The red tags on the hat hung low over my eyes when I tried to make my getaway – I didn’t even have time to tear them off when I helped myself to it at the bazaar. But I just had to have it; it was a fine piece of headwear, woven into a wide dish-shape from sun bleached wicker. Of course, I didn’t pay for it. I was in too much of a hurry, and, well, I don’t usually pay for things anyway. I was already on the run from Big Dorad’s boys and I couldn’t look back. But even though I was in such a hurry, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hat, and I made time to grab it. What a rush! It looked great with the rest of my mismatched ill-gotten outfit, some of which I’d only just picked up along the way scrambling through the colossal crowds of Azultown’s marketplace – but their tags didn’t bother me, they were tucked tight beneath my clothes. The ones clinging to the brim of this hat, on the other hand, covered my hairy face like a jagged veil.
If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m an admirer of expensive items that are out of my price range, things I have to own but can’t afford. Hell, I can’t help it. Leave me alone with a market stand and I’ll pick it dry. I take what I can, and more. I’d admired the ivory serpent statuette from Big Dorad’s villa for quite some time, and only today had I decided to snatch it from its stand and stuff it into my bag.
And it was going so well, until my excitement got the better of me and I whooped like a mad gibbon the second my fingers clasped round its white throat.
Unsurprisingly, his boys heard my hysterical hollering and soon poured out of every door like a tidal wave of goons. I stole away through the window I’d entered through, escaped onto the street and through the bazaar where I found this nice hat, and now onto the half-desert plains past the paved limits of Azultown.
Thought for sure at this point I’d lose them. Thought I’d skip town, like the countless times I had done before in countless places, and then make quick my escape once again after upsetting the next settlement’s resident crime lord. But as I turned to watch the shrinking sandstone ziggurats with a grin full of smugness, I saw a jeep choking up streaming clouds of dust and heading straight for me, crucifying all relief I had.
I can’t outrun a jeep!I screamed in my head, and my legs cycled furiously, pounding the dry dunes and patches of grass underfoot. Sweat poured behind me like a panicked vapor trail, and I almost hoped that it would float back far enough to hit the jeep’s windscreen to distract them long enough for me to run away further.
Well, it was wishful thinking.
They were still far enough behind to allow me another half mile or so until I was run down, strung up, stripped nude and skinned alive, and my skin tanned and turned into an attractive wallet.
But there was nowhere to run, as I looked at the horizon and saw only the warped ripples created by the hot sun. And I couldn’t drop to the dirt and play dead either; they’d already seen me. The best I could do was keep going. What else was I going to do, turn around and say “Okay guys, you caught me! Here’s your statue, give Dorad my regards”? No, even though the heat slowly roasted me alive inside my purloined clothing, I had to keep going.
And who knows, maybe they’ll give up.
I took a step on a grassy crack and the ground swallowed me up. I thought for sure I’d been picked off by one of the thugs and shot straight to hell, but I’d never imagined hell to be green and thick with branches. Naturally in shock, I struggled and flailed about, sinking deeper and deeper into the subterranean thicket. I remember saying to myself “Jesus! God! The floor is eating me!”, and the jeep and the goons were nowhere in sight. For minutes, the wooden fingers groped my clothes until it finally spat me out at the bottom. Some kind of cave, or it looked like one. But not like any other cave I’d ever seen before. For starters, instead of the average stone walls and stalactites you’d expect to find in some natural cavern, it was covered in green vegetation, and the walls grew thick with trees and vines – like an entire forest condensed into a room with a low ceiling. And even though it wasn’t too deep, it was pretty wide, and seemed to stretch on for a good few miles beneath the dry hard ground of the plains. I mean, it was strange for things to grow at all down here when so little grew above. I wanted to ask someone what the hell was going on down here, and decided on that broad over in the clearing.
Wait, what broad?
She was standing by some tall pedestal made of roots, pretty as a picture. At first I thought she was some sort of tree, on the ‘count of her green hair and brownish skin, and the fact she stood completely still and hunched over the pedestal.
“Hey there, ma’am” I drawled, removing my hat with one hand and tussling my hair with the other. “Don’t suppose you can tell me where I am? I fell down here to get away from some friends of mine and-“
I cut myself off when I spied what the pedestal held. A huge green gem, like the mother of all emeralds, shining with brilliant value and glory – set deep into the roots around it on its platform.
My jaw dropped and I changed my path from the wooden broad to her shiny friend. “Oh Lord, what a rock.” I gasped, and wringed the hat with both of my hands. “What is that thing?”
I looked up at her, but her face didn’t move. In fact, it was barely even a face – it was like the strange formations you see in the sides of old trees that look sorta like faces. I’d been trying to flirt with a plant.
I looked around the plant-lined cave, hoping madly that nobody had just seen my folly, before I turned my attention back from my pride to the rock. Just as beautiful now as when I’d first seen it – I had to have it. Something like that could make me for life so long as I could shake those goons in the jeep outside, and seeing as there was nobody else around…
I wriggled my fingers and sunk them into the sides of the jewel, but the roots around it were too tight. I tried to pry it open with what little gaps there were and damn near broke my fingers off.
I finally decided to kick the pedestal open – the rock looked hard enough to take it. After the one thrust of my boot, the roots splintered. After a few more, the whole structure shattered, throwing the green rock onto the ground with a mighty thump. I’d imagined it to be more of a perfect sphere when it was freed, but it was more like an upside-down egg attached to some kind of glowing umbilical cord running into the ground. For some reason, that didn’t strike me as completely strange. All I wanted was this… thing, and I wasn’t going to let some vine-wire get in my way, so I yanked it out and dropped it to the floor, where it gave up its glowing and turned grey. The rock was mine! What malachite luminescence it held it its ovaliform carapace. Without knowing it, I whooped again as I stuffed it into my bag with the ivory statuette, excitement in my heart and dollar signs in my eyes, drunk on my score. I heard Dorad’s statuette crack under the weight of the bag’s new addition, but I didn’t care; this looked much more valuable.
As I turned my back and advanced towards the mass of bushes I fell through, I heard another crack. I thought it was the statue in my bag cracking some more as I moved, but this one was behind me. I looked over a shoulder.
The tree gal was there, no longer frozen in position over where the pedestal used to be – she stood facing me, tangled branch arms by her sides.
I stopped and looked at her. Unsure what to make of it and having never seen a tree move by itself before, I called out “Oh, hey, uh, did you want that rock?”
Without reply, her wooden limbs snapped as she walked towards me. She clearly wanted that rock, but so did I, and I ran. I jumped for the overhanging branches above and heaved myself up, and saw the tree woman break into a sprint below me. Oh Jesus, she’s going to kill me! I breached the leaves and shoved my way through vertically, trying like crazy to remember which way was up. I couldn’t even tell if a branch was actually a branch or one of the woman’s hands grabbing at my ankle, and I scrambled upwards in blind panic, kicking and yelling at inanimate plants, and every so often I saw her warped face amongst the leaves.
I climbed faster than I’d fallen – must’ve sank slow. As soon as my flailing arms hit the hard, flat ground of the plains above, I grabbed tight and pulled up.
I’m out of your forest now, you crazy dame. Now I can get away.
My head emerged from the buried brush back into the beating sun I’d missed so much. Free. And I managed to get something nice while I was down there. Eager to escape the tree lady, I began to pull my body out of that verdant fissure, but then I saw what I was running from in the first place.
Over in the not-so-distance, throwing up that big old cloud of dust was the jeep, doing donuts in the dirt while they waited for me to rear my head again, and that’s what they got. They saw me come back out.
I tried to duck and hide myself from what was coming for me above, but then I realized what was coming for me below, encroaching on my ankles with her long tendril finger-branches.
Oh God! Oh God! They’re all coming for me!I couldn’t decide who to get killed by; I was truly spoilt for choice. I didn’t even know what this wooden gal was capable of; could she give me a skinning just as good as Dorad’s boys? She obviously wanted her rock back, but that was out of the question. I’d risk it. I’d take my chances with the jeep.
I launched myself onto the side and scrabbled to my feet, watching through the corner of my eye as the vehicle accelerated right at me once again.
I’ve got outta of worse situations!I told myself as I sprinted after the dull horizon. Then my original thought returned; How am I going to outrun a jeep? Jesus!
I probably shouldn’t have looked back, but I did anyway – I wanted to see how long it’d take until the bumper merged with my spine, and I saw them drive by the crevasse I came out of.
The wooden arms soon came out, and so did the body attached. She was still coming, but now she was behind the jeep. At least that’s one less thing to worry about running from.
She turned, looked at me, and grew. Her whole body swelled to the size of a tower, some of her roots and shoots coiling themselves around her limbs and adding to her arboreal volume, and she finished in two seconds.
I nearly fell down beneath the jeep’s wheels when I saw it happen. I thought the heat was making me trip, but this gal was huge. And when she walked, she covered ten feet in a single stride, behind me and the jeep. They hadn’t seen her, but the jeep was catching up, and so was she.
Catching up on the jeep.
Striding over it, and crushing it into the dirt with the huge masses of roots coming from her feet. Dorad’s boys were flat in a mass of twisted metal and smoke, and now something faster was after me.
That was the point I screamed. I don’t usually scream when running from things, I usually scream when I get over excited. But, obviously, this wasn’t usual. And, as I threw my head back in panic, the hat I’d taken slipped straight off of my scalp and straight behind me. Things got worse. In the short amount of time I’d known that hat, I’d grown attached to it, and now I had to leave it behind as this thing came after me and crushed the hat into the ground.
There was nowhere to hide. The landscape was flat, and the thing was right behind me. I didn’t see anything. Nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Then I remembered what it was I took.
I fished the rock from by bag while running, held it above my head and skidded in the dirt. The huge mass of tangled roots marking the end of its big knotted leg lifted above it, ready to stomp me underground.
But it didn’t. It didn’t want to crush the thing it was protecting. The foot just hovered over me, a loose root dangling over my head.
Me and the monster were at an impasse. I had nowhere to run while it was about to crush me, and it couldn’t crush me so long as I had its rock. It was like we were frozen in time in a single pose in the middle of the plains. My eyes darted about, trying to find a way I could get out of the situation with my prize in tow, but there was nothing I could do. I gave a sigh.
Well, it was fun taking it, and I got a good taste of excitement looting it from the tree cave. But, however much it was worth, it had to go. It was the only way I could get out of this alive.
I quickly hurled the rock directly into a nearby crater where it sank down, hopefully into another cave system below. The monster, noticing it had gone, squealed and dived in after it, contorting its body into a narrow arch of vines and twisted twigs as it disappeared in after it. Then, nothing.
I lost the rock. I never found out what it even was, but I knew it was the one that got away. I opened my bag and looked at Big Dorad’s serpent statuette. Crushed into tiny pieces.
I guess it’s time to start again.
With nothing to my name, I heaved the bag over my shoulder and followed the rippling horizon, hoping it’d guide me somewhere new, like it’d done time and time before.