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 to get through the constant boredom. 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!”
“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 shook his head. As much as he did not want to admit it, his men were right: nothing important had transpired here. When someone did meet them, they were random travelers or carrying useless trinkets. He was in no position to question the authority of the higher-ups and because of his men slacking days on end, he too was starting to doubt.
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 Head Maester of the Academy recommended the mage for on-field experience, and because of that, the Captain expected someone of great caliber into his care. They broke his expectations the moment he’d met the young man. 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 with a cross pendant resting on his chest. 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 I and some members of your division can—”
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, Mister Ambrosius! I appreciate your concerns, but there’s a war going on. We must keep an open eye for the greater things!”
Merlin let out a sigh, and the Captain looked out to the road in front of him, eyes being vigilant. Senior nudged him, chuckling.
“The Captain is right, Sir Merlin. If the Head Maester were here, she would oppose you going anywhere that’s not safe.”
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. The air was still and for a moment, the two stared at each other.
“HELLO traveler! What brings you—” the Captain squinted, touching his chin. “Say, aren’t you too young to be traveling by yourself? Where are those responsible for your safety?”
“Everyone I know is dead and I have nowhere to go to.”
“Oh, um. Well.”
The boy stuck his tongue out. “Why so serious? Happens all the time here, right? I mean, technically, I’m not—”
“Never mind that! Ahem… State your name and business.”
“Aren Damoder and I’m looking for Miss Hawkwood. The Phoenix of Damore? Ring any bells?”
“Yes, these bells have been rung.” The Captain nodded. “Aye, the famous Layette Hawkwood! Who doesn’t know the infamous—”
“Beasts of Divine, yata yata yata… Now that’s out of the way, I have to get to this Royal Outpost place. May I pass?”
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 “Aren Damoder” nor had the description of a “white-haired” individual. “It seems you are not on the wanted list, Mr. Damoder. Strange for an outsider to know such a place. Hmm.”
“Don’t worry. Some knight dude named Dagn sent his regards.”
“My word! The most esteemed knight of the Eadburt family sent you his best wishes?! It would be best for you to reach the Royal Outpost as soon as possible!”
Aren expressed a dumbfounded look. “Come again?”
“Sir Dagn is basically Lord Eadburt’s right-hand man! He was sent to protect a vital sector and from the news I hear, he’d slain many foes successfully! If you got his approval, then your matter must be very serious.”
“Yes, very serious. Very. Ahem.”
“I wish to provide an escort but as you can see, I am short on men. Don’t worry, Fort Riverdell is not far from here. The general there can provide you a proper escort upon your arrival. I’ll also send word through our Magical Orb that you are on your way.”
The Captain saluted, and the gate opened upon his orders. Aren gulped and walked with caution, hearing murmurs from the surrounding soldiers. He got through with no suspicions. Before he felt relieved, Merlin approached him with his staff ready at hand. Senior was at his side, hand near his sword. The young mage noticed something strange about the traveler and with the approval of the Captain, he leerily gazed at him.
“Um. Is there something wrong?” Aren asked, “Don’t get into any funny business with your hands, cause’ I know a thing or two about em’.”
“N-No sir! It’s just, your appearance is strange, that’s all.”
“I know right? I am pretty unique if I’d say so myself.”
“No, no. 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,’ with or without the wind. What I am referring to is the Mystical Shawl of Destiny!”
“Uh, the 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. We must confiscate it since it is illegal for any individual to carry legendary artifacts without the Court’s approval!”
“Huh, what are you talking about? I, uh, don’t know who this ‘Mizuki’ person is, but my wife made this!”
“O-Oh, apologies. I can’t believe that—WAIT, how can a scarf like that do that flowing thingy?! It defies all matters of physics!”
“Magic defies all matter of physics and science: seeing this is the talk of the norm!”
“So, you admit it is a magical scarf! Look at it, it’s emitting a strange aura around it!”
Sweat dripped from Aren’s forehead as he turned to the Captain. “This compatriot of yours has gotten out of control. Like you said, I need to make posthaste to the Outpost.”
One soldier yelled to get the Captain’s attention. On his arm was a mystical bird, and it flew to him. On its neck was a note and once opened, it contained four words and he read it aloud: “Capture white hair boy.” All eyes turned to Aren, and it was obvious what he had to do next.
“Time to reveal my secret technique!” He saluted and ran as fast as he could. “RUN AWAY!”
To their surprise, Aren was faster than they expected. He dodged all of their attempts of capturing him, be it by nets or by magic. Even the Captain who was the fastest among his peers could not lay a single finger on the escapee. Then, like a flash of lightning, Senior appeared in front of him, raising his sword. The surrounding area exploded upon his attack. However, Aren came out unscathed, still running at full speed.
“You five, come with me! Merlin, Senior, you’re coming with us as well!” the Captain ordered.
Senior kneeled beside Merlin, gesturing him to climb on his back. Together, the party of eight pursued Aren when he diverted into the forest near them. 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! That scarf was a Divine Artifact. Without magical suppressants, I can trace it with this spell: 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?”
“They look like wolves but have a menacing black aura around them… If there’s one of them here, more are yet to come. I fear for the worst…”
The howling of wolves echoed, leaving a chilling sensation on Merlin’s spine. It continued for minutes, then silence. Though it seemed the threat passed on, the group was on high alert.
“Merlin, use your spell again,” the Captain said.
Merlin used Tracker once again and when they followed the yellow-emitted trail, it led to a cliff over-viewing a temperate coniferous forest. The howling of wolves was heard again, and its source was within the woods below. 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. We should report it back to Command,” the Captain confessed, “Still, that Aren boy is out and about. We are putting the entire kingdom at risk if we let him escape.”
“So, it’s a lose-lose situation. I fear you must sacrifice one thing or another to proceed. Your call,” Senior said.
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 tell the others what happened here. If there is no sign of my return within two days, then report to Command about this bizarre situation.” The Captain turned to Merlin. “You, mage, have done us service. I won’t refuse your decision to leave.”
Senior nodded. “Yes, that would be best.”
Merlin shook his head. “No, I must see this through. Allow me to accompany you, sir!”
“Merlin, that area below is dangerous! Your mo—the Head Maester would oppose this bashful decision!”
“You don’t understand Senior: this is my chance to do something she would approve of! To show her that I helped capture a person with dangerous artifacts… Please Senior!”
Senior was silent for some time before nodding in approval. With Merlin’s help, everybody traversed into the hidden passageway. Through the tight spots and dangerous pathways, a light was eventually revealed at the end of a tunnel. A rainbow-colored wall sparkled before them at its exit. Particles of light swirled around, forming into what appeared to be a woman dressed in white gown. She glanced at them, expressing a despair none could describe: her green hair flowed elegantly as the wind softly surged in the tunnel. Merlin’s face turned bright red as she was perhaps the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
The Captain stepped forward. “Who are you? Are you with that boy?”
The woman lowered her yellow, tender eyes. “A child didst glance through hither, but he not heed mine own admonishment.”
“Her language is so… archaic,” Merlin remarked.
“Are you trying to stop us?” Senior said.
The woman-in-white nodded. “Indeed. Inly the very forest lies an stale, brazen evil. To entreat with its unspeakable horrors, thee shall perish. Despite me granting such instruction, shall thee still proceed?
The Captain nodded. “Aye, it is our duty. For the sake of Damore and its people.”
“Very well. Thee prompt me of a duty I once held for mine own commons. I muse to ken if thy fate be’est same as my own…”
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. Capture the boy, get that artifact, then leave. Made myself clear?”
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.
“More shall lapse to damnable hands. By the gods, I bosom their safety,” she fretted.