Apprentice Ibel curses softly to himself as he rotates a gnarled root between his fingers. He takes a whiff and frowns.
“Doesn’t smell right.” he mutters to himself, using his dirty fingers to disperse the dirt. He lazily whirls a finger towards it, the granules of soil rolling back against the roots to tuck the plant into the earth. He yawns and stretches his arms through slits of sunlight, filtering through a shade of protracted branches and the green conical shape of bare-trunk trees making Jeford Forest.
Oblivious to the dirt on his freshly christened pants, Ibel spins on his knees towards the next botanic quarry for herbalist Corine Atman. The old man had finally let Ibel help him seek a cure for his ails – mainly, a specific plant found only in Jeford Forest.
“So sad… So ripe!” A voice slowly cries from behind.
Ibel’s shoulders hitch as he whirls about on his heels. Shaking hands shoot out in a offensive stance before he makes a disgusted sound in his throat.
“So saaaad… So ripe!” The Popuhari repeats, looming over him as awkwardly as it’s trunk body is able; the thin roots wriggle constantly through the ground even as it stands. The creature is harmless and Ibel grunts with annoyance as he works to control his shaking hands and thudding heart.
“Shoo. Go away.” He says too throaty for his liking, turning back to the plants he was plucking. His eyes rove over the brown-green gnarled things and realises he has no idea which one he was working on. In fact, they all seem to be same plant.
“Fooool! Saaad fool. Ripe fool!” The tree-like creature’s shadow falls over Ibel, forcing the apprentice to turn back to the creature. It totters back at the sight of the apprentice’s scowling face,
“What do you…” He begins then stops. His eyes take in the thin, lanky creature as though seeing it for the first time. There seems nothing wrong with the conical rise of flat petioles attached to the swaying “head” trunk, or the multiple greenish-white branches poking near the head like multiple arms. Ibel steps back too and runs through his knowledge of the creatures – as well as prepares a defensive spell.
“You speak?” He asks the Popuhari.
“Speak sad. Speak ripe!” It says. Where the sound comes from, Ibel can’t say. Nothing on its “face” moves.
“I didn’t think Popuhari could speak. Are you different?” He tries again.
“Sad! Ripe! Sad! Ripe! Sad! Ripe! Sad! Ripe!” The air fills with the sound of wind rushing through leaves as the Popuhari shakes its head; the words seep through the sound in an intelligible garble. Apprentice Ibel lifts his hands to cover his ears as the leaves on the Popuhari’s head oscillate to a green/brown blur that sends the petioles aflutter.
It takes a moment to notice the sound comes from all around him. He turns and finds that the forest has grown in size, quivering Popuhari filing the gaps between the thick trunks.
Panic engulfs his body and senses as he draws in a long breath. The pounding in his chest has returned. Doubled. A ball of ice seems to have travelled from his chest down into his gut, bring with it an impending sense of doom.
An arm quickly lifts as he darts towards an actual tree. A ball of flame the size of Ibel’s head flicks from his wrist and crashes into Popuhari he’d been speaking to. At the same time, his other arm points to the ground. He jumps as a gust of air propels him upwards. Ibel grabs a branch and begins to pull himself up.
“Saaaaad!” He hears the creature wail.
“Saaaaad!” A chorus of Popuhari pick up its kins cries.
Ibel latches one foot onto the the branch, gasping from effort.
“Great Palaver, I need to work out more.” he breathes. Below him, the chorus continues.
Ibel manages to climb up, sighing heavily as he adjusts himself to sit looking down towards the Popuhari. Even before his whole body has turned, Ibel shivers. The adrenalin in his body filters out – but the fear remains.
The Popuhari he’d set on fire seems to weep more than cry in pain. The running around has stopped, and instead Ibel watches it tip it’s burning crown towards another of its kind, as it had been doing the whole time. Ibel looks around and sees more than one of them is on fire.
They have formed a ring around his tree. They lift their faceless, burning heads towards him.
“So sad! So ripe!” The burning Popuhari chant.
“So sad! So ripe! So sad! So ripe!“
Ibel scrambles as quickly as he dares to his feet, which takes too long for his own liking. The next tree isn’t too far off and with another of those air-jump tricks, he could make it. Perhaps keep going all the way back home.
A roar rises. Ibel makes the mistake of looking down and sees the ring of fire rush the tree. A chortled scream escapes his lips.
Both hands shoot downwards, palms facing the branch. He channels his magic and lets it off. The Popuhari bash into the tree, sending shockwaves up the bare trunk. It’s enough to throw off Ibel’s aim as one foot catches magical air and the other slips on nothing.
Ibel lurches forward, a cry of fear rising in his throat as wavering arms and hands catch loose air.
A panicked shot of magic launches downwards again, throwing the burning Popuhari backwards and cushioning enough of his fall to let him scramble back to his feet. Roots snake around his ankles and tug him backwards. Ibel falls with a wheeze, wind rushing out of his lungs. He begins to channel magic again, haphazardly throwing fire at everything. A wall of Popuhari rush him. Roots entangle his arms and hands, throwing off his aim. There’s enough time to notice the slithering coiling around his chest, constricting his lungs as it rolled the apprentice onto his back.
A burning Popuhari, perhaps the same one he’d met, staggers towards him still aflame. The conical shape of leaves and branches is now a black/grey gnarled thing, sprouting molted leaves and branches at odd angles. Ibel wants to believe he has reached his fear threshold. That only death awaits now.
“Popuhari speak.” The voice quivers, and Ibel feels it come from all the Popuhari around him. The ground itches under his back.
Apprentice Ibel watches as the center of the creature’s head splits open with a loud crack. Splinters fly off in every direction but Ibel is looking at the thing nestled inside the Popuhari. A mass of wriggling forms weave back and forth over numerous larval sacs; multiple segmented legs hold the entire pink-white-gray flesh under its thorax.
“So sad! So ripe! So sad! So ripe!“
Ibel’s attention snaps back to the ring around him – and his bondages keeping him trapped. The fear he thought was gone, now rises again, and again, and again. A young sapling of a Popuhari emerges from the throng. Ibel feels the fear in him pour from the depths of his gut right up his chest and lungs and out his throat. He doesn’t realise he’s screaming. The chanting Popuhari harmonize with his screams.
The sound is momentarily broken as the saplings head snaps open and reveals another of those things. Ibel looks up and watches its spindly legs lift and loosen one of its larvae sacs.
The Popuhari leans forward. The sac rolls off and lands with a wet squelch over Ibel nose and mouth. He feels squirming inside, tickling his face before wetness washes over everything.
He tries not to think or feel or imagine.
“So sad! So ripe!“
The words echo in his head as though only they exist.
Ibel’s body shivers on the ground. The Popuhari are silent as they watch. When the roots slither off his body, letting the man sit up, they all turn towards him.
“Despair.” He croaks.
“Despaiiirrr.” They sigh into the wind.