“Bloody hell, last time I ever buy a map from a street peddler…”
Dartrich scrunched up the thick, sloppily-made paper and hurled it into a nearby bush. The charcoal scribblings on it were vague at best, and he was quite convinced that it had simply been leading him in circles for the past two hours. Though it was quickly dawning on him that he was badly lost, it was the itchy, restless feeling of frustration which crept through his chest, rather than the chill of apprehension. His pale blue eyes narrowed at the young birch trunks around him, as if somehow blaming them for his predicament. The trees, naturally, took little notice of his icy glare. Glancing up, he was about to curse the clouds hiding the twilight stars from view, but stopped, remembering the contraption Ibhar had given him. Unhooking the brass-hinged box from his belt, he flipped it open, revealing a delicately stencilled circle of parchment, stretched across a thin frame. A warm flutter of giddiness tickled his stomach as he reread the words Ibhar had ever-so-carefully etched on the inside of the lid. It was something nice to focus on while he waited for the red “N” marked on the spinning disc to settle in one particular direction.
It took several aching seconds, but eventually, the device – “compass”, was it called? – settled, pointing off to his right. Yet as he turned, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of… something. When he refocused his attention on it, it was gone, but he could have sworn… there was something there. Some vague blue glow, barely visible, creeping just out of sight. Wondering if the half-light was playing tricks on him, he shook his head, turning back to –
There! Another flicker of light, an indistinct wisp of coloured smoke, lurking in his peripheral vision. He whirled back on it again, darting quickly and quietly over a dense carpet of fallen leaves. The light stayed ahead of him, flitting from trunk to trunk, never quite coming into focus. No matter how quickly he pursued, it seemed to constantly stay one step ahead of him, retreating into the distance. In desperate curiosity, he husked out a plea: “Wait!”
The light stopped, shivering in the distance.
“Can… can you understand me?” Dartrich’s voice was high and tight, caught between curiosity, excitement and apprehension.
Another long moment of hesitation. Then it bobbed, flickering slightly in a vague approximation of a nod.
Dartrich crept forwards, slower now, making no sudden moves as not to scare… whatever it was. “Sorry, you just… surprised me. What… what are you?”
The light was still, and gave no answer. Dartrich wondered if it was even capable of speech. He perked up, though, as the pale, almost indistinguishable light began to brighten. It was difficult to make out at first, but rising from the underbrush was… a little sphere of soft blue flame. Sourceless, unbound to any candle or conjurer that he could see. Tiny, no larger than a child’s fist. Dim, no brighter than a small candle flame. It seemed silent at first, but as it approached, Dartrich could just barely make out a high ringing sound, like the peal of a tiny silver bell. The flame, seemingly unconstrained by the lack of fuel, coiled around itself, shifting back and forth like a miniscule spherical bonfire.
Dartrich cocked his head. Such a curious little thing. The plume of fire trailing off the top of it seemed to shift too, mirroring his movement. It seemed… it was looking at him just as intently as he was looking at it. The agitated movements of the flames were beginning to slow. Instead of a twisting, random pattern, it seemed to settle into a sort of smooth, slow spiral. A tiny, faintly glowing orb, seemingly turning slowly on its axis.
“What are you?” Dartrich asked again, softer and gently this time. He knelt down to the ground, sitting crosslegged to get a closer look. The wisp – for want of a better name – rose in time with him, coming up to his new eye level… almost as though it was showing itself off. The curls of flame were spinning quite slowly now, making it much easier to watch than the chaotic mess it had been before. Seized by curiosity, Dartrich began to raise a pale, long-fingered hand up to it. He first offered the back of his hand to it, treating it almost like a stray cat. He kept the movement slow, yet smooth, no sudden jerking or grabbing motions. To his surprise, the wisp moved forward to meet him, nestling just barely above his knuckles. It was… cooler than he expected. True, it was still quite warm, yet… more like he had just stuck his hand into a cup of warm water, rather than a candle flame. It was quite a welcome, comfortable respite from the chill of the evening air.
As he extended his fingers further, the orb began to slide along his wrist, almost like a soft cyan marble rolling down his arm. He turned his head to keep his eye on the fascinating little sprite, but jolted in surprise. More orbs, much the same as the first, were emerging from the trees around him. First just one more, but then two, five, a dozen – he was quickly losing count, realising he was surrounded on all sides by the glimmers of light. His first instinct was to leap to his feet, but… for a reason he wasn’t quite sure of himself, he decided to stay seated, patiently waiting for the wisps to make their move. Most seemed considerably more shy than the first, keeping to the edges of the clearing, but a few adventurous ones began creeping towards him.
An odd impulse to stretch out his other hand rang faintly in the back of his mind. He vaguely wondered where the idea had sprung from, but he shrugged; they didn’t seem hostile – indeed, the one now nestling itself on his shoulder seemed… positively friendly. The wisps seemed delighted when he raised his other arm; no less than three immediately hopped onto his outstretched hand, scurrying through the gaps in his splayed fingers. The feeling of the points of cool flame scampering over his skin was deliciously ticklish – Dartrich couldn’t stop himself from giggling at the sensation. Yet more darted forward at the jubilant sound, spiralling around both his arms, nestling themselves into his chest. A few daring ones even decided to burrow themselves under his armpits.
“Wh-whoa, h-hey, th- ha – tha-ha-hat’s a little – heh heh!” Dartrich tried to choke out words, but the warm feeling was now coming in waves across his entire upper body, driving hearty laughs from his chest. He fell back, curling up in a playful effort to shield himself from the tickles, but the wisps simply readjusted their positions. No matter how he contorted himself, he couldn’t defend himself from the relentless teasing sensations wriggling up and down his torso and arms. His thoughts were quickly becoming fuzzy from the laughter. It was as though the warmth of the wisps was seeping into him, setting his body and mind ablaze with soft tingling feelings. One had perched itself right at the end of his nose, swirling mischievously, filling his vision with shifting patterns of blue on blue on blue. The more he wriggled, the more vulnerable he felt, the better the wisps knew which spots to burrow into to force further cackles from him. The more he tried to defend himself physically, the quicker the one in front of his face swirled, dragging his attention away. The more he tried to hold onto his thoughts, the harder the wisps burrowed into his palms, his armpits, his sides, behind his ears. The tinkling of the sprites laughed in his ears, the incessant ringing almost drowning out his own sputtering. Dartrich was vaguely aware of himself slipping away, his consciousness wavering, shimmering, buckling under the relentless teasing. Yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to care. It just felt too nice. Too warm. Too sensitive. Too… everything.