Arkk drew back his bowstring, taking careful aim. He didn’t blink, he barely breathed. Even when the draw of the bow weighed on his arm, he simply clenched his teeth and stared across the field Arkk watched and waited for the most opportune moment, intending to use every aspect of the situation to his advantage.
The beast dipped its head, antlers disturbing leaves as it sniffed at a crop of berries. Animals were most skittish when eating, but they were also still.
As soon as he saw the stag bite at the bush, Arkk released the string, loosing the arrow.
Whether it was the twang of the bowstring, the rustle of the arrow as it flew through some loose brush, or some unconscious grunt Arkk made, the stag started. It didn’t look up and stare, it bolted without hesitation. The arrow still struck, but in its rear, not in the heart or skull. It wasn’t a fatal blow. The stag wouldn’t even bleed out in all likelihood.
“Ah well, shame.”
Arkk’s gaze slid to the side where Ilya shoved off from a tree. The elf had remained so still for so long that he had almost forgotten about her presence. “Shame?” he said, not bothering with remaining quiet. That stag rushing off would have frightened away all the other game in the immediate area. “That stag was big enough to feed the village for a week. Bit more than a shame.”
“Don’t let it get you down. It was a good shot. You just had a spot of bad luck.”
“No such thing as luck,” Arkk said, slinging Ilya’s bow over his shoulder as he moved forward. His eyes roamed over the area as he tried to figure out a way to salvage the situation. “Just opportunities and what you do with them.”
“So,” Ilya said, putting on a grin, “you’re saying you missed because of your own incompetence?”
Arkk’s eyes shifted, glaring. “Maybe a little luck,” he admitted under his breath.
“Come on. We’re not going to get anything else in the area today. Let’s head back to camp.”
“That’s half a day’s hike in the wrong direction,” Arkk said, feeling bad for the poor stag. If they didn’t hunt it down, he’ll have just skewered its hindquarters for no good reason. “We can still track it down.”
“The camp—and our cart—is a half-day away already. You want to go after it and then try to lug it back? We’ll never make it.” Ilya shook her head, sending her gleaming silver hair shaking around her shoulders. “In case you missed it, that thing was huge. It was already going to take forever, but now? Even if we found it and killed it, we’ll return the triumphant hunters! Our spoils, spoiled meat.”
Arkk crossed his arms, shooting the elf another glare. “If you go get the cart now, that would help.”
“Through these trees? And back? I doubt it would be much faster.”
His eyes drifted off to the east. They were close enough to the Cursed Forest to see the way the plants didn’t quite grow as thick as they did elsewhere. They hadn’t gone through the forest to get here, of course. It was a three-day trip back to the village by going around the Cursed Forest but through it? It was a half day’s trek through the dead brush, dead trees, and relatively flat land to reach Langleey Village.
In looking back toward Ilya, Arkk caught a glint of something glistening on the berry bush. Smile spreading across his face, he gripped his bow and started forward.
“Where are you going?”
“You should get the cart,” Arkk said as he moved across a small clearing to the berry bush. Once there, he plucked the glistening leaf. “We’ll take the carcass back tonight.”
Blood glinted on the leaf, catching the sunlight. Quite a bit of blood, actually, once he looked around the area where the stag had bolted off. Beyond the initial bloodied ground, the trail petered off, becoming much harder to see as the stag picked up its speed. Still, Arkk doubted it was enough for the stag to bleed out. But it might be injured, tired, and resting to lick its wounds. Ineffectual though his arrow had been at killing the beast, with a bit of it in his hands, he should be able to find it.
Kneeling down, Arkk picked up a stick and started dragging symbols into the ground. A circle to contain the magic, a triangle for the source material, radiating lines to seek out more of the material, and several squiggly lines that resembled runes but probably didn’t matter. And—
“Oh no. You’re going to make it explode?”
“It’s a tracking spell. That mercenary group that passed through the village last year had a spellcaster with a beginner spell book. He let me look through it while they were staying over at the church.”
Ilya frowned, considering. “You’re trying to remember something you saw in a book one time over a year ago?”
“It was a very simple spell. I have part of the stag here, so I can use it to find the rest of the stag.”
“What does that symbol mean?” she asked, pointing with her brown leather boot.
Arkk hesitated, looking at the scrawled lines he had scraped into the dirt. The specific marking that Ilya was pointing out was… a marking for joining? Or… maybe it was just a smudge in the dirt that had already been there.
Ilya let out an exasperated sigh, his hesitation having gone on far too long. “You’re going to make that poor thing explode.”
Arkk didn’t dignify her comment with a response. Sure, one or two spells he had tried out in the past hadn’t turned out as he expected them to. This was a simple spell; it came from a beginner book. He might not be able to remember exactly what each line did, but that spellcaster had said that intent mattered most.
He intended to find that stag.
Standing so that the triangle with the leaf pointed at him, Arkk took a deep breath. He had to be careful. That spellcaster said that he had great magic potential. Too great, even. That was why everything failed, he poured too much magic into everything he tried. Had he been born in one of the cities, the Abbey of the Light would have sent him off to an academy to teach him proper sorcery. Instead, he had been born in Langleey. With no guidance, he often ended up causing problems with knowing he could do more but just not knowing how.
The moment he started to feel a tingle, Arkk snapped his eyes open, cutting off the magic he was pouring into the circle.
His eyes were first drawn to the berry bush. It glowed with a faint ethereal silhouette. Like a ghost in the shape of the plant had settled down just over the top of it. Except, he could see the entire ghost despite Ilya standing in the way. The effect hurt his head a bit, but he shook it off, turning his head toward the direction of the stag.
The trail of blood stood out to him in much the same way. Little pale white splotches that he could see through the surrounding trees and brush. Looking further into the distance, he could see a much larger mass in the shape of the stag. It looked like a ghost wandering through the forest.
“Oh. That looks good,” he said, following the movements of the distant stag.
“You did something that worked?”
“Well, I didn’t mean to see where the bush was.” Arkk glanced down at the leaf in the triangle. “I suppose that makes sense though.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“It’s easy to prove,” Arkk said, hurrying through the forest. “I don’t think it is too far. It looks like it stopped sprinting, anyway. Let’s hurry. I don’t know how long this will last.”
Ilya’s long legs made it easy for her to keep up despite his rush. “Try not to spook it again. I don’t want to be chasing this thing all week.”
“You’re not getting the cart?”
“I’m not going to track you through the trees while on a cart without knowing that you actually managed to get the stag. Hunt it and I’ll figure out the best path to take the cart on my way back to it.”
“That’s going to take a lot of time…”
“I can move quickly on my own. I’ve got long legs.”
“That you do, Ilya,” Arkk said, glancing aside to admire his hunting companion. “Say, maybe those long legs—”
“Are too long for you,” the elf said, tone annoyed but without any real heat behind her words. “You should focus on your target, you lovesick fool.”
Arkk let out a small chuckle but followed her advice.
The stag was still downwind of them. They would have to slow down and try to avoid making noise once they got closer, but for now, Arkk kept up a hasty rush through the brush. He hopped felled branches, skipped over a narrow brook, and found a worn deer trail that let him run in roughly the correct direction without having to worry about further debris.
Arkk skidded to a stop as they closed the distance on the stag. The ethereal glow started to fade and, in a moment of panic, Arkk poured more magic into the spell.
The glow came back, but…
“Uh,” Arkk said. “I, uh…”
Ilya’s brilliant silver eyes flashed in irritation, though her lips quirked into a mirthful smile. “You made it explode, didn’t you.”
“No! I didn’t even…” Arkk shot her a glare. “Maybe… a little bit.”
“Oh, just a little explosion,” Ilya said, nodding her head. “Of course. I’m sure it’s fine then.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Arkk grumbled, staring at the ethereal… mess. It was still shuddering on the ground, twitching and… looking like it was being ripped apart. Forcing his stomach to be calm, Arkk tried to look at the positives of the situation. If it was exploded, some of it should still be salvageable. They would have some meat to take back to the village. “Come on, we’ll find out soon enough. It isn’t far now.”
Though not far, it still took quite some time to reach the stag. A little under an hour, by his estimate. Throughout it all, Arkk had to watch as the stag continued to peel apart. Rather than a side effect of whatever he had done, it looked like some wild animals were ripping it apart.
Eventually, he spotted the stag on the ground, half hidden behind a large tree. It wasn’t moving. It wasn’t breathing, as far as he could see.
A spray of viscera coated most of the surrounding trees. A few bits of skin hung off branches and an antler was sticking out of a rock a short distance away. But there was something more as well. Something that made Arkk ready an arrow.
Circling slowly, bow at the ready, Arkk’s eyes widened as he watched the translucent silhouette spread out beyond the beast’s body. Further than the explosion looked to have gone. Looking at the beast itself, Arkk frowned. Claw and teeth marks covered the soft underside of the stag’s carcass. Large chunks had been ripped from it. Consumed? His eyes looked around, searching for more of the creature. Small ghostly flecks of blood trailed off a short distance around the forest, but no large chunks that might have been resting in something’s belly. Perhaps because it now counted as part of something else, rather than the stag?
Before he could consider more on the mysteries of the magic he was using, Ilya let out a loud hissing noise. “Goblins,” she said, drawing her short sword. Her silver eyes darted around the forest, looking for any sign of a threat.
Arkk’s wide eyes went back to the stag, looking over its wounds again. He had thought some wild animal got to the exploded stag, but investigating closer, he couldn’t deny the ripping and tearing looked too systematic to be a random animal. Stepping back from the corpse, he scanned the ground, quickly finding three-toed footprints stamped into the dirt around its body.
“They went that way,” he said, pointing toward the fading trail of ghostly blood left behind by the messy eaters. The footprints headed in the same direction, confirming what he saw through his magic.
Staring at the footprints made Arkk gasp. One of them was not like the rest. Rather than the three-toed bare footprints of the goblins, this one was much larger and covered, as if the maker had worn proper footwear. A bit larger than Arkk’s foot. It couldn’t be his footprint. Nor would it be Ilya’s. Neither had walked beyond the carcass.
“An orc?” he asked, waving Ilya over. “I can’t think of anything else that would willingly travel with goblins like that.”
“A pack of goblins is bad enough. Organized goblins?” Ilya said, walking around, staring at the ground. “More orc footprints over here. Different ones for sure. Three… four… five of them? Light, this is bad. Why are they here?”
“The goblins probably smelled the blood and the orcs lost control of them.”
“Why are they here in general?” Ilya asked. “Not this specific spot.”
“They… they couldn’t be after the village, right?”
Pressing her lips together, Ilya nodded her head. “Maybe. Maybe not. We have to warn them.”
“It’s a three-day trek back after going back to camp for the horses.”
“Not if we skirt the edge of the Cursed Forest.”
Arkk looked in the direction of the blood trail, wishing the goblins or orcs had left a part of themselves behind so he could try tracking them. “I think they are skirting the edge of the Cursed Forest. We can’t take on a whole horde on our own,” he said, then slowly looked eastward. “But if we cut through the forest–”
“No! No.” Ilya took a deep breath, gnawing on her lip as she looked around the bloodied carcass. “I can move swiftly on my own. And stealthily.” She looked to the sun, low in the western sky. “It is almost night. If they stop for camp and I slip past them, I can reach the village by morning.”
“What if they don’t camp? What if they find you?”
Ilya offered a wan smile. “That’s why you’re heading back to camp. Grab the horses, leave the cart. Ride as fast as you can.”
“That’s too long,” Arkk said, shaking his head. “It will take half the night traveling in the wrong direction just to get back to camp.”
“If I get caught, I’ll lead them around by their nose, buying you as much time as I can. If I don’t get caught, then I’ll make it before you.” Her sharp, blade-like ears twitched as she forced a smile. “You can do this. But we’re wasting time. Go!”
Without waiting for a response, she turned and rushed off through the brush and trees, hurrying in the direction the footprints had gone.
Grinding his teeth, Arkk turned away from the carcass. He started toward the sunset, only to pause. There was no chance he would ever make it to the village before Ilya or the monsters. At best, he would show up in time to help defend the village. At worst, he would find it ransacked.
Putting the sun to his back, he stared beyond the green trees and lively section of the forest. The Cursed Forest was by far the shortest path. With as much traveling as they had done chasing after that stag, he was even closer now. If he didn’t stop for the night, he could make it to the village well before sunrise.
The sooner he got to the village, the sooner they could prepare and rally for a defense.
Time was of the essence.
Sun at his back, he took off in a sprint.