We set down just outside the Great Forest. There was a town called E'mac a mile or two beyond it that was — the crew told me — the best place to do a food order. They had plenty of farms around here, so livestock and produce were both bountiful. But we'd arrived too late in the afternoon for any of the farmers' markets to still be doing business. We would have to put the food run off until the morrow.
While we waited for daylight to run out, Crim and Angelis had us do minor repairs and adjustments to the ship. Those didn't take long. After that, we were free to do whatever for the remainder of the evening.
They say curiosity killed the cat, and it may yet kill me. When no one was really paying sharp attention, I skedaddled off the ship and over to the edge of the woods. The air seemed thicker, there. Sounds came through in weird distant echoes, and yet at the same time, they were muffled by the closeness of all the plant life and trees.
A few yards down the tree line I found a path and started along it. Not but two seconds along the dirt walkway, there was shouting coming from behind me and along came Twest.
"Nooooooo nononononoonono," Twest said, hurrying to catch up with me. "You're
not supposed to wander off! Crim would kill someone if you went and got lost or kidnapped or eaten or something."
"I'm just investigating," I said.
"Yeah, uh-huh, no," he said flatly. "March yourself right back to the ship."
"Day off," I said.
"You're the magic user. We need you for the end of the quest," Twest pointed out. "Day off or not, we can't afford to lose you."
"Alright," I said, and started off again. "Then you'll just have to come along."
"What?! No! That's crazy! I've got tons of more important things to be doing!"
"Didn't Tiara go into town for a facial?" I asked, glancing back. "I've never seen this forest before. I wanna know what it's like."
"It's full of trees and plants and animals," Twest said, annoyed but keeping up.
The path I had found wound down and in for a while. There was a stream that ran along it for a bit, and then crossed it. Someone had been kind enough to put a bunch of large stones in the water where the path should have been so that you could cross without getting wet. Then the path took a turn around a steep hill and started winding between trees that had to have been at least wide enough to fit three of me inside, if they'd been hollowed out.
"These are amazing! There wasn't anything near as impressive as this where I used to live," I said.
Twest didn't seem to care. He kept sighing impatiently. "We ought to be getting back."
Dusk started setting in before I realized it and the next thing I knew, it was getting hard to see.
"Shoot," Twest said, "This isn't good. Come on, let's get back before something decides to make us dinner." He turned around and started back along the path, then tripped. "Gah! I can't see."
"Hey, no worries. I've got," I clicked my fingers and made a small ball of fire, "Magic!"
Twest didn't seem impressed. "Lovely. So now we're alone in the woods, and
we're making ourselves visible to every predator in the nearby vicinity."
"Quite the optimist, aren't you?" I said, quirking a brow.
I passed him so my fire spell could light the way and we started off. It didn't illuminate things very far
, but it was something. At least we were still on the same path we'd started on; it hadn't split off or anything.
And then we came to a fork in the road...
"Heeeeeeey, that's cheating!" I said to the path. "This was a single path the first time!"
"Yeah..." Twest leaned down to examine it, "It was. There weren't any offshoots. One of us would have noticed. And this isn't a simple tangent path, this is definitely a three-point intersection. We would
have had to have noticed if we suddenly went off on an angle."
The path did not seem to care that we found discrepancy with it. Neither of them appeared overly familiar in the dim light of my fire spell. However, something caught my attention. There was a small light a little way down the path on the right. I pointed it out to Twest.
"Right seems like the direction we ought to be heading," he hummed uncertainly. "But that doesn't look like any sort of natural light I've ever seen..."
"Maybe it's one of the others coming to look for us," I offered, setting off.
"Or maybe it's some kind of creature with bioluminescence," Twest grumbled, "And we're about to be eaten."
"You're really set on this being eaten thing, huh?" I mused.
"Has anyone ever told you that you sound like Crim?" Twest asked, frowning.
The distant light bobbed a bit and then disappeared. After a minute it came back into view.
"We shouldn't have come out this close to dark," Twest muttered.
A mist started to roll in around us as we went further down this road. It ate up the light being cast by my fire. I had to make it bigger to accommodate the same area of effect. Oddly, the little light that had been in front of us seemed to have been joined by a dozen or so fellows. For the most part they were still, but every once in a while one of them would bob or wink out, and then back.
"It feels like they're watching us," Twest whispered. "We should have brought weapons."
"Iiiiiiii don't think we needa worry," I said, drawing out the first word in a sing-song way.
"Why's that?" he asked back.
"Duck," I said.
Twest paused, confused, then said "Oh," and crouched down.
I switched my fire spell into a movement of wind and spread it out all around us in a quick burst. The fog was blown away and I quickly restarted my handful of fire to light where we were. The path we were on was surrounded on either side by water. We were going across a sort of lake. One of the lights was visible just ahead. It was floating on the water, so I jogged up to it.
"I didn't think anything living on
water would bother with attacking the likes of us," I said. "But this takes the cake on benign encounters," I added, grinned back at Twest.
He caught up, surprise all over his face at what was floating just alongside the path. "A lunar lotus! Wow, these are really rare! They only grow where certain types of gases are trapped below the surface and where the climate is just right."
"They wouldn't need the sort of stuff released by farm plants and animals, would they?" I asked.
Twest frowned. "Actually... That might
account for it. But they can't grow in too much exposed sunlight. So a farm would be no good."
"I think this is the closest you're going to get. Look," I pointed up, "The trees make a sort of covering over this watery area, so they probably get nothing but shade in the day."
"Can you blow away more of the fog?" Twest asked, suddenly.
"Uh... I guess so, but why?"
"I want to take some of these back for Tiara," he smiled. "We only ever came across them once before and she went nuts for them."
I laughed. "Sure. But, if ya don't mind my pointing it out, we didn't pass a lake the first time through. I don't think we're on the right path..."
"Oh, that's okay," Twest said, gathering up some of the flowers, and staying crouched so I could wipe out more fog. "I double checked our map of this area before we touched down. The lake runs right up to the edge of the forest. All we have to do is make sure that when we get across it we go west for a little way. And that's easy enough to figure out."
I raised a brow as he went along the path gathering up the lunar lotuses that were near the edge. "How's that? It's dark, so we can't judge by the sun. Did you bring a compass?"
"No, no. Lunar lotus blossoms always point toward the moon, even if they're not directly getting light from it. Given the time of year, how far it ought to be above the horizon... what time it came up..." Twest paused and squinted. I think he was calculating in his head. Then he glanced down at the flower he was about to scoop up and checked where it was aimed. "Yeah, we go that way," he said, pointing, "Once we get past the lake. Path or no path, we aren't far from the edge of the forest from here."
"Okay," I said shrugging, "You're the maps guy."
Sure enough, once we were past the lake, we cut right and went about five minutes before the woods opened up to farm fields again. It was only a short walk back to the Scarlet Skye, so we can't have gotten too far off course on our way back through. The others seemed upset about our being missing, but all was forgiven when Twest presented Tiara with that bouquet of lunar lotus blossoms he'd scooped out of the water.
Crim nudged me while Tiara was still going on and on about how beautiful they were.
I examined my nails, "Nothing we couldn't handle."
He smirked. "Now where have I heard that before?"