400 Steps in the Darkness: Part Four
It had nothing to do with that sorceress. The words still echoed through my head two hours later as I sat in a small café in Meridell, sipping on a cup of tea. Kolan was probably right. Why would Jerieme be crazy enough to come and talk to the Aisha Enchantress? And even if he was, she would have sent him home and he would not have disappeared. Yet, I had come directly to Meridell and not stopped on my way through Brightvale.
After my talk with Kolan, I had not returned to the Neopian Times office building. I wasn’t exactly keen on meeting Mr. Bench after our encounter earlier and I was also scared that he would take a look at my face and know that I had not given up on Jerieme yet.
I would have to come in very early tomorrow morning to prepare something that I could say I had been working on, just in case he asked what I had done this afternoon.
Maybe I could write about the Aisha Enchantress.
The idea came out of nowhere. I knew that so far, nobody had dared writing more than rumours about her. In fact, to my knowledge, none of those reporters had even been to Meridell to gather information. Such an exclusive article would put me back into Mr. Bench’s favour.
Gulping down the rest of my tea, I stood up and left the café. The idea was brilliant!
Now I only needed to know how to find the Enchantress. Meridell was not exactly small and her hidden kingdom could be anywhere in the forest.
Two pink Elephante girls played in the street next to the café. They had drawn squares on the floor and were now jumping from one to the next, singing a song at the same time. As they noticed me watching them, they stopped and looked at me curiously. After a moment, they resumed their playing.
Did the inhabitants of Meridell know where the Aisha Enchantress resided? Living so close to her, I expected them to at least have heard rumours.
I was about to go back inside the café and ask, when I caught a few words of the children’s rhyme. What I heard was enough to make me stay and listen to their song.
... the Enchantress.
Deep in the forest
West of the town
Walk a thousand steps
Then sit down.
In the shadow of a tree
Large and made of oak
You have to wait for her
Until you feel her poke.
At the last line, one of the girls poked the other. They both fell down to the floor and burst out laughing.
I frowned and wondered if their little song contained any truth. Often had I heard that children’s rhymes were invented a long time ago and could carry wisdom through the centuries, but was it the same for this one? Then again, what did I have to lose? At least, I had a vague direction of where to go and if I didn’t find the Enchantress there, I could always come back and ask someone else.
A small path led away from the town in western direction. I walked on it, happy about not having to fight my way through the forest. But after not even five minutes of walking, the path did a sharp turn to the left. Standing at the bend in the road, I considered my options. I could either continue on it and hope that it changed direction to the west again, or I could try to continue straight, leaving all paths and walking through the forest.
The former was probably the more reasonable idea, but the latter promised a higher rate of success. After all, it wouldn’t surprise me if the path turned south because the realm of the Enchantress was ahead. If she didn’t allow visitors without her permission, she certainly wouldn’t want people building paths that lead directly to her.
The forest was eerily quiet. The farther I walked away from the path, the less sounds I heard. Chirping birds that had accompanied me in the beginning did not follow me as I walked amongst the trees. Even the sun, shining brightly, did not reach me anymore as the trees grew higher and thicker.
In the dim, green light, I walked and counted my steps. The girls had sung about a thousand steps, which was certainly not completely accurate but would help me estimating how far I had gotten.
Nine hundred steps later, I reached a clearing. By now, the only sound I could hear were loose twigs snapping under my feet. Even the dead leaves that had crunched as I had stepped on them had disappeared, as though the trees in this region did not ever lose their leaves.
I stepped out into the middle of the clearing and enjoyed the sun which I could finally see again. The mossy ground seemed to sparkle in its light. Dew drops glistened like rainbows. Despite the eerie silence, this was easily one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to.
I took a step forward, and another one. Just when I was about to leave the clearing, I bounced into an invisible wall. Eyes wide, I stepped back and held out my hands. Even though I could not see the barrier in front of me, I could feel it. It was as though I was touching a gigantic window, cold, invisible and stretching out to both sides.
I had reached the realm of the Aisha Enchantress.
“Hello?” I called, hitting a fist against the wall. It hurt my knuckles, but did not make any sound. So that was how the Enchantress kept strangers from entering her world. She did not hide, but simply enclosed it in a barrier that normal pets could not pass.
I rubbed my hand, wondering if there was a way to get past the wall. My fist was not strong enough, but maybe if I took a rock?
It did not take long to find a stone the size of my fist. I picked it up and threw it with all my might against the barrier.
I do not know what I had expected. Maybe I had thought that the rock would shatter the barrier, or that it would bounce back from it the way it would from a window or a stone wall. In any case, I had not expected it to go straight through.
Had the barrier disappeared? Eyes wide in surprise, I lunged forward.
Head first, I bounced into the invisible wall.
“Argh!” I exclaimed, rubbing my forehead. I could already feel a bump forming. “Brilliant, Ze. Great way to go about it.”
But what else could I do? All I knew was that I had to speak to the Enchantress and if she was hidden inside her realm, it meant that I had to follow her there.
“Enchantress, I would like to talk to you,” I shouted, not surprised when nobody reacted. “Please, I have a few questions about Jerieme Pakers.”
Something rustled behind me. In the silence that followed my words, the sound seemed unnaturally loud.
I whirled around.
Standing in the middle of the clearing, her arms folded in front of her chest, was a purple Aisha.
My eyes were immediately drawn to the dark shadows around her eyes and the strokes of red paint she had drawn across her cheeks. A cloth covered her head and neck, billowing in the wind.
I could not feel even the faintest breeze.
The Aisha studied me the same way I looked at her. I felt uncomfortable under her gaze, but did not dare moving either. Finally, she opened her mouth to speak.
“I am the Aisha Enchantress, Keeper of the Sacred Grove, High Lady of the Forest. Who are you to speak his name so close to my domain?”
All words I had put together in my head that I wanted to say when I finally met the Enchantress were gone. The artfully woven sentences had disappeared and what finally tumbled out of my mouth were fragments that sounded clumsy and felt horribly inappropriate in this situation.
“I’m Ze. Err... Zerenia Smith, I mean. I work for the Neopian Times. As a reporter. Anyway, I’ve come to see you because... Well, I was doing some research on Jerieme Pakers and found out that he wanted to write about you and then I was wondering if maybe you had seen him?”
“A reporter.” The purple Aisha’s laughter was sweet like pearls of honey and stung like poison at the same time. “They’ve sent a reporter to me.”
“Not sent. I came on my own.”
The moment I saw the Enchantress’ eyes lightening up, I regretted my words. “That’s even better. Did you just tell me that nobody knows you’re here? That nobody will miss you if I take you with me?”
The Aisha threw back her head. The gold on her forehead jingled at the movement. “I did not expect anybody, to be honest. Not after all these years. But if someone came, I thought it would be another Defender.”
She leaned forward, her voice dropping as though she was telling me a secret. “They were here, you know. The Defender came three days after Jerieme. He was a Moehog, like you, just that he was not brown and squeezed into a ridiculous suit and hiding his face behind a mask. I sent him back home - not before modifying his memory to make sure that he or his friends would not come back, of course. That was the last I had seen of the Defenders.
“But you, you are different. You haven’t come to fight, you’ve come to write. That in itself makes you valuable for me. The power of the quill is greatly underestimated. You, I will not send you home. No, I will keep you, just like Jerieme, and draw from your powers to add your strength to my own.”
To be continued...