Western greenworms were covered in dozens of little spines. Their flesh was armored in chitin, their mandibles as hard as stone. With their mandibles they chewed through leaves like ravenous dogs at a carcass, and they were not picky eaters. In their native land of Wokina, they faced one predator and one predator only: the reptilian “thorn-gulper”.
But this was not the worms’ native land. This was the Forest of Refuge in Noalen, where the thorn-gulpers froze and died in the harsh winters. So the greenworms hitched a ride on the body of foreign livestock, crossed the Western Sea to this bountiful new region where there were no predators to be found.
That was, except for Flora. This dutiful nymph patrolled her territory every morning with a glass jar. The greenworms used their spines to scale leaves and bark, but they only slipped down the smooth sides of the jar. There was no escape when Flora plucked them from her beloved plants and dropped them inside.
Flora knew that she and her native sisters were outnumbered, that their war with these invasive pests had no end. But she also knew that if they did not at least try, the worms would skeletonize the entire forest.
Of course once every leaf was eaten, the worms would starve off, dormant seeds would sprout, and nature’s order would be restored. Flora was immortal. A couple centuries were but a blink of her eye. She could wait if she chose to.
However, the villagers of Drifter’s Hollow relied on this forest for food, wood, and protection. By the time it grew back, they would all be a hundred years in the grave. Flora cared for these wayward people, perhaps too much. That was the only reason she bothered crawling around in the dirt this morning as she always did, pricking her fingers on these little monsters.
She kneeled down before a patch of giant clovers, already looking patchy and ragged. Sure enough, clusters of greenworms were infesting their leaves. Each worm was about the size of an infant human’s finger. Flora carefully picked one up by its back end. Still it whipped around and spitefully sunk its mandibles into her.
“Ouch! Damn you!” she hissed, and shook it off into her jar. It landed among the mass of its squirming, helpless kin. It was not Flora’s place to kill these creatures. They were still Mother Gaia’s creations, beautiful in their own right, and dumb as any other beast. It wasn’t their fault they were misplaced.
So when the jar was full, Flora passed it along to the faunae—the beast keepers—who transported the greenworms all the way back to their native continent. It was the faunae’s duty to protect them, just as it was Flora’s duty to protect her plants from them. The nymph of this region worked together in harmony to keep nature delicately balanced.
Flora moved along in her patrol, her jar already half-filled. As she approached the creek, a vibrant flash of red caught her eye. Cautiously she stepped forward to examine it. It was some kind of orchid with rich red petals, its stem drooping in a graceful arch. Anyone else would be charmed by its beauty.
But Flora saw through its charm and straight into its intention: it was an attack. A hostile move by a foreign limniad, trying to stake her claim in this land. Flora would not—could not—stand for it. She seized the flower and ripped it from the soil, roots and all.
She saw another orchid nearby, then several more on the other side of the creek. Whoever this strange nymph was, she’d been busy lately. Her seeds were probably everywhere, ready to sprout and spread themselves in the coming weeks. Flora could spend days ripping up every flower, but she was old and wise, and she knew better.
To get rid of these orchids for good, she needed to destroy the one root that they all shared: their mother, their tender, their guardian. Wherever she was, she couldn’t be far from here.
Flora left the jar of greenworms by the creek and began scouting the area. Se had thousands of native sisters in this forest. She knew all their faces and names, knew the borders of their territories, and exactly what plants they tended.
So when she saw a red-headed limniad crouching further down the creek, she knew instantly that this stranger didn’t belong.
Slowly, with feather-light steps, Flora crept towards the stranger. She was green of skin and red of hair, all her tones rich and vibrant like the jungles in the south. Woody stems curved back from her head like horns, all adorned with fat red petals.
She was nude like the beasts, not clothed like the peoples, so Flora knew she was likely not a visitor. She was on a daring mission to expand her territory. She was planting more of her seeds that very moment.
Her mission had come to an end, thought Flora, and she suddenly charged towards the stranger. The foreign nymph noticed her just a moment too late. Flora seized her tightly by her long, red hair in one hand, began pummeling her with her other fist like a club.
The stranger shrieked and squirmed in her grip, trying desperately to kick her away.
“Get out of my forest, you cretin!” Flora snarled, delivering bash after bash wherever they would land. “You invader, you parasite, you soil-plundering bitch!”
Once the stranger was begging for mercy, Flora released her hair, throwing her to the grass below. “Who do you think you are, trying to crowd out my pretty daisies?” she growled.
The stranger staggered back to her feet, combing her fingers through her tangled hair. She replied loudly, angrily, “My name is Orchid, and I will plant my roots wherever I please! Who are you to boss me around?”
“Who am I?” Flora repeated, standing tall. “I am the guardian of this forest, the tender of this territory, and surely many centuries your senior, you know-nothing child!”
She shoved Orchid, nearly knocking her to the ground again. “Now go back from where you came or I’ll send you all the way back to our Mother!”
Orchid shoved Flora back and retorted, “I will not go! I travelled for days, seeking a place like this, where my red beauties can thrive! A place where yearly floods won’t wash them away, leaving me to spread their seeds all over again! Don’t you have any sympathy?”
“Don’t you have any sense?” Flora snapped, gesturing to an orchid nearby. “Yes, they thrive here, but at what cost? Their roots steal soil, their stems steal water, and their leaves steal sunlight from my children.”
Ripping a giant, ragged clover from the soil, Flora showed its underside to Orchid. A cluster of greenworms were feeding upon it. “These invasive worms thrive here too, at the cost of everything else! They need their predators, just as your orchids need their floods. If you’re too lazy to do your duty, then how can you even call yourself a nymph?”
“You’re my sister, not my Mother,” said Orchid. “You have no say over what I do or how I choose to do it! If you want me out of these woods, you’ll have to drag me out kicking and screaming!”
With that, the foreign limniad turned around and bolted away, disappearing through the brush. Fury burned hot in Flora’s green face. She gave chase, shouting threats to Orchid all the while.
“When I catch you,” she growled, “I’ll pin you to a tree and let the greenworms have you!”
“Let’s see you try!” Orchid called back. She was but a flash of red hair darting through the thicket ahead. But Flora knew this forest better than she, gracefully jumping, dodging, and rolling over every obstacle in her path. She found herself in a familiar clearing, a place where she allowed the Freelance Good Guys to remove an old, giant stump several years ago.
When they pulled up the stump, it left a deep crater in the soil. This area was outside of Flora’s usual patrol route. The last time she visited, the crater was barren. Now she saw it was filled to the brim with water and surrounded by red orchids. A thick, long plant stalk jutted up from the center of the pool.
Flora stopped in her tracks, staring at the stalk. Could it be what she thought it was?
Orchid leaped over the pool and grabbed onto the stalk, clutching it like a monkey to a tree. She let out a long, shrill shriek, scaring birds from the treetops.
Instantly, the stalk began to rise. A plant-like creature most monstrous and foul shot from the water, Orchid cackling as she clung to the stalk upon its head.
“If you want me so bad, then come get me!” Orchid called to Flora, still frozen in awe by the edge of the clearing. A long, thorny tentacle snaked out from the pool. The monster drew it back, then whipped it forward at the native nymph. Flora threw herself to the ground, narrowly dodging the blow, then scrambled away into the trees.
Even she, with all her grace and wisdom, was no match for such a twisted abomination of her kind.
Shadow swooped down in a graceful dip before shooting upwards, soaring high in the sky. Her massive black silhouette blotted out the sun for just a brief moment, and then she was spiraling down with a booming caw. She beat her wings at the last moment and flipped upright. Her talons met the grass with a quaking thud, left deep imprints below.
In her saddle was none other than Isaac—the only person she allowed upon her back. When the other Freelance Good Guys tried to mount her and take to the skies, she flipped upside-down and dropped them every time.
Isaac pulled his flight goggles up to his forehead. He patted the bird’s feathery neck and smiled, bugs speckling his teeth when he praised, “Great job today, girl! We didn’t crash once!”
Shadow proudly puffed out her chest as the young man dismounted. She playfully nibbled at his wild, curly hair when he passed in front of her, heading for the babbling creek nearby.
The day’s flight training was complete. Now it was time for dinner. But Isaac couldn’t show his face in the dining hall like this, covered head-to-toe in dirt, sap, spiderwebs, and other souvenirs from the treetops.
“You can head home,” he told the bird as he began stripping off his leather flight gear, “I’m gonna wash up first. I’ll be there soon to take your harness off, okay?”
The bird replied with a soft crow, then with three mighty flaps, her great wings carried her away through the forest canopy. Twigs and leaves rained down in her wake.
Isaac got his bearings while he was up in the sky. He knew the compound was less than ten minutes away on foot, could see its wide dirt paths carved through the forest.
He also knew that this creek passed through all of Drifter’s Hollow. All he had to do was follow its flow to get back home. Isaac shrugged off his leather vest, then off came his cotton shirt, pants, and boots. All came off but the golden scorpion pendant around his neck. The heirloom hadn’t left his person since the Freelance Good Guys took him in 6 years ago.
Isaac wasn’t unaware of his clumsiness, his forgetfulness, or his general incompetence. If he ever removed the priceless pendant, he just knew he’d forget it in some dingy inn room a continent away. Or break it somehow. Or drop it in the sea.
He slung everything else over a tree branch before stepping into the water. It was cool on his skin, but in this oppressive summer heat, it wasn’t unwelcome.
There was a pretty red flower growing on the shore, lush of petals and shaped like an arch. Isaac took care not to step on it as he waded in. He dropped to his knees in the shallow water, splashing it over his shoulders, scrubbing the dirt and sweat from his face.
His hair was a disaster. Isaac dunked his head under the water several times, trying to shake all the twigs and debris out of his curls. But every time he surfaced, his gaze kept wandering to the red flower. How strange, he thought, that it was growing here of all places.
What was this flower called? Evan probably told him once, but he didn’t remember. He wasn’t interested in flora unless it was something tasty or poisonous. But Isaac did know that he’d seen this flower growing in the jungles south of the Bluerock River.
He only remembered because he once picked one for Jeimos, as it matched their crimson hair, and the elf was in desperate need of a smile that day. This flower wasn’t native to this region. So what was it doing here, growing along the creekside so naturally?
He turned around and caught another flash of red in the corner of his eye. Another flower just like the first, growing on the opposite shore. Three more had sprouted not far from it.
Bizarre. But not worth pondering any further, Isaac decided. His stomach was growling louder by the minute.
He froze for a moment. Over his griping stomach, he thought he heard a rustling in the brush. Then he heard a feminine giggle and his muscles relaxed. Probably just nymphs. They could be dangerous, he was told, but only if he disrespected the wilderness. So Isaac took extra care not to crush the red flowers again as he stepped out of the creek.
He stood in place to swipe the water off himself. He wouldn’t put his filthy clothes back on, just his cotton undershirt and leggings until he got home. The Freelance Good Guys may have been a band of tough, crusty, old mercenaries, but Evan forbid them from coming to dinner looking like it.
Isaac reached for his undershirt, hanging on the branch. He jumped, startled when a voice from behind said, “Aww, you’re leaving already? I was enjoying the show.”
Whirling around, Isaac found himself face-to-face with a smiling nymph. She was a limniad—ambassadors for the plants. She seemed to be part plant herself, with two woody stems sprouting from the top of her head. They curved backwards like a satyr’s horns, and upon the stems grew the same lush red flowers as the ones by the shore.
Her smooth flesh was a deep emerald color, her hair long, straight and as crimson as Jeimos’. Like most nymphs, she wore nothing but her own skin. Her teeth flashed white behind her dark lips, but the look in her eyes was something alien. It made Isaac uneasy. The young man backed away from her until he hit the tree trunk behind him.
“You were watching me?” he queried.
The nymph’s smile never left her face, eyes scanning him up and down as she replied, “So many ugly, repulsive menfolk in this forest…How could I starve my eyes when you happened by?”
Isaac smiled. He didn’t want to, wasn’t happy with the situation at all, but some primal part of him forced a smile on his face so that perhaps the nymph wouldn’t harm him.
“Um, it’s dinner time. I really gotta go now,” he told her, reaching for his shirt once more.
Swift as a fox, the nymph circled in front of him, blocking the way. She pressed her hands to his chest, leaning in close. “You can’t go now,” she said. “You haven’t even given me your name.”
Isaac blinked, swiping at his neck. “Oh. It’s, um—it’s Isaac.”
“Isaac,” the nymph repeated dreamily, batting her long, crimson lashes. “Well, my sisters call me Orchid. But you can call me yours, Isaac…”
Isaac furrowed his brows for a moment. Then they arched, for he realized that was the flower on the shore. Orchids. This nymph must have been responsible for planting them there.
“I really, really have to go,” he told her. He tried to step around her, but he didn’t get far before she threw her arms around his neck. She was just a finger’s length shorter than him, svelte in body and youthful in her face.
“Don’t hurt my feelings, Isaac,” she cooed. “Why don’t you want me? Do you think me ugly?”
Isaac quickly replied, “No, no! I just—my crew is expecting me back home, so…”
“Then they’ll just have to wait,” she giggled as she delivered a hard shove to his chest. Isaac flailed, slipping on the wet grass, and tumbled onto his back.
He barely sat upright when Orchid pushed him down again, straddling his lap. She caressed his face, brushing the wet curls out of his eyes.
“Don’t you think I’m beautiful?” she asked.
Isaac swallowed the lump in his throat, yet the words still wouldn’t come. He simply nodded back.
Of course she was beautiful—in the glowing, unearthly way that all nymphs were. They reminded him of porcelain dolls, almost eerie in their perfection. It was as if each nymph was painstakingly sculpted by loving hands.
Orchid smiled wryly, resting her elbows on either side of his neck. She propped her chin upon her intertwined fingers, touching the tip of her nose to Isaac’s. The young man held his breath, eyes unblinking, muscles frozen below her.
Why couldn’t he move? She had him under some kind of spell, he thought. He heard tales of some limniads poisoning people with their toxic flowers. Perhaps poison was coursing through his veins this very moment.
“I want you as the moth wants the stars. You want me too, don’t you?” Orchid whispered, gently cupping the sides of his face.
“I…” The words were strained in Isaac’s throat, dry as the Serkel desert. “I-I want to go home. Please.”
Orchid smiled. Isaac clamped his teeth down on his lip as she rolled her hips against his lap. “Your tongue lies,” she said. “But your body knows the truth.”
How Isaac longed to crawl back into the creek and cool the magma in his veins. He’d never even kissed a girl before, and suddenly this total stranger wanted to take him all the way to his honeymoon.
Once when he was younger, he saw Lukas pass gold to a strange lady and she followed him back to his inn room. When he asked Alaine about it, she told him that Lukas was paying the lady to kiss him all night, because he was so mean and ornery that no one would kiss him otherwise.
But Isaac hadn’t paid this nymph anything. And though part of him itched to push her away and sprint home, another part wanted to stay.
Orchid was right, he thought. Maybe he really did want this, for his loins were asking for it and he hadn’t moved yet, even though he was more than capable of overpowering her. Maybe he was just overthinking things.
His eyes rounded as Orchid crushed her lips against his. Her tongue felt cool and foreign in his mouth, but not unpleasant, he decided. Slowly he closed his eyes, shoulders relaxing against the grass. Her long hair draped around his face in a curtain of red. Its flowery fragrance was intoxicating, almost overpowering.
The nymph’s hand strayed from his face, down his chest and south of his naval. Isaac wanted to run away just minutes ago, but now he only wanted to be closer to her.
She left him panting when she suddenly broke the kiss. She said, “We shouldn’t do this here. Come with me.”
Isaac wanted to question her. But it was as if all the blood had left his brain, leaving him in a stupor as he followed Orchid against the creek’s flow. She gripped his wrist tightly as she moved through the narrow path in the brush. Isaac shielded his crotch with his free hand, wincing at the scrape of little branches on his skin.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“It’s a surprise,” said Orchid. “Just a little further, we’re almost there!”
In less than a minute, Orchid led him to a small clearing in the forest. In its grassy center was a pool of water, perfectly circular as if carved out of the soil by man. Growing around its edges were clusters of red orchids. Some kind of yellow stalk, about as long as Isaac’s arm, stuck out from the pool.
Orchid gracefully cartwheeled towards the pool, landing on her back in the cluster of flowers. She opened her knees and tossed her arms above her head, beckoning him, “I want you to take me, right here!”
Isaac hesitated. His underfed brain was trying to tell him something. Something was wrong. There was danger here, somewhere, probably. But the pleadings of his mind were just too vague, overpowered by the urgings of his body.
He longed for her kisses, her touch and her warmth again. So he moved on towards the pool, towards Orchid, and took his place in her arms.
In that instant, Orchid let out a long, ear-piercing shriek. A flock of birds burst out from the treetops and Isaac jumped, tried to scramble away. Orchid’s nails dug into his shoulders, legs wrapping tightly around his waist to hold him in place.
“What are you doing? Let me—” Isaac began. Then he froze, jaw falling slack as the great stalk began to rise. It was attached to the head of some hideous, eyeless creature.
This creature had nothing but a mouth on its face, oozing bubbling slime as it opened. Crowding its gums were hundreds of jagged, yellow little teeth.
Its body was like a human stretched to unnatural proportions, its arms far too long for its bulging torso. Its green flesh had the texture of a shriveling plant.
Isaac watched in horror as it rose from the pool, now waist deep. He assumed it had no legs, for several long, thorny tentacles rose out of the water with it. Was it some kind of cecaelia?
Isaac didn’t care what it was. All he cared about was getting away from it as he struggled in Orchid’s grip, screaming at her to let him go. But she only laughed and laughed at his plight until finally, the hideous monster pulled him out of her grasp. Its thorny tentacles wrapped around his ankle, his wrist, his torso, piercing into his skin.
The forest filled with Isaac’s frantic screams as the monster lifted him high into the air. The more he writhed and tried to escape, the further its thorns dug into him.
His wide, panicked eyes darted this way and that, hunting for a solution. He was unarmed, unclothed, and Orchid was darting away into the trees. How could he be so foolish?
The monster’s thorny green tongue wriggled in its mouth like an angry snake. It held its oversized jaw open but seemed to hesitate, holding the young man before it. Without eyes or a nose, it must have been sensing him another way, deciding if he was suitable prey.
“Help! Someone help me, please!” Isaac screamed into the dark, uncaring forest around him. The monster then slammed him on the ground, pinning him against the grass.
Stars danced in Isaac’s vision. When they cleared away, he saw the creature looming over him. The bubbling, sappy ooze welled in its mouth, dripping down onto Isaac’s skin.
The ooze burned on contact like a splash of boiling water. Isaac panicked even more as the monster began to lurch like a sick cat. But instead of a hairball, he had a feeling he was about to be covered in hot, corrosive, monster bile.
“Someone please help me! Please, please, help…!” Isaac sobbed desperately at the treetops. Tears streamed down his face. Blood streamed from his punctures. He was a goner, he thought.
He never even got to say goodbye to anyone. Would the crew ever find his body? Or would it be melted down and devoured by this monster without a trace? What if his friends never got closure? What if they wasted the rest of their lives looking for him?
Isaac couldn’t bear the thought. He closed his eyes tightly, gnashed his teeth and awaited his horrible fate.
But it seemed fate would see him through another day, for a hefty, golden-haired centaur exploded out from the brush, her long warhammer raised high.
She let out a thunderous battle cry that grabbed the attention of the lurching monster. Then her hammer crashed through its head in an explosion of jagged teeth, green flesh, and bubbling ooze.
Isaac quickly raised his arms, shielding his face as he felt droplets of ooze spray over him. The bulk of it, however, gushed from the thrashing monster’s open head-wound and harmlessly into the pool.
The top half of the creature’s head was ripped away, dangling off by only a portion of green tendons. Its jaws were separated, tongue wriggling madly towards the sky.
The stalk, hanging upside-down, suddenly bloomed into a great spotted flower. What followed next was the foulest stench to ever touch Isaac’s nose. Like a burning whale’s corpse stuffed with manure had exploded, he could only imagine. There were so many facets to the odor and all of them were awful, burning his sinuses like fire.
His savior was Elska, one who Evan considered his mightiest crewman. No matter her might, even she staggered back from the flower’s acrid stench. The centaur loudly gagged, doubling over as she shielded her nose with her forearm. The monster still had a hold on Isaac with three of its tentacles, and now its three spares were snaking towards Elska.
“Elska, look out!” Isaac wailed. Quickly the centaur forced her gaze up, held her breath as she took another swing with her hammer. One of the thorny tentacles wrapped around its handle, another coiling around her front equine leg. The third gripped her bare arm, thorns piercing her flesh as she tried to wrestle her weapon away from the creature.
The monster was large, perhaps two men tall with a bulging, bulbous belly heavy with acid. But Elska was huge in her own right, had the bulk to rip her hoof out of its grip. She leaned forward and bit the thorny tentacle on her arm, chewing through thorns and all until it fell to the ground in a wriggling heap.
She spit out a mouthful of her own blood before rearing up on her hind legs, then jerked her hammer back. The monster let out a gurgling hiss as the other tentacle was ripped from its socket. Isaac watched, eyes wide in equal parts fear and awe. Elska charged forth with another battle cry.
Her hulking body crashed against the monster, tackling it down into its own pool. Quickly its grip loosened on Isaac. Now the young man was free, scrambling away from the pool while Elska and the creature wrestled in the water.
It wasn’t a long fight. The centaur raised her hammer high and brought it down on the monster’s open, flapping jaw, so hard that it ripped straight through to its shoulders.
The stinking flower fell loose and dropped into the water, masking its horrid stench. Though its head was but a frayed mess of plant remnants, the monster still thrashed and flailed. Over and over Elska beat it down with her hammer, each time ripping some part of its frail body away.
Before long the creature slowed, slowed, and then finally collapsed into the pool. There it floated, a lifeless hunk of green plant-flesh, as Elska crawled back onto shore. She slipped the hammer into its harness on her back. Then she gathered Isaac in her arms before quickly trotting away from the lingering odor.
Once she arrived at the familiar creek, she stopped to examine her crewmate. He hadn’t said a word to her yet, his face contorted in distress and wet with tears. The monster’s thorns left hundreds of punctures in his flesh—not terribly deep, but surely painful. She could see red patches where its corrosive ooze burned him.
“Isaac, what happened back there?” the centaur asked him. She carried him in her arms as she followed the creek back to Drifter’s Hollow.
“I don’t know,” Isaac croaked, fighting to steady his traitorous, trembling body.
Elska shot him a strange look. “How do you not know? Where are your clothes?”
“I don’t know!” he cried, balling his fists before him. He really didn’t know where he left his clothes. He completely lost his bearings the moment Orchid approached him.
A more tactful person might have left Isaac alone at that point. But Elska, being Elska, pressed on. “You owe me an explanation! Had I not been out here gathering wood at that exact time, you would most surely be dead! You will tell me what happened, now!”
Isaac hesitated. There were too many feelings inside him. Fear, anger, and shame were all fighting a war in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t tell her he’d been tricked by a nymph. Not when he’d been told over and over and over again how nymphs preyed on men, and how he should always be wary in the wilderness.
But nymphs never gave him any trouble before today. He was starting to think all those warnings were just tales. As it turned out, they were as real as his shame.
“I was stupid,” he admitted quietly.
“Explain,” said Elska. Her gums and tongue were still bleeding. She spat a mouthful of blood and kept moving.
Isaac went on, “I followed a nymph into a trap. I should’ve known better, but I…” He let out a ragged sigh, dragged his sweaty palm down his face. “I’m so sorry, Elska. You almost died because of me!”
“I am fine. Hardly a scratch upon me,” the centaur told him rigidly. “Even so, you should not have been so foolish! Can you imagine how we would feel if we lost you?”
“Imagine Mr. Atlas; his heart would turn black with grief!”
“I know, I know, I know!” growled Isaac, bashing his fists against the sides of his stupid, foolish head.
Elska scowled down at him and added, “Then think about that before you put yourself in harm’s way again! We will not always be around to save you, child!”
Elska left Isaac at the clinic in Drifter’s Hollow. His wounds were tended by Nurse Tojum, for Dr. Che was already occupied with other patients.
His injuries weren’t as serious as they seemed at first. Once Tojum wiped the blood away, the puncture marks looked a lot smaller than before. She applied salve to soothe his acid-burns. They left patches of his skin red and raw, likely to scar.
Then again, they would hardly be Isaac’s first scars, being a mercenary and all. He’d suffered worse tumbling down some stairs in Matuzu Capital. His little dings and scratches paled in comparison to his crewmates’ crags and gouges. They had always protected Isaac from the more serious threats.
Today they had come through for him once again. Elska was right. If it weren’t for her, Isaac thought, he’d be nothing but a memory. It just made him feel worse as he trudged out of the clinic dressed in donated rags, down the path towards the mercenary compound.
He definitely missed dinner, but it didn’t matter anymore. He lost his appetite long ago. All he wanted to do was go to bed and put this horrible day behind him.
He was a little more than half-way to the compound when three men on horses sped by. The beasts were running so fast, Isaac couldn’t get a good look at them before they passed. They stopped a ways behind him, then one man called, “Wait! That was him, back there!”
Isaac turned around. The men turned their mounts to face him and trotted back. It was Evan upon his great red draft horse, Lukas upon his dappled gray mare, and Glenvar upon his old swaybacked mule.
Isaac didn’t know whether to smile or hide his face. As happy as he was to see them, he was not looking forward to explaining himself.
Perhaps he didn’t have to, for Evan said, “Elska told us you got attacked out in the forest! We were just on our way to the clinic. Are you alright?”
Isaac hesitated, nodding a little. “Tojum took care of me. All wrapped up, see?” He lifted his ragged shirt, exposing the many gauze wraps and sticky bandages around his torso. Some were already spotting with blood.
Evan frowned, furrowing his brow at the wounds. He offered a hand and Isaac took it, pulling him onto his horse. “I can’t imagine an animal did this,” Evan said, knowing well Isaac’s special bond with the animals.
“No. It wasn’t an animal,” Isaac sighed. Evan clicked his tongue, guiding his horse to plod home. Lukas and Glenvar flanked him.
The young man wouldn’t elaborate. He said nothing more, staring sullenly at the horse’s mane. He remained silent for some time as the other mercenaries exchanged uncertain glances.
Naturally, Glenvar was the first to speak. He blurted, “So what ripped ya apart out there, kiddo?”
Isaac hesitated again. “It was…” he began, biting his lip. He considered lying, but what good would it do? Elska already saw everything. “It was a monster. Well, I think it was some kind of cecaelia, actually. I’m not really sure.”
“What did it look like?” asked Lukas.
Isaac gestured vaguely with his hands as he explained, “It was big and green with two arms like a person. But it didn’t really have a face, just a big nasty mouth with lots of teeth. It grabbed me with its tentacles—they were thorny like blackberry vines—and burned me with its spit! There was a big flower on its head that stunk real bad. It was the worst thing I’ve ever smelled.”
“Anthousai,” his crewmen said in unison. Isaac quirked one black eyebrow at them.
Evan said, “That was a titan nymph, Isaac. An anthousai; they’re abominable, corrupted, limniads. You’re very lucky to be alive!”
“Elska saved me,” Isaac told him.
The captain nodded. “So we heard. She was pretty vague about the details though. She said it was best if you explained yourself.”
Scrubbing at his weary eyes, Isaac groaned, “Do I have to?”
“Yes,” Evan replied sternly. “But let’s get you home first. Are you hungry?”
“Well, we saved a plate for you if you change your mind. We were mighty worried when you didn’t show for dinner, you know.”
“Heh, you were sweatin’ rivers, Chief,” added Glenvar, reaching over to jab the captain’s shoulder.
Isaac’s frown deepened the lines on his face. “I’m sorry…”
Lukas replied sharply, “You should be! I didn’t get a single bite to eat because Evan sent me out looking for you.” He spat the captain’s name, eyeing him disdainfully. “You better come up with a good explanation by the time we get home!”
The summer sun was just starting to dip below the horizon as the mercenaries left their steeds at the stable. Isaac followed Evan, Lukas, and Glenvar to Evan’s little stone house in the compound. The interior was dim and rustic, with all manner of foreign trinkets, maps, and artifacts nailed to the walls.
Evan struck a match, lighting the lantern on a side table. The sitting room was bathed in an orange glow. He sent Glenvar into the kitchen to fetch Isaac’s leftovers from the ice box—a simple metal box with an everfloe crystal inside to keep it cold.
Isaac collapsed sideways on one of the worn chairs as his crewmates washed their hands in the kitchen basin, made themselves tea, and heated food in the oven.
Evan’s house was somewhat of a community hall in itself, having all the amenities his crewmen could ask for. Not all of them had room for guests, an oven, or an indoor bathroom, for they insisted on living in boats or up in treehouses.
Isaac was used to random crewmates coming in and out for various things, sometimes staying late to drink beer and visit with Evan, but tonight he wished everyone would just leave.
It seemed like Lukas and Glenvar were there to stay as they made themselves comfortable on the furniture across from him. They slid his cup of tea and a plate of leftover food across the table, but he had no desire for any of it.
“Now, uh,” Evan began reluctantly, stirring his tea, “Elska tells me you mentioned something about a nymph. Will you tell us what happened?”
Isaac rolled his eyes. He really didn’t want to. He dragged a hand down his face and groaned, “Yeah. I got tricked by a nymph.”
Evan sighed, “So you did. And have you not been told a thousand times—”
“That they’re dangerous, and they trick men all the time, and only a fool would fall for it! I know, I know!” finished Isaac, throwing his hands over his weary eyes.
He couldn’t bear to look at Evan and see the disappointment in his eyes. But he still heard it in the captain’s voice when he asked, “If you already know so much, then how did you fall prey to her in the first place?”
Isaac groaned, “I don’t know…” He fell silent for a moment, his crewmates waiting patiently for a real answer. They weren’t going to relent, so he went on, “I got really dirty during flight practice, so I stopped by the creek to wash. This limniad with red hair came up to me and said she was watching me bathe the whole time. She was really weird…”
He winced as he shifted in the chair, every movement agitating his wounds. He continued, “She said her name was Orchid. And um, she wanted to kiss me and stuff.”
His crewmen quietly groaned, leaned back in their seats, scrubbed at their eyes as if he were the dumbest person in the world. As if they were in disbelief of his actions. At least, that was how Isaac interpreted it. His blood felt hot again. He just wanted to crawl up to his attic room and hide in his hammock.
“We told you time and time again,” began Lukas, “that the first thing a wicked nymph does is try to kiss you! You didn’t even know this tramp, and you sucked face with her?”
“She kissed me!” the young man argued. “I tried to go home but she kept getting in the way!”
Glenvar broke in, “So why didn’t ya throw her ass into the sun? Yer a big, strong maska. Don’t tell me a little limniad out-muscled ya!”
“No,” began Isaac. “I mean…I guess I could have, except she put a spell on me. I couldn’t move!”
Evan quirked an eyebrow. “A spell? What kind of spell?”
“Uh, I’m not really sure. But she pushed me down and got on top of me, and I couldn’t get up. She, uh, did some…stuff to me…” Isaac shifted awkwardly in his seat. “…and then she wanted me to follow her into the forest. That’s where I got attacked by the thing—the anthousai.”
“Hold on,” said Lukas, “you’re telling us this nymph put a spell on you so you couldn’t move, then when she asks you to follow her, suddenly you can move? I’m not buying it, Isaac. Tell the truth.”
“That’s what happened! It’s true!” Isaac wailed, pushing himself upright. His eyes flicked towards Evan, who sighed through his nostrils as he scrubbed his fingers against his eyes.
“That wasn’t a spell, Isaac,” Evan told him. “It was, er…” He floundered for a long moment, gesturing vaguely with his hand. “You were just…”
“You was thinkin’ with yer pecker, kiddo,” Glenvar finished for him.
Evan shot his portly crewman a glare. Still he agreed, let out a reluctant, “Er, yes. And trust me, it happens to the best of us from time to time. That’s why we told you so many times to be wary of nymphs and their charms. They prey on young guys like you because they think you won’t know any better.”
Evidently, he didn’t know better, Isaac thought miserably. He argued, “But they never did that to me before! Nymphs have always been nice to me! I thought I was different or something!”
“You’re sixteen years old, Isaac,” replied Lukas. “When you were a kid, they treated you like a kid. But once they see you as a man, you have to watch your back for the rest of your life. That’s just how it is. You’re nothing but a game to them now. You’re meat, understand?”
Isaac’s chest suddenly felt hollow. He swore he felt his heart grow heavy and sink into his stomach. “What about Flora?” he asked.
Evan answered, “Flora has been a friend to us so far, but even she is not to be trusted the way you would trust us. At the end of the day, she is still a nymph. And all nymphs, by nature, answer to their Mother Gaia above all else. Serving Her comes first, even if it means sacrificing someone they’ve known for years. You really must be vigilant.”
Isaac furrowed his brow. “What did Orchid want with me?” he asked.
“To feed you to that anthousai, I’m sure,” replied Evan. “Anthousai are powerful, but they’re confined to their little pools. They rely on their master to care for them. They’re also blind and miserably dumb, so they’ll attack anything else that moves—even other nymphs.”
Lukas added, “You know those vagrants that run up to you when you’re alone in the slums, saying their friend around the corner needs help? What do we do?”
“Ignore them,” mumbled Isaac.
Isaac sighed, “Because it’s a trap and their friends will jump you…”
“You know that!” exclaimed Lukas, jabbing his finger at him. “And still, you followed this nymph right into her trap! Why, why, why would you do something so stupid?”
Isaac’s voice cracked when he wailed back, “Because I’m a stupid idiot, okay? I don’t know! I’m tired of everyone yelling at me and telling me I messed up! I already hate myself for it; just leave me alone!”
Lukas opened his mouth to speak, the ferocity in his eyes sharpening his next words. But before he could, Evan clamped a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. Lukas hesitated, then sank back in his seat. He busied his mouth with his tea.
“Isaac,” Evan began softly, “I’m very sorry this happened to you. And I’m sorry we’ve been so harsh. I suppose we’re…well, we’re all just in shock! We only want to know how this happened so we can make sure it never happens again.”
The captain rested his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands together. He worried his lip between his teeth. Reluctantly he went on, “We, uh…we care about you a lot, Isaac.”
“Yeah,” added Glenvar, “yer like the little brother I never had. Ya know who everyone used to pick on before you came along? Me! I was the little brother! And if somethin’ happens to ya, guess who’s next in line fer wedgies ‘n last in line fer the toilet? Don’t put me in that position again, ya little shite.”
The tiniest smile tugged at Isaac’s lips. He swiped it away with his palm, determined to look as miserable as he still felt. “I just want to go to bed,” he grumbled.
“Understandable, and you may,” said Evan, arching his brows. “But before you go, I want you prove that you didn’t walk away from all this empty-handed. What did you learn today?”
“Evaaan…” Isaac groaned, writhing in the chair.
The captain queried, “What do I always tell you in combat training?”
“Always watch your opponent’s eyes…”
“No, the other thing. The thing I tell you when you’re being a sore loser.”
Isaac thought for a moment. “Um, a loss is only a loss if you don’t learn from it?”
Evan offered a little smile. “That’s right. So as long as you’ve learned from your mistakes today, then that nymph only made a stronger opponent of you. What did she teach you?”
“That, um…” Isaac began, gaze darting around at each of his crewmen. “That I should never trust someone I just met, and that being safe is more important than being polite.”
With a nod and an arch of his brows, Evan replied, “Very good! You’re a smart boy.” He paused. “Well, a smart man now, I suppose.”
“But make no mistake,” said Glenvar, waggling his finger at Isaac, “yer still the youngest one on this crew, so you’ll always be a baby to us! Don’t go walkin’ around like yer ten feet tall now!”
Isaac let his smile surface. “Baby or not, I’m still taller than you, Glen,” he teased.
“Ha ha!” The portly man laughed, big and hearty. Then he said, “Ah, I hate this kid. Ground him fer life, Evan.”
Isaac stood up, sticking his tongue out at Glenvar before heading towards the hall.
Evan told his crewman, “No, I think he’s suffered enough.” Then he turned to Isaac and called, “There’s one more thing I want you to know, Isaac.”
The young man stopped, turned back to face him. Evan told him, “Every man has two heads, but only one knows what’s good for you.” He tapped the side of his skull. “Listen to the right one from now on, will you?”
Isaac smiled, swiping at the back of his neck. “Whatever,” he grumbled, and then he disappeared down the hall. The others heard the attic door creak open, the thump of the ladder, then the sharp click of the door as it closed.
Evan sunk down in his seat. With a long, drawn-out sigh, he opened the end table drawer. There was a full bottle of bourbon stashed inside. He uncorked it with his teeth and sucked a third of it down.
“Yeah, me too,” grumbled Lukas, snatching it from his hands. He too took a long drink and then passed the bottle to Glenvar. Between the three of them, the bottle was empty in no time.
Evan raked a hand over his unkempt hair and sighed, “Gods help us…what are we going to do with him?”
“Forget about that,” slurred Glenvar. “What’re we gonna do ‘bout that kirkslekin’ she-molester? I say we track ‘er down ‘n throw her in the fire pit!”
“We can’t punish nature,” Lukas told him. “We all know how ugly it can be out there. All we can do is be smart and prepare ourselves.”
“The kid wasn’t prepared for nothin’!” argued Glenvar.
Lukas rolled his eyes. “Will you let it go? What’s done is done!”
“No,” Evan broke in quietly, staring hard into oblivion. “Glenvar’s right. We failed that boy. This would have never happened if we taught him better. Somewhere, somehow, we messed up—and he’s the one paying for it.”
Lukas spoke through his teeth, growing more frustrated by the second, “Don’t you dare use this as another excuse to flog yourself, Evan! What else were we supposed to do? We told him a thousand times! It’s not our fault he chose not to listen.”
“Tellin’ ain’t the same as teachin’,” said Glenvar. “Ma always told me to stay off the slosh, and now look at me. I’m a damn fish!” He pitched the empty bourbon bottle at Lukas. The archer fumbled to catch it.
“What the nymphs do is still none of our business,” argued Lukas, setting the bottle on the table.
Evan disagreed, tone sour, “Unless they make it our business…”
“No, no, no,” replied Lukas, “we are not messing with Gaia’s nymphs! It’s against our code, it’s against the law—”
“She hurt our boy, Lukas!” the captain growled with sudden ferocity, slamming his fist on the table before him. Cups and plates rattled on impact.
His crewmen fell silent. Glenvar raised his hands defensively. Lukas looked back at Evan, saw through the anger on his brow. He saw fear and uncertainty in his eyes. Slowly, cautiously, the archer placed a hand on his captain’s shoulder.
“We’ve all had too much to drink,” he told Evan gently. “Don’t make any decisions now. We should talk about this tomorrow. You know, after we sober up and calm down. Agreed?”
Evan sucked in a deep breath, let the air out slow through his nostrils. Finally he nodded, closing his eyes in defeat. “Okay,” he muttered. “You’re right. You’re right…”
A soft smile crossed Lukas’ face. “Aren’t I always?” he jested, patting Evan’s back as he rose to his feet. “I’m heading out. I’ll see you oafs in the morning when you have your heads on straight.”
The other two waved goodbye as Lukas made his exit. He simply crossed the dirt path to the treehouse next door. But Glenvar had a much longer journey ahead of him to his boathouse. He stood up, took three wobbling steps forward before toppling over. A potted plant crashed down in his wake.
“Ah, shite! Sorry, Chief! I had too much!” he warbled. Evan helped him back to his feet, guiding him to the couch. He snatched a blanket off the wooden arm and draped it over his drunken crewman.
“Just sleep it off here for the night,” Evan told him. He yawned, heading for the bedroom door nearby. “What’s mine is yours. Help yourself to whatever you need. Goodnight, my friend.”
Through the infectious yawn, Glenvar replied, “Yer good company, Ev. G’night.”
A tap, tap, tapping woke Isaac that morning, well before the sunlight had a chance. He awoke with a snort, scanning his room through bleary eyes. A big, black shadow blocked his view outside. Blinking the fatigue away, he realized that shadow was indeed Shadow, his loyal roc.
She clung to the side of Evan’s house, talons clutching the jagged stone bricks. She let out a low crowing sound as she pecked Isaac’s window again. The glass trembled under her great beak.
“Shadow!” Isaac rasped. He nearly fell over as he scrambled out of his hammock, pillows and blankets spilling around him. He unlatched the window and pulled it open, reaching out to hug the bird’s face. “I forgot to take your harness off last night! I’m so sorry, girl! Hold on, I’ll be right out!”
With that, he quickly slipped on a pair of pants and a mismatched shirt, then climbed down the ladder to the hallway. He ran passed Glenvar, snoring away on the couch, and met Shadow around the back of the house. She was crouching low on the ground now, allowing Isaac to unbuckle all her straps, her bridle, and saddle.
In his haste he forgot his shoes, standing barefoot in the grass. As he undid another buckle, he hissed in pain and hopped to the right. He clutched his left foot, craned his neck back to look at his sole. A spiny greenworm was stuck in his flesh. It angrily attacked his foot with its mandibles.
“Ugh, damn worms,” Isaac grumbled. He carefully pulled the creature away and threw it with all his might. It sailed off soundlessly into the bushes. He turned his attention back to Shadow’s complex harness. But only for a moment, for he was interrupted again when a voice greeted, “Isaac of the Moon, it’s good to see you safe and sound!”
The young man jumped with a start. He whirled around, saw Flora approaching him with a smile. He’d always been perfectly at ease around her in the past. She was stern but warm, mischievous but gentle, had never wronged him before. Yet Isaac felt a lump growing in his throat, felt the muscles tighten in his shoulders when she came near.
“H-hi, Flora,” he greeted, damning the crack in his voice.
The nymph’s hands were hidden behind her back. Her crown of daisies looked lush as ever this time of year, petals bright white against her pink hair. A matching white loincloth hung from her shapely hips.
“I heard you had some trouble with a nymph yesterday,” she said casually.
Isaac’s brows arched. “How did you know?”
“This is my house, child.” She grinned, gesturing one hand around her. “I know everything that goes on around here. And what I don’t know yet, I’ll soon find out.”
Isaac sighed, “So you must know about Orchid.”
“And you know what she did to me?”
Floundering for a moment, Isaac asked, “So what am I supposed to do? I know she’s your sister, but…Flora, she really messed me up! I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, ever! You have to talk to her or…or something!”
Flora raised her palm and replied, “Now, now. Just because she’s my sister doesn’t mean I’m obligated to like her, and I certainly don’t owe her kindness. Orchid and I had a…well, a conflict of interests.”
She tipped her head as she went on, “I’m so sorry she hurt you, Isaac. I regret that I was so useless in your time of need. But know that by ridding the world of that disgusting, parasitic anthousai, you’ve done a great service to this forest and everyone in it. Your suffering was not in vain, I promise you that.”
Isaac’s brow furrowed ever so slightly. “What about Orchid?” he asked.
Flora’s smile returned. She finally withdrew her hands from behind her back, showing him an empty glass jar. There was nothing remarkable about it. It was the same kind of jar he scooped jam from.
Still she offered it to him like some great treasure as she replied, “She will trouble you no longer.”
Isaac cautiously took the jar. There were so many questions on the tip of his tongue, but Flora was already walking away. He watched her cross the dirt pathway and disappear into the trees.
With a weary sigh, he set the jar on a fencepost and finished removing Shadow’s harness. The bird let out a cheerful crow, flapping her wings with joy. Isaac planted a kiss on her beak before shooing her away, and off she flew through the canopy.
As he dragged her massive harness towards the barn, he spotted Evan and Glenvar leaving the house. They were dressed casually, yet they each carried a sword as if they were off to slay some beast.
“Woah. Where are you guys off to?” he asked. The two turned to him, startled. They exchanged silent glances for a moment.
Then Glenvar offered a strained smile and replied, “Just off to chop some wood! Y’know, ‘fore the sun climbs high ‘n cooks us.”
Isaac quirked an eyebrow. “You’re chopping wood with swords?”
Evan and Glenvar looked at one another once more, Glenvar wincing with a shrug. Evan clamped a hand on the portly man’s shoulder, guiding him forward as he walked on.
Evan told Isaac, “Don’t worry yourself, son! Just get some rest and let those wounds heal. We’ll be back in time for breakfast.”
The two moved quickly down the path, then turned a corner and fell out of sight. Everyone was acting strange today, thought Isaac. Or perhaps he was the one in a fog. His appetite still hadn’t returned, the knot in his stomach no looser than it was yesterday. His burns and puncture wounds still stung beneath the gauze.
After hanging Shadow’s harness in the barn, Isaac returned to his room and collapsed in his hammock. Maybe a couple more hours of rest wouldn’t hurt.
It wasn’t like Evan to seek vengeance or to lie to his crew. But this, he felt, was reason enough. His anger had never burned so hot in all his life, and the only way to soothe it was to see Orchid fall.
He and Glenvar made their decision early that morning. They decided they would hunt the wicked nymph together and never speak of it to Lukas. They pricked their palms on their swords and clasped their hands together, making a blood pact that all knowledge of this secret, dishonorable mission would die with them.
“Ain’t these his little boots?” queried Glenvar, nudging one of the two dark leather boots with his blade. They were placed beside a tree trunk, and just above in its branches hung several articles of clothing. Evan approached, carefully removing the leather vest.
“I’m not sure. But this vest is certainly his,” said Evan, running his fingers over the branded pocket. Isaac had burned a smiley face into it with a hot dagger. Evan remembered that day, just over a year ago, when they taught the boy how to burn designs into leather.
He remembered telling Isaac, “No cuss words! Nothing graphic!” and scolding him when he burned a stick figure with a giant phallus onto his boot. Evan made him throw the whole boot out, telling him it made their company look unprofessional.
He was disappointed in Isaac at the time. But in hindsight, he felt he’d been too harsh. Now the memory just made him laugh, and his disappointment lied only in himself for being such a stick in the mud.
The button came loose as he turned the vest over, and out from the pocket spilled three silver coins, a rubber ball, a yoyo, and a half-empty book of matches.
Evan kneeled to gather the items off the ground. He smiled fondly, though his eyes were burdened with sadness when he chuckled, “Hm. Still such a kid…”
Just as he stuffed the things back in the pocket, he and Glenvar heard a woman’s distant scream. Evan tossed the vest back on the branch, then the two of them ran towards the sound. It was coming from the other side of the creek.
Their boots splashed carelessly through the cold water, soaking everything up to their knees. The scream died for a moment, then returned weaker and more desperate. They continued to follow the voice through the forest, hacking away the thicket with their swords.
“Miss?” called Evan. He turned all around, trying to find the source of the screams. They died to silence once more. Glenvar cut a veil of branches away, revealing an odd clearing on the other side. He swung his arm, beckoning Evan over. The mercenaries cautiously stepped into the area, feeling a vague sense of nostalgia. Hadn’t they been here before?
“Hey, that’s where we yanked up that bastard stump a while back,” observed Glenvar, pointing his sword towards the pool. He leaned forward, squinted at the mess of green flesh and thorny vines floating in the water. “What’s all that green shite over there?”
“Stay behind me,” Evan told him, and slowly began meandering around the clearing. His gaze darted this way and that in search of danger. He caught a hint of movement to his left. When the mercenaries turned, their jaws dropped at the sight before them.
Near the other edge of the clearing, a slender nymph was pinned to a tree trunk by a crude spear. It pierced straight through her belly, clear sugary goo oozing from the wound. She grasped at the spear with weak, frail hands, squirming and trying desperately to remove it.
But it seemed she’d lost most of her strength, sapped away by the hundreds of spiny green worms chewing at her flesh. They swarmed her from head to toe, rapidly chewing away her flesh. She raised a grasping, pale green hand towards the mercenaries. Clear goo dripped from her gnawed arm like honey.
“Help me…” she croaked. “Please, help me…!” The nymph was doubled over with no strength to stay upright. She lifted her head, pleading eyes glistening through her curtain of rich, red hair. Two woody horns sprouted from her head, and upon each were clusters of wilting red petals.
The mercenaries were struck silent. Evan’s gaze drifted back towards the pool. He noticed the red orchids growing by the water’s edge, recognized the remnants of a dead anthousai decaying in the water.
“That’s must be her,” he muttered rigidly. “Orchid.”
Glenvar looked anxiously between his captain and the suffering limniad. She called for them again, “Don’t just stand there! Help me…!”
“What should we do, Chief?” asked Glenvar. “I can slice her head off with one swing—just say the word!”
Evan stood silent for a long moment. He listened to the cries, the whimpers, the gurgles of Isaac’s assailant as she writhed against the tree. Her gooey hands slipped uselessly upon the spear’s handle, slick with her own sugary blood.
Finally, Evan made his decision.
Orchid watched in horror as the mercenary captain turned away from her. He walked back the way he came, said to Glenvar, “On second thought, Lukas was right. We should let Mother Nature take Her course.”
“Ya think so? Aye, but what a wicked bitch She is,” his portly cohort grinned deviously, tucking his sword away in his belt. The two disappeared back into the depths of the forest, leaving Orchid to beg for their return.
But they never returned that day, nor the next, nor the day after that. The Forest of Refuge watched the greenworms slowly feast upon the nymph until she became one with the dirt. She sank down into the very land she once craved to call her own.
There, from the rich soil of her remains, sprouted little green stems. In the coming weeks, the stems bloomed into brilliant white daisies.