Chapter 1: Prologue
Your day began early.
Waking up, you quietly slipped out of bed and stripped off your nightclothes. The fireplace was close, and you didn’t feel as cold as the soles of your feet. Pulling out a pair of trousers and a shirt from your drawer while unable to see in the darkness, you fidgeted around until you found all the holes to stick your limbs through, quietly as to not wake someone else in the room. Wool socks and a pullover on your body, you felt like you could even resist the worst cold there was in winter. Without bothering to look into the mirror, you braided and tugged your hair into place, making it suitable for the adventure that you were about to partake.
Quietly you went over to your mom who was peacefully sleeping in her bed and kissed her cheek. She sighed in her dreams, patting your arm before turning around to catch up on some more minutes before your siblings would wake up too, an event you wouldn’t be attending today. What she would think about what you were about to do? Would she scold you, or would she be proud? Well, you weren’t going to linger to find out, so much was sure.
Excited, you fastened your belt, slung your old, leather bag over your shoulders and reached for the warm cloak that hung on a hook. You were hoping it would keep you alive in the mist and sunless country around your village later. Hoping, it would help to defend you if something were to go wrong.
As quietly as you could, you went down the stairs, the wood creaking mercilessly under your feet, into the kitchen. Filling a glass with water from the day prior, you quickly downed it before opening up the clay vessel that kept the bread soft in it. One bite for now, a quarter loaf for later. You checked that there was still enough bread inside for the others when they woke up, but luck was yours on that day, so you put your portion of bread into your bag and coated yourself in the warm cloak, by pulling it around your shoulders.
The wooden door let out a squeak when you opened it, so you only managed a gap, hurriedly squeezing through as you feared to wake someone up, and closing it behind you. Almost immediately you were hit by the shivering cold that seemed to envelop you, downright capturing you in its windy palm. But you were used to it, and though you shivered at first, pulling up the cloak to your chin and tightening it helped with the gusts of wind that seemed to pick up now that you had left your save and warm home.
Under you, the still cold and hard ground made thumping sounds, when you stepped on it, but you doubted that anyone would hear. And even if, you would be gone long before they would get out of their comfortable beds anyway. You knew your ways around the village as good as the back of your hand. Which, in hindsight, wasn’t that big of an achievement as you had spent all your life in it after all.
Every house was as familiar as your own, and you still remembered all those times in your childhood that you village-children had spent running around in- and outside of them. Even if you remembered those times fondly, after thinking them over and over for years, they weren’t the best for you after all. You had always been the odd one out of the bunch and to say that hadn’t left an impression on you by now was a blunt lie.
But at least, it gave you the advantage of knowing your way around. You knew which dog owner to avoid so you’d not have to face a yapping snout that very morning, and you knew which garden you could cross to skip taking the long walk around someone’s home. It had no effect aside from making it a little easier to get out of the village.
To go out of the village… you had never.
Thought about it, sure. But from the moment you were born, you had been told to not stray away. To not leave. To not enter the forest. No, you didn’t even know what laid beyond the tall, green trees that surrounded the valley where your village was located. Should you have been mad or frustrated? Who knew, but it was too normal for you to complain. Yet, here you were, sneaking by the guard at the village gates, who was snoring lightly with his eyes closed. You weren’t going to wake him for sure.
Wasn’t sneaking out and doing something forbidden typically done in the early stages of life? When the children were still naive and challenging rules? The thought lingered in your mind for a while as you followed the mud path that slowly, but surely lead you up the hill towards the forest. Maybe, if you had had friends to do that with, you would have explored it much sooner. Then your heart would have had no reason to jump so loudly in your chest.
Or maybe it was just the fear of breaking the rules. Excitement and adrenaline aside, you had always obeyed to what the elders told you. ‘Do not question our words’ was as holy of a sentence to your people as was wine to the guards. And for so long, you had followed this religiously. Who were you to disobey anyway? Just a youngster on the run to find some meaning in your life after all.
But there were times in life when you had come to realize that enough was enough. There were other things bothering you more than that you had no partner in marriage yet. Or that you weren’t as popular in the village as many others who excelled in things like farming horseradish. Or sewing. Or making firewood. You believed there were more important things out there than that or the fact that your father had left your family behind to find his luck in the world.
Standing outside the forest, you took a few deep breaths, looking back down at the sleepy village. The usual misty gray fog hung heavy over the houses, though you made out the first few lights in the windows as the town seemed to awake. Who would have thought that it was so hard to climb a hill? And who would have known that the old, rustical village could actually look nice from so high up? No matter how much you despised some parts of your life in the town, it almost looked pretty. If not secluded and lonely at the same time.
Slowly, you felt yourself come back to breath, lungs filling with air as well as determination.
You couldn’t have known what awaited you in the depths of the forest. And even if you had a goal in mind that you wanted to achieve, you could not know about if you’d succeed or not. But instead of pretending like everything was alright, and the village would surely be okay like some of your elders, you felt the need to do something. To actually act, even if it was on the whim of a feeling in your stomach.
There was a threat looming over the misty town you called your home, and if no one was willing to take it seriously, then you had to take that burden.
No matter what lured behind the gray fog.
Chapter 2: Adventures in the Green
Humming your old lullaby, you let your fingers glide through the thick bushes all around you. You weren’t scared of getting stung by a thorn or waking up some insects that could jump you. In fact, you weren’t scared at all.
The forest was idyllic if anything. You had expected a lot more than the fresh air, the vivid greenery around you, and the colorful flowers that peaked out every now and then on your path. If what your elders had always told you had been right, then you would have encountered hoards of monsters and wolves already, chasing you off steep cliffs and into deep, dark blue rivers. But there was none of it. An occasional deer roaming about, rocks you stumbled over the first time but not the second, and mellow streams of water, thick as your finger at best, popping up every now and then.
Though one thing was true. Just like they had always told you, the path you were on was uneven and overgrown by vines and moss. Only ever vague patches of dirt showed you, you were even still following it, not an easy task for someone who had no idea about how to keep track in a forest. But you did your best, that was all that counted after all. Fact was, no one had used this path in a long time, and if you remembered correctly, you had never encountered someone coming from the forest either, so it made a lot of sense. But once, there must have been people passing through here, you figured. Even if it was a long time ago.
Only after a few hours into your adventure, you finally noticed something strange. While your village was always clouded in some variation of fog, and you had seen the gray rise before you entered the forest too, right now, there was nothing like that to be found. Through the gaps in the tree crowns, you made out a tender blue sky, rays of light shining down on your path. Wind graced through the lush green leaves of the plants all around you, and through your hair, kissing the back of your neck. Funnily, it was more strange to you that there was no fog in the forest than having never lived a day in a sunny village. Alas, it was something you noticed, not minded.
All your life you had spent in the village, between old people and the ones born in the same year as you. Not all your friends had always stayed ‘friends’ but you still hung around them a whole lot. A necessity, considering the rites of your village. All the days you had spent back at home had been mostly the same, with the occasional conflict in it, but overall dull and gray like the ever so prominent fog. Somehow vividly, you remembered the days when your dad had still resided with you and your mom. He had taught you how to plant seeds and draw a bow. How to fend off annoying people and so much more useful things that made your life a little better. Those were good days, really. You missed them all the time. After that… everything turned more and more indifferent to you.
Taking a deep breath, you banished these thoughts, halting in your step to feel the air fill your lungs. Your eyes wandered, getting stuck on a pop of color on the ground. Leaning down, you picked up the orange flower in your path. It was probably the closest to a warm color you had seen in years, and you cherished the sight of it greatly. Carefully, you tucked it into the outer pocket of your cloak, letting the head stick out from it before continuing on your way. Merrily, you stepped ahead, expectations and anticipation of what to come fueling you more than the bad thoughts could hold you back.
By the time that midday hung over your head, you had managed to climb a rocky hill, testing your agility in a way you had only by jumping over fences before. Of course, you couldn’t have expected something as climbing rocks on your way, but it had still thrown you off your track at first to find the path going up there. You wished yourself back to your school days, where you had preferred to set out sporty activities instead of participating. Because now that the feeling of instant soreness fell upon you, you were sure that doing jumping jacks would have improved your agility better than reading fairytale books in the classroom all by yourself.
But it wasn’t the worst you had done so far, you decided. Bringing you out of breath, yes, but since you could still feel all your fingertips - with which you had held on hard to the stones to pull you up - and only had one scratch below your knee from an inconsiderate step, you counted that as a success. Taking deep breaths, you noticed one of the small streams hidden under the thicket, but next to the path you needed to continue on. Stumbling a little, you approached it, reaching into the cold wet and washed your hands which felt chalky after your climb. Cautiously, you washed out your scratch too, finding it not to be as painful as it probably could have been if it had been deeper. After using the water to wash your hands once again, you got up, feeling even a little refreshed now with the cool lingering.
Giving yourself an encouraging pat on the shoulder, you looked around, trying to find another patch of dirt that would indicate where your path was going. But before you could find the brown soil, your eyes got stuck on something different. Something you found as mesmerizing as you found it dangerous. Brushing aside the bushes in your way, you approached it, the wind swaying the grass around it peacefully. Of course, the forest would not be bothered by its appearance, and neither should you, but to say it fascinated you was an understatement.
Sinking down into the green grass directly next to it, you gave it a cautious look-over. Some part of you expected something to happen, but that wasn’t really the case, even when you released the pent up breath, you had held in before. How often had you read about them? The fairy circles. You didn’t dare to touch it, but in an airline, you drew the shape of the ring, finding it to be perfectly round to your eye. The white and brown-speckled mushrooms seemed undisturbed by your presence, doing whatever mushrooms were doing all day long. Not much in the human eye, to say the least.
Leaning back, you brushed aside the cloak and opened your bag, pulling on the loaf of bread until you held on to a ripped-off piece of it. Even though you had read so much about them, you weren’t sure how to approach the whole situation. You shouldn’t step or touch the circle, that much you were sure off. But if this was real - fairies especially - then you wouldn’t want to anger them with your lingering around either. Holding the bread up over the circle, you let it fall into the middle of it, relieved when it didn’t jump out again, but instead stayed inside and out of reach for you now.
Unsure about what do you, you laid your hands flat on your thighs, closing your eyes for a moment and asked for the fairies protection on your way through the forest quietly. That they may not hunt your or take you from this world, that’s what you were praying for in a silent mumble. With a small chill creeping up your back, you got up, feeling as if this was your sign to leave. You didn’t want to overstay your welcome after all or think about too many bad things that could happen. There had been too many fairytale books in your life, for you not feeling a little bit concerned. So instead, you promised to be more careful on your way onward. You wouldn’t want to disturb any other circle that may cross your path.
From then on, your path continued uphill. Steadily, not as abrupt as with the rocks to climb over, but continuously upwards. If you hadn’t known this was a forest, you would have said it’s actually a mountain, and if you thought the hill up to the forest was tiring, then you had yet to find a word to describe how you felt after minutes of tracking up the path. Going back would be more fun, you decided, barely able to hold back your excitement when you thought about racing back home after accomplishing what you were out to do in this forest.
When you reached a more even ground again, your legs felt incredibly wobbly. Maybe having lived in a town all your life and never venturing out to get used to hiking was what took its toll on you now, but you only patted your thighs and moved on regardless of the exhaustion in your body. You would prove yourself to not be useless like you were commonly called between the folks back home, even if it was straining. Walking up a hill was only the start of your rise to greatness, and you’d show that to everyone who ever doubted you earlier in your life. Even more so, you were going to show it to yourself.
With that, you continued onwards, the hidden path before you worming its way through the thicket, passing by tall trees and fluffy-looking bushes, flowers tugged in between the vines and clover on the ground, moss making the ground beneath you soft to walk upon. Even after all these hours walking, the forest seemed to bloom more and more the further you got. There was no sign of malice or anything really scary which you had anticipated, and with your newly won confidence, you felt better and better, the farther away you were from your foggy village.
With vegetation so thick all around you, you couldn’t have expected to come across a clearance so soon. In fact, you had expected it, but even deeper in the woods than you already were. It felt strange that suddenly, there was nothing around, just and open space to enter on your path. And when you stepped foot out into the area with the blue sky opening up above it, you were immediately hit with an ominous feeling. It was strong enough that under normal circumstance, it would have made you turn back and run, but no that day. You couldn’t allow yourself that luxury today.
Crisp, burnt leaves made an unpleasant crinkling sound as your weight smashed them under your feet. The air seemed to hang tighter around here, even though there was nothing separating the earth from the sky like the crowns of the trees before. Subconsciously, you hugged one arm around your own body, the other pulling the cloak a little tighter as you continued onwards. You gave each shoulder a look over as if you feared that something might just jump out from the way you came and attack you. Unnerved, your head bounced side to side, scanning the area that just didn’t seem right at all.
The whole clearance was burnt black, there was no green popping out from under the ashes either. Around you, you could feel no hints of heat, making you even more suspicious. Everything seemed like it had recently caught fire, but at the same time, it seemed like this was a battlefield in history. Especially, how could it? In an empty forest, far from civilization? Maybe when a lightning bolt struck something, it could have caught fire, but how come it seemed to stop so perfectly at the border of forest and clearance? None of it seemed natural, only adding to the confusion building up in the back of your mind.
You shouldn’t linger too long, you decided. With your head low as if you needed to avoid eye contact with something, you moved onwards, hoping to pass through quickly and get back on your designated path. But even though you were careful and your steps quick, you soon enough found yourself stumbling over a root sticking up from the ground, just as black as the rest of it was. With a small yelp, you tumbled down, catching yourself with your knees and the palms of your hands, feeling the pain from the concussion rattling throughout your body. Quickly, and with a mild panic rising inside of you, you cleaned your hands on your pants and got back to your feet. You really did not want to linger.
But your path was once again obstructed, and you had to stretch your neck to see the tree rising in front of you. Strangely enough, you hadn’t noticed it before, it’s ashen color fitting in into the scenery perfectly. As if the root had deliberately settled you in front of it, it seemed to loom over you, its long, burnt branches reaching out like a multitude of arms. As if it was trying to reach the other trees in a desperate attempt for help. It made you almost sad to imagine that.
The trunk was wide, almost twice your own width, but from its glorious brown days was barely any spots left. Everything was black and ashen, less beautiful than anything you had seen on your journey up till now. No leaves on its branches, no insects working through its bark. It seemed as lonely and forgotten as a tree in a clearance could be. Unable to reconnect with its kin on this vegetation-free space.
Absentmindedly, you reached up, brushing along the lines of the trunk, feeling how the crisp bark crumbled away under your touch. Something about it made you feel so endlessly sorry for it, as it felt cold and dead against your skin. You felt the rills of the bark clearly on your fingertips, but even more so, something else caught your attention. Stepping closer, you tried to make out the strange carvings that only got clearer as you inspected them closer. Hundreds over hundreds must have once decorated this tree, reaching from as high up as you could see, to the roots that slowly crawled under the ground.
But they were indecipherable.
If you could have even read them in the first place, they couldn’t be read now that this tree had found its end. Even if you tried to drive along them, see if you could make them out from feeling the way they winded themselves over the bark, all that happened was that they turned into dust, falling to the ground and getting blown away by the wind.
You could watch your hand turn black from touching the charcoal, and you took a step back, glancing the tree over one last time. Feeling like you were missing a big part of the history of this place, you heaved a heavy sigh, quietly telling the tree farewell before stepping around it. Strangely enough, it felt wrong to leave it behind, just like leaving behind someone in need of help. But even if it was dead, it was nothing to be sad about, right? One day grass would bloom again under the burnt ground, and then everything would pick up again. The moss, the vines, the flowers and lastly, the trees. Surely, that was what was going to happen. Right?
For a long time, your thoughts lingered on the burnt clearance as you tried to follow the patches of the path that showed itself before you again. It was hard to get it out of your mind, having never seen something burn down so wholly and precisely before. Of course, back in the village, you had often cleaned out the fireplace, but still, you found it hard to make any connections between the two places, even if they were similar.
Before long, you found yourself deeper and deeper in the forest. The trees grew denser now, and they seemed to get taller and taller the further you ventured. Soon, you had to not only be cautious around the vines on the ground, but also climb ever-growing roots of the massive trees which stuck out in loops from the forest ground, and jump streams that seemed to grow bigger and bigger with every you encountered.
Even the animals seemed to develop as you ventured forth. Bird noises picked up, and you encountered mice and ravens on your way, which looked curiously at you when they noticed your presence. The whole scenery changed as much as it stayed the same, and for the first time, you felt lost. If not for the path that you could still recognize beneath everything, it would have been the point you had to admit defeat and turn back. Additionally, it grew darker around you, time moving forwards just like you. For the first time, you wished yourself back in your bed, warm and free of all the problematic fears that seemed to rise with the change to dusk on the sky. It were all fears stemming from the thoughts you had tried to hold back the whole day already.
But one fact was clearer than ever to you: Your foggy, cowardly town was under attack.
And no one did anything.
Since a good week now, everyone knew and had heard about the strange buildings that seemed to have risen from the ground somewhere in the forest. Parents shushed their kids not to talk about it, and the elders denied their existence, but everyone knew they were there. It was a threat looming over the veiled village, yet, not one had ventured out to explore or gain information. No one had even seen them, but somehow, everyone believed in their existence.
The village elders did their best to keep the curious ones under control, that much was clear. And their words were what counted to everyone, more than the danger that seemed to approach all of you. You couldn’t understand how no one felt the need to go and do something, together, you all would have been able to put a stop to this menace. But whenever you brought it up, everyone shook their head and walked away. Cowardly, how you found.
But it was different for you. Though you had never left the village before, you knew that the rumors where true. You felt it in you, and you believed it was true. How could you have sat back and just let it be like all the other’s did? But still, some doubts lingered after all, even in you. Would you be able to stand your ground if you encountered the buildings and maybe other people guarding them? What about monsters? Would you even find what you were searching for if you continued merrily on your way?
Swallowing, you made a big step over a stray rock on the ground, feeling yourself sink into the moss that pathed your way. Walking felt incredibly exhausting by now as if your body was telling you to stop and reconsider. But you couldn’t, you had come so far. Even if you were trapped by your own determination, you could not bring it over you to turn and go back, there was too much to lose.
All your life you had been shunned and talked about, for something you had no influence over. You had always been the useless child since your father left. But you wouldn’t anymore. Once you would bring them some information on these strange buildings or maybe even free the town from their threat, you’d rise above the uselessness, celebrated as the hero of your town. You’d live a better life, knowing you didn’t sit back and watch danger approach all the people you loved. Your mom, your siblings, they’d all be save, thanks to you!
Huffing, you blamed this rise of emotions on the tree. It had been strange from the start, and now it had given you these creeping feelings from it on your way. After all, this was all just overthinking and riding yourself into your own fears. Maybe nothing as bad as you expected it to be would even happen, and you’d feel stupid for even thinking about it.
You just couldn’t turn around now. Even with your knees shaking like crazy.
Chapter 3: Explosive Experiments
Lungs stinging, you finally managed to reach even ground again. Your ascent to the top of the hilly forest had taken its ultimate toll on you. Every part of your body was shaking, and every time your mouth drew air in, it felt like needles to your throat. You couldn’t help but topple over, holding your torso up with your arms stemmed into your thighs. The muscles in your body felt like they were burning, and if you hadn’t had too much respect from what lingered on the ground, you might have laid down right then and there.
By now, it was remarkably dark in the forest, a fine night without a doubt. There were still no signs of fog, and only the crickets remained to tease you with their presence. Even if you felt like you had been run over by a horse, when you looked up, you could see the sparkle of stars in the gaps of the tree crowns, giving you some feeling of achievement. The light of the moon was all that kept you path lit too. Maybe, if you hadn’t been on this important mission, you would have really enjoyed lying down and star-gazing for a while. But all you could do now was concentrating on not accidentally lose track of your path or step into another fairy circle.
You didn’t know how late it was or how far away you were from your village, but even with all the optimistic talk just hours ago, you felt more and more tempted by the idea to just go back, forget about all of this. It was ridiculous, after all. You had been on your feet for so many hours now, and there was no sight of any strange buildings or even anyone lingering around. Just trees and trees and trees…
All your hopes left you as you breathed out the though to swallow air, looking up ahead on the path that lied before you. This all seemed to meaningless, now, that you weren’t going to find anything. Swallowing hard, you let your thoughts circulate through your mind, scenarios popping up here and there.
If you were to go back now, maybe no one would be too angry with you. Perhaps you could just sneak back into your home and pretend you’d been busy the whole day? There was no way you could imagine what the village would do when you strolled back idly and told them that you ventured out into the woods on a whim. A few cruel thoughts crossed your mind, too, and you were quick to banish them. You did not want to think about it, after all.
Letting out a long, deep sigh, you felt the defeat overtake your body. You had come so far, challenged yourself so much. Everything that hurt beneath your skin - which was literally, everything - was proof of your achievement and yet, you had nothing. Nothing to prove and nothing to preen yourself with. It was not that glorious, beautiful feeling you had anticipated when you started your journey, and you felt your stomach twist when you thought about going back to your ‘useless’ life.
If this was how the most significant undertaking in your whole life would end, it was unnerving.
Shaking your head at your own miserably, you turned, taking the first step back on the road you had come from. Maybe, if you took all the strength you had left, you’d be able to make it by the rise of the sun. You’d cozy up in your bed and pretend to have come back home late, afterwards keep yourself awake for another day and no one would even suspect anything. But that was not what should have happened.
Even before you could shift your weight on your backtracking feet, you got hit by a lash of wind, so strong it felt like a whip clashing into you. You tumbled back, falling to the ground with a suffocated yelp and shielding your eyes instinctively with your arm. When you let down your guard and looked up and felt yourself shudder from the sight.
What had you expected? This was the forest to a foggy village after all.
You could see the gray mist rise from the ground, taking over your view down into the forest’s valley from which you had just come from. In less than seconds, it was almost close enough to the edge that you had reached after all the climbing up. Ominous, scary it seemed to loom, and suddenly it dawned on you that you would never be able to get back with it blocking off the sight. If you were lucky, you’d probably have a range of view from the tip of your nose to the fingers on your hands when you held up your arm. The fog was that thick.
Had it ever been so threatening to see the fog? Aside from how fast it had come up - minutes before, you had still thought about peacefully watching the stars twinkle - the mist seemed to move almost, staying away from the ground you were situated on, but enveloping you as if it was urging you forward. You could not remember if ever before in your life it had made this impression on you. Maybe you were just tired. Maybe it wasn’t real. Imagination was a powerful thing.
Nonetheless, you stumbled to your feet, suddenly taken by a feeling of uncomfortableness. Only a few steps backwards and you were pressed against a tree with your backside. The more space you gave away, the more the fog seemed to catch up with you, crawling over the ground and inching closer slowly like an insect to a flower. You could not help but feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up straight while goosebumps hushed over your arms and legs. This all seemed unnatural and unreal to you, but you slipped past the tree, continuing on your way with your eyes always on the fog that seemed to follow you.
Somehow you felt like it didn’t want you to go back, though you could not decide if that was a good or a bad thing.
Swallowing the fear in your muscles, you turned around and moved forward. Intuition was what had brought you here. If it was going to tell you that the fog didn’t want you to go back, then you were leaning towards agreeing with it once more. Maybe all you needed was to trust yourself, even if you found it hard to do so.
With another shudder, you looked back over your shoulder, eyeing the gray mist suspiciously. However, the further you got, the less it seemed to come after you, dispersing slowly but surely into the air again. You rose a confused eyebrow at that, though you shrugged it off and looked forward again. Some things were better left without pondering about them, after all.
After that strange occurrence, you completely lost track of time and orientation. With you getting away hastily, you had lost the muddy patches you had always followed before and noticed way too late you went off-track to get back to them. Still a little unsettled and with a lingering feeling of helplessness, you moved onwards, eyeing every movement in the trees or on the ground that you could make out in the ever-growing dark.
That’s the way your existence would find an end, you figured. Alone, lost, in a place you shouldn’t be. Suddenly, every punishment that could have expected you back home seemed endurable compared to this, and you caught yourself more than one time choking back tears that formed uncontrollably. You were just tired and exhausted that you were sure off. Right the next morning you’d find your way back, just tracking your footsteps or something. With all the books you had read in your life, there must have been one to prepare you for getting lost in an unfamiliar forest, right?
Surprisingly, these thoughts calmed you a little, and you decided to be more rational about the situation. Maybe you could find a small cove or somewhere shielded to take a nap, so you’d catch up on a bit of energy before you tracked back the next morning. Unsurprisingly, by now, camping out in the forest didn’t sound so bad, after all, this was a completely normal, peaceful forest. That’s what you tried to tell yourself even after all that had happened.
Coming to a halt, you took a second to scan your surroundings, trying to figure out where to go. One place caught your eyes, dimly lit in the distance, and though you didn’t want to stray too far in case you really could backtrack to the path, you figured it would be nice to see a little bit more than the bare minimum in front of you. Carefully, with unsteady feet, you made your way towards it, hoping it was what you needed after this long, straining day.
And it was. In some form.
You could not hold back your jaw from dropping as you laid eyes upon the enormous brick building that rose up in front of you. With only the moon shining down on it and revealing it’s massive form to you, it looked far more intimidating than you had expected it would. In its simplicity, brick after brick, row after row, it seemed so out of place, you were immediately hit with another wave of chills.
Rarely you had seen bricks being used in building things before. It wasn’t the material typically used by your village, except for a few small things like fireplaces, so seeing something as big as the trees stand up in front of you made it even more intimidating. In a hint of naive curiosity, you wondered what it would feel like. Would it be warm? Or cold? But you kept your hand on the tree beside you, warily standing in the dark parts of the forest. Even you knew something like that wasn’t erected by just anyone, and you did not want to run into who build it.
Finally, you thought. You had reached it. The thing you had been searching for the whole day was presenting itself in front of you now, gloomy and unnaturally to a forest. Not at all how you knew buildings from back home, it seemed so foreign and unfamiliar to you. If anything, the only word popping into your mind to describe it would have been ‘advanced’ though you weren’t sure in which way this was applicable.
You did it. You really did it. Even with all your confidence and determination almost lost, you had followed the feeling that every rumor you had heard before was real. And finally, you were rewarded for it. Instead of the dull taste of defeat, you could feel your fingertips tingle, and you almost let out a small, victorious outcry. Sudden excitement rose in you, but you were quick to push it down into its place again. After all, you hadn’t achieved your true purpose to come here yet.
Yes, you had been right, and yes, you had managed to reach the building, but there was something other left to do. Something that needed to be done in order to achieve the peace you wanted to bring back to your village. You were the only one to do it, everything rested on your shoulders now. Right there and then, you could end it - and go back victorious like you had planned from the start. No one would ever call you useless or the like again when you’d show them what you had accomplished.
Huffing in encouragement to yourself, you reached deep into your bag, taking a few seconds to search for what you needed in the dark. You felt all the different kinds of surfaces that lingered inside, all of them necessities you were sure would come in handy and had packed in advance. But it wasn’t the time for them yet. Instead, your hands stopped at the feeling of a cold, thin material, carefully tugging it out of its secure place between some pieces of fabric. You had not dared to risk accidentally smashing one of these glass bottles on your journey, so you had packed them carefully.
But now it was time for them to shine and you pulled one out, holding it in your open palm for a few seconds and inspecting it. With the moon shining down, you could see the dark, black fluid shifting from side to side, it’s consistency thicker than water, so it glued to the walls of the glass bottle. Nervously you watched it as it moved, revealing streaks of red appearing every now and then, the fluid reflecting in the moonlight.
You could not deny how nervous you were to yourself. Even though it should work, you had no proof it would. When you were little, your father had taught you how to make these potions, instructed you on the harvesting of the ingredients and how to put them together without blowing yourself up. Alchemist, that’s what people who needed his help called him. A moron, was what everyone else said.
But were you still able to use his knowledge after all these years? You had practiced secretly, put together everything as he wrote in one in his books which your mother had hidden away in the attic from your siblings. And it looked like what you had fabricated in the past, even if your memory was hazy. You couldn’t help but feel guilty when you thought about what you were going to do now. In case there really were people inside you’d make quite a big mistake with throwing on of the small bottles.
Screw it, you thought. In the end, the threat remained, and while you prayed silently that everyone would be able to escape if it worked, you leaned back to take a big swing forward. You’d never know if your creation worked if you didn’t try and you’d never be successful if you didn’t know. For a second you sent another silent prayer to whatever there was, wishing that this would work as you expected it before hurling the little glass bottle forward, waiting for it to inevitable smash against the brick wall of the strange building before you.
There were less than seconds between the sound of the glass shattering upon impact and the deafening explosion that followed. Jumping in shock, you immediately cowered down as the wave of heat spread rapidly, followed by a gust of wind, making the trees around you sway. Suddenly, the building was radiating its own light, engulfed in flames. They seemed to struggle at first to take hold on the bricks, but soon enough started to rage and move all over it and quickly, the first hints of black appeared where they worked their heat.
Gasping, you could not move as you watched the fire spread with fear in your eyes. Even if you had wanted to go and take something as evidence that you really destroyed the threat, you were frozen while you watched the flames reach out to everything around them. The potion you had made had done this. Just like you had wanted to expect from it, though you felt more and more guilty for what you had created too. Never before had you done something socially tabooed like burn down anything and here you were, setting such a tall and sturdy building aflame. You realized now much too late you really didn’t know anything about it.
Shaking your head desperately, you tried to get yourself out of your weird state of mind, finally getting back onto your feet with the help of a tree nearby to hold on to. For another minute you watched as the flames went higher and higher, even spreading on the ground around the building - especially where the fluid had leaked - before catching your mind wandering off again and turning around.
Maybe it wasn’t the way you had come from, but you didn’t care. You had to get out of here immediately. Something was urging you to leave this place behind, even if it was just to escape the fire. Panicky, you realized that maybe this fire could burn down the whole forest. It would all be your fault for setting something flammable like grass and leaves ablaze. You banned all the thoughts about what would happen to your village if the forest really did catch fire everywhere. But surely, you would be the first one to get caught in it if you stayed now.
Running blindly through the nightly forest, you could still feel the heat on your back as the fire spread mercilessly. Looking over your shoulder, you saw the orange and red flames lick out to everything around it, ready to devour what it could. Fire was like that. Cruel, ruthless.
You looked back to the front, hoping you’d make it out before it could reach you. The flames already seemed to have caught up with something in the distance in front of you, probably because they wanted to envelop you. Maybe it didn’t want you to leave? Was that the forest scolding you for your doings?
Slowly, you came to a halt. That isn’t right, you thought, squinting your eyes to see better. There was no way that this could be the same fire as the ones in your back. No... No! Absolutely not, that was impossible! These flames seemed to bop up and down, growing and growing as they approached you. No, these were not flames.
These were torches.
Holding back a scream, you clasped your hands over your mouth, looking around you in a panic. Whoever was coming your way wouldn’t be all too friendly when they realized what you had done. Even if it was unlikely, if these were villagers, they’d blame everything on you and do who-knows-what. And if they were not? Maybe that building belonged to someone unbeknownst to you, and then you could expect no mercy after what you had done to it.
Feeling more and more like a caged animal, you weighed your options. Face these people approaching you or go back to the burning building? What should you do, you asked yourself over and over, hoping to press out an answer. Neither of this was ideal in any way, and you didn’t feel like any of these would get you out well and healthy.
Gently, almost like a holy sign, you felt the wind pick up, nudging you backwards to the burning building behind you. You didn’t want to go, this fire seemed way too dangerous to approach again, but your body decided otherwise. Nudged by the wind you took back step after step, feeling as if you got any closer to the fire, it would reach out for you too in an attempt to burn you. But before that happened, your foot got stuck on a vine sticking out from the ground, bringing you to a fall that you could not stop yourself from.
With a gasp, you felt your side fall upon the hard ground, pain stinging you and shaking through your whole body. Confused and scared, you tried to check the situation around you, hoping not to be too close to the fire or the torches approaching. You were glad for the adrenaline pumping through your veins as much as fear did, keeping you from hurting too bad. Softly, the tall grass around you swayed in the wind, as a new sound approached you, loud and hurtful to your ears. It was the sound of metal clanking against each other, paired with loud, thumping footsteps that approached quickly.
Holding your breath, you felt the ground shake beneath you, as they passed, the torches lighting up the area above you. Conveniently, the long strings of grass guarded your body against sight, swaying with the wind in a way that made them hover over you. You felt endlessly blessed by their help, keeping you from whoever could be there to see you, though the panic still took over your body, tears of fear welling up in your eyes.
“Shit,” a human voice growled next to you, presumably from whoever was holding one of the torches. The source of light twisted and grew stronger as the person seemed to move around. “How could this have happened, eh?” it asked in annoyance. Not a question you were going to answer. “I don’t know, Sir,” someone meekly responded instead. “M-Maybe lightning?” You almost felt bad hearing the stuttering voice. It sounded almost as scared as you felt.
“On a cloud-free night, eh? Are you dumb? Skedaddle, boy! Find whatever caused that, or I’ll make sure it’s your head at stake!”
With that, the footsteps continued, a loud and heavy pair followed by smaller, lighter ones. The brightness of the torches faded out too, leaving you behind to adjust your eyes to the darkness again. They seemed to move into the direction of the building, and you finally let out your breath, barely believing your luck. They had not seen you. You were free to go.
However, the happiness inside of you was harshly interrupted as a small chuckle caught your attention.
“That was bold, I’ll admit,” a voice hummed, sounding like it came from behind you. Flinching, you turned around, but there was nothing to see, only the grass shielding you from everyone’s sight and keeping you from seeing much yourself.
“How about it, kiddo? Need some help?” Confused, you looked to every side, throwing your head around to look behind you. Nothing. Just darkness and the cracking of fire in the distance. You wouldn’t have known how deep you were into all of this already, and in your panicked and fearful state, you only added another component to your potion of life, your voice weak and scared as you managed to speak up in a whisper.
“Y-Yeah, I could need some.”
Chapter 4: Friend or Foe
“Right! - No wait, left! Or was it right?”
With a soft thud, you felt your shoulder ram into the bork of a tree, a painful sting hitting you. Whining softly, you held your arm in place, finally coming to a halt while you rubbed over it tentatively. Sweat was dripping from your forehead and the side of your face, and you felt more frustrated than ever, following a stupid voice’s orders which definitely weren’t entirely clear.
Taking a deep breath, you tried to calm yourself down. In the end, you had to admit that though it was more than strange, it did help you to escape the burning building and the strange guards that appeared, even if it wasn’t the most decisive creature in your opinion. There was, however, something direr than the thing speaking in your mind, though its existence maybe should have alarmed you more than it did at that moment.
You were exhausted.
From your very core, you felt like collapsing on the spot. It must have been well over twenty hours now that you had spent awake and on your feet, something you had never done before. Together with these ominous feelings all day long and the now vanishing adrenaline that had kept you up for the longest time, you were at your limits. While it felt like a second person was doing its thought process in your head, you slowly sank to your knees, sitting upright while your head hung low.
“Hey! What are you doing?” it immediately chimed up in the back of your mind, feeling like a push on the shoulder, but you couldn’t follow it. “You need to move forward, come on!”
“I-” you spoke up, shaking your head slowly. The exhaustion crept up on you, together with the fear and confusion that had been residing in you for a while now. “I can’t. I am at my strength’s end. I can’t do another step…” you admitted, arming yourself for the backlash of the strange voice.
“So… you’re just going to sit there? In the middle of the forest?”
You couldn’t help but feel attacked by the way it said that. For the whole day, you had overcome your boundaries and worked hard to get to where you were now, but it seemed to be not enough for the annoying voice in your head. Would you ever be free of nagging voices, you wondered. Even if you weren’t in the village, they seemed to stick to you like moths to a flame.
“But I don’t know where to go! I don’t even know how to get back!” you complained, more angry at yourself than anything. For a while, silence fell over you, and you felt painfully aware of your surroundings. Of the far-away chirping of birds, the explosion still drumming in your ears and the aching sore spots on your body that seemed to have given up already, pulsating and hurting. “What am I doing,” you muttered, leaning forward and resting your head on your crossed arms that shielded you from the ground.
“I went into the forbidden forest. I set a building in flames. I hear voices. Am I going mad?” you asked yourself, voice breaking from the strain on your body. “What have I done…” Finally, all the things you sorted under the sins of your life found their space in the currently empty state of mind. Aside from feeling terrible from being completely exhausted, you just found it so hard to swallow the things you had done. The exhausted part of your mind too had long decided that the voice was your own consciousness talking to you, even if you probably knew better than that from all the years of learning about strange occurrences.
“Is that really the time to have a breakdown?” the voice asked, a hint of annoyance in its tone.
“Oh, shut up, as if you’d know!” you hissed back at it, angry about its tactless words. Though quite immediately, you also felt a little bad for lashing out.
“Well… You want to destroy the factories, right?”
Sniffling, you leaned back up again, an odd feeling striking you as you listened to its words. “What do you mean ‘factories’? What are those? D-Does that mean there are there more than that building?” If you weren’t in such a bad mental state already, you’d actually feel more surprise about that fact coming up, but by now you barely felt the desperation in your voice as you asked the question.
“Yeah, two more. Ugly ones, if I might add.”
Another moment of silence followed and hung over the two of you like the fog did back at your village. You felt the blood draw from your face as you were very close to passing out. All of this was way too much on you. Just now you had destroyed what you thought was the thing threatening your village and in just a few words time, your victory shattered in more pieces than the glass you had thrown against the brick wall. “But- But-” you stammered, voice shaking from the disappointment over the whole situation. But before you could build a coherent sentence, you were harshly interrupted by the voice picking up again.
“Hey, hey, wait! Before you get all sentimental, how about we go and destroy the other two, too?”
Sniffing, you took a deep breath, roughly bringing your hands up to wipe your face off. You felt grimy and dirty from your expedition, which only weighed down more on your mood. Biting your lip, you felt the frustration rise more and more, even stronger than all the other feelings that were waging war inside of you. It wasn’t very surprising that your next words were packed in a tone of voice that was less friendly as you would have liked it to be.
“What do you mean ‘we’?! What are you even? I don’t understand any of this, there shouldn’t have been more! No one told me about more!”
You heard a groan vibrate in the back of your mind, sounding like a vague mixture of annoyance and disappointment. It almost felt like it was rolling its eyes at you, only making you angrier than you already were.
“Stop that, I could really need some answers!”
There was a disapproving click of a tongue before the voice spoke up again, spouting its words at you. “As if your little, primitive village had all the answers. You came here to find out what was going on, right? Let’s do that then, stop being such a sissy.” Needless to say, you had a hard time to overlook the insult on you. After all, you’ve been through, you did not like being called a ‘sissy’. You gave yourself the time to think for a while, coming to the conclusion that it had a point. You did come here to find out about this threat, and even though you more or less succeeded in that, you should have expected that maybe there was more to this than just a building that needed to be destroyed.
It was hard for you to admit that it was right, barely able to think at this point, but you nodded slowly, letting out some held back breath that got stuck in your lungs while you thought. “Yeah… I think I should,” you confessed. “But what if there are more guards? I- I can’t really do anything, and I don’t want to hurt anyone…” you admitted, feeling torn on having to face more of the heavily armored people.
“We’ll find a way. You shouldn’t concern yourself with thinking about that yet.”
“So you’ll help me?” you asked shyly, feeling your curiosity pick up again under the heaviness of your exhaustion.
“Of course! I will not pass up on the chance to make these men run back to where they came from! And you have proven yourself to be quite efficient in helping with achieving that, so get up and get a move on.”
Chuckling nervously, you raised a brow at that. It made you feel better, knowing you weren’t all alone, even if you weren’t sure about what that voice really was. It was good having someone to talk to, plus its determination somehow managed to lift your spirits too. “Do you know them?” you asked, picking the conversation up again.
“No, why would I? They are way below me.”
“Ah, yes…” you mumbled, heaving a heavy sigh. “What did you say you were again?”
For a second, it got uncomfortably silent in your head, wind rustling through the leaves and plants on the ground, while you rubbed your thighs in an attempt to wake them up. You wanted them, no, just for a little while more, you needed them to function. “I am…” it started up, stocking in the middle of its own sentence to find the right words.
You laughed up softly at that, finding it to be a terrible description for oneself. Especially since it was a voice, in your head. You caught yourself reminding you that it may be just another part of your conscience telling you what to do. That would explain why it was so confusing, for sure, because that was mostly what you felt at that moment, too.
“Like a friend?” you teased weakly, testing some boundaries.
“I beg to differ. We are not friends, we only share the same goal. Once this is over, I don’t believe we’ll be talking to each other ever again.”
“Well, you are not an enemy for sure,” you stated, carefully trying to push yourself up with your arms as to support your weak legs.
“How do you know?”
“Enemies don’t help each other escape,” you noted nonchalantly, managing to get up a few inches before losing the strength again right away and falling back to the ground. Even though you enjoyed the breaks it took from talking - giving you some rest from the whole ordeal - as it wasn’t going to speak up again, you wondered if you had taken it too far. “I-I guess it’s like ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’?” you muttered, trying to sooth it.
“Exactly. Let’s get going.”
“I… can’t,” you admitted, finally feeling like it was the time to tell the voice about how weak you felt. Even though you found it embarrassing, you couldn’t really blame yourself after all the walking and running you had done that day. But your body had decided it would not move another inch and so you were almost ready to give yourself to your destiny of staying in that filthy spot if you must.
“Oh, no. You can.”
Suddenly, a harsh gust of wind hit all around you, outright blowing you out of your kneeling position. Before you could even take another breath, you found yourself standing, though it was on very shaky and unsteady legs. “Come, Child. There’s a bit of a hideout nearby. Wouldn’t want anyone to find your pretty face in such a vulnerable state, don’t we?”
You could feel the tips of your ears burning up as you listened to the words, but you didn’t have the time to linger on them as you felt the wind picking up again, ushering you into a direction. And you took the hint, following it without complains like you had trusted them before. Who’d you even complain to in the first place?
With the wind in your back, it felt almost easy to walk again. You were still heavily aware of how much your legs must despise you in that moment, but they worked. There was probably no way to ever tell them how grateful you were to them, but you promised them in silence that you’d give them a nice, warm bath if you ever made it back.
No matter if it was the voice in your head or the wind pushing you forward, you followed it. It was too dark to even confide in your own abilities to navigate, so you were thankful for the small pushes and curt warning they both offered to you. If it really was your own consciousness telling you where to go, you had to admit you were pretty good. Not once did you run into another tree or got stuck on a root on the ground. You probably wouldn’t have been able to get up if you had fallen once again, and in that case, you could have stayed back where you had seen yourself sleeping that night before.
“Is it still far?” you asked after a while in silence.
“Uh,” was the answer from the voice. “Uh?” you pressed on. “‘Uh’ is not really a unit to measure.”
There was a long, unnerved sigh. “No, it’s not far, it’s behind those trees.”
“Those?” You pointed at a random tree next to you, absolutely ready to take this joke as far as the voice wanted to challenge you to it. “Or this? Or this one? Maybe that one?”
“FINE!” it bellowed. It sounded like it took a deep breath and let it out. “It’s… hard to describe for me. But I know it’s there, just keep going, you are very close.”
“Let me guess,” you joked. “You can’t actually see further than what’s around me.”
“Oh,” you noted. “Well, that’s fine… I think. Or?” There was a chuckle, but it didn’t sound conceded like you had might expected it would. If anything, you thought it actually sounded flustered and like it was overplaying something. “Afraid I might lead you into your doom?” the voice asked, giving back some of the teasings you had been doing.
“I mean-” you spluttered. “Who knows?”
Another chuckle, though this one was amused if anything.
“Keep being so skeptical, that makes you cute.”
Bringing your hands up to your ears, you pinched them, hoping it would stop them from growing hotter and hotter from the unusual compliment. You just weren’t used to such attention, being more or less the loner of your age class in your village. “Eh… sure…” you muttered under your breath, going a little faster and hoping to reach whatever place you two were aiming for, fast. It wasn’t like the voice could have seen you turn red or anything, but you still felt embarrassed by how easy it was to throw you off.
Pushing away a bush that seemingly went out of path already but got stuck on your fingers, you focused your gaze forward. The wind slowly drifted out, leaving you to stand on your legs fully again, and almost immediately, they began to shake in response. Before you, a clearing opened up. You were greeted by the rushing of water, a sound you hadn’t heard before but which came unmissable from the waterfall reaching upwards in front of you. It was probably thanks to the voice that you hadn’t taken notice of the water, and the waterfall wasn’t all that high either and flowed calmly.
“Wow,” you muttered, gazing for the first time in your life at a waterfall and its pond. The clearing was surrounded by rocks, leading to a higher level in the forest, and with advances that seemed fitting for you to camp out under. “You like it?” the voice asked - sounding rather proudly.
The moon gave some shimmer to the water, and there were small plants with flower heads drifting on the surface. It almost seemed magically in a way that you couldn’t quite describe, but you were glad that you were able to see it. “Yeah, it’s beautiful,” you admitted freely, and the voice gave an approving hum to your words, a small, windy push making you take a step forward.
Though you found yourself to be hesitant after what all you had already experienced on clearance, you tried to be courageous again. You kept the thought of being able to sleep soon in the back of your mind, and it alone was the source of strength for moving on. Driving your hands along the rock wall close to you, you followed it until you were covered by the edge of the cliff over your head. There you let yourself slowly and as gracefully as possible sink down, being grateful for having your cloak which would keep you warm, even on the hard, cold, rocky ground.
“Are you happy now?” the voice asked, and you nodded subconsciously, a tired smile on your face.“That’s much better, thank you.”
You had already closed your eyes, all of your muscles letting go of the tension in them, melting into your makeshift bed. Your body at least was ready to sleep, but you kept yourself awake for a second more, something urgent on your mind before you could allow yourself to knock yourself out.
“Will you be there still when I wake up?” you asked the voice, not sure how you’d feel about losing the company you had made over the last hours. Admittedly, it had been quite rough between you two. An up and down on emotions and understanding. But it was still a little weird to wake up and just having to believe you imagined everything it told you.
“I am always there. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”
Chuckling, you took note of that, feeling like you really would not be able to get it off your conscience anytime soon. But you felt like it gave you the relief that you needed for your rest, and you let out a long, deep breath. “Good,” you noted. Eventually, you managed to fall asleep, a troubled night ahead of you.
Chapter 5: Trust Issues
That morning was different.
In many ways, especially compared to the morning before. It was still early, you believed, when you rose from your cold, hard sleeping place. The hints of a headache ensured, but once the drumming and spinning cleared up, it got easier to endure. Your cloak had kept you rather warm for the night, but your lips and hands still felt icy in the morning air.
Never had you camped outside like this before, head on your bag, making your neck feel stiff, and shoes still covering your feet, but you wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. There was no rustling of wind and no peeps from the birds that day, but at least the sound of the waterfall kept you company.
A small part of you had expected to feel different. Accomplished, maybe. But it was nothing like this. If anything, you felt tired and exhausted still, together with wet and cold. Brushing back some loose strands of hair, you sat up, looking around yourself, feeling like you were missing something. But aside from the streaming water to your right and the open forest before you, there wasn’t really anything to see.
“Awake now?” a voice tore you out of your thoughts. Instinctively, you looked around, trying to make out the person who was speaking before you could realize what it was.
“Eh…” you stuttered, the gears in your head turning at full speed. “You are still here…” It was more of a thought than really the realization, but you must have sounded a little surprised as the voice continued to huff. “Well, I told you, didn’t I?”
Thinking back to the night before, the conversations and happenings slowly crept back to you, but in comparison, you felt much calmer about the things you had gotten upset about yesterday. “That’s true… I just, I don’t know. Didn’t really expect you to be there?”
“How so?” it asked, and you shrugged.
“Like a voice in my head? My own conscience?”
It let out a small, disapproving snort, and you could only imagine it shaking its head in disappointment. “Stop thinking you’re going mad. It’s ‘just’ me.”
“Alright,” you agreed, bringing your cold fingertips up to your temples, rubbing them gently to soothe the tension on your brain. Even though the two of you were conversing normally, with the sound of the voice, your headache acted up, feeling like you had been hit with a brick. “How long have I been asleep?” you asked, rummaging in your bag before realizing you didn’t bring your flask of water from home, keeping you from taking a sip and fill up on hydration.
“What do I know? Too long, that’s for sure.”
Helpful, you thought, rolling your eyes. Crawling out of the hideout, every swallow of your own spit grew harder for you, the sheer idea of drinking suddenly crashing down on you like a falling tree. For the first time, you realized you hadn’t had anything for almost a day now. While you could live with the idea of not eating if you had to, your thirst seemed to hammer into your exhaustion like the headache.
“Is it safe to drink the water?” you asked the voice, hoping for a more coherent answer this time. There was a thoughtful hum, a huff, followed by a quiet mumble. “Probably?”
“You are an amazing help, I will admit.”
“Right?” you could hear the smile on its face - if there was a body to the voice - apparently believing your sarcasm. Sinking your hands in a scooping motion down into the cold wet, you brought out some of the water. Admittedly, you knew you shouldn’t drink water straight like that, but you were too thirsty and too stranded in the width of the forest to even think of making a fire. The taste was somewhat heavier than you were used to from the water at home, and it had a note of mineral in it that you could only figure came from the stone around the waterfall.
Though it was a little too cold for your stomach, you took another scoop and another, just for good measure. You weren’t sure when you’d get another seemingly clean water source on your way up ahead, and you just hoped it wouldn’t make you sick. Though it stung to have your hands in it, you made sure to give yourself a small cat wash, rubbing off some grime on your hands and washing your face. It was like a slap in the face, but at least it helped you with waking up completely.
The voice remained silent - thankfully - through all of it, and soon enough, you were ready to stand up finally, pick up your bag and pat off your coat. Aside from a few leaves stuck to the fabric, you were delighted to see that all your clothes seemed to have survived the day of hiking without ripping or burning off.
“So, ominous voice in my head, where are we going next?” you asked, stepping out of the small clearance and back into the forest, leaves, and grass rustling under your feet. “Huh? Aren’t you an eager one all of a sudden.”
“Well…” you started, pulling your sleeves over your hands in an attempt to warm them. “It’s still scary, but you were right. I… I have to do this. If there really are more buildings here, I have to make sure they won’t harm the village.”
The chuckle that followed, vibrating melodic in the back of your mind, was irresistibly sweet to you, and you couldn’t help but feel the corner of your lips tuck upwards, pleased by it. You did catch a hint of sinister undertone, but you weren’t sure if you just imagined things this time, not being a good conversation holder anyway. “Good, good. I like the sound of that way better than the whining last night.”
“Glad we agree,” you snickered, continuing on your way through the woods, led by the voice in your head.
Oddly enough, there was less talking as the day passed. After the experience yesterday, you had thought that you would either turn mad or learn more about the voice, but it was nothing like this. Every now and then, it would direct you into a different direction than before, very determined to get you somewhere you weren’t sure you wanted to be.
The thought alone of another building was enough to send goosebumps down your back, and you weren’t all that confident anymore, even if you tried not to let the voice notice. You could live with the creeping fear that the future brought you, but you weren’t sure if you could do anything against the urges and unpleasantries that you had experienced whenever you had wanted to go back. There wasn’t much left aside from moving onwards.
Surprisingly, your body could keep up well. Even though you could barely even stand anymore yesterday, you managed your wandering through the forest quite efficiently. The hills were something you felt in your knees, but it was like the path cleared in front of you, keeping you from stumbling over roots or through bushes. You were more than thankful for it as you weren’t sure if you could have held up with such an intense hike as the day before.
Truth be told, even after all good things it had done for you, you still had a problem trusting the voice. Sometimes it would correct the direction it had just led you, and sometimes it would pop up after a while, stating to go back. Clearly, it had some knowledge of where to go, but you couldn’t help the restless hunch in your instincts that it wasn’t exactly the best guide after all.
It was sometime after noon when the voice made you stop for the first time since you two started to wander, your lungs immediately filling deeply with air. “Huh, strange,” it mumbled, and you looked around you questioningly. It took you a bit to see what it meant, grey, thick fog rising in some distance to where you were standing. “What, the fog?” you asked, confused, furrowing your brows.
“Yeah, it’s not supposed to- Ah, whatever. Go left.”
Still uncertain about the hesitation in the voice, you shrugged it off lightly, continuing to follow the voice blindly and picking up the pace again. “You know…” you started, thinking out loud. “I am not surprised by the fog. It’s normal, isn’t it?” The voice huffed, but for once, it wasn’t in a rude way. Much more, it sounded thoughtful or even a little unsure itself, trying to badly cover the insecurity.
“That doesn’t apply to this forest. Nothing here is ‘normal’, little Human.”
Rolling your eyes on the name it gave you, you shook your head, noting, “Yeah, I noticed. So what’s going on?”
There was a long sigh, followed by some mumbles you couldn’t make out completely. Some words sounded familiar, but most of them had an odd notion to it. “I guess it’s just normal fog,” it eventually explained, forming the sentence rather like a question than a fact. “It’s probably because it’s so warm.”
Warm? you thought, eyebrows furrowing together. “Isn’t it… kind of cold?” you noted, feeling your own hands which were still freezing since that very morning. Silence fell over you two while you expected an answer to your question, but the voice didn’t deem that necessary as it only picked up words whenever it led you further into the thicket. It left you dissatisfied, without an answer, but you tried to swallow your irritation.
Soon enough, however, the fog had caught up to you. Certainly not the most surprising or scary thing you had ever encountered, much less in this forest, but while you kept your cool, the voice seemed to grow restless over the fact that you were soon covered in the grey mist, unable to even see your hand in front of your face. “Bummer,” you noted as you came to a halt. You found it rather unsafe to just wander blindly through the forest.
“Damn it,” it hissed, and you felt the wind pick up again, howling around you and pushing you into directions which you reluctantly followed. By now, you had lost the fear of the wind, knowing it was only ever helping you get forward, but wandering through the thicket without much view wasn’t your favorite thing to do. Maybe your reluctance stemmed from the fact that you couldn’t get yourself to trust the voice completely. What were its real intentions? And what role did you really play in all of this?
“I really can’t see anything,” you made clear after a while, unsure if it even was aware by the way you were running into one tree after another. You could hear the fussy mumbles in the back of your mind, seemingly ignoring you or being too invested in its own thoughts to respond. Sighing, you tried it again. “Maybe we should rest?”
You ignored the groan that echoed through your skull, the displeasure and irritation clear in it.
“Resting will not get us anywhere!”
“Neither will being aimless in the fog. I am not too hot on falling off a cliff.”
You thought you heard it mutter ‘As if I would let that happen’ before the voice relented, wind pushing you forward a little rougher this time. “There’s another rock farce near with a cave that might shelter you a little bit.”
“I wonder…” you started, bringing a pointer up to tap your cheek thoughtfully as you thought to hear an odd thing in the voice’s sentence. “What do I need shelter from? Are there wolves? Bears? Will I get in trouble just staying outside?”
“Oh, Dear. There are worse things than animals in this forest. And I still need you to destroy these factories, can’t let you get hurt, can I?”
Feeling the hints of a shudder run down your back from the thought alone, you shook your head. “I’d rather not.”
It wasn’t long until you could stretch out your hand, feeling the cold stone resting against your skin. You felt a hint of gladness run through you that the stone was still colder than your body, after that unsolved dispute of warm or cold between you and the voice before. Relieved, you sighed, moving along the rock until you found a small cave entrance. On the way to it, you had already begun to collect little sticks lying in your way, hoping they were not too wet to burn. It wouldn’t be a long time you - and especially the voice - hoped, but a small fire seemed appropriate for your very human comfort needs.
Ducking inside, you were glad that once you had sat down, it wasn’t too small to host you. It was pretty convenient, you had to admit, to find this cave so quickly, and you spread the wood in front of you carefully, placing some stones around it that were lying in reach. “You know the forest well,” you noted, beginning to rub two stick onto each other in an attempt to light them, after having added some dry leaves to your fireplace.
“Of course, it’s my forest,” it huffed. After a moment of silence, while you concentrated on your fire, it added, “What are you doing?”
“Making a fire to keep warm. I thought since we are stuck here, we might as well be-”
“D-Do you have to?” it interrupted you, sounding almost disgusted for the first time that you knew it.
Stammering for a moment, you frowned, keeping the sticks away from each other. “I mean… it’s good, right? Better than staying cold and wet until the fog goes away…”
“I don’t really fancy it,” it admitted. “But do as you want.”
Irritated, you brought the sticks together again, rubbing them until they emitted heat from their brown crusts. You were quick to hold on to the small flame, breathing it into the dry leaves until it spread. Immediately, you were hit with flashbacks from the day before, the burning buildings and the torches, and you felt your own breathing come to a halt as you watched the fire spread out. Cowering in your seat, you went to the end of the cave until you felt the cold stone in your back, calming you a little as you watched the fire. But as soon as the panic had risen, it subdued as you saw how the spreading stopped, contained on the things you had provided to it, and nowhere to go after them.
“What’s wrong?” the voice asked, and you thought to hear a hint of worry lying under the irritation in it.
“No, nothing… Just memories.”
There was a grunt in the back of your head, but you ignored it as you crawled closer to the fire again, stretching out your arms to warm your fingertips. Immediately, the heat radiated into them, and you let out a long sigh. It felt so comforting after all the coldness and tumult in your mind, like a warm, soft blanket around your shoulders. Or the hug of your mother, either was as comforting as the fire felt to you.
“I meant to ask, but what’s the deal with those bottles?” the voice broke the silence, and you only took one more second to revel in those beautiful thoughts of home.
“They are alchemistic. I… I don’t really know how to describe it. My dad taught me when I was younger, how to mix certain ingredients, and they turn into many things.”
“Like exploding, little, glass bottles?”
You chuckled. “Yeah. Or potions! Some can heal wounds, and some are good to lure animals to certain places. I guess it depends on what you need them for.”
It grew quiet between you two while you were in thought, thinking back how your dad let you sit on his lap while he showed you how to cut the roots and mix them with other ingredients. “That’s quite impressive,” it noted after some time had passed. “I know, right…” you mumbled, staring into the bright red flames.
“Your dad must be an amazing… what is it called… alchemist?”
Nodding to yourself, you blinked a few times, taking in these words. You hoped the voice couldn’t really see yourself, or notice the few stray tears that burned in your eyes and nose. Against your better judgment, you felt like spilling all the beans, telling that strange voice about your father and how much you suffered without him in the village. “I…”
Luckily, you managed to get a hold on yourself on time, balling your fist and taking another deep breath. You didn’t know what it was or who it was, you could not be that friendly with it, even if you wanted to, you decided. Even if it had helped you a lot already, its intentions were still unclear to you, and frankly, a voice in your hand wasn’t something you really could trust after all. “I-I think he’s great, yeah,” you lied, hoping it would suffice in the voice’s curiosity.
“I see,” it accepted, thought the answer didn’t seem to satisfy it quite as much as you thought. However, you felt the relief wash over you that it wasn’t going to question anything further even with its suspicion.
“That reminds me, we haven’t exchanged names yet,” it mumbled, quite suddenly, and you felt your heart drop into your stomach. You hadn’t thought about it so far, but it really was a little strange, and somehow, it set alarm bells off through your body. “Ah… Yeah, that’s… I mean…” you stuttered. You couldn’t really pinpoint why you were so freaked out about something as simple as giving your name, but your guts were telling you not to.
“It’s not that hard,” it hissed at you, seemingly annoyed about your stammers. “Mine is Lucio, and you might address me as such. What is yours?” it asked insistently. Lucio, it rattled through your mind while you tried to connect the name to some dots you were missing. It sounded… familiar somehow. As if someone had told you about that name before. But who was it?
Nevertheless, you decided to push your luck as the voice grew restless. If your lie just now had worked, then another one might too. It wasn’t like you wanted to lie, but the whole situation seemed so abnormal to you all of a sudden, as if the realization only now had hit you with its brick of reality and that this was nothing to be taken lightly.
But before you could think of a fake name, you were interrupted by a loud roar. You instinctively flinched and held up your hands to your ears, trying to keep the sound out of your system. A rough wind blew into the cave, and after an initial flicker of flames, the fire went out. “No more,” the voice hushed and you only nodded slowly, eyes wide open as you tried to get used to the dark. As quiet as possible, you cowered backwards until you were against the stone end of the cave again. Everything went silent for you, occasionally, you heard the thicket rustle.
“Don’t speak. Whatever it is, you do not want it to find you.”
You only bit your lip and gave the voice a small shake of your head. It was right. Whatever that thing just now was, you did not want it to find you. It sounded like everything and nothing at all. That was not how you imagined the howl of a wolf or the roaring of a bear.
If anything, it was how you imagined a monster to sound.