A chapter that will one day be compiled into the [working title] "Cookbook" anthology, a YA Fantasy adventure I've decided to attempt.
Disclaimer: This is a very rough draft and I'm not very happy with it, but I figure I'll post it anyway for the self satisfaction gained from posting progress.
Disclaimer: This is a very rough draft and I'm not very happy with it, but I figure I'll post it anyway for the self satisfaction gained from posting progress.
“Uncle Jojoba,” began the young man, “how long?”
Two men walked along an ancient road, civilization far behind and miles of road ahead. A glance to either side would reveal a sun-dappled forest floor, soft summer moss blanketing the rocks and tree trunks in dewdropped emerald.
The uncle and nephew walked along, the elder tall and thin, carrying naught but a long walking staff in one hand and an open book in the other. Behind him, the younger, shorter nephew had strapped to his shoulders an over-sized travel sack, and together they went along with the air of seasoned travelers.
“How long what, Ago?” was the uncle’s reply. His eyes did not leave the open text, a small thing with a fancy cover. “Since we saw someone or until we get there?”
“Both,” huffed Ago.
“Some time, and some time.”
"I heard from the innkeeper that folks don't come this way anymore.” Ago shrugged, a gesture smothered by the weight on his back. “They take the longer roads, what go around the wood."
"…And that means there's a reason people avoid his road. You didn't tell me why you chose this route."
"I did, boy! This's the fastest way. The plains road will take twice as long, by cart no less."
Ago shook his head, knowing there to be some other reason. True it was they get to the city expediently, and their route indeed be the quickest by any map. But it was also true that traders and messengers seldom took to this ancient road. There were certainly well-trodden roads to Adelholme, this was not one of them.
They came upon a large broken boulder along the side of the road, and as Jojoba stopped to seat himself, Ago released a gasp of relief. The nephew untied his straps and dropped his pack to the ground, more roughly than he meant. The clang of pots rang from inside the burlap, and all manner of other things could be heard colliding with each other. Jojoba immediately stood back up.
"I've told you," he growled, "be careful with my things! And if you break any of your pots I'm not paying for them."
"My pans are sturdy," Ago said proudly. "And besides, there's nothing better than cast iron." His uncle waved away the retort.
"Sturdy or not, you make too much noise. Quicus knows what you'll scare away - or attract. Perhaps another hour or so, and we'll break camp."
"Wait what?" Ago stuttered. "We won't be out of the forest before tonight?"
"We might've been out already if you hadn't insisted on carrying so many pots and slowed us down."
"Really! Well if I recall, uncle, it wasn't I who bartered for the map. There were quite a few forks back there and any one of them might've been wrong."
Jojoba stretched, leaning backward. Ignoring his nephew, he began walking. Seeing this, Ago cursed under his breath, gathered the straps to his pack, and hurried after his uncle.
That night Ago was not eager to face the evening, but at least they ate well. Supper was prepared from the remains of the inn's morning meal, supplemented with a variety of spices for a new flavor and roast potatoes for bulk. Ago had selected his favorite frontier pan - Silver Beth, he called her - and she had performed marvelously. Even Jojoba, grizzled from the day's exertions, had quieted and now sat placidly, staring into the campfire.
"Question, uncle," said Ago. Jojoba nodded, deciding the time was right for him to reach for his pipe. "If you didn't want me making so much noise earlier today, why is it safe to make a fire?"
"The only creature that's ever attracted to fire and not terrified to death of it is man," replied Jojoba, stuffing his pipe with smokeweed. "And we're the only people in a three-day's journey in any direction."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Nothing worth hunting in these woods, so no hunters or trappers. Nothing worth catching, digging, cutting, gathering. No one comes here except to pass through."
Ago stirred his stew. He marveled at the concept of being so far from civilization. Certainly he'd been on the road for some time with his uncle, but this'd be the first of their travels that took them so far between settlements as to need to camp along the road.
“Why do you suppose folk don’t come this way, then?”
“Now that’s a question,” said Jojoba, taking a deep drag of his pipe. He softly, steadily exhaled the smoke from his lungs, a stream of gray. “I heard the words same as you. These woods have animals to be sure,” he looked over his shoulder with exaggerated suspicion. “As far as I can tell, people got suspicious after their wagons kept breaking.”
“Something like that.”
Ago brought a wooden ladle to his lips an slurped absently. The soup was good, but nothing special to his delicate taste. Many times he had made a similar concoction back home, using mostly the same ingredients. Jojoba didn't seem to care where Ago honed his talent; what seemed to matter was a decent meal at the end of the day. Besides, he had added the mushrooms they found earlier for extra flavor. They had a buttery, creamy taste.
His soles were aching, but as Ago sipped the last remaning broth, its warmth seemed to radiate from his stomach, relaxing him. The stresses of the road melted away, and he grew sleepy. The man and the boy exchanged no further words, and were soon asleep on their bedmats.
"Ago! Ago, wake up you lazy sod!"
The boy groaned and made to sit upright, but found his body unresponsive. His muscles felt like lead and the chill of the morning made his blood move like honey.
"What is it, uncle?" Ago yawned, his gesture answered with a curse.
"We've been robbed!" Ago's eyes snapped open, and he labored to turn his neck. He felt sore all over, and it took much effort to rub the sleep from his eyes.
Only white ash remained of the campfire, a thin wisp of smoke trailing upward like a gossamer ribbon. His pack had been demolished, splayed open like a carcass, the contents spilling out like the entrails of some giant animal. He saw the same had happened to Jojoba's personal baggage.
"What happened?" said Ago, rising to his feet. He found his balance slowly returning to him.
"Someone came while we slept and relieved us of our possessions," said Jojoba hotly. He walked in circles around the campsite, assessing the losses. "Or have you also been robbed of the meaning behind my words?”
They searched their things, finding many items missing, but many items remaining as well.
“Wait here and count everything,” Jojoba sighed. Puzzled, Ago gathered whatever remained while Jojoba began spiraling outward, searching for clues. It wasn't long before his path took him out of sight.
Their extra clothes were untouched, as were the wooden implements Ago used for his cooking. Jojoba's scrolls and pipes and cases were left behind as well, despite their obvious value. Even a lowly thief would see the value of a well-crafted stone knife, yet that too had been left behind in favor of every one of Ago’s others.
Jojoba returned to find Ago sorting their combined objects, making them into piles. He announced his presence with an inquiry, but when Ago did not hear, he came to his side and stared over his shoulder.
"What is this?" he asked again.
"Do you see what's missing?” Ago asked. Jojoba glanced upon each pile in turn.
"The metal," he said after a few breaths. "They've taken all the metal."
"And only the metal," said Ago. "By the gods, even my entire cutlery and set of pots. But see, they even left the wooden stackshelf I use to pack them. Near impossible to carry that many pots with just two hands."
"So there're multiple thieves," Jojoba growled. He laid a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. "How's your head, lad?"
"It's getting better."
"Solved that mystery too." Jojoba handed Ago something spongy and spotted, smelling of earth.
"These're the mushrooms from last night," said Ago.
"No," corrected Jojoba, "these were _meant_ to be the mushrooms from last night. Didn't I tell you to pick only the glowcaps? The ones you could see?"
"What's it matter?" said Ago as he rubbed his temples with one hand.
“Everything,” replied Jojoba through his teeth. “When these ones glow at night, it means they're ripe and safe to eat. But if you eat an immature one, it'll induce deep sleep!" Ago's mind slowly put the pieces together.
"How was I supposed to know the ones I couldn't see were poisonous?"
"Pagh! Listen to your uncle when he gives you instructions.” He reached for his pipe, which he thankful was made out of clay. “Nevertheless, we had best be on our way. The thief was gracious enough to leave us our map, so we can still leave the forest without incident if we move quickly."
"But they took my pots!" Ago exclaimed. "And besides, you would have us travel without money - without weapons even! - when there are thieves in the wood?"
“What choice do we have? Besides, we cannot waste our time looking for justice here.” Jojoba made a sweeping gesture, imploring that Ago regather their things in his pack. "Let us make haste. We'll be out of the wood yet."
Jojoba strode several steps before halting. He padded his robes, searching for something.
"Ago," he said, his voice serious. "Where is my libram?"
"It's not here," grumbled the nephew. "Copper-leaf inlays on the cover, remember? They must've seen it and taken the book, too."
Jojoba stood silent, his back still to Ago. He could not see his uncle's face, but somehow he knew what was coming.
"Pack everything and conceal it," he said in a low, even tone. "We're going after the thieves."
They spent hours searching for footprints, or any sign of the passing of bodies. Yet for all their effort, Jojoba and Ago could not find so much as a broken twig. Frustrated and determined, Jojoba decided simply to strike out through the brush - it mattered not what direction - and Ago was forced to follow as best he could.
Glancing toward the sun, Ago figured they were heading south, though as far he could tell that meant nothing. Eastward lay the great city, and north-west would take them along the path on which they had come. North and south, however, meant largely unmapped wilderness, but that did not stop the willful Jojoba.
"It doesn't make any sense," his uncle was murmuring as they went. "Coins and tools I understand, but everything made of copper and iron? What bandit could possibly be so selective as to take the very buttons from my finest trousers, only to leave the cloth?"
Ago shrugged, and the gesture nearly prevented him dodging a swinging branch. Despite their lack of apparent progress, Ago was glad at least that they were moving. What remained of their possessions had been wrapped tightly in a spare travel blanket, then suspended in a bundle among some trees safely out of sight of the road. But those items were all replaceable, and Jojoba had made it clear that even their travel cash in gold and silver was not a huge loss. There was always more money to be found in world.
But what could not be replaced were the notes and diary entries that Jojoba had kept within his little book.
"You don't suppose it was oblings what took our things?" Ago suggested. Jojoba snorted.
"Too small, too weak, and we're too far north. A whole band of them might be enough to carry one of your pots but they're deathly allergic to iron."
"Why's that?" Asked the nephew, gingerly stepping over a rotted log. The moss slipped off like a snake skin as he placed his hands on it for balance.
"Iron's the antithesis of magic, boy, and oblings are nothing if they aren't magical in nature. No, it wasn't oblings."
"That'd at least explain the lack of prints." Jojoba stopped abruptly, and Ago bumped into his back. He was about to say something when his uncle clapped a hand over his mouth.
"Listen!" he hissed, staring ahead intently. Ago's eyes followed his gaze ahead, toward a cluster of bushes that managed to take root beneath the roof of trees.
A moment passed, and Ago heard nothing. Then he saw movement among the leaves, and heard a sound like an ear of corn slowly being husked. The stress of fibers whined, followed by the snap of recoiling branches. Something was ahead, eating. And it was big.
Ago saw movement, and together he and his uncle lowered themselves to the ground. The bushes rustled, and a peculiar foot was placed on the mossy earth ahead. A leg, almost like the limb of a tree, followed and after a breathless moment, something vaguely shaped like a deer stepped into view.
The thing looked about, alert. Tall ears stretched above its angular head, and a set of unsettling, forward-facing yellow eyes darted about the forest. Ago guessed its shoulder was about as tall as his waist, putting the animal's face nearly level with his own. Around it there hovered a marble sized orb, glistening - no, glowing, Ago realized - even in the light of day. He knew the signature signs of a magical creature when he saw one.
"That's a bloomelk," Jojoba said, some excitement in his hushed words. "Didn't know they were in this wood!"
Ago knew that his uncle was thoroughly regretting the loss of his libram now more than ever. He had released his grip and instead clasped his hands together anxiously, while Ago simply stared. It wasn't long before the bloomelk's eyes found them.
Ago’s heart froze, and he saw the creature's namesake. Along it's spine he could see a row of what looked like bare roots, and atop its head sat a strange, bulb-shaped crest. What Ago had thought to be green, mossy fur might have in fact been soft-looking scales, but the bloomelk ruffled itself. The scales folded upward, like the plumage of an offended parrot.
"They're petals!" Ago said to himself. Jojoba barely heard him, but the bloomelk's wide ears caught his voice easily. The creature stamped a emerald leg in challenge, advancing on them.
"When it comes," Jojoba said, "hold your ground." Ago chanced a glance at his uncle.
"What do you mean when--"
Their was the sound of strong footfalls on mossy ground, and the bloomelk charged. Ago started, but his uncle restrained him, and the next few seconds passed in fright as the bloomelk bound across the clearing in half a breath.
Ago nearly squealed, but just before it hit them, the creature stopped, just out of arm's reach. There it stood for a moment, staring down on the breathless uncle and nephew, a sweet, overpowering scent of mixed flowers radiating from it. They could see the fine details of the creature's body; how it's petal-hide covered nearly everything like a plated lizard's skin; how an intricate lattice of vines, or perhaps veins, twisted and crossed along its underside and face. Yet despite the details, the bloomelk looked very much like a deer, not unlike the ones Ago'd seen back home. In fact it wasn't strange to see plants taking root in the fur of wild animals - but to see one entirely covered in petals and vines?
Most striking of all, however, were its eyes. Golden orbs with small black pupils - they were almost human. For a moment Ago felt as though the bloomelk were staring at something beyond himself. Something Ago couldn't see. Then, before he could stop himself, Ago belched.
The bloomelk held its ground, but a moment later it stepped away. Having seemingly having lost interest, the beast strutted it's way out the other side of the clearing. Ago released his breath, and for the next few breaths he heard only his own heartbeat. Jojoba calmly stood up, dusting himself off, and sniffed.
“Smells like you had too many eggs last night,” he commented. Ago shifted his weight.
"How-" Ago panted, "How did you know-"
"That it would stop? That was no buck, lad. Probably a young one, exploring new territory. What we saw was a false charge. You see such things often with phytocervitae like that."
"Plant deer," Jojoba explained. He left their spot to continue on. Ago struggled to rise and catch up to his uncle.
"That... thing was staring at us like a mantis eyeballs a fly," he said, shuddering. Jojoba laughed.
"It wouldn't have hurt us unless we ran. They're quite polite animals if you know when not to stand at the wrong time."
"Polite..." Ago repeated mockingly. He could never quite tell when his uncle was serious. "You've seen plant deer before?"
"A few, yes, but none in that early in its cycle. How I would have liked to pen a sketch!" They continued through the forest, careful to mind hidden rocks at their feet and dipping to avoid low-hanging branches.
"Cycle? Like a sprouting plant?" Ago asked.
"Precisely. You know how bloomelks come to be, don't you?"
"Old Gran said they were what happened to old deer when they grew too old and let too many plants grow on them. They'd go off into the forest, alone, and sleep at the foot of a great tree. She said the seeds of ancient trees would grow on its fur, merging with the deer's spirit." Jojoba chuckled, and stopped to turn and face the lad. His mood had noticeable improved despite the loss of his libram.
"As good a story as any I've heard," he said. "Probably true too, at least partially. We'll find that out too someday, after we get my book back." It was then that Ago realized he had lost his sense of direction. Following his uncle through the forest for so long had allowed his thoughts to wander, and he hadn't been paying attention to their path.
"Jojoba," said Ago, "are we lost?"
"Of course not."
"It'll get dark soon, uncle. We'd better head back to the road. Forget the pots - I'll learn to cook with skillets and spits--"
"Nonsense," Jojoba said, smiling. "Don't look at your feet, whatever you do." Ago eyes, of course, immediately dropped to the ground. A silvery glint caught his eye. He knelt to pick up the object, and Jojoba let himself laugh again.
"It's one of my spoons," said Ago, his expression brightening. "That must mean--"
"Indeed. We're on the bugger's trail."
"You said yourself you didn't know which way they went," Ago muttered, pocketing the utensil. Jojoba shrugged.
"This way," he said instead, and he pointed in the direction that they were more or less already headed. This was not the first time that Ago had followed his uncle, confident that the adult knew what he was doing, only to reveal that they had trusted his blind luck. Nor was it the first time such a method had somehow proven true. "Call it a hunch," Jojoba had once said, tapping one side of his nose and winking.
When first Ago caught a draft of something strange on the wind, he had alerted his uncle, who sniffed.
"Sulfur," was the confident reply, though the uncle refrained from mentioning that Ago had smelled it first.
"I would've said rotten eggs," said Ago. Jojoba looked at his nephew, who shrugged, and he shook his head.
The air they breathed felt heavier, thicker. A soft blanket of mist covered the ground about ankle height, and this somehow spurred Jojoba on further. Ago could only puzzle and follow, his attention drawn elsewhere. They had descended into a small valley, thick with foliage, and already Ago noticed peculiar bird calls. It was as though they had stepped into an entirely different ecosystem, and when he mentioned this his uncle smiled.
"That's because we have, Ago," he said as he wiped the sweat from his brow. The further downhill they went, the hotter it got, and the more bizarre the plants and animal calls seemed. "This is what the university calls a 'pocket jungle.' Special conditions needed to form one, and," he added, narrowing his eyes, "special types of life, with a very specific diet."
"And by special and specific," said Ago, loosing his foot from a grasping vine, "do you mean dangerous?" He too was sweating from the steamy heat. Dressed in two layers of clothes, well suited for chilly end of summer, he found the shift unnerving.
"Oh most assuredly," answered Jojoba. "Can't say what for certain, though. The scholars of Saint Delm's University didn't have much on these basins, except how they're formed. They're rare, you see, and temporary. We're lucky to be here, really. Another year and this place’d likely be gone."
"We'll be lucky if we get out," Ago muttered under his breath. Twice he nearly slipped on the steamy earth downhill, but instead he said, "Why are we here, uncle?"
"Did you bring your stone knife, like I asked you?"
"The flint?" Ago flustered. "O-oh yes, of course." He felt the implement in his pocket.
"Good. That's all we'll need." Confused, Ago pressed him.
"That doesn't answer anything," he said.
"We'll have to get to the shallowest depression of the basin," said Jojoba. "There we'll find our things. What's left of them anyway. I'm sure of it."
"How do you know that?"
"Eh, I read about it in a book,” Jojoba shrugged.
Water droplets condensing under his chin, Ago was about to probe his taciturn uncle when he noticed another thorny plant clinging to his sleeve. He reached to irritably pry it from the cloth, and he heard yet another strange bird call. He glanced behind him.
Through a break in the trees, Ago could see up the hill they had descended. Above and still in sight, there lay temperate forest only just holding to the green of summer, though some bore the tinges of autumn change. Around him, broad leafed tropical plants dripped with condensation and sweet nectars oozed from vibrant flowers. Large insects the likes of which one would never see in a temperate forest buzzed about. It wasn't just another ecosystem in this valley; it was a whole other season.
And still the air grew ever steamier. Ago thought he could hardly breathe, and he loosened the folds of his travel robe about the neck. Their path was on a constant decline, and the only thing Ago could think about besides the heat was how arduous the trip back would be.
He blinked. For a moment he thought he saw something - a face perhaps, in the distance and amidst the trees. A pair of yellow orbs behind a veil of leaves...
Ago heard his uncle exclaim a word of triumph. Jojoba was ahead and just out of sight. When Ago turned back to look where he had been staring, he saw only foliage.
Ago was pushing his way through a wall of leaves to find him when he found himself tripping into a clearing. He managed to catch himself, however, and bring himself to a stand.
Beneath Ago's feet lay moist, gray earth, bare and bereft of plants. The clearing stretched wide, revealing the landscape in all its richness, and even the ankle-high mist stopped abruptly at the plant line. Ahead, Ago could see a fissure in the ground, behind a larger boulder, and he looked to Jojoba with a puzzled expression.
"The heart of the basin," said the uncle. "Keep away from those vents. It's not quite volcanic around here but it's close. Hold your breath if you smell something funny."
Ago was going to say that he'd smelled nothing but rotten eggs since they passed into the pocket-jungle, but thought better of it. Together they strode forth, Jojoba boldly and Ago timidly. The air was suddenly dry here, though still quite hot.
He could see the distortion of passing heat as it escaped from underground, and all at once Ago felt very uneasy. Setting foot upon what looked like burning earth unsettled him, the warmth moving easily up through his sandals. Tiny embers rose from the vents as he gingerly weighed his steps across, and besides the heat, there was ever present the smell of sulfur.
Along the edge of the fissure their clung a multitude of peculiar vines the color of embers. The tendrils stretched out from inside the crack like dozens of little fingers, and as they approached, Jojoba seemed more and more interested. When they neared the edge of the fissure, Ago peered down into it. He cocked his head to the side.
"Giant artichokes?" he ventured. As he asked, he felt a pang of hunger, but Jojoba snorted.
"Hardly. Those're emberpods. See the roots? If you follow them they all lead down even deeper. This is no seed that was carried on the winds. No, it sprouted from below."
"From below, eh? Looks like it caused the fissure."
"Most likely," said Jojoba. "They're buds, you see. Caused all this around us - sapped all the nutrients from the ground and..."
"Uncle," said Ago pointedly, "what does this have to do with our missing things?" He glanced through the opening in the canopy to the sky, noting it's darkening. Normally it'd be about supper time.
"Everything," said Jojoba, gesturing around them for emphasis. "This emberpod colony stole our tools."
Ago's brow wrinkled and he craned his neck to look down at the bud again. He stared for a few seconds, looked back at his uncle, and then back at the pods.
"You're barking," said Ago.
"Give me the spoon," said the uncle without skipping a beat. Ago did so, and the moment he brought the utensil out of his pocket and into the smelly air, the vines at his feet stirred.
Jojoba held the spoon aloft, then dangled it over the fissure. He held it there for a moment, as if to entice the plant as a man might bait a dog with a treat. Ago could only stare, and as the ember pod shook, he realized that that was exactly what Jojoba was doing.
After a moment the immense leaves of the tightly closed bud of the artichoke-like pod splayed open, revealing the inside of what could only be a wide mouth. It was like no other mouth Ago had seen, and as the petals parted, both he and Jojoba were bathed in a thick sulfur-smelling cloud.
Jojoba coughed and dropped the spoon, and down it went into the plant's maw. Upon contact with whatever sensory organs it possessed, for Ago saw no tongue or eyes, the 'flower' snapped shut like a trap. Ago got the distinct impression that the thing was content.
"Metal-eating plants," said Jojoba, immensely pleased with himself. "These is the mastermind behind our pilfering!"
Ago was more confused than ever. Seeing the thing snap around a metallic object dropped into its mouth he could understand, and believe. But a plant that was responsible for stealing something from miles away...
"This doesn't make any sense," said the nephew.
"Indeed, still some part of the puzzle missing. No matter!" Jojoba placed a hand on the edge of the fissure, and prepared to descend. "This way dear nephew!"
"What are you doing?"
"Getting our things, if they haven't been digested yet. Hurry up!" He dropped down, and Ago struggled to follow.
It was like stepping into a hot spring. Ago was sure that the emberpod was responsible for the heat, and seeing the trickle of a natural spring nearby he surmised the origin of the steam. He figured that the strange plant had roots stretched out into the earth around them, as well. As he lowered himself to the crumbling earth inside the fissure, Ago could not help but marvel for a moment at the structure of plant. From above, he would have seen nothing more than a viney artichoke as big as a sheep. But down here, he could appreciate it in all its strangeness up close.
Dozens of thick petals, a rich rust color with bright orange edges, lined the sides of the pod. Thick corded vines were everywhere, thickest at its base spreading throughout the inside of the fissure. It rather looked as though the roots and vines had cracked and slowly pried the earth open. Ago shuddered, thinking of the strength behind those patient, creeping vines.
Jojoba drew close to the nearest pod and tapped it with his walking staff. He seemed to not be afraid, so neither did Ago, and he too approached the nearest bud to stand by his uncle.
"Now the knife, if you please," said Jojoba. Obediently, Ago produced the small sharp pieces of rock from his sleeve. Jojoba gripped a shard as long as his index finger and selected a root. Then, with the ease at which a sculptor might chip at a hunk of sandstone, Jojoba began to cut.
Ago glanced over his shoulder, suddenly aware of a feeling as though he were being watched. There was nothing else in fissure save the other pods.
The snap of a taut vine giving under pressure brought back Ago's attention, and Jojoba began on another vine. Then another, and another. After he had sheared away a handful of roots, Jojoba reached beneath the pod for something Ago could not see. He made a quick jerk with his piece of flint, and Ago thought he heard a whining groan. From the plant.
"Ah-ha!" Jojoba said, and began to pull. His hand emerged, covered in a sickeningly stringy ooze the color of mashed peas, and at the sight of it Ago suppressed the urge to wretch.
Without warning, Jojoba thrust a handful of the stuff onto Ago's chest, forcing him to hold it. Ago stepped away, disgusted, and looked at what he was holding. His eyes brightened.
"This's my favorite ladle!" He exclaimed. Jojoba grunted approvingly, and reached to relieve the emberpod of whatever else he could find. Meanwhile, Ago inspected the soup spoon, and to his dismay it was somehow diminished and felt brittle. Jojoba saw his expression as he rolled up his sleeve and buried his arm up to the shoulder.
"Metal-eating plants," Jojoba grunted.
"Doesn't it hurt?" Ago asked.
"I imagine the 'pod isn't enjoying itself. Me? No, dear boy. Emberpod's digestive juices are for breaking down minerals. Seems he sucked on your stirrer there for a bit. My skin though - fine. No metal, no damage."
After some time, quite an array of things were extracted, some familiar and some things left unrecognizable. By the time Jojoba had nearly finished, Ago stood holding a multitude of forks, a stew pot, a spearhead, and half a dozen other scarcily identifiable items. Most of them were dented, twisted or otherwise tarnished - signs of recent digestion. Apparently the copper items were the most easily consumed, for few remained and those that did were rendered useless. Discarded at their feet lay many bits of hard globules of metal, lumps of melted copper, iron and even some gold.
But all of it was useless to Jojoba. To Ago’s great joy, however, Silver Beth rested in his grip. Cast-iron seemed largely unaffected by a night in the bowels of an emberpod - he was grateful for that much and was ready to go. With no hint of his libram, however, Jojoba grew anxious.
He emberpod itself was left mangled and bleeding it's foul-smelling juices. Dismayed, Jojoba readied the flint and walked towards another pod.
"Uncle Jojoba," Ago said, "We don't have time."
"We'll be here all night if we must," growled the older man. "We're not going anywhere until we find my book. If you're bored, help me gut them or hold your tongue."
Ago couldn't help feeling anxious. With every nervous glance to the sky, their only clock, he saw daylight fading. The bleak and likely unsafe journey back to the road looked more and more hazardous. After all, it wasn't long ago they happened upon an animal the likes of which Jojoba didn't know roamed these wilds. What else was out there, traveling by night and in search of warm flesh, that his uncle also did not know about?
Two more pods and an hour later, Jojoba exclaimed his relief. There were perhaps four more pods left in the fissure, and Ago did not wish to see his uncle open every single one. He rose from where he had been sitting, cleaning the implements that hadn't been totally destroyed, and stepped over to join his uncle.
"At last," said Jojoba, shaking off a small object as wide as his hand. Ago recognized it immediately, having seen his uncle use it often. Upon inspection, it was noticed that all of the copper-inlays had been eaten away, leaving small fossil-like depressions in the wooden hardcover. The pages were soaked in juices and some of the ink wad smudged, but Jojoba seemed pleased. By the time he had found it, Ago had recovered several more of his pots, and after wiping everything off he had piled them into the travel sack. Jojoba caught Ago's plaintive stare in the shadow of the fissure.
"Yes, we're going now, Ago."
And not a moment too soon. With some effort they managed to extricate themselves from the pit and back to level ground. It was twilight, and they were eager to leave the steam and heat behind.
There was a sound that Ago hadn't heard before. He looked to his uncle, who heard it as well.
"Wings?" Jojoba wondered.
"Sounds almost like bees," said Ago. The sound rose, filling the air. The half-dark of twilight prevented acute vision, but the beating of a hundred tiny wings came from all sides. After a moment's pause, Jojoba motioned that they go, hastily.
A tiny fluttering thing appeared before them. The colors were hard to discern but its shape was unmistakeable; several pairs of arms and legs, a large head and a set of fast, insect wings told Jojoba everything he needed to know.
"A flixbug?" said Ago, asking the little creature as much as anyone else.
But cat-sized insect showed no interest in questions. In one pair of claws it held a fork much as a soldier might wield a spear, and it regarded Ago with disdain. Behind it, and all around them, dozens of other irate flixbugs appeared, each of them holding something shiny. Some of them worked together to keep aloft a heavier object, and Ago realized they were all carrying bits metal. They must have traveled far and wide to carry such things back here; among the items Ago recognized a horseshoe, some carptenter’s hammer, and a wagon wheel hubcap.
"Servants," said Jojoba grimly. He made to pocket his libram within a vest pocket of his robe. "So that's how the plants got hold of it all. Ease down your bag, Ago. Give them back their metals."
"Just do it, Ago! Put down the stuff and hopefully they'll be distracted enough for us to run past them."
"Uncle, there're dozens of them." The flixbugs hovered and chattered to one another, their tiny voices like the chirping of locusts. As Ago slowly lowered the bag, the flixbugs encircled them. Several of them went toward the fissure with their recently acquired treasures, and upon reaching, squealed in outrage.
"I think you angered them," said Jojoba.
"Me?" Ago exclaimed, but before he could catch himself, it was too late, for the ring of his voice was the final trigger. With high-pitched warcries, the flixbugs dropped their burdens and descended upon them.
One or two flixbugs, when compared to any man, would be no more of a threat than an ornery chicken. A swarm, however, was quite a different matter, and Ago learned this first hand. One by one they zipped at him, and the first handful he was able to swat aside. Then they came in twos, then threes, biting with tiny jaws and grabbing with tiny hooked fingers. Ago shouted in pain as one managed to bite through his robes and pierce skin of his shoulder. With a ringing clang, he swiped the assailant to the ground using one of his long-handled cooking pans.
Jojoba too was being assailed, half a dozen flixbugs taking a grip on his sleeves and pulling in different directions.
They were being dragged, the hum of many little wings beating furiously. To Ago's horror, he realized they were being pulled back toward the fissure. He wondered if the flixbugs believed the short fall would kill them - then he remembered the pods.
"Jojoba!" Ago shouted, the flixbugs paying him no mind. His uncle could barely move, but somehow heard him above the din. "Iron!" Ago shouted, "in our blood!" It was then that Jojoba renewed his struggle, his eyes widening with understanding.
Sure enough, along the edge of the fissure, Ago caught a glimpse of moving shapes below. flixbugs swarmed among the pods, wailing at the broken ones and coaxing those that were unharmed. At whatever chittering words they spoke, the pods opened, and Ago became aware only of huge mouths yawning below them.
But then, Ago became aware of another thing. Across the gap he could see the tree line, a pair of fireflies hovering off. They approached even as he dangled over, and then, just before he lost his balance, he recognized the shape of a deer ahead.
No, he corrected himself, a bloomelk, the color of autumn fires.
The deerlike animal made its way toward him at a dashing speed, and in a single graceful leap it cleared the fissure. Ago could not tell if it was chance or design, but as the bloomelk whished past him, his sleeve caught on a prong of its gnarled, leafy antlers. Before he even knew what was happening, Ago was yanked from the edge to safety.
More bloomelks flew past him, green and mossy, dashing so quickly that he could only see emerald blurs. As they went, flixbugs were scattered, slashed from the air, trampled into the earth.
Many others made attempts to stand against the bloomelks, but many more buzzed away. Even the ones that held fast to Jojoba had let loose their grips to flee.
It was a scene to behold. Though Ago had seen many strange things on his travels with his uncle, he had scarcely seen anything like this. Green deer, bucking and thrashing and rearing, raking the air with their antlers and kicking with pointed hooves. There were perhaps hundreds of flixbugs, for Ago saw many new ones arrive - that or those who fled regained their courage circled back.
Ago and Jojoba did not go entirely ignored. While his uncle ducked low, making himself largely unnoticed by either side of the battle, Ago remained on his feet, Silver Beth at the ready. Any flixbug that hovered too close was thwacked to the ground with a satisfying clang. Some flew past him toward the elks, some fled the elks past, and others came straight toward him. None who neared Ago escaped the righteous crunch of his trusty convex cast iron.
Then, with a series of new high pitched screeches, the flixbugs sounded off a full retreat. The bloomelks, who had shown no obvious plan of strategy, all at once gathered. There were perhaps fourteen in all - Ago could not quite count as some had left to pursue the flixbugs. Jojoba rose to his feet as the bloomelk party approached, and dusted himself off.
It was at this time that Ago expected his uncle to put forth a word of caution or advice. No such words came, and Ago came to realize that Jojoba was as lost as himself. They edged closer to each other, Ago gripping Silver Beth closely.
One among the bloomelks, rusty red and taller than them both, approached as the others remained behind. It halted at arm's length, and stood it's ground, staring. Both of it's yellow, forward-facing eyes seemed to pierce through the travelers, seeing things that Ago could not. Then Jojoba took a step forward.
The bloomelk did not move, but instead fixed its eyes on Jojoba. For a moment the stillness of the clearing rang with tense silence, and Ago could hardly believe his uncle had gotten within arm’s reach.
The creature slowly turned its head toward the fissure, its eyes flicking briefly to it, then back. The other elks moved, as a crowd, in that direction.
"Ago," said Jojoba, not looking away. "Go back to the fissure and cut the life roots of the last pods." Ago hesitated.
"You want me to go back in that hole?"
"Now, Ago," said Jojoba, his tone serious. Ago noted the intense stare that his uncle maintained with the bloomelk and knew something had passed between them.
"And leave you alone with...with them? Are you certain?"
"Just do it, Ago. I will be fine."
None too eager to remain near the unsettling petal-deer, Ago left to climb over the ledge.
He found that the emberpods had retracted slightly, and had closed their mouths. They were not the least bit dangerous in this state, as Ago had seen earlier, so using a recovered steak knife he selected the thickest looking roots and began to cut.
Many pairs of eyes hung over the edge above, golden glowing witnesses to his deed. Ago worked nervously, acutely aware that the small army of 'elks took much interest in what he was doing. Ago resolved to focus on the roots and ignore the inquisitive, judging stares.
When the last of the 'pods shuddered and began to shrivel, Ago began his climb back up. It was noticeably more difficult escaping the fissure without Jojoba's help, but after some struggle he made it out.
Jojoba was alone when Ago reached him. The bloomelks had gone, all but one. A rusty red, not unlike the individual they had witnessed earlier that day. It was walking away.
By the time Ago reached his uncle, the creature had reached the edge of the clearing. It paused, casting a final, meaningful glare at Jojoba, who dipped his head in a nod. Then, the red elk bound into the foliage and was gone.
Ago was wiping his hands on his pants, knowing full well that his clothes were already profusely dirty. He suddenly realized that the area had gotten cooler, and the sulfur smell was lifting. He looked to his uncle for answers.
"The bloomelks were repelled by the emberpods," said Jojoba, smiling. "This was their home, but they could do nothing. Apparently we did them a little favor when we pulled those weeds."
Ago was too tired and too hungry to ask any more questions. When it was time that they go, there were no words spoken, and they set off in the direction they had come. As he was often accustomed to doing, Ago simply resolved to follow his uncle - more than ever he did not know the way.
Yet somehow, Ago was possessed by the feeling that no animal in this forest would harm them.
Morning light called for morning fair. The early hours had come with the brisk chill of fall, made all the more noticeable having left the steam of the jungle far behind. Having gathered their things, Ago and Jojoba had resolved to spend the remainder of their energy continuing the march.
"After all," Jojoba had said, "we haven't much further to go. We'll take up lodgings at the first inn we see."
Ago nodded, his eyes reddened from the night. The travelers hadn't stopped to rest, let alone sleep, and though the load on his shoulders was somewhat lessened, Ago could think only of his body's base needs. There were no fried vegetables to be had, a breakfast favorite. His mood deepened as he went over the list of foods that he did not have, and the fact that Jojoba showed no signs of hunger only irritated him further.
Resigned to his fate as a starving mule to whom Jojoba shared a faint blood tie, Ago huffed his annoyance. Then his hand fell on a small sack at his side, filled with something - ah, he remembered. The emberpods.
Loosening the tie string, Ago extracted a long, stringy strip of gelatinous plant fiber, cut from the roots. Ago eyeballed the flesh in the sunlight. As far as he could tell, it did not seem toxic, though it exuded a coppery smell.
"It was fascinating, wasn't it?" Said Jojoba, a stride ahead of Ago. "That pocket jungle started to cool the moment you came back out of that fissure. Don't know exactly how they do it, but I'd say that's proof enough that there's a connection.
"And the bloomelks!" he exclaimed, "What luck! Did you see? There must have been almost a score of them. You'd be fortunate to see that many in a century! Not to mention their leader . . . he had such a handsome voice." He turned to face Ago. "The least you could do is show a bit of . . . what is that?"
Ago stared back, mid-chew. He wore the expression of child caught with his hands in a pastry box.
"Is that what I think it is?" Ago made to reply, but his words were muffled. Suddenly Jojoba began to smile. "Enjoying that, are you?" Ago nodded.
"It tathtes lak blooblerry on a thilva thpoon," said the nephew. Jojoba did not reply, he only smiled. A warm, knowing smile that nearly hid his eyes and showed no teeth. Ago never saw such a look before, and when he watched Jojoba turn back around, he was worried.
Too worried to notice his skin was turning green.
"We'll hit an artery soon," said Jojoba. "Probabaly'll see some other travelers when we do. We'll get directions from them."
"Finally," said Ago as he scratched his jade colored nose, oblivious. "Someplace where people won’t stare at me like those creepy plant deer."