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Chapter Twelve- The Heart of Gumber

10 May

Ashlyn walked in front of Damien within the woods. The forest was thick around them. The air was more humid toward the center of Gumber. Here, every living thing was old and wild. The trees poked the sky, the birds' songs laid a blanket over the area.

Despite the cooing of birds and the stirring of critters, Damien found this part of the forest to be very calm. He could see streams of sunlight breaking through the leaves, casting in different colors.

He and Ashlyn hadn't spoken in several minutes. He trusted her to know where she was leading him.

"Your friend sure lives far away," he said after a while. "Is she supposed to be some sort of witch?"

"I wouldn't say witch," Ashlyn answered. "Lothira belongs to the animal druids."

This made Damien puzzle. "You're saying there are more than just elves here in Gumber?"

"Oh, yes. If anything, the animal druids came first. They are truly immortal."

"And the animal druids know magic?"

"In a way. The animal druids are very gifted telepaths. I believe that once Lothira reaches you psychically, she will be able to restore your memory."

"So, you're taking me to see a psychic witch?"

Ashlyn smiled. "Now that you put it like that, yes."

They came to an ancient part of the wood, sealed off by a leafy barrier. Ashlyn faced the wall of branches and placed her hand to it. A moment passed, and the barrier opened to her.

"Come on." She led Damien through the wide opening and into the heart of Gumber.

The forest was strange here. The land was a circular clearing dotted with blossoms and pollen. A gentle meadow of lush grass was flat beneath their feet.

As they approached the middle of the clearing, three pools became visible. Ashlyn stopped at one of the pools and knelt down. When she placed her hand into the water, Damien thought she intended to take a drink.

"So, where is this witch?" He asked. Ashlyn was silent for a long while. Her eyes were closed.

"I am calling her now," she said.

Damien waited for several minutes before he heard something in the distance. When a white mare came prancing through the barrier and into the clearing, he flinched. The white mare glowed with her own source of light and her whinny bounced off the leaves. She stopped in front of Damien, staring at him with a pair of brassy eyes.

"You bring an outsider here, Ashlyn." Lothira turned and clopped over to her friend. "I demand to know why."

Ashlyn stood, shaking her wet hands off. "Then read my thoughts. Damien needs your gifts."

Lothira fell quiet as she made a reading of Ashlyn's mind. She knew the girl's mind well, making it easy for her to sift through. When Lothira was satisfied, she bowed her head. "I will help him."

A bright light consumed Lothira's form, changing her outside appearance. When the light faded, she was standing on two legs and was covered by thin white silk. Her form was now human and her hair was purely white.

She paced over to Damien, reaching her palms out to touch him. "Be still, human."

But Damien wasn't still. He flinched back a few feet, gasping for breath. "Is this going to hurt?"

"Only if you resist."

As Lothira placed her hands at his temples, Damien felt more on edge.

"Just relax," Ashlyn said from beside them. "If she succeeds, you will remember everything."

Damien waited as Lothira made a connection with his mind. It felt forced and invasive. For several nervous moments, Damien sensed nothing. There was only a slight tingling.

In his thoughts he saw a swirling abyss of black. As it grew, so did the ache in his stomach. The abyss kept wrenching through his thoughts, bursting him apart at the seams. He felt pain rising until he could no longer stand. His legs collapsed beneath him.

"I'm sorry," Damien rasped. He was clutching his stomach, trying not to vomit. "I'm sorry, I don't have the strength."

Lothira bent to meet his eyes. She had made the bond with him. Now, she could easily read his thoughts.

"You are stronger than you realize," she said. "Such power I have not seen since the time of Ithilié."

"Damien." Ashlyn went over to him. "What did you see?"

"What I always see. Too much chaos." He gripped his head, moaning. "Urrg, I don't want to remember! Ashlyn--" He cut off, rocking on the ground. "I don't want to remember. Please, just get it out!"

Ashlyn didn't know how to react. She knelt close to Damien, holding him still. "It's alright." She tried to soothe him as he writhed and squirmed. Then her eyes caught Lothira's gaze. "I just wanted to help. What should we do?"

Lothira placed a sturdy hand on Damien's head. With a burning light, she calmed the memories that were boring their way into his mind. With one touch, she silenced them and took them upon herself.

When Damien was still again, he looked at Ashlyn fully. Somehow, it was like looking upon a close friend. He knew her. He knew what her favorite color was, what she loved to do in her free time. He knew that she cared about him more than he cared about himself.

Damien furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. "Ash? That's what they call you?"

Ashlyn tilted her head. "How did you know that? Sometimes Master Cathollen calls me that." She watched as he rose to his feet.

The pain wrenching in Damien's stomach calmed, yet his arms shook as he faced Lothira. "What did you do to me?"

"You did not wish to keep your own memories," Lothira said. "To fill their place, I gave you a portion of Ashlyn's."

"And what did you do with mine?"

"They are with me." She gestured to her temple. "I shall use your painful memories for reflection. They shall not be your burden to bear."

"But...what if I need them again?"

"From what I saw, your mind is not capable of clutching these memories. I do not understand why this is. It is my hope that the answer will become clear when I understand their nature. For now, I bidden you to rest." Lothira's form glowed brightly as she shifted into her animal form. Then she pranced off, leaving Ashlyn and Damien alone.

Damien rubbed the top of his head, feeling baffled. "My mind isn't capable?" He turned to Ashlyn. "What does that even mean?"

"I'm just as confused as you are," she said. "This isn't what we came here for."

"After what she said, it's beginning to make sense. Perhaps I do not remember because-- it is too painful. I can barely hold myself together."

"Hmm." Ashlyn took the time to ponder. "This is not what I was expecting to find."

"And what were you expecting?"

"I was hoping that Lothira would restore your mind, not fracture it. But I trust her judgement. I have a feeling she will be able to unlock this mystery."

"What if she cannot handle my memories either?"

"Don't take this as an insult, but Lothira is far more powerful than you."

"I know, but I warned you about this. It seems you don't want to listen."

"What I want is to understand," Ashlyn said.

Damien crossed his arms. "And what I want is to forget."

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