Melissa

Everybody was desperately scrambling up the steep cliff face when Brandt shouted “Now!” Melissa paid no attention to the shout, nor to the flash and loud cracking that followed it.

The thundering crash that followed after a couple of heartbeats, though, that she did pay attention to. The entire world was shaking apart, or so it seemed to her, and she clung to the rocks for dear life. Expecting any moment for it to crumble and send her plunging to her death.

It didn’t happen though and after an interminable amount of time gradually diminished the roaring and shaking and the feeling of rocks crashing down mere centimetres from her head and the rush of wind that caused. It took even longer for her heart to stop racing quite so hard and for her to be able to unclench her fingers.

The rest of the climb was quite a bit nerve-wrecking now she was not driven by the sheer horror of the thing that had been chasing them. She had climbed trees even higher than this cliff, many times even, so it was not the height that scared her. No, if she had to be honest to herself she had to admit it terrified her. Rather it was the lifelessness of the rocks that made it unnatural and unreasonably dangerous to her.

what did not help was that with the terror wearing off, so did the last surge of strength. She was dragging herself up the cliff the last few meters and had to be helped over the ledge by Keri, who had reached the top first. The small man also had spent part of the night resting as she could on the crude construction. She was the least physically fit and had clearly needed the rest, which now paid off in a minor way because she could help everybody up the last few meters. In the case of Brandt that was literal. Keri actually climbed down again, exhausted as she was, to help the faltering human steady as she made the final push. Melissa grabbed his arms as she threw them over the edge, to prevent Brandt from sliding back down. She was the only one big enough to balance the heavy human as she hung precariously over the drop.

Eventually everybody made it to the top and just kind of fell down where they were. After a two days of non-stop running they were all too exhausted to do more than poorly keeping up appearances. And even those who did try only made a half-hearted effort at best. Brandt had tried, but after she had to be dragged on the flat top of the rock she just closed her eyes and fell asleep. Keri slept too, fitfully. Oboru sat cross-legged at the edge, looking back at the forest they had fled from. Her eyes were wide open but she did not seem to be seeing anything. And Talya was propped up against a boulder and tried to appear to be awake.

Melissa wanted to rest as well, but there was almost nothing alive on top of this rock. Some patches of scraggly grass and similar tiny leafy plants had found purchase in shallow crags that criss-crossed the surface. There was a knee-high brush with yellowing leafs of a type that she didn’t know, that clung to life, and that was pretty much it. She could sit here and let her body rest, but she could not truly recover until after she entered a forest again and was surrounded by proper trees.

Sighing inwardly she admitted to herself that she wasn’t up to more running for some while yet, and that none of the others were anywhere close to being able to move either. She just had the nagging feeling that it wasn’t over.

“Talya,” she asked softly. “Do you feel anything?” She stressed the word in a way she hoped the woman would interpret the way she meant it as referring to the sense of wrongness that had haunted them these past days.

Talya looked up, she had been leaning against a boulder with her eyes closed and probably trying hard not to fall asleep too. The answer was a little slower in coming, but as Melissa had temporarily lost the battle with her eyelids she wasn’t looking at the woman’s expression any more.

“We … should not be hanging out here,” she finally replied. “At least not long.” she drew a deep audible breath, “It is still there, below us. I think you feel it do, or you would not ask me.”

Melissa worked through the odd phrasing these people used in their speech. It was difficult and she regularly missed parts if they were speaking too fast, or too long. What Talya just said was borderline for her current exhausted ability to concentrate on language.

“Yes,” Melissa said, that being easiest to express. Then she added “There’s a tiny hole in the world still. And it is draining us.”

Talya audibly shuddered, “We need to get Oboru away from here. Distance helped him before. And us”

Brandt unexpectedly broke into the conversation, “You two are right. I’ve thought about it but we’re not in any condition to leave. Worse still is that our horses aren’t.”

Melissa opened her eyes, just in time to see Talya bristle briefly before fighting down that automatic reaction.

“And how long are you saying we should wait?” she asked, a bit too aggressively. “We shouldn’t wait all night, and I don’t want to run through the night again.”

Brandt answered, equally sharply, “We’ll do just that if we have to.”

Melissa couldn’t see Brandt from where she was reclining, but she was strongly reminded of a young wolf challenging the pack leader for dominance. The initial stages where they were growling at each other to determine their relative strengths. Interesting to observe under different circumstances, but rather poorly timed. It also made her reconsider her initial assessment of the intelligence of these humans in particular.

She did not want to get between these two though. They would not appreciate it and were more likely to join together and turn on what they likely would perceive as a third challenger to their weird little dominance game.

“Can we move a little further away?” Melissa asked finally after the silence between the other two stretched on uncomfortably long. She didn’t have to actually look to feel that they were both looking at her with differing degrees of glaring thrown in.

“Why?” Talya asked, while Brandt said, “Are you feeling something?”

“Not exactly,” Melissa chose to answer Brandt’s question. She evaded the fact that she was still feeling a faint drain from the spot at the bottom of the cliff, and instead went, a bit lamely, with “this is a bad place to rest. too exposed. To the wind, and the rain that is coming up.” She gestured to her back at the dark clouds she knew were blowing in from there and that from Talya’s look of surprise she only now noticed.

Brandt sighed deeply and struggled to his feet, “Right. Good points all of that. Try to wake up Keri, I’ll see to Oboru. Talya, if you can, find us an easy way off this rock.”

“Am I your slave now?” Talya muttered. Melissa did not think Brandt had heard that complaint, did not think she herself was meant to either. They both hopped to Brandt’s orders though, as they did make sense, and there was a definite touch of wet cold to the wind that was gradually picking up. Talya obviously figured that she could continue to argue with Brandt, or get under cover before the rain started to fall and picked the later as more sensible.

Melissa did not want to get up, she did not feel like her legs would support her weight. But she also realised that unless she somehow found her way back into the forest below she would remain too weak far longer than the others. Gritting her teeth she made her trembling way where Keri was stretched out on the ground.

The woman had her eyes open and said quietly, “I was awake all this time.” She added her expression twisting express mild annoyance, “Listening to those two snipping at each other.”

“Snipping?” Melissa asked, not knowing the word or what it meant.

Keri grinned weakly as she struggled to her feet, “They’re arguing all the time.”

“I noticed,” Melissa agreed. “It is pointless.”

Keri shrugged,”Brandt’s bossy and Talya doesn’t like orders.”

Helping the shorter human to her feet Melissa thought over that cryptic comment. “The big one is like an alpha wolf and the pale one is a loner?”

Keri snorted and said “Wolves those two ain’t.”

She wouldn’t tell what she did think Brandt and Talya resembled, which meant it probably wasn’t flattering.

Grimacing from the pain of muscles that did not want to be stretched Melissa and Keri made it to the back of the rocky ledge, the corner where a drop off met the second steep face.

“If we have a bit of rope we can climb down here,” Talya was telling Brandt. “It’s a bit too far down to jump, though you’re free to try.”

“I’ve rope,” Brandt replied. “But it’s in my saddle bags.”

“Great,” the pale woman commented acerbically. “That’s real useful.”

Keri sighed deeply and spoke up, “You will have to let me down somehow. I’m the only one who knows where the horses are anyway.”

Brandt shook his head, “that’s not going to be easy. It’s at least two floors height that you’d have to drop. And it’s a narrow ledge.”

He eyed Melissa, or more precisely her bow, speculatively and she shook her head, “My bow will not work. The string would cut her fingers and the bow …” she left that part hanging in the air, not sure how to tell him that her bow would kill Keri and have him believe her. “The bow itself will not work,” she settled for.

“Bow is a bad idea anyway,” Talya interrupted. “Two of us have backpacks. If nothing else works we can use spare clothing to improvise a rope.”

That was how Melissa lost her chiton. With two quick cuts it was turned into a square of fabric easily long enough to cover half the distance Keri would have to drop. Talya and Brandt then pondered — or bickered, to use a less charitable description — over whether or not to try to attach a belt or something to the end, to improve the grip. Ignoring Keri’s protests that they didn’t need to destroy Melissa’s clothes and that she could climb or jump down because it was not much of a height.

Melissa and Oboru used the delay to sit down and rest, their legs dangling over the ledge.

“Where they find strength?” Oboru sighed, or at least that was what Melissa thought he said, for she found his accent hard to decipher. She did agree with both the question and the sentiment it expressed.

She sighed, “I wonder if this is how the wolf pack feels when the alpha and beta are fighting.”

Oboru looked like he had not understood a word of what she’d said. Instead he continued his own threat of thoughts, “I think they are trying to hide that they are afraid.”

“Afraid?” Melissa asked, because she wasn’t certain she had understood him correctly.

“Yes, I think they are afraid of what has happened. I know I am.”

The short human got to his feet and said, “anyway, would you want to help me climb down? You do look strong enough to hold my weight, and this just might put an end to the pointless bickering.”

Getting to her feet much more slowly and stiffly, Melissa admitted, “I am tired and … weakened.” She didn’t feel it was wise to admit to her weaknesses, but if he planned to trust his life to her strength, she had to warn him.

He smiled an odd little smile at her, “I can tell. Your … glow. It is … muted.”

There were odd pauses in his phrases as well, where he was substituting words and had to look for them.

Melissa picked up ruined piece of clothing, the only piece of casual clothing she possessed. Had possessed.

Brandt asked sharply, “What are you doing?”

“Climbing down,” she replied simply. “This is taking too long. That rain is almost falling.” She clarified, “us,” in case that hadn’t been clear.

That made everybody look to the sky, where the dark clouds had both gotten a lot closer, and become even darker in the short time they’d been looking for a way off the rock they had fled to.

“Very well,” Brandt said, suddenly all business-like again. “But I will go first. That way we know that the fabric to hold our weight.”

Keri looked like she wanted to protest, but tore her gaze away from the darkening clouds when a sudden gust of wind brought with it a cold damp air that was just short of being rain.

“Right,” Talya said, taking control back from Brandt. “We’ll go down by weight. And I am the best climber. I don’t need the rope, as long as somebody is below to catch me if I slip.”

“If you think you can slip you should wait till we bring a proper rope.” Brandt overruled her.

Talya shook her head, “no time for that. This rock will get slippery in the rain, so if at all possible I’d like to be down before then.”

“There’s a little ledge about half a body length down,” Brandt said. “Try to slide down from it. Better to lose a little skin than to break an ankle. And don’t jump. The fabric is too slippery to get a good grasp on it.”

“Done this before, have you?” Talya asked.

“Actually, yes, I have,” Brandt answered her blandly. “Though that was with proper rope, not somebody’s underclothes.”
“Didn’t fancy you for the type to escape from a second story,” Talya muttered.

Brandt didn’t dignify that with a reply and instead lowered himself on the ledge he had seen. “Rope,” he said.

Talya, who also seemed to understand what the big human planned, put one end of the chiton fabric in the clasped hands held over his head. Then she paced back with the other end and said in a commanding tone of voice, “Oboru and I grab the fabric as firmly as we can. Melissa you hold on to Oboru’s waist to keep him from slipping. Keri you do the same with me.”

Melissa waited to see what Keri did, who understood the language a lot better, before copying her.

“Brandt!” Keri shouted. “There’s some slack in the rope. Be wary of the shock. Count down before you slide down so we know when to brace ourselves.”

“Yes. Three … two … one … Go!” Brandt answered, without the shouting.

A fraction of a second later they all staggered when they suddenly had to bear the big human’s full weight.

“Oboru, now carefully inch forward till you reach the edge,” came the next command. “But please do it quickly enough that we get there before the cloth slips through our fingers.”

“No pressure,” Oboru said.

“That’s what you get for being a big strong man,” Keri said dryly.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Melissa still was momentarily distracted by the fact that Keri had called Oboru a man, like herself. Then she mentally shook herself to pay attention to what she was doing. It was difficult to keep up with Oboru as he moved while at the same time as preventing him from being pulled over the edge by Brandt’s weight.

It did not take long before Oboru said, “Stop!” The fabric after all was not that long.”

“Brandt,” Keri shouted. “We’re at the end of the rope. You’ll have to slide the rest of the way down.”

There was no reply, only the tension on the rope falling away, causing the four of them to fall backwards.

Talya cursed loudly. Keri laughed even though Talya had landed on her. Melissa didn’t know what she should do, only that she had all breath driven out of her by Oboru and had nothing left for a reaction.

“Melissa, you’re next.” Talya cut through the distractions. “The ledge is narrow, only room for your heels. Try to squat on it if you can. The lower you get the less shock you have to absorb when you start sliding down.

“Moment” Melissa said, and started stripping out of her clothes.

“What? Wait!” Keri exclaimed.

“This is silk,” Melissa explained. “It will tear and burn when sliding over rock. I have nothing else.”

“You’ll tear up your back,” Keri cried out.

“Blanket?” she asked, but when everybody shook their heads she sat down and lowered herself feeling with her feet for the tiny ledge she was told was there.

After that it played out like she had seen with Brandt, only in her case with more abrasions and shallow cuts on her back.

Wide eyed Brandt handed her back her clothes. She didn’t put them back on though as she first wanted to let Keri have a look at her back, to see if any of the wounds needed cleaning or stitching.

She ignored the big human’s discomfort while they waited for the others to make the descent. Keri as promised was and by the time she made the attempt it had indeed started to rain. Everybody was cold and miserable by then. Melissa in particular because Keri was cleaning out, as well as she could under the circumstances, the dirt and grit from the wounds on her back. She had apologised for the pain she caused but at least right now she had plenty of clean water to wash the wounds out with.

Keri did slip, but since it was the last meter or so, she managed to keep her face from being scraped the way Melissa’s back had been. Brandt even managed not to tell her ‘I told you so’ though from the look of his face Melissa could see that was a close thing. Thankfully Talya was not looking at him, or they would have resumed their dominance display there and then.

“I suggest we find the horses and then as quickly as possible find a downed tree. I’ve some oiled linen that we can improvise a tent with.” Brandt eyed the group that was growing more bedraggled with every passing moment in the cold rain. “It will be a tight fit though. It is really meant only to shelter my horse under.”

“That would keep us warm,” Keri said wistfully.

“Maybe.”

Melissa sighed in relief as she crossed the border of a forest. It was only a small one and to look at there was no clear boundary. She could feel, however, that the trees had become a coherent instead of grassland with copses of trees in it.

She was home.

Not of course the Forestheart, but still it was the sort of place where she belonged.

It was trivially easy for her to find what they needed. She only had to touch a tree and let her awareness expand through the forest. There was a gap in the fabric not too far away, the healthy kind where a tree been downed by a storm, rather than the unnatural tear in the black forest where she had arrived in these strange lands.

“This way,” she pointed Brandt in the right direction.

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