Azelia followed Grimswalt to the very edge of a very peculiar forest. She was standing in front of giant mushrooms the size of bicycles with strange looking plants all around them. One tree in particular looked as if it were made of plastic, but upon closer inspection she noticed that it oozed with a transparent material. She was told that this slime is a particular property of the tree to keep predators from creating hollows and nesting inside of it.
"And do not touch it. It's quite sticky, and those trees are the kind that will eat you." Grimswalt said suddenly.
"Does everything want to eat me here?" The exasperated voice of Azelia said, stepping over a flower that snapped viciously at her.
"Sort of. Death is no picnic. Some people think it is simply the end, that there is nothing left afterwards, but then they come here and realize that there is a greater struggle for survival than in the living world."
"What happens when the souls die in Fozz?" She asked, avoiding a pair of dangling vines that sought to lick at her arm to see if she was something tasty.
"Then they are trapped in Vertigo. It is an endless void of spiraling souls who repeat their death over and over. Those who escape Vertigo come back here, those who escape here find themselves as ghosts." Grimswalt replied, taking her further into the forest while pointing out various types of leaves and creatures to avoid, which ones were harmless, and which ones were safe to eat.
"So, Vertigo is sort of like Limbo?" She asked curiously.
"No. Limbo is like Painting. There is more than one portal into Fozz, and Limbo happens to just be a void where you float around. It's quite uneventful. Places like Painting are where less wanted souls are trapped. Limbo, Painting, and other such places are much easier to escape for those who know how, but Vertigo is impenetrable. Only one has escaped before, and that was its builder. He's since been sent back up to the living."
Azelia wondered if there was ever a point where a soul simply no longer existed. She was not able to ask this because a creature that looked like a squid on top of eight prickly legs came rushing from beneath a pile of leaves. Grimswalt flicked his wings and punched it square on its spade nose.
"And these, while dangerous, are quite tasty. If you punch them on the noses it makes them lock up; they become paralyzed. It won't last for long, but it'll last me enough to take it back and skewer it for fine eating." Grimswalt picked it up, bunching its eight spiny legs with a glint of hunger in his eyes.
Azelia's nose turned up in disgust. There was a journey ahead of her she needed to complete and wondered when they would get to the grove. Just as she thought about it, they had stopped. If she thought there were many mushrooms before, there were even more now. They towered above her like trees, some having drooping and jagged hoods while others were long and skinny.
"Fungus." Said Grimswalt simply, noting how she looked at the mushrooms in amazement, "They feed off the rot that flows in."
The floor was dappled in even more mushrooms like grass, but there was a clear path through it all that Azelia could notice. The snow from the other night was dripping from the tall mushrooms onto the ground, making the caps of the smaller ones below glisten.
"The orange capped ones," Grimswalt continued, "Are edible, as are the dark browns and the long, hooded ones." He said, pointing all of them out, "But the rest are not edible, and the black ones are downright deadly." He took a deep breath, looking down the path, "If you see a faery, don't hesitate to give it a good whack, or to wring its head off. They're a nasty crew with their dust. They'll knock you out and-"
"And eat me. I've got that."
"No. They'll use you as fertilizer. Faeries are vegetarians." Grimswalt said, looking shocked that she didn't know this. "Well, at any rate, you'd better get going. Nights are riddled with worse things than faeries."
The two said their goodbyes and parted ways. Fozz had been quite strange so far, and rather dangerous, but she had managed to keep out of danger due to the guidance from some very helpful strangers. From this point on she wasn't sure if she would be able to take care of herself now that she was on her own.
Stray mushrooms in the path crunched beneath her boots while others of a more rubbery texture sprang up behind her. She encountered small patches of retracting grass, but the forest looked like miles and miles of mushrooms. A few times she felt as if something was buzzing by her ear and whipped her head around to see what it was, but there was nothing. As spectacular as the forest was, it was also unsettling. A few times she was lunged at from beneath a pile of gathered mushrooms by the squid-like creatures, but she found it was quite easy to bop them right on the noses and leave them motionless on the ground.
A buzzing caught her right ear again. Instead of turning around, she simply lifted a hand and gave a backward swat to whatever was there. It surprised her that there was impact with something small and solid. When she turned around she saw a small figure tumbling behind her. Gasping, she hurried after it, leaning down to prod at its body. It almost looked human, but had large pointed ears and a sharp chin. It could not have been over three inches tall, and scaly, transparent wings extended like a dragonfly's from its back. Azelia pinched one of the wings between thumb and forefinger, lifting the limp form from the ground and to her face for closer inspection.
Just as she got it level with her eyes, it suddenly came to life and threw what felt like soft sand right into her face. Sneezing, she dropped the figure and fell back. The last thing she remembered was a distant hum closing in on her, and then blackness.
A tightening feeling caused Azelia to awaken again. As she opened her eyes she saw around her some of the most splendid flowers she had ever seen. One in particular looked like glass with waves of faint color staining its long, curling petals. Another was a tall stem with little fluffy florets that looked as if they were made of down. She shifted to move, but found herself unable to. Her head lifted carefully off the ground to see what kept her in place, but as she did this, a stinging sensation filled her neck. Her eyes turned to see that a small, slender root had been pulled from her flesh and was soaked in blood. Horrified, she gazed down at the rest of her body to see that it was wrapped in vine-like structures with roots slithered into her body at several points, looking as if she had wires attached to her. Her leg, devoid of the stocking she wore, looked like it had enlarged veins beneath her skin, and her other leg was completely sunk into the dirt. A painful sensation shot through her arm as another root corkscrewed into the flesh of her hand. She pulled it back and ripped the flower right out of the ground, tossing it far. She began to do this with the rest of the plants. Pain shot through her again and again as roots were retreating and pulled from inside of her. She noticed that the flowers were moving! They squirmed along like snakes with their petals curling into bulbs. Some of the plants could not retreat, and so Azelia was forced to slowly slide the roots out one by one until she was free. Her legs were spotted with small, circular wounds, as were her arms. Her midsection had less, to her delight, and her face had none.
She slowly ambled to a nearby pool of water, but before she even touched the glassy surface she grasped one of the wriggling flowers by the roots and dropped it in the middle. When she saw that it neither sizzled nor was eaten, she dipped her hands into the water, scooping the liquid onto her legs and washing her wounds clean of dirt.
Standing up, she took a quick peek around. There was not a mushroom in sight, but bones lay scattered here and there, and a pile of them off to the distance let her know how lucky she was. A few little figures danced around unaware of Azelia's recent escape.
"Nasty little things." She hissed under her breath, stepping over a large femur, wondering which way she ought to go. It was a gathering of the little faeries to the right, carrying bones to another pile, that made her decide to go left. They hadn't noticed she was gone yet, and she hoped she would be safe and out of their reach soon. Carefully, Azelia stepped over low bushes, jumping in surprise when some popped to life and scuttled away.
The more she walked, the less dense the trees seemed to become. It was perhaps the first hopeful sign that she'd escape the forest that led away from the grove. The trees had begun to emerge from the thick mushrooms shortly after leaving the leeching flowerbed. It was a forest unlike one she had ever been in, and perhaps more bothersome than the towering fungus. Above her was no sky. Instead, the trees had entangled themselves like folding hands, making the area below nearly as dark as night. Fledgling trees seemed to wither without the comfort of the sun, and in very rare patches there could be up to six baby trees (Azelia would count how many in each) competing for the sunlight. She was sure only one would make it.
The forest began to grow lighter and lighter as she neared an exit point from the leafy dome. Spurts of light even dangled feebly from between leafless branches, dotting the ground in spectacular shoots of light.
At last, a cobblestone road rose from the dirt, and the click of Azelia's heels told her of its presence. She found mushrooms to either side of the road, sticking up with orange caps. Certain that she had lost the chance to gather more food when she was taken to the flowerbed, she eagerly plucked them from their sitting points and shoved them into her pockets before continuing on her way.
More and more, the trees began to thin until she had come out into a clearing. A sign to her right read, in very old, gangly letters, "Kimdrek, home of the Malisars". The path led forward a little longer until it came to a very small village. It seemed pleasant enough, with the people stopping to take a look at her before giving a friendly wave, but she cringed at the thought of those little creatures in Painting that seemed so pleasant. Alas, she continued on the path as it was the only way to go. To either side of her was more forest, and behind her that terrible garden and frightful faeries.
She continued to walk along, smiling and nodding softly to the polite, yet curious faces that turned to watch her as she passed by. The little houses were made of stone and resembled a medieval village with grass and mud roofs and glassless windows that opened with wooden panels, yet there was something odd about it at the same time. Upon closer inspection, Azelia discovered why she was receiving curious glances in her direction. Everyone was hovering at least two inches from the ground! That wasn't the last thing she noticed; there were dragons in the fields, fleshless with boney spikes protruding at nearly every angle. Ghoulish creatures heaved hay up to the workers on the roofs and in one of the open doors a cauldron stirred itself.
"Mummy, look at that strange girl! Have you ever seen legs move in such outlandish ways?" A little girl asked, looking up to a tall, thick woman who clutched her hand.
"Now Kespitch, there is no need to stare!" She said in a huffy voice before swaying her hand to open a door into a very cozy looking area. There was a dragon skin rug spread out on the floor, a bar in one end and booths lining the walls at the other end hovering above the ground. "You're welcome in for a quick stop." She said to Azelia, noticing a mushroom poking out of her pockets, "And our fire is the perfect place to cook those!"
Azelia looked down to see the mushrooms nearly falling out and quickly gathered them up and placed them back into her pockets. She had half a mind to keep walking until a few of the villagers ran screaming from the fields, hollering about one of the dragons being loose. She figured a quick stop and a bite to eat might be good enough to wait for order to resettle, especially since the rest of the path led out through the fields.
"Thank you." Azelia answered, stepping through the doorway. There were a few people who sat in the booths, reminding her fondly of the bar Grimswalt had taken her to. She had to remember not to reveal her name, or the connection to her brother in this world. It was an odd feeling that came over her when she thought about how disclosing her name had the potential to present danger. These were strange lands, and the story of what or who her brother, friend, and cat were in this land was not made completely clear to her, much less why she was here.
"Have a seat by the fire, dear. I'll bring you a skewer for your meal and perhaps a warm glass of dragon milk, on the house." She said warmly, looking over her clothes with a bit of concern, "And maybe even a new wardrobe."
Azelia took a seat by the fire, letting the warmth rush over her invitingly. Such things she would not take for granted, especially after the disturbing encounter in the forest.
"Hello." A small voice said.
Azelia glanced to her side to see the little girl sitting there. Her bright green eyes sparkled enthusiastically as she clutched hold of a stuffed and stitched dragon doll. "Did you come from the Faery Grove?" She asked innocently, smiling.
"I did." Azelia responded, looking the girl over a moment. She had never seen such brilliant eyes! They were rather enchanting.
"And you saw the princess?" She asked in a soft whisper, leaning forward.
"Yes…" Azelia responded before she could even think about what she was saying. She noticed two unfolding shapes behind the girl's back, scaly and draped in thin skin. They were small dragon wings!
"Good." The girl said, her enchanting green eyes slowly swirling back into a dark brown just as her mother reached them, handing Azelia a skewer, "This is my mummy. Over behind the bar is my father, and this is my cat." She said, pointing to a pure black feline.
"Snowshoe!" Azelia gasped.
The entire bar went silent, heads turning to stare at Azelia as if she had committed some sort of crime. Even the nice bar lady seemed to eye her with suspicion. Her thoughts turned back to Grimswalt and his warning. Thinking quickly, she reeled her head back and took in a couple of choppy breaths before sneezing and yelling, quite loudly, "achoo". The entire bar seemed to settle back into cheery faces and smiles, and a hot cup of pinkish milk was placed beside her.
"Ah, there you are, dear! Kespitch, leave the young girl be. She needs her rest."
The little girl rose up as she was told, clutching to her doll. She stared at Azelia a moment before hurrying off with her mother.
It was toward the evening when the bar began to clear out. Azelia's stomach was full of delicious tasting mushrooms that had a slight pickled flavor when roasted. The Dragon's milk was sweet and yet had a hint of what she thought were chilies. She sat back on the dragon skin rug, which happened to feel almost as if it were covered in light fuzz. It was certainly more comfortable and cushy than it appeared.
"May I ask you a question?"
Azelia turned her head around to see the little girl standing there again. She nodded and the figure sat down, spreading out her small, scaled wings.
"Are you really here to stop her?" She asked as if Azelia knew what she was talking about.
"Stop what?" Azelia asked.
"Oh, then it is true. You have no idea what is happening." The little girl began to stand up to leave, but Azelia held up her hand.
"Please, tell me why it is I have been brought here."
Hesitating, Kespitch finally sat once more, holding her dragon doll in her hand. "Do you know what a Malisar is?" She asked softly. Azelia stared at her a moment and shook her head. "It is a young child who suffered a great death at the hands of a loved one. They are tortured first, of course, and then decapitated. That is the only way they can become one. When they get to Fozz they are taken here as frightened spirits and adopted into a home that helps them slowly transform into a dragon."
Azelia held her breath, looking down at her cup before speaking, "And you are a Malisar. H-how is it that you died?" She asked.
"My mother, I'm afraid, discovered that my father was molesting me. I tried to get away, but she held me tight. I endured weeks of torture, being cut, poisoned, beaten- everything you can imagine. Then she put me into the oven and cooked me until I was just barely alive. I finally died when she hacked my head off, stroke by stroke, with a butcher knife."
Azelia stared into her cup, dropping it suddenly and shaking her head, "That is terrible." She groaned.
"It is. But that is then, and this is now. I am no longer in pain, and I have a great path ahead of me." The young girl said with a gentle smile.
"Then you will become one of those bony beasts?" She inquired.
"Those are the children who could not live past their deaths. They are empty inside, and so their flesh rots from their bodies, and they become hulking, unstable skeletons. We keep them alive out of pity and hope to reverse the psychological damages, but most do not make it and slowly shrivel up and die."
"I thought they were already-"
"Already dead? Yes. Yes they are, but there is dying and becoming one of the dead, and then there is being dead. I am afraid one can not live solely on the dreadful past events." She said carefully, her eyes gleaming that brilliant green once more as she stood, putting a hand to Azelia's forearm, "When you reach the gates at the end of this road, I want you to remember me. When I am a dragon, and I am strong, I will help you."
Kespitch took a deep breath, beginning to unravel the events that were behind Azelia coming to Fozz. "The Queen has many earthly things in her kingdom." She said slowly, looking into the fire before continuing, "Strange things that bring uncertainty to the function of Fozz. There are appliances and chickens, paintings of old China and clothing made of polyester."
Azelia did not understand why such things were to be feared, and a slight laugh escaped her, but it was not returned. Instead, Kespitch stared at her with grief in her eyes.
"These are not things of Fozz." She continued, a shudder running through her body, "They are things of the living."
It hadn't made any sense up until that point. The dead could only return to the living as ghosts. Ghosts did not need food or drink, nor could they apply practical use to the many items of the living. Somehow the Queen had found a way through Fozz and into the world where Azelia fell from- the world of life.
She drew in a deep gasp, looking suddenly to Kespitch, "And what part does my brother have in this?" She asked, horrified at the thought of all of Fozz's horrible creatures climbing through the ground and creating havoc.
"He's trying to stop it. He did in the beginning, but the Queen managed to push through him and take your friend and your cat, though she meant to take you. She couldn't physically reach them, so she put thoughts into their heads that lead to their demise. Much of Fozz wants to return to the living without actually being alive, and so they join her. But then there are people like me and the princess who oppose this idea, knowing it would bring downfall under her reign. You are somewhat of a miracle and a legend in Fozz. No one knows why the Queen could not take hold of you the way she did your dearly departed."
There was a sickening twist in Azelia's stomach as she heard this, knowing that her friend and cat had fled when the Queen gained control of the land once more, but her brother was stuck somewhere in her grasp. She could not imagine what would happen if a portal were to break through to the living and allow the dead in.
"I am sorry, but it is time for you to leave. Speak to no one of your name." Kespitch handed Azelia a pendant, "And put this on. When you need me, call for me. Once I am a dragon, I will fight with you." With that, she stood and hurried away.
"Ah, dear! Here are some new clothes for you." The tall, thick woman said merrily. Azelia picked her glass up off the floor, thanking her for her kindness.
The new clothing was much lighter and she felt a lot less silly while wearing them. It was made of dragon skin and light as a feather. The sleeves were long and snug with a deep brown color and a coat tail that dangled freely. Her midsection was weaved with string to keep the shirt on tight, much like a comfortable corset, and on her legs clung breeches of a fascinating emerald green just to her knees where doe skin boots continued into very pleasant, flexible, and heel-free boots. This was certainly much more agreeable than what she had worn before.
Stepping out of the inn, she waved to the tendress and the rest of the family, taking a lasting glance at their black cat before moving ahead along the path. In the small distance she saw the gates to the main kingdom, her next step to getting closer to where she needed to be.