Misha had quickly grown accustomed to the fact that the group’s guide was a wolf. Given that it had already been several days since they’d departed from the village and into the forest, that seemed to be true for Owain as well. Even Veldin had stopped making the occasional comment about how concerned he was over being eaten. At the very least, all three had accepted that the wolf would not or could not provide them with very many proper answers even if asked for them.
The travel so far had proven most difficult for Veldin out of anyone. Owain and Misha were nimble enough to climb through, over, and under obstructions in the terrain. Even Misha and the wolf’s bandaged wounds were not severe enough to hamper movement terribly after the first couple of days. At least, the wolf let on no sign that it was in pain that Misha could notice. That left the human to stumble through foliage and untangle himself from thorns and low-hanging branches often enough that Misha felt sorry for him. She was getting the impression that it was for the best that the wolf had brought them together, aside from the part about the violence.
Still, Misha’s skill with the terrain did not make the trek any less exhausting, and she was thankful once the group stopped to make camp for the night. With night descending on the forest and the sounds of evening insects taking the place of bird chirps, they had located an open enough space to lay out bedrolls before Misha and Owain set to work with the usual nightly defenses. As they had always done, the pair began to set up a perimeter of well-hidden tripwires and bells to detect any intruders, while the wolf lay on the ground nearby and watched. Veldin sat with his back to a nearby tree, trying to brush leaves off his clothing only to find they were covered in sap.
“Not very accustomed to the forest, I take it?” Owain asked teasingly as he walked by with a length of wire to tie it to another tree. Veldin simply shot him an irritated look.
Misha added, intending to contribute more helpfully, “We should be reaching the darkest parts of the forest soon if the wolf takes us much further in. Are you going to be alright?” Even this far in, the forest had grown dimmer in the daytime beneath the thicker treetops.
Veldin scoffed and muttered, “I can see in the darkness better than either of you likely can.”
“Can you?” Misha plucked the last wire she’d tied, the bell on it ringing softly. She glanced to Owain, curious as to if the older guard knew that detail.
Owain answered with a shrug. “I haven’t even seen a human in months before him, Pipsqueak.”
“It depends on the human and their heritage. I suppose I should not expect you to know much about the topic, but most people that we call ‘humans’ in fact possess other bloodlines as well.” Veldin’s voice had taken on that haughty tone it usually did when he was giving a lecture on topics Misha did not know, something she was learning to ignore over these past few days. She idly nodded to appease him for now, though she made a note to ask more about human heritages once she finished her work for the evening. There were plenty of questions she wanted to ask Veldin including more about where he came from and the fact that he ate less food than Misha would expect from a species of his size. But asking questions of Veldin resulted in lectures and Misha wanted to ensure the camp's defenses were in place properly before such distractions.
Seeing that the perimeter around their camp looked to be complete, Misha searched through the supply pouch on her belt and pulled from it a small cloth bag. Opening the bag revealed a mixture of dried and crushed herbs, along with a stinging, pungent smell that harshly greeted Misha’s nose.
Veldin grimaced at the scent, and Misha responded, “It’s either this or risk being eaten up by insects while we sleep,” before beginning to scatter the contents of the bag over the ground.
“How either of you sleeps with the stench of those plants, I’ll never understand.”
Misha allowed Veldin his complaints and continued about her work. She paused for a moment, though, when Owain passed by her to tend to their evening meal over the campfire. Misha had been mulling over a certain subject over these past few days. Perhaps Owain would be the best person to bring it up to.
Once she’d tossed the last of the herb mixture to the ground and returned to the campfire, Misha took a seat on the ground between her companions. After a moment, while Owain prepared some skewered meat over the fire, Misha spoke up.
“Owain, why do you think my father was hesitant to send me with you?”
Veldin noticeably shifted his position away from Misha, making his disinterest in being involved in this topic clear.
“Hm?” Owain turned to Misha. “What do you mean? You’re still green at this, you only just finished your training. The forest isn’t all that safe for fresh faces, you know that.”
“No, I do,” Misha said with a nod. “It’s just… You said it yourself. He wouldn’t want his daughter out so far in the forest.”
Owain said nothing for a long moment, whiskers twitching briefly. “You think he’s playing favorites?”
“I–I don’t mean to phrase it like that, Owain. But what if he has biases? I’m not just another of the guard.”
“Hm.” Owain turned back to the food over the fire. “I can’t know what he thinks. I know he’s a good man, and I know he’s mortal just like you or me. He worries about you and Mikhail.”
“I know he does,” Misha said quietly. After a quick pause, she added, “Not that he has to worry about Mikhail going very far.”
Owain laughed. “Wrent means well, Pipsqueak, but he’s not perfect is what I’m saying. If you’re that worried about it, ask him.”
“I don’t… I don’t want him to think I’m blaming him for being a father, though.”
“You’d rather keep second-guessing, then?”
Misha hesitated to answer that. Owain had a point, she knew that. But how could she accuse her father of such a thing? Even if her suspicion were true, was it wrong for Wrent to feel that way? For that matter, could Misha act as if he were wrong for being reluctant to send her this deep into the forest? Of course not.
Misha pushed those questions to the back of her mind. She was overthinking this. There was a more important matter at hand, and she had to focus on that. “I’m sorry, Owain, I… I’ll think on it. Please just forget I brought it up for now–it’s not important.”
Owain nodded but said nothing. Once more, Misha told herself to put those questions away for the moment.
Misha awoke to the sound of a bell ringing. Instantly, she sat up from where she had been sleeping on the ground. How long had she gotten to sleep? Owain was already sitting up and looking around, his ears and tail raised and alert. He’d taken third watch of the night, so it had been several hours since the group had retired to sleep for the night.
Veldin stirred as well, and the wolf stood up, growling into the trees. Owain had maintained the fire, but its light did nothing to help Misha see what it was that the wolf was reacting to. She could only see some swaying of bushes and grass as if something had passed by.
Misha glanced to Veldin who squinted out into the darkness as well. Could he see anything, she wondered? She didn’t dare speak without knowing what had tripped the bell, however. No one did, both mousefolk instead reaching for their weapons.
Then the tree branches overhead shook. Misha aimed her bow and a drawn arrow upwards but saw nothing. The silence was broken finally when Veldin spoke, casting a spell as he stood quickly from the ground and outstretched a hand, palm facing upward. A sphere of the familiar light of his magic formed in his hand. Almost immediately it intensified into a bright sphere that more clearly illuminated the camp and the trees nearby. Misha saw what must have caught the bell.
Countless creatures clung to the sides of the trees and their branches while a few sat on the ground surrounding the group’s camp. The shapes of their bodies resembled salamanders or lizards larger than Misha. Each of them had tails that extended out for what must have been meters, wrapping around tree trunks and branches. The coloration of the creatures matched the dark colors the terrain had held before the light appeared, as if they had camouflaged into the darkness. The creatures hissed and recoiled for a moment at the light, and the guards did not hesitate. Arrows flew, Misha could just see her own strike one of the creatures in the side. It screeched in pain, as did another from Owain’s arrow.
The lizards began to scatter through the trees to flee, shrieking and making high-pitched wails as they did. Their colors shifted and once more they became invisible from sight–but not before the wolf leaped atop the back of one and bit down on the back of the creature’s head, ending its life right there.
Misha frantically tried to pinpoint the noises of the creatures skittering through grass and tree branches, but it became apparent quickly that they were moving away from the group.
Owain stood with his bowstring pulled taut and an arrow aimed out into the foliage before him. As the sounds faded, he said, “Those were fey.”
“Correct,” Veldin answered. “Veil lizards, a common enough variety. Carnivorous, but they typically prefer prey that won’t fight back.”
That couldn’t be right, Misha thought. “We’re not far enough in to hit fey territory yet.”
“And yet here they are.”
It was then that a new voice spoke. “I apologize. This was my fault.”
Fixated on the lizard fey, no one had noticed the new arrival that stood in the shadows at the edge of the light provided by Veldin’s spell. Save for the wolf, who had left his victim on the ground and turned his growls towards this figure instead.
“Halt!” Owain called out, he and Misha taking aim at this stranger.
“I have no intention of being shot by your mousefolk arrows, you needn’t worry.” Squinting into the shadows to see who it was that had approached, Misha saw a petite build wearing a simple dress or tunic of thin cloth. Draped over their back seemed at first to be some sort of cloak, but Misha quickly realized it was actually set of large wings like that of a moth. The figure’s eyes were large and round, a solid green color with a shape that resembled that of an insect. Two feathery antennae sprouted from their head amidst the grey hair that fell over their bare shoulders. Misha was looking at another fey creature.
Owain continued, “You sent those creatures after us, then?”
“I do apologize, as I said.” Despite the fey’s words and the gentle expression on their face, their voice was monotone with no inflection or anything else that might indicate emotion. It made for a bizarre combination. “They sought food, and it is my kind’s duty to obey their requests. Though, they will likely take some time to return after that.”
“Then you can leave now.”
“Oh.” The fey frowned. “No–since you all did not get eaten, I would ask for your help.”
Veldin narrowed his eyes at the fey. “You may not be familiar with this fact, but in mortal culture, offering someone up as a meal is not typically considered a way to earn their favor.”
At that comment, the fey looked almost offended, though their voice still lacked any expression. “I am not stupid. I brought the fey to you, but they have been moving out further to hunt and would have smelled you sooner or later. You smell delicious.”
Veldin visibly tensed at that.
“Not that I mean to eat you, but you are at risk. But you two,” the fey gestured to Misha and Owain, “your kind live in this forest. You do not want it to leave, do you?”
Misha exchanged a confused look with Owain and asked, “What do you mean?”
“There is corruption in the forest’s heart.”
“In the… heart?” Misha did not understand what that meant. “When you say corruption… Have you found a piece of a Dragon’s scale here?”
“A scale?” The fey fell silent for several seconds, seemingly in thought, then answered, “Something of darkness fell into the forest’s heart. Now the heart moves. We fear it will leave and take the forest with it.”
Vague as that answer was, that certainly sounded like what the group was looking for. “I don’t understand, though. What is the forest’s heart?”
The fey looked at the trees surrounding the group. “I will explain, but it is not safe to talk here long. This animal, this wolf is guiding you, yes?”
The wolf’s growling had grown quieter as the conversation had continued, and now it stopped entirely. The animal only stared at the fey now, remaining firm in place.
“You figured that out quick enough,” Owain said, though he did not lower his bow. “Faster than our arcanist’s figured anything out about the furry fellow, anyway. Veldin shot an offended glare at Owain who responded with a short chuckle and, “Well, it’s true, that’s all.”
“If you’re going to insult anyone, it preferably shouldn’t be one of the people you aren’t threatening with an arrow…”
The fey smiled at the exchange and said, “I do not intend to hurt any of you. My kind cannot defend ourselves; we are servants. But we can give you safety for the night if you would like. I do hope you will help the forest.” With that, they turned and began walking away into the darkness.
“Wait, hold on!” Misha called out after them, then looked at her allies.
“Servant or not, they tried to make us into a meal,” Owain said.
Despite that, Veldin began to walk forward, as did the wolf. “You’re free to return to your village. The terms were that you escort me as far as you reasonably can, that is all.”
Thought was evident on Owain’s face. He sighed. “You want to follow them, right, Pipsqueak?”
“Well…” Misha nodded. “Veldin’s irresponsible, he might die without us.” It was her turn now to earn a glare from Veldin who was not yet out of earshot.
Owain laughed. “Right, right, I get it. Douse the fire quickly, let’s not get left behind.”
The fey moved gracefully through the forest foliage, leading Misha and her companions along. Veldin had been hesitant to maintain the light spell at the risk of attracting more attention. Instead, Misha relied on her whiskers and her hearing to find a safe path in the pitch-black night.
“Do fey have names?” Misha asked as she climbed over a large rock.
“I am Sie,” the fey responded.
That had been the only question Misha had asked of them. She considered asking more, but if Sie was truthfully guiding the group to safe shelter, the questions could wait.
Suddenly, Sie spoke up in the darkness. “Wait a moment.” There was the sound of rustling grass followed by a light knocking, and Misha had the distinct impression that Sie had tapped their hand on the side of a tree. Then a light appeared, giving Misha some vision of the scene.
She had been right that it was a tree. Sie stood in front of it, and in the trunk had been carved a tall hole like a doorway. A very round and misshapen doorway which should have revealed the hollowed interior of the tree. Instead, Misha saw only a blue light spilling forth like sunlight through a window, stinging her eyes after the darkness she’d been walking through.
“And what is that?” Owain asked, understandably wary of the fey’s magic. He stood just close enough that the light outlined his figure and grey fur.
“The path home,” Sie answered. “Where my people live.”
“The fey wants us to follow through a hole in a tree,” Owain muttered.
Misha leaned forward a bit to see what was inside the tree hollow aside from the light. Inside, however, she saw nothing. The blue glow prevented her from even seeing the tree’s inner walls.
“Are you certain this isn’t a sort of trap?” Veldin asked bluntly, and the fey shook their head.
“We hide our home here. The other fey eat us if we don’t do well at serving them, but this makes us safer.”
That statement went by so quickly that Misha almost didn’t catch it. “They eat you?”
Sie nodded. “Come along.”
The wolf, apparently losing interest in the conversation, stepped forward and padded up to the tree with no hesitation. The hole was raised just a bit off the ground and the wolf stepped up easily to climb inside, vanishing into the blue light.
“Well, our guide thinks it’s legitimate,” Misha said. Veldin nodded before he too stepped into the light of the tree, prompting the mousefolk to follow. Owain was more reluctant about the experience than Misha.
At first the light was blinding, and Misha only saw the vibrant blue. She squinted, trying as hard as she could to make out something but not even the shapes of her companions could be made out. She knew Owain had just been beside her and she reached out to find him. Panic swelled in her chest when her hand meant only empty air and she thought to call out Owain or Veldin’s names. But then, all at once, the light faded. Misha blinked spots from her eyes, realizing that the tree had vanished as well.
Before Misha was no longer the dark of the nighttime forest. Instead, she stood in an open area where plentiful colorful flowers sprouted amongst the grass. Here and there, taller flowers rose meters into the air, the huge petals at the top glowing with colorful light that provided a clear view of this place. Stone buildings were scattered about, most of them dilapidated and covered in moss and vines like it had long been abandoned. Despite the terrible condition of the buildings, several more moth-like fey much like Sie wandered about, some walking in and out of the buildings and others sleeping in the grass or tending to flowers. Some of them turned to look at the new arrivals with curious expressions, but none approached.
Each of Misha’s companions were present and accounted for, taking in their surroundings. Misha felt relief wash over her.
“This is where your kind live, then?” Veldin asked, and Misha realized Sie had come up behind the group. Looking back at the fey, the group stood in front of a tall and ornate metal gate that was rusted and covered in greenery much like the buildings. Cobblestone walls extended out from the gate and encircled the makeshift village as a border, though parts of them were crumbling and allowed easy view to the land beyond. Above this village and beyond the walls, darkness returned.
But this was not the nighttime darkness of the rest of the forest. Here, Misha saw only solid blackness. No trees, no noises from insects and other animals of the night. No stars or moon above with the lack of treetops, no clouds. There was a sense of wrongness in that, though Misha could not put how into words. It was simply a feeling that came to her as she stared into that void. A feeling that brought about a distant sense of panic in her chest.
“Where… Where is this?” Misha asked. She was unable to hide the caution in her voice as she looked out beyond the stone border. Perhaps, she thought, it would be best not to keep looking out there.
“Home. Our garden,” Sie answered in their monotone voice, a contrastingly cheerful smile plastered on their face. “The other fey wander the forest at night. It’s not safe for you to stay out there.”
“We used to be able to traverse at least this far into the forest without risk of running into fey,” Owain said. “What’s changed?”
“As I said, the forest’s heart moves. If the forest leaves, we fey will need to find a new home, so others have begun to move as well. But my kind does not want to. We will have to leave the garden to find a new one, and that will make us vulnerable to the others until we do.”
“And then they might eat you if you don’t please them, right.”
Sie nodded. “But, if you find the corruption you seek, we may not need to leave. Here, this way.” Without waiting for any further response, they walked towards one of the crumbling stone buildings and opened the door. The wood of the door was warped, and it seemed to be hanging on to its hinges only by a miracle.
“Did your people make these buildings?” Misha asked.
“No, they’ve been here since before the forest.”
“Before… Before the forest?”
“Yes.” Without elaborating further, Sie gestured into the doorway, allowing their guests to enter the building before them. Misha was surprised to find that the interior was almost entirely empty. The only exceptions were several piles of colorful woven cloth bunched up around the floor. Sie smiled and said, “This is my home. You all may stay here this night. Make yourselves comfortable.”
The wolf obliged, padding over to a pile, and circling over it a few times before lying down with an unceremonious plop onto the floor, letting out a relaxed groan. Misha approached him, picking up the end of one of the cloths and inspecting it. It seemed to be made of silk.
“Do you like them?” Sie asked, and Misha turned to see that the fey was smiling with a proud expression. Even their voice managed to have a hint of joyful pride as they said, “I made them myself. My dress as well.”
“Oh, yes, they’re lovely,” Misha said, though she quickly began to wonder where Sie hid their tools in such an empty building.
In the meantime, Veldin settled for leaning against a nearby wall, looking disdainfully down at the ‘seating’ arrangements provided while Owain remained where he was.
“You said you would give us a proper explanation, then,” Veldin said.
Sie sat atop a pile of cloth, their moth wings shaking a bit as if stretching, and they nodded. “Yes. The heart. I suppose it makes sense that mortals do not know–you all have such short lives. This forest was not always here. Long ago the land was empty. Grass, yes, but no trees. Emerald did plant forests, but Ruby often burned them.”
Ruby. There was a name Misha had not heard in some time. Of the Dragons, the people of her village only had reason to ever speak of Emerald and sometimes Opal, but never Ruby the Red Dragon.
“Ruby eventually grew bored of his squabbles with Emerald, however, and left,” Sie continued, “but by then Emerald had also grown bored of planting new forests for a while. She had taken a liking to the plains beyond this land. That left this land empty when we fey found your world.”
“You don’t come from… this world, then?” Misha asked, head tilting in curiosity. This was the first she’d heard of anything of the sort.
Sie smiled. “Of course not. We come from the True Home, where our great queen lives. Much like the Dragons, some of us chose to travel here and see this world. Some of us liked it and stayed.”
“O-oh, I… I see.” Misha glanced at her companions, her fellow mousefolk returning her confused expression while Veldin seemed fully unperturbed by this news. Perhaps this was common knowledge outside of the Orchard Forest.
“The queen did not want to leave her home, mind you, but she did want to see a beautiful garden grow here. So, she asked her servants–that would be my kind, by the way,” once more Sie’s voice sounded, ever so slightly, genuinely proud over that comment, “to take a seed to this world and plant it. That is the forest’s heart. The first flower planted in the queen’s garden.”
“So,” Owain spoke up, “you’re saying this entire forest we live in is… Some fey royalty’s garden?”
“Yes! The forest’s heart was the first, but it helped so many other beautiful plants grow here over the years.” Sie’s smile faded as they continued onto the next part, however. “But… But other fey plants do not grow easily on their own in this world, as we’ve learned since then. The forest’s heart is powerful since it is from our wonderful queen, but if it were not here, this forest would not remain.
“The forest’s heart has been moving lately. A dark power has turned it cruel and allowed it to leave from here. It will take the forest with it.”
Take the forest with it. Misha tried to picture what it was that Sie meant. She felt her throat tighten a bit as she forced out the words, “So… So, if the forest’s heart leaves, then… The Orchard Forest withers?”
Sie simply nodded.
There was a beat of silence as everyone allowed that thought to sink in. The Orchard Forest–the home Misha and her people had known for generations–may simply die.
Veldin was the one to break that silence, but only with a question that added more weight to the already grave speculation. “If what you say is true, Sie, then that means the flower is being mutated into something monstrous, as is anything in its vicinity. What do you suppose that means for new life that spawns from the heart?”
“New life spawned from corruption…” Sie’s words were almost a whisper, their demeanor solemn now. Their statement did not answer the question, but it did not need to.
Misha’s blood ran cold. The very thing that supplied life to the forest and spawned new plants would be creating monsters. She knew little in the ways of magic, but she had seen and heard enough to understand what sort of disaster would be at hand if an entire forest of those things sprung up. Could even the very flowers and trees be mutated in such a way by that dark power? She shook her head, clearing away the thought, and said, “We have to stop it!”
Sie’s smile returned, but there was a lingering melancholy behind it. “Please. Our kind are servants, we have no way to defend ourselves or cure the heart. We cannot rely on the other fey as they will not listen to us. You mortals are the only ones I can reach out to for help.”
Owain nodded. His previous apprehension in dealing with this fey had faded since the start of this discussion, and his voice was firm. “I understand. It’s our home as much as it is yours. But can we cure it of the corruption if it’s already been mutated?”
Veldin answered the question quickly, and for an instant he seemed almost eager, “We can. Perhaps not immediately, but Lady Elcevier is researching a way to cure it. If we retrieve the shard from the flower, I may be able to stop the corruption from spreading until then.”
For once, the confident and haughty tone in Veldin’s voice was a relief to Misha. There was a chance to save the forest. “We’ll do it, then! We’ll support you so we can help the forest’s heart–uh, I mean, if Owain thinks we should.”
Owain gave a warm chuckle, looking at Misha. “Of course, we will, Pipsqueak. We’re not losing our home.”