Ouzin had run as fast as his feet could carry him, but with the roots, large bushes, and branches, he couldn’t get as far as he felt was safe. Even with his enhanced vision, the darkness of the forest floor was imposing, so he created little lights and used them to guide him through the rough terrain. He ran for what felt like a day but couldn’t keep up the same pace anymore. He stumbled in exhaustion, gripping his stomach that kept craping up from the intense run and hunger.
“Ahhh!” He yelled, then dropped to the ground. “I’ll set up camp here for tonight,” he said as if he was making an intentional decision, but even if he wanted to keep going, it would have been impossible. His powers could only compensate for his years of inactivity for so long.
His eyes scanned his surroundings as he spread his light spheres around the area. He could sense creatures all around him, but none came close, so he ignored them for now. He ended up in a small pocket between the protruding and entangled roots of a world-tree. There were blue bushes with small yellow berries, and giant blue leaves and grass covered the ground. The air smelled earthy, of course, but there was a dampness that made it feel thick, and it carried the scent of wood and decay.
This had to be the stupidest thing he’d ever done in his life, Ouzin thought, and for the millionth time, cursed whatever had possessed him to wander into the forest. He was sure his mother would have a search party looking for him by now, and at this point, he didn’t know whether or not he wanted to be found. They’d probably start with the desert, which would give him some time. Time to do what? He didn’t know.
He sighed and brushed some leaves away. He’d already considered returning, but now it was a matter of pride. He was a fool for running away from home, but the thought of giving up on the attempt and returning with his tail tucked, truly felt wretched. How pitiful would it be if he couldn’t even rebel properly? No, he was going to stick this out and get something out of it that he could show to his family. Grrrrrrrr. His stomach rumbled again, and he regretted not bringing the rest of his packed meals with him. He sighed and stood up.
He inspected the yellow berries in the bushes, but try as he might, he couldn’t recall ever seeing them before, and had no clue if they were safe to eat. One probably wouldn’t kill him, plus he’d had yular berries before, and those were yellow as well, although about three times the size of these. He contemplated for a moment, then reached out to pluck one. He sniffed it. There wasn’t much of a scent.
“Hmm.” Just as he was about to lick it, something flew out of the bush. He instinctively dodged it, and it fell on one of his light spheres, which exploded in a small blaze.
Ouzin dropped the berry in shock and took a look at the small creature that now lay unmoving. The animal was covered in dark purple fur, which was now mostly charred. It was slightly longer than his palm, with a small snout and patagium between its hind and forelegs. If the charring was ignored, it was actually quite cute, and Ouzin knew what it was. A piculin, small, mostly harmless, and very much edible.
He didn’t know the specifics about field dressing an animal, but he figured if he could get the fur and blood out, it would be fine to cook. He didn’t have any tools, but after a few tries, he created a laser of sorts with his powers by compressing the mana of his light spheres into a line. Using this, he brunt off the rest of the fur on the piculin and cut it open. It took some time, but soon, he had some charred strips of meat ready to cook. He telekinetically held one of the pieces of meat in front of him, then created a sphere of light around it. He tried to control the heat of it, but the piece burnt black almost immediately.
“Shivak,” he cursed. He let the burnt flesh fall to the floor, then picked a few berries and floated them in front of him. One by one, he practiced controlling the heat his spheres created. By the eighth berry, he was able to stop them from burning instantly. “Nice,” whispered. He practiced a few more times before moving back to the piculin meat.
“It’s not bad right, Umil?” he said as he chewed on the tough meat. “Not bad at all.” He’d never eaten anything so tasteless before. He finished the meal quickly, then started preparing for the night.
Ouzin pulled a few leaves together and layered them on the floor to create a makeshift bed. The leaves the word trees shed were so large that he only needed one per layer for his bed, and while they weren’t soft, the fallen leaves were not as tough as the leaves in the canopies. Ouzin laid on his bed, raised a shield around himself, then created a palm-sized light sphere that generated enough heat to keep him warm. He still had no idea what he was doing, but it wasn’t a bad first day as a runaway. As he passed out from exhaustion, he wondered what his family was doing. Would they keep searching for him, or would they give up? Maybe they were even glad that he was gone.
# # #
Ouzin woke up the next morning (what he assumed was morning) to more uncertainty. What exactly was he doing here? What would this rebellion, or whatever it was, prove? He rubbed his eyes and kept scratching his fur. His usual silky fur was rough and even patchy in some places from the journey through the Kroshta and now the underbelly of the world-trees. What in Sigark’s good name was he even doing here? He winced as his head began to pound. He closed his eyes, his hearing sharpened, and the sounds that had become background noise since he entered the forest came into focus. Insects chirping, bird calls, bushes rustling. Anything could be out there, rodents, predators, snakes. Ouzin shivered as he felt the energy signatures of thousands of insignificant creatures swarming all around him. His eyes shot open, and the sharp focus broke. His ears flopped down, plastered to his head, and his tail swung sporadically.
He wasn’t supposed to be here, and it didn’t help that day and night were indiscernible because the thick covering of the canopy and density of the undergrowth blocked out most light. Only the light from his spheres helped him ward off the fear of the forest and all the things within. They couldn’t do much for the other thoughts weighing down his mind because the gravity of what he’d done so impulsively was starting to sink in. The worst part was even if he wanted to go back, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find the way out, and worse still was that a part of him was still bent on sticking it out. He curled into a ball and closed his eyes.
# # #
He didn’t know how long he’d slept, but when he woke up, it was to darkness and a chill in his bones. He gasped but didn’t move. He felt the creature’s presence on his psyche, although he couldn’t see it clearly. It was big and growling. Fortunately, even though his light sphere had failed during his sleep, the shield remained, and the creature patrolled around its perimeter. Ouzin slowly sat up. His eyes were properly adjusted now. The darkness under the forest was so complete that he could only just make out the creature. Its fur was dark, and so it blended into the darkness. Ouzin could see a glint in its glowing blue eyes. It was hunched over and walked on two legs. Its arms, tipped with three long four-inch claws, scraped the ground as it walked. It was definitely a gugalan, one of the predators found on the forest floor. From what he knew, they were omnivores and hunted in packs. While not prone to unprovoked violence, they hunted their prey with a single-minded determination.
The creature kept its eyes on Ouzin as it tested the edge of the shield. It didn’t act overly aggressively, but Ouzin took no comfort in that. He knew that its attitude could switch at any moment. His eye caught more movement, and two more gugalan dropped down from the trees. Ouzin kept as still as possible, and put more energy into the shield, hoping they would view him as prey not worth the effort of hunting. A loud thud resonated through the forest as one of the creatures reared up and smashed its arms into the shield. Ouzin closed his eyes and didn’t move. He took deep breaths and tried to calm his heart. He started counting to steady himself. If he could make them lose interest in him, everything would be fine.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, …..
He heard more crashes against the shield but kept his eyes closed and made his body as still as possible. He contemplated making himself invisible, but knowing that he had no finesse with his powers yet, he couldn’t take the risk. For one, he didn’t want to lose focus on the shield and have it break down while trying to make himself invisible, and he also wasn’t sure how the gugalan would react. Not many animals could sense mana fluctuations, but gugalans could, and he didn’t want to antagonize them by causing mana disturbances. Plus, they probably already had his scent. He just had to wait it out.
80, 81, 82, 83…
He could hear scuffling, loud sniffing, and breathing.
105, 106, 107….
He heard them grunting to each other, and then, at last, he heard them scuttling away. He sharpened the focus of his ears and waited until he could no longer hear them moving. Then he waited more.
He inhaled deeply. His sense of smell wasn’t as keen as his other senses, but it was enough to tell him that the gugalans were not nearby anymore. Then he extended his psychic presence very slowly and carefully for fear that it would alert some other creatures to his presence. Once he’d tested with all his senses and was satisfied that they were gone, he opened his eyes and slumped as the tension evaporated from his body.
He rolled into a fetal position, and his body began to tremble. Not once in his life had he ever felt such fear before. He felt gratitude well up in his heat for Umil’owan, who had chosen to form a pact with him, and for the fact that he, forced or not, had gone on his Trigalan.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” He whispered as tears rolled down his face. After some time, he was finally able to calm down.
His mind felt numb, his body was completely exhausted, and of course, his stomach was complaining for sustenance. He was drained and miserable. He rolled onto his back and stared into the darkness. He did not even have the energy to think, which was a blessing. As he stared into the darkness, his eyes widened. He started noticing all the things he’d missed due to the illumination from his light spheres and his focus on the gugalans. Before his eyes, a universe began to reveal itself. A bioluminescent world aglow in ethereal blues, greens, and purples. Plants had sheens of light across their leaves. Small worms, glowing green, crawled on the floor and trees. Moss glowed blue on the gray trunks of the world trees. From the leaf-covered ground, a variety of incests rose up in flight and, moving in swarms, became small stars and galaxies right in front of him. His breath caught at the sight of such beauty.
He felt suspended in the moment, as there proved to be much more life in shadows than he’d initially thought. He felt peace settle in his heart as he watched the life on the forest floor exist in its natural state. His hearing also sharpened to take in the moment, but this time, he wasn’t afraid of the sounds he heard. It was a collective hum of living things and life energy and the waves and patterns of mana moving in the natural world. Nothing was okay. In fact, he’d never been in a worse situation, but he was going to make the most of it. He was going to become someone who could see things through and live with the consequences of his actions.
# # #
By his best calculation, a week had passed, and in that time, Ouzin had made much progress as an underbelly dweller. He learned how to bait small animals with his light spheres and berries, which he’d discovered were, in fact, not poisonous. He’d eventually given in to the urge to taste one. It was surprisingly sweet, and seeing no adverse symptoms, he ate a handful, waited for some hours, and as he still felt fine, he concluded they were safe to eat. He’s also found some roots and legumes he recognized, as well as herbs that added some flavor to his meals. He was happy that his clothes were holding up, which was expected as they were rilcon fabric, which was as premium as you could find in Nol, with silky comfort and ultimate durability. Of course, premium or not, after about twenty days of not being washed properly, both he and the clothes smelled pretty bad. He’d tried cleaning them in streams he’d found, but not much could be done without soap. Still, he was thankful for how thoroughly his mother, or her secretary, had prepared for his Trigalan.
He sighed as he pushed through the bush. His fear of the forest had diminished greatly, and now he truly felt like an adventurer, treading unexplored lands, but none of that could cover up the fact that he was just a runaway. At the ripe age of 120, acting up like a child and running away from home. The shame and guilt dampened the joy of every new discovery that sparked his interest. There were so many other ways he could have handled things. Granted, his family’s attitude towards him did not make it easy. On the other hand, he did feel like this adventure was changing something in him. For the better, he hopped.
As he’d walked, he made sure to occasionally let his lights go dark, so he could immerse himself in the glow of the plants and animals. He stopped moving, and after a few seconds, his eyes adjusted to the dark, and the little galaxies made themselves known. Glowing bugs flew in swirling patterns, and the moss’s blue light began to show. The scent of the forest relaxed him, and Ouzin smiled and sat on a log to take it all in. His eyes followed the flight of a small bird. It leaped from its perch on one of the logs, its wings lit in a soft pink light which created a trail as it swooped through the bugs, catching a couple in its mouth. Ouzin watched the bird land and devour its prey. All the while, he kept alert for the distinct grunting of the gugalan. He hadn’t had any confrontations with them since that night, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
He carefully scanned his surroundings, then stopped. “What’s that?” He stood up.
In the distance, he could see some light through the leaves and bushes. It wasn’t the usual light from the flora and fauna. He walked towards it and became more certain. It was sunlight. Somehow, warm yellow sunlight had breached through the dense canopy. Ouzin sped up, almost starting to run. In the week he’d been wandering through the forest, he hadn’t seen a hint of sun or moonlight. He pushed through the foliage in the dark, so he wouldn’t lose sight of the faint light. As he passed through more of the bushes and tall grass in his way, the light became more apparent, and even the temperature was starting to feel warmer.
The warm glow of sunlight engulfed Ouzin as he burst through the clearing. He looked up immediately and was met with the glorious sight of a clear blue sky silhouetted by the giant leaves of the canopy of the world-trees. Dust motes danced in the rays of light. Four gray trunks stretched thousands of meters into the air, and the dark blue leaves seemed lit from within as light passed through them. The width of each of the world-trees was at least 2 miles in diameter, and while Ouzin had been among their roots, their immensity didn’t fully dawn on him, but now it did. The space felt sacred, and the trees seemed like immovable gods gazing down upon the earth. Ouzin took a shaking breath, then looked down into the clearing, and he was shaken up even more by what he saw.
There, at the center of the short blue grass and flowers of various colors, stood a sapling. Ouzin’s breath caught in his throat as he stumbled towards it. The baby world-tree was only small in comparison to the ancient trees. Already it was taller than him by a meter, and its canopy, instead of being spread out for acres, was only a couple meters across. Its leaves were only as large as his palms. Ouzin closed his eyes and placed his hands upon the sapling trunk. For a moment, it felt like he was back in the Hiskar again, reliving the moment his soul was pulled from his body. The magnitude of the moment could not be missed. This sapling, perhaps thousands of years from now, would hold in its branches, buildings, towns, and cities. Upon its branches, generations of bistians would be born, experience life, die, and be entombed in. The sheer amount of potential held within this one sapling was so astronomical that it made all his worries seem insignificant.
When compared to these trees, the dynasty and reputation of his family were so flimsy that he almost laughed aloud. He slowly walked around the tree, allowing one hand to trace along the trunk. He glanced down to see its already prominent surface roots…
“No!” he crouched down. “Oh no, what is this?” He couldn’t comprehend what he saw for a moment, but soon understanding dawned on him.
On a few of the gray roots, and starting to extend up the base of the trunk, was a red moss called filen. Rather than the softness or mushiness of regular moss, this grew hard and brittle, and whatever it grew on, it made the same. Everyone learned about filen as early as possible because if even a hint of it was spotted, it had to be reported immediately. Even if it was a questionable sighting, and that was because the thing the fast-growing red moss was most attracted to was the world-trees. During growth seasons, they were most active. Ouzin’s heart began to race. One of the most important duties of his mother’s job was ensuring that filen was properly managed, as an unchecked outbreak had the potential to destroy whole branches of world-trees.
He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t try to brush it off because that would only spread the moss spores to the surrounding trees. He could try to burn it off, but if he damaged this sapling, not only would he not be able to live with himself, but he would be arrested and faced with the strictest sentence: A forced removal of his pact and placement in a confinement dome. He shivered at the thought. He had to do something. Ouzin instinctively reached for his auto-comm, which of course, wasn’t there.
“I am a fool! A complete fool!” he yelled and stood up.
He ran around the perimeter of the clearing, quickly checking to see if any other world-trees had been infected. Thankfully the rest were safe. He returned to the sapling and stretched his hands in front of him. Immediately he felt his powers respond in a way that had already become familiar. He motioned his hands upwards, and a large shield formed around the sapling. He wanted to make sure that a gust of wind or an animal didn’t track the moss onto the other trees. Now he just hopped the shield would hold up as he moved farther away.
Ouzin closed his eyes and focused on the mana surrounding his body. He hadn’t tried it before, but he needed to float himself upwards and into the canopies. He didn’t know where he would land, but he needed to get to a comm line. His body started moving upwards, but the pace was slow. Ouzin tried to enforce more control over the mana, but he felt his psycor trembling and stopped. A sharp pain ran down the back of his skull. This was his limit.
At the pace he was rising, it would take him hours, if not days, to get to an inhabited branch. He focused on his powers again. A steady pain began to grow in his head, and his gut clenched, but he continued. Two spheres of light appeared in his hands. He faced his hands down and triggered the spheres to explode. The force pushed him up significantly.
“Ok, good. That works.” He repeated the process again, and before long, he was making steady progress toward the sky. By the time he entered the lower rungs of branches that made up the canopy, the sky had deepened to indigo, and he was panting uncontrollably.
Finally, he started seeing spots of light in the distance. A few more minutes passed before he was able to land on one of the branches. He had no idea where he was, but most branches were structured in a similar way. The closer to the edge of the branch one was, the less civilization there was, and it was easy to find the center. All you had to do was walk toward the central trunk. He ran as fast as he could, pulling as much power as possible from his pact and the mana around him. Several minutes passed before he spotted houses in the distance. Most of the area seemed to have been allocated for farming, so there were large empty fields with small homes at the center.
Ouzin ran towards the first one he saw. He was breathing hard as he arrived at the gate. He quickly pressed the doorbell and waited for a response. It was very late, so he hoped they would be awake. Thankfully an answer came immediately. A small cone of light shone from the doorbell, and he knew the owners would see a holographic projection of him. He tried to smooth his hair down, but after crossing the Kroshta desert, and then rolling through the underbelly of the forest, he knew nothing would help make him look decent.
“Hello?” A man’s voice asked uncertainly.
“Hello, my name is Ouzin he…” he hesitated for a second. Officially his name was still Ouzin Hes Laboneir, but since he’d formed a pact, it would be changed to Ouzin Het Laboneir.
“My name is Ouzin Het Laboneir.” If the man had a pact of his own, he would most likely notice one in Ouzin as well, and he didn’t want to seem suspicious by not using the correct naming title. “I would like to borrow a comm line, please.”
“You don’t have an auto-comm?” Suspicion was clear in his voice.
“As you can see, I’m a bit roughed up. I lost it during my Trigalan.”
“Oh, I see.” The man’s voice brightened slightly. “This is pretty far from the Kroshta, though. How’d you make it all the way here… I’m pretty sure there are emergency comm stations right on the forest’s edge too.”
Ouzin groaned. “Right, you’re right. Look, my situation is a bit complicated, but that’s not important right now. I need to report a filen outbr….”
“Filen?! You’ve spotted filen? Where?” he heard the man yelling curses, then the line dropped.
Soon he saw a man running towards the gate. He was tall and at least twice Ouzin’s size in pure muscle. His fur was a bright yellow and slightly curly. He yanked the gate open. Ouzin took a startled step back.
“Where is the fil… oh great Sigark, you stink!” The man reared back, and Ouzin felt a sting from the insult. The fact that it was true, and the man wasn’t just being mean, did not lessen the hurt.
“Ahh… yeh… Sorry, the stink isn’t what’s important here. You’ve spotted filen?”
“Yes, but not here, down below. I just need to call the Forest Division and report it.”
The man’s demeanor seemed to both relax and stiffen up at the same time. “Down below?”
Ouzin gulped. “Yes, below, like all the way below. Look, I know I’m not convincing with how I look right now, but please, it’s imperative that I report this as soon as possible. Please just let me borrow your comm.”
“This…umm…” the man folded his arms and stared at Ouzin for a bit. “Fine, but if I find out this is some kind of prank or you’re planning something, you can believe I’ll make you regret it. Understand?”
Ouzin nodded quickly and laid his ears and tail down to emphasize his acquiescence.
“Let me hear you say it.” The man pushed.
“I understand!” Ouzin replied hair raised slightly with irritation.
The man scoffed and pulled his comm from his pocket. Ouzin took it from him, and the blue light projected the number pad. He hesitated for a second. He had two options. He could either make a regular report and have the local branch of the division come, or he could call his mother directly. Either way, she would end up finding him, based on the report.
“Are you going to call or not?” the man asked impatiently. His voice was muffled as he had pulled his shirt up to cover his nose.
“I am.” Ouzin mumbled.
He flicked his hands over the keys. The call rang a few times, and he worried she wouldn’t answer a communication from an unknown comm ID. Just as he contemplated ending the call and just going through the regular process, the call connected. Both holo feeds were automatically set to ‘on,’ and so as her face projected in the small holo-beam of the auto-comm, he knew she would be seeing his as well.
He watched her golden eyes widen as she realized it was him.
“Ouzin.” Her voice was the same as ever. Lilting, and not as deep as you’d expect, but empty of all emotional inflection.
“Hello, mother.” He tried to smile, but it was a futile attempt.
“Where are you? And don’t bother lying. I will have the location of the comm tracked within minutes.”
She was angry. Even though she sounded normal, Ouzin could tell instantly. He gulped.
“To be honest, mother, I don’t know where I am.” He glanced at the man, who was watching the interaction with interest. “Where is this?” Ouzin asked.
The man shook his head and muttered something about stray kids before answering. “Root tree Rakstin-Himpar. Branch 25. 203 Rimwal acreage.”
Ouzin repeated it to her. She nodded as if confirming something she already knew, and he could see her walking somewhere. “I’ll be there in two hours. Stay put.” She looked like she was about to end the call.
“Wait! I called for a reason… I found a world-tree sapling infected with filen. I’ve contained it in a shield, so the filen doesn’t spread, but the tree needs to be treated.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “That’s why you called?”
Ouzin’s eyes widened. The uncharacteristic inflection in her voice made it clear that she was hurt that he’d called not because he wanted to return home but because he wanted to report an incident.
“I…” his voice broke.
“Well, that’s fine in any case,” she interrupted, but she wasn’t looking at him anymore. Her eyes were downcast, and he could tell much more from her voice. “Well done. I’m alerting the division manager of that branch as we speak. They will arrive in ten minutes. Lead them to the site, and wait for me there.”
The call ended, and Ouzin stared at the dead auto-comm until the man, whose name he still did not know, reached over and snatched it from him. The man made sure to wipe the comm off on his pants before putting it back in his pocket. Ouzin didn’t really care about the man anymore at this point. In just a couple hours, he would have to face his mother, and he still hadn’t sorted out his feelings. He knew that running away had been an impulsive decision, there was no real logic behind it, but the days he’d spent in the forest had meant something.
He didn’t feel like a new person or anything fundamental like that, but he felt more comfortable with himself. He felt worthy. Yes, he’d made a dumb choice, but instead of giving up, he stuck with it. He’d learned to survive and how to use his powers. He’d seen a sapling world-tree. He’d discovered the beauty of the bioluminescent life in the underbelly of the forest, as well as its dangers. He hadn’t run away from the difficulties. He’d proved his own worth to himself, and that was what really mattered, but now he had to deal with the consequences of the way in which he’d gone about it.
# # #
At some point, the man went back into his home, and eventually, the Filen Containment Squad arrived. He was in a daze as he quickly explained where the contamination was. They gave him strange looks and stayed as far from him as possible, but they at least didn’t say anything about the condition he was in. He got in their hover car and directed them toward the sapling. Once they arrived, they set up lights, and after Ouzin dropped his shield, began working on the tree. Ouzin sat on the floor and just stared at the ground. He didn’t come out of his daze until two white, gold-tipped boots landed in his view. He raised his head and met equally golden eyes.
Ouzin stood up, but couldn’t bear to face her, so he stared at the ground. “Hello, mother.”
“You dropped this,” she said and held out her palm. In it was his auto-comm.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered as he took the comm.
“We will talk on the way home,” she said, then stood in front of him as the squad leader came to meet her.
“Vala Arigatan Laboneir, it is an honor to see you in person.”
“Thank you, Sof. Rigan. Tell me about the situation.”
“Well, it’s fortunate that this was discovered so soon. I know I don’t need to tell you, but with a sapling like this, a filen contamination would kill it in a couple years. It’s truly a miracle that….” Rigan tried to peek around Ouzin’s mother to look at him. “This… er.. young man found it. Not many people wonder in the undergrowth.”
Ouzin felt like burying himself in a hole. He could already imagine what the news outlets would say if they found out he was the son of Arigatan Laboneir, the head of the Forestry Division herself. A dirty, smelly boy wandering around in the undergrowth. It was no wonder his mother was doing everything to cover him up. With his fur being so dirty, unless they really looked at his face and eyes, it would be hard to tell they were related. Ouzin tucked his face further down.
“Yes, it’s definitely fortunate my son happened to come across it.” Ouzin’s head jerked up, and he stared at his mother’s back in shock. She continued speaking, unaware of his emotions. “I will make it a point to have regular root inspections. I think we have been too lax in that area. Imagine what would happen if a filen contamination went unchecked within the roots.”
“Right… Right… Umm.. that’s your…?”
“Never mind, Vala. I agree, we’ve relied on the crimen moss in the underbelly to ward off the filen, but seeing this, I think extra precautions will be necessary.”
“Good, I’m glad we are in agreement. I trust you can handle the rest?”
“Great, then we will be taking our leave. Good work, Sof. Rigan.” There was a pause, and she turned to face Ouzin. He saw her left brow twitch and remembered his manners.
“Thank you for your quick response Sof. Rigan.” He added.
“Of course, thank you… Vala.” Rigan said. The tile came as an afterthought, but Ouzon ignored it. Given how he looked and apparently smelled, he was fortunate that they were even standing next to him.
His mother said some final goodbyes to the team, then they boarded her shuttle. The silence was almost physically painful. The shuttle was designed with one main lounge room beside the driver’s cabin. They sat on the deep blue chairs curved around the central holo-tube. Large windows wrapped the hull, and Ouzin stared out as the shuttle began to speed up.
His mother opened the small fridge built into the bottom of the holo-tube and pulled out a bottle of krask. It was a bright green fruit juice, one of Ouzin’s favorite beverages. She filled two cups and slid one across to him. He picked it up and took a big gulp. After the things he’d been eating and drinking these last few days, this was like a shock to his system. The slight prickliness, followed by a subtle sweetness, almost brought him to tears. He drank the whole cup, and his mother refilled it as soon as he set it down.
“I’ve had that in here since your birthday. I thought you’d like it after the harsh Kroshta storms.”
Ouzin choked on the sip he was taking. He coughed a few times, then set the cup on the table. “I’m sorry,” he said.
His mother sighed and leaned into the chair, almost in a slump. “Ouzin, I’m not interested in apologies. I want to know what possessed you to do something like this. You can’t imagine how…” she took a breath. “When I saw your things laid out on the floor, folded up and obviously deliberately abandoned, I didn’t even know what to think. We waited a couple days thinking someone would send a ransom note or something, and when that didn’t happen, I had to consider that you had left of your own violation.” Ouzin had never heard his mother’s voice tremble so much. Her face still seemed as stoic as ever, but he could see tears welling up in her eyes.
She placed the cup on the table and leaned forward so she was looking right into his eyes. “We contacted all your friends and sent search parties through the Kroshta and the forest. I wandered through that desert looking for any hint of you, and finally, when you do contact us, it’s because of a damn filen contamination? Filen?” She rolled her eyes. “I never knew I’d be so thankful for filen because otherwise, I may never have seen my son again.”
Her voice barely rose, but it was as close to yelling as Ouzin had ever seen her, She closed her eyes, and it was clear that she was trying to calm herself down. “But in the end, all that doesn’t matter. Apologies don’t matter. I want to know what you’ve been doing and why?”
Ouzin was silent for a moment. He knew that he had to explain, as clearly as possible, the feelings he’d been having and the pressure he’d felt at home, but as he began to speak, tears slowly dripped down his face.
“I’m sorry…” he said in a soft trembling voice. “Even now, I don’t know why… I was scared. This was my last chance to prove myself. I’ve tried everything, and still can’t find anything I’m good at or anything to apply myself to. With how well Rilios, Mindal, and Tilmaron are doing, it’s obvious that you would see me as a disappointment.” Ouzin took the tissues she held out to him and wiped his eyes. He exhaled a shaky breath, then continued.
“I wanted to push off my Trigalan because it felt like a last chance. If I failed in this as well, then you guys would have no hope left for me… I’m really happy with my pact, but at the thought that it wouldn’t measure up… I don’t know. I just wanted to run away from it all… I don’t know.” He mumbled. “I don’t want to be a disappointment.”
“Ouzin.” His mother sighed. It was difficult for her to refute the things he’d said. She knew the pressure all her children were under due to the prestige of their family name. It was something she, too, had experienced at their age. As a mother, she’d attempted to reduce the burden her children felt while still maintaining some expectation for achievement or, at the very least, effort. Clearly, she had not been successful.
She picked her words carefully. “I… I won’t pretend that I haven’t noticed some of your feelings, and I should probably have made time to address them with you. That said, I don’t recall ever expressing any disappointment in you. Yes, to be frank, you haven’t attained the same level of… achievement that your siblings have, but it’s not a competition. I know you’ve been making an effort….”
“It feels like a competition.”
“I won’t disregard your feelings, but I have never viewed any of you as being in competition with each other, and neither has your father. If we’ve ever come across that way, then I’m truly sorry.” She rubbed her temples and sighed. “Yes, I want you all to be successful, but what that means will be different for each of you. But while I would like to prioritize your happiness above anything else, there still has to be some responsibility. If pushing you, this one time, to go on your Trigalan was the driving factor in you running away from home, then I’m not sure what to say to you.”
Ouzin had nothing to say, so he stayed quiet and looked out the window. The hover car wove through the tree branches and leaves, and Ouzin felt suffocated by the openness of it all. He felt exposed and wished he was back in the darkness of the forest floor. He thought of the sapling world-tree and remembered how it felt to wrap his hands around it. He remembered how it felt when he’d heard Umil’owan’s voice and when he’d seen the darkness light up with the glow of millions of tiny lives. He even remembered the encounter with the gugalan with some fondness. As he watched the city pass by through the window, he realized what was at the heart of everything.
“I wanted to find a purpose so badly.” He whispered. “I wanted something like Rilios’s passion for healing hiraks or Mindal’s architecture…anything really. And I also wanted freedom… not from you guys, but from the expectations of just being born as a Vala and a Labonier. There is so much pressure and so much to live up to. When I’m the only one struggling to cope with all that, it just makes me feel like a failure. Also, at the end of the day, I don’t think anything I do will matter in the long run. With or without me, our family’s dynasty will continue. While I was wandering around the forest floor, every decision and every new discovery felt significant.”
“So you want to go back?” She asked quietly. Their eyes met, and he could feel just how much she cared about him through her gaze alone. He’d never once doubted that his family loved him, but they were all so stoic and focused on their goals that it was easy to forget. Right now, his mother allowed that mask to fall for a bit.
His mother contemplated something for a while. This was how she was. Solutions over emotions. Rather than just listening and sympathizing, she tried to solve people as if they were math problems. Ouzin waited for her to finish thinking. Finally, she spoke.
“You heard what I discussed with Sof. Ragan.”
“Uh… You mean about the filen and the base of the world-trees?” Ouzin said and sat up straighter, wondering where she was going with this.
“Yes. We haven’t had steady patrols on the ground for some time now, as filen cases down there are so rare. The crimen moss usually eats it up, but if that isn’t happening, we need to know. What you discovered was more vital than you might think.”
“Thank you,” Ouzin said quietly, almost overwhelmed by the pride that came from the small comment.
“No, Thank you. Here’s my point. You will need some years of training,
but if you are willing, I’ll support you in joining the team. You don’t have to feel any pressure, but if you’ll be going down to the forest floor, I’d rather you were trained in how to use your powers and learned some skills relevant to basic survival. It would also be great if you had some equipment as well, perhaps a portable sani-station to keep you smelling fresh.” She laughed, then in a more serious tone, she asked. “What do you think?”
It didn’t take Ouzin long to consider the offer. It felt like a line extended into the mire of doubt and confusion he’d been drowning in.
He nodded. “Yes, I’d like to do that,” he said and closed his eyes as he felt that ever-present restlessness in him die down. He exhaled slowly. “..and I’m sorry for worrying you all.”
His mother sighed and fell into the chair, running her hand roughly through her short hair. “Good. That’s good. I’d like to say what you did doesn’t matter anymore, but…” she smirked, and Ouzin was continually shocked by how expressive she was being. “You ruined your father’s celebration for your Trigalan, so you can expect to get a good amount of scolding when we get back. You know how it is once he starts.”
Ouzin tried to laugh, but humor couldn’t cover up the guilt. “I’ll take everything he has to say.” He said and looked down. He felt his mother stroke his back.
“It’ll be ok. He’ll be happy to plan another party celebrating your return.”
Ouzin nodded but said nothing and just immersed himself in the feeling of her hand on his back. It had been a while since he’d felt such an affectionate touch from her. The tone of her voice reminded him of the nights when he was younger, and she would read to him while holding his hand, telling him tales of the great dreakarian king Marviel, or just read from the finance section of the news to him. All her awkward forms of affection, from subtle nods to remembering his favorite drinks and foods. He thought about how his family would gather at his impromptu art shows and concerts. Despite their complaining, they still always showed up for him.
“I’m so sorry,” Ouzin whispered.
“It’s ok,” she replied and just kept stroking his back, and Ouzin believed it would all be okay.