Entering Their World: Al
Back in the hotel, we had all agreed on the plan. I began having doubts about it the moment we stepped outside. While Ben had been correct in saying we didn’t exactly have a whole lot of other choices, hell we were lucky he even had a map to the place, it felt like we were setting ourselves up for more problems. Shara had agreed first though, and since I didn’t have a counter argument, we followed Ben back out into the wilderness.
This time we left the packs and all human belongings behind, we weren’t going to need them where we were headed. As far as I knew the only thing Ben had made sure to prearrange was to put his car up somewhere; though I didn’t ask where or how.
I was still torn on the guy himself, he was equally as helpful as he was secretive about why exactly he was helping us. While I’d slipped the question in, his answer had simply been out of pity for the two of us, which should have satisfied me; but I still couldn’t shake the edge off. It was a little too convenient that the guy helping us just happened to have a map to this place, and just so happened to be willing to drop his life and escort us there. Why hadn’t he just given us this map in the first place and set us on our way? After Shara had agreed to the plan though, I kept the suspicions to myself, and her close to my side. At least I got a better look at the markings I’d only previously glanced at. The creamy white fur that masked his eyes and circled down towards his muzzle gave almost the appearance of a smiling human face. It ended where his upper jaw connect to his lower jaw, but picked up again on his chest where it created the design of a cross.
Our journey there was uneventful, we hunted for what we needed, slept as little as possible, and perhaps took slightly longer than was called for as we did our best to keep out of the way.
There were no physical borders that I could tell, but I knew they could sense us the moment I could sense them. We were met at by a Peacock and a Donkey.
The bird was beautiful, its tail brushed wide to show the intricate plumage of the eyes on its tail, the center was a midnight blue encircled by a brighter blue, abruptly changed to a soft brown which was encased in a faint yellow and finally the whole design was circled with a dark forest green. There were over a dozen spots spread out on the tail, some of different sizes, and in-between every ‘spot’ the feathers were a translucent shade of light green, like you were peeking through a canopy. The perfect picture of grace and beauty.
The Donkey was much simpler, a bright white coating who stood stocky and proud. He was even to the bird’s height with only the ears topping off the head to beat the distance, the dark eyes gave an obvious message of sturdiness and power.
We approached openly and on two legs, but the tension between our two groups was obvious. Shara and I stopped a few feet back, eyeing the two unknown’s cautiously while Ben continued moving forward, and I was surprised to hear the note of familiarity in his voice as he addressed the Donkey “Jon, so good to see you again.”
The Shifter just blinked, and it was only because of my own practice at reading an animal’s facial expression did I note he didn’t exactly look impressed with this greeting. Whether Ben noticed this, or just decided to get to business, he continued in a more professional tone, like talking to his boss. “This is Al, and Shara, you’ve probably heard by now about that whole park fiasco with the Hunters, well that was them. I’ve brought them here because they’re seeking refuge.” The Donkey eyed all three of us, then made a deep-throated braying noise. I took a startled step in front of Shara, trying to decide what exactly that signaled, when an Orangutan swung down from the trees above.
The face was eerily human, black in color; the texture was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Not scales, but the same kind of smooth. Probably not rough enough to be hard either. It lightened around his mouth that jutted out from the rest of his face, creating a prominent nose and the white lips below seemed the most striking feature up close. I almost laughed when I realized he also technically had a scruffy beard.
The hair coloring was a light orange, which was also on the top of his head, but darkened and condensed the farther you went down. His hands and feet were the most fascinating thing to watch, as he walked towards the Donkey. He obviously didn’t walk like he would as a human, but the feet and hands were almost indistinguishable from each other giving perfect dexterity as he swung down from his perch. I knew monkeys and apes had five fingers like us, but I’d never been told how nimble they were with them.
Ben made to follow them, but I hung back and hesitated, still eyeing the other two animals wearily. Once our escort noticed though, he glanced back and beckoned to us, calling out “come on you two, you’re free to pass.”
I exchanged a look of unease with my wife, who shrugged and all but marched past me with her head held high. I rolled my eyes and followed after her, still discreetly keeping myself as much as possible between her and the others. The thick forest of trees around us began fading at once as we found a worn dirt path, the two in the lead not even glancing around as this was clearly a casual stroll in the park.
Shara and I continued gawking around like children in a zoo, as with every twist in the path we came across or at least sensed another Shifter.
We’d heard about this place as children, most of our kind has, but the idea that so many of our kind were running around here freely blew my mind. I recognized an Anteater was using its long tongue to lick delicately at a pile of ants just off the trail, a Cone Snail making its steady way up a tree, a Komodo Dragon making its swift approach back up the way we’d come, and as we passed a small clearing with a lake in it, I saw a River Dolphin and a Platypus goofing off in the clear waters.
I could tell there were normal animals about as well, most likely for hunting purposes, but those hardly came out into the limelight. My throat suddenly tightened in a now familiar way as I once again pictured my little girl’s face, how happy she would have been running through these trees, how protected she would have been growing up in a place like this. If we’d possibly come across Ben but an hour earlier, could she have been saved? Would we have come here still, and actually managed a peaceful life?
Whether Shara was thinking along those same lines or simply gauged my mood, her hand came back and linked through mine as we continued the little Safari trip until we came out of the shade and into the largest clearing yet.
There was quite literally a castle before us.
Dark grey stone walls climbed high into the sky, and I had to crane my neck back to see turrets and towers still climbing upwards. We were facing a blank wall with no other decorations, windows, or anything that I could see, except the fact that there was an honest mote trenched at least twenty feet from where we were standing to where the building was. What I presumed was the front door was even locked up with a drawbridge.
“You’ve got to be kidding me” Shara whispered faintly at my side.
“How have the humans not stormed this place yet?” I demanded, thinking there really wasn’t a logical way they wouldn’t have spotted this as our stronghold and be done with us.
“Because they’re not suicidal idiots” Ben chuckled, looking just as amused as insulted that someone would even think this. He might have said more, but without any kind of signal I could see, the wooden bridge fell with a tremendous bang, and our guide the Orangutan continued his way inside, and after exchanging one more weary look, we followed him and Ben inside, ignoring the sinking feeling I got as the gate closed behind us.
The room we walked in on wasn’t nearly as medieval as the outside happened to be, it looked almost like a reception area with a nice marble pearl floor, brightly colored rugs covering most of this, and a desk directly in front of us with a receptionist working on some paper work. The rainbow of rugs ended right in front of her desk; and there were two hall ways leading off to both the right and left, the left side was lit with torches and made sure to give a creepy feel to it, while the side on the right was its exact opposite; soft florescent lighting and brightly cheerful with plush carpeting leading down that hallway.
The girl at the desk drew my attention as she waved us over. She had one thick brown braid going down her back and freckles almost the same color as she looked up at us with an inviting smile, her eyes going directly over to Ben and the other native to this place.
This time I wasn’t nearly as startled as she spoke with familiarity to Ben, saying “Hey Ben, nice to see you again. Who’s your friends?”
“Hey Ersa” he nodded in greeting even as the Ape ignored her and had already started towards the left hallway. Ben caught my eyes briefly and gave me an exaggerated eye roll before he nodded to the girl one more time and gestured after our impatient guide apologetically. She laughed lightly and nodded her understanding, waving brightly to the both of us as we scurried after the retreating pair.