“Stupid!” Imana murmurs to herself, “If only I’d thrown that grappling hook with a bit more force…”
“Dude, calm down. You’ve been thinking like that for the past hour. It was probably my fault for leaning in too much” Ethan replies, sounding a bit guilty himself.
“Both of you, no. It wasn’t anyone’s fault ok? Let’s just be glad Ethan made it across alright. Ok?” Celeste groaned.
“She’s right you guys. We shouldn’t dwell on this” Astrid adds. Imana goes silent, but I have a hunch she still feels bad. We continue walking in a weird silence. I think I’m behind everyone since their voices are a little bit faint.
“Well M, you really pulled your weight huh?” a voice I instantly recognize as Aniyah says while I feel a nudge on my shoulder. I shrug. I didn’t do that much, I think it was Nainika who swung the vine over to Ethan.
“No but seriously, how did you find that vine?” Aniyah questions.
“Spacial awareness I guess” I sign back to her.
“Spacial awareness huh? Cool. So you can just tell where things are?”
I think about it. How did I know that vine was there? I just...listened I guess. I stood there and heard soft thuds close by. And when I walked over and bent down, there was a vine in my hand.
“Yeah, I guess. I listen to my surroundings that’s all” I finally say after a beat.
“I guess it’s pretty easy to listen when you can’t see huh?” Aniyah says a bit wistfully. I shrug, but she is right. Sounds just become a lot more clear when you’re not distracted by your sight.
“But why would you even need to listen anyway? Seriously M, why the blindfold?” Aniyah asks suddenly. I feel my face go cold. How am I supposed to reply to that? Before I can reply though, I hear a thud come from in front of us.
“Oh my god!” Aniyah shouts and runs in front of me. I freeze, what’s going on? By the sound of it, someone just hit the floor. But who? And why?
“Nainika!” Celeste shrieks. I hear more footsteps and frantic movement, but I find myself frozen in place. I need to calm down and see if I can help. Panic attacks are the last thing I need right now. Just calm down...calm down...CALM DOWN. Breathe in and breathe out. Control your thoughts.
Nainika’s fine- but what if she’s not- she probably just fell from exhaustion- you should go help her- yeah I should- then move- but I can’t move- why not- my body isn’t letting me- so you’re just gonna be useless again- I’m not useless- then why won’t you move and help- I help sometimes, like back at the ravine- that was just a fluke- shut up shut up shut up shut up- MOVE YOU COWRD- I can’t move!- well stop shaking you look like a crazy person- wait I’m shaking- where is everyone?- did they leave- maybe the danger’s passed and you don’t even know- or maybe they left me- can’t blame them- is Nainika ok?- oh yeah you forgot about her and focused on yourself like the self-centered person you are- if I could just take one step- but you can’t
“Mara!” a voice interrupts my thoughts. I can’t tell who it is over the roar of my thoughts, but it is someone.
“Calm down! You’re fine ok?” the voice continues, putting their hands on my shoulders. Hands. Grip. Tight. Hurts. Shoulder...hurts. Leave me alone. Don't hurt me. Stop. Don't touch me. Please don't touch me. I shove the person off of me and hear a yelp. Oh no. It sounds like they hit the ground hard. Did I just hurt someone? Oh god, oh no.
“What the heck is wrong with her? Make her calm down!” someone else says. All these voices. I can’t determine a single one of them. Calm down Mara, you’re causing trouble for everyone else. Like you always do.
“Um...are you guys ok?” a completely new voice asks. And finally, there’s silence.
“C’mon, I can’t be the only one who’s suspicious about this right? This feels like so wrong.” Ethan complains. The rest of us shrug and keep walking. It’s not like we had much of a choice. It was either follow the mysterious blue hair girl or deal with a panicking Mara and semi-dying Nainika ourselves.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.” the girl says in a sweet voice, “I’m taking you to where I live so my friend and I can help your friend”
“Your place huh? Like where you live?” I ask. The girl nods, and I realize I should probably stop just calling her “the girl” in my head.
“By the way, what’s your name?” Celeste asks, almost like she read my mind. She rubs the shoulder she hit when Mara pushed her as she speaks.
“Alice. And you are?” the girl- I mean Alice answers.
“I’m Celeste” Celeste replies, wincing at the pain in her shoulder.
“Celeste...that’s a really pretty name,” Alice says. And for a while, that’s what anyone says as we walk in silence towards Alice’s “place”. I look over at the group to see how everyone’s doing. Astrid and Ethan are carrying Nainika, one of her arms draped on each of their shoulders. Celeste walks next to Ethan, Aniyah walks next to me, and Mara trails behind us.
The tension between us could be cut with a butter knife. Ethan seems to be...not angry, but certainly not too cheery towards Mara at the moment. Everyone’s concerned about Nainika, and we have no idea what’s wrong with her. All in all, it’s not great.
“Here it is!” Alice stops and turns around. We all look at her expectedly, since all that’s visible is a wall of plants and vines. Alice gives us a grin and pulls back the curtain of vines to reveal a large cave illuminated by bioluminescent mushrooms and fungi.
“Oh. My. God. This is so cool!” Aniyah exclaims, breaking the silence.
“I-it is? You think it’s cool?” Alice asks, her face lighting up.
“Heck yeah, it is!” Aniyah beamed, her eyes darting around the cave. I had to agree. The cave looked friendly and lived in. With hand-drawn maps, several jars filled with herbs, several random books scattered across, the glowing mushrooms, it looked amazing.
“Glad you think so” Alice replied with a giggle. She rubs her hands together and is soon ordering Astrid and Ethan to lay Nainika on a sleeping mat. As she paces around the room, gathering herbs and a worn journal, Alice asks what we were doing in the first place. We had to explain Astrid’s strange ring, the second bomb attack, and our journey to Middle Ground. To our surprise, Alice said she’d never heard of Middle Ground before.
“But it sounds amazing!” she adds, rubbing some kind of poultice on one of the (several) hives on Nainika’s arm.
“You know what else sounds amazing? Not inviting random strangers into our cave.” a completely new voice states. I turn around and jump at the voice. A tall guy with long white hair stands in front of me. And surprisingly doesn’t look that angry or anything, just annoyed.
“I know that Galen, but they looked like they needed help!” Alice whined, getting up and walking over to him.
“You see this is why I don’t let you go hunting with me. You wander off and bring extra mouths to feed.” the guy, I guess his name is Galen, groans.
“But they needed help. You see, one of them is hurt!” Alice whined. She grabbed Galen by the arm and led him to where Nainika was resting.
“See?” she nudged. Galen sighed and turned to the rest of us, almost as if he was studying us. I have to admit, we did kind of look like a mess. Most of our clothes were stained, beads of sweat decorated our foreheads, and we all had at least one cut or bruise from an aggressive stray branch.
“Ok fine,” Galen said after a beat, “They can stay until we get that girl over there healed. And as soon as she can walk, they’re gone.”
“And maybe we can teach them a few things about surviving in the forest while they’re here?” Alice suggested.
“You can handle that. These kids are not my responsibility” Galen says. With that, he picks up a sword from the corner of the cave and walks out.
“Well then. He seems like a nice guy.” Aniyah groans and plops onto the ground.
“Got that right.” Ethan agrees and sits down with Celeste.
“Can you really blame him though? It’s probably hard enough to provide for two people in the forest. Especially considering the crazy state our world is in right now” Astrid comments while she remains standing.
“Fair,” I say, sitting down with the rest of the group.
“Galen really is a nice person, but the girl with the ring is correct. The forest is harsh. It isn’t very easy finding food and such.” Alice explains, quieting down a bit as she continues to tend to Nainika. She stares at her for a bit before wincing.
“What? What’s wrong?” Celeste asks. When I think about it, it’s the first time she speaks since we arrived.
“I-it’s nothing, really, just um...your friend. She has a brutally high fever, her breathing’s slow, but the main problem is her heartbeat.” Alice whispers.
“What do you mean? What about her heartbeat?” Aniyah asks before any of us can.
“I just…” Alice pauses before taking a breath and continuing to speak, “I can barely feel or hear it”
DUN! DUN! DUNNNNNNNNN! End of Part Four! (Took me long enough-) Yeah, forest won the poll, so here we are. Also… new characters! Meet Galen Frost and Alice everyone! Lemme know how you enjoyed this part. I’m not proud of it, but I don’t hate it either.