4. A Wizard and His Mule

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Regina awoke into semidarkness. She uncurled her body beneath a blanket of sycamore leaves, stretched out her limbs, and found herself alone inside of a hollowed log. There was a loud pounding at her ears, voices that screamed and wailed her name.

... Regina ...

... Regina, please don't leave us ...

...Please, don't abandon us ...

Behind her, long grass tickled the log's opening, reached for her tail as stray leaves blustered inside. Her eyes focused on tree roots directly beyond, waited for the face of a ghost to appear from the edge of the opening. But nothing more than the wind dared to torment her grogginess. It was just the wind. Only the wind.

She closed her eyes, turned towards the opposite end with breath held deep. She imagined blood-hungry canine eyes and a maw of frothing madness. But there was nothing. Only grass. Only leaves. Only the wind that screamed and struck the walls around her. Only her imagination.

Regina wiped one eye with the back of her paw and crawled towards the opening. Warm air kissed her cheeks when she peered out. Sycamores towered around her with their trunks guarded by huckleberry bushes, under the clutch of an early evening orange-magenta sky. She climbed out of the log with awkward finesse and dropped down into soft soil smattered with leaves and pine needles. The Song of the Harvest was but a whisper on the breath of the wind around her.

Regina noticed that the hollow log lay beneath a stretch of eroded ground that spanned over the barren crossing, sloping down between the reach of trees on either side. As grogginess left her, Regina realized the fallen trunk, rotted with time, had once been a culvert now at the bottom of a since dried-up stream.

She gasped. "...It's a road!"

Dwain had been right all along. He was sure they would eventually find a path if they followed the wind's direction – and sure enough...

But now, Dwain wasn't anywhere in sight. Regina called out for him, but only the wind's wails answered. She called out again, but there was no reply. Sudden panic squeezed around Regina's heart. She sniffed for him around the trees and within the bushes, but he was nowhere to be found.

"Dwain, where are you?! Answer me – please!!" she cried out. "Where are you?! Where are you?!"

It was then that Regina heard the echo of distant clops. Slow, and steady, with all the patience of the world. She whiffed the air in hopes to catch Dwain's scent but instead the familiar smell of duskroot filled her nostrils. It was a bittersweet musk upon the wind, a rich scent similar to that of hot bonfire kindling – a scent Regina knew well from nights her father sat by the fireplace, sketching maps for village council meetings. Many of the grownup villagers – most especially Elder Rombard – often carried the smell with them, wherever they went.

Sudden hope filled Regina's heart. She bounded over to the edge of the culvert and scurried up to the expanse, using whatever rocks and roots she could find to aid her. She peered over the edge of the road.

A grey-black blot appeared around a bend of trees in the distance. Regina struggled to make out who exactly it was, though sure by the twitch of her nostrils that this was the source of the duskroot scent. Dwain had clearly left Regina to go find help, so it only made sense he would return with aid. A donkey brayed noisily as hooves clacked closer towards her. The smell of duskroot was so dense – it couldn't be anyone other than Elder Rombard! Dared by the hope in her heart, Regina pulled herself up over the edge of the road and scuttled towards the blot.

As she neared, her weak eyes settled upon a strong and droopy-headed mule treading the middle of the path. Upon its saddle slouched a mammal clad in a cloak as deep as the blue night. A wide-brimmed hat with a heavy crooked point shielded his eyes from view. Rays of dying sunlight that spilled through the tree tops revealed the wrinkled, liver-spotted flesh and a flat, wet snout of an age-old swine. He chomped on the end of a long, downward-curved pipe that plumed thick smoke around his floppy ears.

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