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   Chapter 20

The Woodlands By EJBowman Characters: 21005

Updated: 2017-12-22 12:02


Neem remained dead still when he became conscious. Having blocked out everything from the past few days, he had no idea what the current state of his existence was now.

Coming back to reality was not an easy adjustment. At first, he convinced himself that he sleeping on the stone floor of his slave chambers. The na?ve assumption being that he had somehow managed to roll off of his mattress.

He presumed the sound of raging water and strange birds chirps was only in his mind—the remnants of a dream, but as his senses returned, he realized the rough, dirt-like texture beneath him was certainly not the stone floor of his slave chambers. Still in a dreamlike state, his mind convinced him that he was back with the hunters when they first captured him. This did not last long, however, as his body began to reassociate with the wounds of his torment.

But why am I outside on the ground?

He let out a small moan as he turned his head so it was no longer pressed directly into the ground. While lying still, he had managed to forget how terribly sore he was… as well as why he was sore. Those memories had returned, but were as hard to recall as a dream. He remembered the basics, but none of it felt connected to him.

Finally opening his eyes, he found himself on a yellowy ground staring into an endless body of water. This was somewhere he had never seen, let alone imagined.

Overall, he was indifferent to the circumstances. Not relieved, not scared, just hollow. Perhaps it was the surreal aspect of the whole situation. By this point, nothing felt real. The mere idea a forest spirit, like him, leaving the Woodlands and being tortured by vampires was preposterous even though he had actually lived it.

Surely this is a dream.

The multiple bursts of pain he felt as he sat himself up told Neem that this was reality. He glanced around a bit before noticing a figure out of the corner of his eye. He had to shift himself in order to look the other direction, and again, the pain made him let out a small groan.

Much to his horror, the blue-faced person was a vampire. Looking down at his own body, the dried blood and sand-speckled wounds, he knew he was in no condition to run away. Wiggling his toes reminded him of the searing pain he had endured when the hot iron was pressed into his feet.

Why did this all happen to me? he thought, yet he did not feel much inner turmoil; he felt devoid of any true emotion.

Taking a second look at the unconscious vampire only raised further questions. They looked oddly familiar, but he could not place their face among the many vampires he had previously encountered.

Perhaps I’ve forgotten more than I realise, Neem considered. This vampire did not look like either a Primyen or a Borovnian. Vampires never wore all-black, let alone kept their hair short.

Ignoring the pain, Neem got onto his hands and knees and crawled over to the unfamiliar body of water. Not only would the water soothe the soles of his feet, but it would also cleanse his mind. Based on events that took place over the previous few days, the forest spirit felt very filthy inside and out. He wished the foreign water could wash away all remnants of everything that had happened after he encountered the vampires… After he met Dacen.

He started off by simply sitting on the damp sand. Water ran up to him, licked his bloodied toes, and then trailed back. The water was breathing—he liked it. Finally, he crab-walked further down where the water could reach him. At first his wounds—especially his feet—stung a little, but eventually he adjusted. He would not be able to walk for quite some time.

So how did I get here? Neem pondered while moving deeper in. Wherever they were, it was a long way from Primye Dinastoro or the Woodlands. The only explanation he could think of was that he had been semi-unconscious for longer than he realised.

The forest nymph’s whole body tensed when he heard grumbling behind him. His captor had woken. No chance of running… although he never had the intent.

“N-Neem?”

He glanced back at this point. The voice was quite familiar—even if many other aspects of the vampire were foreign. There was nothing threatening about the stranger. He looked anxious more than anything. Was he worried about Neem? That made no sense. They did not know each other.

“It’s me, Neem.” He crawled forward, but the nymph instinctively moved away. “It’s Dacen.”

The nymph’s eyes widened with that proclamation. He was looking at a vampire; how on earth could it be his foreigner friend?

Dacen was quite surprised with Neem’s lack of recognition. Had they really been separated for that long?

Then he remembered the liar’s dust he was covered in. He let out a small sigh of relief and crawled down to the ocean. Although still exhausted after the previous night’s escapades, he used his magic to get the job done quicker by forming a ball of water and allowing it to dissipate above his head. The effect was obvious given Neem’s expression. Seeing a vampire transform into a familiar face was baffling.

Dacen tried to put his hand out to touch the nymph’s shoulder, but Neem flinched.

“It’s really me, I promise.”

The forest spirit stared blankly at him.

Why isn’t he happy to see me?

“This doesn’t feel real,” Neem said solemnly while glancing down at his bruised legs. “When change happens, it happens very swiftly, doesn’t it?”

Dacen cocked a confused eyebrow, but nodded. Neem was certainly not acting like the chirpy nymph he remembered—yet why would he? ‘Chirpiness’ would be hard to muster after everything the little being had been through.

Neem changed positions so that he could scoop the water into his mouth. He realised how parched his throat was after speaking. Upon taste, he spat it back out. The salty water would do nothing to cleanse his throat.

“It is sea water,” Dacen explained. “You cannot drink it.”

The nymph’s eyes narrowed as he looked out at the vast array of blue.

“All this is undrinkable? Then what’s the point?”

Dacen laughed his familiar laugh. It was a strange question to ask given all other circumstances. Perhaps Neem assumed that Dacen had an idea of where they were? He did not, of course. The exotic fauna beyond the beach was like

ave killed,” Dacen informed it, jokingly. “I have drained the souls of sentient beings. There are countless ways I could kill you.”

The bird cocked its head to once side, made a gurgling-like squawk, and then started to groom the feathers under its wing. It did not fear Dacen, and a bird without fear was a bird without predators—that was his conclusion.

He continued through the forest, examining the many different trees and plants. A flapping sound could be heard every now and then. The bird was following by hopping from tree to tree. Dacen enjoyed his curious little companion. A being lacking fear, only pertaining interest, soothed his mind. The forest held no judgement. The being of judgement sat on the beach, dreading the hybrid’s return.

After a while, the half-breed noticed something strange about the flora. It was becoming exceedingly dense. That was expected now that he was a fair distance from the sea water, but each branch, vine, and thistle seemed to tug at his clothing as he waded deeper in.

This is not just incidental, he concluded. This forest was designed to hinder.

Dark magic was twisted into the creation of this place. He had not sensed it on the beach—although, he had not been hyperaware of his surroundings—but it had become evident as he ventured further in.

My other half brought me here for a reason.

Curiosity had the better of him, and he pushed onwards. He had to.

Endurance did pay off. Eventually the bush began to recede. What took its place was more unsettling, however.

A path.

The ground had been traversed before. Or, at the very least, it was put there to assist those who made it through the forest.

It was put here for me.

Oh my, I am losing my mind.

I should go back to Neem.

He did not.

Dacen was brought out of his anxious state when a squawking pierced his ears. The green bird had made it through the thick of the forest as well. It drew his attention to the prominent boulder dead-set in the path by landing right on top of it.

It had to be where the path ended. Beyond the massive stone was an ever-thicker bush. Black roots from behind caressed the sides of the boulder, but none obscured the image carved into the front: a humanoid outline. Most notably, however, was the suggestion of horns on the outline’s head.

No.

Spinning around, Dacen tried to run in the opposite direction. The thick of the forest now appeared to have moved right up to his nose. The bird was shrieking, infuriated.

“I don’t know what you want,” Dacen rationed to the voiceless trees. “Even if I did… I sense I should not give it to you.”

The hybrid knew he had made a terrible decision—voicing his opinion—when the wind began rising. At first, he thought the rustling of leaves was a particularly strong gust. His assumption was proven to be mistaken when a flock of exotic birds shot from the foliage. Instinctively, he put his arms up as defence. Claws and beaks teared fabric and flesh alike.

Before he knew it, a particularly large bird came at his face, clearly directing its claws towards his eyes. Dacen stumbled backwards, knocked his skull against the boulder, and slipped out of consciousness.

The hoard of birds calmed—now the light drizzle after a hurricane. Sitting in an almost perfect semi-circle around their victim, they did nothing more. Some cocked their heads from side to side, others let out innocent little chirps.

Dacen crawled out of the grasp of darkness and back into reality. The dim sky suggested it was dusk—he had slept for hours.

The birds were gone—that was reassuring—but in their place was a fair amount of droppings. Demonised, yes, but even birds still had to excrete.

Looking up, the image of the stone horned-man towered over him. The disconcerting part was the addition of eyes, carved to stare directly into the forest.

Had the birds done it? No. They were the pawns of whatever had brought Dacen here. It wanted him.

This is dangerous, he knew. I must get Neem out of here.

The forest did not resist as he passed through. No dark magic harnessed it that point. He also noted the lack of birds sounds. Evil had deserted the area… for now.

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