Every time I go into what the people of Anglachel call “The Jungle of Despair,” I can never figure out what people think is so disparaging about it. It is a lush jungle with the tallest trees and the wildest vines adorned with some of the most vibrant flowers I’d ever seen. It brings me back to my childhood when my grandmother would take me on diplomatic visits to the Spring Maiden’s Duchy. My grandmother was always jealous of how much people would compliment the Spring Maiden’s garden because it was so bright and colorful. As a young girl, I was often left alone outside to play. I would lose myself in the pastels while my grandmother argued over some treaty or whatever.
However, for all the beauty and magic I remembered from the Spring Maiden’s garden, it couldn’t hold a candle to this jungle. The Spring Maiden’s garden was lovely, but it was also orderly and organized. The jungle was wild. The vines would wrap around the trees or lay along the jungle floor in no particular pattern. Some vines would be full of blooms, some would be completely barren. Some trees would grow straight up into the sky, while some trees would twist and bend in wild directions. This jungle reminded me why I came here. I didn’t want to be tamed, I wanted to be free.
Before I lost myself in the trees, I directed my attention back to Pegutsai. She had been expertly darting around the brambles, and the rest of us just had to follow. I’d always heard stories about adventurers traveling through thick jungles like this by cutting a path, Pegutsai knew the jungle well enough that we didn’t have to damage the wildlife. I loved it. It felt like we were sneaking through secret passages. I stayed in the back of the group so that I could make sure to keep an eye on Traci. She struggled a bit more than the rest of us, she didn’t need to be flexible when she teleports everywhere. But she was keeping up. I was proud of her.
Traci’s hand grasped a branch to her right, and I saw two small glints creeping down toward her hand. I slid down the muddy incline and swatted up with the broadside of my sword. The snake went flying through the air, and the branch snapped. I scooped Traci up and continued sliding down the incline, stopping at an adjacent tree.
“What the hell, Ash?” Traci rounded on me.
“There was a snake about to bite you! I was saving you!” I said, defending myself.
“You think I didn’t see it? It was halfway up the branch. I wasn’t planning on staying there long enough for it to get to me,” Traci explained.
“I just didn’t want to take any chances,” I argued.
“I know, Ash, but you’ve got to let me make my own decisions,” Traci said.
I knew what she meant. I had been jumpy lately and swooping in without thinking. She needed to be able to act for herself when we’re on jobs. I took a step back and a deep breath.
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” I relented.
The rest of the journey was pretty uneventful until we came to a wide river. As Traci and I approached, Pegutsai had begun testing the strength of the long vines.
“We’re going to have to swing across,” she explained. “Are you going to be o.k.?” She asked, looking at Traci.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Traci said. “I can just teleport across. No big deal.”
“Shouldn’t you save your teleports in case we actually have to fight?” I asked.
“I mean, one shouldn’t take too much of my magic,” Traci assured me.
“Let’s be safe. You know that I could swing both of us across. We just have to tie you to me,” I suggested.
“You’re sure that will work?” Traci questioned. “You’ll be fine?”
“C’mon babe, you know me. I’ve got this,” I boasted.
We used some rope to tie us together. Duri used some knots I’d never seen before to make sure Traci was secure. I let Pegutsai and Duri go first. They had to switch vines about three times to make it across. I watched the rapids of the river rage below. I couldn’t let us fall. Traci was in so tight, she’d have not way to swim out of it. I bounced on the balls of my feet a couple of times to try to get used to the new weight. Traci wasn’t heavy, but she was a bit bigger than me. That means she more than doubled the weight I was used to when I’d do this sort of think. I was starting to get a little nervous, but I still knew it was smarter for Traci to conserve her magic.
“You o.k.?” Traci asked. She could probably feel my heart racing since she was snug against my back.
“Yeah, just getting excited,” I lied.
Pegutsai and Duri had safely made it across and it was our turn. I took a several steps back so I could get a running jump. I raced towards the river bank and used the momentum to propel us forward as I grabbed the first vine. We shot forward like a arrow freshly loosed from a bow. Our arch was much faster than I’d anticipated. We reached the peak of the swing in a matter of seconds. I quickly readjusted and took hold of the next vine. It wasn’t ready for the sudden shift and took a wide swerve to the right. I suddenly didn’t know where we were going, because the vine was heading to an open space, away from hanging vines. I released a panicked inhale that Traci must have heard.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” she said. Suddenly, the added weight disappeared from my back. Traci must have teleported to the other side of the bank. I used the opportunity to take a wild leap towards a bundle of vines straight ahead. I’d made it and I was able to scurry my way across to my waiting companions.
I rushed up to Traci and took her into my arms.
“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking,” I cried.
“It’s o.k. Ash. I’m sorry too, I know you wanted me to save my magic,” she apologized.
“No, it’s my fault. I’m so scared all the time. I don’t want to lose you,” I finally said out loud.
“Ash, I’m not going anywhere,” she said, confused.
“No, not like that. I just want to make sure you’re safe,” I said.
“I know what you mean. I miss The Scourge too. But this is our life. We chose to be adventurers. I know what I signed up for and you have to let me live my life,” Traci said.
“I’m just so scared,” I repeated.
“Me too. I don’t want to die or lose you or Duri or Pegutsai. But if this is going to work, we have to trust each other. And trust each other to make our own decisions,” she pleaded.
“I just miss him so much,” I said. I began to cry and rested my head on her shoulder.
“I know, Ash, I know,” she said.
These stories serve as inspiration for the upcoming short story collection, Tyranny of the Fey. The collection will be released in Fall 2023. You can get a $1 preview now!