The path had become overgrown during her absence, and the roan, whose mouth frothed and lungs heaved, struggled to navigate the rough terrain. Finally, however, the earth leveled and the trees thinned, revealing a small cottage nestled between the overhanging boughs. The trickle of water marked a river hidden father back within the trees. The air smelled sweet and warm, like honeyed sap and baked sunlight.
Arliss walked the exhausted horse to a small stable built off to the side of the clearing and filled the empty trough with clear water from the river behind the cottage. In thanks to the poor animal, who was drinking heavily of the water, she poured oats into a second trough and drizzled a fair amount of molasses over the top. After removing the roan’s tack and brushing his sweat-soaked hair, Arliss moved toward the cottage with the remaining apples in hand. She grabbed the handle, which glowed a faint blue before unlocking with a small click, and stepped into the foyer.
Inside, the walls were hidden by books that towered to the ceilings, leaned against chairs and stools, and littered the counters; they even lurked beneath the stairwell, where hallowed nooks had been made for the volumes to be tucked carefully between. The air was also sweltering and thick. Arliss waved her hand as she moved to the bedroom, stepping carefully around piles of books along the way. The heat in the room began to slowly sink to the floor, and it felt as if warm water was being poured down her arms before cool air rushed in. She sighed in relief and shivered as the sweat on her skin chilled her.
She tossed her satchel and the sack of apples onto her bed and threw open the drawers of her dresser, removing a white dress that was better suited for the weather than the heavy mage robes were. Arliss gathered the feathery garment in her arms, then walked back out into the sweltering heat outside, around the cottage, and out to the river beyond.
She removed her boots, and folded the white dress on top of them in the shade of a stooped willow. Striding out into the current with languid steps, she was submerged to the waist and her robes fanned out like a lily pad around her. The clasps and ties were undone on her clothes, leaving only the bright emerald at her neck glinting atop her pale, porcelain skin. She quickly washed out her travel clothes in the cold water, shivering all the while, and soaked the sweat and the grime away while the sun beat down furiously from above.
Once clean, Arliss returned to the embankment and slipped the white dress over her head, wringing out her long black hair. She felt better, now that the dirt and horse hair no longer clung to her, and returned to the cottage barefoot while humming happily to herself. In front of the stables, the roan horse was now contentedly munching on overgrown grass.
She hung her crimson robes on a nearby bough to dry and left her boots nearby before returning to the cool refuge indoors. With a simple click, the heat was shut out for good. She wandered back into the bedroom, remembering the two new books that she had collected just that morning. The tomes were very rough around the edges, black cloth frayed at the corners and binding thread sticking out along the spines, but the pages inside were clean and well cared for; the volumes had seen a lot of travel, but that was only the sign of a book well-enjoyed.
Embossed in gold lettering along the first cover read the title, “The Shrouded Lantern (And Other Tales from the Northern Islands).” The author of both tomes was a Lysander Crane, and the name rang somewhat familiar with her, but she did not dwell long on it; Crane’s second tome caught her eye. It lacked any title on its cover, merely bearing the symbol of a half-closed eye pressed into the leather. Curious, she opened the book to the first page, and found the title written in simple lettering: “The Legend of the Lost Kingdom.” Contrary to the uncomplicated lettering, around the page were beautiful, intricate drawings of creatures she had never seen before, twisting and writhing in chaotic patterns; humanoid figures danced around the title, displaying wide, sinister grins full of jagged teeth while other figures seemed to be trapped between a state of visibility and ethereality. At the bottom of the page, curled loosely around a garland of spears, was the archaic form of a dragon, arrows protruding from its dull hide.
So lost in fascination with the entrancing pictures, she did not notice the knocking at her door. Only when the rapping became more forceful did she jumped lightly, startled from her thoughts.