Breathe. Nothing chokes off muscles of their strength and the mind of its wit than fastened lungs. It’s what my father always taught me. Breathing can aid the heart, calm the mind, make you see the truth of the moment. Breathe while I curtsy in front of a handsome boy in the village. Breathe to stave off fatigue when grappling with a marauder in the Wasteland. Breathe when Lamont seals the deep gash in my side with the glowing red-hot tip of his blade. Breathe while I hide in terror behind this vile tree in this horrifying forest slowly devouring the world . . . Breathe.
My mask made of tough cloth swells and shrinks while I catch my breath. But I have to move. I can feel the Fatal Sea of Green’s eyes focusing on me. It has to know we are here. No matter how careful we’ve been or how well we’ve hidden, being in this place for this long; this forest has to know we’re here. We have traveled too far into the Sea in search of a relic from before Heaven’s Hail. The job was too good, the payoff too significant to not venture into this realm of vicious creatures and poisonous plants. And now that I’m here, waiting for Jolson’s signal, I can feel fear creeping up my spine like the claws of any predator here.
Breathe. I lean out from cover and can barely see my partner. He is crouched very low to the ground, behind the shadow of another twisted, corrupted, fungus covered tree. I slowly try to refill my lungs with my hand resting on the squishy moss enveloping this tree wider than I am tall. My hand suddenly sinks into the moss, and I jerk away in horror, suppressing the urge to shout and give away my position to the giant spider lurking nearby. I stare into the sinking hole in the moss, thankful it lacks the strength to keep me. With the fear dancing through my skin, I remember we already lost someone to such a trap. She had hidden from a pack of creatures when her arm and shoulder sunk into the moss. The moss fastened her to the tree, making it easy for the pack to tear her apart. Was it sheer luck the moss on this tree lacked the determination of the one that got her killed? Or does the Fatal Sea have a different punishment for me venturing in so far? I blink away the question; I have to focus.
Through a small beam of light in the forest canopy, I spot Jolson as he sprints for cover as silent as a desert fox. That seems to be the way to move. Another one of us met an end trying to fight the Fatal Sea with strength rather than cunning. We last saw him facing off against a sea savage. Jolson and I chose that opportunity to make a run for it. It doesn’t matter if your armor is infused with arcana or how big your war-ax. No one is a match for a sea savage, especially here in its domain. He, at the most, bought us a minute or so, which we’re wasting on this razor-leg spider. Stupid. Remembering another lost comrade, I pull my eyes down from the green sky of the forest and spot Jolson’s signal.
Breathe. I rush out while the razor-leg is distracted. I try to find the balance between hurrying out in the open between these two massive trees and minimizing the sound of each stride. My worn boots press prints into the moist but stable soil and kick up very little blue-green spores. The lack of sea snow is obviously the reason Jolson picked this path to get by this tall-as-a-house spider.
Halfway, I hear it hiss, and my heart pauses a beat as I look over at the spider. I notice one of its legs cut at the joint, no doubt someone else ran into this thing. How long did they survive before they were cut down by its seven other legs? It side-steps closer to me, forcing me more towards hurrying than hiding my presence. Just a couple more heartbeats away, I hear two more stomps and anticipate its gaze falling on me. I take one more wide step, lowering myself as far as I can, hoping not to silhouette myself. I plant my good foot just at the roots of the tree and pivot off it, spinning around until my back is against the squishy bark. The momentum swings my sights over my left shoulder as it bumps into something.
I inhale sharply and slam my eyes shut as one of the pods clinging to the tree explodes, showering me and everything else in its blue-green snow. My muscles tighten, my head shakes with the strain. This is it, the Sea’s punishment! I slowly open my eyes and realize my mask is still on and exhale the tension in my muscles.
A tear of fear pools inside my goggles. I had already suffered from inhaling sea snow, back when I was a child. The little bit I inhaled of the poisonous spores hardened parts of my lungs. It is because of my weakened lungs we’re hiding and not running. I was already struggling to catch my breath after fleeing the sea savage, and now my ribs feel like they’re crushing my lungs. A long sprint? Hmph! I would never make it if this monster saw us.
Jolson knew that, and that was why he was mapping our path out of here. I hear his hurried muffled claps to reach his position. I readjust my goggles, wipe away some of the spores from my mask and center myself. This job isn’t my first dance in the Fatal Sea’s snow. I must settle my nerves and . . .
Breathe. Against my lungs’ wishes, I try to rush to the next tree. I look down at my feet, making sure to leap over a thick fallen branch and miss a divot in the ground. The quick clicking of the razor-leg draws my eyes away from the dark soil again; the massive spider has finally closed in on something. I see it dipping its head, lowering its body between its seven and a half legs, down to something small. Good, something else can feel its blades.
I then feel the ground below me change in texture. As I lift my feet, the ground seems to come up with me. Damn it! I strayed away from Jolson’s path. The razor-leg came this way; its sticky web is on the forest floor. The floor anchors me while my momentum carries me. I fall and try to brace myself, but a boulder meets my ribs first. My thick, leather plated, coat of armor protects me from the rock’s sharp edge but does nothing for the jolting impact against the unforgiving object. The blow knocks the wind out of me. With what little lung capacity I have, I desperately try to suck back in the air I lost.
But the air rushed out of my mouth in the form of a painful holler and had called the razor-leg over, the sea snow flying up around me signaling my position. It turns to me, its legs cutting through the forest’s vines and branches with ease to get to me. I try to get up but my muscles lag behind without oxygen in my lungs, and I can’t break free of the webbing. Pinned behind my back is my sword-arm, so using my left hand I first reach for my helmet’s strap to free my head from the sticky soil and try to draw in more air. I quickly reach for my hip and draw the thin sword we came to recover. I cut what threads I can but my swings are slow, and the sword catches one of the thick, gummy strings.
I look up and see Jolson rushing out behind cover for me. I inhale a bit more air in a frightful gasp when I catch him plant his foot at the edge of a tree’s shadow. His toe rides the line between light and dark, and he stops so abruptly his momentum makes him stand on one leg at the very edge of darkness. Quickly getting low to the ground again, he risks exposure by stretching a hand out into the light.
“Jackie, throw it! Quick!” I hear him shout in the shadows. He wants me to throw away the only thing I have to defend myself: the prize we took from this place. I struggle to get to my knees; the sticky webbing desperately tries to keep me grounded. I’m able to barely free the sword and attack the webbing with small swings of the refined blade. One good swing frees me from several silk arms, but the blade continues and cuts deep into my shoulder. I feel a shockwave of pain down my arm before it all goes numb. No time to attend to that now, but the tradeoff is worth it as I’m able to free my shoulders enough to sit on my knees and look over at Jolson. He leans out of the shadows, his eyes hidden behind his goggles as they reflect the canopy light, an arm extended not for me, but this weapon. With the last of the air in my lungs, I shout as I hurl it at him. “Keane Village!” I remind him the prize’s destination. The blade disappears into the shadows, and suddenly Jolson is gone. I am all alone. The razor-leg monster stands over me. I’m enveloped in its darkness as I slam my eyes shut. My ears can hear the whistling of its arm swinging through the air. I try to brace myself.