A courtier caught up to me as I strode purposefully down the path from the Heart-Blossom and towards the traveling party, nearly ready to depart at the entrance to the village. I recognized them as the same one who had informed me that my father was missing, before I had what turned out to be the breakthrough that I needed — Sylvia was their name, I recalled.
“Your Highness, your bravery and your commitment to your kingdom and your father are deeply admirable, but…” They sucked in a breath through their teeth, then continued hurriedly, “It would be prudent for Your Highness to stay behind in case the party doesn’t make it back. You are only 14 years old, and you haven’t had a chance to practice using your magic yet.”
I paused mid-stride and turned to Sylvia, letting their words bounce cleanly off me, no apprehension and no frustration. “I appreciate your concern, but I can handle this. Have faith in me, like I have faith in you, in the court, that you will carry on and care for our kingdom, even if I don’t make it back. Even if neither of us do.” I gripped their shoulder firmly and looked down into their eyes: shimmering black, like mine and my father’s. “I have to do this. Please trust me, Sylvia.”
They breathed a resigned sigh. “Of course, Your Highness. I trust you. We trust you.” There was clear hesitation in their voice, but they must have known that I wouldn’t let them stop me. They glanced at my bare feet in the short grass beneath us. “You’ll probably need some shoes, though, Your Highness.”
“Ah.” My face grew hot. “Right. Woods. Shoes.”
Plumerian shoes, while very comfortable for leisurely walks through the forest, are typically open-toed, and thus not suitable for bushwhacking — least of all in the Whispering Woods. So, as I stood with the traveling party at the edge of the Woods, I felt the loamy ground through a pair of specially made leaf-leather boots, much the same as my father was wearing when he set out two days prior.
The party consisted of seven strong, young volunteers. They all stood proudly in their thick traveling cloaks, supplies strapped to their backs, spears at the ready. And I stood with them, in my pink flowing dress which nearly dragged against the ground, and my mother’s pendant dangling loosely around my neck.
We had already traveled for a few hours through the forests, communes, and villages of northern Plumeria. It was still dark, but a few more of Etheria’s nine minor moons had risen, casting a pale light on the countryside. At the edge of the Whispering Woods, any moonlight that penetrated the trees was quickly devoured.
Okay, Woods, I thought as I stared down the intense darkness before me. I could barely see two yards ahead of me, even with the torches the party carried. Here we go. Show me the way.
I slowed my breathing and cleared my mind. It was suddenly so much easier than before. I felt somehow lighter, like that leaden weight I had always carried in my stomach had simply dissolved.
I visualized my father: his blond goatee, hair in a messy bun, eyes that sparkled when he smiled. Every detail of how he looked when he had left came back to me so quickly, you’d think it had been mere moments since I saw him last. The idea that he was in peril somewhere scared me, but not like it had before. This time, I knew how it would end. Either he would return with me… or he would spend his last moments with me, his daughter.
My resolve hardened to stone. I glared at the Woods with an intensity I didn’t know I had. This time, I didn’t have to concentrate or wait to feel the energy in the foliage — I was the energy.
I thrust my arm forward into the brush and felt the warm tickle of magic pour out through my fingertips. A bed of wildflowers sprung to life under my feet. Suddenly, thousands of years of overgrowth simply opened, parting like curtains and creating a gap large enough for the whole party to walk abreast through it.
There was a stunned silence from the party behind me as they watched the display. I let my arm fall and craned my neck to look at them. “Well? Are we going?” I asked, suddenly embarrassed as I remembered that I had an audience.
The party members nodded, still dumbfounded but ready to move. I nodded back then shifted my gaze ahead to the Woods.
“Then let’s go.” I took my first steps into the Whispering Woods and felt the energy shift around me. The mundane forest we had been traveling through had a steady flow that was so predictable I could almost see it. The Whispering Woods, though — they were anything but mundane.
There was no predictability to the way the trees’ energy seemed to shoot through the ground. Pools of magic formed and dissolved in the roots underfoot before I could even notice where they were. Arcane streams criss-crossed the path that I had created, meandering magical creeks that didn’t seem to be certain where they were leading.
But with each centering breath, each new wave of concentration, the streams of magic straightened out for me. Our path through the Woods followed my thoughts as they lead singularly toward my father — toward my future as Plumeria’s Princess.
We made our way through the Woods slowly at first. I had to refocus my thoughts every so often to keep the path clear. But the deeper we went, the more I adjusted to the surroundings, and the easier it became to convince the magic that surrounded us to cooperate. As early daylight began to creep into the sky, muted by the blues and greens of the tree canopy, I was parting the brush like the bow of a ship slices through water.
It turned out that everything my father had taught me had been useful. My steady breathing allowed the magic to flow even more freely through my body. Thoughts passed cleanly in and out of my mind, keeping it open to focus on my father’s energy. And my intentions were absolutely lucid: find my father, get him out of danger and back to Plumeria — and tell him who I really was.
That’s what this was all for, really. I needed my father to know who I was. It would have been devastating if he had left this world without ever meeting the real me. Even if I could still live as I wanted, without him there to see me and to know me, it would have been… wrong. I would have felt like a liar. After finally being honest with myself, I wasn’t about to lie to my father, if I could help it.
The first of the day-moons finally broke on the Whispering Woods, but even broad daylight couldn’t dispel all the shadows that the twisted trees wrought.
Out of thin air, the foliage opened before me into a clearing. It was a nexus of some kind, with thorny roots snaking in at the edges from all directions. The magic in the roots felt different from the other life in the Woods; they felt stubborn, somehow. Fierce and wild and territorial, almost like they were protecting something. They converged in the center of the clearing and twisted together into a thick column. It looked like a devilish imitation of a Plumerian memorial tree, almost like the Woods were mocking us.
And they must have been. There, bound to the trunk of the false tree, was the unconscious figure of my father.