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It took less than an hour for the two to make it to the bottom of the slim game trail and the edge of the trees where it looked out on wavy prairie-grass. There stood a light stone marker at the mouth of the trail about four foot high. It had flairs on it at various points like a temple’s roof, signifying that the trail and surrounding area belonged to the village of Mogu.

“That pack must be heavy. You said hardly a thing on the way down.” Cho took his pack off and set it down in a shady patch near the marker. He pulled out a leather-bound water flask from a side pocket and took a swig.

Xan struggled out of his own pack, dropping it next to Cho’s. “Well, I’m not as strong as you, oh pack mule, but I kept up.” He shrugged his shoulders to get the circulation back into them. “The Herbalists should have plenty to work with this month.” Xan pulled his own water flask out and took a drink of the warm liquid. “I keep thinking about that coyote. What could do that to an animal?” He put his flask back into the backpack’s pouch.

Cho looked past Xan out across the plains. He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun.

“Cho? You alright?” Xan asked.

Cho pointed behind Xan. “Wha… Is that a caravan?”

Xan turned, eyebrows raising in surprise as a wagon caravan trundled down the road towards them, quickly eating up the two hundred yards between them. Each of the wooden wagons was the length of three horses and had a high seat in the front with a driver and a brakeman. Teams of six horses—tans, browns, mid-blacks, and tawny reds—pulled each of the wagons. Xan had never seen so many horses in one location before. Guards rode in the beds of the wagons or ran alongside. The calls of the drivers could be heard over the low rumbling of the wheels across the ground. The dust cloud from the animals and wagons rolled out from the trail behind them. The wagons and people around them moved quickly. In just a few moments, the caravan covered an astonishing distance.

“Should we go out?” Cho asked.

“You want to go meet them?” Xan asked excitedly. He had always liked the caravans that had come to the village. They had stories of adventure and other places that had fueled his imagination since he was little.

Cho hesitated for a moment, watching the wagons. Then, seeing how eager Xan was, said, “Okay, let’s go see who they are.”

The two young men quickly pulled their packs on and stepped out from the shade of the Oak trees.

The caravan guards on the near side of the wagon immediately reacted and called out to the others. Three of the guards on the closest side of the caravan ran toward them. They wore simple garb with armored vests that reached down to their thighs. The steel disks and rings on the vest glinted in the sunlight as they moved. Red sashes around their waist held their vests closed. Dark pants tucked into knee high leather boots. Xan squinted at the men who ran towards them. “I think they are trying to tell us something.”

A resounding crash sounded in amongst the trees behind Xan and Cho. While Xan tried to see what the guards were going on about he heard Cho move back towards the trail.

One guard waved his arms frantically as he ran. The other two put their heads down and poured on the speed.

Another crash sounded in the trees causing Xan to look for the source.

“By the Immortals!” Cho exclaimed and turned towards Xan. “Run!”

A dark larger-than-man-shape erupted from the brush behind Cho. Red eyes narrowed below a goat horned mantle. It had a crazy blend of ape-arms and rooster feet. It bellowed an inarticulate roar from a fanged mouth too big for a person. Its gray mottled skin seemed to swell with muscles as it crouched and leapt the twenty feet remaining to get at Cho.

Cho tried to dodge out of the way but the creature was already on him, the beast’s dark claws caught the frame of his pack as it went past him and spun Cho to the ground.

The creature skidded to a stop, tearing up large tufts of turf with its oversized rooster-clawed feet. It shook the offending clods from its taloned toes and slowly stalked toward Cho. Wild-eyed, Cho tried to crawl away. It raised its burly ape-like arms high into the air in preparation to crash down on him.

Heart thumping in his chest, Xan had to do something for his friend. “Stop!” Xan yelled.

The creature snapped its head around to Xan. Its eyes glowed like little pools of crimson fire and its unwavering gaze speared him where he stood. Its skin looked like moldy fruit, dark and patchy. “Ah, there you are, boy. Somehow, I expected more than a scrawny farmer.” It spoke with a rough voice—a wood rasp moving across a green branch—and with a familiar tone as if it knew Xan. Shivers raced down Xan’s spine and his breath caught in his throat. “My master will enjoy torturing you for a thousand years and I will delight in helping him.” Spittle flew from its maw as it spoke. The creature ignored Cho on the ground and strutted towards Xan, claws clacking as it opened and closed its hands.

Fear rippled through Xan, “What? Why me?”

At that moment, the guards arrived. The first guard moved past Xan and threw out his arms like a bird about to take flight. He shimmered with a green aura of power as the glowing image of an eagle superimposed on the guard as he leapt fifteen feet into the air. He emitted the massive screech of a bird of prey as he streaked down at the creature delivering a flying kick to its chest.

The monster staggered back a few paces as the Eagle guard pulled Cho out of the way. “Move!” he yelled as he shoved Cho. The Eagle guard turned back to the creature. It gathered itself and swung its massive black-clawed hands at the guard. Xan watched as the man swept the first swing out of the way. He tried to block the second arm swing, but it was too much for him and the guard was picked up and flung into the bushes on the side of the trail.

The second guard slid to a stop between Xan and the enemy. He shouted a war-cry at the creature. The man lifted both arms up and his body shimmered with a swirling white nimbus—an image of a bear flashed over him for a moment—as he slammed both of his fists into the ground. The turf exploded in a series of increasingly louder pops causing rocks and dirt to erupt toward the creature in a rapid line, ending as rock and dirt fountained up into the creature’s torso, sending it flying backwards.

The creature landed heavily on its back, momentarily stunned before it rolled over and quickly regained its clawed feet. It pounded the ground with its fists and roared at the intruders in frustration.

Xan could see that Cho was panting as he struggled to move away from the fighting. He half crawled, half monkey-walked toward Xan.

Xan was wide-eyed and stunned with the display of fighting power. He just stood in place and watched. What is this?

The monster regained its feet, shaking its head side-to-side. The third guard, the one who had been trying to warn Xan and Cho, arrived. The foul creature howled in rage and stretched open his jaws, drool dripped from its blackened pointed teeth. A roiling dark purple cloud of energy similar to what left the corrupted scavenger in the woods boiled up out of the creatures mouth. With a vomiting bellow, the column of putrescent-purple energy drove out from its mouth. It enveloped Cho, dropping him to the ground in a flash, and roiled straight for the third guard.

That guard stepped in front of Xan and made a quick series of gestures with his hands, arms sweeping through the air. His hands flashed with red power that started at his palms then rolled up his arms to coat him entirely in crimson flame. An image of a hooded-snake flashed over the guard. He held out both palms forward to intercept the purple energy. It sprayed around him like a fire-hose hitting a wall. The guard staggered back a step under the onslaught, his shoulders shaking with the effort. Then another. To Xan, it looked like he was faltering under the strain. He grunted. “Li, I could use some of your protection magic here.”

The bear guard stepped up next to the snake guard. His hands flashed through a series of gestures that were too quick for Xan to follow and the white nimbus surrounding him glowed strong and flowed in front of him, appearing to solidify into a barrier as he stepped in front of both the snake guard and Xan, taking on the brunt of blocking the energy beam from his fellow. Somehow, Xan could hear a bear roar from him even though he didn’t make a sound.

Another ear-piercing shriek signaled the return of the Eagle guard. His green aura-enshrouded body flew at the creature from the side. This time, the creature shrugged off the sonic attack. It simply took a large step forward causing the Eagle guard to miss his intended target. The man rolled behind the creature and into the bushes on the far side.

The slight distraction caused the purple column of energy to lessen. This gave the snake guard the time to go through another series of hand gestures. Xan saw the red power around the guard flare bright and strengthen around him. Almost faster than Xan could follow, the snake guard bounded left around the Bear guard, then as the violet force shifted to target him, he cut right, the beam over corrected as it came back towards the snake guard splashing across the front of the white power-shield, the snake guard dodged left again, his series of hops wove a blurry, sinuous path the violet mist-beam couldn’t track. The snake guard straightened at the last instant, jumping and driving both hands—each with the first two rigid fingers extended—into the creatures eyes.

The purple energy ceased as it howled in pain. The Eagle guard took the moment of the creature’s distraction to return. His fists glowed white as he struck a flashing series of upwards blows into its head and upper chest, white and purple sparks from clashing energies flew with each meaty strike. With a keening scream, the overwhelmed creature toppled backwards to the ground with a resounding crash and lay still.

The scream broke Xan’s gawking at the display of magically enhanced martial prowess, and he sprinted to Cho who lay crumpled on the ground. “Cho! Cho! Get up!” He shook his friend. When Cho didn’t stir, he grabbed the frame of Cho’s pack to drag him away.

The Snake guard jogged back over to join them. “We need to get out of here. That thing is only stunned. And it sounds like there are more in the forest.” He helped Xan lift Cho.

The Eagle guard moved a short way back up the trail then cut over to the group. “There are more coming. I can hear them in the woods.”

“Thank you for your help. What attacked us?” Xan blurted out as he struggled to get Cho’s groggy and limp form standing.

The Snake guard shrugged and helped Xan. “It is a Corrupted man. Looks like he had Fire and Earth affinity before the dark energy took him.” He said it nonchalantly, like he had seen quite a few of them.

“He said things to me. Like he knew me.” Xan glanced worriedly over at the creature where it lay across the trail.

When Xan looked back to the group, he noticed the guards glanced at each other for a moment. Xan saw surprise and concern crossed their expressions. Before he could ask, the Snake guard said “Let’s talk about it later.”

The Bear guard took Cho from Xan. He stripped off Cho’s pack and handed it back to Xan.

The creature stirred.

“Let’s go.” the Eagle guard said.

 

#

They all set off for the caravan which had stopped a couple hundred yards from the trailhead. The track the wagons took looked to curve parallel to the edge of the wall of old-growth trees. As soon as the guards emerged from the trees with Cho and Xan, the wagoners called and cracked whips to get the horses moving again. The wagons lumbered back into motion, plodding along slowly so the group of guards with Xan and Cho could catch up.

“That was amazing what you guys did back there! We both would be dead if you hadn’t saved us. Thank you so much.” Xan said breathing heavily under the weight of the two packs as they trotted towards the sanctuary of the wooden wagons. “Oh, I am Gao Xan by the way.”

“I’m Lee Bo. We are returning from a pilgrimage to the Temple of the Five Immortals and headed to the School for martial magic in the Valley of the Moon.” He managed to bow slightly as they moved.

The second guard, on the other side of Cho, looked chagrined. “Apologies. I am Li Jie, a student of Bear at the school.”

Cho moaned and stirred as they moved. Xan saw as Cho tried to get his feet under himself. The guards slowed so Cho could stand. The result was him trying to lope along with unsteady legs as the guards supported him through the tall grass.

Xan nodded his head at the still weak Cho. “Will my friend be okay?” With a worried tone he continued, “I don’t know what the purple stuff was or what it did to Cho, but it looked bad.” Xan hoped that his best friend would be all right.

“Well, we will try to help him if we can. Hopefully he hasn’t been corrupted.” Li Jie said.

“What do you mean corrupted? Like that thing?” Xan said hoarsely, horrified and a frown of concern covered his face.

The third guard caught up to them.

“That thing following, Po?” Lee Bo asked him.

“Nah. It took off into the woods. But, from all the howls, it sounds like there are a bunch more out there.”

Lee Bo grunted. “We’ll have to keep an eye out. Once the wards go up, they can howl all they want. Anyway, this here is Cho and that is Xan. This is Wei Po.”

“Good to meet you both. You can call me Po. I am an Adept for Snake at the School for martial magic. Well met and all that.” He offered a slight bow.

“It is good to meet you. Thank you for your help back there.” Xan returned the bow then looked at Lee Bo. “What about Cho? Is he gonna be okay?”

Lee Bo was about to answer when a commotion at the wagons caused him to stop.

A woman came out from the caravan to meet the group. She was about the same age as Xan and Cho and strikingly beautiful. She wore an outfit similar to the guards—flowing martial pants, calves wound from knee to ankle with a gold cloth that ended just above her black shoes, a blue jacket trimmed in the same gold cloth held closed with a gold cloth sash—though her attire appeared to be of finer quality and well tailored to her trim figure. Her long black hair in a braid that hung to her waist in front where the silver braid cap on the end jingled with each purposeful step. She moved with confidence, back straight and eyes up.

The guards carefully set Cho down on the grass and turned to the approaching woman.

“Are you picking up strays?” she asked Lee Bo. She scanned Cho and Xan with piercing brown eyes.

Xan unconsciously stood straighter and absently brushed at the dust on his clothes.

“Mistress Wang.” Lee Bo answered her with a curt bow. “Once you start instruction at the school, you will learn we help those weaker than us. Gentlemen, this is Mistress Wang Sue. She is returning to the school in the Valley of the Moon.”

Wang Sue sniffed as she regarded the two villagers with a cool expression. “It appears these two definitely qualify as weaker.” She addressed Xan and Cho directly. “What are you two doing out here?” She looked at Xan. “Well?”

“Apologies, mistress.” Xan said, face flushing red having been caught staring. “We are headed back from mushroom harvest. We ran into a corrupted scavenger up on the mountain and Cho,”—Xan pointed at his friend—“thought it best we get back to our village and let the others know in case there are more of them.”

“Did it bite you?” Li Jie asked, his eyes searched over Xan for any apparent bite marks.

“No, we killed it. Well, Cho did.” Xan nodded to Cho.

“What happened to the boy?” Wang Sue looked at Cho.

“One of the corrupted creatures breathed on him.” Lee Bo said solemnly, his face expressionless.

Her eyes widened. “Did it corrupt him?”

Lee Bo shrugged, “We aren’t sure. It doesn’t appear so, but he’ll have to be tested.”

“Which village are you from, Xan?” Po leaned toward Xan.

“Mogu. It isn’t too far from here.” Xan indicated to the South.

Wang Sue and the guards looked at each other. Worry and sadness painted their faces. For a moment, no-one would meet the two men’s eyes.

“What?” Xan asked. “What aren’t you telling me?” His voice cracked with anguish.

Cho looked up at that, energy slowly returning to him. “Have you been to Mogu?” He breathed, trying to stand, Li Jie lent him a hand.

“We passed a village. We didn’t know it’s name,” Lee Bo said cautiously. “There wasn’t anyone left alive. The corrupted wiped the place out.”

Xan and Cho stood stunned. “That couldn’t be our village.” Xan protested quietly.

Po put a sympathetic hand on Xan’s Shoulder. “The village is just past that rise over by where the river comes out of the trees.”

Cho whispered, “No. It can’t be.” He looked helplessly at Xan.

“We have to go back. Somebody could be there.” Xan glanced at each of the guards in turn.

“Xan—“ Po started.

“No!” Xan held up a hand. “What if they hid or if they faked being dead? Or, if they ran into the forest. We have to go. Have to see.”

Wang Sue stepped in. “The village isn’t that far. Let’s just go rather than stand here wasting time talking about it.”

Everyone gaped at her.

“What? You know I’m right. There shouldn’t be any of the corrupted still there. The caravan doesn’t move that fast and we can meet back up at the camp spot.” She raised both of her hands palms up in a gesture asking for disagreement.

No one moved. The guards appeared surprised she was willing to go along with it.

“Well? Come on. Let’s hurry before more corrupted come.” Wang Sue clapped her hands twice.

Wang Sue and the guards moved away from the wagons. Xan and Cho stowed their packs in the back of the closest wagon then joined them.

“Are you gonna be up for this?” Xan asked Cho.

Cho smiled weakly, his skin ashen, his brow dotted with sweat. His hand trembled slightly as he bunched it into a fist. “What choice do I have? I need to show them they are wrong about Mogu. Let’s do this.”

Xan clapped his friend on the shoulder. Cho had always been the strong one. It pained Xan to see him this weak. Xan looked at the caravan for a moment, took a deep breath to calm the fear gnawing at his insides, then helped his friend follow the guards. He hoped they were wrong and the village was okay.

Lee Bo slipped away to talk with the caravan master. He trotted back to the group. “They’ll head out. So, we can go whenever we want.”

The drivers cracked reigns and called out to get the horses in motion. Horses neighed, hooves plodded against the turf of the dirt track, and the enormous wheels slowly creaked to life.

Meanwhile, Po led the little group toward the rise which lay off in the distance to the south.

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About the author

MarkStallings

Bio: I’ve been in Colorado since I was a young teenager. I live in the foothills of Pikes Peak with my wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I have a crazy technology background having founded several tech companies centering around human machine interfaces before I discovered a passion for writing.

When I’m not slinging the ink and trying to get paid to fabricate tales that entertain, I like to shoot competitively, drink craft beer, ride motorcycles and play games with friends.

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