Chapter 24: Accepting into the tasks.
“About Roland, the necromancer.”
“Former apprentice of mine, he was taken in at an early age after his father perished in the deserts west of Ubar. As a boy, he showed promising abilities. His upbringing doted him with an in-depth knowledge of poison crafting and medical herbs while my tutelage added the bases of medical knowledge and spells which he perverted into his trademark abilities. It should also be assumed, given his pets and creations, that he’s dabbled into forbidden or unorthodox arts such as fleshcrafting and even necromancy. He is as skilled as the best doctors and as cunning as a master thief.”
“During my tutelage he’s shown an affinity for electric magic, using it to stimulate muscles and nerves. He experimented with this ability going as far as raising the dead by stimulating muscles granting them a goal by controlling the brain, a perfidy of the healer’s code and a parlor’s trick to make himself called “the necromancer”. In the victim’s brain, the concentrated electricity targets, as a base, the medulla giving the ‘zombie’ back their primal directives at some capacity, the desire for hunger is corrected and augmented while the need to survive is completely suppressed. Adding to that, like a puppet master, he can order them to accomplish tasks like moving mannequins. If they are fresh, they will retain muscle memory, making them much more dangerous. If left unchecked or “untethered” the electrical energy in their brains will remain for a good couple of hours, making them act on basic feeding instinct.(To be expanded in later pages).”
“Additionally, he has been seen using earth magic for exhuming corpses and creating obstacles between him and his attackers. The number of spells known of this school is unknown.”
He is skilled in the use of the Ethereal Scalpel. A spell designed to cut through flesh, tissue and even bone, if properly focused. A tool used for healing is wielded as a blade to instantly cripple his enemies with a single strike.”
“While not having having received training in full on body combat, he was always nimble and quick of thought. He probably learned some form of proper self defense during his time as a criminal. Though at what degree, I can’t tell. He does avoid direct confrontation, being more keen on dodging and tricking than throwing a punch. Instead, he relies on ghastly tricks such as the use of the Ethereal scalpel or many of the biohazard chemicals he carries in his person.”
“It should always be assumed he’s armed and concealing biological hazards up his sleeve. He’s been seen using breakable vials containing anesthetic mists and corrosive acid. Victims of these attacks require immediate medical treatment once struck, which is what usually gives Roland the edge to deal the killing blow. He also carries an assortment of potent medicaments to maximize his effectiveness. Stimulants to keep his body awake and his senses sharp, adrenal injections to bolster his movements and other items that can be used for urgent field medicine.”
“He has a psychological, almost childish, need to act on his ego. It’s been three years since he made his debut as the necromancer and most of the attacks he’s committed were directed towards building up his own legend. Killing the guards of Kentos royalty, stealing old artifacts from the mages college and even plaguing a city, in all the actions, he seeks to make sure they know it’s him. He plays the role a gentleman thief. Always acting as someone calm and collected when, in reality, he is nothing but a child. The overboard of hubris can be his weakness, or so I wish to believe. But considering how cunning the man is and how many times he’s outsmarted the guardian’s traps, there is a chance it’s to prompt others to underestimate him.”
“He is, however, very prideful. Once a guardian that managed to take away his grimoire during a heist by severing the strap of his carrier bag. Roland almost threw away his plan just to get it back and mutilated the man before making his escape.”
“The subsequent pages of this journal until his capture or my death will expand on every aspect, trying my best to gather information as well as point out weaknesses in the hopes that it’ll be used to take Roland down.
The first official entry of the black booklet contained an abridged compilation of the information Mrs. Vanet had managed to gather about the criminal. It all seemed to have been written in a rush, with the strokes of the pen reflecting her anger at the time. She seemed to be making an effort in pouring as much information here as possible. From his fighting and psychological profile, to combat tactics and magic skills. A initial snapshot. Knowing that there was more information like this had shone a bit of optimism to the circumstances.
Of course, given Forest’s unfortunate experience with the criminal, he had a pretty good understanding already. From evident details like his usage of electricity and the magic scalpel to raise the dead and kill the living; to more subtle things, like his childish vendettas and disproportionate retributions to anyone that has ever managed to one-up or injure him even if briefly. It was still good to find out someone had discovered and reached the same conclusions as he.
Having already read through the whole book, it was easy to see that the information here was valuable for gearing up for a fight. Still, it was quite a pity that Mrs. Vanet wasn’t able to pinpoint her former student’s whereabouts. Though, perhaps it was for the better. What would’ve she’d done with the information of Roland’s primary lair?
Whether leaking it to the guardians or heading there herself, it would be a losing battle. Forest knew from experience that Roland took lair trapping way too seriously, having seen the man rig up gruesome traps in tandem creating layers of defense.
He could still remember that time two criminals from a slighted partner were foolish enough to intrude without Roland’s permission. They never made it past the first line of the defense. When the tar slogged undead began to emerge from their shallow graves in the atrium, their screams filled the cave.
And that was, allegedly, the first defense. As far as Forest had been concerned back then, there were more traps one would have to face on the way there, each of a different caliber and type of threat, which Roland often enjoyed to brag. The last of those being Ogre himself, who was tasked to stand guard and attack any person that came without authorization. In all his time there, he never got to fight anyone under those circumstances, fortunately.
Still, whatever attacking force would end up so distracted by the barriers, they would fail to notice the necromancer sneaking out the side of the mountain. Of all the lairs the necromancer held, this was the closest thing to anything he had as a central base.
Back into the present, Forest looked down at the booklet on his hands and searched for a pen in her pocket, musing with the idea of adding information just to answer her question. As things were going, there would be a third encounter.
A third encounter, he’d given it much thought since he saw Roland leave via portal, leaving him stranded in a ring of fire. He was in the hunt for him and viceversa, so the questions were, when and where? At the helm of the idea was Mrs. Vanet’s manor. Forest was familiar with the place and could be used for trapping. There was additionally the option to get assistance from the werewolf clans or Firlandis.
However, that would just raise the body count as he always made sure of properly scouting the area and using diversion tactics. More than once he’s spread a plague over a city before a heist or had Ogre set a fire in the next building of a target. Regardless, the home field advantage could be valuable, just there was a chance it might fall short of it.
But then again, Forest needed to find it first. He knew how to describe the place yet hardly knew the name of it, much less how to reach it. The lair was, fresh in his mind, a pair of mounts lying together, almost overlapping, it was almost as if they had been carved apart by the enraged river that passed through. They weren’t tall enough to stand out, more like the underground river forced its way to the surface before diving back down into the earth. Landmarks that might not be hard to spot on a map.
But it’ll have to be in due time.
His eyes went to the road ahead, watching the green trees rustle to the wind and the robins sing in urging tones as the autumn leaves began to fall. With the city of Kentos at the distance, with it’s tall baroque-like buildings and the chatter coming from the nearby farmlands that were already marking around their territory for any passerby, even the start of autumn bore a semblance of life to it. Quite a contrast with the mental image he was holding.
“That’s the city! We’re almost there,” said the were squirrel girl sitting at the back of the wagon. There was no hiding the excitement and relief in her voice.
“How’s it going back there?” Forest asked, the cart had been mostly. “You were starting to get impatient, weren’t you?” he said reaching over to tussle her head.
“Nu huh,” she said, leaning on the small division between the carrier section and the driver. “I was okay dangling my feet off the edge.”
“You know you shouldn’t do that,” Forest said with a sigh as he pulled the reins to steer Maximus and Minus to the side of the road to let another wagon through.
While it was two traveling, taking the wagon seemed to be an excess, considering they didn’t knew if they would be buying anything at all. However, Forest wasn’t in the mood for learning horseback riding, much preferring to drive at the reins of the wagon as he’d grown used to. And that was ignoring the detail that just having the crotch rubbed on and off against the horse’s back might just be a very weird reminder of the situation.
“Thank you for tagging along,” he muttered. While he was worried about taking the young eight year old girl with him to a rather distant city, company felt invaluable.
“What are we looking for?” Darla asked curiously. It was a rather out of the sudden question. One the girl had surprisingly waited so long, he just imagined that she was all okay tagging along for company’s sake. “We haven’t been here in, months, right? Did we forget something last time?”
“No, we haven’t, but I need to pay a visit to the local greenhouse. I’m looking for some special herbs.” Forest muttered, discreetly waving to a couple of Guardians patrolling the road. Maybe it was his more personal experience in the alternate, but he found less reason to fear the men fulfilling their duty.
“Is it for your power thing?” Darla asked.
Forest was a tad surprised, after all, as far as he could remember, this might’ve been the first time the child was acknowledging his abilities. But then again, the she’s smarter than he gave her credit, and it’s not like he’s been completely secretive about the things he’s done. “Correct… I’ll be looking for some more things to arm up. Do you remember, Roland?”
“The man that smelled of death?” Darla muttered fearful, nodding. “You’re going after him?”
“I’m afraid I have to… The man is too dangerous to be left alone. He has to be taken down.”
“Why not tell the guardians? They are the good guys, right?” Darla asked.
“I will… but.” Civil war, widespread inward corruption, his criminal record. There were many reasons for Forest not to rely in the officers of this world, at least until the dust settled and Camilla and Jensen’s faction would emerge victorious from the squabble. “They might help, they might not. But I have to be ready to face him regardless.”
“But… he’s dangerous. Mrs. Vanet told me so before she left.”
“Trust me when I say, I know. And I don’t intend to back down when the next encounter comes. As stupid as it sounds, this is my destiny. The reason Mrs. Vanet saved me was so that I could wage the war she could never finish.” He looked over his shoulder just to see Darla cock her head. And then there was the feeling that he was being a bit too intense for a child. “I’ll tell you at some point. Hopefully, when you’re older.The full story.” There was a lot of things but he desired for a happy ending to tell Darla.
“So, what are you planning to get?” Darla asked.
“Just some stuff for the next encounter. Some Chokedust and sleeper dust.” Forest said offhandedly.
Those were the tamer items of the list, though. Acidic extracts, severe poisons, the heart of a beast. Things utmost dangerous. The thornspitter seed had been a good way of threading into lethal territory, but at the same time, proved to be a double edge sword in the last encounter. No, he had to get better seeds and better plants. Which this world seemed to have in abundance.
He was glad he couldn’t feel the seed’s energy lingering down in his system, having willingly purged it off during the times meditating at prison.
“You know what could work?” Darla asked with the air of childish brag. “Wolfsbane.”
“Wolfsbane? The werewolf poison?”
The squirrel girl just nodded. “It taste awful and Mrs. Casterly is always telling me to not even to nibble the leaves. Say’s it’s very poisonous. I mean, when I take my pills, I can feel the inner animal go to sleep. I can’t change or anything.”
“That’s a nice thought,” Forest answered, idly stroking her hair while inwardly thinking that, not being an actual werewolf might damper the effectiveness of the poison. Of course, he saw the twinkle in Darla’s eyes and just couldn’t bring himself to deny her suggestion. “I’ll think about it. Though I think Mrs. Vanet has ample supply of those. Living close to werewolf lands and all that.”
The carriage was pulled into a merchant street, where her attention was easily swayed by most of the things around, from doll stores to clothes. Being at the care of a foster home, there were just so few luxuries the girl could allow herself to have. Which, now as Forest realized, was a tender image. Every time Mrs. Vanet treated the girl, it was her way of being kind.
“Oooh! That smells delicious. Can we have some?” Darla said pointing over to the nearest pastry shop. A baker had just finished pulling a fresh new load of cake from the oven and was taking his good time showing them around as Darla’s mouth watered at the sweet warm scent that reeked the air. And to be honest, Forest was starting to feel it as well.
“Remember, we didn’t came over for impulse shopping,” Forest reminded. All they could count within their pockets was the three hundred coins he got from Mrs. Vanet’s drawer. How much would that money last was up to interpretation. A budget needed to be made, even if Forest wasn’t certain when would he be forced to act. “How about I make you some pancakes when we return home?”
“I love your pancakes,” she squeaked with a small smile. By then, the wagon was making a hard turn around an empty corner to a small corner side shop. The place was aptly decorated with flowers and bouquets that showcased its trade, but didn’t seemed to worry much about broadcasting it to everyone around. Thankfully, thought Forest.
A couple of minutes later, in between putting the horses on a stall and managing to convince Darla to not wander too far and to not get into trouble for the next half an hour, he took a step into the establishment.
Just like before, the place was dark and humid, contrasted by the light that poured in through the crossbeam ceiling to feed in the plants. Plants, from bushes to trees were on display, with more than a few given particular treatment in the back area from where he could see.
Like last time, the place was always modest in terms of clientele. With a couple of people window shopping near the entrance where the most eyecatching flowers were, and a group of young drow elves standing near the end, watching the displays back there in awe and jumping as a loud clang came from the thick glass panel. Despite his conception of races in this world, it was oddly amusing to see them reacting like regular teenagers would: laughing and commenting to themselves on how cool something looked.
“Hey! Stop bothering the thornspitter!” Exclaimed the store clerk, ushering them towards the front area of the store where as they took off towards the exit. And that got her attention towards Forest.
It was the same woman as before. A ‘light’ elf of long braided hair and soft looks. She was what he’d heard people refer to as a Woodland elf. Slightly less willowy than her base cousins, with a bit less ‘fair’ to the looks without losing any of her appeal, with freckles on her tanned skin and tribal markings on her cheeks and arms.
She gave Forest a small smile. “Hello, it’s good to see you again,” she said walking up to him. In a small moment of self awareness, Forest’s hand reached over to hold his own covered left arm, where the ill constructed arm had yet to heal into something more passable.
“I don’t get many customers around,” she explained after Forest was caught by surprise. “And of those that I get, you are not so easily forgotten,” she said tilting her head slightly.
“Yeah,” was all Forest could bring himself to say, finding himself blushing at the treatment he was getting. “I-I need some specimens. Unconventional.”
“Are these for Mistress Vanet?” she asked politely, already knowing what was expected, she led Forest to the back of the store. “How is she doing? I haven’t heard of her in a long time,” she said with some trepidation.
“She often got in contact with you?” Forest asked as they stepped into the backroom. The place was as he remembered: a menagerie of exotic types of plants, each awarded their own distinctive exhibit, made exclusively to cater for their needs. From corner to corner of the eye, venus carnivoras, glowing gorgeous flowers, a hibernating thornspitter and, the one he’d been looking for, the so called sleeper plant. Trapped inside the glass casing of it’s display.
“She was a regular customer a couple of years ago,” the girl said moving from display to display, tweaking the lights and proceeding to water each of the plants with a swift swipe of the water canister. “It’s hard to forget someone who could go toe to toe against me when it came to herbal knowledge. I hope she’s gotten better from whatever it’s been ailing her.” That last part came across as slightly ominous. And before Forest could comment, she added. “A woman in her condition and with the properties of the herbs she bought, it’s nothing someone like me can’t guess.”
And then, the girl’s eyes just lingered in Forest’s way.
“Sadly, I don’t think she might be coming here again,” Forest said a tad somberly as he walked by the displays.
The girl’s reaction was frozen still for a second, with bits of sadness visible in the subtle details, like her eyes avoiding Forest’s and her inconsistent swallowing of emotions. Still, she sighed and shook her head. “I guess, that was always possible. It’s a pity.” To punctuate that, she added a small prayer in elvish.
“Yeah,” was all Forest could say in those circumstances. He’d been dealing with the grieving over Mrs. Vanet’s passing for the past days, and yet he still couldn’t bring himself to not feel anything about her. Despite being the reason Roland became the world known nightmare, she tried to make things right in her way. Provide some sort of fix. Even if she thought she knew best and constantly found herself sidelined by the unexpected, her heart was in the right place. And that didn’t just come from the books.
“Ahem… so,” the elven girl said after completing the elven verse. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for some special plants.” Forest answered.
“What plants?” she asked, turning her back for a moment as she carefully opened thornspitter’s display, just to remove the elongated seed it’d just ejected while it slept.
“I’m not really sure how to say this,” Forest answered, he wondered how he would go about explaining without raising any alerts. He reached down into his pocket and produced a crumpled list. “Do you have any of the items of that list?”
“Let me see?” The clerk mused after closing and locking the display. The moment she looked at the page, her eyes widened in surprise, glancing up to look at Forest, going back and forth as if to make sure she was reading it right.
“These samples… some are very hard to get by. What do you need them for?” she said with a small whisper anyone else hanging around the main area of the store would be eavesdropping their way.
“It was Mrs. Vanet’s request. I need these items to… accomplish certain task in her stead.” And I could tell you, but you would have a hard time believing it, thought Forest as he sized up her expression. So far she didn’t seem apprehensive enough to warrant for him to run, but at the same time was curious on the matter. “I would appreciate help here. I’m afraid I’m not used to this kind of search.” Was preferable to “I don’t know this world”.
“Well, give me one second. You are from near Firlandis, right?” She made her way to the small desk in the backroom and snatched pen and paper before writing something. “Whatever Mrs. Vanet wanted you to do is no mere scavenger hunt. I should want to say that I’m not concerned with whatever happens here.” She lifted her head to look at Forest. “But I love a good story. Perhaps you can tell me about this when your quest reaches the end.”
“If things go well… I’ll sure do.” Forest muttered. Second person he’s promised to tell this adventure on the same day. After all, It’d be a story worth telling, if he survives.
The store clerk finished and tore out the small page off the notepad offering it to Forest. On it was written a bunch of addresses from both Kentos and the coastal City of Firlandis, none of which he could recognize at the top of his head. “Is this where I can get the plants of the list?”
“Some… I’m no expert, but these are the places where you might come by these samples. Just be careful. These places are essentially supply stores for thief and exotic traders. They might have Chokedust grenades and acidic vials. I doubt they would take in a stranger asking around for the usuals.” She then pointed at an address by Firlandis’ piers. “I’m not sure where you can find the Tephena Calenum… that’s elven for the Volcanic Dayflower, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask around here. That second address is a smugglers store in Firlandis. They might have some of the more rarer items, some may not. Though, I’m afraid doing so might end up being expensive.”
“I’ll consider it,” Forest said as he folded the piece of paper in half and carefully slipped it down his coat’s inner pocket. “Thank you very much. This information has been very useful.”
“That’s all I can do for you. The only plant of that list that we deal with is the Daynighter Bloomer, also known as the blue sleeper,” she lead him over to the special display. Just like last time, the store had taken safety measures when dealing with the plant, keeping it sealed in a hermetical chamber and with a small air duct connecting to the rooftop. And it was all an understandable precaution, for the specimen was in the middle of a rather gorgeous bloom. With its blue petals open displaying the large colorful orange stigmas while also filling the confined space with golden pollen.
“Sadly,” the clerk muttered. “It began blossoming two days ago. It’ll be difficult to get you a sample of it without risking putting the rest of the store in a deep slumber.”
“I can retrieve it,” Forest muttered somewhat serious as he stepped close, leaning over to look into the glass. The exhibit was meant to simulate it’s natural environment, in this case, the swamp. With a lot of the earth brimming with water, fallen logs and an odd type of soil. The care seemed to be working as one could easily spot many little buds already starting to grow. “Are those small ones useful?”
“No. These types of plants take around two full years to grow. The swamp climate protects them from the cold, so they can pace their own growth. We just have the one,” the elven lady sounded somewhat hesitant at the idea of opening it. “Are you sure you want it? Even if you uproot it, it’ll keep off spouting the spores for a good half a day. Would be quite dangerous.”
Forest’s eyes glanced at the large lotus like flower while his fingers caressed the display. “I’ll just need a petal then. Would that be feasible?”
“A petal? Would be safer, sure.” the clerk asked, now puzzled, with her eyes sparkling in curiosity. “Though I would still need to reach in there to take it and… well, my boss would take it badly if I were to pass out during my shift.”
“I can handle it,” Forest said looking over at her, finding a small confident smile form itself on the corner of his lips.
“Can you? It just takes a whiff of this plant for a grown man to start feeling lethargic. Two puts you close to the ground. The third is full sleep.” The clerk was with some assertiveness but not refusing the request. A part of him wondered whether it was out of curiosity or strictness to policy. “I can’t just open it.”
The woman was looking at him with decided eyes and, at the same time, he stared back at the small glass box with the golden dust fluttering in the air. It was a risk. Not the reaching through the sleeping power, but how would he convince the owner he was up for the task? “I want the petal, because I’m the only one that can take it,” And with that, Forest pulled the arm from his pocket and peeled back the sleeve to reveal his limb.
The store clerk was startled but at the same time, drawn with curiosity. She cocked her head, getting close to the arm with her fingers tentatively prodding the surface. It’s been a day or so since his arm was peeled apart by the magical shackle in Firlandis and it still had a long way to heal, yet being in a more familiar place, considerably with much less stress had aided the healing process. Wooden bark and chips were still jutting from the skin and his own pinky finger and thumb were still a mixture of twigs held together by vines, but the rest had began to grow some tissue in the form of muscles and sinew -albeit not as dissimilar from the green vines he’d been growing. At least the pain had stopped from the elbow upwards.
Still, one could consider showing up his true nature as a dangerous move. How would the elf react? In Forest’s mind, there was always a chance she would run for the guardians, claiming that he was a monster.
She cautiously reached over to stroke the makeshift arm. The touch was a tad of a reassurance for Forest to discover that feeling had returned down to his ‘flesh’. “Are you a dryad?” She asked.
Of course she would say that, Forest thought. “I’m not sure of the answer myself, and even if I did… it would be a very long answer to go through.” Gently, he pulled the arm away and tucked it back into the pocket to hide it from view. “From what I understand, I’m practically immune to any form of plant poison or spore. I could easily get the sample.”
“If you say so…” The clerk answered with a small sigh, standing there indecisive for a good moment before finally making her way towards an employee’s locker by the corner, opening. “Alright, fine, we’ll go through with it.”
“Thanks,” Forest answered appreciatively.
She produced an old fashioned gas mask, a set of rubber gloves and a small beige device that took Forest a good staring time to realize it was an old fashioned hand vacuum. “But for the sake of my own health and the store, try not to take too long. If you turn out to not be immune, I’ll close the glass wall shut.”
“I can live with that,” Forest said, bringing out a small charming smile.
The elven lady smiled in soft reply as she slipped the mask and gloves. “Very well,” she said, with a muffled voice, adjusting her gear and giving the vacuum a couple of testing revs. “I don’t get to wear this often. Whenever you’re ready,” she punctuated, holding the glass panel, with her finger ready to open the latch.
“Alright, Do it,” Forest said.
With that, the display was unlocked and the wall slid up. The small vacuum whirred up and began to work in clearing some of the spores. Forest lost little time, and quickly reached deep for the blooming blue flower.
Pushing through, Forest’s nose was assaulted by a stinging feeling, akin to an itch prior the sneeze which just wouldn’t come out. There was a soft soothing smell, a soft drilling that was unsurprisingly dulling. Fortunately, it happened as predicted, there didn’t seem to be any effect on Forest just yet.
With just one swift move, both hands reached over the plant and with a tug one of the outer petals was plucked easily. The blue sleeper didn’t take it nicely, releasing an explosive burst of spores, though was too slow for a human. Forest’s hands had already retreated outside of the display before the glass panel was slid in to close it.
“It really worked!” She exclaimed with apparent surprise while, fumbling with a plastic bag. “You were right. The plant didn’t affect you. Have you done this before?”
“No. But I’ve had some experience with hemlock poison and alike,” Forest boasted, it was the normal thing he’s had to a casual conversation with another adult. A very startling realization for him, but after all that’s been going on, it felt needed. Grim determination and mission aside, he was still a person.
“Thank you for your help,” he added as the elven girl carefully slipped the petal into the bag and fastened it shut.
“Don’t mention it. It’s not everyday that I find something so mysterious such as yourself. And I get the feeling that you’re embarking in a dangerous mission. That and my upbringing has taught me to help in every form and shape. You… you are certainly something.” She was now in the process of making sure the lock on the display was latched and all the spores in the air would go into the vacuum.
“Where were you taught?”
“Family is from the sylvan woods deep into the west. At the outskirts of the elven kingdom are many jungle communities following the druidic traditions.”
Once she was done vacuuming all the lingering spore dots from the air, she pulled the gasmask off her face, shaking her hair and running her hand down her braid. “Will that be all?”
“I really appreciate the help,” Forest muttered, watching the petal in the bag, with the blue leaves growing coated with the golden dust of the spores. “How much would that be?”
“Zero,” the elf said with a smile, giving herself a pause to gage Forest’s startled face before answering. “You didn’t buy a plant or a seed. Just took a petal. I can hardly say we charge for those.
“Really?” Forest said, the off guard reaction came across as rather sweet in his female voice, or so he imagined as he saw the clerk giggle. “Thanks… but that being said… I hate to ask more from you, but I would appreciate if you could keep this encounter between us.”
“I won’t. You have my word,” the clerk said with a small roll of her eyes. “I do wish you the best of lucks in whatever mission Mrs. Vanet left for you. Considering the items you have to search, I doubt it’ll be easy.”
“I’ll have manage. Thanks again for the help, it really means a lot,” Forest said politely.
“The last point, though,” she added, keeping Forest’s attention in the back area. “The heart. Is it absolutely necessary?”
“How dangerous is it?” Forest asked, carefully stuffing the petal into the pocket.
“Dangerous is an understatement. the creature in question is one of the deadliest beasts living in the elven glades. Even getting there will be a problem.”
“I’m making the plan as I go, I just hope the opportunity will turn up, if not, what I currently have will have to make due.”
“Well, it was a pleasure making business with you,” the clerk said with a soft smile. This time escorting Forest out to the front of the store.
“Thanks, miss…” Forest said, stumbling in his word as he took notice of the way she was looking at him, and at the same time felt a stirring down in the crotch area. Either calling for a mingling of joyous surprise or a honorable guilt. Still, left him paralyzed for a good couple of seconds, just enough for the elven clerk to walk back into the back area.
“The name’s Brina. Brina Swanlon, and… if I get to see you again, will you promise to tell me what happened? I love a good story.”
He was just blushing. “I… I will be happy to share a tale with you. That’s if you can believe anything I say.”
“Good,” Brina smiled as she backed away, her eyes still lingering on Forest as she moved to the flower displays, casting a small look his way as he made his way outside the store.
His heart was beating faster, but not out of the familiar fight or flight exhilaration, but of pulsing soothingness that just drew his mind back into the clerk he just met. There was just something honest about her. The way she showed interest in him and her attitude that drew back memories of simpler times. Happier times.
She’s pretty, Forest thought to himself. His eyes kept on straying over to look at her, even after he’d left the store, he glanced at the threshold as if to get a look at her features. The soft curves of a woman with the sweet smile that just exuded a caring personality that just invited Forest to want to know more. Even more, she showed interest in a creature like him and, it felt rather obvious that it wasn’t just on a single aspect.
“What am I thinking?” he muttered apprehensively. Admittedly, it was quite a relief to know his body still found the female figure attractive in a sexual way, getting him turned on despite how unfamiliar the feeling must’ve been for someone who refused to acknowledge it. His mind tried to grasp down whatever memory he had of the member. Shamelessly going back his time as Ogre as, even as a monster, the creature had a thing of its own. Nothing compared to the indoor blushing he felt down in his crotch.
And this freaked him out. He would’ve laughed if he wasn’t feeling the alien and distantly familiar feels come crashing down on him like a pile of cards.
“But I’m married,” Forest thought, detecting the sense of guilty come from all of this. After all, the memory of Diane as his wife had lingered for a lot of time in his head. Ever since he got taken, he’d held home that they were bound by love and marriage and they would inevitably find each other. That they would remain faithful to one another… An overly romantic notion, but hope was in the epicenter of that believe, and the same could be same about delusion. “Was married.”
But he died, hadn’t he? For all intents he’d been murdered via stabs through the heart. So, while he still loves Diane, much like Trish, he knew he wouldn’t be able to meet her face to face to explain all the adventures he’s had with and be able to share a kiss. If the trip back home had taught him something, was that everybody moved on. And while Trish sadly clung to the notion that her father would come back someday, Diane had moved on, look for a new partner to support her.
“It’s so complicated,” Forest sighed, specially now that he recalled Camilla’s offer to find a way to turn him back to normal. While he wasn’t shunting the idea, he should know that things wouldn’t go back to the way they used to. A fact he knew but refused to process. “But I have to survive just so I can worry on the future, right?”
That’s for the best, he thought. The path is set and the dice is cast. Love and sorrows needed to be put aside, if not for just for the time being. Of course, there would always be a discrepancy between thinking and feeling.
He walked his way back to the wagon. With the cold air of the upcoming evening already helping him clear his head and the silence that came from the lack of people in this ‘parking area’ just allowed him to take his time and relish on the peace.
A part of Forest expected Darla to not be able to put up with ten minutes of standing guard in the carriage. Much to his surprise, she was still there when he returned, making a good job taking care of the wagon. Her face perked up from under the blanket, with the fur and the squirrel like muzzle receding as she saw Forest come back. “You’re back!” she exclaimed happily. “That was fast.”
“It took much less than I expected.”
“Did you get what you needed?” she asked, being quick to get up on her feet and rush over to the stables to get the horses, with Forest in tow to help.
“I don’t see any pot or plant.” Darla giggled as she Maximus leaned in closer to nuzzle the girl’s curly hairs. “You’ve eaten your hay already.”
“It’s just a couple of small leaves, enough to make my powers work.” Forest produced the address list as he was leading Minus to the wagon. The trip had been fun thanks to the little girl’s company, sadly, that couldn’t always be the case.
“Yes?” She asked patting the horses guiding them.
He took a deep breath, she wasn’t going to like this but it had to be clarified as of now. “I’ll still have to make trips in the nearby future. Trips to places where I can’t take you. It’ll be too dangerous.”
“But-” Darla answered slackjaw as obedient Maximus trotted next to Minus.
“I mean this, Darla. This isn’t something you can’t nego-Hey, it’s not for you,” Forest chastised Minus as she tried to nibble onto the sheet of paper. Fortunately, the message had been issued and Darla seemed a bit sulky but understanding, sitting down in a more quiet mood.
With the horses latched and the wagon set, it only took a small tug of the reins and the word “Home” to get them to start their trot, moving out into the main street and then following it down the southern entrance they came from.
Not much time in the ride, Forest looked down at his shoulder at Darla who was rather impassive. It was her own way of protest, he guessed. Holding up the silence and sitting next to the driver rather than in the back of the wagon. He’d seen it in action a couple of times with Mrs. Vanet with varying degrees of success.
Though Forest felt like he understood what was going on. “Listen, Darla. The places I’ll be going, will be dangerous and the last thing I want is for you to get involved, even more than you are.”
“But… Mrs. Vanet.” Darla said, though her voice trailed off, evidently uncertain of how to continue that sentence. So she awkwardly ended up switching gears. “I can hold my own! I can do it.”
“I know you can, but, even so, it will still be too dangerous, and I’ll be too worried for your wellbeing,” the motherly tone slipped into his voice as he reached over to stroke her head. A sort of mixture of concern and love mixing, making Darla lift up her eyes just to look at Forest’s eyes. “I’m meant to do this and I can’t risk you.”
“But… what if you don’t come back?”
That was the question that Forest had partly dreaded. What happens if he doesn’t come back?
This was meant to be a suicide mission. An all or nothing affair that would either result in victory or death, and nothing planned afterward. Once done, he would then decide what was to happen, but everything in between was a distraction.
Abandon all hope, seemed to be the thought in his head. Thinking of the bright tomorrow when facing the enemy might be a distraction, force him to dread and he couldn’t afford that in a fight.
That’s selfish, Forest thought as he looked down and stroked Darla’s head, while she had her eyes trained on him, awaiting for an answer, measuring his expressions.
Leaving little Darla alone in the community couldn’t be as bad. Yet the pain of loss was something he had yet to finish processing, let alone something a young girl should think about. It, at the same time, brought memories of Trish and the pain he inflicted by just disappearing.
The answer could, perhaps, be what he’d wished he’d been able to tell Trish. “I’m sorry, Darla. I have to stop Roland. And that means, be prepared to not come back.”
Darla sniffled, with her eyes welling up, but didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know what’ll happen.” Forest said grimly, now as they were leaving the perimeter of the farmlands and into the road. Where the clip clopping sounds of the horses and the wind rustling leaves was the only company to their voices. “And I can’t assure I’ll make it back… but I’ll fight with every strength I have to win and survive.”
Forest brought himself to smile. “Know that, you are perhaps the only person I care for deeply in this world and the last thing I want is for you to mourn me. I want you to be strong and determined even if you’re afraid I won’t make it back. I hope you understand this.” Forest sighed, inwardly uneasy at the heavy topic.
“I’ll… try,” Darla said, quickly bringing herself to hug Forest, refusing to let go as easily. She might be a kid, but she felt very strong in her grip. “Just be sure to kick Roland’s butt.”
“I’ll do it,” Forest smiled tussling her head, feeling some confidence bubble up in his heart.
The road continued quiet and peaceful as the night began to set in, with the two horses whickering and neighing at each other just to fill in the void of the sound. Not that Forest minded. It might be just for a moment, just a fleeting time in a storm but he felt oddly… content in this small ride.
“So…” Darla said, breaking the silence after now clearing her tears but still not breaking the hug. “You haven’t told me. All this time you were away, where were you?”
Forest sighed, resting his back against the wagon’s seat. “How much do you know about the other side of the portals?”
“Just… Just a bit from what I hear around in the foster home and the stories you’ve told me.” Darla said. “They say they are really smart there. That every one has self driving carriages, have shifting panes of glass and people take flying ships to cross the seas. Is that were you were?”
“That’s correct.” Forest sighed. “I headed there to face Roland and ended up in the other world. I was confused… but at the same time happy.”
“Because that’s where you’ve been wanting to be all this time,” Darla muttered. Of course, she knew how desperate Forest had been about making his way across the portal.
“I wanted to be there… but as you know, I look a lot more different than I did in the past. Found the hard way I probably don’t belong there anymore.”
“Do you have family there?”
“I do,” Forest admitted as he thought back of happier times. “I used to have a wife and a daughter. The suns of my life. We weren’t rich, nor we had many things. But we were happy and it was all well… until misfortune happened.” Forest sighed sadly as he looked at the sky. The thick dark clouds were heralding a coming rain from far away, but at the distance, they had a soothing feeling to them.
“A wife?” Darla asked curiously. “Were you… a man?”
“Did you just realize that?” Forest asked. To be honest, while no one had outright told Darla and the question hadn’t actually come up before. Not that it would’ve changed much as he avoided the question quite often, whatever would help him confront the truth of the matter. Yet, at the same time, after all he’s been through with, there was no point in dreading answering this. “Yeah… I used to be a man. A father. Not anymore, as you can see.”
Time had really passed, letting Forest bring himself a smile as he said those words. Maybe it was because he had hope that he would be able to regain his old form. Or maybe it was because, after a long time, he didn’t feel alone. It could even be just the fact that there were other dangers ahead that dwarfed his concerns.
“You’re like a mom to me,” Darla said sweetly, leaning over to Forest’s side, resting her head on his thigh while insisting. “Tell me more… Tell more.”
Memories of happier times were easy to come by. Particular moments of the family such. Whereas before he’d avoided bringing them up out of the painful memories, his old life brought some form of solace. Details like his graduation party, dating and marrying Diane, teaching Trish how to tie her shoelaces and the dreaded piano recital.
Of course, the souring reality just reminded Forest that those moments belonged to a different man. A man that had been dead for Trish and Diane in the past five years.
Eventually, Forest finished reminiscing of some times with the family and just allowed himself to watch the road, with a hand idly wiping off a tear on his right cheek. While he wasn’t trying to break down in mid narration, melancholy always seemed not far behind.
“And… did you find them? Your family. Did you find them while at the other side of the portal?” Darla asked looking up at him with half open eyes.
“I… I did,” Forest sighed. “They’ve… assumed I died and moved on. My wife seems to be out seeing someone else while my daughter is a teenager. She looks like her mother did when she was her age. And all I could do was wish I was there with her, ease her mind and make her feel better. The thing I wanted to do and say. To tell her I was back to stay and wanting to discover the things I’ve missed.”
“But alas, my body is not the same as I left. Not just a woman now, but no longer human. I would be considered a monster and hunted down by everyone. Which made the decision of coming back just as hard as it made it easy. How ironic that now I would be the one walking away from them. And they would never discover how close they came to finding me.”
“I saw my daughter and she talked to me, even if she didn’t realize who I was. I was happy… but at the same time it’s funny. After everything I’ve been through by that point. Captured, hurt, and struggle, that was the moment that got me-” In the pause he made to search for the right word, he heard a soft breath going on down on his lap.
Darla had fallen asleep, lulled by the soft rocking of the carriage and the calm breeze that blew their way. Her head rested on his thigh and was well held to the seat to keep herself from falling off. With a small tug of the reins, the two horses took notice and trotted at a more steady pace.
A sight, or rather a moment, that melted Forest’s heart and eased the ache of seeing what’s become of his family without him. So many things in the past couple of days have done that job: ease and soothe. His mind drifted to something Camilla had told him during the last meeting.
“You don’t have to accept your body right now, but don’t keep avoiding it. It’ll be one thing less to take up your mind…” He wasn’t sure how truthful was that or how it applied to her, but there was a certainty that he’d been treating this body like a borrowed car. Not one’s own, but a means to an end and while that might be true it feels like something that has held him back before.
“It’s true that I might no longer be a part of their world,” Forest muttered as he looked up, letting the reins loosen as the two horses expertly followed the road. “And I’ll always miss them. But… I do have people here and… this little girl is the closest thing I have to a family here, even if.” The woman’s voice while still strange, would be something Forest would get used to.
“Doesn’t mean I’m forgetting them, right?” Forest muttered stroking Darla’s hair. The girl, fortunately, appeared to be soundly asleep on the ride. “Of course, it doesn’t… But I have something else to take care about.”
“I don’t know when I’m going to go back to how I used to be, if that’s even possible,” He lifted his glance to look up at the blue and white sky and the trees that were softly rustling swayed by the wind. “Maybe Camilla will discover a way to help me… or maybe she won’t. Regardless, this is me now. A woman.”
The realization and state wasn’t much of an exclamation, but a whisper that had perhaps the same effect Forest had been expecting. Just a weight lifted off the shoulder, an invisible small one. The insistent thought that he was truly a woman in this body provided some catharsis. Like letting go of a grudge, there was a sense of empty peace.
He was still planning to ask Camilla for a helpful way of changing back, but now he, or rather, she felt he could fully focus on the task at hand. Grow stronger and have the necromancer pay.
The next step, she thought, is Firlandis smuggler’s corner.