Element of the Abstract: Chapter Ten
The woods were mainly hemlock and hardwood, with a majority of the hardwoods having little to no leaves left. As the afternoon faded into evening, a thin fog settled between the trees, dampening the hair and clothes of everyone and obscuring everyone’s vision but Sebastian’s; he had always had a knack for detecting things in the fog. A chilly wind swept through the leafless canopy every few moments, causing the lingering mist to drift listlessly onward in its journey to wherever.
Osryn was a little uncomfortable, having been very much an indoor-oriented man his entire life. If Daniela hadn’t been dragging him camping every year since college, Osryn likely would not have even owned most of the materials he ended up needing tonight. The kids, on the other hand, did not seem fazed at all. Adelaide seemed warm enough in her thick wool sweater that Anna had knitted for her, and Sebastian wore a cotton peacoat that Daniela had bought him for his sixteenth birthday. Osryn had elected to wear his usual cloak, even though both children reminded him it would hinder his movement in battle. It was a comfort thing. He was fine with any downsides.
They made their first few miles of headway rather quickly, as Urta walked abnormally fast. Sebastian kept up with ease, but Adelaide and Osryn expended some energy keeping up with their brisk pace. That said, it was understood that the quicker they could cover ground, the quicker they would make it to Solelio. Urta would periodically consult a compass and map, which Osryn realized he hadn’t thought to pack. What if something happened and they needed to split up from Urta? It was too late to have these regrets now, they were leaving familiar ground, even for the children. By the time the sun was setting, the forest began to thin and the tree composition shifted slightly.
“Take a look at this place,” Urta said. “I saw it on my way here. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The Selds emerged in a grassy clearing by a large, shimmering lake. It wasn’t yet cold enough that the water would freeze, and the wind created the slightest of stillwater currents on the surface. What was truly mesmerizing wasn’t the lake itself, though, but the countless mountain lupine that bloomed along its edge. All three Selds were overcome with awe. Even Osryn, who had ventured further in general than his children, was taken aback by how beautiful it was. In the distance, across the lake shrouded by sheets of fog, Mount Astella loomed, covered in a patchwork of leafless deciduous trees and evergreen pines, but for a large rock face that was exposed near the peak. Urta was smiling and nodding, arms crossed. “See, I told you. It’s absolutely breathtaking.”
“I’ve… never seen anything so beautiful in my life…” Adelaide gasped. “How much have I been missing out on?”
Sebastian had no words, but he gazed out upon the vista with all eyes wide. Then, Adelaide jabbed him with both her left elbows and he groaned.
“I bet you get a way nicer view than the rest of us,” she teased. “Like a whole panorama.”
Chuckling, Sebastian quirked an eyebrow. “You know, you may be right about that.”
“Does anyone else hear buzzing?” Osryn spoke up, unsure if he was just going crazy or if there truly was a steady buzz that seemed to only be getting louder. Everyone went quiet for a moment, and yes, it didn’t seem like the normal kind of ambient chittering of assorted insects from within the shoregrass. It was too late in the season for mosquitos, but flying insects never bit the children anyway.
Adelaide nodded. “Yeah, I think I hear it…”
“Uh, I think I see it!” Sebastian pointed across the lake, where a dark cloud was hovering over the near-stagnant water and steadily approaching.
“What in blazes is that?” Osryn asked Urta, somehow figuring he would know, but he shrugged helplessly. Osryn sighed and Adelaide was readying her weapon.
“Whatever it is, we can’t assume it’s our friend,” she said, and everyone else followed suit, preparing for the potential fight. Urta had a strange weapon in his hand… a gun. No one was legally able to own one in Lunora, but it was manufactured there for transportation to places further west. Osryn had only ever seen one in Daniela’s secret safe, where she kept an illegal collection of antique firearms, none of which she had ever used. It alarmed Osryn slightly to see such a deeply detested weapon, but from the way Urta held it, it seemed he had a fair idea how to use it, which almost relieved some of Osryn’s anxiety. Urta lowered the gun, however, when the adversary came into clearer view and it became obvious his weapon would not be helpful. The cloud was, in fact, a swarm of black flies.
“Curse me,” Adelaide muttered. “There’s no way those aren’t for us.”
“Hey, calm down, okay?” Sebastian said. “We don’t ever get bit by bugs, remember?”
It seemed that this particular swarm had a different modus operandi. As soon as the cloud reached the shore and the buzzing rang in their eardrums, the flies started biting at whatever open flesh they could find. The four of them ran around in a frenzy, Adelaide batting as many of them away as she could with her staff. Urta hid in his jacket and Osryn attempted to swat at them with his cloak, but they only dug into the folds of his clothing, nibbling on his arms and torso. Sebastian stopped trying to fight them away, instead gripping his wand in front of him and closing his eyes. He breathed deeply, connected his own energy to that of the wand, and once combined, he felt strong enough that his command would hold if he said it.
“Disperse. Leave us alone, dear friends. We mean no harm.”
Perhaps it was a loyalty such as those the ants showed to Adelaide back when she was a toddler, or perhaps the flies were simply bewildered that this human could understand their language. Either way, as Sebastian focused and repeated the phrases, more and more of them began to break off the swarm and buzz off into the forest. Adelaide smacked a few dozen more down with her staff and before long, every single one of the flies had left the clearing and the buzzing faded off into the distance. Sebastian breathed heavily, having fallen to his knees from the strain, and his eyes behind his tangled hair were wild.
“I did it!” He gasped, clutching his wand to his chest. “Did you see that?! They listened to me! They all listened to me!”
Adelaide, still somewhat shaken, poked and prodded at some of the fly bites on her neck and chin. Luckily, they were all rather small. “How did this happen? We’re immune to bug bites! Or, well, I thought we were… we always have been.”
“I don’t think those were ordinary bugs…” Osryn muttered. His bites were the worst of anyone, dotting almost every inch of his exposed skin. “They were attacking us. Don’t you think they might be connected somehow to this den?”
Adelaide nodded solemnly. Sebastian rose from the ground, still grinning with his wand in hand. “Did you see that, dad? I controlled those flies! All of them!”
Osryn nodded, offering his son a smile. “Yes, you did. Well done.”
That was good enough for Sebastian, and he continued to ride the high. Urta finally spoke up.
“You guys look awful.” Urta took the large backpack off and knelt down, rummaging through it for a moment before pulling out a first aid kit. “Here, let me take care of some of those bites. Osryn, you first.”
The twins had wandered off to the lakeshore and were talking amongst themselves. Reluctantly, Osryn walked over to him and sat down. His face was the most affected, and Urta immediately applied a thin layer of ointment. Osryn narrowed his eyes, examining the skin of Urta’s forearm. “Any reason you don’t seem to have been bit?”
Urta seemed taken aback, looking at his own arm as though this were news to him. “Not sure. I’ve never been very prone to bug bites. Maybe I just taste bad?”
Osryn didn’t buy it, but the cool cream felt so good on his red swollen face. He watched as Urta focused on his work, taking great care not to use too much pressure.
“You know, I’m pretty sure we’re in for a rather rough journey...” Urta admitted. “I believe this is far from the last wound of yours I will treat.”
“Are you skilled medically?” Osryn asked.
Urta nodded. “More than most. I was once an ER nurse.”
Osryn’s eyes widened. “Wow. That must have been… difficult.”
“That’s an understatement...” Urta said, pausing for a moment. “But, it readied me for some of the things I’ve been seeing lately. The violence. The damage.”
“So, it truly is as bad as you say?” Osryn asked, and Urta nodded.
“Obviously.” He sighed, moving on to treating Osryn’s hands and forearms. “You’ll see for yourself soon enough.”
Osryn swallowed and was silent for a moment. “I dread the moment I do…”
“Your children are cooler-hearted than you are,” Urta said. “They’re ready for the danger, for the thrill. I think they look forward to it.”
“I know...” Osryn said. “I fear they’re more ready than I would like to leave the comfort of our current day-to-day…”
Urta smiled. “That’s understandable, Osryn. I’m not a father, but if I were, I wouldn’t want my children to grow up either…”
“Are we leaving yet?” Sebastian’s voice cut across the clearing. “I’m getting bored just sitting around.”
The twins made their way to where Urta was finishing up Osryn’s first aid. Unsurprisingly, their bug bites had healed at a rapid rate and were nearly invisible. Urta noticed this while cleaning his hands of the cream and nodded to himself. “You guys seem better, so, I’d say we can leave right about now.”
He grabbed his backpack and the group moved onward through the valley. The forest was thinning out slightly, and it wasn’t long before they found themselves approaching a prairie of tall wild grasses. The grass was easily a meter high and the buzz of insects was louder than it had been at any point. The sun had set almost completely now, and it was just barely light enough still to see. Urta stopped and looked out onto the prairie, though one couldn’t see too far in the fog.
“I think we should cross it before calling it a night. There’s more forest on the other side and we can camp there.”
They made their way, bushwhacking through the tall grass with whatever tools they had available to them. Osryn really wanted to blow some plasma beams through the grass and carve out a path, but Hector had rambled on far too much about the preservation of natural ecosystems, so instead they trod carefully, only breaking what they had to. Suddenly, Urta stopped everyone short and shushed them. All that could be heard for a moment was the ambient insects, then a rustling noise amongst them. Everyone readied their weapons.
“Again? Already?” Osryn muttered, panickedly wiping his foggy glasses.
“Bring it on…” Sebastian muttered, and at that moment, a creature jumped out of the woods and landed on his shoulder. He screamed, shoving it off and quickly regaining his composure. It looked like a grasshopper, only the size of a small child, and two more were leaping out of the grass. Sebastian’s lightning was more suited to longer-distance combat, so hand-to-hand, Sebastian was forced to grip his obsidian wand with both hands and smash it into the grasshopper’s head. The creature crumpled to the ground.
Osryn and Urta had teamed up to take down one of them, Urta wielding a dagger now rather than a gun. Osryn was not great at close combat, but he did have more specialized plasma attacks for closer quarters. Adelaide was fighting the third one, channeling her magic into the mist that carried her staff to charge her attack. It leapt at her, and she thrust the staff forward, where it would have made direct contact with the creature’s head, had Sebastian not jumped in front of the attack and shoved the grasshopper out of the way, tackling it into the grass.
Adelaide gasped, having nearly missed her own brother, and he pocketed his wand. Sebastian grabbed the creature’s thorax with both hands, squeezing and allowing electricity to flow. Its legs squirmed against him for a few moments until they stopped, curling back in on themselves and ceasing to move. Sebastian threw the electrified grasshopper corpse to the ground and turned around to face the others.
“Take that, bastard…” Sebastian muttered, standing up and wiping the hemolymph from his hands on some of the grass. Osryn cringed. Somehow he never got used to seeing insect blood. Adelaide stared at her brother in sheer disbelief.
“What in the name of the sun was that?” She asked, holding her hands out in search of an answer. “You jumped right into my line of fire! I had it!”
“I had it!” Sebastian objected, looking coolly at his hands as he picked exoskeleton bits out of his fingernails.
“Son, are you mad?” Osryn asked incredulously, crossing his arms. “You could have been killed!”
Sebastian faltered a little, biting his cheek. “Sure. But, I wasn’t.”
“You were pretty damn close!” Adelaide was still wired; it had all been too close for comfort. “I was inches away from murdering you! You can’t just do things like that!”
Urta wisely hung back as the family argument intensified. Sebastian scoffed. “My fighting style has never been good enough for either of you, has it?”
“Because you’re lazy!” Adelaide scolded. “And reckless! You don’t pay attention, and you literally almost died because of it. Do you not get that at all?”
Sebastian sighed, kicking the ground, unintentionally cracking the dead grasshopper’s antenna. “I’m sorry, alright? I didn’t realize you were attacking it…”
“Maybe you should try being more aware of your surroundings,” Osryn advised, shaking his head.
“You’re always holding me back,” Adelaide admitted, hugging her chest with all four arms. “I just want you to think about things a little before you do them…”
“It’s not like I saved the day back at the lake,” Sebastian said drily, and Osryn scoffed.
“I could have done that too!” Adelaide reminded him. “You just had to be the one who got father’s praise––”
“Oh, come on, you’re such a little––”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Urta’s voice overtook theirs and their overlapping sentences faded out. The three Selds realized how heated things had gotten and Urta was clearly becoming irritated. “I’m sure this argument was very important, but the sun has set completely. It’s a good idea for us to camp for the night as soon as possible.”
Sebastian huffed, frustrated. “Whatever! Let’s just get across…”
Urta led them the rest of the way through the grasslands and they escaped unharmed. It seemed that the only enemies around had all taken the same opportunity to attack.
Before long, the group reached the edge of the grassland. Osryn ended up needing to pick a few dog ticks off of himself, but the other three were unaffected. Not more than ten meters into the woods there was a suitable area to set up a few tents while still being hidden within the tree cover. It took a while to set up the tents, as Urta was the only one of them who had any real idea how to do so. Usually, when Osryn went camping with Daniela and Hector, they did all the dirty work while he sipped on some ale.
Eventually, two tents were made, one for Urta and Osryn, the other for the twins. On the edge of the clearing, Sebastian had noticed a tall tree with a dark, carbonized lightning strike along the side. Osryn watched him trace his index finger up and down the cut through the bark. His six eyes were impossible for Osryn to read, though he felt that even if he’d only had two, Osryn would have just as much trouble figuring out what was in his son’s head. He looked towards Adelaide, who was sitting next to the fire Urta had built, having a light-hearted conversation with the man. She was somewhat easier to get a read on, and it was clear she was fond of this stranger. Osryn was not sure how he felt about that.
“What are you two talking about?” Osryn wandered closer to the fire. Urta patted the ground next to him for him to sit down and Osryn did.
“I was just telling Adelaide why my skin’s like this,” Urta said, tilting his head up and pointing out a particularly distinct patchy part of skin on his neck. “It’s called vitiligo, it happens when the cells that produce melanin start to die. Lots of things can cause it.”
“I’ve read about that,” Osryn said, nodding. “Never seen someone who had it in person before, though.”
“I think it looks cool,” Adelaide said with a smile. “You’re different, like me and Sebastian.”
“Stop talking about me!” From his tree, Sebastian turned around and scowled in his sister’s direction.
“Well, stop being a loner!” She called over to him. “I said I was sorry!”
Rolling his eyes, Sebastian made his way over to the fire, where the four had a very relaxed conversation. Urta didn’t tell them much about who he was or where he came from, but they were able to make amiable small talk nonetheless. It was much-needed after the tension of the earlier battle, and eventually the group began to feel the fatigue of their day of traveling.
“Man, what time is it, even?” Sebastian yawned. “I’m usually up till dawn, but I’m so tired I could pass out.”
“Well, one of us needs to keep watch.” Urta fished a sooty blanket out of his backpack and used it to snuff out the fire. “I’ll take the first shift.”
“I’m afraid I’m not comfortable with that, Urta. I still don’t know if I trust you.”
“Fair enough.” Urta couldn’t really deny the logic in that.
“I’ll do it!” Adelaide raised her two right hands. “I’m not even tired yet, honestly.”
Sebastian stretched his arms out over his head and yawned again, loudly and obnoxiously. He waved his hand goodbye and stood up, making his way over to his designated tent. “I’m okay with that. Good night folks, I’ll be sleeping on the ground.”
Osryn and Urta bid Adelaide good night and she readied her staff, sitting up against the lightning-struck tree. It was awkward as Urta and Osryn entered their tent and dressed for the night, putting aside their belongings and getting comfortable as far away as they possibly could from each other. Osryn did not like sleeping in the company of other people, and he was certain he would lose his mind if Urta snored. Within a few minutes, however, the stranger’s breathing slowed and fell into a soft rhythm, assuring Osyrn that he was actually asleep. This comforted Osryn greatly.
He leaned back on the rolled up cloak he was using as a pillow, exhaling deeply with his hands behind his head. It had been a day to remember, that’s for sure, and it was only the beginning. He would never have expected to be out on this sort of adventure, and there was certainly a part of him that was thrilled to be doing something exciting and heroic, like the characters of myth. Here, in the beginning of his journey, he felt like the archetypal fool. Naturally, he was skeptical of Urta, and he pondered what his motive may be if what he said was not quite true. Were his kids ready for more and more battles like these? Sebastian’s behavior had not been reassuring. That said, was he even ready for what lay in store? He felt older and more decrepit than ever, aching on the cold hard ground after a day of walking longer than he had in quite some time.
Despite his whirling thoughts, the faint sound of the grassland insects could still be heard and the ambient buzzing soothed his soul. With some meditative effort, Osryn was eventually able to drift off into a comfortable sleep.
Insectera Book Two: Matters of the Heart, coming... eventually.
© 2022 Rychard Collins