Two young men slowly paddled their dingy through black waters, the moon giving it a silver lining as it continued from its penultimate position in the sky. A soft shimmer of breath came from each of the boys as they paddled, obscuring their vision briefly before they had to take another heavy breath.
“Hey, Tommie, are you sure you know where we are going?” Asked the smaller of the two as he struggled to look around their boat.
“We are going where the fish are going to be.” Answered Tommie.
The younger man looked around nervously.
“It is; it’s just that we seem to be in the forest.”
Tommie looked at the other man with disappointment in his eyes.
“Do you seriously believe that nonsense, Josh?”
They both sat in silence as Joshua started to panic; taking his paddle, he attempted to turn the boat around. Tommie grabbed his paddle and wrestled with Joshua. The boat started to rock as they struggled for the paddle.
“We don’t turn back. We have been over the forest for ages. Just paddle a little further out, catch some fish, and when we get back, Dad, come to sell them.” Tommie gritted out as he took a dominating grip on the paddle.
“We can’t help Dad if we die.” Joshua yelled as he let go of the paddle, sending Tommie flying back to the other side of the boat. He landed heavily, and there was a resounding crack as he smashed the flimsy board he was using for a seat. He stood up, holding onto the paddle, and aimed it towards Joshua.
“Well, if we die, then he won’t have to feed us. So we help out, or we die. Either way, Dad gets to rest.”
Joshua started to tear up, wiping the clear mucus that was pouring from his nose onto his thick woolen sleeve. He shivered as he felt some of it land on his skin from a hole in the coat. Looking at the rest of himself, he fingered at the other holes and stared at his lack of shoes.
“Okay, we do this for dad.” Joshua said as he grabbed the paddle back. “But we only do it this once. Next time we head out to sea, I dare not think what lurks beneath the waters here. Too many stories, too many deaths.”
Tommie sat back down, and the two of them continued to paddle.
“You know what all those stories have in common?” Tommie asked.
“Everyone was on large boats. There is no way that ours would go deep enough to disturb the forest. We keep our lines short, and if it feels like we hit the air, we cut the line and start again.”
Joshua seemed uncertain, but he nodded. Joshua made sure to glide his paddle into the water with least resistance. Keeping the strokes shallow, he tried his best to leave the water undisturbed. They continued to paddle in silence until the moon started its first movements towards a descent. Tommie pulled his paddle in and looked at Joshua. He caught Tommie’s eye and knew he was to pull his paddle in. They both took out a rod and baited them. Tommie flung the line out as far as he could while Joshua let his gently lower into the water.
“If you are really worried about what might come up, doesn’t it make sense to throw your line?” Tommie asked as he watched Joshua’s hands shake.
“Shit.” Joshua said as he pulled the line back up. Taking a deep breath, he cast his line as far out as he could. The loud splash of the sinker sent a shiver down his spine.
“What makes you think there will be fish out here anyway?” Joshua whispered.
“Because no one fishes here, everyone is too afraid. I reckon there will be tonnes of fish here.”
Tommie watched as Joshua kept an eye on the water. His eyes darting around like a scared deer at a dangerous watering hole. Tommie shook his head, smiling to himself.
Joshua’s head snapped around to Tommie. Quietly yelling, he responded.
“I don’t care if you don’t believe in the forest, but this is a boat graveyard. All the sightings of colossal beaks breaking water and the tentacles. Not to mention the noises and the strange energies that rise from the waters. Do you know why no one makes camps near the forest? Because of all the weird things that come out of the waters. You may not believe in this, but that does not mean it is not real.”
Tommie was about to respond when his line started to tug, then Joshua’s. Their eye lines were drawn to their rods, and they started to reel in their catches. Both of them struggling, neither of them noticing the bubbling of water that was accompanying their lines. It wasn’t until their lines reached the boat that they noticed the small bubbles, but it was too late, and they made one final tug. They brought their catches onto the boat, then the bubbles intensified, and more fish started to fly from the water. Their scales shimmering under the moonlight, Joshua and Tommie grinned from ear to ear as their boat filled with wriggling fish as big as their forearms.
“I told you that this was a great idea; now, Dad won’t have to work tomorrow. This is more fish than dad has seen for a week.” Tommie yelled as the fish kept piling up.
Tommie’s face soured as he looked to Joshua to start gloating, but his eyes were focusing on something in the water. Tommie’s followed Joshua’s eyeline to a point in the water where there were bubbles that were rising that dwarfed the fish.
“We have to leave.” Joshua said calmly.
“Yea, I think we do.” Tommie replied, eyes locked on the bubbles.
They both picked up their paddles, ignoring the fish that were floundering in their boat. They carefully put the paddles into the water. Upon the first stroke, the large bubbles started to move towards their boat with speed.
“By the love of Vure, let us survive this. Now paddle!” Joshua yelled.
The brothers started to move as fast as they could, splashing heavily as the broad side of their paddles hit the water. Panicked screams reached the ears of an individual on the shoreline. She squinted through the dark, only seeing the boat as it entered a moonlight-filled section of the water.
“Idiots.” She muttered as the boat was dragged beneath the water. Silencing their screams.
“Hey Tasha, did I just see a boat?” A second voice sounded.
Tasha turned back as her partner coiled some rope before packing it into her bag.
“Yea, some idiots going for a late-night row over the forest. I didn’t think anyone was stupid enough to do that anymore. I mean, besides you, Grace.”
“I am stupid, but not stupid enough to sail over the forest. But just remember, we could die to whatever took them; if you want to back out now, we can.”
Tasha took a serious moment to consider the decision. Her shoulder-length black hair waved gently in a calming breeze; a stray hair flicked into her nose and distracted her. Grabbing at her nose, she moved her hair apart and looked back to grace.
“I need to do this. Let’s go.” She said with determination in her eyes.
“Do you mind if you pack your bag first?” Grace asked.
Tasha shook her head and apologized before going back to grab the supplies that lay around her satchel.
“I have done this a few times. We go in, we are quiet, we do what we need, and then we get out. If you don’t follow this, I will leave, with or without you.” Grace said sternly as she shouldered her bag. Tasha nodded, her face serious and rigid. Once she finished closing her satchel, she shouldered it and looked to Grace.
“I am ready. Let’s cause some chaos.”
Grace held out her hand, and Tasha received it. Squeezing tightly together, they walked into the water. It went through waves of being warm, then cold. Sometimes feeling arctic or even boiling. Grace started to breath heavy before taking in a deep breath; Tasha followed Grace’s lead, and they both dove under the water. With her head under the water, Tasha could see they were standing at the edge of a small drop; they dove beyond it. Only a couple of meters down and Tasha was struggling, but Grace was pulling Tasha’s hand. Eyes closed, she struggled to swim until her hand broke air. A feeling of relief came across her as her lungs began to empty. Pushing herself, she swam down into the air bubble. As more of her body made it through the air bubble, she felt gravity drag against her, and she was pulled from the water down onto soft moss. Her eyes opened, and she looked around at the surprisingly sunny forest that sprawled out before her.
Grace laughed as she patted herself down.
“I remembered the first time I saw the forest. I looked about as dumbfounded as you.”
Tasha didn’t hear a word; she just looked at the forest, glancing upwards to the bottom of the water they just swam through.
“How is the water above the forest? What kind of magic is holding it there?”
Grace sat down with a grunt of effort. Giving Tasha a moment to take in her surroundings.
“It was during the strange war. The one that ended with the greatest hero troupe colliding with the strongest mage. The explosion of magic consumed this forest and sunk it. Like the earth beneath it fell away. Then the water from the oceans crept in. But the magic that is here did not let the water enter the forest. So now we have a strange forest hidden under a strange ocean due to a strange war.”
“I thought that was all make-believe stories for kids. I don’t think I could truly understand what this was until I saw it. It, it is just. Impossible.” Tasha said as she looked at the trees deep in the forest, reaching the bottom of the water and sinking into the darkness of the forest. Trunks wider than houses and sounds that could not be produced by any animal Tasha knows.
Grace smiled as she watched Tasha stare with disbelief, her eyes wide with wonder and her body frozen with awe.
“Come on,” Grace said as she stood up. “We need to get moving; the longer we stay here, the harder it will be to leave.”
Grace gently tugged on Tasha, and they both started to walk down into the forest.
“Wait, what do you mean it will be harder to leave?”
“The magic here, it does not work like any magic we know of. But the closer we get to the center, the more things are different. That includes those wandering in; the longer we stay, the more the magic will alter us. I have lost friends in here, not to death. Well, to death as well, but some to the strange.”
Tasha looked concerned, rubbing her hands together to try and calm herself.
“Does that mean we will be different when we leave?”
Grace smiled and grabbed Tasha’s hand.
“Don’t worry, we won’t stay long enough for it to alter us. I refuse to let it change your pretty face.”
Grace kissed Tasha to calm her, pulling back with a comforting grin.
“Okay, I trust you,” Tasha said. She gripped Grace’s hand. Turning her view to her surroundings.
All around her were small ferns and bushes, their surface covered in lines of light from the water above. The occasional shadow passed by as a bird flew overhead. Grace squeezed her hand tightly before letting Tasha go. Tasha turned to see Grace pulling something from her bag.
“What are you getting?”
“Just something that will make this journey much easier.”
Grace pulled out a small bundle of white flowers.
“Take these and come sit next to me.” Grace said as she sat down on the soft grass.
Tasha took half the bundle of flowers and sat on her knees. Grace held her flowers out in front of her, waving them side to side. She looked to Tasha and signaled her to follow suit. Confused, Tasha put her hand out and waved it side to side. Grace smiled and started to hum a simple tune. It felt like it was echoing in the air, and then it didn’t. The air felt empty and muted, like Tasha had water in her ears, and she struggled to hear anything properly. Tasha went to speak, but Grace raised a finger to silence her. Tasha sat in discomfort, despite the soft moss below her was the material she wished was her bed. After a couple of minutes, she caught sight of something moving from the corner of her eye. Grace nudged Tasha and gestured to her hand; Tasha realized she had stopped moving her hand. Grace nudged her again, and Tasha started to wave the flowers once more. The movement caught her eye again, and she looked up to see a bush moving in front of her. Keeping her hand moving, she watched as the bush shook with an increasing intensity. Her ears seemed to clear right as the sound of snapping branches filled the muted void. She watched in sheer disbelief as the bush turned around. Out from the sides of the bush, two gnarled branches shot outwards; they had a knot of wood that split to create hands. Then two little glow worms emerged in a dark patch of the bush to give the appearance of eyes. The bush shook violently for a moment before it jumped upwards, and another set of branches extended downwards to make legs. Then the bush next to it did the same. They trilled and seemed to be bickering between one another as they slowly approached the two women. Each one cautiously walked towards the small bundles of flowers. Steadily outreaching a gnarled hand, they each took the flowers and fed them into the dark parting of their face, just below their eyes. A strange chewing noise lasted a moment before they themselves sat down.
“They are bush sprites; they will take us to where we need to go.” Grace replied as if Tasha had asked a profoundly stupid question.
“What?” Tasha repeated.
Grace started to giggle and pulled out a small journal with a drawing of a stone with strange runes carved into them. The two sprites looked at one another, trilling, hitting one another. They pointed in different directions, their arms colliding with the thighs of the couple on occasion.
“I’m sorry, but what is happening?” Tasha said, looking down at the bush sprites.
“Bush sprites are very good with directions; I am not sure why, to be honest. But once they know where they are going, they will take you the quickest route there.”
That is not the part that is confusing me.” Tasha said she turned her attention to Grace. “How is it possible that these bushes just came alive?” She shouted.
“Yes, that, of course, that is the part I am confused about.”
“Sorry, but I don’t know much; no one does. Unfortunately, down here, it is hard to use reason to figure anything out. There is a good reason that this is the Strange Forest.”
“So we are just taking directions from two bushes that came to life two minutes ago?”
“Yes, calm down, Tasha. I love you, but I told you before we left this world down here; it makes no sense. You need to let go of reality.”
“Apparently.” Tasha took a deep breath in her nose and out of her mouth. Taking a moment to herself, she snatched the book from Grace and slapped the bushes with it. They looked up, their leaves standing upwards.
“Listen here, you little bushy brats; stop fighting and show us where to go!”
Their soft trills turned to hard snapping noises before a loud crack sounded, and they looked at one another. Their soft voice came back, and in unison, they both pointed in the same direction and started to wander off.
“This is why you need me in your life.” Tasha said, handing the book back to Grace and following the bush sprites.
Grace bound her book and blushed, whispering under her breath as she packed her journal away.
“There are better reasons than that to keep you in my life.”
“Stop muttering and hurry up; I really don’t want to get separated.”
“Just one step behind.”
Tasha held her hand out backward; once Grace noticed, she hurried forward and grabbed on. The two of them followed the little bush sprites as they led them through the edge of the forest. One looked back to ensure they were still being followed but ended up stopping as it looked to the two women. Grabbing the other sprite, it pointed at the couple’s hands, exchanging a couple short chirps. They locked hands and continued the journey. Tasha and Grace looked at one another and cooed.
“They are so adorable.” Tasha cried out as her eyes started to tear up.
“I have never seen them do that before. That was so sweet!” Grace cried back.
The couple followed with complacency as the bush sprites lead them deep into the forest. The trees were once normal as they entered. Now they warped and spiraled. Some grew horizontal from the trunk of others. The plant’s colors started to change in hue and shape. Tasha and Grace marveled at the oddities as Grace kept an eye out around them. Paying attention to the noises and lack thereof around them.
“Mmhm?” Grace replied, turning to Tasha.
“While we were trying to get the sprites, my hearing went really weird.”
Grace was visibly confused.
“Like everything sounded odd, like my head was underwater.”
“Oh right, that will happen from time to time. Your senses will go a little wild. Remember I told you before we came down.”
“No, I don’t think…wait, yes. The whole see a smell and touch a color kind of things?”
“Yea, that is the one. Down here is strange.” Grace’s eyes trailed off. “And the is the perfect example.”
Grace pointed as Tasha’s jaw dropped. Deeper into the darks of the forest, they watched as a deer that stood as tall as the trees was grazing. Birds were flying by its head, and a herd of normal-sized deer grazed by its hooves.
“I see why you come here, Grace. This place is beautiful.”
Maintaining a following distance behind the bush sprites, they watched the deer as it stripped trees of leaves. Littering the deer below them with a small rain. Their bodies twitched as they flicked the leaves from their backs. An increasing sound of trills filled the couple’s ears. Looking down, they realized that they could not see the sprites. They looked around to see them standing off to the side, waving their free hands and singing to get the women’s attention. Taking one last look at the multi-story tall deer, they moved to the bush sprites without looking back. The two bush sprites were standing in front of the hole in a dense bush. They walked through single file, their bodies fitting snugly into the gap. Grace and Tasha got onto their hands and knees and crawled after the chirping little bush sprites. Several cuts from thorns and bruised knees from annoyingly placed rocks later, they found themselves at an opening. Able to stand finally, they stretched, their bones cracking and their muscle groups loosening.
“Oh my, that was enjoyable. I didn’t realize that a neck could get this tight.” Tasha said as she twisted her neck, and a series of loud cracks resonated in the air. Grace marveled at the sound as it seemed to bounce off the plat walls that surrounded them. Doming overtop to keep them perfectly enclosed in a house made of greenery, except for the small tunnel that lead out. Tasha took her time in stretching and feeling her bruises while Grace ran forward to their find. Tasha followed behind to see Grace knelt over a small set of stones that were no more than a few inches high. But they were, without a doubt, the stones that Grace had drawn in her journal.
“If you drew those in, why did you need to use these two to find them?”
“I never drew them in this book.” Grace turned to Tasha. “That is why I followed you down here.”
Tasha’s eyes widened with panic and fear before her face rested at an angry disappointment. Grace started to giggle to herself.
“I didn’t draw these in this book. But that is only because this is not my book. I found it here once. Next to an… odd skeleton.”
“what made it odd?”
“It felt like it was made of a jellyfish. Malleable and squishy, but always bouncing back to shape eventually.”
Tasha’s face recoiled, but she stayed knelt over Grace’s shoulder, looking into the book.
“So what do they do?”
“Well, according to the book, they allow you to fill lode stones with magical energy.” Grace paused, looking at Tasha. Tasha blinked, waiting for a continuation of Grace’s statement. Then realized what she meant.
“Oh, sorry. One moment.”
Tasha dug through her satchel and pulled out a hand-sized stone with a symbol carved onto its front. She handed it over, and Grace shifted her hand, holding it towards the small cluster of grey stones with blue glowing runes. But as the new stone came into contact, the blue waned from them and filled the rune on the Lodestone. The Lode Stone mimicked the blue glow; the small cluster of runic stones still glowed but fainter.
Tasha took the Lode Stone from in an instant.
“That is insane.” She said, raising the Lode Stone to her face, inspecting the quality of the absorption.
“I know this is only a small Lode, but it is full. This is unheard of.”
“Not according to this journal; it has a thousand, thousand secrets that would give anyone the edge they need to survive down here and plenty of weapons to deal some serious damage up there.”
Grace’s face went pale as she finished her sentence.
“We should probably go; we have been down here quite a while.”
“I get that, but let me test the stone first.”
“No, not down here. Magic cast down here does not abide by the rules of magic from on the mainland. Trust me, wait till we are back up top.”
Tasha looked past the collection of glowing runic stones to the two bush sprites that had stopped moving, their branch arms still holding one another, but their faces gone. Looking down to the Lode stone in her hand, she took a deep breath.
“Fine. Let’s go.” Tasha said reluctantly, putting the stone back in her satchel. She started the crawl out. Leaving Grace in the dome of green by herself. Grace put her book away and got into a crawling position before something caught her eye.
“How did you get in here?” She said with concern in her voice. Tasha heard her, but before she could reply, there was a strange scream. Tasha crawled backward as fast as she could.
“I am coming, Grace!” She screamed, knee on stone, skin to barbs. She crawled as if they were a feather. Standing and turning around, she looked at a man holding Grace by the throat, holding her up from the ground.
“I do hate it when people scream; it always brings more vermin.” The man said as he tossed Grace to the side.
Tasha did not hesitate; she gripped tightly on the stone in her satchel and cast a spell without thinking. A moment of concern struck her as the final syllable for a bolt of lightning to be cast at her metal-wearing assailant. His face was equally concerned, but nothing of concern happened to him. Tasha screamed as her hand turned to bone, as the flesh fell from her hand. Her screams were of shock as there was no pain. The man smiled, starting to draw his sword. He was stomped into the ground by the hoof of a deer that stood taller than trees. Tasha ran to Grace, getting her up. She headed through the gap the man had made, but Grace dragged Tasha towards the hole they came through.
“No new paths; that is how you die down here.” She choked out between crushed vocal cords.
They both dropped to their knees and crawled as fast as their bodies would allow. Reaching the far side, they emerged into the herd of deer. Skittish, they bounced away behind their taller ally. They looked up, and the deer seemed to be focused on eating and not on them. Turning its head, one of its antlers brushed past a tree, and a small row bow fell to their feet. Half-eaten fish and limbs of a young man still remained. The couple ran around it and made their way back to the surface as fast as they could. Grace attached a plank of wood to her rope and tossed it into the water above. The wood started to float, and they climbed the rope one at a time. Using the cliffside to ensure they did not wrench the plank of wood down too fast, allowing them to climb out, they floated to the surface.
Surfacing one after another, they drew in deep breaths and laughed at one another with excitement and adrenaline pumping through their veins. Swimming to the shore, Grace embraced Tasha, feeling something strange on her back as Tasha gripped around tight. Moving apart, she saw Tasha’s skeleton hand.
“How?” She looked at the hand with panic as Tasha slowly pulled it from Grace’s grasp.
“It is not as bad as it looks; I can still use it.” She said, wiggling her skeletal fingers. “Magic turned out to be a terrible idea down there.”
Grace cried and hugged Tasha.
“Thank you, my hero.”