A gnarled, sick tree sat solitary in the middle of the woods. Its bark was stained red from blood and black from the pustules that grew and split from the sickness that took hold from within. Its thickest branch twisted and turned, outstretching from the short but stocky trunk of the tree. Pustules dot its split and weak bark. Small branches grow outward to no avail as they lack new or old vegetation. Halfway down the branch, a thick rope was tied, frayed, and overlapping. A single strand lowered till it hung two meters above the ground. A thick knot at the end of the rope created a crude ball at the bottom.
The air was cold and unnaturally still; the small dead grass clumps scattered around the tree remained static, almost frozen. Nothing around the tree moved until two sets of feet planted down heavily in the cracked, dry, stone-like dirt.
“That is the tree we are going to climb?” said the shrill voice of a boy from behind a nearby shrub.
“Don’t sound so much like a wuss, Tommy; it is an Enadrome tree. They are one of the safest places in all of Hollow. Said an equally shrill voice.
“But Monty, I really don’t think we should be here. You heard all the adults talking about what they saw.”
“That is precisely why we are here.” Monty answered with his eyes locked onto the rope that sat perfectly still.
His eyes danced over the form of the tree, finding the best way to get inside. All the way to the glorious bits on the inside. Monty started to move forwards as Tommy grabbed his arm.
“What are you doing? Let me go!” Monty yelled quietly.
“Look, maybe we shouldn’t be messing around with this. Who knows where it might take us. Without Oculi…”
“…Without Oculi, we can wander through with our eyes open. It is free for the taking.” Monty interrupted. His eyes darted back to the tree. “If you are too scared, you can stay here. But I ain’t afraid of no stupid tree.”
Monty pulled his arm free and started to carefully walk towards the tree. He crouched as if he wasn’t in the middle of a forest clearing, instead staking a house during the middle of the night.
Tommy’s face palmed, and he stood up straight, walking beside Monty.
“You are an idiot, and you are going to die without me.” Tommy said as he stared straight at the tree.
“That’s the Tommy I know. Now we just need to get up there.” Monty said as he pointed into an opening at the top of the tree.
“So climb the rope and get up there. I will follow behind you.” Tommy stated, gesturing to the obvious choice of approach.
“Na, it is too…simple. Surely if we touch the rope, something bad will happen. I mean, just look at all the blood stuck in it.” Monty said as he circled the rope, getting a good look up and down.
Tommy frowned, and the two of them circled the tree, being very careful not to touch the clumped grass or roots that protruded from the ground. Round and round, they went, carefully examining every part of the tree. Coming from opposite sides, they both ended back at the rope. Staring at each other knowingly, they looked to the rope.
“So, who goes first?” Tommy asked.
“Well, we gotta be careful here. If the challenge is physical, I should climb first.” Monty said, flexing his weedy arms. Tommy nodded with absolute agreement.
“But if it is a speed thing, you should go first. You are always running away; you gotta be good at it by now, right?”
Tommy frowned as Monty laughed at his own joke.
“Always running away ae? If I always ran away, would I do this?” Tommy jumped and grabbed the knot at the bottom of the rope. Dangling his feet off the ground. Monty’s eyes went wide, and he darted his head around as Tommy started to climb. Talking between grunts.
“Sometimes, you just gotta jump.”
Monty’s eyes locked onto one of the grass clumps as it started to move, shaking ever so slightly.
“Grass clumps are moving, Tommy; climb faster!”
Tommy started to pull as hard as he could, Monty stood under him. Letting him stand on his shoulders so he could get his feet to the knot at the bottom of the rope. As soon as his feet were clear, Monty jumped for the rope but missed. He tried twice more but was too short to reach.
“Tommy, what do I do?” Monty screamed out in panic.
“Why do I have to solve your issues?”
“You got us into this mess. Now help me!”
Tommy was already walking across the thick twisted branch when the grass clumps rose from the dirt. Long tendrils extended, the grass clumps atop the tendrils feathered out and straightened to a point.
Tommy stood dumbfounded for only a moment before he ran to the mouth of the tree. Holding onto the mouth of the trunk, bracing his knee against the branch, he lowered his leg.
“Run up the trunk and grab onto me.”
“You better be as strong as you are taller than me.”
Monty ran up the tree, kicking several pustules on his way up. An acidic smell filled the air as fresh black ooze seeped from them. Monty was struggling up Tommy’s leg when the first tendril lashed out. Landing right next to Monty. The straightened grass blades cut deep into the bark, pulling pieces away and leaving thick gouges in those that remained. Both Tommy and Monty were screaming as Monty clambered his way up Tommy and onto the lip of the trunk of the tree. Meanwhile, bladed tendrils were lashing out at them, scaring the tree and frightening the boys. Once Tommy had balanced himself from Monty climbing over him, he leaped head first into the open top of the tree trunk. grabbing Monty by the scruff of the neck, they both were pulled in by a strong gravity-like force. Their world was consumed by a dark void before they fell hard onto their backs.
Tommy was breathing hard and fast as Monty lay beside him, crying out in pain. Neither of them could see through the sick darkness that surrounded them. Eyes wide, Tommy tried to look around for Monty. Patting his hands on the cold, smooth ground beneath him, heading in the direction of Monty’s voice.
“What is wrong? Why are you screaming?”
As Monty started to bite down into his own thick shirt and his screams subsided, Tommy could hear the thrashing and whipping of something.
“You said Oculi wouldn’t be here, what is that?”
A tendril flew past Tommy and cut his cheek as something hard glanced it. Tommy cried out and raised his hands to his cheek, tears welling up in their eyes as they felt the blood trickle down their wrist. Grunts and winces made Tommy quiet as Monty stood to his feet.
“You seriously complaining about a little scratch? You big baby.”
“I was cut; why were you screaming?” There was a small pause, then Tommy continued. “You’re the big baby.”
“That thing was stuck in me; the stupid grass clump stabbed me before we jumped.”
They continued to yell at one another in the black void until four thin slivers of light appeared, drawing their attention and silencing the both of them. Tommy started to run to the door frame, drawn like a moth to a flame. Monty did his best to limp after him, his whole body tensing every time his right footed slapped the cold floor in the void.
“Hurry up, Monty, we are so close.” Tommy yelled as he looked back, the light from the door frame illuminating the terrible condition Monty was in. Tommy slowed and watched as Monty limped through the pain and pushed his way through the door. Tommy watched as the blood soaked through the entirety of Monty’s pants.
“Hey, Monty, do you think you will be fine?” Tommy asked quietly as he followed Monty through the door. A blinding light burned his eyes. Leaving them both in a white blanket. Fading to red before finally allowing the two boys to look at the landscape around them. Monty was awed at the expanding landscape that lay before him. The yellow glow of the sun warmed their skin, while the cool breeze that rolled through made sure they did not burn. There were birds flitting through the air and small mammals darting through the roots of the trees and winding their way up the trunks. There was chattering from all around as they stepped into an environment full of life. Tommy was too distracted by the blood now pooling at Monty’s feet, staining the vibrant green grass with the deep red of his blood.
“Monty, should we do something about your leg? Because that is a lot of blood.”
“What?” Monty said, frowning at Tommy before looking down at his own leg. “You are focusing on that.” He said, gesturing to his leg. “There is a whole new planet in front of you, and you focus on something that happened on Hollow?”
Tommy looked around, and the environment stilled his heart as it all overwhelmed him. But his eyes went back to Monty’s leg.
“I see what you mean, but if we don’t sort, that.” He said, pointing to the blood on the ground. “Then you won’t get to see any planet ever again.”
Monty groaned, shredding his blood-soaked pant leg with a small knife he had in his pocket. Cutting the fabric into strips, he tied a tight knot above the wound, restricting circulation.
“I guess. I mean, what else can we do right?” Tommy said, looking at Monty in defeat.
“Thank you, let’s go see if we can find someone to annoy.” Monty grinned as he limped down from the hilltop they appeared on. Tommy looked back to the sick tree that stood behind them. Mirroring the one they entered to get there. But this one, although obviously sick, was much healthier and greener than the one on Hollow. It was not long before the two children found a caravan moving slowly along the road, the back filled with crates and barrels. The two kids stayed at a distance, watching those walking around the cart. Laying on a hill, they discussed what they wanted to do.
“Hey Tommy, do they look really, like, not paying attention?”
“Uh, yea. I don’t think they are even looking for assailants, let alone a wandering nightmare.”
“I mean, have you seen any nightmares here?”
Tommy shook their head as they took a moment to look around them.
“It feels so empty here; maybe we should just head back. This place is strange.”
Monty rolled his eyes.
“Of course, you want to run away.”
“I don’t want to run away. It is not like that.”
“Hey, my name is Tommy, and I like to run away from a quiet place. Please don’t hurt me. ,Oh, my face got a boo-boo….”
Monty continued as Tommy stood up, shouting over him.
“I’ll prove to you I don’t run away from things.”
Tommy ran down the hill and started to approach the caravan. Tumbling down the hillside, Monty laughed. Watching as Tommy was noticed by those at the cart.
“Looks like I need a new best friend.” Monty muttered to himself as he watched two men approach Tommy. They gently helped him to his feet before muttering something and waving their hand over his cheek. Tommy grabbed at his face and turned to face Monty. Monty ducked into the tall grass.
“Idiot, don’t kill me too!” He yelled softly into the soft grass beneath him. Laying still, he heard approaching footsteps. Leaping to his feet, Monty drew his knife and held it aggressively towards those approaching him. Two men with leather and cloth robes climbed the hill; their robes had books hanging off of them, held to their persons by rope and silk threads. Their hands were raised as they crested the hill smiling with Tommy in tow.
“Monty, they healed me, look.” Tommy yelled, pointing to his cheek. The skin where the cut was looked clean and smooth, unlike the rest of his body which was covered with scars and dirt.
“No one uses magic to heal anyone without some reason. They own you now, you idiot. I hope you enjoy being a slave.”
The two men looked at one another with concern. Monty watched as their faces wrinkled heavily and how their noses seemed large upon their face. Their stubble was sparse, and the skin was rough. The older-looking man turned and started to mutter under his breath, raising his hand and aiming it toward Monty’s leg. Monty went to lunge towards the muttering man with his knife but fell when his right leg did not respond, falling unconscious before his head hit the grass.
When he awoke, he was lying on the back of the cart; Tommy was sitting next to him, eating a bright red apple. Monty remained still as he lay on the cart.
“I can’t believe you got us captured by those people. We have been here less than an hour, and we are already slaves.”
Tommy chuckled and threw an apple onto Monty.
“You have to try this. It is so good.”
“Are you kidding? I don’t want to get more in debt to these adults.”
“How much more in debt can we get if we are slaves?”
Monty went to argue but fell short of words. Looking down at the apple, he marveled at the shine of it. Smelling it, he could taste the sweet scent as it fell to the back of his throat. Taking one bite, his face scrunched up as the sweetness filled his mouth.
“That happened to me on the first couple of bites too.” Tommy added as he crunched into his apple again.
Monty wasted no time and devoured the whole apple, core and all.
“What the hell was that?”
“An apple, idiot.” Tommy chuckled, mocking Monty.
“I have never tasted an apple like that or even seen one so red before.”
Monty’s eyes widened, and he quickly pushed his hand down his own throat; vomit came out shortly after. He repeated the process till he was drooling and certain the apple was out of his system.
“It is not poisoned, you dumb idiot. These people are just some weird kind of ash.”
“Ash?” Monty said, confused. “Do you think that someone with this much is ash? There is no way someone who walks freely in a field, wields magic and has unlimited delicious food is a weak individual. Think about the blood that must be on their hands.”
“No blood.” A sweet voice called out from the front of the cart. “Unless you count sap as blood, I have never spilled a drop.” A young woman clambered over the barrels and moved to sit by the two boys. Her nose recoiled from the smell of the vomit. The only lines on her otherwise perfectly tanned face.
“Didn’t like the apples?” She said jovially
“He did, Sandra. But thought it was poisoned, so he made himself vomit.”
“Whose side are you on, Tommy?”
Tommy stuck out his tongue and turned around, hanging his legs off the back of the caravan, eating an apple.
“What have you boys been through to think the way that you do?”
She outstretched a hand to touch Monty on the face, but he recoiled, grasping for his knife.
“Sorry, I didn’t want to hurt you…” She paused for a moment and looked at Monty intently. “you have the face of an old man; I don’t think I have ever seen someone so young with so many wrinkles and scars.”
“Have you ever seen a ten-year-old before?”
Sandra chuckled and nodded.
“Then why do I look strange to you?”
Sandra’s face lowered as she tried to understand where the kids had been.
“Did you grow up in a slaver town, maybe an Orc town, or even a Tuatara? Gods forbid you were stuck in an Entominid camp?”
Monty looked confused, turning to Tommy for answers. Tommy caught Monty staring from the corner of his eye.
“I think they are different races on this planet, like Imps on Hollow.”
“What is this Hollow you keep mentioning?”
Tommy twisted on the spot and sat cross-legged, grabbing another apple. Sandra looked at the raised skin on the back of his hand. Long raised pieces of skin leaving thin valleys in the skin.
“Hollow is where we are from.”
“Is hollow back North from here?”
“No Hollow is a planet, not a town. We came here by Enadrome.”
Sandra looked very confused. Before she had time to ask a question, Monty butted in.
“Why is your face so weird?”
Sandra was taken back and brought her hands to her face feeling for imperfections.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you don’t have any lines, scars, and there is barely any dirt.”
Sandra smiled, tucking away her sandy blonde hair.
“Because I wash as often as I can and make sure I don’t do anything dangerous.”
Monty and Tommy looked at one another with concern. Tommy dropped his apple and stepped away from Sandra. Monty grabbed his knife firmly in hand and stepped to the back of the caravan. Sandra looked concerned.
“I am sorry. Did I say something wrong?”
Tommy and Monty looked even more panicked; Tommy grabbed his knife out of his pocket and held it towards Sandra.
“I told you this was too good to be true.” Monty said, giving Tommy the side eye.
“Do you think those apples really were poisoned?”
“Na, I think they probably had not poisoned them yet. I never heard of any poison that would take this long to kill someone.”
“We didn’t poison anything; these are for sale at the market.” Sandra insisted, lurching forward with her hand held outwards. Monty slashed her hand in an instant, and Sandra’s blood was flung from her hand. One of the older men approached from the back of the caravan, hearing the commotion. Tommy lunged and drove the knife into the man’s neck. Tackling the man to the ground with his weight.
“Uncle!” Sandra screamed as the gurgling from her uncle could be heard as Tommy drew his knife out on an angle.
“Come on, Monty get out of there; we have no idea what magic they have.”
Monty leaped from the cart and ransacked the uncle, taking his small coin purse before turning back to the cart. Peering inside, he looked and the shine of the few gold and silver coins that he grabbed.
“Tommy, they have gold!” Monty screamed.
They looked at one another with wildness in their eyes. They both took a short moment to build confidence and charged the cart. The other older man stepped forward and began to mutter, but Monty threw his knife, and it cut through the man’s cheek, silencing the spell. Tommy jumped onto his leg and slashed for his tendon while Monty grabbed the man’s hand and promptly bit a finger off. Sandra screamed and grabbed a nearby wooden broom. Leaping from the cart, she swatted Tommy from her father. Slamming the pole into his head several times before he finally fell. Monty jumped back, blood dripping from his mouth.
“Even their blood tastes sweet.” Monty said absentmindedly as he licked his lips. Tommy stood slowly as Sandra and her father struggled to stay steady. Given a moment of reprieve, Sandra’s father took the time to heal his leg and stop the bleeding of his finger. After casting the spells, he seemed visually weakened.
“Maybe we take what we have and leave Monty.” Tommy rubbed his head. “She has a hard swing for ash.”
“I told you they had blood on their hands.”
“We don’t hurt anyone; we only know healing magic and…” Sandra’s dialogue quickly turned to screams as Monty grabbed Tommy’s knife and lunged after her. Sandra managed to smack Monty hard. But he still got her in the stomach, and she fell. Monty grabbed the coin they had on their person as Tommy searched through the caravan.
“What a dumb bitch. Don’t you know you should never tell your enemy when you have no weapon?”
Sandra just held her stomach and cried out. Tommy returned with even more coins.
“Look, Monty, we are going to be rich.” He yelled with giddy as he juggled the coins in his hands.
“Put them back in the bag; let’s get out of here.”
As the two boys ran off, Sandra’s father healed her before falling near limp, struggling to remain conscious. She cradled her father and cried as she watched the blood pool around her uncle, his skin pale and his body limp.