A howl split through the air, jolting Misha out of her slumber. The sound was distant, looming somewhere beyond, but it did not sound right. It seemed almost hollow and distorted in a way.
Within the confines of the stone walls that made up Sie’s home, the grey wolf leaped to his feet. He growled and barked as if the sound had enraged him, and he bolted through the door which provided no resistance to the animal shoving it open. Whatever miracle kept it on its hinges persisted and the door swung back and forth with the momentum.
Owain hopped up to his feet from the pile of cloth he had slept on. “What’s happening now?” he muttered, though Misha was already running past him and out of the door. She’d moved so quickly to catch up with the wolf that she only barely noticed Veldin already awake and sitting up against the room’s back wall, staring out the hole carved in the wall that made up a window.
“Wolf!” Misha called out, not having anything more specific to address the animal as. “What is it?!” Sprinting out the door, she saw the wolf had stopped in front of the village’s gate. His fur bristled, and he barked in fury at the continuing darkness beyond. Several of the fey were standing outside of their respective buildings, staring at the animal, and whispering to each other in a language Misha did not recognize.
Misha ran to the wolf’s side. “Do you know what that howl was?”
The wolf did not respond to her, fangs bared as if expecting something to come from the gate at any moment. Misha looked out into the empty expanse. Nothing moved. There were no signs of life. Everything was still just as dark as when she and her companions had arrived here. She had no way of knowing how long she had slept, but she felt rested enough.
Owain approached, catching up to the pair. Misha finally spotted Veldin exiting the doorway of the building as well, though he certainly looked like he could have used more sleep. He was pale with dark rings under his eyes, though there was no time for any comment about that.
“I don’t like the sounds of… whatever that was,” Owain said, addressing Veldin and the fey that stood nearby. “Where is this place? How close can that thing be?”
A pair of fey murmured to each other in their language, then one of them answered, “Our home is nowhere. Only other fey can find it if they know what to look for.”
That was similar to what Sie had said the night before. Misha had asked, first, about what they did in this place when their buildings seemed to be empty and Sie had responded, “There is nothing here.” When Misha had asked about the darkness beyond the gate, Sie had repeated, more firmly despite their otherwise monotone voice, “There is nothing here. Do not look too long into the space beyond.” After that, Misha had thought it best not to ask about that topic any further.
“Whatever made that sound is another fey of some sort, you mean,” Veldin elaborated, his voice groggy.
It was then that Sie appeared, hurriedly running out of another building with a bundle of silk fibers in their arms. “Mortal friends,” they said, “The heart is near.”
“The heart?” Misha could scarcely believe she heard that correctly. She could not deny that the heart was of fey origin, but for it to make that sound? “But the heart is a flower– “
“Yet that sound accompanies it since it has become corrupted,” Sie insisted. They gestured to the wolf, “This one understands.”
Owain gripped his bow tightly in one hand, stepping towards the gate where the wolf still growled and snapped relentlessly. “Then, let’s go stop it. How do we leave this place, Sie?”
Sie nodded and walked to the wolf’s side, reaching out a hand to the metal of the gate and holding their bundle of silks in the other. They traced their fingers gently along the metal surface, tracing small shapes with their fingertips. “We’re relying on you all to save our forest. Please.”
Misha nodded. “Of course.”
With that response, Sie completed whatever shape they were tracing, and the metal gate swung open seemingly on its own into the darkness. A line of blue light appeared then, floating in the air in the middle of the gate. The line stretched, widening, quickly reshaping itself into a tall, round circle of blue light. A portal not at all unlike the tree that Misha had stepped through the night before.
No sooner than the portal opened did the wolf run forward into the light, vanishing from view before anyone had a chance to say anything or otherwise react. Sie turned to look at the three mortals. “Goodbye. I wish you luck.”
“Let’s go before we lose him,” Owain said, running forward with no sign of the hesitation he had shown the last time he stepped through the portal. Misha followed right after, pausing just long enough to glance back at Veldin. His visible exhaustion was reason for concern, but the man seemed to be holding up well enough and was following. That out of her mind, Misha dove through the portal. Once more she was blinded by the blue light.
As soon as the light faded, Misha took off in a sprint. The wolf had already vanished from sight, but she could hear him snarling up ahead somewhere in the foliage, paws pounding against dirt. She could hear Owain to her side, though his path through the grass and between trees obscured him from view at moments. Misha could hear Veldin’s more difficult movement through the forest, struggling to keep up. She would make sure not to leave the man behind, but she needed to find the wolf.
And she wondered why those sounds were all she heard. Now that she ran, she saw just enough streams of light breaking through the treetops to know that it was morning despite the bizarre lighting of the fey village. So, there should have been birds or squirrels or even just insects. Had the wolf startled all of them?
Misha could still hear the wolf's growling up ahead as she dashed in the direction he had disappeared to. And she was the first to catch up to the animal just as the growls gave way to pained yelps.
Misha skidded to a halt with her nails in the dirt. She saw another wolf, this one smaller and with brilliant white fur, standing with its back to her. Its attention was fixed on the grey wolf who lay on the ground, panting heavily and bleeding from a freshly torn wound in his shoulder, bandages torn and shredded. Sprouting from the blood on the guide wolf’s shoulder, Misha saw plant fibers like roots stretching forth and trying to burrow into the animal’s flesh.
They were not unlike the flower that sprouted from between the white wolf’s shoulders. It reminded Misha of the flower-headed deer, but this one was different. Huge petals were layered over one another like the petals of a giant water lily or chrysanthemum. Each of the petals was translucent, almost like glass, what little light that pierced the treetops reflecting off them in rainbows of color. It would almost have been beautiful, like a delicate sculpture, if not for the red-stained roots that pierced into the white wolf’s back.
Misha could not stop herself from uttering a whisper of, “What…” at that sight, not sure if her reaction was one of horror at the grotesque scene or of awe at the flower’s beauty. Was this it? Was this the forest’s heart that the fey queen had sent to this world?
Misha became acutely aware of the sounds of Owain catching up to her just as the white wolf turned its head to face the pair. It did not growl or snarl. It did not bare its fangs. It simply stared at them, no reaction visible in its stance as excess roots extended from its back and writhed about just as they had for the deer creature.
Despite the creature’s lack of reaction, Misha needed no second-guessing to know it was hostile. She drew her bow and aimed it as Owain released an arrow of his own. With lightning reflexes, one of the vines struck at the arrow and ripped it right out of the air. Misha's arrow followed immediately after, but met the same fate.
Then the wolf moved forward, its body lumbering at first before breaking into a run, like it needed a moment to properly control its own movements. It leaped forward. Misha and Owain both dived to the side, avoiding the initial attack, only for Misha to realize vines and roots were lashing out towards her from the flower. She rolled away, narrowly escaping the grasping vines.
Owain shouted, and Misha looked up to see he had not been so lucky. He struggled as roots wrapped around his neck and others tentatively brushed over his body like they were examining him. An image flashed through Misha’s mind of what this creature had done to the wolf. She couldn’t let it do the same to Owain. She was too close to aim her bow and so ran towards the creature, drawing her dagger from her belt. She slashed with the weapon, aiming for a leg. At the last moment, there was a movement at the edge of Misha’s vision, and something reached out to grab the blade of her weapon.
Misha stepped away just in time to see that they were vines and branches reaching out from the surrounding trees. The very trees and plants moved of their own accord, forcing Misha away from the wolf’s body as they swiped at her, lashing out and trying to grab at her in a flurry of leaves and thorns. The green of leaves and brown of bark rushed across her vision while she ducked and weaved between them.
The ground shifted beneath the wolf’s paws, glowing with the light Misha had hoped to see at any moment. Off to the side, she could see Veldin had caught up to the scene, his focus honed on the creature with hands outstretched and performing the movements that accompanied his magic.
The wolf shifted its paws about as it tried to understand what was happening to the ground beneath it. Its paws sank and became buried in the dirt, hindering its movement. The creature still did not react. Instead, it continued to stare down at the ground as if studying the sight.
“Veldin! How do we stop it?!” Misha shouted as she leaped between animated trees and circled the white wolf, her eyes drawn to Owain as he tried to pull himself free from the grip of the flower’s roots.
Veldin’s eyes flickered over the creature’s form. It took him longer than Misha hoped for him to answer, “If… If we kill the body, perhaps– “
In that instant, the glow of the flower intensified. There was a flash of movement in the trees near Veldin now. Misha tried to shout out a warning, but before the words could leave her mouth, vines launched out from the branches towards the man like projectile weapons. Some of them grasped at his arm and others lashed at him with enough force to strike a wound in his chest and shoulder, blood spattering out with the force.
Veldin staggered back as much as the plants gripping him would allow, a shout of pain escaping his throat. Immediately, the white wolf ripped its paws free from the ground as Veldin’s focus on the spell broke. The wolf fixed its gaze now on Veldin.
Misha ducked under several tree branches that bent and stretched out towards her, using her small stature to slip underneath them and make a run for the wolf. Just as she drew close enough, more of the flower’s roots whipped out at her from the wolf’s back and grabbed her. She was horrified as she saw the creature throw Owain to the side, slamming him hard into a tree. Then for a moment, everything went black, and she could only remember pain.
Misha blinked. She was on the ground, and pain throbbed throughout her body. Her head hurt and her arms trembled as she pushed herself back up to stand. She felt the warmth of blood dripping down the side of her head. A vague memory of impacting something floated in the back of her mind and she had the distinct impression she had been tossed aside much like…
“Owain!” Misha shouted, seeing her senior lying on the ground by the tree he had crashed into. He did not move and panic flooded Misha’s chest. She didn’t have time to check if Owain was still breathing.
The grey wolf still lay bleeding on the ground. Further ahead, the plants had knocked Veldin to the ground. In a desperate struggle for survival, he had conjured some sort of light like a shield or a wall around himself. It was the only thing that stood between him and the wolf, as well as the plants that had been animated. Near Misha and Owain, nothing moved, perhaps because they had seemed to no longer be a threat. Instead, the plants surrounding Veldin writhed about menacingly under the flower’s command, and the wolf slammed a huge paw down on the wall of light. A crack appeared in the wall and Veldin flinched.
“No…” Misha ran forward. Her friends were going to die here if she didn’t do something now. Her hand found its way to her dagger, though she did not know if she picked it up from the ground in her panic or if it had been in her grip all along. She ran forward and came to a sudden halt behind the white wolf. She swung the blade out, aiming to slice at the animal’s hind leg, letting loose a great scream of fury as she did.
A root caught the dagger, much like before. But that was fine. Misha had caught the creature’s attention. It stopped its assault on Veldin’s shield spell and turned, even the plants shifting as if their gaze fell once more on the small mousefolk that dared to interrupt their master’s attempt to reach its prey.
"Veldin! Hold it still like the last one!" Misha shouted. Veldin glanced at her with apprehension in his expression, then focused on the lumbering creature before him. In moments, with the words of magic he usually used, he allowed the wall to fade, and the shimmer of light Misha had seen before reappeared. Much like last time, the flower’s movements slowed until its appendages hung limply from the wolf’s back. Along with it, the trees and greenery of the forest ceased their movement, returning to their resting positions as if nothing had disturbed them. The wolf, however, remained standing.
Veldin suddenly spoke, his voice clipped from focus, "There are two minds."
Two minds. Misha had already connected that the forest followed the flower’s orders, but that it had its own mind had not occurred to her. Did that mean it was separate from the wolf?
Though the wolf did not fall, it remained in place. It only stared on ahead, past Misha. She took the opening, lunging forward and plunging her dagger into the animal’s chest. She felt the dagger’s blade pushed out of the wound by muscles and flesh knitting shut. Misha should have expected that after the deer. She drew back to strike once more when the wolf let out a whine. It was a sorrowful sound, distorted and hollow in the same ways the howl from earlier had been. Misha hesitated to strike again, doubt suddenly creeping into her mind. This wolf was still alive. Could it feel the pain her blade had inflicted on it?
The wolf walked forward in that moment, past Misha. Misha struggled to command her limbs, the thought of the animal’s suffering bringing unwelcome hesitation to her. She turned to follow the wolf when she realized where it was going, and what its gaze had fixed on. The grey wolf on the ground.
Misha began to shout, to run forward to intercept the two. She halted suddenly when the white wolf let out a second whine. With that sound, Misha understood. It was not a sound of pain, but one of concern. Of mourning, perhaps.
The grey wolf struggled to lift his head as the white-furred one stumbled towards him. As the two finally met, the white wolf lowered its snout, licking the side of the grey one’s face. It then lifted its head back, letting loose the wretched, sorrowful howl from before. The grey wolf did the same, though his own howl was weak and tired, barely matching that of the white one who stood before him.
Misha understood. The first howl had not been a coincidence. These wolves meant something to one another, sought each other. Her heart sunk as her eyes met those of the wolf who had guided her and her companions here. “I… I have to kill them,” she whispered.
“M-Misha!” Veldin shouted. “Hurry!”
Misha saw the faintest signs of life returning to the flower. The roots twitched so slightly that she almost missed it. Around her, she could hear tree bark snapping and twisting as branches writhed once more, and the sounds of leaves rustling against one another. She had to hurry–but she could not end this white wolf’s life. She knew that. It had taken the fury of a huge, angered animal to kill the last creature like this. Her dagger and bow meant nothing against its regenerative magic, and she could not rely on Veldin’s spells to keep the flower at bay forever. When it regained control, the forest would spring to life once more.
The flower controlled the wolf. The flower controlled the forest. Once more, Misha’s eyes fell to the plant-ridden wound on the grey wolf’s shoulder. She had to act. There was no other choice.
Misha ran forward with the dagger in hand, climbing atop the white wolf’s shoulder. It gave no resistance, allowing her to climb to its back where the flower sat. This close, even amidst the vibrant hues of the flower’s petals, Misha saw a glint of something darker mixed in. She did not have the time to worry about that. For a moment, a voice in the back of her mind realized what she was about to do but could not catch up to her body or her survival instinct. The white wolf lowered its head. Misha thrust the dagger directly into the flower.
The flower itself let out a wail, though where the sound could have come from Misha could not know. She forced the dagger further through the petals, ripping through the plant. There was resistance much like when she had attacked the wolf, but even as the plant tried to heal itself, petals and roots tore apart more easily than flesh and muscle. Misha refused to let her weapon be pushed back, using all the strength she could muster to pierce further into the plant. Then it ceased its struggle. The forest grew quiet then. Beneath Misha, the white wolf shifted, then swayed, then fell.
Misha hopped to the ground as the white wolf collapsed, then turned to look at it. It did not move or breathe. Misha turned to the grey wolf, eyes meeting. Misha opened her mouth to say something. “I…” She did not know what to say.
"Misha," Veldin said, approaching the scene. His voice was stern as he stared at the dead animal and flower, a stoic look in his eyes. "Step away from that thing, now."
Misha glanced down at the withered flower on the white wolf’s back. The ‘something darker’ she had spotted before–a small shape like a rock with a sickly purple color lay nestled in the flower, embedded into the petals. From it, similar sickly colors spread out across the flower’s petals, reaching out towards Misha herself.
She hopped back, recognizing the danger for what it was. Veldin ran to the flower and the wolf’s corpse, kneeling beside it and placing a hand on one petal.
“Wait–Veldin, is that safe?” Misha asked.
“As long as I know what I’m doing. Which I do. This will take time.” Quietly, he recited the words of a spell.
Misha allowed herself a single apprehensive moment to watch Veldin set to work. To look at the dead flower she had struck down. Had she just–
She shook her head to clear away the thought. Now wasn’t the time. Owain. Owain was hurt, the wolf was hurt. Misha wiped away a streak of blood that threatened to run down her face and over her eye. Then she hurried to the older mousefolk's side. It relieved her to see him stir and slowly push himself up from the ground with one arm.
“P… Pipsqueak…?” Owain muttered, looking around the area with a dazed expression. “Where’s–what happened? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, Owain, I’m fine.” Misha leaned closer to Owain to inspect his injuries. Some of his fur and skin had been scraped away along the side of his head and shoulder where he’d hit the tree, and his other arm hung limply. There was no sign of… Of what the white wolf had done to the group’s guide, though.
Misha cast a look over to the grey wolf.
“I’m well enough to sit here for a moment,” Owain said, his attention drifting over to the white wolf’s corpse and the dead flower.
“Right…” Misha made her way to the animal who had guided her and her companions here. As she did, she avoided looking at the white wolf and Veldin. She could not bring herself to look at that scene at the moment.
When Misha reached the group’s guide animal, she did not meet his gaze either. That was easier, as the wolf had returned his head to the ground, too lethargic to respond any further. The wound on his shoulder still bled, and the roots from before were still easily visible. Dug into the wound looked like a large plant seed, the source of the roots that sprouted from it. Misha examined the wound, trying to understand what she was looking at, then said, "I'm going to cut it out."
She opened the supply pack on her belt, checking that she had bandages and elthorne leaves at the ready. Dagger in hand, she brought the edge to the seed and the roots. The blade cut easily through the plant matter and Misha quickly severed the seed from the roots, tossing it to the side. The wolf whined in pain, but Misha grabbed her supplies and quickly set to cleaning and treating the wound.
"It will not kill you. I won't allow it after what you've done for us," Misha said. “After… After all of this.”
Once she'd wrapped the wolf's fresh injury as best as it would be, Misha looked back to Owain and then to Veldin who apparently had finished whatever he had been doing in the meantime. In his hand, he held the thing that had previously been lodged within the flower’s petals. A small white stone with blotches of dark purple coloration.
"That what I hope it is after all of this trouble?" Owain asked, gazing at the stone. Misha realized 'stone' was the wrong word for the jagged, flat thing as Veldin pulled a cloth from inside of his coat and wrapped it around the object.
"That's the shard?" Misha asked.
Veldin nodded. "I needed to subdue its corrupted power. It will not trouble us any further, so long as we take proper precautions." With that, he slipped the shard into a pocket in his coat.
"Then–then it’s no longer a threat." Misha wanted relief to wash over her. She wanted to feel joy that they'd stopped the threat to the forest. But the flower still lay dead. “Veldin… Veldin, Owain, what did I do?” There was a despair that crept into her voice, a horror at what she had done as she could not force the thought away for any longer. She had killed the flower that was supposed to be the heart of the forest.
After a moment of dreadful silence, Veldin spoke.
"Misha, Owain." He gazed down at the ground. Misha did as well. Blades of grass at the white wolf's body were wilting.
"W-wait, wait..." Misha stared at the grass. It was not simply wilting, but before her very eyes, she could see that the blades of grass were dying, drying out in a patch that spread just quickly enough to be noticeable. "Wait, no, I..."
"What is this?" Owain stood from the ground, walking closer to investigate the sight as well. Behind him, the grey wolf that had led the group this far, at last, forced himself onto his legs. His head and tail hung low as he looked first at the grass and then at the white wolf’s corpse. He lowered his head to nuzzle the body with his snout, then raised his head back to let loose one more sorrowful howl. Misha watched, wondering whether this one was for the other wolf or the forest.
Both were dead now. Misha’s blade had ended them both.