Sperri stopped, stunned by the terrible sight that stood before her. The old tree stood, a large portion of its trunk shattered, in the center of the grove it had once dominated with its majesty. The saplings that had sprung from its fruit seemed straggly and weak, bowed as though grieving the demise of their parent. It was a dreadful sight.
When Sperri had first discovered the tree, it had taken her over an hour to walk around. She had spent a month exploring its branches and still not reached the top. The portion she had explored had left her feeling as though she had discovered an island in the sea of trees that made up her homeland of Naroom. For all she knew, the tree might have been standing when the Moonlands were still young.
Sperri contemplated the cliff-like expanse of its trunk and thought back to how it had looked in those earlier times. The tree had grown some since she had first discovered it, its mysteries expanding as well. Now, with a gash in its side large enough to house a family of giant carillions, it looked as though its growing days were over.
Staring at the gash, Sperri felt as though the heart of her world had been ripped away. This tree had stood since long before she had been born. It had given her shelter when she had sought to escape the other children in the Paw. She stumbled forward. The old tree still stood, in spite of the ugly black gouge that had seared its side; perhaps it still lived. If she touched it, she would know.
The grove was silent, and the quiet wasn't the usual friendly quiet she had come to expect. Something terrible had happened here, but she could not think of what might have caused such damage; her friend had been destroyed. Drawing near to the base, Sperri found no comfort among the roots that formed walls rising above her. Today they seemed more like the walls of an enclosing trap than the arms of a mother she had lost long ago. Today the tree seemed to be dragging her into its grasp, instead of offering her comfort.
The gash reached to the forest floor and, as Sperri reached the tree's base, she could see that the roots that enclosed her were scarred and burned. Not even the swift-growing moss that covered most wounds in the forest had found the time to grow here. These wounds could have been made yesterday, this morning, or not less than two hours ago.
Still wary of the gaping maw the gash presented, Sperri inched towards the nearest of the blackened wound. Slowly, she reached out a hand and laid it at the point where the nearest buttressing root would have joined the base of the trunk. For a long moment, she felt nothing, then she thought she sensed a fleeting pulse of life.
Excited by the hope that her friend might still live, Sperri moved forward, shifting her hand to what would once have been just inside the tree's base. She stood still once more, trying to relax so that she could better sense another beat of life. Again, she felt a fleeting trace. It was hard to be certain. Maybe if she moved further into the wound.
Sperri glanced upwards, thinking that the dark-edged injury looked like an archway rising above her, or a very narrow door in the shape of a triangle. She pushed the image of a sawtooth's slowly closing jaws firmly from her mind.
If her friend still lived... If she could be certain of that brief flicker of life, she could find the Warden, perhaps bring the forest Healer. She stepped cautiously into the last angular patch of light and fumbled with the straps of her daypack. Perhaps a light would be wise, if she wished to tread further towards the tree's heart.
Her lantern was carefully stored to avoid breakages, and took a little time to unwrap. She moved quietly, so as not to attract the attention of whatever lay behind the silence. When the lantern's magically constant light was freed from its wrappings, Sperri was amazed by what she saw.
Whatever had caused the tree's injury had burned deeply, lancing in through the side and boring its way through the center of the trunk. Small, dark tunnels had split away from the main burn and scorched their way from its center. To Sperri's surprise most of these seemed to radiate upwards, as though the tree had been struck from within rather than outside.
She glanced about. The tree's heart could not be upwards, she decided, having seen the trees that had been cut level to the ground sprout new branches from their stumps. Its heart had to rest somewhere below the ground, in the middle of the tap root that was the key to its survival. Fortunately for her, whatever disaster had befallen her refuge had not burnt cleanly, the slant of the gash was as littered with ridges and ripples as any forest valley.
Looking down that slope, Sperri reached for the length of rope that she carried with her. Since she was going into the heart of the tree, she did not want to risk falling and dropping the lantern. If there was any hope of life left in the old tree, she did not want to be the one to leave it in ashes. With the rope securely tied to an outcrop of root, Sperri began to pick her way down into the center of the burn.
The going was tough, with jagged spikes thrusting out from the sides, as though someone (or something) had burrowed up from the root. Where such a creature might have gone, Sperri could not guess. It had left no trail save the ravaged trunk with its splintered bark and shattered heart-wood.
It was difficult going. Sperri found herself spending as much time moving sideways as down. The damaged root structure wasn't secure enough for her to release the rope and retie it lower. At what she guessed to be almost thirty feet she stopped; the rope had run out. Sure that she would soon reach the tree's heart, Sperri decided against climbing back to the surface and returning to her village for more rope. She continued the climb by setting the lantern securely on one ledge, before moving until she had found a ledge lower down on which to place it. By now the incline had become steeper, and narrower, and the thready pulse of life more tangible.
Stopping to catch her breath, Sperri realized that the walls of the gash had changed. No longer was she travelling inside the tree's tap-root, but beside it. If she wanted to find the tree's heart, she was going to have to climb back up, closer to where the tree's trunk met the earth. She was close, could sense the heart beating - ?and if it was beating, she knew it could be healed. Truth be told, healing wasn't Sperri's strong point ? that was exploring, but she knew that the Healer would need more of a description of the tree's injuries if the woman were to properly prepare to pay the tree a visit.
Sperri looked sideways to where the surface of the gash grew fibrous. That roughened outline, seen clearly in the lantern's light, marked where the root-layered earth ended and the exterior of the root began. It wasn't too far away. Sperri hung there, growing more conscious of the seemingly unending drop below her as she thought.
When she began to move again, it was downward, away from the main root ?and it was with growing caution as the shifting soil and narrow branches of root made the climbing a matter of care.
Now it was more curiosity as to what lay at the bottom of the gash, rather than her need of proof for the Healer, that drove Sperri on. If something had damaged the forest giant from the below, then perhaps she had better prepare a report for the Keeper, as well as the Healer. She could always search one of the branching crevices for the tree's heart on her way back up. With this plan fixed firmly in her mind, Sperri continued her descent, barely noticing when the stony earth between the tree's roots gave way to rock. Handholds remained precarious, and the strain of the climb was beginning to make itself felt.
Sperri had just placed the lantern on a wedge-shaped ledge when her foot slipped. Slapping the palm of her hand on the ledge, and flailing with her loose foot, Sperri tried to steady herself. Once again, she was glad of the hide gloves that protected her hands. While they reduced the sensitivity of her fingers and made finding handholds more challenging, they protected her fingertips from the sharp edges of splintered root and rock as she climbed.
With two hands and one foot firmly lodged against the side of the gash, Sperri did not panic. It was only when the sound of sliding stone, and the sudden downward shift of her foot signalled the loss of her last foothold that she realized how much trouble she was in.
She thought of the rope, dangling above a wide ridge of torn root structure, and wished she'd been able to carry more. The ledge on which the lantern sat stayed firm beneath one hand, but she was losing her grip on the narrow crevice to her left as rock began to crumble beneath her fingers. Sperri knew she would have to climb back to the lantern's ledge and find another way down. And if she couldn't find another way down without the rope, she would have to go back to the surface, her report incomplete, and come back better prepared. Making sure her right hand retained its grip beside the lantern, Sperri slipped her left out of the crevice and felt down for another ridge of root or rock. When she had found one, she curled her fingers over its lip and pulled down to test it.
The ridge gave way and Sperri flailed wildly for the ledge on which the lantern sat. Once both hands were holding securely to the lip of that ledge, Sperri fixed her gaze on the magical light of the lantern, and began searching for somewhere to rest her right foot. When she found nothing that would even support so much as her little toe, she began searching with her left foot.
A few moments later, she began to panic in earnest. Closing her eyes against the lamplight, she concentrated on placing her weight on her left hand. Perhaps she could move her right hand to a lower grip. When that failed, she tried searching with her left hand. More aware than ever that her arms were tiring, Sperri tried to force herself to be patient. If she rushed the search now, or accepted a weak hold, she would fall whatever distance was left to the bottom of the gash.
A muscle spasm ripped along her supporting arm. Her left hand slammed into rock face instead of the ledge above as her right hand convulsed and let go. She watched as the lamp light dwindled to a gleaming yellow star and then disappeared above her.
"Oh, this is so not a good thing," she muttered. Arms flailing, she scraped against the sides of the gash. Part of her mind wanted her to try and grab hold, while the other part reminded her that landing relaxed would increase her chances of survival... if she didn't land on rocks, if the fall wasn't more than ten or twenty feet, if the landing was soft, if...
Cool air rushed past and she wondered if there was a convenient underground stream waiting to catch her. Best to relax then, if she could, the water...
Maybe the relaxation helped, but certainly landing on a pile of ash and root debris saved her. Either way it took some time before she was sure she could breathe again, and than a little while longer before she worked out that the crater she was lying in had been made by the impact of her landing.
She registered a growing patch of dampness that had bled through her trousers and shirt to her skin. It occurred to her, through the dull ache that seemed to encompass her, that she was thirsty. Slowly she sat up, and a moment later she found that neither the skin at her belt, nor the spare she carried in her daypack, would ever hold water again. She was glad that Pruitt was not there to tease her about her accident.
The dampness made her shiver as she clambered shakily to her feet. She found herself on a ledge in a vast cavern, softly lit by phosphorescent fungus. What she saw below made her sit down again.
How many years, she wondered, had it taken the tree to grow roots down to this cavern of rock? How many centuries of falling leaves and fruit had there been since the structure on the cavern's floor had last been on, or anywhere near the surface level?
She sat on the edge of the ledge and stared at the sight below.
Sperri reached for her bag of trail mix as she stared at the secret hidden at the forest giant's feet, and found that it, too, had ruptured in the fall. Amidst the scattered dried fruit and nuts, her fingers encountered a single jellybean. In the darkness of this cavern, the bean glowed green. To Sperri's wary gaze a purple striation marred the jellybean's perfection. If it had been a new fruit, growing on a strange plant, she wouldn't have eaten it.
As it was, she thought of Evu, and paused a long slow moment before finally putting the jellybean in her mouth. The candy had been the diminutive sage's favorite sweet. Sperri sighed; she missed the long chats they used to share whenever she came back from a long trip. Discovering new flavors for his favorite candy had been one of the high points of her trips.
Sperri grimaced as she crushed the candy between her teeth and searched for another in the trail mix. After a couple of minutes searching, she gave up and gathered a handful of fruit and nuts. Stuffing them in her mouth, she began a careful, sliding descent to the cavern floor. She had no doubt that she was still just below the tree, but this great, hollow chamber deserved the name cavern anyway. She eyed the mysterious structure in the cavern's center with caution, and stopped to think about what to do next.
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