Holy kittens. I'm a terrible person. I should be slapped for how long I let this fester before posting the next chapter, and I'm horrendously sorry for how long it's been. Without further ado, here's Chapter 2!! **Also, I've edited the Prologue just slightly so this chapter makes more sense. I realize I never mentioned Pela's name in the Prologue, and have fixed that**
Near the Southern Swamp
Day after Carnival of Time
Year 67 after MoonFall
The first thing Pela noticed about the area leading up to the Southern Swamp was the incredible population of mosquitoes. Within an hour, any part of her skin that wasn’t covered by her traveler’s clothing and long sleeves was covered in bites. It was enough to drive anyone mad, and Pela let more than one curse loudly leave her lips as another bite joined the rest.
The town guardsman at the gates last night had been blessedly lax in his duties, caught up by the fireworks display as he was. Pela had only been able to afford a simple shortsword from a weaponsmith in town for the festival, and had worried the guards might stop her from leaving town in the middle of the night. A slender young woman in simple travel clothes, a small pack, and no shield would have certainly warranted more attention any other night of the year. Not for the first time, she offered up a silent thank you to the gods for helping her escape the town.
Now, if only this swampland had something more to offer than bug bites! She continued on, passing mangrove and willow trees and wending around a corner to catch a glimpse of what looked like a watchtower. She knew from reading old maps that it must be the tourism center in the Southern Swamp, though it looked much more rundown than she’d expected.
The building stood in the river itself and towered up high, a single ladder being the only means to reach the front door. A dilapidated raft sat moored to the small dock beneath the building, its stern dipping down beneath the water’s surface due to time and disrepair. Pela frowned a sad frown. She had hoped for more promising signs here.
She climbed the ladder and scanned the surrounding area. As she looked towards the east, a Deku scrub popped out of the nearby flower and popped a business cap on his head. He eyed Pela eagerly, not bothering to disguise the hunger in his eyes. Perhaps she was the first customer he’d seen today. ...Or this month. She made her way over, as she didn’t expect him to let her enter the building without attempting some sort of sales pitch.
“Welcome, lass!” the scrub cried out excitedly as she passed the door by. “I’ve set up shop here with a focus on Terminian clientele, though as you can imagine, business isn’t exactly booming right now.”
Pela nodded slowly, trying to appear at least casually interested in what the poor creature might have for sale.
“I have trinkets and jewelry, if you’re looking for souvenirs, all hand-crafted at the Deku Palace. If exploring the Swamp is your preference, I also sell travel gear such as water canteens and rope.”
“How much for the rope?” she asked, suddenly bashful at having forgot some in Clock Town.
The Deku scrub disappeared into his flower and reappeared within moments. “As I have an abundance of rope, I can let it go for twenty rupees per coil.”
Pela rose an eyebrow skeptically. She knew this scrub was trying to fleece her, but she felt a twinge of pity for him at the same time. Perhaps he had some manner of family he needed to provide for. “Fine,” she replied with resignation. “I’ll take a coil of rope.” She dug out a red rupee from her pack and paid the scrub, who snatched the money up almost suspiciously fast.
Once the rope was stowed in her pack, she entered the tourism center. The place was rundown and sagging, like it had been forgotten about. It was nothing at all like she had hoped for. Behind the counter sat a very old and strange looking man. His wisp of a beard was stark white, and his face lined heavily with age and worry, yet he wore a very tight-fitting green suit. It seemed to be one single piece, and Pela couldn’t figure out how the man had gotten the thing on. It was bright green with a pair of red briefs worn on the outside, and the hood stuck straight up and came to a point. He was dozing in his chair behind the counter, a pool of drool collecting on his chest. The man had been asleep for some time, and the rest of the room was empty, devoid of decoration or other people.
Pela stood still for another minute, unsure of what to do. She was just about to turn and exit when the old man suddenly coughed violently, causing him to wake suddenly and comically. He gave a startlingly high-pitched shriek as he fell to the ground. Too stunned by the sudden noise, Pela didn’t react until the man was pulling himself to his feet and muttering under his breath.
“...said this wouldn’t keep happening. I wonder, why do the fairies still hate me so? I give them everything they need, I follow all the directions...”
“Excuse me?” Pela asked quietly, trying not to startle the man further. He seemed not to hear her.
“...it’s been over two years now, and they’re still unhappy? But he was such a good specimen of...”
“Sir?” Pela asked again, raising her voice to make sure she was heard this time. The man jumped and gave her a wide-eyed stare before hurriedly regaining his composure.
“Oh my! Oh my oh my, my apologies young miss. I didn’t hear you come in!” he giggled nervously and made his way around the counter and began walking toward her. “Welcome to the Southern Swamp Tourism Center! My name is Tingle, and I manage this place for my late father. I also draw and sell maps on the side. How can Tingle help you today?”
Pela instinctively took a step back, unsure of how to respond. Before she could think of anything better, she blurted out, “I’m looking for someone.”
“Oh, you are! Does this person have a name? Or a picture to help poor Tingle recognize him?” This... Tingle, kept inching closer to her. She felt an extreme discomfort around him. His eyes had a certain hunger to them and were very bloodshot. Something about him just felt off.
Without taking her eyes off of Tingle, she swung her pack around and fished about in one of the pockets. Before leaving Clock Town, she had found a message board that held the posters with Kalen’s face and reward, and took one. She didn’t know how often any residents of the swamp might make it to Clock Town, and needed some point of reference to help her find him. She unfolded the parchment and showed it to Tingle.
“Have you seen this man around?” she asked.
Tingle’s bloodshot eyes went wide for an instant and he ducked his head lower to look closer at the parchment. Pela could have sworn there was a flash of recognition in that look, but by the time Tingle stood back up, no signs of shock or anything else remained.
“Dear, oh dear,” Tingle said with a sort of exaggerated worry. “I did see this young man, perhaps two years ago? He was to be part of the hunting party that used to operate out of Deku Palace. I sent him to see the Old Hags first but, didn’t he make it there, to the Palace?”
Pela eyed the man for a moment, trying to figure if he was lying to her or not. He seemed sincere enough. Perhaps too sincere, and that’s why she felt unwilling to trust him. “The Old Hags, you say? Who are they?”
His eyes snapped back up to hers. “Who are they? Why, of course. Of course you wouldn’t know. You’ve never been here before! Tingle never forgets a face!”
Pela blinked and inched backwards as he continued.
“The Old Hags own the potion shop to the northeast of us, you see. One of them ran a tourist attraction here when my poor late father owned this place, and stayed for many years after, but the last several years they’ve been secluded over in their own little tower. I daresay it was quite rude of them!” The strange man seemed genuinely put out with these hags, but Pela swore she could feel something else lurking beneath the surface of his silly demeanor. Something sinister.
She folded the map up and returned it to her pack, and slung it back over her shoulders. “You say these Hags live in a tower to the northeast?”
“Oh yes, yes! You should go! They may be able to tell you more about this young man, since I sent him there too!” Tingle tried coming up closer to her, but she was already halfway out the door.
“Thank you very much,” she said with as genuine a smile as she could muster. “I’ll be sure to stop back in with any news I can find.”
“Please do!” Tingle replied, his eyes alight with curiosity and… something. “Tingle will be right here, waiting to hear what the pretty young woman has to say!”
Pela suppressed a shudder and turned, letting the door close behind her. She peeked over her shoulder to make sure Tingle had stayed in the building behind her and exhaled her relief. There was definitely something wrong in this place. She wondered if the Deku scrub nearby might know anything. She turned to where the scrub was—and there was no flower. No sign of the Deku scrub remained at all. The wooden deck was clear and dusted over, as if it had been untouched for years. Pela frowned. That didn’t make sense at all. She searched the skies for a moment before shaking her head. Chasing Deku scrubs that suddenly vanished wasn’t going to find Kalen.
She descended the ladder and looked to the northeast. She thought she could see the tip of a tower above the trees, and perhaps a curl of smoke? There was only one way to find out.
After an hour or so of slogging through the dense swampy underbrush and knee-deep water, Pela came upon a clearing. There was a large circular wooden base in a clear pool of water, upon which stood a stout pole supporting another, smaller circular platform with a… pot on top? The strange building certainly resembled a pot or jug, but the handle was broken off, and a large gash in the roof left the room open to the elements. There was a slow curling tail of black smoke rising from the building, but not the chimney. Pela frowned, and searched her surroundings again. She had the distinct feeling she was being watched, if not followed.
Nothing presented itself, however, and she crossed the pool and ascended the ladder to reach the door of the pot-shaped building. The door hung loosely ajar on its hinges, obviously having been nearly ripped off, and the room beyond looked in shambles. Something had come through here, and whomever might still live here either didn’t care for the mess or was unable to tidy up at all. Pela snuck up to the door and sidestepped it as carefully as she could. The sights inside made her gasp.
Blood splatter covered one wall, and all manner of alchemical instruments and herbs had been smashed and trampled on. Books lay ripped and shredded across the floor. In the middle of the chaos and mess, there lay a wrinkled and decrepit old body. It rose and fell lightly, and Pela’s motion caused it to stir slightly.
The body coughed, weakly at first, and a frail hand wiped away blood. “Who goes there?” The small voice was weak and whisper-silent, but there seemed to be at least an ember of fire left in it.
“My name is Pela,” she replied softly, kneeling near the body. “Are you… one of the Old Hags who lives here?”
An aged face turned its eyes on Pela. She could see that this form was indeed one of the Old Hags, her blue hair matted against the floor by dried blood. “Indeed, I am. Koume is my name. My sister Kotake and I owned this little place.” Koume descended into another coughing fit and moved slightly to see Pela better.
“I was told to ask you,” Pela began, reaching for her pack again to bring out Kalen’s poster, “if you’ve seen this young man near here?” She unfolded the parchment and held it up for Koume to see.
Her tired eyes went wide with alarm. “You know this man?” she asked, and Pela couldn’t tell if it was horror or hope she heard in the woman’s voice.
“Well, sort of. I’ve seen him around Clock Town. I’m searching for him because my—”
“You must hurry!” Koume interrupted. The Old Hag’s eyes were still wide and they held a manic urgency. “You might still be able to save him!”
“Save him? From what?”
A darkness passed over Koume’s face as she replied. “You may still have a chance to save him from… that man.”
Pela frowned. “What man?”
“The man who killed my sister, Kotake. Sweet, protective Kotake. She was the older of us twins, by mere seconds. She always tried to protect me and keep me safe, and it was that that got her killed.” Koume’s eyes were now filled with tears that spilled out over her dry, cracked cheeks. “He took her first, subdued her somehow and took her to the caves. How he got her that far, I’ll never know. But I could hear her screaming from here. Then he came and destroyed our home and stabbed me, and I swear by the Giants, he was twenty years younger. He must be performing some kind of ritual! He must be stopped!”
“Who?” Pela asked again, emphasizing the word. She felt like she knew, but needed to hear the woman confirm her suspicions.
Koume’s breathing suddenly seized. Her eyes bulged and Pela heard a rattling in her throat. Through a great strength of will, Koume croaked out seven final words. “Go to Woodfall. Find the Fairy’s cave.” Koume’s eyes darkened once more and her lifeless body fell back against the floor. She gurgled for a moment more and then fell silent.
Once more, that sensation of being watched fell over Pela, and she whipped her head around to see whom or what might be watching her. Nothing was there. She took a deep, shuddering breath. This woman had just died right in front of her! She knew next to nothing about this woman, this ancient Hag that had lived for years beyond counting, but she had been here to witness her final moments, hear her final words. Pela felt shock creeping in, and fear. Whoever this man was that had killed Koume, and Kotake, he was obviously more powerful than they had expected, and had been able to take them by surprise.
She had a gut feeling, but did her best to ignore it. She stood shakily and left the building, unsure of what else to do. Woodfall? Where on earth was that? Somewhere in the Southern Swamp, obviously, but she had no maps of this place, and no one she trusted to help her. She surveyed her surroundings and saw two potential pathways: back the way she’d come initially, towards the Tourism Center, and another pathway to the east that led through a small cave. The only way through there was by wading through the swampy water, but she figured it’d be her best option.
She returned to the ground and began trudging forward, through the cave.
She had taken his bait. This was both good and bad. Good, because he knew exactly where should be going now. Bad, because he was pretty sure Koume was still barely alive. He thought he’d done a better job of her, but he also never expected someone to come around, asking about that boy. What bad luck to have her poking her nose in barely a day after his latest scheme had taken place!
Oh well, thought Tingle. I suppose this just means I can sacrifice her too! Maybe then they’ll finally accept me and just give me what I ask for. I’ve been so nice to them, after all. Eventually they’ll have to give me what I want… or I’ll kill them too.
Pela was exhausted. Hours of wandering through unexplored territory in this swamp had earned her nothing except more bug bites and a dull, throbbing headache. Mangrove and willow trees surrounded her, encroached on her, smothered her. Mosquitoes and worse attempted to gain purchase on the exposed bits of her flesh. The sun blazed down with an oppressive heat magnified by the humidity. She was sticky and hot and thoroughly done with just about everything. The stories of adventuring and traveling the world never mentioned how frustrating and uncomfortable this all was.
Many times, she ended up back in the clearing of the Old Hags’ tower, her mind going numb with the shock from watching Koume’s final moments. Each time she saw that oversized pot atop the pole, the wave of pain came again and she would reluctantly turn back around. Eventually, after hours of wandering in circles, she began marking the trees with her shortsword in an attempt to find some other passageway to walk through.
Twilight began to fade and the crickets and cicadas began their nightly song as Pela finally saw another rock archway she hadn’t seen before. She passed through it to an area of the swamp that was altogether different from the areas she’d been wandering through.
She stood on a platform staring out at more water, but this water had large trunks sticking up out of it, and the trunks had planks extended for walking between them. In the middle of this small lake stood a tall stone block, probably at least twenty feet tall, and atop that stood a strange, treelike structure extending up into the night sky. She sat on the dry ground, thankful for the chance to finally rest for a moment, and surveyed her surroundings.
This was a much calmer area of the swamp. There were no insects buzzing around, though she could hear them behind her. The water seemed pure here, as if she could drink from it without suffering from some strange disease. The planks extending from trunk to trunk never reached the outlying trunks on the edges of the clearing, but she was sure she could jump to them if necessary. There was also another cave entrance along the clearing’s walls. It was low and wide, and Pela didn’t like the look of it.
Darkness fell. Stars dotted the night sky in clumps and patterns and the heat of the day finally began to subside. Pela still sat on her platform, feeling dazed and sleepy. She knew she should make a fire of some kind before she slept, but she could feel her eyes closing by themselves. There was no sort of dry tinder or branches or anything that could even make a fire, and it was still so warm outside. She shook her head slightly and took her pack off. She pulled her bedroll and blanket out and laid herself down, using her pack as a pillow. The day had been too long, too strange. Rest. She needed rest. She could sort herself out in the morning.
“Pssst!” The whisper cut through the midnight silence like a knife. Pela frowned without opening her eyes. What was Mother saying? Oh yes, go to the…
“Girl! Wake up! Wake up now!”
Pela’s eyes snapped open. She shivered. The sky above was still black with night, and the humid heat of the day was long gone. She was alone. Or, was she? Hadn’t a voice woken her up?
“Over here!” a distinctly feminine voice whispered, off to her right. Pela sat up stiffly and looked to the source of the voice. She saw a pale pink ball of light hovering in midair. It bobbed quickly as she looked and it whizzed over to hover directly in front of her. “He almost had you!”
Pela frowned. “What do you mean? Who almost had me? What are you?”
“There’s no time! You must follow me!” The ball of light flew around in circles and then floated off, hovering above the plank walkways. Pela stared after it in confusion for a moment before forcing herself to her feet. She stowed her bedroll and blanket and stumbled up the surprisingly steep walkway, with the light bobbing away ahead of her. It flew towards the cave opening she’d seen the night before and felt a chill beyond the cool night air. She chanced a look behind her and felt her heart skip a beat.
In the shoots of grass near where she had slept, she saw two gleaming eyes staring directly at her. She gasped and almost lost her balance, before wheeling back around and scurrying after that light as fast as she dared go. The cave was surprisingly tall, she didn’t even need to stoop to walk through it. The hovering light led her close to a room that looked intricately designed instead of roughly hewn stone. Magical light suffused the air with a pink glow tinged with green.
“This is far enough for now,” the light whispered again. “Any closer and the Lost Ones will see you. They don’t know you aren’t one of his.”
Pela stared as the light shifted and became the form of a tiny little girl with translucent and glowing wings. Bewilderment and confusion dominated her features.
“You’ve never seen a fairy before, have you?” the little girl asked quietly. “It’s okay. Most people don’t see any of us anymore these days.” The fairy wilted and a look of profound sadness fell across her face.
“I’ve heard the stories,” Pela answered softly. “My mother used to talk of a time when the fairy fountains were open to all.”
“That time has long since passed,” the fairy said. “Especially since he took an active interest in us.”
“What do you mean? Who is he?”
Rage passed briefly over the fairy’s face before she continued. “You’ve already met him once. He has sought after my kind for most of his life, feeling that he needed one of us to accompany him throughout his daily life, as if that would somehow validate his childish fancies. We never appeared to him. Big Sister said she always felt a dark something in his heart, and that he was not worthy of our companionship.”
Pela frowned. She’d met him already? How was that possible?
“We continued to ignore him,” the fairy continued, “until about ten years ago. He had gone off somewhere east to search for dark magics, and somehow Big Sister succumbed to his will. She and most of the rest of us, the Lost Ones, are slaves to his bidding now. I can feel some of them resisting, like me, but we are too few.”
“What does he make you do? How does he keep you under this influence?” Pela’s mind reeled. This must be evil magic indeed if it could enslave even fairies.
“He sacrifices people to us,” the fairy said quietly. Pela recoiled and looked sharply over at the inviting light of what could only be the fairy fountain at the end of the cave. The green around the light’s edge became more pronounced now and the light grew sinister. “He captures people he thinks no one will miss, or people he doesn’t like, and brings them here. He chants in that terrible language and kills them, and then my sisters all feast upon the remains. This not only continues his control over them, but they rejuvenate his old body and make him younger again. But he made a mistake the last time. Last time, he didn’t kill the boy he brought. He left the boy, thinking my sisters would take their sport from him and then kill him on their own.”
Pela perked up. “A boy?” she asked. She sounded more desperate than she’d expected. “How old was this boy?”
The fairy looked her up and down. “Oh, he must be about your age, maybe a little older. You humans have such short lives, you’re children for a little while and then suddenly you’re dying.”
Kalen, Pela thought. That must be Kalen he offered to them. Could he still be alive? “The boy,” Pela said aloud, “is he still alive?”
The fairy looked back up to her sharply. “Yes he is! My sisters didn’t kill him! They’ve toyed with him and played with him, but he’s still alive. Though I fear he may not live if he returns tonight. He was following you!”
Pela shivered again. She thought she was feeling that same presence, like eyes watching her. “I’ll go ahead for a moment,” the fairy continued. “I’ll try to tell my sisters to leave you alone. Hopefully they’ll listen.” The fairy turned back into a ball of light and bobbed away, leaving Pela in relative darkness. Her head swiveled but she saw nothing, heard nothing. Her heart was pounding violently against her chest and gooseflesh broke out along her arms. A cold sweat trickled down her forehead. Barely a day from Clock Town and I’ve already stumbled into a situation that may just kill me, she thought dismally.
The fairy returned, bobbing excitedly. “Follow me!” she whispered. “They’ve agreed to leave you alone, like they left the boy alone. Come this way!” Pela followed the fairly slowly, fingering the pommel on her shortsword. She didn’t know if the blade would have any effect on magical beings like fairies, but she wasn’t going to die without that sword in her hands if it came to it.
The light increased and filled the chamber at the end of the tunnel. The green tint wasn’t so oppressive here, and she saw other balls of light flitting and zipping around the room. She thought she heard children giggling and laughing, but that must have been the fairies. In the corner, she saw the shape of a young man slumped against the wall, mouth agape and eyes shut in sleep. She gave a start. It was Kalen. She’d found him! He wasn’t dead!
A slow clap sounded from the tunnel behind her, and footsteps slowly came closer. Pela’s elation turned to dread in an instant and she whipped around to find the source of the sound. Two gleaming eyes stared directly at her and a shape formed around them. The man from the tourism center!
“So,” Tingle said lowly, “you’ve learned my secret, have you? Well done, girl. I applaud you. No one else in this swamp has learned more than a whisper and lived so long.” His voice was altogether unlike what she’d heard in the shop hours before. “Those hags gave me a bit of trouble at first, and I meant to bring them both here, but you interrupted before I could bring Koume. How rude of you. How very rude! Don’t you know that I can’t leave my ritual unfinished without them ignoring our bargain?” He paused and felt his face. “Although, they seem to be ignoring their end of our bargain anyway. They’ve taken a liking to the boy I left, and not in the way I’d hoped. My body is still very old, and it’s making me very, very angry.”
Tingle stepped into the light and Pela gasped. His kindly old voice bore no trace of goodwill now. He frowned maliciously and his green clothing was stained and torn. An evil grin split his face and he threw his head back in maniacal laughter. “I won’t make the same mistake twice! I’ll kill both of you! They will do as I command and return my youth to me! You will become a feast for my slaves!”