Wherein our hero and his travelling companion
find entry into the dense woods, meet some
of its residents, and come up against a wall.

* * *


Stoney sniffed along the forest edge looking for a sign that there was an entrance, or pathway into the woods. The smell left by other travelers would be enough of an indication. At last he found a spot that fit the bill.

Except, the forest in this spot was as thick and dense with obstructing branches as it was in any other location.

"We should be able to enter here," he said to Shaka Brah. "This spot smells well traveled."

"Perhaps, if you asked for permission, there would be some sort of response," the hand replied.

Stoney understood that this place, the land surrounding the plateau, seemed to follow a different set of rules, and so he turned to the wall of tree limbs and spoke.

"Oh, great thick forest!" he intoned, "won't you, please, reveal an entrance for my friend and I."

A great rustling began in the tree tops, which was quite unexpected, since there was no wind that day. From deep within the woods came a grumbling sound which seemed to be speech.

"Thank you for asking," the grumbling voice said. "You may enter the forest. You have only to ask the direction and the path will take you where you want to go."

And so, Stoney asked the forest to guide them to the distant fire.

The rustling in the tops of the trees grew louder and now extended down to the forest floor. With a monstrous sound resembling a roar, the forest branches pulled away and a clear path was revealed to Stoney and Shaka Brah.

The walls of the path were still thick with obstructing branches and leaves. But now, they were richly festooned with flowers of every variety and color and size. The scene dazzled the two travelers, and as they stepped to enter into the woods, the grumbling voice spoke again.

"Do not eat anything that grows in the forest without asking first," it said. "Now, farewell, Stoney. Farewell, Shaka Brah."

The forest path only extended a few dozen yards ahead of them, but as they entered on the path the branches at the far end bent themselves back, and more of the route opened before them. When they had progressed deeper into the woods, they heard the rustling sound behind them and they turned in time to see the entrance to the path close behind them.

And this is how it went. The path opened ahead of them, and closed behind them. With every few feet of progress they made, the path extended itself forward, and sealed itself behind.

The ground was firm yet soft, covered with soft blades of grass which seemed to lay flat just where they were going to step.

They walked for some time, and Stoney sniffed along the sides of the path. He could tell by the smells that there were other animals living in the forest, but no creature revealed itself. Walking some more, he began to get hungry.

"There is so much food growing here," he said to his friend. "It's almost irresistible."

Shaka Brah reminded him of the voice's warning to not eat anything growing in the forest. But clearly, the sight of the heavily laden branches was a serious temptation. Every type of fruit and berry was hanging from the branches and vines. Ripe, and ready for picking.

"Well," responded Stoney, "I wish there was something to eat."


Instantly, the branches ahead of them snapped together, closing the path. A moment later the branches to their side separated, and a path in a different direction lay before them.

The two had little choice but to follow the path's new direction. After a few minutes on the new path, Stoney caught the scent of something he recognized.

"I smell cinnamon," he said to the hand. "It's as if someone is baking cinnamon pastries."

They walked further and the smell grew stronger.

At last the forest path opened on a clearing in which there was a small cottage. It was made entirely of giant grasses, and flowering vines grew up the sides and over the roof.

"It seems like we're supposed to go there," commented the Shaka.

"Well then, go there we shall," barked Stoney.

They slowly approached the cottage, stopping at the foot of the step. They heard sounds inside the cottage, so Stoney called out in his loud, clear, human voice.

"Hello! Is there anyone in there?"

"That must be Stoney, go answer the door, dear," they heard someone inside say. It sounded like a woman's voice.

"Why do I always have to go answer the door?" a man's voice responded.

They were, therefore, quite surprised when a large red crab appeared at the window, and spoke with the man's voice they had heard.

"Are you Stoney?" asked the crab. "If you're not Stoney, you should leave. We're expecting Stoney and a companion, and there won't be enough room, or food, for you, too."

"Uh, yes, I'm Stoney. And this is..."

"Shaka Brah, yes I know," snipped the crab. "You're on your way to the fire. I know all about it."

"Well," began Stoney, "you needn't be so..."

"Crabby? You were going to say 'crabby,' weren't you?" interrupted the crab. "I'm a crab. What do you expect me to be? No matter. Just come in. Come in!"

The crab jumped from the window and pushed the door open with its claws.

"Yes, come in," purred the women's voice from inside the cottage. The door opened to reveal a small gray and white kitten.

"It's not everyday that we get visitors here at the cottage. I hope you like cinnamon cakes. I made them myself." And the kitten led them inside.

The cottage was small, but nicely furnished with comfortable looking chairs. Next to them were tables heaped with treats. The kitten offered them each a seat and left them with the crab.

"You can eat now," it said. "These are for you. Kitty wouldn't even let me taste them until you arrived. But now you're here, so eat. Eat!"

In fact, the crab was crabby, which, of course, was its nature. Even its attempts at courtesy came out crabby.

"You're not eating! Is there something wrong?"

"Well, no," began Stoney. "There's nothing wrong. I'm just a little surprised that you know so much about us, and that you've been expecting us for a while, I'd say, judging from all the food that's been prepared."

"As soon as you entered this forest, we were told to expect you," said the kitten, returning with a cart with several bowls of beverages. "This cottage is one of several scattered throughout the woods. All of the forest's animals come to the cottages to eat, and since there are a good number of such places, no one has to travel very far on an empty stomach."

"Of course, you wouldn't have found it on your own," added the crab, and it clicked it claws for emphasis.

"But, what's important is that you're here," interrupted the kitten. "So let's eat. And after, Stoney, you can tell us of your plan."

And eat they did. Stoney was very hungry, having last eaten back in his village which was no very long and far away. And the little meat pies and fruit pastries and cakes were incredibly delicious.

When Stoney had finished he thanked the kitten and the crab, and told them that he thought it was best if he and Shaka Brah left. "It is getting very late," he said.

"That's right," said the kitten. "It is late, and it would really be best if you stayed the night, and then got a fresh start in the morning."

"After breakfast," added the crab.

So the two travellers stayed the night in the comfortable little cottage. They sat and talked about their experiences of the day. So full of interesting encounters and new friends.


I n the morning they snacked on the remaining pastries from the night before, and the kitten packed what was then left in a basket for Shaka Brah to carry.

"Well, this is it. Now you must go," said the kitten. "I just wonder where our friend crab is. He so wanted to wish you good luck on your mission. And I just don't know where he went."

"That is a shame. Then you'll just have to give him our sincerest regards when he returns," replied Stoney, "for we really must go. We have a lot of ground to cover."

And with that Stoney and Shaka Brah turned and walked down the path away from the cottage. They approached the forest wall which opened a path for them without them asking.

In a few short steps they were again deep within the thick woods with the only view beyond being the blue sky above them.

They walked all morning chatting amiably about the day before, and what they thought they'd expect to find ahead. Eventually, one of them mentioned the delicious food at the cottage, and Stoney decided that he was hungry, that it was as good a time as any to stop and rest and eat. The forest obliged by providing a shady spot under one of it's trees. And they opened the basket of food.

Stoney picked up one of the meat pies with his mouth and discovered the little red crab underneath.

"Hey! I was eating that pie. And if you don't mind, I'd like to continue. So drop the pie!" It began to climb out of the basket. "Besides, I'm tired of that dark old basket, anyway. Lunch will be better eaten out here."

"What are you doing here, friend crab," asked Shaka Brah. "You know, the kitten was very concerned that you weren't around to say good-bye."

"Well, it wasn't good-bye, was it?" replied the crab, clicking its claws excitedly in accompaniment to itself. "I had no intention of letting you two have the only adventure...Click, Click, Click...But, Kitty didn't want me to go...Click, Click, Click... So I climbed into the basket when it...Click, Click, Click...wasn't looking. This forest can be so boring! And the fire...Click, Click, Click, Click, Click...sounds so exciting!"


It scrambled sideways over to Stoney (crabs walk sideways, you know) and said, "You won't make me go back, will you?"

For once it sounded really sincere and emotional. It's tone was even apologetic.

Stoney looked at the crab. It looked so sad. It's little eyes on little stalks above it's head drooped down over its face.

"No, you can come," said Stoney.

"I knew it! I knew it! I knew you'd be a push-over. Dogs are so sentimental!" The crab danced around and around on its many legs, clicking constantly.

"But," barked Stoney, "you'd better be nice, and you'd better behave. And we'd all better be going."

They packed up the remainder of the food in the basket. The little crab climbed up the side and perched on the edge, holding fast with one claw.

"Let's go," it said.

The forest again revealed the path without their asking, and Stoney and Shaka Brah, with the crab hanging from the basket, left the comfort of the shade tree, and set off for the fire.


Enclosed as they were by the forest walls, it was impossible for them to tell if the ground was hilly or not. The path always seemed level. So it was with some surprise that the ground started to rise, and their way became steeper. They continued their uphill trek for some time, until the forest path opened to reveal a rock wall.

It wasn't just any old rock wall, either. The wall was made of large blue stones. In fact the stones were massive, much bigger than an ordinary house. And they fit together so tightly that they seemed to be one piece. The wall itself extended well above the tops of the trees on either side of them.

"It looks like this is as far as we can go," said Stoney. "I just wonder why the forest brought us here!"

"No one comes to the Blue Wall without being summoned," said the crab, clicking one claw for emphasis. "The Earth Lord wishes to see you."

"How do you know this?" asked Stoney. "And who is this Earth Lord?"

"Oh, I know things, replied the crab. "You'll find out soon enough. "

"Perhaps if you asked permission, again," suggested the hand. "It worked with the stream and the forest."

"And the food," added Stoney. "Okay, I'll try it."

Stoney spoke to the wall, but nothing happened. They were still surrounded on all four sides, with no sign of an exit.

"This is not working," said the crab. "Not at all."

"Great and awesome wall," began Stoney, again. But before he could continue, he saw a slight movement at the base of the wall.

"Look out," he barked. "The wall is moving!" And as he said this massive blocks of stone eased out from the wall and formed a ramp that ascended along its outside. At the same time, stones above the ramp, pulled themselves back into the wall. The ramp became wide enough for them to walk comfortably without having to brush aside any branches.

"Well, this is our only choice. Let's go." And Stoney led his companions up the blue stone ramp.

The ramp appeared as it was needed, and disappeared into the wall after it was used. The higher they climbed, the more they needed to climb.

Eventually, they reached the tops of the trees, and the ramp stopped forming. They were now on a large blue stone ledge, sticking out from the surface of the wall, with nowhere to go.

"Well, I think we should fly up and take a look around at this huge stone wall," suggested Shaka Brah. "Maybe we'll see someone."

"It does seem like there's no other option," sighed Stoney. "At least we'll be going up instead of down!"

With Stoney on its back and the crab hanging from the basket, Shaka Brah leaped into the air and rose alongside the blue wall. When they were far enough away and above, they could see that they had been climbing along the outside of a magnificent castle. A castle of such great size and scale that it seemed to be a mountain, and from a distance this is what it did look like.

Huge turrets were spaced around the outside wall, some topped by great onion-shaped domes. They could see the fire burning in the distance, well beyond the mountainous castle.

"We could just fly to the fire," said Stoney.

"No we can't!" snapped the crab. "We're supposed to be here! To see the Earth Lord."

"Yes, you're right, the path brought us to the castle and we must find out why. Let's circle the castle and look for a signal.



Wherein Stoney and his companions
bear a dangerous gift on their perilous mission,
and devise a plan to deal
with the inferno.

* * *

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