“So let me make sure I have all of this clear,” Chroma said as the group trekked uphill through the foliage. They were heading up the mountainside not too far from the falls, but Yimdel was taking them through easy, hidden paths bordered by thick plants on every side. Femdizga preened his feathers contently on Yimdel’s shoulder as he and the child waited for Chroma and Klyra to catch up. Klyra kept slipping, but she refused to let go of her Thelt. Chroma panted a bit and then continued, “Build Tar comes from Build Weed, which grows a day’s journey away, beyond the mountains, releases toxic fumes when it gets burnt, and is costly to process…and Skyblind Tar is found in piles all over mountain caves half a day’s journey away, is already ready to use, and releases no fumes?”
“But people still use Build Tar?”
“Because the Build Tar merchants are corrupting everyone else?”
“Yes. The Build Tar merchants were the only people brave enough to leave the forest and explore the beach, so they control all the Build Weed left.”
“They’re running out.”
“Doesn’t that solve your problem?” Klyra asked, stopping to pant and lean over her knees. “If you run out of Build Tar, won’t you have to switch to Skylbind Tar?”
“We’re not that close to running out. Just close enough we know it’s coming. And the fumes never go away.”
“Ah, I see.”
Femdizga reached out his long, thin neck to sniff at Klyra’s head. Klyra didn’t seem to notice until his beak-like muzzle brushed some of her short hair; she leaped back, hit a tree, and froze as several nuts fell on her head.
“Is that a typical pet here?” Klyra wondered.
Yimdel shook her head. “No. That’s why not many people want to pet him. But I rescued him when he was a baby earlier this year, and he couldn’t be sweeter.”
“What exactly did you rescue him from?” Chroma inquired.
Yim continued the trek, stroking Fem’s head gently. “From a raptor. They normally only hunt in the jungle, by day. But the birds haven’t been faring well: a lot of scientists have been finding old nesting spots abandoned. Some have started trying to nest in the Skyblind caves, where it’s cooler.”
“Cooler? The fumes are disturbing the birds?”
“Oh, yes. Hunting’s been terrible.”
“Wow,” Chroma commented. “I didn’t think that would affect so many creatures.”
Yim sighed. “My parents were healers. But in recent years, our healers’ gardens have begun dying. Pests are running amok because the birds are gone, the plants die if we don’t harvest them before the warmest months begin, and even the rain is washing toxins from the canopy down onto them.”
“Were healers?” Chroma inquired.
Before Yim could reply, she disappeared around a thick tree. Panic-stricken, Chroma and Klyra lunged forward to find her. When they rounded the trunk, they found themselves at the maw of a brown-stoned cave. A few lichens were creeping partway to the entrance, and a few vines draped over rocks near the inside, but the place seemed otherwise devoid of sunlight and life. It was as if someone had taken a torch, shoved it into the plants, and burned a hole in the jungle.
“Some of these tunnels lead directly to town,” Yim told them.
“We’re going through the gaping dark hole instead of the well-known pass with a lovely river?” Chroma asked emotionlessly.
“The Greens are likely waiting for you there. But when they figure out we’re taking the tunnels, they won’t know which one I lead you down. That’s why we’re not using torches.”
“I wasn’t complaining,” Chroma responded. “I’m just glad that if we get separated we’ll be in a dark labyrinth with no idea where the light of day is.”
Yim gave Chroma a quizzical look. “Fem will guide us through. This is his home. He’s blind; he’s used to the dark.
“Fem! Home!” Yim ordered the reptile, pointing into the mouth of the cave. Fem squawked once, extended its leathery forelimb flaps, and then flapped easily into the darkness. Even after Fem’s body was out of sight, they could still hear clicking and cooing from the creature.
Yim happily motioned for Chroma and Klyra to follow, and then trod off into the dark.
Klyra glanced at Chroma, shrugged, and shifted her Thelt into her left hand so her right would be free to skim the wall of the cave.
Chroma took a deep breath, kept one hand on the wall of the cave, and stepped inside.
α α α
Featured image courtesy of Artem at Pexels.com