Words of warning this is long. Like really long.
"Why are we here again?" The bored voice echoed through the forest, "Oh wait don't answer that, because I've only asked it five times and the answer is still 'It's all part of the plan' so why would it be any different this time!"
The two men simply ignored the skinny youth as they progressed further into the forest, the young man leading the small party kneeling down momentarily to rub the soil between his fingers.
"I mean we've only been walking through this forest for, how many days? Seven?"
The boy swung his lanky arms around petulantly to add emphasis to the fact they were stuck in a dark, damp forest, scowling when he was yet again blanked. He let out a heavy whining sigh, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his tattered trousers.
"You should've stayed on the ship, we said tracking it would be difficult."
The second man remarked, half turning to raise an eyebrow at the boy. Mathew huffed and crossed his arms, slumping down the slope leaving deep prints in the spongy moss.
"It is not an It Tuliou, It is a demon and we have to get to it before they do."
Both heads turned in the direction of the leader who was examining a tree trunk.
"Avast our leader speaks," Mathew mocked opening his arms wide "I wonder, has he found anything of interest? Or is it all just broken twigs and dirt to him?" Tuliou lowered his sword long enough to clip the boy around the back of his head.
Rubbing his head and glaring at Tuliou, Mathew sulkily passed by the broad shouldered man and hoped up onto a boulder. Sighing Tuliou lowered himself a little way off near the base of the slope, unslinging his pack and rummaging through the contents. "Catch-"
Mathew turned and caught the apple thrown at him
"Watch the face Tuliou, I have appearances to keep up."
"You look terrible."
"Exactly." A crunch signified the end of the conversation.
"Want one Liam?" Tuliou called over to the third member of the party, who answered with a shake of the head not turning around.
Mathew lent against a tree next to Tuliou and with a mouthful of half chewed apple asked "Is he ever going to stop looking for this demon?" Wait don't answer that-I already know the answer."
Tuliou sighed pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes screwed shut.
"This lack of appetite is starting to worry me, he hasn't eaten since last night and dusk is fast approaching. We haven't got time for tracking, we should be finding shelter, it smells like rain."
"Why don't you tell him?"
"Because he already knows and there is no dissuading him when he puts his mind to something."
Mathew finished his apple and lobbed it into the shadows of the undergrowth, wiping his mouth he asked
"How long did you say you've known him?"
"Long enough." Tuliou breathed crossing his arms and peering through his lashes at the crouched figure a few metres off.
"Liam, we need to find shelter before it gets dark." Mathew called over to the young man. Liam waved him off with a hand
"Mathew's right, we should make camp for the night." Tuliou chipped in, moving from the tree to where the third member of their party was stationed.
"Liam," He murmured, placing a hand on his shoulder "We need to stop, we'll move on at sunrise."
"I can't, it's so close. I can feel it in my wavelength Tuliou," He muttered frustratedly running a hand through his dark brown hair. "Can't you sense it?" he addressed Mathew tiredly. Mathew came over with a handful of nuts in his hand from Tuliou's bag. He popped one in his mouth, cracking the shell between his teeth.
"Can't. There's too many animals for me to pick out. Plus, the rain smell is messing with my senses." He added as an afterthought, flicking the bits of shell onto the floor
Liam sighed through his nose "We haven't got time for making camp, we should be looking for the demon. And who knows the King's hunters could already be on our trail, we have to get to that demon before they do." His eyes flashed.
Tuliou persisted "I'm going to make camp, we will move at sunrise-"
"We'll have to survive the night first." Liam interrupted. The three rebels paused to look out from their place on the ridge. Below ran a churning stream winding westward towards the sea, the cliffs lead only about two hundred metres off, beyond that a slate beach and murky sea. On the opposite bank thick, impenetrable trees leading up to rocky, mountainous ground. Sure enough even though the fog was descending, a small break in the clouds allowed the first streaks of sunset to appear.
Tuliou removed his hand and made his way back into the cover of the trees and began to unravel a canvas material from his bag, propping the tarp up between two trees.
"I'll go fill the water skins." Mathew offered. After a curt nod from Tuliou the skinny boy dumped his bag beside Tuliou's and collected the water skins, picking up a stick and waving it around shamelessly as he made his way to the stream.
"Don't go too far!" Tuliou yelled after Mathew's receding back
"Yes Mother." Mathew drawled, blowing a kiss in Tuliou's direction.
It was as he was squatted by the bank slurping the cool liquid up with cupped hands that Mathew caught the distinct whiff of something not long dead. Leaving the water skins to fill by themselves he found himself wading through the stream towards the stench.
'Chink' Liam clenched his jaw as he yet again lost track of the demon. He could feel the distinct pull of the demon, but it hovered just out of sight of his wavelength and each time he reached out to seize it, it vanished. 'Chink' 'Chink.' Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes he cleared his mind and focused on the distant flow of the stream. Rolling his eyes back with the lids still closed he felt the familiar pressure. He allowed his wavelength to seep into the soil and tap into the roots of trees wandering through the forest that now sprung within the dark void of his mind. He focused solely on the demon as he felt it at the edge of his mind. Almost within reach- 'Chink!'
Gone. The demon was once again gone from his sights. He cursed under his breath half turning to watch as Tuliou struck the flint again over the driest pieces of wood he had been able to find. Liam scowled at his apt concentration. Tongue between his teeth Liam's closest comrade struck the flint once more a few sparks falling upon the dry kindling. "Yes-" Tuliou muttered cupping his hands around the kindling, coaxing the sparks to take hold. He picked up the flint, revealing a small flame and began to strike the flint to add more sparks.
"Stop doing that it's annoying." Liam snapped irritably
"Some of us want to eat tonight." Tuliou replied
"I can't find the demon with your incessant distractions." He ground out. Tuliou was about to speak when Mathew hurtled into camp his boots and shins soaked, out of breath and pale faced.
Bent double hands on his knees Mathew gasped "There's something you really need to see..."
The boar was in a hideous condition. Its face was torn to shreds, jaw ripped clean from the skull. The kill was fresh; blood still being washed away by the stream. The sparse fur was matted with blood, the stomach sliced open. The carcass couldn't have been more than half a day old. Claw marks on the rump and shoulders suggested a ferocious fight. Chunks of meat had been shredded from the gaping hole in the stomach. Tuliou wrinkled his nose at the smell of the kill.
"What do you suppose killed it?" He asked.
Liam discovered upon closer inspection the boar's top two tusks were missing, seemingly hacked out with something sharp. "It couldn't have been a bear; the marks aren't far enough apart. The fact that most of the body is still here rules out wolves, they would've stripped it of everything or taken it back to the den. A fellow boar wouldn't have been able to tear the jaw clean off like that." He pointed to the head of the boar where the tongue lolled at the base of the neck. Mathew averted his gaze.
"I thought you didn't mind this kind of thing?" Liam remarked raising an eyebrow
"I don't usually, but this is just unsettling. Whatever killed this thing is still around."
"I've found something!" Tuliou shouted a little way down stream. Liam splashed his way over to the left bank the same side as their camp. "Looks like the boar didn't die in vain." He pointed to the shale bank where droplets of sticky blood were visible on the rocks.
"It's injured," Liam breathed, his eyes following the trail to the tree line "and on our side of the bank..."
"We should head back." Mathew shouted from the stream. Neither disagreed. The fog was thickening and they were losing light fast. The trudge back was filled with unease. Mathew was on high alert starting at every sound. Tuliou kept his hand on the sheathed sword at his side, Liam stiffened as he felt the tug at his wavelength. His gaze scanned the tree line on either bank, returning to a large boulder nearer to the location of the carcass. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Something was watching them.
"Something wrong Liam?" Tuliou asked when he realised Liam had stopped following them. Turning back Liam shook his head "No, just a grudge." He shrugged off the feeling of foreboding checking over his shoulder once more before heading back to camp with the others. He could have sworn something moved in the corner of his eye, but it was too brief a movement to be sure.
Once back in camp Tuliou began nursing the fire back to life whilst Liam sat beneath one of the two tarps, vacantly staring off into space. Mathew had since retrieved the water skins along with a pocket full of slightly squishy juniper berries and a dead rabbit. Neither asked how he came across the rabbit, but no one needed to. What Mathew did in his spare time was his own business.
The meal consisted of mashed juniper berries, chestnuts and strips of rabbit meat. Picking at his food Liam frowned, the demon felt closer. His head hurt. Rubbing his temples, he groaned. "This is what happens when you don't eat," Tuliou chided "I don't want to see a mouthful wasted." Liam scowled.
"Don't do that it Liam, it ruins your pretty looks." Mathew sniggered running his finger around the wooden bowl cleaning it of what the spoon hadn't been able to pick up.
"Watch your tongue." Mathew waggled his tongue around crossing his eyes to try and look at it down his nose. Tuliou gave him a disapproving glance and Liam's expression hardened
"You two are no fun." Mathew sighed
"There is a time and a place for fun and this isn't it." Liam said sternly "You'll take first watch."
"Aw what?" Mathew groaned falling back in a star shape on the moss.
"No questions, use those instincts of yours, they may save your life." Liam snapped, abruptly laying down beneath the shelter of one of the tarps and turning to face away from the fire.
Mathew puffed out his cheeks and moved to settle himself against a tree as Tuliou retreated to his own tarp. Gazing at his handiwork Mathew thought his moss man looked rather dashing. Wrapping himself tighter in his furs he picked up his stick and waited for the watch to end.