--- Chapter 1: Kortiki ---
The archmage and her apprentice reappeared in the middle of the Forest of Whispers in a blinding flash of light, the luminous magic circle at their feet fading momentarily afterward. Groaning, Marina clutched the side of her head, a tad disoriented from being transported hundreds of miles across the continent in less than a second. It took her a moment to fully regain awareness of her surroundings.
A shock-filled gasp escaped from her mouth upon finally realizing that she was back in the very same forest the defective gate had sent her nearly a month and a half ago. Chills ran down her spine as she stared at the vaulted canopy hanging high overhead, the memories of her harrowing experience in these woods she had hoped to forget resurfacing in her mind.
"Wh-what's going on?!" asked Marina. "Why are we back here of all places?"
The archmage turned to her pupil and gave her a reassuring smile to still her jitters. "I have brought us here in the Forest of Whispers because it is in these woods that we shall find our way to Kortiki."
"Can't you simply teleport us there?" asked Marina.
Shae'la shook her head. "No, I cannot. In any event, let us not waste anytime. The path that leads to Kortiki is this way."
Shae'la turned to a patch of relatively light undergrowth just ahead of them. She aimed her staff forward and uttered a few arcane words. The vegetation parted sideways to create a path for them to navigate.
"Come, young Marina."
Marina pressed a hand against her chest and took a deep breath, calming down a little. Everything would be fine; she had nothing to fear as long as her master was here. Breathing a little easier, she followed a step behind Shae'la as she forged onward through the thicket.
The sonorous rustling of the tall grass echoing sharply in her ears made her tense, but Marina forced her apprehension aside and warily scanned the relatively light brush for any predators lying in ambush. Though she had the utmost confidence that Shae'la could repel any monster they might come across, it was no reason to throw all caution to the wind. Especially in this forest, where fairies could be hiding just about anywhere, waiting for an opportunity to pounce on two unsuspecting preys. She spotted a family of saslenoths, six-legged three-toed sloths roughly twice the size of a man, clinging upside-down to fairly low branches. Marina kept a watchful eye on the creatures as they passed under. They looked harmless, and seemed content to just loaf around up there and let the moss and fungi on their fur grow thicker, but one could never be too careful in Felarya.
Marina paused for a moment and put a hand to her ear. She listened closely to the sounds of the forest to make sure they weren't being stalked by any of those dreaded whispers. So far, the woods appeared to be mostly silent — all she heard were the chirping of birds and insects and the swaying of leaves. That could all change at a moment's notice, and Marina knew this all too well. Just thinking about it, she could hear the same disembodied voices that had harassed her when she last treaded these woods buzzing in her ears. The thought made her sick to her stomach.
As they eased further through the brush, Marina began to hyperventilate. Her face was flush and sweat dappled her brows. It only now dawned on her that it wasn't raining here, and though the air in this region was a good deal more temperate than the tropical climate of Negav, it wasn't nearly enough to keep her cool in her heavy coat. Not even a small gust of wind gently brushing her face and sweeping her long fiery hair helped make the heat any more bearable. Hopefully they didn't have much farther to go.
"Here we are." said Shae'la as they emerged from the brush.
The archmage pointed forward with her staff toward a massive tree just beyond the thicket. Marina stared at the behemoth in question and cocked an eyebrow. At a glance, nothing about it seemed unusual, save for a dense foliage that covered its roots and the lower half of its trunk, as though it was wearing a long leafy skirt.
"Uh, Shae'la? This is just a tree." said Marina.
"It does appear to be nothing but your average, run-of-the-mill tree, does it not?" replied Shae'la. "However, there is more to it than meets the eyes, I assure you, young Marina. Hidden within its gargantuan roots is the passage that will lead us directly to Kortiki."
Marina turned to her master sporting an even more bemused expression. "I don't understand. Why exactly can't you teleport us there instead of having us come all the way to this forest just to take this particular passage?"
"It is not that I am unable of teleporting us both to Kortiki, young Marina — I am more than capable of teleporting us there from anywhere in Negav. Rather, it is that I should not teleport us there," explained Shae'la. "You see, Kortiki may be a peaceful place to live, enjoying the protection the numerous fairies living there brings, but they are not so carefree as to not worry about potential intruders sneaking into town and start causing trouble. Just like how practicing teleportation magic in the middle of the streets in Negav is considered dangerous and may get you arrested, so too is it considered rude and frowned upon in Kortiki in most circumstances. I have unfortunately made that very mistake when I first moved here... more times than I would like to admit... and boy did the inhabitants let me have it. I can still hear their angry shouts ringing in my ears to this day. These days, I only teleport directly to Kortiki when there is an emergency."
"I see..." mused Marina. "Wait, could we not have teleported a certain distance away from the town and then walked all the way over there?"
"No, that would not have worked," answered Shae'la. "I would have to bring us a considerable distance away from it for them not to notice, and the neutral zone's borders do not extend far beyond the outskirts of the town. If we were to march to Kortiki that way, we would both be considered fair game by all the fairies we would have come across, something I would rather not have to deal with if at all possible. This is why I opted to take the passage here in the Forest of Whispers. It is without a doubt the shortest and safest way to reach Kortiki."
"Ah. In that case, forget I said anything."
Her explanation done with, the archmage and her apprentice approached the base of the colossal tree.
A direct passage to a safe town in the heartland of the Fairy Kingdom... Marina presumed that very few people knew of its existence given that the Fairy Kingdom was a virtually uncharted region for obvious reasons. She could only guess what this passage looked like and already had a few ideas in mind, such as a long, serpentine road underground illuminated by thousands of bright, rainbow-colored bioluminescent mushrooms. Marina grinned at the thought. She couldn't wait to find out.
"Halt! Who goes there?" suddenly bellowed a voice.
Marina startled and froze up in place, her heart skipping a beat. Frantically, she scanned the surrounding thicket trying to locate where the voice came from.
"Wh-wh-who's there?!" she shouted back, shaking in her boots.
The foliage at the base of the massive tree rustled, and a tiny fairy emerged. She had a petite figure, and her skin was indigo in color and featured small yellowish patches on the side of her legs, thighs and hips. Her face was framed by dark teal hair that matched the hue of her wide, expressive eyes. A small pair of antlers grew on top of her head in lieu of antennae, and her purple, gossamer wings resembled those of a moth, complete with a furry collar around her neck.
Marina gasped in horror at her appearance; the memories of the pink-haired fairy swallowing her whole and alive came flooding back all at once. Eyes wide with fear, she instinctually backed away from the little fey as she fluttered over to them. In the blink of an eye, she went from being only as big as her thumb to the size of an adult woman. The fairy landed on the ground and planted her hands on her large hips. She stared intently at the human and the elf before her, a confident, predatory smile spread across her face. Her master being at her side was the only thing that kept Marina from turning tail and fleeing in terror.
"Sh-Sh-Shae'la..." she stuttered through clattering teeth.
Shae'la turned around and cast a smile at her apprentice. She would caress her hair to help assuage her fears were her hands not full at the moment.
"Worry not, young Marina," she said, "This young lass here is harmless."
"Y-you... kn-know this fairy?" asked Marina.
Shae'la gave a nod. "This is Kilomie. I suppose you could call her one of the Kortiki's gatekeepers. Her job is to guard the passage under the tree's roots from intruders. If someone uninvited were to find its way here, or if somebody carrying something dangerous attempted to enter Kortiki via this way... well, I imagine you already know how she would dispose of them. But aside from her name and profession, I do not know her on a personal level. I only came to know her as an acquaintance due to how often I use the passage."
"Ahem! I'm standing right here, you know?" grumbled Kilomie impatiently.
"Oh! Pardon my rudeness, there," said Shae'la to the fae, and then cleared her throat. "Well met, Kilomie. How are you on this fine day today?"
"I'm bored, is what I am!" she answered. "Would it seriously be too much to ask that you were a group of trespassers instead of just being... you again? Then I would finally have something to do for a change!"
Shae'la chuckled and said, "Forgive me for getting your hopes up, lass, but I cannot simultaneously be both myself and a band of hapless brigands for you to gorge yourself on. At any rate, we wish to gain passage to Kortiki."
"Yeah, I figured as much. Hold on a second."
Kilomie spread her wings and then flew over to the top of the massive tree, near the very tip of its crown. "Peala, wake up! We have visitors!"
Kilomie fluttered back down to the ground, and at first, nothing happened. Then, there was a loud rustling coming from the enormous tree despite there being no wind to shake its leaves. At that moment, the bark that made it's cyclopean trunk spontaneously fell like a veil torn from its rings, giving way to green-tinged flesh. A pair of shoulders and arms sprouted near the top of the trunk, and the crown suddenly parted sideways, transforming into a wild mane of leaves and vines that framed a full face adorned with a pair of deep emerald eyes. What used to be an ordinary tree less than a moment ago had suddenly morphed into a pudgy, colossal woman, half-tree and half-human.
She was a dryad.
Marina stared awestruck at Kortiki's second gatekeeper towering above her, the colors drained from her face, a frozen scream stuck in her throat. Her eyes were transfixed on her protruding, sagging belly. How many humans must she have devoured for her stomach to become so swollen?
Voices screamed at Marina to run and never look back, but it was no use — her quivering legs refused to move, sheer terror keeping her feet rooted on the spot. She turned to Shae'la, hoping her master will get them both out of here before she snatched them both off the ground and swallowed them whole. Shae'la, curiously, made no move to attack the dryad nor attempt to cast a spell of any kind. She simply stared at the green giantess looming above them and remained perfectly calm and collected, as if she had been expecting her to show this whole time.
The dryad stretched her arms above her head and let out a long, thunderous yawn. She rubbed her heavy, bleary eyes, a thin string of drool trickling from the right side of her mouth. Or was it really nectar? Once a tad more awake, she leaned her titanic upper body forward and squinted down so that she could better look at the two "visitors" standing next to her roots.
"Oh, hello, little elf," greeted Peala, recognizing the archmage. For a titan towering well over 150 feet in height, her voice was remarkably soft and easy on the ears.
"Well met, Peala," replied Shae'la. "How are you on this fine day today, lass?"
Peala brought a hand to her mouth and let out another roaring yawn.
"I'm a little sleepy..." she replied.
"Just the answer I was expecting to hear," chuckled Shae'la. "In any case, I do believe you know why we are here."
"What is the password?" asked Peala.
Shae'la uttered a long and complicated sentence known only to the inhabitants of Kortiki and a select few others. It was in a different language, so Marina didn't understand what it said very well. The only word she caught in all of that was "Nemyra."
Peala gave a slow nod. "That's correct."
"Dangit!" angrily shouted Kilomie.
"Now, Kilomie, make sure they're not carrying anything dangerous."
Kilomie sighed and approached Shae'la, grumbling in annoyance under her breath. She has never liked that part of the job. Her eyes suddenly burned with a mystical blue glow, allowing her to see and identify magical auras at a glance. She frisked the beanpole elf and examined the content of her spell pouch. Marina quietly watched the gatekeeper at work, surprised by her thoroughness and professionalism. Kilomie's eyes lit up as she checked the box Shae'la carried under her arm pit and saw the scrumptious strawberry shortcake inside. She stared at the archmage with pleading, wistful eyes hoping she will let her have a bite, but she sternly shook her head, and Kilomie was forced to hand it back, pouting angrily.
Marina couldn't help shuddering when it was her turn to be checked by the gatekeeper. Even if it was her job, seeing a fairy this uncomfortably close for any reason easily ranked as one of the most nerve-racking experience one could have. When it was time to examine the content of her bag, Marina quietly handed it over and then backed away. She took a deep breath and loosened some of the tautness in her body. There was nothing remarkable in her bag — only a few changes of clothes, personal care items, and some money she wasn't even sure would be worth much here.
Then, Kilomie pulled a strange, round flasks amid Marina's belongings. It was made of brown glass, which made it hard to see what its content was. Kilomie held the bottle under a thin spar of emerald sunlight and closed one eye. It appeared to contain powder of some sort.
"What is that?" wondered Kilomie out loud.
"Ah! That's my medicine!" exclaimed Marina.
Kilomie looked at the red-haired woman and cocked an eyebrow. "Medicine?"
"Y-yes. I have asthma and I occasionally suffer from attacks, usually when I overexert myself or I inhale too much smoke and dust. When that happens, I have to inhale some of that dry powder to alleviate the symptoms."
"Oh, that's it? How boring."
Kilomie dropped the vial of medicine back in Marina's bag and then closed it. She stood back up and handed it back to its owner, holding it at arm's length. "Anyway, everything looks to be in order."
"Th-thank you." said Marina, hefting her bag across her shoulder.
"I'll show you the way to Kortiki. Don't lag behind."
Kilomie beckoned Marina and Shae'la to follow her as she walked along the foliage concealing Peala's lower body. Marina stuck close to Shae'la for safety.
Arriving at Peala's left side, Kilomie paused and then clapped her hands twice. For a brief instant, Marina felt a sudden spark of magic before it dissipated into thin air, but saw nothing happen. Kilomie then pulled aside some of the foliage that made up Peala's "skirt", revealing a small passage to the dryad's roots that lead to a shimmering portal.
"Here you are," she said, standing aside and waving at the two to enter.
Marina's eyes widened in awe as she gazed at the swirling, magical gate that connected to a distant land. Unlike the man-made gate that pulled her into the Forest of Whispers or the monolithic structure outside Negav, this one was made of pure, unadulterated wild magic. The forest shown beyond the shining, mystical ring of light was bathed in an a mesmerizing, fantastical ambient blue light. Even the breathtakingly bright and colorful flora shared some of that unusual hue in its pigmentation. Marina felt a surge of powerful of untamed magic emanating from beyond the gate — the sensation made her shudder.
Marina turned to Shae'la, who crossed the portal without the slightest hint of hesitation. The young clasped her hands over her chest and took another deep breath. She was nervous, as would any Felarya-born humans about to enter a place called "The Fairy Kingdom." Shae'la had assured her multiple times that she would be safe in Kortiki, but she remained somewhat apprehensive. Nevertheless, Marina mustered her courage and followed her master through the portal.
The air was thick with magic, and Marina shivered intensely as she stepped out from the other side of the portal. Warmth suffused her skin and her mouth was filled with a strange, almost indescribable taste. She sensed magic literally everywhere around her. In the air she breathed... In the ground beneath her feet... Through every leaf of every tree and every blade of grass, she could feel it course freely like a raging torrent. Tiny specks of light, sparks of magic in its purest form, danced in the wind wherever she looked. The laws of physics felt different somehow, as though they had been warped from the sheer abundance of raw magical energy in the atmosphere.
This was the Fairy Kingdom, a region reputed for being incredibly rich with wild magic even by the standards of Felarya.
Marina had never experienced a sensation that was so immensely soothing, yet simultaneously discomforting before. She worried for a moment what adverse effects this much saturated magic might have on her body, but managed to remain calm. Hundreds of people have been living here amid this much wild magic for decades. Her master would never have brought her here was she not certain that the air alone would not make her sick.
A town lay just ahead, just a stone's throw away from where they arrived. Houses and buildings of all shapes and sizes stretched beyond the trees as far as the eye could see, and while by no means the size and scope of Negav, it looked to be big enough to accommodate a population of over 1300 to 1500 inhabitants. Nature was absolutely everywhere — some of the houses near the edge were built directly inside hollow trees, and many of the buildings made of stone and timber boasted vines and lianas creeping their way up the side of their walls.
"Is that... Kortiki?" asked Marina.
"Indeed it is," responded Shae'la. "Just ahead lies the sole safe haven for humans and elves in the entire Fairy Kingdom."
"It's a lot bigger than I imagined. I thought it was only going to be the size of a village or maybe a large hamlet," commented Marina.
Shae'la chuckled and said, "Oh no no, it is most certainly no hamlet or village, I can assure you, young Marina. When I said that Kortiki was a town, I truly did mean it was a full-fledged, thriving settlement, and not just a small self-sufficient community in the middle of the forest."
The archmage turned around and began walking away. "At any rate, my house is not far from here, and I bet you are just dying to change out of that heavy coat of yours."
Marina wiped the sweat from her forehead and sighed in fatigue.
"Oh yes, definitely. The sooner I can remove this thing, the better," she said.
Following her master, Marina turned away from the town and accompanied Shae'la as she led her up a gentle hill toward the outskirts of Kortiki. One hundred or so steps later, they arrived at the small, ivy-infested cottage in the middle of the forest, just barely within the outer limits of the neutral zone.
"I have returned, Myriel," said Shae'la as she entered her home.
Marina left her rain and mud-stained boots outside and then stepped inside her master's house. She set her shoulder bag down on the floor, unbuttoned her coat and hung it on the back of a chair next to the dining table. She let out a sigh of relief. Already, the air inside felt a lot colder, like a cool and refreshing breeze.
A fairy clad in a strapless, light blue dress then fluttered in from the room just across from the entrance. Marina startled as she laid eyes on the doll-sized fae, a gasp of shock escaping her lips. Long golden hair framed a face of high cheekbones and long, thin ears, her diminutive frame impossibly lithe and slender.
Two striking features immediately caught Marina's attention. Unlike the fairies of Felarya, she sported no antennae or a substitute of any kind on her head, and her wide, almond-shaped azure eyes showed no pupils and almost no sclera.
This fairy came from another world.
Myriel hovered at face level with Shae'la, her wispy, wildly colored butterfly wings making nary a sound as they flapped. She glanced at the muddy footprints on the floor and at her master's dirty boots, and sighed exasperatedly.
"You left your boots on. Again," grumbled Myriel, folding her arms and looking cross at her master.
"Oh, fret not, Myriel," replied Shae'la as she set the cake box on the table, "I shall clean the floor to a spotless sheen as soon as I change until my usual slippers."
Myriel let out another sigh. She had heard that same response more times than she could recount, and no matter how often she yelled at her to remove or clean her boots before entering, she never listened.
"In any case, welcome back, Shae'la," said Myriel. The familiar then trained her gaze on Marina. She immediately recognized her as the same girl she pulled out of the wild fairy's stomach so many days ago. Shae'la did say the other day that, despite asking that they forget about their agreement, she had insisted on becoming her newest student.
"You must be Marina. I am Myriel, Shae'la's familiar and little assistant, as I'm sure you've heard her refer to me as," greeted the offworlder fairy, a welcoming smile upon her lips. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"It's, uh... a p-pleasure to meet you, too, M-Myriel," stuttered Marina in response, forcing a smile.
"...Does my being here unsettle you?" asked Myriel.
Marina meekly nodded, her eyes instinctually averting Myriel's gaze. "Y-yes, it does... a-a little. I'm s-sorry if I offended you."
"No need to worry about it," replied Myriel. "I perfectly understand why you are so apprehensive around fairies. I don't begrudge you for it. In any event, I hope your stay here with us will be an enjoyable one, Marina."
"Th-thank you, Myriel. You're quite nice," said Marina, and she regained some of her composure. She turned to address her master. "Anyway, which room am I going to be using?"
"That one over there, the one Myriel flew in from," answered Shae'la, pointing at the room just across from the front door.
"Thank you, Shae'la," said Marina. She grabbed her coat and bag and slung them across her shoulders, and then headed to the room indicated by her master.
Her room was fairly austere and much smaller than the one at her parents' house. The hardwood floor was completely naked and lacked a lacquer finish. To her left directly from the door was a small wardrobe, and to her right on the opposite wall was a bed with a rustic wooden frame and bedsheets woven from soft cotton. It was big enough to accommodate a single adult or roughly two children. A small nightstand sat directly next, an unlit candle lamp resting upon it. Directly across from the entrance was a small window with no curtains or shutters that offered a breathtaking view of the magnificent forest outside. The room looked to have been cleaned fairly recently, although she could see faint, hastily scrubbed doodlings on the walls.
Marina sauntered over to the side of the bed and gently placed her coat on top of the mattress before setting her shoulder bag on the floor next to the cabinet. She sat down on the side of the bed and looked around what would be her new bedroom for who knows how many years, taking the opportunity to unwind and let all the tension in her body drain away.
It was very quiet here — a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Even though she had just left home, Marina wondered what her friends and family were doing right now. She was not used to traveling and already missed her home somewhat, but she didn't let it get to her. Her folks back in Negav will be fine without her, she was sure of it, and she had a feeling that Shae'la's training will be so intense, with so many magical theories to study and spells to practice, that she won't even have time to feel homesick. A chance to study and learn magic under an archmage's tutelage was something that happens only once in a lifetime, and she didn't want to miss out on such a valuable experience.
Feeling relaxed, Marina kneeled down next to her bed. She opened her bag, grabbed a handful of spare underwear to store away, and then reached for the topmost drawer. Just then, she heard a soft thump. Marina jumped with a start, nearly dropping the clothes on the floor, and looked to the side. It came from inside the wardrobe. She then heard voices coming from within the furniture, but they were too muffled for her to understand what they are saying.
Marina stood back up and glanced at the door leading out of the room. She was about to call her master, but then hesitate. It seemed almost silly to call Shae'la just to check the wardrobe for her. Especially when her ears might have been playing tricks on her. In the end, curiosity won out over prudence, and she approached the wardrobe, hand clasped over her chest for comfort. With he deep breath to steel herself, she gingerly opened the double doors.
Five little fairies burst out of the wardrobe, and Marina nearly leapt out of her skin. Her screams were picked by Shae'la and Myriel as they cleaned the dirt on the floor outside the room with their magic. They rushed in without a second thought. They found Marina trembling like a leaf on the floor, her face white as sheet and her eyes filled with absolute terror. The little feys buzzed merrily around her face, staring at the big human, who was too scared out of her wits to shoo them away, with childlike glee and curiosity. They poked her cheeks and forehead, clambered onto the back of her tunic, and played with strands of her long red hair.
"Is that the human Shae'la said would live with us?" asked Reah.
"She's really pretty," said Brees.
"Her clothes look kinda weird," remarked Galneka.
"Why does her face looks like it's been cooked?" wondered her sister, Yunita.
"Look at her hair! It's so beautiful!" exclaimed Vikky.
Shae'la couldn't help chuckling as the kiddies continued to playful examined her new pupil. Myriel, however, was less than happy to see that her effort to calm Marina and made her feel welcome since she arrived had been all but completely squandered. She clapped her hands hard, which got the children's attention.
"Kids, please stop bothering Marina," she scolded without raising her voice. "She's had very bad experiences with fairies in the past and you are making her uncomfortable by flying so close to her face. Can you not see how terrified she looks?"
The little fairies looked back at Marina, whereupon they finally noticed just how frightened their guest was at their presence. Realizing what they had done, they quietly fluttered back over to their aunt. Shae'la sashayed over to her apprentice and lifted her up.
"Are you quite all right, young Marina?" she asked.
"Y-yes... I-I-I'm fine... I think..." replied Marina as she took her master's hand, her her heart still hammering in her chest and her breath coming in wheezing spikes.
"Forgive me if the little rascals gave you the scare of your life. I had completely forgotten that I told them that you would be coming here today."
"Y-you know these f-f-fairies?" asked Marina.
"Of course! They are children from Kortiki. For reasons that still eludes me, they adore coming to my house just as much as they enjoy pulling pranks on the townsfolk. But I do not mind their company. Rambunctious and mischievous as they can be, they bring life and energy whenever things get a little dull for my liking. In fact, I almost see them as children of my own though they have their own families in Kortiki, and they see both Myriel and me as honorary aunts."
Marina looked back at the five little fairies. They all grew to the size of humans, which fittingly, was only as tall as small children. They sheepishly put their hands behind their backs and hung their head, feeling genuinely ashamed as Myriel eyed them all with a stern, disapproving stare. All of her stress melted as she saw the pitiful, yet incredibly adorable long face they were making, and she instantly forgot she was even scared of them just a second ago.
"Now, kids, apologize to Marina," instructed Myriel.
"We're sorry, Marina..." they said in unison.
"I-it's alright. I forgive you," responded Marina, "I can't possibly stay mad at you when you're making such... c-cute faces..."
"Yay!" exclaimed the little faes, and the guilt fell from their faces, replaced with bright smiles. The five girls all ran up to Marina and hugged her at once. Marina jolted and tensed up as the fairy kids gathered around her. She wanted to run out of the room to evade them, but found herself paralyzed and unable to do so.
"Come on! Play with us!" they said, and began pulling on her arms and tried to drag her outside.
"Oh my. It would appear the kiddies have taken quite a shine to you already, young Marina." chuckled Shae'la. She approached the children and gently tapped one on the shoulder to get their attention. "Now, now, kiddies. Marina has just arrived and needs some time to settle before she can play with you. Why don't we all go to the kitchen so we can all properly introduce ourselves? I have a special surprise waiting for you there."
The kids' eyes widened and they all let go of Marina. "Oh! Oh! What kind of surprise?" asked Yunita, "Tell us, Shae'la! Tell us!"
"If I told you now, it would not be a surprise anymore, silly. I can tell you this, however: it's a tasty, delicious snack."
Hearing the promise of a sweet treat, the children immediately let go of Marina and bolted out of the room.
"Thank you, Shae'la," said Marina, sighing in relief.
"You're welcome, young Marina." Shae'la turned to leave the room, but then noticed Myriel was looking crossly at her. Her cheeks were red and puffed into an irate pout. "Hmm? Is something vexing you, Myriel? Why are you giving me the stink eye all of a sudden?"
Myriel sighed. "Nothing. It's nothing important. Anyway, let's go to the dining room. We shouldn't keep these little imps waiting for too long."
Marina walked out of the bathroom and made her way to the kitchen, having just finished setting up her own toiletry. The room was small and only featured a large wooden tub with a linen cloth in laid to protect against splinters, a small wash basin and a mirror. There was no plumbing whatsoever; whenever the water became dirty or needed to be re-heated, Shae'la simply refilled it with fresh, clean water with her magic, warming and cooling it at her own leisure. She will have to make a conscious effort to remember that the toilet wasn't part of the bathroom like it was in Negav, but rather its own latrine just outside the house.
Shae'la, Myriel and the kids were all gathered around the table, enjoying the strawberry shortcake her master had bought. The five little fairies, sitting in a circle on top of the table, had shrunken back down to their miniature size. Even their utensils were much tinier compared to Shae'la. Marina instinctually shuddered at the sight of them, but forced her unease aside Nevertheless and had a seat with them.
"Here is your slice," said Shae'la, and she slid a plate with a knife and fork over to her student with a wave of her finger.
"Thank you," replied Marina.
Marina cut herself a small piece and brought it to her mouth. She could only sigh in delight as she savored the richness of the whipped cream combined with the sweet taste of the strawberries and the crunchiness of the cookie layer in the middle. The only thing missing was a nice cup of milk coffee to go with her cake.
Myriel sat arms crossed across from her plate, having not yet touched her slice.
"This isn't quite what I had in mind when I said I wanted strawberry shortcake as compensation, Shae'la," she said.
"Now now, Myriel, do not be a glutton," reprimanded Shae'la, "You know very well that you cannot have an entire cake all to yourself. It would set a bad example for the kiddies. Besides, even if I had given it all to you, they most likely would have begged you to give them some, and we both know you would have relented almost immediately. If anything, I just saved you some trouble."
"And yet, you took nearly a quarter of the whole thing for yourself," retorted Myriel. "I should just ignore everything you said on principle, much as you are right and what you said was true."
Grumbling, Myriel at last ate a bite of her cake to calm her nerves, and the moist, spongy goodness soothed her, as if she had never been upset. Marina giggled, much to the fairy's confusion.
"What's so funny?" she asked.
"Nothing," replied Marina. "It's just that you two arguing reminded me of Sean and Lester. They often argue just like this."
"Now then, now that everybody has calmed and we are all gathered here, I believe some introductions are in order." Shae'la looked at the five little feys. "Kiddies..."
The children glanced at their aunt. Setting their forks and knives down, they stood up in a line in front of Marina. Shae'la pointed at each of them, starting from the one to her far right in order to the left.
First was Reah, a freckled little lass who wore her crimson tresses in pigtails. Daring, headstrong, and always brimming with energy, she acted as the self-proclaimed leader of the five. Standing to her left was Brees, the youngest and most innocent of the five, who always looked at the bright side of things with those large cerulean eyes of hers. Never apart from each other were the sisters Yunita and Galneka. Their friends loved to tease them by calling them "Nimbu and Lyma" after the yellow and green fruits that matched their respective hair and eye color, but they didn't mind. Last but not least was Vikki, the oldest, yet oddly the flightiest of the group. When she was not being distracted by whatever crossed her gaze, she usually fretted over her appearance, particularly her long violet braid as well as the blue ribbon Brees had given her when they first met years ago.
"Everyone, this is Marina," said Shae'la after introducing the little girls. "Marina is from Negav and will be my new apprentice starting tomorrow."
"H-hello..." greeted Marina, meekly waving her hand, an uneasy smile upon her lips.
The fairies turned to Shae'la, their curiosity piqued.
"Shae'la, what's Negav?" asked Vikki.
"Negav is a huge city beyond the Tolmeshal Jungle where hundreds of thousands of humans and members of other races gather," answered the archmage, "It is one of the largest and longest surviving settlements in Felarya to still exist in our time, having survived war, calamities and devastation throughout hundreds of years of its recorded history."
"Wooow!" exclaimed the kids. They turned to Marina, and she could see stars sparkling in wonderment in their eyes.
"Tell us more about your home, Marina!" demanded Reah. "Is it really that big? What's it like to live with some many other humans? Are there fairies there? Come on, tell us!"
Shae'la chortled and said, "Now, now, lass, calm yourself. I realize you are very excited to hear about a place you have never seen before, but you should not overwhelm Marina with too many questions at once. Once she has grown more accustomed to her life here, I am certain she shall tell everything you will want to know about her homeland."
"Oh, okay," said Reah, a tad disappointed, but understanding.
Marina pressed a hand on her chest and sighed in relief.
"Thank you, Shae'la..." she said, and then ate a few more bites of her cake to bring some of her tension down.
"At any rate, I have a question I wish to ask of you, young Marina," said Shae'la.
"What is it?" she replied.
"Is there a school or a brand of magic in particular that you wish to learn?" asked the archmage. "For instance, do you aspire to pursue a career as a transmuter? Are you especially interested in studying theurgy? Do you perhaps wish you could manipulate the elements, or learn how to communicate and summon beings beyond our plane of existence? Or, like me, you simply want to acquire as much knowledge about the arcane as possible. Something of that nature."
"Oh. Yes, there is," answered Marina. "You see, I was planning on resigning from my job as a nurse before the beginning of the next school year and used the money I saved to obtain my doctorate. If there's a particular type of magic I would like to learn, it would be healing magic."
"So you aspire to become a healer? How fascinating!" responded Shae'la. "If I may be so brazen, how long have you been thinking about this change of career, young Marina?"
Marina's lips curled to form a proud smile.
"Since I began studying to become a nurse, actually," she boasted confidently. "My aim was to start as a nurse to gain some hands-on experience at the guild, and then use said experience and knowledge to help me graduate as a topnotch healer."
"My, my! I did not expect to meet a young lass with lofty ambitions and how best to achieve them quite like you, young Marina. Talk about a pleasant surprise! Although, I assume your being here has thrown a spanner in your plans."
Marina laughed sheepishly.
"Yeah... I guess it kind of did," she admitted. "But I don't mind getting a little extra help."
"Shae'la, what's a duck...to...rate?" asked Yunita.
The archmage turned to the diminutive girl and smiled. "Not duck-torate, you silly goose. DOC-torate. A doctorate is proof that its holder is a qualified healer. Because Negav is such a big place with so many more people than in Kortiki, healers must have tangible proof of their skill before they can be trusted to practice medicine."
"At any rate, I agree that healing magic would suit you well, young Marina. I will see that by the end of your training, you will not only be well-versed in the healing arts, but also fully capable of using them to tend to the sick and wounded. I do not quite know yet how I shall proceed about this, but I will think of something sooner or later."
"I can't wait," said Marina with a grin.
"In any event, since you have more or less finished settling down, why not write a letter to your family? I'll wager that they will be delighted to hear that their daughter has arrived here safe and sound."
Marina nodded. "Ah, good idea."
"We don't have any stationery in the house," pointed out Myriel. "Our last vial of ink has run dry and we are all out of writing paper."
The archmage looked at her familiar. "Really? That is strange. I could have sworn we had plenty in reserve."
"Have you forgotten!?" rebuked Myriel. "...No, I KNOW you have forgotten. You used it all up to make scrolls in preparation for our expedition to the Temple of Lataran. I told you several times that we should resupply, but you kept on forgetting!"
"Oh, shoot! Now I remember. Hmm... this is indeed troublesome."
Then, Shae'la stuck upon an idea and turned to her pupil. "Actually, this may be a great opportunity for young Marina to familiarize herself with Kortiki."
"How about it, Marina? Would you kindly run to town and purchase some stationery supplies? I shall compensate you for the inconvenience."
"Uh, there's just a small problem with that, Shae'la," pointed out Marina, "And it's that I don't know my way around Kortiki, let alone where to find ink and paper."
"Worry not," replied Shae'la, "I shall write you directions before you leave."
"Oh! In that case, yes. I'll gladly run that errand for you."
Shae'la's directions would have been more helpful had she not written them in her native tongue. As a result, Marina had to ask someone in the house to guide her to the shop village. The kids immediately volunteered, and assuming their human size, they practically dragged their aunt's pupil out of the house. Taking charge, Reah held Marina by the hand so that she wouldn't get lost, while her friends bounced up and down around the red-haired woman like excited puppies.
Marina exhaled a deep breath to calm her nerves. She was nervous, and not only because of the kids. She had never voluntarily been to a place where fairies gathered, and though it was a neutral zone, the thought of entering a town where hundreds of them lived at once made her skin crawl.
As they approached the town, Marina could hear the familiar sound of dozens of feet walking down the cobbled pavement and the chatter of multiple voices drowning one another. The streets were nowhere as busy and loud as those of her home city, but for a comparatively small town, there was a surprising number of men and women moving back and forth all the same. She saw humans, fairies, elves, and even a few nekos. Kids playing tag and other games suddenly ran past her without a care in the world. Men and women greeted one another as they returned from the forest, carrying with them the spoils of their hunt.
Marina spotted one or two guards among the small throngs of people, fairies clad in a leather breastplate and helmet. Their armament consisted only of a spear and a short sword holstered at their hip. Their gaze didn't sweep the scores of pedestrians as they strode jauntily down the streets; were it not for their arms and armor, she might have mistaken them as ordinary folks out on a stroll. The lack of protective walls around the town and the lax security was almost appalling to Marina, but it was probably more protection than fairies really needed. They were one of the deadliest predators in the entire region. Why should they worry if a few measly beasts attacked?
"Over there! This way!" declared Reah, and she led Marina to the right toward Sylphid Lane, not even glancing at the four-way sign as Nymph Avenue branched off into small streets. It was not the fastest way to the market, but it was the one the children loved to take the most.
The houses here were built closer together and featured very similar designs. A young woman, Haliko, was humming herself a merry as swept the pavement in front of her family's inn when she noticed the five little faes converging around her. They always came here to have some of Haliko's honey nut cookies that she loved making so much. She did not have any prepared today, but promised to have some ready tomorrow.
"Have a nice day!" said Haliko, waving goodbye to Marina and the kids like they were longtime neighbors. "Come back anytime."
Marina smiled and waved back in kind. She was a little nervous to find out how Kortikians saw foreigners like her, and was glad that her worries turned out to have been unfounded.
Reah continued guiding Marina forward over to Meliad Park. Numerous couples came here to take their constitutionals or spend some time together in the great outdoor. She saw a teenage girl and her elven beau hugging each other in a warm embrace and exchanged a passionate kiss under a tall apple tree, really a dryad in disguise, promising that they would be each other's forever. A crowd was gathered around a neko minstrel playing the accordion over by the pond. They looked on in admiration, enthralled by his incredible musical talent and beautiful singing voice. Marina couldn't help but get lost in the music as they passed.
They traveled from Meliad Park and at last arrived at Daphne Market Square. Crowds moved to and fro between stores, passing by the well in the middle of the plaza, and Marina was instantly reminded of the Grand Market District back home. The local grocer was boisterously hawking his wares as he carried large sacks of fresh produce to refresh his bins. He threw a glance at the neighboring baker, a glimmer of envy in his eyes as small mobs gathered around his store, lured by the mouth-watering smell of fresh-baked feybread, rather than peruse his latest batch of trulps and galambos. A young tailor, an enthusiastic fairy with a wild and... imaginative style, brought a mannequin bearing her latest creation, a long and garishly frilly dress, red on one side and blue on the other. The fledgling seamstress beamed with pride; she was confident that her bold new vision will bring about a new clientele, a sentiment not shared by her more conservative boss.
The sound of hammers striking red-hot steel rang all across the plaza as the blacksmith worked on what will eventually become a knife while his apprentices forged a few nails. Their craft was centered almost entirely on the forging of tools and everyday items — they had little need for weapons in Kortiki. The head of the carpenters, a balding, bearishly large man who was slowly but surely getting on in years, yelled at his lazy workers to hurry and transport the fresh lumber over to the other side of town so they could start building new houses in earnest. A few foreign merchants wearing comically oversized backpacks plied their exotic wares on canvas cloths for any curious onlookers. Marina thought she saw Negavian merchandise among the goods they were peddling, but shook her head. It must have been her imagination.
"There it is! Over there!" said Reah, who pointed forward at the general store and tugged on Marina's arm to get her attention.
They entered the shop, a small bell chiming as the door slide open. A few seconds later, a dark-haired man walked behind the counter.
"Good morning..." he said, though it was already past noon, raising a hand to his mouth as he yawned. His posture was slumped and she could see bags under his eyes. "How may I help you...?"
"I would like to buy paper and ink," replied Marina. She glanced at the kids, who were ogling the various wares on the display, making sure they weren't doing anything dangerous or causing trouble.
"The stationery is over there," answered the man with another yawn, and he pointed to the right.
Marina walked to the shelves the owner indicated. She asked Galneka how much the items cost, as she couldn't read the price tags, and grabbed a bundle of about 20 paper sheets along with two vials of black ink. The paper was smooth and durable, like parchment used in making scrolls, though it was actually made using bark from the magic rich trees of the kingdom instead of animal skin. Marina brought her items to the counter and then reached for her money pouch. Shae'la told her before she left that skevol was apparently an accepted currency in Kortiki.
Then, a fair-haired fey walked in behind the counter, bearing the same exhausted eye bags as the owner. Cradled in her arms was an infant swaddled in a cotton blanket, and Marina was shocked to see a pair of tiny stubs growing out of the babe's forehead. Now she understood why he looked so tired.
"Darling..." she said in a low voice, "It's your turn to look after Eylee..."
The husband turned to his wife and gave her a weary smile.
"I'll be with you in a second, my dear," he replied. "As soon as I finish tending to this customer."
"All right..." said the wife, and she headed back inside their house.
The five little faes huddled around the counter once they saw the newborn half-fairy child. They asked the man question how old she was, when she was born, or just gushed over how cute she was. Marina quieted them with a stern hush before they made too much noise and woke the baby up.
"Sorry about that..." said the store owner, turning back to Marina, too tired to notice the little children getting excited over his newborn daughter.
"It's fine," replied Marina. "Congratulations on becoming a father!"
"Thanks...!" he replied. "I'm telling ya, looking after a kid and managing a shop at the same time is rough... but I'm looking forward to see Eylee grow up... I'm sure she will end up looking almost exactly like her mother..."
Marina couldn't help smiling to the tip of her ears at the thought of the little girl growing up with her loving parents. She left a sum of money on the counter and then put her purchases in her bag. Closing her bag and hefting it across her shoulder, Marina waved goodbye to the owner of the store and exited the shop with the five little fairies following after her.
"Well, now that that's taken care of, let's go back."
Marina made to head back to Shae'la's house, but Vikki tugged on her tunic and she stopped in her tracks.
"I don't wanna go back yet," said the purple-haired girl. "Let's go play hide-and-seek instead!"
"Oh! Me too!" exclaimed Brees.
"Yeah! I wanna play hide-and-seek too!" agreed Galneka.
"Alright, it's decided. We're playing hide-and-seek!" declared Reah, and she turned to Marina. "Marina, you're gonna be it, and it's your job to find us. I warn you, though: we're unbeatable when it comes to hide-and-seek. You better be at the top of your game. Ready...?"
"Actually, no. I'm not ready," responded Marina. "I'm sorry, kids, but I'm not exactly in the mood to play hide-and-seek right now. I'd rather take the rest of the easy so that I can fully concentrate on my training tomorrow. Maybe another time I'll be able to play with you."
The kids hung their head, naturally saddened by the news. Marina felt her heart sink a little when she saw the absolutely miserable look of disappointment in those cute little eyes of theirs. Then, she beamed from ear to ear, having struck upon a great idea. Bending down a slightly, she gingerly patted each of the five girls on the head, which got their attention.
"Now, now, don't give me that look," said Marina. "Just because I can't play with you today doesn't mean I don't want to spend time with you guys. How about you show me around Kortiki instead? You know, to help me get familiarized with it. After all, it's no fun to win a game of hide-and-seek if your opponent isn't any good, am I right?"
The kids instantly cheered up and they all hugged the red-haired woman.
"Thank you, Marina!" said Brees.
Reah grabbed Marina's hand and pointed forward, past main street and the square.
"Come on, Marina! There's a lot of cool stuff to see over that way!"
Reah and her friends pulled and pushed Marina as they dragged her by the arm over to other side of the town. They had a hundred different places they wanted to show her, and she was stunned by how much more enthusiastic to have her follow them they had become. Something tells her she might have made a horrible mistake.
Marina sighed in fatigue as arrived back at her master's house. The last couple of hours had been all spent being dragged all over town by the five little fairies, and by the time she was at Shae'la's doorstep, it had already begun to grow dark. She was amazed by their incredible vim and vigor for young children, but that's part of what made fairies such terrifying creatures to meet in the wild.
"I'm back..." said Marina as she entered.
"Welcome back!" greeted Shae'la from the kitchen. "How was Kortiki? A welcome change of scenery from the drab masonry and overpopulated streets of Negav, I presume."
Myriel flew in from the living room.
"Hmm? Are the kids not with you?" she asked.
"No," answered Marina, "They went back to their homes."
"Ah," mused Myriel.
"That reminds me," said Shae'la, "I advise you go to bed early tonight, young Marina. Preferably shortly after you eat dinner. It should go without saying, but you have a long day ahead of you come tomorrow, and the more sleep you have, the more prepared you will be."
"Very well." replied Marina.
After eating a filling dinner and taking a warm bath, Marina made her way to her room wearing nothing but a towel wrapped lengthwise around her chest. She changed into her nightgown and then sat at the desk Shae'la had set up in front of the window while she was in town. She took a single sheet of paper and dipped the tip of the white quill in the vial of ink, the burning candle in the corner of the desk her only source of light.
Marina pondered as she let the excess black ink drip from the quill. What should she write her parents about? She thought of all that had happened on her first day in the Fairy Kingdom, and just like that, her pen glided effortless across the page.
As she wrote her signature and set her quill down, Marina saw something extraordinary happening just outside the window. Moonstruck blossoms bloomed in the trees and across the lush verdure as far as the eye could see, shining with a soft, mesmerizing blue light as the sun set over the horizon. The dancing wisps glowed with a dazzling incandescence, and for a moment, Marina thought it was snowing outside. It was a scene lifted straight from a dream.
Marina was speechless, her jaw slack with awe as the sight of the Fairy Kingdom in the settling dusk left her completely spellbound. In truth, she was still quite scared to be here, in a land teeming with predators who would not think twice about eating her were they to meet anywhere else. But... just for this one moment, she would forget about all of that.
Taking her letter, Marina rose from her chair, and then left her room to see her master. With that, her first night in this extremely dangerous, but undeniably enchanting kingdom came to a close.
Old Jake rang four times. Most people were still fast asleep at this early hour, but for Ashley and Henry, the sound of the clock tower's bell reverberating across the city stirred them from their slumber. The couple headed downstairs as down broke. Ashley grabbed the burr-mill coffee grinder from the shelves, while her husband checked their letter box outside.
Looking inside, he saw that they had received a single letter. His eyes shot wide as he noticed the writing on the side of the envelope, and any trace of drowsiness fell from his face.
"Ashley! Ashley!" he yelled as he ran back inside the house. "We got a letter from Marina!"
"Marina!?" exclaimed Ashley, turning away from the beans she was grinding. "Show it to me!"
Henry retrieved a sharp knife from the drawer and cut the side of the envelope open. He pulled out the letter inside and unfolded it as his wife huddled next to him. The penmanship was a tad sloppy, but there was no mistaking it. This was undoubtedly Marina's handwriting.
Dear Mom and Dad
How are you doing? I just arrived at Shae'la's house. The view outside
the window of my room is absolutely beautiful! The flowers are so bright
and colorful, and there are pretty magic lights dancing everywhere.
I wish you two were there to see it with me.
I met Shae'la's familiar, an offworlder fairy named Myriel, as well as
five fairy children from Kortiki. I was a little scared of them at first,
but Myriel turned out to be very nice, and although the kids are quite
rambunctious, they seem to be good children at heart. Otherwise,
things are pretty quiet over here.
Today, I went to Kortiki to buy some supplies for writing. I am writing
with a quill instead of a pen, so my writing is probably a little ugly.
The townsfolk were so kind! They didn't care at all that I wasn't from
the fairy kingdom. I met a store owner who had a child with a fairy.
Their baby was sooo cute! I could just pinch her little rosy cheeks!
Come the next morning, I'll begin my training with Shae'la. To be honest,
I'm a little nervous. Something tells me it will be a lot harder than
I imagine. But I'm not going to give up!
I must go to bed early today, as a long day of hard work awaits me
tomorrow. I hope everything goes well for you two in Negav.
I miss you and I'm always thinking of you.
Ashley pressed a hand against her mouth, tears welling in her eyes as a weight was lifted from her heart. Her daughter was safe and sound. Henry was just as relieved as his wife, though he couldn't help but be annoyed that she already ran into trouble on her very first day in that awful kingdom. Still, she was doing well, and that was all that mattered to him.
Setting the letter on the table, the husband and wife hurried and prepared to leave for today's work, a spring in their step and a smile on their face. They too had a long day ahead of them.