Safe Arbour

This felt… different. The view was strange, and while it was much closer to the Earth she was used to, it was still an alien experience compared to the month she’d spent among the wood and books of the Library. There was sunlight, shockingly bright after the diffuse ever-present light of the Library, and it shone from a sky that looked like a world. The horizon didn’t curve away, it curved up, like a bowl lying over the world, patterned with the shapes of continents and covered with clouds. This was a bioterra, a spherical hole full of world, the main component of the Arboretum. Under the domed roof of the world in the sky hung a sun shining too bright to look at, with the faintest hint of green. Where the Library had been quiet and still, this place had an ambiance, the low sounds of water and the distant noises of chirping insects, calling birds and a number of other sounds she couldn’t quite place.

“Ah,” Aidra sighed happily, “just smell that Smoglands air.”

It was colder than the Library, and while the air back among the books was hardly stale, the air of the Arboretum was fresh and clear, carrying petrichor, the scent of wet earth after a rainstorm, on its cool breezes. The Causeway stood on an island in a swampy lake, long wooden bridges leading off into the mist and haze in every direction.

She looked around again. “Say, if the Causeways are these big trade hubs or something, where’s the city?”

While there was a smattering of foot traffic, a few froglike Children of Nursiir like Nik and Aidra wandering around, there was no sign of the bustling transport hub that the Library Causeways had been.

“There is a city,” said Nik, “but it kinda… roams. It’s set on floating platforms in the lake, and slowly meanders between the three Gates of the Smoglands Causeway. It’s a bit misty today, but normally you’d be able to see it over there.” He pointed off into the haze.

“You know,” said Aidra, “the mist does make scenery description here easier, because of the low render distance.”

Alice ignored him, directing her next question at Nik. “So, where do your family live?”

“They live in Grenoville, which is about a day’s travel that way. In fact-” he said, pointing slightly upwards at the looming shape of the concave world – “you see that isthmus there? Er, left of that blobby cloud? Yeah, it’s there-ish. Don’t worry, this is a small bioterra, the curvature’s quite steep, it’s not as far away as it looks.”

[How Much Light Do We Have Left?]

Nik looked up again, this time over at something which Alice hadn’t noticed before – half the domed world map hanging above her was much darker than she’d first thought, dazzled as she had been by the sun.

“Should be a few hours, at least, before the dark side of the sun is fully facing us. There’s an inn by the Salmeander Bridge that we’ll be able to reach by then, spend the night, and probably arrive at Grenoville just after midday tomorrow.”

“The dark side of the sun?”

He looked at her, puzzled. “Yeah?”

“It’s a sun. It has a dark side?”

“Um, it does? Half of it glows, half of it doesn’t. How else would there be a day and night cycle?”

“Oh. Uh, that actually makes sense, kinda. Just… surprising.”

“Fair enough – your description of how Materian worlds work was equally weird to me. Now, the Great Western Toad will be fine for travelling at this time of year, but we should keep an eye out for dangerous flora and fauna, just in case – the Gardeknights have yet to actually clear it this month.”

Alice managed to merely grimace at the steadily increasing number of puns in the placenames. Aidra had noticed, and was grinning smugly. She decided to be the better woman and not deck him in the face, but it was a fraught moral quandary for a moment or two.

“Right then,” she said, “lead the way.”

– – –

A creaking wooden bridge-pathway led across the mire, the cool mist on all sides reducing the visibility, but not by that much. Long, drooping swamp trees and other trees that could well have been mangroves stood thickly, alongside lilypads the size of trampolines floating in patches of five or six, an enormous, beautiful blossom or two floating among them. The scents they gave off were strange, but not unpleasant, and the ambiance of the swamp was made up of creaking trees, distant animal calls, and the lapping of water against the walkway’s supports. Occasionally, Alice saw movement out of the corner of her eye, turned, and it was just a tree swaying in the breeze. This would have been reassuring, but the air was mostly still, the slight zephyrs she felt on her skin hardly enough to make a tree move like that. Nik was leading, chatting to A Librarian about the concepts of weather, something which he hadn’t encountered all that much, growing up inside the Library.

They came to another island, one of many that lay in the expanse of still water, and found the road – the Great Western Toad, apparently – that led… right into a thicket of trees too dense to walk through.

Unperturbed, Nik walked straight down the packed-earth road towards the copse. “Hey!” he hollered, clapping his hands loudly, shockingly loud in the relative quiet, “Git! Shoo!

With a rumble, one of the nearer trees uprooted itself, standing a few feet taller on tangled roots, before scuttling out of the way and setting itself back down. A couple more trees followed, but the path was still blocked.

“Eugh,” he groaned, “they’re never cooperative in sapling season. We’ll have to go round.”

As they skirted the copse of surprisingly non-sessile trees, they rustled and shifted, but didn’t make any moves. Alice got the disconcerting impression that they were watching – keeping a metaphorical eye on the group.

“The saplings will be in the middle,” said Nik by way of explanation, once they were back on the road, “and the adult trees gather around them protectively until they can follow the forest on its migration.”

“That’s actually kinda sweet.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, it is. Be careful of the parent trees, though. They weigh, like, ten tonnes each and can crush you easily if they get the wrong idea.”

“Well, that’s alarming.”

“But,” said Aidra, “how much wood would a wood wound, would a wood wound wandering woodlums? And would you see the wood for the wooden wouldn’t woods?”

“I wouldn’t know how to answer that,” she replied.

– – –

Night was falling when they arrived at the inn, the sun dimming to a crescent like it was being eclipsed as it turned its light side slowly away from them.

The inn, the Treecreeper, was a squat building, its grass-covered roof dotted with small flowers, the building sunk slightly into the side of the hill it stood up against.

A roughly-humanoid pile of fungus manning the bar shared a few gurgling, unintelligible words with Nik before handing him some keys. They had dinner at the inn – the food was interestingly-flavoured, and seemed to have a primary ingredient of some kind of jellied slime. It wasn’t, however, wholly unpalatable, and she kinda liked the flavour of the grilled swamp fish with far too many eyes. The bed she ended up sleeping on, wedged along with all the others into a room that was only slightly too small, was comfortable, if a bit lumpy, and the blankets were scratchily homemade, but not too unpleasant for her to sleep in given how long she’d been walking that day. She lay down, hissed at Aidra to stop the fake snoring, and drifted down, into the darkness of sleep.

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