Chapter 31: A Part of the Forest
Read all the chapters here. Enjoy!
Previously: The orphan girl Drisel asked Madnes for his help in what has been his most difficult case yet. Her orphan companions went into the forbidden forest, a place that is closely connected to Wonderland’s Forest of the Haunted: a perilous place from which few have ever returned, a place where the Haunted Ones roam and the forest itself seeks to consume you. She and Madnes have ventured through the depths of the forest in search of her lost friends, barely escaping the Haunted Ones. Now they hide in the mist for safety, but time is running out, and it might already be too late to save anyone…
Shapes moved through the billowing mist, eyes like lanterns of the Haunted Ones came and went. Time was ticking, but Madnes feared to move and risk detection. Not only that, but his head felt stuffy, and he caught his eyelids droop several times. He shook himself awake, trying to focus.
One hour left.
No, no, there wasn’t time! Even if he found the other orphan children now, they’d still have to find their way out of the forest maze. One hour wasn’t enough—he had to find those kids!
A faint beam of light softly drew through the mist, followed by another: the faint light of dawn, he realized, as it broke through the canopy and made the white air take on a golden glow. No more shapes moved about; the Haunted Ones would return to their slumber. The thick fog retreated slowly back up into the shadowed areas of the trees high above, where it would wait until nightfall. Madnes carefully got up, and pulled a sleepy Drisel with him.
His shoes sunk into wet soil, and he looked to see they’d been hiding at the edge of a small pool—its water murky and layered with algae. A tree overgrown with green moss grew from its depths and up at a slant. An odd shape perched around the lowest limb. As the light chased shadows away, and dust specks glimmered in the air, he watched the shape climb down toward them. Sunlight caught in auburn hair, and faint pupils looked up at him. The young kid moved across the forest floor with ease on bare feet, and his tattered clothes rippled as if stirred by an unfelt breeze.
Drisel saw him and immediately wrenched herself free from Madnes. “Nagato!” She barreled into him, arms outstretched. He slightly stumbled, and a faint smile touched his face; but there was a distant look in his eyes, a part that the smile wasn’t reaching.
“Drisel…” his voice rustled like leaves in the wind. “You should not have risked your life for us.”
“How can you say that?” Drisel held him by the arms, tears bubbling out, but Nagato’s gaze dropped down and away from her.
Listening, Madnes analyzed the boy up and down. It became clear: tendrils of vines tangled through Nagato’s hair, and soft, velvety moss crawled up the sides of his face, the fronts of his arms, and tops of his feet. He was a part of the forest.
“Nagato?” Drisel asked again, concern marring her features now. “What happened to you?” Madnes stepped forward and placed a hand on her frail shoulder.
“Is it too late?” Madnes knew he didn’t want to hear the answer the moment he asked. He was too late, of course he was. They never knew the exact time Nagato had entered the forest; they only had a rough guess based on when the other orphan, Ash, went in after him. ‘I failed… Darn it all, I failed!’ A fine line held his emotions back, keeping back the screams and cries his soul begged to unleash.
Nagato met his gaze, then turned his face to the side with a sad look that betrayed the peaceful smile on his lips. “It’s not too late for him.” He nodded up at the mossy tree. Against the trunk propped up on a branch was another boy—dust flecks glinting on the curls of his ash hair. He slept balled up in a fearful ball. Nagato stretched out a hand, and a limb from the tree wrapped around and lifted Ash up carefully, placing him down beside him and Drisel. Ash’s eyelids fluttered half open.
“Drisel… Drisel?” Ash asked distantly, gaze half glazed over. He was only part conscious. Faint specks of green speckled the flesh of his cheeks.
“He doesn’t have long,” said Nagato. “You must take him out of the forest. I will help guide you, while I still have control over myself.” Madnes nodded and scooped Ash’s limp form up in his arms.
Scurrying limbs and growling could be heard behind the trees as Madnes and Drisel hurried after Nagato, who held Harrey’s compass and led them through the maze of green. Trees appeared to shift and gather like a wall to block their path, and Nagato swiftly navigated them around—roots tripping their feet. The forest was fighting to keep them in.
A pack of blurs and limbs burst out of the underbrush near Madnes’ right—the creatures from before. He tried to pick up Drisel while still holding Ash, but the blurs were fast. He placed himself between them and shielded with his body, bracing for impact.
Nagato shoved both his hands outward, fingers splayed, eyes flashing green. Crunching, ripping wood echoed, and vines like whips dropped down and flung at the creatures—catching and tangling them up like a spider web would insects. “Hurry!”
Foliage weaved thicker. Madnes and Drisel shoved their way through, knocking and pushing bushes aside, climbing over roots and limbs reaching to drag them down. Following behind them, Nagato focused, trying to force the greenery back. “The forest is fighting my influence…she doesn’t want to let you go. You must hurry! I can barely hold it back…”
“Drisel, hold my arm!” Madnes told her. She didn’t hesitate. With both orphans on him, he braced himself and charged forward.
KRrsh! Smrsh! KrrnCH! Wood broke away as he tore forward, a trickle of power in his legs moving his muscles. Bruises welted skin beneath his clothes and slashes covered his face as he plowed forward—tearing a way out of this place whether the forest willed it or not.
One final Krack! and bright sunlight beat down on them from a blue sky above, his shoes crunching the soil of a fallow field. They were out!
Drisel gave a joyful shout, and Madnes set Ash down wearily. She turned back around and paused at the forest’s foggy edge behind them. “Nagato?” she held out her hand, “You’re coming too…right?”
He met her hopeful gaze with regret. “This was all my fault, Drisel. I’m so sorry… Ash, I’m so sorry.” She kept her hand out, and he finally said, “It’s too late for me.”
“No…!” Drisel’s voice choked, and she tried to grab his hand, but he pulled back deeper into the leaves. Ash slowly sat up and stared after their friend, regaining consciousness; emotions writing across his face the words his mouth couldn’t work to say.
“I should’ve known better… I was warned about this forest, but I didn’t listen. I wanted to find us a home so badly…I refused to wait for God to provide,” Nagato’s gaze moistened. “I listened to a stranger, instead.”
Drisel’s chin trembled, tears rolling down, and Ash shakily got to his feet. Nagato reached out to lightly touch her cheek and Ash’s chest. “Don’t be sad. Maybe I’ll still be me, in a way, though I can never leave here. I…will miss my other life, and you…”
After a heart wrenching goodbye, Drisel and Ash finally walked away across the field, toward where Harrey and Knight Pelur stood waiting for them, hand in hand and glancing back more than once. Madnes brushed tears from his eyes and was about to follow.
He halted, and turned back.
“Don’t blame someone else for the choices I made,” Nagato’s gaze held him. “This wasn’t your fault, or the Creator’s fault. I was warned, but I didn’t listen.”
Madnes was tempted to look away. He did feel it was his fault. If he was stronger, better at using his power, more clever, fearless, and…and… A light hand touched his chest, green tendrils stirred from an unfelt breeze along Nagato’s arm.
“Don’t give up, just because I couldn’t be saved, Madness Solver. Okinala needs you.” A vine held out a top hat; Nagato took it and brushed it off. “You dropped this.” The familiar top hat plopped down on Madnes’ head.
“How do you know about the Madness Solver?”
“The forest told me.” Nagato’s eyes, suddenly intense, pierced through his. “Do this for me, will you?” he asked then, “Save our world. Don’t let anyone else become like me.”
Madnes held the boy’s hand in his for one brief moment, one last goodbye. “I will…I promise.”
Nagato’s smile was almost serene as Madnes left, looking back over a shoulder one last time.
“Who was the stranger that talked you into coming here?”
“He was like a crow, and yet also human,” recalled the orphan. “He had blonde hair, and a smooth voice that tempted me to believe anything he said…”
Anger flashed behind Madnes’ violet gaze, and it felt like the air itself crackled. “Oz.”
Cold rage stormed.
Artwork by Saimain on Deviantart. I adore her artistic imagination!
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© copyright 2015 E. Rawls and Rawls E. Fantasy, All Rights Reserved
This is my entry for this week’s #BlogBattle challenge by the wonderful author Rachael Ritchey, where the challenge is to write a short story based on that week’s chosen word. This week’s word was: “Fallow.” Check out the link, read other great stories there, and VOTE for your favorite 3 to win!
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