Matthew woke up and saw nothing but darkness. He laid on a plain of land covered in an inch layer of water; fog surrounded him in every direction. He climbed up onto his feet and looked around; he could only see a couple feet in front of him. Suddenly, a bright light illuminated ahead of him.
“Young one Matthew, are you here?” asked the voice. It was a woman’s and was soft and like honey.
“Yes?” Matthew said, uncertainly. He didn’t know who or what was calling him.
“Are you ready, then?” she asked.
“Ready for what?” he said, even more uncertain this time.
“To turn the wheels of fate with your own two hands, of course!” Matthew was at a total loss for what that meant.
“Wait, what do you-” Before Matthew could finish, he was yanked from his dreamscape.
Matthew had been asleep in a hammock of vines and moss; he had been forcefully woken up by being flipped out of it by someone passing by. The man was obscured in the shadows of the forest and Matthew’s former hammock slithered its way down and wrapped itself around him. The blanket of moss constricted all around his body and formed some sort of eco-friendly straightjacket.
“Eh, well if our little hero isn’t awake?” Matthew recognised the voice to be that of the man who was fighting the demon knight earlier. The man looked down and Matthew could now definitely see that it was him, purple hair and all.
“It’s you!” Matthew said. The man went back to what looked like playing with some beakers and liquids… in the middle of the woods?
“Yes, it’s me.” the man said, unamused. “Have we met before?I don’t really imagine we couldn’t have; you don’t look like you even live here. I’m curious to know nonetheless though.” Matthew was still struggling to get out of his mossy restraints.
“Where are we?” Matthew asked. The man turned and squatted down to his level and smiled, wiggling a vial of blue liquid in his hands.
“My alchemy lab in Serena Woods.” Matthew shook his head.
“No, we have to still be in Opidah; we couldn’t have gone so far in the time I was asleep. Besides, no man can make it through the first mile of Serena Woods, much less make their home there.”
“You mean make their home here.”
“I still don’t think that I’m in Serena Woods.” The man sighed.
“Listen, I don’t want to hear you talk; we’ll just go in circles at this point. what was your name again?”
“I didn’t tell you my name.”
“Well when were you planning on telling me?” The man asked impatiently.
“Matthew. You got one?” The man laughed.
“Everyone has a name, idiot.”
“Well, what is it, then?” The man rolled his eyes.
“It’s Lute. Lute the Sage” Matthew tried to hold back his laughing.
“Lute… like the little instrument?” Lute twirled a finger and the moss wrapped around Matthew’s mouth as well. He wasted no time getting back to work on whatever he was doing.
“That’s enough of that. The real question is not where you are or who I am; it’s what am I going to do with you, isn’t it?” Matthew struggled some more against the moss before spotting his sword sitting on a rock. He quickly rolled over to it and pressed the blade against the moss, which cut like butter. He ripped the moss off of his mouth and grabbed his sword.
“Take me home!” Matthew said as he charged Lute, looking to knock him down.
“Fine then, you asked for it! I was content with you being my houseguest, but if you insist on otherwise then you can be my test subject then!” Lute laughed and threw a beaker of liquid at Matthew. He cut the glass container midair, but its contents splashed all over Matthew; it turned out to just be water though. Next, Lute took a handful of what looked like some sort of glitter, and threw it at Matthew’s feet.
“What do you think you’re-” Matthew didn’t get to finish though. He fell over as his legs and upper body froze where the water splashed, immobilizing him completely. Lute gave a thumbs up and took out a notepad to write something down.
“Flashfreeze test, success.” Matthew’s head had not frozen though; he made that very apparent.
“Can I go home now? I’ve already been mentally scarred.” Lute rubbed his temples.
“Fine, whatever. Here I was, thinking you might actually be useful.”
“Why are you so annoyed? I’m the one who was kidnapped and frozen. You were just saved and repaid the man who did it by making him an icicle. What do you have to complain about?” Matthew was having quite enough of his unfair treatment.
“Do you know why you’re in here and with me?” Lute asked threateningly.
“It’s because all the fairies wanted to skin you alive and flay your flesh.”
Matthew was quite silent after that. His eyes darted around to spot any potential fairies in the forest. Matthew hadn’t seen many monsters at all, but he’d be a fool to think that none existed at all.
“Hm… Hng…” Lute looked like he was holding in something and suddenly gave a burst of laughter. “Ahahaha! Why look so serious?!” Lute looked like he was practically crying. “Fairies don’t eat roasted human skin! That’s way too chewy for them!”
“Not a funny joke.” Matthew responded, unamused.
“Oh… Oh gods, you’ve got a heart of gold but you're way too dense for your own good!”
Lute held out a hand and crushed it into a fist, twisting his arm as he did so. The moss and vines constricting Matthew darkened into a grey color and crumbled away into a sort of grey ashen material.
“Can you do that with anything?” Matthew asked, concerned.
“No; just the plants I bring to life.” he said in a hurry. “Now, off with you.” The swordsman looked around,
“Off to where?” he asked. “I’m a kingdom away from my home.”
“Whose fault is that?!” Lute asked, annoyed.
“Yours.” he responded, pointing at the sage.
“Quite a bold accusation!” the sage roared. “A wrong one too, at that! Why would I pluck you from the countryside when I could have clearly chosen better?” Matthew was having enough of this pompous chemist.
“If you can’t help me, then take me to someone who can.” Matthew asked. “Clearly you can’t do anything for me, so I at least want someone willing to help.”
“Well, if it gets you off my hands…” Lute pondered. “Fine. I’ll take you to her.” Lute walked over to a table and grabbed a messenger’s bag.
“Who?” Matthew asked curiously.
“The queen of this land.” Lute smiled. “She’ll know what to do.” He shoved a plethora of books into his bag and popped his knuckles. “Let’s head out.”
Matthew put his sword away and walked beside Lute as he led them both deeper into the forest. The trees were an oversaturated green and the air around them had the scent of fresh moss. As they ventured further through the trees, the woods grew denser and darker. Around them, mushrooms began to carry an eldritch glow to light their way. Lute read a book as he walked, but plants and terrain actually moved out of his way, so he didn’t really have to fear tripping on anything.
“So, what do you do as a Sage?” Matthew asked to pass time.
“I do a few things.” Lute simply responded, putting his book away. “I help protect the forest; keep it clean of trespassers if they get too close.” he said, eyeing Matthew. “Every few years, some mages are chosen to be one of the four sages of the forest. Basically whoever’s mastered the elements the best.”
“Do you guys have a whole community in this one big forest?” Matthew asked with amazement.
“Kinda. I don’t exactly live out there with the rest of them; I don’t think any of the sages do… except for one.” he said with disdain. “But most of us are busy making sure that the forest is safe, nature is in balance, important seals don’t break, etc.”
“Sounds like a busy life.”
“It is.” he grumbled. “Anyway, how did you end up here? Our magic barrier usually stops most people from getting in. Even then, some border patrol or guards or someone else would’ve seen you coming.”
“I don’t really know.” he said with confusion. “I heard a musician in the treetops in a forest next to my home is southern Opidah, but after I chased and lost him, I ended up here somehow. Do you think it’s magic?”
“I’d have a hard time thinking it’s magic.” Lute said skeptically. “You’d have to really put some power into your punch to pop the magic barrier. Nothing gets in or out that way, not even by teleportation.”
“Ahem” Matthew awkwardly coughed. “Does that mean that demon knight is still in these woods with us and everyone else?”
“What do you-” Lute realized how serious the situation just became. He grabbed Matthew’s wrist and put him directly behind the sage.
“What’re you doing?!” Matthew asked.
“Just hang on tight!” Lute warned.
Lute dug his hands into the ground and pulled out what looked like a rope made of tree roots, which stretched underground. Around them, a small box of stone formed, like a chariot with no wheels. Then suddenly, the rope that Lute was holding jerked forward and they both rocketed through the woods.
Matthew realized that the roots that Lute was holding were actually reins to something underground which had tremendous strength. Lute had to part entire trees to clear a path for them so they wouldn’t crash. Meanwhile, their stone chariot was being chipped and cracked by miscellaneous rocks and eroding from being dragged across the ground.
“Is this safe?!” Matthew asked.
“If it was safe, it would’ve been my first option!” Lute shouted back.
When they arrived at their destination, Lute let go of the tree-root-reins and watched as they disappeared into the ground. Matthew and Lute both stumbled around, trying to stop the world from shaking and spinning around them.
“I never took Sir Lute for the type to drink.” said a wheezing old voice. Waiting for them was what looked like an old fairy in a butler’s uniform.
“I’m not.” Lute groaned. “I had to use the Malitross to get here fast enough.” The old fairy mustered a laugh.
“Wise, but still as reckless as always. What business might you have with Your Majesty?”
“It’s not something I can disclose with anyone but here.” he said firmly.
“Understood.” the fairy said, bowing his head. “Follow me, if you two would.”
Only a few meters away in the dense forest was a castle made entirely of wood from living trees. Trees all around bended and grew out of each other to make arches, pillars, doors, windows, the entire architecture was alive, thriving, and beautiful. Matthew was starstruck.
“Never seen anything like this on the outside, eh?” Lute asked.
“No… no, it’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.” he said in awe. “I can’t really call it a building even. It’s like the place is a part of the forest itself…”
“The queen weaved it together herself.” Lute admired. “The trees can think for themselves, you know. Sometimes when they feel like it, a new room or two might just pop into existence overnight.”
The old fairy led them through the castle and to a place outside a great door, which he silently slipped through and told them to wait for him to come back.
“Hey Lute,” Matthew began. “Is this whole place run by fairies?” All around the castle, Matthew had seen little creatures with different colored wings going about their business.
“Yeah. I guess you guys on the outside would only think of that as a rumor though, right? Well, the woods are ruled by a fairy queen.”
“I guess that makes sense with all the magic and stuff.” Matthew noticed how some of them were giving him a side-eye that ranged from nervous to angry. “Why do they seem to not like me? Did I do something?”
“Well first off, you’re an outsider.” Lute started. “Second off, look at the weapon you’re carrying.” he said pointing at Matthew’s sword. “Fairies are weak to iron and steel.”
“Oh. Did I offend their culture with this?” he asked, paranoid.
Before Lute could answer, the great door before them opened slightly and the fairy butler slipped out again.
“Your Majesty will now be seeing you.” he said.
Lute and Matthew entered the room, and it was not at all what Matthew expected. The center of the chamber was taken up by a giant hole with water pouring down it from all sides. It was dimly lit, with the only substantial light coming from the walls of the room, which had glowing signs of runes and zodiacs.
“I’m glad you both finally made it!” rang a woman’s voice throughout the chamber. Matthew darted his head around, but found no body to the voice. “Now my brave little hero and devout follower, let us be merry as we talk about the end of the world as we know it!”