Within a certain distance upon a dirt road, there was an outpost of armored soldiers. The summer-like heat did not ease the minds of those guarding the wooden fortified zone. A soldier yawned and leaned on his spear to get some rest. They were standing for almost the entire day, with no enemy in sight. Morale was so low, the soldiers begged for a conflict themselves, whether their lives were at risk or not.
The Captain of the Outpost tried to snap his men into shape, only for them to stand lazily about. Before the man in charge thought about doing the same, he saw someone in the distance.
It was a child with hair frosty as snow and a left eye blue like the spring sky above. He wore an eyepatch, which covered his right eye, and had a long red scarf that seemed to be light as a feather since it fluttered elegantly. The soldiers saw the boy approach them and got into their positions. After a few minutes, the child came to the outpost and the Captain approached him with a stern look on his face.
“What brings a child like you out in these parts?” the Captain questioned. “Where are your parents, or the ones who hold responsibility for your safety?”
“My parents are dead and I have no home to go to.”
“Oh. Um, well.” The Captain cleared his throat.
The boy stuck his tongue out. “Just kidding. Well, it’s not a joke since technically speaking—"
“Never mind that! Ahem… State your name and business.”
“Name’s Aren. Aren Damoder. Name doesn’t ring any bells? Doesn’t remind you of anybody? No, no?”
The Captain raised his brow and asked for one of his soldiers to bring him his clipboard. Searching through the papers of wanted people, none mentioned the name.
“It seems you are not wanted. Very well, you may pass after some inspection.”
He showed his palm. “For what it seems, you are a foreigner to these lands. There is a protocol to search all persons. A Civil War and the arrival of the Bandit King forced us to do such checks. Forgive our impoliteness.”
Aren rubbed his neck. “Well if you put it that way, I guess I can’t deny, can I?”
“I thank you, kind traveler. Ahem, Merlin.”
A young boy came from behind and approached Aren. Merlin had short brown hair and brown eyes. Nothing about him was notable: he was scrawny and looked out of shape. He seemed shy as he blushed nervously but nevertheless raised his staff. A white ring hovered around its target and after a moment, it became bright yellow. Everyone gasped as the spell pointed to Aren’s satchel.
The Captain’s eyes widened. “What is this?! There’s a Divine artifact in your possession? What is the meaning of this?!”
Aren chuckled nervously, running past the soldiers when he saw an opening. The Captain ordered a handful of guards to help him pursue the runner. They hunted their suspect into the forest, trying various spells to subdue him. Aren avoided all their attempts to seize him. He turned around, expressing his cockiness.
“Suck it! You guys can’t catch—!”
He tripped on a large tree stump and mud covered his face. He got up, spitting out some of the muck. “Agh, it got in my mouth. Oh, gods, it taste’s like—Woah!”
Without noticing, Aren cornered himself on a cliff and almost fell off from its edge. The soldiers caught up and pointed their weapons, the Captain stepped forward.
“Stop right there! If you value your life, you will come with us!” he barked.
Aren looked down, seeing a thick haze covering the dense forest below. He turned around and saluted.
Emitting a barrier around himself, he jumped off the cliff without any hesitation. The Captain ran to the edge to see him disappear into the basin below. He sucked his teeth and looked around to see if he and the soldiers can climb down without any effort. Merlin walked to his Captain, speaking with a trembling voice.
“I-I don’t mean to alarm you, sir,” said Merlin, “But that’s the Forest of Sorrows. Legend says that those who linger there for too long will die by the monsters who reside there!”
“Those are legends of the past, Merlin. That boy is carrying something of some importance, and we must have it under our grasp! Let’s go, we have no time to waste!”
The bushes rustled, and the branches fell under the violent strikes of a machete. The effort of making a path through the forest was wasted, as the trees and the grass loomed closer and thicker with every swing.
It seemed a couple of days had passed since the encounter of the border party, though he missed when that was the only thing he had to face. Aren saw countless ghosts dancing among the bushes and demons crawling about when darkness fell upon the enchanted woods: the rumors and myths about the Forest of Sorrows are true. Since he came here, enchanted creatures and monsters constantly attacked him and during the nights, raided his camp.
There wasn’t a single day where he could get enough rest, but right now, there was only the sound of breaking twigs and the sight of glistering leaves. The dense oak no longer obscured the light of the sun and a path was set before him. The magic which encased these woodlands had its limits, and the boy sighed in relief when he felt its power weakening. Aren climbed a boulder and laid his back. After days of escaping from various beasts, he was finally able to take a break.
He took out a golden amulet, holding it above him as its chains dangled near his face. The Penwolf Star: the amulet that proved the royalty of Mizuki Penwolf. She gave it to him upon their marriage, hoping it will bring the evils away whenever Aren left to do his hero-work.
“Good times back then, huh Mizuki. If you were to see me now, I wonder how you would react: too immature, too childish? To be honest, it was me forcing myself to be the happy go-to man you always knew. I wonder how long I can keep this up…?”
He sighed. “Welp, the least of worries right now. This damn forest isn’t letting me get out. Only if I can find the source and destroy it…”
The boulder trembled. Rolling to the side, Aren saw four legs under the massive stone, and two eyes glancing at him. It was an Ancient Boulder Tortoise. The humongous thing did not look fazed by the surrounding magic and seemed to care less about a small human upon its back.
“Well, I’ll be damned. I was sleeping on a tortoise? Hey big guy.”
The reptile snorted, lowering its eyes.
“Can. You. Lead. Me. To. Magic. Thingy?” Aren said with hand gestures, trying to communicate to it. “Thingy. Like uh… Damn it, what do you animals call it…”
The tortoise grumbled and started to move. Too lazy to question where it was going, Aren decided to relax and take a nap.
Time passed. It might have been minutes or hours, but the hero wasn’t in a hurry to finish. While the tortoise wobbled side to side, he slept comfortably. The creature stopped at some point, waking him up, and he got up to see what the problem was. The beast snorted; a fallen tree blocked its path. It turned and started walking back.
Aren tapped its head, stopping the tortoise’s advance. "Oi, it's just a tree man. Can’t you walk around it? You’re the only one who knows the way and being lazy about it will not solve any problem. Jeezus…”
The animal narrowed its eyes and grunted. It tilted its head to the obstacle, suggesting him to take measures instead. Aren mumbled, and he extended his arm to the tree.
"Alright fine. Look at the flick of my wrist!" he exclaimed.
Mystical blue energy surrounded the fallen tree, and with a fierce flick of his wrist, he sent the tree high and beyond. Too high in fact, that it went above the stratosphere and twinkled in the distance.
Aren grunted. “Huh. Something like that WOOD ruin someone’s day. Get it? Wood? Cause’—"
The tortoise snorted, showing a distaste of his sense of humor.
“Sheesh, whatever BARKS up your tree.”
The reptile continued its original path through the forest, as the plants and bushes kept growing and the darkness crawled closer. Yet, it wasn’t the terrors of the fading light that scared Aren, it was his grumbling stomach; it snarled, and he craved to end its vicious hunger.
After he woke up from the depravity of his starvation, the village Elder gave him food and arranged a feast in his name. When he had to leave the next day, one of the village maidens handed him a basket of pastries for his travels. It was bread filled with sugar and honey, and any sweet tooth would have devoured it.
He was given six, but the long journey to the outpost cost him four. Taking out the last piece of bread, he licked his lips and gave thanks to his food.
Before he could take a single bite, something tugged his long red scarf. The tortoise stopped walking and stared at the bread, licking its lips as if suggesting an offering. Aren expressed a dumbfounded look.
"Life of a hero sure is hard: self-sacrifice is its key philosophy after all. Well, here you go, pal."
He gave the bread to the stone tortoise. It ate the pastry in one gulp, and after a slow nod of approval, it resumed walking its desired path. Aren crossed his legs and sighed. Although his last ration went into the stomach of another, it was a courteous sacrifice to be done.
And for a gigantic creature, it sure walked fast after the quick snack.
Aren sank his head deep into the long red scarf. He pressed a button on the side of the amulet, which made it transform into a small music box. After cranking the tiny lever, two wooden figurines rose from inside and a somber melody played with their melancholic waltz.
Former hero at the very least, he thought.
Tragic memories flashed in streaks of red. He heard their screams, felt their pain, wishing to be dragged along the ride of death as he held the hands of the ones perishing before him.
“Why did you leave us?! Hero!”
“Where were you when our kingdom was attacked?! You care nothing about us!”
“You killed my son! What makes you so heroic?!”
These voices continued to resonate inside his mind as if the damned were trying to make him insane. This was one of the many reasons why he stopped being a hero, or at least what he could remember. Everything else seemed misty and after countless years of travel, some memories were left forgotten.
“No point lingering into the bad things… Beat the bad guys, save those in need: times were simple back then, right, Iskander, Jason?”
Aren looked up to the treetops. "Man, being a hero is rough. Hey turts, you know a hero?”
The tortoise turned its head and nodded. Presumably, it understood him and agreed.
“Is that so? I wonder what age you are from. You look old, really old, but that’s probably baby years for a Boulder Turtle.”
The reptile cackled gleefully as if it agreed to the statement. Aren grunted and folded his arms.
“Old but young at heart eh? I guess that applies to me too. After all, I—"
The creature mumbled and clicked its tongue. The boy sensed a powerful energy source nearby, and several others as well. It was no doubt the place the curse of these woods had originated, and it was guarded.
He tightened his scarf. “Bullseye. I may be retired, but a hero’s work is never done.”