“Who said that?” Stephen searched around and didn’t see anyone. Now that they were out of danger, his curiosity about who saved them intensified.
“I did!” The feminine ethereal voice boomed loud enough for her to be close to them, but neither of them could see anyone.
Emily and Stephen looked to each other for an explanation, but they had none, so Emily requested, “Can you give us a hint?”
The branch they were on suddenly swayed up and down, which made Stephen puzzle, “How did that move?”
Emily turned her head and gasped, “She did it!”
When Stephen saw what she was looking at, his eyes bugged out about as far as it could go. In the bark of the tree, they saw the soft features of a mythical woman! At first, Stephen thought it was just an ornate carving, but then he saw the eyes shift focus! The shock made him instinctively jump out of the tree. Emily followed him, but she didn’t appear as alarmed about the concept as he was. He had just started to get used to the idea of magic existing in the universe, and now he had to come to terms with the fact that a tree could speak! His mind went blank, he had no idea how to talk to a tree, but then he watched the tree as she hung her head and began to cry. While he felt guilty for possibly being the one to cause this, he did have a better of idea on what to say. “I’m sorry if I offended you, I’ve just never experienced anything like this before!”
“I’m not crying because I got insulted,” the tree told him. “I’m mourning the loss of the sacredness of this forest! It’s not enough to have that evil man’s presence here, now we must endure a bloodbath as well! For centuries, this forest lived in peace and harmony, and now we’re being used for his ill gain! And after it’s all done, what will become of us?”
In an awed tone, Emily inquired, “Are you telling us we’re in the hidden forest?”
The tree questioned, “You didn’t intend to come here?”
“No,” Emily responded. “We were heading to Ovelstrofe when our pilot got afflicted with Curse of the Serpent’s Tongue and crashed our plane in the ocean. We just came here because it was the closest piece of land we could find.”
“So, it’s true,” the tree sniffled. “He lured you here so you would meet your doom!”
Stephen queried, “By he, do you mean Xavier Ryder?”
The tree made a pained expression when she heard that name. “Please do not speak of him! He dares to taint the heritage of the Nymph Queen of Good with his acts of pure evil! He has brought much suffering to the world already, and I shudder to think of what he would do if he succeeds!”
“Well, we’re not going to let that happen!” Stephen avowed. “I’ve never failed a mission before, and I don’t intend to start now! As soon as we get to Ovelstrofe, I’ll gather a team and we’ll take down that son of a bitch before he does anymore harm!”
The tree sobbed, “I would dearly love that to be so, but it’s not so simple. You can’t just leave the forest, you must survive it first.”
“He’s set up traps for us,” Stephen surmised.
“Yes,” the tree confirmed, “and he knows that you’re a cose and you’re an inexperienced sorceress.”
Stephen turned to Emily, who had an abashed look on her face. “My father tried to teach me, but I didn’t want to learn when I was young. All I wanted was to be normal, so I tried to suppress my powers. After he died, I inherited his spell book and taught myself spell work to keep his memory alive, but I didn’t do it very often. I went to college and got my teaching certification, so I didn’t have time to study magic. I didn’t think I’d have to use it if I lived among coses. Once the killings started, I learned as much as I could, but I’m still pretty amateurish. I relied on that book, and now it’s gone!”
Stephen processed this information for a moment. “Hmm… Well, Amouraq is an island, so couldn’t we just follow the coastline until we reach the civilian part?”
“The beach is lined with bunyips,” the tree informed him. “They belong to the Nymph Queen of Evil and can only get destroyed by each other. They were designed to protect the creatures of the forest, so they’re not so easily beaten. You’re better off facing the creatures of the forest, but they’re quite dangerous themselves. King Alexander made it out of here alive, but you do not have the protection of nymphs of good. His evil has overtaken the forest, and their presence has become scarce. You can stay sheltered with me until a good nymph comes along to help you.”
Emily and Stephen briefly considered this offer, but they both seemed hesitant to accept this plan. Emily brought up, “You said that good nymphs were scarce though. How long do you think it would take for one of them to find us?”
The tree shook her head. “I used to think coming across one as being a sure thing, but these days, I’m not so certain. Sometimes days will go by without seeing any of them.”
“Days?” Stephen repeated. “So, you’re proposing that we sit here for an indeterminate amount of time just waiting for someone to come rescue us?”
“Or perhaps someone on your side will break past the seal,” the tree suggested. “He has let a number of dark sorcerers and sorceresses penetrate our boundaries, so it’s only a matter of time before someone good figures it out. They could provide you with tools and guidance to survive the forest. They did not grow up in the coses’s world, so you would fare better with their assistance.”
Emily pointed out, “That’s assuming we survive here! If a monster doesn’t kill us first, he will. He’s waiting for us, and if he doesn’t see any sign of us, after a while, he’ll come looking for us. He’ll find us here, and you’ll face consequences for helping us. You’ve already been so kind to us, we can’t let that happen!”
“If you face the creatures of the forest, you’re sure to perish!” the tree argued.
Stephen countered with, “If we face the creatures of the forest, we might die, but if we stay here, we might also die! At least if we face the forest, we have a shot at getting out of here before King Patrick passes! We need to get there before he does so she can become queen and the throne of Amouraq doesn’t fall into the wrong hands! If his henchmen can get out, then so can we!”
Emily recalled, “King Alexander got out of here too! After the Nymph Queen of Good helped him defeat a monster, she led him out of the forest to the area now called Ovelstrofe, which is exactly where we’re trying to go! If we follow their path, we might make it to safety!”
“The path is brimming with dangerous creatures now!” the tree conveyed to them. “If you manage to survive them all, then you will run into him. He’s already slain some of the most talented sorcerers and sorceresses in the world. What makes you think you can best him?”
“I’ve bested people more talented than me before!” Stephen expressed vehemently. “No matter how powerful a person is, they always have a weakness! If you can’t match their abilities, you beat them with cleverness! We’ll find a way to take him down one way or another!”
The tree fretted, “But you may be destroyed in the process!”
Stephen had an impassioned response to that statement, but to his surprise, Emily spoke up first, “Some things are worth dying for!” Both Stephen and the tree stared at her in astonishment, so she went on, “I’m next in line for the throne, so he would go after me no matter where I went. Ever since he started targeting us, I’ve been thinking about what I would do should this day ever come, and I decided I wasn’t gonna go down cowering in fear! That’s exactly what he wants! If I’m gonna go down, I wanna go down fighting! Who knows, maybe I can take a few bad people down with me, or maybe I’ll weaken him to make it easier for the next one who faces him. Others may have ran away in the hopes that he would never find them, but I always planned for this moment to happen! There’s no point in delaying what’s inevitable! I need to face him, and I’m not gonna give him the satisfaction of knowing her made me hide in the shadows to avoid him! It’s not gonna be easy, but it has to be done! I’ll never feel right if I die not knowing how far I could get! This has to happen!”
Stephen felt a surge of admiration rise up in him upon her hearing her say this, but he tried not to linger on this feeling for too long. He reassured her, “You have to tell yourself you’re going to succeed even when you’re inches away from death! We’re going to win this!” Emily didn’t say anything, but she smiled at the thought. The tree still looked worried, so Stephen reasoned, “We might run into a good nymph along the way too!”
“That’s possible,” the tree acknowledged. “Well, I wish the two of you luck! You’re going to need it!”
The tree held her branches back, revealing a small trail. Stephen turned to Emily and asked, “Ready?”
Emily answered, “Wait!” She chanted, “Relashio!” and both of their life jackets came undone. After they slipped them off, she chanted, “Seccium!” Stephen felt a warmth envelope him, and in a matter of seconds, they were dry. “Retrievo… No… Recoup… No, ugh! Wait, sanoup Stephen’s cellphone!” When it didn’t work, she exclaimed, “Damn it!”
“It’s okay.” Stephen put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “We’ll get a new one on the other side.”
“Right!” Emily collected herself and focused on the road ahead. They both took a deep breath and set foot down the path.