by Matt Spencer

A FIREPLACE CRACKLED. Wafting incense flooded Caglar’s nostrils, over the aroma of cooking stew. Rain pattered across a sloping roof, carrying in wisps of the wet, piney forest scent. A hard mattress stretched beneath him. The pain in his leg had reduced to a dull, warm throb. He recognized the smell of a blend-lady’s paste, a mix of local soil, herbs, leaves, wild mushrooms, and urine, swirled into a sludge that had been rubbed into his wounds, drawing out the infection.

His eyes opened on a one-room cabin, the walls built in that old way you rarely saw anymore, unaffected by the Spirelights’ sacred architectural mandates. Clumps of harvested plants hung from the ceiling. The quaint sights and smells relaxed him, ‘til his mind cleared and he bolted upright. Where the hell was he? He reached for his sword and found it missing. He’d been stripped to his breeks, one leg of which had been cut away, the better to treat his wound.

A soft hand settled on his shoulder. ‘Rest easy, warrior.’

A woman sat down on the edge of the bed. She wore the eccentric garb of an old-time blend-lady of his people, her dreaded hair pulled back in a clumpy bun. A hempen, sleeveless dress flowed out loosely around her petite form. Earrings sculpted from tiny, sharp-toothed jawbones dangled from her ears. Runic tattoos streaked her slender, sinewy arms. Yet she had the gleaming pale skin and long, angular features of a Spirelight. She had the ancient poise of someone old enough to be his great-grandmother, yet the youthful sprightliness of someone young enough to be his daughter, if he’d ever had any kids he knew about. Her accent was a curious blend of rustic hill folk and the exotic trill of the far western shores.

She went to the fireplace and ladled stew into a wooden bowl from the hanging cooking pot. She handed it to him, along with a wooden spoon. He sipped and noticed his empty belly gnawing at him, so he slurped it up greedily.

As he ate, his senses settled into this weird new reality. ‘What is this place?’

‘My cabin, in the Ashwind Forests. You staggered through my door this afternoon, kept mumbling about how nice the shade was, then you fell flat on your face. I’ve spent all evening tending to you.’

‘Sorry.’ He rubbed his forehead. ‘Hold on. No one lives in the Ashwind Forests.’

‘Clearly you’ve been misinformed.’

‘Yeah? So who the hell are you?’

‘You may call me Sarilla. Considering you’re the one under my roof, enjoying my hospitality, why don’t we start with who you are?’

He set the bowl aside. ‘I’m Caglar, bandit chief of the Stohiak Mountains.’

‘Bandits in the Stohiak Mountains? But…that is a peaceful region.’

‘Who’s misinformed now? It was, a long time ago, before you Spirelights brought your gods and your Empire.’

‘The Theocracy, on these shores? But… that’s what my family sailed here to escape!’

Caglar stared. ‘Spirelights trying to sail away from the Theocracy? That hasn’t happened in at least two hundred years!’

‘No, that’s impossible, I’ve only…’ She looked away. ‘Of course. The native tribesmen always said this forest existed somewhere between Deschemb and the Ephemeral Realms, how time flows differently here. I never believed them.’

‘Neither did I.’

‘But… I hoped things could get better! Now comes a red-handed bandit with tales of war. I’m so sorry…’

His head swam. ‘Nothing for you to apologize for, assuming you’re not lying or crazy.’

‘Just how bad is it out there?’

‘The whole damn Spirelight Empire’s in a civil war that’s sucked all Deschemb into it. Kalesha, the new Priest King of Trescha’s got some liberal ideas, about how y’all can go on honouring your gods but still let us lesser races keep on being ourselves. Apparently, most of the other Priest Kings don’t like that. Neither do the Spirelight occupational forces of Noresterland. While they make war with the ones who side with Kalesha, they’ve been cracking down on us dirt-worshipers, pressing us into their military and police service.’

‘You came wearing the garb and weapons of other shores, yet… I’m sorry, but you don’t speak like someone who’s seen much of the world. Your sword looks like it came from the courts of the Ghestrulands. I could swear that dagger is Spirelight military issue.’

‘It was, ‘til recently. I have no idea where the sword came from. I won it by plunder.’

‘You spoke of Spirelights pressing Schomites into military service.’

‘Yeah. When I was a kid, the Spirelights came to my village to train the youth to serve as scouts and rangers. I impressed them enough to rise to the rank of instructor before I was seventeen, to the other recruits of my village. I knew the Spirelight Empire was bad, that they didn’t belong here, but I… I guess I never saw it for real, not ‘til the day some old warrior showed up, bloody and crazy from a fight he’d barely survived. I’ll never forget how he looked at me when he wandered out of the woods, like we knew each other. I’d just called my buddy Draa forward to help me demonstrate a drill, then I glanced over and saw that bloody mess of a man shambling towards us. At first, all he did was laugh like a lunatic. Then he started babbling about how he’d seen the true blasphemy and lunacy of the Spirelights and their gods, how we’d all end up if we kept letting them push us around. We tried to nurse him back to health, but he died of his wounds less than a week later. Something about the look in his eyes whi
le he rambled… I guess it was the wake-up I needed. After that, I knew, I wasn’t gonna fight for the Spirelights. I rallied the other recruits so we took to the trees and waged guerilla warfare on their outposts for miles around.’

She almost smiled. ‘Oh, so you’re a freedom fighter, are you?’

‘I used to think so. Looking back, I don’t think we were ever fighting for anyone’s freedom but our own… just to live wild and reckless, like the Schomite warriors of old. By the end of it, we didn’t much discriminate between who we hurt, the Spirelights or our own kind.’

‘Yet you would return to that life, once you’ve healed from your wounds?’

He stared at the floor. ‘I don’t know. Look where that got me. What do I have to go back to out there? All my friends are dead, and I don’t exactly expect to find a lot of open doors offering nice hospitality like this.’

She leaned closer, studying him. ‘So what do you want? Be honest.’

‘I just wanna go home, to live out my days in peace and playful mischief, to kick back over the campfire with my brothers and sisters. But that home doesn’t exist anymore. That world doesn’t exist anymore. The war ate it a long time ago.’

‘What if I told you that you still could go home, not just over land, but through time itself, that you could return to your youth, that the world you long for still exists for you, and that I can show you a trail that leads to it, through this forest?’

He almost called her crazy, but something in her weird, golden-green eyes wouldn’t let him dismiss her so easily. ‘What are you getting at?’

‘Come out into the night with me.’

She took his hand and led him out through the front door. A soothing drizzle settled over him. The air tasted like the first spring rain in the mountains of his youth. The forest spread blackly around them, with distant spectral lights winking through the tangled trees and hazy distance, from multiple directions.

‘One of these trails, Caglar, could be your trail home.’

He snapped out of his trance. ‘You talk a good one, girl. The Stohiak Mountains are miles east of here. They don’t even touch this forest’s borders.’

‘Ah, but the flow of distance and reality here is not as you are used to perceiving it. These trails bridge not just distance, but time as well. Come, Caglar, you are a Schomite of the old ways. Listen, as your blend-ladies back home taught you, to the voice of the night, the voice of the lands. You know I speak the truth.’

He closed his eyes and felt the ground beneath his bare feet, the damp air against his skin. From somewhere far off, familiar laughter echoed… of days when he and his friends had chased each other through brighter, warmer forests, of nights dancing around the bonfire before bedding down with half-forgotten sweethearts. His eyes snapped open. The echo grew fainter.

‘Which path is it?’ He grabbed Sarilla’s arm and shook her. ‘Tell me!’

She smiled serenely, unmoved by his sudden forcefulness. ‘Nothing’s free. Surely a seasoned bandit like yourself should know that.’

‘What could I possibly have that you want?’

‘Haven’t you stopped to wonder how a Spirelight woman like myself comes to know the ways of your blend-ladies?’

His eyes narrowed. ‘It’s crossed my mind.’

‘My family first sailed to Noresterland before our races learned to hate each other. Back then, your people accepted us graciously. I fell in love with a young Schomite man. His mother was a blend-lady. She had no daughters, so she’d passed her sacred traditions of land magic along to him. The magic of these lands called to me, more than the gods of my race ever had. It spoke to me through him, almost like all the beauty and magic and majesty of your lands had taken the form of a handsome young Schomite man who wandered out of the trees, just for me.’ She gazed off wistfully. ‘The more of those mysteries he revealed to me, the more I wished to learn. For a while, he taught me in secret. He knew his mother wouldn’t approve of him passing along your people’s sacred wisdom to an outsider. My parents saw the change in me, too. At first, it was all well and good, that our two races should grow closer, through a union of young love… but oh no, not for me to outright break from our old faith! Of course, they eventually discovered our blasphemy, as did his mother. We were forced to flee into the wilderness, pursued by the warriors of both our people… this wilderness, the one place where they would not follow.’

‘So where’s this star-crossed lover of yours now?’

‘I’ll get to that. Building a new life together out in these spectral woods was no easy thing, as you might imagine. We both knew how to farm and he knew how to hunt, but neither of us had been raised to reckon with the flora and fauna here. We’d have died within a week… but it turned out we weren’t the only people who’d gotten lost in this forest. Many of that other world’s wayward and lost had found a way to make lives for themselves in this strange place… a whole community of them, in fact. My Kinay always had a charming tongue. Here, it turned out, he had a gift for leadership. In less than a year, he became Chief of the Lost Tribe of Ashwind Forest. A man of these shores and its secrets, trained in both magic and martial prowess? He was the one they’d waited for! But me, ah, I was still a silly little foreign interloper in their eyes, a spoiled Spirelight girl playing dress-up as a blend-lady, tinkering with dangerous powers I couldn’t possibly understand. Admit it, you’ve already thought the same thing.’

‘You’re the one who saved my life, not them. And you’ve survived out here this long on your own.’ He glanced again at his eerie surroundings. ‘I don’t know if I could do that.’

She arched an eyebrow. ‘Perhaps you’re smarter than most men after all. But then, so was Kinay, in his way.’ She spat. ‘Who knows what he would have amounted to back home? I doubt he’d have been allowed to rise so high out there. In this world, he became a chief! It’s just that he realized he’d never have held onto that position if he’d kept me around. He chose them over me. Why would he need me anymore? That village is full of little sluts eager to crawl all over their new, strong, handsome leader. In the end, I was banished to the fringes of this forest, forever shunned as an outcast, while he rules his village of misfits and fools, free to forget all about me. In all that time, I’ve formed my own relationship with this forest, honing my craft.’

‘You don’t need to convince me,’ said Caglar. ‘You’re a powerful blend-lady, that’s obvious. So why don’t you just, y’know, leave?’

She let out a shrill laugh that pricked at his nerves. ‘Leave this magical forest? For what? I look back on what I left behind, and I’d as soon piss on it as see it again. For you, at least there’s a home you still long for, even if it never truly existed, not like it lives in your heart. I could show you the way, though, to a place where it is real.’

‘In exchange for what?’

‘I want you to kill Chief Kinay for me.’

‘If you’re as powerful as you say, why ain’t you done that yourself?’

‘Nothing about this is simple, except for my instructions and what’s in it for you. Bring me his head, and I’ll point you down the trail you want. Do we have a deal, or do you judge me as an unworthy outsider, as everyone else has?’

He listened to the faraway echoes, beckoning to him. He met her eyes. ‘It might help if you gave me back my clothes, my sword, and my gear.’

‘It’s all waiting inside for you. First, I suggest you take a few days to recover. My medicine has saved your leg, but that wound is far from healed. Also, there’s one other thing I’d ask of you.’


‘I’ve been out here alone for a long time, shunned as a pariah.’

Understanding dawned on him. He grinned and looked her over. ‘Want some company for a while, huh?’

She sneered and nodded. ‘I was young but not entirely experienced when I gave my heart to that betraying bastard, before he got what he wanted and left me to rot. While tending to your wounds, do you think I’ve not noticed your fighting man’s body? I’m still a woman, you know.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ he snarled.

She rolled her eyes. ‘Before you kill Chief Kinay, I want you to tell him you had me. Tell him I said you were a better lover than he ever was. When you bring me his head, I want to see in his glassy, dead eyes that he died hearing that. Can you do that for me?’

He slipped an arm around her waist and guided her back towards the cabin, ‘I sure hope I’m up to all your wild expectations, ma’am.’

‘I don’t expect you to actually be that good. I still want Kinay to die thinking you were. In the meantime, you look like you’ll do.’


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