Ares sighed to himself as he slumped down to sit against a nearby tree, swinging his phone flashlight back and forth across the forest floor. The sun was starting to set by now, and the coverage of the lush forest canopy coupled with the lingering light certainly wasn't doing him any favors. He kicked his foot out at a rock resting at his boot, grumbling to himself and running a hand through his sweaty hair.
"What on earth did Nanna think I was gonna find out here..." he mumbled to himself. 'Nature's good for the soul', my ass, he thought. There was not a single soul-replenishing thing in the uncomfortable feel of the forest floor where he was sitting, nor in the thousand or so mosquito bites he'd gotten on his trek through it.
As he was inwardly lamenting his pitiful sorrows to himself, he felt something hard hit his boot, and he opened his eyes, disgruntled at the disturbance. Though he'd thought it was probably something that had fallen from the tree above, it wasn’t a fruit of any kind, nor a pinecone, or anything else that could be found in an average tree, rather, it was… a rock. He picked the rock up to examine it, and realized it was the same rock he'd kicked into the expanse of the forest just minutes before.
Weird, he thought. Maybe some other insufferable prick trying to find themselves in the woods had thrown it back at him.
Sighing and rising to his feet, he glanced at his surroundings, trying to see if he could spot anyone. No luck.
He tossed the rock in the air, catching it again in his hand and then tucking it into his jacket pocket. It was starting to get dark, and he figured he should turn back, but the rock had caught his attention, strange as it was. Maybe it'd be a good idea to at least look into where it came from. That would make it so this afternoon wasn't a complete waste of time, he thought.
Curious--and bored--he started to walk in the direction he'd kicked the rock before, ducking beneath branches and stepping over tree roots. The canopy almost completely obscured the evening sky above, and it only became more difficult to see as he went on. The path between these gnarled trees only became more narrow. Ares started to doubt there was anyone any deeper in the forest, and he took out the rock to examine it again. It was probably just some animal or something that had kicked it back--
His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the distant echo of what sounded like a joyful giggle.
Then, some sort of light filtered through the canopy, but it sure as hell wasn't sunlight. It shone down on his hand, and it tinted the rock a gentle royal blue.
This was starting to get creepy, he thought. Yet, somehow, he felt something urging him to go forward--some mysterious force begging him to step further into the forest, to answer the call put forth by that average rock, to follow it for all eternity, until he was lost to time…
Wait, what was he thinking? This had to have been some kind of dream. What was happening?
As he questioned what mysterious force it was that was tugging so desperately at his soul, he saw yet another phenomenon--along the sides of the narrow path, surrounded by trees that seemed to have no end to their height, the very same royal blue light began to dot the sides of the path in low-lying flames, lighting the way onwards. He stared at them, transfixed by their luminosity, their unnatural--yet no less beautiful--color. He had no other choice but to resign himself to whatever transcendent force was seeking him out so longingly.
Fuck it, he thought. Worst case scenario, I die. Or wake up in a dumpster high on acid. Whatever.
He followed the flares of blue light tentatively, careful to step over the obstacles that he now saw in his path, clutching the stone tightly in his hand. The giggle he heard before had evolved into a song, in the same man's voice. It rose and fell with the flares of mysterious light, growing ever louder as he progressed on.
Ares saw the path begin to open before him into a clearing he’d never known existed before this moment--it was surrounded by towering trees, illuminated by the same mystical blue light that had guided him there. In its center, there was a perfect circle of mushrooms, its home among the lush, verdant grass.
Dying to investigate, he approached the circle of mushrooms, looking at it curiously, feeling the area around it with his boot to get some kind of grasp for his surroundings. As he crouched down to look at it more intently, he heard a voice speak up--the same one of the song he had heard before.
"I would stay away from that if I were you," the man said, his voice just as enchanting in speech as it was in song.
Ares turned his gaze upward, toward the source of the voice, and his eyes met those of a man with long, royal blue hair, matching the color of the flickering light that illuminated the clearing. His eyes were some kind of blue, but they flickered just like the light around him, their enigmatic color hard to name--Ares was sure there wouldn’t be a word for it in any human language. It was almost as if the man’s eyes were a world of their own, some ineffable dimension, full of shifting colors of all shades of blue--with flecks and highlights of gold to mark the grand entrance into his soul. His lips were curved into a gentle smile, and his ears were pointed, much like an elf's, or a faerie's. A sheer fabric was draped over his slender frame, hanging from his shoulder, a belt made of woven green leaves fastened around the waistline of the garment. And his skin--his skin was radiant, full of life and rubescent, a warm contrast to the gentle blues of his eyes and hair. Having such a man stand before him, his beauty so ethereal, was almost intoxicating, and Ares felt it as if the man's beauty was the very air he was breathing--as though if he were suddenly taken away from him, Ares would suffocate.
"... You've been looking at me for quite some time now," the man said, and Ares was briefly snapped out of his trance, rubbing his eyes and shaking his head like a wet dog.
"I don't know what came over me," Ares responded.
The man laughed melodically at Ares’s response, and Ares looked back up at him, rising gingerly to his feet. He looked at Ares from his place a few yards away, his eyes still like cavernous oceans, and smiled.
"May I have your name?" he asked, holding his hands behind his back, rocking gracefully on the balls of his feet.
Ares felt his voice catch in his throat. Even while caught in the hypnotizing gaze of the young man in front of him, he heard a young Nanna's voice in the back of his head, from a time when the two of them could run about together without a care in the world, a time when the two of them had come across a circle much like the one Ares saw before him now. She had spoken clearly, confidently, as she spun her tale of nymphs and fae to her cousin, and was sure to tell him the single, most-important thing there was to know about them all: Never tell a faerie your name. Never, ever do it. You'll never be able to come back home again!
Of course, at the time, Ares had been skeptical, gesturing to the empty ring, the empty wood, and the lack of any sort of mythical being that could even remotely be called a faerie around them. He'd stepped into the ring then, overcome by curiosity and some inherent need to prove to Nanna that everything was fine, and Nanna pulled him out with a strength she hadn't known before--he hadn’t even had the chance to blink.
He felt a little stupid believing Nanna's fairy-tales now, as a grown man, but what else was he to do when they came true right in front of him? He'd have to give Nanna… an apology. Hopefully this actually was an acid trip, so he could avoid that altogether--but now wasn't the time for thinking about things like that.
Although Ares wasn't quite sure if this mystical being in front of him was a faerie or not, he decided to err on the side of caution nonetheless, and Ares stared into the man’s eyes as he told him, trying to avoid any sign of deceit.
"You may call me… Aless."
The man approached him, and it was then that Ares could see how short he was in stature.
"And I am Seliph," he said, a serene smile on his face. "It seems as if you answered my call." He reaches out his hand to grab Ares's hand, and Ares, transfixed by Seliph’s beauty, wouldn't dare pull his hand back.
"What, that rock?" Ares asked. "Was it you who threw it back?"
"It's not often that a human wanders into this part of our woods," he mumbles. "And I've always wanted to meet one again… ever since I first saw one, years ago, I've been sending out calls." Seliph looks up at him fondly. "You were the first one to respond."
Seliph nodded. "But I wish not to keep you long," he said, a frown painting his face. "My vassals would have a fit if they found I'd met with a human, much less spoken to one."
"Hmph. What's it matter to them?" Ares said, hiding his disappointment. "You're your own person. Besides, aren’t you supposed to--”
In the distance, Ares heard the echo of what sounded like a muffled shout, and Seliph jumped, turning in the direction of the sound.
"I must go."
Ares refused to let go of his hand, and Seliph turned to him with a pained look marring his face.
"What? Why so soon? We've only just met!"
"I can't. I'm so sorry," Seliph said. "But, Aless… Please, come back. I… I'll light your way home again," he affirmed, and pulled his hand from Ares's with a gentle tug.
With a flash of blue light that made Ares fear he'd gone blind (or perhaps even died), Seliph disappeared just as quickly as he arrived, and Ares was left standing in the midst of the clearing, his path back to the woods lit by ethereal puffs of royal blue light.
“Ares, what are you talking about?”
Nanna had a perplexed look on her face as she sipped her sugary-sweet latte, her eyebrows tilted up in concern.
“Yeah, I mean, you’re acting so weird,” Leif said, his arms spread out from his seat in the booth next to Nanna as he took a drink from his tea. “Are you sure you weren’t drinking out there?”
“I’m not that much of a hopeless freak,” Ares said, crossing his arms in irritation. “Look, I didn’t do anything besides go for a walk through the woods. Like you asked me to, Nanna. Forget that part?”
“Ares, I’m not trying to get into a fight with you. I just find it a little hard to believe.”
“You’re the one who believed in fairy-tales the most when we were kids, and now that I’ve got hard proof that they’re real, you’re just writing me off as drunk?”
“Hard proof? What’s the hard proof?” Leif questioned, furrowing his eyebrows.
Ares grumbled to himself, digging the rock from yesterday out of his jacket pocket, showing it to the three friends who sat with him in the cafe. Julia, who had been silent the entire time, looked at it curiously, leaning in to inspect it.
“...It’s a rock,” Leif said, disappointed.
“A rock that magically came flying back at me when I kicked it away, Leif .”
“Let’s not fight,” Nanna added calmly, and Julia nodded ardently. Ares grumbled.
“...I believe you, Ares,” Julia said, and Nanna looked at her curiously.
“...Thanks, Julia,” Ares said, turning the rock around in his hand, and then tucking it back into his pocket.
Nanna smiled. “Now that we’ve all calmed down a little, can you explain it to us a little clearer?”
Ares grunted, as if to say yes, and started explaining, watching as Julia cut into her shortcake with a delicate dessert fork.
“When the rock was thrown back at me, I heard a noise. So I followed where it came from. It was a down little, narrow path, surrounded by gnarled trees,” he said.
“You didn’t once stop to think that it might be just a little dangerous to go down a path like that?” Leif added.
“I was bored. Shut up and listen.”
Leif mumbled a quiet “suit yourself,” and listened as Ares glared at him.
“Anyway. When I was walking down the path, I heard this sort of… song. There weren’t any words to it; at least not any I recognized. But it was… hypnotic.” Ares paused to take the stone from his pocket once more, examining its shape, its marks, its crevices. “And then this ray of blue light shone on the rock in my hand. The same blue light started showing up in these balls that looked like pure flame, all down the path. It was unbelievable. I thought I must have been high off my ass, or something, but I woke up this morning feeling no more shitty than I always do, and I still remembered everything."
“So it was just the rock, and then the light?” Nanna asked.
“No, it was more than that… The path led to a clearing, and in the center of that clearing was this...ring of mushrooms.”
Julia gasped, and Nanna and Leif looked at her in surprise.
“You didn’t… you didn’t step inside it, did you?” Julia asked.
“No,” Ares responded. Julia let out a sigh of relief. “I knew not to, because Nanna here told me to avoid it when we were kids.”
“Well, you never mentioned you saw a fairy ring!” Nanna said.
Ares chided her. “Oh, so that changes everything, does it?”
“Just keep telling your story, Ares! I’m interested,” Leif said, excitedly waiting for him to continue while sipping his tea.
“Hmph. Fine. Well… While I was looking at that… fairy ring thing, I heard the same voice that was singing before warning me not to go near it. I looked up, and it was… it was the most beautiful person I had ever seen in my entire life.”
“You’re being… strangely positive. About this whole thing,” Leif said, and Ares scowled.
“Even I couldn’t find anything negative about it. This person was just… beautiful. There was something that was definitely supernatural about him. His ears were long and pointed, and his eyes… God, I can’t even describe them. It was like seeing some kind of deity, some ethereal creature that I’m too small to comprehend.” Ares ran a hand through his hair with a sigh as he recalled the abrupt end to their meeting. “He took my hand, and told me he had wanted to meet me, and was waiting for someone to come join him for years. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. But then there was a shout, and a flash of light, and he was gone. Just like that.”
Leif was leaning in to listen to Ares at this point. “Wow… Ares, I’ve never heard you talk this much.”
Ares let out a “hmph”, and Nanna cleared her throat.
“If he wants you to come back… Can’t you take us with you?” Nanna asked. “If his ears were pointed like that, maybe it really is a fairy-tale come true.”
“No. He seemed jumpy enough as is. I’m not bringing more people to come gawk at him.”
Julia let out a quiet noise of discontent, pushing the remainder of her shortcake around with her fork.
“You wanted us to believe you!” Leif said, affronted. “We wanna see too.”
“Do you want to be some kind of spectacle for people to gawk at?” Ares said. “No. So fuck off, I’m not going to let you parade around him like some kind of zoo animal.”
Nanna started to interrupt. “Ares, we don’t mean it like that--”
“You didn’t care about my stupid fairy-tale until I told you about the man I met. Either way, I’m not taking you. I’m going back, and I’m going back alone,” Ares asserted, immediately rising aggressively from his seat.
“Ares, hold on--”
Ares stormed out of the cafe, and Julia rose from her seat with much more fervor than she had shown the entire afternoon, running across the cafe to follow him, leaving Leif and Nanna sitting in the coffee shop.
Julia caught up with him just as he was about to get on his motorcycle, and Ares felt her grab his shoulder. Turning around to face her, he saw a sincere look on her face as she spoke.
“Ares… Won’t you let me come with you?”
Ares sighed. “Why should I?”
Julia looked away, mumbling something too low for Ares to hear.
“I… I can’t tell you. But I want you to… to trust me,” she said. “I believed you from the start.”
“...You did, didn't you...”
Julia nodded vigorously, and Ares groaned, slinging himself onto his motorcycle, tossing Julia his spare helmet.
With a determined nod, Julia donned the helmet, and Ares looked to the horizon; at the sun beginning to sink in the late afternoon sky.