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Intermission — Specters Afoot

 

Two days before Jakyra's first contact with Ismat...



“Right there,” Kepler the elf whispered, pointing out the footprints pressed into the muddy ground. “You see that?”

A head peered over. Ranno’s eyes shifted over many times before he gave a nod. Funny kid, always making sure he wasn’t seeing things. Even in clear daylight, it was like he had to rub his eyes over and over before he was sure of what he was looking at.

“Notice how they alternate,” Kepler said, pointing at the tracks. “Two paws, one after the other, going on the left side, and then on the right side. Left, right, left, right. Bear’s gait.”

Ranno pulled his hand back to the bow and quiver hung at his back, almost as if worried that they weren't there. “You sure it’s a bear?” he said.

Kepler tilted his head, a wheeze slipping from between his teeth. “What do you mean, ‘you sure it’s a bear?’ Look at the tracks, young one, that there is a bear! See the five-fingered tips and claws in the mud? The print of its palms? Don’t tell me you thought it was a deer or something.”

Ranno scratched his head. “What about a cryptid?”

Kepler waved his hand at the thought. Like a Nandi bear? Those hideous creatures that looked like an oversized, furry hyena with a baboon’s face and tail? Their prints were far more rectangular, and besides, they didn’t live around these parts of the great eastern forests.

The twosome stealthily followed the tracks. Although the tracks became hard to see once the terrain became more firm, Kepler could still make them out in the darkness of the night. Every once in a while he’d lose it, but it only took a little pacing to get back on track.

Back on track. Puns, Kepler thought with a shake of his head.

The young elf next to him, Ranno, was fidgeting as he came along. Understandable. He was taking him to hunt down a bear for the first time, and unlike deer, bears were much more vicious when they felt threatened. But so long as the boy stuck to him, he would be fine.

After all, Kepler thought as he pressed his palm against the short blade at his side, the apex predator of this world is the experienced hunter.

They had gone a good number of paces when a subtle growl made Kepler’s pointed ear twitch. There. The growl of a bear, unaware that it had been sold in slavery to the figure known as death. Now the hunt was beginning.

Kepler had Ranno be still before tiptoeing forward.

Stealth was a natural skill for the aging elf. Sure, it helped that their faded clothing blended in with the surrounding gloom of the forest, but clothes never made the man. Or should he say, the elf?

His feet would dart away from any branch or even a fallen leaf that, if stepped on, might ever alert the bear. Ranno was doing well himself — when it came down to it, the kid was actually adept at stealth himself. One of the reasons Kepler thought he had promise. It was only his weak nerves that got in the way.

Soon Kepler had his eyes on the prize. A beauty of a bear, fat and blissfully ignorant of what was crawling up on it. The two best things in a bear, he thought with a silent cackle. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s the fur that’s so precious about these critters.

It was a grizzly from the look of things. Seemed vaguely brown, anyhow. Grizzlies could be a terror if they set their sights on killing someone, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Ranno could manage. Kepler had faith in the young elf.

He tapped Ranno, his hands already gripping his bow. One hand went into the quiver and pulled out an arrow, the other raised the weapon. Nocking the arrow as quietly as possible, he steadied his aim.

Kepler had told Ranno about killing bears with a bow. Unlike the deer he was used to, it wasn’t the spot above the foreleg that had to be shot. Bears had a funny body composition, their lungs being a little further within their flabby bodies. If he wanted to pierce both lungs and secure an easy kill, a broadside shot at the center of its mass would do.

Ranno shifted as the bear turned perpendicular — the perfect moment. The bear yawned, and the kid released.

The arrow flew.

A grunt of pain erupted from the creature, the head of the arrow pierced into its body. Direct hit, right in the middle. The bear instantly hightailed it, but by then it was too late. With both lungs out, there was only so far it could run before its demise caught up.

Kepler gave Ranno a wide grin. “Now that’s the way to go. First try!”

“It was nothing,” Ranno said, abashed.

“It was more than nothing, silly boy,” Kepler insisted, playfully slapping his cheek. “Bear’s as good as dead with a shot like that. I could feel its pain, the way it hollered!”

With that he darted off in the wake of the bear. Fast as those creatures were, a dying one could only get so far. Fur’s gonna sell well, he reckoned.

The bear had run up a hill, and Kepler followed along. Ranno was after him, bow still gripped in case. Perhaps a wise thing to do. It wasn’t likely that bear would have time to circle back and attack, but who knew? It was always possible, just as it was possible for something else to jump them while—

A pained roar made Kepler tackle Ranno to the side, eyes wide as the mass of a bear suddenly flew over the top of the hill and past their heads. It tumbled down the slope, bonked its head on a trunk, and came to a stop. A few twitches followed, the broken arrow in its body pathetically wriggling along, before it went still.

Okay. What on Fantasmyth knocked that beast down the hill like that?

A new sound prickled Kepler’s ears, a warped noise coming from atop the hill. What it meant, Kepler had no idea. All he knew was that something was up there, something dangerous. Something otherworldly.

Something magical?

Kepler had a shaking Ranno stay in place before creeping up. Magical indeed. Keeping his body low and behind a trunk or bush whenever possible, he let himself feel the faint essence flowing from whatever was up there. Definitely magic, though what element, he didn’t know.

What was important was that he felt the magic. He felt the magic.

Magic wasn’t something Kepler was a stranger to. He had played with the stuff, used it before. But sensing the mana of a magic object? He had trouble with that.

This, though, he had no trouble sensing. The amount of magic that must be concentrated up there, it’s worrying.

But bah, I’m sure I can handle it, he thought, producing his short blade as he got close to the top. Some weird light was coming from up there. Could be one of those reviled magics gone loose or—

The light shifted, and Kepler tensed.

A split second later he was off, stabbing into the abdomen of a disorienting being of magic, then rolling away from the strike of one of its floating hands. Getting up, his heart raced as glowy wisps coalesced into a brilliant, deadly sphere of many colors in its palm. A magic attack.

And then the sphere flickered and died out. The being of magic lowered its hand and stared.

Kepler had never seen anything like it. It was full of pastel hues of every kind, its fur shining with awe-inspiring radiance, and yet it also looked like it was drained of all color. It had no arms nor legs, but it still had hands and feet. Ghostly lines connected them to stubs of writhing tentacles.

Its freaky eyes swept over him, tail swishing behind, before it shook its star-shaped head. One of its palms caressed the wound in its body, some sort of bloody ooze clotting there.

Bewilderment turned to rashness. “What are you?” Kepler spoke, raising his weapon. “What are you, apparition? What brings you here? What do you seek from us? Speak, if you can!”

His eyes shifted, and his knees almost gave way. Two more of the same being had appeared, watching from the top of the hill.

The original did not bother to look at its brethren, staring for the longest time at an uneasy Kepler. A strange noise came from its body, to which one of the others responded with a grunt. They didn’t seem to have mouths, was that the only way they could communicate?

Then Kepler felt it. A force entered his mind, one that felt like a cold void pressing against him. NOTHING FROM YOU, came a response that sounded like the rustle of a possessed wind. NOTHING. YOU ARE NOT THE TARGET.

Out of instinct Kepler checked up on Ranno, whose body was leaning hard against a tree. Judging from his horrified look, he had heard the creature’s words too.

“The target?” he repeated.

THE TARGET. The other two apparitions joined in, their words a hurricane in Kepler’s head. THE TARGET WAS HERE. THE TARGET WAS LOST. THE TARGET MOVES ON.

One of them made a noise, and Kepler staggered away as a fissure appeared in the ground. Inside was a pastel chasm that could pass for the homeland of these strange, magical beings.

The original fiend threw a warning look at the elf before lowering itself into the fissure, its fellows doing the same. After that the fissure closed up, and all was peaceful in the night.

Ranno ruined that. “TH-THOSE THINGS, LIKE THEY, THEY WERE THREE OF THEM, AND, AND—”

Kepler strode up to Ranno and covered his mouth. “Better?” he asked.

Ranno shook his head. Honestly, the boy’s eyes might just pop out of their sockets from all this excitement.

“Look here Ranno, I’m as lost as you right now,” Kepler said with an awkward chuckle. “But there’s no good flipping out over it. They’re gone.”

With that Kepler took a moment to breathe, then went to examine the bear. Didn’t seem too beat up, though blood had messed up its fur. We can work with that, he thought.

A frown shaded his face. My, those magic beings were the strangest things I have ever seen.

Whatever those things were, they seemed to be looking for something. Or someone. Obviously not the bear — it probably just ran smack into one of them and paid the price — but the point was, they had a target. Interesting.

And their strange forms weren’t for show either. There was power to those things, enough for them to telepathically speak, have disembodied hands and feet, create what might be death-spheres of light, and even make gateways into the bizarre place they came from. Who would have the ability to make such horrors, and what would such a powerful figure be after?

Kepler didn’t know, but he knew what to do about it. “Let’s salvage this bear and get back to camp,” he said.

Ranno gulped. “Wh-what about those things w-we met?”

“Eh, something to bring up when it’s time for ghost stories.” Kepler laughed when Ranno furrowed his brows. “I’m joking kid. We’ll do the sensible thing.”

He grabbed Ranno by the shoulders. “We inform the tribe and get a message sent to the phoenix network. Methinks something strange is afoot in Fantasmyth.”

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About the author

SaadTheConjurer

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Bio: Peace be upon you.

You've met a madman with a fondness for ducks, striving to write high-quality stories.

Currently writing a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon fanfic on fanfiction.net and AO3 (not posting it on Royal Road just yet). Needs to write more original work sooner or later.

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