Within a certain distance upon a dirt road, there was an outpost of armored soldiers. The summer-like heat did not ease the minds of those guarding the wooden fortified zone. A soldier yawned and leaned on his spear to get some rest. They were standing for almost the entire day, with no enemy in sight. Morale was so low, the soldiers begged for a conflict themselves, whether or not their lives were at risk.
The Captain of the Outpost tried to snap his men into shape, only for them to stand lazily about.
“Men, stand fast! Anything can happen at any given moment!” he shouted.
“But it’s been like this for days, sir! Nothing but trees and… trees!” one soldier complained.
“I’ll have you disciplined if you keep snapping back at me, private!”
The Captain sighed, shaking his head before turning around. As much he did not want to admit it, his men were right: nothing important had transpired here. When someone does come through, they were carrying trinkets of the sort. He was in no position to question the authority of the higher-ups and perhaps because of his men slacking days on end made him draw to that conclusion.
He heard someone approach behind him, and when he turned, he let out a sigh. During their stay at this station, Command had sent a student from the Institute of Combat and Magicks, otherwise known as “The Academy.” This student was Merlin Ambrosius. The mage was recommended by the Head Maester of the Academy and because of that, the Captain expected someone of great caliber into his care. His expectations were broken the moment he’d met the young mage. With short brown hair and a scrawny vibe, Merlin looked as if a mere word would snap him into two.
Luckily, the young mage was accompanied by a mysterious bodyguard. “Senior” (the name given by Merlin) was a tall, bulky man who wore a mask resembling of a lion and a pendant of a cross. Supposedly, these cross-wearing individuals are highly trained professionals tasked to protect someone or something of importance. Whenever Senior was around, the Captain couldn’t help but feel a chilling sensation on his back, though it won’t stop him from giving orders.
“Are you two going to complain as well? I expect you, Merlin Ambrosius, to be far more disciplined than these brats!”
“No sir, I have nothing to complain about, sir!” Merlin responded.
“Then what are you doing here, boy? Get back to your post!”
“I-I want to point something out to you, sir!”
Merlin put his hand to the side. “I’ve been getting energy spikes across this region, sir! Perhaps we can send a party out to investigate it?”
The Captain shook his head. “Boy, if I had the resources, I would’ve done so before. Ever since we’ve been posted here, Command only sends us supplies and no new troops. Plus, they wanted us here, and that’s what we’ll be doing.”
“Nothing more, Private Ambrosius!”
Merlin let out a sigh, and the Captain looked out to the road in front of him, eyes being vigilant. Senior nudged him, chuckling.
“Cap’ is a bit harsh, but in times like these, we must have an open eye on things.”
Merlin nodded. “I guess you’re right. I suppose—”
One soldier guarding the front gates shouted. “Sir, there’s someone coming this way!”
The Captain squinted, seeing a figure in the distance coming close to them. It was a child with hair frosty as snow and a left eye blue like the spring sky above. He wore an eyepatch which covered his right eye, and had a long red scarf that seemed to be light as a feather since it fluttered elegantly. The soldiers got into their positions. After a few minutes, the Captain jumped from the wooden walls, landing right in front of the child.
“What brings a child like you out in these parts?” the Captain questioned. “Where are your parents, or the ones who hold responsibility for your safety?”
“My parents are dead, and I have no home to go to.”
“Oh. Um, well.” The Captain cleared his throat.
The boy stuck his tongue out. “Just kidding. Well, it’s not a joke since technically speaking—”
“Never mind that! Ahem… State your name and business.”
“Aeria Dunder. I’m not wanted, am I?”
[Note to Reader: Aeria is Aren, and for the sake of consistency, I will still use Aren.]
The Captain raised his brow and asked for one of his soldiers to bring him his clipboard. He searched through the papers of wanted people, none mentioned the name nor appearance.
“It seems you are not on the wanted list, Mr. Dunder. Very well, you may pass.”
He showed his palm. “For what it seems, you are a foreigner to these lands. I must inform you that a civil war broken loose and with the arrival of the infamous Bandit King, the situation has gone worse. Forgive our impoliteness, I hope these unfortunate events cause no harm to you.”
Aren rubbed his neck. “I was told about that Civil War gizmo. Well, there’s no such thing as being too safe with these checkpoints, right?”
“I thank you, kind traveler. Now—”
Merlin approached Aren with his staff ready at hand. Senior was at his side, hand near his sword. He noticed something strange about the traveler, so he asked the Captain if he can inspect him. The Captain agreed, and he approached Aren, squinting.
“Um… Is there something wrong?” Aren asked “Don’t get into any funny business with your hands, cause’ I know—”
“N-No sir! It’s just, your appearance is strange, that’s all.”
Aren expressed a dumbfounded look. “Come again?”
“There were many tales of heroes wearing a scarf to battle, but there was one that stood out from the rest. The Princess of Oceanus made a scarf so indescribably long that it ‘glided’ despite having no wind at all. What I am referring to is the Mystical Shawl of Destiny!”
“Uh, mystical what now?”
Merlin pointed at the scarf. “Your scarf, for heaven’s sake! I believe that may be an ancient artifact belonging from Princess Mizuki herself. It must be confiscated since it is illegal for any individual to carry legendary artifacts without the Court’s approval!”
A drop of sweat fell from Aren’s forehead. “Haha, can’t you believe this kid? Listen here, I don’t own any magical scarf nor have any relations to this… Mizuki.”
“Then how can a scarf such as yours do that flowing thingy?! It defies all matter of physics!”
“Magic defies all matter of physics and science: seeing this is the talk of the norm!”
“You are one to talk!”
Aren turned to the Captain. “Good sir, I’m not wanted by the kingdom nor I am causing any trouble. This person of yours has gotten out of control, so I’ll be leaving now.”
The Captain blocked his path. “Sir Aeria Dunder, it is of Damore’s interest that weapons or items of dangerous capabilities be confiscated. If you are not carrying anything of the sort, you may leave. The young mage shall be properly disciplined if he is wrong.”
Aren was silent for a bit, and with a deep breath, he nodded. Merlin chanted the Inspection spell and a white ring hovered over his body. After a moment, it highlighted the scarf and satchel, leaving everyone in awe.
The Captain’s eyes widened. “By the Gods, Merlin, you’re right!”
Aren shook his head. “I knew it would turn out like this. By the way, Aeria’s not my real name! See you later!”
He saluted and dashed to the gate. The soldiers used whatever they can to slow him down, but nothing succeeded. The Captain was the fastest upon his peers, and even he could not lay a single finger on the escapee. Knowing that the soldiers had the advantage on the open road, he dove deep into the forest.
“You five, come with me! You, mage, you’re coming with us as well!” the Captain ordered.
Senior knelt beside Merlin, gesturing him to climb on his back. Merlin did, and together, the party of eight pursued Aren. Though he was a mere shadow in the distance, the search party could keep up with their escapee’s mobility. The vegetation grew thicker and thicker the deeper they ventured, and eventually, they lost sight of him. The Captain sighed and rallied his men around him.
“Merlin, can you track him down?” he asked.
“Yes sir, just give me a moment! Tracker!”
Merlin raised his staff, and it emitted a yellow light, leading them deeper into the thicket. He took a step forward, eager to follow the magical path. His eyes trailed to his right, seeing a dark shadow being cast over him. This shadow opened its mouth, revealing an arrangement of sharp fangs. His eyes widened and he let out a blood-curling scream.
In a flash of light, the beast was cut into two by a strike of lightning. It fell to the ground into two, then its body vanished in thin air. Senior swung his sword to the side before sheathing it. The Captain and the others caught up and formed a defensive circle.
“T-Thank you, Senior!” Merlin said, shuddering.
“No problem. Captain, what was that just now?”
“I don’t know, but there are more than one of those things inside here, I fear for the worst…”
The howling of wolves echoed, leaving a chilling sensation on Merlin’s spine. It continued for minutes, then it went silent. Though it seemed the threat passed on, the group was on high alert.
“Merlin, use your spell again,” the Captain ordered.
Merlin used Tracker once again and when they followed the yellow-emitted trail, it led to a cliff overviewing a temperate coniferous forest below. The howling of wolves was heard again, and it was in the direction of where the outcry of the beasts came from. The Captain touched his chin as the others looked for a way to get down.
“T-That’s the Forest of Sorrows below, sir! I’ve been hearing dreadful rumors about that place…” Merlin trembled.
“I don’t like the look of this. If there are more of that wolf beast, we should report it back to Command,” the Captain confessed, “Still, that Aeria boy is out and about with legendary artifacts. We are putting the entire kingdom in risk if we let him escape.”
“So, it’s a lose-lose situation. I fear we must sacrifice one thing or another to proceed,” Senior said. “What is the plan, sir?”
One soldier found a passageway to the area below and before heading in, he rallied his troops for a brief meeting.
“Men, this place we are going in may be something that we never experienced before. Those mysterious beasts might be lurking in the forest below, so, if you want to turn and head back to the camp, now it is your chance.”
One man saluted and bowed. “Sire, I am afraid I will take that opportunity. Forgive me and thank you for granting us this privilege. It’s been an honor, Captain.”
“The honor is mine. Now go and tell the others what happened here. If there is no sign of my return within three days, then report to Command about this bizarre situation.”
The soldier left the premise, making the search party down to seven. Everybody headed into the hidden passageway. After traversing through tight spots and dangerous pathways, a light was revealed at the end of a tunnel. When they reached to the end of the shaft, a rainbow-colored wall sparkled before them. Particles of light swirled around, forming into what appeared to be a woman dressed in white. She glanced at them, expressing a despair none could describe: her green hair flowed elegantly as the wind softly surged in the tunnel.
The Captain stepped forth. “Who are you? Are you with that Aeria boy?”
The woman lowered her yellow, tender eyes. “A child didst passeth through hither, but he didst not heed mine own warning.”
“Woah, her language is so… archaic,” Merlin remarked.
“Why are you stopping us? What purpose do you serve?” Senior said.
The woman-in-white shook her head. “Thither art ancient magics hither yond prevents a horrid evil from escaping. To intervene with the balance of this forsaken forest shall cost thy liveth. Shall thee still proceed?”
The Captain nodded. “Aye, it is our duty. For the sake of Damore and its people.”
“Thee remind me of the duty I once did hold f'r mine own people. I wonder if 't be true thee shall has't the same fate as me…?”
The woman-in-white vanished in a flash of light. The soldiers murmured, and the Captain sighed.
“Come on lads, we’ve gotten too deep to go back. Get the artifacts and get out of this bloody place, understand?”
The search party went through the barrier, and the exit behind them was quickly blocked. The woman-in-white manifested herself again, holding her own arm as she watched them disappear into the distance.
“They, too, shall falleth to evil's hands. By the gods, I wish f'r their safety,” she fretted.