"Good luck. This time is one unlike any other, be very careful of the magic that lingers. And watch the time, you fool. There's no coming back if this thing isn't opened by midnight."
The assassin Leonardo snorted as he remembered Ledda's final warning, and the warmth of her fingers as she pressed the portal key into his hand. A time like no other, none of them were like another. Never before had he seen such untamed and glistening natural beauty, surrounded by proud trees that caught the clouds, hearing the whispers and gossip of the forest fauna. He breathed in, inhaling an enchanting aroma of fertile dirt and the scent of something unexplainably pure.
It was a pity that he wasn't here to explore. He could hear the crash of a waterfall somewhere and ached to explore this devastatingly green and gold forest.
Leonardo sighed with some annoyance, tilting his head back to lower his hood. A tantalizing breeze gently tempted him to forget about Ledda, and the council of witches. Forget his destiny, his time, saving it even. Let it burn, overpowered by the filth and rot only humans could bring. This place was so clean, even he could wash away his past here, tuck it away in some dark glade as he lived.
Ledda's beautiful, pleading face loomed in his mind. Her full lips, perfect, dark eyes, asking him to save their time.
Leonardo felt his shoulders tighten before they dropped. There was no escaping for him. If the council ever even felt that he might run, they would execute Kila and his remaining family as retribution.
So find her. Find the little witch that changes everything for our time. Leonardo checked his timepiece. Any moment now, a young girl would appear somewhere in this area. He wrapped his hand around his knife. That little girl would grow in power, wiping out millions in her ascent to the throne.
Ledda had told him alternate versions and spun theories more convoluted than spider webs, in the drifting hours between night and day. But his purpose was clear. Use the last remaining portal key, travel back thirty summers, and murder the Forest Witch, Sybrie, before she went to apprentice under Merlin.
He heard a crashing in the trees, something running towards him. A young girl playing in the woods, perhaps, reenacting some adventurer's tale?
A woman emerged from the wilds, roughly pushing the branches from her, her eyes wide in panic. She didn't even seem to notice him, her mouth quivering as she scanned the area.
"Who are you?" Leonardo asked in the Olden Way, snapping her attention to himself. Internally he cursed himself over a thousand times, knowing how this must look. A cloaked, armed stranger mired in the same woods her young daughter was lost in.
She stared at Leonardo with a deep, horrified suspicion. "My daughter is missing." She said finally, her breath catching on the words. "She's small for her age, eight. She has brown hair and green eyes. Please, have you seen my daughter?" Her mistrust of strangers must have been overwhelmed by her fear.
"I have just arrived in this region. I have seen no children, my lady." Leonardo thought fast, he knew some kind of error had transpired, but he still might recover this opportunity. "Her name?"
"Sybrie, but she only responds to Brie." The woman said, her voice heavy with tears. Leonardo could see her edging from him, her green eyes darting into the forest, looking for a husband to kill him maybe.
"I'll help you look." Leonardo offered, infusing his hoarse, exhausted voice with some genuine human compassion. He imagined Kila missing, and how he would tear the world apart to find his sister.
The woman looked behind her, her hands shaking. It would be more complicated if anyone did come to help her and her doomed child.
"How long has she been missing?" Leonardo asked calmly, easily manipulating her terror.
"Since last night." The mother of the Forest Witch seemed to sink. Would the forest do his job for him?
"That's a long time for a child to be out here, especially as the nights get colder."
That settled the debate for the woman. "Please, please help me." She pleaded and Leonardo nodded, instantly jumping to action. "Where did she like to play?"
"I've been there already, it's just an old, hollow tree." The woman sniffed, her eyes red with despair.
"Take me there," Leonardo commanded gently, and the woman crossed her arms before walking, her weariness apparent.
"Is she your only child?" The assassin asked as they walked, admiring more of these stunning woods. What a beautiful place to die.
"She's the only one left. The others died when the sickness came." The woman said, her voice raw. "Brie!" She cried out, her call warbling through the trees. "Brie!"
"Brie!" Leonardo yelled as well, startling the woman for a moment. "Brie!"
Their shouts competed with the bird calls, the cricking of insects, and the rustling of the forest.
When the mother spotted the gnarled tree, she ran to it, running her worn hands over its world-smoothened surface. She turned to the assassin when her daughter wasn't found, the sadness seeping out of her.
Leonardo studied the area, crouching down. A single type of footprint had decorated the ground thoroughly until the whole earth was a tousled mess of shifted earth. He also saw what this distraught woman had to have missed, a shining bracelet under a ruffled bush. Leonardo rose and turned to her. "My lady, I don't think she is here. In my opinion, she may have returned home since. A young girl like her should have known these woods."
The woman's lips shook and she ran a hand over them, pale as only a mother could be. "She wasn't there when I went back a little time ago."
Leonardo made a noise of assent. "Is it not worth checking again? getting more help?"
The woman stole a glance at him, her earlier misgivings probably rising again. "You are right. Thank you."
The assassin sighed, knowing she didn't believe her. He should probably kill this woman, but he had spilled enough blood. "Where's your village, in the event I find the little one?"
The woman pointed at a plume of smoke. "Walk for around, six turns of that timepiece, and go straight, passing a carved boulder." With that and a final stare into the assassin's eyes, she turned, casting a bereft look around her.
Leonardo waited until he could hear nothing, before getting down on his hands and knees and crawling. The bush didn't cut him, and he slipped the bracelet into his pocket, wriggling and pushing himself along.
Leonardo sprang out of the bushes, turning to the woman.
She stared at him, nothing in her eyes as she raised an axe. "Where's my daughter?" She forced out, her face set.
Leonardo appraised the way her hands curled around the handle, how she had to hold it with two hands. He raised his own. "My lady, I'm a foreigner, I haven't seen your-"
"Don't lie to me!" She screamed. and Leonardo tensed, sensing her desperation. She swung at him.
He dodged lightly, ducking under the arc, and sidestepping her.
The bracelet fell out of his pocket and clattered to the ground.
The woman looked at it and up at him, her chest heaving, mouth falling open in horror. "You-you, what have you-? What did you do to her?" She wailed, charging at him with it.
Leonardo said no lies, avoiding her attacks with silent precision. The woman screamed again, managing to cut his arm with its hungry edge.
Leonardo used a branch to hit the axe, and as it moved, she was pulled with it. He blew Asmerine powder into her face, causing her to drop unconscious.
Panting lightly from the weight of her fury, he caught his breath. Then dove back into the bushes, moving with a raging speed.
Eventually, he emerged into another section of paradise, and he found a set of tracks quickly. He wondered what could have happened to the little witch that she got so lost. No child would have had the guts to go so far.
He began running a little, watching the sun start to fall lower in the sky. He carefully avoided damaging the precious trail and spotted more signs, snags of cloth, and an abandoned doll in a puddle.
Leonardo wiped the sweat off his face, his hands trembling for the first time in a long time. He had killed so many, but never a child. Never a mother. Only troublesome politicians, or lawbreakers. He wanted to be back already, back from this nightmare, this steadily darkening Eden. Even the earth was getting corrupted from his mere presence.
He heard some more of Ledda's reluctant warnings in his mind, easing the search. "Since so many other assassins have gone back, some things are bound to be different. Be careful, my love, somethings may be more different than you can imagine."
She had been so disapproving. So angry, she had left his rooms that night. It had only been his explanation and her endless supply of empathy that brought her back.
And now he felt it more than ever, a roiling disgust with himself. Leonardo rubbed his face, picking up a shred of ripped cloth from a branch. What had possessed this little one to run so far? Prolong his misery for eternity? A great deal of time had passed, considering how the sun had been caught by the earth, at the very line of the horizon.
Leonardo heard the shriek of a child laugh, and he jolted to alertness. He raced forward, finally entering a clearing with a small creek.
The Forest Witch smiled at him as she turned, and it was a smile entirely different from her smile at his parent's execution. Her smile now was the uncomprehending innocence of a happy child, while her future sported a distorted smirk, delighted with the pain she wrought.
Leonardo smiled back, the creek separating them. "Hello, Brie. Your mother is looking for you." He couldn't keep the tremble from his voice as he watched the child's eyes widen in ignorance.
"Oh no! The fairies played with me for too long!" The Forest Witch squealed, her voice an awfully high squeak. She glowered into the forest as if to blame some inanimate object.
"Brie, come back with me now, and your mother won't be mad," Leonardo said, carefully controlling his voice. She was so small, so filthy with mud and the joys of a child. He heard the mother's soul ripping cries, saw Ledda's deep disappointment. He imagined Kila, and her open-mouthed, unabashed grin.
He heard his father's orders before his execution, the precise tone his father chose to bid him goodbye. Leonardo's blood cooled, eyes sharpened. He stepped over the creek, splashing water on his boots. "Brie, come here."
The Forest Witch stopped accusing mystical creatures and slowly came closer, giggling slightly.
Leonardo tightly grabbed her tiny hand. "Come on now, you've given everyone a right scare."
Brie looked up at him, but he didn't look at her. He gently pulled her with him, deeper, and deeper into the darkness of the forest. Brie chattered incessantly, and when she complained about the cold, Leonardo instantly offered her his cloak. She asked about his injury and he ignored her.
He led her deeper and deeper into the maze of the forest. And the little witch noticed.
"Where are we going?"
"Your mother searched all the way up into the mountains for you." He lied tonelessly, uncaring how the clumsy, little, thing felt. She had already asked for food and kicked him when her demand when unfulfilled. So she huffed out air and ran.
Leonardo whirled with lightning speed and chased after her, harshly seizing her arm and yanking her back.
The little demon bit him and escaped, and as he made chase he was tripped by a root.
Swearing and spitting mud, the assassin ran after the girl, dodging her attacks. Owing to his long limbs, he overtook her and seized her again.
She struggled until she realized she was getting nowhere. "Let me go!" She sobbed, kicking at him. "I want my mom!"
Leonardo stared at her, a child of the wildest forests he had ever laid eyes on. An innocent, who had done no wrong but to exist. Her actions in the future were all the results of torture, isolation, hatred.
"Brie," He said calmly, his voice raw. "Brie listen!"
The little witch stared at him defiantly, sullen, and miserable.
"I was sent here to do something bad," Leonardo said, swallowing harshly. "But I-" Kila's face flashed before his eyes. "I-"
Brie was quiet, watching him closely.
He looked into those clear, green eyes. "I'm not. I'm not going to do it, Brie. I'm returning to my life, you understand me? I'm going back, and when I do, you will use your power to save my family, you hear? I will turn to you, tell you everything. You will remember me, right? Leonardo." He shook her lightly.
Brie nodded, clearly scared. "I will remember."
Leonardo breathed out, looking one last time at his father's murderer. The person who had imprisoned Ledda for months. The person who killed his mother for daring to throw stones at her procession. "Be better, you monster." He hissed at her. "All you do is kill." And all I do is kill. And all anyone does in that disgusting world is live.
The Forest Witch seemed wary of him as he released her, but she shot away faster than a deer the moment she had stepped out of his reach.
Leonardo breathed in the piercing air of this heaven for another moment, his whole body engulfed in a bubble of light that had danced through the leaves. His skin felt alive as it stole whatever comfort it could.
The moment passed, he took a flower and opened the portal key. There was no changing this moment ever again.
He raised a hand to shield his eyes, watching a tiny queen fleeing, shimmering fairies circling her.
One last time, he pressed his blood-stained fingers into the dirt, letting the cruelty in him ebb away. He smiled, imagining the only person who could forgive him for his betrayal. Leonardo pressed down on the portal.
The portal appeared out of nowhere, and he stepped through, just barely preparing himself for the fight of his life.