chapter 1

There have been stirrings in the Unclaimed lands for a while now as the tribes begin to rise up to fight their own. The King of Ravata is plagued by the legend old rhyme and seeks to find a power source to quench the simmering rebellion for good, but a female demon who seems to be catching the eyes of all the wrong people has fallen into the grasp of one Liam Blackmore and he's not giving her up easily

The Forest blocked the hunters' path, spreading along the horizon, an endless line of sentinels. A tall man with fair features watched from the top of the valley the trees aligned on the opposite side, the sun was setting below the forest's boughs sending shadows crawling towards the hunters covering the few small houses in the valley, stretching up the steep side of the valley with snatching fingers. Alongside him a woman with braided hair and  dark olive skin held a telescope up to her eye searching for the two hunters sent out to scout the area. 

"Anything?"  The man asked arms folded tightly over his chest. 

"Nothing so far." She replied handing him the scope. 

Behind them a group of five more hunters sat on rocks awaiting their leader’s orders. They bore the crest of the king on their shoulders a brand of their allegiance. 

Suddenly from across the valley a flare shot upwards. "Jake do you see it?" The woman asked. The leader honed in on the source of the flare. Two people waved strips of material. He snapped the telescope up "We leave immediately!" He barked turning sharply to his fellow hunters.
"Our scouts have found the way they entered, make haste, the King wants her alive and the traitors dead!" 

 

*

 

Meanwhile already deep into the forest three travellers trekked through the thick undergrowth navigating over gnarled tree roots and slippery moss covered boulders. The trees creaked forebodingly as the youngest member of the group piped up. "Are you sure this is the right forest?" His two unfortunate companions closed their eyes in exasperation. This question had been asked several times in the last few hours. Mathew did in fact know the answer he was just trying to prove a point. When the two older men ignored him he persisted,

"But seriously we've been walking through this forest for three days and there has been no sign of this demon. How does Liam even know we are going in the right direction?" 

He waved an arm at the leader of their little procession, a young man with a lean physique and brown hair who didn't so much as bat an eyelid. 

Tuliou however, the motherly figure of the group half turned to gaze pointedly at Mathew, giving him that 'a you really that immature' look. 
"What?" He said shrugging his shoulders as Tuliou turned back to the almost non-existent path 

"Because I was forgetting that you know everything don't you?" 

"Well I do," Mathew said treading where no man had ever dared venture, Tuliou's patience breaking point. "Mostly..." 
"Just because you're not patient enough." 

"I am patient! Just not to the extent that you are..." He trailed off. 

 

"It's closer than before." 

 

"How much closer than before?" Mathew said bitingly 

Tuliou clipped him around the head. 

"Ow!" 

"Ssh." 

The pair looked over at their Leader who stood with his hand placed on the trunk of a tree. 

 

Mathew whispered into Tuliou's ear "He's talking to the trees" 

"Shut up Mathew," He hissed "Where is it Liam?" 

"On this side of the gorge..." 

 

Mathew huffed petulantly, scowling. He had said virtually the same thing, but because Tuliou was Liam's right-hand man Liam listened to every word and disregarded Mathew as he was a child'. Crossing his arms and muttering under his breath he slumped resignedly down the slope towards Liam. 

The sun was setting so Mathew used it as an excuse to sit down on a boulder whilst he really sulked about being ignored. Tuliou lowered himself down a little way off the base of the slope. He unslung his pack and pulled two apples from it. One he threw at Mathew hitting him squarely in the forehead the other he pocketed. The apples were tart. They had got their supplies from a wizened old couple who lived on the outskirts of the forest along with a number of other old war wounded men and women who didn't have any home to return to so made a home for themselves.  

 

Liam seemed to be elsewhere having sat down cross-legged on the edge of the ridge. Below them ran a churning stream winding westward towards the sea, the cliffs lay about two hundred meters off, beyond that a slate beach and murky waves. On the opposite bank thick, impenetrable trees lead up to rocky, mountainous ground. Mathew yawned and picked up a stick waving it around shamelessly. Tuliou came and lent on the boulder next to him. 

"What if we never find the demon?" 

Tuliou sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose and replied "We will, just not yet."

"How long did you say you've known him?" 

"Twelve years and trust me that is long enough to know anybody."  

Mathew crunched his apple thoughtfully as Tuliou 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. Between him and Mathew a silent agreement had been made to set up camp before Liam dragged them through the forest at night. 

 

"I'm going to fill the water-skins." He told Tuliou who nodded his head once. Mathew hopped off of the boulder and headed down the ridge. Tuliou having set up his tarp moved over to Liam. 

"Liam," He murmured placing a heavy hand on his shoulder "You need to stop before you exhaust yourself." 

"I can't, it's so close, it may be days before we get this close to it again." Liam protested running a hand through his brown hair. 

 

Mathew returned having left the water skins to fill by themselves. 
"Can't you sense it?" Liam said tiredly to Mathew who had ransacked Tuliou's bag with a handful of nuts as his prize. He popped one in his mouth, cracking the shell between his teeth.  

"I don't know the demon's scent therefore I can't locate it." As he flicked bits of shell onto th floor. 

Liam sighed through his nose "We should be looking for the demon and who knows the hunter's could be on our trail perhaps even in the forest at this moment in time she is our priority. She is the best possible asset to us and I won't have the king harnessing another demon's power." His eyes flashed darkly. 

 

"I'll make a fire..." 

"No, fire will lead them directly to us." Liam snapped agitatedly 

"Liam, Mathew and I are starving and you need some hot food down you." Before waiting for a reply Tuliou left to make the fire. 

 

Mathew returned to the stream to find the skins overflowing. Squatting by the bank he cupped the cool liquid in his palms and drank gratefully. A small breeze rustled the trees which creaked ominously bringing with it a whiff of something not long dead. Looking down the stream he saw a black mass lying in the water where the stream opened out. It wasn't moving. 

 

*

 

'Chink!' 

Liam clenched his jaw as he yet again lost track of the demon. He could feel the distinct pull, 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 and the blueish light. 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 said to himself his hands cupped 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 distracting." Liam snapped irritably

"Some of us want to eat tonight." Tuliou replied still feeding the fire.

"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.     

 

*

 

The stench of the mutilated carcass was almost unbearable as they stared at it. Tuliou suggested it was a bear, but Mathew told him that it was clearly a boar as bears didn't have tusks or cloven hooves. One tusk had been shattered and the other had a split all the way down it. Its face was torn to shreds, jaw ripped clean from the skull tongue lolling the waters flow at the base of the neck. The wiry fur was matted with blood the stomach sliced open organs spilling out. It couldn't have been more than a day old. Claw marks on the rump and shoulders suggested a ferocious fight, chunks of meat had been shredded from the gapping hole in the stomach. Tuliou wrinkled his nose at the smell of the kill. 

"What do you suppose killed it?" He asked 

Liam discovered three puncture marks along the neck each at different points of  the jugular and a fourth through the windpipe, whatever had crushed  the boar's spine had claws. With Mathew's knowledge they rules out wolves, bears, any fellow boars and Tacarchen. He said the only one that had the ferocity that accompanied the kill would have been the Tacarchen. Liam had never heard of this creature so Mathew explained. 

"It's larger than a bear and has huge front legs and massive paws for running. It has huge shoulder blades giving it a hump, its back legs are stout but enable it to rear up on its hind legs. The neck is so thick its head comes down in line to its elbow joints." But he said that a Tacarchen couldn't do the kind of damage linked to the boar's neck.   

 

Liam averted his gaze. 

"I thought you didn't mind this kind of thing?" Mathew said not nearly as phased by the kill raising an eyebrow at their usually stoic leader. 

"I don't, 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 followed 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 last sun rays were almost gone the sky now a bruised color, they were losing light fast.

 

 The trudge back was filled with unease. Mathew was on high alert turning at every sound. Tuliou kept his hand on the sheathed sword at his side, Liam stiffened as he felt the tug at his wavelength. He scanned the tree line on either bank, returning to a large boulder nearer to the location of the carcass, downstream on their side of the bank where the stream opened out. 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 feeling." He shrugged off the feeling of unease 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. 

 

Picking at his food Liam frowned, the demon felt closer. His head hurt. Rubbing his temples, he groaned as his forehead throbbed
"This is what happens when you don't eat," Tuliou chided "I don't want to see a mouthful wasted." Liam scowled into his bowl.

"Don't do that 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." Liam snapped. 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 dismissed abruptly "You'll take first watch." 

"Aw what?" Mathew groaned falling back on the moss. 

"No questions, use those instincts of yours." Liam retorted challenging him with a dark eyed glare. Mathew flicked his gaze away. Satisfied with his reaction Liam lay down beneath the shelter of one of the tarps turned away from the fire. 

Mathew puffed out his cheeks and moved to settle himself against a tree as Tuliou retreated to his own tarp. Wrapping himself tighter in his furs he picked up his stick and waited for the watch to end. As night fell the trees woke from their creaking slumbers and their branches rustled disgruntledly as they chattered amongst themselves muttering at Mathews incompetence as he yawned widely their branches clacking in a series of disdainful utterings.

 

The End

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