The forest of Cedria was an impossibility. The sun shone through the leaves in the canopy above, cascading through the golden branches and trunks with flowing streams of light. It stretched out to infinity, extending up and down gentle, mossy hills in the same way in all directions. One could easily get lost in the forest of Cedria, if not for the road Tasuneke stood upon. The breeze strode lazily down the hill ahead of him, whispering an amiable summons to venture forth and explore. He looked back to the dome his village sat beneath, still only a few yards away.
He had left home once before with his mother, years ago when he was a child. Then, his mother had to explicitly forbid him from climbing up the vines that cocooned the town. While they were sturdy enough to support the weight of a child, that strength would not hold a perturbed mother climbing after it. It often took the Tenders weeks to mend a hole in the vines made in such a way, and could be a real nuisance to fix, depending on where the breach occurred. He idly wondered whether the vines would snap under his current weight.
But no, he had a job to do. Coal nuts weren’t easy to find. They only grew on red starfall trees, and the common linkroots of the forest made seeing more than a hundred yards in any direction difficult. The red starfall trees were sacred to his people, and while his success was ultimately determined by his acquisition of the nuts, finding the tree and returning home safely would prove challenge enough.
Tulu sat patiently on his shoulder, a marvel he couldn’t have explained. It wasn’t even grasping at his wristband anymore, but instead seemed to be just as entranced by the majesty of the forest as he was. “Come on, Tulu. We’re both going to prove our worth!” And with that, he took off at a run down the road…
Sunset was fast approaching. He had searched all around, climbing hills and even a few trees in search of the tinge of red that supposedly contrasted the rest of the forest immensely. He had been off the road a few times, but wherever he went, he was careful to keep either the dome of vines or the clear dirt path within sight. The forest floor was covered in moss and vines, so one had to keep eyes focused on the ground in order to avoid tripping.
The excitement and adventure of this quest had long since worn off. He was excited to find the tree and finish his mission, but he had to get home before it got dark, and he dared not return without his prize. It wasn’t forbidden, but without the coal nuts he could not become a man that year. Staring at the twisting vines stretching around him, he palmed his forehead, thinking about how its nakedness marked him as a child. He could not bare the shame of that another year.
“You look to the ground when your eyes should gaze upon the stars, young one,” the forest seemed to whisper. Tulu squawked in agreement.
“I don’t know how we’re going to find the red starfall, Tulu,” Tasuneke said. “It will only get darker and you haven’t seemed to pick up on any nearby coal nuts.”
“Two wanderers seeking red in a golden wood,” cooed the breeze. “But which of these wanderers is the guide?”
It was impossible to tell whether the words came from his own mind or not. Cedria’s forest was not without its dangers, and Tasuneke was not ignorant of that. “If someone is there then show yourself! If you mean me harm, I warn you I bear the blood of ice and steel in my veins!”
“A Tender now walks the Path, then,” the forest replied. “Tarry not, traveler. The Glade of Red awaits.”
“I don’t know where I’m going! I’ve been searching for hours with no luck! Please, forest, help me find my way.”
The forest didn’t reply immediately. The breeze wafted through the branches, strolling through the woods and scattering a few leaves as it paced.
“You look to the ground when your eyes should gaze upon the stars,” it finally repeated. “The Dawn of Night comes. Tread quickly.”
And with that, the forest seemed to still. The wind settled, leaving Tasuneke to think upon the whispers of the forest. He looked up to the leaves. Gaze upon the stars, he thought to himself.
He walked over to a likely tree, and sucked in a deep breath as he sized it up. Tulu, anticipating what he was about to do, jumped off and landed on a vine nearby. Then, taking a few steps back, he charged. Using his momentum to carry him up, he placed a foot on the trunk and heaved himself up, leaping high and grabbing a branch above. Pulling himself up, he threw a leg over and took a moment to adjust himself to sit comfortably.
Looking back down, he noticed the little faespawn waddle off a ways. Tasuneke was about to say something to the bird, but when it found a lot hanging branch it hopped atop it, then slowly made its way towards him, leaping from branch to branch across trees. The faespawn couldn’t fly, but they used their wings to give them better height and distance in their hops. Soon Tulu found itself on the same branch the boy sat on, waiting expectantly for him to continue.
The two resumed their ascension. Around the trunk, onto higher and higher branches. Tasuneke had to be careful, for linkroot trees weren’t particularly thick and sturdy. He had to keep near the trunk, lest the branch he was on snap under his weight. Even now, as high up as he was, he felt the tree groan and sag beneath him. Falling now could seriously injure him, but he couldn’t stop now. He was among the leaves, and he had never seen open sky before.
Pushing past the foliage and through the top branches, he climbed up above the canopy. The orange warmth of the sky greeted him. Shadows were lengthening as the yellow disk of the sun sank beneath the Aluvalian mountain range far off in the distance. The golden majesty of the forest blended with that vast orange glow of the heavens, and the breeze danced through the trees, relaxed and comfortable in its domain.
Tulu squawked from behind him. Tasuneke turned to see the bird staring outwards.
Out there, contrasted against the yellow light of the linkroot leaves, was a splotch of blackish red. A tree unlike any of those around it in this forest. The red starfall, sitting on a small hill by itself. His search was at an end. Now all he had to do was get down and go over there.
Carefully setting foot on the branches below him, he made his way back down the linkroot, growing more comfortable as the tree grew more and more sturdy in support of his weight. When he was finally back on the forest floor, he brushed himself off and realized just how high up he had climbed. He smiled at the accomplishment.
“We’re almost done, Tulu,” he said as the bird leaped from the last branch onto his shoulder. “We’ve found our way! Starfall tree here we come!” He broke off at a run.
The sun had set, and it would be getting dark soon. The ceremony wouldn’t begin until he returned, as long as he returned before midnight. He still had time.
Rushing through the forest, leaping over root and branch, he twisted this way and that until he found he was no longer sure where he was. There was no way to be sure if he was even going the right way anymore. It all looked the same. Should he climb another tree? Should he backtrack until he found the tree he had climbed before?
While he was pondering this, Tulu hopped off his shoulder, craning its neck back and forth, bee-lining in a direction off to the side. The little blue creature had found something of interest at least, so he followed it. Watching the bird’s movements closely, he didn’t quite notice the linkroot trees growing more and more sparse. The bird started hopping across vines higher and higher up, making its way up a slight incline until a leaf fell in front of Tasuneke’s face, landing on his nose and obscuring his vision.
The leaf had an odd shape, as he noticed when he pulled it away. It wasn’t pointed and jagged like the leaves of a linkroot, but rather it made a single point, and was shaped very much like a small bowl. It was also a bright red on the underside of the leaf, while the inside of the bowl was a blackish color.
Tasuneke inclined his head upwards. He stood beneath the cover of a tree much larger and older than the ones so commonplace in Cedria. It’s trunk was easily ten feet thick, and it branched outwards rather than upwards, fracturing into a hundred streaks of black lightning under a red sky. The tree’s influence spread for fifteen yards in every direction, commanding an isolation that the surrounding trees had no choice but to obey. Growing out of some of the branches were the large bulbs of coal nuts. There were far more than he would be able to carry back, but were also far too high to reach.
“Welcome, young one,” a voice said. He turned his attention to the base of the tree. A man now stood there, though he could have sworn he was alone before. Tulu was perched on his forearm, entranced by the company of this newcomer. “You tread on sacred ground, the Glade of the Red Starfall. Be at peace.”