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A resounding death cry vibrated through the crisp air.

The cry shook Alden from his afternoon reflection. All at once, the young man became aware again of the sea wind caressing his face and scouring the clifftops around him. Every breath was saturated with the salty tang of the sea.

Shouts, laughter, and the sound of hammers echoed up from Sacram Village nestled in the canyon to Alden’s left. He sat on a rock up on a canyon cliff overlooking the world. His piercing hazel eyes swept the landscape out in front of the village as Alden worked to locate the source of the death cry.

Sacram Village was tucked away in the mouth of a small canyon leading to the sea. A narrow trail behind the village led to sheer cliffs and trails winding down to sandy beaches where the villagers did their fishing. In front of the village stood an enormous palisade and inner wall which faced south and stretched across the mouth of the canyon and sealed the village off from the world. Massive rib bones lashed together with rope formed the palisade, wall, and gate. Everyone inside the village looked relaxed and peaceful, so the cry had not come from within.

Beyond the bone gate of Sacram Village stretched the entire world, the breadth of which Alden had barely glimpsed in his eighteen winters.

Alden scanned west to the Karmak mountains, where massive stones rained up into the sky during the day and crashed down all through the night. He saw no living beasts. He looked south next. Plains and tall grasses filled the land for miles and miles until reaching the forest far to the south, at least a days’ travel on the back of a kinvalo riding bird. Past the forest to the south stood the singing crystal trees which rose above the land and blocked all else from view. Still, he saw nothing.

More open plains continued east as far as the eye could see, and grasses taller than a man rose to meet the horizon. A puklo herd roamed the grasses of the open plains. The towering woolly creatures had fat bodies, four stout legs with sharp hooves, and blunt little heads and faces covered in multiple sets of spiraling horns. Splotches of purple and gold decorated the creatures’ wool, and each puklo bore its own distinct pattern. This wool provided Sacram with an endless supply of clothing and weaving material.

At the moment, the adult puklo stood with their rumps pointed inward and their horns pointed outward, forming a protective ring around their young. Alden shielded his eyes from the blinding sun and squinted to see what was agitating the beasts.

A purple and gold corpse lay sprawled across a patch of trampled bloody grass. A pack of blade wolves ravaged the carcass. Each blade wolf was a hulking mass of rippling muscle, ten feet tall at the shoulder and double that from snout to rump. The creatures bore a long snout and long ears, a huge barrel chest and powerful front body, and sloping, smaller hindquarters. Shaggy charcoal gray fur covered their bodies and long, bony protrusions rose from their bone joints, including along their spines. These sharp bone weapons gave the blade wolves their name. The wolves favored the taste of puklo and hurled themselves against the herbivores before going into a shaking frenzy. The wolves’ bony blades were long enough to reach through the woolly armor and shred the skin beneath, bleeding the prey to death.

“Must have been the dying Puklo,” Alden murmured. He watched as the blade wolves snarled and fought over the corpse’s choicest organs. The beasts were far enough away that they posed no threat to Sacram Village.

Heavy footsteps thudded on the wooden stairs hammered into the canyon wall to Alden’s left. Alden stared straight ahead, moving only his eyes to watch the intruder’s head rise into view. Braden’s shaggy blond curls bounced with each step the young man took.

When Braden saw Alden, apparently distracted by the wilderness, the newcomer’s young face split into his usual mischievous grin. Braden hunkered down and crept slowly toward Alden, hands outstretched. After a few steps, he pounced.

Alden’s slim form blurred into motion. Spirit-enhanced speed caused his body to whip around so fast that his clothing snapped in the wind. The hunter seized the shocked Braden from midair and used his spirit-enhanced strength to hurl the young man ten feet away across the rocky clifftop.

Braden let out a yelp as he flew but twisted in midair and came down on his hardened leather slippers. Worked animal hide scraped against the stone as the blond youth slid to a stop. A grin split Braden’s face, and his green eyes lit with a crazed gleam. He kicked off with his back foot and launched himself at Alden again.

Alden tried to sidestep the charge, but Braden whirled to the side and cut him off. The two fighters collided in a flurry of fists and kicks. Grunts filled the air as the youths locked arms and strained to drive each other to the ground.

Alden looked into Braden’s green eyes and was startled to see them still sparkling with mirth. Without breaking the grapple, Braden kicked one of his feet up sideways. His loose slipper flew up between them and bonked Alden hard in the nose. Alden’s eyes watered. He shook his head to clear the stinging pain from his nose.

Purple light flooded from the tattoo on Braden’s cheek to signal the activation of spirit power. He took advantage of his opponent’s distraction to boost his own legs with spirit strength. Braden broke free from Alden’s weak grip, leaped ten feet straight up into the air, and landed with his one bare foot on Alden’s right shoulder like a perching bird.

Alden staggered and groaned under the sudden weight.

Warm afternoon light glinted in Braden’s curls as the young man struck a dramatic pose. The blond youth started laughing, which caused him to lose his balance. Braden collapsed on top of Alden and the two of them fell in a heap on the stony ground.

Braden disentangled himself from Alden and retrieved his lost slipper. He slipped the hide covering back on his foot and glanced over his shoulder, then fell into a fit of uncontrollable laughter at seeing Alden still rubbing his sore nose.

As always, Alden let Braden laugh himself out. When Braden had control of himself again, he sat up with his legs crossed. “You’re getting better at your tricks, Braden son of Korl.”

Braden beamed. “I need to be. We leave for the Gathering of Tribes tomorrow, and I’m the only Trickster we’ve got.”

“You need to keep yourself under control, though. Losing your composure like that on a hunt will get you killed.”

Braden smirked. “I know. Hunting is different from wrestling with my spirit-brother.”

Wind from the sea blew through his short black hair as Alden broke into a grin, the first expression to cross his face during the whole encounter. “After my sister married your brother, we really did become brothers, didn’t we?”

“We already were, my friend.”

The Trickster sat up straight and peered at Alden with a curious expression. “Every time I come up to relieve you from watch, you’re staring out at the world. Other watchers bring a craft to help pass the time, but not you. What are you seeing when you look so far away?”

Alden’s black hair ruffled in a gust of wind, and he drew in the cold air with a deep breath. He let it out slowly before answering. “I see hope, Braden. Our tribe is barely recovered from the edge of extinction. Somewhere out there are friends and allies who can help us rebuild in such a way that we never again face complete annihilation. They can help us fight the Scourge. If we’re so lonely and desperate for aid out here on the cliff’s edge of the world, imagine how frightened and alone the rest of the world must feel.”

A deep sigh escaped Alden’s wind-chapped lips. “I see a world in need of guidance, courage, and healing.” Alden turned to his mischievous friend. “Do you never have thoughts like that?”

Braden blinked at the question and shook his head. “Rarely, and never on purpose. Maybe you’re meant for more than I am, Alden.” Braden’s solemn expression twisted in a sudden grin. “When I do think like that, it usually means I’m hungry. Then I get some food and tease my sister, and the world seems right again. Is this about our slow progress again?”

“That’s part of my frustration,” Alden admitted. “I know Grath means well, and he’s an excellent teacher, but he’s kept us away from danger for four winters as we spar in endless mock combat. I hadn’t even struck the killing blow on a predator before our battle with the petal snake. Have you unlocked any new skill trees?”

Braden frowned and shook his head. “Not one.”

Alden waved his right hand in an upward motion, like he was lifting a heavy curtain. Vivid blue swirls filled their air in front of him and resolved themselves into glowing sapphire text. Alden ran his eyes across the text at the top of the display, and the runes shimmered in his vision. As always, the illiterate hunter was amazed to find he could somehow interpret the meaning by pretending to read the runes.

Alden of Sacram

Level One

Class: Druid

Strength 124 > 130 Agility 98 > 100 Endurance 136 > 156 Mind 195 > 210 Spirit 240 > 253 Luck 73 > 75

Passive Skills: Physical Up (small), Greatsword Damage Up (small)

Active Skills: Healing Touch

Unused Skill Points: 29

Though he’d viewed the changes several times, Alden felt a thrill of satisfaction at seeing the noticeable improvements. He read his new ability scores to Braden. “My Mind, Spirit, and Endurance all leaped ahead. Must be from the beating I took and the severe wounds I healed.”

The blond hunter’s eyes widened in surprise. “Such improvement after a single battle. I still haven’t unlocked any new trees or expanded the ones I have, even after four winters of training and sparring.”

Below the text lay Alden’s skill trees. The original three, Druid, Greatsword, and Healer, had now been joined by one more: Scourgebane. The first bubble read:

Scourgebane 1 – Gain Scourge resistance (small).

In addition, the Healer tree had sprouted a new gray bubble branching from the first blue ring.

Scourge Healer – Decreases the difficulty to purify Scourge from any living target based on the user’s Mind and Level.

The first skill from Scourgebane tree was free to purchase, so Alden spent the five skill points necessary to learn Scourge Healer. The gray bubble flared to glowing blue, and the ability appeared in his Passive Skills section.

“I even got new skill trees just from beating that corrupted foe.”

“Sounds like the spirits reward you based on the challenge you face. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.”

Alden nodded. “But our survival against the corrupted snake was hard won. I suppose each hunter faces a constant battle not to get killed lusting after increased power. My stats are creeping upward, but even if they all hit 999 I won’t reach Level Two until I prove my worth to the spirits with some great act. I need new experiences, new opponents. We may find that when we venture beyond our village, but we’re never going to get strong enough if we keep playing it safe. I know Grath is worried we’ll get hurt on his watch, but…”

“But we can’t stay stagnant,” Braden finished. “I agree. The Scourge killed every Sacram hunter sixty winters ago. I think Grath and the elders are being careful with us because only six new Sacram hunters have been chosen in all this time, and only in the last six winters. But if they don’t let us expand our abilities, we’ll be helpless when real danger does rear its head. I suppose it already has, with the Scourge returning. And we’ll only have three hunters on defense if another corrupted monster attacks. We don’t have a single Level Two hunter in the entire village apart from Grath. How would we survive a raid from a larger predator?”

“I have the same concerns,” Alden said. “They’ve sheltered us, but they’ve also kept us weak. Maybe too weak even to compete in the Gathering of Tribes. I’m worried Grath will keep us out of the Bloodpit Trials by telling us we aren’t ready for them.”

“He means well. Perhaps he’ll see reason now. Most of us are leaving, and the few left behind will be spread thin indeed. This means a lot more work for the home guard. That includes Grath’s daughter. I suspect from now on Grath will drive us to improve our individual strength, and not just huddle together hoping danger never comes back.”

“I hope you’re right,” Alden said. The black-haired hunter pointed out across the eastern plains at the gathering of blade wolves. “Keep an eye on them, Braden. They shouldn’t come this way, but I want to make sure larger predators don’t smell the corpse and decide to poke around our village. The last thing we need is a hungry beast leaping over our gate and eating our villagers.”

Braden gave his serious friend the sign of acknowledgement: two fingers tapped against the left temple near the eye. “Will do, my brother. Now go! Get some rest and say goodbye to your family. We’re leaving tomorrow.”

Alden left his friend to keep vigil. The grim-faced hunter’s leather slippers thumped against the crude wooden stairs as he descended the staircase to the village a hundred feet below.

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About the author

AdamLaneSmith

Bio: Author, ghostwriter, author coach, retired psychotherapist, husband, and father. I've written 25 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and scored a couple #1 Amazon bestsellers in my various categories.

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Twitter - @TheBrometheus

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