The sun rose on Pyralis’s second morning outside of Esmira, and it found him no less enthralled to see it peeking over the edge of the horizon. Slowly, the beams of light washed over the forest, glinting off the fresh morning dew and casting long shadows on the mossy ground. Waking birds chirped in the trees and a rustle of leaves alerted Pyralis to the presence of some small rodent. The morning was perfect, clear, beautiful.
Thinking that word sent a shiver up his spine. It was a concept which he had taken to with surprising ease and one he had grown to love with shocking speed. Everywhere he went, Pyralis spotted things that were beautiful. He saw the tiny flowers that dotted the banks of the stream, with colors like rich, deep purple bleeding out from their centers like ink. He saw birds with exotic green and yellow feathers and woke to their charming songs. And then there were the trees, so tall and lush and green. Pyralis longed to climb them like he had in Esmira, but these trees seemed as tall as the castle walls with trunks which would have taken five grown men to encircle. They were magnificent, and put the puny little saplings of Esmira to shame.
In short, Pyralis was free, and he was loving it. With a stretch, Pyralis sat in the warm sunlight for a minute as his brain woke up. He took out a small loaf of bread from his pack and ripped off a hunk, washing it down with cool stream water from the day before. Even the water out here tasted better than it did at home. Home. With a twinge of loss, Pyralis thought about his sister, and his parents. He wondered if they missed him or were angry at him for abandoning them.
As the air warmed up, Pyralis decided that he had procrastinated long enough. After all, he had no idea how long it would take him to find whoever he was looking for, and he only had so much food. It would be smart, he figured, to cover as much ground as he could before it ran out. Hopefully, by that time he would have found either the woman, the man, or a town where he could get some fresh supplies. Pyralis folded up his blanket an stuffed it in his pack. He slung his canteen around his neck and strapped his thin dagger to his waist. Strapping his bow, quiver and pack to his back, Pyralis was finally ready to set off.
He was dressed sensibly in a forest green tunic and dark brown pants, boots and vest. It was fairly effective in blending into his environment; perhaps the one upside of bland, earthen colors. Inwardly, Pyralis smiled. He could finally call his tunic forest green and be certain he was describing it accurately. He assumed that would be a very trivial matter to anyone who had lived their entire lives outside of the walls, but to him, it was the world. Every little wonder was.
Pyralis walked for much of the day, but the walking didn’t especially tire his feet. He was still fresh, still fueled by the excitement of taking in everything he saw. As he went deeper and deeper into the woods, Pyralis heard some sort of pounding, rumbling noise. It sounded like rocks tumbling together to form a dull roar. He frowned, but kept walking. The farther he walked, the louder and closer it got. Eventually, Pyralis broke through the line of trees to find the stream that he had been following plummet over a steep cliff, falling to a pool of water below.
The roar was loudest here, and where the falling water met the still pool, a haze of opaque white foam churned. It was mesmerizing. Pyralis watched for a long while as the water rolled off the edge, seeming to disappear to the depths below, before deciding to get another view. He scampered down the side of the waterfall, watching his step on the rocks which were slick with the spray of the falls.
From the bottom, it was an even more beautiful sight. The pool was utterly still, disturbed only by the ripples which spread out from the pounding water. Tall canes grew along the pool’s edge, as did the fuzzy cat tails. Out of breath from the climb down, Pyralis squatted by the side of the water, cupping his hands. The cool, clear liquid flowed into them and he raised them to his lips. Before he could drink, however, he glimpsed something, or someone, out of the corner of his eye. Startled, Pyralis let the water fall through his fingers.
Looking up at him from the sparkling blue water was a baby. Well, perhaps that wasn’t entirely accurate. It was some creature with a baby’s face on a small, squat body. Its skin glimmered with a blue sheen and it laughed, a sound filled with joy that was utterly contagious. Another joined it and added to the musical sound. Pyralis couldn’t help it. He smiled and let out a laugh of his own.
Water babies, he thought, I’ll call them water babies. The water babies stretched their little arms under the surface of the water, reaching for Pyralis’s hand. He stuck his finger in the water and felt the cool skin of the water baby’s fist close around it. The other baby beckoned as well, and he offered it his other hand. Their grips were tight for such small creatures, Pyralis couldn’t help but note. Then, they tightened even farther. He frowned, but when they laughed, all of his cares melted away. He felt so happy and relaxed. Innocent, adorable creatures like these would never hurt anyone, would they?
Pyralis got his answer. WIth a sharp, violent tug, the babies yanked him into the water by his fingers. He tumbled headfirst into the pool, gasping as the water chilled him to the core. He struggled to the surface, but the babies still had an impossibly tight grip on his fingers and were pulling him down. They were much stronger than they looked, and this was their element, after all.
Pyralis shook his hands and kicked in vain. They were just too strong. He felt the cold seep further into his veins as he was pulled deeper into the pool. The pressure of the water increased to a crushing level and his ears felt like they were going to burst. He thrashed about, yanking his arms and knocking tiny skulls of the water babies together. Dazed, their grips loosened ever so slightly and Pyralis pulled away, kicking frantically towards the surface.
The light filtered through the water in a greenish haze, Pyralis thought idly, as if he were floating beside himself. His thoughts didn’t seem to make much sense and the world had gone fuzzy. Somewhere in the back of his mind whispered a tiny voice, Swim. Kick. Keep moving. Pyralis listened to the voice with interest, but didn’t comprehend. Swim? The word didn’t seem to make any sense. In his dim mind, the word held no meaning, so he dismissed it, and it drifted away with the current.
The edges of Pyralis’s vision became tinged with dark as his eyes fluttered shut. His eyelids were so, so heavy. They were like lead, dragging him down, down to the depths, to the watery floor...And then something was pulling him, tugging at his arms. An image of the water babies flashed through his sluggish mind and then Pyralis’s world dimmed and faded to black.
Pyralis was sure he was dead. The one thing which held him back from fully embracing this conclusion was the cold, damp clothes which clung to his body. Surely if he were actually dead, he wouldn’t be able to feel cold. Or maybe he’d get a fresh change of clothes, that would be nice. He contemplated this for a few moments behind his dark eyelids before finally deciding to open them, just to see for himself.
Pyralis opened his eyes.
Oh, yes, he was definitely dead. Looming above him was the most stunningly beautiful woman he had ever seen, in a sort of exotic way. Her skin was green, the color of the little leaves that formed as buds on the trees in the springtime. Her eyes were a chocolatey brown, wide with concern. Her hair flowed over her shoulders in waves the color of tree bark, and a circlet of woven pink flowers sat atop her head.
Needless to say, Pyralis was entranced. He had to be dreaming. Any minute now, he would surely wake. He blinked a few times and waited for the inevitable regaining of consciousness. The girl looked at him quizzically. She wasn’t disappearing...
As if her looks weren’t enough, when the girl began to speak, Pyralis was sent reeling. “Are you alright?”
Her voice was light and lilting like a songbird in the morning, Pyralis thought. He also thought that he should stop comparing her every feature to some aspect of nature, but he couldn’t help it. That was simply what she inspired in him. It was if the whole forest had melted together, distilled itself into its most beautiful, perfect parts, and formed those parts into the girl whom he was staring at dumbly, his mouth hanging open.
“Er...” Pyralis droned. He snapped his mouth shut and blinked a few times, composing himself. Finding his words once more. “I’m fine.” He paused. “Am I dead?”
She laughed, a sound so light and joyous that- Pyralis cut himself off, trying to concentrate on looking and acting like he was halfway competent as she replied, “No, you aren’t dead. I was worried for a moment.”
She was worried. She was worried about him. Pyralis felt a sudden rush of elation. He blurted, “Who are you?”
“I’m Laurel,” she said with a warm smile. “Let me help you up.”
Pyralis didn’t protest as she slid an arm around his back and raised him to a sitting position. “Are you an elf?” he asked, his own voice sounding stupid to his ears.
Laurel laughed again. “No, I’m a nymph. A wood nymph. I saw that you were being attacked by the Seshari and I couldn’t bear to stand by while you drowned. Though by the time I got to you, you were awfully blue.” She surveyed him. “You’re a little better now, but still kind of pale.” Laurel gave a shrug, rustling the interwoven leaves of her dress.
“Thank you for saving me,” Pyralis said. “I would’ve died.”
Laurel waved a hand like it was nothing. “My pleasure. I don’t get many handsome elves wandering into my area of the woods; I couldn’t very well let my first visitor in years die, could I?”
“It must be lonely for you out here.”
She sighed daintily. “It does get that way.”
Pyralis thought for a moment, but couldn’t come up with anywhere he had to be anytime soon. In fact, he couldn’t quite remember why he’d started out in the first place, but that wasn’t important. “Would you like me to stay here with you?”
Laurel smiled again, but it was pained. “I was afraid this would happen. It was unintentional, I promise.”
“The effect that we nymphs have on people,” Laurel said. She let out another twinkling laugh. “You poor unfortunate soul; you’re falling into all the traps today.”
Pyralis frowned. “It’s not a trap. I love you. I’ll stay with you. I don’t have anywhere else to be.”
Laurel shook her head. “I’m sure you do.”
“You just don’t remember right now, but you will,” she said. “But it was kind of you to offer. You’re very sweet.” Laurel stood, straightening her outfit. She was even prettier when standing in the sunlight. “It was very nice talking to you. Be safe on your journey. No more playing with water babies,” she teased.
“Wait, don’t go-”
Pyralis lunged to his feet, but Laurel had already pressed her back against the nearest tree. The bark grew over her like a second skin, pulling her in and encasing her until it was unbroken and round like before. Pyralis touched the rough bark, running his hand across it. And then he paused, wondering why he was doing so. Why was he caressing a tree?
Suddenly aware of his soaking wet and freezing cold clothes, Pyralis looked down at himself. He shook out his shaggy blonde hair and saw the droplets fly through the air. He paused again. How had he gotten out of the pond? The last thing he remembered, he was being pulled down by the water babies and his vision was fading. Then, suddenly, he was standing in front of that tree, touching its bark with a longing for something he knew nothing of. Pyralis frowned and picked up his pack, ready to get away from the waterfall.
The world outside Esmira was a strange place.