It was an unusual forest. The trees and shrubs, even the flowers that grew and bloomed where a break in the canopy above allowed enough sunlight though, were unrecognizable. They were not bizarre, twisted things that one might expect to see on one of the alien worlds in fiction. The differences were subtle. Here was a shrub that has strawberry like fruits ripening on stalks that grew above the foliage. A ways back there had been a grove of trees that had many massive trunk-like branches that spread out parallel to the ground like those of an ancient oak tree, only they had leaves like the needles of a conifer. Although Jake had certainly not been through every forest on Earth, he was nearly certain none of them contained such plants. This suspicion made it that much harder to even hazard a guess as to where he was.
The morning had started out like any other. He had risen, showered, and eaten breakfast. Shortly before he had left home for work something had happened. One minute he had been in his bedroom, and the next had found him in a small meadow surrounded by unrecognizable trees. There had only been a sudden light in front of him as he had almost reached the doorway and then a moment of visual and physical disorientation. Now he was essentially nowhere.
He had grown uneasy waiting in the meadow. He had sat down in the knee-high grass and listened for anything that would indicate the nearby presence of another human being. There was nothing to be heard save for the breeze in the grass and the birds and animals of the forest. Eventually he had gotten up and had just started walking. It was his hope that he’d soon come across a stream. Once Jake found flowing water, he intended to follow it as far as it took to find civilization. He had no such luck. After about two hours he realized that a stream was important for another reason. If he did not find anyone else in the forest to help him, he was going to need a water source. At the age of twenty-five, he was not anywhere near being prepared to die.
Every hour or so, Jake climbed a tree as much as he could to examine the surroundings from above the canopy. Most of the time he was unable to get high enough. Of the few times he was able to peer out over the treetops, there was nothing encouraging to be seen.
Fatigue finally sprang on him near dusk. He had been too preoccupied with being lost to notice how tired his legs and feet were. As the light continued to dim overhead, he searched for a resting place. He settled on a tree that had a trunk that flared out as it went into the ground. It had hollows and ridges that were reminiscent of those of the massive fig trees he had seen in a large park near his home. He settled in one of the hollows and waited. Again he listened, and again heard only birds and animals. It was seemingly hours before drowsiness led to sleep.
Jake’s rest was fitful and lighter than usual. During his longer periods of awakening, there was time to wonder how he could sleep at all. Every little sound louder than the birds he had been hearing all day woke him. And nearer, more obvious, sounds such as the snap of a twig kept him awake for more than thirty minutes at a time. Once he had glimpsed something moving no more than twenty feet away. It had appeared to be a deer, but that had not excused Jake from a brief panic. It took him much longer to settle down after that. Had he not still been exhausted, sleep would not have returned.
The long night had long passed when Jake woke from the longest stretch of sleep. His legs ached, but he did feel slightly rested. He stretched as best he could, trying to work some of the soreness from his muscles before setting out again. Before moving on, he urinated against the tree, watchful in spite of his doubts that he’d encounter no one in this forest. It took a moment to recall the direction he had been heading in the day before. The argument he was having with himself was quickly halted when he spotted his own footprints in a patch of soft dirt. He continued on, reminded of the panic he had had during the night by the tracks he saw crossing his own. They were paw prints. They were not very different from every animal footprint he had ever seen that had belonged to a carnivore.
He went on, only pausing briefly about once an hour, and taking a longer rest at what appeared to be noon-time, but what his watch said was six am. It had been seven in the morning when he was last in a familiar place, his bedroom. He had habitually checked his watch when he had found himself in the meadow. It had given the time he expected it too, though the angle of the sun, as far he could tell, had been much higher. The discrepancy no longer surprised him.
After his noon rest, he only managed to climb two trees. There was finally a difference to be noticed. It was a discontinuity in the forest, as though the trees’ reach abruptly ended. What lay beyond the edge, however, could not be determined. Jake adjusted his heading slightly so that he was headed more directly toward the edge of the forest.
Before he reached it, he happened upon something unusual. It was what appeared to be a game trail. A wide strip of vegetation had been flattened. It went on for several yards to both the right and left before winding its way out of sight amongst the trees. Its presence had not been what had captured Jakes’ attention. It had been the sheer size of the thing, as though elephant sized animals were roaming the forest. And there were also the marks.
There were only two of them, in a patch of bare dirt of to his left. They could not have been animal prints; they were too simple. They were large rectangular depressions easily extending two inches into the soil. To Jake’s eye, they were about two feet by three feet. He told himself that they had to be artificial, and that there had to be people nearby. He briefly wondered if they would be friendly.
It was because he had stopped to examine the depressions that he heard the new sound. It was a mere whisper that had been hidden until now by the sounds of his passage through the forest. It was the sound of a waterfall. Jake quickly walked about in random directions until he determined the direction of the sound. He wasted no time in heading in that direction, the thought of so much water forcefully reminding him of his thirst.
After a few moments he noticed what appeared to be a clearing in the trees ahead of him. A sense of caution had begun to set in and he slowed his pace. The question of the friendliness of any natives he might find again crossed his mind when he finally came within sight of the sound.
He was standing on top of a short cliff that overlooked a wide pool. The waterfall poured from the top of a much taller rock face on the opposite side of the pool. There were large boulders and slabs of bedrock both surrounding the pool and in the middle of it. The clear, clean-looking water appeared to overflow into a stream off to the right.
Jake was about to make his way down to the waters edge for a drink, and possibly a swim when he heard slight splashing movements from below. Someone was already down there. He scanned the pool, seeing nothing at first. He almost continued his climb down when something moved out from behind one of the rocks.
He was too far to be sure, but the form appeared to be a human being. He quickly realized that he had not been seen. He had indeed been seen, but not by the swimmer, and some time before he had even come within sight of the pool. Jake was about to move down and to the side a bit to get a better view of the swimmer when something bellowed to his left. There were words in a loud, deep voice. Jake only caught the last five as he spun to face the source of the voice.
“… IS NOT TO BE DISTURBED!” Despite having no expectations about what he would see, Jake was still surprised beyond rational thought. What he saw was something large and blocky, towering over him even though it was still some distance away. He was dimly aware that it had a humanoid shape, and that it was blue. What reached most of his awareness, was that this giant was moving toward him, and fast.
Jake turned at once and began to run. His flight was briefly interrupted when his right shoulder slammed into a small tree. He went down and rolled, getting up immediately and continuing on away from the charging thing. Later he would wonder at the way whatever human beings have that passes for instinct takes over at such times and can propel a man through an obstacle course of tree trunks, both standing and fallen, large rocks, and dense shrubs that would otherwise take conscious thought to navigate.
Instinct is not foolproof, however. The sounds of something huge crashing through the forest behind him drove him recklessly on, and after about half a minute’s flight, the forest floor began to slope downward. Had Jake been thinking, he would have concluded that he was quickly approaching the edge of the forest. He had not seen anything immediately beyond that edge as though the forest was on a long rise.
“Or a cliff,” his own voice boomed in his head. It was too late then. The crashing was too close behind him and the forest floor to steep. To make matters worse, there was a layer of organic debris underfoot which neatly slid off from the ground underneath when Jake ran onto it. The distance left was too short to make a sudden stop, much less a sharp turn executed with a well planted foot to act as a pivot. Jake felt a fleeting breeze behind him that could not have been anything other than something that large man-thing swiping at him as he sailed out into empty space.
Had he not been mentally paralyzed by the sheer bug-eyed terror of falling to what would undoubtedly be his death, Jake would have recalled a saying that suggested a person try to fly when falling off a cliff since that unfortunate individual had nothing else to lose.
Nevertheless his limbs did flap about wildly as though humans had evolved from an airborne creature instead of an arboreal one. As he began to tumble as he fell, his line of sight swung upwards for no more than a second and he saw the silhouette of the thing that had been chasing him. It, of course, had not followed him over the edge. He also saw something else. It was a smaller, darker object streaking out from over the treetops and down after him. Fortunately for Jake, his flailing arms and legs helped him to fall as a slower rate than his new pursuer.
Jake continued tumbling and his view tilted dizzyingly down toward the ground far below. It was the mouth of a canyon, complete with a flowing river and sharp rocks. A less panicked mind would have observed that mattresses and pillows in place of the rocks would have made no difference. Human bodies broke easily when suddenly decelerated from such speeds.
A pair of arms shot out from behind him and under his outstretched arms. They wrapped around his chest and something smacked against his back and held. This did nothing to ease his panic and his arms and legs continued their frantic motion, occasionally battering whatever had caught him. A female voice screamed behind him, competing with the roar of the wind in his ears.
“Pull your arms in and legs!” Jake heard but did not understand.
“If you don’t, we won’t make it!” the voice screamed again, louder. But Jake was still slow to comply.
“NOW!!!” the voice shrieked, punctuating the command with a sudden increase in pressure on his ribcage. The arms around him squeezed the last bit of air in his lungs and his arms shot inward as though to dislodge the constriction. As they did, bits of coherent thought began to streak past Jake’s fear-disabled consciousness and he suddenly realized that his flailing limbs made his shape an aerodynamic hindrance that would make saving his life impossible.
He struggled with himself to pull his legs together and straighten them out behind him, but he managed. The rapidly approaching ground was becoming a wonderful motivator. His only hope was in whomever it was that had caught him. Though still not free from the terror, his mind was clear enough to know that he had to do everything the voice behind him told him to do.
“Arms against your sides!” the voice commanded as soon has he had straightened his legs. As he obeyed, one of his rescuer’s arms, then the other, slipped from around his chest and then moved back again over his to keep them still.
“Now don’t move!”
Their speed suddenly decreased, and Jake noticed that their descent had begun to level out. The ground and river below still rushed upward toward them, uncomfortably near. Then they were moving horizontally, speeding over the river at what could have been no more than ten feet. The sun was behind them, shining into the canyon, and Jake saw their shadow ahead. What looked like great bat-like wings stretched out on either side of a nondescript shape; his shadow overlapping that of whatever had saved him.
Jake began to calm some, but his breath was still coming hard and his heart still hammered in his chest. He knew he’d still be dead if the arms around him suddenly let go, or those wings keeping them aloft suddenly failed. His fears abated further when it became apparent that they were now gaining altitude. The shadow wings below made an occasional stroke, pushing them slowly upward, angling now.
The climb was slow, and painful. Jakes legs began to tire as their reduced airspeed made it harder to keep them straight out behind him. His muscles began to tremble with effort and his legs dipped slightly from time to time. It was only a matter of time before his legs began to act as brakes.
His panic had stretched his perception of time, and what had to be no more than fifteen seconds between the start of his fall, and leveling off just above the river, carried by his rescuer, had passed like minutes. Now Jake’s sense of time seemed to be returning to normal and it became obvious that they were not going to make it back to the very top of the canyon. He spoke for the first time since arriving in the strange forest.
“We’re not going to make it all the way.”
“I know,” the female voice responded, the growing fatigue in its owner now evident. Before panic could reassert itself in Jake’s mind, the voice went on.
“There’s a place where the cliff fell a little. See it?” Jake looked and saw. It was a shelf some three-quarters the way up from the canyon floor. It was large as landslides went, several square miles of forest floor having just dropped straight down and remained intact. The interface between the shelf and the remainder of the forest was a series of smaller steps and massive chunks of rock. They had just risen above the level of the main shelf and were approaching it quickly.
“I have to drop you there.”
“Drop?” His rescuer’s choice of words was alarming.
“I can’t land like this,” the voice said urgently. ”You’ll survive.”
And with that he was falling again, toward the part of the shelf where the trees ended and only grasses and small shrubs grew. He was still at least twenty feet above the ground and it was not a fall he could even imagine knowing how to make a graceful, and safe, landing from. Fortunately instinct stepped in again and he came down on his legs, letting them buckle and slip out from under him, softening his vertical momentum and putting all of his horizontal movement into a roll. It still hurt, a lot, and there was a large amount of gravel and twigs to make it rougher.
There was a rock, or something just as hard, in his way. It was only a glancing blow, but by the time he came to a stop on the shelf, he was unconscious.
Jake awakened once during the night. The moon was overhead, partially visible through the tree branches immediately above him. He remembered his hard landing and restricted movement to his eyes, moving them slowly about to determine where he was. There was a form nearby, about five feet from him. It was in the shadow, its details hidden from the feeble light that made it through the screen of branches and leaves. Jake had almost decided that it was only a rock when it moved. Only part of it shifted, near the top, and Jake knew, without any rational thought telling him, that the thing had turned its head to look at him. At that moment he wanted to get up and away, to a place where he could more comfortably assess his situation. His doubts about the creature’s intentions were not very strong. Had it wished a meal of him, he knew he’d never have awakened. And he assumed that what he saw before him was the being that had saved him from a bright splatter on the canyon floor.
His first motion was a simple turning of his head toward the form. It was a mistake. His vision vanished at once, replaced by a swirl of muted and sickly colors, and dizziness washed over him. He closed his eyes and kept his head as still as possible and waited for the dizziness to pass. He couldn’t be sure if he passed out again or simply fell asleep. ====== It was light when Jake awakened again. He was grateful for the deep shadow cast by the branches above him. It allowed his eyes to adjust. After a few minutes of keeping still he dared a movement. He slowly moved his head from side to side, taking in his surroundings. At once he realized that he was in a tree. The dizziness and loss of vision did not return and he experimented with more movement. Slowly he was able to work himself up into a sitting position.
After a moment he located the spot where he had seen something huddled during his brief awakening during the night. It was a shallow hollow where two massive branches, one of which he was laying on, joined the even larger trunk. There was nothing there except what appeared to be a blanket. Unsure of whether or not he wanted to meet whatever had saved his life he rose to his hands and knees and crawled toward the trunk. He began his climb down by moving to the side away from the hollow. Below there was a smaller branch, and he lowered one foot, then the other to it. He saw that the branch he had been sleeping on was only about ten feet off the ground. The moss growing on the smaller branch only became slippery when Jake rested his full weight on it.
The landing was considerably less painful then the one the day before, yet given his condition, the dizziness came back and his head began to throb. Jake squeezed his eyes shut and curled into a ball; keeping himself still until the vertigo passed again. He kept his eyes shut while pushing himself up until he was seated with his legs curled up before him, and his head resting on his knees. A voice spoke up a moment later.
“You didn’t climb many trees as a kid, did you?” It was the same voice from the day before: a female voice, slightly throaty like that of a young smoker or of someone who’d spent an entire day talking or shouting. Jake looked up and finally saw the person that had saved his life.
His first crazed thought was that it was a fairy. His second, and more disturbing, was that it was a demon. Jake shut his eyes tightly again for a moment and willed his mind to give him a more honest image of what was before him. It didn’t work. The figure was still there, leaning against the closest tree, arms folded. She was approximately five and a half feet tall and more or less human in appearance. The exceptions were obvious, and were, in most cases, additions to a human shape instead of mutations of individual parts. The first of these to come to Jake’s attention were the two horns projecting from her head. They emerged from her head at a few inches above and behind her forehead. They rose straight up for an inch or two then curved directly forward, ending in sharp points. The second most obvious exception was the folded wings he could see projecting above her shoulders. Then there were the sharp nails visible at the ends of her fingers, and the claws sprouting from her slightly malformed toes.
Jake’s attention then drifted toward the more human attributes of the individual before him. Her hair was a deep red, and short, her bangs hanging down to just above her eyebrows. She wasn’t wearing very much, something resembling a two-piece swimsuit, dark red in color. There were also what appeared to be long gloves and socks of the same color and hide-like material. These were open at both ends so that only her forearms and lower legs were covered, but not her hands and feet. The top of her “swimsuit” had a large, roughly heart-shaped shape cut out from it revealing quite a bit of cleavage. Jake had found himself beginning to stare a bit too much when the object of his scrutiny spoke again.
“You act like you’ve never seen a monster before.” Her voice still had that smoky quality that Jake liked at once. However, her tone carried with it a touch of hostility, and a more noticeable contempt. For an uncomfortable moment, Jake thought that she had noticed how he had been looking at her, and that his attention had offended her. She spoke again when he did not respond.
“You look like you’re from the same world as Genki.”
The name meant nothing to Jake, and it did not concern him at that moment. He did blurt out the first question that came to mind. “What are you?”
She responded with a sigh and rolling eyes. “My name is Pixie. As for *what* I am: I’m what you humans call a monster.”
“I’m Jake.” He paused, then: “You don’t look like…”
“You are definitely not from this world,” she interrupted. The contempt was still there.
“Yeah, I kind of figured that out already. I suppose it’d be pointless to ask just where I am.”
“Probably.” Pixie then quickly glanced to her right and added, “You should meet Big Blue before you he frightens you off another cliff.”
At that Jake snapped his head to the right, too quickly to avoid a brief resurgence in the dizziness. The vertigo didn’t stop him from taking in the giant he had run from the day before. It looked like a grossly proportioned man carved from rock. He was a medium blue in color, frosted with white on his head, shoulders, and joints, in an apparent imitation of snow. The rock man merely stood there, watching Jake with a seemingly unfriendly gaze. Equally disturbing as the mere existence of such a thing was how quiet it had been.
Jake immediately rose to his feet to run. There was more surprise than fear moving him and his attempt to flee was as intentional as it was automatic.
He did not get very far. He was only capable of one awkward, shuffling step backward before a sickening dizziness brought him down hard. He landed in a heap and had to find the ground before he could allow himself to vomit. There was nothing in his stomach however, and the dry heaving added to the headache he had.
“Shit,” he said weakly after the spasms subsided. He turned his head, slowly, as Pixie approached him and knelt a few feet away. He noticed an odd look on her face. It was a mixture of disgust and unintentional concern.
“You should lay down again.” Her voice was softer, the contempt gone for the time being. “You were out for almost two days, but I think you need more rest.”
“No kidding,” Jake said weakly. “What I need is a hospital, or at least a doctor.”
“There’s nothing like that anywhere near here. And I wouldn’t be welcome.” She regarded him for a second longer then stood.
“Blue, put him back in the tree,” she asked the rock man.
“Wait!” Jake managed in a stronger voice. “I’ll just rest here.”
“Don’t worry. He won’t hurt you unless I ask him to.”
“Oh that’s reassuring,” Jake said as he rolled himself on his back to better watch the rock man. Big Blue approached him and lowered one of his massive hands down. Jake stiffened as the massive fingers curled around his midsection and lifted him from the ground. The other hand came up behind him and cradled his upper body and head. A moment later he was in the tree again, on the same branch. The rock man, despite his size and composition, had been surprisingly gentle.
There was a blur of motion and a soft thump to the left and Jake turned his attention away from the receding rock man and saw that Pixie was now in the tree with him. She reached down between the two branches and brought up an object roughly the size of her head. It appeared to be a gourd with something wedged into it at the top.
“Water?” Jake asked.
“Yes.” She set it down next to him, obviously unwilling to simply hand it to him. She then turned; apparently ready to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“Stay in the tree, it’s safer,” she said before she dropped out of the sight. Jake remembered the footprints he had seen his first night in the forest and silently agreed. After a moment he reached for the gourd. He was slightly surprised to find that it was stopped with an actual cork. From what he had seen so far, he had not expected something as advanced. Jake suspected there were going to be many surprises to keep his mind occupied in the times to come.
He limited his intake to a few sips, remembering something he had read about dehydration. When it became clear that the water was going to stay down, he took one more before replacing the cork. A short while later he was asleep. ====== There were dreams. Some were of the rock man stomping him like a bug, leaving him neatly compacted in a rectangular depression the ground. And others were of his fall off the cliff. Pixie would again try to save him, only this time she was too late. She would keep letting him go, leaving him to die alone, something he’d expect from any well-intentioned person that was only a stranger. But in the last dream he had before waking, Pixie went with him. The waking world of a forest and a watchful rock man replaced the image of a crumpled form amongst the rocks, nearly within arms reach. It was a sight of twisted wings and blood that disturbed him on an unexpected level. ====== Pixie was awakened by the noises the human made in his dreams. She’d heard enough about the sound of her nightmares from Big Blue to know that what the man was experiencing was the same thing Though they were likely less frightening than any one of her nightmares was, she felt a twinge of pity for him. She mentally shouted down that thought with the resurfacing of familiar hatred. And she was conflicted. She had supposedly turned away from the hate after meeting Genki, but now could not help to remember it, easily, upon seeing another human, especially one that was an adult male. Human males were, pound for pound, the most brutal creatures she had ever had the displeasure of meeting, yet this one had been so helpless. He had been alone, and afraid, enough so that he had blindly run right off a cliff.
She had abandoned her bath; slipping on only some of her clothing and leaving the water’s warmth to investigate what Big Blue was yelling about. There had been no obvious reason to, except that she knew Big Blue himself was running in the direction of the cliff. She knew her friend wouldn’t be so careless to kill himself like that, but the extent of his anger evident in his actions had compelled her to find out what it was before it was too late. Now she was unsure if she had made a mistake or not. She was confused by the lack of hesitation she had felt when saving the man. She suspected it was related to the time she had saved Genki from an identical predicament. Even then, she had not hesitated.
She watched the sleeping human for a time, and then was able to sleep again when the man was quiet. ====== Jake blinked the sleep from his eyes, marveling at the width of the branch he was on. It was a testament to the strangeness of the world he was in, as was the rock man, Big Blue Pixie called him, who was now approaching the tree.
“Master Pixie brought food,” he said. The voice was as he remembered, thick and deep, though naturally not as loud.
Jake realized that there was an undercurrent of hunger growing, beginning to make its presence felt through the nausea. He turned his head toward the rock man and spoke. “Thanks, but I don’t know if I can eat.”
“She said to tell you that the green berries are for your stomach.”
Jake glanced around and failed to spot the food that had supposedly been left for him.
“Behind your head,” Big Blue said. He then turned and walked away into the forest. His footsteps made noise this time, surprising Jake. The rock man’s earlier stealth had been intentional, and not just a fluke.
Jake’s head had ceased to dominate all the other pains he now noticed as he slowly rose to a seated position. He had no doubt that he was a mass of bruises and was not particularly eager to find a mirror if one existed. After the chorus of pains quieted a little he craned his neck to look for the food. It was there, on a plate, a metal plate. The plate was less of a surprise than the cork. Pixie had implied that there were human beings in her world, and there had been no reason to assume that they were primitive.
Jake reached behind him and brought the plate forward, resting it on his crossed legs. The green berries were on top. He gathered them in one hand and gave them a sniff. It was a bitter aroma. He tipped his head back and put the entire small handful into his mouth at once. He held them there a moment, deciding that it was probably a good idea to chew them. He almost spat them out. There were simultaneously sour and bitter, nearly intolerably so. Swallowing took almost as much effort as suppressing the gag that followed. Naturally his stomach rebelled, but after a few minutes, and a water chaser, it calmed down. Five minutes after that, he felt well enough to eat. The berries included some of the strawberry-like fruit he had seen his first day and tasted like everything else looked: a mixture of the familiar and the strange. There were also a few small pieces of stale bread on the plate, which softened up with water. The dried meat he left alone for the time being. He doubted he’d have enough energy to chew it.
Jake ate slowly. When he finished, the afternoon had begun to darken. Sleep came easily shortly after.
Jake’s sleep was solid, unbroken except for one time after a repeat of the earlier dream in which Pixie could not save him, but had not left him. This time it did not end immediately after their fatal impact with the ground. There were a few moments left in it for Jake to look at Pixie’s crumpled form and notice that she was still alive. She would slowly shift her head to look at him with a look of pure misery in her eyes. The dream was gone before the feeling of horror with an edge of despair stayed long enough to be understood.
He woke with the moon in his eyes and had to shift his gaze to avoid its brightness. He looked to his right, then his left, and noticed a shape in the darkness. It was Pixie, apparently asleep. A sigh, of relief, escaped his lips before he even knew it was coming. Sleep was returning and Jake knew he was in no physical condition to fight it off to ponder his reaction. He let it take him back.
Jake woke in the light. It was past morning, though the sun was not yet overhead, but its angle allowed a shaft of light to sneak through a tangle of branches somewhere ahead of him and to the left. The patch of sunlight had been crossing his face for ten minutes, easing him out of sleep. He kept still for a moment, gauging his ability to move without eliciting a symphony of pain and dizziness. He sat up slowly, noticing that Pixie was gone. It was becoming obvious to him that she had a dislike of human beings. He began to wonder what would happen when his health returned and he was better able to fend for himself.
As he moved, the headache reminded him of its presence, though it had lost some of its power. With the exception of the bodily pain he still felt, the general feeling was not much different from a hangover. He also noted that his bladder was full.
The climb down from the tree was considerably more graceful than it had been the first time. Jake only slipped once, on the same moss-covered branch as before, but this time he quickly recovered. He reached the forest floor and looked around, only slightly dizzy. Neither Pixie nor Big Blue was in sight. He walked away from the tree, finding a suitably private spot to do his business. He returned, but not before becoming almost convinced that he had gotten himself lost. Pixie was perched on his branch when he got there.
“I’m walking like a civilized man, aren’t I?” He said, trying to be lighthearted, but realizing the joke would likely be lost on her.
“What is a civilized man?” she said. The familiar contempt in her voice had returned, but a slight twist to her mouth suggested a joke of her own. The slight smile faltered immediately. Jake knew there was no joke and decided it was best to change the subject.
“Where’s… Big Blue?” He had to stop himself from saying “the rock man”. Something told him she’d be offended.
“He’s out. Patrolling. Keeping me safe,” she answered. No contempt this time.
“He called you ‘master’ earlier. Is he a… servant?”
“He was, for a time. But he’s been my friend for much longer. He won’t stop calling me ‘master’.” She spoke of Big Blue with a mild exasperation greatly softened by fondness.
“It’s a habit then,” Jake said.
“ No. Not exactly,” she said with a sudden change of mood. Intuition told Jake to drop the subject. He was never quick to follow what his instincts whispered in his ear, but this time he gave in, but not without a quiet struggle. Pixie made it easier when she changed the subject to food.
“I’ve collected more fruit, if you want it. It’s up here.” She made no move to show that she was going to drop it down to him.
Jake circled the tree twice, looking for the best way to climb. There were no obvious handholds on the trunk, only the low branch he used on his climb down, and it was just in reach of his outstretched hands. Jake knew he was going to have to work for his food this time.
It was a struggle. Once he had both his arms and legs around the trunk, but could only hang on its underside. It was too wide to squirm his way over to the top. He had to drop back down to the ground to avoid tiring his arms and legs, and the exertion was not doing his aching head any favors. He jumped to get his arms around the branch again and held himself there trying to come up with a better way.
“A little help here? Please?” Jake was not too surprised that no help came. He dropped again and finally saw the answer. The branch next to the one he slept on narrowed as it reached away from the tree. Before it split into more branches and rose out of reach it dipped closer to the ground. Things became easier after he pulled himself onto the branch. When he was mindful of the moss on the upper surface of the branch, he was able to walk on it without slipping. He imagined it would be even easier without shoes. As he reached the trunk, he was able to leap across the gap between the massive trunk-like branches. As he did, he noticed what appeared to be a net spread across the gap. It had been easy to miss earlier because it was slung low, at least three feet below the upper surface of the branch he was on. It seemed to be intentionally hidden. On it, there were cloth bags, some quite large, obviously containing supplies Pixie and her large friend used to survive in the forest. There was even what looked liked a small washtub.
A plate of food was waiting for him again at the spot where he slept. When he sat down before it and looked over at Pixie and saw that she had her hand over her mouth. The look of her eyes told that she was hiding a smile. Had it not been for the contemptuous way she spoke to him every other time, he would have let it pass.
“That was funny to you?” Jake said, letting his annoyance color his tone. Pixie lowered her hand and he saw the last traces of a smile fade, but he wasn’t through.
Pixie was speechless. The only thought she had had was that he was different, but his being a human had not been foremost in her mind. She suspected she would have not been amused had she been more aware.
“I’m glad I was able to entertain you,” Jake said with excessive scorn in his voice. He might have gone on, but Pixie’s expression made it clear that he’d made his point. After a brief glare she leapt down from her branch and stalked away into the forest. Jake watched her go, unmoving.
“Damn, that was stupid,” he whispered to himself when she had gone out of sight. Had he not been as battered and weak as he still was, his appetite would have completely fled before his sudden self-disgust, but he was still hungry enough to eat everything on the plate. When he finished he set it aside and waited. He was angry with himself. Pixie had done him a monumental favor. No one had asked her to save his life. She had done that and had brought him food and water. While it was not obvious, he suspected that she was going beyond any obligations to a perfect stranger whose life she’d saved. Then it became brutally evident that she didn’t *have* any obligations toward him. Given the way he was beginning to think she felt about humans, he realized he’d been extraordinarily lucky. He knew what he had to do. And he knew he could not wait for her to return to her tree to do it.
Jake expected a hard time in finding her, but she had not gone far. He had found her tucked away in the hollow of a tree not unlike the one between the branch and trunk of her own. Rather, he had walked past her and she had seen him. He had known she was up there behind him, perhaps because his sub-conscious had heard her shift position, or possibly curse under her breath. Jake would not have been surprised at the latter. He’d not been a particularly pleasant guest. He had to mentally shout down the thought that Pixie had also not been a pleasant host. That argument was too childish.
Jake stalled when he thought about how to begin his apology. He stopped, thinking it better to climb this tree too. The particular branch he needed fortunately dipped low enough to the forest floor that Jake was able to climb up with minimal effort. He walked up its length, stopping at about ten feet from her, taking advantage of a branch that sprouted vertically from the main while he sat down. Pixie did not look at him once.
“Pixie, I’m sorry,” Jake said at last. He had come up with no better way to apologize. “I should not have been mean.” He stopped, replaying what he had said to her and why. It had been because of the way she had talked to him at other times. But as far as he’d been able to tell, she had been honestly amused by his difficulty in climbing the tree. *Innocently* amused without any trace of scorn. That thought made Jake feel even worse. He looked down at his hands as he continued.
“You saved my life and have taken care of me. You didn’t have to.” Jake knew he’d stall again if he didn’t keep talking. “I’m a total stranger. You could have let me drop. You didn’t. And I was cruel. I feel terrible about that now. If I hurt your feelings, I deeply regret it.” At last Jake looked up, certain he couldn’t add any more. He saw that Pixie was looking at him. She had not been expecting him to come find her, much less apologize. She spoke after an awkward moment of quiet.
“It’s nothing,” she said quietly. Jake knew at once that she was covering her feelings. This did not bother him because it was only appropriate. They were still strangers. She went on. “You’ve been hurt. I let my feelings for your kind get the better of me.”
Jake bit back the questions that came immediately to mind: “What feelings are those? Why do you have them?” Instead he just nodded slightly and said, “Oh.”
“Let’s just say we’re even, and forget it. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Jake answered softly, looking down at his hands again. They were streaked and spotted with a faint layer of dirt. He was far from clean. “Where can I bathe? I’m filthy. It feels like it’s been a month since I was last clean.” Pixie felt surprise creep up on her, for many of the epithets she had hurled at the humans in her life had involved some description of filth. She felt her expression change and fought it, the glimmer of surprise fading from her eyes.
“There’s a pool close by. That way,” she answered, pointing. Jake looked in that direction and shook his head once.
“Can you take me there? I’d get lost.”
She jumped off the branch.
“Come on,” she called up to him after she landed. Jake made no move as bold as a jump. He slid his body off the branch, keeping a strong grip on the smaller, vertical branch he had used for balance while he sat. He lowered himself as much as he could and dropped the remaining few feet. Pixie turned and began walking and Jake followed.
From Jake’s position behind Pixie, he was able to get a better look at her wings. They were, as he had briefly noticed at the end of their fall, like those of a bat; each a modified arm, with skin stretching between curved spines, like the elongated fingers of a bat’s wing, and connecting to her back. She walked with them neatly folded against her. Strangely, they appeared to be too small to have been responsible for the shadow he had seen during their brief flight.
Jake could not exactly think of Pixie as a monster, a term she’d used to describe herself, despite the horns, claws, and wings. She was definitely not human either. When he thought about her, the term ‘being’, or ‘person’, came to mind most often. Despite his acceptance of her as a female, he was still slightly confused by himself when his gaze flicked down her back and briefly stopped below her waist. He caught himself and returned his eyes to appropriate views such as the back of her head, or the forest around him. He felt embarrassed by his behavior, but had seen something that brought his gaze right back to where it had been.
A tail. Somehow he had failed to notice it before. -But-, he thought to himself, -I never had the chance, or burst of perverse curiosity, to look for one either.-
It was long, and thin, reaching down to her ankles. At its tip was a small triangle of flesh. It struck him as looking exactly like the tail seen on caricatures of devils. Jake was still staring as he walked, oblivious to the fact that Pixie had noticed his scrutiny of her anatomy.
“Does it surprise you?” she said with a slight flick of her tail. Jake’s head jerked up, a fumbling response already on his tongue. Oddly, the movement she’d made had struck him as flirtatious, even if it had not been intended that way. He scrubbed the thought from his mind as quickly as he could. After succeeding at that, he risked a response. “Uh… no. Why should it any more than wings?” he managed.
Jake did not get a response; he had not expected one.
After five more minutes they reached the pool. They exited the forest and walked out onto a large slab of weathered rock that overlooked the water, rising roughly eight feet above it. To one side the forest floor was level to the top of the rock and rose at a slight angle, forming a cliff of dirt and rock. On the other side, the right, a series of boulders formed an easily navigable path down to the water’s level. Pixie spoke up, taking his attention away from the surroundings.
“See that place over there, where the water looks clearer, and deeper?” Jake looked and saw it.
“It’s a spring, a hot one. It’s hot enough to kill you. The waterfall keeps most of the pool comfortable.”
“Ok. Thanks.” Before Jake realized what he was asking, he opened his mouth again.
“Is this the same pool I saw you in the other day?” He snapped his mouth shut and stepped back, embarrassment creeping up on him again.
“It is,” Pixie answered with a smirk. She went on, a grin forming, obviously unable to help herself, toying with him. “Did you see anything?”
“No nothing!” Jake said a little more forcefully and defensively than he meant. He was embarrassed further when she covered her mouth, suppressing laughter. Apparently the last time she had laughed at him reasserted itself in her memory and she stopped at once. This time Jake was not angry, and did not like the unhappy look that replaced her amusement.
“It’s all right. I guess I set myself up for that,” he said quickly.
Pixie turned from him, apparently relieved.
“I don’t know why I laughed. The last time I saw a human blush…” she said, catching herself at the end. Jake realized that she had been about to tell him something she didn’t really want to, so he did not ask her to finish. Instead he asked her about soap.
She turned and pointed behind them.
“The berries on those plants. If you crush them, they work the same way.”
Jake started toward the plant but she stopped him.
“It’s easier if you wrap them up in a piece of cloth. I’ll be right back.” With that she jumped, spreading her wings as she did. Jake was surprised at how compactly they had been folded against her back. At this range, he was able to notice tiny scars all over the skin between the “fingers”. Jake did not want to think about what might have caused that. He watched her fly over the treetops and out of sight before starting down to the pool.
He reached the edge where the water was shallow and smooth enough to show him a reflection. He removed his long-sleeved shirt, which had been torn a bit from his tumble when Pixie had needed to drop him on the shelf. His undershirt was less torn, and since it was black, the bloodstains were barely noticeable. Upon removing that, he was able to determine that the cuts he’d suffered were minor. The bruises, however, were different. There was one on his right shoulder he’d gotten when he’d run into the tree while running from Big Blue. He dimly remembered hitting the tree where there was a stub of a broken branch jutting out. That accounted for the size and severity of the bruise. There was another big one on his left hip that just peered above the waist of his jeans. That he must have gotten when rolling to a stop on the shelf. There had been plenty of rocks to slow him down. Jake found that his feet were unscathed.
He was about to remove his jeans when Pixie returned. She appeared to wince slightly when she got a good look at his chest.
“It looks worse than it feels,” he said at last. Her stare had begun to make him uncomfortable, but he supposed it was only fair considering where his eyes had been wandering no more than fifteen minutes earlier. Jake pointed to an object she held in her hand. “Is that the soap?” “Yes,” she said while handing it to him. “I didn’t crush them yet.”
Jake began to squeeze the bundled berries in his hand when Pixie took it from him.
“No, it’s better to use a rock, or your foot.” She dropped the bag onto the rock they were standing on and stomped on the bag a few times. Immediately Jake could smell the released juice. It was strong, like an overbearing perfume; reminiscent of the air inside the bed and bath shops he’d been in with his mother when he was little.
Jake bent to pick it up, noticing the slipperiness of the fluid beginning to seep from the bag. “Will this work on my clothes too?”
“I have a tub you can wash those in. You use the berries, but you just put them in the water. I’ll get it.”
“I’m sorry. I should have brought it up the first time and saved you a trip.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, turning to leave again.
“Pixie?” She turned back and Jake locked eyes with her.
“Thanks. For everything,” he said, trying to make it sound as meaningful as he now felt it. Pixie nodded once and took to the air. When she was gone, Jake removed his jeans and waded into the water. It was cool at the shore, but warmed the closer he drew toward the hot spot Pixie had warned him of. He soon found a place where he could still stand that had a comfortable temperature. He began to scrub, being mindful of the cuts and bruises. The soap stung a bit where it touched areas of raw skin or wounds that had been exposed. But it felt so much better to get clean. Jake was sure the feeling was all in his head, but it seemed that he became lighter as what felt like a week’s worth of dirt came off of him. When he finally convinced himself that he would not be seen, Jake reached down and pulled his shorts off. He knew he wouldn’t feel completely clean unless he got everything. He was just finishing when Pixie returned.
She left the metal tub and the water’s edge and quickly departed. Jake was glad that she didn’t stay around for conversation even though he was beginning to enjoy talking to her.
Jake washed his clothes until the water he rinsed them in stayed clean. He then laid them out on one of the rocks that would be exposed to the sun for many hours longer. After sunning himself until he was dry, he sat down in a shadier location to wait, covering himself with the blanket Pixie had left for him in the tub. He periodically emerged to turn his clothing over, or move it to a drier spot. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, and a nap a few hours long, his clothes were dry enough to wear. His timing had been just right. The sun had long since begun to dip below the trees when he woke. Before long it would set behind a distant mountain.
Jake returned to the tree, getting briefly lost in the process and only finding it with luck. When he arrived, he found Big Blue sitting next to it, keeping watch. A pile of wood was arranged next to him. He put a hand out to stop Jake when he approached the tree.
“Master Pixie is asleep. Do not wake her,” the rock man said in as much a whisper as he could manage.
“It’s all right, Blue, I wasn’t asleep,” Pixie said as she dropped out of the tree onto his shoulder. Big Blue turned his head to face her.
“I did not mean to wake you. I am sorry,” he said quietly, and with a touch of sadness.
“I’ve been awake for ten minutes. I wouldn’t have known you were there if you hadn’t spoke,” Pixie said, sitting down and placing a reassuring hand lightly to the rock man’s forehead.
Jake watched this quietly. It dismayed him that Pixie’s demeanor toward her friend made him jealous. He scolded himself, remembering that the two likely had a long history together. Pixie interrupted his thoughts when she addressed him.
“Are you hungry?”
“Yes, thanks.” Jake thought for a moment then added: “If you want, I’ll gather the food this time. I think I can recognize most of what you’ve brought me.” He thought he saw a faint smile briefly on her lips. Then she shook her head.
“Big Blue already took care of that. No fruits this time. We have fish and a type of root.” Jake nodded and pointed to the wood he had seen.
“I guess you have the means to make fire.”
To Jake’s surprise, Pixie only grinned and turned to face Big Blue again. He faced her and made a noise that appeared to be an expression of amusement. She patted him once on the head and jumped down from his shoulder. Big Blue reached over to the pile of wood and pulled away a few large pieces. He formed them into a smaller pile keeping one aside. He picked up the one piece, the smallest, and simply crushed it over the rest. Jake let out a low whistle at the feat, which had surely been simple for a ten-foot giant made of rock. What happened next, however, gave him one of the biggest shocks of his life.
Pixie walked up to the smaller pile that Big Blue had just made. She stood near it, extending her arm, the palm of her hand facing the wood. Jake saw her briefly glance in his direction.
With no warning, a thin stream of flame lanced out from her hand and directly into the small pile of wood. The kindling immediately caught and the stream of flame disappeared. She turned her head and smiled at Jake. He could only stand where he was, mouth agape.
“Holy shit,” he said softly.
He kept quiet for most of the meal, speaking only twice. The first time he commented on the roots Pixie had mentioned. He had told her that they had something nearly identical on her world. Then she surprised him by telling him they were called potatoes. The second time was when he realized that Big Blue was not going to eat, and not merely waiting for them to finished. The rock man simply said that he had already eaten.
Afterward the three of them sat silently watching the fire. Jake kept thinking of the way Pixie had started the fire. There was a great deal about her he didn’t know, and her little demonstration had made Jake far more interested in learning. He looked up from time to time at the two of them. Big Blue was seated against Pixie’s tree, in a position that was as close to cross-legged as Jake assumed was possible for him. Pixie sat between his legs, her own draped over Blue’s feet, and with her back resting against his stomach. Jake sensed the silence between them was familiar thing, and quite companionable. He elected again and again not to break it, even when he felt like talking, or asking questions.
After night had fallen, Jake woke from a brief doze. Big Blue was still watching the dying fire, but Pixie had fallen asleep. Her body had slipped to the side and her head and upper body were resting comfortably on Blue’s right knee. The rock man had apparently stopped feeding the fire, and that added to Jake’s impression that the situation before him and been going on for a long time. He felt the spark of jealousy briefly return. His own life, in his own world, had been devoid of such a friendship. Only a few of the people he knew passed the level of acquaintance. Those that did still kept a sort of distance. It was something that never bothered Jake a great deal. What he wouldn’t tell one friend, he would, most of the time, tell another. But not one relationship approached what he was seeing in front of him.
For ten minutes longer, Big Blue sat with his friend asleep in his lap. Finally the rock man gently eased the sleeping Pixie in his hand and stood. To Jake it looked like a regular man might look picking up an empty hummingbird egg while wearing a pair of hockey gloves.
Big Blue turned and set his friend on her branch in the tree. Although his back blocked Jake’s view, Blue’s hand movements suggested he was covering Pixie with a blanket. He stood where he was for a moment, apparently looking down on her, before turning and walking off into the forest without a word to Jake. He watched him go, still amazed at how quietly the rock man could move. His steps had been nearly soundless somehow. Jake stared at the point where Big Blue had disappeared into the trees before deciding to turn in himself.
He climbed the tree, pleased with himself for his own level of stealth and settled down on his branch. He looked up into the night sky, resolving to get an unobstructed view of it one night. He had a feeling he’d not be surprised by what he saw, whether the constellations were familiar or not. Before he fell asleep, Pixie spoke.
“Jake?” It was the first time she had used his name, and it was touching somehow.
“Did I wake you? I’m sorry.”
“No. Big Blue did. He does so half the time he puts me to bed. I never let him know. He’d feel too bad.”
“I know,” Jake said, remembering the way Blue had apologized earlier in the night when he thought he had awakened Pixie from her nap. After a moment of quiet, Jake said, “You’re his reason for existence.” It sounded like an exaggeration, but Jake thought he got the point.
“Now you can see why he calls me ‘master’. He is not very eloquent with words. Golems never are.”
“So calling you “master” is his way of showing respect and affection he cannot otherwise express.”
“Yes. You understand,” she said quietly.
“Why didn’t you want to talk about it before? When I asked if he was your servant.” For a moment Jake didn’t think she was going to answer.
“It hurts me. I’m the closest friend he ever had, but he’s still so lonely.” Pixie’s voice had begun to color with emotion and Jake was starting to cherish the connection they were having right then.
“So are you.” He was immediately unsure of why he had said that. But then he thought back to the fire, before Pixie had fallen asleep against Big Blue. He had looked into both of their eyes, unbeknownst to either. He was hardly gifted with empathy, but the expressions he had seen on each face were of contentment mixed with an equal measure of loneliness. It was as though there was hole within each that the other would never be able to fill, even if aware of it. Jake was thankful that Pixie did not ask him to elaborate. She had fallen silent again, and Jake knew the conversation, and therefore the connection, would cease if he didn’t keep it alive.
“I’m curious about you,” he said, not completely satisfied with the opening.
“Of course you are.” There was no arrogance or contempt in her voice.
“I want to know more about you… about the fire… and something else.”
“The fire is just one of my attacks.”
“One of my abilities, one of my powers. Every monster has at least one. Sometimes humans do too, but it’s very rare.”
“Especially where I come from,” Jake said. “How do you do it?”
“I can’t explain it to you.”
“Try me. We humans are smarter than we look.”
“No, I can’t, even if I wanted to try. It’s like you telling me how you walk, or breathe.”
“I take one step, then another,” Jake said, already knowing it wasn’t what Pixie had meant. “You just will it to happen, and it does, right?”
“I think I get it,” Jake said.
“Good.” Then she was silent again, but this time Jake could think of a way to keep the conversation going. He decided to give up for now, satisfied that some social progress had been made.
“What is the other thing you wanted to know?”
“What? Oh… that.” Jake was unsure if he should ask the question now on his mind. He finally decided that since there really would not be a good time for such a question, that he’d get it over with.
“Why to you hate human beings?” He was answered with a deep sigh, and immediately regretted asking. “I’m sorry, I…”
“I don’t hate you. Or Genki. Or his friend Holly,” she said.
“I don’t mean me, or any one person. I have the impression that you hate human beings as a whole. Why?”
“I don’t want to talk about this now. Please let it go.” Jake heard in her voice that she meant it.
“Will you tell me someday soon? Please?”
“All right,” Pixie said with another sigh.
“I can’t promise you that.”
“I’m not sure you do,” she said quietly. “It’s time to sleep now.”
“Ok,” Jake agreed. He would bring up the subject again at the next available opportunity. Unfortunately the answer to his question would not come as easily as he hoped.