I was lying awake in my bed, thinking about the blood in room number one, and about Hiller’s hatred of outsiders, and about what rotting in the roots meant, and about how quickly I could convince Flare to leave this place. Assuming that Flare could be convinced to do much of anything. It was a whirlwind of worries and thoughts and fears that ripped any possibility of sleep to shreds.
The door slammed open, and I heard Hiller yell, “That’s her!” I shot up in bed.
Two large figures in twisted wooden armor stormed into the room. The armor was knotted, and whorled, and had numerous twiggy branches coming off of it. It was almost as though the armor had been grown onto the figures. Their helmets sported the most branches, to the point where the many spiky growths made it look almost like a crown.
A Crown, even.
I scrambled back out of my bed as the figures advanced, and racked my brain for something I could do to get out of this. Fights were not something I was good at. My mind was overtaken by flashes of past brawls, of Sandy driving an elbow into my chest, of Vance pinning me so the other kids could get their licks in, of Lilly shoving me up against a wall. I didn’t win fights.
I could avoid them, though. My charms were at my fingertips in a heartbeat, pulsing with energy, begging me to use them. I wrenched one into existence. A jumping charm. I leapt, aiming for the ceiling, as the Crowns lunged. My sticky-fingers charm was there for me as I made contact, and I held fast to the ceiling. There was another Crown in the doorway, filling it up with their wooden mass. I paused.
An idea struck me. I dropped to the ground, then charged for the doorway. Before I hit, though, I twisted a lightening charm around them, and when I collided with their stomach, that sudden lightness meant they couldn’t keep their footing, and the two of us bounced into the hallway.
The Crown had their arms around me, now, but I twisted my legs under me, and strained my fingers to bring the jump charm back, and then I pushed, and the Crown’s arms were torn away, and I sticky-fingered myself onto the arched hallway ceiling.
I looked. There were more Crowns coming out of Flare’s room. Two of them held an unconscious Flare between them. Another crown, this one with greenish moss-bands sticking to their wooden armor, turned to look at me.
“I told you to be careful! She’s an outsider, she’s dangerous!” they yelled. I could see Hiller standing next to them, glaring up at me. I could also see the Steward behind the two of them, wearing a fake apology on his face.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention, young lad,” the Steward said. “We can’t just let outsiders run amok threatening our people.”
The moss-covered Crown then raised their hands at me, and I could see them casting what looked like one of the springtime charms the farmers in Scorched Rock used to make their plants bloom. Then their gauntlets grew, branches grasping their way through the air towards me. I yelped, and let go of the sticky-fingers charm, and dropped to the floor just as the branches hit the space I had been clinging to. There were no Crowns in the hallway behind me.
“Come peacefully,” the moss-covered Crown said. “You’re only making it harder on yourself and your friend here.” They snapped the fresh-grown branches off their gauntlets, and aimed anew at me.
I panicked, and my hands leapt up, and they traced the amber charm. A shaky, ill-formed imitation of the one Flare had first used on me. The moss-covered Crown’s branch-growth bounced harmlessly against the edge of the amber.
I ran. Behind me, I heard Hiller yell, “Yeah, you’d better run!” I ducked into a staircase, then through another hallway, and I ran and I ran until I’d left my memory behind, no idea where I was or how to get back to my room. Until my lungs were on fire and every muscle was smoldering coal. Until I outran even my exhaustion, pure fear spurring me on.
I slowed, and stopped. A couple people walking by glanced curiously at me, then paid me no mind. I breathed.
My pack was still in my room. My amber was still in my room. Flare was being taken down to the roots, wherever that was. And people were vanishing mysteriously, rooms being closed off.
Flare might know what could be causing it. No, Flare definitely knew. She had just been waiting until she’d had a chance to sleep before getting to work fixing it. I didn’t know anything about monsters. Flare hadn’t taught me anything yet.
The roots. She was being taken down to the roots to rot. Meaning if I was going to save her, I would need to find those roots. I would need to go very far down, past a lot of prying eyes who probably felt similarly to Hiller.
I would need clothes. Maybe a disguise. Some way to avoid the guards. A better way than panic and charms. I would need a plan.
I would need help.
The only issue was that I had no idea where to go for help doing this. The whole tree felt like a terrifying claustrophobic maze, and anyone inside could be another Hiller, another outsider hater. Another person who believed in brainwashing charms. I would need help, but I would need to be careful, too.
But first, stealing. I would do Flare no good getting caught myself.
I looked for the nearest clothing store. I noticed Crowns wandering the halls, people getting out of the way, fear obvious on their faces. I ducked into staircases and side passages when I spotted them. I’d been moving for what felt like forever when I finally found a marketplace.
There was a clothing store, closed up, presumably due to the disappearances. I slipped in through a window in the side-hallway next to the store. They wouldn’t miss the clothes I took.
The interior of the shop was absolutely destroyed, dried blood and broken racks and torn clothes strewn all over, but a few simple outfits had survived. I grabbed them, and changed, and snuck out again, listening all the while for any bumps or creaks that might signal the arrival of whatever monster might be causing the disappearances.
I slipped back out, into the hallway. From there, trying to find an ally was just a matter of walking, exploring, and watching. I hoped it would be quick.