BENEATH THE WORLD-TREES'
Part One – Runaway
Ten days before Ouzin's 250th birthday, he traveled alone, as was tradition, to the Hiskar. He trekked through the Kroshta desert, weak and powerless, against malevolent sand storms that petrified his skin, and stripped hair of his body in chunks. The storms wore him down with the same brutality that had battered, for countless years, all land in the Kroshta to the smoothness of glass. Finally, he arrived at the Hiskar, in the heart of the vast pearl tundra. Ouzin knew that the Hiskar was the area with the strongest connection to Larklan, the realm of the hirak beasts. So, just like many before him, he journeyed there to form a pact with one of the hirak. Ouzin fell, in an attempt to kneel, as the astral energy of LarkIan, proved too great for his exhausted body. Through his knees, he felt ground pulse frantically to the beat of his heart. When the pulse steadied to a calm rhythm, he hesitated briefly, then placed his palms on the sacred ground. He suddenly became aware of his soul like it was a physical limb, then a sensation that felt like his mind and body were being squeezed and stretched to fit through the eye of a needle came over him as he accepted a pact with the hirak, Linan. On Bist, forming a pact with a hirak was a common decision that most people made, but to Ouzin, this pact was a requirement for his family’s political agenda.
With the ceremony completed, and his powers multiplied, he reluctantly began his return home. It took him five days to reach the world-forest's edge, and he immediately saw the line of private shuttles projecting his family's crest high into the air. The crest was a beacon illuminating the surrounding area in the immaculate, blue and gold light of the Laboneir family. He stopped walking and watched the procession of shuttles and people waiting for him. Then, he saw what he was returning to: expectant parents, siblings, peers, and their Interrogations on how best to utilize his pact in their strategies and campaigns.
Ouzin felt his body spasm, and bile rise in his throat. His mind jumped through thoughts spontaneously, and his nerves were pulled taunt. He didn't want to go back, but for a long time he didn’t have a say in his life: schools, friends, events, cars, clothes and more. Everything was decided by his family, but now he was suspended in this moment that was outside his family’s light. In front of him, separated by a thin stretch of the yellow desert, were two options: the shuttle and the world-forest's edge. They blurred together, dissolving into a murky soup of liberation and duty. Then he remembered: the years of watching eyes that always looked either past or through him, and how they would always do so until he proved he was worth seeing.
He didn’t return. Using the powers he received from his pact, he warped light, cloaking himself from sight, and disappeared into the wild alien underbelly of the world-forest.
Part Two – The Undergrowth
Ouzin crouched behind the large root of a world tree. He made himself as small as possible, and became still, not even daring to breathe. The rodent he was hunting, was eating fruit from the bait he laid out. All he had to do now was catch it. Carefully, he pulled a dart from his belt pocket, and in the same motion threw it. he smiled triumphantly and settled in to field dress the creature. As he began skinning the animal, he thought about his first days in the undergrowth.
Looking back on it, he realized that his first memories in the forest were shaped by shock and fear. He was shaken by how completely the enormous world-trees prevented light from reaching the forest floor. His pact with Linan proved especially fortunate as the hirak gave him power over Light and fire, but the darkness of the undergrowth was so thick and absolute, that even extending the reach of his illuminating powers, did not pierce more than thirty feet around him. He was constantly filled with fear and anxiety, at the unknown world just beyond his sight. The primal night, constant cold, and unfamiliar sounds of insects and small creatures shuffling around and burrowing, kept him too anxious to sleep for days.
On the days that he was able to sleep, he would suddenly be woken up by such intense guilt for running away, that he almost ran out into the spotlights searching for him. In those moments, it was only his certainty that his family would feel nothing more than slight irritation at his absence, that kept him hidden beneath the large fallen leaves and roots. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t imagine his mother plaguing herself worry and awaiting his safe return. He knew she would have moved on with different plans that didn’t involve him. His father, he knew was no better. The man would not be seen desperately leading any search parties, instead he would be at a gala making beneficial connections. His two older sisters were most likely not even alerted that he was missing; their governmental duties too paramount to warrant unimportant distractions. No, he didn't dare indulge in irrational feelings of guilt or shame for too long. Instead of concerning himself with a family that saw him only as a tool, he chose to focus on what lay ahead, as he plunged deeper into the unfamiliar world-forest.
It took a few weeks, but he soon learned to hunt small rodents, cook root vegetables and spices, as well as weave twine to make blankets, and eventually, he become comfortable in the darkness. He was then able to notice the bioluminescent world that appeared when he extinguished the harsh white glow of his powers. Plants and insects would glow in ethereal blues, greens, and purples, and critters would rise from the leaf covered floor, and become small stars and galaxies dancing at his fingertips. Then when he listened carefully, he could hear their small bodies creating a collective hum, that freighted him at first, but soon became the sound that gave him the greatest peace.
Lighting a small fire, Ouzin began roasting the small rodent. Once he was done, he would wrap it in leaves that would preserve the meat, then continue his journey to find new discoveries. Before living in the Undergrowth, he lived in the highest branches of the world-trees with the rest of Bist civilization, so Ouzin had never seen a river, but now, he bathed in waterfalls. He even discovered a clearing in the forest, where the sunlight slipped through and secretly washed the world in glorious light, illuminating in a halo, a young sprout of a world-tree. When he saw it, he was filled with a strange emotion the drove him to wrap his arms around the trunk; he imagined he was embracing those who would someday live on its branches.
Part Three – Ten Years
Ouzin stood at the base of an enormous world-tree and rested his head on its trunk that stretched into the infinite sky adorned with lush blue leaves each the size of a person. He knew this tree well, it had been his home before he ran away. For years Ouzin had chosen to live in isolation, instead of becoming a part of his family's legacy. In the ten years he had lived on the forest floor, he had never met another nomad. And after ten years, he had gotten used to the darkness, the cold, the animals, the absence technology, but despite his efforts, he could not adapt to the loneliness.
It didn’t start at first, when all he needed to do was focus on surviving, but after he got comfortable, and was able to get multiple weeks of good sleep in a row, the aching began. It was subtle at first, easily chased away by the new discoveries he made, the map he was crating, or the family of rodents he built a house for. But soon the ache returned. At other times, he would deeply contemplate returning, even packing up his twine bag and setting off. His steps would start bold and defiant, then shrink to shuffling and eventually the thought of facing his family would drive him to find a new set of distractions. Now his loneliness sat under his skin, gently pulsing: a calm and steady beat that he could ignore. Then occasionally, it would pound. It would pound on the on the walls of his empty heart and ring in his head convicting him of his cowardice: first by running away instead of confronting his family and then, because he didn't even have the determination to forget them.
At night he dreamt of his mother, how until he turned sixteen, every night she would read to him while holding his hand, telling him tales of the Great dragon Marviel, or just reading out the finance section of the news. He thought about how his father would look at him with pride. When did it all change? He wondered. When did they start caring more about politics, and business than him? Or, and the thought terrified Ouzin, maybe he was the one who changed, the one who viewed their hopes for him as selfish pressures because he couldn't measure up. Maybe his insecurities allowed him to paint his family as villains and oppressors. And then, a more recent fear, which chilled him such that no matter how big a fire he built, and how much covering he piled on, he would still shiver unnaturally; was the fear that even now his family still searched, and still waited for him to return home.