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The walk back to our house was mostly silent. It looked dark outside the village, so most of the people there were drowsy, taking breaks and napping. Storm and I were the opposite: we were both very much awake, and had to keep checking to make sure Rune was able to keep up with us. His ears were relaxed, but also made him look a little uneasy. I wondered if he was still thinking about the dungeon… because I certainly was, and Storm’s tail flicking told me that he was too.
By the time we made it back to our house, however, we had forgotten about that part of the conversation. We walked in, and told our mother our plans. She helped us pack for the journey towards the ocean, telling us that it would be a while before we got to the ocean, and we’d be hungry by the time we got there. I reminded her that Storm and I could hunt, but she insisted on giving us some bread and berries anyway, saying that she wasn’t sure we’d find anything to hunt. I gave in. No hunters had been finding good meat recently…
We packed clean water, the food that our mom gave us, tools like small shovels and knives, and a few large cloths. Whatever space wasn’t filled with anything else in our backpacks was stuffed with cloth that we could use to cover any openings in whatever building or shelter we found when we got to the ocean. The dust storms near the ocean were too rough for us to risk it.
We left the village all fully covered except for our eyes and foreheads. Some red and orange strands of hair poked out from under Rune’s hood, and I had some loose hairs too no doubt, but that wouldn’t be a problem. I had tied my hair back tightly enough for it to not get in my face as we were travelling and checked to make sure Rune did as well. The air was dry, and the shimmer of dust was everywhere above us, and every breeze seemed to shake more dust off of the trees and clouds. But other than the wind, the three of us were the only ones making any noise or motion for a few hours, and it seemed to be too late at night for light to come from anywhere but the glowing undersides of a few leaves high above us.
However, as the trees began to thin out just a little bit and the smell of salt was beginning to make its way through, Storm and I saw a shadow move, and we stopped. Rune hadn’t been paying attention, and bumped into me. I put my arm around his shoulders and pulled him close.
“Who’s there?” I said loudly and forcefully even through my face mask. The shadows seemed to slide off of Scout again, this time more quickly. He wasn’t as reluctant to approach us out here as he had been in the Village.
“Scout, how long have you been following us?” Storm asked with a smile, folding his wings a little bit.
“Not long,” Scout said. He was holding a long spear in his good arm, made out of wood with a sharp end cut into it. “I was just returning to the village to speak with you all.”
“Is there a problem?” Rune asked, his voice shaking a little bit. Storm and I frowned at each other, and Storm put his hand on Rune’s head between his ears.
“Nothing we can’t figure out,” Scout said quietly, the look in his eyes softening a little bit from their usual anxiety. “I know a few decent areas we can go to. They’re a long distance from the farms, but that may be a good thing if you’re studying the dust. We’ll have to build your shelter. There are few caves around, and most of them are very unsafe.”
“What do you mean by unsafe?” I asked.
“That… depends. Some of them we may be able to use, because they have a lot of dust and some… very strange plants in them. I don’t know how to explain it. But others have… monsters in them.”
“Monsters…?” I asked. I saw Rune’s ears flatten under his hood. “What kind of monsters?”
“Some of them are… from the dungeon. Not the humans… the… other men who… only technically lived through it. Others, I honestly don’t know what they are. I’ve tried to stay away from them when I’m in the area. There are a few safer caves, which I have found food growing in before, but I’ll have to show you which ones. It’s too risky to try to figure it out yourselves.”
I felt sick to my stomach, and nodded. “That is wise,” I said. Storm and Rune silently agreed with me. Rune stepped forward and looked up into the sky, before sighing.
“How much longer do we have before we get to the ocean…?”
“You’re over halfway there,” Scout said. He turned around. “I’ll lead the way from here.”
We all followed him. As the trees continued to thin out, more light got through the canopy, and the dust that limited vision in the forest also became more thin until we could see farther than anywhere else. I noticed Rune’s ears flicking in every direction as it became easier to hear from farther away, and he was looking around in wonder. He had never been this far from the village before. I had only been this far a few times- mostly when the farms had requested a few hunters to help carry their yields to the village and Storm and I were picked, but also a few times when the village had been desperate for food and I had to come this far to find even a single, half-starved deer that could maybe feed half a family for a single meal at best.
As we walked, we were mostly silent, though Scout was keeping a watchful eye on all of us. Eventually, we reached a point where the trees just seemed to stop. There were some further down a slope, but we could see grass- so much grass- and the mountains to our left and then, farther beyond the grass, a line of gray-pink sand and then pure, deep blue that matched the night sky. I looked back, at the forest and the shimmering black clouds above it, which became thinner as they extended towards the ocean. I glanced at Rune, who was looking around in awe. I let him do so for a minute, before gently nudging his arm.
“We should find somewhere to build,” I said. Storm and Rune both nodded.
“There’s a better place than here,” Scout said. “It’s better protected, though it has a danger.”
We followed him towards the mountains until we reached a canyon at the base of the mountain. It was shallow enough to where if someone fell off of it, it would not endanger their life, but steep enough to where they’d be in pain for a long time. The top of it was surrounded by trees that connected to the forest we had just left, and while the trees had some dust on their leaves, it was nowhere near enough to be dangerous.
“This is where I spend some time living in the dry season if it’s not raining too much,” Scout explained. “A few others like me do as well, but we move out after the first rain. That is the only thing that is risky about this place- when it rains, it floods quickly.”
By the time Scout was explaining that, it was safe enough for us all to have our hoods and facemasks down. I saw Rune taking deeper breaths than I had ever seen him take before, but he didn’t seem to be desperate for air. In fact, he seemed to be more relaxed than he had ever been in the Village.
“Maybe we should find higher ground, then,” I suggested. “I… Rune, how long do you plan on this taking, anyway? It’s too late in the dry season for us to be safe for long here.”
“It’s going to be a few days at least,” Rune said. “But at the same time, it’s protected here…”
“How badly does it flood?” Storm asked, turning to Scout.
“It doesn’t flood fully until the Rain Season,” Scout said, “But it’s not fun living here in the snow season.”
“And we’re getting dangerously close to the snow season,” Rune said, turning and starting to walk out of the canyon. “We should find somewhere else, at least for now.”
“We could build at the top of this area,” Storm said. “Or maybe further towards the ocean?”
“Further towards the ocean,” Rune quickly said, “But I like how protected it is here. Is there anywhere closer to the ocean that is kind of like this?”
“Yes, but it’s a little higher up on the mountains,” Scout said. “It’ll be a bit of a climb. Perhaps we should rest and eat first. If I know your mother she gave you all some food.”
We climbed to the top of the canyon and sat with our legs hanging off the edge as we ate. In the distance, over the sea, there were light-feathered birds flying.
All of them were flying away from the black clouds above where we lived. I couldn’t help but wonder what the places in the world that didn’t have the dust were like… and what they thought of the black clouds constantly swirling above our home.
If they even thought about them at all.
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