Chapter Nineteen

The leaves rustle. Keone jumps backwards and stumbles on the hard ground. Meg clenches her hands and glowers in the direction of the noise. She tried to tell Keone that something would be watching them and waiting, but she should have decided to act instead of speaking. She closes her hands into fists and waits for the rustling to grow closer. But nothing jumps out of the leaves to attack as the noise fades, and she finds herself feeling foolish. Keone pulls the Shade closer, “Maybe this wouldn’t be the best place to spend the night after all.”

Meg turns her glower on Keone and it shrugs and takes a step back. A gilt of a pair of eyes catches her attention, and her glower turns into a scowl as she grabs Keone’s arm to drag it away from the strange tree it was surveying. Vines snap up from the ground in a circle around them and someone breaks into uncontrollable weeping. Meg twists around herself as her frustration tries to tear out of her, “What is this supposed to be?”

“You cannot… you cannot escape.” The voice is soft and choked with sobs, and Meg straightens up as she scowls at Keone, “Next time I tell you that we should find a different place; you will remember not to argue.” Keone gulps and ignores her demanding tone, “I- I didn’t know. I thought this would a great adventure. You know, like climbing ancient mountains and facing giant bugs.”

She glares at him, “Shh! Do you want everything around here to know exactly where you are?” Keone obediently closes its mouth, and she stalks up to the wall of vines, “Let us out before I find something to do to you.”

“I hardly think-“ She quiets Keone with a glare, and it retreats a few steps. She yanks at the first of the vines; it easily snaps in her hands, but another vine takes it’s place before she can see through the twisted green wall.

The Shade reaches toward her arm, “I-I do not think that you will be able to tear a way through.” Meg scowls, “Than you should be quiet.” Leaves rustle and someone chokes back a sob. She spins around and stalks toward the tree that leaded them into trouble in the first place, “Maybe this so-called magic tree can tell us how to get out of her?”

Keone starts to object and tell her that the tree is neither magic, nor do does it seem to be able to speak, but he snaps his mouth shut as the tree turns toward them. Meg tries to hold back a gasp and ends up taking a step back despite herself, “You’re a tree with a mouth after all of this time. Do you have any idea how much frustration you’ve caused? Why have you trapped us? Tell me now.”

The tree’s pale green face tilts as each of its branches bend to the side and their leaves rattle, “The wall of vines was not my doing. I am simply the bait.” Meg glowers at the tree, “Bait for what?” A pale green tear drips down the tree’s face, “For you; it is not personal. I have been here for as long as I can remember. And those vines have followed me for as long as I can remember. I cannot control them; I assure you that I have tried, but they do what they want.”

Meg’s scowl deepens and Keone moves forward to study the tree’s lower branches, “So you’re enchanted?” Meg snorts, “What sort of reality do you live in Keone? There’s no such thing as enchantment.” The tree bends away from Keone, “No; things can be enchanted, but I am not. I have always been like this, since I was just a seedling.”

Meg steps away from a reaching vine, “Will you convince your ‘vines’ to let us go, or are you incapable of that as well?” The tree bends toward the ground, “No; I have tried in the past. But I have not found a way. I could tell you what will happen to you, but I do not wish to speak of it. Please do not ask me.” Meg scowl turns into a frown and she yanks the Shade away from the tree, “You’re the one who brought it up: what will happen to us if we’re dumb enough to stay where we are?”

The tree sways from side to side with a shiver, “I do not wish to speak of it.” Meg straightens up as much as she can, “Than I demand you to.” The tree sighs, “I do not wish to. I am not enchanted, as your friend suggested I was, but I am as much of a slave as everyone here.”

Keone eye’s narrow, “Why would you be a slave? Not being able to control your vines- or whatever they are- only makes you complacent in whatever they do. It doesn’t turn you into a slave.” The tree’s leaves rattle, “You forget that you are not alone. I am not the only one who lives here, and I am not the only one who has been brought into the newest regime.”

Meg clenches her hands, “What kind of regime exists around here? The only regime I know of was destroyed eons ago; and you shouldn’t be the sort of being to tell lies. Unlike others who think they know everything.” Keone starts to argue, but the tree sweeps out a branch and places it in between the two of them, “The regime here has existed for thousands of years, which, to us, is a blink of an eye. I was born long before the war of ten, but I barely remember the old ways.”

Keone gulps, “That would make you thousands of years old.” A glimmer of a smile lights up the tree’s face, “Yes. But, according to our time measurements, I am still young.” Keone cranes his neck to try and peek between the intertwined vines surrounding them on all sides, “But where is everyone else like you? Are they already dead?”

Meg opens her mouth to try and pull it back to more important things, but the tree interrupts her, “Yes; most of my family have died in the only way that we know how: by shriveling our leaves and eroding from the frost that has started to reach this valley every year. I have survived, and I know that a few of my cousins have as well. But they fled to safer places many centuries ago. I was too nervous and worried about my vines to leave. They have kept me alive through the weather, but I fear that they will not continue to do so.”

The tree sighs, “Perhaps it is for the best. I have already lived long enough according to your laws.” Keone opens its mouth as though it can taste the tree’s words, “What laws? We don’t have any laws about aging. Most beings would kill to live as long as you have, and that’s not a joke.” Meg scowls and reaches out to pull Keone away from of the trees branches, “What do you think you’re doing Keone? We’re leaving; and ask your tree friend what its dustblown name is? I should know it for the time I need to yell for death to take it away.”

Keone lets her pull it away from the tree with a glower, “What do you think you’re doing whatever-your-name-is? It almost sounds like you’re starting to care about every else instead of just yourself. Could you go back to being a cold, stereotypical Hirpoun for a moment? Please. I’d like to know that I’m not going crazy. At least you’re still enough of a Hirpoun to be an idiot.”

She glowers at Keone’s upturned face, “Shut your sniveling little mouth. I’m certainly not beginning to care for you. Everyone can go off and die if they want to and I will not bother to chase after them.” The tree sniffles, “Please stop; you are already running out of time. My vines will have to eat soon.”

Keone jumps, “Eat? You’re going to eat us?” His voice rises into a shriek toward the end, and Meg grimaces. The tree widely sways from side to side, “No, no, not me. I will not eat you, but my vines have minds of their own. I cannot control them and they must eat. Everyone else who has wandered through that door and come this way in the last many years have been caught in my snare. I have always tried to warn them, I have never been able to succeed.”

The vines start to close over their heads and Meg yanks the Shade toward her, “You’ll climb through the vines and find a way out for us. Do you understand?” The Shade bobs its head, “I-I understand. B-but I do not think that I will be able to help you. I-I do not know anything about this place, except for the fact that it is beautiful.” Meg bares her teeth, “It might be beautiful, but it won’t be when you’re about to be eaten. And who do you think is going to do the eating?”

The Shade shivers and turns into wisps of smoke as it nears the wall and slips into the vines’ weave. Meg grits her teeth together and dares Keone to reprimand her, “How does it feel to know that your Shade finally has something to do other than hang around your feet?” Keone’s usually pale skin turns slightly blue, “She isn’t my Shade and no one’s hanging around my feet. Besides, it sounds like you’re not even trying to be mean; it’s unpleasant and I want you to stop.”

Meg jumps toward him before she can stop herself, “Shut your sniveling little mouth, or my niceness will be the last of your concerns.” The tree wipes a tear off of its face with a green branch, “You find that the word nice is an insult? The beings that are like you are strange indeed.”

Meg glowers and opens her mouth to answer, but Keone steps in front of her, “She’s a Hirpoun; her entire race prides themselves as criminals and idiots.” Meg grabs the back of Keone’s shirt and yanks it into her arms, “Should I show you what I actually am? You’re a black hole of a civilization, and that means you aren’t worth what’s given to you.” Keone squirms and she tightens her grip, “My race prides themselves as criminals? You should look at your own: everyone from your planet would destroy my entire race without thinking. Your insensitivity will be your death when the time comes. You can be sure of that.”

Keone twists its head around, “I’m not insensitive! You’re the one who is holding me captive and telling me that you’re going to kill everyone like me. That’s insensitive.” A laugh rises in her throat and she does not dare to stop it, “The only thing that’s holding you captive is you’re your own dim nature. You think you’re the perfect race? You think you’re great and an excellent example of a perfect being that can feel everything without feeling anything at all? That’s exactly the opposite of what you are.

“As for me, more than half of my race in this entire galaxy is rotting underneath the floorboards of where ever your perfect civilization of inclusive, kind, beings is. The last thing you are is kind!” She presses her forearm into Keone’s throat and it gulps in fear, “I’m not a criminal! And I’m sorry about your ‘entire race’ or whatever it is. But I’m sure it’s for the better.”

She lets go of Keone and watches it slump to the ground, “Of course it is, because the only thing a Hirpoun could ever become is a harbinger of the deaths of everyone else. Everyone else can live together, but Hirpoun should be put to death. Is that right? Is it impossible for anything else to be?” Keone stands up and rubs its throat with a grimace, “I didn’t mean it like that. But, since you asked, I may as well tell the truth: yes; Hirpound are nothing more than horrible. But, if you’re so bothered by what other beings say, why don’t you change and do something different?”

She laughs again and grins at it, “Maybe I should; maybe I should tell you exactly why you think you’re the greatest being who has ever lived. And maybe I should show you how bad you are Cherbyids. Do you think I’m going to change for you? No. I want to be exactly like the ancestors of mine that you used to run from and scream until you were mocking your own ancestors.”

She steps back and raises her hands to the sky before Keone can defend itself, “The great prophesier of your century, the one and only Cherbyids Keone: are you too afraid to defend yourself? Are you going to stand there and pretend that you can’t see your own destruction? I think I’m going to miss the way you keep cowering once you’re dead.”

Keone grits its teeth, “Will you stop saying things like that? They’re rude and I don’t want to hear about how much you believe in yourself!” The tree breaks into a fresh wave of tears behind them, “Please stop arguing; your friend the Shade is standing on the other side of my vines and waiting for you; if you keep arguing, it will be too late.”

Meg grits her teeth together and grabs onto Keone’s arm and yank it toward the vines. It yelps as she pulls it closer and jumps into the twisted wall. She closes her eyes in mid-air and tries to hope for the best. Something slips against her shoulders, and a crack hurtles through the air.

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