Regrettably, the past three days Veldin had spent in the village had turned up little information that would be of use to him. Pouring over the library's texts into the late hours of each night, he'd read through much of the content that the building held. The main issue he'd encountered was that the mousefolk kept an eclectic collection of books that lacked any cohesion in their topics. Many of them originated from foreign lands as, while the books were not small in number by any means, it seemed most of the village's information of the outside world came from whatever merchants and travelers provided them with. And that included history books that were outdated by decades.
The lack of any unusual activity in the forest's outskirts that the mousefolk patrolled led Veldin to believe that the shard was far more likely to have landed further into the depths of this land instead. How much control the shard had in its path was unclear, but if it had any choice in the matter, it would make sense to choose such a remote destination. This was regarding a Dragon scale's ability to "flee" from threats, after all. But if it had entered the forest's depths, that posed an entirely new problem - that of the fey.
"Are you still up here? You haven't left all day, have you?"
At the sound of the familiar voice, Veldin leaned back from the table and sat up straight, the muscles in his back greeting him with soreness that paired well with the headache he'd been ignoring until now.
The voice had been from Misha as she reached the library's second floor from the staircase. She looked around, noting the scattered books and the too-small blankets that the white-furred librarian had lent to Veldin. "You've been sleeping in here as well? I hope Nera's putting you to work in return, at least."
Veldin rolled his eyes, turning his attention back to the latest book he'd grabbed from the shelves. "And here I thought you had wanted me to rest after my recent injuries."
Misha picked up a book from the table and began idly flipping through it. "Well, clearly you're not the type to listen to that advice, so we may as well put your energy to some use. I take it the fact that you've been holed up in here this entire time means you haven't found anything?"
Even if that statement was true, Veldin hated hearing it put so simply that he had accomplished nothing in his time here. "Your people do not take much stock in written information, do they?"
"We have plenty written."
"About mundane plants and animals, anything for basic survival in the forest, yes." Veldin sighed. "Everything else is some entirely unhelpful and unfocused collection of myths or historical tomes that focus on anywhere but the Orchard Forest."
"I'm not sure what exactly you're hoping to find, but... Mundane plants and animals are what we have here," Misha said, her tone matter of fact.
"You live in the largest forest on this continent, Misha. One which happens to be home to a large population of fey." Veldin could scarcely believe he needed to point this out to someone native to the area. "Yet there exists hardly any text that I have been able to find, here or elsewhere, that knows anything more than that. Few people can detail what variety we're dealing with or what they're capable of."
Misha shut the book she had been flipping through. "Most people who encounter the fey don't return. We don't go deeper into the forest, and I know that humans don't either. Even the most scholarly types. What do the fey have to do with this, anyway?"
"The shard likely fell farther into the forest. That means any attempt to retrieve it is at risk of being interrupted by such creatures. Do you see the problem with that?" Veldin rubbed a hand against his aching temple.
There was a brief pause between the two, Misha staring down at the books on the table and Veldin trying to ease the aches and frustration that had built up over the days. "Misha... I appreciate your village's hospitality, but I've stayed here too long already. I need to proceed on with this investigation. I will depart tomorrow."
"What?" Misha looked back up, her ears straight at attention atop her head and her tail raised. "You just told me the shard is likely in the territory of unknown fey - and possibly corrupting those fey - and now you're going to leave on your own to chase after it? Are you mad?!"
"Do you have any other suggestions? Or perhaps your fellow guards have any information that may be helpful?"
"I..." Misha hesitated. She looked out one of the library's windows at the dusky evening colors outside. "Listen, Veldin... Think this through a bit more. Why don't we take this conversation outside? We can have a drink over at Owain’s pl…” She trailed off for a moment, staring at Veldin and likely remembering the difficulty of size difference as she corrected herself, “outside Owain’s place. The others may not have seen anything yet, but they might have theories about the whole situation.”
"I do not typically drink," Veldin said, seeing the stalling tactic for what it was. He was noticing how strained his eyes were now that he was looking at Misha and not text on a page, but he had no interest in the invitation.
“Then don’t drink. The fresh air will be good for you,” Misha argued as if she had picked up on the exhaustion that was catching up to Veldin. Or perhaps he simply looked that awful. “Listen, I’m concerned about it too, but throwing yourself at the problem like that isn't going to help anyone."
She had a point. If Veldin died, that accomplished nothing. He hated to admit it, but his plan was far from ideal, even with a lack of other options. He sighed. “Fine." He could give it one more day to think over the situation. “Let’s go.”
As the pair left the library, Veldin felt just how stiff his muscles actually were, and it took him some moments before walking felt remotely comfortable. A light breeze had picked up and carried with it the faintest smell of flowers. The entire feeling of the village at this time of day was rather pleasant, he acknowledged.
Misha led him to one of the small wooden thatch-roofed houses scattered about the village and knocked on the door. It was answered shortly after by a rather largely built mousefolk with grey fur – as largely built as mousefolk come, at any rate. “There you are, Pipsqueak!” he said in a cheerful, boisterous voice as he pulled Misha into a rough hug. “I was hoping you’d stop by. I keep hearing you’re always off at the library at night!”
“Good to see you, Owain. I’ve been trying to help Veldin,” Misha said as she squirmed out of the larger mousefolk’s grasp.
Owain crossed his arms and looked up at Veldin. “So, you’re the human, then.”
“How did you ever guess,” Veldin said flatly.
Owain chuckled. “A sassy one, huh? I can’t say if your friend’s going to be all that comfortable in my house, though, Pipsqueak.”
“It’s fine, we’ll sit outside,” Misha said. “Just open a window so we can talk.”
Owain obliged the request, grabbing a small wooden stool from inside and passing it to Misha for her to have a seat by the window. Veldin would have to settle for the ground. He missed chairs. From the window that Owain opened, more of his home’s interior could be seen, as well as the fact that three more of the village’s guards were sitting around a table with drinks in hand. They greeted Misha fondly and seemed to be involved in a conversation of their own. Owain handed a mug to Misha through the window, its contents of little interest to Veldin.
“We were discussing the scale shards today,” Misha said to Owain.
“Afraid none of us have seen anything like what you described,” Owain said between sips of his own drink, elbows resting on the windowsill.
One of the other guards spoke up at that, “What makes you so sure it’s here, to begin with? Why not somewhere else, like over in Indervel or somewhere down south?”
“Because I happen to know the path that the shard fled,” Veldin explained. “I expect none of you would have noticed with the treetops covering most of the sky, but the trails of light left behind by the shards took the majority of that night to fade.”
“And one of them went in our direction, hmm?” commented the guard who had asked in the first place.
Misha looked up from her drink. “Do any of you know much about the deeper parts of the forest? Anything that stands out?”
“I know the captain won’t want his daughter wandering off out there.” Owain leaned out the window closer to Misha as he spoke. “We have our territory. You know it’s too dangerous to go looking past there, Pipsqueak.”
“Yes, I do, Owain. But if that is where the shard’s gone, that means it will be left unchecked to corrupt anything in the area.”
Owain shook his head and sighed. “I’m not saying you don’t have a point, but…”
One of the guards added, “We don’t have enough people to send a large enough exploration party out there without leaving the village vulnerable. Especially if we don't even know where to start looking.”
“I know that’s true,” Misha began, “but we –“
Veldin spoke up to cut her off. “It’s fine, Misha, I understand.” He knew well he could not ask the guards to abandon their posts. "If the shard’s corruption spread out to the forest’s edges, leaving your village undefended would potentially spell disaster."
Misha said nothing but gave Veldin a look, not that he could quite read mousefolk facial expressions. He assumed it was disapproval over the ever-looming plan of charging into the forest alone, but he paid it little mind.
"I know that the aid your people can give will be limited, and I cannot ask more of you than that," Veldin continued. He turned away from the window of the small house and looked up to the sky above, large stretching branches and their leaves covering much of it. “Besides, I’m fully aware you pulled me away from the library to take my mind off the matter for a while, didn’t you?”
“Wh – that was not my intent, Veldin,” Misha said defiantly, looking away and playing with the small mug in her hands. Owain laughed and stepped away from the window to turn his attention to one of the other guards who had addressed him for something. The topic inside soon changed to something more jovial in nature, with raucous laughter from the guards now and then. Veldin did not bother to listen to the actual content of the conversation, focusing instead on the cool night air and the few stars that could be spotted through the treetops. A part of his mind reminded him that just sitting here outside of a mousefolk home contributed nothing to his search, but he was growing too tired to care and ignored the thought.
Misha had taken part in the conversation between the other guards with an occasional comment or joke as the night went on. Eventually, Veldin noticed Misha shifted from that to quietly watching the goings-on of the village as people retired for the night and the guards of the night patrol roamed about.
“He calls you Pipsqueak?” Veldin asked eventually, unable to hide the amused smirk on his face.
Misha's whiskers twitched a bit. “What, Owain? I wasn’t a particularly small child, but somehow the name stuck.”
“You seem quite friendly with most of your comrades. Then again, I suppose that would be unavoidable if your father is the captain.”
“You would think so,” Misha said, “but my brother barely speaks to most of them. He’s always cooped up in his workshop or the library with Nera. You and he seem to have a similar work ethic, you might get along well.”
“Given that you’ve seemed rather disapproving of said work ethic, I can’t help but wonder if you mean that comparison to be a good thing. I hope for my sake that you hold some respect for your brother.”
“Of course, I do. Most of the time.” Misha placed her drink mug on the windowsill for Owain to retrieve whenever he turned his attention away from the game of dice going on inside. The mug was emptied some time ago, but Misha had been idly playing with it in her hands. “Anyway, what about you? I haven’t heard anything about where you’re from.”
“That’s because it has not come up,” Veldin answered.
Misha sighed a bit. “That’s an invitation for you to elaborate now.”
“Yes, I’m aware.” Veldin thought over it for a moment. “If you’re so curious, I live in the mountains north of Indervel.”
“That’s fairly far, isn’t it?”
“Approaching two weeks’ travel in total on foot. For a time after leaving Indervel, I accompanied a caravan for the benefit of their wagons.”
“Have all the shards gone that far?” Misha asked.
“There was some variation, though I've already handled the one closest to our home. This was simply the next on the list.”
Misha tilted her head a bit. “’Our?’ You’re not the only one looking into this, then?”
Veldin realized he had yet to make any mention of that particular subject. How could that have slipped his mind up until now? “Oh, of course not. I’ve been assisting in the matter for Lady Elcevier. She is the one that’s been investigating the scale and its shards from the start.”
“Is that so?” Misha said. “She must be quite knowledgeable, then.”
“Yes, that’s correct. She’s a skilled woman, the only person I know to be more competent in magic than myself.”
“Magic? Wait—you can use magic?”
Veldin looked at the mousefolk, unable to hold back something of a grin at the slight awe in her voice. “Have you never met a trained arcanist?”
“I haven’t met any arcanists. What kind of magic can you use?”
“I’ve been trained for a wide variety of spells. Primarily, in the art of manipulating objects and forces in the environment. If need be, however, I can work with far more complex spells than that.” When he noticed Misha was still staring at him, he asked, “Your village is secluded, and you keep away from the fey here. You’ve never seen any form of magic before, have you?”
Misha shook her head. “Could I… see a spell? Just something small?”
“Something small, hm? Well… I suppose I can do that much for your sake.” Veldin focused his attention on some small rocks lying on the ground not far away from the pair. He reached out a hand toward the rocks and quietly recited a string of words that he was familiar with as the spell’s incantation. As he did, focusing the energies of the magic, a faint shimmering light began to glow, twisting around the rocks. Then, with no further effort on Veldin's part, they sprung up into the air and hovered there. “How is this?”
A small gasp from Misha confirmed she was suitably impressed. “That’s amazing! And you can do more things than just that?”
“If you’re so amazed at the thought of doing more than levitating some rocks, I think you’ll have a wonderful time learning about magic.” With a thought and a hand gesture, Veldin pulled the rocks towards himself and allowed them to float in a ring around his left hand. The light of the magic that surrounded them now circled around his wrist as well as the rocks like a thin layer of mist. He noticed the conversation had faded inside the house behind them, and Owain and the other guards had taken to watching the display. It was amusing to see that even the most experienced of guards here were so easily enthralled, but then, Veldin was not planning to complain about the audience.
“Is it difficult to cast spells?” Misha asked.
“Hm… I suppose. Not for me, of course. Others don’t necessarily have the talent for it, even with proper training and lessons.”
Misha made a sound as if she were thinking over that statement. “But anyone can try to learn, right?”
“Are you considering it?”
“Mostly just thinking there must be spells that would be helpful around here in the village. But then, there’s nowhere I could learn it here anyway… Where did you study your magic?”
Veldin stared at the rocks he had enchanted. There was the part of the topic he had not wanted to get into. A part of him thought to make up a simple lie. He did not expect Misha would notice if he did, nor did he feel much like explaining the truth of the situation to her—that he did not have an answer for her in the first place.
It was just then that a sudden shout of pain broke through the otherwise quiet night, echoing through the air. Without a word, Misha hopped up from her seat and took off into a full sprint. Owain and the other guards were close behind, running out of the house and after her, towards the sound of the commotion. Partly out of instinct and partly out of a desire to know what had happened, Veldin stood up to follow and allowed the magic to fade and the rocks to drop to the ground. He quickly found the mousefolk had already gained a sizable lead on him with their agile movement. It did not take him very long to catch up over the short distance, however, as he reached the edge of the village and spotted them all standing before a bizarre scene.
One of the night patrol guards had been the one to shout. He was standing with two daggers drawn, though one was held in a trembling grip as blood dripped from a fresh wound on that arm. Approaching him was no natural creature of the forest.
The beast's body resembled that of a tall and spindly deer, one that was tall enough for its shoulders to almost reach the lower branches of the surrounding trees. From its neck extended not the head that should have been there, but massive petals that made up a budding flower. Tendrils of plant fibers extended from various spots on the creature's body, each of them writhing and stretching out from the body as if searching for something to grasp with visible thorns.
"What is that?!" one of the other guards shouted. Owain had come equipped with a bow and arrow he'd grabbed from his house and was already taking aim.
"Veldin," Misha said, standing with a dagger of her own in one hand and observing the creature's movements. "That's one of them, isn't it?"
Owain's arrow flew and pierced the mutant creature directly in the chest where its heart should have been. It reared back in pain, giving the wounded guard an opening to leap away from it and retreat to safety. The petals of the thing's flower "head" opened as if blooming, revealing the insides to be lined with countless razor-sharp teeth, and let out an angered and ear-splitting screech from an unseen mouth. The noise forced Veldin and the guards to resist the desire to flinch back and cover their ears. Veldin knew he would not need to answer Misha's question as the arrow that had embedded itself into the mutant's chest was ripped out by one of the tendrils, the wound it left behind rapidly beginning to heal shut before the eyes of those present to witness it.
There it was, then. Proof of the shard's presence.