“Sure is peaceful out here,” Cley said from the back of the line, into the quiet surrounding them.
Three seasoned adventurers and a seasoned farmhand trudged through a gathering evening in the Vaç Forest, following a barely maintained trail as it snaked northward, following the shore of Oandors, the great northern lake. The path was hardly visible in the winter evening’s failing light, so Lio led the way. He had the best night vision and the biggest feet; both were useful in speeding those behind him along through the encroaching foliage.
“Peaceful?” a high-pitched voice demanded over a dainty shoulder. “It’s like the last Bazaar day before the frost out here.”
Cley grunted in response, not sure what to say. The ensuing silence stretched to the Lake shore, waves lapping gently against the sand. Taking in that silence, Cley couldn’t help but laugh. He had the sense to make it a quiet, personal laugh, but there were no secrets in silence so complete.
Kiva made an annoyed sound at him, which caused Lio to chuckle as well.
“Laugh all you want, boys, but just because you can’t sense anything doesn’t mean we’re in the clear,” Elo said from their place behind Lio.
“Thank you, Lora,” Kiva said, patting them on the shoulder. The group continued on through the undergrowth.
Alo had explained to Cley that he’d need to trust these three, and that although he’d be the expert on arrival, they were the experts in protecting him along the way. Alo hadn’t, however, mentioned what they’d be protecting him from. He didn’t believe in ghosts no matter what his Gran had seen, and these woods didn’t have anything living in them he couldn’t handle with his trusty staff. It was more of a stick, really, but it had gotten him this far. He swept blonde, wayward hairs back under his wide-brimmed hat where they wouldn’t make it even harder to see. He was lucky he was behind the redhead, even if she only came up to his shoulders. That hair was still easy to see in such low light.
The one out front was easy to read: skilled outdoorsman, had probably been more places than Cley had ever even heard of, good under pressure, knows what to fear. He couldn’t help but respect Lio, even as he treated Cley like a child. It didn’t help that Lio was taller than anyone Cley had ever met, with arms as thick as some men’s legs. When they’d shaken hands, he’d found Lio’s grip firm, but surprisingly delicate; accurate to the size and strength of Cley’s own hand. Seeing Lio’s fingers close around his, he knew the man could have broken his wrist had he wanted to, but Lio’s eyes held no malice. Cley felt Lio was genuinely glad to meet him.
He was an obvious counterpoint to the delicate, sharp-eyed young woman whom Cley followed through the woods. Kiva had shaken his hand like the others, but it was as if she felt obligated to and wouldn’t have, were she given the option. Alo had said her role was the same as the lookout on a ship. According to him, Kiva would know before any of the rest of them when they were in trouble. Whatever that meant.
Elo was a more difficult read. Most of the people Cley had ever met fit neatly into one of two categories, but this one seemed comfortable in both—or neither. They’d been called Lora, and Elo, and Elora seemingly interchangeably. Their hair was longer than Cley’s—and it had been longer than usual since he’d gotten it cut. But it had been Elo who’d helped Kiva into her pack, lifting it as easily as Cley had hefted his. What’s more, when they’d been introduced, Elo’s handshake had unexpectedly reminded Cley of his father, firm, efficient interaction that it had been—even despite the pronounced hips they seemed to be hiding beneath their flowing tunic. Both of the others seemed to follow Elo’s lead as naturally as they would their own parents’, but it was clear they saw Elo as a friend too, not a superior. Cley shook his head as he muddled through his confusion.
Night had fallen. A first-quarter moon hung high overhead and no light save for the twinkling of the stars was left in the western sky, where it met the water, which beat endlessly against the shore. Other than the waves, the silence pressed in around them, seemingly one with the darkness. Lio could still see, apparently, so onward they forged.
“How much longer do you want to go, Elo?” Lio eventually said over his shoulder.
“What, you gettin’ tired, big man?” Cley hollered up to him.
All three of the others laughed, Lio louder and longer than either of the others. “Never, my friend. But this darkness is no joke. I shouldn’t feel this exposed surrounded by trees like this.”
Kiva shuddered. “You’re not kidding, Lio. This feels like the time we forgot to leave behind our capes in Villesav’s poor district. Eyes on us from everywhere we’re not looking.”
That made Cley shudder despite the stillness which enveloped them.
“We got a very late start, so I’m thinking we should…” Elo began.
Then Kiva shrieked, breaking into a run. “Lio! Behind us!”
Elo was past the big man too before Cley knew what was happening. He whirled around, staff at the ready, and opened his eyes wide to the darkness. All was still. Taking long, silent steps, Lio came to stand beside Cley and survey the forest with him. “I know you’re there,” he growled, too quiet by Cley’s reckoning for anyone out there to hear it.
Kiva made another noise, like the beginning of another shriek cut off by a breathy “oof!” Lio was gone in an instant, off through the trees, clearly in pursuit.
Cley ran over to Elo and Kiva, who was in the process of brushing needles and dirt off of her cape as she stood back up. He bent to help her up, but Elo said, “Eyes up. She’s fine.”
Immediately, Cley put his back to Elo, which set him facing the beach. “What’s after us?” he said into the dark.
“Monsters,” Kiva said quietly.
Elo grunted their agreement. “I only got a short glimpse, but I think it’s what Collins described.”
Cley was about to ask what Collins had described, but a dark shape emerging from the water stifled his voice. He gripped his staff tighter, as a dark, quadrupedal figure wandered up onto the beach. Cley felt his knuckles turn white, ready to do to this…thing what he did to wolves or cougars which threatened his livestock. It crossed the beach slowly, walking straight toward him, though Cley was sure it shouldn’t be able to see him through the trees and the night.
Elo bristled behind him. Where were their weapons? Any of them. “No.” The word had come from Elo, and it filled the forest around him. The beast he watched faltered in its gait, but did not stop moving toward him. He heard movement through the underbrush on his right, and Elo was suddenly there, looking menacingly out into the darkness. “You have no power here,” They said, voice again seeming to resonate among the trees.
“That’s what you think,” Kiva said in a very small voice, as if she hadn’t wanted to say it at all. There was very little beach between Cley and the monster now.
Of all things, Elo laughed. They’d seen the thing on the beach by now and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Cley pivoted to stay back to back with Elo, now facing into the woods, into the deepest darkness.
It wasn’t to Cley when Elo spoke, still using a loud, confident voice. “I do think that. We’re in nobody’s house here, on an errand for my Lord, and She will not be denied. Leave us, and you’ll be spared much pain.”
Cley itched to glance over his shoulder at the beach. Why wasn’t that thing upon them already?
Kiva laughed, a humorless and otherworldly sound. “We own this path; did nobody tell you? We have orders too, you know. That no one come through, particularly those headed North of the Mountains.” she practically spat the words out. “Our master has big plans for the ones up there, and we can’t have you…interfering.”
A shape lunged at Cley, and before he even realized what was happening, his staff had collided soundly with something solid, but seemingly fragile. A strangled, inhuman noise escaped the shape as it bounded off into the woods, moving erratically. At the same time, he heard Kiva cry out and fall to the ground behind him.
All was still until a friendly hand clapped down on Cley’s shoulder. “That was a solid whack, friend! That thing won’t be back for you anytime soon,” Elo said fondly, as a loud crash sounded from the shadows. Cley looked around, dazed.
Kiva sat on the ground with her knees to her chest and her head hidden behind crossed arms. There was nothing but sand and water on the beach.
Lio emerged from the night, his dark skin preventing him from appearing until he was practically on top of them. He was brushing off his hands, as if they were covered in flour. A moment Cley didn’t understand passed between Elo and Lio before the big man knelt tenderly and alighted a huge hand on Kiva’s seemingly tiny shoulder. Neither moved until Lio said in an impossibly soft voice, “Are they gone, Ki?”
Cley realized she was crying, her back moving sharply with each breath. She nodded without leaving the solitude of her folded arms. Lio nodded back though her eyes were hidden and placed his other hand on her shoulder, squatting before her. She looked at him, and Cley didn’t understand what her face said.
Then they were both standing, Kiva brushing herself off, Lio wandering to where her pack had fallen to the ground. Come to think of it, Cley was the only one who still wore his. When had the others ditched theirs?
Rubbing her eyes, Kiva turned to Elo and, after a brief but firm hug, said, “Weren’t you in the middle of a sentence?”
They thought for a moment, then laughed, loudly and freely. “I was! I was saying I thought we should keep going a bit because we got such a late start.”
Cley spoke up. “Well, I’m game for that. I’d volunteer to let y’all sleep through the night cuz I ain’t getting a wink of sleep if we bed down here.”
Another chorus of tired laughter went up through the trees, including Lio’s chortles as he reappeared from among the shadows. He bore his and Kiva’s packs, one already over his shoulders.
“Ah,” said Elo, “I should get mine, too.”
The four resumed their journey northward, though Elo was the one in front of Cley now. Kiva walked hand-in-hand with Lio, the path now wide enough for two.
Cley was still on edge when Lio pointed out the remains of a previous traveler’s campfire. Elo agreed it was a good place to set up camp. Kiva had a fire going in no time as Lio set up a bedroll that seemed too large even for him. Elo had wandered off into the woods, ostensibly to gather more wood for the fire. His own bedroll ready, Cley sat with his back to a tree, and discovered there was too much adrenaline still in his veins to stay still.
“I’m gonna take a little walk around; get the lay of the land. I won’t be able to sleep anytime soon anyway.”
Kiva and Lio nodded. “Holler if you need us,” he said.
“And if you find any good firewood, bring it back,” she added.
Cley nodded and ventured out into the darkness, further along the trail. This country was surprisingly tame, for how little activity it saw. They’d entered the foothills of the Northern Range, but things weren’t all that steep yet. Where the trail curved away from the beach and upward, he instead went over to the water. Northward, he could see the shore grew rocky and increasingly steeper until there was no shore at all, only cliffs. Southward, he could just make out the diVasian Star, looking for all the world like a real star, impossibly low to the horizon.
What am I doing out here? Cley began to wonder. Sure, maybe he’d be helpful once they got there, whatever they were heading toward. But out here, contending with monsters? This morning, he didn’t believe in such things, but now…
It was too late to head back, too. If their encounter was any indication of the dangers of the road home, he’d never make it back alone, and his companions didn’t seem to have any qualms about continuing onward. If anything, this seemed like business as usual to them.
What’s not usual is having to corral little lambs as they’re going. The thought came unbidden into his mind. He stopped walking through the sand, turning to stare directly out over the water and removing his hat so the persistent wind could tousle his hair. Maybe in the morning, he’d tell the others he was heading back, so he wouldn’t slow them down any more.
No! Alo picked you. He knew you were the right man for this job, so you owe it to him to at least try. Cley latched onto this line of thinking although it surprised him. Alo really had told him this was a special, secret mission. It would disappoint his friend greatly if he were to fail in this venture. And weren’t they going to help people?
Cley took a deep breath, still gazing out at the dark, distant horizon. Yes, if there were people in need, he couldn’t allow doubt or fear to keep him from at least trying to help. Feeling recentered, he continued walking down the beach.
It wasn’t long before he was walking past the adventurers’ little camp. The fire was easy to spot, but as Cley approached, he noticed only Kiva and Lio sitting by it. Elo was nowhere to be seen, and perhaps as a result, the two were sharing a very obviously intimate moment. Cley decided not to spoil it for them and gave the site a wide berth, disappearing into the woods off the beach south of the camp.
It was amazing how much the trees did to abate the wind. Crossing the path and venturing deeper into the evergreen woods, Cley made sure not to lose sight of the fire’s glow as he explored. The area was one big, shallow slope here, uphill was generally northeast. His vision was very limited by the dark and the trees, so a true understanding of the lay of the land eluded him. Keeping the distant glow of the fire on his left, he circled around it, working off what remained of his nervous energy.
As the chilly air evaporated his anxiety, it also began to settle into his fingers and toes, so he turned and put the orange glow of their camp before him. Hopefully, Kiva and Lio were ready for company again, because the distance he’d walked today was settling into Cley’s legs and back. His stomach growled as well. Through the trees, he saw Lio working over the fire but couldn’t place Kiva. Had she wandered off now, too? Entering the clearing, he smelled Lio’s handiwork: quartered potatoes, chopped onions, and chicken thighs—kept fresh by the winter air—sizzled on a pan sitting on a rock nestled in the fire.
Hearing Cley, Lio turned and smiled at him before returning his attention to his cooking. “Welcome back,” he said.
“Thanks. Elo’s still out and about?”
Lio nodded. “Warding takes some time out in the wild like this, especially if you want it to hold. But it’s worth the time. You bring back any wood?”
Cley shook his head sheepishly. “I thought that’s what Elo was doing.”
Lio seemed to understand. “They’ll want a nice hot fire when they get back, though. It’s cold work on a night like this. So once you can feel your fingers again, we’d all appreciate you making a trip.”
“Oh, of course. I saw some promising driftwood out there. Will Kiva be back with some soon?”
Lio smiled like Cley had told a joke. “Not likely,” he said, nodding to his enormous bedroll.
A shock of red hair poked out from the top, betraying a tiny figure curled up in the blankets, side moving just perceptibly with the rhythm of sleep.
“She’s not used to being up this late,” Lio said.
“Gotcha,” Cley said, rubbing his hands together over the fire.
The driftwood wasn’t far at all, and when Cley returned with an armload of the driest bits, Elo was just emerging from the trees. Seeing them both back, Lio declared their dinner ready and divided the meat and potatoes between their wooden plates. Elo sat heavily on the ground before Lio handed them their plate. Cley took his then moved back to his tree from before.
Lio was the first to speak. “Any trouble out there, Elora?”
Mouth full, they shook their head.
Lio nodded. “That’s good. Kiva told me our adversaries were surprised by the level of resistance they encountered, so I didn’t think they’d try anything more tonight.”
“Thanks in no small part to our farmer boy here,” Elo said, gesturing to Cley with the knife they used to eat.
“One good hit is hardly…” Cley began.
Lio cut him off. “Nonsense! They expected to be able to totally blindside you, and you fought them off better than me on my first outing, I’ll tell you that.”
Cley shrugged, accepting the compliment.
Elo laughed. “Taking the form of something that could conceivably steal sheep wasn’t the smartest move on their part, was it?”
This made Cley laugh too. “Definitely not. But what…are they?”
Lio and Elo both nodded, and all was quiet for a moment.
“Enemies,” Lio said. “Evil things that mean to undo the good in our world. They take many forms—this one’s new to us. Usually they’re less…corporeal than these. That’s worrisome. Obviously they’re not used to having bodies like this, or your staff wouldn’t have been enough.”
Elo grunted in agreement. “Until now, the monsters with physical forms have held those forms for a long time. Even a hit that solid, which will easily drive off the natural predators in these woods, would be laughable to those ancient evils.”
Understanding dawned on Cley. “That’s why you don’t carry weapons.”
“Exactly. We draw our power from the Creator, against whom the forces of evil cannot stand. So long as we keep our eyes on Them, nothing can truly do us harm. Well, and Lio has his fists. They protect us too.”
Laughter echoed through the trees.
“Should we be worried about waking her up?” Cley said, gesturing toward Kiva.
“Nah, she always sleeps like a rock after a night like tonight, if the walls are strong enough.” Lio said fondly.
“Is that what you were doing? ‘Strengthening the walls’?” Cley asked Elo.
They nodded. “You’re paying attention, aren’t you? I knew Alo knew what he was talking about. Yes, I walked a perimeter around our camp three or four times, marking it for our purpose and not our enemies’, seeking the protection of Walinzi and His armies. If Kiva’s asleep this deeply, you can know for sure that He’s here Himself, protecting us with a sword of light.”
Cley looked out into the trees around them.
Lio chuckled. “Walinzi isn’t a physical being, friend.”
He was going to ask another question when a huge yawn seized him.
“An excellent point, Cley. I think it’s time for us to turn in. Lio, first watch?”
“As always, it’s my pleasure. Enjoy your rest, friends.”
Cley was amazed at how warm it was inside his bedroll, and before he knew it, he was dreaming pleasant, forgettable dreams.