Chapter 3 - Homestead
"What planet are you from?"
"Why do you have weapons?"
"I'm a Knight of the Star."
"That's cool. You a magi?"
"Is that like energist?"
"I'm … not sure."
"I'm a spell-shaper myself. You have heard about spell-shapers, right?"
"We store spells in staves, crystals … anything with a proper enchantment matrix. Easier to carry, easier to use, easier to alter later to fit any situation. I'm still in school, but I'm gonna be as good a spell-shaper as my father."
"Yeah, I know! I'm the top of my class. No one's really surprised though; dad was head of the class in his day too. My mom thinks I try too hard, but I want to be known for being more than some spoiled twip."
This had been going on pretty much from the moment they had started down the path. Mikaen knew that it was only natural for Jeronem to be curious, but the constant questioning was growing more than a little tiresome.
"What's your planet called again?"
Mikaen suppressed the urge to let out a tired sigh. "Earth."
"What's Earth like?"
"Don't you ever stop talking?"
"Come on! What's your planet like?"
"It would take too long to explain."
"That's okay. It's a good half-hour before we reach Homestead."
Mikaen came to a halt. Jeronem continued on for a few more feet before realizing that his new friend had stopped walking.
"Look, kid …"
"Jeronem. There wasn't much left in my life to care about, and now what little there was is on the other side of the galaxy, maybe even the universe for all I know. There's a very good chance that I'll never be able to get back home. I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother the hell out of me, so I'd appreciate it if you could please just hold off the interrogation."
Jeronem smacked himself in the side of his head. "Oh! I'm sorry! I'm being a pest! I'll be quiet. Not a peep." He made a lip-buttoning gesture.
A few moments of relative silence passed as the two continued along the path.
"So what's Earth like?"
Mikaen glared at Jeronem, but the sight of Jeronem's childish face and curious expression made his annoyance fade. Jeronem was just acting like what he was: a kid who just met an alien.
"Earth's not that different from Vinta, I suppose." Glancing up at the treetops so high that there were actually clouds floating beneath the leaves, Mikaen added, "Though I'll admit there are some differences."
"You said you're a knight. What's that like?"
"It's been better." Mikaen stared at the ground as he walked.
Jeronem squinted at him. "Huh. There it is again."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Some kind of overlaid thought. It's been in your mind since I first asked about Earth."
Jeronem shrugged. "It's like … y'know, when you're thinking about something so much that you don't realize you're thinking about."
Mikaen didn't understand, but he didn't press the point. They continued down the road in silence for a few minutes.
Jeronem glanced up at Mikaen. "So, what's the deal with the whole 'knight' thing anyway?"
"I'm a Knight of the Star. We were formed to protect non-humans and magi on Earth from being murdered by the Revs."
Jeronem put a hand to his head as though someone had bopped his head. "Ow! Whoa, slow down! Who are the Revs?"
"It's slang; Revs are what we call the members of the Restored Earth Alliance. They used to help people adapt to life after the Devastation, but now it's just a bunch of so-called 'pure' humans who think that anyone different from themselves should be destroyed in the interests of maintaining the purity of the human race." Mikaen snorted derisively. "Apparently they forgot that 'pure' humans nearly wiped out the planet."
Jeronem gulped. "Humans must be evil creatures."
Mikaen raised an eyebrow. "Hey now, I'm human too. I'm just not considered a pure human because of my magical abilities."
"Oh, you mean … I see! Yeah, there are humans on Vinta! We call 'em Galden though. Actually, something kinda like that happened on here centuries ago." Jeronem paused a moment to hop over an exposed tree root. "A Galden king called Lucaius Calliban got it in his head that the Galden were superior to the other races. Declaring himself Emperor, He built up an army and went on a crusade to conquer the planet. He didn't do so well, though; the idestan moved their homes to the treetops, my people began living inside the trees, the Rimstakken raised their whole continent off the ocean … heck, in the end, the only country they were able to even attempt to invade was Longshore, and they were beaten so badly there that Calliban's army turned on him."
Shaking his head, Jeronem glanced up at Mikaen. "So you're a knight, and you fight the Revs. How about dragons? Have you ever fought a dragon, like the old-fashioned knights in fairy-tales?"
"No, but I had tea with one once."
Jeronem gave him a skeptical look.
Mikaen cracked a rare smile at his young friend. "It's a long story."
He stopped as they rounded the last few trees of the forest and passed beneath two smaller trees that formed an arc over the stone-paved road at the entrance to Homestead.
Mikaen wasn't sure what he had expected to see when he arrived, but he had formed a general image: a few huts surrounding some ancient temple, a small village by the seaside, or a farming community. In short, he thought it would be a something quaint and small. He was wrong.
Homestead wasn't a town or a village; it was a city, filled with thousands of vuestan who walked around, shopped in surprisingly modern stores, chatted amicably with their friends and neighbors (telepathically, of course), and essentially went about their lives in relative peace. In short, it was a thriving community, larger by far than any settlement Mikaen had encountered during his time with the Knights of the Star.
"Jeronem," Mikaen asked as he stared, "Just how many people live here?"
"Oh, around sixty or seventy thousand I think. I don't know the exact number. It's the biggest vuestan city." He shrugged before starting forward, an awestruck Mikaen following moments later.
The trees in the city were of a different type than the rest of the forest; smaller than the massive chronoan trees, but still impressively large. The homes were built into and around the trees with little to no conventional woodwork.
"Noktal trees." Jeronem grinned at Mikaen. "A full-grown tree can house a family of ten."
"How do you build the house inside the tree without killing it?"
"It's called shaping, and it's not really that hard. Anyone with a talent for magic can learn it. Heck, I could show you how to do it later, if you want."
The stone-paved streets were lined with a healthy growth of ivies covered with pale blue blooms and white fruit roughly the size of oranges.
Jeronem plucked a fruit from the ivy and tossed it to Mikaen. "Hungry? Have a mevos."
Mikaen removed the fruit's rough outer peel and took a bite. The flesh was similar in texture to that of an orange, but tasted more like that of an apple with a strange, mint-like aftertaste.
As they walked through the city, many people smiled and waved at Jeronem. Mikaen couldn't help but notice that the vuestan were all a bit on the short side, the tallest still a good head shorter than Mikaen.
Mikaen was the object of much curiosity, especially among the children. While the adults would only smile at him politely, some quickly looking away, the children actually started following at distance. When Mikaen turned around, the children would scatter, some swinging up through the trees and others simply scampering away. Some of the older ones just disappeared altogether.
"Kids." Jeronem, who wasn't much older than some of them, shook his head. As the kids regrouped behind them, he glanced at Mikaen. "Just ignore them. We don't get a lot of visitors, and you do stick out a bit."
As twilight fell over the city, the children scampered away. The sounds of their mothers calling for them were like whispers in the back of Mikaen's head. Once the twin suns had set, the mevos buds bloomed, radiating a soothing bluish-white aura bright enough to illuminate the streets.
Stopping on a bridge over a small stream, Jeronem pointed to an ancient tree whose rough, moss-covered boughs stretched higher than any of the other homes. Light shone from a few windows in the upper levels of the home, through which a pacing silhouette was faintly visible.
"That's my house. My family's lived there for centuries." Jeronem's face had a touch of pride. "The oldest tree in the forest."
Mikaen stared at the tree in silence. After everything else, the sight of the Thistlethorn home made him wonder if he had fallen into some bizarre fairy-tale.
"It's amazing." he whispered.
Jeronem blushed to the tips of his furry ears. "Well, it's home. Come on! You gotta meet dad!"
Oddly enough, the door had no handle. Jeronem held his hand over a groove in the door. Moments later, it slid open, allowing them entry.
Stooping his head as he walked through the door, Mikaen was surprised to see a perfectly normal looking parlor room, complete with armchairs and a couch. A silver sphere was floating above a circular wooden table in the center of the room and soft blue carpet covered the floor. A winding staircase led to the upper levels of the home, all of which appeared surprisingly normal to Mikaen's eyes. Aside from the occasional branch or cluster of leaves, there was no indication that the house had been built inside a giant tree.
Jeronem kicked his shoes off and hung them on a rack by the door. "Mom! Dad! I'm back!"
Mikaen undid the clasps on his tek-boots and pulled them off with some difficulty. He had only just set them beneath the rack when a mind-splitting shriek shot through his mind, rattling every nerve in his body.
"Uh oh." Jeronem paled visibly.
"What the hell was that?!" asked Mikaen, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
Looking rather pale, Jeronem shook his head. "It's … it's my …"
At that moment, a vuestan woman with strikingly red hair appeared in one of the doorways of the upper floor. Mikaen would have described her as pretty if he had seen her on a normal day; she had a nicely proportioned body and a pleasant face that reminded him strongly of Syrin. At the moment, however, the expression on her face brought to mind the snarling jaws of the durien.
Jeronem cringed as she practically flew downstairs, her mental voice so loud that it made Mikaen's head throb. "JERONEM ONUJITS THISTLETHORN!"
Brushing by Mikaen, she rushed up to Jeronem and seized him by one long furry ear. "WHAT WHERE YOU THINKING?! ATTACKING A DURIEN? YOU COULD HAVE BEEN RIPPED TO SHREDS AND FED TO HER HATCHLINGS!"
Jeronem winced with obvious pain. "I wasn't trying to attack it! I was just practicing magic at the river, and-"
Kathryn gave Jeronem's ear a vicious twist. "DON'T LIE TO ME, YOUNG MAN!"
"Aaaah! All right! I thought I could drown the durien and get its tail for my casting staff! I tried to block the entrance with an energy wall, but the durien must've had another entrance to its lair behind the waterfall! That's the truth, I swear!"
Kathryn gave the ear another squeeze before letting go and putting her hand on her hips. "Sometimes I just don't know about you; your teachers all say you're the brightest student they've had since your father, but I know he never did anything so remarkably stupid!"
Rubbing his now scarlet ear, Jeronem was smart enough to look apologetic. "I'm sorry, mom."
"And as for you!"
Mikaen tensed as the diminutive vuestan woman rounded on him.
Her expression softened. "Thank you for saving my foolish son's life."
Relieved, Mikaen bowed his head respectfully. "I'm glad I could be of assistance, ma'am."
"Kathryn Thistlethorn. Kathryn will be fine."
"I'm Mikaen." He extended his hand.
She took his hand in both of hers and shook it, smiling warmly. "Well, is there anything we can do to repay you for the rescue of my idiot boy?" She shot a glare at Jeronem, as if daring him to argue.
"I was told to find a boy by the name of Elduran." Mikaen replied, "Do you happen to know where he lives?"
"He lives here, sir knight."
Mikaen turned to see Elduran closing the front door behind him. He had brown hair and little patches of white fur on the tips of his ears, but he was certainly not a child; by the look of his face, he was at least ten years Mikaen's senior. His eyes were the same bright blue as Jeronem's, and just as full of mischief.
Smoothing the front of his dark green robes, Elduran smiled at him. "You're Mikaen, right? I've been expecting you. I'm Elduran Thistlethorn, Elder of Homestead."
His gaze turned to Jeronem, who quickly looked away. "Well, did you at least get the tail?
Jeronem brightened. "Oh yeah! I got it right-"
Kathryn frowned at him. She didn't have to say anything; the look was apparently enough.
Turning to Elduran, Mikaen said, "The person who told me to look for you said to mention his name, but he never told me who he was."
Elduran chuckled. "That would be Narrator Number One. He's a decent fellow. A bit strange, but I've yet to meet a Dreamer who isn't a bit on the eccentric side."
"Dreamer?" Something about the way Elduran pronounced the word with a capital 'D' told Mikaen that the normal definition of 'dreamer' did not necessarily apply to the stranger he had met earlier.
Elduran chuckled. "We can talk all about One and the Elsewhere Incorporate after dinner. Seeing as you're from another planet, I think I'll make something special today."
He started to a door on the right side of the room (presumably the kitchen), but Kathryn caught him first.
"Oh, no! Last time you tried to cook something 'special', it took a month to get the smell out of the house. I'll start dinner. Jeronem's going to help me, aren't you, Jeronem?" Kathryn smiled at her son a little too widely, a dangerous glint in her eyes.
"Yes, Mom." Waving despondently, Jeronem followed his mother out of the room, leaving Elduran and Mikaen alone.