The morning started off blissful and serene. The sun served as a natural alarm clock to the inhabitants of the Minut Forest. And then the rain took over. The storm seemed like there was an emergency to empty the bowels of the clouds. But the rain felt good; Cantha’s roots took in every drop. She could feel the moisture rejuvenating her entire system. The rain drops were pelting her leaves in a rhythmic beat. This was the percussion of the forest and her trees. The melody was the wind flowing through her branches. The harmony was the soft whispers of the trees as they danced and swayed in unison.
Cantha watched the scene unfold in the sky from her vantage point on Firma. She was the tallest tree. She also happened to be the largest. Her canopy rose high above those who stood in servitude to their leader. She usually was aware of any event going on below, or above, her forest. Creatures didn’t enter her dominion without her permission, nor did they leave without her say so. Rivers did not flow along her forest floor without it first benefiting her or her trees. One may enter the forest, but there’s usually a toll to pay. That toll would be payment in kind for her generosity.
She witnessed the young Prophet as he exploded into hundreds of lightning bolts. She had immediately feared for her trees. Rain happens quite often on Gijar, but is not usually associated with lightning. The energy on the ground more than makes up for the lack of energy in the atmosphere, yet he had done it; the young Prophet had channeled the light to his advantage. One minute he was flying higher than anything living, and the next minute he had vanished. Except, did he?
She could sense activity in the air; a buzz that couldn’t be heard by the naked Gemin ear. Her ears were not those of the Gemin any longer. They were stronger and more in tune. Cantha had plenty of time to listen to each and every sound in her immediate surroundings. This was not the sort of power with the same amount of potency that she was accustomed to. She no longer had ears of the traditional sense. Those appendages had long since been covered by bark, but she sharpened and honed the senses Sokara had neglected to strip her of those many moons ago. She used mathematics and intuition to come to her auditory conclusions. Just by being able to feel a rumble in her roots divided by how long it took the repetition to repeat itself was usually the distance an object was away from her; the faster the beat, the closer the object. This time it was different. The object wasn’t on the ground or in flight – it was one with the air.
Could it be that we have a God among us here in the forest? thought Cantha. She wasn’t accustomed to receiving visitors. Sure…the town folks would pay homage to Cantha for her shade and her gifts from the forest. The Gemin would walk up to her and place their hand upon her tree trunk to offer her solace or thanks. This gesture was always followed by a silent word that she could hear some times, but not all the time. She never was exactly sure why she could get a clear reception for some of these people, and hear nothing from the others. Their warm hand on her trunk, though, was thanksgiving enough for her.
But she could hear something beyond the buzz in the air and the sparks of light connecting with the dew from the rain. A distress call, a hurried voice, a passing thought. The static passed by her once. And then twice. Like a bee hurriedly rushing to get its pollen to the hive before he drops it all. A third time. On the fourth passing she could faintly grasp it, “help me I have to find some place to hide get out of this place I’m trapped help me help me help ME!”
So she screamed, “HERE!”
The voice sounded like it was from another dimension entirely, “I need help. I need a place to hide. I need to get away. Help me. Help me.” It sounded so desperate. And it sounded like a male voice. Not a male voice in his older years, but a younger one just recently advancing to his adult stage.
Again, she screamed, “HERE!” to the voice in the wind. His desperation was beginning to make her desperate.
Before she could properly release the R from the end of her tongue, a flash of lightning pierced the damp forest ground sending jolts of electricity through the roots of the surrounding trees and sparks to pip and pop on the surface. The sparks kept snapping and hopping until they all formed an electric current that formed a perfect circle inches above the ground. Bolts of lightning flamed out of the circle to reach for the sky as a form slowly stood in the middle of the oval ring of light. He spread his wings and stretched his arms to their fullest extent while the light he had just come from was consuming him. More lightning gathered to strike the form that now stood in front of Cantha in the Minut Forest.
Dice opened his eyes and tilted his head so he could smell a bit better into the wind. “Is something burning?” He was genuinely concerned that a fire was lit somewhere in the forest. The oval light had now gone. Dice had absorbed the brilliance and the lightning. There he stood, all in white with a glow about him that transformed the forest from an atmosphere of morning dawn to mid-afternoon on the surface of the Sun.
“Yes, Your Worship, you are burning,” said Cantha.
Dice looked around the forest to seek out the female voice that was talking to him. He didn’t see anyone about. All he saw was trees, and those were everywhere. To the left, to the right, everywhere he looked there was a tree.
“I’m getting to be a pro at burning,” he chuckled a little, but was the only one at the moment that even understood his witty little quip. He shook aside the silent applause he had imagined for himself to ask, “Is anyone here? I can hear you, but I can’t see you.”
“But I stand before you. The Minut Forest and I welcome you,” said Cantha.
“I don’t see anyone, just a tree. A huge tree stands before me. Are you on the other side?” asked Dice.
“I am the tree, Your Worship. I am known as Cantha. I stand before you in your service.”
Dice looked directly at the tree head-on. Then he scanned the tree, first up and then down. “Get out! A tree is talking to me?” Dice couldn’t believe that now he can hear trees talking to him. “This planet keeps getting weirder.” he said as he walked up to the large Dorian tree.
“I was first Gemin before I became a tree, Your Worship. I have heart and soul just as you.” she answered.
“Please call me Dice. I’m not used to this ‘Your Worship’ business. I just started the job yesterday,” said Dice as he stretched his hand out to touch the side of Cantha’s trunk. He then added, “How did you become a tree?”
“Come inside and I will explain all, Dice. It would be wise to shadow your light before your search party finds you. Your light is a large beacon for all to see outside of the forest, but your eminence burns even brighter among the trees.” said Cantha.
“Come inside? A tree? How do you suppose I do that?” he asked.
“I must invite you in,” Cantha said, and at that very moment the surface roots began to rumble and shake the forest floor surrounding her. Dice used his wings to flit up out of harm’s way as the roots first rose, and then spread from the ground. Near the bottom of the tree trunk, the outer bark flipped open leaving the inner bark exposed. This inner bark then rotated to reveal a winding staircase that led up to the innermost part of the tree that was talking to him. The staircase within a tree, at first, surprised Dice. Then he realized that the tree was larger than any house he’d ever encountered. He supposed that there could be living quarters within this normal looking tree. He immediately thought about Marcus and his lame tree house back home made out of cardboard boxes with a rope hanging on the lowest branch as the way to gain entry. What he was staring at now was quite impressive. “Step in. You will be safe in my care,” Cantha said as she made herself vulnerable for her Prophet.
As Dice would’ve imagined, the stairs were made out of wood. The banister was wood as well. This was no surprise to him since he was in a tree. He would’ve been surprised if there was glass or stone. The staircase wound around and around the pith of the tree. He accidentally touched the side as he was making his ascent; it felt like human flesh and was just as warm. The staircase seemed to have consumed the entire smell of the forest. If there was ever a smell within the confines of a forest, it was all being displayed here for his olfactory pleasure. He literally could smell the rain and the sun, the damp and the dry, the green and the brown – all combined into one element of potpourri. He subconsciously tucked his white wings in closer to his frame so he wouldn’t bump them along the lining of the trunk, but then realized that wasn’t necessary. The tree was, somehow, a hidden castle, and after turning and winding up the wooden beams for more minutes than he cared to count, he was still climbing. And then – a landing.
This castle he’d found himself in was much more to his liking. It wasn’t as stuffy as the castle his Father and Mother roam around in. Their castle up high on the rocks was like a museum. This one, even though just as grand, was more to his liking. Every where he laid his eyes was wood. The walls were wood; the floor was wood and had the most impeccable shine. Even the furniture was made of wood. There seemed to be only one very expansive level, but it rose up as high as Dice could see. There didn’t seem to be a ceiling at all. The grand clock on the wall, also made of wood, had stopped. The cobwebs that bound the hands together at 6:30 looked like they had been there since the dawn of time. That was the only sign of times gone by within this crazy tree house. Everything else was impeccably clean and polished. Dice had to wonder if there was some sort of cleaning staff in this hidden tree house.
He lightly fingered the vacant wooden chair that sat in the lead position next to a wooden end table. It took him only a moment to notice there were no windows and, therefore by default, there would be no light. He looked at the finger he was using to caress the chair and then flicked it. Dozens of tiny white lights flitted off into what would have been darkness had it not been for his brilliant aura. The snapping and ticking noises the white lights made as they searched for the darkest recesses of the tree were deafening, but only because there were no other noises to be heard within the bowels of the trunk.
“That’s an admirable trick, Dice,” said the female voice in the darkness. Dice searched his surroundings to locate the source of the sultry sound. She was nowhere to be found. Her voice, however, permeated every crack and every crevice within the tree.
“I didn’t even know I could do that until just this moment.” said Dice. He continued, “Are you somewhere I can actually see you? “
“I am tens of thousands of moons old. I highly doubt you’d want to confront an old witch like me. I offered you safe haven and you now have it. Is that not enough?” Cantha’s voice was soothing, melodic. Dice thought to himself that she certainly doesn’t sound old and she definitely doesn’t sound like any witch he’s known. Although, he’s not known many, come to think of it.
“I really do like to look at whoever I’m talking to in the eyes. I wouldn’t mind seeing you. I don’t really care how old you are. And I’ve seen witches before. Or, at least, people that should be witches if they weren’t. It doesn’t scare me.” was his answer.
He didn’t get to completely finish his sentence before the pith of the tree nearest the darkest area of the tree began to come to life. The bark bubbled from underneath the first layer. Dice thought it to look like the air bubbles caught in a water balloon back home. At first, he saw hands try to stretch through the tree’s inner-membrane. Then a leg, followed by a foot, appeared from behind the pith. Her hips came along for the ride, as well as the rest of her upper torso. Finally her head popped out. She exhaled as if the tree had effortlessly given birth to a full-grown woman.
Her skin was bronze and slick with moisture. What that moisture was, Dice couldn’t say. Her hair was well on its way to touching the back of her knees. She stood in front of Dice without a stitch of clothing on, yet she wasn’t naked. Instead of some sort of material hanging in places to keep one’s imagination in check, moss had grown. What was standing in front of him – inside this bizarre tree house – was a full grown woman made out of wood; and she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. He wondered how this could possibly be a witch?
“My entrances leave a lot to be desired. I apologize for the apprehension. I don’t get to visit with very many travelers of the forest, much less the universe.” said Cantha.
Dice continued to stare at her. There was an awkward moment that he really didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t sound completely stupid on his part. He took a moment to gather his senses and then began, “Uh, yeah. Hi. You have no reason for apprehension. Are you sure you’re a witch?”
“I’m quite certain. My chosen career path is what has brought me to this predicament. Fortunately for me, I was in my prime the night Sokara chose to demonstrate her anger in my direction for the fault of her commitment.” said Cantha.
Dice had no idea who Sokara was or why she was angry. He expressed his simplicity to Cantha who then took it upon herself to fill him in on the past and how it carried through to the present. They both spent countless hours enjoying each other’s new-found company while the wooden clock on the wall reminded them that the time inside the tree house was forever 6:30. Dice felt at home. In fact, he felt more at home here with Cantha than he ever felt at home in his own room back in Omaha. Omaha…that seemed like a lifetime ago.
Cantha didn’t want Dice to leave. The idea of staying was in the back of Dice’s mind because here, in this tree, the voices had stopped pleading with him and asking him questions. It was sweet relief. At the beginning of this adventure, Dice did have the thought that entering the tree would be some sort of trap. He was pleasantly surprised that it was a trap that he didn’t mind being in.
And then he had an even deeper thought; what if her putting him so at ease was the trap she laid out for him and he fell right into it? He chuckled to himself as he flew out of the Dorian tree that had held him sweetly captive for the better part of eight hours. The gloaming was just about to cover the forest in its announcement of dusk’s arrival. He had spent the entire day talking with a woman made out of wood. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought either he was certifiably insane or he was asleep on his twin bed in his grandparent’s house in the suburbs of Omaha.
As he flew out of the tree and into the sky, he looked down on the great Dorian. He noticed little lights shimmering along the tree branches. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the light was actually a mixture of soft light added to the Gijarian Sun reflecting off the backs of golden scarabs. Had those creatures come from under his skin when he flicked his fingers? Or had they been here in this tree all along? It was hard to come to any conclusion on this planet that seemed so very odd to Dice. He supposed he would get used to it – in time.
Higher into the sky he flew. It wasn’t long until he saw red wings heading in his general direction followed by a set of golden wings.
“Your absence is unacceptable!” spouted Nicandro via brainwaves even before Dice had laid eyes on him in the sky.
“I know, Nic. Spare me. I’m heading to the Temple right now.” conceded Dice. He didn’t want to argue. This was his first day; he didn’t want to make a horrible first impression on the priest’s that had been expecting him.
He joined the Waryn and Nicandro until the search party had, once again, surrounded him. They led him to the Temple where Dice was to rest. Everyone was concerned that he had had a terrible day lost on a planet that was new to him. The funny thing was, he had the time of his life. He made a mental note to visit Cantha, and often, as he slipped into his comfortable chambers in the sky.
Down on Firma, Cantha was thinking different thoughts. They weren’t of joy or of peace. They were thoughts of war and decay and pestilence. Dice was friendly enough, sure. It was even pleasant to actually have a conversation with someone real for a change, but Cantha was far too seasoned to let anything – or anyone – stand in the way of her deserved revenge. Cantha tried to extract information from Dice as to Sokara’s whereabouts. If only Cantha could use her agents to get to Sokara’s mound to destroy her. But first, she would have to know that location. Dice knew nothing of the Black Witch. He had never encountered her. And he wasn’t faking the lack of information for if he had known her, there would have been fear in his eyes for her. He would absolutely know Sokara’s lust for blood. There was no question about that. Dice knew nothing which, in turn, made him a bit useless to Cantha.
Or is he? Cantha thought as she prepared herself for the night.