“Just remind me – who said finding water would be a problem?”
Ruzzella peeked out into the darkness of the forest. The rain seemed to have stopped overnight, but water was still seeping through the foliage, pattering both on the leaf-covered ground and on the fabric of the tent.
Emrald sat up behind her, his head almost touching the ceiling of the tent. “I admit I didn't consider rainwater when we were planning our journey, but in my defense, none of us is any good at predicting the weather.”
“Not even you?” Ruzzella turned around and looked at the goliath. “Doesn't Eiliya teach you the wisdom of the elves, or something like that?”
“Well, it certainly looks like you're feeling better, Ruzzy,” Seyran said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You're already complaining again. I was almost worried when you went all quiet last night.”
“That's what happens when I get wet and cold.”
“I said you could come under my blanket if you wanted to...”
“I wasn't that cold.” Playfully, Ruzzella nudged Seyran in the side and smiled at him.
Seyran smiled back, then looked out the tent. “Man, I can hardly see a thing! Does it ever get brighter than this in these forests?”
“They're called the Darkwoods for a reason,” Emrald said. “But yes, in an hour or two, when the sun is higher, we should have a little more light. Unless the sky is overcast.”
“Ah, don't worry about that,” Ruzzella smiled. “I can see well enough, and if you just stay behind me, everything's gonna be fine.”
“How's the ground?” Seyran asked. “After that much rain, won't it be more of a swamp?”
Emrald shook his head. “Not in the Darkwoods. The tree roots here are entwined so much that they should provide solid ground to walk on. It's bumpy terrain, sure, but it's usually perfectly fine for walking on.”
“In any case, I want to get going as soon as possible,” Ruzzella said. “There's no rain right now, and I'd like to move on before we risk running into the next downpour.”
“Good point,” Seyran agreed. “Let's pack up quickly and be on our way.”
Fifteen minutes later, the friends had finished breaking camp and were walking through the forest again. As Emrald had predicted, the ground was still firm and solid underneath their feet, though they had to walk at a rather slow pace as not to slip on the wet roots that stuck out of the earth. Ruzzella didn't seem to have much trouble with that, but she had to adjust to the speed of her comrades, and since leaving them behind wasn't an option, she just walked a few steps ahead, watching and listening for possible dangers.
The Darkwoods with their thick foliage were tricky terrain, but they had one advantage for travelers – the lack of undergrowth. There probably just wasn't enough light to sustain anything down here since the huge trees took it all for themselves, and that meant even hulking Emrald could easily find his way through the trees without the danger of getting stuck. However, it also brought one problem with it.
“Are you sure we are still going into the right direction?” Seyran asked after about an hour.
“Mh?” Ruzzella looked over her shoulder. “Sure. Why are you asking?”
“Because I don't know how you can be sure.” Seyran looked around. “There are no obvious landmarks here, you can't see the sky, and the moss on the trees isn't just growing on one side. How do you find your way in here?”
“Water's always running downhill, isn't it?”
“And we're trying to find a pond, which is a really large body of water, right?”
“And there you have your answer,” Ruzzella laughed. “I'm always walking downhill. The lowest point has got to be the one where all the water collects, thus, that's where we find the pond.”
Seyran stopped. “Um, Ruzzy?”
“You know there's a ton that can go wrong with that, right?”
Ruzzella stopped and turned towards him. “Huh?”
“We're looking for one large pond, yes,” Seyran explained, “but there's no guarantee that's the only pond in the Darkwoods. We may be walking towards a pond but not necessarily the one we're looking for. Or worse – maybe we're walking out of the Darkwoods again without realizing it just because you...”
“Don't worry,” Emrald said, “we're going in the right direction. I would have already said something if we weren't.”
Seyran turned and looked at him. “What? Now, how can you tell?”
“Druidic magic,” Emrald replied. “Last night, I aligned my Elemental with the Darkwoods and located their center. I can now sense its location. It's like a compass needle inside my body. And since the pond we're looking for covers the geographical center of the Darkwoods...”
“See?” Ruzzella grinned. “I was right all along.”
Emrald nodded. “You were. Though I must agree with Seyran – your method of pathfinding is... unreliable.”
Ruzzella folded her arms in front of her chest and frowned. “Well, it works, doesn't it?”
Emrald opened his mouth for an answer, but it took a moment until he actually spoke. “In this case, it worked.”
“By accident,” Seyran added.
“Sheesh, isn't that good enough?” Ruzzella grumbled before turning around and continuing on her way.
While the rising sun brought a little light into the gloom of the Darkwoods, it didn't help Seyran and Emrald much, and they still had to rely on Ruzzella's superior eyesight to guide them safely. It wasn't until a few hours later that this situation changed. Slowly, the forest seemed to get brighter, and eventually, it became obvious that the three friends were walking towards what looked like a major light source.
Eventually, the trees opened before them, and they stood at the pond they had been looking for – though “pond” was a bit of an understatement for the large body of water that lay before them. It was easily several miles wide from this side to the other, and even wider from left to right. The sun reflecting from the waves stung in the friends' eyes, and it took them a moment to notice the beautiful crescent-shaped beach that stretched right before them.
“See? I told you we were right on track.” Ruzzella turned to the others and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “So, where to next?”
“The other side of the pond,” Emrald explained. “There should be a small pier, and a path to the temple ruins starting right there. If we keep walking, we should be able to reach the pier before dawn.”
“And skip lunch?” Ruzzella shook her head with fierce determination. “Forget about that! My belly says it's almost lunchtime, and that beach down there is too good a place to ignore. I say we make camp and grab a bite.”
Seyran looked past her. “Seems like you aren't the only person to have that idea.”
Ruzzella spun around and followed Seyran's gaze, and then she saw it too: A little down on the beach, there were the light and smoke of a small campfire, and near that campfire, a single figure could be seen moving.
“What do you think about that?” Seyran asked.
Ruzzella shrugged. “Hard to tell. Can't make out any details from that distance. Could be someone traveling to the temple ruins, like us.”
“Unlikely,” Emrald said. “Aside from the people of Vael, no one upholds the old sacrificial rites. And I know of no settlements aside from Vael in – oh, at least five days of travel around here. If he is traveling, then it's probably towards Vael.”
“At least he knows how to defend himself,” Seyran noted. “I think he's carrying several swords – large ones, by the looks of it.”
“You can see that from here?” Ruzzella blinked in surprise. “Wow. And I thought I was the one with the good eyes.”
Seyran smiled. “Only in the dark, Ruzzy. But this is bright daylight.”
“Hrm. It must be that damn pond. All that water dulls my senses.”
Emrald looked into the direction of the campfire. “We could just ignore whoever that is,” he said. “I don't think he has anything to do with our quest, and it doesn't look like he has seen us yet. If we just circle the pond in the other direction right now-”
“Uh-uh,” Ruzzella disagreed. “No walking on before I've had my lunch!”
“In that case,” Seyran suggested, “why not see what this guy's having?” And with these words, he started to walk towards the figure by the campfire, and the others followed him.
A few minutes later, they were close enough to get a good look at the person on the beach. It was a young man, apparently around Seyran's age but taller and thinner, with dark brown hair whose bangs fell into his face. He was wearing a peculiar combination of plate mail armor on his upper body and legs with a split skirt and an overgarment that looked like a dress uniform ending just below his chest, with sleeves lined in thick fur. All his clothing was of a shining white, except for a sash in scarlet red and a matching scarf around his neck.
Seyran's eyes had not deceived him – the man was indeed armed, and his weapons of choice seemed to be three sabers, the longest easily five feet in blade-length, the others around four. As the friends approached, the man had turned towards them and was now holding one of the shorter sabers by the sheath. It didn't look like an aggressive stance, but it would probably take less than half a second to draw that blade if the man intended to.
Seyran raised both his arms and showed his palms to the stranger. “Easy,” he said, “we're not looking for trouble. We were just curious who you might be.”
The stranger looked at him, then at Ruzzella and Emrald. “Name's Kyle,” he said eventually. “And you are?”
“I'm Seyran, and these are Emrald and Ruzzel- Ruzzy.” Seyran gestured towards his companions. “We're on a task for the council of Vael. May I ask what brings you here?”
“I'm with the Monster Hunters' Guild of Letroun,” Kyle said, not changing his stance. “I'm here to hunt down a megaraptor.”
“Hey, so are we!” Ruzzella shouted. “Now that's what I call a coincidence!”
Kyle raised an eyebrow. “You don't look like you're with the Monster Hunters' Guild.”
“No,” Seyran explained, “but we're on a monster hunt as well. We're trying to bring down a saurus that has settled in a temple, near the pond. And seeing that you are hunting for megaraptors, chances are our target is one of these creatures too.”
“Not a red-combed megaraptor, by any chance?”
Seyran shook his head. “No, the beast we're looking for is black.”
“Good,” Kyle said and smiled. “Then we don't have a problem. The one I'm sent to slay is the one with the red comb.”
Emrald cleared his throat. “If I may inquire – you said you were from Letroun?”
“Isn't that in the far north, close to the lands of eternal winter?”
“That's what people down here call it, yes,” Kyle nodded. “We tend to call it the Frozen Wastes.”
“You're a far way from home,” Emrald said. “Aren't there any monsters left up where you live?”
Kyle laughed, and that was the first show of emotion that crossed his face since the friends had seen him. “There are more than enough monsters near Letroun,” he said, “but I can't just hunt down any monster if I want to be accepted into the Guild. I have to find and bring down the prey they tell me – and in this case, it's a red-combed megaraptor.”
“Oh, so you're on your Trial of Adulthood too”, Ruzzella threw in.
“Trial of Adulthood?”
“Where you prove to your community that you're old enough to assume the duties of a full member of society. That you can be accepted as one of the adults.”
Kyle nodded. “It's called the Acceptance Quest in the Guild, but I suppose it's a little like that.”
“In that case,” Seyran asked, “couldn't we join forces?”
“You have a megaraptor to bring down, we have a megaraptor to bring down – why not help each other?”
Kyle frowned. “I'm afraid that's not quite how it's supposed to work for me. I'm expected to hunt down my prey and slay it by myself, without the help of others. The Guild is very strict about this.”
“But how will they find out?” Ruzzella laughed. “They're thousands of miles away. When you come back with that dead saurus, they won't know how it died.”
“They are going to question me about it,” Kyle explained. “And they will know if I'm lying. It's not like others haven't tried cheating.”
Emrald thought about that for a moment. “Still,” he eventually said, “wouldn't it help you if we, say, stayed in the back as you made your kill? Just in case something goes wrong? Or if we tended to your wounds afterwards?”
“Well,” Kyle answered after a moment of thought, “I suppose that wouldn't be against the rules.”
“So, what do you say?” Seyran asked. “If we help you with your megaraptor, will you help us with ours?”
With a smile, Kyle eventually nodded. “Oh, why not?”
“Perfect!” Ruzzella grinned. “And now that that's settled – is that a fish roasting on your campfire?”
“Mind if I have a bite?”
“Ruzzy!” Seyran looked at his friend with an annoyed face. “We have food of our own! No need to bother others for theirs!”
“But if it's fish...”
Kyle laughed. “Hey, I don't mind sharing. This lake's full of fish, I can easily get another one.”
“Speaking of which,” Emrald noted, “how did you catch this one? You're not carrying a fishing rod, and seeing that you're wearing plate mail, I doubt you'll have caught one with your bare hands.”
“If you're interested, I'll show you.”
Kyle turned and walked back to the campfire, and the friends followed him to where he had put down his traveling pack. The young monster hunter opened one of the satchels next to it and pulled out an arrow. “This is how I hunt for fish,” he said.
“You shoot them?!” Ruzzella's jaw dropped.
Ruzzella shook her head. “No, you don't. First of all, it's impossible to see fish in the water from out here, and secondly, even if you could see them, there's no way you'd be able to hit them with bow and arrow unless they're, like, three feet away. Plus, you're not even carrying a bow!”
“Sheesh,” Kyle laughed, “I don't need a bow to shoot a few fish.”
“Okay, smartass,” Ruzzella fumed, “then how do you shoot anything without a bow?”
Instead of answering, Kyle stood up and started balancing the arrow on his middle finger. He threw the arrow up in the air, and it spun around half, landing on his middle finger again, but this time with the feathered end. Kyle slowly lowered his arm and bent his finger until the arrow shaft came to rest on his wrist, then he turned towards the lake and seemed to look for something. Eventually, he smiled.
“Watch this,” he said.
And with one swift motion, he spun around, using his arm like a catapult and flinging the arrow in his hand towards the pond. The was a short whizzing in the air, then the arrow hit the water with a small splash a split-second later.
Ruzzella stared at Kyle in disbelief. “You can't have possible hit anything with that-”
The same moment, the arrow came floating back out of the pond, and with it a reddish fish slightly over a foot in size.
“You were saying?” Kyle asked.
“Impressive,” Emrald said. “A combination of skill and a tiny bit of wind magic, I think. Are you bonded to an elemental?”
Kyle nodded. “Something like that”, he explained as he pulled his arrow out of the fish, “but it's mostly the wind arrows I'm carrying. It's much more difficult to do that stunt with non-magical stuff, plus they don't come back to me.”
“You still have to be incredibly skilled to fling arrows like that, with just your arm,” Seyran noted. “It must have taken you years to be able to do that!”
“Practice makes perfect, I suppose,” Kyle replied and threw the fish to Ruzzella. “Here, for you.”
“If you want to roast it, you're going to need a stick, but the forest is full of them.”
“Nah, I'm good,” Ruzzella said and dug her teeth right into the raw meat.
After they had all eaten, the three friends and the young monster hunter sat quietly for a few more moments, taking in the warmth of the sun and the slightly musty smell of the nearby pond as the remains of the campfire crackled before them. For Seyran and the others, it was a nice change of pace after their confrontation with the goblins the day before, and they could only imagine the many trials Kyle must have had to face on his journey from the far north.
Eventually, it was Emrald who broke the silence. “Kyle?”
“I suppose you are already on the trail of that megaraptor you're hunting?”
“I'm even a step further than that,” Kyle said. “I've found the pack's nesting place.”
Seyran looked up. “Pack? Is there more than one?”
“Yeah, megaraptors hunt in packs, like wolves,” Kyle explained. “You don't know that much about megaraptors, do you?”
“They are a species of saurus, a bird-reptile subtype,” Emrald said. “Around eight to nine feet in height, and with a set of arms instead of wings. Predatory and capable of running as fast as a galloping horse.”
Kyle nodded. “That's them. From the trails I've found, there's ten or eleven of them.”
“And you were trying to take them on alone?” Ruzzella asked skeptically. “That sounds... challenging, even for a trained monster hunter.”
“Rule number one of monster hunting: never face a monster on its own terms,” Kyle said. “Megaraptors are used to hunting in packs, so of course I'm not taking on the entire pack at once. I'm singling the one with the red comb out.”
“Sounds good,” Ruzzella agreed. “How?”
“My original plan was to shoot my prey from a distance, then scare the rest of the pack away before they smell the blood and get into a feeding frenzy.”
Seyran raised an eyebrow. “How do you scare away a pack of eight-foot-tall sauruses all by yourself?”
“By attacking at night,” Kyle explained. “Megaraptors are daytime hunters and almost blind in the dark. And if they can't see something that threatens them, their instinct tells them to run away.”
“A nighttime attack!” Ruzzella grinned. “I like the idea.”
Emrald leaned forward. “Still, the plan sounds very risky to do on your own,” he pondered. “Are you certain you do not want a little more help with it?”
“I already thought about that, too,” Kyle agreed. “I'm supposed to hunt down and kill my prey all by myself, but I think there's nothing in the rules about other people running around and scaring other creatures away at the same time I'm doing a hunt.”
“So basically,” Seyran said, “our job would be to come running at the megaraptor pack as soon as you've shot the one beast you're after and make enough noise to keep them off your back, right?”
Kyle nodded. “If you can do that, that would be perfect. Just don't engage the red-combed megaraptor directly, or indirectly, for that matter. I have to be the only one taking it down.”
“No sweat,” Ruzzella smiled. “We'll leave you your kill. Just stick to your end of the bargain.”
“We help you with your megaraptor, you help us with ours.”
Kyle nodded. “Of course.”
“How far is it?” Seyran wanted to know.
“Down that beach and half around the pond, and then half an hour uphill into the forest. The megaraptors usually come to drink down here in the evening. I've made a sign on the trees where their path begins.”
Emrald nodded and stood up. “In that case,” he said, “we should go soon. We should get close to that nesting place ahead of time so that the megaraptors don't hear us approach.”
“Spoken like a true monster hunter,” Kyle said and started throwing sand on the remains of his campfire to extinguish the last embers.
When the sun sank behind the treetops, the three friends and their new companion had taken position in the Darkwoods, only a few steps away from a large clearing. From there, they could here the sounds the megaraptors made as they returned from their hunt – unpleasant, high-pitched shrieks not unlike those birds of prey made, only more raspy and with an audible hiss to it that betrayed the creatures' reptilian nature. The sounds continued for as long as the sun was in the sky, and then, as it slowly sank below the horizon, the high-pitched noises eventually disappeared.
Kyle patted Seyran on the shoulder, and Seyran nudged Emrald in the side as they prepared to move. Ruzzella had taken a perch up in one of the treetops, and as the friends started sneaking towards the clearing, they could only guess that the very slight rustle in the leaves above them was their companion following them.
They had cleared the path they had wanted to take from any loose leaves and branches in advance so that they would not make any more sound than absolutely necessary, and since the ground was still wet from yesterday's heavy downpour, that had been quite easy. Seyran had been a little worried about Kyle's armored boots giving them away, but to his surprise, his movements were hardly more audible than Emrald's, and Emrald could move very quietly for someone that size and weight.
Eventually, the clearing opened before them, and underneath the stars and the half-moon, they saw the great shapes of the megaraptors sitting on the ground. It was hard to determine their color with what little light illuminated the clearing, but only one of the creatures had a head with a visible comb on it. Hopefully, that would be the creature Kyle had been hunting.
Looking to his side, Seyran saw Kyle slowly kneeling down and drawing his two shorter sabers from their sheaths. Strange – hadn't he said he had planned to shoot the megaraptor? But as Seyran watched, Kyle took one saber into each hand and touched their hilts together, and as he did that, the air around them seemed to quiver for a moment, and then they merged into a single, curved object, and from where the blades ended, a thin beam of light appeared between the two of them, like a bowstring...
And then Seyran understood. The two sabers – together, they formed one bow, and when combat became up-and-close, Kyle could take them apart and use them as melee weapons. So the wind arrows weren't the only magical objects the monster hunter had been carrying. Seyran should have known, or at least that's what he thought now. It all made much more sense if there was also a bow involved.
His gaze fixed on the clearing, Kyle pulled out one of his arrows, nocked it into his saber-bow and and took one deep breath. Then he stood up, and in one fluent motion, drew his bowstring and aimed. Seyran could see a tiny crackle of lightning surround the arrow for a short moment, and then Kyle let it fly.
A split-second later, the megaraptor with the visible comb shrieked in pain as a flurry of lightning crackled all over its hulking body. It spun and shook, and all around it, the other megaraptors stumbled to their legs and echoed its terrible shriek.
“NOW!” Seyran shouted and stormed onto the clearing, and next to him, he could see Emrald's massive shape moving as well as the goliath followed his lead. This time, he was fully prepared for battle, his war-fork drawn. This would go differently than it had with the goblins, Seyran was certain of that, and even moreso when Ruzzella leaped from her perch in the trees, landed ahead of him and ran onto the clearing on all fours, her battle howl even drowning out the shrieks of the megaraptors.
Their plan had been to scare the beasts into fleeing, and it did work splendidly. With the exception of the one shot by Kyle and now squirming on the ground, the others fell into a run, panicked by the sudden attack on their nesting place and unable to get a good look at whatever was charging at them. Kyle had a clear path towards his target, and looking over his shoulder, Seyran could see him run towards the wounded creature, taking his bow apart into two sabers again and slashing at his prey's neck. The megaraptor made a gurgling sound as the blade bit.
And at the same moment, one of the other megaraptors – a massive beast over nine feet in size – suddenly stopped running away, looked behind itself and then turned towards Seyran and his friends with an angry roar.
Ruzzella, who had been charging ahead a good bit ahead of the others, stopped so abruptly the earth scattered underneath her claws. “Dammit!” she hissed. “Run away, you stupid thing!”
“What's happening, Emrald?” Seyran shouted over the clamor of the escaping beasts in front of them and the fight behind them. “Why isn't that one scared like the others?”
“No idea,” Emrald growled back. “Maybe it's its mate, or something like that. I think it's about to at-”
That moment, the megaraptor charged at the first thing it could see in the darkness, and that happened to be Ruzzella. It threw itself at what could only be a shadow in its eyes, and only her reflexes saved the catfolk woman from being crushed underneath a scaly claw. She jumped to the side, rolled over her shoulder and was back on her legs in one fluid motion.
“So you want to brawl?” she yelled. “I'll give you a brawl!”
That, at the very least, got the creature's attention. Faster than one would have expected from its size, it spun around and prepared for another charge. This time, it opened its mouth, hoping to be able to catch Ruzzella in its jaws as she made another leap to the side – only that Ruzzella didn't leap to the side. Instead, she leaped up, somersaulting over the charging megaraptor and lashing out with her own claws at the same time, scratching over the beast's scaly hide.
Her aim was true. By any means, she should have drawn blood with her attack. Unfortunately, the megaraptor seemed absolutely unharmed.
“Watch out!” Emrald shouted. “A megaraptor this size must have a skin as tough as chainmail. I doubt your claws will do much good against it!”
“Now you tell me?” Ruzzella yelled back in frustration as she saw the beast turn towards her again and prepare yet another charge. This time, though, she wasn't going to let it get away that easily. Digging her claws into her own palms, she drew blood, and as she felt the pain rush through her body, she focused that pain at her bonded elemental and awoke it.
A second later, Ruzzella's body burst into living flame.
The megaraptor, having already begun its charge, now suddenly found itself running towards what looked like an open fire to it. The surprise made it lose focus for a moment, and that moment was enough for Ruzzella to sidestep it and lash out once again, this time with claws imbued with fierce, powerful magic.
The smell of burning flesh filled the air as the megaraptor howled in pain. Like most animals, it had a natural fear of fire, and Ruzzella's sudden change of form should have made it turn tail and flee. Unfortunately, the wound in its side seemed to have enraged it, and while it didn't seem to like the idea of charging right into the fire again, it now could suddenly see two more possible targets in the light of that same fire that had just burned it. Targets that looked small and harmless in comparison.
The megaraptor adjusted his direction, let out another bellowing roar and then charged straight towards Seyran.
Seyran gulped and fastened the grip around his glaive. With any other opponent, he would have just used his weapon like a spear and allowed the beast to impale itself upon the blade. However, with a beast of that size and mass, that would have been risky at best and possibly bordering on suicidal. He could only hope to imitate one of Ruzzella's moves and leap to the side at the last moment, and he didn't quite have her jumping power. He could also not hope for Ruzzella's help – the megaraptor was between her and him, and even at her fastest running speed, she could not have overtaken it before it reached Seyran.
The megaraptor was trampling closer and closer. Seyran tightened his muscles and prepared to jump out of the way.
That moment, Emrald stepped in front on him, slammed both his feet into the ground and dropped his war-fork.
And as the megaraptor slammed into him, Emrald grabbed its jaws with both hands and pried them open. Even though the massive creature had thrown itself at him at full speed, the goliath didn't budge an inch.
Seyran was surprised for a moment, but only until he could see the change that had gone through his friend's body. In the light shining from Ruzzella's flame-form, Emrald's skin was glistening like crystal as he drew upon the power of the earth elemental within him, the same power that was now anchoring him to the ground so that not even a tornado could have torn him away from that position. At the same time, the earth magic had hardened his skin, making it as hard as rock and virtually impenetrable.
The megaraptor's front claws ineffectually scratched at Emrald's skin, its massive legs tried to pull it out of the goliath's grip, but all at no avail. Emrald stood fast, not letting go of the creature's jaws and wrestling it upwards so that its throat was exposed.
And once Seyran had understood what his friend was trying to do, he moved next to him and plunged his glaive into the megaraptor's throat, slitting it.
As the blood gushed out of its wound, the creature gave a final, stifled growl, then its legs gave way, and as Emrald let it go, it collapsed to the ground, drawing its final breaths as the last life left its body. Ruzzella, slowly returning from her flame-form to her usual self, approached her friends and looked at the dying beast before her. “Everybody okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Seyran nodded, “we're good. Kyle?”
He turned towards the young monster hunter, and as he did, he could see him stand over the decapitated body of the other megaraptor, his foot triumphantly on the head of the creature.
“Yup,” Kyle laughed, “I'm good too.”