Warm bodies nestled into one another from where Viola stood, crowded between stalks of far fairer, and lighter flowers than she.
Yet they were still violets and thus, they were her kin.
Despite coming from the East, and from a community far more regal than she had encountered presently, they had accepted her with open arms and with little questions. And in a way, that did comfort Viola. It almost felt like she was still home.
The sun had yet risen, shown predominantly through the vast darkness taking over the entire region. Though the trees often covered the sun, patches of sunlight always managed to seep through and bring life to the multitude of plants that lived beneath. Absence of it declared that it was nighttime and so, while a few stood for a vigil, most violets were asleep in clumps.
It felt nice to feel part of a protected unit. But the past moons hadn’t been kind to Viola, and she found herself unable to sleep peacefully among the folk.
Maybe it wasn’t all that bad. The whisper of the wind, the chimes of sounds distances away, did soothe her troubles, and small lights of fire between the covens and the trees gave her something to look at. The upturn land was a good vantage point, allowing Viola to be one of the few to see the land from an elevated status.
There was a rustling to the far left of the group, one which didn’t unnerve her. There were so many flowers, perhaps five hundred in amount, that movement was unlikely to be a novelty. Yet what started off as an odd turmoil somewhere in the patch rapidly turned into something far more violent that was digging her further into the dirt.
Whatever form of fatigue that had been culminating in her was replaced by adrenaline when she heard the screaming.
No, no, no, no…
She jumped quickly to her feet, brushing against the fidgeting beings now panicking around her in the dark. Digging her hands into the small hill, she managed to hold on to the patches of grass capable enough to pull her away from the cocoon of violets.
Viola already had a good view of the area, but the further support allowed her to see the familiar swirl of ash and dust, pushing into the group and leaving blackness in its wake. The sight still made her dizzy, enough that she almost stumbled as she retreated.
The crowd below her no longer stood still and were instead rioting out of the gardens, each trying to push the other back for some miserable hope of escape. Much of their brethren, which they had so comfortably shared space with, were squashed beneath the trample of bigger and livelier flowers. Other violets, having sensed the danger prior, had at least followed suit and climbed with her.
Viola had managed to run far from group, jumping straight further into the wilderness until the screams had receded and all she could hear was the short chirps of grasshoppers. All other animals and plants, instead of coming to the group’s aid, had hidden in the burrows at the sounds of danger. Though she couldn’t blame them, since she was doing the exact same thing.
Landing delicately, she turned to see that, far away, the billowing black smoke engulfing the patch of flowers. Where the creatures within still struggled to leave the area as quickly as possible, most not making it or even managing to head her direction.
She was worth far more than most of the creatures that roamed the land, and yet it was her species that was dying out the fastest.
She had been running so much for the past few moons, unable to surpass the demon that had been hiding at every corner, every shadow. Every single trinket within the forest now contained the hint of something destructive, an element that had decimated thousands at her feet with no hesitation.
The monster was not something you could fight, that was made clear early on. It could not be pleaded, bargained, or argued with, making it such an automatic and terrifying killing machine which no one knew what to make of. How do you regard a creature of no origin?
How do you speak to a monster of smoke and bone?
A delirious part of Viola thought that it was hunting her, yet none of what she knew added up to that conclusion. Though once important to her realm, and to a family that was withered long before this creature was even heard of, she was a nobody to the mice, the roses, and even the small larks that used to hop branch to branch. They, along with all the other birds, had disappeared too.
There must have been a logical explanation to why she felt chased, like perhaps it had wiped out far other territories than she was aware of. Perhaps it wasn’t a single being, but a barrage of dark clouds taking the entire forest by storm, working together and in tandem. If they were even capable of such a feat.
There was not much word on it, and soon Viola found herself being the only one knowing anything about it. She had seen it the most, as it seemed to be targeting closed group areas within the high trees. Unfortunately, her most frequent hideouts. Not anymore.
Viola would ignore the victims calling for help because it would be a useless endeavor to risk infection. She would run and keep running until she had some way to avenge her fallen brethren, who she had first seen struck a long time ago. No matter how many moons passed, though, a part of that grief for the fall of her small kingdom continued.
She would shield off the sadness for these folks, not out of disrespect, but necessity.
With these words in mind, Viola continued to traverse the woods as the sun came up. She did not stop for a very long time.
“You look exhausted.” Barked someone from within the bushes.
Viola stopped, straightening her back and looking pointedly at where the voice was coming from. It was high-pitched and croaky in nature, yet sounding almost diminutive.
It was true, she was tired. Tired enough that she was less than thrilled to engage in pointless meandering. She continued to walk.
“Wait!” The voice squealed again, far clearer this time. Whatever had spoken to her had left their hiding spot, revealing a sea-green frog that reached to her knee. Her eyes were startling orange, enough that Viola had to wonder how she hadn’t spotted such a contrast from the green of the forest.
She still wasn’t interested though.
“What are you, a newt?” She snapped.
The frog laughed fruitily. “You seem very regal to be wandering these parts of the woods.”
Perhaps it was her past upbringing, but Viola couldn’t help but view this small, almost irritating creature with contempt. Seizing her up, she replied curtly once more. “Utterly.” She continued to walk forward, making it clear that the conversation had ended.
“Are you running from that black cloud?” The frog called out again, seemingly not noticing her blatant displeasure.
Regardless of it, Viola stopped in her tracks. She slowly turned back, seeing that the frog had caught up to her in a short span of time. It seemed such legs were powerful enough to get around.
Viola struggled to not show fear to the frog, though she couldn’t help but wonder if this area was a popular spot for that monster to wander. Most creatures were aware of its existence, that she knew for sure, but none had mentioned it so out in the open like that. With no fear.
She couldn’t help but question it. “How did you know?”
The frog smirked. “We newts know our way around here. The forest and trees are our brethren as much as the lake is.”
“In other words,” Viola’s gaze was icy. “A lucky guess.”
“Word travels around fast! Not to mention that I can even feel it in my skin when it’s nearby.” The frog shuffled its webbed feet closer and lifted her head, as if to show off their delicate skin. “I usually feel incredibly dry, like I’m absorbing it or something.”
“Are you suggesting a small little frog like you came close to that, that thing?” Viola laughed humorlessly.
“Well, we never really see it, so it really doesn’t attack us! We feel it, so to speak, and we run to a different spot. It feels like ash.” Suddenly, the frog stopped. “I’m Darcy by the way!”
Viola ignored the last bit. “You feel it? When it’s coming and when it’s leaving?”
“Don’t misunderstand. It’s more like…” Darcy grinned wide, seemingly coming up with a pitch perfect metaphor. “You know how you don’t really see the sun because of the trees, but you feel the sunshine? It’s like that. My tribe’s skin feels different when the monster is nearby, so we turn another direction to avoid it. We felt it from the direction you were coming from, so we moved all the way here.”
“Your tribe runs from it, then.” Viola had honestly not meant for it to sound insulting, but it came off far blunter than she had intended. Darcy looked at her stiffly, losing any hint of fun she had prior.
“You’re running from it too, you know.”
Those eyes wouldn’t stop staring at her. Viola hated how much it unnerved her. “Yes, I am. I’ve seen its effects first hand.” She stopped to take a shaky breath. “My kingdom fell because of it. We’ve been scattered ever since.”
Those glistening eyes blinked, and Darcy did indeed look sympathetic. “I’m sorry. That must have been difficult.”
“In every regard.” Viola looked in the direction she had been heading, wondering what would lie beyond. Would she encounter another smoke monster? Would she find a place to call home, before it’s ripped from her once again?
Moments where she had to evaluate her game plan caused her great distress. Her goal was to survive, but was it worth the never-ending paranoia? Whatever this destructive force of nature was, it caused her great pain.
And great anger too.
“I wish I could destroy it.” Said Viola suddenly, clenching her fist as if to evaporate her rage. “Tear it limb from limb if it were possible. But all we can do is run and cower behind others who will die in our stead.”
“It… certainly has been a long time… since we’ve lived in peace.”
“An eternity.” Viola sighed. “Since the birds disappeared.”
“That was always strange.” Said Darcy, though she seemed to have lightened up considerably despite the conversation topic. As if, with renewed interest. “You think they had something to do with each other?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Said Viola stiffly. “I have to go anyways. I’ve wasted precious daylight speaking with you.”
Did it even matter if it was wasted? She thought to herself. What was I going to do anyways? Travel the entire forest once more like a fool?
“Wait!” Darcy hopped, landing directly in front of her and far too close for her liking. “I-I know this is crazy. I know we just met! I don’t even know your name!”
“Viola.” She answered automatically.
The frog nodded excitedly. “Viola…” She lifted her front foot and pointed to a tree not too far from where they stood. “You see that tree? Folks here say a wise old owl still lives there.”
Viola’s eyes widened, though she retained cynicism. “The owls left this part of the forest long ago.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve heard it! He coos at night, almost from the very top of it. Ever since we stationed here, I’ve been wanting to see if it’s true.” The frog shuffled with nerves once more. “Would you like to go with me? Would you like to see it too?”
Viola strangely found herself embarrassed at the question, and chose instead not to answer directly. “Why would you want to go up there to meet an owl?”
Darcy twitched. “Interest, curiosity. Explanations. I know it’s just one owl but… maybe it’ll explain why the birds all left. Or why this monster exists.” Darcy smiled. “Or how to defeat it! Or at least go to a place it can’t reach. Think about it, the birds must have known! Which is why they flew away for a secure place.”
Such a place can’t exist. Yet Viola found herself wishing it did.
It was incredibly silly to think, but wouldn’t a mystery moons old be solved if there was an owl hiding inside? One that could maybe offer explanations to so many of her questions?
Or at the very least, the ability to destroy the thing that had destroyed her entire life.
“If you’re so anxious, show me the way.” She decided.
Viola turned to the south, where a small path of grass aligned the way. The direction she was planning on heading to. She turned to the large tree loaming in front of them and nodded.
“Let’s commence before the day ends.”
Viola was rather used to climbing trees, and the harshness of the bark when it sliced her. It was difficult work, but neither was she exerting as much effort as Darcy was. Though born with strong legs to keep her airborne for a solid amount of time, such a skill did not translate well to climbing. She slipped and stumbled, struggling to cling on to the roughness of the tree.
Still, the frog persisted, enough that Viola had to admire her resolve.
They were silent for much of the trip, only speaking to point at a certain branch or avoid coming across spiderwebs and dust clouds.
After climbing a high enough altitude, they found a hole engraved within the bark, perhaps leading to another opening inside. It was big enough for both Viola and Darcy to enter simultaneously and, though mostly shrouded in darkness, there was some light coming from farther above. They just needed to reach the ledges to keep going.
“Is it even climbable?” Asked Darcy, darting her head around the scene. Viola checked just how sturdy the ledges could be, but it didn’t look like there was enough access for something as wide as a frog.
She imagined she would have to check it herself. “Stay here.” She clawed her way up with far too much effort. Darcy moved out of the area of danger, placing herself far more in the center. They lapsed into silence as she began the grueling climb.
Viola had barely reached the top when she heard a cry, causing her to slip and slide several distances back. She could have easily fallen to the ground, yet she managed to hold on to the bark enough to steady herself. Looking down, Darcy was looking just as confused.
The cry came again. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on their ends… it sounded far too close.
Her voice was cut off by a very loud scream, undeniably coming from Darcy waiting for her from the ground. It was still too dark for Viola to see anything in the shadows, but the green frog was moving frantically in every direction.
For all she knew, it could have been the smoke monster. This tree could have been its hideout.
Fear gripped Viola’s heart, enough that a part of her told her to keep climbing and to try to find an exit. But cruel she was not, and so she forced herself down until she landed lightly on her feet.
She couldn’t see anything until she was beside Darcy, who was still struggling to keep her composure. Staring at where her eyes were fixated, Viola could see why she had reacted the way she did.
In the place of the entrance, stood a gaping beak and two yellow, glowing eyes. This owl, a species which had disappeared for so long, was at their feet and pecking vigorously all around them.
Was it really trying to eat them?
Acting fast, Viola dragged Darcy back from the danger so they were both held up at the wall. There was no escape, and if the owl managed to pull through, it would inevitably be the end of them both.
Yet the hole was small enough so that the owl could not, and was instead straining its neck to try and reach them.
They stood for some time in silence, listening to the struggles of such a large animal. It finally stood still enough, breathing heavily and staring frantically across the small room. Further observations showed that its eyes were very unfocused
Darcy must have noticed something similar, as she moved just a little bit closer. “Sir?”
The owl snapped back again, rolling its head in all directions. It hissed in an almost ancient voice. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Darcy looked at Viola and shrugged in confusion.
Shaking slightly, Viola stepped further as well to try to reason with him. “I am a violet from the East. This is a frog from a little tribe not too far from here.” Awkwardly, she added, “We come in peace.”
“Who said you can come up here?” The owl snapped. “With no warning, no notice! More visitors to disrupt my home once more.” It wriggled its head out of the entrance, yet still stood staring from outside.
Viola was at a loss at what to do.
“Come out and speak to me reasonably. I won’t be hauled in such a space any longer.”
The owl was seeming less threatening and now far too irritating.
The pair again stared at each other, though Viola understood that if they ran, it would likely catch them. Even if he was blind.
“Stay calm.” She added quickly to Darcy. The frog gulped, but they both tumbled out anyways.
Away from the shadows and back into the light, Viola couldn’t help but feel at ease. Still, she didn’t let down her guard. She kept a fair distance away from the owl, and even noted that he could easily push the two of them completely out of the tree if he wished it. Viola and Darcy decided to stick close to the tree’s base.
Darcy spoke first. “Sir? How could you hear us if you’re um–”
“Anyone could hear your voices trees away.” He sneered, never precisely looking into either of their eyes. “The young and foolish, as loud as can be. Now tell me what you want girls, before you’ve really waste my time.”
Viola cleared her throat. “We… wish for answers. About why the birds left. Why you’re the last one here.”
The owl fluffed up and fluttered its feathers indignantly. “I’m far from the last of my species, young lady. And I don’t know why so many young ones continue to ask me this.”
Darcy eyes’ flared with anger. “Because they left with no warning, and maybe some of us actually care about what happened to them.”
The owl moved closer in such an unforeseen and aggressive manner that they both jumped back in fright. His talons dug into the tree bark.
“No, no, no, you don’t care one bit about my species. You want to run too, that’s all there is. From whatever is destroying the forest, causing plants to wither and die. Causing animals to die asphyxiated in their own vomit. It’s pathetic truly, this desperation!” He screeched the last syllable and, as if tiring himself out, rested closer to the ground.
Viola was also getting tired at his inconsistent behavior, especially as he always seemed to be at the cusp of attacking them. Still, she hadn’t gone this far for nothing, and did know a thing or two about how to deal with unruly elders.
“Sir?” She prodded gently. “Please, we ask for your guidance.” She bowed slightly, before realizing what a useless endeavor that was.
The owl stared at her, or at least approximately in her direction. There was mistrust in his eyes, but at the very least he looked far calmer.
“My name is Maximilian,” he declared, “and you have my permission for inquiry.”
Darcy launched quickly into questioning, looking as jubilant as she had prior. “Where did the birds go?”
The birds, which had flown away moons ago with little word to anyone. Viola remembered when thrushes and herons had taken to the sky, as if a coordinated fly show were about to take place. Yet they had no relation to one another, and they simply flew and flew until they were small specks in the sky and no longer seen.
Children had been most interested in this phenomenon in her kingdom, enough that it seemed like mindless speculating. Yet the fear did become very real, when the forest had quieted down so considerably.
Wherever they had gone, they had not come back.
Maximilian cleared his throat and cocked his beak towards the sky. “Like rain pattering on the ground floor, an omen befell us suddenly. An instinct within us, one we never cared to understand.”
“It told you to migrate?” Asked Viola.
“That is all we felt, an urge to run to the west.” He blinked. “At least, with us owls. We weren’t aware that so many others had the exact same idea. The danger must have been something grand.”
Viola had no doubt about it. This creature of ash was the danger, enough that it seeped completely into the hearts of these birds and activated their fight or flight response. Some things were bound by no logic, and instead by a sense of foreboding that couldn’t be helped.
Darcy looked at the branches below them, as if trying to conjure up the amount of birds that likely lived in this very tree. She snapped out of it almost as quickly as it came. “Did you feel it too?” She asked, her orange eyes growing bigger the more the owl revealed.
“I feel it now, still.” Maximilian mumbled, causing the pair to gaze at him in alarm. “And still, none of us were sure what the danger was. Except I now know about that mass of darkness that seems to roam, and the connection seems far too real.”
It seemed obvious what had occurred here now, especially as they gazed at the blind owl in front of them. He didn’t stay to act as a messenger; his blindness likely forced him to stay put, whether by his volition or someone else’s. Perhaps it explained his paranoia. Or perhaps this sentiment of doom, which had always been a part of an animal’s or plant’s most treasured asset, was hurting him too. Having to go against that instinct to flee must have been difficult. Viola couldn’t help but pity him.
“Something awful is about to occur, more than it already is.” Viola spoke. “Isn’t it?”
Maximilian didn’t answer, and instead chose to spread his wings as if he were about to take flight.
“They did go to a safe place!” Interjected Darcy. “Further in the west! They must have seen something, and chose not to come back because they finally found safety.”
A positive outlook, no doubt about it. But if that were indeed the case…
“If they were following their instincts, they it’s likely they were right all along.” Viola said, adrenaline suddenly bursting through her veins. “Why did they tell nobody this information?”
The owl narrowed his eyes. “Some word must have gotten around.” He spat. “It’s not their fault it died in the ditches. I even told plenty of other creatures the same thing.”
“But they kept that knowledge to themselves.” Not anymore thought Viola. It seemed like a huge task ahead, but if she could gather as many beings as she could, and take them to the west… “Then we’ll spread the word. We’re going to evacuate this place before it falls apart for good.”
With an exasperated sigh, Maximilian jumped to a nearby branch, just barely missing it entirely. “You’re far too callow for your own good.” He called out. “Do not involve me.” With those final words, the owl kept jumping from branch to branch until he was out of sight,
Darcy turned to her as they saw him disappear. “Don’t know how you had such a temper with him.”
Viola began to walk back the path they came, not bothering to turn back to answer. “He had information we needed.”
The two retraced their steps until reaching the ground, with far more knowledge than they had thought they would acquire. Little did they know, both had similar ideas in their head.
And after talking for days and days after, they realized just how they could materialize their plan.
It started out with Darcy’s tribe, nomads who traveled place to place whenever they could. Having a specific direction to go to didn’t deter them, and they easily followed Viola’s and Darcy’s advice. They headed west, as it seemed that it was also farther away from where the smoke monster had just been spotted.
Viola no longer had a group of her own, but she was good with communicating with the flowers around the area. The posh marigold barely gave her the time of day before she mentioned the brutal horrors that would inevitably befall them, and they were eager to leave their home for any other alternative.
They couldn’t get too many to accompany the duo to the west, considering they were going off on a hitch that could have been wrong. The owl could have misled them, after all. But Viola did remember all the birds heading that direction, which had to mean something. But to many, it truly didn’t.
Still, many joined as they saw the strange combinations of creatures together: Marigolds on the back of aardvarks, and groups of alyssum clouding on frogs. It was an interesting sight to behold, where it did get a lot of attention as they began to pass unfamiliar territories. Even the bad publicity added members to their numbers.
Viola was considered the leader for such an expedition, and it felt fitting for her to be back in some position of leadership. Not only that, but to have a consistent goal again. She tried to withhold any feelings towards the creatures she was leading, in case there were missteps along the way and they died in her care, but she knew an attachment was growing regardless.
Darcy’s optimism and garrulous behavior didn’t help matters either, as it did somehow seem that they were part of a family. Even if they questioned Viola’s goals and skills constantly, though that sort of cynicism was to be expected in anyone.
It was a mass exodus if there ever was one, though not nearly as large as when the birds fled. Yet, for being stuck on the ground and having to avoid such vicarious places, it felt like a reasonable success.
Eventually, the trees began to thin and there were more expanses of land in its wake. It was very different from what they were used to, and the group began to feel excited. They were finally reaching a conclusion to their journey, they could feel it.
A fortnight must have passed before Darcy began to feel strange. As everyone else rested, Darcy revealed to Viola that her skin was feeling ashen and pallid the more they continued on their journey. All the other frogs in the group had felt the same way, yet only consulted Darcy about this new development. They were hesitant to continue forward.
Viola had to keep herself from trembling at this newfound information. They were approaching something, but now they had no idea if it was the safe haven they had been searching for.
Putting one of the frogs in charge, Viola and Darcy decided to check out what was at the end of the journey for themselves. As the group stayed stationed by a lake underneath the trees, the duo moved fast through the new surroundings. Surroundings that soon became smokier and grayer. Decay was everywhere, in both animals and plants, and the smell of something acidic hung in the air.
Viola noted many bird corpses as they passed, only examining a short few before deciding that they had no time to waste. There was nothing but ash on their bodies, striking fear into her heart all over again.
They eventually reached the end of the trees, with a clear view of a civilization so foreign and brand new. They weren’t trees, but something akin to them stood tall and proud, ejecting thick, black smoke by the masses. It clouded the sky almost entirely.
There seemed to lay thousands of creatures beyond this barrier, appearing far bigger than any living being they had ever seen. Whatever system was occurring here, Viola knew it was what was disrupting the forest and killing so many creatures. Who to blame? She didn’t even know.
She was panicking far too much at seeing where all their hopes lied, that she ran back to the nearest clearing. Feathers laid scattered across it still.
Darcy caught up with her eventually.
“Viola…” She started. “What… what are we going to do?”
Viola was a leader, and a truthful one at that. There was nothing else they could do.
“We run.” She panted. “… a different direction this time.”
Darcy stuttered, looking through the destruction at their feet. “There has to be something we can–!”
“It’s beyond our control.” Viola cut in curtly. “Did you see that… place? It’s nothing new. It must have been here far longer than we’ve realized.” With a sad sigh, she slowly sat on the patch of dry and yellowed grass. “We’re too late. Even if it’s stopped, those smoke monsters are going to destroy everything we hold dear.”
She had never felt this helpless, even as she ran from that creature of ash as it devoured her kingdom.
Darcy nodded determinedly, placing her webbed foot on Viola’s back. “We’ll turn back, then. Like you said.” She turned to look at the sunrise, that was now illuminating those poles enough that it glowed from where they stood. “We’ll hope for a miracle.”
Viola wouldn’t let her efforts go in vain. If all they can do is run, then they’ll just do it again.