After getting shredded by bushes and dodging the occasional deer traps, we made it onto a clearing. The ground was covered in a white blanket of tiny flowers, which was usual for the time of the year. A gust of wind picked up again, this time, gently swaying the leaves around us.
"How would you like me to show you my powers?" asked Nicolas.
I scratched my head. "Let's start with castings without your staff. I know you can levitate objects and can release a fire cast; can you freeze things?"
"Unfortunately, I cannot. I only know what we in school called 'basic' spells."
"Okay, do you mind telling me what that consists of?"
"What is considered basic includes healing, light castings, and summoning small creatures. "
"And that's all considered basic?"
He snickered. "Hard to believe no? Goes to show people at the school are the best of the best."
"But how is it done?."
"Simply put, we channel our inner energy and we convert that into a surge of energy. It's strange but I'm sure you understand."
"I understand. Let's see what you can do against me." I showed him my knife.
He shrugged. "Alright, I'll do my best not to hurt you." With that, he placed his hands on the ground. The ground beneath me began to shake. I backed away; my knife positioned in front of me. The surrounding trees began to shake and their leaves falling over us. Nicolas, however, wasn't fazed by the violent shaking. Suddenly, a purple mist arose from the ground and formed together to create an ogre. It towered over me, wide enough to be mistaken for a boulder. I've faced some in my life before so that didn't startle me, however, I didn't expect Nicolas to be able to summon a creature of that size.
I yelled out to him, "If you can summon that, then why you summon gnomes back in the cave."
I focused back onto the creature in front of me. It charged at me, glistening in purple as rays from above struck it. Each stomp nearly lifted me in the air. I rolled to my right, but the ogre was smarter than I thought. Its two massive fists came crashing down onto me. A wave of pain washed over me. I was a chunk of driftwood being tossed around in the surf and then smacking against the sea cliff's edge. I rose to my feet slowly, eyeing the ogre's next attack. As I did, I searched for Nicolas, who was no longer in sight.
The ogre raised its left foot. I quickly stepped to my left, evading its attack. I dashed behind him and leaped, knife raised above me. I stuck it in its back, pulling it towards me as I scaled down. The creature bellowed in pain and trashed around, knocking me off in the process. On the ground, I pushed myself up to my feet. Without hesitation, I slashed away at the Ogre's midsection. Purple vapor sulked out from the gashes. It let out one last cry before it faded into nothingness. Before I could enjoy my celebration, a branch above me caught my attention. I whizzed around just fast enough to catch Nicolas launching a fireball at me. I dropped down to my chest, the fireball roaring past me. It struck a nearby tree that exploded upon contact. Bits of burning wood came raining down.
"Hey what was that about?! I would've died!"
"Nonsense, at most, some serious burns."
What a jackass. I got up again, agitated now, and reached into my tool bag. I retrieved my miniature blades and threw them at Nicolas. He easily dodged them and levitated himself downwards. Before I could get to him, a brilliant flash came from his staff, pushing me back and blinding me temporarily. I rubbed at my eyes in a desperate attempt. I heard him yell out FIRE PILLAR and I immediately ran to my left. Was he going to pull it off? I didn't wait to find out. I saw out of my squinting eyes that his hands were on the ground. I felt that same rumbling I felt with the ogre. Then, fire rose from the ground, surrounding Nicolas. The heat singed my hairs on my arms. Once the flames settled, Nicolas staggered to the floor. I lowered my weapon, now concerned for him.
"Yes, I'm fine," Nicolas said as he held his head. "Feeling lightheaded from the summoning and castings I did. By chance, do you have any food with you?"
I rummaged through my bag and pulled out some sweet berries and a piece of jerky.
"Mmm, this", Nicolas said with his mouthful, "is tasty!" He swallowed the jerky and wiped his mouth with his forearm. "I hope there's some more back home."
"There will be but let's talk about your performance, that was intense! I didn't think you could do all that" I said. "I'll be honest, I expected more of a showcase of your abilities and not your attempt to murder me."
His cheeks flushed red against his pale skin. "Once again, I didn't mean to. In actuality, neither could I. I wanted to impress you so I did the hardest castings I could do."
"Impressed me you did. Now let's go hunting. I'm sure you've worked up an appetite bigger than berries and jerky."
We cooked a young deer above a low flame. While the sun was still out, the tree canopy made it appear dusk. We had tracked a male deer for 30 minutes until I asked Nicolas if he could bring the deer over. He did and with my knife positioned correctly; the deer was no more.
We sat across the dying flame, going over our battle from earlier. After a long pause of silence, I asked Nicolas a question.
"Do you want to hear a story of when I was your age?"
He instantly scoffed but pardoned himself. "I suppose so, it's not going to make to fall asleep right?"
"It won't but these fists might."
"Let me hear it then."
With a telescope, I stood in the watchtower and I scanned the nearby hills for any sight of Vonning tribe. They were nomadic invaders that would ruthlessly raid any township that was unfortunate enough to be in their way. At that time I was one of many guards for the town of Liendale. It was a town with a population of at least one thousand. I peered once again through the scope and on the horizon. There, a wall of men poured over and spilled into the land.
Before I could continue, a loud snap of a branch startled us both.
"What do you think that was?" asked Nicolas.
"No idea but perhaps it isn't the best idea to stay out in the forest, especially now with sightings of creatures that would rip us in two," I said
"Are you scared of them?"
"It's not that I'm scared. Just unnerved of what they could be."
Nicolas got up and dusted the dirt from his trousers. "Let's go then."
I covered the flame with some nearby stones and rocks. The fire went up in smoke and the area around us had darkened. It was evening but in the forest, it seemed as if it was midnight.
As we walked through the bush, I thought about everything I had just seen. Now I knew what he can do, and I, whether I want to or not, had to care for him. He has potential for amazing things and I'll do everything for him not to become another me: here because they have nothing else going for them.
Back home, we sat at the kitchen table with my little friend, a flask of liquor. It was a gift from the Lord awhile back. I rarely drunk but with Nicolas in my home, I suggested we drink some. I let him take the wheel, I knew tomorrow we'd have a busy day. Before we passed out, Nicolas brought up the story I was telling earlier.
"So what happened to the village after the invaders came?"
"Well, uh… not everyone made it out. I was… uh fortunate it enough to be far from the clashing."
"Oh. I see."
A while later, his head laid on the wooden table. I quietly pushed myself away from the table, blew out the candle, and staggered through the dark towards my room. I thought about if we were to make the Sunday hunt a weekly thing. I did enjoy it; fresh dear meats triumphs salted meats any day. Also, I had a great day. It was not a day of extraneous work or lying in bed, I had a fun time. I wondered if he too enjoyed today. It had only been four days since I've had him over. Would he stay though? Part of me knew he could fend for himself and he would be fine. But I hoped he would stay, I hoped he too longed for a companion.
The week continued as before: we were tasked to help the locals and when we were done, we'd be given a task for the following day. Everything was normal until Thursday. Nicolas and I went to the Lord's chamber for our next assignment. l. As we were exiting the room, the Lord asked me to stay. I was feeling anxious for I thought it was about Nicolas, but it was worse.
"Our cargo ship was reported to have sunk on Tuesday, and in it was our month's supply of food."
"That's terrible, but won't we be alright?"
"Somewhat, but with spring just around the corner, our farmers and breeders will use many of the produce for their goods. What I'm saying, is that I need help."
Is he serious? "You are asking me for advice?"
He ran his fingers through his thin hair quickly. "I don't tend to; however, you know more about this town than anyone. Surely, you must have some plan." He stepped closer towards me. "As much as I don't care for this village, I need the money. The mine is doing excellent and with no food, how will I make money?"
"Well, I suppose you can send a group of hunters, set out rations, or trade with a local town. Hey, I believe Astein has an abundant-."
"Brilliant! We could hunt in the forest. I knew you had an idea", he said as he patted my shoulder.
"Err… sure thing my Lord. But I would recommend -".
"I'll send them out as soon as once. My people shall eat gloriously!" the Lord said in a rallying tone. I wonder where this spirit came from.
I dismissed myself but before I could leave, he stopped me. "Your little friend there, how is he? I know I told you to take him to work but I didn't expect you to keep him this long."
I turned to face him. "He is a hard worker. He is pulling his weight." I paused. "He doesn't ask for too much and he's content with what he has."
The Lord raised a brow. "That's nice to hear but what about that robe? Why does he wear it? Not to mention that staff." His eyes widened "Does that increase his powers? What can he do?"
Shifting my feet, I said, "I honestly don't know. He hasn't opened up about that."
His glare intensified. "Open up? Who am I speaking to? The Louis I know would beat information out of their captive. Now you need to wait for someone to tell you information? How ridiculous. Anyways, if you know something you should spit it out."
"We'll see my Lord."
He didn't seem content with my answer, but he nodded. I dismissed myself and made my way back home. Nicolas was sitting on the bench that was by the entrance of the Lord's home. "Nicolas!", I exclaimed, "let's go."
I marched ahead of Nicolas, who was struggling to keep up.
"What's the matter? What happened in there?"
"It's bad Nic, our ship didn't make it ashore."
"You have a ship?"
I groaned. "No! The ship that carried the resources for the town's month supply crashed. We won't be getting enough supplies."
"Okay but why are we in a rush to get home?"
I continued forward. "We need to ensure that we have enough to sustain us. We know about it first, therefore we can help the other villagers.
"I see your point" added Nic.
We got home and we both went in search of goods. Unfortunately, we didn't not. Aside from a day-old loaf of bread, a few pickled foods, and some dried meats.
"Drat, what should we do?" Nic asked.
"I suppose we go tell the villagers on what's going on. Perhaps then any food that we do have can be rationed."
Nic sighed. "The day never ends now does it?"
We traveled around the village and mine, informing people of the news. To not frighten them, Nic suggested we say the shipment was delayed. To many, that was enough to clam them and be willing to ration their foods with one another. Others weren't too happy.
"So the Lord failed to pay for our supplies huh?" said Brandon, a hefty miner.
"I don't know for certain but regardless of what occurred, the supplies will come soon. That, I can promise."
"I don't care for promises. I mine endlessly just to see nothing as payment. I have a wife and four children who depend on me. Perhaps you should tell them what's going on as well." He stormed off, muttering to himself.
That was only one example of villagers being upset.
"Don't take it personally, they're just upset" Nic said.
"Yeah, tell me about it," I said, holding my head because someone threw a stone at me.
The usual, noisy woods were silent. The sound of an occasional twig snapping, the rustling of leaves, or birds chirping were absent.
"Birds must've slept in today" I joked to Nic.
"You can say that again. I wonder why it's so quiet."
Scanning our surroundings, we noticed activated traps and footprints. Signs that hunters have been here. Additionally, we saw markings on the tree, which indicated the hunters have passed by here.
"How long do you think they've been doing this?" Nicolas asked me as he studied a piece of deer fur.
"Since Thursday I believe. "That was when I received the news of the supplies wouldn't be arriving. Let's keep going further", I suggested to him.
"I suppose so."
We reached another clearing, however, it would've seemed as if we had walked in a circle. There were more markings on the trees as well as more hunters' footprints. Out of the corner of my eye, a flash of darkness whizzed through the tree line. I gazed deeply into the trees, but I couldn't make out a thing. But I too, just as Nicolas, had the feeling we were being watched.
Nicolas, with his arms crossed, asked, "Should we head back? It doesn't feel like we should be here.
"As much as I want to, we need to see at least how far the hunters have gone. If it is as bad as it seems, we need to put a stop to it."
Nic groaned. "Fine, but I'm telling you, something isn't right here."
"You think?" I added.
A qhile later, after passing two more clearings, we reached a place in the woods that I didn't recognize. Everything seemed twisted: trees grew thin and long, hanging over the dead bushed underneath. While the sun still shined over, eerie shadows danced across the clearing. There were no animals here. Not even a menacing crow. Out in the distance, I could see a cave of sorts. It was surrounded with makeshift wooden walls that were constructed out of twigs and leaves. We were in someone's territory.
"Do you know where we are?" whispered Nic.
I shook my head. "No, but do you think this cave entrance is connected to the cave system we were in?
"Most likely. With all the tunnels dug out by the miners, surely it is connected."
"How dd you get to the cave?"
Before Nicolas could answer, from the surrounding tree line, a mob of darkness came to view. They were lanky, matted, hunched over creatures. They looked like wolves, only they walked on their two hind legs. These must have been the creatures those miners must have encountered. Each step seemed painful, as they would wince. As they came closer, the more wicked they became. Their stench protruded my nose like hot coals. Their feet and hands were human like, but knife like claws were at the end of them. They seemed so sharp, so much so that they made my knife look dull. From the black mass stepped out what I presumed to be the leader. It was the tallest, had to be about eight feet tall. Its head had patches of fur missing, gashes took the fur's place. It wore a crude necklace of small animal skulls and a crown of trinkets.
As the leader stood about five feet from us, it hunched even lower, to meet our faces. "What are you two doing here?" it asked us. Its voice, so low pitched you might have mistaken it for a rumble in the ground. A nasty snarl followed it.
Unnerved, I said, "We were just out for a walk and we just happened to stumble upon your land. For that, I apologize." The creature stance didn't change, almost as if it didn't understand what I had just said. I noticed it too was holding some staff of sorts. Great, another sorcerer.
"You're Louis aren't you? From Bratice?" It asked me. "We know about you."
I was taken aback at that. "Ho-How do you know my name?" My hand began to inch closer to my knife.
"These woods have eyes; they tell us all they see." It began to stand upright. "I am Elder Kenway, leader of the Walkers." A rally of howls and snarls boomed from around us. "We know you well Louis, for we have seen eyeing you these past few years. Ever since you first started venturing the woods, they laid eyes on you." He looked past me and towards Nicolas. "Ah, I see you are of sorcery yourself. What is your name boy?"
"You don't need my name."
"I see", Kenway said, "intelligent as well." Nicolas remained quiet.
Kenway focused his attention on me. "If you insist on taking a walk, be mindful of where you step." A long silence fell upon us. The other creatures shifted around; they too seem to be unsure of what to do. Nicolas was the one to break the silence.
"We will be leaving now, Elder Kenway."
In one stride, Kenway leapt over us and went down to all fours. The other creatures closed in on us. I yielded my knife in a poor attempt of intimidation.
"It seems as if you don't understand what I'm saying. You ventured onto my land, and just like your insect of a Lord, I require a form of payment to leave."
Irritated, I asked, "What do you mean by that?"
"A simple promise," he said sternly. "Promise to tell your people to not return to our woods. You can do that no?"
"I would have to consult the Lord", I said, "however, he is insistent on feeding his people."
Kenway stood back on his two feet. "Feeding huh? Has the well run dry?"
"It is none of your concern", I replied.
"Have it your way. I take you will fulfill my request. I hope to never see you again, in person, Louis. For no one who meets us never leaves alive. Consider yourself lucky." He switched his gaze towards Nicolas. Kenway simply nodded at Nicolas, who didn't return the sentiment. The Walkers followed their leader into the dark and mysterious cave entrance.
I turned to Nicolas, anticipating an answer, but he had already begun his trek back home. I jogged up to him. "What was that about? Do you know him?"
Nicolas shook his head. "No, I don't. If you're wondering why he nodded me, I don't know either." He kicked a stone on the path into the bush beside us.
Back home, Nicolas and I unloaded our gear. As he hung his robe, I began rummaging the kitchen for something to eat. I managed to find a loaf of bread and canned beans. I always wanted to learn how to can food; it would come in handy. I bought these a while back when a mule-riding merchant came. He sold many goods, but the canned foods really caught my attention. I set the beans over the flame and placed the bread near for it to warm up.
"Food will be ready soon!" I exclaimed. There was no response. I left the kitchen and into the living room; sitting on the wicker chair was Nic, a statue. "You alright Nic?"
He turned to me with a smirk. "I've just noticed you call me Nic. I don't mind. Anyhow, something about Kenway makes me think he is behind the lack of deer there are. But again, what would he gain from it? How is he so sure we will tell the Lord? Also, he now knows about the shortage of food the town will face. Perhaps not the best idea Louis. "
"Nic for Nicolas," I said. " I too don't see why he cares so much about the deer. I'm sure deer to him is nothing but a light meal. And you're right, I shouldn't have said that. it just slipped out."
"But we aren't low on food. We just won't get more supplies. We'll be fine right?"
I nodded. "We will. We just need to tell the Lord what happened. I'll be sure to get up early to tell him. Say Nic, is Kenway a sorcerer like you?"
"He was, or, is. By the look from his staff, it was one for spells. The fact that he can do that is frightening."
"Why? Can't you take him on?" The sound of steam came from the kitchen interrupted Nic. "Our dinner!" I yelled, dashing towards it. I returned to Nic with the loaf split in half and a ceramic bowl of beans. I kept the can.
"I doubt I can" Nic said. "He gave this feeling of inconceivable strength. It's a skill you learn at the academy. The best students struggled to defeat our professor. He is a man who was been practicing summoning for over five decades."
"Were you able to defeat your professor?" I asked.
He took a bite from his bread before he answered. "I did, but not the way I was supposed to. I cheated apparently but a win was a win."
"You want to talk about that?"
He looked up at me but focused his attention back to the beans. After a few minutes, I asked, "Do you think he'd like you to join him?".
Nic lifted his gaze towards me. "Why? I have no business with him."
He focused back to his meal. I did the same. We finished eating sometime later. I placed the trash outside in a canister. A villager collected the people's trash every Monday, Wednesday, and both Saturday and Sunday. I've never actually seen them, but each morning the garbage was gone. I returned and stood by the doorway. Nic sat on the wicker chair, reading a guide for medical patches gifted to me by Annabelle.
"We need to follow them," I said aloud.
"Huh? Follow who?" Nic asked as he looked up.
"The hunters. We need to see what will Kenway do with them."
"Are you crazy? Do you want to watch them die? What happened to stopping them from hunting?"
"Of course not! Who says they'll die? Maybe Kenway and them will give them a scare. As for stopping them, I'll tell Lord what Kenway said."
Nic mumbled something under his breath and then spoke. "We don't know much of Kenway, but I can bet my right arm he's going to do more than give them a scare."
I started up again. "If we let things play out, and if things do turn for the worse, the Lord will see that he should stop. He learns better from action than words."
Nic stood from the chair. "I suppose so. But don't be surprised when we see them scarfed down."
"Then we'll intervene! Trust me I know what to do. I won't let anyone get hurt."
He paced side to side. Finally, he said, "Sure, fine, let's do it then." He looked up at me, "I have an idea for a quick escape if all goes south."