The search party forced their way through the Forest of Sorrows, cutting down the thick bushes and branches. It was about two days since they entered and it already proved too much for the crew. The Captain ordered everyone to retreat, though returning to the fortified roadblock proved to be a challenge as the surrounding vegetation seemed to shift and bend. The eerie, demonic voices during the night were getting into the minds of his soldiers and with the persistent nightmares, everyone was in disarray. The group stumbled upon a water stream and the Captain ordered the troops to set up camp near it. Merlin and Senior went out to get firewood, leaving the others to deal with the shelter. Merlin gathered the small sticks while Senior bundled up the thickest ones he could find. They piled their branches together and made their way back to the camp. The two were quiet for some time.
“Wow Senior, you’re pretty strong. Sorry for making you carry all of the sticks by yourself.” Senior didn’t respond. Merlin lowered his eyes and grabbed his arm. “A-Are you mad? Sorry if—”
“No, I’m not.”
“I mean, I did just make your job harder for you. I rushed into a dangerous forest, hoping our achievements here will get the Maester’s approval. I guess Captain is right: I gotta keep an eye on the greater things.”
Senior turned his head. “It is a brave decision, Merlin. To be fair, I thought you were mad at me.”
“Really.” Senior sighed. “To bring up the Maester like that isn’t appropriate. I’m sure, right now, she would be proud that you came here on your own initiative.”
Merlin looked at the ground, kicking a pebble away. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“You know, it was in the heat of the moment. Now, I really want to eat my own words. To be honest, I didn’t want to go, but words came out of my mouth and… here I am.” Merlin stopped and looked away. “Everyone in the Academy says I’m weak, but maybe doing this will prove them wrong. But all I’m doing is causing more problems than good. Maybe I can—”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence.” Senior came up to Merlin, dropping the sticks, and grasped his shoulders. “You came here not because you wanted to, it’s because it is your duty. You were willing to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the kingdom, and that is something to be proud of.”
“Be proud, Merlin. Do that for me, coming from a person who is and always will be a coward.”
Senior nodded, picking up the firewood, and continued ahead. Merlin stood there in awe and when he snapped back to reality, he caught up with him. It wasn’t long before they reached back to their to-be camp. Merlin expected to listen to the Captain yelling out orders and the soldiers running about, but there was nothing of the sort. Everyone was gone: their belongings scattered all over and the surrounding area was as if a rampaging beast came through. He ran around, calling for his comrades. Senior dropped the firewood to investigate what had happened during their departure. A pool of blood was in front of him and when he looked up, he gazed in horror, seeing a corpse of his former ally hanging in the treetops.
“Merlin, we need to get out of here, now!” Senior yelled, unsheathing his sword.
Merlin turned around and before he could say anything, a dark cloud enveloped around him. Senior’s sword was engulfed in flame as he dashed to the shadowy mist.
He twirled his sword, cutting a hole through the cloud. It quickly reformed and retaliated with an attack of its own. Senior dodged, readying his sword once more for another Flame Saber. The mist separated, showing Merlin in a trance-like state. He grunted and backed off, sucking his teeth to his dismay.
“What in Saya’s name is this…?! Merlin, Merlin, are you all right?!”
The mist let out a demonic laugh and swirled faster than before. Senior heard Merlin scream and blood slowly crawled out of the dark cloud: it was eating him alive.
He swung his blade down in a flash of lightning, sparking up the entire mist. However, it only worsened the immeasurable pain Merlin was dealing with. The dark cloud formed tentacles, whirling them around. After he dodged its attacks, it formed a fist and struck Senior’s face when he was open. He slammed his back against a tree and the air rushed out from his body. The entity slowly formed a face, expressing its monstrous, smug nature. Pieces of Senior’s mask broke off, revealing an equally threatening look, which made the creature panic.
“Be afraid, you foul beast. You’re not the only monster here.”
He stood up, raised his weapon and charged. His sword became engulfed in a bright blue flame and with a single strike, the mist howled in pain. For a moment, Merlin was exposed, giving him the opportunity to grab him and escape. The dark mist attempted to chase them, but a wall of light stopped its path, soon surrounding it.
A burst of blue fire erupted beneath the mist, and it cried out in desperation. After two seconds, the entity was vanquished, and someone came out from the bushes. It was Aren and he watched the two disappear into the thicket.
“Great, this is great. First, I get chased down like an animal and now Void creatures are in this forest.” He threw his arms to the side. “Man, this wouldn’t have happened if those idiots let me see her. Still, I hope those two are okay.”
He turned around, noticing the corpse hanging ahead. The creature twisted and mangled the man’s body to its pleasure. An unpleasant sight to behold. There was only one thing to do: give a proper burial. Aren took the time to dig a hole for the body and made a cross with branches and vines. He clasped his palms together and prayed in silence.
“It’s the least I can do. May your afterlife be more fulfilling than your time here.”
With a nod of approval, Aren left the premise and tried to find a way out. The bushes rustled, and the branches fell under the violent strikes of his machete. The effort of making a passage 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 could not tell with the perpetual darkness.
There wasn’t a single day where he got a proper rest: with the continual moaning of nearby ghosts and howling of the Void creatures, avoiding danger was his only thought. Eventually, the sight of glistering leaves and the sound of breaking twigs were the only things accompanying him. The dense oak no longer obscured the sunlight, and a path was set before him. Believing that most of the horrors were far behind, he laid rest on top of a boulder to take his needed break. He took out a golden amulet from his satchel, holding it above him as its chains dangled near his face. This and his scarf reminded him of his wife, who he missed dearly. She was the one who gave them to him, after all.
“Mystical Shawl of Destiny. I wonder how Mizuki would react when people believe the damn scarf is a ‘Divine Artifact.’ She’d probably laugh.” Aren looked up. “Wish everyone was here. Wonder what they’ll say about me when I get up there. If I get up there. Wait that’s the least of my worries!”
He flailed his arms around, shouting his frustration. “This damn forest isn’t letting me out! Since nobody is doing the damn job, I guess I’ll waste my time destroying that goddamn curse.”
He sighed. “That’s… if I’m able to find it. Welp, I got all the time and dying is not a problem!”
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 surrounding magic did not faze the humongous thing and seemed to care less about a small human upon its back.
“I’ll be damned. I was sleeping on a tortoise. Hey, big guy.”
The reptile snorted, lowering its eyes.
“I remember someone saying that animals have high sensitivity to magic. Perhaps this old geezer can lead me there. But how? Can. You. Lead. Me. To. Magic. Thingy?”
Aren tried to communicate to it with hand gestures, but it felt silly trying to communicate with an animal that has no basic concept of humanoid language. To his surprise, the tortoise nodded and moved onward.
“Where are you going?! Did you even—bah, whatever.” He clasped his hands and closed his eye. “Oh, mighty Divines, please let this be the right path. If it is not, then screw you.”
Since there was nothing to do but wait, he had a nap. Time passed. It might have been minutes, hours, days, but Aren wasn’t in a hurry to finish. The creature stopped at some point, gnawing on his scarf to wake him up. After a loud yawn, Aren got up to see what the problem was. The beast snorted; an enormous fallen tree blocked its path.
Aren tapped its head. “Oi, it's just a tree man. Can’t you walk around it?”
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.
"All right, fine. Look at the flick of my wrist!"
Mystical blue energy surrounded the fallen tree, and the huge log flew high and beyond. Too high, in fact, that it went above the stratosphere and twinkled in the distance.
“Huh. Something like that WOOD ruin someone’s day. Get it? Wood? Cause’—"
The tortoise snorted, showing a distaste of his sense of humor.
“I guess you’re not up for ACORN-Y joke. Eh, get it? Cause acorn and… Okay, I’ll stop.”
The reptile continued its original direction, 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. He remembered the pastries he’d ordered, so he picked out the last piece of bread, readying himself to eat it.
“Thank you for the food! Now, for the full course!”
Before he could take a single bite, something tugged his long red scarf again. The tortoise stopped walking and stared at the bread, licking its lips. Aren expressed a dumbfounded look.
"Life of a hero sure is hard: self-sacrifice is its key philosophy after all. That being said, here you go!”
He gave the bread to the stone tortoise. It ate the pastry in one gulp, and after a slow bow of approval, it resumed walking its desired path. A courteous, noble sacrifice, or so he convinced himself to ward off the starvation.
And for a gigantic creature, it sure walked fast after the quick snack.
Aren sank his chin further into his 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.
“Times were so simple back then: beat the bad guys, save those in need, then go home to a loving wife with two kids waiting to jump on top of you, saying ‘Welcome Home Dad!’ Man…”
Aren looked up to the treetops. “A hero was a dream everybody back then wanted to be. Only the Gods know what a nightmare it can become. Speaking of such, oi tortoise, turts’, whatever: you know a hero?”
The tortoise turned its head and nodded. It seemed to comprehend his words.
“Oh? Well, there’s this girl and my visions say she’s the one who can possibly save the world but like, how so, right? That’s the part that’s bugging me and to be frank, it left me with more questions than answers! What type of asshat leaves a person on a cliffhanger?!”
The reptile cackled gleefully, as if it agreed to the statement.
“Why the hell am I… I must be turning insane: a tortoise understanding me? Can starvation cause hallucinations?!”
A loud screech echoed across the forest, along with a spike of powerful energy. Auras of purple, black, and green were crawling out, seeping deep into the roots of the nearby vegetation. The source of the curse must be near.
He tightened his scarf. “Bullseye. I may be retired, but a hero’s work is never done!”