The Guardians, joined by Festelda, congregated near the Landing Room the following morning. Spring was in full swing, and the Designer had deemed the group ‘prepared’ to embark on their journey. Brenloru had apologized profusely to Festelda for his harsh words during their assembly with the Designer; regarding the fate of the badger. She was quick to forgive the moose, as she now had bigger issues than insubordination clouding her mind.
Reblex stood near a corner wearing a grim expression. While Brenloru had Dahj distracted in consultation regarding various combinations of medicinal herbs, Festelda approached the troubled ram.
“You know we need to do this,” she said lowly.
Reblex nodded, holding his tongue as he watched the moose fumble for flora within his pouch. Brenloru had months to perfect his craft, yet none of the residents trusted him to properly patch up a mere laceration.
“I know your judgement is clouded by what we discovered on that mountain,” Festelda mumbled to the ram. “But this is could dictate the future of herbivores.”
“Which is exactly why I’m participating…” Reblex muttered in return. “As if I have anything else to occupy my time.”
“Just… Watch the anger, okay? Unless absolutely necessary, it doesn’t help our cause. And don’t mention our trip to anyone… It could cause a drastic shift in motivation for the others,” she said.
Dahj handed a handful of mixed plants back to Brenloru with a nod that lacked assurance. Partially decomposed and smelling of rot, they offered insignificant aide. He turned to the pair and beckoned them towards the Landing room.
Dahj stumbled on damp soil after using the root transportation system to leave the Cedar Homestead. After spending months underground, dawn’s sunlight made him squint immediately. Fresh mountain air bit the insides of his nostrils and filled his lungs as he took a deep breath and straightened his posture. It felt wonderful after the musty, stale cave air.
Scanning the tree-littered valley below filled him with mixed emotions. What had once home now felt like dangerous territory to roam. He felt like prey, constantly exuding a potent scent of blood throughout the very fields he had spent most his life. It was an odd experience to be traversing this land without a herd in tow. Despite his improved physical form, and blessings of the land, he felt powerless, and thus vulnerable.
The moment everyone had exited the tree, the party ducked their heads and moved east as quickly and quietly as possible, headed for the nearest tree line and brush cover. Reblex tailed behind, over-embellishing difficulties with his new posture.
“Okay back there, ram?” Brenloru called sarcastically. Chilled air whistled through his nostrils from a raise rate of breathing.
“Yeah, just, first time back on soil, you know?” he lied, awkwardly stumbling over rocks and roots in a feigned attempt to gain reliable control over his footing. “So, what’s first?”
“Well, the plan is to head directly towards the area of fables the Designer described. We should be able to check a few places off our list there,” Dahj whispered back, keeping his posture low. His hunched back almost felt more comfortable in this position. A posture more familiar to him.
Brenloru led, frantically scanning the horizon with vibrant blue eyes for any signs of movement from a predator. Inhaling deeply through his long snout, he analyzed scents traveling downwind, but didn’t detect anything. He, too, was still getting used to the exposure of fresh forest air. The pleasure of it was slightly intoxicating, distracting him from the task at hand.
“The cave I suggested is a little out of the way,” Brenloru said over his shoulder. “We will visit it last, on our way back home.”
Dahj made eye contact and nodded in agreement.
Exposed granite rocks streaked in white jutted out of the soil, surrounded by rigid sagebrush. The first wave of blue, white, purple and yellow wildflowers was triumphantly scattered throughout the gradual hillside, solidifying the feeling of spring. Festelda quickly picked a forget-me-not and tucked it behind her ear as she scurried behind the Guardians.
Traveling south east as quickly, and inconspicuously as possible during daylight hours, the Guardians covered as much ground as their bodies would allow, infrequently communicating and seldomly taking breaks. Eventually, the sky burned red as the sun set behind the western mountain range. Brenloru declared they would stop in the current forest as their first resting place. Dahj grazed briefly, never looking directly down at his food. Even while chewing, his eyes darted back and forth, examining one hundred and eighty degrees in front of him.
Festelda carried a handful of nuts and seeds, popping one in her mouth at a time as she casually inspected the base of the trees surrounding them, forget-me-not drooping near her forehead. Many of the trees had patches of mosses soaked in rainwater climbing up their rough bark. Beads of water collected at the end of tiny sprouts within the moss before dripping to the soil below. Lichen spotted various large rocks. Although colorful, the plant resembled a patchy skin infection – quickly spreading with the intention of blanketing the boulders entirely.
Festelda stopped dead in her tracks when a series of thin vines that sprawled across the forest floor caught her attention. The vines climbed the bark of surrounding trees and wove over rocks. Leaves in groups of three sprouted along the sprawling vines.