“Okay, I’m saying it,” Eli says, stopping the travelers at diverging paths they’ve seen one too many times, “We’re lost.”
There’s a loud sigh from one companion as Eli pinches the bridge of her nose, hoping she doesn’t hear too much griping.
“Great job Eli! I knew we should’ve let Nozomi lead the way!” Nico groans, her lyre in hand and her fingers plucking nasty sounding notes to emphasize her discontent.
“Nicocchi we already talked about why Elichi would-” Nozomi begins to say but stops as she scampers over to some herbs on the side of the pathway. The words “oh! Deadly nightshade!” are heard, and Eli shakes her head.
“Let’s go this way. Maybe it’ll take us somewhere new.” Eli decides, leading them down a different path instead of letting her frustration get the best of her.
“What if it takes us in a circle again?” Nico grumbles, beginning to follow.
“We won’t know until we check it out,” Nozomi replies, walking alongside Nico, “Why not keep trying with that song? Sounded like you were getting somewhere before.”
Nico knows Nozomi is saying it to distract her. She hates it, but it works. She fixes the hold on her lyre before strumming the strings.
“Let’s see if I can find that tune again...” She plucks it a couple of times before recreating the music. She beams and continues to play, humming along to the notes.
It’s a nice melody as they trek through the pathway. Eli finds her frustration melting away as they progress on their journey. An excited gasp takes her away from the music when she finds Nozomi moving swiftly to a bush just ahead. Eli and Nico don’t stop as she plucks some leaves off the branches before rushing back to them.
“Witch Hazel!” She says when Nico gives her a look. “It’s great for medicine.”
“If you say so-OH WOAH! IS THAT AN EXIT?!” Nico’s voice becomes excited as she points, seeing the thinning trees and what looks like an open space.
They reach the edge of the path to find an open meadow filled with lucious, bright green grass and fields of wild flowers almost as far as the eye can see.The edge of the forest looms on the far side, likely filled with monstrous plants and other dark things. But not here- this clearing is illuminated by the sun above them and all the plants amongst it are full of life and colours. The trio’s filled with wonder as they take in the open space.
“It’s beautiful,” Eli murmurs, a smile forming on her lips. “Almost makes me glad we got lost.”
“Almost?” Nozomi teases.
“It’s places like these that remind me how much I like nature.” Nico says, stepping into the meadow. As she’s about to take another step there’s a loud, shrill shout.
“DON’T DO THAT!”
Nico halts, one foot in the air and alarmed. The others look just as shocked, glancing around to where the source of the noise is. They look down to find two small forms dashing forward and looking up to them in front of a small ring of mushrooms. One with bright orange hair and big yellow eyes holds her arms out wide, trying to protect the small fungi while the other with light brown hair and deep mauve irises hovers beside her.
The one with her arms out furrows her brows and speaks in a scolding tone.
“You almost stepped on our fairy ring! Don’t! We worked hard on it!”
Her companion wears a stern gaze and nods, agreeing with her friend. Nico can feel her balance slipping, and Eli holds out her arm to stabilize her. Nozomi’s face lights up as she recognizes the tiny creatures.
“Oh! Fairies!” She says with glee, digging into her satchel.
“We’re very sorry- we don’t want to destroy all your hard work.” Eli apologizes.
Happy that the mushrooms aren’t in danger, the little fairy thanks them. Her quiet friend leans in, whispering something to her that can’t be heard by the trio. Words are shared between them before the orange one flies up with a grin, her friend crying out and following her higher into the air. The two of them end up in Nico’s face, causing her to yelp and stumble into Eli and surprising her too.
“We haven’t seen creatures like you in a loooong while!” The curious fairy smiles, examining Nico’s features before moving onto Eli, looking the human in the eyes. “What brings you out here?!”
After a bit of rummaging, Nozomi pulls out two raspberries and holds them out, attracting the fairies to her.
“We’re on a quest!” she says as they land in her palm. “We’re looking for a treasure called ‘the heart of the woods.’ You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it, would you?”
The fairies look to each other, confusion on their face as they wrack their minds for any information.
“Rin’s never heard of that!” the bubbly fairy says. “Have you, Kayochin?”
The other fairy shakes her head, a frown forming on her face.
The trio sighs, feeling like they’ve taken one step forward and three steps back.
“Maybe the hermit knows?” the quieter fairy suggests, glancing at the violet haired mage.
“OH YEAH! THE TOMATO HERMIT!” Rin shouts, fluttering from Nozomi’s hand back to Eli and Nico, who tries to stifle her giggles.
“T-tomato hermit? Why are they called that?!”
The other fairy flies over towards them.
“That’s Rin’s nickname for her. Her real name is Maki-- she has a lovely garden, but she’s protective of her tomatoes.”
“Maybe she knows what we’re looking for?” Nozomi tilts her head and turns towards her friends.
“Possibly.” Eli smiles at the fairies and speaks politely, “Would you lovely fae folk be able to guide us to the hermit’s house? We seem to be lost.”
“We noticed!” Rin laughs.
Eli ignores her friends wheezing laughter. It’s fine. At least she can admit she’d gotten them lost on accident.
“If you go through the clearing towards that shady bit then you’ll come to a path that leads to her cottage,” the quiet fairy says, directing them to the other side of the meadow.
Before Eli can say more, the rambunctious fairy grabs the other by the hand and proposes they take their gifts back to their shrine. The other doesn’t get to say anything as she’s pulled away from the adventurers and into the forest. There’s a small silence after they fly off, and soon it’s filled with the parties giggles.
When their laughter subsides, they head off to find the hermit. Eli stays a couple paces back so she’s in between Nozomi and Nico, not fond of how dark this pathway is. Nozomi seems unaffected, ignoring the sounds of the forest and staying calm. A vine drags itself from the middle of the pathway and into the shrubs. Nico makes sure her lyre is away and she’s ready to grab her weapon at any time. She swallows nervously and presses forward with her friends.
They walk for a while before the trees thin and another clearing comes into view. Not far off in the distance is a tiny wooden cottage- its decal having little to none. The windows have curtains blocking light and any creatures to see inside them and its thick, wooden door looks in great condition- perfect for keeping everybody out.
Out front is a quaint little garden. Upon getting closer to it, the party can see how beautiful it is- the cabbages and bok choy are large, full and very leafy. The corn stalks are tall and proud and the tomato plants? The fairies were right- the almost ripened tomatoes hanging from the stalks are one of a kind- definitely something this gardener can brag about.
Nico eyes the vegetables with greed. It’s been a while since they had a decent meal with fresh produce. A hand is on her shoulder before she can even decide to swipe any of those greens and she glances over to see Nozomi’s warning smile. Nico frowns and shrugs off her hand, moving closer to the door where Eli stands.
Eli lifts her hand and knocks firmly on the wood. They wait for any sound of movement or signs of life. When nothing happens, Eli knocks again, louder this time. Nico begins to tap her foot impatiently and she huffs.
“Guess she isn’t home?”
“Guess not.” Eli sighs, turning to them. Her eyes land on Nozomi, who looks lost in thought. Her head angles towards the garden and the corner of her lips turn upward.
“Let’s help ourselves to all these wonderful vegetables!”
The door thrusts open, and Eli’s almost smacked with the bristled end of a broom. Clutching the handle is a young woman with bright red hair and deep purple eyes. A dusting of freckles covers the bridge of her nose and she glares angrily.
“Don’t you DARE touch my garden!” she growls.
Upon seeing nobody near it, Maki takes in the scene. Eli standing by the door and Nico, who slaps hands with Nozomi in praise. She immediately closes the door but a booted foot blocks it, forcing it to stay open.
“Wait! We need your help!” Eli shouts.
“I prefer not to help people,” Maki grumbles.
“Hey! Not all of us are people!” Nico says in mock offence.
“Oh, sorry, let me rephrase then. I prefer not to help anyone.” Maki tries to push Eli’s foot away but it stays put.
“Could you at least hear us out? We’re trying to find ‘the heart of the woods’!”
Maki stops trying shut the door and stares at them.
“If I take you to where it probably is, will you leave me alone?”
“Yes!” Nozomi and Nico reply simultaneously, leaving Eli’s concern about Maki’s ‘probably’ comment unheard.
Maki places her broom down and slips on her boots, meeting the trio outside with a staff in hand. She steps past them and heads towards the forest without waiting. By the time they get the hint, Nico’s the first to sprint, calling after her while Nozomi and Eli follow.
After a short journey they stop at the entrance to a third clearing. The party looks around to find they’ve reached the ruins of an old looking temple with giant stone columns and stairs that are worn with age. Plants cover the building, and though it appears run down, it feels stable, aside from the ominous aura surrounding it. Vines rush down the steps towards them and Maki lifts her staff, casting a wordless spell. The plants immediately freeze, retracting back where they came from.
“Here you go. I’m tired, so I’m leaving now. Bye.” Maki says, walking back the way they came from.
“It’s only been twenty minutes!” Nico replies incredulously.
Before disappearing Maki pauses, turning to give them some parting words.
“That spell only lasts five minutes.”
Not wanting to waste any time, Nozomi and Eli grab Nico by the arms and drag her up into the temple. When they step inside they let her go and Nozomi whispers a couple spells on the threatening plants. A large variety of friendlier foliage grows through every crack and crevice hit by the sun that streams through the crumbled ceiling. It feels much more peaceful inside. At the far end of the room, directly under a sun beam sits a tiny stick structure. Mushrooms and other wildflowers surround it and inside behind two berries sits the treasure they seek, glimmering a bright and vivid viridian.
Eli steps forward, her party following until they’re a few feet away from the shrine.
“The heart of the woods,” Eli breathes.
“Wait, are those raspberries?” Nico says, directing their attention to the food. “Are the fairies here?!”
They look around and directly above the shrine, on a vine hanging low from the ceiling sits the fairies, cuddling and enjoying each others company.
“Seriously?!” Nico squints before shouting up to them, “HEY! YOU!”
The fairies glance downward and look surprised to see the three of them.
“Oh! Hello!” the timid fairy greets. “Was Maki able to help you?”
“All she did was-” Before Nico can finish Nozomi interrupts.
“She was! She thinks what we’re looking for is here.”
“Really?!” Rin beams. “Where is it?!”
“We believe the treasure we seek is inside that little shrine.” Eli answers, matching Rin’s grin.
The fairies share a look and push themselves off the vine, flying lower so they can speak to the travellers better.
“That’s not a ‘heart of the woods’! That’s the life stone!” Rin says.
“The life stone?” The trio says at the same time.
“The life stone! I-It takes care of all of us in the forest and to thank it, we fairies have been taking care of it for centuries,” the timid fairy explains.
The group shares a look with each other and immediately huddle, excluding the fairies from the conversation.
“Well, this quest is a bust. What do we do now?!” Nico whispers.
“What if we left with some of the magical plants instead?” Nozomi voices. “With the powerful magical energy in here, it’s possible it’s seeped into the plants too . I’m sure the fairies wouldn’t mind, and then the journey wouldn’t be for nothing.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Eli decides reluctantly, breaking away from their huddle and looking to the fairies. “Looks like your life stone and the heart of the woods are the same thing. We gave it some thought and decided it’d be wrong to take such a valuable treasure.”
The happiness on the fairies faces is so bright it rivals the sun.
“T-thank you! We really appreciate that,” the brunette says.
“In return though, may we take some of these?” Nozomi gestures to the plants.“ They could be very useful for us.”
“Sure! We’ll help you gather some!”
After gathering a plentiful amount, they say goodbye to the fairies and exit the temple. Nozomi recasts her sleeping spell on the angrier vines, making it safe for them to take their time climbing down the steps. Once they’re back into the woods, Eli sighs.
“I guess we should’ve known we wouldn’t get any treasure.”
“Hm, I dunno. I think the real treasure was the friendships we made along the way.” Nozomi laughs and Eli’s heart swells, full of love and inspiration from that insight. Nico sneers.
“If you ever call my lyrics corny again, I’ve locked this memory into my brain and I’ll hold it against you!”
They laugh and sigh contently, glad this journey has come to an end. A moment of realization hits Eli as the sun creeps lower in the sky and the woods begin to grow darker. She pales.
“Uh. So. Has anyone been keeping track of where we’ve been going since the meadow?” She asks nervously.
The other two remain quiet as it hits them too. They have no idea where they are. They’re still lost.