Maneka swore, heaving his boot hard out of the mud. He almost hadn't noticed that it was sucking him downward slowly, the Forest trying to consume him alive.
Maneka froze, glancing up at his travel companion—as loosely as the term could be applied.
The witch before him crouched low, her ragged gown bunching up around her as she knelt near the tricky mud hole that had grabbed hold of Maneka's boot. She wove her hands gracefully around in the air, a series of deep blue green lights glowing in misty swaths. Suddenly the pressure on Maneka's foot released, and he nearly tumbled backwards on his ass.
Dega laughed. "Don't hurt yourself, now."
Maneka quickly found his footing, feeling a tremor of annoyance at the witch's jest. He watched her cautiously as she stood up to her full height, shorter by a full head than Maneka. Her scraggily wear barely covered her dark skin or slight figure. It was a wonder it hadn't rotted away or fallen off her long ago. Aside from a tattered, long brimmed hat that sat hunched on top of her head, she wore little else, even preferring to go bare foot through the Forest.
"Trouble?" Dega asked after a moment.
Maneka shook his head. "How did you miss that catcher hole?"
Dega glanced at the muddy spot in the earth where the Forest had nearly claimed Maneka. He followed her gaze, watching in astonishment as the mud dried in mere moments, the ground becoming parched and dried in its place.
"You won't spy them beforehand, if that's what you were hoping," she cackled in her mousy voice. "Only my magic will protect you here."
She turned on the balls of her feet, dashing cheerfully over a rotted log. Her long, auburn hair swished behind her.
Maneka rolled his eyes, following carefully. He had heard all the stories about catcher holes and thought he knew how to avoid them. Of course, he had never heard that they could appear and move about as they pleased.
Just another reason he had to travel with this damn witch.
It wasn't his first idea. If Maneka had left the same day he discovered that there was a kore somewhere in the Releskin Forest, he would probably be little more than a few fingers reaching furtively out of a catcher hole. Maybe less than a few minutes journey into the woods. As it was, one of the men who looked out for Maneka in their company back at the shoreline had spoken about Dega—one of the only local witches to the Forest.
"Don't take a single step into that Forest until you've paid her to lead you through."
"Why?" Maneka had snorted at the time. "This isn't the first enchanted woods I've gone at alone."
"No," the man had chuckled. "But it will be one of the few with catcher holes that you can't spot. There's a lot of dark things at work in that Forest, Maneka. You're not as new to kore gathering as you used to be, but trust me when I say that Forest will eat you alive."
Maneka would never admit that he had seriously considered the company man's words. Too much ego on the line. He had stayed an extra night at camp thinking it over, finally deciding to make the short trip southward along the Forest's edge to meet the witch Dega.
At the time, her age had startled him. She looked to be no older than sixteen or seventeen—a mere child living alone out in such harsh and dangerous places. Her jovial attitude towards the whole affair hadn't helped Maneka's mood, either. It was all fun and games as far Dega was concerned. Deadly forests? Fantastic! At least she had accepted his gold. Even witches saw value in the precious metal.
"So tell me more about this kore," Dega teased from up ahead. "Why is it so important for you to find?"
Maneka exhaled. He wasn't really in the mood for conversation. "We'll just say it's an important relic. I work with a team of men scouring the region for them."
Maneka hesitated when he walked around a bend, no sign of the witch up ahead. Then she was suddenly dropping down from a branch above, right in front of him. Maneka resisted the urge to jump back in surprise, holding his ground as she stood almost nose to nose with him. She grinned mischievously, looking up at him with beady hazel eyes.
"There aren't any relics in here!"
Maneka rolled his eyes, stepping around her and continuing on the path. Though he did cast a quick glance around the forest floor, watching for any appearing catcher holes. He wasn't ready to have her save his ass a second time in five minutes.
"I'm sure I would have sensed it ages ago," Dega continued, walking alongside him briskly.
"I'm not familiar with the magic you use or the specific nature of the kore."
"But you do know enough about them to find them."
Dega slipped around in front of him again, blocking his path. This time there was no happiness in her expression. Instead, it was replaced by serious command. That unsettled Maneka, and this time he did take a step back.
"Then you had better show me how, because if you bring strange magic into these Forests, far darker things than catcher holes will torment you."
"It's not magic—"
Dega closed her eyes, holding up a silencing hand. Maneka knew from her expression that she wasn't going to continue along with their journey until he pacified her. He was starting to miss the carefree witch that had led him without such questions for the last half a day.
Fishing into his pocket, Maneka produced the seeker, dangling on a dull gray chain like a pocket watch. Dega instantly snatched it out of his hands, bringing the rectangular surface up close to her face. It was just smaller than the palm of Maneka's hand, flat surfaced and quite thin. The only irregularity in its shape was a single glossy surface on one side, which glowed faintly with several markers.
"A map," Dega said to herself. "You carry an enchanted map."
"Very good. I couldn't figure out what the hell it was on my first expedition. None of the other men bothered to tell a rookie apprentice."
Dega continued to scrutinize the seeker, testing its strength and shape. As far as Maneka knew, there weren't any internal compartments. He had seen one smashed before on a canyon run half a continent away, and it seemed to be solid metal all the way through. The rest of the team had instantly dispensed with it, since a broken seeker was useless to anyone.
"Strange magic," Dega whispered. "And this will lead you to a kore?"
"Several kore, actually. Those red triangular symbols represent other kore the seeker can sense. The green one represents a kore nearby—specifically, in these woods."
Dega hummed thoughtfully. Then she abruptly shoved the seeker back in Maneka's hands, spinning on her heels and dashing forward into the woods. Maneka fumbled with the device briefly, getting it into his pockets and following after her.
"So are we in danger?" he asked.
"Can't say," she replied without pause, still rushing forward. "But for your sake, we should probably get there as soon as possible. The Forest will not take kindly to foreign magic."
Maneka exhaled, following after her obediently. Sometimes he wished he had chosen a different company to apprentice with. These men worked so closely with magical relics that the sorcery of it all had started to irritate him to no end. They used mystical devices to track equally mysterious artifacts. Maneka understood how important gathering the kore was. In his childhood city alone, the wonders the industrialists had divined from them were transforming life every day it seemed. But there had to be reason to all of it. Surely the rising scientific minds of their decade would make sense of it all in the coming years. Why did they have to keep pretending they lived in more superstitious ages to get the work done?
And why did Maneka need to rely on someone as archaic and childish as a witch to traverse a simple forest?
Dega said little to him directly over the next hour, keeping a steady forward pace along the path. She seemed preoccupied by something, but at least had perked up. Now she was humming some little tune that Maneka didn't recognize.
They were passing through a small gulley when he caught motion somewhere off to his left. Something big and dark, as if an entire side of the gulley had taken to life. It was so startling that Maneka froze, his eyes searching in vain for more signs of movement.
"No time to stop now," she called from up ahead. "Keep moving, or keep dying. Your choice."
Her words chilled him, so he quickly got after her. Though now he couldn't shake the feeling that something dangerous was nearby.
Damn all of this magical nonsense! Why did I ever think taking the Forest myself was such a brilliant plan?
Maneka kept close behind Dega, but every few moments he caught more movement out of the corner of his eyes. And every time he darted his head to look, all he could see was more darkened patches of forest. It didn't help that evening was coming on. The filtered sunlight far overhead was beginning to fade, leaving more mystery and discomforting ambiguity to the scenery around them. Maneka was certain something dangerous lurked about, but Dega pressed on unconcerned.
He wondered if this was her first time this deep into the Forest.
A loud cry for help made Maneka stop dead in his tracks. It came again, a grown man's call for help. And Maneka recognized the voice: their team's captain.
"Maneka! Get back here you idiot!"
He ignored the witch, dashing off the path and through the undergrowth. The call had come from nearby; he was sure of it. Just around a few large rocks, through a thick patch of trees, and…
Maneka froze, taking in the new scene before him. There were five of them, including the team captain. A large fissure had opened in the earth— no, not a fissure, a gargantuan catcher hole. Their clothing was covered with mud, the ground itself pulling them deeper into a grimy abyss. Maneka could see now that the other men were plastered over with the thick substance, their faces unrecognizable. Only the captain's remained clear enough for him to cry out for help.
He started forward, but the last cry hadn't come from the captain. A small, delicate hand grabbed his wrist sharply, yanking him around with surprising strength to face Dega.
"Think! Why would anyone else except us be in these woods?"
Maneka was about to protest—he always suspected the others wanted to beat him to this kore. To take the glory of conquering the Releskin Forest while he dithered about with a witch. But now that she had whipped him around so fiercely, Maneka's head was clearer.
Why would the team captain be in here with several of the men?
Glancing over his shoulder briefly, he was almost relieved to see an empty patch of bare earth. Whatever illusion he had seen, it was already gone.
Maneka cursed to himself. More magic.
"The Forest knows how to fool you," said Dega. "You must stay with me."
He nodded numbly, allowing her to lead him forward back to the trail. What a fool; he could have run right into another catcher hole just traipsing off the trail like that. He certainly would have met his end if he had tried to save the delusion of the captain the Forest had conjured up in his mind. Only the witch's magic had saved him.
Dega had saved him.
"Why didn't you tell me there were illusions in here?" he muttered once they were back on the path.
"Because you were so certain of yourself and I thought you could follow a simple instruction to stay with me. Well I guess I was wrong."
Maneka almost chuckled out loud. Of all the things to happen since coming into the Forest, feeling humiliated by the witch was the last thing he could have expected. Time to make certain it didn't happen again.
By nightfall, the seeker said they were close. Maneka breathed a sigh of relief, grateful the Forest's cries and taunts were nearly halfway over. After all, they still had to backtrack out and that meant more illusions. But at least Maneka was getting better at tuning them out.
Dega suddenly paused in the pathway. Something had caught her sight.
Maneka squinted in the weak light. He finally ignited his torch, deciding to risk better lighting. He was halfway certain there weren't any real terrors in the woods that the light would draw.
Up ahead, the path wound off to the right, and a few paces into the undergrowth was a massive monolith. It glowed sparkly white in the torchlight, and as Maneka came closer, he could see that it was bent at several odd angles. They were right on track.
"Is it okay if we step off the path here?"
Dega seemed more entranced by the metallic beam lodged in the ground. Still, she followed wordlessly as they marched past the first piece of wreckage and into the undergrowth. In confirmation with Maneka's suspicions, more debris followed, most of it in smaller chunks and strewn about the forest floor. Dega seemed to soak it all in with fascination, but it was of no interest to Maneka. The scientists back home had found little use in the metal components found near kores—at least, nothing yet of practical application. The kores alone were the only useable piece, but Maneka suspected archeologists and historians would follow after, hoping to document each impact sight for further detail.
"Maneka," Dega began with a chill in her voice, "there is deeply disturbing magic about these relics."
Maneka raised an eyebrow. "This trash? It's worthless. We're only after the kore."
She shook her head. "There is…are…echoes. An essence of a past that I can almost see."
Maneka shrugged. It was partly interesting; after all, he had never heard of anyone in the company bringing along a witch to find a kore. Had anyone with magic sensed the stirrings Dega seemed so concerned about now? Or was that just echoes from the Forest?
Suddenly the trees parted around them, revealing a moonlit crater ahead. Maneka exhaled in relief, passing the torch off to Dega.
"I'll be right back. There's no danger down here."
He quickly rushed down the shallow crater slope, past more jagged metal and rubble, right to the petrified glass center. Maneka had heard speculation as to just how old these impact sites really were, but at least one thing was in common—they all had glassy smooth surfaces and a kore waiting to claim. This site was no different, the glowing blue, pyramidal crystal pulsing peacefully under the glass. Maneka fished out his tools, starting to work to cut the kore free.
He heard Dega wander down into the crater, the torch in her hand casting new light about the wreckage. The ambient light from a kore was enough that Maneka didn't need the torch. He watched the shadows shift as she explored around, gazing at the various silvery white debris, some of them charred deep dark black.
"What?" He was almost through. Just a few more cuts and he would be through the glassed earth.
"These relics are not of this world."
"We suspected as much."
She was quiet as he made the final cut, reaching in gently to pull free the kore. It was fairly large, easily taking both his hands to hold properly. It was also incredibly smooth to the touch, cut more perfect than any gemstone. The soft blue glow from deep within was always hypnotic to Maneka. He was going to make quite a hefty sum from delivering this particular kore.
Dega walked around to stand in front of where he knelt on the ground. She scrutinized the kore with narrowed eyes.
"You knew these dark relics fell from the stars, and yet you still harvest them greedily." There was venom in her words that surprised Maneka.
"Dega, this is not magic. These things hold a higher power we're using to make the world a better place."
She rolled her eyes. "What is magic but another form of supernal power?"
"Look, I'm not here to argue philosophy with you. I'm just a kore gatherer. I got what we came for, and now I promise to never bother your Forest again."
Dega held him with a steely gaze. "The Forest isn't the only place filled with illusions, Maneka. The people you work for are deceived by false promises from these kores. Whatever you do with it, take it far, far from my Forest. I don't want to be anywhere nearby when the illusion consumes you all."