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   Chapter 1

The Woodlands By EJBowman Characters: 14229

Updated: 2017-12-22 12:02


It was exactly what the name suggested: a massive forest spanning miles. To the outsiders—mainly humans—it was referred to as Dolar Woods. Named after the human who discovered it… and subsequently never returned when a moving tree swatted at him as if he were a rat.

To the inhabitants it was simply known as the Woodlands. It did not need a more precise title. The one forest was the epicenter of their existence and everything else was superfluous. The strange and wondrous beings of the mighty forest assumed there was nothing of value beyond their domain. None of them had ever willingly left, nor had any of them ever tried. There was no point in leaving when everything they ever desired was there.

One such species that lived in the Woodlands were the nymphs. All beings of the forest were closely connected to the Nature Goddess, but none were as close as the two forest spirits: nymphs and dryads. These beings heard the whispers of trees as the wind blew their branches and, under the utmost of exceptional circumstances, could look upon the Goddess if she chose to show herself. Most never had that privilege, and the few who claimed they had were usually thought to be fibbing.

Nymphs bore resemblance to humans in many ways. They were shorter than humans with most reaching only just over four feet. The males were indistinguishable from the females, with both genders appearing androgynous in the eyes of the other beings in the Woodlands. All nymphs had flowing white hair and an even paler complexion. They quite easily blended into the petals of the cherry trees or mist caused by the constantly moist atmosphere.

Upon a long arm of the oldest willow tree in the Woodlands rested one such nymph. His name was Neem. Although he was like all other nymphs, future events would set him on a course that none of his kind had ever been on.

Neem, like all other nymphs, wore little. Nymphs were attuned to the cool temperature of the forest so clothes were not needed for keeping warm. The only garment Neem wore was a loincloth—woven of white string—for modesty, and even then, he sometimes did not wear that if he was just among other nymphs.

He also wore a crocheted necklace that looked like a beaded spider web as the strings ran around his neck, then draped over his shoulders, and finally interlocked with his bracelets. He had crafted the accessories himself, as was custom. All nymphs designed their own neck accessories to make them unique. All nymphs designed their own, unique neck accessories to allow other creatures of the forest to distinguish between them.

“Neem?” a low, soft voice whispered.

The little nymph’s green eyes popped open and were met with a pair of dark brown eyes staring back. He smiled when he recognised the mighty dryad looming over him. Although he was high in a tree, the dryad stood at eye-level with the surrounding tree tops.

“Jaiya!” he squeaked cheerfully and wrapped his arms around her neck to draw her into a hug.

He ignored the coarse bark rubbing against his soft, little arms.

The dryad, being designed in the image of the Goddess, had beautiful, dark brown skin below even darker bark. Her antler-like branches were so large that they became tangled in the willow tree as she leaned down to hug the nymph, but she ignored that minor problem.

“Are you all right?” Neem asked in a concerned manner.

He saw the uncertainty in her eyes.

“Have you not sensed it?” she asked, cocking her head to the side with a creaking sound.

Neem imitated the movement due to his own confusion.

“Something has come from the south,” she explained. “The trees have sensed it. It’s something… unnatural. Something that isn’t from the Woodlands.”

Neem’s eyes widened. The explanation only confused him more.

“The water spirits says it’s been following the Nacta River. We need to warn as many other beings as possible to stay away from it until it leaves.”

“If it leaves,” Neem thought aloud.

“It will leave,” Jaiya assured him. “Whether by choice or by the Goddess destroying it, it will leave.”

Neem nodded. He hoped Jaiya was right, for everyone’s sake. Foreigners did pass through the forest on rare occasion–but they were unwelcomed. What lay beyond the Woodlands did not concern the forest folk, but they did not like outsiders entering their land and tainting it.

“Is it another human?” Neem asked. He hated humans. They tried to cut down trees from the forest to use as timber, but the dryads generally were able to make them flee back to where they came from. “Or maybe a wolf?”

“I cannot stay,” the dryad said. “It is dangerous regardless.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Neem asked in a panicked tone. “We must warn the other creatures to stay away!”

Before the dryad could say any more, the little nymph climbed down the willow tree and dashed deep into the forest, searching for fellow nymphs to help him get the word out about the unknown danger. Jaiya had to chuckle. Neem was well over a hundred years old yet acted so juvenile.

Alerting the other creatures in the forest about the unknown danger was an easier task than expected. If the thing continued to follow to the Nacta River it would be gone within a week. Everything would be fine providing the other beings of the forest stayed clear of that river.

“We should kill it!” a pixie squeaked upon receiving the news from Neem.

The little creature was no more than two feet—hardly a threat to a thing with unknown magical abilities.

“The Goddess would not approve. You know that,” Neem warned. “She will remove it herself, should the thing become an issue.

The little pixie’s pointy ears drooped before it let out a “humph” and scurried away.

“Neem!” came a familiar voice.

Neem turned to see a nymph coming toward him. It was his friend—sometimes lover—that approached.

“Fee!” he exclaimed, but not in his usual cheerful manner due to the stress he was feeling.

For the female nymph, there was no time for greetings so she got right into it: “There’s an old centaur drinking from Nacta where mermaid rock is. Lilac and Numi tried to get him to leave, but he swatted them away, and the trees say the thing is heading his way!” she squealed in one breath.

Neem froze as he pondered over what to do. Centaurs were always stubborn—especially old centaurs.

“I’ll go get him,” he said boldly.

Fee shook her head rapidly.

“But the foreigner!”

“I’ll be gone before it even reaches mermaid rock,” he assured her.

There was a lovely harmony among all creatures under the Goddess’ watch. Their communal values were clearly demonstrated in dangerous times like this. All of them respected the commands of the forest spirits to stay away from the Nacta River—all of them except this old centaur.

It took Neem quite a few minutes to reach the river even though he was running as fast as his legs could carry him. He was not sure how close the foreigner was to mermaid rock, but he had to assume they were extremely close if the trees were raising alert.

Oh yes, he thought as he saw the old ce

ntaur, this does look like the kind of centaur who would be stubborn. Tail full of knots, hooves full of stones. Yes, this was a stubborn centaur.

“Pardon me,” Neem said politely.

The centaur did not respond; he had not heard the nymph.

Neem made the wise decision to only approach so far. He knew better than to be within kicking range of a startled centaur. The worst thing he could do was try to touch the creature as it stared out at the Nacta River.

As expected, the old centaur jumped when he saw the nymph and made a whinny sound.

“Good Goddess!” he barked. Neem watched his white beard twitch as he talked. “I’ve had just about enough of you young folks trying to deny me a simple drink at the river.”

Neem had expected the centaur would react like this.

“You must leave,” the nymph said loudly to ensure the centaur would hear. “A foreigner is coming right this way. They will kill you if you’re in their path.”

The centaur let out a snort and stomped his hoof.

“Foreigner, eh? Send them here. I’ll show them a piece of my mind.”

“The trees have said this foreigner has magical abilities, but he’s not been blessed with magic by the Goddess. This foreigner uses dark magic.”

The centaur stopped being haughty for a moment to think over what Neem was saying.

“Navu is only a few miles away,” he continued. “Get your drink there, but please, please leave this river right now.”

The centaur let out a gruff snort and, without another word, trotted slowly back into the forest. Neem sighed a breath of relief. He was worried they would be bickering right up until the foreigner arrived and killed them. The centaur had turned away the little fairies that tried to warn him, but it was harder to deny a forest spirit—downright blasphemous, actually.

Neem stood there for a few seconds to scan the area. He did not see the foreigner; no dark clouds on the horizon signalled the trespassers arrival. He just wanted to see the foreigner so he knew what he and his friends were dealing with.

He got his wish.

Neem groaned in an exasperated manner when he heard the crunching of leaves behind him. He assumed that old centaur had returned after changing his mind about leaving.

“For the love of the Godde–” he was in the middle of saying before he choked on his words.

Frozen with fear, Neem could not do anything as he stared at the tall figure in front of him.

Without a doubt it was the foreigner. For one thing: his entire body was covered from head to toe in black clothing which was something no creature of the forest did. The hood of his cloak made it impossible to see his eyes, but his mouth could just barely be seen.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” the foreigner said calmly.

The nymph wanted to speak, but when the foreigner took another step towards him he took three steps back and unwittingly fell into the river. The cool water certainly helped wake him up and bring him back to reality.

This human’s going to kill me, the little nymph realised. Because he was certainly a human, but a human who had dark magic abilities? That was something unheard of.

He was surprised when a gloved hand reached into the water and grabbed his arm. Neem could swim, but he had refused to resurface out of fear for what the foreigner would do to him when he did.

“Get away, get away!” Neem shrieked as he was pulled back to shore.

The foreigner let go of him instantly, obviously startled by the nymph’s shrieking.

Neem crawled away from the man before standing up and trying to regain his composure. He hoped no creatures of the forest had heard him scream or they could come running and get in as much trouble as he was.

“Would you believe me if I said I don’t want to hurt you?” the foreigner chuckled.

Neem spat some water out of his mouth.

“You’re a human, of course you want to hurt me,” Neem muttered shakily.

The foreigner laughed again.

“You think I’m human? Interesting.”

Neem’s pointy ears perked up.

“Yes, and humans are not welcome here,” he stated, feeling more bold.

“Well,” the foreigner began while grabbing his hood with one hand, “would I be more welcome if I wasn’t human?”

The man’s full face was revealed. He skin was almost as dark as a dryad’s but a different shade of brown. His whole complexion was dark for that matter. Peering through the strands of his black hair were equally dark eyes. These were not the traits Neem immediately took note of, however. No, his attention was initially directed toward the foreigner’s curled, black horns He was definitely not just a human.

The smug look on his face suggested he thought the nymph would be more shocked, yet Neem only looked intrigued rather than fearful. He hated humans, but he had no idea what this creature was.

After ogling for a few seconds, the nymph quickly shook his head.

“You must leave,” he said firmly. “You’re not welcome here, whatever you are. We don’t like dark magic.”

“Understood,” the foreigner said with a slow nod. “I am on a journey and just passing through. I will be gone soon enough. However, I must ask if I may have some fruit from the trees or any other kind of food—I have run out of my own rations.”

Neem shook his head.

“No. The trees will not allow a foreigner to pick their fruit.”

The man gave a disappointed nod.

“Perhaps, since I am trespassing, I should be giving you something rather than taking. May I offer you a little token with the promise that I will not take or taint anything in the forest and, in return, receive safe travel through here?”

Neem did not answer and continued to just stare at the man as he rummaged through his satchel. After a moment he pulled out a beautiful shell of many colours.

“I would assume coinage is not the currency here, so perhaps you would like this seashell for jewellery purposes,” he explained while holding out the large shell. “After all, you seem like a… boy who enjoys accessorising. I can guarantee you’ll be the only one in the forest wearing this.”

The nymph wanted to take the beautiful shell, he really did, but he knew it would be wrong.

“I can’t promise you safe travel through the Woodlands. If the Nature Goddess condemns you then there’s nothing I can do.”

“Then I only request that you promise the other creatures in this forest won’t harm me, just as I won’t harm them. If the Nature Goddess condemns me… well, so be it.”

He gestured again for Neem to take the shell. This time the nymph did so.

“No forest creature will harm you, but you must leave the Woodlands as soon as possible.”

“Understood.”

Before anything more could be said, Neem scurried off into the forest. His heart was beating so fast that he thought it would burst through his chest.

Did I really just speak to a foreigner? he thought as he ran. How am I even alive after speaking to a foreign magical being?

He was afraid of the man, but also intrigued by him. Neem wanted the trespasser gone as soon as possible but also wanted to learn more about him—how could something that looked like a human have horns?

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