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The next few days passed in the blink of an eye.
I shifted my weight on the bench, feeling the light, distant pain in my leg where my blunt wound had been. I didn’t know how bad it had actually gotten, but I was glad it was fixed. Even now, I only felt the ghostly remnants of soreness as if my bones were still in the process of forgetting the traumatic event.
My shoulders straightened up and I twisted my neck, adjusting my gaze back into the room. A bright glint of golden torchlight stung my eyes. I winced, veering my head away.
All around me, the main room of the guards’ quarters was laid out in a practical, organized fashion. The tall stone pillars and straight, well-built wooden walls that I’d seen in the town hall were the same here, cutting the room into distinct sections.
In front of me was the main room of the quarters that doubled as one of their rooms to train. On the walls to my side, dozens of different swords, knives, and other battle equipment were placed carefully on racks. Beside the racks were an anvil and a large, crackling forge that spread a soft, golden warmth throughout the room.
My fingers twitched, moving down to the hilt of my blade as I stared at the forge. Memories rose up in my mind, reminding me of the sweet memories I’d made as a child. Memories of visiting my local blacksmith. Memories of noting down the orders for weapons that people placed day by day. Memories of finally being able to place those orders myself.
A smile crept up onto my lips as the forge’s fire entranced my eyes. The light, smoky smell of the room filled my nostrils and I took a long breath, relishing in it. With the training room around me—a training room that looked so much like the ones I’d used in Credon—a bittersweet taste fell on my tongue.
On one hand, it made me feel at home. But on the other hand, it reminded me of the exact reason I would never get to go back there.
The loud slam of a door echoed through the room, startling me from my thoughts. My intense grip loosened and my features softened as the images faded back into the past. I whipped my head around, scanning past the final row of stone pillars behind me and into the hall that led to the individual guard rooms.
A tall, despondent-looking man with a single golden line cutting through the insignia on his shoulder walked through the dim hallway and up into the torchlight. A wry smile grew on his lips as he ran his hand through his short brown hair.
Westin, I remembered, narrowing my eyes on him. He pushed the thin strands of hair off his forehead and let his hand fall back down to his side. After a moment, Westin met my gaze. His smile became more genuine and I smiled back, trying not to notice to the tired, glossy look in his eyes.
I’d spent the past few days doing more preparation than I’d done in months. But Westin was the guard captain—Nesrin’s second in command. And he’d been doing even more than that.
Watching Westin trudge into the room, pushing right past the bench I was sitting on as he made his way over to where three other guards were sitting, a weight pressed down on my shoulders.
The soft and stiff words coming out of Westin’s mouth lilted to my ears. I snapped my gaze over, watching the way he was nodding with one of the few other guards sitting in the room.
Cas, I remembered, watching the woman push the dark hooded cloak off of her short black hair. As Westin spoke, she nodded, showing no other signs of emotion. Even still, she held tight to the sword sheathed at her waist and exuded confidence in its purest form.
Today was the day, I reminded myself. We were going into the forest, and we would either return in success, or we wouldn’t return at all.
My back straightened up, responding to the cold weight pressing down on my shoulders despite the warmth of the room. I tore my gaze away from the guard captain and rolled my neck, trying uselessly to remove the weight.
A quick movement flashed in the corner of my vision and I snapped my gaze to it. On the far side of the room, the large wooden entrance door to the quarters swung open.
A tall, suave, black-haired man entered first with a smug grin on his face. His hand was raised in an exaggerated fashion, and he was already stifling a chuckle that seemed to permanently live in his throat. My eyebrows dropped, recognizing the guard’s face in an instant.
Tiren, I reminded myself. The most theatrical and arrogant of the guards.
Tiren was turned as he entered with a wicked intent in his eyes. His chuckle came spewing out and I didn’t even need to look to know exactly who he was talking to.
Jason’s signature smirk caught my eyes only a second later as he ran his hand through his sandy hair and watched with amusement at Tiren’s reaction.
“That really does sound like something you would do,” Tiren said, still chuckling to himself. The smug guard turned around, his piercing green eyes seemingly pulling annoyance right up out of my soul.
The wooden door slammed shut behind them, once again trapping the warmth of the room inside.
“Glad you guys finally showed up,” Westin said, his drooping eyebrows showing only a resigned disappointment.
Tiren raised his hands. “Calm down, Wes. Most of the guards assigned aren’t here yet anyway.”
Westin did not look amused. “That doesn’t mean you have the right to be late.”
“Look,” Jason cut in, nearly looking over Tiren’s shoulder as he smirked at the guard captain. “Tiren was just acquainting me with the town. Nothing else. It’s really no big deal.”
Westin’s lips curled. “Do you have all of the equipment you’re going to need?”
Tiren’s grin grew, almost spreading from ear to ear. “Of course we do. We’re not amateurs, Wes.”
I rolled my eyes, leaning back on the bench and lifting my grip. The black leather slipped from my fingers with sweet, satisfying ease.
Westin resisted a sneer and just nodded, tilting his head backward in the direction I was sitting. The set of benches and tables around me were nearly empty, only populated with the one other guard that had so far bothered to show up.
I looked over at Mayin, the gold-flamed pyromancer who was supposed to be crucial to our mission. She shifted in her cloak, twiddling her fingers on the table she was sitting at while flicking her eyes around the room. Every time she looked in the direction of anyone else, she averted her gaze and hung her head, letting her light-haired curls cover her face.
Jason flicked his eyes over to me, meeting my gaze with a smile. I sat back again, my lips tweaking upward with more than a little reluctance. By the time they’d made it over to me, walking with as much poised confidence as I would’ve expected. Way too much.
I bit back a scoff. “Do you know when we’re actually going to head out?”
Tiren tilted his head a bit, his tilted smile growing just the faintest bit more wicked. But by the time he opened his mouth to give me a sarcastic answer, Jason had already opened his mouth.
“After we get the plan,” he said, sitting down on the bench next to me. His gaze hardened with purpose and the smirk that seemed to be stitched on his face whenever he hung out with Tiren faded a hair.
“So we’re waiting on Myris?” I asked.
Jason nodded, clicking his tongue. “I have to assume so. The old man said he was the one that wanted to finalize the plan with Nesrin.”
Tiren scoffed, displaying such arrogant condescension that it made even Jason look humble. “Right, because they just have to finalize the plan behind closed doors. We’re the ones that have to be on the task force, but we don’t get any say in the final plan.”
I furrowed my brow. “We were all there when they were originally drafting it.”
“Sure, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t change it.” Tiren squinted, glaring at only the air. “Nesrin is always pulling things just to make my life more difficult.”
Jason nodded as if he understood and I just squinted at him. He seemed to agree just out of the blue as if he knew the entire situation. Maybe he did, I told myself. Jason and Tiren had been nearly inseparable since the first meeting when they’d met and it wouldn’t have surprised me if Tiren had told him his entire life story in the most glorified way possible already.
The large wooden front entrance swung open once again, letting another guard into the quarters. The large man swung his hammer up over his shoulder, smiling at me. Rian, I noted, remembering the brutish man from the original meetings.
I tapped my foot on the ground.
“How much longer could they be?”
Jason shrugged, caring much less than his similarly arrogant companion.
Tiren rolled his eyes. “We were supposed to decamp at sunset. And seeing as that can’t be more than ten minutes away now, I’d say they’ll arrive in ten minutes.”
The bitterness was obvious in his tone and I wanted to roll my eyes. But feeling my leg start to bob as my foot tapped on the floor, I couldn’t. I’d already been waiting in the quarters for what felt like forever and each second felt agonizing with anticipation.
Every second passed was a second lost, after all. And every second lost was another ray of light that we wouldn’t get to use. Another gust of wind that would only get colder as the night progressed.
Cold air pricked at my skin, making my hairs stand on end. I blinked, shaking my head slightly as I raised my gaze. Across the room, the door was open again, letting blasts of the winter wind into the room.
I watched the two forms entering the door, narrowing my eyes as I searched for two specific faces.
“Alright!” a distinct voice boomed out through the room as Nesrin made her entrance. Her firm voice jerked my head right up, sounding both friendly and deadly at the same time.
A flash of golden light glinted off grey and Myris swallowed a chuckle as he stepped next to Nesrin. The smiling, brown-haired head of guard scanned the room, placing her hands on her hips.
Following her lead, Myris did the same thing, scanning over the quarters. But compared to her smooth and calculated scan, his gaze seemed to jump around as if he was looking for someone in specific. And when his brown eyes met mine, the grin on his face wavering for a second, he’d found exactly that.
Sparing one last comment to Nesrin—a comment that I wasn’t able to hear over the growing commotion on our side of the room—Myris pushed back into strides and made his way over to us.
“Good,” Nesrin said. Her voice commanded my attention, and I gave it all in a moment. “It seems that everyone is here. I’m glad you all could make it.”
Myris quickened his pace toward us, weaving around a stone pillar and then a table on his way to our bench. The soft commotion among the still settling guard died down as the entire room was captured by Nesrin’s stance.
Nesrin held her head high, still smiling, and stepped forward. “As you all know, the sun is setting and night is pressing in. Normally, during the winter, this only brings two things: the darkness and the cold. But now it brings something else—something far far worse.”
I swallowed, the light air swirling in my lungs at an accelerated pace. The magic tingle of everything matched perfectly with the fluttering butterflies in my gut.
“Now, it brings terrors—it brings them and their scourge.” The dark edge in Nesrin’s eyes flared out, sharpening at the corners and making sure her words cut through with the exact intent she wanted. “This winter, their scourge hit us and our town way before we were ready, and with more ferocity than usual. For the past weeks, we’ve been trying our best, but admittedly, we haven’t been able to keep up.”
Nesrin hung her head a bit, reflecting the dejection in her words. Her tone still carried through the silence as she adjusted her stance, keeping everybody silent as if with a spell.
“So, we reached out for assistance. And three days ago, that assistance arrived in the form of rangers from Sarin. These rangers know our forest better than anyone who lives in it, and they’ve been dealing with these terrors in the same way we have. With their help, we have finally formulated a plan to locate and eradicate the source of their scourge, purifying our forest for the rest of the coming year.”
Myris grinned next to me, the air lightening as his eyes swirled with energy.
“Finally,” he said in a hushed tone that made my eyebrows drop in an instant.
“The plan is quite simple, and I will only say it once. So pay attention, stay ready, and do not forget. According to the rangers, the source of their scourge this year can move, something vile to think about but that falls in line with the other differences. Apparently, this source, however, acts just like many of the others from the past in that it houses clusters of terrors that congregate to feed on fear.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see Rian side-eyeing me each distinct and obvious fear flashing in his eyes. I felt a chill on my spine and I straightened up, trying to push it away.
“What we’re looking for is a gnarled, circular clearing that is lined with trees. The terrors congregate in the shadows of this clearing, and we want those shadows gone.” Nesrin beamed, the friendliness almost all the way gone. “We have a myriad of able fighters here, so this should be no issue. We will split into two groups, each with a ranger to guide them through the forest, and both groups will bait and wound terrors.”
Nesrin continued to stare us all down.
“A wounded terror will run if given enough reason, and it will run all the way back to its source.” Pride softened Nesrin’s grin and beside me, it did the same thing to Myris. “We will then track it and, once we arrive, decimate their scourge once and for all.”
Silence trailed the last of her words. But as both of her eyebrows raised up, her smile softened once again, and she nodded. Chatter instantly broke out among the few other guards in the room.
Nesrin glanced over to where Jason, Myris, and I were sitting, locking eyes with the older ranger. She gestured toward herself and Myris got up without another word, following her toward where Westin was still standing off to the side.
“So that’s the plan, then,” Jason said, unsheathing his sword.
“I guess it didn’t change much,” Tiren commented without his normal enthusiasm.
I nodded, Nesrin’s words still playing through my mind. The plan was very similar to the one we’d already figured out days before. The splitting of groups was different, but that was all.
And as I sat there, commotion swirling around my head, I thought I would’ve felt nervous. But with the plan as concrete as it was, I didn’t. Instead, I felt confidence—confidence that seemed to spill into my mind from a hidden well somewhere deep inside.
My eyes drifted to the window on the far side of the quarters and a long breath fell from my lips. Strangely, my mind felt clear—clearer than normal. Watching Farhar out the window fading from the sun’s light, I felt stronger. It felt like some barrier inside of me had been broken down and I was much more whole than before.
I gripped my sword, its touch making my muscles twitch with power. In front of me, the dark forest loomed. The forest that we were about to go into, I reminded myself, half expecting the doubt to come out. But it didn’t; I still felt sure.
Jason watched me, cocking his eyebrow, and smiled. “You ready for this?”
I scoffed, not bothering to take my eyes off the scene. “Do I have any other choice?”
A distant hiss pricked my ears.
Beside me, Myris’ lips cracked into a grin and he lowered his bow. He glanced at me, meeting my eyes through the darkness of the forest. I nodded back, keeping my gaze sharp and level before scanning back over the trees.
The sharp, curved trees peppered the space, rising up out of the dirt in organic, sporadic patterns and blocking out the moonlight above. The frigid breeze blew through my hair, stinging against my skin and breaking against my cloak.
The trees ahead of us looked still. But I knew they weren’t. I strained my ears, stepping forward with as much confident caution as I could.
Myris shuffled forward, leaving my side as he made his way closer to the rest of our group. Over in a denser section of the forest, hidden in the trees, were the two other guards in our group.
Rays of moonlight glinted off Myris’ shiny hair as he scrambled toward the guards. He clutched his bow tight and held his tense hand hovering over the quiver on his waist.
When he made his way over to them, he glanced back at me and locked eyes. I raised an eyebrow, clutching my sword. A sliver of tension slipped off Myris’ shoulders and energy spun even faster in his eyes.
I looked back forward, continuing on my path toward the terrors. Straining my eyes, I was barely able to make out the thin, glittering grey scars on the odd forms out in the distance. The last traces of the hiss one of the terrors had let out after Myris had shot it dissipated in the air, but I didn’t forget it. I latched onto the sound and chased it.
Soft, low voices registered at the edge of my hearing and I glared sidelong toward where Mayin and Rian were hiding. Myris was already talking with them, his eyes flicking back and forth between the terrors and the guards.
After a moment, I narrowed my eyes and caught a wicked smile growing on one of the guards. Rian, I realized as soon as he brought the hammer up. The flat metal surface of the enormous weapon gleamed in what little light made its way through the canopy.
Rian nodded to Myris and his smile only grew more. He raised his hammer up and twirled it in his hand, holding and flipping it through the air with force only possible from his bulging muscles. There was no sound even as the guards around him readied themselves up.
I grinned, my lips pressed into a thin line.
Tearing my gaze away from the guards that I knew were going to be fine, I focused back on myself. My fingers relaxed a hair, letting the black leather grip roll against my wrist. I felt the power again, twitching with white-hot intensity in my muscles.
So I picked up the pace, weaving through the trees with faster, more calculated steps. The glittering and confused forms of the terrors came closer and closer, sending shots of fiery steel straight into my veins.
The closer I got, the more I reinforced my wall, remembering all of Myris’ warnings. Over and over he’d told me as we’d tracked the terrors, and I wasn’t going to forget it. And combined with the newfound confidence that seemed to be in infinite supply, coming from a foreign place, that wasn’t very hard.
My legs buckled and darkness pressed in on me. I ignored it and furrowed my brows, staring right at the three distinct terrors in front of me. My lips curled in disgust and I almost spat into the dirt.
The terrors looked just as frightening as ever.
This time, only one of the terrors was humanoid, leaving the other two to take beastly forms that I was sure shouldn’t have been allowed to exist.
The other two terrors resembled animals and seemed to follow the humanoid one’s lead. One of them was birdlike, looking like a combination of a vulture and a squid-like monster I would’ve seen in my nightmares. The other looked like a small wolf that stood on its hind legs and scratched its claws over its hulking back.
From the corner of my eye, I caught movement. My gaze snapped to where Myris and the rest of the guards were approaching from. The group of three sped through the woods, bobbing and weaving through the trees with abandon as their gear jostled under them.
But no matter how hard I strained my ears, they made no noise. And as I saw the confident look on Rian’s face, I knew they were making no noise.
I blinked, waiting for the opening attack as they approached. The soft, idle scraping of fear was barely even noticeable among the straight shots of focus that were being injected into my blood.
Golden sparks flashed in my vision and I was already running.
Sound split the night, warping and cutting in an almost impossible way as Rian stopped casting. The scraping of fear instantly spiked, growing more intense by the second. But my wall was up, and it was already too late.
I barreled into the humanoid terror, kicking it back with my boot and instantly bringing my blade down with all of my strength. The terror hissed in advance as my blade sliced through its blank surface.
Beside me, the flash of golden sparks broke into a flame and a symphony of hisses accompanied it. The world became a blur of light and motion as the guards all let loose on the two terrors beside me.
Rian’s hammer came down. Golden flames went everywhere as our pyromancer, Mayin, torched the air. And the light twang of Myris’ bow rang out as the terrors got pummeled.
A crack of fear broke against my skull and I shivered. My body reeled, stepping back as memories of fears I didn’t even recognize rose up. I forced my wall on it, reinforcing it with the energy I felt from the back of my mind—energy that felt oddly familiar.
I gritted my teeth and rushed forward, stabbing the silver-bleeding terror through the chest. It hissed at me, but I ignored its pain and twisted to the side, pulling my blade with me as it sliced through the terror’s flesh.
My blade came out with a start, cutting the air with purpose as the terror stepped back. I flicked my gaze away from it, catching the fight to my side just in time to see the second terror fall lifeless into the dirt. My eyes widened in awe.
Myris stared at me from about a dozen paces away, an arrow notched in his bow. He tilted his head forward and I instantly knew.
An arrow went streaking through the night and broke into the terror’s head.
By the time I stood back up, blinking into the darkness, the terror was already running. Its pitch-black, humanoid form was scrambling at a speed that shouldn’t have been possible for a terror and silver scars were twitching the entire way.
Looking back at my group, everyone smiled.
It was running away. But that was exactly what we wanted.
The guards regrouped, picking themselves up, and Myris rushed over to me, ready to begin the chase. I twisted the blade in my hand, feeling the white-hot power that I was beginning to recognize again course through it.
I tried to interact—to reach into the back of my mind and pull more energy, but at that, it walled me off.
Fine, I thought. What it was giving was good enough.
Then, with cold fire pumping through my veins, power twitching in my muscles, and thoughts of victory in my mind, my eyes struck back toward the terror running off toward its source.
That was where the fighting would really begin.
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Bio: Hello, I'm Palmer—also known as Palmerranian. I write stories, often fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Originally, my writing began on Reddit, and you can find all of my stories as up to date as possible at https://www.reddit.com/r/Palmerranian/