It was a time when dragonflies could flutter all the way up to the moon, when the flickering of a hummingbird’s wings was faster than lightning.
It was a time when the growl of thunder signified the coming of a catastrophe, a cracking of the earth, a roiling of the seas, a shuddering of the heavens.
It was a wild time.
And into this time was born a creature that her mother called Mora.
“A lovely name,” Damon said. “She must have been a lovely creature.”
Lyrio gazed ahead. They were approaching the edge of the wood. “She walked into that very forest to break the curse that was laid upon her by a warlock, for the crime of being shapeless.”
Damon frowned a bit and glanced askance at his friend. “And was it broken? The curse?”
Lyrio returned the glance. “I don’t know. According to the stories, she never walked back out.”
Damon took a deep breath. “Our compass points onward. What else might we face once we venture in?”
“Truthfully, my friend, I do not know.” He gulped. A trickle of sweat fell from his temple. “They say there are animals with limbs twisted and rearranged because they were caught in the recoil of a breaking spell. They say some spells take hundreds of years to break and as they do, they change the trees and the earth around them. A patch of solid earth might give way beneath your feet. A harmless looking flower bud might open its petals to reveal a gaping maw filled with rows of razor-like teeth.”
“Who is ‘they,’ Lyrio? Who are these brave adventurers traipsing through a forest full of shattered spells only to return with tales of fright and valiant deeds?”
Lyrio did not laugh, or even smile, as Damon expected him to.
Damon placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You need not enter. Wait here. When I find her, Phoebe will be glad to hear that I did not bring you into this place. That you are waiting safely out here for her.”
Lyrio straightened and wiped his brow. “When we find her,” he said. And he started forth on the path again. “Comfort is not needed in safe places, but in unsafe ones.”
Damon followed. He glanced at the signposts along the path, all of them warning not to enter. The forest had another name, but most, even these signposts, called it Spell-breaker Forest.
Spell-breaker Forest, where all magic—no matter how powerful—became undone. But it came undone in sudden and violent ways. Some of the spells unraveled. Some snapped apart. Some consumed themselves and anything that happened to be nearby. The forest was dangerous for magical and non-magical beings alike.
Most of the spells that came to the forest were curses—cursed heirlooms for whom the owners had found no other means of removal, and cursed creatures who found no other cure.
The warnings on the signposts became more and more frequent and more and more dire as the two men approached the forest’s edge. To calm himself, Lyrio continued the story of one of the most famous inhabitants of the forest, the Mora, a shape-shifter of mythical and tragic origin.
“She can take many shapes, numbering nine times nine,” Lyrio said, as they crossed the border into the forest.
Damon gasped as a sudden chill filled his chest. His skin began to prickle. He licked his lips by instinct and thought he tasted the metallic tang of blood on his tongue.
Unbidden tears of anger and fear filled his eyes when he thought of his sister entering this place, not as he now entered, side by side with a friend, willing and ready.
He blinked the tears away and sniffed.
“Why that number, I’ve wondered,” Lyrio continued, though now there was a tremble to his voice. “I do not know.”
The forest was quiet. Damon heard no sound of bird or beast. No chirping or cheeping. No crackling of leaves or twigs underfoot. The forest floor was strangely clear.
“This warning is written on no signpost, but in ancient books by scribes relating spoken tales,” Lyrio said in a raspy whisper. “’Do not seek to go where others have not gone before, for you will be dragged down by the Mora. Dragged down at best. But at worst, you may be lost to the world, drowned in the shapeless waters of oblivion.’”
“Will you keep quiet?” Damon whispered back. He glanced around, wondering if any creature heard them, was tracking them.
“I dare not, for then the madness will creep in.” Lyrio gulped. “You are safe, perhaps. You have trained yourself to keep your imagination at bay.”
“Or perhaps I do not have imagination.”
“If that were true, then we would not be friends.”
They shared a glance. Damon frowning at his friend. Lyrio smiling at his. And it might have been Damon’s imagination—the one he claimed not to have—but he thought the forest brightened just a bit.
“At least we will not fall prey to illusions, for they cannot abide in this place,” Damon said. The only danger was in the recoiling magic forces of a breaking spell. But they would not have to face magical creatures or magical attacks—or defenses. When they found their enemy, the one who took Phoebe, they would be able to fight him fairly.
Lyrio pointed out that a man as filthy rich as the one they chased would surely hire several guards, if not a small army, to protect himself. “He’s mad to have brought her to this place. Mad to think that I have enchanted her into loving me.”
“He doesn’t believe that,” Damon said. “It was a weak excuse to sway my mother and father in his favor and against you. He hates magic. His true cause for bringing Phoebe here was to render her powerless. She cannot build a bird and infuse it with motion and speech to come warn us where she is. She cannot fashion a suit of armor into her own guard, to help her fight her way out of her enemy’s grasp.”
“She still has her mechanical skill,” Lyrio said. “What your father taught her.”
“Yes, but without magic, it would take her so long to build a useful machine that I fear she will be found out. And I fear what would happen when she is. As you said, our enemy, and hers, was already mad, else he never would have dared to set foot in this forest.”
“Damon, her skill in magic is no spell. Surely it would return if she were to leave the forest. He must suspect this. Does he mean to keep her here forever?”
“What he means to do will not matter once we find her. We three will flee the forest then, and if he gives chase, we will flee faster. And once we are out of the forest, he would be wise to break off his chase. My sister does not anger often. But when she does…”
“Brave words, my friend. But none of us were strong enough to stop him from taking her.”
“He did not succeed because of our lack of strength. But because of his treachery.” Damon stopped walking and furrowed his eyes as Lyrio turned to him. “Say that you understand this. And promise me that you will return to being a poet and let me be the pragmatist.”
Before Lyrio could respond, Damon felt the force of some invisible lash strike his gut, forcing the air from his lungs. He was knocked off his feet. He sucked in air in a gasp and heard Lyrio cry out.
“A spell! A spell is breaking!”
The trees above Damon swayed, and their upper branches began to crack. He scrambled to his feet and leapt away from the falling branches. He glanced around. But he could not see Lyrio. A high-pitched whine rent the air. Damon winced and put his hands to his ears. He spotted Lyrio, who was waving him forth. Damon began to run, but another high-pitched whine sounded, and now entire trees were falling.
Damon lost sight of Lyrio again. He didn’t know where to run.
Though the trees around him were falling, he pressed himself against the trunk of a willow. Somehow, past the rain of leaves, branches, and torn bark, he spotted the movement of something else. He narrowed his eyes, hoping it was Lyrio. But it was something small, and it moved quickly. It was whizzing toward him.
Only when it stopped before his face could Damon truly recognize what it was. A hummingbird. Even with the sound of a forest crashing down around him, he heard the rapid thrumming of its black wings.
The humming bird darted away to his right. Damon’s gaze followed its course. It turned back to him and hovered. It returned to him and hovered, and darted to the right again.
Not knowing why he did so, Damon followed.
And the hummingbird led.
“Lyrio!” Damon called, for he believed he had found a way to escape the breaking spell.
He glanced behind himself and saw his friend running toward him.
Damon turned and dashed toward the hummingbird.
Damon ran and he ran, glancing behind himself to ensure that Lyrio was following. And he always was, save for that last time Damon looked.
They were moving away from the sound of crashing trees, away from the breaking spell. The hummingbird was leading them further away still, but Damon turned back.
So the hummingbird too followed.
He called for Lyrio, but there came no answer.
The forest grew silent again.
When Damon found Lyrio, though strangely there was no mark upon his body, his friend lay still and breathless. His skin was pale and his eyes frozen open in fright, not of the thing that struck him, Damon was sure, but of his fear for Phoebe.
Damon realized then why he had followed the bird. It was something from a story that Lyrio had told him once.
It was said that a hummingbird’s eyes were as quick as its wings.
Quick enough, Damon had hoped, to see a spell as it broke.
“He is lost,” a voice said. Damon jerked his head toward the sound. An elderly woman, small, nearly half his height, but round and healthy, stepped toward him, guiding and supporting herself with the help of a knotty walking stick.
Damon was immediately suspicious, for he knew to be suspicious of anything in the forest, anything and anyone.
“This is no place for gentle youths,” she said, gazing down at Lyrio.
Grief had not yet caught up to Damon. He was able to answer her with reason. “I agree, madam. That is why we have come, to bring another gentle youth out of the forest. For unlike us, she was brought here against her will.”
“Come with me, then,” the woman said. She said she lived in the forest. She would lead him to her cottage.
As with the hummingbird, Damon could not say why he agreed. Night was falling. He did need a place to rest. He insisted on carrying Lyrio’s body. He would not leave his friend behind in that forsaken place. He expected the woman to object.
But she only said, “He too may rest in my home.”
Her cottage was not far from where they stood. She had likely heard the commotion of the forest and come to see if she was in danger from it. Once he had laid his friend’s body on a cot in the coolest chamber of the cottage, Damon offered to do some work to repay the woman. He had noted some logs piled against the cottage wall. Damon was not particularly strong, but he was strong-willed, and that will served him when his muscles did not. But the woman said she needed no work done at the moment.
She set out refreshment for him, which he politely declined, saying he was sworn only to eat what he had brought with him. Travelers were allowed to refuse the hospitality of a host without insult. Damon hoped the woman was aware of the custom.
“He does not suffer,” the woman said.
A tear streamed from Damon’s eye. He wiped it away. He could not yet speak of his friend. And he could hear no more of his friend.
So he asked, perhaps unwisely, how the woman had come to live in the forest, and if she was one of the dangers that all the signs bordering the forest warned about.
The woman laughed, and said, “I am indeed. What fun to be feared so long as the outcome is that the fearful stay away.”
Damon could not tell if she was jesting.
She explained that she was once a witch, and so she could perceive the spells in the forest, and the patterns of their breaking. She herself entered the forest to break a most painful curse that a warlock had placed upon her. It broke. And since that day she was free. The forest had freed her, so she did not consider it a cursed place, but a haven, a place where none could curse her again.
Damon did admit that the forest was lovely. Were it not for the strange spells snapping apart all around them, it would surely be a place oft-visited.
The woman told him that she felt for his plight, and that she would help him. She would supply a guide.
Damon tried to sleep, for Phoebe’s sake. He tried to rest, so he could endure the rest of the journey to her, and so that he would have the strength to tell her that her true love was gone.
He spent a restless night in the cottage.
In the morning, after the woman announced that she was going to fetch his guide, he ate breakfast from his own rations.
Damon said a last goodbye to Lyrio. He did not know how long we would have to wait for his guide, so he was surprised to find a youth standing behind him.
Much like Lyrio, the youth had a golden-brown complexion and amber eyes. Unlike his tousled-haired friend, however, this youth has a coif of dark hair set in regimented waves. Much like Damon’s hair.
The smiling youth introduced himself as Proteus.
“You will lead me to the count’s tower?” Damon asked. “Where he is holding my sister?”
“I will guide you safely through the forest,” Proteus said.
And they set out.
Proteus had learned from his mother, the old woman in the cottage, how to avoid the breaking spells. But some of the spells were so old that their visage had faded, but not their effects. Damon nearly drowned in a patch of quicksand. Proteus almost ate a batch of poisoned berries. They were chased by a pack of animals that appeared to have the heads of boars and the bodies of hounds. All had severe and festering wounds that slowed them. It was only for that reason that Damon and Proteus escaped. Damon thought those wounds must have been caused by a breaking spell. But Proteus said the wounds were inflicted by infighting. It was their chimeric forms—the head of one beast fused upon the body of another—that was caused by some breaking spell.
When they rested for a moment in the late afternoon, Damon heard the echoing sound of humming. Much as his poet friend’s smile had done, the humming lifted Damon’s spirits and made the forest appear just a bit brighter, perhaps even cheery. He rose and cocked his head to hear the humming more clearly. But as he took a step to move closer to it, he felt Proteus’s hand grasp his arm so tightly it hurt. Proteus made Damon break off bits of bread and stuff them in his ears so he could not hear the humming. He explained that it was a spell breaking. And if Damon followed the sound, he would sink into some far worse than a pit of sand.
Damon did not inquire further.
He and Lyrio had expected that their maps of the forest would do little good. Because some of the most powerful spells took time to break, they were always changing the nature of the forest. So the two friends learned how to read the stars as they trekked toward Spell-breaker Forest. They learned how to memorize trails they had passed but only once. If one of the signs they followed was false, they would check it against the others. Their plan was sound, as sound a plan as they could muster in the little time they had given themselves.
So Damon had been observing. And though he could not be sure, it seemed that Proteus was leading him toward another edge of the forest.
He had not told Proteus that he had a clue as to where the count’s tower was located. Phoebe had sent it to Lyrio. They hoped it was not some trap that the count had coerced her into fashioning. An elegantly crafted black beetle with a red heart on its back. It was a kind of compass. The point of the heart pointed in the direction of the tower. Damon knew this for there was a message inscribed on the beetle’s underside. A single word.
Phoebe inscribed every compass she build with that word.
“You are leading me in the wrong direction,” Damon said when Proteus rejoined him. He pointed to his left. “The count’s tower is in that direction.”
Proteus peered at him. “What makes you say that?”
“I have studied maps of his forest. They may not be as faithful as your knowledge of it, but they tell me that we are nearing the southern edge. If we do not change direction, we will be out of the forest in another day’s travel.”
“I promised to guide you safely.”
“To my sister.”
Proteus shook his head. “I did not promise that. Neither did my mother.”
“Why? I will gladly leave once I’ve found her. We both will.”
“I know that.”
“The dangers are greater as we move deeper into the forest. It is too dangerous. I can hardly weave through them myself. Less so if I am guiding you. I will help your sister, but I can’t be looking after you and helping her at the same time. I need to make sure that you are safe.”
Damon frowned, confused. “Why do you care to help us?”
“I do not. It is just that we have a common enemy.”
“An enemy who is blighting your home. You wish to be rid of him?”
“Oh no, he belongs here. It is you and your sister who must leave.”
“Leave alive and unharmed?”
“Of course, unharmed by me anyway. I can make no promises as to what others lurking in this forest may do.”
“Very well, I understand your meaning. And I will trust you and hope that you are honest.”
“And I will trust you and hope that you are honest,” Proteus said. And Damon realized that he was a stranger to the youth as much as the youth was a stranger to him. There was no way for Proteus to know if he could trust Damon.
“Please, let me come,” Damon said. “No one should have to face danger and despair alone.”
Proteus looked at him strangely, furrowing his brow and crossing his arms. Then he burst into a bright smile.
Damon was ready with more entreaties. But he needed none more. Proteus shifted their course, and Damon checked it against the beetle compass that Phoebe had managed somehow to build without magic.
Though he feared he might be pushing his luck, Damon also asked if they might return to the home of Proteus’s mother, to recover the body of his friend. The cottage was close to the eastern border of the forest, and Proteus agreed.
“We will bring the count back with us, having arrested him for the abduction of my sister,” Damon said. “We will make sure he doesn’t trespass in your forest again.”
“You cannot do that,” Proteus said. “He doesn’t belong in your world. This forest is his true home. That tower he is occupying is not one he found, but one he built.” Proteus glanced at him. “Do you think your sister is the first? He has abducted many like her, either to corrupt or to destroy.”
“Yes, he is seeking to destroy her skill in magic, as if that would make her helpless and dependent upon him.”
Proteus raised a brow. “Is that what you think? He told your father that he wanted your sister’s hand? Well, it’s true enough. But it was not her hand in marriage he wanted.”
Damon shifted his gaze toward the youth. “Then what?”
“Her hand, of course. Her actual hand.” Proteus raised his own hands before himself and gazed at them. “Or both of her hands, I suppose.”
“She is greatly skilled, isn’t she, your sister? In the building of mechanical things? With her skill in magic, she can build gears so tiny one can hardly see them without a magnifying lens. And she can carve metal so precisely that the pieces will fit without flaw, needing only air as lubricant.”
Damon narrowed his eyes. “And because she will not bend to his will, he had brought her here to…sever her magic from her and steal it for himself?”
“Ah, so cleverness runs in the family, I see.”
“But how, her skill in magical mechanics is not a spell. She learned it. How can he steal her knowledge?”
“They call this ‘Spell-breaker Forest,’ but it doesn’t just break spells, and it doesn’t just extinguish magic. Your enemy—and mine—has done with this forest’s nature what he seeks to do with your sister’s skill. He has turned it to his uses.”
“We must hurry,” Damon said.
And he took no further rests that day.
By morning they were at the count’s tower. It lay in the midst of the forest. It did not appear to be guarded. But neither Damon nor Proteus trusted the tower’s appearance. Proteus said he would circle the tower to find the best way in. He warned Damon to stay hidden and stay still until he returned.
This Damon did, until he glimpsed movement in one of the tower’s high windows. He narrowed his eyes, but could not make out who or what he had seen. He felt an impatient thrumming at the top of his chest. He recognized the sensation. He was anxious. He wanted to barge ahead. But he was also wise. Even if he were a mighty warrior, he would fail to breach the tower with a direct assault. It was best that he waited for Proteus to return.
That movement he saw, it was not likely to be his sister or even treacherous count who had carried her off. It was more likely a hidden guard.
Suddenly, something darted into his view. Damon held his breath and went as still as he could.
Of all things…it was a hummingbird.
Past the familiar thrumming of its wings, Damon heard a sound that he might not have marked had he not heard it many times in the past. A mechanical whirring and a buzzing of gears. This hummingbird was not real. It was made. And it was likely made by Phoebe.
Damon decided it was worth the risk to find out. He was about to step forth and make himself known, when another hummingbird appeared. This one too was familiar, but more recently so.
It was all black, just like the one that led Damon to safety when he and Lyrio were fleeing from a breaking spell. The two hummingbirds hovered before each other. Though they made no sound, they seemed to commune with each other. The black one darted up along the tower’s height, while the other one, the metallic blue-and-green bird, flew toward Damon. He wanted to speak aloud to it, but was afraid of letting the guards know where he was hiding.
Suddenly, Damon heard a great commotion within the tower. The cracking and crashing of glass, the clashing of metal against metal, as of swords, and the crying out of voices in rage, in anguish, in desperation.
Damon caught his breath. He glanced around, his gaze searching for any sign of Proteus. He wondered if the youth had somehow found his way in, and had left Damon in relative safety, as he had sought to do all along.
Damon cursed himself for not following Proteus. He rose to a stand. He was still mostly hidden from view. The mechanical hummingbird hovered before his face. Damon lifted his hand to gently sweep the bird away, but he stopped when he saw the main doors of the tower burst open.
What appeared to be guards and prisoners alike began to stream out of the doors. Damon’s heart leapt when he saw Phoebe running out. He ran out to meet her, the hummingbird following behind.
Brother and sister embraced in reunion.
“She knows the way,” Phoebe said, glancing toward the hummingbird. “We must follow.”
She turned and tried to convince a few other prisoners to come with them, but all were scattering in every direction. Some would surely be struck by a breaking spell. But perhaps they did not fear it. Damon noted the cuts and welts on his sister’s hands. The other prisoners bore similar wounds. Something came crashing down beside the tower. A great long table of wood had fallen and cracked in two. Damon looked up.
Thick tentacles of gray smoke coiled through the highest windows. Then the middle windows.
“Let the forest have him,” Phoebe said. Without a look back, she grasped Damon’s hand with both of hers and forged ahead, following the hummingbird that she had built.
Damon did glance back. “Phoebe, I have a friend who helped me find you. I can’t leave him behind.”
“Proteus, yes. He will find us, brother. We need not fear for him, trust me.”
And Damon did. He trusted his sister.
The hummingbird led the siblings back to the cottage of the old woman. Phoebe explained to Damon that it was his friend Proteus who had instructed Phoebe’s mechanical bird on the path back to his mother’s home.
Damon tried to tell Phoebe that her true love was dead. He started a few times, after she thanked him for not bringing Lyrio into danger. But he could not speak the words. At last, when they were close to the cottage, he began to tell her, but she stopped him. She already knew Lyrio was lost. Proteus had told her so.
The old woman was not at the cottage when they arrived. But Phoebe entered as if it were the house of her grandmother, and she was a welcome and well-pampered grandchild. She found Lyrio lying still and serene. It had been a few days, but his body, though still and pale, was warm and soft as if with life.
“Perhaps I have the skill to find him,” Phoebe said. And Damon remembered what the old woman had said, for he knew now that she and her son were careful with their words.
He is lost.
Not dead. Lost.
Damon and Phoebe made a stretcher to carry the body of Lyrio. The mechanical hummingbird knew the way back to the eastern forest border. It would guide them.
“We’re not going to stay and thank them?” Damon said. He was eager to leave. But he also wanted to see with his own eyes that Proteus had indeed escaped the count’s tower in one piece.
“The Mora need no thanks from the likes of us,” Phoebe answered. “And we do not belong in this forest, dear brother. Leaving will be thanks enough.”
Damon was startled by the name she spoke, the same name spoken in Lyrio’s story as he and Damon had entered the forest.
Phoebe agreed to wait long enough for Damon to write a brief note of thanks and leave it on the table.
Damon wondered about Lyrio as they made their way through the forest. He wondered in what way his friend was lost, his soul or his mind, perhaps. Once they were out of the forest, and once Phoebe had been properly tended to, he would ask his sister. And he would ask her about the Mora. The old woman, Proteus…that black hummingbird.
Phoebe insisted on helping to carry Lyrio, though her hands still bled through her bandages. Damon watched her for signs of greater and deeper afflictions. But he need not have. She did not try to hide anything from him. She confessed that the damage to her hands was but the tip of a spear, a poisoned spear that had struck her and pierced her deeply and was lodged within her still. She carried its burden unwillingly. The weight of her true love was as a feather by comparison.
“He’s not a particularly heavy fellow, but I wouldn’t quite call him a feather,” Damon quipped, rubbing his wrist as they took a short rest.
Phoebe did not laugh as he hoped she would. But as she gazed at the sleeping Lyrio, she did begin to smile.
And the dark forest brightened just a bit.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel