CHAPTER 7 – Roaming Woods
The cool sea air, cawing gulls, and boats gently bobbing along the coast of Nossarok made Jack’s heart heavy. This scenery was typical of his forgone city in the Philippines and all he could think of was home, further encouraged by a forest up ahead that was more Earthlike—no more giant mushrooms this time. Since there were several Therador warships nearby, he did not want to catch the Brigade’s attention again and he entered the rustling forest.
The glorious rays of the suns illuminated the damp forest and gentle steam rose from the moist, moss-strewn ground. All the trees had rubbery trunks that were bulbous and gradually became leaner at the top. Their slenderness made the forest sway back and forth against the gentle blow of the sea, shaking bunches of their fruits and making a festive but calming noise. An explosion of fern leaves in the canopy shone a yellow-green glow when sunlight passed through them, and there was a scent of mint all over the place.
Deeper in the forest, the trees stood twenty times Jack’s height and their bulbous base were as wide as a small house. The exposed roots of the younger trees were hair-like, but the fully-grown trees had roots as thick as a grown man’s waist. This made the forest seem more like a haven of petrified giant squid, with their ‘tentacles’ sprawled all over the place. Some of the viney roots crawled up other trees creating short, suspended bridges that gently swayed when he walked on them.
Jack kept his eye on his map and compass as he trekked in the forest, trying his best to hear the bustle of a train station. It didn’t help that their trains were ridiculously quiet, so he had to be extra perceptive. But his concentration was broken when he noticed several white twigs sticking out of the ground. They were curiously reminiscent of bones, but he convinced himself they weren’t lest his hyperactive imagination get the best of him. Yet there was no denying he was treading on skeletal fragments when he inadvertently stepped on a ribcage and a tiny skull. He nervously swallowed because the bones looked quite human. But he remembered that the people in Zajitar didn’t bury their dead—they cast them in stone statues. Still, he hastened his steps when he saw giant, oddly-shaped footprints all over the place.
Jack’s initial fears of forest man-eaters were unfounded. All the animals he came across so far were only birds, with some courageous enough to perch on his shoulders. One avaricious avian went inside his satchel and snatched a sandwich, but he yielded because these strange birds had teeth in their beaks and two claws in the middle of their wings like a bat. The other birds were large and flightless, using their very long necks to snake around the giant roots of the squid-trees and catch tiny, ball-shaped birds. But the diminutive birds were not entirely defenseless—they had the remarkable ability to spit short bursts of fire at their predators. A forest fire was of little concern to these feathered dragons because the fern forest was too humid and damp to cause anything incendiary.
When the afternoon eclipse arrived, a gentle shadow slowly swept over the forest. Jack was glad it wasn’t as pitch-black as before because the Skywater Aerland was now too far away to cast total darkness. This also gave him a jolt of hope as the faint dimness meant he was closer to the Marblehenge, reliving that fateful day he mysteriously arrived in Zajitar. But he wondered why all the birds dispersed in a rush as if they were frightened by the gloom. The smaller birds flew up to the canopy and vanished in the branches while the flightless birds ran up the trees and clung tightly at the top. He cautiously continued to walk in the eerie silence of the hazy forest, perplexed as to what could have frightened the birds.
The ground trembled.
Fearful of an earthquake, Jack ran up on the roots of the giant squid tree and hugged its trunk tightly as the tremors intensified. Beyond his tree was a violent rustling that quickly spread all over the forest. Eventually, the tree he was on began to rustle aggressively nearly knocking him over and loosened his arm causing his satchel to slip off. He wasn’t about ready to part with his precious map and compass now that he was so close to his destination, so he reached down to grab his satchel and then… the tree rose up!
All of the trees in the forest broke out of their earthen beds. They briskly walked together using their massive tentacle-roots, ripping the ground and tossing up clumps of earth all over. Like a flock of sheep, the trees moved in one direction towards a field of mulch. A tree in front of Jack suddenly stopped, raised itself as high as it possibly could with its roots, shivered from top to bottom, and then produced a large seed from underneath itself. The rest of the herd did the same thing and then became solitary again. Soon everything stayed still and the birds emerged as if nothing extraordinary had happened.
Jack carefully climbed down his tree and walked around with bright curiosity, watching the trees tend their newly laid seeds. He smiled at the peculiar scene before feeling oddly light on his shoulder. His satchel was gone.
He raced around the immediate area looking for that brown, leather bag and its precious contents. But everywhere he turned, it was the same scenery. With the suns still right above him, he could not tell where east or west was, much less the way out of such a dangerous forest. In desperation, he tried to lift the roots of the giant trees but to no avail.
Feeling a great sense of failure, he leaned in front of a tree and repeatedly knocked his forehead. He couldn’t believe his clumsiness. What if he came upon another creature like the Crimsroth? What was he to do if he got hungry? All these vital questions kept pounding in his head as he continued to scold himself. Tears wouldn’t even trail down his eyes despite wanting to cry so badly. He started to feel an unusual tingle all over his body, but he did not care about any physical discomfort. Sliding down the tree, he sat on the ground and held his head on his hands while forcefully sobbing.
“W-why a-are you c-crying like th-that?” stuttered a high-pitched voice, which startled Jack. “B-boys are n-not even s-supposed to c-cry. At l-least that’s what I r-remember. I h-haven’t talked t-to anyone for m-many months… so w-why are you c-crying?”
Jack was surprised to see a fresh-faced little girl hanging over him on one of the suspended roots. She was around his height but maybe a couple of years younger, and she wore a very refined dress—dismissing Jack’s assumption that she was some type of forest person, even though she did not wear any shoes nor socks.
“I, um, tripped,” he lied, standing up and giving her a forced smile. But deep down inside he was genuinely smiling. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m n-not sure,” she said as she climbed down. She trembled a bit after landing, almost losing her balance from the four-foot drop. “M-my father brought me in the Roaming Woods and just left me here. It’s been almost an hour now, actually.”
Jack wrinkled his brow because the little girl’s stutter disappeared. And she was now talking slightly faster than before.
“They call this place the Roaming Woods?” he continued. “They should call this place the Deadly Woods.”
“You sound just like my mother… except for your weird accent,” said the girl. “I know the Roaming Woods is dangerous, but I know how to take care of myself. Well, most of the time. But most people are not allowed in here. The Therador tried to fence it up but the trees kept crushing the fence… I think we should get out of here now.”
Jack followed his fast-talking guide until he saw a broken wheelbarrow underneath one of the tree’s massive roots. Its wheel was buried underneath the ground while the rest was snapped in two, obviously crushed when the tree nested. Surprisingly, there was a ripped piece of the girls dress held by the root next to the wheelbarrow.
“What are you waiting for,” called the girl from a distance. “The eclipse is about to end.”
Jack hurriedly caught up with her, kicking dried leaves as he ran excitedly. “Are you sure you know where you’re going, because I know I’m lost.”
“I know this forest very well,” she said proudly. “My house is nearby.”
“That’s good. Would you have a map and a compass I could borrow?”
“My father has lots of maps—he’s an officer of the Therador,” she added while balancing on a long, fallen log. “And I’m an expert navigator.”
“I guess you’ve lived here for a while. Not in the forest, I mean.”
“Yes!” she happily yelled at the top of her lungs and then stopped to hear her echo in the forest. “I play here all the time… before my accident.”
“You had an accident? You look fine.”
“I fell off one of these trees a while back. I followed the sound of a baby crying and I climbed a tree when I thought it was done laying seeds—but it wasn’t. My parents were very upset; I could not move or talk at all for many months.”
Jack tried to imitate the forest girl and climbed on the log, but he quickly slipped and fell on something quite hard. He had landed on a large part of the ground that was made of polished stone and perfectly leveled—like a vast marble floor in the middle of the forest. When he looked back at the ground behind him it was still mushy and lumpy, like any ordinary ground, yet everything beyond where he sat was the hard, yellowish stone. He even saw the straight borderline where the mulch ground ended and the stone ground began.
“Let’s go before the Therador spot us,” called the girl. “We’re not supposed to be here—especially around the door.”
“Door?” asked Jack as he cleaned himself up before sprinting towards her.
He turned and saw the square shape of a very large and ornate door on the ground, made of that yellow stone. But at this point in his journey he was very tired of surprises and was the least bit concerned of what lay inside a giant door on the ground, especially one in the middle of a dangerous forest.
The chatterbox little girl merrily skipped through a grassy meadow and then down a hill towards a neighborhood of wooden houses. All the roofs in the village of brown sticks were made of thick, tall grass, with some boasting flower gardens swarmed by colorful butterflies.
“I live in the biggest one,” said the girl to Jack.
Her two-story house was quite extravagant, sporting two chimneys on either end and a vegetable garden on the roof that draped all the way down to the front lawn.
“Race ya!” she exclaimed.
Jack took the challenge, but was surprised at how fast she could sprint in her bare feet. Not wanting to be outdone by a girl, he bolted with all his might until his sandals unstrapped and he ended up a close second. She stopped by the front lawn of her house and turned to him with her arm outstretched.
“You can’t come in unless you tell me your name,” she said sternly. “I’m not allowed to bring strangers inside.”
“Oh. Well, my name is Jack—”
“That’s a weird name,” she said bluntly with a raised brow before suddenly smiling. “My name is Raneya!”
She took a key hidden in between the many crevices of a stone gate and proceeded to the front door. A sharp hum like a muffled squeal echoed throughout the house the moment they came inside. Jack thought it was some sort of alarm until he saw a big caterpillar, about the size of a large dog, slithering towards them.
“Ghalver!” cried Raneya happily as she held the plump worm. “I can hug you again.”
Ghalver the caterpillar continued its strange hum as it wound around Raneya’s tiny body. It produced a two-pronged, orange antenna above its shiny black head, which wriggled about like the tail of a happy dog.
Raneya ran up to one of the walls of her house and placed her hand on a small metal square. A tiny glowing orb appeared by the ceiling over the dining room and it slowly grew to the size of a basketball, illuminating the otherwise shadowy interior.
“Come inside and I’ll cook us lunch,” she said. “But first I have to let my parents know I’m home.”
“Your parents let you cook?” asked Jack, taking off his sandals and stepping inside the cold living room. He was surprised at how unkempt the inside was, covered in dust as well the tracking of Ghalver’s nine pairs of feet all over the place. “Don’t you have a maid?”
“No one in Emanthil city is rich enough to have a maid,” answered Raneya, walking to a lonely end table by the window. “Except maybe the crooked mayor, but he uses his six stepdaughters as servants. Now, let’s see… my Ennai is probably still at work at the hospital.”
“My mother,” said Raneya, staring at him as if the answer should have been obvious.
“You call her by her first name?”
“No, that’s not her name—that’s just what you call mothers.” She paused for a second and wrinkled her forehead. “What do you call your mother?”
“Mother—wait, I think I know what you mean.” Jack smiled and nodded. “Where I come from, we call our mothers ‘Mum.’”
“You’re very strange, Jack,” remarked Raneya, “very strange.”
She quickly changed focus and took a crystal stick from a drawer. She wrote on a stone tablet placed on the end table and, despite the crystal stick having no ink, scribbles still appeared on the tablet. When she left for the kitchen Jack went closer to inspect the curious device. Her glowing writing had disappeared and new scribbles began to appear frantically, as if hysterically replying to her message.
“Is there an answer yet?” called Raneya from the kitchen.
“Um… no?” he hesitated. Jack had too much pride to admit to a girl that he could not read their language and quickly changed the subject. “So how far is the train station from here?”
“The Avzoluth station is an hour south,” she shouted. “I guess you really aren’t from around here or you’d know that.”
Raneya continued to chatter as she took out meats and vegetables from her holding vat while Jack inspected her house, wondering why a lot of furniture was missing. There was a small table with four chairs and a large worn-out couch, but nothing else. Many white spaces marked the walls and floors indicating that there used to be furniture on or against them.
“Do you need any help back there,” asked Jack when he heard the squealing of some strange animal… probably their lunch.
“No, thank you,” answered Raneya as the sound of pounding and ripping reverberated out of the kitchen. “I’m an expert cook. My Ennai taught me well but I haven’t been able to do this since my accident. I hope you like Khassag—it’s my favorite.”
Jack had never heard of Khassag before but didn’t say anything so as not to insult the little chef. All the while, he poked around inspecting their many medical books until something out of a filmy window caught his attention: two worn-out, wooden wheelbarrows lay on the back lawn, the same kind he saw in the Roaming Woods. Raneya came up behind him looking outside as well, and she suddenly seemed devoid of any warm emotion.
“The Khassag should be ready in a few minutes,” she said in a dull, almost absent voice. “The bathing stone is outside. Go clean up. My mother washed me this morning.”
Then she somberly walked back to the dining room to set the table.