. We were making quick progress, despite having to send Tainju up into the trees every once in a while to get an update of our whereabouts. He was more than willing, though - the battle seemed to have put him into an energetic mood.
The land began to slope downhill, so I looked ahead through the forest. I could see the boulder-lined stream through the bushes and trunks, separating the downward sloping of the land from where it went upward again. The dark water was flowing quickly from the rain over the past few days, and moonlight highlighted the areas of it where it glided over stones or frothed at the base of protruding rocks.
We should check if this was our stream. I turned back to the group, looking past Duon for the short, skinny kid with narrow head. The whiteness of their eyes was strong against the black charcoal, and in the darkness, it was somewhat hard to tell them apart. "Tainju." He stepped out of line, holding a rolled-up bed mat, and cast a few glances up toward the surrounding trees. He knew what to do.
He spotted the tree he wanted, then held out the bed roll. The person in front of him - Gyano, I think, took it and piled it on top of what he was carrying. Tainju stepped toward the thin trunk and grabbed either side of it with his hands, then hauled himself up to the first branch. He swung up, then grabbed another branch and pulled himself up and around into the canopy and slowly raised himself into a standing position on a limb. With a quick arm movement and rush of air, he stepped forward and shot out across the forest. I heard him crash through the leaves of a second tree close by, then heard the rush of air again as he made another jump.
We could use the wait time to clean the charcoal off ourselves. I looked back down at the group, then relayed my thoughts. "Let's continue on up to the stream. It's close enough that Tainju should be able to find us again fairly quickly." We stepped forward through the bushes, trying to avoid getting our robes caught on the plants, then set our supplies down on a large rock at the edge of the stream. I stood on the rocky bank and pulled off my robes, then slid into the froth. The water was so frigid that it stung, so I quickly scrubbed my face and arms and leapt out on the other side as the others dropped in. A few of them gasped in shock and quickly followed me out.
I checked to make sure I was far enough away from the supplies and clothing before drying myself off. I inhaled and connected my fist with the palm of my other hand to make a circular energy path, then exhaled and spun air around it. A sphere of wind expanded outward, blasting water droplets off in every direction.
I jumped back across the stream while the others leapt out onto the bank. Each of them copied my movements, blasting the water off their bodies. One of them had to do it a second time after getting splattered.
I pulled my dark robes back on as they jumped back across, looking at how thoroughly died the fabric was. The elders would not appreciate what we'd done to our clothing.
Suddenly, in the leaves above me, something crashed with a rush of wind. I looked up and saw Tainju swing down onto a branch, then drop the rest of the way. "How are we looking?" I asked.
"This is our stream. Shouldn't be more than a fifteen minute walk back to camp."
"Very good. Thank you, Tainju. Go ahead and get washed off." He smiled and nodded, then walked to the water's edge and began to undress. He was enjoying himself - but I suppose that was only natural, with the sudden creation of purpose and activity in our lives.
Duon approached me, straightening his sleeve. "Tree-hopping," he said, laughing, "brings back some good memories." Tainju splashed into the cold water.
"Yes," I agreed, "we had a fun time for a while. Back before we started running into people."
His smiled faded. "Yeah. Well, hopefully it won't be as bad now - that was quite a message we sent."
He was right. We were running circles around those thieves and they couldn't even land a hit... but they were barely anyone when it came to all the people that had made our lives hard.
I spoke slowly. "It's not just that one group of fire-tossers that's giving us problems, though. Yes, I think they got a good message, but we've had many other difficulties with many other groups. I mean, remember that rock-puncher tribe we ran into?"
I stopped talking for a moment. Those were painful memories to bring up, but they necessary to get the point across. Some of the others had come over to listen. "When we meet people, the most we dare to hope for is to be ignored. People are scared and hungry and don't have the luxury to be friendly. We've only come into contact with two or three communities that weren't openly hostile or didn't try to steal from us. Remember how relieved we were when we'd put enough distance between ourselves and them without having lost anything? Most of the time, the elders just let us get taken advantage of."
Duon and the others were silent. That was a bold statement.
I looked around at the faces, blushed from the water. "I want you to know that I'm not against the teachings. Peace and selflessness are the best qualities you can hope for in a community, but we have to be concerned with the bigger picture. We all know this. Not everyone out there has the benefit of our enlightened culture, and we have to be ready to defend ourselves. You've seen how the world treats us."
Duon spoke. "I know. I'm in full support of your decision."
"I know. I know all of you are. I'm just used to having this conversation with Monk Pyatoc."
There was an interruption as Tainju dried himself off, sending a strong gust of wind our direction. He jumped over to join the rest of us and began to pull on the dark clothes.
"Okay," I said, walking over and picking up the basket of applenuts. "Let's get moving." They followed my lead, lifting the food and supplies off the ground. "As we approach camp, be sure to walk softly. We don't want to wake anyone."
"Are you going to tell the elders about what we've done?" Duon asked. The others looked at me.
I hesitated. There wasn't a real reason to tell them, but it would probably put everyone's mind at ease if they didn't feel like they were sneaking around the backs of the monks and keeping secrets. "Yes. Of course I shall tell them, but at the right time. It's too late tonight." Duon looked at me, seeming unsatisfied. "I will talk to them before the week's end. I've been meaning to, anyways. Let's go."
The path was easier alongside the stream. The trees began to thin out as we got closer to the clearing, and with the night sky beginning to break through the leaves, visibility increased. We made quick progress. The earthy bank quickly hardened and returned to gravel, signalling we had arrived at the spot where we regularly bathed. We fell into a travel rhythm and were able to make the rest of the journey by memory without paying too much attention.
The moonlit shapes of the tents appeared through the trees before I realized how far we'd come, and I held out my arm to slow everyone.
Duon spoke softly. "Messio." I stopped and turned to him. "If the monks do allow us to practice violence as a means of defense..."
I knew where he was going with this. We were in such poor condition right now that the elders would have little choice but to allow us to practice defense, for the sake of survival. Once we got back on our feet, though, their tolerance would likely grow short. We had a limited time frame, and we were going to need to find a way to quickly establish long-term security: we'd have to find a home. A place where few people would travel, or a place where we could easily hide, like an island or a jungle. It wasn't a life that I wanted, but for the sake of our people and culture it had to be done.
"I have a plan," I said. "We're going to have to keep moving."
There were a few quiet sounds of resentment at the idea from the listeners. Travel had not been an easy task recently with our limited supplies. I kept my voice low as I addressed the group. "If we want to preserve our way of living, we are going to need to isolate ourselves from the rest of humanity. This type of environment, with fire-tossers and rock-punchers and armadillo-wolves is no place to live like the elders have raised us to. Violence is a part of this world, and if we want to stop using it, we're going to have to get as far away from it as possible." They had to accept the hard truth. We can't live a peaceful life while constantly under attack. "I know it hasn't been easy, but things are starting to look a little better. I've spoken with Monk Pyatoc about this, and he agrees."
I was silent for a moment. "Remember how he told us about his childhood?" Everyone loved those stories. They had the free time to chase lemurs, play Pai Sho, drift through the clouds on the backs of great bison! The elders could meditate for hours without being disturbed, out in nature, and the monks were able to go out and live like nomads, going on journeys of enlightenment that could last for decades. There was laughter, music, colorful sand mandalas, gentle spirits, and whole groves of fruit trees and vegetable gardens. It was a time of bliss and paradise.
Then, suddenly, it had all stopped. Everything great in the world had just ended, suddenly, without reason. The spirits turned dark and disappeared. Forests burned. Large, magnificent animals were hunted to the brink of extinction by strangers from other lands, who filled the valleys that were once home to flowers with skeletons and ash. Fresh, mountain streams became murky and putrid from the bloody leftovers of war.
The Lion Turtles had abandoned us and had taken the harmony of the world away with them. Everyone knew the story. I could see it in their faces. "Nothing is free," I whispered. "If we want something back, we're going to have to put in the work to get it."
They knew it was true. We all did. I straightened my back and hefted the basket of applenuts to end on a positive note: "And today, we've gotten one step closer."
Their expressions lightened. One of them almost smiled. "Let's put our things back," I said, casting one last glance around at them before turning to face the mass of our tents. The weight of the applenuts felt good in my hands. We're going to be able to have breakfast tomorrow.
I stepped out from the trees. The gravel under my feet was large enough to not shift with every footstep, but I was glad we were light walkers nonetheless - not like those thieves. If it hadn't been for all the snoring, they probably would have never even been able to step out of the trees without waking someone up.
We entered the space between the tents and began to set the supplies down. The basket went right beside the tent with Nuyya and the baby she was caring for, nudged up against the fabric. It was strange feeling, being awake while they breathed softly in their sleep. Even after going out the past few nights, it still felt uncomfortable to be awake and active while the people I'd grown up with were so vulnerable. At least with me awake, they were safe.
I gently stepped across the river gravel back toward my tent, but stopped and stood for a while to watch the others return to their own. Each of them moved carefully over the rocks, then gently pulled open their tent flaps and slipped inside. Duon sent me a slight smile before he, too, disappeared into a tent.
I couldn't smile. Look at us, in the robes we'd grown up with. They were once colors of sunlight, of happiness and warmth and those days the elders spoke of that were filled with wonder and play, but were now dyed like the night. It was regrettably appropriate. The world was a different place then what they'd known, and it had forced us to go completely against their teachings.
I pulled the edge of one of the tent flaps and brought it around the side of the wooden support, opening up the entrance to my tent but making no other move to go inside.
Suddenly, the a man in the tent next to me snorted in his sleep. It was brief, but it brought to mind an awful sound, of choking and a closed throat. I saw the fire-tosser before me on the ground, his deep, hoarse inhales followed by fits of coughing and sobbing as he sucked the air back into his lungs and shook in pain.
We had so much power. I could have ended a life so easily, and it wasn't a pleasant thought. I didn't want to go down the path those thieves had - without structure, guided only by those primal emotions of hunger and anger. I looked down at my dark clothes, at my acceptance and promotion of violence. It was easy to understand why the monks abhorred it so much - but in this kind of world it was impossible to survive without it.
I had to talk to them and convince them before they got the wrong idea about us. I had to be fast and careful, and I couldn't wait until the end of the week. The sooner I began this discussion, the better.
Resolving myself, I looked out across the gravel toward the forest's edge, then up at the dark clouds drifting past the moon. We had accomplished our goal tonight, now I had to rest and think about what to tell the elders tomorrow.
I kneeled down into my tent, then turned and sat on the pad of dry grass and river clay. Suddenly, I realized I was being watched from a tent across the walkway - one of the elders was looking straight at me! My heart raced. Oh no, this was bad. It was Monk Pyatoc. I couldn't do anything but sit there, wide-eyed, in my clothes. Not Monk Pyatoc, why did he have to find out like this? Why couldn't it have been one of the others? My thoughts raced - what was he thinking about me, what would he say?
Then he did something that made me wish I'd never come back after the battle.
He broke eye contact and turned away, looking saddened, and let his tent flap fall closed.
- 1. Exothermia: Part 2 4
- 2. The Nomad
- 3. Wolfbats
- 4. Sky Blossoms
- 5. Cryoablation
- 6. The Nomad's Offer
- 7. Arid Spirit
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