The GuideMature

               "Go now.  That is all the help I will give to you without compensation.  I have company tonight, and I must prepare.  Be gone." The witch raised both her hands and waved at them indolently, dismissing them. She turned and reached up to one of the many shelves lining the walls, rifling among the multitudes of glass jars and baubles. The items clinked against one another in a sort of musical cadence.

                Engle felt his shoulders slump. No. That couldn't be the only information she could give him. It just couldn't be.

               "No," he said firmly. "I will not leave yet. I need to know more."

               The witch whirled around, her long black hair sent flying with the action. A dozen glass jars spilled from the shelf, tumbling to the floor with sharp crashes. The contents of the jars splattered across the ground, smearing bright oily stains over the stone. "Information is not a commodity easily given, little human. I give you this one gift of help without an expectation of any kind of repayment, and you demand more?" She scoffed and jabbed a thin finger to his armored chest. Her nail clicked distinctly against the metal. "You seek more information? Tell me: what would you give to know more?" The air grew noticeably colder, cold enough to be felt through the protective layer of fabric underneath Engle's armor.

               "I have little to give, witch," he said carefully.

               "Everyone has something to give," she whispered, "you more than most." She chuckled humorlessly, and a malicious smile twisted her lips. "What about Lyric?" The witch stared back, her ebony eyes unblinking.

               Fear and anger blossomed in his chest. His fists clenched, and he took a step forward, but something tugged at his arm. He glanced down. Heather's long, thin fingers were twined firmly in the armor around his bicep. She looked scared and visibly trembled at his side.

               "We have to go," she told him. She pulled harder at his arm, but he didn't budge. "Engle! We need to go now!" She grabbed his hand, her fingers like ice on his skin. "Please!" she pleaded.

               Engle let himself be dragged back along the corridor. His angered quickly cooled and left only the intense and hollow pain of fear; it trickled down from his mind to drip and slither icily down his spine and pool in the pit of his stomach. How could she have known about Lyric? He had never mentioned her to anyone. Only Rona knew of Lyric. He had made sure of that. What could the witch do to Lyric? How could he stop her from doing anything to his child? So many questions pulled at his frayed thoughts. He needed to get back to Lyric. Now.

               "Engle!" The shout startled him. Heather was standing in front of him, her emerald eyes gazing upward with concern. They were back outside of the witch's fortress.

               "I'm sorry. I'm fine," he mumbled sluggishly. He shook his head; his mind felt murky. "I just need to... to think for a moment," he said, suddenly out of breath. He felt chilled, and sweat began to roll down his forehead and into his eyes. He tried to remove his helmet, his fingers scrabbling clumsily against the latch. He finally got the helmet off. His fingers went numb, and the piece slipped from his gloves and clattered to the ground. He wobbled briefly before his legs finally collapsed. Slumping to the ground, Heather tried to support his greater weight, but ended up slipping to the ground after him.

               The nymph's hands flew to his face. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and tried to ignore how the trees above him had seemed to spin dizzyingly in chartreuse whorls. Breathing as slowly and calmly as possible, Engle fought off a bout of nausea. The feeling slowly passed. The tips of his fingers and toes prickled slightly as well before finally finding a sense of touch. The murk in his mind gradually melted away, allowing him to think more clearly. He opened his eyes, glad to see that the forest around him no longer spun. Heather sat beside him, her eyes wide with fear.

               He forced a smile at her. "It's okay. I'm fine now." Her brows lowered doubtfully. "Really," he stressed. He took her hands, no longer freezing cold, from the sides of his face and sat up. When his head and stomach didn't protest, he gingerly stood, pulling the nymph along with him. He dropped her hands.

               "Thank you for getting us out of there," he told her, gazing around the small area they stood in. He didn't recognize anything.

               "What happened?" Heather asked quietly. She walked a pace away and delicately retrieved Engle's helmet. She turned around, dusting off the armor with her palm. She held the piece out to him.

               He took it from her gratefully, tucking it under his arm. "I'm not quite sure," he admitted, "but I have no doubt that Ziema had everything to do with it." He looked to the nymph; she just stood there with her arms folded over her chest, shivering slightly.

               "She said that the trees would guide you," she said, looking to him expectantly.

               He glanced around the small area at all the tall trees towering around them. "I don't know what I'm looking for. All the trees look alike," he murmured. "Are they supposed to--" he let the thought trail away and fade. Something caught his eye.

               "What? What is it?"

               Engle skirted around Heather and approached a thick tree directly behind her. Emblazoned on the tree's dark bark was a symbol, glowing a faint shade of cerulean. He raised a hand and trailed the tips of his fingers over the symbol. It felt cold to the touch whereas the bark was pleasantly sun-warmed.

               "This symbol," he asked, "do you recognize it?"

               Heather walked up beside him and squinted at the bark. "What symbol? I don't know what you're talking about."

               Engle was quiet for a moment, contemplating. Shaking his head in disbelief, he stepped back from the tree and glanced at the nymph. She stared at him once more with concern. "Come on. I think I found our guide."

The End

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