Chapter 18: The Azure Forest

Looking around, Jac was surprised not only to find himself on a platform a few feet off the ground but also surrounded by spear-wielding men. Aislynn had told him last night that Nanticoo culture predated the Native Americans, but they sure looked like Indians to him. Their style of dress and adornment were a dead ringer for several North American tribes he had read about. Sensing trouble, Aislynn took the lead and stepped in front of her friends.

“Greetings! I am Aislynn Roxburry, daughter of the Count of Roxburry. I last visited your village with my aunt, the Witch of Puddingstone Park. I am known here and have come with my friends seeking council with the wise Chief of Nanticoo, Barking-Owl.”

The group of guards did not even blink at Aislynn’s announcement. It was not until an old woman, from a nearby longhouse, barked something in their native tongue that they all snapped to attention, raising their spears and resting the butts on the ground.

“Well met, Aislynn of Roxburry. You are known to us and welcomed to the Village of Nanticoo,” the old woman replied, walking towards them with her arms held wide. “I am called Sitting-Squirrel, the Speaker of Nanticoo.”

“Well met, Sitting-Squirrel. These are my friends Jac MacPhearson and Pia Donati and we have come seeking council. Will you take my words to your Elders?”

“Yes, I will take your words – wait here,” Sitting-Squirrel replied then clapped her hands three times before returning to the longhouse.

Responding to Sitting-Squirrel’s clap, three village girls came with fur rugs they placed on the ground in front of the longhouse. Jac and the girls were invited to sit and served a hot pine needle tea, along with some fish, and flatbread, while they waited.

“Thank you,” Aislynn said to the girl serving the tea. “My family has a friend here, the village wise-woman Bitter-Bark. Is she still here?”

“Yes, I will take her your words,” the girl replied in halting English.

Squirming at the delay, Jac sipped his tea, making a face before setting it back down. “Lynn, how long is this going to take?”

“I’m not sure, something is up. We’d better be careful. If anyone here has seen your brother, the Chief will know about it. Hopefully, I’ll get to talk to Bitter-Bark first. She might know something that could help speed things up. She and my Aunt were close friends since they were girls.”

Jac was about to say something when Bitter-Bark arrived, flying into Aislynn’s waiting arms.

“It is good to see you, Little-Bird, but you’re not so little anymore. How is my friend, Rose-Bud?”

“She was,” Aislynn tried to say but choked up.

“Sweet Little-Bird, let us not speak of it further until we can mourn her properly. So tell me, what brings you to Nanticoo?”

Taking a bundle from her apron Aislynn said, “My friends and I are looking for someone who passed through the forest. We’re hoping that Chief Barking-Owl might know if the passed this way. First, though, I have some feverbush root for you.”

“Thank you, Little-bird. I know of those you seek, but I’m not sure how much Barking-Owl will tell you. A sickness has stricken Mother Forest and a green dragon is feeding off her people. Barking-Owl’s failure to kill the beast and heal the land has cost him face. The elders were meeting when you arrived to discuss his fate,” Bitter-bark whisper.

“I see. What can you tell us of those we seek? My friend’s little brother is in danger. We are on a quest to save him,” Aislynn whispered back.

Sitting-Squirrel interrupted their conversation with her return. “Chief Barking-Owl and the Council of Nanticoo will see you now, come with me.”

As they were getting up to follow Sitting-Squirrel, Bitter-bark said with an amused wink “Don’t forget to come see me before you leave. I’m sure I can cure your boy’s rash.”

Jac bristled at the insinuation and Pia burst into laughter. “See Jac, I told you, someone here could treat it.”

Jac and the girls followed Sitting-Squirrel into the nearby building to meet the chief. The longhouse was nothing like the dark smoke filled interior Jac had expected. While the outside looked like a typical Indian longhouse covered in bark shingles, inside it was completely modern. The interior had a tiled floor covered with rugs and plaster walls that were all heavily decorated with colorful designs and motifs around a central fire pit. When they entered, Chief Barking-Owl stood up and held out his hands in a sign of greeting. Stepping forward, Aislynn greeted the Chief in the same manner.

“Well met, Chief Barking-Owl. Thank you for agreeing to see us. Please, allow me to introduce my friends. This is Jac MacPhearson, Wizard of Yonkers, and our companion Pia Donati, Witch of Eichelman Beach.”

A murmur of surprise ran through the gathered elders. One man said, “We consulted the spirits of the ancestors yesterday and they said the grandson of an old friend of the village was to visit today. They also said that we were to offer any aid we could. We were not expecting the grandson of Nail MacPhearson though. This is a good sign! Your grandfather was a great friend to Nanticoo. Ask your question, Wizard.”

Chief Barking-Owl clenched his teeth and shot the elder an angry look. “Yes, a great sign, Jac MacPhearson. Tell us, why you have come to Nanticoo.”

“We are looking for my little brother. He was taken by goblins but a man called Mr. Mephitic has him now. They’re with an old lady they call Auntie and two guards. We think they passed along the road by your village recently. Have you seen them?”

Chief Barking-Owl sat down on a pile of rugs and pillows, gesturing for his guests to do the same. “The ones you seek passed through here almost two days ago. They rented a room from Flattened-Frog and were not seen again, leaving unnoticed during the middle of the night. We never saw a boy with them, though. Our hunters reported signs of them on Fishers Trail. Before reaching the river, they then left the trail and went straight towards the Blight. They have not been heard from since.”

Disappointed at not getting any word about his brother Jac recovered and asked, “Blight?”

The elders whispered among themselves before one of the men said, “It was first noticed about a year ago. An area of the forest, bordering the river between Fishers Trail and Fishers Crossing, started dying. It has fallen under the dominion of a green dragon. The whole area has been tainted with a malady that the fairy folk of the Valley has named the Blight. Even, Queen Lilly seems unable to negate its effects.”

“We’ve not run into anything like that, but it’s good to know to be on the watch out for a green dragon,” Aislynn said with a  tinge of concern in her voice. “Has anything else strange been seen in the area – people or other things appearing or disappearing out of holes in the ground?”

Aislynn’s question caused another round of whispers among the elders. After a few moments, Chief Barking-Owl responded with a question of his own. “These are dark things you speak of and not to be mentioned in idle conversation. Why do you ask?”

“My brother was abducted by goblins who took him from my house using earth-gates. We’ve seen swarms of zombies using something just like them in a war against Franklin. I’m sure there is a connection. If these gates are being used here too it might lead us back to my brother.”

Again the elders whispered amongst themselves before one of them spoke, “What are these… zombies, you speak of?”

Aislynn spoke up and answered for Jac. “Honored dead, forced to walk The Realms without their spirit to guide them at the bidding of another.”

As a group, all the elders made a sign in the air to ward off evil and argued amongst themselves before deciding to answer. Clearing his throat to encourage words to flow, Chief Barking-Owl looked intently at Jac. “Yes, we have seen them. Many of our men have entered the Blight trying to discover its secrets. The few that have returned, speak of things such as you have described. Of this, I will speak no more.”

PART 2: TO SET A TRAP

Their plans were proceeding wonderfully and on schedule in the Azure Forest since Mr. Mephitic had installed the young green dragon Verdis to watch over it. Though pleased to see their master’s plan proceeding as scheduled, their tempers were seething from the delay they had experienced back in Jayland.

Walking toward Verdis, Mr. Mephitic screamed back over his shoulder. “Keep that boy quiet, Auntie or it’s your screams we’ll be hearing instead. One more delay and nobody will like what come next!”

Only because she did not want to hear him herself, Auntie removed the pouch of powder she had been using on Mackie from inside her sleeve and set it on the ground next to him. Before removing the hood, she prodded him to semi-wakefulness and began a conversation with herself, twisting it ever so slightly with each telling. “I tells ya, it’s so! The little darlins’ own brother sold’im to those horrible goblins for a can a beans and the master rescued him.”

“Poor sweet little thing. He’s lucky t’of come ta the master’s notice! It’s so hard t’believe that is’own brother has profited from him so. Seems like such a fine lad too. He’s sure t’love the master for all that kindness.”

It did not take long for Mackie’s drugged mind to latch on, and he was soon mumbling and sobbing to himself. Careful not to bring him around to full consciousness, Auntie carefully removed his hood and administered the glittery powder before covering his head up again.

Having completed that task, Auntie checked to make sure all their other plans were still in order before starting her next. Creating an earth-gate was a complicated spell and took serious concentration. Gathering up the tools she needed she got right to work. This time instead of opening one, she would need to open two different ones and they were already late. Luckily, with Mr. Mephitic busy finalizing plans with the slow-witted Verdis and not pushing her to hurry, Auntie had them both ready to go when he returned.

“Now remember, Verdis, he knows nothing. Just follow the plan and he will do exactly as you tell him. And don’t forget, Aunties potion will only last an hour. Wait to use it until the last possible minute, or you could ruin everything!”

Like all young creatures, Verdis bristled at the instruction but only nodded in reply.

© TJ Reed and trjeedblog.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to TJ Reed and trjeedblog.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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