A man wandered down a long winding road, the city behind him. He was headed westward. The hard-compact dirt slowly became loose as he ventured the way less traveled. Constantly raising a hand to the thick bushes that tried to seize the path as their own. Snapping his way through the next gathering, he turned as he got through the end.
“A whole plain, a whole region. A whole planet for you to grow, and you pick the one point where I need to walk. You’re lucky my flint and tinder are packed away deep. Otherwise, you would be ash.”
The man yelled as he pulled thorns from his skin and twigs from his hair. Patting himself down, he continued his venture, only stopping to eat on one occasion. Pulling half a loaf of bread and some cheese from his pack, he found himself a quiet spot beneath some trees to take a rest. Squeezing his sore feet out of his shoes, he rubbed the raw skin with an ointment and let them sit in the cooling breeze. Flexing his back, he felt muscles pull and bone crack, creating an involuntary sigh of relief. With food in him, he looked down to his feet and decided that he needed to move on. Squeezing his feet back into his shoes, he winced as some exposed skin dragged against the rough leather.
“The one perk of stopping on a journey is the fact that my pack always feels lighter, almost weightless, for the next part of my blah blah blah. We are talking to ourselves again… And I guess we still are.”
The man muttered to himself for a few hours, running his words in circles before adding new ones. But all in one instance, his words stopped; his eyes squinted and looked out over the land as he crested a hill.
“A town? But…”
He pulled his map from the side of his pack and started to look over it furiously. Checking landmarks, he confirmed that this town was not mapped. Flipping the map over, he cursed.
“How did I fail to see this when purchasing it? Well, looks like it is my fault I am stuck with an outdated map.” He said to himself as he put the map away.
On the back of the map was a date nearly two years older than the current one.
“Better to be with than without, ain’t that right, Specie?” He asked rhetorically to the sky. A small silver coin appeared in mid-air and dropped into the man’s hands. He looked up to the sky, kissing the coin and holding it as high as he could.
“With your fortune, my lord, I am sure we are to bleed this town dry.”
With a skip in his step he made his way down the hill, stepping merrily as he hummed. As he got closer, he made a point to take note of everything, absorbing the new environment around him. As the path winded down the hill, the dirt road soon became mud, adding irritants to the man’s feet as it seeped into his shoes. Begrudgingly he stepped onwards, the favor of his god held firmly between his thumb and finger. He rubbed it and muttered prayers under his breath as he entered the town.
Nearly everything was mud-covered; anything that wasn’t was simply tall enough to escape the mud. Everyone wadded ankle-deep through it; a strange mix of soil and hay clung to everyone. He looked around as everyone eyed him strangely as they whispered to one another. He spied a few well-armed men and women in official garb.
“If the guard is here looks like I won’t have to worry about being mugged too much. I might even be able to sleep here, provided I can find a mud-free bed.” His mutterings get louder to compensate for the sounds of his feet, leaving the mud with a grotesque suction sound.
The ground beneath his feet eventually started to firm as he found himself approaching a dry, raised section of earth in the middle of the town. He took off his backpack and rested it next to him before scrapping as much mud as he could manage from his legs. Heaping handfuls back into the muck that resided outside of his current resting place. The sounds of the mud slapping drew the attention of several nearby people who decided to approach the man. He noticed, wiped his hands clean, stood straight, and cleared his throat.
“Welcome all, or should it be you saying welcome to me? I jest, but I am a newcomer to your… quaint little town here. My name is Seppi; I have come with goods for sale and a story to tell.”
He paused for a moment to look at the reactions of his meager crowd. They all looked at one another with concern in their eyes as they covered their mouths to speak.
“Do not worry; I know I have many scars but not all of my stories contain death and danger. I’ll tell you what, let me tell you of a time I entered a Druids grove not far from here.”
Seppi’s eyes narrowed as he began to run stories through his mind. Watching as the word Druid drew the last few people in town to him.
“I see I must have all of your attention. Gather around and pay attention, for this is a story where you cannot miss a word. For if you do, and you find yourself in the Druid’s grove. You may never return.”
Despite the theatrics and stage performances, people did not seem to be engaged. They were tentative, but their eyes seemed empty and unamused. Merely watching because there was nothing else to do.
“You’re going to die,” said a voice from the crowd.
“No fear not, I have left the grove. I have come to you all safe and sound.”
“No, I meant…” Before the crowd member could finish, they were interrupted abruptly.
“No, no curse, hex, or other negative aura surrounds me. I took the necessary precautions.”
The person nearly called out a third time. Instead, they caught themselves and dismissed their thought with a shrug.
“My story begins a mere few days ago, I believe. But you can never tell when you are in a Druid’s grove. They have powerful magic. Magic, I had to defy with my charms and defensive spells.”
Seppi waved his hand, and a shimmer of white light surrounded him for a moment before fading. Those in the crowd let loose a look of horror, and a few gasped, stepping backward. Seppi finally felt like he was drawing in the crowd.
“A defensive ward and the mention of a Druid is all it took. This is a town of simpletons. No wonder there is only a half dozen living here; anyone with half a thought wouldn’t settle here.”
Seppi thought to himself, letting the crowd settle a little before continuing; he stepped forwards and brushed his arm through the air.
“I had to push my way through thick brush and vine, but before long the plants started to change. Where there was once a coarse vine, now sharp thorns.”
Seppi raised his arm to reveal small puncture wounds from the bush he had stumbled through earlier that day. People leaned in to get a closer look, but Seppi flourished his arm away.
“I will not make you look upon the grotesques for too long, but I need you to be aware they are there. Now I don’t think I was ever in any real danger.”
“No real danger? A druid can shape-shift into animals. Do you really think you would be safe against a bear or an enormous snake?”
“Oh yes, that is right, draw the knuckle draggers in with an easy bit of conflict.” He thought.
Jumping back, he watched as everyone stepped back in fear.
“You think a simple bear or snake could stop me? No, I am far too nimble and cunning.”
“Cunning?” A voice screamed from a ways behind the crowd.
“A latecomer, do join. We are yet to…”
“Do you want to die? Because if you do stay right where you are.” The woman yelled as she stormed towards Seppi.
“My dear, you are not capable of hurting someone like me. Just because I have lived a life…”
“Seriously, did no one stop hi… Has he cast magic?”
The crowd’s face started to lower, and finally, Seppi looked down. Where his bag once was, a mound of mulch and fungus grew. Seppi was confused; looking to his feet, he watched as strange growths climbed around the invisible ward he cast earlier. By the time Seppi noticed, they were already knee height.
“What in the heavens?”
“Well, get off it, you moron.”
“But my bag.”
“I assume that mound is your bag. Consider it dirt and get off.”
Seppi ran into the mud and watched as it killed off the growths on his ward. Sizzling them like they had been placed on a hot stone. Seppi turned back to look where he once stood but fell face-first into the mud, and cheers of laughter surrounded him.
By the time Seppi stood, the crowd had already started to move on; he felt the clap of a hand as one collided with the back of his head.
“Cancel your ward, you idiot. Is that not clear yet?”
Seppi peeled the caked mud from his eyes. Flicking one hand outwards, the shimmer of his ward faded. His head perked up a little as he noticed the end of a slow rumble.
“What was that rumbling?”
“That was your bag and everything inside it being consumed.”
Seppi finally cleared his face from the muck, looking over at the small island. He watched as the last indication of his bag sunk until the dirt mound was once again smooth and curved.
“What is that?” Seppi asked, turning to the woman who stood staring down at him with suspicion in her eye.
“First, you tell me your name. My name is Alme, yours is?”
“Seppi, before you say anything, I am a wandering storyteller and trader. Not interested in robbing your little town.”
Alme chuckled and slapped Seppi on his back.
“Town, who would build a town like this? No, this is a research camp.”
“A research camp; what are you researching?”
Alme pointed to the smooth dirt pile.
“By the way.” Alme said, turning to Seppi. “You need to get better at lying; there are no druids around here.”
Scratching the back of his head, he laughed a little. Embarrassed about being called out.
“Look, I thought this was a small town full of backwater brains. Thinking they were as adaptive as a Cappy or something.”
“sadly not, quite the opposite, actually.”
“So why all the mud? Why not build above it?”
“Because of that. Anything is too complex, and it becomes fungus and dirt. Really likes magic. I am surprised you are still alive, to be honest.”
“Why, what does it do to living things?”
“Well, the first and last person to cast magic in its presence. Until you. Woke up the next day… Actually, he didn’t wake up; he was dirt and fungus.”
“Well, glad I managed to escape that fate.”
Alme turned, facing Seppi in the eye.
“You did hear the part where I said woke up, right? That is because he went to bed later in the day and never got to wake up.”
The moment sunk in, and Seppi looked all around.
“Were there signs? Did he have a fever? Should I run? What should I do if I want to live?”
Alme seemed to smile and flick her head towards the edge of their town. Seppi looked over to see the gate heading East. Looking back to Alme with fear in his eyes.
“You better run. Maybe if you are lucky, it won’t catch up to you.”
“What won’t catch up to me?”
“Times passing, run Seppi.”
Seppi looked up to the sky, watching as the sun crested past midday. Looking back at Alme for a moment, he contemplated asking more questions but just ended up sputtering before turning tail. Stomping through the mud, he ran with desperation. Clawing at the mud whenever he fell until he was finally free. Out from the mud, he ran as the last remnants of it clung to his clothes. With no plan in his mind, he ran as fast as he could.
Alme looked to the others as they peeked their heads out of their homes. They giggled and looked at Alme.
“Come on, y’all, we have another chance at seeing what comes from the mound. Get the horses; we’re going hunting.”